The Tripper (2006) aka PRESIDENT EVIL (Germany, which I'm slowly learning has all the best titles)
Dir. David Arquette
Written by David Arquette, Joe Harris
Starring Jamie King, Lukas Haas, Thomas Jane, Jason Mewes, Paul Ruben
It’s comforting to know that even in this age of gutless cynicism and soulless corporate pandering, there remain some people truly in it for the art. Such is the case of celebrated auteur David Arquette (actor, 8 LEGGED FREAKS, SCREAM 2), who originally made this delightful slasher to be part of the 8 Films To Die For horror festival. That would have been a smart business move, and this movie would probably be better known than it is now had that deal had gone through as originally conceived. But Arquette knew, in his heart of hearts, that the only morally upright time to premiere the film would be on 4/20. When he couldn’t make that work out with the festival organizers, he was faced with a hard choice. I’m sure he was tempted to compromise; just like anyone would have been, I’m sure he had sleepless nights, tossing and turning, that voice of Satan in his head whispering to him what’s the harm in making just this one, small concession? But deep down, he knew that there is no such thing as a small concession; there is only truly great art and compromised corporate bullshit. He knew he had to follow his vision. And so, he was forced to amicably part ways with the festival and strike out on his own, into the uncertain (and, it turned out, not especially lucrative) future. But he got his wish: the movie premiered 4/20/2007, and the Muses were satisfied. That’s a commitment to craft, right there, and as telling a sign as one could ask for that Arquette knew exactly the movie he was trying to make. If you don’t know why that date would be so important, this is probably not the movie for you.
This is a slasher, and a pretty delightful one at that, but the 4/20 release date was so necessary because it’s equal parts drug movie, placing it squarely in a subgenre of mind-altered horror films I’ve dubbed Narco Horror. It concerns a cadre of drugged-up hippies (Jaime King [SIN CITY], Lukas Haas [MARS ATTACK], Jason Mewes [JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK], Brad Hunt [FIRE DOWN BELOW, MAGNOLIA], Balthazar Getty [LOST HIGHWAY] and others) attending a big hippie party thrown in the deep forests of Northern CA by a shady promoter (Paul Reubens, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE), only to be subjected to the slashings of a mysterious hippie-hating killer wearing a Ronald Reagan mask. So not only do they have to contend with an ax-wielding maniac throwing out one-liners which are all Reagan quotes, but they have to do it while high as balls. (Hence, the movie’s torture pun of a title, which combines drug tripping with “The Gipper.”) Not that they do it that well, or anything.
The movie manages to flank the usual hackey slasher burnout and deliver a wallop on mostly no budget at all, thanks mostly to the actors --presumably all friends of Arquette, since I doubt any of them were paid much for this. The whole script and scenario are absurd on their face, but this cast, unlike the usual body count meat wagon, has genuine charisma even when their lines are (intentionally) ridiculous. Mewes, for example, is no one’s idea of a classically great actor, but he still manages to command your attention without seeming to expend any particular effort to do so. He has “it” -- he’s just entertaining to watch, totally independent of anything related to the technical craft of acting, or even the schlocky genre trappings. Most of the cast is like that; they’re a sturdy collection of lively and charming actors mostly just fucking around and having some fun with it. Arquette has a rock solid sense for his intended tone, and gets all the actors on board; they’re all exaggerated right to the border or pure parody, but not quite over. It’s corny and excessive in exactly the right balance with its genuine desire to be a legit horror film: not so much that it’s alienating or so little that it stops being fun to see them get hacked up by the Gipper. Thomas Jane (THE PUNISHER, THE MIST) in particular is a hoot as the town’s mustachio’d tough guy cop. He’s a funny stereotype of corny aviator-sporting square police, but also kind of likeable and imbued with a snarky sense of wit.
The drug stuff offers plenty of wild, trippy visuals, and the film boldly goes out-and-out psychedelic on a few occasions. But Arquette doesn’t skimp on the horror staples either, providing plenty of gnarly murders, mutilations, a whole fuck of a lot of tits, a handsomely crafted finale, a lovingly crafted gimmick killer with an appropriately ridiculous backstory, and as if that weren’t already richer bounty than we deserve, the great ska/punk/metal/funk/soul band Fishbone appears out of nowhere for a huge concert and even contributes quite a bit to the soundtrack, ensuring that this hippie theme stays nicely funky. Heck, singer Angelo Moore even has a scene where he gets yelled at by Paul Reubens. And dear old Wes Craven has a cameo as a top hat-sporting wise old drifter. THE TRIPPER, you didn’t have to do all that just for me, you had me at Axin’ Ronnie Reagan. But it sure is appreciated.
For a movie about a rampaging Reagan --and especially one made during the dog days of the Bush administration-- the film handily eschews partisan bitterness. The hippies are our protagonists, and obviously the point of view that Arquette is the most sympathetic to, but they’re not always saints. They’re completely dismissive of the redneck locals (including Arquette in a cameo) whose town they’re flooding into, and even of the police, who are trying (not especially successfully) to keep them alive. As is appropriate for a movie about a killer Reagan, the Republicans are definitely the villains, but the movie isn’t entirely unsympathetic to them, either; they get a chance to explain their bitterness, and the movie even backs them up to a degree. A lot of modern lefty movies seem like they’re made wholly as vehicles for progressives to vent their pent-up frustrations, and as such they stack the deck in their favor in a way every bit as disingenuous as DEATH WISH or VIGILANTE stacked it in favor of the Angry White Males of the 80’s. I was one frustrated motherfucker during the Bush years, so I understand that urge, but it tended to result in works of art which were bitter and self-serving in a way which doesn’t hold up very well. THE TRIPPER feels a little more genial than that; it gives both sides a good-natured and well-deserved ribbing, saves its real disdain for hypocrites, and punishes them appropriately. My one complaint is that the ostensible main character doesn't do drugs and spends the whole movie whining that other people at this hippie nude fest are on them. Yes, your "final girl" is supposed to be the responsible one, but does she really have to be such a scold? Anyway, a minor point and it does kinda pay off at the end, but why not let your final girl in this ridiculous movie have a little more fun?
|This one also gets bonus points for being one of the rare Chainsawnukah horror movies to feature an actual chainsaw|
For something so cheap, the movie has a nicely muddy, slightly grainy look to it which makes it kind of visually distinct (it actually reminds me of the similarly curious look of the David-Arquette-starring overlooked 1997 indie DREAM WITH THE FISHES). The look of the film gives it a nebulous ambiance of 70’s z-grade indies without especially emulating it, setting it apart from the majority of slick modern thrillers without seeming deliberately retro or kitschy. There are some moments of regrettably 2006 datedness (rapid Avid farts with loud horror stings abound, especially early on) but a brisk pace, offbeat tone, strong cast and some striking images (I love Paul Rubens’ big speech in front of a giant American flag, evoking PATTON) more than make up for any first-time-filmmaker amateurishness. Reagan once said, “You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating Jelly Beans,” (a quote which, happily, is referenced in the film). Well, I like jellybeans OK, but in my opinion a better measure of a man is his way of making slasher movies.* You’ve got your slick, corporate Platinum Dunes guys (PROM NIGHT REMAKE); your regional horror enthusiastic amateurs making adorably incompetent weirdness (THE TOWN THE DREADED SUNDOWN, SATAN’S BLADE); your nasty, misanthropic (or flat-out misogynistic) exploitation (PIECES); your campy, crazy gimmick-stuffed bloodletting (SLEEPAWAY CAMP, HATCHET); your by-the-numbers unimaginative genre retreads (PROM NIGHT ORIGINAL, THE PROWLER). And then there’s this: a little arty, a little silly, maybe even a little topical, but with plenty of lovingly-crafted blood squirts from ax wounds, and also Fishbone is in it. I don’t know if Reagan would have agreed, but as far as I’m concerned this guy Arquette is A-OK. He hasn’t directed another film since this (some TV movies and stuff, though he’s been acting quite prolifically) but hey, great art is never appreciated in its own time. If the man ever lets Arquette make the much-deserved sequel (set in a slaughterhouse and subtitled: THE DUTCHER) you can count me in for the trip.
*I use “man” here in the sense of “mankind,” and apologize for the male-only pronouns. I struggle with this because it can get cumbersome to always write “person” and his/her in long sentences, but I don’t want the ladies to feel excluded, obviously plenty of women have directed hacky slashers too. In this case I decided to simply follow Reagan’s explicitly gendered example for stylistic reasons, but come on people, can we finally get on making that “Ze” non-gendered pronoun a real thing so I don’t have to make Sophie’s choice here?