***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Marc Senter, Shay Astar, Alex Frost, Ed Lauter
screenplay by Chris Sivertson, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum
directed by Chris Sivertson
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The Lost is simultaneously polished and crude. For all intents and purposes, it's a direct-to-video release*, and it has a "direct-to-video" vibe to it. There's a broadness to the acting, to put it delicately. It's not that these are bad actors, exactly, it's just that their performances are superficial. I want to say that they lack the nuance of what you'd get in a theatrical feature, but I'm beginning to wonder if there is something about the very nature of the "theatrical film" that is more accommodating of excess. That perhaps the very size of a theatrically-released film can dwarf an over-actor and make the severity of his or her offense somewhat less significant, whereas if a film goes straight-to-DVD, it becomes more performance-oriented. It seems that it's really hard to find camp in a theatrical release and it's really hard to avoid it in dtv product. I don't know whether this is me the viewer projecting something from outside the film--I guess it must be, as I wouldn't imagine that most filmmakers actually intend their movies to bypass the big screen altogether. But wherever it comes from, it's there.
The look of The Lost is, a good deal of the time, insistently "straight-to-video" as well. It's broad in the same sense as the overacting. Writer/director/producer Chris Sivertson can't resist employing a number of tacky techniques, like the fast-motion and double-exposures used to embellish a sex montage. During a conversation where two of the characters confess their secrets to each other (one broke into and trashed a cabin, the other inadvertently persuaded her schizophrenic mother to burn her fingers on the stove), Sivertson needlessly cuts away to flashbacks that are themselves self-consciously rendered in the Super8 style. All of this screams "amateur." The film also feels considerably more exploitive and sleazy than it really is. Most of the more graphic acts of violence take place offscreen and the aforementioned sex tends to be overly stylized. Some kind of note is being played when Misty Mundae is cast in a small role and literally the second image of the film is her completely naked body emerging from an outhouse.
On the other hand, Sivertson has devised a number of terrific cinematic moments. The first shot of the film follows the staggering feet of our main character to the soundtrack accompaniment of Crispian St. Peters's "The Pied Piper." Later, there's a hilarious tracking shot where he struts with a toilet plunger in his hand, trying to look cool at his motel job. Then you have the languid zoom-out from a girl sitting on her bed with red curtains, red pillowcases, and red flower-print sheets, smoking a cigarette and listening to techno music. Do I think that long takes of people walking or smoking are somehow more sophisticated than a bunch of brief, impressionistic shots of people fucking in fast motion? Sure. I'm willing to concede that this is probably more about fashion--what "artists" do as opposed to what "exploitation filmmakers" do--than it is about what constitutes good filmmaking. It's a weird thing. On the one hand I want to dismiss Sivertson as a hack, and on the other I want to lionize him as a hubristic genius.
I think these long takes can be credited, at least in part, to an "epic" feel that overlies the "direct-to-video" one. The two-hour running time is certainly a contributing factor as well. And somewhere in there, we would have to credit the fact that the film is reportedly an extremely faithful translation of the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name. The Lost is a good picture, but I can't in good conscious claim that it's a nice "little" film, or that I've unearthed a diamond in the rough. There's an ambitiousness to it that neutralizes any thrill of discovery. On some level, they must have believed they were making a great film.
It's a strange thing, adolescence. People project onto you everything they aren't. They're already finished and done for and have no future, so you're the one from whom they expect great things. Even more importantly, the teenager is embraced as something of a sexual icon and sex is synonymous with power. The culture then associates adolescence with godhood, further accentuated by the sense of narcissism that naturally accompanies this life stage. And yet, teenagers are stupid. While too emotionally mature to be children, they're still too childish to be adults. Thus it's godhood without wisdom--omnipotence without omniscience, if you will.
Perhaps the films The Lost most resembles in this respect are Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, which depicted silly teenage girls crushed under the weight of their own iconology. The Lost is the other side of the coin. Where Coppola sympathizes with her characters to the point of alienating viewers (many understandably couldn't bear the thought of feeling sorry for Marie Antoinette), The Lost depicts as its killer and chief protagonist one of the most uncharismatic douchebags I have ever seen in a motion picture outside of Michael Alig (of Party Monster fame) and Caligula. The horror of the film is in thinking that this douchebag has the will and power to end another person's life for his own douchebag reasons.
Ketchum based his killer, Ray Pye, on Charles Schmid, also known as "The Pied Piper of Tucson." Modeling himself on James Dean, Schmid seduced and slept with teenage girls in the Tucson area during the mid-1960s. He murdered 15-year-old Aileen Rowe just to see what it would be like, then killed two sisters after the older one confronted him about his womanizing and unwillingness to take responsibility for her pregnancy. At 5'4", he gave himself three more inches by stuffing his custom-made black leather boots with crumpled beer cans. He also dyed his hair black and wore pancake make-up. When asked why, he replied that he was in a rock band.
Schmid served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been". That story, as well as its 1985 film adaptation Smooth Talk, focused somewhat on the disparity between Schmid's age and that of his victims/girlfriends. This emphasized the "pied piper" aspect of the Schmid icon: he represented the mysterious and dangerous world of adult sexuality and teenaged girls were attracted to him like moths to a flame. In the Oates story, the Schmid character is "thirty, maybe more," and a mature-looking Treat Williams plays him in Smooth Talk. In reality, Schmid was in his early-20s at the time of the murders. The Lost keeps him at this age while boosting the ages of the girls a little bit so that the gap isn't quite as pronounced. He's not a "pied piper," per se, but very much a peer on their level. Additionally, Ray's sexual encounters don't have a predatory quality. In fact, in a subplot that underscores their age-appropriateness, the film includes a relationship between a 60-year-old cop (Ed Lauter) and his 18-year-old girlfriend (Megan Henning).
There is a reference to the stuffed boots in the Oates story, but it's impossible to miss in The Lost--the film opens with a title card that reads: "Once upon a time, a boy named Ray Pye put crushed beer cans in his boots to make himself taller." Sivertson and (I assume) Ketchum appear intent on transcribing verbatim all those weird superficial details from the Schmid case. Instead of suggesting an adult who is exploiting youth culture for his own gains as in the Oates material, the film's Schmid surrogate is more a direct product of it. You could probably call it a perversion of youth culture, but in true "straight-to-video" fashion, Ray Pye has very little depth and exists almost exclusively as an abstract concept.
Even if he's in his twenties, Ray has the emotional maturity of a teenage boy, and this in itself is kind of an edgy, revisionist idea. I love the whole idea of the serial killer being an "angel of death," but indeed it equates murder with godhood. The notion that they are manifested from the depths of our subconscious to bring us salvation or relief--it's the flipside of the notion that since only God has the power to take life, killing somebody must make you God. Which is related to the idea that by taking someone's life, you are announcing to society at large that this most basic of moral laws doesn't apply to you because you are something beyond human. Which is also related to the more banal notion that killing people makes you famous and famous people are inherently more significant than non-famous people. In reality, most of us can sneer at these justifications because deep down we know that murder simply means extinguishing another human being's biological functioning, that anybody can do it, and that the only reason we have laws against it is to rationally protect our own self-interests.
The icon of the teenaged serial killer cannily cleanses the killer archetype of any romantic or superhuman connotation. Ray Pye is a dark god, a movie boogeyman, etc., but he's also a moron prone to ignoble bouts of envy and wrath towards anything that bruises his fragile ego. There is a delicate, extremely well-handled moment near the end of the film where Pye holds a pregnant woman hostage and, in a deliberate post-modern homage to the Manson Family's slaughter of Sharon Tate, rips the fetus out of her womb. This is discreetly conveyed, mostly by sound, and the sensationalistic aspect of it is minimized. The point is that Ray Pye sees himself as a horror-movie villain. At one point during his tirade, he forces his victims to handcuff one another with their hands behind their back, saying something to the effect of, "Nobody ever does it in front in the movies!"
Sivertson doesn't give us the "payoff," however. We're meat puppets governed by a series of electrical impulses, and one meat puppet ended the series of electrical impulses governing another meat puppet. Maybe one-and-a-half meat puppets. So what? Sivertson's frank nihilism clears the slate. If human life has value, then Ray Pye is something more than a douchebag for taking it. If it doesn't, then he isn't. It's a package deal: you can't romanticize the victims without romanticizing the killer. I'm hesitant to call The Lost the solution to decades of morally-questionable serial killer movies, but it's definitely a refreshing change of pace.
Anchor Bay's dynamic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer of The Lost is finally a bit too perfect--though it was shot on film, it has the digital buff one is conditioned to associate with dtv. Meanwhile, the Dolby 5.1 audio packs a healthy punch. On another bitstream, Ketchum joins friend and horror novelist Monica O'Rourke for an occasionally irksome feature-length commentary. The two talk reverently about Ketchum's novel Red; I haven't read it, but I have had the misfortune of seeing the bland and frankly ridiculous film made from it. Ketchum also mentions how Sivertson colour-coded his characters: Ray Pye is associated with black, the girl he is courting (Robin Sydney) is in red, and his maltreated girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny-esque Shay Astar) is in blue. I enjoy this aspect of Sivertson's films, but not without guilt. It's a sophomoric type of filmmaking and brought some not-undeserved heat on Sivertson's big studio follow-up I Know Who Killed Me, where it was much more overt. Ketchum and O'Rourke come off as goons for being impressed by this, particularly when O'Rourke follows up her observation by comparing The Lost to The Sixth Sense (which she says was directed by 'that guy whose last name everybody always mispronounces') as one of those films where you pick up stuff that the filmmaker has hidden in plain sight the second and third time you see it.
On the whole, though, the two writers are collectively amiable. It's a nice idea to have the novelist comment on the film version of his work, as it affords the perspective of somebody approaching the material from both inside and out. We get a glimpse of not only the inspiration for the book but what exactly makes the writer tick as well; the track also has an endearing "gee-whiz" quality as Ketchum responds viscerally to the onscreen mayhem. (He admits that he has to look away in the last few minutes.) I liked, too, how he betrays a certain humility regarding his status as a cult novelist (success didn't come early for him in the least) and comes across as genuinely impressed with The Lost. O'Rourke is unaffiliated with the production, of course, but her pre-existing relationship with Ketchum is useful in eking information out of him that might have remained suppressed in a solitary track or in one where Ketchum is interviewed by an outside party. I'm thinking of the somewhat stilted quality of Marcus Hearn's interviews on The Devil's Rain and A Christmas Carol.
"Outtakes" (16 mins.) is a collection of non-contextualized bloopers, deleted scenes, and alternate takes, seemingly in homage to P.T. Anderson's borderline infamous "Blossoms and Blood" from the Punch-Drunk Love Two-Disc Special Edition. I prefer this "montage" treatment to segregated elisions, but your mileage may vary. There's one image in particular I thought probably should've been squeezed into the finished film, somewhere: In a medium shot, we see what appears to be the tight snatch of a teenage girl, only to pan up and discover that, no, it's actor Marc Senter tucking his penis between his thighs in joking homage to Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. This got me thinking about how we see Senter's Ray Pye in sexual terms--how his androgyny mixes in with his childishly macho bravado and turns the predator into our prey, so to speak. Creepy shit, and existing as sort of a visual non-sequitur in the context of the reel it becomes part of the fiction film as opposed to a mere prank on whoever is watching the dailies. "Audition Footage" (5 mins.) reads the actors cast in the film. Would be more worthwhile if they hadn't wound up in the film, don't you agree? I remember how fascinated I was watching the alternative Princess Leias and Han Solos trying out for Star Wars in the Empire of Dreams documentary. Lastly, there's a three-minute storyboard sequence of the beginning of the film. Rounding out the disc, forced trailers for Sex and Death 101 and Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door cue up on startup. Originally published: May 6, 2008.
*The film was kicked around the festival circuit for a couple of years before receiving a limited theatrical run in a few major cities last February. return