Saturday, July 16, 2011

Because "Vagrant with a Flamethrower" Was Too Silly.

Jason Eisener's 2011 splatter film Hobo with a Shotgun is the film that Robert Rodriguez's similarly themed 2010 thriller-satire Machete tried to be and failed; a feature film based on a three minute trailer for a "fake" movie that holds up both at full length.

Our dour story begins with Rutger Hauer, a nameless, filthy, and destitute bum on a train to nowhere, hopping off in what looks like a normal enough city to try and make something of himself. What he witnesses as he collects cans for pennies and picks up cast-off cigarettes is a brutal murder by the local crime family led by 'The Drake', a syndicate so untouchable that they  own the police forceand aren't afraid to murder on the set of the 6 o'clock news. The poor scruffy bastard tries not to get involved, and looks the other way with the rest of the townspeople, hoping just to scrape by with the rest of them... but he can only do that for so long when he realizes how deep the corruption, perversion and violence runs in the mean streets of a place the residents now call 'Fucktown'. Having seen more children molested, whores abused and innocent people shot for a cheap thrill than he can stand, he puts his hopes for an honest life on hold and does the only thing he knows he's good at... handing out justice one shell at a time.

Horror certainly can be a fun genre, but Hobo with a Shotgun isn't much of a horror film. It's gruesome, and qualifies for being a full on splatstick adventure within the first five minutes as a nameless chick in a fur coat and hotpants dances sensuously in the spurting neck-hole of a man decapitated with a fucking pick-up truck. Trashy trappings or no it's a film about revenge, redemption, and just a little bit of wild-eyed hope... most of the latter from the wide eyes of a filthy old man who spends his time shooting punks in the face. As much as the film is relentless in kicking our head down into the much and scum of the city, we're never meant to literally idolize it; the anti-heroic Hobo becomes a cold blooded murder machine once he's had his fill of being a silent victim, and the first person he goes out of his way to get rid of was a fuckwit that treated him miserably, making the act revenge instead of charity. Yet in the disgusting streets of Fucktown he's so drenched in the blood and tears of the innocent around him that every action he does is an almost angelic act of striking back at a world in which no man seems capable of even imagining goodness anymore. Having nothing to lose, he has no reason to turn back, and paints the streets in justified blood.

With real life bounty hunters bringing bail-bond jumpers in on basic cable and tales of ordinary citizens fighting back against muggers regularly lionized by the news media, the notion of a "normal" guy cleaning up the filth around him that THE MAN can't touch is a romantic concept... but there's nothing romantic to be found in the slums of Fucktown, apart from the platonic, almost parental relationship between the Hobo and Abby, the street walker he tries to save from herself. The homeless wonder tries to ignore the violence around him, even turning a blind eye when local scumbags cut him up like a salami in the police station he dragged them to, and only rises to deal out deadly street justice when he realizes that everyone in this borderline apocalyptic story fit cleanly into two categories; villains and victims. By the time he steps up to his title role at the end of the second reel, odds are he could just start firing into the sky blindly, and whatever those shots kill as they fall back to Earth would still be fighting crime more than the city was ever willing to before he got there.

Rutger Hauer, a once-serious and still-celebrated professional probably best remembered as being "The Hitcher", among an increasing number of less desirable roles was a bit of an unexpected pick to play any character that shouts lines like "I'm gonna sleep in your warm carcass tonight!" and "First let me wash this guy's asshole off my face." Even so, he was just what the film needed to work; his absolute dedication to being a real character trapped in a candy colored comic book fantasy populated by exploding heads and over-acting unknown Canadians grounds the film in a way that it probably shouldn't, giving us just enough reason as a viewer to care no matter how over the top and eye-rollingly silly the narrative gets. Yes, it goes to places so tasteless and ridiculous it should make guys like Andreas Schnass jealous, but that's why the film works from the first frame to the last. Just when you think you know where the film is headed and you're comfortable with the pace and the sense of asinine humor it's going for, it pulls supernatural robot bikers or a man being used as a human pinata right out of its' bleeding asshole. It's a gore sprinkle-topped decadent slice of non-stop tongue in cheek fun for even the most jaded sleaze fan, and I can't for the life of me understand how anyone can walk away with this film with anything but a grin on their face and a load in their pants.

Your personal mileage of vigilantism-onset orgasms may vary... I'm just sayin'.

True to form, all of the so-called "Grindhouse" revival films that started in 2007 with Robert Rodrigues and Quentin Tarantino's admirable (but financially doomed) double-feature of the same name, HWaS has a particular vibe that it's grabbing by the balls and running with. Planet Terror was essentially a feature length ode to classic John Carpenter and Lucio Fulci, while the first half of Deathproof was a prime piece of early giallo cinema filtered through pop-culture irony. Each of the "fake" trailers, too, took their inspirations from different films made at different points in time, and the lot of them really work because they embraced everything about that particular genre; the sets, the lighting, the soundtrack, and to some degree even the acting you'd expect. So when I say "It's the best movie Troma never made", I'm oversimplifying things, but also telling you everything you need to know. Yes, it's just as grotesque and retarded as The Toxic Avenger and The Class of Nuke 'Em High, but it also pulls inspiration from the very best of the era, the work of low-budget/low-taste aficionados like Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon, and even a pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson, wrapping it all in a skeletal story that's equal parts Falling Down and The Goddamn Batman.

But don't expect a film that gets off on living vicariously through better movies; while the eagle-eyed genre fan will probably spot moments clearly "inspired by" exploitation films ranging from Thriller: A Cruel Picture to Evil Dead II, they're absorbed into the bigger picture and become a natural part of the neon-blood drenched experience. Heck, there's even an odd ode to DP Karim Hussain's first feature Subconscious Cruelty - but you'd never know unless you've gone out of your way to see it. That's what a homage should be; transparent, a natural piece of the puzzle that's recognizable but doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to itself. This understatement of the "inspired by" portion of the film is a pretty stark contrast to how blunt the movie as a whole becomes, and says a lot of good things about the boys behind the camera.

Without a doubt, Hauer is the heart beating behind this whole operation. Some viewers may find his sincere, nuanced, and even heartbraking portrayal of what's really just a one-note cartoon character a little jarring amidst the denizens of the clearly budget actors that otherwise populate the universe of HwaS. It's a fair criticism, but I found that it didn't hurt the film much; the entire cinematic universe is such a strange bit of excess that Hauer literally blowing into town as the only sane man/decent actor within a 86 minute radius is surprisingly refreshing. Besides, when most of your dialog is asinine juvenilities like "It's a beautiful day for a SKATE RAPE!!", well, getting Shakespearian thespians isn't going to change the sum of its' parts by very much: It's all so stupid it's brilliant. Much of John Davies script sounds like it was written by a committee of ten year olds who have just discovered that you can combine dirty words with regular words to make them even funnier, and I couldn't love it's unabashedly juvenile view of vaginas and head trauma any harder if I tried. The film is crass, dumb, and with a budget of three million dollars about as cheap as they come without going full blown Paranormal Activity. It works with what it's got and little else, largely avoiding drenching the screen with bad CG head-shots, stock footage, and whatever tricks other legitimately low budget films of the 21st century are trying to do to hide their shame.

That's not to slight the first-time feature director Jason Eisener, who's short "fake" trailer won him plenty of attention when it was added to the QT/RR double feature in the far flung and backwards land of Canadia. Despite the fact that the HwaS short is now a part of the Double Feature's canon, The Weinstein Company didn't want to bankroll yet another "Grindhouse" film, so the independently financed feature can't legally use the banner, even if we all know it's totally a part of the franchise anyway. The film makes great use of its' limited resources and looks substantially less shitty than its' minuscule budget and slightly wet behind the ears director would suggest; the choice to play up the surreal and wacky film in glowing Technicolor puts a lot of pressure on set and costume designers to make the film not look like a sloppy cash-in, and Eisener's steady hand and tight editing keeps the entire film from looking like it was made for TV. Despite very little footage having been removed, the pacing is tight and never drags its ass after a set piece. It's production values certainly not competing with Transformers, but so what? It's still a real fucking movie, and I can't even say that about the shit old genre greats like Romero, Argento and Carpenter have been wasting their credibility away on in the last decade.

While the finished film has a level of surreal polish and flair not present on the down-and-dirty pilot trailer, Eisener's flexed the miniscule budget into something that - aesthetically speaking, anyway - has more to do with the recent wave of Japanese ultra-splatter films like Tokyo Gore Police and Robogeisha than the grimy 16mm efforts that actually inspired this. Shot digitally and covered in a layer of coarse pseudo-grain, HwaS positively bleeds Technicolor, with lighting pulled out of Mario Bava's best nightmares and the color saturation turned up so hot in post production that certain scenes are literally consumed in primary monochrome. There's no question that this is the intended look of the film, since if it were a mistake the color-correction guru behind it's head would have burst into flames from sheer disbelief. The only thing that betrays its age is how surprisingly good the film proper looks in terms of focus and "print quality", which is a slight surprise for some after all of the prior Grindhouse titles worked ratty 35mm film damage into their very core. The mid 1980s indie splatter films that largely inspired HwaS were typically seen on VHS and cable anyway, so it only makes sense that a film inspired by the oversaturated and noisy look of analog video would take with it traits that have nothing to do with the splice-riddled 70s double bills of yore.

You'll remember that I compared the film to Machete in the first paragraph, yeah? I should take a moment to say that I still do love Rodriguez' silly "The Killer meets Rambo" biker revenge movie, I just think it gets a little buried under all of the star power and that goddamned R-rating, delivering a sprawling epic that packs a lot of the cheeky fun one would expect from a 70s revenge movie, but rarely ever actually has the sense or focus to do much with it. Yeah, yeah, the scene with the intestines is fucking great, but can you name any other scene that was that jaw-droppingly repulsive and hilarious once we get to the opening credits? Well, HwaS has one of "those" moments about every five goddamn minutes. Machete's still a great, oddly smart B-movie buried under it's MPAA shackles and slightly abused star power (Oh look, Steven Segal AND Lyndsay Lohan are playing themselves... but ironically!), but at the end of the day it worked better as a 3 minute short than a feature length movie. This Hobo brings the fuckin' Shotgun down like the double-barreled sword of Damocles, and you can only have it when you've torn his hands off with a lawnmower. For all the smart-assed "Mexico, FUCK YEAH!" fun that Rodriguez delivered, this is what a real low budget exploitation film looks like.

Plus, let's face it: No matter how amazingly charming a walking stereotype Danny Trejo is, he's just no Rutger Hauer.

Hobo with a Shotgun is an easy recommendation to anyone who loves to wallow in excess. It's probably not a film you should pop in for the local PTA meeting, but it's a surprisingly guiltless pleasure that sets out only to entertain at the most basic and visceral level, succeeding where it matters for a Troma-inspired gore comedy. It's repulsive, it's loud, it's tacky and goddamn, is it ever fun. It's unpretentious throwback exploitation at its' finest, embracing the strengths and even the weaknesses of films from yesteryear that we so love, and anyone who was a thirst for the obscene and the ridiculous should get a kick out of it.

The US Blu-ray through Magnolia comes armed to the teeth with special features, including two commentaries, a brief run of deleted scenes, TV spots and trailers, the original Grindhouse HwaS short, plus a new "fake" trailer for the film VAN GORE, which looks a bit like it'd be the Andy Warhol Approved remake of H.G. Lewis' Color Me Blood Red. There's a camera test for geeks (like me) who actually care about that sort of thing, an extensive set of behind-the-scenes video blogs, and - on the US release, but not the Canadian for one reason or another - a lengthy documentary chronicling the creation of the feature from start to finish.There's also an interactive Shotgun Mode that lets you "Follow the Crosshairs", but if you're like me you'll likely just watch all of the clips separately anyway. They get an "A" for effort, at least. It's entirely possible I've forgotten some of the extras - there's just so goddamn many to sift through that it's difficult to keep track, but I certainly can't accuse Alliance of not giving supplemental feature loving consumers a considerable BANG! for the buck.

Unfortunately, some of these screenshot shows off some pretty severe AVC compression artifacts (particularly the last one), and I can confirm that they tend to pop up on the scenes bathed in glowing neon color more than on the relatively "neutral" day-lit bits of the movie for one reason or another. The whole film only has an average bitrate of 20 Mb/s, not including a lossless DTS MA track and two lossy mixes, so while I wouldn't say it looks bad, I'm certain that shuffling that ridiculous mountain of special features onto a second disc could have still made a general improvement. Still, I suppose for the $16 it's going for, the transfer is more than acceptable, and unless Japan takes a shine to the film and encodes it at 40 Mb/s for some insane three disc Ultra Edition packaged in a hobo satchel, I doubt we'll ever see the film look better. There's room for improvement, but for what it's selling for it gets hard to complain.

Also, Magnolia gets a big honkin' thumbs up from me for including a "Digital Copy" by way of letting us redeem an iTunes download. I have more expired DVD-ROM digital copies than I can count, and never felt the need to use a one of them to start with. I wish every studio that's determined to make sure we don't have any justified excuse left to download a rip follows this model, since it means one less coaster rattling around in the case.

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