All About Evil (2010) Dir. Joshua Grannell
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Dekker, Mink Stole, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson and Noah Segan
By Greg Klymkiw
There are some movies you want to love - especially if you're a lover of movies, and most notably, a lover of genre movies. However, it ultimately matters very little how well intentioned, how securely the movie's heart is in the right place, how much its filmmaker shares your love for all the same things, the bottom line is always a heartbreaker - if the movie stinks, the movie stinks, and there's not too much else to be said.
All About Evil is such a picture.
This tale of revenge, murder and artistic blossoming against the backdrop of the Grand Guignol of el-cheapo splatter films, keeps feeling like it should work, but it simply doesn't. The talented child star turned train wreck, Natasha Lyonne top-lines as the much-beleagured mouse of girl, Deborah - accent on the second syllable, please. Her Dad always dreamed she'd be a star. Her Mom had nothing but contempt for her. In the end, she became a librarian while Dad continued to run his tiny little picture palace where he screened mostly movies he loved.
Upon Dad's death, Deborah tries to keep the old place going by running a repertory selection of camp horror classics of the Herschell Gordon Lewis variety. She has one loyal customer in the form of teenager Steven (Thomas Dekker) and a scraggly band of miscreants. When Mom demands she sell the theatre for its real estate value, Deborah goes berserk and viciously slaughters Mater on security cam, no less. When the footage mistakenly goes up on the screen instead of the title on the marquee Blood Feast, the audience goes nuts.
They love the surprise movie to death.
Deborah knows a good thing when she sees it and she quickly rediscovers the acting bug her Dad unsuccessfully encouraged in her to his dying day. Deborah now needs to feed her hungry public, but also feed her ego, and most importantly, her hatred of anyone who fucks her over and/or just plain offends her. She collects a motley group of like-minded souls and proceeds to make a series of gruesome snuff films. The public has no idea they're seeing real killings, however, and Deborah goes undetected.
This is pretty much the whole movie until it accelerates and explodes in an orgy of bloody mayhem.
This could have been entertaining, but there are a few things keeping it from working on that level. The most significant failing is that it's just plain bad. Worse than that, it's campy. Not that there's anything wrong with camp, but when camp is bad (and yes, there's good camp and bad camp), there's nothing more excruciating to sit through.
Not to get too high falutin' here, but I think it's apt to haul out a bit of Susan Sontag and her Notes on "Camp". Sontag, I believe, hits the nail on the head when she states: "One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying." This, of course, is exactly what keeps All About Evil from working. In fact, it's not just a matter of being "less satisfying", the movie intentionally or inadvertently tries so hard to live up to the Sontagian essence of Camp in "its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration", that it becomes extremely dissatisfying.
Writer-Director Joshua Grannell (AKA drag queen extraordinaire, Peaches Christ) pummels us with his knowing artifice to the point of boredom. Even worse, his approach seems to exemplify the more horrendous Sontagian notion that "Camp is esoteric -- something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." Granted, filmmakers like John Waters or Guy Maddin cudgel us with esoterica, but they do so with genuine filmmaking virtuosity.
Grannell has the cinematic equivalent to a "tin ear". He is not the kind of filmmaker that has cinema hard wired into his DNA. Every detail is forced to the point of exhaustion. Waters, for example, has a crackling sense of pace, but Grannell has none. Between each ultra violent set piece, the movie plods along like some fruity Apatosaurus on downers and when the set pieces become more over-the-top, the movie simply takes a nose dive.
One of the more regrettable aspects of the movie is its nastiness. Now don't get me wrong, I love nasty as much as the next fella' - especially when it blends the kind of brilliant dark humour and dazzling imagery one finds in the best work of someone like Brian DePalma, but from a narrative standpoint, Grannell loses our empathy with Deborah completely when she goes after the matronly librarian she used to work with. There's really not a darn thing wrong with the old bird - she's kindly and genuinely concerned about Deborah's well-being. To see Deborah sewing the woman's lips shut in graphic detail pretty much flushes any shred of humanity her character might have been endowed with right down the toilet. Just because there is "artifice" involved in camp, it doesn't mean humanity must be abandoned. Then again, to the fakes who create such material and those who lap it up, humanity is just a little too cool for school.
I saw the picture during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2010 and while I applaud the decision to show the film (camp, even if its bad, has a place within the context of such a festival), watching it was extremely painful. It was especially horrific being surrounded by a full house that included a healthy dollop of the "urban cliques" Sontag referred to. This particular urban clique is the worst sort of urban clique. They force laughs out of their bellies and I'm convinced that at a subconcious level, they're forcing themselves to enjoy the movie because they think (or desperately and pathetically want to believe) that's what is required. This rarified vantage point is, ultimately, what gives camp a bad name and in fact, encourages makers of such work to keep foisting their trifles upon us. Interestingly, the full house was not as raucously appreciative as the minority in the house who managed to annoyingly make their holier than thou anti-art presence known.
And as awful as the experience was, I'm glad to have had it. Any excuse to think about camp - something I genuinely love - is always welcome. And for me, it's important, every so often, to have an experience like this to remind me of how special and wonderful camp can be and that it takes great or pure artists to pull it off. Seeing something this inept is an extra forceful reminder of that fact.
The After Dark Film Festival 2010 edition has a number of more exciting prospects ahead including a new Neil Marshall, a new Phillip Ridley and, God help us, the remake of Mair Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave. The schedule can be accessed HERE.