Friday, October 31, 2008

Basement Jack (2008): or, It's the Manager's World, We're All Just Leasing It

If you take a quick look at the handy-dandy labels down the right side of the page, you'll notice that our focus here at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies trends very strongly toward films of the 1970s. Not for nothing, either--if there's ever been a decade chock-full from one end to the other with bloody, sexy, awesome goodness, that's the one, baby.

But much as I like to sink myself deep into the hot, sticky voluptuousness of a Naschy monster mash or palpate a paean to Satanic Panic from my favorite era, every now and then I do come up for air to see what's up in the World of Horror, Present-Day Version. Most of these explorations lead to a quick deep breath and another dive, leaving only a bubbly turbulence on the surface, but occasionally I see something that catches my attention and gives me hope for the future. And such was exactly the case when I recently got a look at an indie slasher flick with a difference, Michael Shelton's 2008 effort Basement Jack.

Now as far as it goes, Basement Jack does not break much new ground. A young boy abused by his psychotic mother grows up to become a legendary, unstoppable killing machine; a sexy young girl survives one of his rampages and devotes herself to putting an end to his reign of terror before any more innocents suffer under his knife. An inexperienced cop joins forces with the survivor girl against the dictates of his stuffy, by-the-book chief and his deriding coworkers, leading to the expected confrontation with the killer and an ambiguous conclusion that serves as a swinging unlocked door to Sequelville. Eighties' Slasher 101, right?

But remember, I said Basement Jack was a slasher with a difference--and for me it had that little something extra, that distinguishing detail that looms larger and larger upon reflection until at last it grows into a juggernaut of awesome that--for the first time in a long time--has me chomping at the bit for the sequel. That detail is not a what, but a who--and that who is not the Rookie Cop, not the Sexy Survivor Girl, not even the electrified menace of Basement Jack Riley himself.

The detail's name is Nathan Bexton, aka THE MANAGER. Make a note. Jot it down. You're going to want to remember it.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves:

At least one uncredited writer had a hand in Basement Jack's script...

We open with an archetypal Urban Legend set-up (one of my top 5 archtypes): a boy and a girl making out in the back seat of a land yacht up at Inspiration Point or its equivalent. As things get hotter and heavier, the music on the radio is interrupted for a SPECIAL NEWS BULLETIN. A psycho killer is on the loose in the vicinity, a phantom of a man with the unusual MO of hiding in the basements of family homes until his homicidal rage is triggered by a lightning storm, at which point he murders everyone in the house--hence his media-assigned moniker "Basement Jack." Thunder rolls in the background, and the girl's sexy mood dissipates. She insists that her frustrated lover take her home before the storm hits.

By the time they reach the girl's home, the storm is in full force and the power is out. The boy gallantly accompanies his girlfriend inside, where they make the expected gruesome discovery: the whole family--mother, father, younger siblings, the lot--are arrayed around the dinner table, their throats cut, while before them the gutted family dog serves as an attractive centerpiece. A flash of lightning reveals the killer himself in the shadows, a tall thin dude with long dark hair and a dripping machete. Again adhering to the outlines in the back of the 80s Slasher Handbook, the randy boyfriend falls victim to the killer's blade, and after a bit of required tension the girl escapes into the night.

A decade later that girl, Karen Cook (Michele Morrow) is hunting Basement Jack across country, a roadmap in one hand and weather pattern charts in the other. Along the way she meets Officer Chris Watts (young Naschy lookalike Sam Skoryna), a rookie cop in trouble with the department over a recently blown collar. (He forgot to read the suspect his rights--curse you, Miranda protections!) Of course no one but Chris believes that Karen might actually be able to help them capture the previously untrackable killer, and so she is roundly ignored and derided by everyone in the department, except for her beefy first-year admirer. Throughout the rest of the movie, Karen and Chris hunt the killer, their helpful suggestions ignored by the department as Basement Jack cuts a bloody swath through the community every time the lightning flashes, which as you'd imagine is incredibly often this time of year.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful--hate me because I just killed your damn dog.

However, the movie does not seem as concerned with Karen and Chris's back story and burgeoning romance as with Basement Jack himself. Unmasked from the beginning of the movie and wearing no disguise other than shadows, the titular character is also the center of narrative focus. We spend a lot of time exploring Jack's history and motivations in candy-colored 1950s-style flashbacks, all centered around Jack's...shall we say, "problematic" relationship with his mother.

Jack's mom is one of the two real casting coups of the flick, as the producers secured a true horror/exploitation legend (in Vicarious circles, anyway) for the role, the fabulous Lynn Lowry (Romero's The Crazies, Cronenberg's Shivers, and David E. Durton's MMMMMasterpiece I Drink Your Blood). Lowry is absolutely riveting as Jack's unhinged mother, who cradles and sings to a life-sized toddler doll when she's not punishing her disturbingly silent son most harshly for any and every transgression, real or imagined.

And how does she punish him, you might well ask? Why, with mother's little helper: ELECTRICITY! At various points throughout the movie we see her forcing Jack to stick his tongue to a...well, battery of 9-volt batteries duct-taped together (nota bene: do NOT try this at home--18 volts has more of a kick than you might think), strapping him to a chair in a puddle of water and running live lines near his soaking feet, and most memorably chaining him to a metal post outside just as a thunderstorm starts and telling him "God will punish you!" The fact that she follows each of these punishments up with a sing-song refrain, "Mama loves you, with a cuddle and a kiss!" just ratchets up the child-abuse ickiness another few notches.

"Wet the bed NOW, you little shit!"

(Lynn also has her son take the rap for some neighborly dog-murder for which she is responsible, which leads to another disturbing scene in which the young boy is subjected to electroshock therapy--"with a cuddle and a kiss." But my favorite fucked-up Mommy scene is one in which she takes it upon herself to educate Jack in the mysteries of sex--by forcing him to sit by and watch while she blows a dumpy bald guy! I can't decide what's more awesome about this scene: the excellent looks of comical discomfort on Lynn's assistant's face, cutting his eyes down to the bidness and then back to the eerily silent audience of one--or the fact that, for no reason I was able to determine, the dude is dressed only in the lower half of a CHICKEN SUIT!)

(No, wait, I've decided: it's the chicken suit.)

So there you have it--screwed-up childhood, understandable Mommy issues, and a psychological aversion to but physical tolerance for high levels of electricity--not too shabby, as serial killer back stories go. And as Basement Jack does his dirty work, we get buckets of blood, a few decent kills, a smattering of gore scenes (though we also have to suffer through some rather iffy CG stab effects--as even in the best it is), and some fairly well choreographed fight scenes between Jack and Karen. The quirkiness that spawned the chicken suit shows up in a more restrained form later as well, when in one his basement hideouts Jack discovers a SUPER-MACHETE complete with lower-arm support brace and billy-club grip! WHO has that in their basement--I mean, besides AWESOME people?

(During my viewing I noted this weapon snarkily as a "power-up"--so you can imagine my delight when I found that, in the production notes on the Basement Jack website, writer/producer Brian O'Toole admits that Jack's weapon upgrade was inspired by his love of video games. Credit for Intention, and for Going There when just about everyone would have told you not to. That's the way you take something goofy and make it goofy and AWESOME, IMO. And Brian, if you need a quality tester for Basement Jack: The Game, LET ME KNOW.)

Now I said Lynn Lowry was one of two slices of casting brilliance in Basement Jack--and she is just GREAT, make no mistake. But the other one, the one that has me excited for the sequel and in a happy place generally replaying his scant scenes in my mind, is the aforementioned future icon, Nathan Bexton as The Manager.

The most awesome thing in this picture has no blade.

You see, Officer Watts is not exactly rolling in dough, and so he resides in an ancient, run-down apartment building called The Necropolitan. (Currently #1 and #3 on the Vicar's "Names of buildings I want to live/die in" lists, respectively.) Bexton is The Manager of The Necropolitan, and unless my count is off he has a total of four scenes--and I'd be very surprised if those scenes totaled up to more than seven or eight minutes before the cameras, probably somewhat less. Still, I honestly can't remember the last time an actor with so little screentime made such a huge, lasting impression on me, but Bexton DID it.

You see, I'm a sucker for substrate. I get a little frisson of geeky pleasure whenever a throwaway line of dialogue or a strange bit of business in the background makes the suggestion that somewhere, behind or beneath or even above the actions we're watching on screen, there's a whole OTHER movie going on that happens to intersect this one at just this specific moment. It's not done often, but when done right, little things like this add a depth of imagination and fantasy to the proceedings that sets my brain whirring and ups my enjoyment factor by at least a full point.

And that's the pitch that The Manager knocks out of the park. Bexton invests the character with a knowing, sinister, devilish playfulness that's hard to describe objectively. It's in his old-fashioned wardrobe and exciting facial hair; it's in the way he holds his mouth, the twinkle in his eyes, his small gestures and odd inflections of seemingly mundane pleasantries. Everything about Bexton's performance lets you know that behind that door, behind those eyes, something evil and awesome is going on--and if you're anything like me, you're DYING to know what that thing is.

I really don't want to spoil Bexton's performance for anyone, because it's a tour de force that must be seen and appreciated by all. suffice to say no one collects rent like The Manager, and that's not *all* he collects. A late scene in which he answers the door to Basement Jack while chatting to unknown parties on his cell phone is, for my money, an Icon-Builder, and his return for an ending coda had me bouncing in my seat with glee. It was all I could do not to stand and applaud--which, the more I think of it, I *totally* should have. Nathan Bexton earned it.

One crew member dons shades in order to bask in Nathan Bexton's awesomeness, while The Manager's nearness causes another to erupt with explosive backsweat.

Thus fired with my new cinematic man-crush, I rushed to the Internets where even more stores of glee awaited. I learned that Basement Jack is the second installment in a projected trilogy centering around The Necropolitan and the strange events that occur there. The first installment, Evilution, was also completed this year, and like Basement Jack is still seeking distribution. (In that film The Necropolitan is quarantined after a viral outbreak that turns its inhabitants into kill-crazy monsters--and yes, The Manager is there.) Best of the best? The third installment, currently in development by Black Gate Entertainment/Island Gateway Films, is entitled simply The Necropolitan, and looks like it IS that OTHER movie--the story of The Manager, starring Nathan Bexton! You hear that fluttering sound? It's my hummingbird heart.

Getting back to the film at hand, though--Basement Jack is not without its problems. While imposing visually, Jack himself is too one-dimensional to be very interesting as a character, and the fact that we spend so much time lurking with him as he offs one piece of machete fodder after another did result in a bit of drag for me. Sticklers for logic will also note that the machete is a slashing/chopping weapon, ill-suited for stabbing, though Jack habitually runs his victims through before chopping them up (using some of the aforementioned bad CG, in the most egregious cases).

That said, the flashbacks always held my interest, and Director of Photography Mathew Rudenberg provides a plethora of striking, interesting compositions and atmospheric lighting effects throughout--I don't know what the budget was, but I'd be willing to bet Rudenberg made it look a lot more expensive than it was. The leads and supporting characters all give it their all (though I never quite got any chemistry off Morrow and Skornya), and Eric Peter-Kaiser as Jack does a good job kickin' the serial killer Eerie Von-style. Throw in Lynn Lowry's fantastic turn as Mamma Riley, and then sprinkle on the awesomeness of Nathan Bexton as The Manager, and those gripes outlined above fade into the shadows. It's a movie that, the more I think of it in the cold light of day, the better and better I like it. And how many movies can you say THAT about?

"Hey Ma, what's for d--aw, man, AGAIN?"

I've seen many movies with good distribution deals that would not be fit to rinse Basement Jack's jockstrap, and it's a crying shame that the film is not yet out there in front hungry, appreciative fans. It's running the festival circuit, though, and hopefully one day soon a DVD distributor will pull his head out of his ass long enough to see that he should TOTALLY be putting out Basement Jack. Come on guys, get on the horn--you can even have a back-cover blurb from the Vicar, free of charge:

"Basement Jack is an exciting, kick-ass old-school slasher, and Nathan Bexton walks the earth like a freakin' God!"

I will not stop until that man is an Icon. Mark my words.

Started out a 2.75 thumbs, but further reflection on The Manager has pushed it up to the coveted 3 thumb stratosphere. See it if you can, tell all your friends. And tell The Manager that the Vicar sent you.

And to call me.

"And as God is my witness, I will never go dwarfless again!"

(All photos © Island Gateway Films/Black Gate Entertainment. Check out Basement Jack's official site here. Please don't sue me, guys. Tell Nathan I love him.)


Tenebrous Kate said...

Vicar, I must confess that I, too, am MANAGER-MAD and you've done this movie GREAT JUSTICE with your review. Such GREAT JUSTICE, in fact, that I've got nothing to add. Except that I will *totally* pitch in by making tshirts for the Nathan Bexton Fan Club you're planning on founding.

Mike Everleth said...

I saw "Evilution" before "Basement Jack" and also knew about the Necropolitan trilogy going into this film.

I was really curious what someone going into "Jack" cold would think about the Manager subplot since it did seem like it belonged to another movie, so this was a really interesting review to read. I'm looking forward to the third film and an expanded role for Bexton, too.

If you liked this film, I really recommend "Evilution." I reviewed both films on my own film site, Bad Lit.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for stopping by, Mike! As for Evilution...keep watching this space! ;)

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