Friday, May 05, 2017

Random Film Review: The Dark Backward

Dir: Adam Rifkin / 1991 / 101mins / USA

I was surprised and saddened at the unexpected death of actor Bill Paxton in February this year. I'd admired him in a lot of films, he was a good character actor, very likable and watchable. Inevitably, in the wake of his death, there was a flurry online of top ten Bill Paxton films/roles, most of which I couldn't disagree with: the adrenaline-pumping Aliens, the near masterpiece One False Move (perhaps my favourite Paxton film), A Simple Plan and Near Dark (tell a lie, this is my favourite film of his). Even smaller roles in films such as Weird Science, Terminator and True Lies are memorable.

But one film (another is Talking Tiger Mountain, an experimental, sexually explicit, black and white 'psychotropic apocalyptic odyssey' shot in Wales and Tangier in 1983; another still is the horror film Frailty, the only film Paxton starred in and directed) absent from most lists was The Dark Backward, made in 1991, the same year as One False Move. I saw it when it came out at London's sleazy Scala cinema, which was the perfect venue for it. It got mostly terrible reviews, then vanished.

The Dark Backward, whose title comes from Shakespeare's The Tempest, features Marty Malt, garbageman by day and terrible stand-up comedian by night. Gus is also a garbageman, as well as an accordion player and Marty's best – and only – (back-stabbing) friend. Marty's career as a stand-up comic is going down the pan until he develops a lump on his back, which turns into a small hand, which turns into a full grown arm and hand, his fortune starts to change and Hollywood beckons...

Even an outline of the bizarre plot does nothing to prepare you for the carnivalesque sun-drenched filth of The Dark Backward. And though it's reminiscent of other films and filmmakers – imagine Gilliam's Brazil and Robinson's How to Get Ahead in Advertising remade by David Lynch, John Waters and Fellini with mise-en-scene via Soylent Green, the classic 1973 dystopian sci-fi thriller with Charlton Heston – the world it inhabits is like no other in cinema.

Filth, grime and decay oppressively permeate every inch of the film, so much that you can smell it. The streets are covered in rubbish, rats and cockroaches. Fish swim out of sewer pipes into the gutter. A Big Brother-style multinational named Blump's has 1950s-style advertising everywhere and seems to own everything from the garbage company to food: squeezable bacon, cartons of pork juice and cheddar-scented cheese are just a few of the choice morsels on offer.

Most of the cast play against type, and what a cast it is: Judd Nelson plays Marty as a sweaty, introverted loser, dressed in ill-fitting, over-sized polyester suits whilst his sleazy, over-bearing, maniacal, pushy and obnoxious, so-called best friend, Gus (Bill Paxton), in a constant state of grinning, jeering and accordion-playing, betrays him at every opportunity. James Caan is a useless at best, sadistic at worst quack doctor, Lara Flynn Boyle a sulky waitress, Rob Lowe (hard to believe the last time Nelson and Lowe appeared in a film together it was the ultimate Brat Pack film St Elmo's Fire, just a few years previously) as a sleazy talent agent, and, in an inspirational piece of casting, singer and entertainer Wayne Newton plays Marty's manager.

If the film has no sympathetic characters, and is a one trick pony (or three-armed geek), it astonishes in its detail and depravity: Gus stripping off his garbage man overalls and getting butt naked with three morbidly obese women on Marty's bed; Gus licking the breasts of a dead naked woman in a landfill site or Gus eating rotting chicken. In fact, the only tender scenes in the film are with Marty's third arm, pulling the bed cover over him at night or consoling him with a pat on the shoulder.

Watch it here.


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