Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dark Romances, Vol. 1: Born Evil (1990)

... aka: Dark Romances
... aka: Dark Romances: "Born Evil"
... aka: Dark Romances Vol. 1

Directed by:
Mark Shepard

It's the winter of 1888 at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane, just outside of Paris. Some madwoman is in possession of a black box that she claims can unleash evil unto the world. Some man wants to take it from her, so she explains why he shouldn't in our first tale “The Black Veil,” based on a story called The Seventh Door by John Strysik and Patricia Miller. Unlike most shorts in anthology features, this isn't a short at all but a full-blown feature film clocking in at 75 minutes. Young, naive and well-bred Meg Hexley (Elizabeth Morehead) goes to Paris to settle the affairs / estate of her late husband, a psychiatrist mentored by none other than Freud himself. While in town, she hooks up with former college friend Justine (Julie Carlson), who's now working as an actress at the famed Theatre du Grand Guignol, run out of an abandoned cathedral. There she bears witness to music, blood, death, whipping, torture, breasts and images from George Melies' silent films (including A Trip to the Moon) projected onto the walls. She also meets some of Justine's acting company, like creepy mime Demetrius (Robert Rothman), the strikingly beautiful but strange and distant Diana (Brinke Stevens) and a female pinhead who merrily stirs up all the stage blood in a pot. Meg wonders how her friend has managed to go from one of the most expensive and exclusive girl's schools in Europe to this kind of life.

Justine is crippled with headaches, hooked on a booze and opium cocktail, living in poverty in a run-down building with some of her fellow actresses and obsessed with sick and twisted thoughts. Fearing for her friend's life, Meg goes and fetches a black box belonging to her late husband. Inside is a “hypnosis device,” which she's hoping will draw back “the black veil” clouding over her friend. The device, a spinning wheel placed in front of a candle, is used to put Justine under. She's then asked to go to “the hiding place” in her mind and is soon revealing things like seeing a singer being skinned alive... and enjoying watching it. Further sessions reveal a dark family history involving an adulterous forger of a father who frequently visited prostitutes and sold children into prostitution and slavery, a drug addict and rapist of a brother and a crazy, murderous mother who eventually had to be hauled off in a straight jacket. Justine's past pretty much is the Grand Guignol.

The treatments may uncover some things about what makes Justine tick, but they don't stop the blood lust nor the madness. During the next show, she really slashes Demetrius' throat in front of a live audience and then coerces a hysterical Meg into drinking one of her opium drinks, which results in a trip out and lesbian sex. Diana comes back into the picture to lure Meg out of bed and to some blood ceremony she and her female followers are conducting. They slice open Meg's hand and she bleeds all over some lump of Playdough that (I think) is supposed to be a heart or brain. She returns to Justine and is instructed to crack open the heart / brain thingy and then there's a long and rapidly-edited montage of green smoke, lightning bolts, flashing lights, a slimy puppet monster and shots of Stevens brandishing vampire teeth and looking sultry as she captures Justine's “essence” in a little jar. Does any of this make sense? Well, kind of.

Giving credit where credit is due, this is extremely ambitious for a SOV film and is perhaps the most ambitious film of this type that I've seen from this era. There's an attempt at a period setting with appropriate costumes, props and sets clearly constructed just for the film, plus actors actually trying to do accents (note I said trying) and give decent performances. Some of the actors (namely Carlson, Rothman and Stevens, the only known performer in this cast) are actually pretty decent in their roles. The lighting is extremely stylized and colorful and there doesn't seem to be a single frame that isn't doused in blue, red, purple, green and / or yellow light. That said, the video format simply does not work all that well with this particular approach. The low key lighting on tape just doesn't look like it does on film, resulting in murky clarity and shots that are often blurry and difficult to make out. The shots themselves are frequently amateurish, with few establishing, wide or even medium shots used; just lots of in-your-face close-ups. Even worse, this entire thing is edited like a music video and the constant flash cuts are not only excessive but also extremely irritating at times. When this all works, certain moments look striking, but it's mostly just annoyingly flashy and “artistic” to make up for a slim story that's needlessly drawn out to the point of tedium.

Our second story, titled “Listen to Midnight,” starts with a quote from JFK's diary and is set in modern day Los Angeles, where alcoholic, suicidal, misogynistic (“Women are all pushovers.”), dragonfly-obsessed photographer Tod (Ron Roleck) narrates his own boring little story. After having a lengthy nightmare where he's mocked by a snobby model (Stevens again, who also plays the role of a radio DJ later on) and a man in sunglasses (Michael Sonye), who eventually smash him into a wall with their car, he wakes up to a bitchy, pill-popping model in his bed chewing him out for waking her up. Such is the life of Tod. After an argument over some pictures he owes her of their sexual tryst, he calls her out for being a “lousy lay” and she retorts that his love making skills merely “made the Earth budge” on her way out the door. Tod claims he drinks because of all the nightmares he keeps having. That and having to shoot “annoying little cockroaches” (children) just to make ends meet.

Deciding to end it all, Tod puts a pistol in his mouth and pulls the trigger but the chamber is empty. He then hits the streets with his camera looking for bullets and snapping pictures of whatever interests him along the way. A convenience store doesn't have what he's looking for but a strange woman with long fingernails and dressed in a black veil reminds him that “The sleep of reason breeds monsters” in between munching on Twinkies and Bubble Yum. He sees a bum (Larry Hankin) drinking Drain-O and then steps into a bar for a drink where Carol (Dawn Wildsmith), an ex-girlfriend he screwed over, lays into him. He talks to the bartender about all of the other ladies he's humped and dumped, meets a new wave-looking, multi-pierced bimbo named Ginger (Anita Coleito) and takes her home, thinking she'll be an easy lay. He turns out to be correct, but it all ends up being a little messier than he was probably expecting.

Like the first story, this has continual colorful pseudo-arty lighting and pseudo-surreal direction and is flash-edited within an inch of its miserable life. As a result, this 30-minute tale is a real chore to sit through. The story is both depressing and uninteresting and the lead character is such a self-absorbed, irritating piece of shit, viewing this is more excruciating than entertaining. If I ranked the two stories separately, the first would get 2 stars and this would get 1. In other words, had “The Black Veil” been released independently and not dragged down by this other useless story, it would have fared a little better in my overall ranking.

Dark Romances (which has a 1989 copyright date, though some sources claim filming actually began as far back as 1986) was first issued on VHS by Film Threat, who offered both it and its sequel; Dark Romances, Vol. 2: Bleeding Hearts (1990), together on one set. The box contained positive blurbs from the likes of Clive Barker, Stephen King, Forrest J. Ackerman and Variety. Afterward, in the late 90s, it was reissued on the Salt City Home Video label. And after that, well, there was no after that. That was it. I wouldn't hold my breath expecting a DVD release for this one either.

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