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Tuesday
Sep252012

The Master (2012)

Slight of Hand

I'll never understand why religious fanatics get so upset when non-believers make a movie that attacks their faith. In 1988, Martin Scorsese came under fire for hypothesizing about the human side of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ--a film, for those of you still too afraid or offended to watch it, that saw the son of God ultimately conquer the world of the flesh and do the right thing. This month, we've seen mass outrage and violence in the Muslim world over a poorly executed trailer that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizing, power-hungry doofus.* And the Church of Scientology has spoken out against Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which it sees as an assault on its founder, sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard. 

Why all the outrage? Do these lifelong devotees believe that their deity of choice created the heavens and the Earth, but can't handle being ridiculed in a stupid movie? Or is it some kind of cosmic test for the flock? If they don't express enough anger or set a predetermined number of cars on fire, are they in danger of not getting into heaven? If that's the case, have they considered just what kind of cruel, childish Thing they aim to spend eternity with?

As an ex-Catholic, I find the whole thing very confusing. When I was a kid, Christians' greatest weapon against infidels was an armada of rap-music-banning Concerned Parents groups. They've since evolved to bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors (in church); kudos for that, I guess. But the question remains: if God is so upset with a particular person or practice, why not just send down some good, old-fashioned fire-from-heaven and leave the parishioners out of it?

I could maybe understand The Almighty's nervousness if a particular movie were in danger of convincing lots of people to question their faith. But in the case of The Master, that's an impossibility. First, this nearly two-and-a-half-hour art film is Oscar bait through and through--meaning that, like The Artist, The Tree of Life, War Horse, and The King's Speech, there's absolutely zero chance of it catching on in popular culture. Second, the only people whose lives will be deeply impacted by Anderson's latest opus--indeed, the only people likely to even see it--are those who are professionally paid to write such things, plus the smaller subset of cineastes who cling to brand-name "niche" directors.

That's not to say Oscar-nominated films aren't worthy of some praise. In fact, there's a lot to love about The Master. First, the story: Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a sex-crazed, lunatic sailor who spends the years after World War II getting fired from odd jobs and enjoying his hobby as a maker of household-chemical-moonshine. One night, he steals away on a party boat commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed author, doctor, philosopher, and the founder of a tenuous modern religion called "The Cause". The seemingly proper con man is instantly drawn to Freddie's strange ways, and invites him into his fold.

Much of the film wanders as freely as Freddie does, letting its story unfurl as a series of vignettes that sometimes connect and sometimes don't--at least not in obvious ways. As Freddie becomes immersed in Dodd's bizarre world of pseudo-hypnotic "readings" of his members' past lives and connections to their alien forebears, he gets seduced by having proxy power over the kinds of people who used to have power over him. He becomes Dodd's muscle, his confidante, and, ultimately, his crush.

A handful of other big ideas pop up during the movie's first half, building to what promises to be a rousing, bloody head. Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), believes Freddie is too dangerous to be part of a movement that has already drawn national criticism for being kooky. His daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), secretly flirts with Freddie--to the idisappointed, impotent rage of her passive-aggressive husband, Clark (Rami Malek). Dodd's son, Val (Jesse Plemons) appears to be in on his father's grand joke, but is either too scared or too in love with the lifestyle to leave.

Toss in subplots about the teenage girl Freddie left behind in the aimless days immediately following his service; the reporter whom Freddie and Clark rough up after he openly challenged Dodd during a fundraiser; or a quarter-dozen other non-starters that comprise the so-called story, and The Master's big problem comes into focus: Anderson doesn't sew any of these threads into a cohesive picture. By the three-quarter mark, I realized that the writer/director had built his house of cards on a rickety table called "momentum"; the result is a showcase for stunning costumes, authentic set design, powerhouse performances, and some gorgeous scenery--but no real growth or resolution for the characters we've invested a great deal of time in.

Maybe that's all some people need out of a movie, but I demand more. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the epic arthouse picture whose slavish attention to detail touches every facet except the screenplay. Like other recent films of this kind, particularly The Tree of Life, defenders have parroted the line, "You can't even begin to understand the movie unless you see it twice." Maybe that theory holds water if you wander into this movie instead of The House at the End of the Street, but most Anderson fans have their brains cranked to eleven by the time the lights dim.

I submit that The Master is all show and no go. Hoffman and Phoenix are electrifying, even in their quieter, conversational moments.** And Anderson maintains his perfect track record of immersion by realizing 1950 America as surely as he did Boogie Nights' seedy, 70s California valley or There Will Be Blood's black-lunged, turn-of-the-century oil fields. But Boogie Nights had a much broader narrative scope, comprised of threads that not only thrilled and horrified--and which also came together by film's end. And while I've only watched There Will Be Blood once, it's the kind of movie I would watch again; Daniel Day Lewis is the main draw in the picture. But the screenplay is strong enough that he's not the only draw.

In the end, The Master is as glossy and empty an experience as it believes the religions are that it aims to deconstruct.*** The Weinstein Company and the film's rabid supporters will spend lots of money touting the greatness of Anderson's "masterpiece". But don't feel bad if you ignore the hype. These people are just deluded hucksters handing out prayer pamphlets to disinterested people who know a fraud when they see one. 

Note: Perhaps the greatest weapon in The Master's hype arsenal is the mythic 70mm experience. Only a handful of theatres in America are equipped to show Anderson's film in the gigantic aspect ratio in which it was meant to be seen. I kicked myself for a month after missing out on an advanced screening here in Chicago. Having now watched the movie, though, I'm completely over my disappointment.

Though the movie looks great, there's nothing here that I haven't seen before, in terms of story or visual landscape. In the one scene swiped (knowingly or unknowingly) from Lawrence of Arabia, all I could think of was how thrilling it was to see that movie in 70mm twenty-plus years ago. War and conquest are superb backdrops for such grandeur. Dinner parties and an overly recycled shot of the ocean? Not so much.

*Accusations that pale in comparison to his being portrayed at all: depictions of the man are forbidden in that tradition.

**Phoenix strays into Jack Nicholson-parody territory towards the end, but I blame that on the script's having given his character nowhere else to go but the places we've already seen him destroy.

***Hell, "deconstruct" is too strong a word; anyone expecting a savaging of Scientology will likely wonder if the actual attacks were left on the cutting room floor.

Saturday
Sep222012

Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story (2012)

While You Were Laughing

Positive reviews are the hardest to write. It's easy to dash off a thousand words explaining why I think you shouldn't see something. But when it comes to projects I love, I'm compelled to simply hyperlink "GO SEE THIS NOW!!!" to a PayPal treasury stocked with ten thousand free tickets and cab fare.

That's unprofessional and unrealistic, so I'll just have to muscle through. The long and short of today's piece is this: Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story is the best romantic comedy you won't see at the movies this year.

That's right, I'm taking another movie-review break to tell you about the latest production from Chicago's Gorilla Tango Theatre. This one's not a burlesque show, like Holy Bouncing Boobies, but my clothes nearly fell off from laughing so hard. Writer Brian Work, director Neal Fischer, and a uniformly amazing cast have created a unique, hilarious, and very touching story that deserves as much support and visibility as the over-cooked nonsense driving people away from the multiplex.

According to the play's version of history, the 1990s weren't very good to actor Bill Pullman (Philip Platakis). Sure, he played the President of the United States in Independence Day and rode a decade-long money train as "the other guy" in many successful romantic comedies. But his characters' reputations as bland everymen began to affect his real-life self-confidence. After losing out to Tom Hanks-types for the umpteenth time, a critical meeting with an unwittingly cruel Hollywood producer (Bryan Schmiderer) forced Pullman into depressed, alcoholic seclusion.

Enter Jeff Goldblum (Jeremy Eden). Thanks to a wonderful cosmic joke, the professional fidgety mumbler has become Pullman's guardian angel. For reasons never fully explained, he must help his ID4 co-star find true love--which begins, of course, with speed-dating. They hit up a bar, where a sleazy MC (also Schmiderer) oversees a parade of crazies whose pathetic qualities are only outdone by those of our utterly clueless, unconfident hero.

Because this is a romantic comedy, Pullman's quest doesn't end after a dozen failures: waiting outside is the lovely Karen (Madalyn Mattsey). She's also looking for someone special, after having been mysteriously dumped by her vain French boyfriend, Francois (Tommy Venuti). From here, Once Upon a Rom Com gets weird. Though survivors of Meg Ryan's career will easily recognize Work's story beats, the play's performances, dialogue and freshly absurd ideas will break down doors in your mind while also making it difficult not to guffaw.

Take, for instance, the scene in Karen's apartment: desperate to make Pullman put the moves on his new crush, Goldblum tricks both of them into gobbling ecstasy. The clubby sitar music and tripped-out cuddling are nothing new, but this crucial moment between the characters isn't just played for laughs. The actors explore each other with the tenderness and humor of two people genuinely falling in (chemically enhanced) love.

Also, at a sixty-five-minute run-time, the play wisely chops off the bullshit third-act conflict that so often sinks the kinds of movies it parodies. Francois returns to town to sweep Karen off her feet, and Pullman is too insecure to do anything about it. Typically, we'd be forced to endure twenty minutes of the heroine falling for the jerk, only to realize that her true love is getting on a train to Poughkeepsie or something. Work and Fischer cut that nonsense out, and instead make Karen into a much tougher woman than the part suggests. 

All this humor and originality are dependent on the strength of the leads--particularly leads whose main job is to convince us that we're watching Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum for over an hour. Platakis and Eden expertly give the audience more than impressions: they make the characters of Bill and Jeff into people we care deeply about and want to see succeed.

Platakis really sells his character's dilemma: inside the bland, ultra-likeable facade is a snarky, frustrated guy who just wants to be loved. He's a classic artist, tortured by his work and unable to face the world outside of the medium that ultimately consumes him. And, no, he doesn't explain this in a monologue: these are subtleties that I picked up from the actor's understated, heartfelt performance.

Eden's Goldblum is the main draw, a yammering spaz who's also a super-cool, Jurassic Park-quoting prankster. It's great fun to watch a temporarily omnipotent character conjure velociraptors and spontaneous crowds who watch Pullman deliver a variation on his climactic Independence Day speech--yet who can't do something as simple as get a guy to ask a girl out. Eden nails the mannerisms and voice of his inspiration, but pushes into uncharted territory with the help of the script: towards the end of the play, I felt as if the real Jeff Goldblum had never existed before I saw him as this gleeful, quasi-supernatural figment.

Lastly, there's Mattsey, who plays Karen as a genuinely interesting love interest. What makes her special, in this context, is how ordinary she is. Most modern rom-coms center on hyper-driven careerists who just need a laid-back dude to show them what life's really about. Karen is just a nice person looking for love, which she finds in a kindred spirit. Mattsey is naturally funny without being showy, but she's not a doormat for her male co-stars, either. Once Upon a Rom Com has a perfectly balanced lead-performer triumvirate that should be the model for all plays and movies of its kind.

Of course, the main story doesn't take place in a vacuum. Fischer uses his rich supporting cast and a crew of minimalist wizards to make this black-box theatre experience expansive and lively. Schmiderer, Venuti, Bev Bailey, and Amanda Bloom play increasingly ridiculous cartoon characters who ramp up the main tension of a nice guy and a nice girl struggling to find each other on a lunatic planet. They're assisted by Katie Binkley's deceptively creative, cheap-looking props and Linda Lim's Bizarro-world costuming. That's not a slam: their artistry reinforces our heroes' slim odds by contrasting their conservative dress and environments with the hipster acid carnival happening all around them.

I haven't been this surprised and delighted by an entertainment experience since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Once Upon a Rom Com disproves the notion that there are no good ideas left, and that great romantic comedies have to target a lowest-common-denominator audience. Work and Fischer's play is smart, fulfilling, and has been brought to life by a game cast and crew.* If you're hungry for big laughs and bigger heart, skip the AMC and head right for Gorilla Tango Theatre.

Note: You can catch Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story at Gorilla Tango Theatre (1919 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL) on Wednesdays at 7:30pm through October 31st. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased in the lobby or at GorillaTango.com.

*Though my Wednesday evening audience was small, everyone performed as if it was opening night at The Goodman.

Monday
Sep172012

Frankenhooker (1990)

Necro Feel Ya

Until this week, my knowledge of Frankenhooker was limited to a teenage memory of seeing the VHS tape in a video store. The cover featured a grimacing, purple-faced prostitute, and a button you could press that made her ask, "Wanna date?" For some reason, it's taken nearly twenty-two years to find out why this low-budget exploitation masterpiece was hailed as a "must see" by both Joe Bob Briggs and Bill Murray.

Well, now I've seen it. And the hype is not only warranted, it's tame. Co-writer/director Frank Henenlotter's sleazy update of Bride of Frankenstein may seem like a Better Off Dead / Re-Animator mash-up, but the performances by James Lorinz as mad creature-creator Jeffrey Franken and Patty Mullen as his imperfectly resurrected fiancee, Elizabeth Shelley, place the film firmly at the top of the heap. Just as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers became distinct icons in the slasher sub-genre (despite being essentially the same character) Henenlotter's vision is unique enough to largely earn a pass on comparisons.

Like the film that inspired it, the titular monster doesn't show up until the third act. Much of the story involves Franken pulling himself up from a deep depression, following Elizabeth's accidental death (she was puréed by a lawn mower that he'd modified as a gift to her father). Unfortunately, he winds up firmly in kook territory, combining tools from his New Jersey power plant job with a lifelong amateur-surgery fascination. In the aftermath of the disaster, he gathers up his beloved's head and some of her extremities and submerges them in a basement freezer overflowing with purple, preservative goo.

Convinced that he could jolt her body back to life if only he had more body parts available, Jeffrey hits Times Square to pick up some prostitutes. In his quest to find the perfect all-around features for his creation, he hires a veritable poon platoon and holds exhaustive auditions at a sleazy hotel. As the hours drag on, one of the hookers rifles through his stuff and finds a giant plastic bag full of "super crack"--a lethal drug Jeffrey purchased from the girls' pimp, Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez), to help quietly overdose his specimen.

The problem with super crack is that it's super-charged; before long, Jeffrey finds himself in the middle of a bloody pile of exploded limbs and gore. Unfazed, he collects the most usable body parts and heads back home. Two days later, his experiment comes to fruition as a bolt of lightning brings the bolted, stitched-together pseudo-person-with-Elizabeth's-head to life. Jeffrey yanks the requisite white sheet off her body and stares at an oddly beautiful, wide-eyed creature, whose first words are, "Wanna date? Got any money? Lookin' for some action?"

When Jeffrey pulls a Stantz and says, "No", the Frankenhooker knocks him unconscious. She returns to Manhattan on a rampage, pushing all non-customers aside. The movie's last twenty minutes are utterly bonkers, and I wouldn't dare ruin the rest of the story for you. I will say that Henenlotter and co-writer Robert Martin pull off one really shocking, hand-to-the-mouth moment that most horror movies would kill for--and then follow it up with a laugh.

Frankenhooker is what Tim Burton movies would be like if he dealt in graphic violence and nudity--which is to say, "entertaining". Jeffrey Franken is a classic Burton archetype, living in a self-made fantasy world and having to deal with the consequences of his madness running out the front door. He begins the film as a seemingly harmless obsessive, but Henenlotter provides an awesome reveal that clears up any ambiguity about how far gone our hero really is (hint: it involves a drill and a monologue). Lorinz brings his character to eerily compelling, believable life by playing him as a serial killer giving jailhouse interviews; his mumbling, matter-of-fact demeanor in the face of unspeakable horror gives Franken the kind of flesh-and-blood oddball quality that makes people lock their doors at night.

But he's still just a stooge who thinks he's a mad genius. There's no better evidence of this than in Elizabeth's return to life as Frankenhooker. The parts work, but there's no artistry, no finesse to her design. Jeffrey misses his dream girl, but can't be bothered to resurrect her in suitably presentable fashion. And then there's the brain thing.

In her new life, Elizabeth's personality has been replaced by a kind of broken loop replay of lines recited by the people who now comprise her--which explains the pick-up lines. I can't over-state how great Mullen's performance is here. The actress insists that her movements were all due to Henenlotter's coaching, but watching the movie, it's impossible not to marvel at her talents. Frankenhooker walks and contorts her face as if constantly being shocked by invisible jolts of electricity, and her dialogue comes explodes in a garbled, rapid-fire mess--as if someone had dunked a Taxi Cab Confessions DVD in water and then hooked it up to speakers.

The only thing I don't absolutely love about Frankenhooker is the ending. It plays like a post-credits epilogue, following the shocking surprise I mentioned earlier. Had Henenlotter and Martin ended on a quirky note, rather than an obvious one, I might have enjoyed it a bit more. Then again, I'm saying this twenty-two years after the fact. At the time, the last shot might have been revolutionary. Regardless, it doesn't tarnish the preceding ninety minutes whatsoever.

If you've never heard of Frankenhooker, or if you put off seeing it because you thought the title and idea were lame, please do yourself a favor and check it out. Sure, it's cheesy. But for every paper-mâché exploding prostitute, there's a hypnotically weird scene to balance the scales--such as the opening credits montage, which finds Jeffrey mumbling his plans for Elizabeth's body while doodling circuit pathways on a life-size diagram of her muscle structure. Frankenhooker is beautiful, funny, bloody, and wrong--and ten times more interesting, I'll bet, than the last five movies you saw.

Sunday
Sep162012

Iron Sky (2012)

(Master) Race to the Moon

Iron Sky is a legitimately terrific movie, a surprise and a delight in every way. On paper, the premise reads like an Asylum picture. But anyone going into this thing expecting cheesy, cheap, celluloid junk food are in for a shocking three-course meal of brains, heart, and special effects that put most mainstream sci-fi blockbusters to shame.

Set during the 2016 election, the film stars Stephanie Paul as the President of the United States. Though never mentioned by name, she's an obvious stand-in for Sarah Palin--down to the folksy, patriotic rhetoric and hot-librarian fashion sense. In an attempt to win a second term, she's teamed with PR guru Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant) and the Secretary of Defence (Michael Cullen) to put a black man on the moon. They succeed, but as male-model-turned-semi-pro-astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby) discovers on his arrival, the remnants of the Nazi empire have staked their claim on the dark side of the moon; they've spent decades cultivating a precious energy source called Helium Three, which will fuel their imminent conquest of the blue planet.

Washington is captured and brought before the new Fuhrer, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier), who is distraught by the prospect of a black spaceman. He orders his second-in-command, Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto) to have the resident mad scientist (Tilo Pruckner) run tests on him. During a botched escape, Adler's would-be girlfriend, Renate (Julia Dietze), encounters Washington and is taken by his earnestness and charm. She begins to question the lessons she's been teaching her legion of blonde-haired school children about the Reich--lessons that mostly consist of playing five favorable minutes of The Great Dictator during class.

I won't spoil the series of bizarre events that bring Adler, Renate, Washington, and a small contingent of storm troopers to Earth. Suffice it to say, director Timo Vuorensola and co-writer Michael Kalesniko cleverly turn the middle portion of their film into Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home--substituting Aryan supremacists for humpback whales. I love that Iron Sky breathes; even at only ninety-three minutes, the story's scope feels expansive. We know we're working towards the invasion, but the screenplay makes several cute detours, such as Adler's using his skills as a master propagandist to help the President with her re-election strategy, and Washington's quest to show Renate how her naivete is being manipulated by the people whom she believes love her.

Comparisons toStanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove aren't unwarranted. Both that movie and 2001: A Space Odyssey are clear influences here, but the filmmakers take the responsibility of such ballsy homages very seriously; they inject their silly moon-Nazi adventure with enough wit, social commentary, and thrilling spectacle for Iron Sky to stand on its own. This is a movie of big ideas hidden behind ridiculous ones.

Sorry if all this lofty praise makes Iron Sky sound pretentiously boring. It's anything but. When I wasn't laughing out loud (the ingenious reveal of the President's moon poster is a real howler), I was either caught up in the lives of characters who should have been paper thin, or reeling from special effects that look like they cost ten times the movie's entire budget (about $12 million).

Vuorensola, his production design team, and effects crew have created a beautiful space-opera playground. From the swastika-shaped moon base to the foot soldiers' classically inspired space suits and the asteroid-towing armada of zeppelin-inspired star craft, there's not a detail in Iron Sky that doesn't feel original or that isn't convincingly realized. This movie deserves an "Art of" book as much as Avatar did--perhaps even more so.

The climactic battle involving all the nations of the Earth rising up against Adler's fleet is at once rousing and hilarious, though it could have been trimmed by a few minutes. Fortunately, the movie's final moments more than make up for the tedium. Iron Sky ends on a distinctly Strangelove-esque note that had the theatre laughing one minute and quietly bumming out the next. In a way, Vuorensola's last shot suggests that the only happy ending to a story about mankind is to simply end mankind.*

It's a shame Iron Sky will make its North American mass-market debut by slinking onto blu-ray in a few weeks, rather than receiving a proper theatrical distribution. It's a huge hit overseas, and I was fortunate enough to catch the "Midwest Premiere" the other night at Chicago's Portage Theatre. Maybe it was a failure of distribution or a failure of imagination on the part of the distributor; whatever the case, this is exactly the kind of funny, challenging, and original entertainment that audiences need.

Note: I rolled my eyes when I learned that one of Iron Sky's main characters was a Sarah Palin stand-in. I was never a fan of the former Vice Presidential candidate, but four years after that election, taking jabs at her carry the same satirical potency as Monica Lewinsky jokes.

Fortunately, the President character is a classic comedy dimwit who would have been just as effective in any outfit. If you want to skip the layers and dig right into the heart of the onion, you could even consider her re-election campaign as the ultimate rebuke of the Democratic Party: considering the career trajectory that put her in the White House means accepting that John McCain likely served only one term. Palin handily succeeded him in 2012, and is only now starting to see that her platform needs the hard sell in order for the Republicans to pull a three-peat.

What does that say about the effectiveness of Progressives in Iron Sky's universe? And does it carry any weight in ours? I don't really care, but it's fun to play "find the corners" with this mental jigsaw puzzle.

*It's unfortunate and strange that a prequel and sequel were announced a few months ago, so I guess the filmmakers' solution wasn't exactly "final".

Sunday
Sep162012

Doom Asylum (1987)

Asbestos Picture

The keepers of universal wisdom* never tell you that adulthood's strangest secret is how much you'll miss "Back to School" time. Kids grouse about returning to class because they have no idea how lucky they are to have an intellectual jump-start as a seasonal marker. Most grownups get so caught up in our year-round routines that we only notice falling leaves if we happen to drop our keys on the way to work.

Since last year, September has become a magical month for me, a time when movie reviewing stops being about whatever strikes my interest, and becomes homework for really cool interviews. Study Mode often involves wading through gems both forgotten and unexpected; last year, it was discovering The Newlydeads while preparing to talk with Doug Jones. This year, I came across Doom Asylum--one of only two films in the brief but amazing acting career of Patty Mullen.

The movie, which, even as an Amazon.com rental is a fuzzy, full-frame eye-strain, centers on a group of college kids who decide to spend a weekend at an abandoned insane asylum. Little do they know that the broken down facility is home to Mitch Hansen (Michael Rogen), an attorney who was presumed dead following a car accident ten years earlier--but who awoke in the middle of his own autopsy and proceeded to kill everyone on the hospital staff; a hospital, by the way, which somehow became an insane asylum.

Did you get all that?

Doom Asylum is billed as a "horror/comedy", but I'm convinced that the production company applied this label after seeing the finished movie. Some of the laughs come from Mad Magazine-style jabs at genre tropes, but the rest come from amateurish direction, performances, and editing. One could probably teach a semester on whether or not Doom Asylum is this shitty on purpose, or if it is the result of a thousand happy accidents.

Even if you're a fan of "so-bad-they're-good" horror movies, this one may push the boundaries of your tolerance. Director Richard Friedman and editor Ray Shapiro manage to make a seventy-seven-minute picture feel three hours long, thanks to a repetitive story (hapless teen wanders off into the asylum alone; gets killed by grotesquely disfigured attorney who loves him some wisecracks; rinse; repeat) and an inability to let a rotten gag go:

They milk an off-kilter, slow-motion cut-away of two characters running towards each other in a field harder than Family Guy's "chicken fight" bit. And as the dimwitted leading man, William Hay's Mike is a one-note frustration whose gimmick is that he can't make up his mind about anything; it's cute the first few times, but my desire to see him dead came way too early in the film.

I can't get too down on the movie, though. Friedman and screenwriter Richard Marx almost make up for their mediocrity by ambitiously aiming to make a satire of the Reagan era, slasher movies, 80s punk culture, and teen vapidity. The bloated, nearly unwatchable result succeeds, in its own way, by being as lame as its targets. Whereas Slaughter High (this film's first cousin, twice removed) focused on gore, sex, and poorly executed creepy atmosphere, Doom Asylum wants to be smarter than its audience. But in botching the fundamentals of the slice-and-dice formula, it winds up being twice as dumb.

The filmmakers also get props for allowing a sixth of their movie to be another movie; specifically, the 1936 version of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Our deranged lawyer friend watches the film in his basement sanctuary between kills, and we're treated to whole scenes from George King's black-and-white thriller. Like all the other gimmicks, this one gets old fast, and served only to remind me of the more-enjoyable HBO sitcom Dream On.

It's likely that this film would have been totally forgotten if not for its two secret weapons. The first is Mullen, who plays the dual role of the killer's girlfriend, Judy (who also died in the car wreck), and Judy's daughter, Kiki, who now finds herself at the mercy of mom's demented boyfriend.

(Sorry, I keep writing this stuff as if it makes sense.)

Mullen is rather unremarkable here, but that's mostly because she doesn't become a key player until the last act. Though there's little in her performance to indicate the comic chops she would soon unleash in Frankenhooker, she's great in the final scene--which feels like the predecessor to a hundred "shock" endings that dominated the genre in later years.

The second gem is the fact that a twenty-two-year-old Kristin Davis made her acting debut here as a mouthy bookworm named Jane. Before getting a buzzsaw to the face, she spends a lot of time running around in a blue bikini and demonstrating a sharp, know-it-all wit that she rarely got to display in Sex and the City. She joins the ranks of Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander as mainstream stars who made their bones in the unlikeliest of places.

Speaking of buzzsaws to the face, there's not a lot here to recommend, gore-wise. Rule number one of slasher films--even parodies--is that the kills, attendant makeup, and filming of that makeup have to be inventive and believable (if not believable, then at least bad in a way that suggests they look terrible on purpose). The effects are better than what I'd expected, but they still fall short of other such movies that were popular at the time.

You may wonder why I've spent a thousand words on a movie that most of you will never bother to watch. Believe me, that question has bogged me down in the Swamps of Despair since paragraph three. The answer is that every film has something to teach its audience about the art of cinema. You go to Kubrick to learn about the paradox of grandiosity and simplicity; you go to Spielberg for lessons in turning schmaltz into caviar; and you go to movies like this for mental gymnastics.

Yes, Doom Asylum is stupid. But why is it stupid? What makes it a less effective genre satire than, say, Scary Movie? Does the handful of quality elements redeem it as a viewing experience? If so, is the movie still stupid? I never expect these big questions to spring up during Z-grade movies that make summer blockbusters look like Oscar contenders by comparison. But as Evil Ed used to say, "That's the point of a pop quiz, Brewster--to surprise you!"

*An anecdotal, rarely-seen collective known as "They".