Saturday, January 19, 2008

#29: Deranged (Jeff Gillen & Alan Ormsby, 1974)

Real-life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein "inspired," if that's the right word, elements of many horror films and novels, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs. This excellent, low-budget Canadian film uses most of the facts of the Gein story, but instead of presenting these facts in straight-forwardly generic bio-pic or slasher-flick fashion, Deranged tells its story as a mixture of sensitively played character study, dark comedy, pseudo-documentary parody, suspense thriller, and, to a lesser extent, gross-out gore film. Gillen and Ormsby's film begins with a ridiculous on-screen narrator pretentiously and portentously intoning the facts (and fictions) of the story, a dryly humorous parody of the typical condescending narration of educational films, film strips, and documentaries from television's first quarter-century. The film then shifts gears entirely, letting veteran character actor Roberts Blossom empathetically portray the lonely, childish Gein figure (renamed Ezra Cobb), under the thumb of his sickly, puritanical Bible-thumping, sex-hating mother. Once their relationship is set up, the mother promptly dies in a ghastly gross-out scene in which Blossom spoon-feeds her garishly snot-green soup and she vomits up gallons of Tempera-paint blood. Most viewers at this point will probably turn from the screen and say, "What the fuck am I watching?" If you're as big a fan of low-budget films and tonal shifts as I am, though, you will say this with a large smile on your face. After a handful of further appearances by the goofy narrator, the film sticks with its quiet character study. Blossom is fantastic in a part that could have gone to Harvey Keitel (he auditioned), and his character's extreme naivety and kind-heartedness gives his performance a charming likability, even as he digs up corpses and murders young women in his increasingly deranged state. That's a hard thing for any actor to pull off. Lots of serial killers in films are charismatic, but few are empathetic, likable, and pitiful. As an audience member, I desperately wanted the women to escape from him, but I never stopped feeling for the guy. This is a strangely likable film.
Co-directors Gillen and Ormsby have many connections to director Bob Clark. Before his untimely death from a heart attack in the 1990s, Gillen worked on the crews of Deathdream and Porky's II, played the bartender in Deathdream, and played the department store Santa Claus in A Christmas Story. Ormsby wrote the scripts for Clark's Porky's II, Deathdream, and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, and worked on the makeup effects crew for the latter two. Clark was a production consultant/advisor for this film.
Some quality dialogue from Deranged:
Old guy at a bar: "I've seen tits from Berlin to Okinawa, and those are some tits with a capital T."
Blossom, showing a future murder victim some musical instruments he made out of human remains: "This ain't catgut."
Blossom, after the woman who will become his first victim tells him she misses the "carnal" aspects of her life after her husband's death: (Smiling hugely) "Carnival?"

Sunday, January 6, 2008

#28: The Dentist (Brian Yuzna, 1996)

As we slowly exit the holiday season, I think it's important to take time to reflect on our lives, count our blessings, and enjoy a mid-nineties film about a killer dentist starring Corbin Bernsen.

The Dentist may be the most unpleasant horror film I've seen. It's not the creepiest, scariest, most effective, smartest, etc., but it made me feel nauseous and squirmy for almost its entire duration, and that usually doesn't happen. (In a psychology class I took, we were instructed to pair up and take turns staring at each other's faces while we looked at a projected image. What the professors didn't tell us was that the image showed a dead crocodile sliced open, containing human body parts inside. The image was initially hard to visually decipher, and we were unwittingly expected to notice when the first sign of disgust registered on our partner's face. The student I paired up with looked at the image first, and disgust showed on his face after about ten seconds. I went next, and displayed what I thought was minor disgust at the image. When I turned back to my partner, he said, "All you did was laugh.") Heretofore, the only two things that made me squeamish were needles injecting veins and genital mutilation. Now I can add tooth and gum torture to the list of things that make me turn my head away from the screen.

Dentist visits are jam-packed with unpleasantnesses ripe for exploitation by horror filmmakers. High-frequency whining, whirring, and buzzing sounds, needles, lasers, scraping, infection, extraction, inability to talk, fear of swallowing and choking on saliva and blood, decay, rot, sedation, helplessness, stern lectures about flossing, expensive oral surgeries that insurance companies weasel out of paying much of, etc. It's all here in The Dentist, and more (including tongue removal), and if that's your idea of a good time, you are in paradise, my fucked-up friend. I, on the other hand, was a shell of a man afterward, ready for a documentary about fluffy bunnies and a cup of chamomile tea. (I picked the wrong weekend to start my month-long abstinence from beer, goddamn it. This would have been a far easier film to take in a pleasantly numb beer fog.)

Ready for a plot synopsis now? Corbin Bernsen plays a successful Los Angeles dentist who has a severe hangup about cleanliness and the lack thereof. He's also experiencing severe hallucinations, causing him to imagine that all his patients have horrible tooth decay and that his wife is giving blowjobs to the pool cleaner. He goes cuckoo-bananas and starts rearranging people's mouths and generally freaking the fuck out. That's about the gist of it. Additionally, a pre-fame Mark Ruffalo has a small part as the agent of a beauty queen getting dental treatment, and Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree stars as a police detective. The Dentist was directed by Brian Yuzna, producer of Re-Animator, and co-written by Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak. Bernsen's character loves opera, incidentally. Goodbye for now.