Saturday, 21 August 2010

Steve's Review: All About Evil

ALL ABOUT EVIL (Dir: Joshua Grannell)

Why do we love horror movies? What is it that we love about them? What needs do they fulful for us? These are the questions posed by Joshua Grannell’s outrageous feature film debut ALL ABOUT EVIL, which interrogates even as it celebrates the wilder excesses of genre cinema.

The film tells the story of Deborah Tennis (Natasha Lyonne), a mousy librarian, who inherits a grind house cinema specialising in cult b-movies and gory 70s and 80s horror flicks. Haunted by her failure to become the child star her beloved father dreamed she would be, tormented by her cruel and rapacious mother, Deborah is driven over the edge into committing murder. But her crime is caught on camera, and accidentally screened to her cinema audience to rapturous applause. Suddenly, all of Deborah’s dreams of cinematic success start to come true. She is feted as a visionary director; her screenings become the hottest ticket in town. The only problem is the continual need to find new performers to appear in her films. Fortunately, however, Deborah has a lot of rage issues to work out. Enlisting the aid of her embittered elderly projectionist Mr Twigs, degenerate hustler Adrian and psychotic twins Veda and Vera, she quickly builds the ideal crew for her cinematic endeavours, and sets to work. Meanwhile, horror film buff Steven, her biggest fan, longs to get to know her better…

Were I pitching the idea to Hollywood Executives, I’d probably describe it as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE directed by Hershell Gordon Lewis… And of course they wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about, because the people financing films today have no sense of Cinema History - particularly the less “respectable” parts. ALL ABOUT EVIL, however, is steeped - soaked! - in that bloody history. Grannell is better known as his demonic drag diva alter-ego Peaches Christ, host of San Francisco’s infamous “Midnight Mass” screenings, celebrating all that is camp, gory, and gloriously tacky in cinema past and present. Grannell’s love for the horror genre is evident in every frame of his film. Opening with a beautiful title sequence, incorporating re-imagined versions of dozens of classic B-movie posters, and crammed with visual and verbal in-jokes, arcane allusions and mischievous references galore, this is a cult cineaste’s delight, a multi-layered slice of self-referential meta-cinema, with even the title being a cheeky bit of wordplay on the seminal Joseph L. Mankiewicz / Bette Davis movie ALL ABOUT EVE.

Yet however post-modern the film may be, this is not at the expense of narrative, character and sheer creative chutzpah. Grannell never forgets that first and foremost his film should be fun. ALL ABOUT EVIL’s purpose is above all to entertain, and in this it is a roaring success, both as a fast-paced 80s-style slasher movie thrill-ride, and as a blackly comic parody, with the cast catching the tone perfectly. Natasha Lyonne’s star turn as Deborah is a cunning compendium of filmic femmes fatales, skilfully leaping from Mae West, to Bette Davis, to Joan Crawford (or perhaps Faye Dunaway’s nightmarish caricature thereof in MOMMIE DEAREST), to Queen of the New York Underground Lydia Lunch. The rest of the cast deliver equally well-judged turns. Cult character actor Jack Donner (you name it, he’s been in it!), exudes seedy, gleeful malice as Mr Twigs, and there is a magnificently witchy turn from the Amazonian Julie Caitlin Brown, as Deborah’s vile mother. Ironically, but altogether appropriately, it is the stars most associated with camp who are given the warmest, most sympathetic roles: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark herself, Cassandra Peterson, is effectively cast against type as Steven’s bemused but understanding mother, while John Waters regular Mink Stole brings unexpected humanity and pathos to the role of the elderly spinster chief librarian whose well-meant interference Deborah so resents.

The result is a riotous splatter-satire, which is not afraid to mix laugh-out-loud black comedy with some genuinely queasy moments of violence and gore. The casting nod to the “Pope of Trash” John Waters is entirely fitting. The film’s closest relative is probably Waters’ CECIL B. DEMENTED - another lament for everything that has been lost in this blanded-out world of pre-sold, pre-tested, corporate-sponsored, product-placement-stuffed multiplex fodder. Joshua Grinnell - or is it Peaches Christ? - offers us a chance to enter a world where the carnival barker antics of William Castle, and the blood-drenched excesses of H. G. Lewis, the cartoon bawdiness of Russ Meyer and the huckster genius of Roger Corman, are not forgotten. Where Cinema remains…magic!