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THE SUICIDE THEORY

Producer:  Dru Brown, Dan Macarthur, Christian McCarty, Jacob McCarty and Melanie Poole
Director: Dru Brown 
Writer:  Michael J. Kospiah
Stars: Steve Mouzakis, Leon Cain, Josh McWilliam, Matthew Scully, Todd Levi, Nicholas G. Cooper and Warwick Comber
Studio:  Freestyle Releasing

B

A darkly humorous rumination about the primacy of fate or free will presented in the form of a twisty thriller with a smidgen of the supernatural, Dru Brown’s “The Suicide Theory” is good enough to bear comparison to the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple” or Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” Even if in the final analysis the Australian import falls a bit short of either, it’s well worth investigating.

In what’s basically a two-character piece, Steve Mouzakis stars as Steven Ray, a stone-cold, natural-born contract killer on the job in Brisbane who, in an opening scene, happily bashes in the head of a man he’s never met before simply because the fellow has casually disrespected him. Though he’s being pressured by his boss to complete his current assignment, he’s hobbled by trauma caused by the recent death of his girlfriend in a hit-and-run just outside the opera house he regularly frequents—a condition that leads him to wear her clothes on occasion and leaves him with a psychological block against crossing streets for fear of reliving the accident.

One night while he’s arguing with a cab driver, a body falls on the hood of the car. It’s Percival (Leon Cain), who’s trying, not for the first time, to commit suicide—the result, we eventually learn, of grief over the death of his lover. But all his attempts have been unsuccessful, so he hires Steven to do what he’s literally unable to himself however hard he tries. It’s a curse, he explains: every time he attempts suicide, he awakens in the hospital with a doctor giving him the dismal news that he’s exceedingly lucky still to be alive. Steven doesn’t believe Percival, but is soon convinced when the man survives even his well-placed bullets. Percival urges him to keep on trying, but adds that he’ll be able to succeed only if he attacks at a time when Percival doesn’t want to die.

One might object at this point that Steven seems unlikely ever to succeed, given the extent of Percival’s depression. But he’s a bulldog in more than facial expression, and undertakes to get his target into a life-affirming state so he’ll be able to kill him. In the process the two develop a weird friendship despite their differences, and Steven even becomes protective of his new buddy/client. Further details about how the labyrinthine plot proceeds will not be revealed here; to do so would spoil the fun.

The script by Michael J. Kospiah lays out its tricks cleverly, using some chronological juggling and abrupt shifts from character to character to keep the viewer slightly off-kilter, generating considerable black comedy from the resignation of Percival in the aftermath of each of the attempts on his life, and tying all the threads together in an ending fraught with coincidence that embraces one of the alternatives in the fate-free will debate without demur; editor Ahmad Malini’s contribution is important in keeping the screenplay’s swerves clear while maintaining their mystery.

Of equal importance are Brown’s canny direction, Dan Macarthur’s noirish cinematography, and the lead performances. Cain exudes bedraggled desperation as the wannabe corpse, but it’s Mouzakis who carries the film with a turn that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Scorsese’s gangster epics or a season of “The Sopranos.” By turns terrifying, pathetic and gregarious, he fully fleshes out a role that might have been static and stereotypical.

As “The Suicide Theory” grows increasingly convoluted, especially in the last fifteen minutes when it springs its most outrageous surprises, some viewers may find themselves losing their ability to suspend disbelief. But the puzzle Kospiah and Brown have fashioned does come together in a coherent whole, and even if you don’t buy into the conclusion about the balance between destiny and free choice it posits, you should still enjoy having taken the trip to the end. Like films as varied as Shyamalan’s good ones (“The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”), Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” or the underrated Anthony Perkins-Stephen Sondheim collaboration “The Last of Sheila,” it will make you smile however ridiculous you find the solution.

It’s always nice to encounter a little film that can be mentioned in such company.

THE GALLOWS

Producer:  Jason Blum, Guymon Casady, Dean Schnider, Benjamin Forkner, Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff
Director:  Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff
Writer Chris Lofling and Travis Cluff 
Stars:  Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Price T. Morgan, Jesse Cross, Travis Cluff, Melissa Bratton, David Herrera, Alexis Schneider and Theo Burkhardt
Studio:  Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

F

Old and older combine in this excruciatingly awful horror movie. The old is the found-footage format, which since “The Blair Witch Project” has become the most overused cliché in the genre. The other is the plot, which hearkens back to the slasher pictures of the eighties, in which some high school tragedy of decades ago resurfaces to threaten the students of today—think “Prom Night” and its many cousins. The mixture proves truly noxious in “The Gallows,” in which the lack of technique is exceeded only by the lack of imagination.

Back in 1993, we’re informed in an opening “amateur video,” a student named Charlie Grimelle (Jesse Cross) was hanged while performing in a “Crucible”-like play at the school, when the gallows on which his character ascended for a mock execution collapsed, leaving him dangling in the air for real. For some reason the drama teacher (Travis Cluff, also one of the two writer-directors) has decided it would be a good idea to remember the twentieth anniversary of the boy’s death by putting on the play again. Cast in Charlie’s old role is ex-football star Reese (Reese Mishler), who taken the part despite his obvious discomfort on stage out of infatuation with his perky co-star Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Filming the rehearsals is his jokester pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos), whose girlfriend is abrasive Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford).

The plot sickens when Ryan convinces Reese that, in order to avoid the embarrassment that will inevitably arise from a disastrous performance, they should break into the school auditorium the night before the premiere and destroy the set, making it impossible for the show to go on. Cassidy insists on coming along, and before long Pfeifer inexplicably turns up too. The quartet shortly finds itself locked into the building and being pursued by Charlie’s vengeful spirit. There is much running around in darkened hallways and spooky goings-on, like a VCR that plays despite having no video cassette in it. The power goes on and off, phones lose their service, and even a fire alarm—when the kids finally get around to sounding it—fails to function properly. Everything ends up in a “shocking” revelation indebted to that of the original “Friday the 13th” but making no sense whatever.

The movie doesn’t add up technically either: though supposedly the footage, “from police files,” was taken by the by the students (especially Ryan), the conceit isn’t consistently employed—there are plenty of times when though the images maintain their ragged hand-held look, it’s unclear who’s supposed to be aiming the camera, and the final scenes suddenly go very professional Of course the formula allows for lots of blurry on-the-run shots, moments when thing suddenly fall into darkness as batteries fail, and “selfies” in which menacing figures can abruptly appear in the background. There’s nothing in all this that hasn’t been employed in innumerable pictures of this sort, and by this point the impact is practically non-existent, though cameraman Edd Lukas manages it well enough. The same can be said of the loud bursts of noise and music that invariably occur at the would-be “gotcha!” moments; the score is by Zach Lemmon.

“The Gallows” does succeed at one thing, though it’s a negative one: making the characters such an obnoxious bunch that you don’t mind when any of them bite the dust. Motor-mouth Shoos is particularly irksome, but Gifford isn’t far behind. Mishler is meant to be the hero, but he’s a bland sort of hunk, and it’s not easy to understand his character’s interest in Pfeifer, whom Brown plays as a gratingly chirpy ingénue. One has to feel sorry for Price T. Morgan, who plays the nerdy stage manager that the insufferable Ryan torments at every turn. The on-screen Cluff is about as terrible as the off-screen one.

It appears, incidentally, that he and his writing-directing partner Chris Lofing are devoted theater geeks as well as slasher movie nerds; their first movie “Stage Fright” (with, one assumes, appropriate apologies to Hitchcock) was a slice-and-dice effort set at a musical theatre camp. One hopes that now having fulfilled their fanboy ambitions, they’ll quietly shuffle offstage and take up careers in some field in which they possess some talent. Filmmaking does not seem to fit that prescription.