I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of irony, reaping what you sew, getting back what you put out. However you want to call it, it is essentially the penance fate requires you to succumb to as payment for your decisions, deeds and beliefs you’ve adopted as you’ve lived. A thief brings home that huge haul only to be held at gunpoint themselves and their bounty stolen. An abuser has the tables turned by their victim and revenge is exacted. In prison, the occasional news story comes out of a murderer or violent criminal found dead themselves in their cell. EC Comics in the 1950s played this formula out with gruesome and gleeful frequency. Remember that story charmer called “And All Through The House” about the woman who just happens to murder her husband on the very same Christmas Eve night that a lunatic wearing a Santa outfit has escaped a nearby asylum? Well, the final encounter didn’t exactly end with the lady having visions of sugar plums in her head. There was somewhat more of a decidedly bloody result. Director Matthew Williams does a rather cheeky, gleefully gruesome spin on the whole “shoe on the other foot” notion while paying homage to the decade of the slasher pic births, the 1980s. Though not without its minor flaws, it stands as both a loving homage to the period, while avoiding clichés, even offering a bold twist finale that few would see coming.
The neo-punk milieu (images of Billy Idol in spiked hair and leather spring up) and allusions to Manson and other cult leader types are on full display from the very start as a violent street gang is taken over by a charismatic, yet deeply unbalanced murderer name Blasphemous Rex. All in their small rural town become easy prey for these butchering brethren until they decided to target a farmer with his own serious bent. Not even a pair of cops on the trail can keep up with the body count. Open the blood-gates and let the carnage begin!
I admire Williams for being the type of filmmaker to not just stick to a tried-and-true formula and spit out a stock splatter film for the masses to gobble up like many a major studio is want to do. He takes a good portion of time examining the psychological makeup of every character type involved in this story. There are the people needing to be led, as if they could be a collection of newly-formed minds that are seeking thoughts and direction to move forward. Along comes the hot cravings of excess and sensation represented by the unhinged Rex. As well there are the momma’s boy personality traits exemplified by the farmer. There are more than a few nods to Norman Bates-mother relationship and all of its unhealthy attributes spotlighted for all to see. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the scope put on the lead cop investigating, whose own ideas of justice and revenge get tossed into a mental blender. This guy Lenhardt is having flashbacks to Rex’s own displays of crimson carnage and seems on the verge of complete burnt-out cracking. His partner, Dunigan, seems a mite less of the cynic but only as if due to fewer years of experience wallowing in the muck than his more seasoned co-part. There is a seed of bleak there in his soul but it just needs to be fed some more from life’s sewer. Everyone is impacted here and it is refreshing to see violence as some disease attacking each of the people in its orbit on a different level and in a unique way.
If the examination of violence and its damage of the mental psyche in different ways on people isn’t enough to grip you in this exercise, well, Williams agrees with you. So he sets upon another tangent of the pros and cons of vengeance, that reaping and sewing I touched on in the opening of my review. The farmer manages to capture Rex and subject the crazed youngster to his own series of brutal, blunt tortures. This opens up a question of at what point does brutality achieve a level of acceptance? Is it more ok that it happens when the victim is a violent offender themselves? There’s even a hint of the ugly totality of what Rex has done hitting home for him when he, himself, becomes the recipient of it. An evil person forced to see the horror and futility of it from a different perspective. Studying blood acts from all sides and angles is not often handled this deftly.
The one drawback to the film is much of the accidental cause as it is anything else. As written and directed by Williams, the thrust of the action is centered on the four lead characters (the cops, Rex and the farmer). Now, while a film’s success or failure does ride on the depth, the charisma, the likability of or the sympathy toward the prime players involved (and rightly so, as images of any number of promising cinema stories with wooden Indian performances at the core are conjured up), having the light shone on the leads tends to leave the rest of the product under-developed and looking a bit like a beautiful floral bush showing just the tinge of rot on the edges. I would’ve loved to have seen more fleshing out of the other gang members as to the reasons why for their lust for violence and abject willingness to be led by another. Were they abused, alienated, exposed to a level of violence that many, save for soldiers or police, don’t see in a lifetime? Is there a shiftlessness in them caused by a lack of structure in their growth that invites would-be leaders to leap right in? I’m not asking for a Bergman study of dysfunction, just a layer or two to help understand.
All that said, the performances of the stars are first-rate and really serve to lure the viewer into the nightmare around them. I was especially engaged by Tyler Caldwell’s delicious turn as Rex, as near of a devil-may-care, cheery psycho as one is to ever likely see in the safe confines of cinema. But this surface rage toward sadism is merely a cover for the frightened boy hiding in the shadows of the subconscious. In fact, there is a secondary element of the duality at war within self that is played out with Caldwell enacting two sides of the same overall persona in a few key scenes. The boy in him wants to fight but cowers in submission to the more driven, terrifying monster version of the ID. Jake Roark is equally good as the farmer suffering from his own dark demons that seem directly connected with the maternal influence in his life (ala a certain cross-dressing, butcher knife-wielding icon of Hitchcock and Robert Bloch fame we all know and love). Both Williams and Roark cannily grasp that, by reducing dialogue and emphasizing stares, stoicism in demeanor and deliberate movements, a more powerful, silent menace is generated that ratchets up the tension than even some, more veteran, talent are incapable of doing. Jeremy Snead is a revelation as the cop Lenhardt. It’s not easy to allow a bitterness cynicism level shaded into the nice guy exterior without it de-evolving into an archetype, but Snead manages a balance that exudes a very human realism. He’s the cop you see in your neighborhood on weekends, hunched over a bit more and looking a tad weathered even from whence you saw him last just a few days ago, due no doubt to the murder case he is currently working. It was refreshing, as well, to see that the main female character isn’t restricted to being a screaming, falling and fainting plot contrivance either. Kudos to Williams as writer and Hannah Davis as performer. There is one sequence where her character Dot is stripped emotionally to a rather raw state under the callous, distant skin she’s covered herself in and I found it quite magnetic to watch. Would love to have seen more back story but it gripped even without.
Despite the reported $2,000 budget (quite likely a bit more when you consider post-production costs and marketing even on a minimal level), Williams and company manage to hide the lack of funds rather nicely by making full use of dim lighting and night shooting and utilizing the lone farmhouse setting as much as possible. There really wasn’t a moment where I thought this scene or effect looked cheap or that a spotlight shone on the paucity money. When you’ve seen the number of films that I have over the years, you would know that hiding low finances is no easy task. Many a well-known filmer has failed at this miserably at some point.
As one who understands the problems that befall independent movie-makers oh so well, having interviewed them over the years and reviewed high numbers of their films, funding issues are expected with a high amount of commonality. What I tend to focus on is what a film’s cast and crew do with what is presented to them. In that regard, talents like Matthew Williams, Tyler Caldwell, Jeremy Snead and the others involved with Maniac Farmer should be embraced, encouraged, nurtured and given bigger and better platforms on which to create.