Sometimes, we get so bogged down with titles here at SE&L that we can’t imagine ever getting through them all. Be it a summer weekend stuffed with possible blockbuster fare, or an awards season schedule that can frequently see as many as eight to ten screenings in a single work week, we do find ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed (isn’t that always the case). Still, in order to keep on top of the ever-changing media market, there will be times when we have to put in the extra effort, to go above and beyond a simple blurb banquet. Indeed, it appears it’s time for what will probably be a regular feature here at the PopMatters Film Blog - the Review-a-thon.
Over the next few days, we’re going to suck it up, put on our critical thinking cap, and bang out a bunch of opinions. Between now and Sunday, we will tackle Michael Moore’s new documentary, visit a classic rock icon as he showcases a forgotten album, take on another Dragon Dynasty martial arts epic, and maybe even experience an unnecessary sequel or two - and this on top of the films in focus for this week (26 September). With no real schedule for when the latest installment of this endurance test will arrive, you’ll need to check back regularly to see if we indeed make it. The list is ambitious, and a tad unwieldy. Still, as a test of mental mantle, we believe we’re up to the task.
In no particular order, here are the cinematic obstacles that await us:
God, who apparently obsesses on Bootsy Collins a little too much, has a problem in his afterworld corporate structure. Seems mortal souls are having a hard time giving up the non-holy ghost, and without available deadites to finagle into heavenly worker bees, the Omnipresent CEO is experiencing a heavy staff shortage. So he makes deals with potential pearly gate crashers: they help the living kill themselves and as casualty catalysts, they become a welcomed part of His Mothership Connection. The latest recruits, a couple of dead Chicago goombahs, agree to travel back down to the plane of reality to help Tex, a sick Stetson stick figure, kill video artist Leon DeWilde.
Seems our elongated doogie puncher despises this girly generator of must die TV and his pouty, bib overall wearing “canvas” stretcher Ray. Leon is obsessed with death, so much so that he Betamaxes anything in the throes of imminent mortality and calls it Jasper Johns. But even with anger just a rootin’ tootin’ to rage, our slender vittle just can’t seem to off the cathode offender. So it’s up to God’s goodfellas to use their skills at roller boogie and gay bashing to bring cow and party poke together for a final Brooklyn style wild west showdown. But who is the victim and who will be the victee…oh wait. Only Allah, and his Angels, knows for sure.
Meanwhile, in that addled bastion of otherworldly ethereality and make believe, also known as Hollywood, young actresses named Sin and Heaven just can’t seem to get a job offer…acting, that is. When a policeman stops our Miss Afterlife Paradise, it’s love at first ogle. Typical of getting out of a ticket, Heaven gets out of her blouse, and after a night on top of her cloud nine Valhalla, the oppressed officer becomes wildly possessive. He wants to marry Heaven, or at least take her home to “Momma.” But she wants to be a legitimate film star, even though she looks like a lemur and speaks like Perini Scleroso.
Hoping to land a much sought after audition with local “producer” Mr. Salacity, the girls primp and preen and practice their self-gratifying improvisation skills. But all Mr. S wants is a little slice of vice and a long hard night in the valleys of the kingdom of God. After a picnic debacle that leaves the lecherous S soaking in his own secretions, Mr. Big Shot now won’t give the always-willing women the time of day. So our beauties concoct a plan to kidnap the moviemaker and fornicate him into providing Equity cards. And all the while we learn that, apparently, the Bible is wrong. No matter if you are a rich or righteous dude, it’s pretty damn easy Getting into Heaven.
What in the name of nudity possessed Harry Novak, purveyor of rather solid soft-core sex farces and champion of the grind house grift, to release Angels? It’s not like it’s so blasphemous or teeming with Last Temptation tawdriness that churchgoers would line up simply to denounce its non-depravity. While the notion of angels as God’s private assassins may seem a little outrageous, there is never once a slanderous shot taken at Jehovah or his need for contractual hit men (or women). Maybe Harry thought that, with the advent of Sheilds and Yarnell and Doug Henning, the world was ready for a movie co-starring wistful, effeminate manboys, one of which specializes in the deadest of ancient arts—the pantomime. Really, there is nothing here for or by or to remotely engorge the well-worn exploitation enthusiast.
The scorecard of carnality is putrid. There is a half-topless shot thirty minutes into the narrative, and some completely under the cover horizontal handsprings at the forty-five minute mark. But the rest of the movie is like one big long inferred homosexual brain buster, since the film is chockfull of gay imagery, queer suppositions, and way too many sequences of well-muscled mime. Sure, this could all be chalked up to the mid-‘70s retreat into an “anything with anyone goes” attitude that seemed to welcome disco and its 54 feyness right through the velvet ropes. But the movie just makes no sense as a sellable item. It doesn’t have anything novel or naughty to say about how the Lord works, either in mysterious or (as in this case) monotonous ways. And the avant-garde art angle of exploring entities on videotape the moment before they die sounds like a bad dream Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once had.
Kind of like a bong hit version of Peeping Tom, Angels wants to say something cogent about accepting life after death via the Sony camcorder. Unfortunately, it does so with a Fire Island road company version of Godspell.
Getting into Heaven, on the other hand, gets its raunch and randy factors just right. While not a Novak product (with a title like that it really should be), simply repeating this movie’s marquee moniker will give you the gist, the grist, and the gravy of this seedy little sexcapade in a simple three word phrase. Then add the ample talents of one Uschi “Oh La La” Digart, and you’re in for a goofy delight that is funny as well as frisky. True, the male leads represent manliness at its most bereft of beefcake, but apparently it is easier to convince a paying audience of Everymen that hot babes would rotate their tires if the studs in seduction looked like feed store clerks. Still, there are also a many ribald reasons why Getting into Heaven really ratchets up the rug burns for the connoisseurs of curves.
While the notion of a full body snuggle with gallons of Vicks Vapo-rub seems a tad…how does one put this…mentholated?…the extended incident of Sin lathering up Heaven for a little “alternative” massage aromatherapy is guaranteed to enflame your sweetbreads and coldcock your bi-values. And when Uschi wants to, she can sell the sex act better than any standard, non-hardcore actress. Yes, she does occasionally look like a beaver in search of a good range of cedar to sink her choppers into, but more often she smolders with a fire down below burn that ignites the screen. It’s no wonder she is a darling of the exploitation genre. Aside from being built like a terracotta bulldozer, she can really pour on the pure joy of playing jock hockey.
Getting into Heaven may simply be 80+ minutes of simulated sex surrounded by cornball jokes and comic asides, but it meshes the two so effortlessly that you’ll laugh as much as you leer. And when Uschi is in your eyeline, everything is bound to get steamier.
Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim (is there ANYONE working in Hollywood who can truly stand toe to toe with the man responsible for so much masterful popcorn fare?), the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal.
Now he looks like garbage. The Happening, which hits theaters this weekend, is destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.
With a plot that’s premised on the end of the world, one would assume that Shyamalan’s vision of the Apocalypse would be a bit more - impressive? Having massive groups of people suddenly pause and play a fatal game of statues barely satisfies the genre mandates. We need to see social chaos, the breakdown of order, shock inducing spectacle, and the resulting death and destruction. Certainly we get some initial killings - the “virus” that attacks the Eastern seaboard of the US causes mass suicide - but aside from a sequence where a construction site becomes the place for a series of lemming-like leaps to the ground, all the throat cutting and wrist slashing seems anticlimactic and quite silly.
Even worse, Shyamalan goes with his ludicrous ideas and never once looks back. There are moments in this movie where characters are actually afraid of…wait for it…the wind. Not hurricane force gales mind you, or poison laden zephyrs. No, there is a calculated consensus on what is causing the “event” and so scientific theory (supported by Mark Walhberg’s high school teacher) maintains they make like scared rabbits whenever a light breeze blows by. In a narrative overloaded with seemingly unintentional laughs (our hero has a heart to heart with a plastic plant, The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” is channeled to prove someone’s “humanness”), Shyamalan saves the best/worst for last.
Betty Buckley, the brash Broadway diva who would be Patty LuPone if only she could muster up the same elephantine ego and sense of self, is a last act addition as a psychotic old lady loner who views the trio of survivors darkening her run down farmhouse door as nothing short of the Manson Family. She freaks out when they whisper behind her back (the subject of the conversation - how paranoid and peculiar she is) and ends up adding an American Gothic like gravitas to what is basically Food of the Gods for botanists. By the time our heroes head out into the open fields to face their hay fever styled fate, we are beside ourselves with laughter/spite. The tagged on ending in France only adds to our amuse/bemuse-ment.
Now, there are some who might suggest that this kind of material rarely succeeds. Trying to show how the standard human being buckles under pressure and predicates the destruction of its own existence en mass has forged some fine attempts (Stephen King’s Cell) and some abject failures (1985’s Warning Sign). Of course, you can extrapolate out the premise and come up with some clear cut classics. After all, everything from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Day Later is founded on the frightening prospect of people turning on each other - either for food or anger-inspired fun. True, The Happening is more about self-destruction, but there are still enough post-apocalyptic precepts involved in the story to suggest its placement within this category.
So within such a set up, why does The Happening stink so? Clearly, Shyamalan is one source of creative conjecture. We live in a hard-R macabre marketplace, so-called ‘torture porn’ teaching the fright fan that nothing satisfies like blood…and lots of it. Yet all the deaths in this movie are handled in an old fashioned, almost made-for-TV fashion. CSI offers visuals gorier than anything seen here (with the exception of a surreal man vs. lion showdown at the zoo). Even worse, Shyamalan forgets that threat is key to suspense. The characters must literally fear what will happen next - and we in turn must sympathize and identify with said sense of dread, less we disconnect from all the sequences of drawn out danger. The Happening, unfortunately, does none of this.
Oddly enough, this week also sees the release of the sensational indie effort The Signal. Unfairly slammed as being a rip-off of King’s aforementioned 2006 novel (anyone whose read the book and seen the film understand the glaring differences), this amazing movie, the work of three different directors, each one helming one act of the narrative, tells a tale of technology run amuck. When we first meet Mya, she is having an affair with Ben. He wants her to run away with him and escape her possessive husband. Typically, she can’t do that. So when she returns home to face his jealous accusations, it’s the standard post-modern kitchen sink dramatics - that is, until her spouse, Lewis, picks up a baseball bat and beats in the head of one of his friends. Soon, the whole city comes unglued, the citizenry randomly attacking and killing each other in extreme and very violent ways.
What we eventually learn is that a ‘signal’ buried inside all electronic appliances - TVs, phones, radios, etc. - is altering people’s brain chemistry. Tricking them into indulging in their worst, most primal desires, aggression and death rule the land. In the end, we follow Mya as she makes her way to a secret rendezvous, watch Ben as he tries to meet her, and see the cuckolded Lewis go on a rampage similar to such spree killing brethren as Jason Voorhees and Mike Myers. All the while, directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry mix enough humor and horror into the storyline to keep us laughing and leery, frequently at the same time. More importantly, they manage to out think and out imagine Shyamalan, someone noted for their thoughtfulness and inventiveness.
Indeed, The Signal slams The Happening down onto the ground and forces it to scream “Uncle”. Everything that Shyamalan gets wrong, Bruckner, Bush and Gentry absolutely excel at. Both movies take a similar narrative approach - tell a small story in such as way as to make it resonate within the larger scope of a Judgment Day dynamic. Each one uses a city setting to establish the terror, and then takes the concept inward. Each one features feuding couples (Walhberg and his woman - Zooey Deschanel - are having some minor marital strife) and both offer up innocent victims as fodder for mindless, murderous fiends.
So why does The Signal work whereas The Happening merely hobbles along? The answer starts in the realm of vision. Shyamalan may think he’s got a handle on his man vs. nature nuances, but to look at his film you’d never think the world was ending. It’s too bright and sunny, events occurring in open spaces with lots of light to illuminate the nonsense. It’s the reason the Buckley material stands out so. Even in a previous visit to an unoccupied home, our survivors appear dappled in well placed illumination. In Bruckner, Bush and Gentry’s world, everything turns tainted and dark. Hallways looks institutional and unkept, the streets of Atlanta (where the movie was made) as foreboding as any dystopian Hell.
Even better, our outsider filmmakers only had digital cameras and $50K to work with, so they had to be inventive in other areas. They use gallows humor and some surreal sequences of crackpot character interaction to soothe us over the rough spots. Shyamalan just manages to piss away over $57 million to make this future flop and everything about it feels redundant and forced. He’s not really doing anything different than what the makers of drive-in fare attempted back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Indeed, The Happening is one of those movies that goes a long, long, LONG way to achieve very, very little. At least The Signal sticks with its premise and doesn’t try to pontificate or change the dynamic into something akin to an environmentalist’s screed.
Yet it’s the notion of intent that probably best describes the reason for both film’s final assessment. Our trio, taken with the way in which humans act with their world wide wired habitat, never lets the populace off the hook. In The Signal, we are responsible for our technological addiction, and the fatal results of same. In The Happening, we appear as innocent victims to some incredibly cheesed off foliage. Clearly, based on how badly he bungles this film, M Night Shyamalan is not the next Spielberg. He’ll still work in today’s Hollywood, but whatever luster he had will be forever tarnished and severely tainted. Of course, he will probably consider himself a victim of a critical community incapable of containing its biased, jealousy based vitriol. In this case, the Fourth Estate is the least of his worries. Any audience member unlucky enough to see this movie may have their own Signal like reaction to what he has to offer.
Film may be a kind of international language, but sometimes, the true meaning of a movie definitely gets lost in the translation. Let’s face it - not every country gets its neighbor’s artistic temperament, and visa versa. The most constantly referenced and clichéd example of course is the French critical community’s abject adoration of Jerry Lewis. While Americans find him a goofy, often grating comic persona, Parisians palpitate over his high strung histrionics. Similarly, certain foreign film types fail to generate the same kind of response once they hit Western shores. The recent rash of J-Horror genre efforts proved Americans will only cotton to so much dark haired ghost girl gimmickry before turning back to blood and guts.
Yet leave it to the Turkish to take the piss out of the entire interpretative back and forth. Instead of embracing movies from around the world, they simply rip them off and remake them, sometimes shot for shot. From ‘60s TV series like Star Trek to modern spectacles like Spider-Man, the Turks can take any franchise or film and mirror it. A perfect example of this copycat creativity comes in the form of 1974’s demon possession do-over, Seytan. Yes, one year after William Friedkin set cinema on edge with The Exorcist, his ode to familial dysfunction, the generation gap, and extracurricular cruci-fixation, the Eurasian madmen of the far off country’s movie business concocted their own frightmare facsimile.
That’s right - the same story, the same narrative structure. Now, the first thing you have to remember upon visiting something like Seytan is that it definitely comes from a different spiritual realm. Friedkin and his film were labeled blasphemous by Church leaders who felt the film’s demonic possession storyline went too far. Turkey is a nation made up of 99.8% Muslim, so messing with Jesus or any other Christian symbol just doesn’t impress. So in Seytan, priests are now professionals, the sacred vs. the profane is set aside with religious imagery kept to a minimum. Islam is never really mentioned by name, nor is the Koran.
Other changes derive from the sovereign setting as well. Gone are the moments of icon defilement and movie business schmoozing. In their place are endless interior shots and hardbound copies of Satanic How-To manuals. And our little heroine no longer abuses herself with a cross. Instead, a strange curved amulet is the defiler of choice. Similarly, the last act exorcism is not really a battle between God and Devil. Instead, it plays more like a snotty little girl giving a group of poorly trained specialists a relatively hard time.
Yet in all other facets, Seytan seems to follow Friedkin’s original subtext to a fault. Many have marveled at The Exorcist‘s staying power, commenting on how unusual it is for a film with less than state of the art special effects (they were impressive in the ‘70s) and an overdeveloped philosophical foundation can still scare viewers some 35 years later. Of course, what many fail to see is the movie’s subtle cultural context. The Exorcist came out just as the War in Vietnam was reaching a crisis point. Young people all over America were taking to the streets to protest (it’s a situation that’s referenced in the film itself) while the conservative Establishment sat bewildered, wondering what had become of their children. The Exorcist provided an obvious answer - they must be under the influence of the mangoat himself.
Indeed, the entire underpinning of Friedkin’s film rests on actress Chris MacNeil (played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn) and the sudden, shocking change in the behavior of her teenage daughter Regan (Linda Blair). One minute, the adolescent is painting ceramics and giggling about her birthday. The next she’s channeling Beelzebub, peeing on the floor, and expectorating demonic bisque. It’s not a very subtle analogy, but then again, 1973 was not a very subtle time. But for audiences expecting a standard thriller, the notion of innocence violated, ambiguous metaphysical answers, unsure science, and a literal deus ex machina via a final leap of faith resonated like a Walter Cronkite commentary on the trusted CBS Evening News. While much of that makes little sense today, it was a shocker several decades ago.
Seytan sticks with the little girl unhinged ideal. Here, our pert adolescent Gül is Regan redux. She’s bright, chipper, inquisitive, and just a little precocious. Her doting mother (stripped of any career ambitions and left nameless throughout most of the movie) is not so much hapless as hindered by her gender. Many of the men she deals with - doctors, scientists, social workers - ignore her pleas and tend to take her insistences with a substantial grain of chauvinistic salt. Since special effects are less than plentiful in such foreign locales, heavy doses of green make-up supply the necessary Hellspawn glow, and when things really need to get dicey, straightforward camera tricks and old school sleight of hand is employed.
Director Metin Eriksan remains a leading light in the Turkish movie industry, He was an early agent provocateur who was required to go commercial when his country’s stern censorship started banning his more controversial works. Turning to horror and genre themes, he used the marginalized movie macabre to address themes of human frailty and loneliness. Seytan stands in sharp contrast with the rest of this filmmaker’s creative canon.
Indeed, one notes a definite sense of going through the motions here, specific blocking and compositions cribbed directly from Friedkin’s frightmare. Even worse, there are instances where Eriksan could have worked some subversive magic with this movie, adding some of the confrontational components of his previous efforts. Instead, we have moment by moment mimicry, complete with what appears to be actual lines of dialogue from the American original (apparently, screenwriter Yilmaz Tümtürk failed to fully understand the meaning of ‘adaptation’).
Since most bootleg versions of this film arrive sans subtitles, a lot of what Seytan has to say has to be inferred from what’s happening onscreen. Since it follows the original Exorcist fairly closely, recognizability helps with our comprehension. Gül goes through the same barrage of scientific tests, she gets the perfunctory psychological evaluation, both sides of the medical issue appear dumbfounded and clueless, and the last act arrival of our demon expert seems rather anticlimactic. When Max Von Sydow finally appears in The Exorcist, it’s like a date with destiny. In Seytan, the lack of a solid sacred subtext really puts the kibosh on the impact.
Something sinister can be read into the Turkish version of the film, a gender-mandated foundation that may be hard for Westerners to swallow. It is clear, when watching this adaptation, that women and their role within society are substantially downplayed. Gül is treated very badly, given little of the sympathy shown to Regan. Equally unsettling is how readily the entire situation is chalked up to female hysteria. While one has to read this into the onscreen actions, it’s clear that the men just don’t want to tolerate these emotionally high strung women. The bloated paternalism is present in every single frame.
This is one of the reasons why the chance to see a statement like Seytan is so enlightening - both culturally and entertainment wise. Most of the foreign films offered for US consumption tend to follow preconceived guidelines of subject acceptability. We like political drama, interpersonal intrigue, and the occasional bout of slapstick comedy. When you add in the genre efforts from Asia and the martial artistry of Hong Kong, the motion picture parameters are pretty well set. But because Seytan steps in and re-imagines one of our own classic contemporary films, it digs deeper beneath the social surface. In turn, it gives us a glimpse into a world (at least circa 1974) that we never would have seen otherwise.
From the opening archeological dig and bad papier mache demon statue to the dying mother subplot complete with a trip to the loony bin, Seytan is still all “Tubular Bells” and projectile vomiting. Some may see it as nothing more than a retarded rip-off and laugh at all the amateurish missteps. Others will look beneath the male-cenntric surface and see a sort of cinematic hate crime. But the truth remains that Seytan is nothing more than one country’s attempt to cash in on another culture’s social phenomenon. It’s clear that, in many cases, imitation remains the sincerest form of international filmmaking flattery. Sometimes, as in the case of Seytan, it can be a sure sign of creative cluelessness as well.
Darren Lynn Bousman is a man possessed. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is putting the final touches on his latest film, the man behind the Saw franchise’s successful sequels wants to get a message out. “Everyone talks about being sick of what’s out there - sick of the sequels. Sick of the PG-13 Japanese horror remakes,” he says. “They want originality. They want something different.” Enter his newest project - Repo: The Genetic Opera. A futuristic tale centering on designer organ transplants, post-apocalyptic corruption, and live on stage vivisection, the director is excited, and wary of his revamped rock show. “It’s been a hard thing - It’s been the biggest struggle of my life getting this movie made,” Bousman adds. From talking to the talented 29-year-old, it has also been his lifelong dream.
As a kid in Kansas, making horror movies was never his ambition. “Growing up, I came from a theater background”, he offers. “It was a classic story - I was a dork in high school, I really didn’t fit in anywhere.” As with most creative types, the stage set him free. “I got involved in theater,” he admits, “and everything changed.” After taking part in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Bousman’s was bitten - and his new goal was clear. “It was the first kind of experience into something creative - it was amazing and it changed my life…because I became addicted to the music.” Indeed, the notion that emotions and psychological underpinning could be expressed via song struck him as a vital and important epiphany.
“I think the thing about musicals is…if you look at music and what it does to you…or what it does to a society…it is the thing that it is crucial to our life.” He goes on to clarify, “Whether we’re working out and listening to our IPod, whether we’re in a car listening to music, or we go to parties and music is the backdrop, music is an extremely important component.” The link to motion pictures soon became clear when he watched the film version of Superstar in preparation for the play. “Movies are also important like that. I mean, what do we do on the weekends? We go see the new movies that opened on Friday night. When we go on dates, we watch movies.”
The effect was personal and profound. “I was immediately in love”, he recalls, “I watched (Superstar) again and again, and again and again. It was like…I had never seen anything like it.” Thus began a fascination, a fetish if you will, with the genre. It’s a joy that has quickly gone from appeal to an outright obsession. “I collect musicals now”, he adds, the glee in his voice rather obvious. “I have some of the most obscure things, things people have never heard of. Musicals from foreign countries…it’s just amazing.” So when the chance came to move out to Hollywood and begin his career, Bousman only had one ambition in mind.
“I got into the entertainment business to direct a musical”, he admits. “I didn’t come out here to do Saw. I didn’t come out here to do horror films.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, a script he was attached to entitled The Desperate got noticed by the studios as being very similar to the surprise Sundance hit, and soon he was collaborating with co-creator Leigh Whannel on the second installment of the influential terror title. Yet even after two more movies, the concept of directing a musical continued to intrigue him. “Music has always been a driving force in my life” the director confesses, “When a musical is done correctly, when you combine movie’s visuals with the music, it triggers emotions that are not normally felt. Music has the power to make people cry, to get excited.”
Oddly enough, when it came time to adapt Repo: The Genetic Opera into a feature film (it was originally a stage play, and then a 10 minute short film that functioned as kind of a resume reel), his previous success had no influence on studio interest. “I knew we had a great script”, Bousman points out, “and I knew music was going to elevate it to a whole other level and it was my chance to pay homage to the movies that I loved - Superstar, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Forbidden Zone.” Sadly, few would listen. “My present reputation didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.” It sounds almost surreal when you consider the success of his three Saw installment. “Me making this movie was like coming in as a first time filmmaker,” he laments. “Even today, it’s a constant battle to get this movie out there.”
In fact, with its unique premise and wall-to-wall singing (“That’s what it is - songs from beginning, middle to end” he explains), Bousman clearly anticipated some difficulty. “It’s not Saw. It’s not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s kind of a hybrid of all of my favorite moments from movies, or all my favorite types of movies.” Yet not even festival previews have earned the film a potential release date. “We did an early, early screening of it from a workprint cut about two months ago”, he states. “Every review has been glowing, and I’m so lucky and so excited that we’re able to do that, yet even the good reviews aren’t helping my cause right now.”
Some of this can be chalked up to the narrative. Repo centers on a dystopic society where a disease has caused a global plague of organ failures. Enter Geneco, a biotech company that takes advantage of the awful situation to provide transplants - at a price. Of course, those who fail to pay end up as part of the Genetic Opera, a stage show where the final act is the repossession of the unpaid entrails. Yet Bousman understands the inherent “weirdness” of the project, and believes that, if marketed correctly, it could find its audience. He recognizes the problems, though. “The way I like to describe Repo,” he says, “Someone tells you ‘let’s go to a steak restaurant’, and then they take you in and give you sushi. People are immediately going to be upset. They’re going to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t steak’ and they’re going to hate it.”
“I think right now, the problem with this movie is that people are thinking of it as meat and potatoes. It’s not. It’s sushi.” He adds, “I think the problem they are having is that they have to think outside of this box before they see this movie. Viewers have to go in knowing its going to be sushi.” Bousman tried to address some of the concern through casting. This, however, caused its own issues. “I had names thrown at me like (Jon) Bon Jovi, and Harry Connick Jr. a lot of names that are safe. And I said, ‘of course, that’s who you want me to cast’.” But the director would not relent. “That’s what normal people would do,” he argued. “But that’s not this movie. This movie is outside the box. And the casting reflects that.”
As part of his eclectic group, Bousman hired Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Bill Mosley, Anthony Head, and Alexa Vega. While the names may seem random, there was a strict method to the filmmaker’s madness. “The movie is crazy,” he explains, “and I wanted to make sure the casting was crazy as well.” He also took the inherent fanbase from each actor into consideration, from the classical diva-dom of Brightman to the outright media whoring of Hilton. He recognized that horror geeks would flock to see Mosley, while Sorvino offered the mainstream crime drama crowd. There was also the Spy Kids contingent - via Vega and Head’s undeniable Buffy link. The results speak for themselves, as Bousman states. “The casting in my mind could not be any more perfect. Each one of them is amazing in their roles.”
And this was important to Repo‘s success. “This movie had to have real cred. It was a major battle that we fought, credibility.” In fact, the director understood both the upside, and the downside, of going with such an idiosyncratic company. “If Bon Jovi had been brought in, first off, his audience is a very specific audience. And they are not going to respond to this type of movie.” By offering up a wide-ranging selection of known names, Bousman believes he’s kept potential audiences clued in. “(Repo) is such a spectacle. The movie is so out there. I wanted to make it a spectacle to watch as well.”
The unusual look of the film also played directly into this ideal. “It’s a cross between ‘50s propaganda art and a really twisted, macabre fairy tale,” he admits, “I love it. It’s dark and depressing.” But in keeping in line with the disinformation approach, Bousman made sure to tap into the form’s underlying ridiculousness. “There’s something so macabre about propaganda’s message,” he notes. “What it’s promoting is horrific, and yet you have a smiling person with a thumbs up on it.” Luckily, he found an old collaborator who agreed with this approach implicitly. “I wanted it to have a specific look. The DP (Director of Photography) - Joseph White - was amazing. He was the DP on one of my first short films and I was glad he could come back and do this.”
All of which feeds directly into Repo‘s into what Bousman views as the film’s undeniable relevance. “It’s very timely right now,” he points out. “I live in Los Angeles and when you walk down the street, no one looks like people anymore. They all look manufactured.” By applying the designer label pop culture crassness to people’s insides, as well as their outsides, the director feels his film offers a clear cautionary warning. “The whole thing is - people want perfection in the way they look. I do too,” he admits. “They are taking it to extremes now. No one wants to put in the work. And so Repo asks us to look at what we are doing to our bodies, manufacturing ourselves to meet some ridiculous standard.”
He points to a perfect illustration of this idea within the film itself. “Paris Hilton’s character is great. Her name is Amber Sweet and Amber is constantly undergoing some major plastic surgery procedure,” Bousman chuckles. “Every time we see her in the movie, she changes her appearance.” Again, the filmmaker is firm in his philosophy. “It’s about the absurdity of it all, and then what happens when we take it to the next level - manufacturing ourselves from the inside out,” he argues. “What happens if and when we can replace our heart, our lungs, our kidneys, our spines. What if we can replace our eyes. That’s what it is. It’s happening right now. Every time you go outside and walk down Rodeo Drive, people are looking more and more absurd.”
Yet even with a surreal if saleable cast and a very contemporary set-up, Repo sits, awaiting a release. For his part, Bousman is confused by the delays, “It’s not what’s in theaters now,” he states, “Repo is that thing that everyone’s been craving. It’s ballsy. It’s risky. And it will never find an audience unless the studios are willing to embrace it as different.” By starting a new, amazingly dense website (Click Here), by getting out and giving interviews and making personal appearances, he hopes a grass roots effort can build up around the film, a calculated cult that will show the suits a need for wider distribution.
But there’s a catch. “You cannot compare it, it is physically impossible,” Bousman argues. “Again, this isn’t Saw. I dare you to compare it to another movie.” He also knows that “unique is not necessary marketable.“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done three sequels back to back to back.” He goes on to add: “And my next movie after this is a remake. This is my rebellion, my chance to do something completely different. If you give the audience something different, they will find it and they will embrace it. They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They don’t want to be shoveled the same cookie cutter machine made movies.”
And thus, the current call out and passionate product pitches. Bousman, however, definitely realizes what he’s up against. “Repo‘s a hard pill to swallow. It takes a good fifteen minutes for you to understand. There is no talking. There is no spoken dialogue in this movie,” he explains. But he hopes that, by getting the word out, he can convince those in charge to give the film a chance. “My goal right now is to inform people of what the movie is, because you need to know what it is prior to going in and seeing it,” he points out. “The reason we did it was to start informing people about what the movie is they are going to see. You can’t go into this movie blind. It will fail.”