by Walter Chaw A DVD collection of short films written, directed, and edited by Idaho-born, German-based filmmaker Nick Lyon, Hellchild: The World of Nick Lyon is an often brilliant exercise in high John Waters trash augmented with actual filmmaking ability and an imagination as feverishly fecund and difficult to shake as a yeast infection. Lyon's work is equal parts deadpan and disgusting, a comic-book exercise in grotesquery that reminds a little of Sergio Aragones's "Mad Marginals" in its sprung logic (and sense of humour) and a little more of David Lynch (or Tim Burton) in its dark reflection of suburban America.
a.k.a. Hilda Humphrey
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Opening with the titular short (shot in 1999 on a budget of $12,000), a 20-minute "biography" of Hilda Humphrey (the uncommonly beautiful Xenia Seeberg), a "geeky, nerdy, rebellious, hellchild slut with a drug problem," Lyon's iconoclastic style emerges as one alive and irreverent. The product of a more aggressive, somehow more unbalanced Cory McAbee, Hellchild traces the root of a young girl's promiscuity, drug abuse, and eventual Christian rebirth to the traumatic episode of seeing her little dog get backed over by her dad. This award-winning short is a prime example of how a twisted sensibility coupled with a courage of vision can produce something that, despite its artistic debts, is for all intents and purposes unique.
Packed with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and a joy of craft, Lyon's wonderful audio commentary for Hellchild reveals that he created a comic book to serve as a storyboard and that although the film was shot in Germany, he strove for a twisted Americana coined "Ameripean." Given the low-budget origins and digital video stock, IndieDVD's visual transfer (although listed at 1.33:1, thin bars suggest something nearing 1.66:1) is free from much in the way of transfer problems, though the colour appears, at times, a little on the soft side. The 2.0 Dolby Surround audio mix suffers from almost no low-end and a complete reliance on the front channels, but it suffices and dialogue is sharp.
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The next short is God Box (1994), a peculiar, visually stunning student project shot on Betacam and featuring black-suited penitents standing in a limitless line waiting admittance to the title box, where an alien mouth called Marla Sheeba (acting as God, apparently) judges the penitents before capriciously casting them into a fiery inferno. Filmed in German (which is perfect) and self-consciously structured like a Kafka parable, God Box demonstrates another aspect of Lyon's work: the uncanny ability to elicit appropriate performances from generally non-professional actors. Black, hilarious, the film reminds in a way of performance group The Frantics' "Boot to the Head," a favourite of Dr. Demento.
Lyon's commentary track is informative and fabulous--the impossibly low-budget origins of the film (only $1,000) combined with a good deal of frank and trenchant insight on his inexperience and philosophical naïveté serve as a teaching tool. The video transfer is clear and bright (Beta's good that way); the mix, while distant-sounding and again relegated to the front mains, seems fitting. Great stuff.
THE FISHERMAN'S FRAU
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The Fisherman's Frau updates the Brothers Grimm tale of a wish-granting fish with two East German trailer denizens: the grasping wife German transvestite Maneula Riva and the diminutive accommodating husband the fabulously expressive Gerd Lohmeyer (think a Bavarian Dominique Pinon). The fish itself is a horrific, cow-like puppet that I see every time I close my eyes now. More than any other short besides, perhaps, Hellchild, this picture reminds of early John Waters--had Waters been involved at that time in telling semi-literal versions of nightmarish fairy tales. Frightening and hilarious, the film captures the essential horror of consumption and addiction of the source material by visualizing the atrocities with as much crass kitsch as inhumanly possible.
Shot on 16mm, the video transfer suffers from some moiré problems early with a grate inside the trailer but is otherwise bright and vibrant. Colours are strong and the yellow subtitles, a small but vital touch, are a welcome addition. Audio is a little hollow, unfortunately, and the Dolby 2.0 mix is free of surround information once more. Lyon's commentary track is a joy, natch; his recounting of a power struggle between two of his unpaid-crew should be required listening for aspiring filmmakers.
PHAL-O-KRAT ("FRANKENSTEIN PENIS")
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Phal-O-Krat (a.k.a. "Frankenstein Penis") is Lyon's first film, a 23-minute short shot on celluloid and telling the noir-flavoured tale of a man who, after getting a 14-inch horse penis grafted onto his body, discovers he can't pay the bill for his enhancement and spends each night on the lam from a mismatched pair (an old lady and a goon) of repo folks. Irony of ironies, after picking up a bleached blonde at a seedy bar, he discovers that when he does manage an erection, the circulation redirection causes a loss of consciousness. The highlight of the piece, however, isn't the inevitable castration (though that's pretty funny), but the line upon our hero's discovery that the blonde in question is neither blonde nor particularly busty: "You're as fake as my disgusting penis." Ah, many are the day I wounded a fair lass with that hurtful riposte.
Another delightful commentary track augments Phal-O-Krat with more wisdom into the backstory and process. Though the feature's look and sound suffer mightily from its low-budget ($2000), film-school origins--the video is grainy and demonstrates significant colour bleed, the audio is muted and occasionally hard to follow--ultimately it's something of a blessing not to get the gory details of Lyon's art-class sculpted equine member and its subsequent divorce from the body politic. Still, the film is extremely interesting, particularly for a debut feature, and its commentary track is indispensable.
CANDY DANCE CHANT
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The final short is an extended preview (five minutes) for an in-the-pipes film called Candy Dance Chant (now "Karma Noir") that, Lyon informs in his commentary track, is about a girl named "Karma" and a cop named "Noir." The trailer is animated in something like a '40s style, lurid pulp-art fashion best described as hand-painted digital rotoscope; it's frankly wonderful, like Frank Miller brought to life. The story of the trailer has something to do with a twisted Eastwood-in-Tightrope-like vice cop who's actually crossed over into the realm of serial sex killer-dom. Sufficed to say that when Lyon informs that the trailer itself has almost secured financing for the feature-length version, one is inclined to believe him. If I had the means, Nick, I'd write you a check today.
Typical open commentary this time enhances a beautiful image transfer and a brighter-than-average mix due, probably, to the bombastic nature of the film trailer format.
Two of Lyon's music videos cap off the main selections on the disc. The first, for Farmer Boys' "Here Comes the Pain," uses footage from Candy Dance Chant to award-winning effect (though it's redundant given that we've seen the trailer), and the last, Farmer Boys' cover of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again," is an Old West-themed piece featuring Xenia Seeberg. While the former is in 1.33:1, the latter is in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic.
A trailer for some awful-looking Nazi movie called Devil's Keep and the well-edited IndieDVD preview reel round out the disc. All in all, Hellchild: The World of Nick Lyon is an excellent addition to any well-rounded experimental film collection--an exciting glimpse into the world of student and alternative cinema that offers a bounty of rewards for the adventurous and the camp connoisseur.
98 minutes; NR; Various AR; English Dolby Surround; DVD-9; Region One; IndieDVD