So the review of my submission I was waiting for, suspecting that the unfortunate party had been defeated? It’s ready. And I’m the one who’s gonna post it, because doesn’t that just seem appropriate? Without further ado, I give you Adam Nayman, the author of the recently-published It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, trying to make sense of the head-scratching whatzit called Hellroller!
One of Us: Hellroller
It’s been a summer of abjection for me. I was quite unexpectedly hired to teach a course on the history of cult cinema at the University of Toronto, and so I’ve been spending most of my time reading about movies that have been deemed transgressive in one way or another, and then trying to get a classroom of seen-it-all undergraduates to do thought experiments in which the taboos of other times and places suddenly regain their power here in 2014. Sometimes, the films fail the students; the elegant horror of Eyes Without a Face failed to set the lecture hall on fire. Other times, the students seem unable to connect with movies containing true greatness, like Rebel Without a Cause, which more than a few kids called mannered and ridiculous.
The one film that seems to have inspired the most visceral and yet heady responses, however, is Tod Browning’s Freaks — a true relic of the classic-exploitation era that retains a lot of its power to unsettle eighty years later. The source of Freaks’ potency, for both the critical commentators collected in our syllabus and the students (as explicated in their response papers and in-class comments) is its strange ambivalence towards its titular characters – an ambivalence that plays out both in the film’s plot and its visual storytelling. Ostensibly a tale of justified revenge carried out by a group of freak-show performers on their troupe’s conniving “normal” stars, Freaks casts its sympathies with the cabal of midgets, pinheads and otherwise visibly unusual performers in its cast – at least until the nightmarish closing scenes, where their odd qualities are emphasized to the point of monstrousness.
My students’ troubled reaction to Freaks had to do with the oldest stuff in the book – viewer identification and the ethical ramifications of a film’ story and moral. Browning’s decision to cast actual freak-show performers rather than actors in make-up seemed equally legible as a bold gesture of authenticity and the sleaziest carnival-barker tactic imaginable; similarly. Freaks’ reputation as a revenge-of-the-repressed melodrama could be tweaked by only a few degrees to yield a far less charitable reading. The banquet scene, with its refrain of “one of us! One of us!” directed at the nefarious blonde beauty Cleopatra, is pure carnivalesque comedy-horror – an assault on “normality” that forces the viewer into the position of the tormented and tormentor at the same time. Who are we with here, and why?
I mention Freaks and its subtext of solidarity as a way into Gary J. Levinson’s Hellroller not because the latter warrants any kind of sustained comparison with a classic movie – I don’t know what movies it could be usefully compared to, but I wouldn’t want to see them in any case. This shot on VHS non-film is about a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound sociopath (the unbearable Ron Litman) who longs to transform the rest of Los Angeles’ population into “bums” – to reduce them to his level. This is accomplished with the help of the so-called “king of the bums” (David Sterry) a grotesquely lazy figure whose cruelty and callousness gives the film most of its tonal cues.
On the one hand, it’s hard to be offended by Hellroller; its production values are so skimpy and its acting so pathetic that any conscious affect is impossible. At the same time, it’s impossible not to be offended by a movie that inventories so much hideous stuff, including – but not limited to – rape, murder (including by hot iron), and an endless stream of invective aimed at disabled people (chiefly the protagonist). The literal and figurative cheapness of the movie is such that it’s entirely worthless, except that its abject awfulness seems somehow in sync with its protagonist’s worldview: it’s as bitter, confused and hateful as he is. Put another way, Hellroller accomplishes something that few movies do, which is a total unity of form and content – albeit located at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from what most viewers would consider admirable. Yet in paracinematic studies of affect and excess, movies like Hellroller – or the collected works of Larry Buchanan and Doris Wishman before it – are redeemed as objects demanding contemplation; the sheer mystery of how and why a movie like this got made (and by who, and where) becomes tantalizing and urgent.
For me, the curiosity is entirely hypothetical; I don’t want to know anything more about Hellroller than I already do (ok that’s not true, I want to know how Mary Woronov got roped into an unrecognizable cameo in the first scene). It’s a truly repugnant and ridiculous sub-cultural artifact, and it’ll take somebody more core strength and a healthier back than me to try and elevate it (this isn’t just a “low” movie; it’s positively subterranean). And yet I’m glad that I was forced to watch it as a part of this blogathon because it’s about as good a definition of “abject” as you’re ever going to find outside of the dictionary.