Wednesday, October 24, 2007

TAD 2007: "The Tripper" Review

(USA, 2007, 93 minutes)
Written by: David Arquette and Joe Harris
Directed by: David Arquette
Cast: Jason Mewes, Lukas Haas, Thomas Jane, Jaimie King, Paul Reubens, Balthazar Getty

It’s common knowledge that the iconographic white face of killer Michael Myers in Halloween was, in fact, a William Shatner slip mask purchased by the prop department at the 11th hour, so it’s now possible (but not recommended, John Carpenter’s film is still a classic) to re-interpret the shocker as the “booty call” of a hormonal and murderous Captain Kirk, who, having conquered all the women in the universe, turns his dilithium-powered gonads on the promiscuous young co-eds of Haddonfield, Illinois.

In David Arquette’s directorial debut, a bevy of libidinous youths are pursued by a slow-moving killer who sure looks a lot like late president Ronald Reagan, but the resemblance here is purely intentional. Arquette, perhaps inspired from his appearance in Wes Craven’s popular slasher pastiche Scream, has conceived a loopy horror homage (cowritten with Darkness Falls’ Joe Harris) that pits a forest full of modern-day hippies (apparently there are such things outside of Lenny Kravitz videos and the “Burning Man” festival) against a vengeful faux-Ronnie who would rather dispense of dissenters with his bare hands than call in the National Guard. In The Tripper, “Bloody Thursday” gets an extension…

Sometime in the late 60s, televised images of Vietnam and the burgeoning counterculture flicker across the blank expression of Gus, a young boy. In the next room, his terminally ill mother is doted on by Dylan, her poor but loving husband. Dylan takes the boy with him to his job at the local forest, where a group of protestors have chained themselves to a large redwood to protest the industry that Dylan relies on to pay for the care of his ill wife. After a squabble, Dylan pulls a gun on them, but the local police intervene. Quiet Gus erupts in action and comes to his father’s aid by taking a chainsaw to the peaceniks’ leader. Gus is taken away, kicking and screaming.
Present day: Four youths are on their way to the "America Free Love Festival” weekend bash in Northern California: George Bush supporter Joey (Kevin Smith regular Mewes, hardly stretching here), his anti-Republican girlfriend Linda (Thomason), and stoner couples Jack (Heath) and Jade (de la Huerta), and Ivan (Haas) and Samantha (King). Arriving at a campsite near the venue, they immediately have a run in with the local rednecks, who give chase before a showdown in the local diner, where a now-adult Gus (Nelson) pounds some manners into the thugs.

Of course, Gus’ father is now a crazy old coot who has lived in the woods in the decades since and warns the kids to stay away, even setting lethal traps for anyone who dare disturb his precious forest. When a hippie/nudist is found dangling and gutted, stoic and by-the-book sheriff Buzz Hall (Jane) decides to take no chances and shuts the concert down, much to the chagrin of oily Mayor Burton (comedian Rick Overton) and flamboyant concert promoter Frank Baker (Reubens), who have their own crooked deal going.

Within her circle of half-baked friends, only Samantha keeps her head clear, and becomes aware that the concertgoers are being dispatched by a single individual, who sports a Ronald Reagan mask and swings a mean hatchet. As Hall and his deputy investigate Dylan’s homestead, they discover much history about Gus’ obsession with The Great Communicator, but can they build a case in time before another fatal axe blow is dealt?

Although set in present day, The Tripper owes its style and sensibility to two ghetto genres of yesteryear: the 1960s drug/counter culture exploitation flick ala Corman’s The Trip and Psych Out, and the low-rent slasher yarn of the 80s like The Burning or Don’t Go In The Woods. For a novice, Arquette displays imagination and skill by utilizing various film stocks, inventive angles, garish lighting effects that range from Creepshow to Ken Russell (not to mention Oliver Stone’s multimedia sensory assault Natural Born Killers), and effective use of locations (the fine cinematography is by Bobby Bukowski)—although it’d take a major no-talent to screw up a ready-made, living soundstage of ominous trees, rotting bark, mist, marsh, and consuming shadows.

It’s not a complete parody in the Thursday The 12th”/”Pandemonium sense, although Thomas Jane’s squared-jawed sheriff, like Tommy Smothers’ diligent Mountie, is always one step behind. Paul Reubens (who, coincidentally, played Smothers’ assistant in Soles’ early 80s spoof) tears into his brief role as a showboating Bill Graham type, but his scenes seem to come from a different movie entirely.
Arquette cameos as one of the rednecks, as does his brother Richmond as Jane’s useless deputy, and his wife Courtney Cox, as an animal lover who gets a bit too close to her cause and literally bleeds for it.

Star Thomas Jane also co produced the film, along with 30 Days Of Night author Steve Niles (and Jane’s visage is used as Cal McDonald for Niles’ current “Criminal Macabre” series from DC/Vertigo).

The gore is explicit and surprisingly brutal, given that The Tripper also strives to be satiric and topical as it spills the red stuff in quantities far greater than what could be considered “trickle down”. The political undertones of the film are just sort of there—I was never exactly sure what was being lampooned, as Arquette’s script dishes out as much contempt for dim, wayward youths as it does for the suit-and-tie conservatives that would love to see every last one of them slaughtered. The film is full of bile for Reagan’s phony “old values” posturing and a key plot point hinges on when, as Governor of California, he approved the release of thousands of mental patients back into communities to save costs. But leftist icon Robert Kennedy is also a target, too. And then there’s the pet pig named George W. Perhaps Arquette’s platform is completely nonpartisan and a clarion call for anarchy—which gets an A for ambition but makes it damned hard to muster up any empathy for one side or the other.
Still, it’s funny to see the Reagan maniac—whose mask makes him look like a homicidal Spitting Image puppet (although somehow less frightening than the one in Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion” video)--deliver a messy axe blow and quip “Just Say No” or remark “It’s Morning In America” as he regards his latest victim (what, no “We Begin The Bombing In Five Minutes”? or reference to Ronnie and Nancy’s occasional dabbles with the Ouija Board?). There’s an amusing bit with jelly beans—Reagan kept a bowl to judge a man’s character--and yet, the references don’t add up to much other than shading.

The Tripper is one of those low-budget, under-the-radar movies you get the impression was a lot of fun to make for all involved—and thankfully, most of it translates into an enjoyable viewing experience for the committed horror fan as well. But considering the ambition and pedigree of talent involved on both sides of the camera, it’s as quickly forgotten as just another empty campaign promise.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis