Thursday, 7 April 2016

Freak Out (2003) - Movie Review

While the semi-recent phenomenon brought up by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse project, complete with fake trailers that for some reason show some of the best of their respective directors’ work (seriously, I want to see a full-length version of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving), modern-day exploitation is far from a new thing. And long before he’d end up making a career out of mocking old-school cinema involving nuns, Nazis and cannibals, Brad Jones was doing much the same. From his snuff film thriller Cheap to his more recent efforts like the Italian giallo homages in The Cinema Snob Movie, you get a definite impression that the man has a clear admiration for this style of filmmaking. So, in what I’m sure is going to be me playing the long game, let’s take a look at his (available) filmography starting with one of the earliest productions to come out of Stoned Gremlin.

The plot: Wayne (Nick Foster), wanting to help out his friend Rhonda (Sarah Fulci) who is going through some issues with her father, invites her out to hang out with him and his friend Tim (David Gobble) at a coke party held at Dean (Brad Jones)’s house. However, with Dean’s violent and drug-fuelled tendencies, the night could end up turning disastrous for everyone.

The cast is full of Brad’s close friends and, weirdly enough, you can certainly tell that from how they act on screen together. Considering this film is classic scriptsploitation conversations between characters, this is a definite plus for the overall production. Foster, while certainly not being able to pull off being a teenager despite what I hope is an attempt at peach-fuzz facial hair, works as our focal point character and does manage a bit of the naiveté of youth. Sure, his character may go a bit too far in that regard, but he does well with it nonetheless. Fulci is compelling in spots as our female lead, but she ends up being put aside in exchange for more Foster as the film goes on. Honestly, she might be the weakest actor here so I can kind of understand that.

Gobble, who even in a film full of coke fiends is still playing the stoner, is fun to watch as this laid-back guy who only cares for his high. Bonus points for a weird alternative to the traditional date-rape scenario. Stowers makes for a good contrast to the film’s true star as this more gruff edge to the actions depicted in the film. But that’s all small potatoes when you just know that the real star of the show is Brad, who you can tell has already gotten a taste for playing characters with crazy eyes. It explains why he keeps returning to similar roles in other Stoned Gremlin productions. He is a ton of fun to watch on screen, even though he isn’t even trying to hide the fact that Dean is all kinds of fucked up. You can see why the only award that this film has gotten is one for Best Villain.

As for the writing and dialogue, not since the opening scene from The Warriors has so much screen time been devoted to making sure people dig it. Okay, in all seriousness, while the dialogue will have the occasional 'you wrote this just before they said it, didn’t you' moments and feel like it’s trying a little too hard to be contemporary to the 70’s, the writing here is surprisingly good. The plot itself almost feels like a teen romantic flick, with the main couple and the best friend trying to give him the confidence to reveal his true feelings, but its contents are far grittier than what you’ll find in most teen rom-coms. In fact, unlike a lot of exploitation flicks that Brad regularly makes fun of, this is based on a true story as the opening text says. The ‘Dean’ of the film is based on Dean "The Candy Man" Corll, a serial killer responsible for what were considered at the time to be the most vicious serial murders in American history. Of course, how accurate the events of the film are is up in the air but damn it all if Brad didn’t want to sell the audience on its realism.

The conversations between the characters feel good and natural, which makes sense considering it enters into discussions about films more than once. They all come across as people who need that rush of drugs, sex, booze and disco music to get through their lives, whether it’s because of general apathy with their circumstances or they’ve got some serious internal demons. I’d normally question a film putting drug and alcohol use on the same scale as murder and torture in terms of what we do to get through the day, but as a means of coping, this film at least has it make sense for the characters doing it. Hell, to make that fact even more bizarre, easily the most casual and warm feeling conversation in the entire film is during one of the more graphic torture scenes. I’d be wincing at the things done to people with corkscrews and glass rods, if I weren’t so distracted by a bizarrely in-depth lecture about how you can tell how big a man’s dick can get that happens during said scene.

Yeah, that’s the other thing about this film: It’s grimy as shit. I was originally just going to ignore the picture quality of the actual production, since it’s probably been ripped and re-ripped so many times by now that I doubt its own parents would be able to recognise it. That said, the grungy tape static look of it kind of makes the grotesque actions of Dean that much more unnerving. It’s kind of like watching Trash Humpers in that regard, only here the characters are doing more than just mating with refuse and singing Happy Birthday to a man on the toilet. Of course, rape, murder and chewing on severed body parts is always going to make some people uncomfortable anyway so it’s not as if it needed the extra help.

While I’m talking about the defacement of the human body that we see in this film, my previous ranting about male rape might give the impression that I’m going to rail on this film as well. Well, there’s a couple reasons why I won’t. One, this film is meant to be as filthy as is humanly possible, so something like this happening isn’t all that surprising. Two, it isn’t framed in any kind of comedic light; it is meant to be disgusting. Three, and by far the most perplexing in retrospect, it’s given enough reasoning for why it’s happening that it makes sense within the story.

This is probably the weirdest thing for me to bring up in a film like this but I honestly really, really fucking love how the character of Dean is portrayed. He’s given the lion’s share of backstory, which is hardly surprising given how he’s played the film’s writer/director, but how much we know about him isn’t why I bring this up. I mention his characterisation because Dean is a homosexual. The story set up around him, of a gay man who is an addict of pretty much everything possible who brings teenagers to his house for a coke party, could so easily turn into R-rated PSA territory. Think something along the lines of Boys Beware! and you'll see where this kind of portrayal could've end up in lesser hands.

Instead, through the dialogue and Brad’s frankly amazing performance that sprinkles in only little moments of mincing, it is shown as being a part of his character but not his entire character. He’s a good friend at times, doing his best to help Wayne with his romantic issues, and genuinely comes across as a nice guy… when he isn’t staring Judge Doom daggers into every single object in the room. Him being gay only informs his choice of victim and his actions involving romantic possibilities, resulting in easily my favourite part of the film when he and another character talk in the boat shed. Yeah, he’s a complete and utter nutcase, but he’s a very well realised nutcase. Chalk this one up with Tom Hardy in Legend in terms of surprisingly engaging and effective portrayals of LGBT characters. I'd argue how the only faithful depictions of homosexual characters on film have so far been murderous psychopaths, but I don't want to detract how this mode of writing in terms of sexuality needs to be used a hell of a lot more often.

All in all, this film is as 70’s as snorting coke off of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on vinyl, and I use that specific comparison because that literally happens in the film. Its approach to all things gory is cringe-inducing in all the right ways, made more effective by the home-video quality of the footage, the characters are fun to watch converse with each other and the soundtrack… oh yeah, forget to mention that part. Think a far less cynical version of The Martian’s soundtrack and you’ve got the idea: Disco classics that, with how weird the sound balancing gets, will often drown out the rest of the film. Really, this shows that Brad had a definite method when it came to making films, even if it was just him shooting the shit with his mates. But don’t take my word for it; the whole thing is available on his site right now to watch for free, and I strongly urge the more exploitation appreciating readers out there to do so.

Honestly, I kind of want to check out more of his stuff but I do want to give some of the critics a chance here; maybe some other time. In the meantime, we’ll continue on this fanboy voyage with a look into another critic with a real thing for music… and one whom I have a serious bloody problem with.

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