January Is Actually Not Where Decent Movies Go to Die

This cinematic comeback king and a flurry of winter thrillers offer proof.

January 10, 2019 5:00 am
James McAvoy in "Glass."  ("Glass")
James McAvoy in "Glass." ("Glass")

It’s an old wives’ tale that January is the month where studio movies go to die. Only last week, the Observer‘s illustrious Rex Reed opined: “The first thriller of the new season is a bomb called State Like Sleep, and it’s about as thrilling as a power failure in Antarctica….[I]t’s a good example of why January is always dreary, in more ways than one.

Or maybe not….Thrillers – dreary or demonically good – have come to define the chilliest month. They serve as counterprogramming to the prestige films dragging down the red carpet toward the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24th.

Murder, mayhem, supervillains and the roasting of red herrings roll out in the coming weeks, often with big-name stars. Keanu Reeves, Matthew McConaughey, James McEvoy, Bruce Willis & Samuel Jackson are all feeling the chill alongside Sarah Paulson and Anne Hathaway.

This migration of the action/sci-fi thriller to January’s movie dead zone has come to be exploited, even led by, the comeback king of suburban Philadelphia: M. Night Shyamalan. His upcoming film, Glass, features a trifecta of McEvoy, Willis and Jackson returning to work with Shyamalan, apparently unconcerned about the extreme highs — and lows — of the writer-director’s career.

Wait: not only are these established, oft-lauded actors unconcerned — but showing off their bad movie B-sides leads to a certain bigger-than-life, scenery-chewing bravado.

Glass, opening January 18th in wide release, also features Ryan Murphy’s TV creepshow regular Paulson for a dash of estrogen and matte lipstick.

The PG-13, $20M budget, 129-minute suspense drama reunites Willis’s supernatural security guard David Dunn and Jackson’s brittle-boned genius Elijah Price from the director’s 2000 Unbreakable, arguably his best movie. And it adds in McAvoy’s operatically freaky fiend Kevin Wendell Crumb from the January 2017 multiple personality hit Split.

This time around, Dunn tracks Crumb and his cast of two-dozen characters roiling beneath a single freckly skin – and encounters a wheelchair-bound Price at a super-secure mental facility controlled by Paulson’s Dr. Ellie Staple. Refreshingly not Oscar-bound, the movie is filled with action, special effects, teenaged cheerleaders in peril and a Shyamalan cameo.

For a bit of context, Split, the demented poster boy of the January chiller, earned $138M domestically and $278M worldwide on a $9M budget. It opened at #1 with a $40M opening weekend.

The canny Shyamalan has once again identified an outlier opportunity following an extended drubbing for a long series of big budget flops. These included but are not limited to, the $130M After Earth pairing Will Smith and his son Jaden, and Lady in the Water, among others.

Early in his career, Shyamalan carved out a relatively iffy late summer spot on the annual movie schedule, long past the firecracker movies of Memorial Day and July 4th — and owned it. In 1999, with the Willis-led The Sixth Sense, the director took what had been the August movie dump and turned it into gold.

When that memorable monster break-out supernatural thriller (“I see dead people”) exceeded expectations by taking that first weekend with $27M and a number one spot (ultimately grossing $673M worldwide), it changed the landscape. What had once been the summer misfire ghetto into the blockbuster season’s last big weekend. The strategy served movies like Shyamalan’s Signs with Mel Gibson and later boosted The Help into Oscar contention and this year saw the splashy arrival of Crazy Rich Asians.

The star-crammed Glass is the most promising film in a herd of winter thrillers that will screen this month. Reeves pairs with Alice Eve in Replicas, a sci-fi thriller from Jeffrey Nachmanoff about a neuroscientist who replicates his family after a fatal car accident. (Hint: it doesn’t end well.)

McConaughey and Hathaway star as exes in Steven Knight’s domestic triangle trauma drama Serenity. Later in the month, the foreign remake Miss Bala debuts, and in Cold Pursuit, Liam Neeson plays yet another bereaved father seeking revenge. This time, it’s personal.

Wait: last time it was personal, too. Originality isn’t essential. But sweater-clutching tension, big stars behaving badly and occasional seat jumps rule the month. Curse the weather all you want but January is no longer entirely a movie backwater. And Shyamalan can take some credit for seizing the month and beating it into box office submission.

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