The Film (3/5)
I’ll be honest, this isn’t the easiest film to write about, as everything that’s true about it also kind of isn’t; everything you can say about it comes with a ‘but.’
What’s it about? Well, a small family of criminal hillbillies wind up with a stolen car and discover – much to their surprise – that there’s an infant in the back seat. So they decide to raise him as a murderous cannibal (of course); a feral animal that they use as a sort of secret weapon to keep the town under their thumb. Eventually he escapes, falls in love, and everything comes to a big violent, fiery climax.
But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert: a film isn’t about what it’s about, but how it is about it.
On one hand it’s pretty straightforward little horror movie, and in terms of the script, it’s actually written that way (more on that in a bit). But the way it’s directed, and the choices that director Robert Martin Carroll makes, every single element is given an added bit of texture or weight, to the point where nothing is really as it seems. And that’s both expressed explicitly as well as thematically.
Slue (Paul L. Smith), the patriarch of this whole clan, is a foul, sweaty, murderous, obese monster of a man (at one point he literally explodes a police officer with a Howitzer and then giggles); but he’s also an accomplished painter and, in his own way, loves Sonny Boy.
Sonny Boy himself is indeed raised as a feral cannibal, and while he winds up with a body count as the film progresses (including a priest), he nevertheless ends up taking on more of the role of Frankenstein’s monster, in that even when he’s doing monstrous things he never loses the sympathy of the audience. And even more than that he still has genes passed down from his good-looking parents (who were murdered in the first scene), so he grows into a fresh-faced handsome man. And in the hands of other, less imaginative directors, that would be played for easy horror beats. But the first time he sees himself in a mirror as an adult, he sees himself as ugly, because he expects to look like his ‘parents.’
And then there’s the matriarch Pearl, played by David Carradine. You’ll probably hear a lot about Carradine’s performance here, because he plays a woman. And while the majority of text you’ll see dedicated to that are probably going to fall in the vaguely transphobic “haha holy shit that’s so weird” category, what strikes me is that, in terms of the script, Pearl is in fact every bit a woman, and Carradine plays her that way. In a strict visual sense there’s zero effort to mask the fact that Pearl is a man in women’s clothing, but in terms of character and script there’s nothing to distinguish Pearl from any other female character. There aren’t any easy jokes, or clumsy scenes in which the film goes out of its way to call attention to it. Which means that even though Slue and his tiny cadre of bad guys are monstrously violent, they’re also pretty progressive in that they accept Pearl as exactly who she is – nothing more, nothing less.
And of course the duality extends into the filmmaking itself, but not always in those precise deliberate ways. In terms of directing, the shots and compositions are – at times – close to gorgeous, but there’s seemingly almost no attention paid to pacing or edit or sound mix. And while the effort towards texture and extra layers makes for an interesting film, it does end up unintentionally throwing the tone out of whack; while these legitimately dark, horrific things are happening (at one point the family dons animal masks and cuts out 6-year-old Sonny Boy’s tongue – on his birthday), the concerted effort to add the extra dimensions makes things sometimes seem almost lighthearted, or feel like a big, bright, coming-of-age story.
And then when you consider that it came out shortly after the whole McMartin trial ordeal (Google it) and in the height of the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’, there’s a weight and legitimacy given to Carroll’s aim at making a story about surviving and coping with trauma, but there’s just as much legitimacy to audience’s (and even the filmmaker’s own close friends’) accusations of it being exploitive.
So to go back to what I said earlier, it’s a horror movie, but it isn’t. It’s really well-made, but it isn’t. It’s not really good, but it…well, no it’s not very good, but it is very interesting and ultimately winds up being a lot more than the sum of its parts.
You got a 2.35:1 1080p transfer with a 5.1 Dolby track; standard stuff. In terms of the video, though, while like 99% of it is crisp and clean and easily flexes its muscles to showcase the immaculate lighting and color of the photography, there are these inexplicable little imperfections that litter the transfer. I don’t know what source material Scream Factory had to work with, but considering how gorgeous the majority of it is, you have to assume that they did some restoration work, but if they did, why did they leave those scratched and imperfections in? It’s actually kind of puzzling.
Now, in terms of sound – oof. Not good. I mentioned earlier that the sound mix is bad, and it is – a lot of it is sharp and piercing; there’s no real warmth in the mix. But is that Carroll’s mistake? And if it is, did the raw materials ScreamFactory got their hands on keep them from doing anything to fix it? I don’t know, but the only things that sound good on the entire disc are the menu music and the commentary tracks.
Speaking of, those two commentary tracks make up the bulk of the Special Features; one with the director, and another with the writer, Graeme Whifler. Both of them are pretty good; interesting and engaging, and they each bring some really compelling history to the booth with them, because for all the time I spent talking about how the film seems like it’s trying to be two things at once – that’s actually the truth because inlistening to the commentaries you learn that what Carroll chose to put on screen is way different than what Whifler wrote. And while Carroll spends the majority of his time explaining his decisions and his thought processes, Whifler - even though he’s rather jovial most of the whole way through – gives the very distinct impression that he’s still carrying a lot of bitterness around over those changes, especially once the joviality drops and frustration takes over. At that point it’s not an impression of bitterness, but just full-on bitter snark. And yeah, Whifler wrote a way different movie than Carroll directed. Question is, would it have been any better? Well…
Even though the commentaries are the only two listed features, there’s also a data disc component that gives you access to Whifler’s complete original screenplay when you pop it in a Blu-ray drive. I don’t have a Blu-ray drive so I didn’t have access to that particular bauble, but it’s still pretty neat. Is Whifler justified in his bitterness or did Carroll make the right calls? Read along and find out!
Again, it’s hard to write about or categorize this movie with any certainty other than to say it’s interesting. Should you buy it? Well, if you collect cult movies, or if you like to gather your friends and watch offbeat films that’ll get you talking, then yes; it’s a nice addition to your library. And I like that ScreamFactory recognizes the value in those films, just the same as they do the more traditionally ‘good’ movies.