Saturday 15 March 2014

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue (2010)

Directors: Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy
Stars: Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy, Susan Messing, Nicholas Barron, Justin DiGiacomo, Tim Kazurinsky, David Pasquesi, T J Jagodowski, Mary Seibel, Xzanthia and Robert Englund
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
No movie with a title like The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue is ever going to be high art and it isn't going to care. It may have been up for competition in the horror feature section of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, but it's really a comedy. Sure, there are horror elements, but the balance between comedy and horror is so biased towards the former that I wouldn't even call it a comedy horror, merely a comedy. Now, regular readers at Apocalypse Later will know that I don't have much of a soft spot for modern comedy, which far too often tends towards the lowest common denominator, but I found that I enjoyed this, however often it's happy to get stupid. Perhaps my lack of depth with the modern comedy stars is a good thing in this instance, because it means I have no idea just how much Mike Bradecich is ripping off Seth Rogen and John LaFlamboy is ripping off Ben Stiller. Viewers a decade or two younger than me see it instantly, but I'm blissful in my generational comedy ignorance.

They're the Mugg brothers, a notably well named pair of incorrigible slackers who are doing a stunningly bad job of running the apartment complex on Belmont Avenue in Chicago that they inherited from their mother. Well, Marion is doing a stunningly bad job, while Jarmon arrives back to join in at the beginning of the film after failing to breed llamas some place else. He picked a terrible time to return home, as the whole place is a complete nightmare. Tenants are leaving, their pets are vanishing and they're stealing electricity from the church next door because they can't pay any bills. As Mrs Habershackle, their oldest tenant, points out, the place died along with their mother. The Muggs' standard response to this sort of pressure, indeed any sort of pressure, is to go to the bar, which is the Bootleggers Run downstairs. The bartender is as dry as the Muggs and even funnier. She's KC, who suggests that the place's glory days date back to the prohibition era when it was a brothel and a speakeasy. She's probably not wrong.

And, of course, they have a Mole Man, as the title suggests, who is the strange monster spiriting away all the pets. We catch sight of him just before the Muggs do, ahead of the ten minute mark, as he tries to steal a Yorkie through the letter box of one of the apartments. I got the impression that he'd have shown up sooner if only the comedians running the show hadn't written an infuriatingly catchy song that needed a sort of music video to wake us all up, but it's still early enough that any mystery is lost. We clearly know whodunit and we can hazard a pretty good guess as to why because, as a running joke suggests, there really isn't any other way to describe him but 'mole man'. What we're left with is less about how the landlords are going to stop the creature and save the remaining pets and more about whether these mildly sympathetic idiots will ever get round to it. The mole man is successful because he's good at disappearing and because they're morons, albeit a cut above some of their tenants.
Fortunately these tenants are a varied bunch, who add some character to proceedings. Danny and his family leave at the outset, but they're the only normal ones. There's Mrs Habershackle, the crotchetty old lady with her beloved cat, Mr Marshmallow; she's played by a former vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, Mary Seibel. The other elderly tenant is a libidinous old codger named Hezekiah Confab, capably played by Robert Englund in a supporting role for a change. Eliza is a dreadlocked and heavily tattooed sex worker who runs her business out of her apartment and walks around topless without a care in the world; she's played to perfection by alternative model XZanthia, also a businesswoman who owns a nudist colony with a makerspace. T J Jagodowski is drug addled Paulie, such a dedicated slacker that he even wears a shirt that says 'slacker' on it; he has four others living in his apartment that aren't on the lease. That leaves Dave the Hermit, who we naturally don't meet for quite a while.

In and amongst this quirky chaos, there's a mildly serious theme, that the Mugg Brothers' worst enemy isn't the Mole Man but themselves. Certainly they quickly realise what they need to do but take a heck of a lot longer to get round to actually doing it, as they spend far more of their energy avoiding it than would have taken care of the job to begin with. It could be argued that between them, they're like Gary Cooper in High Noon, somehow finding the strength to face a major threat even though nobody around them is willing to help. If you can somehow imagine and get a laugh out of the ludicrous replacement of Cooper with a pair of cowardly weaklings and the subtextual threat of the Communist witchhunts with a mole man, then this might just be a film for you. Much of its success arises from their setting up horrible schemes, only to feel bad about them and eventually sabotaging their own efforts. This builds sympathy for characters who didn't start out with much of it and draws us into their plight.

It certainly doesn't hurt that, even if they're derivative, Bradecich and LaFlamboy have some excellent comedic timing and that they're surrounded by many of their favourite Chicago comedians. They were also heavily invested in the project, not only as its stars but also as its writers, producers and directors, their first time in such roles on a feature film. For first timers, albeit first timers with a solid amount of useful experience in theatre, storytelling, sketch comedy and haunted house production design, they did a lot right. Their film has a great title, a great retro menu on the DVD and a great opening pair of lines. The monster is a refreshingly different creature, however ridiculous it is and even if we see too much of it early on and too little towards the end. Justin DiGiacomo, the actor in the suit, makes the mole man lithe and quick and it's no stretch to imagine him anywhere and everywhere: floor, ceiling, walls, you name it. He provides some solid scares in a picture that plays far more for laughs.
The characters are enjoyably diverse, albeit perhaps too deliberately so; I wonder how such folk would get along if they were forced to share apartments in the same brownstone for real. If I was stuck here, I'd spend most of my time at Bootleggers Run, but for some reason these tenants seem to avoid it like the plague. One of the less successful aspects of the film is that each of these supporting characters is tasked with being quirky and different from the others but never to contribute anything substantial to the story. It's clearly the Mugg Brothers' show and their tenants are props just as much as the pets are. On the other hand, the gimmicky sections of the picture, like the musical number and the drug trip, are surprisingly effective, given that they're precisely the sort of egocentric parts that usually detract from a film, even if they work well in isolation. I also liked how Nicholas, KC's resident musician, provides an effective in film soundtrack that the Muggs would have done well to listen to.

However much they did right, Bradecich and LaFlamboy apparently struggled to get their film released. When I saw it in competition at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, it was dated 2010 and the press kit still hopes for a 2011 release. However IMDb now has it listed as a 2013 picture. To emphasise the delay, KC's boyfriend here is played by Brian Boland, who made two Paranormal Activity films and appeared in archive footage in a third, entirely within the timeframe between this film being made and released. I wonder why it was such a struggle; perhaps it was too comedic for the horror set but a little too scary for comedy fans, but that seems like a stretch. Maybe the humour goes to darker places than distributors might have felt comfortable with. Police brutality is played for laughs; that's a tough joke to sell in the era of UC Davis and Occupy Wall Street. Black humour surrounding pets is also particularly risky in a comedy that wants to find a wide audience, however hilarious it happens to be.

I hope it finds its audience, as it deserves one. As a clearly low budget film, apparently shot mostly on church property with a crew as inexperienced as the folk running the show, it demonstrates surprising technical proficiency. The comedy is a less surprising success, given the cast's substantial experience, however unknown many of them are outside of Chicago. The script ends up being the weakest link with its tendency to veer off into improv territory instead of progressing the story forward. That the improv scenes are enjoyable, often because of T J Jagodowski's hilarious turn as Paulie, the lead stoner, hides the script's weaknesses to a large degree, but they're still there. The pace lags in the middle and again during the third act as the Mugg Brothers finally step up to the plate, but they do get great arguments in the process. That Bradecich and LaFlamboy have known each other forever is obvious, as they're an effective double act. I just hope more people see this film and get to know them too.

1 comment:

ThomasMaloney said...

"The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue" sounds like an excellent B grade movie! And if you're a fan like me, it might even turn out to be a cult classic that deserves mention in your not-so-secret collection in the storage room.