By Eric Henderson

There’s but one new wide release this weekend — the dank graphic novel version of I, Frankenstein starring a torqued Aaron Eckhart — and it’s not even screening for critics because, why bother?

We’re knee-deep in the doldroms of the dump months of winter. What’s a “dump month,” you ask? Well, those are the months where studios unload the movies they’re evidently pretty sure won’t fly on their own, and will at least skim a few bucks from those who will see every new movie every week so long as it wasn’t critically acclaimed. (Those movies are all out there too, and many a January and February have been bolstered by the Oscar nomination boosts.)

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Historically, January/February and August/September have served as the dump months elect, but the more ersatz “summer movies” have been saturating the multiplex marketplace, the less weekends there are characterized by undeniable bilge removal.

But whether by chance or by design, there have been one or two babies thrown out with the bathwater in the past. Here are a few reasonably high-quality or at least surprisingly durable movies I bet you didn’t realize were actually released in the first dead-zone weeks of the movie year.

(NOTE: Tons of high profile awards bait movies were technically released wide in January and February — including Gran Torino, Zero Dark Thirty, Platoon, Munich, The Thin Red Line, Children of Men, 12 Monkeys, and on and on and on. But all of those films were given their first theatrical release in New York and/or Los Angeles the previous December in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. For the sake of argument, I’m talking here about the films that didn’t see the light of an American movie theater until the weeks more often associated with, well, movies like I, Frankenstein.)

Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(Released: Jan. 29, 1964)

This entry is arguably pre-historical in that any film released prior to Jaws is a dinosaur, so far as release patterns and box-office stats are concerned. But it’s interesting to consider why Stanley Kubrick’s satirical apocalyptic masterpiece was released in the dead of winter. As it turns out, the movie actually slips into the list with a pseudo-asterisk. According to Wikipedia: “A first test screening of the film was scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination. The film was just weeks from its scheduled premiere, but because of the assassination the release was delayed until late January 1964, as it was felt that the public was in no mood for such a film any sooner.”

The Silence of the Lambs
(Released: Feb. 14, 1991)

This year, all nine Oscar nominees for best picture were released in the last quarter of the year, with Gravity being the earliest, having been released all the way, way, way, way far back in October. It’s a little bit of a chicken-vs-egg situation. Do studios believe voters won’t remember movies three months after they’ve seen them, or do voters just respond to the movies studios hold off until the end of the year because studios actually know what sort of movies voters like and purposefully hold onto them until the last moment. Either way, it’s been a long while since a movie released in the first inning managed to go all the way. Even stranger, The Silence of the Lambs was a horror-tinged thriller, something that’s awarded even less often than a first-quarter release.

Groundhog Day
(Released: Feb. 12, 1993)

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You’ll notice that quite a few of these entries are actually from roughly the same weekend — Valentine’s Day, arguably the year’s first “event” studios can capitalize on. (What says “I love you” better than a cheap night out at the movies?) Most people wouldn’t rank the chemistry between Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell near the top of their reasons for loving the inventive romantic comedy Groundhog Day, but the fact of the matter is that, when it was originally released, that was likely the hook.

The Wedding Singer
(Released: Feb. 13, 1998)

Comedies are one of the two sure-fire genres that usually manage to beat expectations in January and February. (Just take last week, when Ride Along posted a monster $48 million opening.) Before The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler was still considered more of a niche attraction than a headliner. It was likely this crossover smash that convinced the powers that be (as well as a few holdouts in the audience) that there was a little more than previously met the eye to SNL‘s then-resident beefcake goofball than, say, Billy Madison — itself also a dump month release, natch.

Office Space
(Released: Feb. 19, 1999)

“My stapler.” As with Groundhog Day, Office Space proved that there’s no reason dump month comedies have to also shy away from high concepts. For my money, Mike Judge’s cubicle-as-Hell actually ends up sinking once that concept — what if we all just started doing whatever we feel instead of toiling away at thankless jobs? and what if management decided our contempt for work was actually a form of initiative? — takes over. Up until then, it’s an absolutely pitch-perfect recreation of a day-to-day reality all too many of us recognize. “COR-porate accounts payable. Nina speaking. JUST a mo-MENT! COR-porate accounts payable. Nina speaking. JUST a mo-MENT! COR-porate accounts payable. Nina speaking. JUST a mo-MENT!”

The Passion of the Christ
(Released: Feb. 25, 2004)

Not much more needs to be said about Mel Gibson’s culture war-stoking assault masquerading as a sermon, which won a nail-biter against Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for the title of the most controversial film from arguably one of the most controversial political years. Yes, had the Holy calendar fell differently, the movie could’ve just as easily come out in March — it was timed to arrive in theaters on Ash Wednesday, ensuring a veritable explosion of piety at the box-office. But it didn’t, and it stands as the single most popular film ever released in a dump month ever.

Shutter Island
(Released: Feb. 19, 2010)

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I mentioned comedies already. The other genre that consistently rewards programming during January or February is the horror film. Though there are definitely those who would argue Martin Scorsese’s heady psychological thriller Shutter Island — which I list here in place of other possibilities like Tremors, Hostel, The Crazies, and The Passion of the Christ (oh, wait!) — falls under both categories.

Eric Henderson