Includes the short film Le Ciel de Sang (1972)
Sometimes a film catches your eye because the person responsible is a cultural mainstay. Chris D. has been a major creative force operating under the radar as a staff writer and label worker for Slash Magazine and Records in the late 70’s, frontman for the Flesh Eaters and Divine Horsemen through the 80’s and as a film essayist and worker at Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque through the 90’s and beyond. His style has always been submerged in the violent grittiness of American pulp and the twisted shadows of foreign horror films; I Pass For Human certainly strives to bring these worlds together in a coherent package.
It becomes immediately apparent that to make it through feature you’re going to have to care enough about Chris D. to watch. The person who loaned this to me (after I saw it had been released and suggested he check it out) told me that when it started he immediately knew to just turn the commentary on and let it rip, but I felt obliged to watch the movie unadulterated the first time through. So I swallowed the shaky hand-held cheap digital video and poor sound and watched.
This is the seedier side of Hollywood crawling with wannabes and has beens struggling to keep their hand in the pot as they disintegrate. Jane (Eleanor Whitledge) is a helpless nervous wreck who has tired of watching her boyfriend Dax (Bryan Small) slip further into heroin addiction. Lucky for her she doesn’t have to wait long before he overdoses, and Jane finds herself lost and alone with only Dax’s circle of crumbling junkies to turn to for support, including his half-sister Mila (Jennifer Ciesar) who politely clears out all of Dax’s remaining dope after his passing.
Mila may not be the nicest or most giving person in the world but she does have the presence of mind to leave a line of smack on the mirror and promises to arrange a meeting between Jane and a friend who recently lost his girlfriend to an overdose. On her own sadness prevails and Jane experiments with her first desperate taste of heroin and with her first bad drug experience. She discovers a room in the basement she had never noticed before and catches a man painting a portrait, but when she tries to speak with him he explodes from his seat and she hits the ground, losing consciousness. The man is gone, she’s running back to her apartment, and the only thing that seems wrong is the blood smeared across the back of her neck.
When she comes to the next morning there’s a strange man standing above her bed. How the fuck did he get in here? The door was open, the TV blasting, which doesn’t mesh well with Jane’s memory but when he introduces himself as Rick (Joshua Cox), Mila’s friend, she shrugs off the unexplained and they go out for coffee to talk about their dearly departed. While Jane seems to have spent years watching Dex succumb to the rocknroll lifestyle Rick’s story is a rapid ride into mania. He met his girlfriend Azami (Eva Scott) at a party and they shoot off like bottle rockets. The sex is great but her habit of unexplained disappearances start to grate until Rick follows her on the rounds one day, watching Azami cop downtown before taking the junk to a hillside house. Through the window he watches as Azami shoots up an older man in a stripped and decaying home, but his confrontation later that evening only reveals his weak will. It’s her ex-husband, and she can do what she wants. And eventually Rick begins to do what she wants, sharing her habit, up to the very night she dies while they’re visiting her parents.
The depressing conversation and Jean’s own weakness soon leads to her asking for a little smack, and Rick becomes the first person to shoot her up. It hits hard and she staggers out of the house hallucinating that Dax is leading her into a crackpark, then hallucinating that hands are reaching up from the ground to grab her. Trying to get home Rick and Mila find her on their way to score at the neighborhood drug bar and Jean finds herself along for the ride, shaking her head but unable to bring herself to leave. Somewhere between the sudden loneliness and the numbing of the heroin she’s rapidly following her boyfriend’s footsteps.
Jean’s only confidant outside of this circle of losers is Dax’s former rehab councilor, Dr. Larraz (Mary Woronov), who tries her best to keep Jane from developing an addiction. The doctor, a former addict herself, reacts to Jane’s tales of hallucinations and the fact that, towards the end, Dax was beginning to see ghosts of the recently departed junkies he called friends. She had developed a theory long ago that dead addicts feed off the living ones, clinging to a half-life between the living and the dead where habituals spend so much of their time.
But there’s no room in a rehab center and Jane’s mother is traveling Europe while her sister’s locked in a mental ward. She keeps hanging out with Mila and Rick despite complaining constantly that she needs to get away from them. She keeps getting high and she’s starting to see more dead people, ghosts she never knew alive. But the worst thing is Mila and Rick see them too, and they seem resigned to the fact that their lives are no longer their own.
Remember that this is a no-budget first feature, so there’s some inherent flaws which could not be avoided. The video looks like shit and there’s no smooth pans that you would expect from film. Had this been shot on sound stages with controlled lighting then it probably could have been on par with an afterschool special but this was low-key filmmaking shot in the actor’s apartments and cars or quick shots on the street in between pedestrians and cars getting in the way. The video gets washed out sometimes and it gets too dark to see very clearly other times but overall the production team made a very admirable attempt to do the best they could which keeps this from being completely unwatchable.
The story is a little shaky, but as Chris D. confesses in the commentary many scenes were stolen from dreams he had about his own tenure as a junkie. Any movie that involves ghosts requires some suspension of disbelief, even if the ghosts might actually be metaphors dressed in white with a lot of make-up. Jane’s immediate response to losing Dax doesn’t ring true to my ears, finally submitting to the siren call of heroin after watching her lover battle the drug for so long, but her vulnerability and her aimless life both seem genuine. She’s on GA, has no job, her only friends are junkies and her boyfriend just died. There’s enough room there to understand her fragile frame of mind, even if the first line and each subsequent high seems a little too forced. Rick and Azami’s junkie love seems even more outlandish, particularly her tending to her ex-husband’s needs and even more particularly her ex-husband’s eyepatch. However the aimless days and nights of down and out overgrown children seem realistic, shifting from unkempt apartment to inane cell phone conversation to red walled bar to cop. There’s a completely ridiculous subplot which involves someone ripping off the dealer that should have been cut from the script and another entire sequence which seems to have been scripted just to showcase a band playing (The Hangmen, led by Dax’s real life Bryan Small) that drags the pacing down.
Acting is pretty shaky too. Eleanor Whitledge is obviously not a professional actress but manages to sell the character half the time and read lines without fucking up when she’s less inspired. Her body language is good– she often looks uncomfortable, conflicted, irritated and helpless, but she can’t seem to successfully bridge the gap between her movements and her speech. Joshua Cox is a professional actor and he plays the part pretty straight, looking his best when he looks strung-out and led by the collar to the next hit. Jennifer Ciesar is terrible, annoying and unbelievable as the domineering Mila with vocal affectations and forced mannerisms galore. Eva Scott does slink around like a mysterious woodland creature and plays a good ghost, but falls apart when she’s alive and well during flashbacks. Bryan Small is excellent as a stoned musician and continues to look like one even when he’s a hallucination.
The supporting cast is actually more fun to watch. Mary Woronov may earn this movie credibility just by her couple of scenes which she pulls off by walking the tightrope between compassion and hardness. B-movie legend Jack Hill is excellent as Azami’s father, but he only has one moment to shine. Rock luminary Texas Terri even has a small role as a narc which is played, well, by Texas Terri so what did you expect?
As I mentioned earlier the recorded dialogue is pretty cheap with no apparent overdubs in post. The soundtrack, however, is pretty spot on for the drugged out subject matter with phantasmic highlights. Songs from The Birthday Party and Lydia Lunch with Rowland S. Howard dominate for their obvious sonic marriage to the visuals; there’s a couple songs from The Flesh Eaters as well as The Hangmen. The incidental score was composed by one of the actors (the drug dealer), and it slinks between atmospheric horror music and more aggressive, desensitized dirges that sound amazingly like The Birthday Party or Lydia Lunch with Rowland S. Howard.
I can’t imagine that anyone who doesn’t recognize at least half of these names would care for this movie but I didn’t think it was that bad. If Chris D. cleared the crap from the script, casted more solid talent, and was given a budget to shoot on film with good sound and lighting then this could easily be a very engaging examination of both chemical and personal addictions which strip us of our personas and leave us leeching after others like vampire ghosts from beyond the grave. There’s a solid core in here and it’s criminal that, after decades of investment in the world of music, writing and film that he hasn’t caught a better break.
Arcanum Entertainment offers a widescreen transfer that carries the sound and picture as clearly as the source material allows. It also includes a very short movie Chris D. shot back when he had hair in the 70’s called Le Ciel de Sang which is essentially an homage to the classic horror films of Italy and England. The set design and lighting is spectacular but alas, the story inconsequential. Still, interesting because it reveals Chris D.’s major influences much better than the feature. Surprisingly this is available on Netflix.