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Awesome: 6.67%
Worth A Look: 13.33%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap40%

2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Heat Chamber, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Lukewarm Hodgepodge Not Fit For Prisoners"
1 stars

If you're anticipating erections or goosebumps from watching this, may I suggest a seedy massage parlor or pre-'90s Stephen King novel instead?

If you're depressed and looking for something in the brain-dead garbage department to send you even further into a mental abyss, look no further than writer/director Mark Norberg's The Heat Chamber. Shot on the cheap for just under a hundred-grand, it's one of those unctuous digitally-shot cinematic endeavors that once again affirms that just because an aspiring filmmaker lives in a day and age of affordable technological innovations doesn't necessarily mean his or her vision is suitable for the consumption of unsuspecting filmgoers' eyes and ears. Surely if Norberg's screenplay would have been submitted to a major studio or even a semi-respectable independent one, it would have been jettisoned and deposited in the nearest wastebasket -- that is, of course, before it had been used to wipe away the stream of tears off the person unfortunate enough to have lain even a fleeting glimpse onto it. And it isn't even of the so-bad-it's-good variety, because what's even more vomitous than the screenplay is the director's naively unwarranted respect for it -- its absurd plot components are self-destructively played straight and with an actual sense of shame placed on the dramatic front, so whatever enjoyable camp value the material might have held has been dissipated and just plain stomped out by all the naive seriousness attached to it. This is why a valid film sense is needed in a filmmaker: to not only know what will and will not suitably play for an audience, but how it should play. Too much of the time during The Heat Chamber I spent keeping track of all the chalk marks Norberg wasn't hitting; and when he misses, he misses not-even-on-the-side-of-a-barn wide -- it's the equivalent of watching a manic-depressive on speed trying to screw in a light bulb (or make a film), I guess.

We first see the hero, Jeff Roberts (played by Shawn Hoffman, who looks and acts like a poor man's Tim Daly), driving in a professional stock car race, where he crashes his car and winds up in the hospital, thus throwing a considerable monkey wrench into his career plan. (Actually, the green-screen effects in the racing scenes are so fake-looking that at first I thought I was watching a Playstation-2 game.) Reduced to driving a cab and constantly on the receiving end of the urgings of wife Peggy (Susan Matus) to accept higher-paying work with his brother-in-law (whom he despises), Jeff is frustrated and resentful and finds himself reluctantly receptive to the offer of a mysterious woman, Lila (Carolyn Hennesy), who he picks up in his cab: Engage in sex acts with her female clients inside her house for two months for the sum of thirty-thousand dollars. (He actually winds up with fifty-thousand, but never mind.) The fuck room is lit in nothing but hypersensitized red, like those late-'60s/early-'70s heavy-metal rock album covers designed to appeal to hippies tripping on LSD; and Jeff unexpectedly has sex with only one woman, Sara (Kelly Chambers), who dresses in a blonde wig and doesn't seem to possess the desire for precoital small talk (when Jeff starts asking her something, Lila, unseen but watching and listening in the next room, instructs him via microphone to zip it). Jeff is soon guilt-ridden and the spewer of lame excuses to Peggy as to his ever-increasing long absences from the homestead. Yet when you think the proceedings are going to serve as nothing more than a morality play and domestic drama a la The Man from Elysian Fields, it switches gears into thriller mode with a subplot involving an underground baby-adoption racket, and with it an array of blackmail, double crosses and gunfights.

I don't know what talent Mark Norberg thinks he has, but the ability to juggle two different genres at once isn't one of them. Rather than a streamlined narrative that interlaces the thriller aspects with the dramatic ones, the film has a first-half that's flat-footedly mundane in addressing overly familiar domestic issues (so help me, Jeff's father tells him, "Pride is a small thing to swallow to put food on the table."), and a second-half that's quick to pace itself as a thriller but not smart enough to tactfully lead up to its plot twists (when a coworker of Jeff's is given an inordinate amount of screen time, you know this supposedly incidental character will turn out to be anything but later on). Some things can be excused by the film's low budget, like the sometimes-erratic sound recording, but other things, like the heavy-handedness and blunt literalness, most certainly can't. On two different occasions Jeff says "Everything's going to be all right." the scene before something goes awry, and when his conscience overwhelms him and he promises to himself never to go back to the red room, he, uh, you guessed it, does. Of course, this is nothing compared to Jeff furiously scrubbing himself in the shower at home after his first red-room visit. (He even contemplates burning his first-earned hundred-dollar bill from the job with his Bic!). And right when you think the stink of obviousness can't get any more septic, when Peggy discovers the truth and kicks Jeff out, we're afforded a sequence where Jeff's parents are praying at their dinner table, cut to a shot of a running bathtub, then one back to Peggy's parents, and a mental alarm has already gone off that screams "Suicide attempt!" Norberg has a dubiously canny ability at telegraphing his intended surprises so that you see them coming several zip codes away.

Who is The Heat Chamber likely to please? I don't know. For fans of erotica, look elsewhere, because the film is unbearably square: Jeff always has a pained look on his face while copulating with Sara, which is meant to convey guilt and is completely devoid of lust -- we're never left to ponder whether it's just the money that he's doing this for; and there's not so much as a smidgen of nudity to be had -- in fact, the first red-room session ends a nanosecond after a mere kiss to the lips is applied! For fans of action, look elsewhere, because the shootouts are incompetently done and the moments leading up to them devoid of suspense. (When is someone going to tell these debuting directors of cheaply-done films that unless they can stage even mediocre shootouts not to bother?) Fans of great acting beware, too, for Hoffman makes for a rather pallid protagonist, pushes all the expected buttons, and doesn't seem to know how to speak loudly in front of the camera without lifting the roof off your head. (To give credit where it's due, though, the gorgeous Chambers makes Sara's transformation from victim to resilient survivor vivid and believable.) But, for some odd reason, the compositions and lighting are unexpectedly better during the final third, as if the director took a competency pill loaded with visual-enhancing supplements. Still, this is the kind of film where the suspecting wife finds incriminating evidence in her husband's clothes while preparing laundry right after her husband just happens to decide not to engage in any more red-room shenanigans in the scene before. (Groan!) Too ridiculous to take seriously and too stiff and distant to tantalize, The Heat Chamber is so ineffectual and lukewarm that it'd send Hungry Man and Swanson connoisseurs away in a hissy fit of arms-up-in-the-air befuddlement. And if you think that joke's bad, wait'll you see the film.

There's nothing wrong with a passionate filmmaker managing to get his or her dream project made, but when it's this nonsensical and flat-out bad, one might be better off considering other career possibilities.

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originally posted: 10/18/04 13:17:22
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User Comments

4/17/16 wbttnslve USA 4 stars
1/16/09 Lisa ( Where can I get a copy of this was filmed at my house. 5 stars
6/05/06 heidi richiemer I was spell bound. I thought this film was edgy and artfully done. I would like to see mor 4 stars
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  01-Jan-2004 (NR)



Directed by
  Mark Norberg

Written by
  Mark Norberg

  Shawn Hoffman
  Kelly Chambers
  Susan Matus
  Joe Stevens
  Carolyn Hennesy
  Joe Estevez

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