Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Dee Snider's Stangeland


Back in the year 2000, at the age of about fourteen, I was deep in the midst of a pretty thorough obsession with the band System Of A Down. I had t-shirts and posters, my band did a number of SOAD cover songs and, most challenging of all for my teenage fandom, I tracked down every single demo song, B-side and bonus track I could. A tall task when the internet was still in its early days. As a result I bought an album of metal and hip-hop collaborations and a couple of film soundtracks on CD, one of which was for Dee Snider’s Strangeland. So nearly fifteen years later, as I crawl my way towards my thirties, I finally got around to watching the film which that album accompanies.

Strangeland starts out as a fairly familiar story. A couple of young girls visiting internet chat rooms at the turn of the millennium decide it might actually be a good idea to meet up with an unknown stranger they meet online. They make their way to the address of a party and some very polite young men treat the girls to a nice get together before dropping them off back at home. Sorry, no I meant, it turns out the “party” is actually a deranged psychopath (Carleton Hendricks aka Capt. Howdy played by Dee Snider himself) who kidnaps and tortures the two girls for his own pleasure. As a touch of originality though the father of one of the missing girls works as a bin-man and gathers together his bin-mates in order to track down… Sorry, I’ve got confused again. The girl’s father is of course a cop. A detective in fact, and the DA is on his ass about the Mancelli case and chief wants his ass because he doesn’t play by the rules but DAMN IT’S ASS he gets the job done…ass!
Whilst being well-made, the opening act of Strangeland wants to be Silence of the Lambs so badly that it directly steals the scene where two locations are cut together side by side during a police raid. A brilliant scene when orchestrated by Jonathan Demme due to its ability to fool the audience by playing with film conventions, but merely ripping it off, however competently, demonstrates exactly what Strangeland was aiming for but failing to achieve. A whole police investigation is condensed down into forty five minutes by moving at such a break neck speed that, in the excitement of it all, it is easy to forgive it’s clichés. It feels more like an episode of a detective TV show than the start of a movie.
So with the killer’s pursuit reaching what felt like a natural completion, I found myself expecting some half-baked twist as Capt. Howdy manages an unbelievable escape. This doesn’t happen, and instead the film branches off in a more interesting direction. It follows Hendricks’ arrest, incarceration and rehabilitation in a mental institution, all the way through to his re-introduction in to society. Having to leave aside the plot hole more cavernous than *insert vagina joke here* that a formerly insane child-murderer would never be moved back into his old neighbourhood home, let alone with no police protection or anonymity - it is an interesting look at the idea of the accountability of the mentally ill. That may be giving the film-makers more credit than they are due, but hell, it’s trying to do something a lot more interesting than most other movies of this ilk attempt.

It’s here that we are introduced to Robert Englund’s character; Jackson, a beer-swillin’, truck-drivn’, wife-beatin’, queer-bashin’ redneck. Him and a bunch o’ hick buddies round up that kiddy-killin’ mother fucker and string him up at the ooold hangin’ tree. Yuh huh. This time the story takes a much more predictable and uninteresting turn as Capt. Howdy makes that earlier avoided miraculous escape, now with a reinvigorated lust for blood.

Old Snidey himsef, the Dee-ster
Dee Snider is best known for being the front man for the controversial glam rock band Twisted Sister and his love for this project is obvious from the title. He wrote the script and seemed to save what he thought were all the best lines for himself. Dee’s cod-philosophical speeches sound like the diary of a fifteen year old goth who has just watched Hellraiser for the hundredth time. A very intelligent fifteen year old goth granted, most of them are, but I don’t think a film script should be made out of their semi-poetic ramblings. The rest of the plot is clichéd but it is fairly well executed, and the constant switching of perspectives keeps things fresh. I didn’t get bored because the detective story happened so quickly, before splitting off on to an unexpected and interesting tangent. It’s a shame it just fizzled out into a dull ending. Again in an attempt to sit in the same intellectual territory as Silence of the Lambs, Snider tries to play out the ending as a battle of wits and words rather than sheer strength but just doesn’t have the writing style or skill to achieve it.
Maybe I’m a victim of nostalgia blindness to an extent here. I wanted to like this, and hearing all the songs I remember as a teenage metal head was awesome. When Hed (pe), System of a Down or Soulfly kicked in I was transported back in time fifteen years and it felt great. Dee Snider knew the scene he was trying to portray in the opening forty-five minutes of Strangeland and happily places the music that represents it centre stage. Body morphing, tattoos, fetish clubs and human suspension are all displayed with a surprising degree of self-control. The problem is that the audience observes it all from the point of view of the ‘normal’ characters, fish out of water that are shocked and appalled by it all. That is how Snider wants the audience to feel, he is showing off, “look how scary we are, you can’t take it can you?” As someone who, by no means as hard-core as a lot of we see here, knows a fair bit about the scene, I found it all quite annoying. Mostly because Dee’s psychopathic Capt. Howdy is ‘one of them’ and also happens to be a psychopathic killer. In doing this he is simply encouraging the stereotype that alternative people are dangerous and crazy, when most of them are fucking lovely.
I hadn’t seen any pictures of Dee Snider for a very long time and remember that back in his heyday he would dress in almost drag. So when I saw him with his red hair, stretched piercings, tattoos and sharpened teeth I thought he had gone super hard-core in the subsequent years and I found it very believable (expect for the badly drawn on tattoos). There was no piece of metal in his face I hadn’t seen in real life. So I was pretty shocked when he appeared dressed down, completely piercing free with none of the residual marks or scarring, demonstrating he never really had any of them in the first place. A testament to good make-up for sure but considering the number of people who actually have these body morphs it feels a bit self-indulgent to have them added to himself temporarily. The commitment and time it takes to stretch and mould your flesh in this way was one of the main selling points of the character.
It also seems to be slightly confused with its treatment of mental illness. When it delves into the idea of old Capt. Bridseye’s rehabilitation it tries to honestly tackle the difficulties of holding someone accountable when mental defects are affecting their ability to function. It then however suggests that one missed dose of pills and, admittedly an attempted hanging, is enough to completely reset years of psycho analysis and medical treatment. It just seems to throw all its hard work aside in exchange for a big ending, adding insult to injury by having all of Capt. Pugwash’s piercing and body morphs reappear from out of nowhere. As if you only want them when you are insane and they can all be instantly re-applied whenever you fancy (or whenever you lose your marbles and want to go on a killing spree).
Freddy Who?...ger.
So nostalgia for the soundtrack aside, Strangeland is unfortunately not a good film. It does come close but is let down by the self-indulgent script. American Mary, 8mm, Hellraiser, Maniac, Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter all deal with similar subject matter, and maybe with the exception of 8mm, if given the choice you would be better off watching one of those over this. It’s not terrible by any means, just mediocre enough to be a struggle to recommend, as much as I would like to. Seeing Robert Englund chew the scenery down to a pulp was fun, and at one moment genuinely laugh out loud. The special effects make-up is great (for the most part) and the directing by John Pieplow is solid. Unfortunately none of that can conquer a weak script with a self-aggrandising tone.

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