THE DARK BACKWARD, 1991
A man pursues stand-up comedy encouraged by his fellow garbage man. Though his friend, who accompanies him on accordion, continues to tell him how great he is, he actually stinks. When the "comedian" grows a third arm out of his back, the friend uses this twist to get him signed up with a sleazy talent agent, and it begins to look like his career is on the move, even though his girlfriend has left him.
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It’s a question frequently bandied about whenever hardcore film geeks get together. Is it possible to make a cult film on purpose? When one looks over the vast majority of films through the years that have been embraced by a cult audience, a few generic trends do begin to emerge. Many of these films feature strangely retro set and costume designs that plant their characters in an “anywhen”, time-out-of-joint netherworld. The films’ casts would frequently look just as much at home in a circus sideshow as on a cinema screen, an alienating effect heightened by the actors’ performances, which are usually stylized to near-cartoon levels of exaggeration.
Likewise, the plots of these cult objects frequently take a backseat to the filmmakers’ detailed evocations of a particular worldview, one that alternately celebrates and condemns the films’ surreal dramatis personae. These effects are exploited, with various levels of calculation on the part of the filmmakers, in cult pictures as diverse as Eraserhead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Toxic Avenger, but based on this admittedly rough description, it would seem to be easy for a filmmaker who so chose to produce a movie aimed intentionally at the kind of slavishly devoted fringe audience the above films and others have gathered. Just take one trainload of carnival freaks, array them in a narrative rife with off-putting and humiliating scenarios, sprinkle lightly with tailfinned ‘50s automobiles and beehive wigs, and voila, instant cult sensation! For better or worse, this is more or less what writer / director Adam Rifkin set out to do with his 1991 debut feature, the singularly bizarre horror comedy The Dark Backward.
Admittedly, there is within The Dark Backward’s screenplay (written by Rifkin at the tender age of 19; he was 25 when he directed the picture) a lesson of sorts about the cutthroat reality of show business, a world in which novelty frequently trumps talent, in which lifelong friends can turn into mere stepstools to better things for the ambitious, and where even talented artists are never worth more than what the money men who really run things are willing to pay for them. Still, these thematic notions remain conceptual at best; besides which, they’ve all been better explored in other, more solidly thought-through films both before and since The Dark Backward’s release. Really, the tale of the fall (and rise, and fall, and slight rise) of Marty Malt is really just a shaggy-dog framework for the film’s true raison d’etre: the presentation of a world that exalts in filth, thrives on misery, and pours degradation and perversity over its morning corn flakes.
Whatever one’s reservations about The Dark Backward as a narrative, one cannot fault it as a singular visual and textural experience. Production designer Sherman Williams creates a crumbling, grime-choked urban dreamscape drowning in slime and garbage. The junkyard where Marty and Gus spend much of their working day is a sprawling ocean of detritus stretching to the horizon, and it looks as if everything the characters touch could potentially curse them with a fatal disease. (The very fact of the film’s toxic vision of a city apparently meant to be Los Angeles is a more damning condemnation of Tinseltown life than anything in Rifkin’s script.) Leering over everything is the monstrous ’50s-style advertising logo of Blump’s, a Big Brother-style megacorp that seems to be the only manufacturer in this world, producing everything from refrigerators to TV shows to some sort of extruded food product called “Weaselroni” (you have no idea how glad I am that no one is seen consuming this on camera). Alexandria Foster’s costumes, ill-fitting and garishly colored, look like a Salvation Army truck exploded all over the actors. All of this is presented by Joey Forsyte’s camera in an eye-punishing wash of piercing blues, demonic reds and puke-greens, with the razor-sharp images outlining every bead of sweat on Marty’s lip and speck of grease in Gus’s pores. The world of The Dark Backward is utterly foul and off-putting, but Rifkin and his crew must nevertheless be commended for bringing it to the screen with such uncompromising clarity of vision.
This same commitment to the integrity of this film’s world extends to the cast, many of whom are called upon to do things that would cause a lesser actor to flee an audition. Nelson, who shed a considerable amount of weight and his tough-guy image to bring this twitching nebbish to the screen, never shies away from Marty’s truly pathetic status, unflinchingly rendering him as a disastrous comedian and a truly failed human wreck even before he sprouts the extra arm. Newton is every smarmy show-biz small-timer come to life, and he’s more than matched by a bucktoothed, Brylcreemed Rob Lowe in a cameo as a talk-show talent booker. James Caan offers some bracing nastiness as
Really, that last image should tell you everything you need to figure out whether this film is for you. Purity of cinematic vision is one thing, but there’s a lot in The Dark Backward that is really just repulsive for repulsion’s sake. Everyone in this world is harsh and unpleasant-looking; even the relatively normal (and undeniably attractive) Boyle is usually presented with a sweaty brow and unflattering lighting. Even in a world where a man grows extra limbs, we’re meant to look at the obese and ugly as equally freakish just because they’re obese or ugly. Gus dines on rancid green chicken rotting off the bone, dead fish tumble disturbingly from a nightclub’s sewer pipes, and a doctor allow his cash-strapped patients to pay by prostituting themselves to his nurse. And this rancid worldview simply never lets up, for 101 minutes; even a wistful beachside idyll, in which Marty dreams of a passionate reconciliation with Rosarita, is ruined by his sudden sprouting of a veritable pincushion of extra arms. It’s shocking, and honestly more than a little depressing, that a 19-year-old kid could have crafted such a dismal and jaded view of a world he’d probably barely gotten a chance to really experience. You shudder to think at what Rifkin might have concocted after a few real disappointments.
Nevertheless, it’s almost hard not to admire the bizarre integrity of The Dark Backward’s comic vision. This film may be a prefabricated cult object, but not cynically so. In every frame, one gets the impression that these (admittedly gifted) performers and artists were presenting exactly the picture they had set out to make, free of Hollywood compromise and untampered with by studio executives (this rich-looking film was actually shot for less than $1 million). Besides which, cult audiences embrace films because, for whatever reason and in all their strangeness, they reveal truths that the viewers might not have ever realized themselves. I first saw The Dark Backward in its initial video release nearly seventeen years ago, but I just now sought it out again after two months spent dealing with an infected golf-ball-sized cyst on my own back. So I guess I was now able to look at poor, tri-armed Marty Malt and finally say, there but for the grace of God goes I.