Thursday, October 18, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­The Devil Dared Me To

I "missed" this one at Fantasia - it wasn't one I was really super-excited to see anyway, but I would probably have gone if the schedule lined up right. The program made it out to sound like a Jackass movie, only with the stunts worked into a rudimentary plot. It's not that, really, although there probably are some real bits in there - for example, I wouldn't be shocked if Bonnie Soper and Chris Stapp did set their costumes on fire in a certain scene. I've never really been a fan of the "injury as entertainment" thing. There's a line between being impressed by Jackie Chan's willingness to do his own stunts or take hits in order to create a well-choreographed fight scene and seeking out people crashing into a wall in order to crash into a wall, at least for me.

No, this is more an "extreme slapstick" comedy, a Farrelly Brothers sort of thing without the heart so prominently displayed on its sleeve. Nothing wrong with that, really, although it's not my usual thing. So while I can recognize that Chris Stapp and Matt Heath are pretty good at their chosen genre, I stop well short of falling in love with it.

The Devil Dared Me To

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

The Devil Dared Me To is a moron movie. It is about finding reckless idiots being on the receiving end of injury, mayhem, embarrassment, and death funny. If that's not your thing under any circumstances, then this is where you and this movie part ways.

The central moron is Randy Cambell (Chris Stapp), the latest in a long line of New Zealand daredevil-stuntmen. As a kid, his father was killed in a stunt gone wrong, and he lost his aunt in one performed by the South Island's most popular stuntman, Dick Johansonson (Matt Heath). Years later, he dreams of being the first to jump the (fifteen-mile) strait between the North and South Islands, but in the meantime he's working for Johansonson, trying to impress childhood sweetheart Tracy "Tragedy" Jones (Bonnie Soper). Johansonson is jealous of Cambell's growing popularity, and sets out to sabotage him.

Stapp and Heath are part a well-known comedy team in New Zealand ("Back of the Y"); they co-write the film with Stapp directing, and I gather from a few of the clips that run during the credits that this is basically their schtick - over-the-top, cartoony violence complete with gushing blood and severed limbs. They are pretty good at it, basically making things work by basically playing loss of limb as if it's no big deal. Yes, they do lean a little too heavily on the shock value of a guy gushing blood a few times, but they do have a little more than that up their sleeves: They know that carnage happen after it had seemed safe is funnier than just dropping a car on someone, or that treating a bomb in a car like a prank rather than attempted murder can be funny with the right character. I especially love the shot of a dumpster with "Broken Glass and Used Syringes ONLY"; that shot is funnier than the actual glass and syringes can possibly be.

Though Stapp is playing the film's main character, Heath gets most of the really good bits. "Dick Johansonson" is just a funny name to begin with, and Heath plays him with arrogant obliviousness. The entire cast of characters is idiots, but Dick is also a mean-spirited wuss, so it's that much funnier when bad things happen to him. Stapp's Cambell, of course, is so basically trusting and friendly that his escaping unscathed is nearly as funny. Andrew Beattie steals almost every scene he's in as "Big Jim" Watson. Big Jim is Dick's mechanic, the father of Randy's best friend, and as over-the-top as anybody else in the movie, constantly feeding his beer gut, barely hiding his contempt for his employer, and cursing a blue streak whether he's talking to to his co-worker or ten-year-olds. He also has truly magnificent facial hair.

The gags are delivered with the all subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nuts, which can get old fairly quickly; fortunately the movie is only about an hour and twenty minutes long. More importantly for a movie with this sort of sadistic sense of humor, it doesn't hold on to any single gag long enough for a sour taste to develop. This is double important because I figure only about one in three are actually funny; and that's a situation where the mean but not-funny ones can turn the audience against the film. The film also looks and feels properly cheap, both because it describes the South Island sheep-farming towns where it starts as the arse-end of the world and because it's going for a bit of a campy feel.

One thing that strikes me as odd: "Back of the Y" was described as being a Jackass-like group, and a few of the clips at the end showed them taking real hits and more believable stunts. There's not a whole lot of that in The Devil Dared Me To; it's kind of fantastical. That's not really bad, but it seems a little strange to so consciously become a parody of yourselves like this. Maybe native New Zealanders can clarify this for me. I also hear that there are plenty of jokes in there that are less funny the further you get from NZ, although to the film's benefit (as far as being enjoyable for the rest of us), there aren't many moments that puzzled this outsider.

To a certain extent, none of this really matters; movies about stupid people doing stupid things are almost always movies where "it's the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing". If you like this sort of extreme slapstick, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this movie.

Also at HBS.

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