Sunday, January 20, 2013

Obscure Oddities: THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL (2010)

The world is filled with dangerous jobs – firefighter, oil rig worker, coal miner, bomb disposal officer.  But perhaps the world’s most treacherous job is independent film watcher. I’m not talking “independent” cinema like a Miramax flick where they proudly pat themselves on the back for somehow managing to make their film with “only” $5 million dollars.  I’m talking about watching films that were made for less than the cost of a Buick where the filmmakers had to beg, borrow and steal in order to get their film done.  9 times out of 10 you are going to suffer through some poor aping of a superior source (see Tom’s hazard duty with the makers of THANKSKILLING 3 trying to do their best South Park impersonation). Most times you will end up depressed as hell, wondering just what you are doing with your life.

However, there are those rare times you see something that is truly bizarre and original that it reinvigorates your desire for “outsider” cinema.  THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL is one of those films.  Essentially a splatter-comedy anthology, this film is actually a surprising take on the struggles of one trying to stay afloat in even the lowest part of Hollywood’s underbelly.  Even more surprising, it is a sharp commentary on the desire for fame and the absurd lengths one will go to achieve it. And, in the biggest shocker, it is a film that actually has heart.  Oh, and blood, lots of blood to match that heart on display.

As Forrest Gump always said, "Life is like a 7-11 hotdog..."
The film opens with Tommy Pistol (writer-director Aramis Sartorio) running late for an audition.  When he arrives and pleads for a chance, the producer (Mia Tyler) bitches him out. To add insult to injury, the next scene has Tommy fired from his job at a bookstore after he insults the owner’s mom.  Arriving home with the bad news, Tommy is given a lecture from his wife (Karen Sartorio).  She laughs about his “dreams of being an actor” and splits with their son.  12 months later Tommy is still in a depressed funk and decides to quell his misery – as we all do – by microwaving a hotdog and masturbating with a penis pump.  With perhaps too much blood going to the wrong head, Tommy slips into a hallucinatory dream state and the audience goes right along with him.

The first segment shows a wide-eyed Tommy arriving in Los Angeles via train to live his dream of becoming an actor.  He tells the train conductor his plans and – in a fitting metaphor for the city – the guy spits on him.  Tommy checks into a fleapit motel with a horny Arab owner and jumps onto the bed, only to get up with a dozen syringes sticking out of his back. Coming off the unwanted high, Tommy gets a call to be on set that day.  He arrives at a warehouse and meets the Snuff Boss (Caleb Emerson, last seen harassing people on a bus in Damon Packard’s FOXFUR).  Yup, naïve ol’ Tommy’s first gig is to be in a snuff film.  Luckily, he is not “the star” but only the executioner.  Wide-eyed Tommy couldn’t tell the difference though as he marvels at the “set” and “props” for this lavish production.  He dives into his role with vigor as he kills his first victim (Mia Tyler again) with a cheese grater. This kid is a natural and the crew is all impressed (“Tommy, you’re a fucking artist,” screams the boss).  However, things get messy when one of the captive girls (Kimberly Kane) escapes and starts offing her captors.  Star-struck Tommy won’t have someone cutting in on his action, so he straps her down and uses her bloodstream to make a bloody Slip ‘n Slide.

She's having Gov. Schwarzenegger flashbacks
After a brief sojourn back to sleeping Tommy, we dive right into the second segment as Tommy moves up the Hollywood ranks as he sneaks onto the set of a big budget Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.  He poses as a Production Assistant for Ahhh-nold so that he can deliver the man his one-of-a-kind protein pies.  Tommy has ulterior motives though as he has drugged the pie.  Why?  Because he wants to skin him alive and wear his flesh.  “I just want to be you,” he says.  Think about that for a second.  That is some pretty damn awesome symbolism.  His plans, however, immediately go astray when he emerges from Arnold’s tent in his new flesh-suit and a P.A. yells, “Hey, that guy killed Arnold Schwarzenegger and he’s wearing his skin!”  Tommy then finds himself in a fight for his life as he must battle an army of rampaging P.A.s in typical Schwarzenegger film fashion and confronts an Asian girl P.A. who suddenly realizes she has amazing martial arts prowess after talking with her spiritual animal (a talking dog).  Seriously!

The third and final segment has a fat Tommy living at the top of his game as he is directing a bottom-of-the-barrel porno flick.  The greasy-haired helmer has to deal with his leading lady Daisy (Daisy Sparks) getting bitten on the ass by some spider and having a staph infection.  As the day wears on, she gets sicker and sicker after bursting the boil on her ass cheek.  As if directing a porno wasn’t hard enough, Tommy finds his leading lady missing so he conscripts a chubby P.A. (John Karyus, also last seen harassing people on a bus in Damon Packard’s FOXFUR) for the sex scene.  This doesn’t seem to bother male talent Grungy (“Anything with a pulse!” he exclaims).  But soon everyone on the set outside of Tommy becomes walking pus zombies and they squirt their sores all over the director.  Back in the real world, Tommy’s hot dog in the microwave explodes at the same time as his penis. This is bad news as he stumbles out of his house and tries to drive to the hospital, but doesn’t appear to make it.

The more you know about director Aramis Sartorio, the more THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL makes sense.  The name Tommy Pistol is his porn pseudonym (nom de penis?) in real life, so it is fair to say he’s been exposed to some sleazy characters in his life. The film originally started out as the short called “Attack of the Staph Spider” (the final segment) and he was encouraged by friends to expand it into a feature length film.  As he started writing the screenplay, Sartorio conceived a story that follows his character from innocent dreamer to jaded cynic.  The old adage is “write what you know” and Sartorio seems to have taken the bitter disappointment of Hollywood familiar to so many folks and turned it into an absurd parody of climbing the Hollywood ladder.  I mean, you have a guy who literally will kill to be famous; who will wear someone’s skin in order to be famous.  It is actually serious stuff amidst the puke and pratfalls.

Despite being filled with gore and guffaws, the film works best in the quieter moments. The opening confrontation with his wife definitely hits home.  However, there is one scene in this that absolutely knocked me on my ass.  In the moments before his first kill in the opening segment, Tommy climbs a ladder and directly addresses the audience.  This Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall is a stunner and is legitimately one of the most heartfelt monologues I’ve seen in the past year.  It instantly reminded me of the bit Van Damme did in JCVD (2008) where he talks about the ups and downs of his career (much to my surprise, Sartorio mentions this bit specifically on the audio commentary as his inspiration).  When you go into a film with a poster featuring a guy holding a bloody cheese grater, you usually know what you are going to get.  I was not expecting a commentary on the struggles of trying to make it in Hollywood, let alone a scene that almost brought me to tears.  Maybe I was just really drunk?  Oh, damn, I don’t drink.

My only complaint with GRUESOME DEATH is one I can’t really hold against the filmmakers since they were working on such a small budget.  It is shot on video and that aesthetic really betrays the film sometimes. I completely understand why it was done that way, but had this been shot on film, it would have really opened up the film to bigger audiences. Also, the ick factor is so off the charts that it limits its exposure.  It would make Roger Ebert wish he had his jaw back so he could puke.  Not that he’d ever watch anything like this.  I say that because the film really does have a message to it and it deserves to be heard. Thankfully, I’m one of those hazardous duty types and don’t have an aversion to movies that let the emotions flow as freely as the bodily fluids.  THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL is one of those rewards for years of having bombs blow up in my face – a film that stands on its own and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

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