Saturday, December 10, 2016

Upsidedown Cross (2014)

Written by: William Hellfire, Mike Hunchback
Directed by William Hellfire
Erin Russ as Nadine
David Yow as Preacher
Colleen Cohan as Delilah

Facebook. Almost all of us have it. Many of us are not sure how happy we are about that some days. If you're anything like me, you kinda wish your phone had a breathalyzer attached that wouldn't allow you internet access after blowing a certain percentage. There are plenty of days where I'll wake up to 20 to 30 notifications, knowing that they're either going to be in response to cute puppy videos or angry political shit, and hoping against hope that today is a puppy video day.

Let's set aside for a moment the negative macro-cosmic effects like turning ridiculous tabloid headlines into high-speed clouds of idiot shrapnel that, once embedded in enough dim-witted racist redneck brains, contributed significantly to turning what most intelligent people thought for sure was just a sick joke into the honest-to-Putin election of a six-foot ambulatory glob of past-the-sell-by-date tapioca pudding covered in Cheeto dust that brags about sexually assaulting women and is also likely a child rapist.

From the standpoint of the personal microcosm, it is a brilliant way to interact with the creators of your favorite art and entertainment like never before. I remember the first celebrity I followed was my favorite painter, Bob Eggleton. I assumed it was going to be some sort of professionally managed page and I was just interested in updates seeing new paintings and the like. Imagine my surprise to find it was Bob's personal page, and to be speaking with him. Here I was talking to a guy whose artwork had captured my imagination since I was a kid, who was the first artist whose style I learned recognize on sight, and he's a really fucking cool dude to boot!

It's also a good way to find out about a lot of cool things that otherwise might have passed you by. I've seen a whole bunch of concerts I probably otherwise would have missed out on because of band posts popping up in my feed. Likewise for movies. It's how I found out about tonight's feature. I don't remember how I wound up becoming friends with William Hellfire, but for quite a long time I couldn't log on without seeing stuff about Upsidedown Cross, and even though I was interested from the very first time I heard of it, it took an embarrassingly long time for me to finally get around to watching it. I'm damn glad I did though, because it's excellent.

We first meet Nadine as she is offered an invigorating cup of morning coffee in a filthy used disposable cup and an invigorating dose of morning heroin in a needle probably not much cleaner than the cup, by her pimp, Victor. He's something of a modern-day Irving Klaw, but skeezier. He keeps a stable of girls in a scummy apartment building and charges men to come in and take Polaroids of the girls undressing. Of course, if a client wants more than a few blurry photographs to remember the encounter by, all things are negotiable.

This is Nadine's lucky day, sort of. A couple of the morning's clients turn out to be under cover vice officers, and the one who busts her takes pity and gives her an opportunity to slip out the back and hopefully into a better life before his partners arrive with the cuffs. I say sort of, because that better life turns out to be just a different sort of awful.

Usually I don't spoil the ends of movies for readers, even if they're decades old. Just because I've seen it, doesn't mean you have, after all. In this case, though, I am going to divulge the end of the movie because that's where some of the most important stuff in the movie lies. So at this point, if you haven't already seen Upsidedown Cross (and you really should), skip down past the rest of the review and hit the Amazon link to get yourself a copy. I'm not going anywhere.

So, what'd you think? Pretty damn good, right? Ok, where was I? Ah, right.

With nowhere else to go in the city, and the prospect of living in a box behind Arby's less appealing than Victor's coffee, Nadine decides it's time to return home to patch things up with mom. Or at least pretend to do so in order to mooch. The mother/daughter reunion is awkward at best, and this is probably the weakest part of the movie. The women sit at the kitchen table and have an argument that goes on a little too long, with Delilah asking Nadine to contribute to the household if she's going to be living there, and Nadine saying she's going to be sick for a while and just needs a place to crash until she's better. Nadine loses some of the sympathy I had for her here when she starts ragging on Delilah for her financial situation putting the house at risk of repossession. It seems awfully presumptuous that she expected to be able to go off and do whatever she wanted with no contact whatsoever, but Delilah was still beholden to have a great inheritance waiting for her if the heroin didn't kill her first.

For someone who has come crawling home for help, Nadine behaves like a mouthy spoiled brat, although that could also be down to the beginnings of withdrawal. This section of the movie could have used a bit more elaboration on Nadine and Delilah's relationship and motivations to give the third act some extra emotional depth, but there's still enough of that to go around, as we'll see.

Of course, it's not long before we learn why Nadine took off in the first place. Delilah is an insufferable religious fruitcake of the nuttiest variety, and it would seem that the reason she's on the verge of bankruptcy is that she spends all day watching televangelists and giving money to their Satanic panic hotlines. She is firmly convinced that Nadine's DT's are the devil's work, and calls in a sizable donation to the “Reverend Sleazy P. Martini Needs A New Boat Dock For His Private Pedophile Sex Island” telethon in return for them sending her a traveling exorcist played by David Yow of the Jesus Lizard (they suck, but they kick ass).

Up to this point, the performances have been decent, but not extraordinary, but when Yow enters the picture, things really take off. Russ has a very laid-back delivery style, but when she has a pro like Yow to play off of, it's like some kind of chemical reaction occurs. When the bad stuff starts to happen, they really feed off each other and use that energy to go to some deep, dark places. And the bad stuff is indeed about to happen.

The nameless priest proceeds to spend the next several days torturing Nadine in the name of God while her mother wrings her hands in the next room, praying that the screams are the product of the arduous process of ridding her daughter of Satanic influence and not that she's just invited a madman into her home to torment her child. Things escalate from ice baths to beatings until Nadine is eventually raped, at which point the priest decides discretion is the better part of being a perverted monster and gets the hell out of Dodge. As he leaves the house, Delilah enters Nadine's room and sees her daughter face down on the bed, crying and terrified. “Has the demon left you?” she asks tentatively. Nadine nods through the tears and the credits roll.

The first reading of this scene that came to me is that when Nadine says the demon left her she's referring to the priest finally departing, and of course Delilah taking it to mean that the exorcism worked because she's a gullible tool whose ignorance and misplaced well-meaning caused her daughter far more trauma than her previous life on the streets had. The most unpleasant part about this reading is that it means in Delilah's head, her plan worked. Hiring a mentally unstable predator to come into her home and physically and emotionally abuse her daughter was what God wanted her to do, and it paid off and saved the girl's soul.

The more I thought about it, though, a second interpretation came to me. Something more grounded in reality and requiring no examination of double meanings. Perhaps Nadine's affirmation that the demon is out of her is a self-preservation thing, and she's just agreeing with Delilah because for now, at least, it's the safe thing to do. She's afraid continuing the argument that she's not really possessed and her mom is crazy could result in something even worse the next time.

I'm not sure which one of these ideas is nastier, and maybe something came to you while watching it that's horrible in a completely different way. However you look at it, though, the ending of this flick packs a punch that I was not expecting. From the promotional materials that I saw, I was under the impression that this was going to be a low-budget Exorcist type thing. I figured there'd be a lot of swearing and vomiting and blasphemy played for shock and laughs. This is, after all, coming from the guy who released Duck! The Carbine High Massacre just months after the Columbine shootings. What I got instead was a personal, intimate vision of horror that's much worse than any pea soup-barfing demon, because it's real. This kind of stuff happens all the time. You might even know someone who has been put through this kind of abuse.

I corresponded briefly with William after I finished the movie to tell him how much I liked it, and he told me that he felt his catalog is uneven because there aren't that many true passion projects he's done. This one, though, is the one that's nearest and dearest to him, and it shows. This is one to be proud of.

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