Lunatics: A Love Story (1991) is an eccentric but charming rom-com from the mind of director Josh Becker. This hidden gem stars three stalwarts of the horror genre, Ted Raimi (billed as Theodore), Deborah Foreman and Bruce Campbell, who also produced the movie. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Becker’s work, he is part of the “Michigan Mafia,” the coterie of talent from Detroit that included Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel (Intruder), future producer John Cameron (Fargo, the TV series) and Campbell among their members.
There is definitely a comfort level between the director and his talent which helps when dealing with an off-the-wall tale such as this one. Oddly enough, there are many familiar elements to Lunatics, which at the heart of it is a tale of a boy meets girl but there are so many twists and turns that it is anything but conventional. It’s almost as if Becker has created his own alternate universe where Ted Raimi is a sort of disturbed Tom Hanks and Deborah Foreman is a neurotic Meg Ryan. And it works!
Raimi portrays Hank Stone, a loner who fancies himself a poet who hasn’t left his Los Angeles apartment in six months. Hank is a kindhearted soul who is tortured by his delusions. His walls are covered in tin foil to protect him from a menacing Brain Surgeon with malicious intent (played to the hilt by a gleefully mad Bruce Campbell). He routinely chases Hank around with a rather large hypodermic needle trying to inject him. As if this weren’t enough to deal with, Stone is already fragile mentally having spent three years in a mental institution. His phobias are so paralyzing that they leave him under his bed unable to move while he envisions spiders crawling around in his brain.
Hank is clearly tortured and there is no peace for him. Even when the Brain Surgeon isn’t pursuing him, a trio of rappers (eerily reminiscent of RUN-DMC) are roughing him up and telling him he is having a “nervous meltdown.” They are like a pop culture Greek Chorus giving the audience a heads up that Stone is clearly a hot mess by describing what is going on inside his head. What little comfort he gets is by fantasizing that the model on the billboard across the street for Lulu’s Lingerie (a nod to Ted Raimi’s mom who owned several lingerie stores in Detroit called Lulu’s) wants to have an affair with him. Unfortunately, even that reverie gets interrupted by a jarring phone call from Hank’s mother who immediately starts haranguing him about coming back to Michigan for his brother, David’s wedding. Clearly, he doesn’t want to and while he is trying to convey that to her, she starts honing in on the fact that he is still a bachelor.
The Ballad of Nancy & Ray
Concurrent to Hank’s storyline is Nancy’s (Deborah Foreman). The way that Becker chose to follow the characters is very reminiscent of those star-crossed lovers’ tales that would hit their zenith after Lunatics: A Love Story was released. Specifically, Nora Ephron’s megahit, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) which followed both Annie (Meg Ryan) and Sam (Tom Hanks) while they were apart before they “meet cute.”
Nancy is an incredibly sweet but naïve gal from Iowa. She is new to the City of Angels. When we first see her in the film, she is wandering around downtown. She finds an incredibly cute dog and when she bends down to pet him, he runs into the street and gets hit by a bus which only serves to convince her that she is indeed “cursed.” It seems like everything she gets close to disappears, including her boyfriend, Ray (Campbell) who has apparently been hanging out in Venice (not the Italian city which is a running joke throughout the film). Ray is an extension of Renaldo, the character that Campbell played in Crimewave (1985). A conceited, smarmy guy who knows he is attractive and uses women as a means to an end. When Nancy returns to the seedy L.A. flophouse where she and Ray are staying, the manager informs her that she is 3 days late with the rent and if she doesn’t pay up, she will be evicted. All she has is $20 which she reluctantly hands over.
When she enters their modest room, she is surprised to find that Ray is there. Of course, he is packing his things and basically gives her the old heave-ho but not before stealing every bit of dough she has. Leaving her penniless, he exits and jumps into the convertible of a cheap, blonde floozy. Homeless, with no one to turn to, Nancy finds herself back on the streets. Since she doesn’t know the area, she ends up going into a questionable part of the city where she is tormented by a gang who has designs on raping her. Before that tragedy can unfold, she takes a gun off one of the thugs and shoots the leader, Comet (George Aguilar) in the foot. This action only escalates the situation and she takes off running.
She decides to take shelter in the bus station and lay low until the gang tires of looking for her. That lasts for about two minutes when one of them enters the terminal. To avoid detection, Nancy leaps into a phone booth only to be startled when the phone rings.
Hank is on the other end of the line. Feeling lonely, he decides to call a 1-900 number to get a girl. What is interesting, is he finds Nancy. However, Becker is a clever, writer and director, he already set it up that the two would become involved when the departing prick, Ray tells Nancy in the hotel room that he was annoyed with her reading poetry when they were making the cross-country drive to California. So, it would be befitting that she would love Hank’s passion. This kind of foreshadowing is also used in conventional rom-coms. For example, in You’ve Got Mail (1998), despite the fact that Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is putting Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) out of business with his huge conglomerate book store, the pair can’t stop circling one another. It is as if fate keeps conspiring to put the two of them together.
Nancy is perplexed as to why Hank would be calling her but realizing her situation is dire, she takes him up on his offer to meet him at his apartment. When the duo finally comes face to face, it is possibly the most awkward moment in filmdom. He opens the door covered in tin foil. Of course, this is odd and Nancy immediately becomes wary. The two approach one another like animals in a pre-mating ritual, unsure and definitely cautious. However, when their eyes meet, you see the spark between the unlikely couple. They are kindred spirits, you might say. Both attempt to make small talk with Nancy looking as if she wants to bolt at any minute.
Finally, fed up with the weirdness, Nancy decides to leave. Not wanting to lose her, Hank attempts to prove to her that they do have something in common and that is when they find out about their mutual love of poetry. When he reveals that he is a writer, she is intrigued and wants to see his work but he is hesitant because he doesn’t want to be rejected by her. Reluctantly, he lets her read one of his poems. Instead, she is amazed at how talented he is. The entire time that Hank is trying to be “normal” he keeps getting bombarded by horrific imagery, namely the Mad Brain Surgeon (Bruce Campbell again) trying to inject him with a super hypodermic. These fantasies trigger seizure like symptoms and when he is in that state, he accidentally knocks Nancy out because he thinks she’s the Surgeon.
When he realizes what he’s done, he tries to revive her only to have her hallucinate that he is Comet, the gang leader. She pulls a gun on him and almost blows him away. Horrified, she extricates herself from Hank and runs away into the night.
Knight in Shining Armor to the Rescue
We do know that Hank is a bit of an agoraphobic since he hasn’t left his apartment in six months. But something propels him into leaving to rescue Nancy. It is a bit of a struggle for him with the doorknob emitting an electric shock but he overcomes all this by strapping on a suit of tin foil which oddly enough looks like armor. He becomes a knight in search of his lady.
Out on the mean streets again, Nancy is trying to avoid trouble but it finds her. Before Comet and his thugs can blow her away, Hank appears and starts fighting for the love of his life. Meanwhile, in all the chaos, Nancy has a breakdown. Picking up her revolver, she decides to end it all. After Hank vanquishes the evil, he is chased by a gigantic spider. This puts him in a panic. He pleads for Nancy to help him. She tries aiming her gun but has nothing in her scope since she can’t see the arachnid. So, she fires a round off and ends up nailing a garbage truck shattering Hank’s delusion.
The “Happily Ever After”
Do they live happily ever after? We might not ever know but we can be certain that they will start a journey as a couple because Hank takes her to Michigan to his brother’s wedding. What I enjoy so much about Josh Becker’s work is that he takes a genre and the conventions that we are familiar with and turns them upside down. With Lunatics: A Love Story, he manages to blend horror, psychedelia and romance almost like the films of Roger Corman in the 60’s.
Ted Raimi and Deborah Foreman really shine in this film. They pour their hearts and souls into their characters and it shows. For those who think that Raimi doesn’t have the potential to be a leading man and are only use to him playing comical second bananas, they will be pleasantly surprised. If you are tired of reboots, reimaginings, remakes, etc., pick up this Josh Becker gem. Hollywood could definitely use more creators like him.