Written and Directed by: Jay Burleson
Starring: Lane Hughes, Bill Pacer, and Hannah Hughes
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Perhaps more than any other genre, horror scene loves to mythologize the independent film. Its history is lined with incredible (if not inspiring) stories about shoestring productions clawing their way out of some unsuspecting locale to become iconic mainstays. Even some films that remain trapped in their regional haunts become the stuff of legend, whispered in circles as if they were campfire tales committed to quarter-inch tape. Films like The Dead Next Door, Hauntedween, and Things have been etched into the canon almost through a sheer force of will that has allowed them to endure.
But what about those films—and filmmakers—that never make it? You have to imagine that for every Evil Dead or Video Violence, there are dozens of stories about failed or even aborted films lost to time and only remembered by those who were there to witness it. The Nobodies is concerned with these untold tales hailing from parts unknown, stories that would otherwise fade into obscurity like so many of these lost souls no doubt have over the years.
Presented as a mockumentary documenting the curious case of filmmaker Warren Werner (Jay Burleson), a small-town Alabama filmmaker whose backyard production infamously bombed with the locals back in the early 90s. The story took a tragic turn when he and his girlfriend Samantha later committed suicide, prompting unfounded rumors that the two were engaged in Satanic rituals. Some years later, friends, family, and collaborators gathered to explain the circumstances surrounding their grisly, heartbreaking fates while discussing the production of Pumpkin, the notoriously dire film that set the couple on a path towards self-destruction.
The documentary also intertwines Pumpkin itself—or the patches that remain of it—into the narrative, allowing viewers to glimpse first-hand the film that everyone (including those who participated in it) insists is horrible. Some try to downplay it as Warren’s attempt to make a film he knew was bad, but these ring as overly kind words: make no mistake, Pumpkin is a rough experience, one that poses a unique challenge within the context of The Nobodies: here we’re told that it should not be seen, yet it must be and remains vital to the overall experience. Rare is the film that announces its own badness but doesn’t do so out of glib irony: The Nobodies wants its viewers to endure Pumpkin and recognize it for the trash that it is, but the sad, compelling story surrounding its production makes it difficult to laugh at (or with) it.
When I say the Pumpkin portions of the film are bad, I mean to say that they are authentically so. The faux production—which traces the exploits of a serial killer (Bill Pacer) as he hitchhikes through seedy motel rooms and desolate countrysides—is the work of an amateur with unbounded enthusiasm for transgression but limited resources. Anyone familiar with these homespun films will immediately recognize the aesthetic: showy but ragged photography captures wooden performances, ponderous dialogue, and the occasional burst of savage gore. A thirst for provocation leads audiences to strip clubs and fleabag motels, where palpable grime wafts through the air; by the time they bear witness to Pacer doing his own full frontal striptease and dance routine, they realize why so many are quick to dismiss Pumpkin as filth.
However, like so many of these films, some inspired bursts of insanity creep through the convoluted plot. A digression that reveals another serial killer duo operating in the area takes on the frenzied tenor of a half-remembered night terror as a victim (Lane Hughes, who also provides part of the score) recounts an encounter. Visions of low-rent clown costumes and Halloween-mask horse heads are bizarre accompaniment for the usual assortment of mangling and mutilations. Having stumbled across plenty of these sorts of films in various multipack DVD sets, I can say with confidence that Burleson has accurately recreated the vibe they give off, right down to some memorably kooky characters (in this case, a pair of possibly brain-damaged detectives). If Pumpkin were to suddenly appear on some collection of long-lost 90s SOV movies, you’d hardly doubt its warts-and-all authenticity.
Between previous feature Feast of the Vampires and a mock trailer for a “lost” Halloween 3 from 1985, Burleson is no stranger to nostalgia as an embellishing agent. Here, however, he engages with it (and the notion of intentional badness) in a way many films don’t—on the surface, The Nobodies is a cross-section lying between the WNUF Halloween Special and Jodorowsky’s Dune, only Burleson digs beneath the VHS tracking gags to remind you that filmmaking is a difficult process involving actual human beings. While the film doesn’t lash out at criticism (it seems to more or less side with those participants who reasonably believe Pumpkin is terrible), it sympathizes with Warren and Samantha, the two ghosts that linger throughout The Nobodies, subliminally haunting each frame of their own film. When Pumpkin spirals out of control to the point of coaxing either exasperation or laughter, you can’t help but think of their tragic end.
The Nobodies cleverly explores the darker side to the “lost film” myth with a story that should resonate with anyone whose ambitions have been thwarted. Anyone who’s been given side-eyes and whispered about due to eccentric tastes may see themselves in Warren, who is publicly shamed for his film. More than anyone, The Nobodies is a film for those who have toiled away for months or years at a time on a film that can only be considered a true labor or love. Warren and Samantha may have harbored dreams of stardom, but, deep down, Pumpkin was a creative expression from two misunderstood souls. Their eventual fate is the ultimate reflection of the struggles inherent in independent filmmaking, which often requires sweat, blood, and years. As The Nobodies suggests, sometimes it demands even more.
Note: Burleson is planning to distribute The Nobodies via a crowdfunding venture later this year. You can follow updates on his personal Twitter account and the film’s Facebook page.
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