When Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II hit theaters 20 years ago this month, it was a much-needed critical and commercial hit for the filmmaker, chalking up $155 million worldwide and better-than-average reviews.
This is not the story of that movie. It is the story of one of these reviews—quite possibly the worst movie review ever published, at least in an outlet of note.
The outlet was Ain’t It Cool News, the primo turn-of-the-century source for movie gossip, test screening leaks, and off-the-cuff criticism; the author was the site’s founder and editor in chief, Harry Knowles. “BLADE 2 is an R-rated movie,” Knowles wrote. “This is the NC-17 Review of it. You have been warned.”
Knowles continues with a disclosure. “For me to review BLADE 2, it is a major conflict of interest, because Guillermo Del Toro and I are brothers,” he brags. “His father says so. His wife believes this. Guillermo and I are just the best of friends, but when El Gordo calls my father Dad, and I call his Dad ‘Pops’ and we delve into hours of passionate discussion about H.P. Lovecraft, Goya, Steve Ditko action, the movies and pussy.” Knowles then floats his thesis: “I believe Guillermo Del Toro eats pussy better than any man alive.”
And then, for 500-plus agonizing words, he carries out this tortured metaphor, imagining del Toro’s film as “the tongue, mouth, fingers and lips of a lover,” while “the Audience is the clit.” He breaks down a key sequence with sextlike play-by-play: “It starts with long licks with a nose bump on the joy button slowly.” He describes the orgasmic responses of women around him at his screening, and boasts that he grabbed one’s hand, “sniffed her fingers and said, ‘MMMm you’re fingers are wet … enjoy!’ ” He describes the future Oscar-winning director as a “wet chinned thigh splitter.” And he uses his stomach-churning analogy to promote del Toro’s next effort: “BLADE 2 was a teaser … It was just pussylicking. … HELLBOY is deep dicking!”
Reaction among Ain’t It Cool News readers was swift and divided, with its comments section (archived, to this day, at the end of the piece) capturing an equal mixture of disgust (“EWWWW!!! I think I just had cybersex with Harry…”) and elation (“That was the most daring review I’ve ever read”). But few took note of the piece outside the orbit of the site—which, to be fair, published hundreds of unreadable reviews under Knowles’ byline—until 2017, when a series of accusations 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 makes for a shocking read today, not merely for the lewdness of the prose, but the fact that the barely literate 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 such marquee filmmakers as del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, and Peter Jackson, and championed by respected legacy film critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin. The Times of London called him “the most powerful independent voice in movie criticism since Pauline Kael.” He was given book deals, television gigs, and unlimited access to films in progress. This guy had power.
This guy. The “you’re fingers are wet” guy.
Two decades on, the Blade II review serves as a useful tool for understanding AICN and Harry Knowles, because its offenses so neatly summarize all that was wrong with that site, its culture, and its figurehead. It is, first and foremost, a terrible piece of writing, loaded with comically egregious grammatical errors, misplaced punctuation and extraneous words, overuse of exclamation marks, and more ellipses than a Larry King column.
Such tics and typos were not exactly outliers in film criticism of the era (or ours, frankly), and certainly forgivable if deployed at the service of noteworthy analysis. But there’s none of that in this (or any other) Knowles review, which is filled with sixth-grade-book-report-level observations like “When Ron and Guillermo get together, there is a magic to the scenes”; he traffics in pure fandom, his insights never more penetrating than the site’s name.
Yet the Blade II review lingers longer in the memory because of that pained central metaphor, and the blatant misogyny it betrays. There’s something especially jarring about its quiet introduction in that “disclosure” paragraph, the offhand way Knowles lists his and del Toro’s mutual interests, culminating in “the movies and pussy.” Not “the movies and women,” mind you, or even “the movies and sex,” but the movies and the disembodied female sex organ, one of many aspects of the Blade II review that made it a more noteworthy text after Kate Erbland’s 2017 investigation of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against Knowles.
That entire section (perhaps accidentally) captures a dynamic that goes hand in hand with those accusations: a retrograde “boys club” atmosphere that permeated both the site—which, during most of its ’90s and 2000s heyday, primarily boasted male writers and editors—and the Austin, Texas, film culture around it. The new documentary podcast Downlowd: The Rise and Fall of Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News attempts to grapple with this legacy, without much success (writer and host Joe Scott cannot quite bring himself to fully interrogate the mythmaking of Knowles and the site’s alumni). But the podcast credibly paints a picture of Knowles’ ability to summon his (all-male) heroes to festivals and events, and to leverage their endorsement into his own credibility. He used their approval to create a power dynamic of entitlement, which became a tool for his harassment. Knowles’ alleged victims would recall how he’d drop famous names to young female writers in order to present himself as a gateway to the industry, or would use his access to in-demand, invitation-only events to request sexual favors.
Such leverage wouldn’t have been possible without the free hand Knowles and his ilk were given by studios and publicists, terrified that without a thumbs-up from the “head” of the geeks they were so vigorously pursuing, their films might become the next Batman & Robin—whose notorious razzing by AICN staff was blamed by its distributor, Warner Bros., for its commercial failure (a proclamation that landed Knowles on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the most powerful people of 1997).
Fortunately for the studios, Knowles was a pushover. The following summer, he was flown to New York City for the premiere of the would-be blockbuster Godzilla at Madison Square Garden, and to Cape Canaveral in Florida for the premiere of the actual blockbuster Armageddon. He gave rave reviews to each. He didn’t hide the price of his affections; in fact, he wrote up his reviews as diaries of swag, detailing the deluxe accommodations and name-dropping the celebrities he’d encountered. But it never occurred to him that such gifts could be perceived as trade-offs for positive coverage—or if it did, he was unbothered by it, just as he acknowledges the Blade II review as “a major conflict of interest” before plowing ahead with it anyway.
And so it went, throughout the site’s history—and beyond. The church-and-state-like separation between film journalism and film criticism has always been a shaky one, and even greats like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had to contend with the duality of interviewing the directors and stars of films they’d panned. But as AICN-boosted fantasy franchises like Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe gain seemingly boundless dominance in popular entertainment, fan culture appears to have gained the permanent upper hand over critical journalism. So these boundaries have all but evaporated.
In this click-driven culture, where carefully disseminated and breathlessly reported casting announcements, mini-scoops about cameos and post-credits scenes, first-look photos, and set visits outperform the eventual reviews of the same projects, access is everything. So a significant portion of entertainment journalists—writers, YouTubers, and influencers—have turned fandom into their brand, eagerly dispersing those tidbits, contributing fawning junket interviews, and sharing Instagram images of their copious movie-branded swag or, in the pre-COVID era, selfies with the stars.
Studio publicity departments have learned how to play the game, lifting embargoes for the social media reactions of influencers and interviews days or even weeks before those of critics. That initial wave is rarely, if ever, negative. In the first responses to eventually panned pictures like Wonder Woman 1984 and Eternals, one will read appraisals vague enough to avoid ruffling any feathers at Disney or WB—and thus jeopardizing coverage opportunities for next month’s tentpole. The full-on critical assessments that follow are framed as the work of snobby 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 sunk by the allegations against Knowles; the site, which once hosted dozens of posts per day, is now updated a few times a week. Knowles stepped away from writing and editing the site after the accusations surfaced, publicly turning over the reins to his sister, who oddly—or luckily—enough, wrote in exactly his same style. (He quietly returned to the site, with a public apology, in March of 2020, just as the looming pandemic was dominating our attention.) But the children of Harry Knowles are legion, casting their uncritical eye and immovable enthusiasm across TikTok, YouTube, podcasts, and countless fan-geared “news” sites.
In a 2000 Washington Post profile, Knowles brushed off the complaints about his behavior and ethics. “The bottom line is: As long as you have clout, there is no fallout.” His clout diminished; the fallout followed. One wonders if his clout-chasing successors watched his fall—and what they learned from it.