CHAINED FOR LIFE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: AARON SCHIMBERG / STARRING: JESS WEIXLER, ADAM PEARSON, STEPHEN PLUNKETT, CHARLIE KORSMO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
A blind woman walks into a 1930s-era operating theatre, where she inadvertently disrupts the stomach-churning facial surgery that’s taking place. But no, this is just a scene in a low budget horror movie and when the director calls “cut” and the actor playing the blind woman instantly regains her sight, we see this is all make-up and artifice. But what will happen tomorrow, when he disfigured co-star and a cast of scarred, deformed, and otherwise physically imperfect extras arrives? Will she be able to see beyond their abnormalities to the hearts that lie within? Is the Herr Director (who, rumour has it, spent a childhood travelling with the circus and may not even be German) making a film that challenges our perceptions of ugliness and beauty, or is he exploiting the new arrivals as Tod Browning arguably did when he directed Freaks? As the film within a film develops, and the line between fiction and reality becomes steadily more blurred, the actor finds herself unexpectedly drawn towards her funny and gently spoken leading man. But what will happen when the production wraps and she returns to a world where beauty and vanity are prized above everything, and what of the scarred murderer who is at loose somewhere near the hospital where they’ve been filming?
Chained for Life is a frequently wonderful film, combining a powerful human message with some fantastic black comedy jabs at the shallowness and ridiculousness of the movie industry. Writer/director Aaron Schimberg was born with a bilateral cleft lip and an obsessive love of the movie Freaks, so Chained for Life is obviously one from the heart. Jess Weixler (star of the genre-favourite Teeth) is wonderful as the leading lady, and shares great chemistry with Adam Pearson, who - like the character he plays - has the disfiguring disease neurofibromatosis. One of their very first scenes together - when Rosenthal (Pearson) asks Mabel (Weixler) to teach him some acting, we quickly become aware of how much his condition restricts his physical ability to portray emotion but that, even without Mabel’s expressive face, he can still convey all the emotions he needs - is genius. So is the clever multi-layering of the dialogue, which constantly keeps the viewer on their toes (are we watching the film or the film-within-the-film?) In fact, the only flaw in Chained for Life - albeit a big one - is that it sometimes feels a little too meandering, and the ending doesn’t make the definitive statement a film like this needs. Although we’re left wondering where Mabel and Rosenthal’s lives are going to take them, it also feels like Mabel has stepped into another jeopardy which has nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. Chained for Life feels like a film you’d need to watch several times over to completely get a grasp on, and even then you couldn’t be certain. That’s a shame, because it carries an important message that shouldn’t have been so lost in translation.
This comprehensive two-disc set also includes Schimberg’s debut film Go Down Death, which is an interesting (although some might say pretentious) piece that’s a lot harder to like. In an undisclosed time and an undisclosed place (it looks like some kind of ramshackle mining town composed mainly of a poker saloon, a whorehouse, and the world’s most unsanitary dentist’s office), a selection of characters monologue aimlessly about death, hopelessness and despair. Meanwhile, the film’s only real protagonist - a young boy called Butler - seems to be doing everybody else’s jobs, including tailoring, grave-digging, and spewing horrendous poetry. Stylistically, it’s a little bit like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr all got thrown into a blender with an early trying-too-hard draft of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But, whereas all those projects had an internal dream-logic and compelling characters that narratively bound all the weirdness together, Go Down Death is in permanent freefall, solely relying on its atmospheric strangeness to get us through. The images are often striking, but you may feel every minute of its overly-long running time.