By Elias Savada.
A piece of the infamous “Gooble Gobble” carnival communal wedding chant from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) isn’t the only ditty from that horror classic paid homage to in Aaron Schimberg’s wicked movie-within-a-horror-movie, social satire Chained for Life, which world premiered recently at BAMcinemaFest. In fact, performers emit the standalone line “One of Us” three times (twice in quick succession) in Schimberg’s second feature. There are other relics that form a strange, yet not altogether unlikely comparison between both movies. The manner of capturing sideshow oddities in casual behind-the-scene moments, a variation of the punishment meted out by a group of maligned individuals (“Offend one and you offend them all.”), and the moral apprehension of their acceptance by the “normal” folks that share their space. The latter might be a reference to the reports from studio executives regarding the MGM commissary neurotics who were disgusted at sharing tables with the physically challenged performers.
This isn’t the first exploitation-esque film from the writer-director. The poster artwork for his 2013 debut feature Go Down Death (2013) is reminiscent of the midnight films that populated art houses in the 1970s (one being the aforementioned Freaks, others being the oeuvre of showman Dwain Esper, creator of such 1930s fare as Narcotic, Marihuana, and Sex Madness). The tongue-in-cheek come-ons from the micro-budgeted GDD include, “So ‘Gribulous’ – We dare you to sit thru it all! If you do – you win!” while also offering the truth or dare of the film being in monochromatical eye-straining 2-D!
If you felt it near impossible to remain in your seat watching the director’s micro-budgeted grainy inaugural effort (its title borrowed from a 1940s blaxploitation melodrama by Spencer Williams), his capricious, obliquely structured approach to filmmaking returns with a comic and dramatic flair in his new film, now in living color. I suspect many viewers who did not share the director’s macabre sensibilities with his previous film will again be flummoxed by Chained for Life, but it does have the air of an East Coast indie, low budget production. And, naturally, its title is pilfered from the 1952 feature starring the Hilton Sisters, a popular set of Siamese Twins who also appeared in Freaks.
The good news is that Schimberg has spent much more time writing a more cohesive and interesting screenplay this go round (especially for those who believe there was no script in his previous entry). The not-all-that-bad news is that the film occasionally settles into ramshackle, unsettling moments and that half of the cast looks retrieved from a 1920s traveling roadshow. The co-star is Adam Pearson (2013’s Under the Skin), whose British dialect provides a touch of class – many Americans liken the King’s English to a refined bearing – despite his unworldly appearance caused by neurofibromatosis (think Mask or Elephant Man), a genetic disorder also referenced in Schimberg’s other feature. His inner beauty plays against the outer radiance in star Jess Weixler, a featured character for a few seasons of the late, great CBS tv series The Good Wife (2009-16) and breakthrough star of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s comic horror flick Teeth (2007). They portray earnest actors Rosenthal (somewhat mysterious, but always honest) and Mabel (pleasant in a light, sometimes airhead way) playing thespians Frieda (a ham-it-all-to-hell blind German patient in a sanitarium) and Rosenthal, a compassionate, hidden-in-shadow resident of the madhouse in the inner flick. That star-crossed inside job is framed as a low-brow European goth horror film being shot as the first American feature by Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo, hilarious in his instructions to his cast), a tyrannical cross between Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog.
There’s also some light mayhem that Schimberg provides with a madman-on-the-loose subplot about an “abnormal-faced suspect” sought by local police for a series of murders. It’s something to keep you on edge.
The inner film sometimes steers into campy Island of Dr. Moreau territory, especially when narcissistic actor Max (Stephen Plunkett) takes on the over-the-top mad doctor role. Schimberg, with a noble assist from his editor Sofi Marshall, juxtaposes the whirlwind antics of his multiple story lines, with cinematographer Adam J. Mitnick providing ample closeups and tracking shots. The narratives often overlap, adding a puzzling atmosphere in what aspect of the film you’re actually watching. Everything begins to blur together, bundled with an ending that arrives from left field.
Chained for Life‘s self-awareness about the nature of beauty – and how the World According to Schimberg perceives it – is obvious from the start, with a decade-old quote (“Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage, because we love to look at them”) crawling along in the film’s first minute. An hour-and-a half later, the dialogue on this topic only seems to be just getting started.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).