HELL TOWN – Review
You never know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch a movie made with a smaller budget, with no famous actors, and that is self-distributed. Sometimes you can have a good result from somebody who knows what they’re doing, and knows how take what they have at their disposal, and make it work. Sometimes you have an unfortunate result, where it seems like the idea of “let’s make a movie” was the whole pitch and “knowing how to make a movie” was of secondary concern. HELL TOWN was, pleasantly, an example of the former. HELL TOWN knows exactly what it is, what it’s doing, and how to communicate that to the viewer.
HELL TOWN presents itself as a television show, pulled out of some long forgotten studio vault. We are told right away that we are watching episodes 7, 8, and 9 from season two of HELL TOWN the series, and also informs us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire. While there is no actual HELL TOWN the series, the movie invites the audience to be a passive participant in its own nested mythos.
We’re introduced, quickly, to our cast of characters. The hunky shirtless jock, the Marsha Brady on the outside/Betty Page on the inside teen princess, the jealous and barely-holding it together sister, the scheming nurse, the aging millionaire father, the acerbic friend, the ostracized gay brother, the middle class adoptee with a chip on her shoulder. In any other film, this use of tired archetype characters going through the motions on stories that have long ago been beaten to death, because HELL TOWN is a play on these types, they work very well. What’s more is that HELL TOWN toes the line of parody without becoming overly referential and dipping into Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer “bad parody” territory.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our character’s lives. Trish wants to sleep with Blaze. Blaze is sleeping with Trish’s best friend. Butch lusts after Trish. Laura lusts after Butch. Jesse lusts after Bobby, and Bobby is totally into it, but Jesse is struggling with admitting his homosexuality. B.J. is waiting around every corner to watch everything fall apart and Chanel is coping with her comatose adopted mother, and the fact that her sworn enemy is trying to sleep with Blaze. Most of this wild setup unfolds in the first ten minutes of the film. All of it would be very effective satire of the soap opera genre, but to keep things fresh, bloody, and interesting; one of these characters is picking the others off one-by-one, under the moniker “The Letter Jacket Killer.” This shadowy serial murderer seems to have an agenda, and collects the varsity letters from the blood soaked coats of the victims.
Both genres that are on the chopping block in this movie, over-the-top melodrama and over-the-top slasher horror, lend themselves well to parody, and HELL TOWN finds a nice comfortable nest to hunker down in. Here, it can deftly straddle a line between the two, and still keep things fresh and funny. Between bloody castration and violently deadly fellatio, we also have a soap-opera mid-season replacement of an actress. The part of Laura Gable is played by two separate actresses, with little explanation given and, if one is a practitioner of soap operas, there’s probably no explanation needed.
With that we have the cornerstone of what sets HELL TOWN apart from most other parodies: the idea that in setting up this nested mythos, we have the actors playing their parts on two different levels. On one level we have the characters as presented in the narrative. On another level we have actors playing actors playing the characters as presented in the narrative. So one actually finds that while the characters on the narrative level aren’t giving a natural-feeling performance, they aren’t meant to. They’re actually playing actors, giving very boisterous and over the top performances in a ridiculous story, and those performances serve the over-all film very well. Butch may have a few ham-fisted lines, but Ben Whindholz is giving a very sincere performance, of an actor playing a character who’s had ham-fisted lines written for him.
Taken separately, I think the idea of yet another horror parody or another soap opera parody might have worn thin. However, HELL TOWN manages to blend the two very nicely. It’s a creamy mixture of the ridiculously melodramatic with the violently macabre.