Dustin Putman is an alumnus of American University with a BA in Film & Visual Media. A member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), he has been reviewing movies professionally since 1997 and has been quoted in print ads, magazine articles and television commercials.
His website, DustinPutman.com, was created in 2001 under original moniker TheMovieBoy.com. His debut book, The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween, was published in September 2013 and is available both in paperback and Kindle editions. Dustin loves all things Halloween and lives in Ashburn, Virginia.
As a kid growing up in the ‘80s, I would rent movies from a mom-and-pop store called Video Villa in my hometown of Frederick, MD, and would get everything from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to The Care Bears Movie to The Goonies to any of the Friday the 13th installments. The workers there always got a charge out of my eclectic tastes at the age of five and six years old. My parents were fairly liberal about what I was able to watch as long as I understood it was make-believe and not real. It is because of this that I was able to really expand my own education on film (it also helped that my older brother, Rudy, who was ten years older than me, was already heavily into movies).
Around that time, I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween and it basically changed everything for me. At the time of its release in 1978, it was groundbreaking what was accomplished on such a low budget. Carpenter transcended the so-called B-movie and brought to the table class, style, atmosphere, great characters, innovative camerawork and one of the most terrifying music scores in film history.
I speak at length about my love of Halloween in my book, The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween, but, yeah, it is my favorite movie for too many reasons to count.
As a connoisseur of all films and the author of The Fright File, what do you feel separates a truly great horror film from a mediocre one?
Horror gets a bad rap far too often, with those not well-versed and educated in the genre seeing it as somehow an inferior, subterranean category of film that should not be taken seriously. What is so egregiously overlooked is how no other kind of film so succinctly explores human emotions or provocatively uses dark, frequently extreme subject matter as a metaphor for exploring timely (and universal) real-world themes and issues. Truly great horror films know what they are and what they are about, and have a clear vision for their intentions. One can tell when a scary story and the filmmaker behind it are merely going through the motions, and when they have the audience in the palm of their hands. When that magic happens and a film can genuinely frighten the viewer and/or put him or her on edge, there is no more cathartic genre in all of cinema.
What is your personal Mt. Rushmore of movies? In other words, the four movies that you feel are head-and-shoulders above the rest and need to be celebrated for all of time?
Picking four movies is nearly impossible because there are so many I love and my choices could change on any given day based on my mood or the way the wind is blowing.
Halloween is obvious, so I’ll throw out four more: Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).
I want to cheat and also mention a title it seems like very few people have heard of. Smooth Talk (1985), directed by Joyce Chopra, starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams, based on the classic short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s perfect to me — so, so moving and it blows me away every time I watch it. Although it’s more of a coming-of-age drama, there are darker, more foreboding elements to it so I rather shamelessly shoehorned the film into my book so I could call further attention to it.
How do you watch the films that you review? Do you receive screener copies and watch in the comfort of your own home, or do you go to theaters?
For major new releases, I will usually attend advanced promotional and press screenings in the DC area. As Video On Demand has grown in popularity, I am more easily able to see the smaller movies this way. In certain cases, the studios will send me screeners (either physical discs or online screeners). It’s a mix of all of the above, but the majority I do see in the theater.
Rank the following movie theater snacks in order of best to worst: Popcorn. Milk Duds. Sour Patch Kids. Raisinets. Twizzlers.
I don’t often eat theater snacks, but when I do my favorite is popcorn and Raisinets together. A Twizzler is good for biting off the ends and using it as a straw for your drink. Milk Duds are a little too sticky and chewy for me to enjoy during a movie, and Sour Patch Kids are a little too, well, sour.
Does being a film critic ever affect your ability to simply relax and enjoy a movie?
I sit down to watch movies for review purposes so frequently that it is almost second nature to see something and then write about it afterwards. I love film in general so it is easy to enjoy them at the same time. I must admit, though, that it does feel like a bit of a luxury whenever I watch things on my off-time for fun.
Which actors and actresses do you most enjoy watching?
It would probably be easier for me to list the actors that I do not enjoy watching, since the list is generally smaller. I greatly admire acting (more so watching it than doing it myself); it takes a special, unique talent to be able to make a script come alive on the screen without hints of calculated artifice and overt inexperience.
Actors still living: Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Donald Sutherland, Laura Dern, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Gosling, Lisa Kudrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, Greta Gerwig, Richard Gere, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Rockwell, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Amy Adams, Drew Barrymore, Thora Birch. The list could go on and on.
For performers who are no longer with us: Judy Garland, Heath Ledger, James Stewart, River Phoenix.
Are there any films that you feel differently about now than when you first reviewed them? Ones which you judged harshly that you now enjoy, or vice versa?
Every once in a while, I will have to alter my reviews and/or ratings over time if I revisit them and think differently. Most recently, I updated my rating to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which I did not care for when I saw it in 2001 but appreciated a lot more when I watched the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. I also significantly raised my rating on Cars (2006), which many view as a minor work in the Pixar canon (I originally gave it a mild 2.5/4 recommendation), but that I have come to think is possibly the studio’s very best, in terms of the consistent emotional impact it has on me. Usually I grow to like movies more over time rather than fall out of love with them. Others I have raised my rating on include Lost in Translation, Zodiac, and American Psycho.
What has been the most difficult movie for you to objectively review?
I try to be objective about every film I see, so I don’t think I have ever had a difficult time reviewing something in this respect. I am always conscious of separating people’s private lives from their work, whether it be directors, writers or actors. I am not a big fan of Mel Gibson as a person, for example, but I can still enjoy his performances. The same could be said of Tom Cruise, who is undeniably a charismatic actor even if many of his personal beliefs are far removed from my own.
Do you ever feel burned out or get hit with a case of writer’s block when attempting to write a review? If so, what do you do to combat this?
The busiest time of the year for a film critic is November and December, when the studios pile on six to ten releases per week for awards consideration and also mail out stacks of awards screeners daily. It is easy to get backlogged on reviews and burned out by the time Christmas rolls around, but fortunately things are slow for the couple weeks at the end of December and start of January so it is a great time to recharge for the new year. Then it starts all over again.
Hollywood seems to have gotten into the habit of remaking movies that are not particularly old in hopes of selling them to a younger audience. In most cases, though, the remakes don’t compare favorably to the originals. Are there any movies from your youth that you feel would benefit from a big-budget remake?
At this point, it almost seems as if everything has been remade, and those that I care enough about from my youth were so good the first time around I cannot see how a remake would be able to improve upon it. You know what I would like to see? A live-action feature of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I adore the animated original and watch it every year, but to see it updated and brought to life in 2014 — that would be something I’d love to see.
What movies are you most looking forward to this summer?
I am immensely excited about Godzilla. The trailers have been killer and the director, Gareth Edwards, is a huge new talent who helmed a fascinating movie in 2010 called Monsters. It was made for well under a million dollars and looked like it cost fifty times that. Others I can’t wait for: Maleficent, Jupiter Ascending, and Tammy.