Mean streak on display

Sadism, humiliation as entertainment

Published: Feb 10 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 27, 1993.

DENNIS THE MENACE. Written and co-produced by John Hughes. Based on characters created by Hank Ketcham. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Directed by Nick Castle. Running time: 94 minutes. General entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: may frighten young children.
ONCE, THERE WAS The Boy Who Could Fly.
    A unique flight into imagination, Nick Castle's 1986 fantasy confirmed that he was a fine young director with a distinctive vision. If you've not seen it, seek it out at your local video store.
    Now, there is Dennis the Menace. Ghastly beyond belief, it is the sort of hopelessly unfunny comedy that perverts the idea of "family entertainment" into something ugly and mean.
    A throwback to a time when naked sadism and gross humiliation could be sold as humour, his new film is about as charming as a child molester. It's not pretty seeing the once-promising Castle crash and burn.
    Blame Hughes the Horrible. Once the golden boy of youth movies, John (The Breakfast Club) Hughes has turned into a monster producer, spewing out screenplays and films of ever-diminishing subtlety.
    In one sense, he's the Midwestern Spielberg. Regardless of who directs, Hughes's productions — the two Home Alone pictures, for example — are always sold as John Hughes Films.
    Unfortunately, he's turned into the Chicagoland psycho. Unlike Spielberg, whose cinematic niceness is legendary, Hughes's recent movies display a mean streak wider than the Great Plains.
    Loosely based on Hank Ketcham's long-running comic strip, Hughes's Dennis the Menace screenplay is a catalogue of the pain and suffering that its joyless characters inflict upon one another.
    "Why is it, when everyone else feasts on the pleasures of life, I get the indigestion?" asks retired postal worker George Wilson (Walter Matthau), the film's designated victim.
    "Because you're an old grump," says his unsympathetic wife Martha (Joan Plowright). Perhaps, but that's hardly justification for the numerous indignities, physical abuses and threats to his aging genitalia perpetrated upon him by his five-year-old next door neighbour Dennis Mitchell (Mason Gamble).
    To absorb additional agony, Hughes has created a character called Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd). A villain from Victorian melodrama, Sam arrives in idyllic Hillsdale in the dead of night.
    Identifiably non-suburban — with his long, dirty hair, beard stubble, frock coat, and high-heeled boots, he looks like your average English rock star — Sam is the Evil Other whose petty thefts earn him the most extreme Home Alone-style punishments.
    For reasons never explored in the script, Dennis's Mom (Lea Thompson) is returning to the workforce. Among her co-workers is Andrea (Melinda Mullins), a non-mom who is openly antagonistic to her.
    "I don't have kids," says the nasty young woman. "But I do have a life." You can bet that Andrea will get her punishment.
    A sick man, Junk-Film Jack plays to the nameless fears of hard-pressed middle-class white Americans. Disguised as "family entertainment," his increasingly sick films sell calculated viciousness as innocent comedy.
    Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score attempts to mitigate the nastiness by going into Gremlins mode. His superb animated-cartoon orchestrations only partially make up for the screenplay’s ill humour.
    In Dennis the Menace, fine actors like Matthau and Lloyd are reduced to performing pratfalls. Hughes's characters reminded me of a line John Cleese delivered in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy Time Bandits: "What awful people."
    What an awful movie.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1993. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: A Baby Boomer, Dennis the Menace made his comics page debut on Monday, March 12, 1951. He was created by Seattle-born Hank Ketcham, a former Disney cartoon animator who’d spent the war years as a U.S. Navy reservist. The character was based on the 30-year-old artist’s four-year-old son, apparently something of a hellion. The strip turned into a career for its creator, becoming a pop-culture phenomenon that spun off into comic books — including a 10-issue Dennis the Menace and the Bible Kids series created in 1977 for the Christian publishing niche market — commercial endorsements and a four-season Dennis the Menace TV series (1959-1963) on CBS.
    Eternally 5½ in the comics, Dennis’s age on television was less clear. Actor Jay North was eight when the show began, and 11 when it ended. Age was less of an issue in the two-season Dennis the Menace cartoon series (1986-1988). Director Nick Castle’s Dennis the Menace was the feature debut of seven-year-old actor Mason Gamble, whose resemblance to Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin must have pleased producer John Hughes. A video game based on the movie was released just in time for Christmas 1993, and there have been two direct-to-DVD movie sequels — 1998’s Dennis the Menace Strikes Again  and A Dennis the Menace Christmas (2007) — each featuring entirely new casts.  
    Dennis’s creator Hank Ketcham wrote and drew the newspaper cartoons until 1994, the year he turned over its production to assistants Rod Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton. Though he died in 2001, the strip continues to appear daily in many newspapers and on its own website.

See also: For more on the work of composer Jerry Goldsmith, click here.