At Guillermo del Toro Blade II hit theaters 20 years ago this month and was a much-needed critical and commercial hit for the filmmaker, grossing $155 million worldwide and above-average reviews.
This is not the story of this film. It’s the story of one of those reviews – quite possibly the worst film review ever published, at least by any reputable source.
The source was Ain’t It Cool News, the premier turn-of-the-century source for movie gossip, test screening leaks, and spontaneous criticism; the author was the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Harry Knowles. “BLADE 2 is an R-rated film,” wrote Knowles. “This is the NC-17 review about it. you have been warned “
Knowles goes on to make a disclosure. “It’s a huge conflict of interest for me to review BLADE 2 because Guillermo Del Toro and I are brothers,” he boasts. “That’s what his father says. His wife is convinced of that. Guillermo and I are just best friends but when El Gordo calls my dad Dad and I call his dad “Pops” and we plunge into hours of passionate discussions about HP Lovecraft, Goya, Steve Ditko action, the movies and pussy. Knowles then propagates his thesis: “I think Guillermo Del Toro eats pussy better than any man alive.”
And then, for more than 500 words of agony, he executes that tortured metaphor, imagining del Toro’s film as “a lover’s tongue, mouth, fingers, and lips” while “the audience is the clitoris.” He breaks down a key sequence with sext-esque play-by-play: “It starts slow with long licks with a nose bump on the joy button.” Describing the orgasmic responses of women around him at his performance, he boasts that he took a hand, “sniffed her fingers and said, ‘MMMm, your fingers are wet…enjoy!’ He describes the future Oscar winner as a “wet thigh splitter”. And he uses his stomach-twisting analogy to promote Toro’s next attempt: “BLADE 2 was a teaser… It was just pussy licking. … HELLBOY fucks deep!”
Reaction among Ain’t It Cool News readers was swift and divided, with the comments section (archived to this day at the bottom of the article) capturing an equal mix of disgust (“EWWWW!!! I think I just had cybersex with Harry …”) and enthusiasm (“That was the most daring review I’ve ever read”). But few took notice of the article outside the perimeter of the site — which, to be fair, hundreds of unreadable reviews under Knowles’ Byline — until 2017, when a series of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Knowles brought the site and its founder’s crumbling credibility to a seemingly permanent end.(Knowles has denied the allegations.)
the Blade II Review is a shocking read today, not only for the lewdness of the prose, but also for the fact that the poorly educated doofus horndog who wrote it was once a formidable presence in the world of online journalism. This was a man feared by studios, courted by famous filmmakers like del Toro, Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson, and championed by respected film critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin. The times from London called him “the strongest independent voice in film criticism since Pauline Kael”. He received book offers, television appearances and unlimited access to ongoing films. This guy had power.
this Guy. The “your fingers are wet” type.
Two decades later, the Blade II Review serves as a useful tool in understanding AICN and Harry Knowles because his offenses neatly summarize everything that was wrong with this site, its culture, and its flagship. It is primarily a dreadful Piece of text crammed with comically egregious grammatical errors, misplaced punctuation and redundant words, excessive use of exclamation marks, and more ellipsis than a Larry King column.
Such tics and typos were not exactly outliers in film criticism of the time (or, frankly, ours) and certainly forgivable when employed in the service of remarkable analysis. But there’s none of that in this (or any other) Knowles review, which is full of sixth-grader-level observations like “When Ron and Guillermo get together, there’s magic in the scenes”; Acting in pure fandom, his insights are never more penetrating than the site’s name.
Nor the Blade II Review is remembered longer because of that painful central metaphor and the blatant misogyny it betrays. There’s something particularly harrowing about his quiet introduction in that “disclosure” paragraph, the casual way Knowles lists his and del Toro’s common interests, culminating in “movies and pussy.” Not “the movies and women,” mind you, or even “the movies and sex,” but the movies and the disembodied female genitalia, one of many aspects of the Blade II Review that made it a more notable text after Kate Erbland investigated multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Knowles in 2017.
This entire section has (perhaps inadvertently) captured a dynamic that accompanies these allegations: a bearish “boys club” vibe that pervaded both the site — which for most of its heyday in the ’90s and 2000s featured mostly male authors and Editors – And the film culture in Austin, Texas, all around. The new documentary podcast Downlowd: The Rise and Fall of Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News Attempts to grapple with that legacy, with little success (writer-host Joe Scott can’t bring himself to fully question the myth-making of Knowles and the site’s alumni). But the podcast credibly paints a picture of Knowles’ ability to call out his (all-male) heroes to festivals and events and use their support to build his own credibility. He used her approval to create a unity power dynamic that became a tool for his harassment. Knowles’ alleged victims would recall how he had given young female writers famous names to present himself as a gateway to the industry, or how he had used his access to in-demand, invitation-only events to solicit sexual favors.
Such an impact would not have been possible without the free reign given to Knowles and his ilk by studios and publicists afraid that their films would be next without a thumbs-up from the “heads” of the geeks who pursued them so ardently could become Batman & Robin– Its infamous crackdown on AICN employees was blamed for its commercial failure by its distributor, Warner Bros. (a proclamation that put Knowles on Entertainment Weekly’s 1997 list of the most powerful people).
Luckily for the studios, Knowles was a pushover. The following summer, they were flown to New York City for the premiere of the wannabe blockbuster godzilla in Madison Square Garden and to Cape Canaveral in Florida for the premiere of the current blockbuster Armageddon. He gave everyone rave reviews. He did not hide the price of his affection; In fact, he wrote his reviews as a swag diary, detailing the deluxe accommodations and dropping the names of celebrities he had met. But it never occurred to him that such gifts might be perceived as a compromise for positive reporting – or if that was the case, it didn’t bother him, as he acknowledges Blade II as a “major conflict of interest” before dealing with it anyway.
And so it went through the history of the site – and beyond. The church-government divide between film journalism and film criticism has always been shaky, and even the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have had to grapple with the duality of interviewing the directors and stars of the films they have planned. But like AICN-boosted fantasy franchises Lord of the rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are gaining seemingly limitless dominance in popular entertainment, with fan culture seemingly having the enduring supremacy over critical journalism. So those boundaries have all but disappeared.
In this click-driven culture, where carefully circulated and breathlessly reported casting announcements, mini-scoops on cameos and post-credits scenes, first-look photos, and set visits outweigh eventual reviews of the same projects, access is everything. A significant segment of entertainment journalists — writers, YouTubers, and influencers — have branded fandom, eagerly spreading these tidbits, contributing sycophantic junket interviews, and sharing Instagram images of their copious movie-branding swag or, in the pre-COVID era, Selfies with the stars.
Studio advertising departments have learned how to play the game, lifting embargoes on influencers’ social media reactions and interviews days or even weeks ahead of critics. This initial wave is rarely, if ever, negative. In the first replies to finally panned images like Wonder Woman 1984 and eternal, you’ll read assessments vague enough to avoid ruffling feathers at Disney or WB – and thereby jeopardizing reporting opportunities for next month’s tentpole. The detailed critical reviews that follow are presented as the work of snobbish cinephiles who just don’t get it.
Ain’t It Cool News has all but disappeared from today’s discourse, its already dwindling traffic and reputation tarnished by the allegations against Knowles; The site that used to host dozens of posts a day is now updated a few times a week. Knowles stepped down from writing and editing the page after the allegations surfaced, publicly handing the reins to his sister, who oddly — or fortunately — wrote in his exact style. (He quietly returned to the site in March 2020 with a public apology, just as the pandemic of creation dominated our attention.) But the kids of Harry Knowles are legion, casting their uncritical eyes and unwavering enthusiasm on TikTok, YouTube, Podcasts and countless fan-oriented “news” sites.
In a 2000 Washington Post profile, Knowles brushed aside the complaints about his behavior and ethics. “The bottom line is, as long as you have clout, there’s no fallout.” His influence waned; the fallout followed. One wonders if his clout-hunting successors saw his fall — and what they learned from it.