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Moriarty Says THE DEVIL DARED ME TO... And I Liked It!

I think it’s official: if I hear one more person use the word “grindhouse” as an adjective, I’m going to punch a baby. No, scratch that. I’m going to punch every baby. Alphabetically. Over and over and over. I think it’s an annoyance because (A) most of the people using the word never heard it before six months ago and (B) most of the people using it are using it incorrectly. You can’t just randomly apply it to any film that seems a little crazy or that has exploitation elements. It refers to a specific era of distribution, a specific moment, and that age has, sad to say, passed. But there are still films made that I think fit the mold that Tarantino and Rodriguez were using when they put their films together, films that don’t try to emulate this particular brand of low-budget insanity, but that simply embody it. And this year, at SXSW, a film premiered that is exactly that kind of movie. I was lucky enough to get a look at a rough cut of it, a print that wasn’t totally finished but that was close enough. I’m not sure when you’re going to get a chance to see THE DEVIL DARED ME TO, but when you do... buckle up. Someone’s gonna get hurt. I’ve never seen the New Zealand show BACK OF THE Y MASTERPIECE TELEVISION, but that’s where Chris Stapp and Matt Heath first started working together. It’s also evidently where they originated the character of Randy Campbell, a daredevil stuntman who does miserable, awful stunts that inevitably end in death. And before you say “Oh, you mean like SUPER DAVE,” no... I don’t mean like SUPER DAVE. Unless perhaps SUPER DAVE had been directed by BAD TASTE-era Peter Jackson. THE DEVIL DARED ME TO is the story of Randy Campbell (Stapp) and his rise from obscurity to abject failure to mediocrity and back into obscurity, with severed limbs and mutilated faces and dead family members littered in his path. Randy comes from a long line of daredevils, but both of his parents are killed when he’s very young, and he’s raised by his aunt and uncle who don’t want him to follow in their footsteps. He finally gets his opportunity, though, when he goes to see Dick Johansonson (Heath), an egomaniacal jackass who runs his own low-grade traveling stunt show. Johansonson is a glorious monster, and from the moment he meets Randy, he’s perfectly happy to treat him like complete shit. More importantly, Randy’s happy to let him in the hopes that someday, he’ll be able to do a stunt of his own. He wants to do that to honor the memory of his parents, and also so he can impress Tracy “Tragedy” Jones (Bonnie Soper), the girl who lost a leg at the first Johansonson show he attended. Trying to explain this in terms of story points and synopsis is sort of futile, though. Heath and Stapp co-wrote the script and Stapp directs it with a sense of total comic abandon. There’s nothing he seems unwilling to try in his attempts to make you laugh or throw up, or in the best moments, both at once. The film is incredibly low-budget, and that’s part of its charm. There’s a great making-of featurette that was produced for THE ROAD WARRIOR many years ago, detailing the way the stunts on that film worked, and after several of the stunts where there are wipe-outs or other accidents, the narrator intones in a very serious tone, “Something... has gone... terribly wrong.” And god help me, every single time, it seems to get funnier. Well, that’s the spirit of this movie. No matter what the characters attempt, you know it’s going to go wrong, and the fun comes from watching just how awful things get. Gallons and gallons of blood are spilled, and the entire supporting cast (including the terrific Andrew Beattie) contribute to the lunacy. It’s Stapp and Heath’s show, though, and Stapp manages to create a sense of real sweetness that grounds even the most deranged moments in the movie. Towards the end of the film, I even found myself touched by the emotional resolution of the whole thing. It never quite turns into the sort of shameless attempt on your heartstrings that Hollywood would try, but it manages an odd poignancy that it actually earns. I wish I’d actually gone to SXSW so I could have seen this with an audience. It’s that kind of film. Seeing it at home on DVD, I laughed a lot, but I would have loved to have heard the outraged screams and the gasps of horror that I’m sure greeted the film’s crazier moments. I hope I get the chance to see this with an audience in the future, and that you guys get a chance to see it, too, if for no other reason than I’m curious to see what sort of madness Stapp and Heath will come up with in the future.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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