Note: Keeping with the theme of the site, here’s the lowdown on the two films: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I don’t agree with the violence rating for Shaun of the Dead (9 out of 10. Saw got 10. There’s one pretty graphic scene gore scene in Shaun of the Dead but outside of that a lot of it is half-comic).
Shaun of the Dead is a proper film – Hot Fuzz feels a series of gags revolving around a couple of characters – an extended Spaced episode with a big budget and guest stars. Shaun of the Dead was genuinely moving – and scary, and funny, sometimes within the same moment, shifting smoothly between tones. There is rarely just one thing happening: Ed comforting Shaun in the bar has beat or two that is both funny, pitiful, and heartbreaking at once. The same could be said of other key scenes between characters – there’s almost never just one level, there are layers to many scenes. That’s without shifting genres, which it does too: using comedy, romance, horror, and action, shoving them into each other, piling the angst of finding a missing roommate on top of real feelings for the roommate on top of the need for supplies and survival, in a way that actually works. Relationships between characters seem genuine – frustration is played out, with real consequences. The pre and post apocalypse scenes in which Shaun gets ice cream show both character and establish the devastating effects on their neighborhood, while making us laugh. I wonder how long it took to plan that out – or if it came naturally.
Basically, Shaun of the Dead benefits from pulling the Spaced characters. They benefit from knowing the characters, not only in terms of what gags and emotional payoffs work, but for Spaced fans it’s like a reunion tour during the zombie apocalypse. Hot Fuzz has a harder job, and doesn’t do it as well. But how could it? New characters, overshadowed by professional, known actors (this of course coming from a Yank, Brits may have been familiar with Shaun of the Dead’s cast) like Timothy Dalton, who serves as the red herring but again, looks like he’s guest starring.
Timing may have something to do with it as well. Like a lot of first features, it seems like Shaun of the Dead (I’m resisting the impulse to call it Shaun) benefited from lots of time spent pitching to studios. It’s polished. It looks like it’s been combed through carefully – there’s almost no extra weight, everything fits. Like bands that spend a couple of years touring with songs and then put together a spectacular first album, then have to come up with more songs for a follow-up, Hot Fuzz could have used more time and polish. It was likely written in less time (there’s a great extra in Shaun of the Dead where, bright-eyed and excited, they pitch the film for the camera, and it’s different than the final version, of course – I wonder how much they changed after each pitch when they had time to mull over it. Extras from Hot Fuzz reveal a tired and stressed cast and crew). That said, both films are likeable and eminently more watchable than most movies that come out in a given year.
I rewatched Hot Fuzz this week to make sure (I saw it first in the theater, with about 10 other people). It was ok. But there’s a sucking hole of inactivity, despite a series of good gags, in the first 20 minutes, and Nick Frost’s bumbling partner is the only thing that breathes life into it, eventually. And the gore overwhelms it’s goofy humor. The scene where Nick berates his police staff matched my frustration at the film – in one moment they’re chasing a goose around, and soon after cleaning up a bloody homicide scene. It’s not careful enough to hold up the shift in tone.
Commercially it’s not fair to compare – Hot Fuzz had rabid Spaced and Shaun of the Dead fans, apparently part of the reason they were able to get so many known actors in the cast. It was made for more and looks it – the action sequences were made to look bigger than they actually were. Hot Fuzz was made for about 8 million pounds (maybe 15 million 2007 dollars?) and made about 80 million worldwide. It had going for it that it was a cop movie with lots of guns promised, and that it had Shaun of the Dead as it’s calling card. Shaun of the Dead was made for about 7 million (2004 dollars) and grossed 30 million worldwide. The worldwide is important, since they’re both UK-produced films. They are the first two in what they (Edgar Wright, director, Simon Pegg, writer/actor, Nick Frost, actor/heart) are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. The third, The World’s End, comes out in 2014. It will do well – Edgar Wright has an extremely commercially accessible visual style and he and Simon Pegg write together well. Simon wrote a lot of Spaced (so did Jessica Hynes, who gets a great role in Shaun of the Dead). But, back to the point, both were huge financial successes. They had the skills, they’ll been honing them with Spaced, but they found an audience with Shaun of the Dead, and with Hot Fuzz found a wider one.
It’s possible Shaun of the Dead will remain an exception and nothing else will come close. I accept this. But I see a lot of potential in the trio, and keep high hopes for their next one.