Alyce Kills (2011)
Dir. and written by Jay Lee
Starring Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, Eddie Rouse, James Duvall
So what we got here is a really solid, drugged up losing-your-sanity movie that slowly, almost imperceptibly, evolves from a grounded psychological horror to a more familiar genre bloodletting. It’s kinda bold, when you get right down to it, and I imagine it’s gonna put off a lot of people who would prefer either a dramatic, psychological story or a horror show bloodbath, but won’t necessarily like the two stuck together in a haze of psychedelic drugs. To me, of course, that sounds great, and I’m sure you’ll love it too.*
Basically, this is the story of Alyce (Jade Dornfeld), who you should immediately assume is some kind of sociopathic monster because she spells her name with a goddam y. Even that evil little shit Alice from ALICE SWEET ALICE at least had the decency to use an “i” like a decent, god-fearing sort of person. But Alyce seems ok at first, she’s sort of mousy and nondescript, a nice gal but an obvious hanger-on to her best friend, the much more confident and dynamic Carroll (Tamara Feldman, HATCHET). The two of them enjoy a night of wild excess --clearly the most genuine human contact Alyce has experienced in a long time-- during which they find out Carroll’s boyfriend has been cheating, get wasted, take a bunch of drugs, and end up on the roof of Alyce’s building. Not alway the most promising sequence of events, and by the end of it, Carroll takes a dive off the roof and Alyce finds herself lying to the cops about it. But did Carroll fall in a drugged out stupor, or did Alyce give her a push? And if so, why?
|The smoking gun|
With her one friend gone, Alyce plunges into a nightmare of spiralling addiction and guilt-ridden paranoia, relying on Carroll’s former drug dealer (Eddie Rouse, AMERICAN GANGSTER, mesmerizing here) to dull her pain, even as he shamelessly exploits her needs (financially, sexually, and through the medium of delivering rambling Tarantino-esque monologues). But gradually, her breakdown causes her to refocus herself, and without the boundaries of her old life her inclinations take on a worrisomely murderous timbre.
Frankly, I find it bizarre that this is the first movie I’ve seen in a very long time to attempt to meld a drug movie with a horror plot. They seem like they ought to go together so well -- horror movies, like drug movies, are so much about tearing away the mundane trappings of consensus reality and exposing the bizarre things that spill out of the human brain when it’s not properly constrained. After all, the horror that arises from being uncertain about reality goes back to Poe’s stories of madness and unstable narrators -- the altered perspective brought on by drugs seems like a completely intuitive mirror for this kind of psychological adventurism. In fact, a lot of the best horror are almost drug movies already; giallos especially are rightly famous for their surreal, expressionistic imagery and lack of narrative logic. Throw in a scene at the start where everyone does mushrooms and it would almost let them make more sense. Yet, you just don’t see this attempted much. There’s POP SKULL, which is terrible but at least is trying. There’s SHROOMS, which I haven’t seen. I guess LOVELY MOLLY does have a drug element, but it never seems like that’s responsible for her hallucinations or whatever. Hmm. Internet says TOAD ROAD (I haven’t seen it) and BLUE SUNSHINE (haven’t seen it). Somebody needs to get on this, I swear to you it’s gonna be golden someday.
|I'm your doctor when in need.|
Want some coke? Have some weed.
You know me, I'm your friend,
Your main boy, thick and thin.
I'm your pusherman.
Anway, Jay Lee (director of, holy shit, fucking ZOMBIE STRIPPERS?!) does a fine job cultivating a sweaty, hallucinogenic tone here, and is rewarded by a fine lead cast (Dornfeld, Feldman and Rouse are all terrific, the second-tier cast is noticeably less so). The movie has a kind of grim cartoonishness to it at times, but it also finds quite a nuanced protagonist in Alyce, who, I think, means well on some level but eventually snaps from her own isolation and feelings of powerlessness. She’s sympathetic, even pathetic, but at the same time there’s a wheedling strand of real gleeful sadism there too, perhaps an understandable reaction to a world which seems to constantly reject her but nevertheless more than enough to make her unstable and dangerous. Even before her real drug-fueled slide from sanity documented in the movie, she at least considered murdering her best friend, even if maybe she never imagined she’d actually do it (and maybe she didn’t, but still knows enough to feel guilty about it). So she’s a complex character; someone who we feel for, but also see is perhaps much more capable of violence than even she realizes.
One wonders, is this actually a story of female empowerment through domination and violence, a la KICK-ASS or WANTED? I mean, Alyce has a lot in common with the rejected, frustrated male protagonists of those movies, and her eventual self-confidence boost from brutal violence is exactly the same. The only thing it lacks is those movies’ labored efforts to put their protagonists’ violent empowerment in a more morally safe context (don’t worry, the movie tells us, they’re murdering people for truth and justice and shit! Everybody wins!). ALYCE KILLS is somewhat more honest than that; Alyce feels disempowered and unfairly maligned, and eventually lashes out just to show she can. And you gotta admit, the movie doesn’t entirely condemn her for it, after all, the people she kills really are total assholes. And she really does seem much happier this way. Maybe director Lee is trying to crack open the darker aspects of that famously unpleasant nerd-empowerment narrative by putting a more emotionally vulnerable woman at the heart of the story and letting the results speak for themselves? I dunno, I guess it doesn’t really feel like some kinda meta commentary, but you gotta admit the familiarity of these story beats is interesting. KICK-ASS is almost identical, except that the people he kills are criminals, instead of emotional bullies (making it totally morally acceptable in the eyes of the film, and making him into a hero while she’s a psychopath).
|Food network needs more shows like this.|
Regardless of the intent, it’s nice to see a woman at the heart of a story like this, and it’s even nicer to see her presented as a complex, flawed character. There’s a pleasing ambiguity to it all, too; once the drugs enter the picture you never really know for sure what exactly is real, and you never get a full backstory on Alyce either, so although you learn a lot about her from how she reacts to the events of the movie, there’s never any explicit (read: lazy) answer for how she ended up this way. There’s no flashback where as a child she saw her mom having sex with a sailor and that explains why she turns out to be a killer, like you would get in a giallo. The movie’s more or less narratively direct, but it gives you plenty of space to try and muse over some of the details here, and never feels the need to overexplain or psychoanalyze out loud. Surprisingly confident move there for a guy who named his last movie ZOMBIE STRIPPERS.
ALYCE KILLS is at its best early on, when it luxuriates in a guilt-ridden hallucinogenic slide into madness. At about the last quarter, it turns a little pulpier (and a whole lot bloodier), which is fun, well-executed genre payoff but maybe not quite as affecting as the more internalized, psychological horror of the three quarters. I mean, it’s got some top-shelf gore, a nice streak of jet-black humor, and a genuine tension about where things are gonna go. But I liked it better when it was playing a bit more earnestly. Alyce is too interesting a character to ever get completely overwhelmed, no matter how much goopy red stuff she gets covered in, but come on, lots of movies have blood. Few movies have the ambition to crack open the kind of chaotic, intriguing mind we see gradually tear itself apart here. Maybe Lee should have trusted that to take us all the way here. Either way, though, an enjoyable attempt. The great American horror/drug movie has yet to be made, but ALYCE KILLS is a real solid attempt, and full of pleasures both prurient and a bit more ethereal.
*Warning, certainty on my part should not be confused with the recommendation of a person with good judgement. Talk to your doctor to see if madess, ultraviolence and mild-altering drugs are right for you.