Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Lost

The Lost (2006)
Dir. Chris Siverton
Starring Marc Senter, Shay Astar, Alex Frost.

So here we have a very odd, dark little film about Ray Pye (Marc Senter), who --the pre-film intertitle informs us-- stuffs crushed beer cans in his boots to make himself appear taller. That's a fun little fact about Ray; another might be that he's a sociopathic maniac killer drug addict whose only joy in life is fucking as many high school girls as possible. Which I'm against, not to be too controversial.

THE LOST is adapted from a novel by Jack Ketchum, who is apparently a pretty big deal in horror literature circles, but its the guy who did the adapting that I was interested in here: Chris Siverton, who also directed the hilariously bad/intriguingly brilliant I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. That film was about as eye-rollingly idiotic as they come, but he made it a beguiling visual feast and overcame --maybe even elevated-- the sub-moronic script, evolving the whole thing into a weird Dario Argento-esque Gaillo nightmare/ camp classic. He didn't write that one (thank God) so I was curious to see if that was a fluke or the rocky start to a career of a truly great visual stylist.

After watching THE LOST, I'm coming down squarely in the second camp. The longer I think about it, the more I think this one's kinda brilliant, and a spectacular accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker working on what had to be almost no budget. It's a little creaky in places, but its also a truly unique, unsettling, provocative work anchored by an assured visual vocabulary and a stellar lead performance.

It's also a film which is very hard to describe. I don't know if it's exactly a horror film. In fact, in his commentary (the only one on the disc) Jack Ketchum seems almost apologetic about the lack of horror scenes. Ray kills one girl right at the start, and then there's basically no violence at all until the last 15 minutes or so. The rest of the time, its sort of a grotesque drama as we watch Ray and the people who orbit him go through their mundane daily dramas. See, Ray isn't the typical serial killer psychopath we see in most horror films. He's more like an unstable narcissist who is capable of extreme violence but doesn't actually go through with it very often. Right at the start of the film, he murders two camping girls in the woods for absolutely no reason, shocking his loyal hangers-on Jennifer and Tim, both with his out-of-the-blue murder and his completely unfazed reaction to it.

Is this a sign that he's been doing this kind of thing for a long time? Nope, it turns out that it was the first and only time. And he didn't really get off on it enough to be tempted to do it again. Ray's a sociopath, but more of a narcissistic coke fiend than a serial killer. So most of the film is about his life and his relationship with the cloud of worshipful high school girls who always seem to surround him. Actor Marc Senter does a stunning job of portraying Ray as a pathetic smalltown lowlife while nevertheless effortlessly conveying his power over people and the draw he has on these young, self-conscious women. He's handsome, older, capable of being incredibly charming and even warm when he needs to be. They don't understand that his odd gait is reflective of his intrinsic need to dominate people; they just see his power and completely melt in the intensity of his desire.

Siverton sets the story in what seems to be modern times, but the Lost of the title actually refers to the era that Ketchum set his novel -- 1969. The Lost is the Lost Generation stuck in small-town America while all their peers either went to Vietnam or College. The people remaining are the ones who washed out -- burn outs, drop-outs, runaways; the ones who couldn't cut it as fighters or thinkers or doers. Their complete self-disgust is written on their faces, and their hero worship of Ray (the only game in town who seems to have any idea what to do with life) is palpable. His closest groupies know all about his sadistic side, but stick with him anyway. What other choice do they have? His nominal best friend, Tim, undertakes little acts of rebellion against him and lusts after his fallback girl Jen, but still seems utterly unable to conceive of a life without Ray as an animating force. As much as they know he's trouble and hate being targets of his anger, everyone here is so personally ill-defined that they need him on a fundamental level. 

Senter's performance is textured enough that even the audience is kind of drawn in by him. We've seen what he's capable of too, but we also have to admit that he's charismatic and electric in exactly the way we like to see in film characters. When he calms down and acts kind or vulnerable, we're tempted to believe him just as the characters around him are. Since we never really learn anything about his history or motivations, it's impossible to ever really know exactly what's driving him and what he's thinking -- which both leaves us anxiously off-balance and allows for many possible readings of the situation.

Even up to the end, its possible to imagine a film which actually sides with him and mines his petty vulnerability for pathos instead of contempt. Halfway through the film he meets Katharine Wallace, a rich, pretty young high school girl who might be as disturbed and damaged as he himself is, and his reaction is intriguing. He's his usual smarmy self at first, but then shares odd moments of honesty and even sympathy with her. He seems genuinely transformed by someone who is probably closer to a kindred soul -- but then again, isn't that exactly the way a narcissistic sociopath would seem if it seemed like it would get him what he wants? We've seen how convincingly duplicitous he is, and yet here we are, still sort of buying that he could change for someone who he could be a bit more honest with. Senter's performance is good enough that we're compelled even as we're repulsed, and Siverton's direction is assured enough to leave things ambiguous.

The direction is not as overtly stylized as I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, but its still filled with visual verve. From the long tracking shot of Raye's bowlegged boots walking through the woods which opens the film, it's obvious Siverton has a keen eye for camera movement. There are some bits which don't work so well (a sex scene which alternates between violent and tender copulations with two different women is somewhat distracting film school show-off crap, but just barely survives because it also communicates interesting things about Ray's character). Some of the awkward ticks from I KNOW... are also in evidence here, especially in Siverton's weird desire to fade scenes entirely to black before bringing up the next scene. It can give the film a spacy, dreamy vibe -- which worked well in I KNOW...-- but doesn't work so well here. There's also a few stunningly bad ideas like the constantly farting lead detective (I know, right? What the fuck?) and a tiresome and unnecessary subplot about a minor character who is having an affair with a much, much older guy. This comes up every now and again, and its both indifferently staged and punishingly irrelevant to anything. The girl does figure into the violent finale, but the older guy is a pointless character and the whole thing really adds nothing to either the characters or the film. It absolutely needed to be cut from the final draft, so hopefully Siverton learned a lesson here (I'm sure it made more sense in the novel, but come on.) 

Still, those are forgivable sins in a first feature. It's not exactly a pleasant film experience, but its an entirely memorable and affecting one. Turns out it was produced by Lucky McKee, another guy who made two extremely strong films and even handles some brief super-8 footage on this one (Ketchum says McKee and Siverton were friends from way back, awesome).

I appreciate that Siverton was crazy enough to make what is essentially a long drama about an extremely unlikable bastard doing mostly fairly mundane things, and still managed to make it deeply compelling and horrifying even without much blood spilled. The violence which begins the film gives a tenebrous character which never really lifts, as we're trapped along with the characters in a spiral of hopelessness which must inevitably erupt in bloodshed again. Ray's final rampage is not one for the record books, but the film's final moments are. There's a caustic bleakness to their portrayal of undefined, utterly inhuman extreme emotion. "Why are they screaming?" The nice lady on the commentary track asks Ketchum "Oh, they're not screaming for him," he answers. "They're just screaming, you know. After all that, wouldn't you?" Hell yes, Jack, and that's the charm here. The horror comes from places you don't expect and manifests itself in ways which are hard to define. Which is a pretty strong endorsement for a guy who made a Lindsay Lohan film.

Apparently Siverton made a MMA film this year enticingly titled BRAWLER, which reviewers compared favorably to the more generically named FIGHTER and WARRIOR. If it's as confidently constructed as this one is, it could be the beginning of a career to watch (in the words of Senator Palpatine) "With great interest."This guy's got a great eye and the balls to do something seriously unique. Let's just hope he doesn't turn to the dark side.

ADDENDUM: Special thanks to Dan P, who lent me his copy of this otherwise difficult-to-obtain little oddity. You can find his excellent blog and read his review here:


  1. Glad you enjoyed this one. I'm a fan of these kind of slow burn horror movies where you know the deeply disturbed protagonist is going to snap at some point, and the tension lays less from any protracted suspense sequences and more from the whole slow motion car crash style of the overall film.

    The first time I saw this, I remember thinking the slow burn went on too long and that let too much of the tension deflate, but on re-watch I think most of the stuff in the middle is pretty strong and works to flesh out the character of Ray in a way that few movies about psycho killers bother to go for. (Except for some of the subplots you mentioned).

    The hing that really elevates the movie is Senter's performance. He's got a weird, young Crispin Glover vibe to him, and does a compelling job finding both the humanity and the monsterousness (not a real word) of the character. And I really love that at the end of the day, despite all his false bravado and his domineering of his friends, Ray's just a pathetic, insecure piece of shit who can't deal with getting his feelings hurt. One of my favorite scenes is where he's at some party doing drugs with a bunch of people, trying to act like a hardass, and fucking Darnell from MY NAME IS EARL stares him down and Ray gets this look in his eyes like he's a balloon that someone let all the air out of.

  2. I don't remember if I mentioned it in my review or not, but I also really like that they work hard to flesh Ray out without succumbing to the need to EXPLAIN him with some lazy psychoanalysis bullshit about his parents or something. We get to see him to what he does, and draw our own conclusions about what's motivating him, which really serves to draw us into his twisted world (as opposed to handing us some trite, lazy motive like most serial killer films and Tim Burton's lame CHOCOLATE FACTORY film resort to).

    I didn't realize that guy was on MY NAME IS EARL, but I was also struck by how perfect that scene is. When it comes down to it, Ray's a wannabe who needs constant affirmation from people so hopeless that they buy his bullshit. Nothing about his final violent acts seems cool or iconic, he's just a coked-up loser with nothing to lose. That really sets it apart from virtually every other psycho killer film out there, which tend to almost idolize the killers and make them seem mysterious and compelling and dark. Siverton takes the glamor out of the equation, and is left with something which is actually more interesting and nuanced (and probably much closer to real life).