Monday 18 April 2016

The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man (2015)

Director: James Habacker
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.
I’m really interested to discover what audience The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man ends up finding. Sure, it has a built in core audience that has surely already pre-ordered it but, while it’s a quality piece that will hook new eyes at film festivals, those eyes will be inconsistently drawn because it’s going to seem out of place pretty much anywhere it plays. I found it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, competing as a horror feature. A horror feature? ‘If you can call it that, really,’ was James Habacker’s apt response in his Q&A. No, it’s not really a horror feature though it shares origins with the horror genre in fairy tales and Elizabethan horror plays via the Grand Guignol, that French theatre which gave its name to entertainment featuring graphic horror portrayed without morals. This film is very much a Grand Guignol performance in itself, even as it showcases others within, and that’s going to challenge people. It’s likely to impress those who already know what Grand Guignol is, but I want to meet those intrigued by this film to look it up.

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.
Conversely, the biggest minus point to many audience members is going to be the theatricality that can’t be ignored. I’m not just talking about what these performers do as they perform on the Theatre Diaboliq stage; I’m talking about how they continue when they step off it. Habacker himself is the epitome of this. As Mr Choade, the director of the House of Choade, he’s a glorious creation: a faded impresario with a top hat, frilly shirt and platform boots; he sports the white gloves of a prestidigitator and wields the cane of a gentleman; he’s largely hidden behind a prosthetic proboscis that puts Cyrano de Bergerac to shame and a bushy false moustache reminiscent of Groucho Marx. He delivers like Groucho too, with a smörgåsbord of rapid fire one liners and bad puns told with superb comedic timing but little emotion, though Habacker cites W C Fields as his chief influence. This is all fantastic on the House of Choade stage but what’s odd is how he stubbornly remains within this character off it too, to run his theatre. That’s challenging.

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.
So, I believe that Habacker realised that his story, which has Choade supply the souls of showgirls to the Medicine Man in return for the elevation of his theatre to ‘a temple of high art’, would be inappropriately disturbing if played straight, a tone that wouldn’t serve well to showcase either his performers or the big community of neo-burlesque which the Slipper Club had helped to build. Instead he chose to phrase the entire film as a performance, in the process emphasising what these players do best, as, after all, most of them are performers rather than actors, each with their own skillset which may or may not translate into selling their characters in a feature film. In other words, we should think of this less as a movie and more as a variety show at the Slipper Room. If we consider Habacker as not really playing Choade but an actor who plays Choade with method dedication, everything makes sense. Similarly, Coleman plays layers: an outrageous Victorian stage actor playing the Medicine Man as a Victorian stage Devil.

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.
Fairy tales are usually cautionary in nature and this film is certainly phrased like one. Linda finds herself promptly down a rabbit hole and the warnings come quickly, especially from Scarlet, an experienced girl in the company who enters the film in tears and exits it in the way she suggests she will during her plea for Linda to get out fast. But fairy tales are also very dark, if you go to the original stories rather than the sanitised Disney versions, and they’re often as cruel as the title of this picture suggests. Using the Slipper Room, its regular performers and its audience as a fantastic backdrop and Grand Guignol as a framework, Habacker capably fashions an original fairy tale that warns us not about what might happen if we fail but what might happen if we succeed. The ending is a particularly neat one which can easily be read in a few different ways, depending on our personal predilections. The more focused story about Choade and the Medicine Man is resolved without any particular surprise, but the wider one about Linda remains cleverly open, especially if we read into the stage name that she picks.

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.
The film influence that leapt out to me wasn’t a grindhouse movie but a precode classic: Tod Browning’s Freaks. Like Habacker, Browning had grown up around performers, having run away to join the circus at sixteen. Many of his films are set in circuses with circus performers, not uncommon for the time, but they stand out from the crowd for their sympathetic portrayal of the unusual people. We can see this in films like The Unholy Three and The Unknown, both of which starred Lon Chaney, whose own background was in vaudeville, but it’s especially obvious in Freaks. In framing a love triangle between a dwarf, a trapeze artist and a strongman, Browning used the old moral of Beauty and the Beast, namely that Beauty was really a beast and the Beast the only beauty. His title refers both physically to the freakshow performers and morally to the normal people, beautiful outside but ugly inside. As Browning did in Freaks, Habacker depicts his own unusual folk here with respect and honour by merely treating them like people.

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.


Anonymous said...

This is a FANTASTIC review, which made me understand the film more and give it more credit than I originally had. Thank you.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thank you, Anonymous! It's comments like yours that prompt me to do what I do.