Friday, March 29, 2013

Obscure Oddities: BAD BRAINS (2006)

When Italian genre filmmaking bottomed out, it happened quickly.  How fast was it?  Faster than Eli Roth stealing an idea from a 1980s horror flick and then patting himself on the back for it.  Really, it was that fast.  One day we’re looking forward to Lucio Fulci’s return to form with the Dario Argento produced THE WAX MASK; the next day Fulci is buried six feet under and Dario begins an epic career plummet that starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998). Completely shell shocked, we hoped and prayed for a savior for this once stately horror subgenre. A glimmer of hope arrived in the new millennium with director Ivan Zuccon.

I can’t even recall how I first heard of Zuccon, but I do know it centered on his two early H.P. Lovecraft adaptations (THE DARKNESS BEYOND [2000] and UNKNOWN BEYOND [2001]).  It was his third feature – another series of Lovecraft adaptations called THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003) – that filed him under a guy to take notice of.  Zuccon filled his films with plenty of style, despite being low budget affairs.  And therein laid the problem – despite having oodles of atmosphere and superior technique, Zuccon shot all of his projects on video (Betacam), which is a major turnoff for most horror fans.  They mostly equate video with being “cheap and bad” unless it is done in a found footage/PARANORMAL ACTIVITY style (which, in my opinion, makes most of those films unwatchable).  Despite improving with every film and attempting challenging material (see Tom’s rave of COLOUR FROM THE DARK), the man couldn’t get noticed at a Fangoria convention unless he dressed up like Rob Zombie.

Regardless of international attention (or lack thereof), Zuccon kept plugging away at his craft with his busiest period being from 2006-2008 where he released 3 films.  To be honest, I wasn’t very excited when I saw the first trailer for BAD BRAINS (2006), his fourth feature film.  It was definitely a deviation from his earlier literary adaptations and I thought he was bending to the “torture porn” market created in the wake of Roth’s HOSTEL (2005).  What I didn’t know is that lurking behind the lurid exterior was a film that actually had some thoughts flowing through its crazed cerebellum.

The film centers on Davide (Zuccon regular Emanuele Cerman) and Alice (Valeria Sannino), two serial killers who live in an isolated warehouse.  Actually, they might take offense to the term “serial killer” as they see themselves more as “researchers” who are looking for something inside each of the individuals they kill.  What that is I can’t tell you or it would ruin the surprise.  Their lives are pretty standard as they kill, have sex, drink, and play with Alice’s human doll that she keeps locked up in a room.  Such banality is interrupted when a mysterious stranger, Mirco (Matteo Tosi), arrives at their hidden location.  The stranger admits he has studied the duo’s criminal exploits, but has no idea how to explain the supernatural connection between himself and Davide.  You see, when Davide kills someone, Mirco experiences a form of stigmata as blood will miraculously appears on his hands.  Even worse, if Mirco is injured, the wounds will soon appear on Davide as well, leaving our serial killers’ hands tied as they obviously can’t kill this guy.  So they decide to keep they stranger tied up for the time being and try to figure out just what his connection to them is and how it might relate to their brutal past.

An expansion of the Zuccon short film DEGENERAZIONE (1998), BAD BRAINS actually took me by surprise.  As with all of Zuccon’s films, he uses the video format well and doesn’t use that “inferior” format as an excuse to not be creative. There are well done dolly and tracking shots and (as always) some heavy dollops of atmosphere thanks to some well done lighting.  Zuccon also gives us his first dabbling in CGI as we get some computer generated insects (including a well rendered moth) throughout the film.  The acting is also very strong and all three leads do well in their respective roles.

As I mentioned before, I went into this with low expectations as I thought I was getting nothing more than a torture and shock show.  And while there are some brutal moments on display, they are balanced by a script that actually keeps you guessing with its multiple twists.  Imagine that – something that doesn’t just want to delight in Euro-trash chainsawing off fingers and plucking out eyeballs and instead wants to make audiences think, right down to the title.  The mystery behind Mirco left me wondering for nearly the entire running time and while I did figure out his role before the reveal, there were a few other swerves that I didn’t see coming at all.  It is truly a shame the audience for this is so limited (due to both being shot-on-video and being in Italian with subtitles) as one could see the mind games having a THE SIXTH SENSE effect on viewers. Or, as Tom more succinctly put it in our email conversation about the film: “If that had been made on a multi-million dollar budget by Eli Roth or Rob Zombie, fans and critics would be losing their f’ing minds.”

Moments of Clarity:

2 Reactions:

  1. Zuccon really does get it right when everything is in place. I've yet to see Bad Brains, but the one that followed this, Nympha (2007) is one of the best genre films to come out in recent years. It's a slick nod to the nunsploitation/arthouse flicks of old while at the same time doing it's own thing.

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  2. "filed him under a guy to take notice of." Done and done, thanks for bringing him to my attention.

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