Thursday, July 30, 2009

Death Warmed Up (1984)

(Spoilers throughout)

David Blyth’s 1984 film Death Warmed Up has achieved some degree of notoriety for being one of the New Zealand’s first slasher films, if not the first. This is debatable—and not merely because such claims are always dubious—but because Death Warmed Up resists any sort of neat categorization. On paper, the film has a typical horror set-up, and contains all the constituent elements of a slasher, but somehow these elements never seem to come together in a meaningful way, and what is instead presented is a confusing and uncomfortable—although in many ways interesting—mess of a movie.

Confusion should be the operative term here. The film opens in-media-res after some beautiful pop-art design-y titles (a bizarre through-line), wherein precocious sixteen year old Michael Tucker (Dangerous Orphans’ Michael Hurst) barges into some strange facility, where a woman shouts at him “Wonderful news about your father’s promotion!” as he rushes absurdly fast down a hallway. He stops at the door to some sort of operating room and peeks in. Mike’s spying is indicative of the absurd amount of voyeurism found in this film, and the first hint at the bizarre sexual undertones lurking behind practically every scene in the film. An unknown man (who turns out to be Mike’s father’s research partner Archer Howell) claps a hand down on Mike’s shoulder and leers “You’re all sweaty… let’s get you cleaned up.” Before Michael can respond, the scene cuts to a highly eroticized shot of him luxuriating in the middle of a large locker-room shower. This low-lit, steamy scene is the first of many which heavily sexualize Michael Hurst’s nude or semi-nude body. Dr. Howell (Gary Day) enters silently and sticks Mike in the ass with a needle, cradling him in his arms as he passes out, whispering “trust me”. The lighting in this scene is of a sickly yellow hue. Most of the lighting in this film is monochromatic, the color palette mostly consisting of reds, greens and yellows.

Death Warmed Up is full of smash-cuts, and the first one comes directly after this scene of penetration. Michael is on the same operating table he spied earlier, thrashing about while the camera hovers around his crotch as he turns into some sort of mind-controlled zombie soldier. Following another smash-cut, the locale switches abruptly to Mike’s home, as his scientist father and mother return from some sort of awards banquet. In another heavily sexualized scene, Mike’s mother (Tina Grenville) is seen hanging out in a see-through nighty while his father (David Weatherley) scoffs at a television interview with his partner Howell, who raves “We are the generation of the end!” while detailing his theories about immortality. What follows then is a very uncomfortable sex scene, similarly lit by pallid yellow light (note that it’s light, and not lens gels, which goes farther to create the film’s diseased verisimilitude than stylistic gel shading could).

Just when it seems the film has abandoned Michael, he appears in the bushes outside his folks’ house with dead eyes and a shot-gun. Piling on more scenes of voyeurism, compounded by explicit Freudian theory, Michael pauses to observe his nude mother, before—in what can be read as Oedipal rage—blowing his parents away with Howell’s shot gun, held at crotch level. His father he even blasts below the waist. The grimiest part of this coitus-interuptus is the way the camera seems to sympathize with Michael, lingering outside the house with him and presenting him as a bystander, an innocent pawn, although certain choices he makes seem representative of psychological impulses rather than efficient drone tactics. The shot-gun blasts are presented in agonizing slo-mo, with extended blood-spray and time-stretched screaming.

Amidst more smash-cuts, Michael is taken to an abusive mental ward by Howell, where he is kept in a padded cell lit with blue lamps. The color palette in Death Warmed Up seems at odds with the typical cinematic color wheel, because colors usually associated with warm and positive emotion—yellow, blue—are used to indicate sickness, decay and abuse. I can’t imagine this was an intentional bit of unsettling bait-and-switch, but such counter-intuitiveness works nonetheless. After Mike’s institutional abuse is adequately represented, unassuming text awkwardly explains that “…on an isolated island Doctor Archer Howell is now operating on human patients a trans-cranial application. His first patient was Mr. Tex Monro.” (Whom is played by the great Bruno Lawrence from The Quiet Earth and Jack Be Nimble). As awkward as this bit of exposition is, it’s welcome, because despite the prior detailed synopsis of only the first ten minutes of the film found here, exactly what’s happening can only be realized upon multiple viewings. So much is unstated; characters names aren’t necessarily provided; relationships are unclear; motivations are mysterious. Questions which viewers would naturally ask are never answered. Everything that has just happened could provide the complete narrative for an entirely different film, but here it is squashed down to preamble.

NOW”, appears on the screen (more 1980’s pop-art advertising-type design, with the same sharp lettering, jagged marks and bright colors from the opening credits), and it’s seven years later, and Michael is traveling to “an isolated island” (coastal Australia) to confront Howell. Yet, for some unknown reason, he’s brought his girlfriend Sandy and two of his dopy friends along. There is of course no great reason to bring pals along on a quest for vengeance; this is simply the transparent and non-diagetic supplying of murder victims.

Michael’s quest for revenge/closure could begin on the island, but instead we meet Mike & Co. on a ferry en route to the island. While the film’s prologue moves at break-neck pace, the rest is disproportionately slow, meandering and frustrating. Unimportant scenes drag and drag, while significant plot points come and go with neither care nor attention. There is no reason to include a ferry-ride to the island if not to introduce and set up characters. However, Mike’s pals are so thinly characterized that the opportunity is wasted. Most of the characters in the film are at least shown on camera in this sequence, as it seems the ferry is sailing into the remainder of the film, rather than to an actual island, because all the henchmen and human guinea pigs Mike will confront later are also on the boat. A severely fucked up and decomposing Bruno Lawrence in sequestered in captain’s quarters, while Howell’s lap dogs Jannings and Spider wait in a black van watching Michael’s friends Jeannie and Lucas having sex; “I love the smell of blonde pussy in the morning”, one quips.

These are the patients who’ve undergone Howell’s immortality treatments. The greasy, strung-out lowlifes Howell is experimenting on look like they walked off the set of a post-apocalypse film. Lawrence’s Tex is a creepy hunchbacked retard who’s practically rotting. Presumably Michael underwent a similar treatment, which somehow failed to have the same effect on him. Before the close of the sequence, Tex sprays some neon vomit on the deck and Lucas (William Upjohn) starts a fight with Spider after pissing on his van. Spider is the movie’s most interesting character, really, played with sadistic relish by David Letch (“Ratbag” in Nate & Hayes).

Over the course of this scene (which feels like prologue number two) Michael is revealed to be a rather unlikable character, a hick with a faux-punk attitude. This seems a strange choice, as Michael is a sympathetic character from the start, and, in such an unambitious revenge film, it seems in the film’s best interest to position Mike as a justified protagonist, not a reject from the Future Kill fraternity.

What’s interesting about Death Warmed Up has to do with how the fractured narrative allows for interesting mistakes and flaws. For example, instead of building up to the final confrontation between Howell and Michael, Michael sees Howell walking across the street the moment he arrives on the island. Instead of getting to work at collecting information and planning some sort of attack, Mike takes his friends to the beach or to explore some weird tunnel. The film takes unnecessary diversions into embarrassing comedy, including a truly offensive scene were a white guy plays an obnoxious Indian convenience store clerk.

And while we spend a lot of time with Mike’s pals, we know nothing about them. Lucas is an annoying jock, Jeannie his horny leopard-print wearing girlfriend. Mike’s girlfriend Sandy is largely underdeveloped, although some tics and idiosyncrasies serve to flesh out her character somewhat. In the beach scene, Mike’s ass and boner (!?) are center-frame, as he struts around in his underwear. When he is dressed, he’s wearing a Roy Lichtenstein-esque print shirt and cut-offs, complimenting the film’s specific design scheme. While there’s a lot of slack creatively here, at least the costume department and title company seem to be in sync. All the fashions here are fetishistic, from the tight pants and muscle tees to the post-apocalyptic leather to the revealing nurses’ outfits Howell’s supermodel-assistants wear.

The tunnel-exploration scene at least moves the film forward, as the crew are ambushed by Spider and his pal, who chase the kids on motorbikes. As they ride they pass through orange, red, yellow and blue lights. By this point, any interpretation of color-specific thematic resonance breaks down. In a rapid-fire succession of events reminiscent of the opening scenes, Spider’s partner is killed and Jeannie is nearly killed. What exactly is wrong with her isn’t clear, aside from perhaps a vague head injury. Sandy flips, and demands that Mike take her to the psychiatric hospital, and gets so heated that she strangles Michael while yelling at him. Of course, asking the same people who are responsible for one’s injury for help is ridiculous, but, the narrative needs to get the kids to get to the hospital somehow. Of course, this could have been solved by simply giving Mike a plan in the script, instead of sending him off to the beach without any sort of concrete plan.

As Michael and his friends make their way to the hospital, all hell is breaking lose, as Spider—heartbroken—has decided to free all of Howell’s patients, essentially turning the film into a zombie flick. This scene features a Doctor yelling, “We got an outbreak of psychos!” which is particularly offensive. The zombies mob the island, while Mike and the rest finally arrive at the hospital. In a succession of clunky set-piece action scenes, most everybody dies, including Jeannie. In a satisfying moment, Spider kills Lucas. The subtext here is that Michael is directly responsible, as he’s risked his friends’ lives, and doesn’t seem to feel any guilt or even make the connection.

If it seems like I’ve barely mentioned Dr. Howell, this is because he’s barely a presence in the film. His motivations are broad and clichéd. His part is mysterious. In fact, he’s only really on screen at the beginning and end of the film, serving only to motivate changes in Michael’s personality and priorities. Their confrontation is a role reversal from the early shower scene, and is just as intimate. Howell again wields a phallic weapon under sickly yellow lighting, only this time Michael does the penetration, thrusting a scalpel into Howell’s body as he says “trust me”, mocking Howell earlier line. While this should be the film’s denouement, it seems merely to be another inconsequential moment in a fractured narrative full of confusingly isolated moments.

The real climax comes while Sandy and Mike attempt to flee the island (Spider and hundreds of zombies presumably nearby). They come upon some debris in the road, and are unable to pass. Sandy sobs “Why!?!?” while banging Michael’s head violently while they sit in the defeated getaway-car. Her impulsive violent outbursts are bizarre, but at least serve as some kind of characterization. “It’s over,” he says, then “It hasn’t even begun.”, as if the film is actually the prelude to an epic zombie apocalypse.

(Major spoiler here).

After this, this histrionic and weird film wraps up with a histrionic and weird ending. Michael walks stiffly to the side of the road—recalling his zombified movements from the film’s opening—and is killed by falling power lines. This seems to suggest that Mike is paying for his earlier sins, and that he accepts this, as something about the action of the power lines seems supernaturally predetermined. That said, this is a film which stubbornly resists psychoanalysis. Attempts to pin ideas onto certain moments seem futile.

After Michael dies, Sandy clutches his lifeless body and wails in agony, which is a suitably depressing end for a rather misanthropic film. After the end credits (in the same style of the opening, set to a minimal Eno-esque score), there is one final tag, Spider’s catch-phrase “I’ll get you all!” which seems directed at the audience. This is actually a nice touch, in keeping with this film’s strongest attribute: its assured, cutting edge style, which seems more in line with European art-house cinema, which actually became a hallmark of NZ genre cinema. There isn’t much in Blyth’s resume to indicate this, however. In fact, I don’t know much about Blyth, as his filmography is obscure. Apparently he was fired off the set of House III and directed a childrens film called Grampire. Aside from Bruno Lawrence’s extended cameo, there’s not much here to attract the average genre fan. And while Death Warmed Up is a minor cult film, it hasn’t achieved nearly the notoriety it demands; it would be interesting to see some sort of special edition DVD release.

What’s most unique about Death Warmed Up is how its flaws actually work in its favor. Instead of being a typical slasher film, it is instead a dense and curious mess of a movie which demands repeat viewings. The counter-intuitive workings of the film ask questions that are hard to answer. Why does the film focus its attention of the trivial yet gloss over important events, creating a confusing and elliptical narrative. Why the elevation of typically uninteresting minutia and irrelevant characters driving, waiting and hanging around, while presumable more interesting plot developments take place elsewhere. The film is seriously flawed, yes—these interesting elements never gel as a cohesive whole—but it’s strangeness and ineptitude seem almost experimental in light of the deliberate, assured stylistic choices made. This internal juxtaposition works to cook up a film which has many problems, yet still stands as an intriguing and dreamlike cinematic mutation.

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