Thursday, October 01, 2009

The October Ordeal III 01: Pinocchio's Revenge (1996)

In the wasteland of straight-to-video and small-run 1990s genre cinema, “horror versions” of classic folk tales and fairy stories proliferated. In the 90s, shelves were crowded with titles like Leprechaun, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White: a Tale of Terror, Jack Frost, and Grim Prairie Tales. These films either slot a folk creature into slasher frame-work, or play up strange and vicious elements of classic myths—an act, in this context, both transgressive and traditional. This reaction likely has to do with the last great era of hand-drawn Disney animation. While there is a point to be made that folk tales from around the world have been Christianized generally, and diluted even further by Disney, the films are often uninspired, supplying only gore and cheap laughs in place of what could have been cultural reclamation of the genuine creepiness of Grimm’s fairy tales or various Slavic myths. Interestingly enough, there were many live action iterations of classic tales during the decade as well, even a Jonathan Taylor Thomas/ Martin Landau vehicle simply titled Pinocchio, which remarkably came out the very same year as Pinocchio’s Revenge, in 1996.

Kevin S. Tenney’s Pinocchio’s Revenge appears, from box art, title and trailer, to fit the Leprechaun formula—with a Child’s Play twist—it’s wholly different film. This uniqueness is thanks to writer/director Tenney, creator of the underrated Witchboard series, and director of Night of the Demons and The Cellar.

Pinocchio’s Revenge opens with the caption, “Tampa, Florida, five years ago”. In an economical opening sequence, a Patrolman finds a car on the side of the road, with a child’s lifeless body inside, and a man in the forest, digging a grave. While examining the area later, Police discover that the man, Vincent Gatto, was burying a large wooden Pinocchio puppet. After this short intro tag, a generic news reporter explains that Gatto worked as a wood carver before his arrest, implying that he built the doll, and brings us into the present day, outside the court room where Gatto’s appeal is being heard.

While the sullen Gatto (Lewis Van Bergen) refuses to explain himself at all, his attorney Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen) is convinced of his innocence. Her attempts are unsuccessful (partly due to Gatto’s uncooperative attitude), even though she believes he is lying, to protect a greater, perhaps stranger, truth. Before much can be discovered, Gatto is executed, although Jennifer is haunted by the case. She even takes the Pinocchio doll home to her daughter Zoe.

If this scenario brings to mind a generic episode of Law & Order, that’s not far off. While Pinocchio’s Revenge is an interesting film in many respects, visually it’s rather uninspired, looking and sounding like a TV-movie. While this is somewhat fitting, as the film features many such procedural scenes set in offices and court rooms, the difference between the visual integrity of Tenney’s Witchboard (photographed by Dream Warriors’ Roy H. Wagner) and this film is immense. Cinematography here is by Eric Anderson, an experienced TV DP, who delivers a simple, serviceable image, rather than the rich atmosphere of Tenney’s earlier films.

The relationship between Zoe and the wooden Pinocchio seems at first like a subplot, or a Child’s Play-inspired position for a killer doll to inhabit, it becomes much more. Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith) is a disturbed child, dealing with not only the separation of her parents, but bullying at school. The crucial weakness of the film is Smith’s performance; however the TV-movie Mise en scène forgives this problem somewhat. Acting is generally poor, with Allen’s performance being the best, even if just above serviceable.

Zoe’s therapy scenes are important to the film, and serve as place-markers throughout, as Zoe becomes further unhinged. While her mother and psychiatrist initially see the Pinocchio marionette as a coping mechanism, it soon becomes clear that the presence of the doll is a negative force in Zoe’s recovery. If I’m being obscure about the doll, this is because the film is obscure about Pinocchio by design. His true nature is never really explained, and it makes as much sense here to assume Zoe is talking to a hunk of wood as it is to guess that Pinocchio is container of some sort of possessing demon. It is never suggested that this is Pinocchio the literary figure, as the character is only tangentially related to the film, and is never linked thematically. Whether he can actually talk and move, or we are privy to Zoe’s delusions, is mysterious. While he is silent for the first forty or so minutes of the film, when he does eventually speak, Pinocchio is voiced by veteran voice actor Dick Beals (best known as Davey from Davey & Goliath). In the few scenes where Pinocchio is seen to move, he is played by a young Verne Troyer in his first role.

While the mother-daughter relationship is the focus of the film, there are many peripheral characters, whom really only exist as victims or potential victims. Most important to the film's central mother-daughter-doll core is Sophia (Candace McKenzie), the Garrick’s Italian nanny. Also in the mix are Jennifer’s co-worker Barry (veteran television face Ron Canada)--who serves only to gift the doll to Zoe in the first place--and Jennifer’s boyfriend David (Todd Allen), whom is hardly developed at all. Sophia however, has many scenes, including the only real moment of humor in the film: after Sophia finds Zoe and Pinocchio waiting for her outside the shower, Zoe tells her mother, referring to Pinocchio: “He’s curious about ladies’ bodies.”

Two characters in the film serve to define the central ambiguity of the film. First is the aforementioned Psychiatrist, Dr. Edwards (Aaron Lustig, character actor whose resume is stuffed with similar roles), and an unnamed priest (Michael Connors) who outlines (by his very presence) one possible Pinocchio theory, whereas the counter is presented by the scientific authority of Dr. Edwards. Clearly this device serves to condone differing audience reactions. This becomes undeniable considering the film’s conclusion.

Whether or not Pinocchio is possessed or alive, it’s clear that Zoe needs him to deal with abandonment issues. From here the film makes a connection between Gatto’s son and Zoe, which leads Jennifer to think that Gatto may have been protecting his disturbed son, whom she thinks had committing murders of his own. She fears Zoe is enacting a sympathetic duplication of Gatto’s son’s ordeal. At this point three interpretations are possible, and the audience is invited to decide. A frustratingly ambiguous ending endorses this ambivalence.

There is no doubt that D.S. Tenney is saying something here; what this is however is somewhat mysterious. So much care is expended structuring the film that room for thematic resonance is small and specific. Regardless, the relationship between mother and daughter is believable and tragic, as is Zoe’s elementary school experience. This is in keeping with Tenney’s oeuvre, as Witchboard is essentially character-study and relationship-drama disguised as supernatural chiller.

While this central question mark works structurally, its impact is lessened by the confounding choice of Pinocchio as a character. There is no great reason for the doll to be anything more than an original character, as this is not a retelling of the Pinocchio story, and the Pinocchio of this film is not the classic Pinocchio. Also, the title is nonsensical. The working title is a little better, The Pinocchio Syndrome. Better still is the UK title, simply, Pinocchio. The low budget (and low profile) of the film leads to believe that Tenney is to blame for this, especially considering that he wrote the film. It is possible that Tenney saw a market, and used a gimmicky premise to tell a personal and uncommon story.

In the final third of Pinocchio’s Revenge, Jennifer asks her priest, “Do you believe in evil?” She asks because she thinks Gatto killed his son to save his soul. She wonders if demonic forces are speaking through Pinocchio, which in many ways is a more acceptable theory than simply believing her child is mentally unstable. The film’s final tag suggests some cyclical link to the “five years ago” intro, but this is never substantiated. Both the psychiatrist and priest survive the film, as if to preventing either theory from achieving dominance.

Eventually the film reaches the climax of its slow-burn escalation, and a final confrontation is put in place. There is no denouement to speak of, and questions are never satisfactorily answered. The conclusion, interpretive elements notwithstanding, is nonetheless tragic, earned by the care with witch Tenney builds the central relationships of the film.

Pinocchio’s Revenge is a unique, genre-mashing film, almost to fault. By keeping so much about itself obscure, the film risks locking viewers out rather than inviting their interpretation and debate. As an exercise, it narrowly fails in this respect. By making the conclusion of the film obliquely frustrating, critical tension is low, because any and all wild interpretations become valid. Despite this flaw in execution, Pinocchio’s Revenge is still strangely interesting, if dated and low-rent, with an emotional and spiritual core, allowing it to transcend the sub-genre in which it masquerades.

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