Tuesday, September 25, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Stuck"

(Midnight Madness)
(USA/Canada, 2007, 94 minutes)
Written by: John Strysik and Stuart Gordon
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard

Cult favorite Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his debut film: 1985’s Re-Animator, the first decent H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (although based only loosely on the short story) since Corman’s The Haunted Palace (named for a Poe tale, but based on The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward). Fangoria junkies immediately embraced it, and Joe Bob Briggs praised it as “the first movie ever made where a principal actor loses his head halfway through the movie, but FINISHES THE MOVIE!”--and yet, Gordon was skilful enough to capture something of the New England paranoiac’s operatic misanthropy and cosmic fatalism amidst the campy tone and Grand Guignol splatter, a skill he must’ve honed during his many years in guerilla theatre as a founding member and director of Chicago’s notorious Organic Theatre Company.

Another Lovecraft pastiche followed—the kinky, pastel-hued From Beyond—before Gordon seemed to lose his way with a series of rather humdrum low-budget programmers (Dolls, Robot Jox, and Castle Freak for Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment) and the minor hit Fortress (with Christopher Lambert) that were technically accomplished but exhibited little of Gordon’s playful perversity (his underrated update of The Pit And The Pendulum, with Lance Henriksen as Torquemada, was the sole exception).

After Dagon--his long-planned adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth—failed to register so much as a blip on the horror radar, Gordon experimented with a prolific and versatile run that included a Bradbury adaptation (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), a sci-fi actioner (Space Truckers), and more significantly, the downbeat revenge drama King Of The Ants, and a screen translation of old theatre pal David Mamet’s Edmond, a bleak existential character study that placed William H. Macy’s defeated Willy Loman-type into the urban hell of Taxi Driver. While devoid of any obvious genre trappings, Edmond, like Re-Animator, found Gordon back where he belonged, modulating pitch black humour with often excruciating violence (although who knows what path his career would have taken had illness not prevented him from directing the Disney hit Honey I Shrunk The Kids!)

Gordon’s new film, Stuck, is another outraged and outrageous urban fable, in which two lives become not so much interwined as smashed together in what might be the director’s darkest and most cynical work to date.

Lovecraft’s Old Ones plotted to teach mankind “new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. That about sums up the philosophy of twenty-something Brandi Helper (Suvari), a well-liked caregiver in a retirement home in—where else? Providence!--who takes her job seriously and is up for a promotion if she can proved she’s got the maturity to take on the added responsibility. But evidenced by her hideous cornrows and gaudy nails, she’s also a party-gal not so much Lovecraftian as Lohanian with a drug dealer boyfriend (Hornsby) who keeps her supplied with weed and acid.

And then there’s Tom (Rea): an unemployed, middle-aged schlep down on his luck. He hopes to land a temp job to keep his flophouse apartment, but a scheduling screw-up at the unemployment office costs him the opportunity. Evicted onto the street, he meets a kindly vagrant who offers up his grocery cart as transport for Tom’s remaining possessions. Kicked off his park bench by the cops, Tom can’t possibly sink any lower until he crosses paths with—

--Brandi, speeding home high after a night of partying. She smashes into Tom as he crosses an intersection, shattering his shins and propelling him head-first through her front windshield, where he remains stuck as she heads home in panic.

Tom, badly injured and unable to move his legs, pleads for mercy. Fearing criminal charges and the risk to her promotion, Brandi decides not to tell anyone about the mishap--after all, there are no witnesses—and goads her beau Rashid into getting rid of the body. The problem is, Tom isn’t dead yet...

Mena Suvari, who also serves as one of the producers, is clearly having a good time as an amoral skank who devolves from cement-headed club rat to homicidal harpy—another daring role for the still-young actress (not yet 30) who could’ve stuck with the American Pie franchise and instead has pursued less-flattering roles in edgier fare like Spun, Factory Girl, and Gordon’s Edmond.

Stephen Rea, taking a break from his steady gig with Neil Jordan, embodies hang-dog loserdom like no one else, so the role isn’t exactly a big stretch for this always-amiable journeyman. Still, it’s that rare actor who can maintain his dignity when he’s lodged in a windshield ass-end-up…

I’m must admit I wasn’t exactly sure what metaphor Gordon was going for here—it’s tempting to read it simply as one of the-haves-vs.-the-have-nots since dim Brandi earns enough at her caregiver gig to afford a decent car and house, and straight-arrow Tom was robbed of what seems to have been an affluent lifestyle. The wisdom-spouting hobos and ice-cold civil servants are standard movie caricatures, but it’s hard to quibble when one realizes that this oddball scenario is based, incredibly, on a true incident that occurred in 2002, when 25 year old Texan Chante Mallard struck beggar Gregory Biggs and drove home with him embedded in her windshield. She kept him in her garage for three days until he died—and is now, thankfully, serving time in prison.

Stuck is rendered in suitably grotty, grindhouse textures, all bleeding colours and harsh skin tones—an extension of the smash n’ grab, verite-style that Gordon used in King Of The Ants and Edmond—that betrays otherwise scenic New Brunswick locations (standing in Lovecraft’s preferred New England climes).

While its debut screening was enthusiastically received by the audience and local critics, no release date has been set as of this writing. Gordon plans to return to the genre with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep, which he’s setting up at the newly reformed Amicus Productions, best known for 70s horror favorites like From Beyond The Grave, Tales From The Crypt, and At The Earth’s Core. After the human monsters of his last three films, giant, inter-dimensional cephalopods might not seem so bad…

©2007 Robert J. Lewis