[14 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sex and violence. Paraphrasing Homer Simpson (regarding his favorite vice, alcohol), they are the reason for, and the cure to, all the problems in the world. We adore a bit of the old in-out, and in keeping with the Clockwork Orange mantras, we also enjoy a bit of the old ultra-v as well (Ludwig Van, on the other hand, is a bit more of an acquired taste). Mediums which concentrate on such significant social pariahs either disappear under a mountain of moralizing, or soar to the top of the charts on waves of wanton excess. So something like Lucky Bastard should be a bit of a home run, right? It’s basically the story of a serial killer running wild on an online porn site. There’s only one thing that keeps it from being a brazen b-movie masterwork and it’s an idea with a shelf life that’s long since expired.
We know it as ‘found footage’, or put another way, The Blair Witch Problem. That’s right, the whole first person POV you are there directing dynamic that’s been DOA since demon babies and power couples started experimenting with its creative limitations is back, again, though no one was asking for it. Nothing says “desperation” more quickly than the use of such a gimmick. Fortunately for us viewers tired of seeing amateurs run around shaking the camera like they have personal problem, Lucky Bastard is a bit different. A bit. Since we are dealing with an Internet smut situation, we’ve got dozens of surveillance cameras to work with. They do almost all the heavy lifting, leaving filmmaker Robert Nathan and his DP some minor room to roam around and get jittery.
The set-up for this movie is so simple that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before. A porn site offers a show called Lucky Bastard which gives select fans the opportunity to have sex with their favorite adult film stars. Naturally, a cameraman follows around the eager winner, with overseer Mike (Don McManus) making sure that “everything is filmed”. Into this particular McMansion location walks Dave (Jay Paulson), an odd duck with a sob backstory and a bit of a thing for XXX starlet Ashley (Betsy Rue). She senses something is not right with this dude. Besides, she wants nothing to do with the whole Bastard thing in the first place. Mike just wants his money’s worth. Of course, performance anxiety rears its ugly head, forcing our mark to go maniac. Indeed, Dave turns out to be a raving psychopath bent on bringing down this haughty harlot and the men who embarrassed him online.
Earning its NC-17 rating in the raunch department and laced with some interesting ideas about gender politics and the whole Internet-enabled 15 minutes of fame, Lucky Bastard is one sick treat. It’s not going to win over the devout horror fan (the last act killing spree is interesting, if not at all visceral) and for those who like their humping hardcore, the simulated schtupping here is hardly pro biology. Yet because of the premise, because of the prevalence of such similarly oriented sites in real life, Lucky Bastard becomes a surreal social commentary with added jabs at the whole “reality TV’ tendencies of the media. Mark and his gang only want “good video.” They will even make it up if they have to. Ashley recognizes that there’s money in mocking her flesh-based fanbase. In fact, it seems like the entire situation is set-up solely to humiliate the guys who agree to take part. In that case, Dave is less a Jason Voorhees and more an avenging angel.
Of course, there’s some hard spots to get over, the primary one being a wholly unnecessary rape sequence. We already understand the dynamic at play here, but director/co-writer Robert Nathan wants to push it to unsettling extremes. It’s more sickening than insightful. Second, we are supposed to believe that no one calls the cops once “Dave” goes bonkers. It seems that even the viewers at home would want to protect their favorite porn franchise and alert the authorities as to what is going on. Of course, the movie maneuvers around this by arguing that what we are seeing happened over several days and the footage was just “found” now. Finally, the ending is a bit of a letdown. Nathan and his co-writer Lukas Kendall decide to show it to us first, therefore lessening the impact of the gruesome repercussions of the eventual slice and dice.
On the other hand, the actors are all excellent. Don McManus offers up the right amount of sleaze as the mastermind behind his wXwXwX empire. He’s got the gift of gab and frequently uses it with his occasionally uncooperative ladies. Ms. Rue is also very good, delivering her lines like someone who spends too make time on her back to earn her living. When she becomes the target of the title terror, we really do sympathize with her. But it’s Jay Paulson who turns in a terrific performance as the mild mannered dork who turns deadly. He’s not a classic killer ala Leatherface or Freddy, but when he decides to get his murder on, he’s horrifying in his determination. Even within the obvious fakeness of the found footage ideal, the cast makes us care about what happens here.
Still, that doesn’t explain away Lucky Bastard‘s misgivings. It’s not perfect, and often feels overly amateurish and unpolished. Granted, this is supposed to be a fly by night porn site, but does the filmmaking have to be so flat and featureless. Again, this may be the point of using the whole Blair Witch ideal, but instead of infusing the film with creative novelty, such an approach robs it of much of its potential power. With a terrific idea like this, Nathan had to do something more radical - like, perhaps, stage the film as a “real” web broadcast, asking viewers to film their reactions as they watched? Or maybe go full Burkittsville and try and convince us that what we are seeing really did happen. Maybe he thought sex and violence was enough to sell his vision to viewers. Had he tried a bit harder, Lucky Bastard would have been a classic, instead of a clever if sometimes contrived creepshow.