by Lucius Shepard
January 20, 2006
January is the cruelest month, breeding Z-pictures out of the dead land. As the awards contenders roll out into wider release across the country, in their wake comes a tide of losers. Grandma's Boy, Big Momma's House 2, Underworld: Evolution, Glory Road, et al, movies that the studios hope will attract their maximum audience against weak competition, that will lure the dollar of the filmgoer desperate for something new. It's an unsettling time for hoppers (those who, like myself, buy a ticket to a multiplex and are prone to try several movies before settling on one). You may, as did I, encounter clumps of anxious people gathered by a cardboard display for an upcoming film, discussing the perils attendant upon the return of the Deathdealer, Kate Beckinsale, or inquiring of each other whether the disease that afflicts Queen Latifah in Last Holiday is communicable. While browsing the edges of such a group, I overheard a man say, "You know, Kevin Reynolds' Tristan and Isolde isn't completely awful. I mean it won't make your eyes bleed." Faint praise, yet I was encouraged. The legend of Tristan and Isolde, the inspiration for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, contained a dragon, mystical forces, magical rings and elixirs. It would, I thought, be a good movie to review for ElectricStory.
Sad to say, this did not prove to be the case.
Reynolds, who brought us the scintillating comedies Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, both featuring the unparalleled comic talents of Kevin Costner, master of a thousand accents (often in the same film) and a single facial expression, has apparently lost his sense of fun, for he stripped every trace of the fantastic from the story. Oh, there is drab talk of elixirs and some subtly placed evidence of time travel in that Sophia Myles (Isolde), a seventh-century princess, is heard to be reading poetry written in the sixteenth century by John Donne; yet that's not enough to qualify the movie as fantasy. What we're left with are a number of grungy battles, a few reasonably well-staged, others reminiscent of the crummier set pieces in Antoine Fuqua's equally scrofulous and unsatisfying demystification of the Arthurian legend, King Arthur, and a love story shot like an ad for Liz Taylor's White Diamonds, whose principals, Myles and James Franco (Tristan), try to out-petulant each other, Franco winning the pose-off by dint of a more eccentric hairstyle and a full-on Zoolander pout.
I went back out into the lobby. The other hoppers had vanished, gone to their respective fates, and, lacking direction, I wandered deeper and deeper into the bowels of the multiplex, coming at last to the door of a tiny auditorium tucked into a hidden corner. Perched atop the sign bearing the name of the movie that played behind the door was a raggedy black creature with a disproportionately large lower body. A shaggy, heavy-bottomed bird, judging by its clawed feet and hunched posture. I'd heard tell of these birds, known as edwoods, that would appear at certain theaters in order to warn people away from the unspeakable horrors that lay within, sometimes attempting to drive them off by spraying them with foul excretions; but, while I suspected this might be such a bird, I had no choice other than to go forward. The auditorium housed the only movie suitable for my ElectricStory review. I darted beneath the edwood (not entirely unscathed) and thus gained admittance to Bloodrayne and the strange world of Uwe Boll, known
to his devotees as the Master of Error.
Boll churns out movies loosely based on video games, those that have not been snatched up by the major studios (he currently has five pictures in various stages of production), and the movies he has thus far released have been invariably rotten. To understand Boll's career, why he continues to have a career following three straight disasters, one must look to German tax law, in particular to a bizarre clause that allows wealthy Germans who invest in a movie to write off the production costs, thereby greatly reducing their tax burden, and to delay paying their taxes. Their investment is 100-percent deductible, and they do not have to pay any tax until the movie begins to make a profit (in Boll's case, this does not present a problem). They can also borrow money for investment purposes and write that off as well. In other words, a businessman with reasonable acumen can make money by investing in bad movies. If this sounds a bit like the plotline of The Producers, well, it wouldn't be the first time that life had imitated art. At any rate, in this context, Boll's films are less movies than exercises in exploitative capitalism. Unlike Ed Wood, to whom he has been compared, he's trying to make bad movies, or rather he's not really trying, he's simply giving full reign to his directorial instincts, which he knows are beyond awful. Having a figure like Ed Wood in the public consciousness helps Boll with his scam, in that people tend to categorize him as a cult figure, to give him that sort of validation, when all he's doing is calculating how much he'll make in tax rebates. That said, he must have a knack for this kind of thing, because Boll's pictures are not merely bad, they are remarkably, almost supernaturally bad, especially given that they're made with sizable budgets and feature reputable actors.
How does a director of Boll's reputation gather a cast like that which he assembled for Bloodrayne: Ben Kingsley, Billy Zane, Michael Madsen, Udo Kier, Michael Pare, Geraldine Chaplin, Michelle Rodriguez, and Meat Loaf Aday?
He finished casting the picture two weeks before beginning principal photography, and he did this because he tries to bring in actors who develop a tiny break in their schedules, figuring they'll say, What the hell? It's a paycheck. Boll shot Bloodrayne in Romania. Zane was in Romania at the time, filming another project, and had a free day. Others in the cast have similar stories. The only actors who were on set throughout were Will Sanderson (a frequent Boll collaborator), Kristanna Loken (Rayne), who played the Terminatrix in T3, and Madsen who was reported to be drinking heavilyif you check out his appearance (dissipated; thirty, forty pounds overweight) and his performance (disinterested to the point of not bothering to lift his sword during a pitched battle), you may tend to accept that the reports were accurate. As for Sir Ben, whose stay in Romania was brief, taking his recent filmography into account, it's possible he wanted a counterweight to balance out the heights he hit in A Sound of Thunder.
In the eighteenth century (we are not told this, but I'm assuming as much because Michael Madsen is wearing a ruffled shirt, not a wifebeater as his manner might convey), the beauteous Rayne is a freak in a small traveling circus, where she displays to the curious her ability to recover instantly from cuts and burns. In reality, she's a dhampir, half-human, half-vampire, Blade with (as a fan consistently misspells it on a Boll website) "breats." When she suddenly recalls her true nature (how she lost her memory is not explained), she sets forth to track down and kill her vampire daddy, Kagan (Kingsley), who raped and killed her mother years before, and is attempting to establish vampire rule over the earth by bringing together three relics, an eye, a heart, and a rib, that will gift him with godlike powers. Rayne then joins three members of the anti-Kagan Brimstone Society, Vladimir (Madsen), Sebastian (Matt Davis), and Katarin (Rodriguez), and off they go to Brimstone HQ to prepare for battle.
Dumb as it seems, the summary sounds a whole lot better than the movie actually plays.
Much of the unintentional humor in the film is provided by scriptwriter Guinevere Turner, whose previous credits (screenplays for American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page) would appear to promise writing of significantly higher quality. Here, however, is a short sample of her work in Bloodrayne:
Sebastian: Would you care to go to dinner?
Rayne: I don't believe the food would be to my taste.
Sebastian: Why is it you think that only you feel pain?
There are no cues to make Sebastian's last statement seem other than a complete non sequitur, and when you consider the dozens of equally ridiculous passages in the script, you're led to conclude that the entire population of 18th-century Romania were subject to bouts of surrealism or ADD.
But Turner's script is not the only source of humor. There are the battle scenesthe actors had no time to train with weapons and, at times, they scarcely do more than wave at each other. There are also Boll's trademark edits, cutting away in mid-scene to a completely unrelated scene in another part of the narrative; and his inimitable cinematography, which jumps about from Peter Jackon-esque long shots of riders on horseback, traversing mountains and valleys, to close-ups that reveal the intimate geography of Loken's breats and one monolithic nipple. And the performances... How to choose from among them? We have Meat Loaf Aday's one-scene turn as a jaded vampire brothelmaster, joined on his bed by scads of naked Romanian hookers, hired when Romanian actresses refused to take Boll's direction. Billy Zane, who disappears halfway through the film after two unnecessary scenes, as a fruity Brimstoner-gone-vampire, sitting in a chair and dictating letters to his scribe, whom at one point he calls "...a suck-up." Sir Ben's several scenes as Kagan, performed mostly while also sitting in a chair (I'm smelling sub-text here!), apparently determined not to move a muscle, like someone holding it in until the bathroom break. And let's not forget Madsen's death scene, wherein he rolls about on the floor in a bloody ruffled shirt and can be discerned taking peeks now and again so as to see what everyone else is doing. The boredom of the cast is obvious; the only one who appears to be trying is Loken, the clumsiest female actor in an action picture I've seen since Cutthroat Island, a pirate movie in which Geena Davis drew her sword out of its scabbard sideways, fearful of giving herself an owie. If you were to grab your sister out of an informal beach volleyball game, hand her a blade, and tell her to act violent and sexy, and she stood there gaping at you, considering her options... That's about the same level of dramatic brio and physical energy that Loken brings to the role. She's such a terrible actress, it's difficult to believe that even Boll would hire her. I suppose she must do something well. Clean up around the set. Maybe help with the catering.
The German government is acting to close the tax loophole that permits Uwe Boll to thrive, to have his pictures distributed by Lion's Gate, to open a garbage bag like Bloodrayne in a thousand theaters nationwide; but we haven't seen the end of him. As I said, he has five fully funded pictures in pre- or post-production, the next of which is 2006's Dungeon Siege: In the Name of the King. Perhaps because he thinks he will have to change his methods, Boll appears to be taking uncommon care with this picture. The cast has the usual haphazard feel: John Rhys-Davies, Matthew Lillard, Ray Liotta, Claire Forlani, Burt Reyolds (as the king), andsurprise, surprise!Kristanna Loken. But it was shot by a well-thought-of cinematograper and the fight choreography was handled by the man who performed the same chore for House of Flying Daggers. This may be a harbinger that Boll is about to become a real Ed Wood and strive for cinematic excellence. It's conceivable that, with his budgets, he may be capable of creating a product that achieves actual cinematic mediocrity, a class of product with which we are far too conversant, and, if so, if you have, like me, a savor for a certain grade of movie sludge, for the late-career films of Roger Corman or the current work of Steven Seagal, then you best hurry and get you some Bloodrayne, some Alone in the Dark (Christian Slater's comeback movie), some House of the Dead, a movie so bad it rivals MST3K films like Manos, Hands of Fate.
I, for one, have faith that Boll will survive this turn of events. I believe he will find new ways to market the cinema of no-quality, even if he has to create a new niche in which to sell it. I believe that his philosophy of filmmaking is in tune with the times, in synch with the Hollywod milieu, and I believe, despite the undeserved hardships that the actions of the German tax authorities have placed upon him, that he will have increasing success. I believe that his tawdry, disorienting vision, not much different, really, than that of Michael Bay, will (in some dark form) prevail.