Saturday, October 9, 2010

THE UGLY (1997) Movie Review

THE UGLY (1997)

In a mental institution in New Zealand, where the sadistic orderlies look like they've just returned from a Korn concert and the voyeuristic warden looks like he would be right at home preaching at a black mass, resides deranged serial killer Simon Cartwright. Simon, who is about to go on trial for his crimes, personally requests psychologist Karen Shumaker for an independent evaluation of his sanity. When Karen arrives, she immediately gets the impression that she is not welcome, and her forward attitude is definitely not common place among the facility. Over the next two days, Karen interviews Simon, using her kind and sincere nature to get through to Simon and let him open up.

But Simon, who as a boy was tormented by his classmates and beaten by his abusive mother, is not one to open up so easily. Simon, who now sees himself in mirrors as a horribly disfigured man, goes into detail about the murders he has performed over the years before being caught. His reasons for killing change with each inquisitive question, but seem to center around the vocal commands of The Ugly, who Simon can not disobey. Karen may never be able to uncover the "why?" she is so desperately seeking, but if she is not careful she may just get to experience the commands of The Ugly herself.

Released in the US in early 1998, and buried alive with little attention given amidst the fashionable horror streaming from the pen of Kevin Williamson at the time, this debut from New Zealand writer/director Scott Reynolds melds together the "serial killer interview" dramatic style with the chaotic slasher style of the early nineties. What comes of it is a schizophrenic tale that can't decide if it wants to play it safe as a psychological thriller or fully commit to being a horror film. This unsure choice in genre somewhat resonates within the conflicted Simon, who never truly commits to deciding if his actions are forced due to circumstance or the choice of free will. Meek and innocent looking Paolo Rotondo, who bears a striking resemblance to Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, was chosen to bring to life the conflicted Simon. His shy and introverted performance is so convincing and encompassing, that it is shocking to watch him lash out against his victims, and was a gambling choice that paid off.

Scott Reynolds sets up two stylistic devices in his film to try and make his movie just that much more interesting to watch. The first is his choice to make blood in this film the color of jet black ink. Whether this is how Simon himself sees blood to help him cope with his killing, if it was a choice to get pasted censors or just a cheeky nod to PSYCHO is never explained, but it is certainly an artistic choice that is open interpretation. Reynolds' other key choice was in how he explores the frequent flashbacks as told by Simon. Past and current time overlap one another here, as present day Simon and Karen frequently wind up "appearing" together within his flashback as he tells the story. It shows that Simon's life is so jumbled and confusing that he is never able to commit to what time period to devote himself to, and a simple visual aid that draws you deeper into the story.

For the creation of "The Ugly", a hive-like collection of Simon's victims that he claims follows him around and demands that he kill again and again, Reynolds tapped the shoulder of pre-LORD OF THE RINGS Weta, a New Zealand-based effects house. These gloomy corpses, that spew that same black blood that Simon sees when he kills, are dressed in white flowing rags and have eyes that penetrate from the screen. They resemble the "long haired ghosts" that America would become inundated with about five years later, and one might wonder if the Kiwis were just a bit too far ahead of their time.

Not all is delicious and evil in Reynolds' tale though. He does resort to several invigoratingly aggravating scare pieces that unfold for several minutes before reverting back to real time to show the attack you just saw was only in Simon's head. While it does show that different thoughts are battling for dominance in his mind, it is not done well enough so as to not damage the narrative flow and credibility of the scares in the film. And, in an all out steal from THE USUAL SUSPECTS in one scene, we are brought for a brief moment to question everything that Simon has been telling Karen, but it is never touched upon again to prove the theory it places in the back of the viewer's mind.

Had THE UGLY been embraced during its too-quick theatrical run and after being dumped onto the then fledgling DVD format, it would have been a slap in the face of the glossy horror that was coming out and certainly would have seen a needed sequel. Many films produced after this would step up to the plate to make that important slap to glossy horror, and with better films to boot. Because of this, THE UGLY falls into the ravine of the would've-could've-should've horror releases. The film has lost its importance and place in history, and while it is a solid watch with some memorable scenes and a good mind-twist, it remains solely as proof that Peter Jackson is not the only filmmaker in New Zealand.


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