Oct 14, 2015

Screamplay




While I typically loathe fiction writing aside from some pre-Stephen King horror and the occasional racially charged dystopian work like Jean Raspail’s eerily prophet novel Le Camp des Saints (1973) aka The Camp of the Saints, I recently got the urge to watch a horror-related flick about a writer who is losing their mind and I was not in the mood to re-watch a film as long as Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). After watching a couple minutes of Steve Miner’s Vietnam War themed horror-comedy House (1986), I got rather annoyed by the film’s overt phoniness and uncultivated goofiness and began looking for other options, thus leading me to momentarily consider watching third rate works like Oliver Stone’s fairly rough debut feature Seizure (1974) aka Queen of Evil and Maltese-Canadian auteur Mario Azzopardi’s somewhat genre-confused feature Deadline (1984), but I was not in a masochistic enough mindset to endure either work. Luckily, as a direct result of my recent obsession with the Kuchar brothers, just the right film I was looking for practically fell right into my lap. Indeed, Screamplay (1985) written and directed by onetime-auteur Rufus Butler Seder not only stars George Kuchar in the most curiously boorishly ‘butch’ acting role of his career as a murderously aggressive meathead with an unquenchable thirst for young pussy, but it is also probably the only film ever released by the proud smut-peddlers at Troma Entertainment that has any sort of true artistic merit as a strikingly potent piece of neo-Expressionist metacinema of the fairly idiosyncratic and satirical horror-comedy oriented sort that was shot on bold black-and-white film stock and features pleasantly primitive special effects. A work that is to noir-ish Hollywood Babylon-esque Hollywoodland classics like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) what the epically unhinged Kuchar penned pornographic cult classic Thundercrack! (1975) was to classic ‘old dark house’ mysteries like The Old Dark House (1932), Seder’s film is one of those oh-so rare works that I would describe as a sort of regrettably undiscovered cult classic as a cinematic work that probably owes its undeserved marginality due to its rather unfortunate association with the celluloid turd factory known as Troma (notably, in the introduction to the DVD release of the film, Lloyd Kaufman described Seder as, “The Luis Buñuel of Tromaville”). 



 A fairly singular work that might be described as a curious cross between the campy cult classics of Paul Bartel like Private Parts (1972) and Eating Raoul (1982), Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980), the shamelessly cinephiliac works of Guy Maddin, and kitschy lo-fi avant-garde flicks of Kuchar and his all the more perverse student Curt McDowell, Screamplay managed to effectively end writer, director, and star Seder’s all-too-brief filmmaking career due to its commercial failure, though he would later utilize some of the special effects he pioneered in the film to start an artistically revolutionary career with his artistic invention of ‘Lifetiles,’ which are animated murals that can be found in museums and various other institutions around the world.  The genesis of the film came as a result of Seder moving back to Boston from Los Angeles after spending about a decade attempting to get a feature made about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla that was ultimately ruined as a result of the quite dubious business tactics of a sleazy producer (not surprisingly, Screamplay features multiple sleazy Hebraic Hollywood producer types).  Not unlike David Lynch, Seder, who began making films when he was only 12, studied at the American Film Institute and he won various awards for his experimental shorts, but his first feature would not be his Eraserhead (1977), at least as far as cult status is concerned.  Although mostly shot in a 20 foot by 40 foot ‘makeshift studio’ that the director assembled inside his South Boston loft, the film manages to conjure up the illusion of a somewhat eerie Expressionist Hollywood apartment complex, which is inhabited by a number of eccentric lowlife types, including a proudly wanton washed-up B-movie actress, burn out dope-addled rocker with a messianic mindset, and a hopelessly desperate aspiring young actress who has big dreams but questionable talent. Featuring auteur Seder himself in the lead role as an eccentric novice screenwriter who comes to Hollywood in the hope of starting a career but ultimately gets in the middle of a whodunit murder mystery and finds himself working as a janitor for $30.00 a week at a sleazy apartment building as the personal bitch boy of a remarkably macho George Kuchar (who apparently modeled his performance after Richard Gere’s in Jim McBride’s Godard remake Breathless (1983)), Screamplay has apparently been described by its director as “kinda boring,” yet I found it to be the most shockingly entertaining film I have seen in some time as a shamelessly cinephiliac satire of Tinseltown that features both camp and arthouse elements and unwittingly exposes Sin City (2005) for the intolerably phony faux-noir fanboy porn piece that it is. A work that the eponymous auteur of Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) seems to have borrowed a good portion of his ideas from, the film is ultimately a sad example of a first time auteur making an excellent and fairly original work that has unfortunately been virtually relegated to the celluloid dustbin of history. 



 Screamplay begins with a premise that is indubitably patently preposterous but somehow manages to mostly work in the end. Indeed, the film starts with a shot of dorky protagonist Edgar Allan (Rufus Butler Seder) sitting with his arms raised over his typewriter like a seemingly possessed Frankenstein monster and attempting to finish a screenplay-cum-letter, which is more or less the film's entire storyline, before a shadowy monster of sorts that has just invaded his room attacks him, or as the character writes himself, “Dear Mr. Weiner, just a quick note to tell you that the killer is approaching me from behind and, by the time you read this, I may be very well dead. It’s all because of my screenplay. I’ll try to explain as quickly as possible. It all started a short time ago when I first arrived here in. . .Hollywood.” Mr. Al Weiner (somewhat humorously played by the director’s father Eugene Seder, who was also responsible for some of the film’s special effects) is a sleazy Hollywood producer with a stereotypical German-Jewish surname who the protagonist bumps into at the beginning of the film after his wife leaves him because he is broke and refuses to go to his big Hollywood movie mogul brother Irving Weiner (Bob Wilson) for help since he is a fairly prideful creature. After arriving in Hollywood via bus, Edgar goes by a diner and annoys the exceedingly bitchy waitress (Johanna Wagner) because he wants to make the most of a $1.00 minimum the place has and becomes somewhat indecisive in terms of what type of pie he wants (Edgar can’t decided between coconut cream pie and deep-dish poison berry). When the waitress calls Edgar a “creepy little jerk,” he becomes discernibly enraged and immediately takes his revenge by whipping out his typewriter and writing a scenario where the cunty server is violently murdered by a mysterious figure that stabs her in the face with a pie cutter, thus causing her blood and pie pieces to splatter across the diner's $1.00 minimum sign. After the protagonist types up the fairly inspired death scene, Al Weiner shows up at the diner and gives Edgar his business card. Of course, little does Edgar realize that a scummy little parasite like Weiner will ultimately be his savior in the end, but not before the protagonist experiences destitution, mental deterioration, and the murder of various new friends, among various other unpleasant things. 




 After leaving the diner and subsequently joyously passing the Hollywood Walk of Fame stars of great iconic horror figures like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre, Edgar has the honor of going to an old school movie theater where he pays one dollar to attend a triple horror feature of German Expressionist classics that includes such masterpieces as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920), and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but things go completely downhill for the protagonist after that. Indeed, while Edgar is taking a piss in a theater urinal, a deranged tranny on roller-skates glides into the bathroom, snatches his typewriter, and then pulls a gun on the protagonist and declares “Chow baby” when he attempts to get his prized personal possession back. Luckily, a boorish middle-aged brute named Martin (George Kuchar) soon emerges from one of the bathroom stalls, twirls the transvestite around on his roller-skates, and then breaks his neck with outstanding ease while the cross-dressing crook is still spinning around in circles. While Edgar is shocked by what he witnesses and complains “She’s dead,” Martin does not shed a single tear for his gender-challenged victim, stating, “It doesn’t matter. This whole entire is a garbage can full of maggots and flies. You gotta’ squat a couple now and again just to keep them in line.” Not long after, police attempt to break into the bathroom, so Edgar escapes with Martin, but he unfortunately leaves a page from his script behind, thus giving the less than bright cops a lead. Needless to say, the police are not too disheartened to find the wasted tranny criminal lying dead on the bathroom floor, with one cop quipping, “We got one dead closet queen” and pocketing the dead sadistic shemale’s cash. 




 Martin is the manager of an apartment building called ‘Welcome Apartments’ and he offers Edgar a room to stay in and $30 a week to be building’s custodian, which the desperate protagonist naturally reluctantly accepts. While Edgar remarks, “Don’t worry. Writers are very solitary sorts of people” when Martin warns him not to get involved with the other tenants, it is only a matter of time before the protagonist is trapped in a sort of Hollywood ghetto purgatory where every single person seems to suffer from some serious personality disorder. Indeed, the apartment has its own sort of local Norma Desmond figure in the form of a character named Nina Ray (M. Lynda Robinson), who is a proudly whorish washed up B-movie actress that is best known for playing a ‘vampire princess’ in a fictional film called Kiss and Kill and who more or less rapes Edgar when he comes by her apartment to fix her tub. Nina proudly proclaims that she has the “hottest titties in Hollywood” and that she “fucked some biggies to get where I am today,” yet nowadays she is willing to fuck wimpy losers like Edgar, thus reflecting her rather tragic fall from grace. Naughty Nina gives acting lessons to a young aspiring actress named Holly (Katy Bolger), who dress like Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and who is dating a motorcycle-riding hotshot actor named Nicky Blair (James M. Connor) who is starring in a $20 million film and is described by the media as the new James Dean, even though he is a rather banal dude with the IQ of a gnat. As the viewer suspects, it is not long before Holly becomes Edgar’s love interest, even if he seems more interested in writing his script than the opposite sex. Arguably the most demented tenant of the apartment building is a burnt out rocker named ‘Lot’ (Bob White), who resembles a cross between Moses and Satan Claus, enjoys playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor on his electric guitar, conjures up religious prophecies while he is high on dope, and believes that the apocalypse is soon coming to the uniquely unholy modern-day Sodom of Hollywood. Of course, when people soon begin dropping dead at the apartment, Lot’s preposterous prophecies begin to seem not all that crazy, at least to him. While Lot warns Edgar, “Hollywood is the land of the doomed” and “Those who come to live here die. Go back, brother, I beg you. A thousand avenging angels of the lord will destroy you with their flaming swords,” the protagonist is broke and has not choice but stay.  Ultimately it is not Lot's prophecies but Edgar's screenplay that will foretell the death and mayhem that will ensue at the apartment complex.




 A figuratively (and arguably literally) deadly serious artist, Edgar offers Holly the following advice in regard to fine tuning her acting skills after watching her pathetic attempt to rehearse lines from Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, “Break through your innocence; let yourself go. Whenever you feel passion of any kind—hatred, jealousy, lust…even the urge to kill…that’s what I use in my writing—latch onto it. Ride it like the crest of a wave. Let the undertow pull you down to your depths. At first, you’ll be terrified and disgusted with what you find, but when you face your despair, your vulgarity, your depravity and learn to bring it all to the surface, that’s when you’ll be a great actress.” Of course, little does Edgar realize how seriously Holly will take his somewhat egomaniacal words of wisdom. When Edgar “Give thanks to the gods of Ganja” by smoking reefer with Lot, the two see a ‘vision’ of the protagonist attempting to strangle Holly to death by the apartment poolside.  Naturally, deluded dope fiend Lot decides to “purge” Edgar of his “evil” by burning his hand. In revenge against Lot for senselessly burning his hand on an open flame, Edgar decides to write a scene in his screenplay where a “burnt out rock star” is fittingly burnt alive after being drenched with gasoline and lit on fire. In fact, anytime a character does something that annoys Edgar, he gets his revenge by ‘killing them off’ via his screenplay, but things get extra weird for the protagonist when these people being dropping dead in real-life in the same exact fashion that he had written. 



 When a super sleazy would-be producer named Keven Kleindorf (played by Hollywood sound editor Ed Callahan) that makes Al Weiner seem like a priest by comparison in terms of moral bankruptcy approaches the protagonist and offers him his services in regard to getting his screenplay turned into a movie, Edgar is more annoyed than anything, but that does not stop the ambiguously kosher conman from routinely hassling him about his script. Meanwhile, Holly begins throwing herself at Edgar and saying preposterous things like, “Do anything you want to me. Help me to explore my passion,” even though she is still dating Nicky. Though Edgar initially attempts to ignore Holly's rather flagrant sexual advances, he soon finds himself somewhat falling in love with her. While Nicky eventually lands Holly a major role in a big budget movie and even offers Edgar a job on the production, it all falls through in an extra tragicomedic when the Hollywood heartthrob moronically crashes his beloved motorcycle into the side of a large truck. Naturally, Holly becomes quite upset when she sees her suave beau smashed like a fly and Martin attempts to comfort her by absurdly declaring “It’s ok, Holly” whilst grabbing her fairly tender tits. Martin is in love with Holly and he will do anything to make her a traditional domestic housewife, but she’s repulsed by him, not to mention the fact that she has big dreams of becoming a legendary Hollywood diva. When Nicky drops dead, Lot stoically declares like a thoroughly inebriated ghetto wino, “Nicky Blair’s death is the beginning of the end. Nicky, in his blind search for the top, has fallen into the pits of hell. There can be no escape. We’re all going to die.” Indeed, not long after Nicky kicks the bucket, Nina is drowned in her bathtub and two distinctly moronic police detectives, Sgt. Joe Blatz (George Cordeiro) and his much taller and dimmer Guido sidekick Tony Cassano (Basil J. Bova), begin suspecting that Edgar is the culprit due to a tip from the bitchy waitress from the beginning of the film.




 With Edgar being suspected of Nina's death, shameless scumbag Kleindorf decides to get the media involved so as to get publicity for the protagonist’s screenplay, which is beginning to mirror reality in a way that does not sit well with the young screenwriter. Meanwhile, Al Weiner tries in vain to get in contact with Edgar about buying his script for $100,000 since his media mogul brother Irv Weiner wants to make a “classy and bloody” film. On top of everything else, Edgar begins suspecting that Martin might be the killer. Martin also begins getting on Edgar about not doing his custodial work and makes violent threats to him like, “You cross me and I’ll kick your artsy fartsy into the street. Remember, as long as you’re here, you’re a custodian…a janitor…a peon…a nothing.” To make matters worse, someone has stolen Edgar’s script which, if found by the cops, could be used as evidence against the protagonist. Towards the end of the film, things come full circle, with the same scene from the beginning of the film of Edgar typically demonically at his typewriter as some ominous figure’s shadow lurks over him. The ominous figure in question is revealed to be Martin and he has come to bash Edgar’s brains in with a mallet because he wrongly thinks that he is the killer, but luckily Holly saves the day and knocks him out before he can crack the protagonist's skull. Unfortunately, things get strange for Edgar when Holly begins strangling him while reciting a scene from his script. Indeed, not only is Holly the person who stole Edgar’s script, but she is also the killer. Luckily for Edgar, Martin eventually wakes up and knocks Holly out before she can kill him. Somewhat absurdly, Martin accuses Edgar of forcing him to hit his beloved Holly over the head with a mallet and then begins to prepare to crush the protagonist’s skull with his own typewriter, but luckily Joe Blatz and his cop goons show up at just the right second and shoot the apartment manager with so many bullets that he falls through a wall. While succumbing to her head wounds, Holly confesses to Edgar in regard to why she committed the grisly murders, “Look, Edgar, it was me! I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to show you what a great actress I could be. And I am a great actress, aren’t I? Tell me! And I’ll be great in Nicky’s movie, won’t I? Kiss me, Edgar. You’re a great screenwriter. Preparing for this role was so difficult, but acting in your movie taught me so much. You were right, I was limited, but now I’m ready to play anything. I could play any role. It was hard work, but we did it. We sunk to the depths. . .together.” In the end, Edgar reluctantly agrees to sell his script to Weiner’s brother's studio. When Weiner asks Edgar, “Who would want to kill a talented kid like you?” after he reveals that he was almost murdered, the protagonist concludes the film with the tastefully cheesy pun, “Holly would.” 




 It would probably interest fans of the Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) director that $20,000 out of about $45,000 of the budget of Screamplay was spent on George Kuchar’s hospital bills after he broke his ankle in three places while working on the film. Personally, I think that was a small price to pay, as Kuchar unequivocally gives the greatest and most memorable performance in the film and saves it from being simply yet another horror film with superlatively shitty acting. Despite the fact that even director/star Sefer agrees that he gave the greatest performance in the film, Kuchar apparently felt he gave a horrendous performance, or as he stated in an interview with Scott MacDonald that is featured in the book A Critical Cinema (1988), “When I got on the set, I decided I was going to be OK: I wasn’t going to fall apart ahead of time. I was going to be a together person. Then the night before my big scene, I fell apart as usual. I was just a wreck. I knew my lines and everything, but I went through the thing in a daze, and I thought I was absolutely awful and felt so sorry for them having paid the airfare to get me out there to do the scene. I was just so hideous, and I knew I said the lines horribly. Then nobody said anything. I thought they were too embarrassed to tell me how horrible it was […] Then the next day the director said it was really good, and I said I thought it was miserable. It was constantly like that through the whole picture. I was always just hideous.” Of course, as a goofy queer who actually manages to be highly believable as a sort of creepily hyper horny macho pig with homicidal tendencies, Kuchar’s performance is nothing short of unbelievably outstanding and even comparable to Marlon Brando's in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) in a curious sort of way. 




 While I typically loathe films like the badly botched Lovecraft adaptations The Call of Cthulhu (2005) directed by Andrew Leman and The Whisperer in Darkness (2011) directed by Sean Branney as well as Michel Hazanavicius’ obscenely overrated Academy Award winning turd The Artist (2011) that attempt to parrot outmoded vintage film styles, Screamplay is original, aesthetically idiosyncratic, and enthralling enough to be more than just a cheap gimmick or curious novelty. In fact, I found the film so aesthetically enamoring that I was not all that surprised to learn that auteur Rufus Butler Seder eventually became a Renaissance man of sorts whose Lifetiles exhibits are featured in museums all around the world, thus it was somewhat a blessing that Screamplay was a flop as it led him to creating a new art form, even if it seems somewhat like a cinematic tragedy that he never got the chance to make another film. As Seder told NewsOK regarding his interest in film, “I was more interested, I think, in the plasticity of film for the lack of a better word, rather than directing actors,” which is somewhat strange considering his film is just as entertaining in terms of characters as it is with its fairly singular mise-en-scène and special effects. The only other sort of neo-Expressionist film from the 1980s that I can recommend aside from Seder’s work is the somewhat obscure German flick Die letzte Rache (1982) aka The Last Revenge directed by Rainer Kirberg, though it is somewhat less accessible (indeed, while featuring fairly preternatural visuals, Seder's flick can be easily followed by both art-shy gorehounds and autistic fanboys). For those interested in seeing Screamplay, it is also probably worth watching the film with the audio commentary track by Seder that is featured with the Troma DVD release. Among other things, Seder reveals in the commentary his affinity for Buñuel and the fact that Troma Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz had “absolutely nothing” to do with the film. Seder originally planned to have New Line Cinema release the film but after a disastrous review following the Boston Film Festival, Seder had to settle for Troma, which he described as “the bottom of the barrel choice.” Indeed, in an interview with Michael Adams at Movieline, Seder demonstrated his dissatisfaction with Troma distributing the film, stating, “I never really felt that my movie belonged in their pantheon.” Ideally, it would probably be best if Kino Lorber re-released the film, but something tells me that Lloyd Kaufman is not interested in promoting cinematic art unless the price is right.  Both a love letter to horror film history and an ambitious cinematic experiment in the eccentrically phantasmagorical, Screamplay seems like what avant-garde cinema would be like if it was specially tailored to be palatable to normal folk.



-Ty E

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