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The Dark Backward

Consider this a note to marketing execs: Just because a movie's strange as hell and didn't make any money when it was released, that doesn't make it a "cult classic." As weird and funny as The Dark Backward (1991) may be, there's no cult of fans for this film — very few people know it even exists, in fact, and of those who've seen it, most of them disliked it intensely. That said, this is a picture that anyone with a taste for truly offbeat cinema should seek out. And its release on DVD is a boon for those who, like this reviewer, have made a practice of forcing it on their friends in the hopes that they'll make another Dark Backward convert (even though it's a gamble as to whether they'll want to continue that friendship afterwards.) Set in an oppressively filthy world in which a pork producer called "Blump's" manufactures every product on the market, the story centers on a sweaty, introverted garbageman named Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) who yearns to be a stand-up comic. Clad in hideous leisure suits, his greasy hair made even more repellent by the constant sweat that pours down his face, and painfully untalented, he attempts to make it in this business we call show with the help of his best friend, an obnoxious accordion player named Gus (Bill Paxton). Things look grim, but then the entertainment gods grant Marty with a questionable gift — he starts to grow a third arm on his back. Gus introduces Marty to smarmy agent Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton), who renames him "Desi the Three-Armed Wonder Comic" and turns him into a show-biz sensation.

Written and directed by Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City), The Dark Backward wants desperately to be a mutant amalgam of David Lynch-style weirdness and brash John Waters shock-comedy, but Rifkin's manic energy and over-the-top campiness is obnoxious in its extremity. Yet, despite that (and the fact that it's really just a one-joke film), it is perversely entertaining simply because it offers so many surprises, even if most of those surprises are deeply unpleasant. Paxton's creepy, hyperactive character is made all the more cringe-inducing by his carnal frolic with grotesquely obese, lingerie-clad women, and by the charming moment when he licks a dead body that he comes across during his work at the dump. Also interesting, Rifkin assembled a weirdly stellar cast for his gross-out comedy — Marty's Love interest is gamely played by Lara Flynn Boyle, Rob Lowe dons a fake nose and buck teeth to embody a weaselly talent scout, and Marty's physician, Dr. Scurvy, is played by James Caan. While some would say that the biggest problem with the movie is that it's so repulsive, the real flaw is that it isn't really about anything. Rifkin created a perfect stage on which to set a dark satire in the manner of Brazil or How to Get Ahead in Advertising, yet chose instead to focus on a lot of deliberately tasteless, one-shot jokes. Still, The Dark Backward is a must-see for that small percentage of movie-lovers who possess both a penchant for bizarre comedy and a strong stomach.

*          *          *

Sony's special-edition DVD release offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that's quite clean with excellent color. The contrast could be better, but the picture's deliberately murky in many scenes, so much of that can be attributed to artistic choice and low budget. The DD 5.1, audio (English, with optional English or French subtitles) is very good throughout the movie, but the volume varies wildly on the bonus features. Extras include a commentary track with Rifkin, Nelson, Paxton, and producer Brad Wyman, who share a number of fun anecdotes but have a tendency to talk over each other — they also seem to forget where the microphone is, sometimes making it difficult to understand what they're saying. Also on board is an introduction by Rifkin in which he mostly waffles about what he should say, and where a better place might be to shoot the segment than in his garage (3 min.); "Blump's Squeezable Documentary," a "making-of" featurette in which Rifkin explains how he wrote the script when he was 17, found a producer at 18, and miraculously got his movie made — and how he made Nelson do horrible material at real comedy clubs to prove he could play an atrocious comedian (30 min.); A Q&A with the cast and crew that followed a 15th anniversary screening at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood (39 min.); a collection of deleted scenes that are mostly just trimmings for time (18 min.); the "gag reel" with the usual line flubs and mistakes (6 min.); truly terrible promotional videos that Rifkin and Wyman took to Cannes to seek financing (they didn't get it) (5 min.); a video for a song called "Catch My Dreams" accompanied by clips from the film (3 min.); the animated cat-and-mouse cartoon used in the movie (1 min.); and trailers for Sony releases Silent Hill and Clive Barker's The Plague. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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