D.O.A.

In Frisk, Todd Verow attempts to make a movie of the lurid nightmare that is Dennis Cooper's novel

The main character of Frisk is a handsome, affectless gay serial murderer named Dennis. The author of the eponymous novel on which the movie is based is also named Dennis (Cooper). The name sharing can't be coincidental, so what is the point of it? Is the author trying to confess and at the same time coyly evade responsibility for his ghastly revelations? Or is he attempting to leave the audience (of both novel and film) with the impression that Frisk is a scarcely veiled memoir of erotic horrors -- a true romance of blood -- when in fact it's nothing more than a public airing of especially lurid psychic laundry?

Like a war, Frisk jogs along tediously for great stretches, bursting only occasionally into staccato stabs of carnality. And like so many wars, it seems pointless -- a succession of meat-grinder images strung together like sausage links, to no real effect. As Dennis says in his clumsy opening voice-over, "I'm going to tell my story chronologically." He makes it sound as if he's reached a momentous artistic or aesthetic decision, but really he has no choice, because his story isn't a story at all. It's just semen and blood spurting along a time line.

Frisk raises a number of awkward questions. The young director, Todd Verow, plainly has a gift for filming nightmares -- disjointed flashes of naked bodies, tangled in sex one instant and spattered with blood the next; dead faces whose silent screams are frozen in cellophane; guns, knives, porn mags, luckless teen-age boys. He has a nice fun-house eye.

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But a nightmare isn't a movie, and the shifting randomness that gives the scariest dreams their dark power actually dissipates the energy of a filmed narrative. Like the William Friedkin picture Cruising and the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho, Frisk wants to draw a portrait of a serial killer. And like those earlier efforts, it fails. The movie lamely suggests that Dennis's teen-age exposure to pornography and violence flowers in manhood as an obsession with fucking, then dismembering, young blond boys. It's a description of homosexuality we would expect to hear from the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his crew of pro-family, anti-gay, anti-smut crusaders. It also doesn't ring true.

Cooper's novels are deeply unconcerned with character, and this cardboard indifference translates directly to the screen. As the adult Dennis, Michael Gunther is a sleepy-eyed, all-American Adonis with a flat voice and face: He never laughs or smiles, shouts or whispers. He's like a poster boy for some antidepressant miracle pill, whose minor side effects include (besides torpid blood lust) half-lidded eyes and slack facial muscles.

His friend and ex-lover Julian (Jaie Laplante) sparkles a bit more, but he disappears to Paris early in the movie, leaving behind a younger brother, Kevin (Raoul O'Connell), who quickly begins an affair with Dennis. They are pretty boys together, and in Verow's cinematography their sex registers as sensual rather than crudely prurient. They even kiss, and there's enough emotional backlighting (Kevin's also in love with his own brother: Have they had an affair?) to lift their couplings beyond the pornographic to a muffled and unlikely tenderness.

Still: These cinematic triumphs, while real, are tiny. Meanwhile, Verow must deal with the murders, which steadily become more frequent, bloody, and absurd. Boys are snagged in parks and on trains; brought home; doped up; fucked; then smothered, stabbed with broken bottles, knifed, eviscerated, stashed in the attic. Blood everywhere, but not a raised eyebrow. The victims themselves seem to be human surplusage whose disappearance won't even be noticed, let alone cause for concern.

Dennis decides he needs co-conspirators, and he enlists his old friend Gypsy Pete (James Lyons, in a role originally cast with the late Ron Vawter, of Philadelphia fame), and Pete's friend Ferguson (Parker Posey). She's a deliciously icy, cigarette-puffing bitch who takes genuine pleasure in taunting the victims before they're snuffed -- a Valley Girl with attitude and a gun.

Virtually everyone in Frisk is gay (and white) yet the movie isn't a gay movie. It has nothing to say about homosexuality or homosexual people; it's not about sexuality but murderousness, to which sex is a flickering adjunct. And it hasn't got much to say about murderousness. Cooper, faced with the choice of plunging beyond graphic gore into the examination of a twisted psychological machinery (a daunting, probably hopeless project) or retreating into an easier, mannered flatness (a wasteland of sex and mayhem) chooses the easy way out; and Verow follows him, like a Blue Angel following his leader's plane straight into the ground.

Why did Cooper even bother to write the book and Verow make it into a movie? Frisk does have a visual spiciness all its own, but as a moral vessel it's empty -- bone dry. It's meant to shock and horrify, but it doesn't, because the human stakes are nonexistent. These aren't people, they're movieland monsters: It's like a gay Night of the Living Dead, but instead of that horror classic's ironic campiness, Frisk plods along with a poker face, hoping to pass as art in a society that accepts as art any combination of glum earnestness and human squalor.

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