Aug 19, 2015
With the exception of a handful of Nick Zedd flicks, the proudly amateurish aberrant-garde filmmakers of the so-called Cinema of Transgression movement were hardly responsible for producing any actual notable feature-length films, so it is somewhat ironic that one of the few features associated with the NYC underground scene, Where Evil Dwells (1985) co-directed by the seemingly mismatched duo of marginal underground auteur Tommy Turner (Simonland, The Black Knights of the Skillman) and queer anti-Renaissance man David Wojnarowicz (A Fire in My Belly, Fear of Disclosure: Psycho-Social Implications of HIV Revelation) was, somewhat fittingly destroyed in a fire, especially considering its decidedly destructive quasi-Satanic message and wickedly wayward essence, before it was ever completed (according to Wojnarowicz, about 3/4 of the film was completed before he called it quits, left the project entirely in Turner's seemingly careless hands, and went on to work on more personal projects). Luckily, a 28-minute ‘preview’ cut of the decidedly D.I.Y. art-punk-trash slasher (which was originally titled Satan Teens) that was screened at the 1985 Downtown New York Film Festival has survived and, judging by this sort of trailer on steroids, which certainly feels complete in an abstract avant-garde sort of way (indeed, the film has a beginning, end, and tons of things in between), I would not be surprised if this butchered cut is more effective than the original proposed feature-length version (which was apparently around 120 minutes in length) would have been. Indeed, seeming like the abortive celluloid miscreation of the sub-literate punk gorehound progeny of Luis Buñuel and Frans Zwartjes, the film was originally intended as a Super-8 feature with sync sound and a linear plot but now exists as a sort of sadistically spastic montage-driven (anti)tribute to slasher cinema that even features the NYC art fag equivalent of masked retards like ‘Leatherface’ of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Jason Voorhees of the dreaded Friday the 13th franchise. A sort of celluloid anti-exorcism against the mainstream media and carny-esque televangelists, the film is based on the particularly pathetic true crime story of drug-addled self-stylized teenage Satanist Ricky ‘The Acid King’ Kasso, who committed the singularly senseless act of murdering his 17-year-old friend Gary Lauwers by stabbing him in the neck and head somewhere between 17 and 36 times (on top of gouging out his eyes and burning his body) during a bonfire in Long Island in June 1984 merely because the young man allegedly stole 10 bags of cheap PCP from him. Naturally, after foolishly bragging to teens that he had murdered Lauwers in tribute to Satan and even taking unbelieving friends to the site of the decaying mutilated corpse in a fashion not unlike in River's Edge (1986) directed by Tim Hunter, Kasso was soon arrested and he apparently found jail so unpleasant that he opted to commit suicide by hanging himself in his cell only a mere two days after he was detained, thus demonstrating that the cartoon Satan hardly empowered the moronic metalheads that mindlessly worshiped him. Divided into four main segments, including a lengthy introduction, a montage depicting the murder, Kasso's failed attempt to enter heaven and eventually the teen's successful attempt to enter hell, Where Evil Dwells is ultimately a bad celluloid trip where mainstream Christian America and pop culture are heretically defiled by hopelessly amateurish subversive sod art of the largely obnoxiously unholy, superficially iconoclastic, and oftentimes absurdly fetishistic sort. Indeed, Turner and Wojnarowicz's film is more or less as politically retarded and morally bankrupt as most of the films associated with the Cinema of Transgression movement, but luckily it at least features striking and sometimes allegorical imagery, a largely oneiric structure and atmosphere, and a fairly tolerable soundtrack that certainly sounds like the kind of music that some teenage degeneratess from the 1980s would listen to while sadistically slaughtering their friend while high on acid in retaliation for stolen angel dust.
While Where Evil Dwells is considered a sort of landmark work of the Cinema of Transgression movement, co-auteur David Wojnarowicz—the only filmmaker associated with the scene that was already an established artist of some notability (in fact, he funded the film with money that he had made off of some of his paintings)—certainly was not completely playing by Nick Zedd’s megalomaniacal rules, or as he once stated himself, “I think maybe it’s just philosophically or something, but I thought I was pretty peripheral to that whole film scene. I participated in some of it...I always felt like I was watching from or witnessing it from the side.” Indeed, while horribly hokey and awkwardly amateurish in parts, the film oftentimes has a genuine hellishly foreboding quality about it that almost seems to mock the all-too-self-conscious crap celluloid kitsch of Mr. Zedd. As his spoken word sessions and poetry certainly demonstrate, Wojnarowicz was a perennially pissed off fag with a genuine hatred of the mainstream American evangelical right, which he would ultimately blame for his death via AIDS. Notably, both directors could relate to quasi-archetypical alienated teen Kasso, but neither could relate to his heinous crimes nor the seemingly hypocritical authoritarian structure of his (pseudo)Satanic social circle, or as Wojnarowicz once wrote as revealed in an interview featured in the book Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground (2008) by Jack Sargeant, “We were using the script to talk about relationships of power: how the leader was given power by the other kids and even though he was kind of stupid, the other kids’ adulation and respect kept him propped up there in control. It’s kind of like Ronald Reagan.” Somewhat curiously, Where Evil Dwells features a quasi-narrator in the form of a creepy old Howdy Doody ventriloquist doll with a sadistically sardonic attitude that seems to reflect not only the murderous yet childish behavior of upper-middleclass loser Kasso and his Guido metalhead comrades, but also the contrived morality of the American Pie 1950s and the death of suburbia and, in turn, the so-called American dream. At the beginning of the film, the doll is rather fittingly held by Wojnarowicz, who is seemingly dead as demonstrated by the fact that his eyes are hanging out of his eye sockets and he is covered in Buttgereit-esque guts and gore. When the doll jokes, “Hey, checkout this girl. She hung around the wrong crowd,” the film cuts to a delightfully morbid shot of a chick hanging by her neck from a noose in a post-industrial hellhole in a sardonic scene featuring girly 1950s romance music. Eventually, the film cuts to a shot of Wojnarowicz, who was also a noted street artist that would tag quotes by William S. Burroughs onto the side of buildings, spray-painting “Where Evil Dwells” over a suburban neighborhood juxtaposed with the distortion-and-drums heavy eponymous ‘theme song’ by J. G. Thirlwell's electronic noise-rock project Wiseblood in a scene that less than subtly ultimately accuses suburbia of being the true source of all-things-sinister. From there, a nihilistic montage begins featuring an old Volkswagen on fire, Kasso and his degenerate buddies destroying buses by beating them with metal rods, and various other examples of decidedly dumb teenage delinquency. To go with the film’s potent theme of moronic teenage delinquency and Kasso’s own personal taste in music, the popular song “Hell Bells” by AC/DC is blasted on the soundtrack (notably, Kasso was arrested while wearing an AC/DC shirt).
The second unofficial segment of the film focuses on the crimes of the main subject and fittingly begins with a vaguely dream-like scene where a priestly Devil (charismatically portrayed by lowbrow pop surrealist artist Joe Coleman, who was incidentally raised the Irish-Catholic tradition) initiates Kasso into the hermetic spiritual realm of the Dark Arts by sharing with him some blood from a goblet as a fairly poorly made inverted cross humorously hangs on the wall in the background. In his first act in tribute to Satan, Kasso goes graverobbing with some of his long-haired burnout buddies and senselessly attempts to destroy a skeleton that he has just dug up by trying in vain to decapitate it with the same shovel he used to dig it up. Of course, fiddling with a decayed corpse is nothing compared to transforming a living human-being into worm meat, or so Kasso will eventually learn on his quest to satisfy Satan's unquenchable thirst for all-things-evil. When the film cuts back to Howdy Doody, co-director Turner appears, knocks over Wojnarowicz with a machete, and takes over his co-director’s place as the ventriloquist. Ultimately, Howdy explains to Turner regarding the supposed objective of Where Evil Dwells that, “It explores the constructions of evil in contemporary America.” When Turner naively asks the doll “What’s evil?,” Mr. Doody states “I’ll show you” and then proceeds to repeatedly stab the filmmaker in the chest with a knife while expressing a sense of savagely sadistic glee that will ultimately characterize Kasso when he kills his comrade. While playfully succumbing to his wounds, Turner cries, “the devil got me,” in a line of dialogue that is clearly meant to mock the tendency of the mainstream media and Christian Evangelists to blame murder and various other crimes on evil forces, especially Satan, instead of the actual criminal.
After the dummy wastes Turner, Kasso and his comrades up the ante in terms of their crimes by dropping a fully dressed skeleton dummy off of a bridge on the Long Island Expressway, which smashes into pieces upon being hit by a car driven by a unsuspecting motorist played by Wojnarowicz (indeed, it seems David W. had the most eclectic ‘roles’ in the film). In what is arguably the most intricate and abstract segment of the film in a nearly 10-minute-long abstract montage that intersects a scene of a first-person-perspective rollercoaster ride (this scene recalls the ending of the No Wave ‘classic’ She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978) directed by Vivienne Dick), shots of the devil hanging out at an abandoned railroad station and eventually self-combusting (as his performance in the film Mondo New York (1988) demonstrates, Coleman used to do a performance art routine under the persona of ‘Dr. Momboozoo’ where he would shock audiences by randomly setting off fireworks that were hidden under his clothing), nighttime shots of a wooded bonfire where Kasso violently murders boyish blond Gary Lauwers by repeatedly stabbing him the eyes with a knife, and daytime shoots of the location of the crime where natural violence is depicted in the form of hundreds upon hundreds of maggots feeding on the corpse of a dead dog and a wounded bird succumbing to its wounds, among other things. After the death of Lauwers, Howdy Doody makes his final appearance in a scene where he is dragged away while screaming after showing off the bloody knife he just used to kill Turner in a scene that seems to symbolize ‘dummy’ Kasso’s ‘fall from grace’ as a moron that mindlessly killed a friend in ostensible tribute to Satan who now has to face the less than comfortable consequences of his nonsensical actions. Somewhat unfortunately, Kasso's untimely post-arrest suicide is not depicted in the film, thus leading the viewer to suspect that the scene was destroyed in Turner's apartment fire.
In the third and shortest segment of the film, killer Kasso, who has clearly already committed self-slaughter in his jail cell, attempts to enter ‘heaven,’ which is in the form of a decrepit and dimly lit restaurant featuring only a handful of occupants where a decidedly degenerate Jesus Christ (played by Sid Vicious’ one-time drug dealer, guido junky Rockets Redglare of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986)) voraciously eats greasy chicken legs and chugs down cans of cheap beer like a gluttonous pig. Not exactly the flashiest of dressers, Kasso attempts to enter heaven while sporting nothing but a pair of jeans and is denied entry by a sort of suavely dressed blond angelic bodyguard, who does not exactly seem particularly impressed with the young killer’s pleas for perennial paradise. Notably, the scenes of the debauched Jesus taking drags of cigarettes and belligerently spitting out bits of his food are juxtaposed with degenerate jazz and audio clips of a televangelist proselytizing and stating unintentionally humorous things like, “What kind of preacher do you think Jesus was? Some of you picture him as some little sissy holding a little billy goat in his hands.” Ultimately, the heaven segment concludes with Jesus flinging his food synced with the carny Christian preacher declaring, “Why do you think the Apostle Paul had his head chopped off? They laid him on a tree and killed him. They killed him because he looked the Pharisees right in the eye. I haven’t been that brave yet. I do it through a television camera.” Clearly, Wojnarowicz and Turner find nothing brave in what the preacher does, but I suspect they feel like they are brave for creating a film like Where Evil Dwells.
Undoubtedly, the fourth and final segment of the film is pure post-industrial apocalyptic anarchy and depicts Kasso’s chaotic descent into hell, which is rather fittingly set to the less than soothing apocalyptic sounds of Diamanda Galás. Shot at a warehouse in lower Manhattan containing a train locomotive that the directors took full advantage of, the segment seems like what might have happened if a couple beauty-hating punks decided to remake Derek Jarman’s classic kaleidoscopic surrealist short Art of Mirrors (1973) in tribute to their favorite slasher killers and S&M bondage flicks. Completely chaotic in direction, framing, narrative, editing, and even wardrobe, the hell segment mainly seems to be a platform for the directors to depict certain sexual fetishes and fantasies they might have had at the time, hence the abundance of unclad men and women in chains and general BDSM-esque imagery that involves supposed demons punishing the damned in a variety of sexually degrading ways that ultimately seem rather tame and goofy in comparison to the torture scenes featured in Pasolini's swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). In its depiction of one half-naked demon sporting both a Freddy Krueger glove and Jason Voorhees face and another half-naked masked demon resembling the more hedonistic yet less homicidal little brother of Leatherface, the segment ultimately has a sort of conspicuously kitschy low-camp character to it that makes it more than clear that the filmmakers do not believe in hell and have seen one-too-many shitty slasher flicks. In a scene that seems like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) meets Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), a hot leather-clad blonde and two leather-fag-esque male friends sit on a large motorcycle together while joyously whipping a prisoner in bondage while Leatherface stands close by and jumps around like a jubilant retard. Baphomet also makes an appearance in the form of a man with a large goat-skull perching on a wall as if he is a bird of prey that is waiting to bite Kasso on his candy ass. Arguably, the most creepy ‘character’ featured in the segment and film in general is a sort of post-apocalyptic tribal negro with a horn on his forehead who is wearing nothing but a straw skirt and chains and who crawls across the top of the train locomotive like a gay ape that is looking for somebody or some thing to rape. Indeed, as demonstrated by a scene where a demon takes a look down the booty shorts of a slightly muscular blond twink that is lifting weights, sodomy is wholly permitted in Wojnarowicz and Turner’s wayward vision of hell. As for Kasso, he is almost wholly irrelevant to the segment and only makes fleeting appearances as a sort of cipher who has already served his purpose for the film as a whole. If there is any star of the hell segment, it is certainly Coleman as the Devil, who is depicted at one point biting off the heads of live rats that have been served to him on a silver platter by a fairly unsavory Satanic butler that is clearly modeled after Alfred Hitchock. In a scene that is obviously one of Coleman’s self-combustion performances ran in reverse, the devil manages to suck an ominous cloud of smoke and sparks back into his body, thus marking the end of the film and the beginning of Kasso's eternal internment in the hyper-hedonistic pleasure-dome known as hell.
If there is any film that seems to manage to depict the collective unconscious of too-stupid-to-be-tragic suicidal killer Ricky Kasso and his similarly infantile metalhead comrades, it is indubitably Where Evil Dwells, which ultimately feels like the most intricate, idiosyncratic, and aesthetically ambitious homemade horror flick ever made as a sort of crack-addled 1980s equivalent to the classic cult horror flick Equinox (1970). In fact, I would argue that the two similarly primitive horror films make for a greatly insightful double-feature, as comparing the flicks will really help the viewer to understand how drastically the morality and spiritually of American's youth has changed over the course of a mere two decade period (while released in 1970, Equinox was actually shot in 1967). While Equinox features a fairly traditional depiction of good and evil and was obviously heavily influenced by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Where Evil Dwells depicts the suburbs as a sort of figurative hell and contains a curious moral compass that is almost as broken as that of its subject Ricky Kasso and the mediocre mainstream heavy metal bands that the killer listened to. Notably, exploitation auteur Jim Van Bebber’s undeniably hilarious short My Sweet Satan (1994) is almost as morally retarded as Wojnarowicz and Turner’s flick in terms of its cynical depiction of Kasso’s crimes, but at least it does not feature a sort of glaringly superficial pseudo-(meta)political subtext about the supposed sinister character of the suburbs. In terms of films presenting a less artsy fartsy approach to the Kasso case, Matthew Carnahan’s Black Circle Boys (1997) features a fictionalized account of the story and it is not much more than an eclectically mediocre coming-of-age melodrama that was made to wet the panties of preteen girls as demonstrated by the fact that it stars intellectually vacant pretty boys like Donnie Wahlberg, Scott Bairstow, and Eric Mabius portraying teenage Goth druggie degenerates. While certainly superior to Black Circle Boys, the unreleased feature Ricky 6 (2000) directed by Hollywood screenwriter Peter Filardi (Flatliners, The Craft) and starring Vincent Kartheiser as a fictional character based on Kasso can hardly be described as a masterpiece. Incidentally, at the end of the somewhat generic but informative Kasso documentary Satan in the Suburbs (2000), narrator Will Lyman's final three last words are, “...where evil dwells.” Of course, judging simply by the doc's grating docudrama reenactment scenes, I doubt the makers ever bothered to watch Turner and Wojnarowicz's bizarrely kitschy Kasso piece.
In many ways, Where Evil Dwells is strikingly different from Wojnarowicz’s other films, namely in that it is almost completely devoid of homosexual content and reductionist orientated accusations against Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and the U.S. Government for supposedly being directly responsible for the fact that armies of tearoom homos were kicking the bucket as a result of gay cancer. Of course, the film is also in many ways typical of the filmmaker’s oeuvre due to its aberrant allegorical imagery and in that it features overtly hateful one-dimensional agitprop style assaults against Christianity and suburbia, thereupon oftentimes making the film seem like the lurid yet somewhat botched wet dream of some bitterly enraged and innately irrational punk rock poser who dropped out of high school and wants to take out all of his anger on his parents for not understanding him. Judging by Turner’s short Simonland (1984)—a mind-numbingly dumb and remarkably technically inept film about mind-control that, according to Nick Zedd in his work Bleed, was not surprisingly shot while all the actors and crew members were “high on dope”—one can probably assume that the more goofy and philistine oriented aspects of Where Evil Dwells can be credited to him and not Wojnarowicz, whose avant-garde queer works like Fear of Disclosure: Psycho-Social Implications of HIV Revelation (1989) co-directed Phil Zwickler and ITSOFOMO: In the Shadow of Forward Motion (1991) co-directed by Ben Neill are completely devoid of narratives and hardly feature the sort of less than half-baked stoner humor that is typical of his comrade. Indeed, the film might be not much more than a ‘glorified trailer’ that was directed by two serious fuck ups, but Where Evil Dwells is certainly one of the more idiosyncratic and inventive films of the Cinema of Transgression movement and one could fairly safely argue that this is largely the result of Wojnarowicz’s angst-ridden Weltanschauung, which was clearly more cultivated than that of one-note wonders like Zedd and Richard Kern.
Notably, it seems that Wojnarowicz, who funded Where Evil Dwells with money that he made from selling his paintings, decided to give up on the film before it was finished due to problems Turner and his drug addiction (it is rumored that he shot part of the film's budget into his arm), or as he said in a 1991 interview with Jeri Cain Rossi, “I mean, it just kept going and going and going […] It was fun. But it just got too scattered because of the addiction and stuff, and so finally I just said ‘Look, I’ve got to stop. I can’t go any further.’ And we shot at least three quarters of the film. I think there are still a handful of scenes. We wanted to get down but we never had a chance.” Of course, as a sometimes filmmaker who is probably better known for everything else he did aside from filmmaking (though his film work made posthumous headlines in November 2010 when his work A Fire in My Belly was removed from the Smithsonian Institution as a result of pressure from a Catholic group that felt it contained ‘hate speech’ due to a silly scene where ants crawl on a crucifix), it should be no surprise that most of Wojnarowicz's cinematic works remain unfinished and largely exists in fragmented excerpt forms. As a man that is largely (in)famous for going on heated performance art rants where it seems like his head is going to explode (notably, in the Rosa von Praunheim doc Silence = Death (1990), he states regarding his belief that the U.S. Government is responsible for homos dying of AIDS, “It’s not my sucking dick that is responsible for my death, or my getting fucked in the ass, or any of these things. These people, at this point, are responsible for my death because their inactivity and their total gesture of silence after eight years of this”), Wojnarowicz seems like a perennial angry teenage boy and Where Evil Dwells is certainly nothing if not a surprisingly potent yet pathetic piece of visceral youthful celluloid rage. Indeed, as a sometimes reluctant supporter of the auteur theory, I tend to believe that most good films can only have one god and the film certainly suffers from the masturbatory fantasies of a resentful queer in a sort of internal personal hell who hates Christianity more than homo-hating Evangelicals hate gay agitators like himself. Undoubtedly, the best compliment I can pay Where Evil Dwells is that it almost has a mystifying essence about it to the point where one could almost believe that it was made by a cult of murderous Kasso fanboys who dug up the teenage junky killer's grave and placed the film inside his casket, only for it to be unearthed a decade or so later by another group of morbidly misguided Kasso fanboys and unleashed onto the world without warning. Of course, I also like to think that Kasso would have loved and worshiped the film more than he purported to love and worship the devil.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:49 AM
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