Mar 17, 2015
I have no scientific way of proving it, but I am going to have to assume that aside from possibly western musicals and breakdance films, the slasher film has to be the most uniquely unsophisticated, fiercely formulaic, and prosaically primitive of the various film subgenres, so I never thought anyone would attempt to take an arthouse, experimental and/or avant-garde approach to the innately artless and absurdly asinine horror style. While Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) does feature some Buñuel-esque dream-sequences, but that film is a rare exception and certainly a work that totally transcends the aesthetic norms and thematic conventions of the slasher subgenre, hence its much desired popularity. Recently, I discovered a far from popular flick that is superficially a slasher flick that ultimately proves that the subgenre has a lot more potential than one would suspect. Indeed, totally unknown auteur Alexander Cassini’s directorial debut Star Time (1992) is a sort of darkly satirical art-(anti)slasher flick that is like a hodgepodge of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) as seen through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s media criticisms where a seemingly autistic man-child of the assumedly virginal sort takes a “tune in, turn on, and drop out” approach to serial-killing and realizes his lifelong dream of becoming an (in)famous ‘TV star’ as a result. Featuring arguably the most bizarrely nightmarish depiction of Hollywood since the Expressionistic horror-noir cult classic Dementia (1955) aka Daughter of Horror directed by John Parker, Cassini’s film mixes elements from German Expressionism, film noir, tacky TV gameshows, and even video art in a work that ultimately attempts to juggle classic horror scares, savage satire, and aberrant art faggotry in an admittedly ambitious fashion that only semi-succeeds in its aims but certainly never fails to intrigue in its sardonic approach to slasher cinema. Notably, the genesis of Star Time was a 30-minute short that, like Lynch with Eraserhead, was produced at the American Film Institute (AFI) while Cassini was a student there, so it is only fitting the murderous antihero of the work is named ‘Henry’ and he is a little lonely, socially retarded, and suffers from a bit of good old-fashioned ‘female trouble’ of the non-menstrual oriented sort. Undoubtedly Star Time feels like the project of an enterprising novice auteur that knows a great deal about filmmaking and film history and wanted to make a work that would display his talents and personal obsessions but would also appeal to a more mainstream audience, hence its less than sincere ‘exploitation’ of obscenely outmoded slasher conventions. Indeed, with its almost complete and utter lack of graphic murders sequences and violence, emphasis on morality and philosophy over mindless stalking and killing scenes, and patently pathetic and autistic killer, Star Time is not exactly the sort of slasher flick that will appeal to thoroughly debased gorehounds who like to herkin the gherkin to any of the countless worthless Friday of the 13th sequels, though it might appeal to a handful of people that thought great goombah character actor Joe Spinell's performance in Maniac (1980) was something bordering on true ‘performance art.’ A sort of macabre slasher mutilation of Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with an antihero that seems like the murderously moronic nephew of the loony lead characters of Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), Cassini’s proudly perverse parable about the perversion of the mainstream media and Hollywood is ultimately a rare horror flick that attempts to make the viewer ashamed of being a horror fan.
Henry Pinkle (Michael St. Gerard of John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) and the TV series Elvis (1990)) is a superlatively socially retarded man-child with no friends or family who is morbidly depressed because his sole reason for living—the discernibly outmoded black-and-white TV sitcom The Robertson Family—has been cancelled, so he has decided to end it all by killing himself. While walking to the building he plans to jump off of in a scene seeming like a nocturnal version of the opening scene from Eraserhead in terms of its combination of awkwardness and ominousness, Henry passes large piles of debris and decaying buildings that make Hollywood seem like the world’s loneliest post-industrial hellhole. While Henry is a pretty boy guido type that sort of resembles a more macho and masculine Sal Mineo, he is far from your typical charismatic wop and is most likely a virgin as hinted at by the fact that he has a blowup doll lying on his bed. Right before Henry jumps off a building and splatters his brains on the concrete, a charismatic old fart of the seemingly incessantly bullshitting Hebraic sort named Sam Bones (John P. Ryan of Larry Cohen’s It's Alive (1974) and Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train (1985)) yells to him in a comforting manner, “It hurts when you’re robbed…or they takeaway what’s yours. I once thought about putting an end to it too, pal, and do you know what saved me? YOU. Yeah, you and every single human being who carries the cross of awareness in this world.” Sam Bones is a show business icon who makes a living lying to people on television and, somewhat inexplicably, he wants Henry to become the latest and greatest TV star, as if an autistic man-child has what it takes to captivate mainstream America audiences (maybe he does!). Unfortunately, the catch is that Sam wants Henry to become a serial killer who wears a creepy baby doll mask and exterminates entire suburban families in their homes while they are watching TV. Indeed, Henry becomes ‘The Baby Mask Killer’ and he takes a more visceral approach to killing by brutally slaughtering his victims with an ax. Before Henry’s first slaughter, Sam says to him, “You’re not quite Rembrandt. You forgot your paint brush” and hands him his ax. While Henry gets scared the first time he attempts to kill and runs out of the victim’s home like a retarded child, Sam gives him an uplifting pep talk that gives him the confidence he needs to kill without remorse.
While psychopathic Hollywood showman Sam acts as a sort of pernicious paternal figure to Henry, he also has a maternal figure in the form of a kindhearted yet semi-butch social worker named Wendy (played by Cassini’s then-wife Maureen Teefy of Grease 2 (1982) and Supergirl (1984)). In fact, Henry likes Wendy so much that one of the reasons he originally intended to kill himself is because she moved away to be with a lover. Unfortunately, things did not work out with Wendy’s lover and naturally she was rather perturbed when she received a ‘suicide letter’ in VHS form from Henry where he jovially states, “They cancelled THE ROBERTSON FAMILY, so I’m dead now, but you can see me anytime you want…on your TV.” Indeed, in Henry’s mind, television is more real than reality, so sending Wendy the VHS tape was a sign of his great affection towards her. Henry also has a strange frog fetish that he acquired as a result of Wendy once giving him a toy frog. In a scene in the spirit of Swiss artist Henry Fuseli’s classic painting The Nightmare (1781) of an incubus hovering over a beauteous sleeping woman, Henry sits perched on a desk while staring down at Wendy while she sleeps naked in her bed. Like a good percentage of the scenes in Star Time, the viewer does not know if Wendy is merely having a bad dream or if she has become a passive victim to Henry’s ominous unhinged reality.
Aside from Sam and Wendy, Henry has a third individual in his life, though it is not a real living and breathing person, but a pitch black room full of a couple dozen televisions with a sexy female voice that could be the little slutty sister of sentient computer Hal of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Since the TV screens feature footage of tender tits, delectable derrieres, and faceless women fingering their furry main veins, Henry is totally entranced by the television room which also successfully attempts to seduce the protagonist by salaciously stating, “It’s safe to want me, Henry. I don’t have any diseases…and I won’t break your heart ever again. I can see into your heart, Henry, and I can see that you need so much, so much. You need what only I can give you. I want you inside me, Henry, I want to feel you as a part of me. I’m so hungry for what you can give.” When Henry makes a pathetic attempt at touching one of the televised titties, the unclad chicks disappear off all of the screens and are replaced with TV noise and the room demands that the hopelessly horny antihero “earn the right” to defile the screen. Naturally, Henry agrees to do whatever the TV room wants him to do and soon blood, gore, and serial killers appear on the television screens. Of course, all the classic killers appear on the TVs, including Charles Manson, James Dean wannabe Charles Starkweather (himself a victim of Hollywoodization), Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, and various others. As the room tells Henry regarding Manson & Company, “These children of mine are your ancestors. They will show you the way.” Of course, Henry has no problem following in the footsteps of his fatally dangerous forebearers, but problems arise when Wendy reluctantly comes back into the antihero’s life and Sam is not happy with it. Needless to say, Star Time concludes on a down note in a work that, quite unlike your typical bullshit Hollywood celluloid bile, demonstrates that losers never become winners in real-life and that not all ‘underdogs’ are good guys.
For better or worse, Star Time is an unequivocal downer featuring a totally tragic antihero who meets a particularly pathetic but much needed end in a work that will ultimately dishearten and deject most viewers due to its patent cultural pessimism, demystification of Hollywood glamor, and sardonic mockery of mainstream America’s fucked fetish for all-things true crime. Indeed, no one can finish Cassini’s decidedly dark and intentionally debasing directorial debut without feeling ridden with pangs of guilt and abject disgust, thus making for an innately anti-Hollywood work that most American’s will hate right from the start. Clearly director Cassini was attempting to go for some sort of mainstream accessibility, not matter how slight, when he made the film, which is somewhat disappointing as he might as well have gone all the way in terms of aesthetic iconoclasm as there is no way in hell the flick would have ever gained any sort of serious following, let alone commercial success, as it is just too plain dark and depressing for the masses who watch movies purely as a cheap form of escapism from their largely miserable lives (but of course, that is one of the many pathetic points that the film makes). Aside from directing a couple episodes for TV shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Deadline, Cassini has only directed one other film and it is not exactly as ambitious or as intriguing as his rather worthwhile debut. Somewhat curiously, Cassini’s second feature, the USA-Romanian coproduction The Incredible Genie (1999), is a cheap and tacky family film that the director probably made with his child with actress Maureen Teefy in mind. Despite being a failure commercially that has yet to even get a DVD release (though a long out-of-print VHS tape exists), Star Time got mostly favorable reviews upon its release, with relatively respectable critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (co-author of the classic text Midnight Movies) describing it as “An exceedingly odd first feature” that “Played half as arty allegory, half as satiric comedy, and generally as some species of midnight madness, this gaga independent item is most daring in refusing to focus on the violence that's its subject, while getting us to think plenty about what it means. Recommended.”
Notably, Star Time features strangely hypnotic chiaroscuro style scenes featuring a wall of TVs playing mostly pornographic imagery that bear a strikingly resemblance to South African auteur Aryan Kaganof’s early Dutch era ‘pornology’ short The Solipsist (1991). Whether Cassini saw Kaganof's film or not is rather questionable, but the similarities between both films is quite striking and undeniable. Of course, Cassini’s film also features some aesthetic similarities with works associated with the Cinema of Transgression, especially the collaborations of Scott B and Beth B (Black Box, Vortex). In its incendiary and iconoclastic in-your-face approach to criticizing television and its singular lobotomizing power, Cassini’s film is also comparable to Beth B’s first solo feature Salvation!: Have You Said Your Prayers Today? (1987), though I would have to acknowledge that Cassini's flick is indubitably more successful on both an aesthetic and satirical level, as Star Time is certainly nowhere as convoluted. In fact, the biggest flaw of Cassini's film is that it is not long enough and could have certainly benefited from even more intricate themes and esoteric imagery. Of course, the film's lack of details regarding the antihero's particular upbringing and parents ultimately makes Star Time a work were the viewer's imagination is able to run wild, which is certainly a rarity in the horror (and especially the slasher) realm. At the very least, Cassini revealed with his directorial debut that he could have evolved into a formidable auteur filmmaker with a distinct and potent vision, but instead his career just seemed to wither away before it even really ignited, which is sad but assuredly not surprising considering no one gets paid to be a serious auteur in Tinseltown. I certainly would not be surprised if the creators of The Cable Guy (1996) starring Jim Carrey saw Cassini's film and felt it would be a fairly safe work to steal ideas from. Ultimately, Star Time belongs in the same virtually nonexistent category as Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane’s The Black Room (1983) as an oh-so rare and unbelievable avant-garde-slasher that probably should not exist but somehow thankfully does.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:50 PM
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