Stars: David Naughton, Brian O’Halloran, Gerry Bednob, Gunnar Hansen, Ellen Sandweiss, Vincent Butta and Ken Foree
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He’s Harry Penderecki, a director of horror movies who had one huge hit but has been struggling to find a successful follow-up. His career has continued unabated, but the outrageous titles he’s been churning out only seem to be successful in generating controversy. Bowel Movement, in particular, features characters who eat gunpowder and blow themselves up, and Retirement Home follows someone who dresses up as the Grim Reaper and leaps out of closets to scare old people to death. It isn’t just the content of the films that’s controversial; a fan was killed imitating a stunt from Teasing a Gorilla and someone seems to have died on every film Penderecki’s made. The opening scene at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, at which he appears with Mick Garris on a panel and gets every question, shows that he does have die hard fans, but critics despise his work and potential investors aren’t interested. ‘Everything was going fine, until they insisted on reading the script,’ he tells Bert Campbell, who’s filming a documentary about him.
If this sounds remotely familiar as a concept, you won’t be too surprised to find that it follows the This is Spinal Tap formula relatively closely, with a formerly important artist finding himself much lower on the artistic ladder than he’d comfortably admit but with the possibility of a major resurgence if he can only get his next project right. In comes a documentarian to chronicle how well it goes, but of course he finds himself suffering every setback in the book, from bad planning to bad luck, via bad karma. The result is not of the same quality as Spinal Tap, which is justly one of the all time classics, but it may well be the second best mockumentary I’ve ever seen. Like its mentor, it has a glorious sense of humour that pours out of its characters and both large and small details. Perhaps one reason why this isn’t better known is that some of these jokes are subtle indeed and, given how quickly some of them arrive, they’re easy to miss. ‘You think Apocalypse Now was a walk in the park?’ Penderecki asks Campbell. ‘Ask Scorsese.’
Harry Penderecki is a great character and David Naughton has a lot of fun playing him. He’s a construct of contrasts: an enthusiastic child and an embittered veteran, an arrogant man in charge and a coward who can’t face another flop, a driven filmmaker and a tired man. He’s one of those people who seem to be happy a lot of the time but whose happiness hides layer upon layer of sadness. Of course, he has no concept of money, like most filmmakers. He has an innate fear of dying in his sleep. In many ways, he’s the quintessential madman, passing for sane reasonably well at the outset but gradually losing it as the shoot gets completely out of hand; we wonder less about whether he’ll do something crazy by the end and more about what it’ll be. Yet, if he’s the killer in a stereotypical horror movie, he’s also the victim: a scene late in the film has him alternately threatening and pleading as if he can’t figure out which of the two is stronger within him. As they say, you don’t have to be mad to direct a movie but it helps.
If Naughton is the overt star of the film, Stevan Mena surely comes close, even more as the scriptwriter than the director. The writing here is not entirely consistent, because he veers away at points from the believably true (but funny) scenes to include believably true (but emotional) scenes, as if he knew this had to be a comedy but wanted to make it a drama and slipped a few of his favourite serious scenes in for good measure. One of the funniest moments I can recall in film is the one where Penderecki, after a screaming match with his lead actor about all the comforts of home that cannot be found in the remote location in which they’re filming, hurls out the standard Hollywood line, ‘You’ll never work in this town again,’ only to hear back the very appropriate, ‘Good!’ It’s not the most original line ever (this may not actually be the first time I’ve heard it) but it’s so perfect for this moment that I split up laughing. There are a number of other moments that stand out here too, but I don’t want to spoil them all.
If there aren’t enough reasons why this would play better to filmmakers and knowledgeable genre fans than a regular audience, the cast surely counts as another. A viewer who doesn’t have a background in horror movies might not recognise anyone here, except perhaps Brian O’Halloran, the assistant director, who many will know from Kevin Smith movies such as Clerks. However, genre aficionados will recognise quite a few folk, not least the three major names I’ve mentioned already: Naughton, from An American Werewolf in London, Hansen, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Foree, from Dawn of the Dead. I also mentioned Mick Garris, the creator of Masters of Horror and the director of a whole slew of Stephen King adaptations, but he only plays himself in a small silent role. A little more obscure, Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker are unrecognisable because we only know them from The Evil Dead. Both are so good here that we wonder why neither acted again for a quarter of a century.
Baker is especially good as Gladys Oppenheimer, the casting director, and she succeeds in many of the same ways that Naughton does, such as little facial movements to build her character. Oppenheimer is far shorter on hope than Penderecki, though, stuck in a job where she has to work with idiots and really doesn’t want to any more. Sandweiss gets a more prominent and vocal role as the production manager. She’s a tough cookie and she’s sharp too, but she has to deal with all the inevitable crap and so spends most of her time shouting at people. She does do more than that, which leads to an unintended pun in the previous sentence that you won’t understand until you see the film. They’re merely two supporting characters of many here, this being very much an ensemble performance. I didn’t know Gerry Bednob before this film, but he’s a blast as Hanu Vindepeshs, the Indian DP with a temper. Gunnar Hansen still dominates, though, with lines like, ‘I was in the Nam, pussy fart. I’ll twist your head off and go bowling.’