100 films I haven’t seen: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

My last film was “Blade Runner,” which I said was kind of a cheat. This one is not a cheat. Despite having read multiple Hunter S. Thompson books, I’ve never seen “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

My parents introduced me to the concept of Hunter S. Thompson at a young age, giving me a book of comic strips about the “Doonesbury” character Duke that also included a pretty sweet action figure. My mom even brought Thompson to UNI to speak in the 70s, so I’ve always felt a second-hand connection to the writer.

Film 5: “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”

My excuse for not seeing it: In May of 1998, I had just returned home after my freshman year of college. I was reading “Fear and Loathing” at the time and was very excited for the movie. So why didn’t I see it?

Well, “Godzilla” came out the same weekend. You know, the crappy, “Ferris Bueller vs. a Giant Velociraptor” version. I mostly saw it because the brand new Wynnsong theater was opening that weekend and they were showing “Godzilla” on all 16 screens.

I figured I would have another chance to catch “FALILV” (can I make that happen?), but “Godzilla” ’98 was basically that year’s Woodstock (still better than the following year’s Woodstock) and I had to be there. Sadly, “Fear and Loathing” flopped and was gone from theaters quickly. Then I never got around to watching it on VHS/DVD for some reason, despite having the Criterion Collection disc on my shelf for the last five years or so.

Thoughts after watching it: I should state that I haven’t been living under a rock for the last 19 years (and I have read the book), so I wasn’t heading into this viewing completely blind. I’ve heard guys in Raoul Duke costumes say “This is bat country!” and “Let’s get down to brass tacks, how much for the monkey?” pretty much every Halloween.

I loved it, and I’m sure I would have loved it at 19. It and “The Big Lebowski” are the dynamic duo of 1998 films that became classics on home video. I can see why it didn’t go over great with critics or general audiences; it’s a pretty accurate translation of Thompson’s more gonzo work from page to screen. It’s a fever dream of paranoid vignettes and hallucinations, not the kind of thing you put up against “Armageddon” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

The film seems to mark an interesting point where star Johnny Depp and director Terry Gilliam’s careers diverged. After “Fear and Loathing,” Depp seemed to play it safe for a few years with more straightforward films like “The Ninth Gate,” “The Astronaut’s Wife” and “Blow,” before finding the right blend of “F&L” quirkiness and mainstream appeal in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Sadly, once he found something that worked he stuck to the formula too closely, but I’d still put his initial turn as Jack Sparrow alongside Ed Wood and Raoul Duke as his greatest performances.

At the same time, “Fear and Loathing” followed two very strong films from Gilliam, “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys.” But after the 1998 film, he struggled for years to get “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” made (documented in the excellent “Lost in La Mancha”), not making another film until 2005’s “The Brother’s Grimm,” a film I saw in the theater but remember almost nothing about. In 2009 he made “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” a film that not only sounds like a Troy McClure starring vehicle but which also had star Heath Ledger die during filming.

A final note: “Fear and Loathing” strikes me as an interesting counterpoint to the following year’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Both are rife with drug use, but where “Requieum” feels like the coolest, most-stylized drug PSA ever, the drug use in “Fear and Loathing” is largely consequence free. Sure, it has its dark moments, like Duke’s proposal for Christina Ricci’s character, and the disturbing interlude with Dr. Gonzo and a trapped dinner waitress, but Duke and Gonzo walk away without any overdoses or lost limbs.

Movies it has inspired me to check out: I’ve seen Depp’s other take on Thompson, “Rum Diaries,” which was fine, but I’ve never seen “Where the Buffalo Roam,” starring Bill Murray as Thompson. I know that film deals in part with the disappearance of Oscar Zeta Acosta, the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo. I feel like “Rum Diaries,” “Fear and Loathing” and “Where the Buffalo Roam” could make for an interesting, film-in-reverse trilogy of Thompson’s life. I should probably also check out Gilliam’s other 2005 film, “Tideland,” at some point.

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