One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Sundance in full swing, we’re looking back at some of the best directorial debuts that premiered at the festival.
House Party (1990)
House Party premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a pack of extremely promising debut features that also included Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, and Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, which took home the top prize. (Apart from those debuts, the main competition also featured Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, which belongs in a class of its own.) Perhaps those highlights give an idea of why the 1990s tend to be seen as the festival’s golden decade as a taste-making institution. It commanded media attention, but still seemed to hold on to the idea that indie film could be a parallel universe. The year before, the festival scored one of its defining breakouts in Sex, Lies, And Videotape, written and directed by a 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh. It made a lot of money for a low-budget, alienated arthouse item.
But House Party was different: It didn’t aim for the arthouse crowd, but for multiplex audiences. The fact that it became a very profitable hit, spawning sequels and imitators, didn’t have much to do with the fact that it had picked up awards at Sundance for writer-director Reginald Hudlin and cinematographer Peter Deming, later known for his work with David Lynch. (Coincidentally, Lynch’s own debut, Eraserhead, gets name-checked.) With the exception of a homophobic tangent—which the movie’s been rightly called out on since it first hit Park City—it’s as fun as unapologetic teensploitation gets. Hudlin didn’t subvert or reinvent a form that had been around since enterprising drive-in producers figured out they could cash in on rock ’n’ roll. He just did it better: a sort of clean-cut early ’60s movie for the R-rated early ’90s, right down to the shaggy-dog plot, the bully villains, and the cast of high schoolers who all look like they’re in their mid-to-late 20s.
Hudlin would go on to a spotty film directing career before switching to the more anonymous environs of network TV. But his first feature brims with personality, from the visual gags (some of them downright Pee-wee Herman-esque) and instantly dated fashions to the endless stream of cracks and off-the-cuff putdowns delivered by and at the cast. Robin Harris, who sadly died of a heart attack just after the film hit theaters, gives a performance that’s so good that it almost feels wrong for a movie about teens going to a cool party—but that’s what makes House Party special. When it all comes down it, it’s the funniest, zippiest, and most creative Frankie Avalon movie ever made.
Availability: House Party is on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.