by Jack Sommersby
One of the most grating and uncouth films I've ever had the displeasure of witnessing.The Item has the distinction of being the first digitally-shot film ever to debut at the much-revered Sundance Film Festival, a fact that the writer/director/star behind it, Dan Clark, is more than proud to attest to, as if its mere acceptance into the festival marks a sign of distinct quality, when in fact all an independent film need be these days to garner reputable attention is exist, touting a catchy premise, and little else. The audience does all the work now, after all. Because something isn't a typical Hollywood by-product, it's seen as a strong-willed champion, the result of a determined artist's vision to get his or her ideas across on the screen. Again and again, directors working outside the major studio system have it great because, as with critics and audiences alike, the mere attempt at art is, in their eyes, to achieve it -- regardless of whether or not the film as a whole is substantial or even worth a damn. Which brings us back to The Item. It is godawful.
"You've Never Seen Anything Like it! (And That's a Good Thing.)"
Contrary to the cheesy title and misleading cover art, The Item is not a horror film so much as it is a truly wacked-out attempt at a black comedy -- the title monster's just along for the ride, it turns out. There are no real heroes in the film, just a dire assortment of overactors trying their darndest to bring a tongue-and-cheek nastiness to the proceedings in light of anything remotely plausible to do. The main four characters are a group of friends who've agreed to act as middlemen for the government, paying off a loony scientist (who looks like a cross between David Carradine and Elton John) to obtain an experimental creature that resembles, well, a giant penis. But the scientist, deducing that the creature is likely to be exploited, tries to back out on the deal, and is killed. Before his demise, however, he manages to mouth off some of the nuttiest dialogue in recent memory:
-- "I'm not exactly sure what that "blob" in the box you call it is, only lately I've come to realize it's not what the blob is, it seems to be important, but why the blob is, it seems to truly matter."
-- "I like looking at the night sky -- it looks the same upside down as it does right-side up."
From here, the friends take the creature back to an apartment and wait for their employer to contact them to arrange a time and place for the exchange. Of course, they can't resist opening the creature's case and gandering at this odd-looking entity. Automatically, we envision it getting loose and stalking them one-by-one. But the film doesn't play out that way. Rather, the bulk of the story involves the friends arguing amongst themselves, while the creature, after having revealed a gift for English-speaking talk, manipulates the vulnerable and weak-willed ones into striking out against their leader (played by writer/director Clark, who resembles a soiled version of James Spader's ruthless criminal in 2 Days in the Valley). In between all this, we're "treated" to an extended kung-fu action sequence in an alley where, instead of actually running, the actors, to simulate action, are pushed forward while standing on dollies.
A soiled condom is dropped on the creature's head. Barbie dolls are dismembered and thrown into a red-hot skillet. Characters speak dialogue as we view their reflections through blood puddles. A shooter urinates a smiley-face figure on the ground next to a corpse. The creature has passionate sex with the the leader's girlfriend (accompanied by syrupy music, no less!). Judging from any or all of this, the objective here was obviously not to make a nail-biting horror pic, nor a humorless crime depiction in the form of something like the Kevin Spacey-directed Albino Alligator. The cast wildly emotes as if hamminess were a true virtue, while Clark, as director, employs a ton of camera set-ups and endless arty angles to give the film an energetic visual quality to let you know this is "gonzo" filmmaking at its most blatant -- which acts as insurance more than anything, for, no matter how uncouth the shooting style, anyone attacking Clark will come off as a fuddy-duddy because, as will be conveniently reasoned, the innate awfulness to the filmmaking was on purpose, therefore no rightful blame can be assigned, right?
There's not a genuine moment of agreeable humor to be found in The Item because the whole thing plays out like a frat-boy stunt, where an already-drunk member dropped some acid, got hold of a camcorder, and went nuts with it inside a busy nightclub. Sure, what's being displayed doesn't come off as overly deliberate or rehearsed to death, yet there needs to be a linear consistency to it all for us to have a stake in what's happening, if not necessarily in the characters. Just because a hideous though disarming creature starts to talk in a cuddly tone doesn't automatically translate into something positive. The wall-to-wall bloodbaths that ensue are in no way engagingly "happening" solely due to the fact that they're not intended as vicious. And the constant screaming and bickering amongst the characters fails to earn any brownie points with us because we've been down this Reservoir Dogs-esque road so many tired and trying times before. Further, the lines that are meant to be humorous are flattened out by the omnipresent direction, which never seems at a loss to point rather than even remotely indicate.
The Item doesn't fail because it isn't a "monster" film but because it isn't much of anything -- that is, except as its creator's untamed cinematic wet dream of an attention-getting exercise that's sure to impress the feeble-minded requiring little else than an alluring surface value to ignite their senses, even if the actual follow-through leaves a lot to be desired. It's "arty", isn't it? Therefore, it's of and deserves merit, apparently, regardless of whether or not there's actually something viable going on or merely existing beneath the surface. Pretty soon, in light of all the masturbatory art-house endeavors as of late that have mindlessly won over the clueless masses, someone's eventually going to figure out that all one needs to succeed with next is to install opening credits on a black screen, let the film run ninety minutes with nothing but blackness, and then add in the closing titles. I'd be darned if any less than a handful didn't emerge from the theater excitingly proclaiming, "We must get to the nearest coffee house or Internet connection and spread the word of this most brilliant film that's brilliant just because, well, I've never seen anything like it!".Gag me with a spoon.
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originally posted: 03/06/03 02:08:01