10.27.2011

Horrorthon '11: Strangeland (John Pieplow, 1998)

Likely due to my nearly lifelong love of Dee Snider's '80s glam-horror band, when in 2003 I first heard of "Strangeland" - written by and starring Snider - I figured it was made during Twisted Sister's heyday. I was surprised to finally switch it on and find not only a characteristically flavorless '90s aesthetic but also a honing in on late '90s-style internet chat rooms, the horrors of which in the picture's actual release year had yet to be fully extrapolated. Since "Strangeland", we've seen plenty of films such as "Cry_Wolf" and "Trust" about encountering sinister strangers through various, seemingly harmless online networks, though none have captured the allure of such encounters as it was circa 1998, when the internet still felt like a new frontier.

As is hastily depicted (before the underutilized sexiness of Amy Smart briefly shows face), chat rooms have never been a haven for sophisticated conversation. What are now populated by spam bots were once riddled by perpetually repeated "conversational" comments such as "asl" or "type 1 if u like alanis morset". Still, it was instant connection with other people openly desperate to gauge their state of being against consensus and make connections without the pretenses of in-person social activity. I remember answering "23/m/ca" to every inquiry of "asl", because between the ages of 13 and 15 when I partook in the chat scene, 23 felt like a mature yet hip age, I wanted to meet women and California seemed like a place women wanted their men to be from. This invented persona also lived on the third-to-top floor of a modest apartment building and owned two dalmatians to illustrate his unique sensibilities. Besides, what woman in a chat room wouldn't love two dalmations, right? Sometimes I would switch handles and chat with the same person again under a different persona as a sort of social experiment. I did this innocently, but the ease of it shows how simple it is to be taken advantage of in this manner. I don't doubt many of the "women" I chatted with weren't women at all. And maybe the stranger you're instant messaging with right now is in fact an old high school chum looking to dig up dirt.

Unfortunately, "Strangeland" is anything but focused and the first theme to go is that of online anonymity resulting in entrapment. In its place, however, we do glimpse the underground world of extreme body modification, a counterculture wave oddly rare on the silver screen. Off the top of my head, there is a reference to the Mandan origins of O-Kee-Pa suspension in Platinum Dunes' "Amityville Horror" remake and, well, apart from the likes of Ralph Fiennes' tattoo in "Red Dragon", that's it. You'd think we'd have a movie about piercings and/or tattoos coming to life, or at least a Freddy Krueger kill involving as much. Here our killer, pseudonym "Captain Howdy", is driven to achieve enlightenment - or at least subversive sexual gratification - through bringing his body to the limits of pain and alteration. Why, then, is he torturing hapless strangers to death? He's fucking Dee Snider, is that good enough?

Where "Strangeland" really gets bound and gagged, however, is in its tedious approach to heroes and antiheroes. Unlike the great "Texas Chain Saw Massacre", many films - even greats such as "Blacula" - get too caught up in the warranted side of the law, and this is no exception. Am I wrong to be confused when spotlights are shined on the least interesting figures? Highlighting the cop, here father to a Howdy victim, feels like pandering aimed at a demographic outside the target. Howdy and his actions are why we're watching, and make for the film's few genuinely frightening aspects. At least Rob Zombie's successors-in-spirit to "Massacre", "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects", rendered the long arm engaging rather than obligatory.

Furthermore, Howdy's extended storyline is a dubious mess. At first we fear him, a dominant philosopher with a dauntingly shadowed demeanor. Then we pity him as he is harassed and brutalized by cruel yet arguably justified townsfolk, post-apprehension. Afterwards we cheer as he seeks his revenge, though finally we are encouraged to side with his principle adversary the cop - only the second blandest character to be found thanks to his even blander partner - and none of it gels. To look more deeply, one could say "Strangeland" hints at a greater ambiguity (that is, if there can be any in the case of torture) and even allows its would-be protagonist to go out fairly and as he may have pleased, on a note echoing the finale of "Point Break", though I find nothing to suggest these minor observations played part in the intention.

Indistinct and derivative (particularly of "Silence of the Lambs", even once blatantly thieving that film's famous misdirection sequence), "Strangeland" seems to execute its meager helping of good ideas during its establishment before realizing it has to keep trudging along to attain feature status. I would be cautiously optimistic about the long-proposed yet ever uncertain sequel, "Disciple", which would find Howdy mangled as opposed to dead (naturally) and brought by a billionaire to an exclusive body modification cult. Then, reports claim the currently "dead in the water" follow-up would seek Robert Englund to reprise his role as the town's main aggressor (from the mentioned "pity" phase), implying that the originally murky moral compass would also return.

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