Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Braindead (aka Dead Alive): Peter Jackson's Early Glories, pt. 3

This review nearly didn't happen. I got d--ked over by an acquaintance, as is their wont, and I suddenly found no way to see Peter Jackson's 3rd film, Braindead before the weekend was out.

By freak luck, I found a tweet from French Toast Sunday, informing LAMB members that they had 30-odd hours to get their reviews in. Fate seemed to help me on my way - after I'd committed myself again, I was joined by one of my roommates, a guy with no idea of what Peter Jackson used to get up to before his Hollywood era - like that hard-R-rated Muppet movie that was his sophomore film. And in the end? I missed the deadline (wah-wah), but had a good time.

Dead Alive opens on a scene like Indiana Jones running to his plane in Raiders. An explorer and his guides run from tribals, towing a wooden cage. Although the guides risk their lives for their job, they hack their employer to pieces when they see that their prize, a confined creature, has bitten and scratched him.

1992's Braindead, which I know as Dead Alive, is an extremely dark fairytale about Lionel. He's a nice guy who lives to serve his mother, Vera. His dad died a very long time ago, and the responsible guy does whatever she wants.

Their problem is that her age is now advanced and he's shouldn't be taking care of just one person (her, he mostly neglects himself). His problem is that he either doesn't notice or can't escape the fact that she's manipulative, doesn't appreciate him, and is extremely possessive of her son. Oh, and did I mention that she's a brutal kind of person?

No matter what, it's hard to blame people for dismissing the all-star director's effort, as with his debut, Bad Taste, before it. This movie has so much gross-out humor that I believe the stories that it's made some people sick. Unlike modern "torture porn," though, this isn't plotless misery done for shock value. How can you tell? For one thing, it has a manic, demented, constant sense of humor. You realize that these disgusting sight gags are capable of, and even meant to, make you laugh and squirm in equal turns.

The gore is very competently-deployed, as the entire film has at least two stages, and both of those have their own organic sense of building toward heightened emotions, or dangers... This, my friends, is a proper film - with imagery even more disgusting than anything I could immediately imagine even if someone challenged my versatile mind to come up with something disgusting right here and now.

The fact that it's not banned as an obscenity has to come down to the fact that Braindead has a real story told by someone who loves telling stories and is dedicated to telling them well. The strengths of this picture are obvious - Peter Jackson's camerawork is simply perfect. It transitions from elegantly telling this dramatic tale to being filled with a hyperactive energy.

The comedy, as I've stated, is what keeps this movie from simply being garbage. The way it's all shot, though, is a marvel. Some footage is filmed with briskly-moving cameras, or as if through a pinhole. Basic scenes are executed far more stylishly than they need to be, and Jackson keeps up an ongoing display of perfect composition and setup for much (all?) of the running time. Dead Alive has many scenes in which the camera leads all the action, and tells the story in a way that's so engaging that you can't help but see it on its own terms.

The fact that the jokes fire almost every single time - and that they make the terror so much easier to bear - are what make this picture a true accomplishment. In my fifth time watching the movie, I've only now started to offer any serious critiques, but I am still in awe of its sense of humor. Wicked throughout, you get everything from slapstick to gross-out gags, caricatures to dry banter. Or sometimes, you get an amazing display of absurdism, like what I used for a Great Moments In... 3 months ago:

The story? Oh, yeah... There's a lovely local shopkeeper named Paquita, and her grandmother is a fortune teller. Paquita learns that she'll soon be in extreme danger, but that it will lead her to the love of her life. Whether from a romantic bent, or loneliness, or superstition, Paquita becomes very endeared toward Lionel when he stops by her store and his clumsiness reminds her of the fortune teller's words.

When Mother Vera follows the couple to a zoo, she gets bitten by the monkey-rat of Sumatra, the beast carried off at the start of the film. Vera uses her illness to isolate and lay guilt on her boy. He's as honorable as could be, but his mothers deteriorates from flu-bound to senseless to violent in a short time. After she's caught eating Paquita's (rather large) dog, mama keels over and dies.

From there, Braindead follows Lionel's efforts to either grow up or stay in dependency forever. It's a difficult task for anyone, much less an orphan, much less a guy who can't recognize an undead invasion when he sees one.

The roommate who watched this with me wondered at the same things I did: how can the story start to play out in a naturalistic fashion, then shift toward a very confined atmosphere. How do we go from moments that startle us to what seem like failed farce and satire? Perhaps my roomie missed too much character-work at the start, and he couldn't accept why Lionel might be odd and hurt enough to try to make an undead household work.

I think that it partly comes down to the sheer quantity of jokes here and that the picture is driven towards what it wants to do. Often enough, a Chaplin/Keaton sensibility is on display, In particular, one scene of a man slipping in blood plays poorly and goes on too long, but I can't blame an on-fire comedian for lofting a few softballs during the course of a great show.

No matter what, the characters are clearly defined and engage the audience. You despise some people, pity others, and are interested in just about everyone. The story allows for a lot of metaphor and allegory, while also servicing its players in fun and inventive, atypical ways. You combine this with the cinematography and humor that I already mentioned, and you've got a sure winner - even if it's a disgusting one.

In telling a fun and entertaining story with good characters, Braindead is a clear success. In doing so with stylish visuals, solid dialogue, and a barrage of great jokes, scares and fake-outs, this is simply a marvel among horror films. It's got twice the blood of Evil Dead 2, constantly pushing the boundaries of its audience, yet never strays from the basics (or even the advanced-level tricks) of quality story-telling...

For a movie to be this evenly-matched between art-house quality and b-grade shlock is a wonder - but this is the sort of thing that I learned to expect from Peter Jackson at the very start. Dead Alive blew my young horror-loving mind away, and I was so happy to watch his next picture, Heavenly Creatures.I was even happier that Jackson changed his game up and worked on a period drama with elements of fantasy. I was awed by someone with such a sense of manic fun, but who also varied his subjects.

If you already know the sorts of things that Braindead will throw at you, you understand that I get a very perverse thrill from calling this picture "art." But if you have already seen it, you know where I'm coming from. If you haven't, please understand that I think that, if your stomach can take it, you'll soon agree with me. From my roommates' response, I knew it wasn't perfect in his eyes - but it still got his respect and attention. If you can bear such a visceral ride, I think you'll reach his level of appreciation, even if it's not as strong as my own.

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