Saturday, April 5, 2008

Movie: Nightmare Man

It's my own fault, I suppose, that I expected the films in the After Dark Horrorfest to have achieved some level of professionalism and polish. Part of the appeal of bad horror is its utter cheapness. So far, so good. But for that cheapness to get a theatrical release -- even as limited as Horrorfest was -- seems absurd. I mean, the opening credits seem as though they were programmed with a Commodore 64. The music was so generic that I'm surprised it didn't come from a brown paper bag. The movie reeked of straight-to-video.

And yet... at some point, I stopped being annoyed with the movie and let myself enjoy the utter cheesiness. That's not to say that I surrendered to its charms; rather, I said, Screw it. In the words of Bill, a Brazillian version of Bruch Campbell but without the self-deprecating charm, "This whole ordeal will be over before you know it." So, before three minutes of the movie have elapsed, we get a side boob shot. Before four minutes, we get complete nudity. This is a blessing in disguise, because since for the rest of the film, this actress varies between two lines: "No!" and "I need my pills!"

The story (such as it is) revolves around Bill and Ellen, a married couple who hope to spice up their romantic life with an African fertility mask. That's like having a Zuni fetish doll in your house. (This begs the question of why indigenous artifacts always bear some sort of evil curse. Damn you, colonialism!) Needless to say, Ellen becomes haunted in a most uncomfortable way and shakes herself into the dreaded it was all a dream" sequence. As it turns out, Ellen's now on her way to a sanitarium with Bill when their car mysteriously runs out of gas. As Bill goes off to find help, Ellen is terrorized by a mask-wearing fiend while huddled in the car -- echoes of Penny Dreadful from 2006's Horrorfest -- and she wisely chooses to abandon the vehicle and stumbles into a cabin full of young lovers playing "erotic truth-or-dare." If it sounds bad written out, just imagine Ellen's flight from a knife-wielding pursuer cross-cut with scenes of a black lingerie striptease. Don't even get me started on why someone would go into the dark woods wearing only a bra and panties and wielding a crossbow.

The movie seems to be a showcase for up-and-coming scream queen Tiffany Shepis -- Jamie Lee Curtis needn't get her guard up. Whereas Ms. Curtis chose roles in which she could be vulnerable, Ms. Shepis seems to prefer roles where she's a smart-ass or naked. Or both! Her pan-sexual portrayal of Mia means that Shepis gets to spit out choice one-liners with relative gusto and not an ounce of believeability. I can see how this is manna to a certain demographic -- but how about something for the rest of us?

Like I said, at some point, I just let myself enjoy the film -- but I could only do so up to a point. Nightmare Man never attempts to be scary and revels in its own campiness; it just wants to entertain. That's why I'm disturbed by the sexual violence. The demonic Nightmare Man enters into Ellen (and, later, Mia) by rape. And for a movie that's trying to be lighthearted, the subject of rape jars terribly with it. Indeed, as the teenagers discuss Ellen's sanity (or lack thereof), a kind, good-natured (and doomed) blonde girl raises rape trauma as a very real explanation for Ellen's behavior. So when Mia's clothes are ripped off by the demon (actually, a CGI effect that reminded me of a fireworks sparkler -- but an evil fireworks sparkler), it's meant to tittilate. But it comes off as exploitative, sleazy, and cheap in a way that has less to do with budget constraints and more to do with a lack of imagination.

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