*/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring Dina Meyer, Lance Henriksen, Pavan Grover, Jeff Fahey
screenplay by Pavan Grover
directed by Thomas J. Wright
***/**** Image A Sound A
starring Jeff Fahey, Kim Delaney, Lindsay Duncan, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Eric Red and Norman Snider, based on the novel Choice Cuts by Boileau-Narcejac
directed by Eric Red
by Walter Chaw Sort of a dude Meg Foster, blue-eyed B-movie actor Jeff Fahey has never quite attained the cult status of Jeffrey Combs or Bruce Campbell. I'm thinking it's because he's always had the air about him that he would rather be in something better than, say, The Serpent of Death, Serpent's Lair--anything in the general vicinity of "serpent." You get the impression that even in the midst of appearing in six or seven films a year, he's got his eye on the mainstream prize that would ferry him from the Bs to the vaunted As. I don't think Fahey is conceited so much as puzzled--but that aura of dissatisfaction detracts from the integrity of his work, no matter how admittedly flyblown the films in which his performances find themselves might be. Fahey is a sort of neo-William Shatner, or the post-Prince of the City Treat Williams: a probably-good actor who feels like he's gotten the raw end of the deal (true in Williams' case) and thus can't quite commit himself completely to camp.
It's hard to blame him when he's cameoing as "Governor" in a piece of derivative garbage like Pavan Grover's sad vanity piece Unspeakable. Deplorable in every conceivable measure of quality, the film steals plot points from Frailty because Grover apparently can't bear to play a psychopath unsupported by divine martyrdom, and I guess it takes parts of The Silence of the Lambs because Grover, a real-life doctor, has a pretty high opinion of his own intelligence. If he's really as smart as all that, though, Grover should have considered casting Lance Henriksen or Dennis Hopper in the plum killer role he eventually claims for himself instead of relegating those two veteran heavies to secondary roles so inconsequential as to be invisible, or so scenery-chewing as to be self-parody. Or hey, how's this? Give lovely Dina Meyer--playing neuro-scientist Diana Purlow (invested in interviewing Death Row inmates and taking pictures of their memories (don't ask))--the part of the mad-dog genius serial killer with a god complex and the ability to spontaneously generate worms and let Grover the doctor play the doctor. See, that's interesting.
What's not interesting is Grover as Elvis-lookalike Jesse Mowatt, a guy with "love" and "hate" tattooed on his fingers like Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (or Sideshow Bob, if you prefer) and is given to prosaic scriptural quotations between fighting manly-like with evil prison guards and pederast judges while pitching to a small audience of fawning bimbo extras. Unspeakable fashions itself high-minded, but it's the quintessential example of what happens when people write and star in their own masturbatory fantasies of affirming achievement or crushing inadequacy. (Miss also: Saw, a film actually worse than Unspeakable and almost as bad as FearDotCom.) The only thing more rife with pathology than casting oneself in his own fantasies as a Nietzschian übermensch is casting oneself as a misunderstood saviour. Let's just say Grover has nothing on Alec Baldwin's mad MD from Malice--and that I wouldn't want either as my primary care provider. I do want to ask Dr. Grover, however, how it is that a bug eating a live person's brain would be "excruciating" if the brain can't feel pain.
Between Hopper literally ripping his face off and a ludicrous epilogue wherein Grover pontificates on the evils of abortion and politicians (he threw a horror movie and only a morality play showed up), the groundwork is paved for one of the stupidest twists in a world that knows M. Night Shyamalan. Unspeakable reeks of onanism and casual misogyny--the picture is so self-absorbed that it has all the players marvel at the villain's intelligence (our sole evidence of it) and the villain actually assuming an aspect of crucifixion as an angelic alto fills the soundtrack. (Instructive to note that the whole mess plays like one of Kiss frontman Gene Simmons' scary socio-political monologues.) It suggests on the one hand that Mowatt is an avatar of God's justice and on the other that Mowatt is the victim of a bad childhood; can't have it both ways, Pavan. Movies like this shouldn't just be avoided, they should be actively campaigned against--not merely for their ineptness but also for the high-toned, unbearable pretensions to social relevance they make as they massage exploitation's knee under the table.
Far more successful as a thoughtful thriller is erstwhile Kathryn Bigelow collaborator Eric Red's oft-overlooked body horror flick Body Parts, which finds for Fahey the conveyance for what is probably his best performance to date. Body Parts was lost behind the genre steamroller of Jonathan Demme's pointedly populist The Silence of the Lambs (another 1991 film about body dimorphism and the transference of evil) but bests it in hindsight in terms of its leanness and flat, whacked-out nastiness. Though its opening credits recall the transcribed medical journal etchings that begin David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (as well as those of another film deep into dismemberment and evil heads, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator), what Body Parts most evokes is another Cronenberg film, The Fly (1986). It suggests a mutation at the genetic level, establishes the corruption of its scientist protagonist in a bar, threatens the arm-wrestling scene that The Fly actually executes, and hints around at a gothic romance at the heart of its Dr. Frankenstein character's motivations. Body Parts is fascinating--and ugly, too, forming with Demme's film and John McNaughton's The Borrower an unusually unpleasant trilogy of guignol melodramas to usher in the decade of the '90s.
Bill (Fahey) is a long-winded professor of psychiatry studying the only somewhat-psychiatric worry of where evil resides. Body Parts calls up a line from Roman Polanski's The Tenant concerning the identity and ownership of body parts (while conjuring up even more strongly Clive Barker's disturbing short story "The Body Politic") that is put to the test after Bill gets in a terrifying car accident that results in the loss of his right arm. The choice presented to steadfast wife Kim Delaney is to sign the waiver allowing icy Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan) to transplant a recently-executed mass murderer's arm onto Bill's torso. Before long, Bill starts hitting his kids and choking the wife, inspiring him to track down the recipients of the harvested corpse's other arm and legs to try to find a solution to his new sociopathology.
The car chase is rethought in Body Parts and it's delightful and terrifying. The entire third act, in fact, unreels like a thing possessed. The special effects are disgusting in a clinical way that recalls yet another Cronenberg film, Crash (as does the specialized community of car-accident survivors), and the discomfort that its images engender go a good way towards making one forget the leaden dialogue that discards any hope for naturalism in favour of barrels of unabashed, lightweight philosophical cheese. A connecting device of a journal Bill keeps is the kind of useless device that wiser heads would have jettisoned--there's an inescapable feeling that the film ultimately didn't know exactly where to go with its "I now have a murderer's blood in my blood" idea and settled for a routine equivocation. (It's less Cronenberg than Hands of Orlac.) But it's a sharp piece nonetheless, able to stir the mind if not inflame it and certainly able to disquiet the gorge a time or two. As great drive-in movies go, ones that seem to have an ear to the rail of the zeitgeist, it's hard to ask for more than a defining scene where twitching portions of a vivisected human cadaver are seen hooked up to dialysis machines behind the good doctor holding her bone saw.
MGM shepherds Unspeakable to DVD in a passable package that does little to disguise exactly how destined this piece of crap was to for the direct-to-video shelf every step along its creative way. The 1.85:1 anamorphic video looks sharp if marred by edge enhancement now and again, something unforgivable given the recent vintage of the picture--though truthfully, it takes a little doing to pay attention closely enough to notice. The colours are muted, but as the film was shot mostly in a prison or at night, that's to be expected. Shadow detail is fine. Similarly, Unspeakable's DD 5.1 soundmix is unspectacular in the manner of a film directed by a television director (Thomas J. Wright) more interested in speed and expedience than craft. No major complaints, but, again, you'd have to really pay attention to cook up any at all.
Special features are the real horror of the Unspeakable disc. Two outtakes--"We Love Dennis" (1 min.) and "You Are Not Sticking That Thing in My Ear" (2 mins.)--are pretty much what they sound like, the former showing Hopper acting like a weirdo and the latter Grover doing likewise. I don't know why we need to see over two minutes of the man get a worm stuck in his ear, but then, I don't know why we needed to see Grover jerk off for the two hours of his feature, either. Eight deleted scenes (totalling 10 mins.) are mainly expository, and as they feature more of Grover's performance, rejoice. Extended gory sequences (5 mins.) are the supplemental highlight, as we get to see in detail as Hopper tears free his vein-popping mug. The wisdom of not lingering is illustrated here, however, as eventually a fake atrocity becomes funny by virtue of too much familiarity. A behind-the-scenes making-of not of this film but of Species III ("Set Invasion", 5 mins.) shows that the world is full of beautiful blonde starlets; trailers for Jeepers Creepers II, Shredder, the MGM "Means Great Movies" reel, and the studio's Thriller/Horror library round out the selectable DVD. Teasers for Species III and National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze play upon insertion.
Body Parts, on the other hand (so to speak), comes to DVD with absolutely no extras but in a presentation that blows the socks off of most "dumped" titles. The idea that Paramount test-markets their catalogue with these no-frills quickies is given another bit of support, as Body Parts' 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, especially when compared side-by-side with my ancient bootleg VHS of it, absolutely dazzles with its richness. Red's colour palette seems borrowed from Bigelow's saturated schemes for Near Dark: his nights are alive with purples and grays. Vibrant, vital stuff, with the blood suitably crimson and Fahey's blue peepers alight and tortured. The level of detail in here is extraordinary, really, given the film's relatively unknown status; fans--and there are a few of us--will appreciate how Theo van de Sande's cinematography has been reproduced in its proper aspect ratio, as this was unfortunately not the case with MGM's cropped release of Steve de Jarnatt's brilliant Miracle Mile, an early de Sande effort. Meanwhile, the remixed DD 5.1 audio mix is ear-popping, with the abovementioned car chase standing out as a model of low-end rumble and atmospherics. The whine of the bone saw during Bill's initial, hallucinatory visit to the hospital is veritably haunted. This is a great, loving restoration--one that does the bloody heart good. October 12, 2004.