Written by: John Bishow, Lance Laurie
Directed by: Pat Bishow
Starring: Bill Bernhard, Jennifer Brown, and Tom Ciorciari
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
All he wants is your soul.
Like any mode of filmmaking, the DIY/backyard ranks operate on a continuum, with some efforts proving to be more ambitious than others. While it’s true that many homespun auteurs sought to simply replicate the splatter movies clogging theater screens and video store shelves, piling on mounds of karo syrup to compensate for a lack of, well, everything, others sought to ascend to another, more outrageous planes of infamy—even if they, too, suffered from a distinct lack of resources. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the former, but you really have to appreciate the latter, which often manifested itself in films like The Soultangler. Where so many amateur filmmakers looked to Friday the 13th for inspiration, director Pat Bishow and company looked to raise Lovecraftian levels of hell, inspired by the likes of The Evil Dead, Lucio Fulci, Phantasm, and Re-Animator. The result is nothing if not an incredible display of lo-fi alchemy that often burst from this scene through sheer force of will: The Soultangler will not be denied, even if it was shot in various basements around Long Island with a budget that might have otherwise scored the cast and crew several cases of booze instead. I’m so glad they chose the alternative.
After all, who needs mind-altering substances of any kind when you can be transported to an alternate dimension where Re-Animator has been re-imagined into a scuzzy, 16mm-by-way-of-quarter-inch –tape transmission by a community theater troupe? Soultangler’s skeletal outline certainly owes a lot to Lovecraft’s tale, as it revolves around the sordid exploits of mad scientist Anton Lupesky, a wunderkind whose experiments on soul transference have deadly consequences, prompting him to flee the country after being expelled from a clinic. After a few years on the lam, he returns to his old stomping grounds, intent on resuming his work on a psychoactive drug that allows users to transcend their bodies to an ethereal dreamscape and inhabit other people’s bodies. His reemergence also transparently coincides with a rash of brutal kidnappings, as he sends forth a masked henchman to bludgeon unsuspecting victims, hoping to harvest their corpses for his nefarious ends.
As wild as that sounds, that still doesn’t truly capture the lunacy on display here. The Soultangler offers an out-of-body experience on a shoestring budget, taking viewers from the trappings of a low-rent police procedural to surreal dreamscapes, often from one scene to the next. One minute, you’re watching a local reporter scanning a rented copy of Haxan for insight about these heinous crimes, the next you’re watching her encounter a mysterious priest in a hazy dream, like something out of a low-rent Prince of Darkness rip-off…before that movie even existed, mind you. I’m not saying Bishow somehow broke the barriers of space and time, but I am saying you can’t prove that he didn’t. The Soultangler is less a coherent narrative in this regard, and more of a pastiche of Bishow’s impulses—for better and for worse.
Of course, this is par for the course with this sort of filmmaking: it’s quite likely (and wholly understandable) that you’re either in of or out of the bag for something like The Soultangler before ever laying eyes on actual footage. And that’s fine: calling something like this an “acquired taste” might be charitable because it comes with the tacit agreement that you’ll be subjected to a “warts and all” sensibility. For every incredible, loopy dream-within-a-dream sequence featuring bargain-basement zombies, there’s a scene where you’ll be subjected to the go-nowhere police investigation. For every face-smashing kidnapping scene, there’s a sequence where the dialogue won’t even come close to syncing up with the action on-screen. For each gruesome experiment—complete with messy, homemade gore—there are slow, plodding stretches, where the fuzzy Casio score drones on and on, prompting you to wonder if it’s all worthwhile. This is the give and take of The Soultangler: if you don’t love it when it’s heavy-handedly quoting Poe like some freshman creative writing student, you don’t deserve it when it’s blowing your fucking mind with its sick outbursts of violence.
Most of that is reserved during the final fifteen minutes or so, when The Soultangler becomes a fully unhinged rip-off of Re-Animator and The Evil Dead. When Lupesky isn’t cackling like a lunatic, he’s babbling about eyes acting as the window to the soul, providing a clue about the method to his madness, which allows cadavers to spring to life like some sort of gag you’d find in a Halloween haunt. To its credit, this would be among the wickedest haunts you’d ever experience, as the gore on display here is insane. Literal brain-smashing , shambolic, half-assed decapitations dangling eyeballs, and disemboweled guts abound as Lupesky’s targets are forced to play a demented game of whack-a-mole to destroy his free-floating consciousness, a description that might remind you of The Hidden, yet another movie that hadn’t been released when Bishow hatched The Soultangler. Squint hard enough and you can convince yourself that this is some kind of unsung genius, somewhat ahead of his time but behind in resources. At any rate, Bishow clearly—and rightfully—sees this as a crescendo and goes for broke, making the muffled dialogue, wooden acting, and kitschy embellishments (read: backwards masking, negative imaging) worthwhile.
The Soultangler is a stark reminder that everything isn’t for everyone. There are times when I questioned if it was even for me, the type of person who’s spend half my lifetime tracking down these obscure curios. That’s part of the adventure, though, and Bishow provides you with terrific company on this deranged vision quest into the nether-regions of backyard filmmaking. There’s Lupesky himself, brought to manic life by Bishow’s own brother-in-law; joining him are his two flunky henchmen, with the lunk-headed Carl proving to be especially memorable. Sure, just about everyone surrounding them are duds, but you’re at least drawn in by the earnest, “holy shit, we’re actually making a movie” enthusiasm of it all. Even if The Soultangler does sometimes test your patience, it does so with an almost loving sincerity. It’s always trying, even if it’s not always succeeding—or even coming close during its truly incompetent moments, which still sometimes feel like glimpses into an alternate dimension where such blunders are not only fit to print onto celluloid but also perfectly fit for consumption.
It should come as no surprise that The Soultangler is the sort of movie that was dug out of obscurity by the folks over at Bleeding Skull. After spending over a decade documenting such obscurities on their website, they’ve moved into the business of delivering them to your home. The Soultangler arrives as a collaboration with the American Genre Film Archive and MVD, who have commissioned quite an impressive release for a film that likely wouldn’t even be on the radar had it not been fished out of some VHS dustbin. Boasting both the original 90-minute cut and a 62-minute alternate director’s cut (which seems less unforgiving, let’s be real), it also features a feature commentary from Bishow, 12 minutes of vintage making-of footage, trailers for The Soultangler and The Dead of Night Town, a music video, and liner notes by Zack Carlson.
It’s an impressive debut of sorts—while Bleeding Skull has been offering movies through its own site for a few years now, this is its first wide release through a major distributor. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come: yes, cult fans are currently experiencing an embarrassment of riches when it comes to labels releasing obscure movies, but Bleeding Skull takes it to a whole different level if The Soultangler is any indication. You are not ready for it, and you may never be ready for it: the only option is to allow it to inhabit your body and carry you away to its own plane of trash movie nirvana.
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