Writer: James Habacker
Star: James Habacker, Jillian McManemin, Joe Coleman, Stormy Leather, Julie Atlas Muz and Camille Habacker
|This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.|
It clearly belongs to James Habacker, who wrote, produced, directed and co-edited the picture. He is also responsible for providing its key set, the Theatre Diaboliq at the House of Choade, given that in reality it’s the Slipper Room in Manhattan, which he founded in 1999 and still runs today. The biggest plus point this film has is its authenticity, which begins with the venue and continues with the cast, most of whom either play fictional versions of themselves or perform routines that they perform at the Slipper Room for real. It has to be said that, while many horror directors mine this subculture in their work, none has comparable access to the sheer diversity of talent that Habacker has. Don’t just look at those on stage in this picture, look into the audience and be subsumed into the world of performance art on the Lower East Side. What seems like everyone who’s watching the performances within a performance has a body suit, a drawn-on moustache or an animal mask but not one of them feels like an actor. It’s just who they are.
This theatricality is not just restricted to Mr Choade either but to others too, especially the Medicine Man of the title, portrayed by the legendary Joe Coleman, a painter, writer, performer and collector of oddities. In scenes late in the film which I won’t spoil, he’s a natural, a performer utterly in his element effortlessly commanding our attention. However, before we get to that point, he’s an unapologetic ham, reminding of Ted V Mikels as he chews all the scenery he can find in a woodland cabin populated with wonders brought from his Odditorium. Clearly this is deliberate theatricality, so we can’t condemn his poor acting. We have to ask instead why he, and others, adopted this approach; the key may be in a scene back at the theatre. The House of Choade audience is used to outrageous performances and they lap them up, including the gory Grand Guignol plays with obvious blood squibs in abundance. However, these are clearly fake and when one such performance seems real (because it is), that audience becomes acutely uncomfortable.
To love the film, I believe you have to get past this layer of abstraction. If you can’t manage that, at least you have Jillian McManemin to watch. She’s the character who leads us into this performance by showing up at the House of Choade to confidently interview for a cocktail waitress job that doesn’t exist. She finds herself dancing for stage manager Bitsy McGuffin instead, auditioning for the stage role vacated by Kitty who was killed during Choade’s knife throwing act. She sees the assistant cleaning up her blood but goes ahead anyway. Hey, it’s show business, right? McManemin is both delightful and capable as Linda, even if she (McManemin not Linda) auditioned as crew rather than cast. Fortunately Habacker saw her potential and gave her the lead. She sells the role well, whether it’s as the sweet new fish trying to fit in, the darker girl with a history hinted at in nightmarish flashbacks or the carnal creature in bed with butch Roxy who, courtesy of the talented Stormy Leather, is clearly the best traditionally acted character in the film.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, though I’m aware that it certainly isn’t for everyone and some of the reasons why became quickly apparent during the Q&A session with Habacker. Audience members asked about his influences and generally didn’t get the answers they expected, because, as I mentioned earlier, this really isn’t a horror movie. Sure, I could see Ted V Mikels in Joe Coleman’s performance, and others raised 1970s exploitation flicks like The Wizard of Gore and Bloodsucking Freaks, but Habacker didn’t seem like he knew what those were. He likes Hammer Horror and Vincent Price, but his influences are either in the stage, from sources that also influenced gore pioneers like Joel M Reed and Herschell Gordon Lewis, or from the New York underground film scene. Certainly, there are easy comparisons to be made, both of those films revolving around real death during stage performances, but I’d suggest that if Habacker had grown up as a grindhouse fan, this would look more like The Burlesque Assassins.
A great example is Mat Fraser, whose Facebook page is named for a quote from Freaks. He appears here only as an actor playing a character, whether he’s playing drums in the House of Choade house band or sitting down in a booth to talk to his boss. There’s no mention made of the fact that he’s clearly disabled because in the context of the theatre, nobody cares; it’s literally unworthy of comment because he’s one of them, to return to that quote. Only we up here in the cheap seats care that his part is listed in the end credits as Sealboy because he was born with thalidomide-induced phocomelia but, frankly, why should it matter? I thoroughly appreciated the way in which The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man embraces the unusual by treating it as routine. I also thoroughly appreciated the selection of this film for the IHSFFF, even if it’s not a horror movie. It’s a film that deserves to be seen and I hope it continues to find screens in places it doesn’t quite fit and slowly gather fans by shocking and beguiling them. Gooble gobble, indeed.