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THE DARK BACKWARD, 1991
Movie Review

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THE DARK BACKWARD,  MOVIE POSTERTHE DARK BACKWARD, 1991
Movie Reviews

Directed by Adam Rifkin
Starring: Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton, Lara Flynn Boyle, James Caan, Rob Lowe, Claudia Christian, King Moody
Review by Matthew Lohr


SYNOPSIS:

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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REVIEW:

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.

Anyone familiar with Rifkin’s work as a screenwriter and director cannot deny that this is a filmmaker with a taste for the dark, the bizarre, and the sometimes flat-out unpleasant. Rifkin has given the world such heartwarming sights as a drunken teenager filling a beer pitcher with vomit in front of a strip-club crowd (Detroit Rock City) and anthropomorphic action figures so violent that they caused Burger King to bail out of a proposed kids’ meal cross-promotion (Small Soldiers, which Rifkin co-wrote). Even a so-called family film like Mouse Hunt, in Rifkin’s screenwriter hands, features references to Hitler and jokes about a vicious cat so mean that the pound where he lives is “getting ready to gas him again”. Rifkin’s a sick puppy, but a frequently wildly inventive one, and both the monster and the maestro get their moments in the spotlight in The Dark Backward.

Aspiring stand-up comedian Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) may not be the grimiest, sweatiest nerd on the planet, but there’s no doubt that he’s the worst comic on it. Night after night, at a hole-in-the-wall club, he delivers one horrible joke after another, in halting, humorless fashion, before a dead-eyed audience of David Lynch refugees. His buddy, the back-slapping, accordion-manhandling Gus (Bill Paxton), assures him that he is a genius in waiting, but the world is unconvinced by Marty’s “comedy stylings”. His oxygen-masked, cigarette-sucking mother (Anna Berger) flat-out tells him that he’s never been funny, and even his own girlfriend, the peculiarly non-nauseating diner waitress Rosarita (Lara Flynn Boyle), seems to be more uncomfortable in his presence than anything else. Stuck in a dead-end job as a garbage man, which seems not particularly lucrative even in a world choked to the gills with trash, Marty’s already circling a long and fetid drain. And then things get somehow even worse when a strange lump on Marty’s back inexplicably sprouts a baby hand, soon growing into a full-sized third arm. Rosarita runs for the hills, and Marty figures it’s curtains for him…until the curiously persuasive Gus somehow convinces small-time talent agent Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton) that a three-armed comic, with appropriate accordionated accompaniment, might be just what show business is hankering for. As the still-no-funnier (but now at least novel) Marty begins to creep his way up the rickety showbiz ladder, he soon discovers that even a man with three arms can find himself empty-handed when ever-smiling friends become enemies…to say nothing of what could happen when a gimmick act suddenly finds itself gimmick-less.

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

Marty’s utterly unsympathetic doctor (confronted with Marty’s baby hand, he fruitlessly stretches a Band-Aid over the squirming fingers), and Berger is a repulsive delight as Marty’s phlegm-choked slattern of a matriarch, who’d rather watch an Itchy and Scratchy-style cartoon cat and mouse eviscerate each other than her own flesh and blood on television. The jewel in The Dark Backward’s over-the-top acting crown, however, is Paxton, who, as Gus, fearlessly brings to life arguably the foulest character I’ve ever seen onscreen. A man who lives, breathes, sleeps and eats garbage (literally, as we watch him dig up and devour rancid sandwiches he finds in the dump), Gus is not only filthy on the outside. He encourages his friend’s miserable ambitions while subtly making it clear that even he doesn’t really listen to Marty’s act. When his buddy sprouts his extra limb, Gus mostly sees it as a novelty to show off to his sloppy-fat sex buddy (Carrie Lynn) and her slutty, morbidly obese pals, all three of whom Gus pleasures at once…on Marty’s bed, no less. Once the act “takes off”, Gus doesn’t hesitate to insinuate himself onto the stage, and he seems equally willing to toss Marty under the bus when things grow dark. And when a desperate Marty, feeling the slightest bit of confidence at his newfound success, asks Gus to talk to Rosarita on his behalf…well, suffice it to say that Gus doesn’t get off on just fat girls. Even with all the grunge and depravity onscreen, Paxton’s roaring, strained-tendons funhouse explosion of a performance is arguably The Dark Backward’s most potentially off-putting element, and I figure if you can tolerate a half-hour’s worth of it, you’ll likely stick around for the whole ride…if you don’t get scared off by the early scene where Gus, finding a naked dead girl in the dump, expresses his sympathies by tonguing the corpse’s breasts.

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.

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