Mad Props


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mad Props
"Despite its polish, there’s an innocence about the film that is quite charming."

Have you ever loved a film so much that you wanted to take it home? Not just a copy of it, that is, but a more tangible part of the experience. Certain types of film artefact – most costumes and paintings – have traded hands ever since the 1920s but, as this film explains, it was only relatively recently that ordinary film fans began to realise that it was possible to own all manner of props. Perhaps ‘ordinary’ is the wrong word because prices can be very high, but such is the enthusiasm within collectors’ circles that it seems likely they’re ready to put every last scrap of disposable income into it. For them, this is about owning a piece of history, about staying proximate forever to the most thrilling moments they ever spent looking at the silver screen.

Star Tom Biolchini is a banker by trade, but both looks and sounds as if he was made for the movies. His voice would work perfectly in trailers, his enunciation giving the impression that he grew up watching them on a loop. In fact, he grew up as a passionate fan of horror films, longing to become a special effects artist. That dream didn’t come to fruition, but it gave him an appreciation of the importance of well crafted props. He’s joined here by – amongst others – his friend Doug DeJarnette, with whom he used to make shorts. His mum reflects fondly on his oddness as a kid. We also meet his 14-year-old daughter, who says indulgently “I like that he’s doing what he loves.”

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The danger which Biolchini’s fluency with Hollywood language presents is that the film will come across as too slick to be interesting. There are moments when it seems overpackaged, mint in box, and short on personality. The family appearances help with that, however, and over time, the particular passions of his various interviewees cut through. The mission he has set for himself is to learn something about the other people whom he frequently finds himself up against in online auctions, and, thereby, to better understand his own passion for props. Accompanied by his 11-year-old son, who shares that feeling, he travels around the world, visiting collectors’ fairs, stores and museums, encountering all manner of treasures along the way.

If you initially feel a little cool about the idea of collecting props, that chances are that, sooner of later, the sight of one of these treasures will make you sit straight up in your seat with a surge of excitement. Everyone’s idea of what’s cool is different of course, but there’s all sorts of different stuff covered here. The various animatronic stars of Gremlins turn up in a few places. One guy owns a knife from Scream which was, he assures us, used onscreen – one of those things that automatically increases value in collectors’ eyes. Another owns Wolverine’s claws from X-Men, whilst still another has a Dothraki weapon from Game Of Thrones, a grenade from Fight Club and a Deadpool suit. An army veteran has an Alien head and a helmet from Lord Of The Rings; his kids say goodnight to Venom before they go to bed.

There’s older stuff too – gloves once worn by Marilyn Monroe, and Harry Houdini’s leg irons. How can anyone be sure what’s real? The community is full of people helping each other with that, tracking the history of individual items. A lot of those items began their journey in studio rubbish bins. The industry figures who speak seems delighted by this, not much concerned by how much extra money they might have made by pocketing a few pieces for themselves, or even selling their own work. Creature effects designer Alec Gillis says he likes collectors who are interested in the mechanical innards of his creations, because the really hard work is in the engineering.

There are some great stories here. Mickey Rourke explains the value of a good prop in helping actors do their thing. Lance Henriksen reveals a secret about Aliens that ensures you’ll never watch it quite the same way again. Meanwhile, we get a sense of what collecting means from Biolchini’s childlike desire to touch particular items (with permission, of course – some are in a fragile state). He’s also excited when encountering things that a lot of famous actors have touched, as if something of their charisma has rubbed off onto them. Despite its polish, there’s an innocence about the film that is quite charming. Alongside this, there’s the opportunity to follow one specific collecting journey: Biolchini’s quest for the actual (Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade) holy grail.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2024
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Mad Props packshot
A passionate collector of film props travels the world to meet other people like himself and explore their shared hobby.

Director: Juan Pablo Reinoso

Writer: Juan Pablo Reinoso

Starring: Tom Biolchini, Mickey Rourke, Lance Henriksen, Robert Englund, Alec Gillis, Ryan J Condal

Year: 2024

Country: US


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