BLOT: (16 Sep 2011 - 01:12:11 PM)
Twelve things that would have made Dee Snider's Strangeland a decent movie
Strangeland opens with two girls in a chatroom environment reminiscent, but more primitive, of AOL's old pre-AIM set up. Here they meet CaptHowdy who invites them to a party. The next time we see one of the girls, she is dead with her eyes and mouth sewed shut, locked in the trunk of her car. The other is in a cage, also with a sewn mouth, and has been raped and cathetered so her urine is collected in a bowl. Captain Howdy has four other teens trapped in his house and is subjecting them to torture, abuse, incessant preaching, genital mutilation, non-consensual piercings, and a variety of other joys and pains. The caged girl's dad is a cop who finally tracks him down, saves the teens, and then watches as C.H., real name Carleton Hendricks, is declared insane and released after only three years of institutionalized care.
But while Carleton seems to want to be on the up and up, the neighborhood folk disbelieve his good intentions, harry and harrass him until a lynching goes awry, and Captain Howdy returns. This time he is playing for keeps. His tortures are crazier, more violent, and he has it out for the cop [yes, the same guy] who he felt has let him down by not protecting him from the lynch mob [Note: raping your daughter, killing her friend, and taunting you about it does not stop either the police department from assigning you to protect the person who did it, nor does it make that person feel like a bit of a jerk for expecting you to be considerate towards them]. Now the two men play a [brief] game of cat-and-mouse, pitching worldview versus worldview, with the cop's daughter being, once again, the prize.
This is not a good movie. Out of five stars, I would suggest 2. With a letter grade, I might say a C-. It has some style, but too much in a couple of spots and is utterly devoid of it in other spots. It has some flair but not enough. It is filled with constant, repetitive preaching and long moments where little happens followed by big moments that would be stretched out in better films. The most important aspects of it are, possibly, its precursor aspects to torture porn and its forebearing horror icons like Jigsaw. These things I point out, because they are true, but I would not say make it an important movie. What is perhaps neat about it is the fact that nearly every single failing can be summed up in a few sentences, so that in potential you can easily see a better movie come out of it. Potential is the key word. It currently has four stars over on Amazon, across 150 reviews but most of the reasonable ones deride the acting, the plot, the handling of key elements, and still give it four or five stars. I think this is a movie that convinced people it was more than the sum of its parts, and it could even be less.
I have some ways to fix that, though. These are my twelve key elements that should be tweaked, rewritten, or rethought to make Strangeland a decent movie.
(1) Drop the incessant preaching. If all of his preaching came out in a couple of key scenes, then it might work. Hearing Dee Snider go on and on about spiritual awakenings and how no-one understands the body modifier or the need for death, regularly repeating lines already said, begins to get old. The movie is pitched like a manifesto, playing both sides of the fence, and should stop it. Unless you are going to say that raping people is justified as long as you have bitching tats and face piercings, I don't want to keep hearing it. Dropping the incessant preaching also means canning the cheap Christian stab [pun...intended?] or flesh it out. Also, if that short stint in the asylum was meant to be a stab about justice, drop it, too.
(2) Drop the hot-headed junior partner. Likewise, get rid of the hot-headed younger partner: Steve (?) Christian. All he does is act surly and agitated and the actor often flubs the delivery of lines. He might be meant as a vocal counterpoint to the mostly silent cop, Gage, but rarely does his lines add anything to the scene and it could have been nice to have someone else in his place.
(3) Learn about computers and the internet. The lack of computer knowledge, from the painfully primitive chat program that only connects to people in the nearby area to the sysadmins not knowing how to look up things like IP addresses (though somehow knowing that an ID was fake without checking into it) was an obvious flaw in the movie [though one shared with many other movies, sure]. At one point, it implies that Captain Howdy has vague, unstated computer skills. Go with that if you want, but then you have to back it up with actual computer knowledge and prowess.
(4) Learn about the law. The main plot has a ridiculous moment when a man who has killed one teen (torturing until their heart gives out is going to be manslaughter at least), tortured others, and all the other crimes I've mentioned above, gets three years in an insane asylum before being released to go right back to his old house in the relatively small city where he culled his victims from? Criminally insane people are not given such short stints. Don't forget, his list of crimes includes pedophilia and massive mental trauma to underage victims. For that sort of shit, you end up in a mental asylum for life, assuming they even give you chance to cry insane. You do not get released on your own cognizance before your victims even have a chance to finish college. Also, the cop would only be allowed to investigate his own daughter's disappearance in extreme circumstances and never would have been assigned to be C.H.'s chief protection in the area.
(5) Feature a sympathetic body-modder. Needed perhaps second most of all of these (I think #7 is the most important), give the movie someone who can adequately represent body-modders without trying to play off Captain Howdy as sympathetic. There are going to be people who identify with him, anyhow. For the rest of us, give us a young punk or punkette that actually despises him despite being into fairly trippy stuff him-/herself.
(6) Up the humor and fun. The single greatest moment in the film is when one of the families, protesting Captain Howdy's short release after the terror he caused, holds up a sign that says "We're not going to take it!" [For those needing an explanation, Google "Twisted Sister"]. Have more of that.
(7) Drop (or greatly decrease) the first two acts altogether. The biggest and best thing you can do for the movie is to get rid of the first half. Rewrite it to about a ten minute section. While doing so, making "Captain Howdy" a much more normal guy, maybe someone who meets a girl and they are into body modification, etc and one night it goes too far and she ends up dying. Have a mostly innocent man sent off to the asylum, possibly as a young teen [you can even keep the norms overreacting]. Have her family be the one that torments C.H.. This fixes so much that is wrong with the movie: (a) we are not expected to judge the cop whose life was ruined for not wanting to stop the lynch mob, (b) we get around the murder, kill, torture, rape, pedophilia background from a character we are meant to feel sympathy for, and (c) we prevent the last half of the movie having a been there and done there concept. Which means (d) we can explore more and deeper things (see #10).
(8) Fix the final confrontation. The final fight/confrontation is pathetic, born out of an idea to make Captain Howdy honestly bad ass for about 10 seconds, and then it skips around like there is a scene excised. It is a schizophrenic amalgamation of concepts—does Howdy really want to die? does Gage really want to kill him?—with a blunted affect. In more capable scripting hands, this could have been a psychological encounter between two men with deep personal demons. As scripted and shot, it is the final nail in the coffin for the movie's tepid second half.
(9) Focus on the niece some more. Amy Smart's brief turn as Gage's semi-computer elite niece is a potential highlight in the movie, only marred by the fact that she should really give a shit that her like aged cousin is the prime victim. If you ditch the first half of the movie (see #7) then you can introduce her as the daughter or maybe a new hire at the police department. Much better her than the partner given (see #2).
(10) Ape better decent into Hell movies (see: 8MM). Other movies know that if you are going to dial up a culture-clash between straight-laced and seedy underground, you have to effectively show the clash. The back of the box even implies that this is going to be a factor in the movie, but we mostly get a single club scene where Gage walks in, looks around, shrugs and leaves. Not only does this scene have a few obviously fake moments (there is a whipping that is particularly uninspired), it also has a few of the better hardcore moments in the film. People who willingly do to themselves what Captain Howdy is forcing on others. Why would you not explore this? By effectively ignoring this aspect and focusing on the torture, the whole point of the movie is busted. Have the body-modder from #5 lead Gage down deeper than even s/he is comfortable in an attempt to get into the mindset.
(11) Stop trying to play both sides of the fence so hard that you end up necessarily lukewarm. This is kind of a repeat of #1 and #8, but this is important. If you are going to play both sides as equally valid, then you had better make them as such. This movie fails to handle this and suffers, a lot, from it. It would be more accurate to say the movie makes both sides feel fairly invalid.
(12) Use someone more believable as C.H. [aka, sorry Dee Snider]. Dee Snider's chief switch from Captain Howdy to Carleton Hendricks, besides the obvious out-again, in-again tats and piercings, is a grumbly voice. He plays Carleton as milquetoast and pale, and the Captain and urban tribal and offensive and mad. Outside of proper fugue states, there is no reason to think these two men are the same character, sharing an actor be damned. Picture Crispin Glover in the same role, where both halfs would effectively be the same half and you will see what I mean. Removing Snider from the role might also enable the script to better handle Howdy/Hendricks, as well, rather than refusing to give itself a chance to berate him properly.
So...how will this new movie look? You would have 17-year- old Carleton Hendricks, hanging out online as Captain Howdy, and he meets this 16-year-old girl named Tiana, hanging out as...maybe the MissXXX used by Gage's daughter in the movie. The two of them hit it off and start carrying off risky untrained body mods down in his parent's basement. One night, they are engaging in some some S-and-M and a heart defect causes her to die. The ambulance is called but the body-modifications, coupled with some blood on scene, lead to suspicions of rape, drug abuse, and intentional killing. Carleton, a fairly shy lad, shuts down in the trial and gets put into an asylum for a decade or two. When he comes out, he returns to his family home, thinking no one would remember him but Tiana's family has made persecuting him a personal choice. When CH needs protection, the cop who should be helping him, whose daughter was a friend of Tiana's, essentially lets her family steamroll Carleton and, in a fit of passion, torture and lynch him. Carleton snaps, becomes Captain Howdy, and starts seeking revenge. Gage, repentant, makes it a personal issue to try and find and bring CH in, and is later horrified to find out his own daughter has been kidnapped. He goes deep into online clubs, as well as real ones, trying to get into the mind and the scene. Finally, perhaps sporting his own tattoos and piercings, he faces Captain Howdy, a man mostly still just a scared teenager, and maybe the audience really doesn't know who the monster is.
OTHER BLOTS THIS MONTH: September 2011