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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Gimme Skelter (2007)

Director: Scott Phillips
Stars: Mark Chavez, Billy Garberina, Jillian Parry, Ashley Bryce, Trent Haaga, Jaymi Lynn McNulty, Kurly Tlapoyawa, Sarah Turner and Gunnar Hansen
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
This weekend we lost Gunnar Hansen, a legend in the horror community from the moment he first put on the mask of Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If anything, the fact that he left that iconic performance to break away from acting, mostly to write books, underlined just how much of a presence he had in that film; he only made one other picture in fourteen years, so there was nothing to weaken it. By the time he returned, for Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, he was a different actor and movies like Repligator weren’t going to get noticed anyway. When I asked him to pluck two films from his career for me to review in my Make It a Double project, he picked those that he made in 2007, remembering that they were both enjoyable little pictures; I guess I’ll have to leave Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre for another project! This was the first of the pair, a low budget slasher movie by Scott Phillips, who had made a minor name for himself with a lower budget zombie comedy, The Stink of Flesh, two years earlier.

It starts out pretty well. ‘Calver Weems, you are a bad man,’ says a driver as he heads into Jimmy Regal’s. The music’s good, the sound isn’t and the girls are naked. The one who talks him into a lapdance is pretty and, while we’re set up to believe that he’s getting ready to kill her, she beats him to the punch. Well, the slash. She takes him down with a knife in a violent, bloody and unexpected attack. And we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet! Fortunately the poor sound improves but what’s really weird is that the film that unfolds isn’t even remotely what we might expect it to be, whether our expectations come from the title, the DVD cover or that opening sequence. It’s not even really a horror movie, as soaked in blood as it becomes at times and as grounded as it is in serial killer lore. It’s really a small town character study where those small town characters just happen to be the targets of a young man who believes himself, or at least purports himself, to be the bastard son of Charlie Manson, eager to make his daddy notice him.

This small town is Banion’s Cross, NM, population 67. Of course everyone knows each other and everyone hates the presence of that strip joint 24 miles away, by the highway. There’s no cellphone service in town and only the local whore has internet. She can’t be doing too much business, especially as she has to pay her landlord in sexual favours. That’s Gunnar Hansen as Porter Sandford, and he may be the only guy in town who’s making bank, but he’s too busy attempting to talk his daughter Kelly, in the form of his niece Kristin, out of leaving town. Banion’s Cross is the sort of sleepy place where everyone talks about leaving but nobody ever quite manages to get round to it. Kelly doesn’t either, but not for that reason, of course. We’re introduced to a variety of locals, wandering around town doing what they do without a heck of a lot of effort. The only thing they seem to put any effort into is sex, but perhaps that’s the only thing that they really have to do in Banion’s Cross. I had to start a count of the actresses who didn’t get topless.

We soon realise that the focus is falling on Todd Aherne, a young man with a girlfriend who’s in love with being in love. He makes her all ‘fruity and fluttery’, as she tells her BFF. He’s not quite so happy, perhaps because he has to make up a song for her before he can leave the house every morning and he’s getting fed up with it. ‘I know I love her,’ he tells his friend, Chris, in the café, ‘even if she is retarded sometimes.’ The catch is that, after lecturing Chris, a serial cheat, on what counts as cheating and what doesn’t (the dialogue in this picture is often as quirky as Chris’s opening line: ‘Is it cheating if you watch a girl pee?’), he promptly falls prey to the temptations of the flesh himself. It may be his first time astray, letting a girl bite his chocolate bar outside the gas station and promptly escalate into her welcoming body in an alley, but Jonda just happens to be walking by and that’s the end of that relationship. Well, maybe not, because she’s clearly not bright and we have eighty minutes to patch things up, but then Phillip happens.
Phillip is ostensibly the leader of the gang that’s just rolled into town, the foster child who believes in his heart that he’s really Charlie Manson Jr. He’s in Banion’s Cross with Luther, Swan and a trio of ladies, who don’t seem to be too capable at following orders. Delilah was the one who prematurely took down Calver Weems at Jimmy Regal’s the night before and Brass is the one who just tried to ‘recruit’ Todd in the alley, leading Phillip to reiterate to her that, ‘This is the town. There’s no saving anyone.’ The third is Pajamas, who doesn’t get introduced for quite some time but who’s just as sassy as the other two. It isn’t just that they all strip off at the drop of a hat that steals our attention from their supposed leader and his cronies, it’s that Delilah and Pajamas have a purpose that the half-hearted guys just don’t have. Somehow I don’t think the girls in the Manson Family stood up to him with lines like, ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ It’s hardly surprising to find the girls leading the killing to drop Banion’s Cross from population 67 to population 0.

While the biggest joy to me that my Make It a Double project brings is the discovery of hidden gems that the stars value over the more prominent films for which they’re primarily known, I’m also finding a great joy in trying to figure out why they picked the films that they did. While it took all of a second of screen time to realise why he picked his other choice, it took a while to realise what Gunnar Hansen found with this one. I think it was the fact that it’s really a sheep in wolf’s clothing, looking precisely like a movie he would feature in but turning out to be something completely different, a quirky character-based comedy using the framework of a slasher movie to get noticed. While the death toll is raised with much blood, it isn’t the point of the film. The point is that these crazy loons who rush into town to commit mass murder are the most normal characters we meet; girls who just want to have fun and a leader who just wants to escape the anonymity of being an orphan. They’re not good people, but they’re straightforward.

The townsfolk, however, aren’t quite so straightforward. Phillips paints the town as a happy place, with a café as the central meetingpoint and a downhome atmosphere of brotherly love. Yet behind closed doors, it’s a rather different story. Todd and Jonda appear to be the perfect couple, but that quickly proves not to be the case. Chris has cheated on every girl he’s ever known. The town’s doctor is a lech, whose opening line is ‘Hello, Mrs Taggart. What’s gone wrong with your rectum today?’ Even after that, he propositions her. The happy-go-lucky guy sleeping on the floor of the gas station is really the brain damaged victim of the owner, who used to hit him with a baseball bat. And yet it gets weirder, in scenes that I don’t want to spoil. Let’s just say that there’s one point when even Phillip is taken back by the good folk of small town America. ‘Who does something like that?’ he asks rhetorically as he leaves one house, shocked at what he’s seen inside. This from the man who plans to kill 67 people just to feel loved.
This approach could have been a lot more overt and a lot more stylised. You might think from my words that this is David Lynch on a shoestring budget, but it’s too nice for that. Maybe if David Lynch had made Pleasantville, but even then it would have played much darker. Sure, this is surreal stuff, but it’s nice and quirky stuff that’s constantly laid back, even with a sextet of maniacs running riot with knives. We almost start to feel for those maniacs, as if acknowledging that at least they’re trying to shake this town out of its lethargy. I remembered Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests at a dinner party find themselves unable to leave the music room, trapped not physically but psychologically. I felt that in this film, the 67 residents of Banion’s Cross found themselves in the same predicament, locked into the town and its sleepy routine by the power of their own minds. I doubt this was a major point that Phillips was pushing in his script, or he’d have played it up more, but it was an obvious theme for me.

I think Phillips was probably aiming more at the situation comedy feel of an indie auteur like Alexandre Rockwell, who made surreal masterpieces with quirky characters played by ensemble casts, such as 13 Moons and Pete Smalls is Dead. The budget Phillips had to work with isn’t remotely viable to command actors of the same quality as Rockwell’s, but he wants to give them similar things to do. He wants them to have their eccentricities, their turns in the spotlight and stories that intertwine with each other. He even does a reasonable job of putting this into place, though again he could have gone much further. I think he tried to compensate with dialogue, which drives his film. Todd and Jonda don’t matter; none of these people matter, but their quirky and often inane dialogue tends to end with insight or well-framed humour. Even Phillip doesn’t matter, pausing at one point to count how many bodies they’ve racked up, just to see if they’ve topped Manson’s count. He’s sad rather than dangerous, trapped in his own role.

Given that Gunnar Hansen picked this as his first Make It a Double choice, I should talk more about what he gets up to. However, he doesn’t get up to a heck of a lot. He’s very much in support in both the films he chose, even if he’s by far the biggest name in this one. He gets a few scenes early on, but the two he shines brightest in are his last. I won’t talk about the latter, except to say that he gets to put his size and power to good use for a little while. The former, though, is a gem of monologue which he recites whilst laid back on his bed, never leaving it throughout. He runs through a long and tedious tale to the obvious discomfort of his daughter, not because it’s inappropriate but because it’s clearly what Porter Sandford has done, night after night, that has prompted her to pack her bags and prepare to leave. She’s not just fleeing the monotony of Banion’s Cross, she’s fleeing the monotony of her father’s stories. Yet, while he bores her to tears, he doesn’t do that to us. It’s quirky like the film and it’s a good reason to remember it.

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