Friday 4 March 2011

Livestock (2009)

Director: Christopher Di Nunzio
Stars: Fiore Leo, Robert Hines, Johanna Gorton, Michael Reardon, Irina Peligrad and Christina C Crawford

Livestock is one of the most ambiguous indie horror films I've ever seen. It would be easy to just dismiss it, for a whole slew of reasons, but I find that I can't do that, even though attempting to explain why will be something of a challenge. It's not a good film but there's a good deal that's good about it. Where it goes wrong isn't where most indie horror films go wrong and it's difficult to lump it in with anything else for a comparison, beyond something as generic as the fact that it shows plenty of promise though that promise doesn't tend to be met. In many ways, it all comes across as schizophrenic, as if the film itself wants to succeed and fail at the same time. Every time it does something dumb, it follows it with something intelligent, and vice versa. It holds our interest throughout, but in a strange way where we consistently want to know where it's going next while somehow not remaining confident that it's going to end up anywhere.

Are you confused yet? Well, that's a good definition of where I ended up. Written, produced and directed by Christopher Di Nunzio for Creepy Kid Productions, it's apparently unlike anything he's attempted before, his previous films including a short comedy/drama and a documentary feature about celebrations of the feast of St Agrippina in Boston, MA. In fact it's unlike anything else I've seen, as the script takes the rather unusual approach of having its subplots spring from utterly different genres. On one hand, it's a gangster flick, following Victor Corsi's gradual rise within a mysterious crime family. On the other, it's some sort of cannibalistic serial killer movie. Yet, as these two subplots gradually merge, the story becomes something else again. It's a thoroughly different approach that may explain much of the fascination it held for me, but once the credits rolled, I found that the journey had proved to be more interesting than the destination.

The beginning turns out to be a good pointer for what follows, being alternately magnetic and infuriating. We're inflicted with an almost endless string of stars, each getting their own screen, while being treated to a set of gorgeous Kali related art by Ralph Di Nunzio. I would love to own some of these pieces! When the actors finally arrive, we already have expectations of what we have in store, grown not just from the art but from the film's summary which speaks to cults and dark secrets, but what we see appears to be completely different. There was a brief surge in Kali related storylines in the eighties, especially in horror fiction, but this isn't anything like those. It's our introduction to the gangster subplot. Victor Corsi is a nervous man, stuck in the back of a car for what seems like too long, long enough to suggest he's going to be killed, but it all turns out to be good news. The large bald man who arrives has a promotion for him.

The acting isn't great but it's capable. Fiore Leo, who plays Victor Corsi, reminds in some ways of Al Pacino crossed with a young Jerry Orbach, but while he's supposed to be a tough, gifted and much appreciated member of the Pack, the crime family he belongs to, he can't quite persuade us that he isn't just a nice guy who wouldn't hurt a fly. The large bald man who we later discover is Edgar Ozera is overplayed with relish by Robert Hines, who looks the part of a pulp villain and plays up to the feel of one too. He's the boss and to demonstrate how powerful he and the Pack are, he takes Victor and Dimitri the chauffeur along to a body shop to meet with Ted Costa, who plans to run for the Senate next year. He knows too much about the Pack's operations so could be dangerous. Victor and Dimitri take care of him, but I was watching Edgar, who strains forward as if wanting to take care of Costa himself but holding back so his minions can work.

The serial killer story begins with a hooker in leopardskin named Angel, whose mark doesn't give his name so she calls him Sugar. We find out later that he's Anthony and he's assisted by a pair of strangely exotic ladies called Natalia and Bella. Leighsa Burgin, who plays Angel, albeit not for long, is perhaps the best actor in the film. As Anthony, Michael Reardon comes across as Quentin Tarantino trying to play Glenn Danzig and that really doesn't work at all. He's annoying, more of a child's concept of a serial killer than anything. If he were real, he'd be caught in ten minutes. His girls are the interesting ones and I really wish Di Nunzio had given them more to do, because they're exotic and freaky and the beginning of a story of their own. Irina Peligrad gets more to do as the sultry and vampish Natalia than Aurora Grabill does as Bella, but then Bella gets to nick a hole in Natalia's neck so she can drink blood from it. Did I mention exotic and freaky?
These two stories turn out to be connected already, but they meet through Annabel, perhaps the only character in the film who's given a real grounding, partly due to more careful writing and partly due to the work of Johanna Gorton, who proves to be the cast's only subtle actor. Almost everyone else either feels thrown unrehearsed into scenes with lines only just memorised, like Christina C Crawford and Stephanie Spry as Annabel's friends Tina and Kristen, or deliberately overplay their roles like Anthony and Edgar. Annabel is coming out of a bad relationship, taking a full year to get ready to finally go out with someone she meets online. The first scene with the girls is embarrassingly plastic and I found the contents of her DVD racks much more interesting. Having Man Bites Dog, a set of Maya Duren's experimental films and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People on the same shelf deserves respect. Season one of The Munsters helps too.

Fortunately, as we leap forward that year so that Annabel can date again and intersect with the rest of the film, we avoid more clichéd girl talk and try to do something with the story. Hints have been dropped frequently to keep us wondering about the Pack, what it's all about and why we should care. The strange thing is that half of the unfolding is original and the other half is cliché, apparently in alternation. There are scenes where characters come alive with potential, as depth is thrown their way and they run with it, but there are others where all that potential is discarded as if it was never worth anyone's time. At the end of the day, I wanted to know more about these characters, or at least most of them, but Di Nunzio held back in every case, leaving me wanting when the credits ran. I wanted to know about Victor's philosophy about being who and what he is, to find Jerry was more than a date, to know the background that led Tina to the finalé.

Most promising but inevitably disappointing was the explanation given for the Pack, during the annual feast that provides the final scene. The hints about the Pack kept me interested, because it seemed like a unique approach in a genre full of convention and cliché. One scene in particular with Victor and Natalia could be the foundation of a movie all on its own, with a new mythology that doesn't just explain the title, it endows it with meaning from which we can reevaluate the entire film and the character motivations within it. It's the best scene in the film, but Di Nunzio doesn't follow up on it, instead giving us a mess of an explanation during the worst scene of the film, the finalé in which Edgar Ozera answers everything without meeting any of the questions we actually have. In fact what we get is so out of whack with what we want that this scene ends up being counterproductive and the film would be better for its absence.

Now, I've just given eight paragraphs to explain how this film is both good and bad all at once, but mostly because of the script and the acting. I should, in fairness, highlight the real successes of the film because there are a few of them. The cinematography is frequently notable, as Nolan Yee, the director of photography, obviously has a good eye and a great sense of composition of frame. Anthony's basement is dark and crowded but he still finds the room to get into worthwhile positions to shoot. Outside in plenty of space he shines. Beyond the DVD being a little quiet in general, the lighting and sound are good, avoiding the most common pitfall of low budget film. I read only $3,500 for budget, which if accurate means that the crew did a great job. The music by Nicholas David Potvin is also worthy of notice, enforcing that those off screen outshone those on screen. Perhaps it's easier to make a journey seem worthwhile than to take it when it isn't.

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