Damon Packard is a unique voice in American cinema. Coming out of Los Angeles, he makes movies that are referential to Hollywood blockbusters, while also made on maybe even less than a shoestring budget. All of his films have uncanny similarities, while also being decidedly different. Packard’s most recent film, premiering at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on June 1st, is the Untitled Yuppie Fear Thriller, with alternate names being Fatal Pulse and Night Pulse, a look back at the erotic thrillers–and, well, everything else–that was happening in cinema and pop culture in the early 1990’s.
The film is full of imagery of a lazy man sitting in a darkened room in front of a TV, along with chase scenes happening in the streets of LA–two things viewers may have seen before in Packard’s cult picture Reflections of Evil (2002). Special effects and trick techniques cause some characters’ faces to undulate, and some have vocals that change pitch to ultra high or demonic low. These things can also be noticed in Packard’s last substantial project Foxfur (2012). What ties all of these films together is the paranoia and hysteria typical of many United States citizens. In Reflections of Evil it was chemtrails and I don’t even remember what else. Foxfur deals with extraterrestrials and conspiracy theorists. Untitled Yuppie Fear Thriller hones in on The Illuminati, and their control over the film industry and entire government.
Night Pulse tells the story of yuppie douchebag Trent DuPont (Mike Hickey), who I think is basically supposed to be any character James Spader played in the early 90’s (think Wolf from 1994). He is somehow involved with the film industry, but also controls the government and basically everything, in one scene yelling “I’m drunk with power,” and “President Bush answers to me.” In another scene, one of his yuppie friends yells “We own capitalism!” Yet, Trent can’t get his weird brother-in-law Tobo (John Bekolay) to move off of the couch in his living room. I think Tobo is supposed to be kind of like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. For a brief part of the film, which might be my favorite part, “Julia Roberts” (Kimberly Howard) moves into the house, temporarily ousting Tobo, acting crazy and yelling at one point, “I’m sleeping with the enemy!” That was, of course, the name of a 1991 film she starred in. By about halfway through Fatal Pulse, things take a turn towards repetitiveness and incoherence, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Viewers can make up their own minds on that.
The references to movies of the 90s, and pop culture in general are more or less what make the skeleton of the film. What appears to make Packard’s creation work is the irreverent disdain and simultaneous adoration for media of this era. Some titles referenced through posters, trailers, and lines of dialog are: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy, Dying Young, Guardian, Fievel Goes West, and perhaps most importantly New Jack City (all of which came out from 1990-1992). Actors play celebrities and politicians including Dick Cheney, Rhonda Shear, Janet Jackson, Sade, William Friedkin, and Robert Deniro. Other things seen or mentioned include Waldenbooks, shoulder pads, fanny packs, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Rush, Orbital, Public Enemy, Jazzercise, No Fear, reflecting pools, etc… at one point it even looks like there’s a reflecting pool inside of a fucking police cruiser. All of this retro fixation is refreshing, as it gives us a view out of all the 80s retro saturation we have been going through lately. When it comes to exploring the past, Packard is ahead of his time.
Fatal Pulse is a commentary on out-of-control capitalism and consumer culture back then, as well as in the now. Back in ‘91, industry filmmakers needed excuses like the Illuminati to tell stories of corrupt power. Now villainous douche bags and business men run the United States right out in the open, in the news 24 hours a day. If there are secret societies playing puppeteer behind Trump, they must be nothing less than monsters. Or Russians.
Yet Packard’s film says just as much about sensationalism and capitalism in its form than in the content. I don’t think the director is a marxist, but a lot can be said about his means of production. The sometimes careless yet humble quality of Untitled Yuppie Fear Thriller reminds me of the pure filmmaking as a labor of love found in work by the Kuchar Brothers, for example. Here we see party gels–which I hear are popular in LA–and movie lights when the camera pans or tilts a little too far out of the blocked area. Additionally, the apparent lack of consideration for copyright law shows to me that Packard isn’t particularly interested in monetary riches, because if he had any significant amount of wealth, there would probably be dozens of lawsuits against him. Making movies like a guy with nothing to lose, Damon Packard could be one of those maverick directors that Yuppie Fear Thriller’s William Friedkin impersonator (Steve Cattani) claims no longer exist.
Reflections of Evil had its high points like the “Kinski’s List” sequence, a mash up of Universal Studios, Schindler’s List sentiment, and super-impositions of Klaus Kinski from Herzog’s doc My Best Fiend. In Foxfur, we look on as a young woman shoots a bow and arrow, skewering a guy’s beer can in front of a massive Brave poster. I won’t give away what happens in the last half hour of Night Pulse, but it is certainly strange and has to do with similar fixations–film history and pop culture. The yuppies do, indeed, fear something. The same thing they feared in 1991 continues through to this present day.