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Wednesday, June 29, 2005
It's all in your coding
Personally, when I find myself trapped under the heavy menace of a full-force nightmare, my one and only reaction is to wake up and not go back there. Judging from the steady growth in the new micro-genre of "bad trip" movies, however, there must be plenty of people who enjoy wallowing in a clammy feeling of fear.
The "bad trip" genre -- born somewhere between "Videodrome" and "Jacob's Ladder," "Lost Highway" or "Fight Club" -- is always an exercise in the breakdown of sanity, one in which the world goes horribly, queasily awry.
Unlike its retarded cousin, the horror movie, the "bad trip" flick eschews sudden shocks and billowing gore for a more sustained imposition of dread, spliced onto the terror of the illogical. Recent exponents of the genre have included Brad Anderson ("The Machinist"), Michael Walker ("Chasing Sleep") and -- most notably -- Darren Aronofsky ("pi," "Requiem for a Dream"), while the three Davids -- Lynch, Fincher and Cronenberg -- also continue to map out this nightmarish terrain.
"Bad trip" films are easy to admire, but sometimes hard to "like." With the exception of Lynch, who brings a bizarre sense of humor and eroticism to the style, these films tend to excel in ambience and performance, but are so effective in conveying a feeling of mental breakdown and terror that you often feel a sense of relief when the end credits roll.
That's certainly true of Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson's "One Point O," a prototypical "bad trip" movie. If you ever wanted to comprehend what life may be like as a lab rat, here's the place to start. Renfroe and Thorsson create a claustrophobic, hermetic near-future, fashioning a paranoid fantasy that involves all the invisible terrors of our age: viruses -- digital and otherwise; ubiquitous monitoring by hidden cameras; the intersection of online and real-world perversion; corporate manipulation of our desires; biotechnological invasion of our bodies; and the isolation that comes from spending so much time connected to "the world" on the Net, that you don't know who the hell lives next door. Paranoia has never had such a fertile breeding ground.
Jeremy Sisto plays a reclusive computer programmer named Simon J. (echoing Kafka), who's past deadline on a high-pressure project and worrying that he may be cracking under the stress. Mysterious parcels keep appearing inside his well-locked flat. More disturbing, the parcels are always empty and have a tendency to disappear when Simon wants to show them to his friends. On top of that, he has a curious thirst for milk, and a strange man is shadowing him at the supermarket.
Simon lives in an ominous, imposing, Bauhaus-style block of flats, where the tenants are strange -- Derrick (Udo Kier) is designing a talking robot head, while another menacing guy (Bruce Payne) produces kinky virtual games -- and the landlord (Emil Hostina) is stranger, a vampiric figure who lurks in the basement, voyeuristically spying on his tenants through the security system and munching on raw meat.
It's the kind of place where Simon can ask the superintendent, Howard (Lance Henriksen), "If you see anything weird, tell me," without ever noticing that Howard is five cans short of a six-pack, raving like a crackhead in the late stages of bovine spongiform decay.
The directors do a good job of creating a suitably surreal environment, shooting everything in sickly greens, smothering sepia and blow-to-the-head white, and using some truly otherworldly locations to shoot on in Budapest. The look obviously owes a bit to the Eastern-European cyberpunk of "Avalon," with nods to "The Matrix" (mysterious, green code messages appearing on a hacker's monitor, and a familiar fetish nightclub) and Cronenberg's "eXisTenZ," with its virtual game that spills over into reality.
The directors' cyberpunk influences may be a bit overt at times, and the narrative logic is about as easy to follow as a Microsoft purchase agreement, but these things are easily forgiven for the film's bizarro charms, whether it's the always over-the-top Kier having conversations with a stammering, squawking android head, or the look on Sisto's face when he figures out that "they" are crawling through the vents to get him. There's also a doozy of a finale that gives a whole new meaning to the term "target market."
"One Point O" is certainly a promising debut, and it's exciting to see that Renfroe and Thorsson are currently in production on a film of "Stray Toasters," which is possibly the darkest, most twisted graphic novel of them all. Created by Bill Sinkiewicz, the amazingly psychedelic artist of "Dark Night" and "Elektra: Assassin," who revolutionized the look of comic art with his hyperexpressionist, multimedia style, it will be interesting to see how this translates to the big screen.