Monday 22 September 2014

Play Dead (2012)

Directors: Shade Rupe & Teller
Star: Todd Robbins
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Play Dead is an odd film to see at a film festival, given that it's not really a film at all, it's a filmed record of a stage performance. Now, you might be imagining a teacher sitting at the back of a school hall with a camera on a tripod documenting kids performing their summer play, but this is much more imaginative than that, both as a stage performance and a recording of it. That's not too surprising, given that Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) directed the stage show and co-directed this film version of it with Shade Rupe. However, the same flaw applies equally to this and the school play, namely that we can't interact with a recording. That's by far the biggest problem with this picture, as this stage show featuring magician and carnival showman, Todd Robbins is emphatically a participatory one. It sets up all sorts of gimmickry that is surely a riot for those attending in person, but we're stuck on the other side of the fourth wall so get to merely watch the reactions of those who attended. We can't experience a rollercoaster on television.

Teller is a magician, of course, well known for performances where he explains his tricks at the very same time that he's bamboozling us with them. He's also known for his TV show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which allowed the duo to debunk dishonesty wherever they could find it, including in such fields as professional mediums. It's therefore no surprise to find him interested in Robbins's interactive throwback to the 'spook shows of the 1940s' where he does both of those things at once, setting up apparent connections to the spirit world that he then debunks as a carnival trick. Robbins's own background strongly fits the material too. He discovered magic at the age of ten and gradually progressed up through the ranks, but because it wasn't paying the bills he sidestepped into the carnival scene, working in a Coney Island sideshow doing all the old time acts: swallowing swords, hammering nails into his nostrils and eating fire and light bulbs. He kicks off this show by chewing up a light bulb with gusto.

Well, technically he kicks off the show by building up the theatricality of the performance, because we're unable to forget that this is a stage event. His first act is to plunge the entire theatre into darkness, right down to switching off the exit signs. Needless to say, there are young ladies in the audience who scream. Then, to introduce 'an evening of spooky entertainment', he gives audience members the opportunity to leave by turning over an hourglass. Once that runs out, the doors are locked. He wasn't kidding: if you're in, you're in; you don't get to skip out halfway through, whatever happens. We recognise gimmickry like this from William Castle, but he only brought it to cinema from the same spook shows that Robbins took influence from here. The sold out audience at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village in the last days of the show's run in New York weren't passive observers, they were part of the show itself and locking them in merely ensured that they couldn't forget it.
At this point, Robbins was almost a year into the show. After a couple of weeks of workshop performances in Las Vegas and preview shows in New York, it officially opened off Broadway on 21st October, 2010 and ran until 24th July, 2011. However, it felt like he'd been working it for decades, stalking the stage and the theatre floor like a Satanic car salesman, in complete control of everyone in the audience and everything that might happen either to them or around them. He's a massively talented storyteller, which allows him to keep his audience captivated as he selects an apparently random file box from the stacks of them that provide the stage's backdrop and make it look like a bizarre underground museum. He then explores the history of the character whose effects are kept within it, a character with a strong association with death: child murderers, carnival geeks, fake mediums at society sex parties. Of course, that exploration isn't in the form of merely a lecture, it's a full on participatory experience.

The obvious success of what Robbins does here makes me wonder why these shows no longer pepper the landscape, but that's a wider subject than this review should cover. Sure, the elements that he brings to the stage are time honoured ones: Grand Guignol effects, spook show shenanigans, carnival magic tricks and spiritualistic explorations. Robbins approaches them all from a modern framework though, one that's reminiscent of Penn & Teller but with less of the technical aspect and more of the human connection. The material leaps all over the place in tone, but that only serves to keep the audience on the hop, unsure of where it's going to go next. One moment they're subjected to broad slapstick haunted house humour, the next focused in on poignant remembrance, only for nudity to appear out of nowhere. In less able hands, this would have been problematic, but with Robbins in charge, it's merely another way to emphasise how showmen can manipulate emotion. He does it impeccably even while he's talking about it.

Of course, it can't hurt that he talks about it with a clear voice that doesn't merely cajole and command, it even ventures into Vincent Price impersonation as he introduces some of the dead folk who inhabit his file boxes. Perhaps my favourite part arrives when he adds a new one, an audience member called Alan who writes his names and dates onto one of the boxes. I won't spoil how he bites the big one, because it deserves to wait for you to experience it yourself, so let's just say that it's a brutal and bloody act. What I appreciated most was how Robbins harangues the audience afterwards for their reaction to this heinous murder, given their rather different reaction to an earlier trick in which he apparently devoured a live rat. Everything in this show revolves around faith and how it can be manipulated by people with the will and the talent to do so. This is a show; everyone in the audience knows that Alan is alive somewhere, waiting to be reintroduced, but maybe the rat wasn't a trick. The light bulb wasn't, was it? How about the rat?
I won't spoil the other stories either, because they're also worthy of being experienced, but I will highlight that to do that properly, you really need to go to the show rather than find a way to see this recording of one. If anything, it might be worth seeing the show live, then following up with this film, because there are a few aspects included in this recording that you won't get from the live experience. Most obviously, there are a number of points where the theatre is plunged into complete darkness, not only to allow for Robbins's team to scare the crap out of the audience by cleverly exploiting their fears, but to allow us to witness what's really going on through the use of infra-red cameras. Shade Rupe recorded the show with panache before sending the footage on to Teller who edited it into its final form with the comedian and professional athiest, Emery Emery. Clearly video wouldn't work too well with scenes of utter darkness, so the infra-red approach was a key one to make the project possible.

There is a DVD for Play Dead, because I watched one as a film festival submission but, to the best of my knowledge, it isn't available for sale. I wonder if the goal is to restrict screenings to the festival circuit as an advert for the ongoing live show, perhaps suggesting that this will be released as and when the show ceases to be performed live. It would seem viable that it could be sold after the shows as a souvenir that adds a little extra insight to the experience people had just been through. It would seem that there's not just a show here, there's a message too, one that Harry Houdini gave a century ago. Robbins wants us to know that anyone who claims to communicate with the dead is a liar and a cheat; this show helps him to debunk their tricks by repeating and then exposing them in front of a live audience. That message is one that deserves to be shouted from the hilltops and a DVD would reach a lot more people than would eight shows a week. Given the choice, go see the show rather than the film, but this is a good follow up.

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