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Sunday, 26 September 2010

All About Evil (2010)

Director: Joshua Grannell
Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Cassandra Peterson, Mink Stole, Jack Donner, Noah Segan, Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey and Thomas Dekker

I have to admit I was rather intrigued by All About Evil, a horror movie written and directed by a drag queen. On one hand I tried to think of a single instance of a drag queen in a horror movie, let alone behind one, and I came up empty. On the other hand I'm well aware that the campiness inherent in so many horror films originated with filmmakers who were gay men, as far back as James Whale, who directed a number of the classic Universal monster movies, including what is probably the best of them all, Bride of Frankenstein. I have no idea whether the filmmakers who took that campiness through the generations, to the Corman/Price Poe movies or even the slasher movies of the eighties, were gay too. By then it probably didn't matter, camp being just another established tool in the horror genre toolbox. But what would drag queen Peaches Christ, also a midnight movie hostess of long standing, bring to the mix? I was fascinated to find out.

I expected campiness, in spades, and it was there, of course, some parts deliciously overplayed with deliberate intent, most obviously that of Natasha Lyonne as the lead diva, Deborah Tennis. The title, a nod to the Bette Davis classic All About Eve, suggested wordplay, especially as there were many posters in the lobby for fictional Deborah Tennis shorts: MacDeath, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein and I Know Why the Caged Girl Screams being personal favourites. Sure enough, the puns were everywhere, serving as a constant and consistent delight in this picture, lowest form of wit or not, and it'll be no surprise to discover that the follow up is to be titled The Three Faces of Evil. Most of all, I expected drama, bitchy histrionics, real gay stereotype stuff. I was expecting the sort of horror movie I might imagine a pre-Hairspray John Waters might have directed, not least because Mink Stole, a frequent collaborator, had a part. Here I was surprised.

I was surprised in two ways. One was that while there's certainly a huge Waters influence, some scenes shot exactly how he would shoot them, it's far from the only one. After the show, Peaches listed her influences as Ted V Mikels, Doris Wishman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, but I couldn't get Roger Corman out of my mind. To me, this felt far more like a Waters version of A Bucket of Blood than of The Corpse Grinders. The other was that the drama mostly happened before the movie rather than in it, for a while relegating the film itself to something of an afterthought. This was the Peaches Christ Experience in 4D, after all, 4D meaning that she might just sit in your lap during the show and steal your popcorn. Certainly the best words are 'experience' and 'show', as we were treated to musical numbers, video introductions and a whole host of local drag queens as classic movie monsters. In a nod to William Castle, we were also given cups for our poison.

This was a whole new experience for me. Even though All About Evil was a sold out screening at the local movie theatre I frequent, MADCAP Theatres in Tempe, I didn't recognise many of the audience. Beyond the regular folks who were there to present, screen or interview, or perhaps to dress up in drag, there was us and John. He didn't even think we'd show up, as if it wasn't likely to be our scene. I hadn't thought of it as a scene, merely a horror movie with a different angle, but perhaps that's precisely what it was. I didn't even see many Rocky Horror locals, but perhaps they just look different with their clothes on. Regardless, the film itself would play just as well to a straight crowd as a gay one, being real old school horror, though the showmanship beforehand probably wouldn't. Then again, I only felt mildly out of place as one of the few heterosexual men in the audience, albeit one in a kilt. My voice hadn't raised an octave by the time we left.
Somehow we made it through the pre-show entertainment to the actual movie, which is why we were there, of course. Having seen how much effort many members of the audience had put into the pre-show, I wondered if they gave a monkey's about the film itself, but everyone stayed and everyone enjoyed. It's a movie set at a movie house, hardly surprising for Joshua Grannell's first feature, as he ran the Bridge Theater in San Francisco for many years and for twelve of them his drag alter ego, Peaches Christ, hosted a midnight movie series there called Midnight Mass. All set to shoot at the Bridge, which had closed down, he had to shift elsewhere at the last minute, so All About Evil is set at the Victoria Theatre, the oldest operating theatre in the city, a hundred years young in 2008. It was previously seen in the 1973 Walter Matthau thriller, The Laughing Policeman, but that film is now likely to take second place for tourists after this one.

We begin in 1984 as Walter Tennis, the owner of the Victoria, is putting on a kiddie matinee of The Wizard of Oz, hardly an accidental choice for this film. His daughter Debbie comes out on stage to sing, because daddy says she has 'star quality', something she patently doesn't have. The audience remain surprisingly polite, until she pees on the badly earthed microphone cables and electrocutes herself on stage. Walter is horrified but Mommie Dearest, suitably attired as the Wicked Bitch, sorry, Witch of the West, just stands in the wings and laughs her ass off. Yes, the John Waters influence is apparent from moment one, but the credits soon widen the scope, as they unfold as a delightful set of redesigned classic horror posters, all amazing colossal men and wasp women. There are more great posters in this film than any other I can think of, excluding documentaries, and I can only hope that they're reprints as many were pinned onto walls.

Ten years later, Debbie is a dowdy librarian at the San Francisco Public Library when her father dies and she inherits the Victoria Theatre, split fifty/fifty with her mother. She loves the idea of taking over the place and showing all her favourite horror flicks, even though Evelyn, the head librarian, doesn't want to lose her, suggesting, 'They're not real movies!' Debbie shows a hint of that star quality by bursting into tears and sobbing, 'The show must go on!' And it certainly does, even when she's working the snack bar with a Bride of Frankenstein streak in her hair and her mother tries to bully her into selling out to a real estate developer. Debbie may be a mousy little thing but she stabs her mother to death with the very pen she wants her to sign away the place with. They are showing Blood Feast that night, after all. I'm surprised she doesn't rip her tongue out afterwards, but she just heads upstairs in a daze to start the film because Mr Twigs is late.

Mr Twigs has put in forty years as the Victoria's projectionist and he hates Tammy Tennis too, so he's happy when he arrives back to find her bloody corpse in the lobby and Debbie screening the CCTV footage of the murder by mistake. 'Attagirl!' he cries as the audience applaud. He seizes the moment and announces that what they've just seen is a new short film made in honour of Walter Tennis. He also cleans up the mess, dumping Tammy's body in the theatre's attic and we're neatly set for the rest of the script. 'More to come!' explains Debbie after Blood Feast and she isn't kidding. The only question is how she's going to be able to reprise the performance, as her mother can only die once. She needs fresh victims. Fortunately the subtexts of All About Evil speak to how moviegoers want to believe what's on the screen and how 'the audience is always rooting for the killer,' so the audience builds and she gets the victims she needs.
Natasha Lyonne plays the lead, initially as a subdued Debbie Tennis but, once she discovers the limelight and taps into that star quality, as an outrageous diva called Deborah Tennis (to rhyme with 'torah' and 'fleece'). She's no stranger to camp theatrics, having appeared in Die, Mommie, Die!, the screen adaptation of Charles Busch's stage play in which he played the twin leading ladies in drag. Most successful in quirky indie roles, she's perfect for this one. Julie Caitlin Brown, perhaps best known for her recurring role on Babylon 5, is suitably bitchy as her mother Tammy but it's Jack Donner who steals these early scenes as Mr Twigs. Immensely experienced, with roles from Star Trek to General Hospital, from Retro Puppet Master to The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, he starts out very much like Vincent Price but soon starts channelling John Carradine. While Debbie may have lost her mind, Mr Twigs knows exactly what he's doing and he relishes it.

There are many other names here to cherish. Thomas Dekker, who played John Connor in the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, is Steven, the Victoria's oldest, most devoted fan, even though he's still in school. He loves these new shorts that Deborah makes and, even though just knowing this new local filmmaker makes him suddenly attractive to the cool kids, he finds himself falling in love with her, just something else for his long suffering single mother to fail to understand. 'I think I'm in love with an older woman,' he tells her and she glances up at the Elvira poster hanging above his bed. She's Cassandra Peterson, who may be hot in the Elvira costume but even more so out of it. She's an amazing 59 to Dekker's 22, given that, if anything, she looks too young to be his screen mother. I really liked the relationship between Steven and his mum, broken but caring, a solid counter to the increasing theatrics of Deborah Tennis.

To make a growing number of short films, all with outrageous punning titles like The Maiming of the Shrew, The Scarlet Leper and The Slasher in the Rye, Deborah finds that she needs a crew. She learned that the hard way while enticing a self titled gore gore girl into the basement after a screening so that Mr Twigs can attack her with an axe and a movie camera. Kat Turner makes a fine topless scream queen (and if this isn't a commentary on the inevitability of scream queens getting topless and screaming then it's a plot hole of a scene), but her death by guillotine turns through necessity into A Tale of Two Severed Titties, which is pretty self explanatory. So, back in John Waters territory, she recruits a team. Noah Segan plays Adrian like Crispin Glover would, discovered in an alley beating an old woman with her own cane for her furs. Veda and Vera, deliciously evil twins played by Jade and Nikita Ramsey, are sprung from a lunatic asylum.

That leaves Mink Stole, who plays Evelyn the head librarian, suffering a grisly demise for telling people to shh all the time. She's the first victim of the whole crew and she still causes problems for them. I find it truly amazing that Joshua Grannell pulled off these scenes, which are capably shot, because he was severely limited himself, by both budget and experience. Scenes like the one where Evelyn's lips are sewn shut (it can't be a spoiler if it's on the poster) were shot in one take, with two cameras and effects provided for free by French make up wizard Aurora Bergere. 'Every single department took the little amount of money that they had,' Grannell has said, 'and stretched it to the limit. All of them were looking at us like, 'Are you kidding? We're not miracle workers.' And I was like, 'Yes, you are. You can do it!'' Admittedly expecting an old school John Waters indie flick, I was amazed at the production values here.
I was also amazed at how much depth there was to his debut script. Presumably honing his art on short films that I need to watch like Season of the Troll, A Nightmare on Castro Street and Whatever Happened to Peaches Christ?, not to mention the new one, Children of the Popcorn, Peaches somehow provides us with both surface and depth. There are all the things we expect from a horror movie, not just boobs and gore but many great lines as well, all easy on the eye and ear and setting up All About Evil to be something of a cult hit. Yet behind the fun there are serious comments to be found. What can be done to save these one screen theatres in a world of Netflix and on demand movies? What does rooting for the killer really mean? How much do we want to escape into the worlds filmmakers give us? If audiences bought Avatar, perhaps they would buy into seeing local missing persons murdered on screen and not connect the dots.

It's obvious from moment one who the villain of the piece is because we watch her do the deed, however much we may be on her side. Yet as the bodies mount, she isn't the chief suspect. Poor Steven, horror film nut who wants to go into animation for a living, is continually misunderstood. His teacher catches him drawing outrageous pictures in class, so assumes he's some sort of sick terrorist type to be watched closely before the school turns into another Columbine. When the popular girl he takes to see one of Deborah's new shorts mysteriously vanishes, he's the obvious suspect. What this tells us is that the same questions about audiences buying into the movies they watch are applicable in real life. How much do people want to believe what they believe in any environment? How much does Steven's teacher really want him to be some psycho nutjob? It would get her on the news, right? She could say that she told everyone so...

And so we can watch this on pretty much any level we choose. We can watch it for the delicious and outrageous gore story. We can watch it for the black comedy that pervades the picture from beginning to end. We can watch it for the posters which crop up everywhere and wish we lived close enough to the Victoria Theatre to be able to go see Blood Orgy of the She Devils and The Brain That Wouldn't Die on the big screen. We can watch it for the nuanced acting of Cassandra Peterson, the diva posturing of Natasha Lyonne or the camp theatrics of Jack Donner. We can watch it for the fact that the nerd of the story is the hero and the faux girlfriend who talks bad about him on her cellphone while stood next to him promptly gets murdered. We can even watch it for the social commentary if we want, but that's far more likely to filter through over time. This is definitely a film to come back to and I'd love to see Elvira do it on her new show.

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