Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Natural Selection (Planet Texas, 1999)


"Billy, quit covering your titties and play ball!"
 Coach Al Sand (Bob Richardson)
 
(Spoilers) There is a serial killer on the loose in small town Texas, a homicidal postman who's about to become a daddy. An out-of-the-ordinary FBI agent arrives on the scene, even as a second man decides to try his hand at killing people...
A.k.a. Monster Hunter, Killer X and The Demon Slayer (the last should not be confused with The Demon Slayer [2003]). Even if they probably seldom admit it, most "bad film" aficionados are always in search of that special film: that bad film, that obscure film, which (like, say, in the films of those of Ed Wood or Renee Harmon) manages to transcend all expectations and entertain in a manner — any manner — that moves beyond simple unmitigated terribleness. This trash film here, does exactly that, if on a far more intentional and conscious manner than true outsider filmmakers (Wood, Harmon, et. alia), for one would not be stretching things to say that, for all its faults, Natural Selection, the black comedy directorial debut of self-described writer-director-storyboard artist Mark [Lambert] Bristol, indicates a certain level of notable directorial talent and playfulness that is usually missing from truly bad movies. 
Trailer to
Monster Hunter: 
That said, the script as supplied by two apparent one-shot unknowns, B.J. Burrow and Allen Odom, while undoubtedly also responsible for much of the movie's humor, does display some notable flaws in its structure: Natural Selection plays out a bit like at least two flicks, possibly three, stitched together. The version we watched, for example, had the title Monster Hunter, the nickname of the character played by David Carradine ([8 Dec 1936 – 3 Jun 2009] of Dinocroc vs. Supergator [2010], Dead & Breakfast [2004],  Q: The Winged Serpent [1982] and so much more), an X-Files type of FBI investigator named Louise Dehoven, who is more an unhinged religious fanatic than a capable investigator. His entire storyline, which is at best tenaciously tied to the movie's main and more-interesting serial killer narrative, and even less tied to the TV true crime report aspect of the narrative, could have been cut out completely; had they done so, about the only thing one would have probably notice is a noticeably shorter running time. 
The original version of
Graham Parker's Daddy's A Postman:
Indeed, although Carradine shows true commitment to his role and not only plays Dehoven suitably deranged but also manages to milk his character (in delivery, action and appearance) for some laughs, the film might have been better had they not gone with having a special part for a "name actor" and, instead, expanded on the serial-killer and/or true-crime-report aspect. That aside, it is fun watching the normally taciturn Carradine intentionally hamming it up as an off-the-wall character who steadily proves himself more and more unhinged until his big scene where he blasts a car to bits and then attacks with a stake in each hand. That Dehoven is able to locate the main killer of the movie so quickly has less to do with any exceptional talent or gift as an FBI agent than that the local cops of White Hills, Texas, are such idiots. (How stupid are they? Well, the killer already has the on-the-street sobriquet "The Postman" because he leaves the decapitated heads of his victims, with postage stamps glued to their forehead, in the mailboxes of the victims' houses, but the local cops are too stupid to check out postal deliverers.) Dehoven is apparently able to see the evil demons within people, demons which oddly enough also seem to inhabit the dead bodies of various victims, which is why he is partial to staking dead as well as living bodies. Personally, we here at a wasted life read the demons that he is able to see not as real but, rather, as tactile but hallucinatory figments of his imagination and unhinged religiosity, but feel free to see them as you want.
Monster Hunter doesn't exactly follow the traditional structure of movie narratives, something that is somewhat confusing at first. Hardly linear in its storytelling, the movie not only jumps back and forth in time, but also intercuts the traditional narrative, in which the identity of "The Postman" is not yet known by the general public, with that of a true crime TV show delving into the past and development of the now infamous identified killer. Those interviewed on the report, in word and action, reveal themselves as a pack of verbose or inane or oblivious or in-bred talking heads of the kind that are totally unaware of how laughable they are — in other words, only a slight caricature of the contemporary, publicity-hungry American (of our post-15 minute period) in search of their 15 seconds fame. Half the time what they say is said so in-passing and straight-faced that the humor needs a second or two hit, but it is trenchant. 
The actual, "traditional" narrative of the murderer is not quite as funny, although it does have flashes of truly black humor and more than enough laughs. Occasionally, however, it is also rather uncomfortable: any scene shared by Willie "Postman" Dickenson (Carradine's half-brother Michael Bowen of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever [2009], Night of the Comet [1984] and Forbidden World [1982]) and his obviously emotionally abused and broken wife Sally (direct-to-video actress Elizabeth Barondes of Night of the Scarecrow [1995 / trailer] and the third and possibly most-pointless version of Not of this Earth [1995 / full film]) are positively skin-crawling because the interaction between the two is too real and too recognizable, and the bigger hole that she is digging herself into leaves a nasty aftertaste. (Is she lucky that she never makes it that far?) Michael Bowen is not a character to draw laughs onscreen, though his facial expression when one victim covers for him on the phone while he's busy with another victim is pretty priceless. In general, however, Bowen manages an amazingly threatening presence that even makes his occasionally flashed winning and warming smile, which might well light up the room, oddly scary. It is the undisputed truth that smiling faces...
In general, the acting of the other more relevant characters of the real-life narrative is in general pretty good. As mentioned, Carradine is definitely the most over-the-top, but it fits his character. Elizabeth Barondes is affective and effective during her short time onscreen as his tragic wife, but she is almost too real to garner anything but pity. The only other female of note is the airheaded college student Marie (Missy Atwood), and while she is indeed a believable product of a Texan education, she fails to supply the exploitive nude scene an airhead of her caliber used to guarantee. Her live-in boyfriend, Glenn, is played by Darren E. Burrows (of 976-EVIL [1988 / trailer], Cry-baby [1990 / trailer] and Class of 1999 [1990 / trailer]), who has definitely inherited his father's ability to play weird; he does a decent job both as a nice guy and bad guy. But the best actors are actually all the unknowns that play the typical John & Jane Doe characters of the TV-report interludes: most look less like real actors than the real thing. Their non-sequiturs and often inane responses are delivered with amazing naturalness, adding a layer of authenticity that is surprisingly contemporary: one can easily image almost any of them today insisting, with conviction, that the election was stolen, Democrats eat babies, JFK Jr. is still alive, Jews shoot laser beams from satellites in the sky, and Trump is a good person.
 
As already mentioned, Natural Selection is an odd mixture narrative styles. The film itself opens with someone entering a room and turning on the TV, directly to a true crime program about Citizen Willy, whence all the subsequent interviews come. But even before the cheap but enjoyable credit sequence roles, the film jumps to real life: as in the trailer, a long line of children skip past the camera in slow motion as the camera travels up to the headline of a newspaper being read by an elderly local. This pleasantly shot scene is soon followed by a longer, cleverly constructed interlude in which a tied-up and blindfolded man tries desperately (but fails) to escape the house. The creative camerawork found in both scenes raises its hand again multiple times within the film, and while it is never obtrusive it is notable and enjoyable.
So, in short: For being a slice of low-budget trash, Natural Selection is an amazingly agreeable and good film. Blackly funny, its direction reveals care, creativity and thought, and even its initially confusing structure gels together as a coherent whole by the end. If you go into this film expecting a typical, low-budget David Carradine action film, you will surely find the movie shite. But if you're looking for an off-the-wall black comedy with flashes of low-budget brilliance, you really need to check Natural Selection out. As a diamond, it is flawed, but that doesn't stop it from being an unjustly undiscovered trash-film gem.

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