Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: The Loved Ones and Bitch Slap

What hath Tarantino wrought? In spite of being labeled a financial disappointment, the movie "Grindhouse" (as well as its more successful antecedent, Kill Bill) have clearly had an impact on cinema, launching a "neo-grindhouse" revival of some of the grimier, pulpier attitudes of the 60s and 70s in low-budget cinema. Both of the last two midnight madness movies I've seen have a more obvious inspiration in a notorious drive-in flick of several decades ago--neither of which I've seen, shamefully enough--but I'd argue that neither would exist in their current form if Tarantino hadn't been busy throwing a spotlight on the world of classic trash cinema the way he's done for the past decade or so.


There seems to be a lot of Australian-ness at MM this year; that's probably because of the way the Ozsploitation documentary "Not Quite Hollywood" brought the house down at last year's fest. (I really need to see this movie, too.) Apparently Aussies are in a special category when it comes to grindhouse flicks. First-time director Sean Byrne has contributed to this tradition with this Ozzie remake of The Last House on the Left.

Teenage Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) swerves to avoid a mysterious, blood-spattered figure in the road, causing a car accident which kills his father. Brent proceeds to sink into a deep funk and becomes a slightly silly emo stereotype, complete with cut wrists. (Has the "cutting" phenomenon ever actually been verified in real life? Isn't it basically an urban legend, like the "Dungeons and Dragons will make you worship demons and commit suicide" thing?) Six months later, though, things are looking up a bit for Brent, thanks to a loving girlfriend named Holly (Victoria Thaine). He's attracted another admirer, too, the awkward Lola (Robin McLeavy) who asks him to the dance; Brent, of course, is going with Holly, and the moment where he's forced to turn her down is heartbreaking.

Our sympathies shift shortly afterwards, though, when Brent is kidnapped by a creepy psycho (John Brumpton)...who turns out to be Lola's dad. It seems that Lola's social awkwardness wasn't simple nerdiness but the result of being raised in a family straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Her dad has been willingly kidnapping "dates" for her for some time now, and Brent is now booked to accompany Lola to the most horrifically twisted prom ever witnessed.

The whole movie is, like the two movies I've mentioned above, a nonstop exercise in excruciating tension. It's mostly a series of torture scenes intercut with escape attempts, further revelations of just how messed up the Stone family is, and scenes of Brent's mother and Holly making an attempt to find him. There's also an elaborate subplot with Brent's pal Sac (Richard Wilson) who's managed to get up the guts to ask out his dream girl, Mia (Jessica McNamee, refreshingly NOT a male fantasy uberbabe but rather a cynical goth) and is having a substantially better evening.

This movie falls somewhat in the same category as 28 Days Later, in that it's really just a "remix" of ideas and story points that were presented in earlier, classic horror films, brought forward into the present. But also like 28 Days later, it holds together as its own entity, and uses the techniques of its predecessors with great skill and care, rather than simply being a witless Hollywood remake. It's a good time for the more twisted among us.


Confession: I haven't seen "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" but I know enough about it to know when it's being homaged. "Death Proof", obviously, was doing so, but that was still a distinctly Tarantinoid movie. "Bitch Slap" clearly picks up the ball from Death Proof in countless ways, right down to the involvement of Zoe Bell as stunt co-ordinator (another Australian connection) but the tone is completely different; the director, Rick Jacobsen, worked on "Xena: Warrior Princess", and that's probably what it most resembles in its campy, over-the-top mix of action and titillation.

Three beautiful, flimsily clad girls pull up at a trailer in the middle of the desert. The calculating Hel (Erin Cummings) is clearly the leader, and the one who's contrived to get them out there as the endgame of a heist gone somewhat off the rails. The borderline-psychotic and murderous Camaro (America Olivo, in the Tura Santana role) has locked their target, Gage (Michael Hurst) in the trunk, and gleefully tortures him for the location of whatever valuables they're looking for. Along for the ride is Trixie (the beautiful and delightful Julia Voth), a stripper who the other two brought in on their scheme in order to get close to Gage, and who's feeling more and more in over her head as the moments pass. As the three women continue to search for their reward, tempers and allegiances fray, unexpected visitors turn up, and we get a series of increasingly, entertainingly ludicrous flashbacks to how the protagonists got here in the first place. (Remember that Lost episode where the one girl was seemingly revealed to be a detective-stripper who worked for Billy Dee Williams? Imagine if that had been for real, and each subsequent flashback had been sillier and more awesome than the last, and you'll get the idea.)

I have to admit, I came to this movie, as I often do with this kind of thing, with a slight prejudice against. I'm not a huge fan of winking camp (NON-winking camp can be very enjoyable), since it often seems like an excuse to throw any kind of suspension of disbelief, plot logic or filmmaking skill out the window in the service of "Hey, we're not taking ourselves seriously here, just turn your brain off and enjoy!" But Bitch Slap won me over, I must confess, simply by virtue of how brazen Jacobsen and company are willing to be at throwing new levels of ridiculousness at the camera every few minutes, and by virtue of the fact that, on some completely ludicrous level, everything does in fact make sense. If you're willing to buy into a universe in which "sexy secret agent who must go undercover at a women's prison" is a plausible backstory for a character, then the movie actually hangs together fairly tightly. For Pete's sake, this is a movie where the three leads have a slo-mo, five-minute playfight splashing water on each other, which actually turns out to be a plot point. There's a level of wit on display in the screenplay that, combined with the fact that the actresses are actually pretty good (Olivo's a bit much at times), makes the whole movie work far better than it ought to. While the intensity level might be cranked up a bit high for some--it becomes a bit tiresome by the climax--the end result is something that anyone still in touch with their inner 13-year-old, regardless of their actual age or gender, can enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting you mention Grindhouse, in which it's made explicitly clear Zoe Bell is from New Zealand. It's a small detail, but reviewers are about nothing if not details.