Saturday, April 5, 2008

Movie: Mulberry St.

Every so often, I gorge myself on horror movies. There's no rhyme or reason to it; it simply happens. The last time this occurred was coincidentally during the theatrical release of the After Dark Horrorfest, wherein I watched three films, one good, the other two not as good. So much like any other monster movie sequel, I'm back for the survivors.

I really had meant to see Mulberry St. in the theater—the premise sounded like an novel twist on regular zombie gutmunching lore. Instead of undeath-spread-by-bite, you have the zombies instead becoming rat-human hybrids. Or, essentially, actors with extra patches of hair and pointy mouth prosthetics. And while it sounds somewhat ridiculous—and, let's face it, it is—Mulberry St. turns out to be actually good. The contagious, anthrophagous, rat-people are the donnĂ©; the strength of the movie lies in its characters.

No, I actually said characters. Instead of the usual cardboard cut-out post-adolescents who live to die, Mulberry St. takes the time to craft down-to-earth characters; instead of focusing on the rich and beautiful, the tenants of the apartment building on the titular Mulberry St. have unglamourous jobs (bartender! pensioner! handyman!), have scars and flaws, and have conflicting desires. Worse, they seem to be well into their thirties if not older! Indeed, two of the characters are elderly and slightly debilitated; one is attached to an oxygen tank and mentions that he used to be a munitions expert. Gee, you think that'll play a role later? And even though some of the characters seem to play towards a certain type (Coco, for instance, is a black drag queen, which means his survivability rating is near nil), the actors bring life and nuance to them. Thus, when people start becoming rat chow, their deaths have an emotional impact.

Undoubtedly, the film strives for populist appeal. Yuppies and gentrifiers (embodied by the good-looking spokesmodel of the Crome Development company) are as much villians as the rat-people. After all, Crome has condemned the apartment building using eminent domain and plans to raze it in favor of higher-rent properties. Sounds like Manhattan, all right. (My friend Sam has written an essay about gentrification and horror which could shed some light on this subject.) But, fear not, the yuppies get their comeuppance. As the rat-people begin to multiply, they find bar-going yuppies particularly easy prey: soft and too loaded down with their own self-worth to run properly. Indeed, even as Manhattan is quarantined and panic overtakes the street, a yuppie couple runs with their baby from the Mulberry St. building, causing one of the aforementioned pensioners to yell after them, "Go back to Connecticut!"

The spectres of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina also weighs into the film. One of the characters, a wounded Iraqi war veteran with unsightly scars on her face has is berated when she leaves her bag unattended, but is also thanked for her service. (On the train, a cell-phone yapping commuter sits across from her, making her self-reflexively try to hide her scars beneath her hair: yuppie scum!) The mayor of New York City—who looks suspiciously like Bernard Kerik—gives live statements from the safety of Bermuda, while the city's emergency response breaks down. The final scene with biohazard-suited paramilitaries storming the city building by building seems reminiscent of war footage. Needless to say, the film ends on a particularly downbeat note.

(Interesting sidenote: on the DVD extras, there's a deleted scene which brings these issues much more to the forefront, with one character explicitly comparing yuppies to rats and another talking about biological warfare. A bit on the nose, I think, and a smart excision.)

Finally, this review wouldn't be complete without a mention of the queer content. Sure, the movie doesn't make a big deal of Coco's sexuality—it's an implicit given—but his relationship to the main character, Clutch, seems particularly ambiguous. Coco is introduced via a series of pictures which shows him, Clutch, and Casey (Clutch's daughter, the war vet) together. This implies an intimacy which is never fully addressed. Clutch seems like a red-blooded male; his attraction to Kay, the Eastern European single mother upstairs, means that he rides to her rescue, and when Coco caresses Clutch's cheek, Clutch rebuffs him away definitively, but not maliciously. Also ambigious: at the end of the film, the rat-ified Kay pauses before her son, sniffing him, but not attacking. It's as if she recognizes him as family. Similarly, the rat-ified Coco does the same to Clutch. Does this imply a closer relationship than we're lead to believe? It's this sort of character-based complexity which helps Mulberry St. transcend its silly concept and become something not just horrifying, but stirring, as well.

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