The Dark Backward (1991) dir. Adam Rifkin
Starring: Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton
I had never heard of “The Dark Backward” before, but apparently it’s a ‘cult film’. Well, it’s “finally” arrived on DVD Special Edition. After watching it for the first time I realize why it’s been unavailable all these years, it’s a terrible film hiding underneath so-called ‘cult status’. It’s a pseudo-fantasy freak-show story about a lowly garbage man who becomes a stand up comic, fails, then succeeds when he discovers a third arm growing out of his back. Nope, there are no typos in that last sentence.
Judd Nelson plays Marty Malt a nerdy garbage man, who dreams of something bigger than his mundane life. His best buddy (Bill Paxton) is an accordion-playing celebrity wannabe named Gus. He’s the entrepreneur of the duo, who’s always cooking up schemes to get rich and famous. For no apparent reason, Gus encourages Marty to try stand-up comedy. Marty’s act is beyond terrible, but for no apparent reason Gus keeps trying to sell him as entertainment.
For no apparent reason Marty starts growing an arm from his back. When the arm is fully grown Gus exploits it and turns Marty’s comedy act into a freak show. He interests a famous talent agent, Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton), and together they make the impossible possible - Marty Malt is a successful stand up comic. Then, for no apparent reason, overnight, his third arm disappears, Marty goes back to his run of the mill mundane life. The film follows a traditional path of rise to fame, then collapse. Nothing makes sense and there’s absolutely no wit or humour in the script.
From the outset Marty Malt is a beaten down character. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s a garbage man, which is the most childish device in the book. And he’s given a nerdy hairstyle, black rimmed glasses and a pocket protector to hit the nail on the head. A nerd throwing away trash for a living - that just doesn’t make sense. It’s convenient storytelling where the humour is derived from the concept and idea instead of story, character and situation.
Bill Paxton is at his most annoying. He’s Private Hudson from “Aliens” taken to the extreme. His whining and shouting and constant chattering was like daggers in my ears. For no apparent reason his character, Gus, lives and gravitates to the most vile, disgusting “Fear Factor” trials you could imagine. Here’s a role call of a few of these disgusting scenes and how they probably read in the script:
EXT. Garbage Dump – Day
Gus sees half-eaten ham sandwich in a bag of rotting garbage. He eats the sandwich.
INT. Gus’ apartment – Night
While partying with a group of grossly obese strippers, Gus asks Obsese Stripper #1 for a bucket of faeces, which he then proceeds to smear over his nipples and massages into his skin.
EXT. Garbage Dump – Day
Gus happens upon the decaying body of a dead woman. Gus licks the woman’s breasts for pleasure.
Rifkin apparently wrote the film when he was 19. It shows. My own 1994 action film starring my high school friends using toy guns as props, shot on Hi-8 video and edited with two VCRs is a better film. I can lend you a copy if you want.
Buy it here: The Dark Backward (Special Edition)