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The Despiser
DVD
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   Phil "The One Man Band" Cook
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   April 15, 2003
Review Date:   April 10, 2003
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   4/10 (What Is This?)
One of the reasons I continue to watch direct-to-video movies in spite of their generally low quality is the thrill of finding that occasional diamond in the rough (Dog Soldiers, Jack Frost, Six-String Samurai, Cannibal: The Musical!). While The Despiser is much too rough to be a diamond, it is among the more unique direct-to-video releases I've run across.

In The Despiser a forty-ish financially insecure free-lance graphic designer / aspiring artist named Gordon winds up in Purgatory. Phil Cook, the writer/director/producer of The Despiser, conceives this realm as a sort of localized phenomenon. Instead of Purgatory being a place beyond the world, it exists in the same place as earth, but on an alternate frequency. Which makes things rather inconvenient for three aliens who crash-land on earth, die, and find themselves trapped in a spirit-realm meant for earthlings. The aliens (headed by the Despiser) conquer Purgatory and enslave its inhabitants, thereby screwing up Purgatory. It was supposed to be a waiting room for troubled souls, but now the whole neighborhood's gone to seed. There are a few rebels opposing the Despiser: an American soldier, a Japanese fighter pilot, a British fire-fighter, and a cowboy. They are, as one character says, "God's trash-men sent to clean up the mess."

Here's what you need to imagine the visual look of Purgatory. Imagine real actors interacting with a video-game environment. God's trash-men wander industrial wastelandscapes from a Final Fantasy game, drive cars from Gran Turismo, and fight monsters from one of PS2's first-generation horror titles. It's a surreal visual style, but it's one that works beautifully. Well, it works beautifully some of the time.

Phil Cook has directed two other low-budget movies. After spending 13 years trying to get financing for The Despiser, he decided to make the thing himself. And I do mean by himself. He's the director, the cinematographer, the producer, the editor, and the visual effects guy. About the only thing he didn't do was play all the parts himself (I count four parts that he did play himself, counting his voice-work). Basically, he shot the actors against blue-screen, and then dropped the environment in afterwards using computer programs. Only instead of having teams of animators like ILM or WETA or PIXAR, he had just himself and one other guy.

Many of the effects work great (gunfire, ejected shell casings, blood spatters, the black eyes of the Shadow Man, swooping camera moves, cars rolling over). But often the integration between the characters and their environments is just too rough. At one point, our heroes use an antennae tower to cross between two buildings. And they look so silly straddle-walking across an imaginary bridge that it's hard to get fully caught up in what is one of the movie's pivotal scenes. The video game imagery of The Despiser can look as smooth as a PC game driven by a high-end graphix card, or as one-dimensional as an old model Nintendo. Purgatory is populated by mindless "rag-men", and I can suspend disbelief when Cook multiplies six actors into thirty rag-men, but he also sometimes adds computer animated rag-men that don't even shamble as realistically as the zombies in the Sega Genesis game Altered Beast. Similarly, when we see the shadowed form of the Despiser early in the movie, he's menacing in a video-game monster fashion, but when he comes into the light at the climax of the movie, he looks like a cartoonish CG roach cooked up for a bug-spray commercial.

I have mixed feelings about The Despiser. I'd find myself getting really caught up in the story, only to be thrown from it again and again by a hokey effect, bad line ("This is twisted" and "What a blast" come to mind), or unconvincing scene. The sequences in Purgatory are masterfully lit, tweaked, color-corrected, and textured in a way that throws a layer of rich velvet over the low production values. But the scenes that take place in "the real world" have that shoestring shot-on-video vibe, both in the visuals and the performances. During the scene when Gordon's wife visits her mother, I kept expecting her mother to take off her glasses and say into the camera, "I never would have believed that I could get quality life insurance for just pennies a day." Or maybe Gordon's wife would take her mother's hand and ask, "Mom, do you ever get that not-so-fresh feeling?"

The majority of the actors are likable, but occasionally shaky. Carl Nimbus (played by Doug Brown), the leader of God's trash-men, was the element that most hooked me into the movie. Incidentally, I think I went to college with Michael Weitz, the actor who portrays cowboy Jake Tully. Not that I ever met him, but I had a lot of theater friends, so I wound up going to most of the school plays. The reason why I remember this guy is that one of my friends was really freaked out by him. Not because he was a bad person, but because he evidently had an epic amount of body hair. Like a shag carpet jungle of back and chest hair that made his shirt actually stand away from his body; a forcefield of fibers ensuring that the cotton never made contact with skin. She lived in fear that reddish-brown tendrils would rip through his clothing, shoot snakelike toward her, and enfold her body in their follicular embrace. That his flying butt tresses would slither out from their dark sasquatchy shadows, and beckon to her, wrapping her up as a spider wraps flies, and drawing her to live an eternity nestled in his voluminous thatch of ever-rustling ringlets. I mention this not to be mean to Michael, who I'm sure will prosper even as Marlon Brando and Sean Connery have prospered before him, but because whenever I bring the subject up, it causes my friend to have nearly retch-inducing visualizations. And, contrary to what Dionne Warwick says, that's what friends are really for. To find your phobic weaknesses and exploit them for cheap cruel laughs.

There is undeniably a lot to enjoy in The Despiser. From the way Gordon finds himself hounded by possessed plastic Troll dolls, to the creepy appearances some Purgatory inhabitants make in the living world, to the way the Shadow-man says, "Kick his ass!" The Despiser is at its best when it focuses on God's trash-men. Especially the car and campfire sequences when we learn about the mechanics of Purgatory and get a sense of what it's like to scrap and survive in a dangerous nether-realm ("I smell evil." "That ain't evil. That's beans.")

The Despiser is impressive, but ultimately it's not a completely satisfying and consistently engrossing movie. It's an ambitious project both in the positive and negative sense. Given its budget, it achieves much, but its reach also far exceeds its grasp. Even so, I'd like to see what Phil Cook could do with some Hollywood resources or even some decent indie financial backing. If the movie-making gods were just, they'd funnel all the money that's being spent on the Tomb Raider sequel into Phil Cook's next project.


DVDetails

The one required stop on this DVD is the "making of" featurette. Aside from the fact that it's better edited and more professionally produced than a lot of those "making of"s, it's also a good look at Phil Cook's own brand of low-budget film-making. I defy you not to admire Phil for his sheer willpower and imagination. As my Brit. Lit. teacher Mr. Shimick would say, he's got intestinal fortitude. The bloopers and deleted scenes are also worth a look.
Two complaints about the director's commentary. First, like too many director's tracks, it's hidden, in the sense that you can only find it if you go to the audio set-up page. There should always be a link from the Special Features page to any sort of commentary track. Second, Phil winds up spending a lot of time saying "This was put in in post(-production)", mostly because everything was put in in post-production. Other than that, it's a pretty average commentary track.


The Movie Itself: 4 out of 10
The DVD Features: 5 out of 10
RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers is also one of Godís trash-men sent to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, instead of a gun, he just has one of those paper-pokers that park rangers are always carrying around.

 
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