December 8, 2015

DISCONNECTED



Gluttony. It’s the first word to come to mind when I sit and think of the 1980s. I ate too much, slept too much, played too many video games and I most certainly watched too many movies. But who could blame me? It seemed like everyone watched too many movies in the 1980s. It was, for the first time, a simple and remarkably cheap thing to do. The VHS revolution was in full swing. Demand was so high that self distribution became a legitimate enterprise. Small distributors were in fashion and stores were positively flooded with mainstream blockbusters, classics finding their first home video release and… well, let’s just say that a noticeable percentage of films hitting home video were less than classic.

For every one highly regarded horror film sitting on the rental store shelves, there were a dozen horrible movies, usually low budget affairs shot on video by some enterprising film school drop-out and his pals over the course of a weekend or two. Some of these films would have never seen the light of day were it not for cheap acquisitions and fast sell outs to stores desperate to fill their aisles. Honestly, most of those films should have stayed obscure or unseen. A nice chunk of my early teenage years were spent watching films that had no business being available for rental, let alone made in the first place.

DISCONNECTED somehow escaped my VCR. I remember the box art. I vaguely even remember picking it up from time to time, always putting it down in favor of some hyper-violent European film or whatever box cover promised me a quick glimpse at bare breasts. Having now watched the film, I can say without hesitation that my early teenage self might have found some kind of enjoyment in it. After all, it does contain that sought after glimpse of female nudity. My demands were easily met in those days.

DISCONNECTED is an apt title. Here is a movie about a young woman named Alicia who spends her days working at a video rental store and her nights being harassed by creepy phone calls. She meets a nice guy named Franklin and accepts an invitation to a quiet night out. They get along rather well and their friendship turns physical. Unfortunately for Alicia, Franklin is a maniac serial killer wanted by the police. To make matters worse, her identical twin, Barbara Ann, is the vindictive sort, the kind of chick who just loves to steal her sister’s boyfriends. This puts Barbara Ann directly in the line of fire and sure enough, she ends up dead.

At this point, with nearly 30 minutes left in the film, DISCONNECTED becomes a different sort of movie. See, Franklin has some terrible luck. Running a tad bit late with his body disposal, Alicia shows up unannounced and finds her sister’s corpse. Franklin attacks her and the film cuts to the two detectives charged with finding the murderer busting into his home as they conveniently walk down his street at just the right time. Franklin is shot dead (off-screen, of course) and the case is solved. But if the murderer is really dead, why are there new reports of dead women? Why is Alicia still receiving creepy phone calls? Alicia begins to descend into madness and a new film begins, but then, after only 30 minutes of Plot B unspooling in lazy fashion across the screen, the movie simply ends. No closure. No explanation. It just ends.

The reason DISCONNECTED is such an appropriate title for this film is that every single plot element (the phone calls, the jealous sister, the creepy pornography hound that shows up a couple of times during the film, Alicia’s tumble into madness) feels disconnected from the underlying narrative, which is a plain and simple case of Serial Murderer meets Cute Video Store Clerk. Take, for example, the two detective (I don’t remember them even being named). They are the first two characters we meet. The film sets up a whole strand of plot where we watch these men track down a killer. But writer/director Gorman Bechard relegates these characters to little more than one-on-one conversations between the detectives and an off-screen investigator, most probably a superior or a police psychologist. These scenes are filmed in empty rooms with white walls, the person off-screen asking questions that the detectives answer, their vague replies hinting at a police investigation we never get to see, even though it is diegetically going on at the same time as everything else and will be, we imagine, important as the film plays out.

The phone calls hint at something deeper. The voices on the other end of the line aren’t voices at all. They’re loud, almost demonic wails. The first time we meet Alicia, she’s inviting an old man into her home. He takes the phone off the hook and disappears while Alicia is in the kitchen making tea. He shows up again as the film ends, again hinting that something more sinister is going on. The film is full of insinuations that go nowhere and plot threads that are potentially more interesting than what is onscreen, but are dropped for reasons probably budget related.

DISCONNECTED, if it does anything interesting at all, has a level of self awareness that I found refreshing. It knows it’s cheap. It knows it cannot possibly do what it sets out to do. During the scenes with the detective, the clear lack of budget to buy appropriate character costumes is brought up and explained. Our Hawaiian shirt wearing copper simply states that he feels the place could use more color, hence the shirt. He acknowledges the routine narrative set-up, the cheapness of the visuals and obviousness of the film as a whole (the opening title literally reads “Generic Film presents”) by stating “I feel like I’m stuck in some low budget horror movie”. As Alicia succumbs to madness, Bechard pulls out all the stops he possibly can on a shoestring budget, mixing close-ups of Alicia binge drinking and chain smoking with still photographs, random shots of dolls and windows, a mixed bag of imagery usually seen in cheap horror movies. He constantly references Hitchcock, hoping desperately that his slight nods to films like PSYCHO and SHADOW OF A DOUBT will lend weight to his film, like by bringing up those films we the audience will fill in the gaps in his narrative with the splendor of Hitchcock’s tightly wound masterpieces. These references, these moments of self awareness, come off as half apology/half appeal to be kind, to overlook the cheapness of the film. It asks us to take it for what it is and not dismiss it for what it isn’t.

But while I understand the plea to look past the shortcomings, I just cannot give the film that grand a pass. It is, despite all the other flaws on display, an exceedingly boring film. I could only liken it to a drunk sitting at a bar. The drunk is telling a story, a story he has only half figured out. He moves from character to character, moment to moment, without really knowing where he’s going. He contradicts himself repeatedly, sometimes dropping characters entirely, sometimes only bringing them back into the action when someone across the bar pipes up asking “what about the cops? What are they doing?”As the drunk rambles on, the story begins to loop back on itself. His eyes grow heavy and his shoulders begin to slouch as he gets himself stuck in a loop of repeated action, desperate to crawl out of his narrative hole, each word forming slower, each loop becoming more and more drawn out. And just as we’re reaching the end, just as the action is set to resolve and we learn, finally learn, what this is all about, the drunk rests his head against the bar, his rambling turned to gibberish, all lucidity lost, just before his eyes close and he bids adieu to consciousness. Meanwhile, we, the people sitting there at the bar, just shrug our shoulders and go back to our drinks, slightly annoyed that we’ll never really learn the ending to this story, but deep down not really bothered by the fact at all.

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