A Midsummer's Night Scream
Joshua Grannell delivers up a near instant midnight-movie classic
Published: August 25, 2010
All About Evil
Directed by Joshua Grannell
It all starts with a pen to the jugular. She didn’t want to go there, but you know what they say about desperate times/measures. All shy, timid librarian Debbie (Natasha Lyonne) wanted to do was revive the single-screen movie house her father owned, where he celebrated old-fashioned horror movies and the wonderful “business of show.” But when the young woman gets pushed too far—such as when her mother tries to strong-arm her into selling the theater after her father dies—well, things just might get a little stabby.
A surveillance camera captures this outburst, and the video gets turned into a short film leading into the evening’s featured attraction. Thus begins Debbie’s transformation from a homely doormat into Deborah—pronounced Duh-BORE-uh—budding horror auteur and San Francisco siren. And with that first murder, filmmaker/performance artist Joshua Grannell’s debut feature All About Evil morphs from an ordinary low-budget horror flick into something approaching sublime silliness.
For about a decade, Grannell, an Annapolis native now based in San Francisco, managed a summer film series called Midnight Mass, where he—as his drag character Peaches Christ—hosted audience-participatory performances prior to cult movie screenings. These activities soon incorporated shorts featuring Peaches, which earned an enthusiastic following of their own. Evil is the collaborative result of Grannell’s long-running Midnight Mass artists and independent filmmaking. Shot by veteran cameraman Tom Richmond (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist), costumed by Frank Helmer (D.E.B.S.), and starring Lyonne, Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), erstwhile City Paper contributor Mink Stole, veteran character actor Jack Donner, and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira), Evil is a comedic horror flick that takes both camp and horror seriously.
The two make great bedfellows: Cheesy horror movies’ men in monster suits is merely drag with a different kind of wig, and both camp and horror thrive on an inspired mix of intelligence and irreverence. And so Evil becomes a delivery machine for genre delights. Drag queens delivering politically incorrect comments? Yes. Gratuitous nudity? Yes. Gore, gore, and more gore? Yes. Knives, cleavers, guillotines, and a gloriously tasteless Peoples Temple allusion—in a movie set in San Francisco? Yes, yes, yes, and, yes.
Grannell stitches this story together with an adroit luridness. Deborah succeeds in bringing audiences to her failing theater thanks to her string of snuff films (such as “A Tale of Two Titties” and “The Maiming of the Shrew”). She’s aided in her filmmaking by the theater’s longtime projectionist Mr. Twigs (Donner), the institutionalized twins Veda and Vera (Jade and Nikita Ramsey), and violence-prone street urchin Adrian (Noah Segan, doing a pretty good River’s Edge-era Crispin Glover). One of Deborah’s biggest supporters is the horror-movie fan and sensitive high school boy Steven (Dekker), who is earning a reputation at school as an Eric Harris/Dylan Klebold powder keg that needs to be watched. And when one of his dates to Deborah’s theater becomes the star of her next attraction, even Steven’s mom (Peterson) wonders just what her son is into.
Grannell keeps it moving along at a good clip, balancing the preposterous—a blood-spurting knifing in a ladies’ room stall is particularly cheeky—with the plot’s machinations. Evil would feel like just another DIY horror flick, though, if its sense of humor wasn’t so finely tuned. You get the impression the cast and crew understood the target tone, which reveres Herschell Gordon Lewis blood spatterings as much as witty pith. And Evil for the most part maintains this attitude throughout, with the serious roles played sincerely straight while the over the top characters—such as the Ramseys, who have that whole mental Goth hottie thing down—played to the ceiling without exploding through it.
But it’s really Lyonne who is asked to do the most acting while not making the performance reek of effort. Anybody can act poorly, but it takes a special actress to portray a bad actress convincingly. And in Deborah, a woman who grew up watching movies, Lyonne creates a woman who is always performing, but who isn’t all that good. At times, you see just who Deborah is doing—Mae West bawdy, Bette Davis opaque, Joan Crawford preening, etc.—but in each instance the performance is slightly off enough to be coming from the same woman who has gone completely off her rocker. All About Evil is, obviously, not aiming for Oscar contention—it wants to be the sort of movie that’s more fun the 11th time you see it, with friends, after five bottles of $7 sparkling wine—but that doesn’t mean acting ridiculous is easy. And with Deborah, Lyonne makes a serious bid to become the Mary Woronov of her generation.
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