“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” David St. Hubbins, “This is Spinal Tap” (1984)
The origins of director Vin Crease’s “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun” may be more compelling than the feature itself. A low-budget horror/psychological thriller filmed in 1971, “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun” was “lost” for the better part of three decades after director/writer/star Crease stole the only existing print of the film and murdered the film’s producer, Benjamin Mankiewicz. When Crease died in 1977 while incarcerated at the California State Hospital of the Criminally Insane, the film remain unseen until 2001, when a print turned up in the hands of Mankiewicz’s former houseboy.
Or maybe not.
“Slaughterhouse” is a con-game of a movie from writer/director/star D.C. Mann, and is conceived as a homage/parody to the counter-culture exploitation cinema of the late 60’s/early 70’s, and marketed as a “found” film that’s reaching an audience for the first time. The story follows low-rent porn actress Jennifer (Cheryl Dent), who goes bonkers in the middle of a sex scene with a midget. I kid you not. Months later, Jennifer is released from a mental institution and embarks on a road trip through the California high desert, where she runs afoul of a pair of chauvinist rednecks before being saved from a particularly unsavory fate by a pack of nomadic drop-outs led by Damon Grey (D.C. Mann as “Vin Crease”). With no place to go or a means to get there, Jennifer hooks up with Grey’s group as they head off on a drug and violence fueled journey to the eponymous Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun, a cursed homestead that could share space on a realtor’s sell sheet with the “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel.
So, how well did filmmaker Mann manage to sell his con, and how good is the movie overall? By its very nature, “Slaughterhouse” is predictable and obvious. While it’s not as broad a satire as “Airplane” or “Scary Movie,” it still mines humor by indulging in the cliché of its source material and intentionally exaggerates those elements to sell the joke.
The story ostensibly starts off following Jennifer, but the character manages to be not very interesting despite the fact we first meet her in the middle of said midget sex scene. She is haunted by persistent hallucinations, fleeting visions of a childhood tragedy that has led her to ruin and self-destructive behavior. However, viewers will see through what those visions mean pretty early on and so the revelation of what they mean loses much of its impact.
The movie does paint a much more interesting picture with Damon Grey, played by “Vin Crease” as a self-absorbed hippie burnout. Crease manages to deliver some hilariously self-important and meandering flower-power rhetoric with utmost conviction and a straight face. I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about, but he sure looks like he means it, and isn’t that what really matters? Or not.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Grey’s followers are a gang of free-love stereotypes in the person of Westy, the burnout vet, Doc the drug man, Sabbath Jones the nature girl, and a pair of sexy nymphets that prances around while braless. For the most part, the supporting performances are overblown, but that’s probably the point. The acting is exaggerated and the line readings underwhelming, but they do deserve some serious kudos for delivering lines the like of, “Maybe we should burn rubber out of this freaky scene, man,” with straight faces.
To fully sell the idea of “Slaughterhouse” as a decades-old “found” film, the filmmakers utilize numerous cinematic tricks, some more successful than others. Most noticeable is the addition of grain and scratches to the DV-shot image designed to emulate the ragged look of low-budget 16mm filmstock. Despite these “flaws”, as well as a muted color scheme throughout, there’s no way anyone would mistake “Slaughterhouse” for an older film. For one, it looks just too new and clean.
The film gets much better results with some disorienting editing and a cheesy synthesizer soundtrack used almost exclusively to depict Jennifer’s shaky grip on reality whenever she loses herself in her delusions. It’s not very subtle, but it’s a pointed jab at the confusing, psychedelic style filmmakers used thirty years ago to put you in the head of characters who weren’t all that sober and likely not too sane.
I’m of two minds on “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun.” It obviously doesn’t work as a straightforward road trip thriller, but it’s also not as outright funny as it could have been. Amusingly, the filmmakers probably do their jobs just a little bit too well by creating a movie that’s nearly indistinguishable from the movies it takes inspiration from. The problem is that D.C. Mann can’t seem to make up his mind if “Slaughterhouse” is homage or satire, and the film suffers for the indecision.
If nothing else, “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun” is a movie that seems custom made for something like “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” The film is self-important to the point that you simply can’t take it seriously at face value, but it’s not the kind of blatant slapstick that elicits laughs from the first frame onward either. I was laughing for most of the movie’s running time, but then I knew I was watching a satire, something intentionally clich’d and derivative, and I was left wondering if a viewer going in cold would be able to tell the difference.
Vin Crease (director) / Jonathan A. Stein, Vin Crease (screenplay)
CAST: Cheryl Dent …. Jennifer
Vin Crease …. Damon Grey
Michele Morrow …. Violence Onelove
Heather Justine Thomas …. Sabbath Jones
Ryan Rogoff …. Guilty Karma
J. Scott Shonka …. Westy Westerman
Michael Schuster …. Doc Warlock