Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mist for the Grill

Lucky McKee's "Sick Girl," based on a story by Sean Wood, is one of the easier MASTERS OF HORROR episodes to criticize -- yet one of the more difficult ones to appraise.

Angela Bettis, who starred in McKee's earlier feature MAY (2002), plays Ida Teeter, a gay insectologist who can't hold onto girlfriends because of all the bugs she keeps as pets. She receives an anonymously sent package from Brazil containing an aggressive, undocumented specimen that manages to escape its container and secrete itself somewhere in her domicile -- around the time she summons the courage to arrange a date with an alluring, long-haired stranger named Misty Hills (Erin Brown -- aka "Misty Mundae"). The date turns hot and Ida reluctantly asks Misty back to her apartment, where her date proceeds to outdrink her and pass out. Ida brings a blanket and pillow to the sofa, not realizing that the missing insect is hiding inside the pillowcase. During the night, it enjoys a sticky close encounter with Misty's ear... provoking strange changes in her pixieish behavior which, in turn, anger the landlady and propel a weird situation toward even worse weirdness.

The story is flimsy, shored up with oddball retro touches, some raunchy dialogue, and a certain amount of entomological textbookery. McKee keeps this unstable cocktail watchable by giving us something we don't often see on television: a believably awkward account of two gay women nervously reaching toward one another in hopes of a relationship. Believable, but also exaggerated, overtly stylized. Speaking of style, half of the MOH episodes to date have been photographed by Hungarian cinematographer Attila Szalay, who has shown extraordinary adaptability and resourcefulness in responding to his directors' wildly different needs and tonalities. This episode showcases what may be his most striking work thus far, opening with a fluid and bubbly one-take tour of Ida's apartment (giving us details of her life and circumstances, à la the opening shot of REAR WINDOW albeit with De Palmian effervescence) and settling down to a Bava-like lighting scheme with lots of color gels and scrim-work that underscore the paranoia experienced by the variously cartoonish cast of characters. The episode's choice of music adds to its stimulative quality, all of it off-center and appealing -- much like the characters themselves.

The problem with this episode is that the interest of the characters and their relationship far outweighs the horror angle, and the horror angle is approached in a comic spirit much too long to successfully navigate the sharp turn into more serious territory. One sees where things are going early on, and we hope for a payoff akin to that of NIGHT GALLERY's "The Caterpillar," but what we get is closer to the payoff in New Concorde's remake of THE WASP WOMAN -- a big, clunky transformation effect that not even flashy editing can put across the field goal of belief. An attempt to connect the revulsion one character feels for lesbians with the more universal revulsion of insects isn't successfully achieved either. Had it worked, it might might explain why McKee and Wood chose to make their protagonist a lesbian in the first place, as it's a prominent detail not otherwise supported thematically by their script.

I haven't seen any of Lucky McKee's features, so I can't discuss how well the episode furthers or reinforces (or not) the work he's done for the big screen. Because I didn't know this "Master of Horror" from Joe Blow, I wasn't attuned to an idea of what to expect before watching the show. Consequently, I found its particular way of looking at its world a surprise and a refreshment, perhaps most of all when it underscored a dream related by Misty with a brief animated sequence that's equal parts Ladislas Starevich and YELLOW SUBMARINE.

In categorizing this episode -- pinning and mounting it, so to speak -- I have to take where it goes into account as much as how it gets there. Therefore, as a complete work, I'd have to reluctantly call "Sick Girl" a disappointment. Most people, I imagine, would weigh in on the negative side without too many second thoughts; Donna, who watched it with me, felt it was a complete waste of time, but I can't dismiss it so easily. There is something about the quirky character of this buggy ride that I found, at times, strangely invigorating.

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