Monday, March 1, 2010

Issue #15: Vulgar (2000)

When it comes to creepy clown movies there are two major variations on the theme: movies where the creepiness of the clowns is central to the story (and often the only point of the film) and movies that are creepy for reasons that extend beyond the clowns themselves (although the clowns might be creepy as well).

Vulgar falls into the latter category, although it could be argued that it's really somewhere in between. The clown in the film is kind of creepy, at least some of the time, and the movie wouldn't exist without him. But it's what happens to the clown that makes the movie really creepy.

Some background. Vulgar was executive produced by Kevin Smith of Clerks fame. It was made after his success with films such as Chasing Amy and Dogma, and it features many of the denizens of the View Askewniverse, including Brian O'Halloran (Dante of Clerks) and Jason Mewes (Jay of numerous Smith films).

The origins of Vulgar are found in the opening animated production credits of Clerks, in which a decidedly creepy clown goes behind a screen and emerges as an even creepier cross-dressing stripper clown. The clown, who would for a time come to represent Smith's View Askew Productions, inspired Vulgar when Smith and his friends decided to make up a story about how the clown got to be the way he is.

The task of coming up with the clown's story fell to Bryan Johnson, a friend of Smith since high school who played nerdy comic book geek Steve-Dave Pulasti in Smith's Mallrats (and later films) and who in real life once managed Smith's comic book store Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash.

And what a story it is.

Will Carlson (Brian O'Halloran) is a clown. A birthday clown. As in he goes to children's parties and scars them for life. He's pretty good at it, but success has eluded him. He lives in a crappy apartment in a crappy house in a crappy neighborhood where guys even worse off than he is sleep in his crappy car and throw bottles at him when he comes home.

Will's clown name is Flappy, which frankly isn't a very good clown name. But it fits in with his lovable loser personality. One day Flappy has a gig--a little girl's birthday party, natch--and when he gets there he finds the girl's belligerent father being taken away by the police for domestic abuse. This is kind of a downer, so the party is off and Flappy goes home empty handed, but not before promising the little girl (her name is Ashley) that he'll come back next year for her party.

To cheer himself up Will pays a visit to his mother, who resides at the Broken Oak Rest Home. Mom is a real piece of work. She hates Broken Oak. She hates the staff. And she really hates Will. It's his fault she's in there. It's his fault he hasn't gotten anywhere in life. It's his fault the Democrats can't get health care reform through Congress. (That's not true. It's Nancy Pelosi's fault, because no one likes her.)

Will has not only not been paid for the birthday party, he's now been completely emasculated by his mother. So he decides that enough is enough. It's time to go for the big time or give up. And after much thought he comes up with a plan: He's going to be a stripper clown for bachelor parties.

Granted, it's a niche market. But as Will explains to his best (and only) friend, Syd (played by screenwriter/director Bryan Johnson), it's all a gag. He'll be the entertainment before the real entertainment (aka a nekkid girl) arrives. The groom-to-be will be totally freaked out until he realizes his buddies are pulling his leg. Ha ha!

Will decides to name this new clown persona Vulgar, because that's what his undertaking is--cheap and vulgar. Vulgar bears no resemblance to Flappy. Flappy is your generic circus clown; Vulgar is your generic bald streetwalking clown. With false eyelashes and heels. Actually, Vulgar looks a lot like drag queen Divine, the star of so many John Waters films, all of which are? That's right. Vulgar.

When Vulgar goes to his first gig something bad happens. Something really bad. In short, he's raped by a sociopath father while his two demented sons watch and videotape the whole thing. It's all very degrading and can be summed up in the father's promise to Vulgar right before the fun begins: "I'm gonna make hate to you."
As you might imagine, this turn of events does nothing for Will's self esteem. He manages to get home, where he finally reacts by trashing his apartment and cutting himself with a shard of broken mirror. His mood doesn't improve any when Syd comes over and, after hearing what happened to Will, remarks that Will really should do something because what if those guys gave him AIDS?

Will spends the next year becoming more and more depressed. He doesn't work as Flappy. He doesn't work period. Until it's time for Ashley's birthday party and her mother calls in the promise Will made to her the year before.

Will arrives to once again find Ashley's house surrounded by police cars. Only this time Ashley's father has taken her hostage and is holding her inside the house. It seems Ashley's mom finally had enough and served the jerkhole with divorce papers. He's not so happy about that.

The police have had no luck convincing jerkhole to surrender. Will, who at this point doesn't care if he lives or dies, takes matters into his own hands, sneaks into the house, and tackles the jerkhole, saving the day. Yay Flappy!

Predictably, Flappy becomes a hero. One day, while appearing on the It's Scotty talk show, Flappy is seen by television producer Martan Ingram (played by an adorably beary Kevin Smith). Martan soon approaches Will about doing a children's show, Flappy's Funhouse.

Now will is movin' on up. The show does well. Flappy merchandise flies off the shelves. He gets revenge on the losers in his old neighborhood. He's beloved by children.

And that's where things start to come undone. One of those children just happens to be the child of the man who assburgled Vulgar. His name is Ed Fanelli. The man, not the kid. I don't know her name, and it doesn't matter. What matters is that Ed sees his daughter watching one of the Flappy's Funhouse videos and recognizes Will.

Will is sitting around in the living room of his swank new house when the phone rings. It's Ed, demanding 50 G's. If he doesn't get it, he'll leak the video of his and Vulgar's time together. And then what will the kiddies and their parents think?

Will calls Syd and Syd quite reasonably says that Will should tell the police. But Will doesn't want to. There's some vague dialogue at this point that seems to suggest that Will is hiding something, like maybe he's gay and doesn't want people to know and really doesn't want them to know that he was in a manwich because they'll think he did it because he liked it and not because Ed threatened to blow his head off (which he did).

At this point we're treated to a scene of Ed and his boys in a basement somewhere hosting a party for a gentleman who is trussed up in a weird metal contraption. Ed is spewing homophobic bile and wielding a blowtorch. "This is how I kiss," he tells his victim, firing up the torch. "And I'm gonna kiss you all over."

This seems a wee bit unnecessary, but whatever. We get it--there's nothing Ed won't do. Also, he clearly has a problem with the fact that he likes making it with dudes. But more on that later.

What Ed wants Will to do now is go to a specific junkyard and ask the proprietor if he has a '64 Buick Skylark, which happens to have sentimental appeal to Ed because it's the make of car his oldest son, Frankie, first learned how to, um, how do I put this? Get to the center of a Tootsie Pop in. If you get my drift. A-one. A-two. A-three.

And there will be one. Ed is sure of it. Will is to put the 50 G's in the car's trunk, after which the junkyard owner will give him the tape.

Only he doesn't. The junkyard guy, I mean. Will does what he's supposed to, but it turns out Ed was messing with him. He has no intention of giving up the tape. This seems mean spirited to me, but Ed hasn't exactly shown himself to be of upstanding character so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

And it doesn't stop there. One day while Will is at the studio filming his show he goes in to the men's room only to be confronted in the stall by Ed and his boys. Ed demands a repeat performance of the night they met and orders Vulgar to appear at a motel at an appointed time.

Well, now Will has had enough. When he appears in the studio with a bloodied face courtesy of Ed's switchblade and Syd asks him what happened, he says that Ed has asked him for another favor. And what might that be? Syd inquires. "He wants us to kill him," Will says.

They decide that shooting Ed will be the easiest thing to do, so off they go to visit one of those loser guys with a heart of gold that so frequently come in useful in these situations. He's played by Jason Mewes and his name is Tuott the Basehead. And no I don't know if that's an in-joke or not. Probably.

Tuott gives Syd and Will some guns and off they go. Will gets himself all gussied up in his Vulgar ensemble and they go to the motel. I should mention that on the way there they're accosted by a drunk who asks Syd for money and Syd says no way, I'm going to go kill a guy and anyway I use my debit card for everything so I don't have any cash to give you even if I wanted to.

Okay, he doesn't. But that's what I said once to Roosevelt, the really nice homeless guy we see every Thursday when we go to Xiao Loong for dinner. Not the part about killing a guy, the part about never having cash because I only use my debit card. Then I felt bad because Roosevelt is really cool and he always says I have a nice smile even when I don't have any cash for him, so now I try to have a dollar or two for him.

But Syd doesn't.

The plan is that Vulgar will go into the room with the Family Fanelli, play along at first, then whip out his gun, at which point Syd will burst in with his gun and they'll, well, do something.

Only it doesn't go down that way. Vulgar does go in, and at first he acts as if he's going to do just what Ed wants him to. But when Ed tells him to strip and show them the teddy he ordered Will to wear, Vulgar opens his coat to reveal a pair of plain old sweatpants. Ed gets his back up over that and Vulgar shows him the business end of his gun.

Syd is all set to back him up when the bum he didn't give a quarter to comes up behind him and mugs him. So that sucks, in addition to being bad timing.

Inside the motel room Vulgar pulls the trigger on his gun and it goes . . . click, click, click. This is more bad news, as Ed then clocks Vulgar and starts to beat him.

Around about this point you think things aren't going to end on a very positive note. But hope arrives when Frankie Fanelli, mocking Vulgar, points the gun at his own face and pulls the trigger. And it works! Vulgar just had the safety on!

Ed isn't pleased at this turn of events. Neither is Gino, who starts screaming that Vulgar killed his brother, which isn't really true and he should know that. And then the door bursts open and Syd and the homeless guy are struggling. Gino has a gun now too and he points it at the homeless guy, the homeless guy points his gun at Gino, and as quick as you can say "Bob's your uncle" they're both dead because they're morons.

Now Ed has no more boys and he decides to run away. Vulgar tells Syd to get out of there and he runs after Ed. They end up at a playground, where Ed taunts Vulgar and tells him he doesn't have the balls to pull the trigger. Which, frankly, I don't think he does. But it doesn't matter because Ed has a heart attack and dies. Vulgar gives him a few vicious kicks after the fact, but it would have been more satisfying if he'd shot him. If you ask me.

The film closes with Flappy filming an episode of his show where he's dressed as a policeman rounding up three bandit clowns. Then he turns to the camera and says his famous line, "Stay in school and take care of yourself, because you're the only you you've got."

I was curious about seeing Vulgar because I'd heard a lot about it, and all of what I'd heard was bad. The film has a reputation as being incredibly distasteful and just plain wrong. The DVD box goes so far as to quote negative reviews from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. And a friend of mine who had seen it warned me that it was one of the most vile things he'd ever seen.

I'm a bit puzzled by that. Yes, Vulgar is a disturbing movie. But that's entirely due to the rape. And frankly, I've seen far more graphic and disturbing rape scenes in any number of modern horror movies, most memorably The Last House on the Left.

Now I will say something that you might disagree with. Personally, I think Vulgar upsets so many people because it deals with manrape. Gay stuff makes some people anxious in the first place. Clown stuff makes some people anxious in the first place. Rape stuff makes some people anxious in the first place. But gay male clown rape? Off the charts.

It's too bad that people feel this way, because Vulgar is actually a good movie. The performances, particularly from O'Halloran and Jerry Lewkowitz (who plays Ed in what appears to be his one and only film role), are first rate. The Vulgar makeup is phenomenal, and the story underneath all of its sensationalism says a lot about achieving fame and what it can cost you. Yeah, it's a dark, twisted little story, but it's a damn good dark, twisted little story.

So to get back to the gay thing. There's a lot of repressed man-on-man feelings going on in Vulgar. Ed's little  habit of raping men while degrading them for being gay is the most obvious one. Then there's the relationship between Frankie and Gino, which pretty clearly extends beyond the bonds of brotherly love. But what's more interesting to me is whatever is going on with Will and Syd. Neither has a girlfriend, or even talks about women. They're incredibly intimate with one another. And then there's the whole "Will is afraid of something beyond the creepiness of the tape" thing. Finally, there's Kevin Smith's character. When we first meet Martan (and yes, that's how they spell it in the credits) he's lying in bed with a naked man. They clearly have some kind of longstanding relationship. But when the man (whose name is Cinnamon, I kid you not) goes to kiss Martan goodnight Martan holds up his hand and tells him not to do that. Harsh.

What's that about? Kevin Smith has a long history of gay-positive characters and stories. And it seems like this is another one. The closeted (or just fucked up) men are the ones who don't acknowledge their own gayness and take it out on other men. The nice maybe-gay guys don't admit anything either, but at least they always do the right thing and win in the end. (It is not lost on me that Will doesn't actually have to kill anyone to get his revenge.) And then there's Smith's somewhere-in-the-middle character. He's the one who gives Will the opportunity to better his life, but simultaneously (if inadvertently) reunites him with the greatest evil he's ever faced. Line the male characters up and they arguably form a continuum of gay men from really bad to really good.

And now that I think of it, Will's life goes astray when he strays from who he is (a happy clown who entertains children) to something he isn't (a clown whore in garish makeup). A message about hiding who you are, perhaps?

Or maybe it's just me.

Anyway, it's something to think about.

One last thing. Lately a lot of the creepy clown movies I've seen have had fantastic music in them. Vulgar is no exception. My favorite bit is a punk version of the Flappy's Funhouse theme song, performed by Jon Kleiman. I'll leave you with it.

And remember: Stay in school and take care of yourself, because you're the only you you've got.

Flappy Hardcore
Jon Kleiman

Favorite Line: "You're right. I should hinge my whole future on dancing around like a mongoloid on a bad acid trip for a bunch of spoiled little dickheads."

Rating (Out of 5):