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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Dead Enders (2010)

Director: Paul C Hemmes
Stars: Christie Collins, Seth Gandrud, Juan Marquez, Michelle Pentecost, Joaquin 'Jack' Martelli, Keith R Wilson, David Galaviz, Jimmy Flowers, Damon Foster and Matthew Ellingsen
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Dead Enders is hamstrung from moment one. with errors in the opening quote and on the back cover of the DVD, the front of which hawks the soundtrack over the film itself. The resolution isn't particularly strong either, though that may be the R Squared disc rather than the film itself, given that the trailers look as bad and I've seen and loved one of those features. Fortunately what we actually see is a lot better, packed full of enticing imagery that invites speculation as to how it will all connect: a workshop full of torture devices, a shackled man kissing a scorpion, a woman taking off her wig in front of a boarded up door. The man is confined underground, in some sort of hidden dungeon, surrounded by mud, stone and fire, not that he notices any of that; he's clearly there in body only. 'You could have kissed me like that when you had the chance,' the woman suggests; he only reacts when she smothers him to death with a plastic bag. Upstairs, she rocks a cradle.

This footage that precedes the opening credits is a fair pointer to the film as a whole. The budget is clearly somewhere between low and nonexistent, the setups aren't entirely believable and the sound could easily be better. However the visuals are interesting and continually inventive, so we keep paying attention, if only to see what writer/director Paul C Hemmes will conjure up next. This sort of approach is not going to be for everyone and it doesn't surprise me that the two reviews at IMDb are precise opposites: out of ten, these reviewers gave it a one and a ten respectively. I can easily see people giving up during the second scene, as our leading lady, back in her blonde wig, comes on to a couple of guys in a bar. Jack thinks she's hot, while Robert thinks she's creepy and she quickly turns out to be both, as she chloroforms them and whisks Robert back to her lair. The logic here is stretched, to say the least, but it does set up the off kilter oddness well.

And that's where this movie goes with a vengeance. Robert wakes up in a barred wooden cage inside her dungeon, gagged and manacled, his fellow prisoner a baby clown doll. His captor, now in a red wig, kinky latex and huge boots, acts more like his host than his tormentor, apparently less interested in the torture porn we half expect and more interested in introducing him to Max, a mummified corpse in a frilled violet shirt. 'I don't understand,' he tells her, which is something of an understatement, but she obviously works with her own laws of logic. 'You're one of us now,' she explains to him, not asking his name but dubbing him Larry because she apparently thinks he looks like one. Talk about disconcerting! Yet the only actual violence he faces is when she fondles a saw that's hanging from the ceiling and then licks the blood off her hand. It must be difficult to experience. At least pain is something palpable, but Robert has no clue what this is.
Thus far, we have a cute but creepy chick who seems to inhabit a world of her own, a befuddled prisoner who remains surprisingly calm and controlled, a few varied but usually silent co-stars and a jumbo sized basket of freaky weirdness. It's odd to find a microbudget movie which appears to be style over substance, but that's the tone that this quickly establishes and it builds on it as the film runs on. The camera dances in and out of Robert's cage and, because it can't move too much inside it, rotates instead to mirror his ample confusion. The costumes are cool, the sets are cool, the props are cool. The freakiness factor is high and continues to ratchet upwards. The editing varies in quality, but always aids the bizarre feel. The story is clearly wondering if it should show up at any point and the acting talent is waiting for it to arrive. We're not sure exactly what we're watching at this point, to the degree that we're can't even tell if it's dream or nightmare.

Christie Collins is note perfect as Sydney, a chick with more than a few screws loose. While the opening credits list a whole slew of actors, many of whom I know, most of them have little to do. This film belongs to Collins, absolutely, and it's hard to imagine anyone stealing it away from her. She's half Siouxsie Sioux and half Bonnie Tyler, which is something of an enticing combination, especially as her look changes as often as the wind (or her personality). As if she's truly dream rather than flesh, she doesn't even appear to have a consistent age, looking older in some scenes than others. Her character is a great big question mark, as she's quite clearly off her rocker but somehow able to approach rationality consistently enough to apparently hold down a day job, returning home each night to inhabit this realm of her broken mind. At least that's the impression that we're given. Who knows if that's real or just another manifestation of her craziness?

The question here is really about how much substance is going to turn up and we're never quite sure. The freakiness builds well for twenty minutes, but then drags for ten as Sydney makes way for Robert. Perhaps that's entirely appropriate, as we have no idea how long he's been imprisoned or whether his sanity remains in place throughout the experience. It's apparently long enough for him to start hallucinating but short enough for him to not need bathroom breaks. Generally, he's as rational as she's completely batshit insane, though I'm not sure if his trying to reason with this crazy woman really suggests sanity. Robert's grounding provides a strong reflection of Sydney's delusions, but it inevitably makes Seth Gandrud less interesting to us than Christie Collins. After that creepy build, his attempts to escape end up dragging because he's the only character in the scenes. They spark up only when Sydney returns to the screen with a sledgehammer.
For every point Dead Enders loses for its lack of coherent plot progression, infuriatingly slow pace and frequent absence of conventional elements like dialogue and sense of time and place, it gains one back for its dreamlike insanity. Sydney doesn't keep prisoners to torture, torment or ransom; she keeps them out of bizarre romantic notions. Dead Enders are apparently people who believe that they can be together in eternity. 'That's love,' she says. 'Can you imagine it?' Perhaps if you have multiple personalities who come together only to obsess over Romeo and Juliet or you hang out with gothic Japanese schoolgirls with romantic suicide fetishes, you might be able to imagine it, but I think most of us would have problems. The greatest achievement of Collins and Hemmes here is to make us almost get there. They submerge us in their world, prisoners like Robert, so all we know is one room, one woman and her craziness. We almost contract Stockholm Syndrome.

I really can't praise Dead Enders on many traditional fronts: it's a slow, confusing and constrictive experience. It's a gimme that many people will hate it and most of them won't get too far into it. However, those who persevere will end up experiencing something utterly different from anything they're likely to have seen before. It's less of a story based picture and more of a tone poem that achieves on feel rather than plot. The hero isn't remotely like a traditional hero; he spends almost the entire film as a failure, not only as a prisoner but a victim of his own compassion, consistently failing to do what he needs to in order to survive. The villain is even less like a traditional villain, a lunatic who elicits more sympathy from us than should ever have been possible. It's rather telling that we feel more for the villain than the hero; even her necrophilia scene turns out to be romantic and she does at least appear to have a purpose, however twisted.

This is such a visual film that, even while watching the first time, I wondered how it would all play out without sound. It wouldn't seem to be a hardship to lose the plot, as there's so little of it, but all the quirky weirdness should remain intact: the odd camera angles, the frequent costume changes, the freaky interplay between characters. So I tried it out and found that the experience was just as hallucinatory. With very little in the way of sex and violence to raise parental concern, it ought to work as the silent backing to a Hallowe'en party. Christie Collins, who owns the film and is rarely off screen, does well with her dialogue, but she submerges herself so far into her character that she speaks to us through visuals alone. Add in the bare chested Seth Gandrud in a cage and the assorted weirdness that unfolds around them and I'd expect eyeballs to find themselves drawn to her and her creepy tone poem. It may not be what Hemmes aimed for, but it's what he achieved.

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