David “the Rock” Nelson’s “magnum oops-us” is a 4-hour Suck-athon
This is perhaps the toughest review I’ve ever had to write. How to describe the latest – and by far the longest – work of one of the most psychotronic producer/actor/writer/directors in the history of cinema? Those who have seen Nelson’s other works know that the trailers alone are enough to shatter the will of the average viewer. Then imagine the effect of a full 245 minutes of Nelson at his most eccentric!
Perhaps I should start with the plot: The ghost of Dracula’s granddaughter (played by Janet-Lynn, and occasionally by Nelson in drag) arrives at her ancestor’s grave in Des Plaines, Illinois, and proceeds to feed her bloodlust on the population of Chicagoland. Her only opposition comes in the form of Detective Nelson (or Det. Rock, depending on which scene), a familiar character from Nelson’s previous films – although it’s difficult to tell whether Nelson is a real policeman, a private operator, or some kind of special consultant. Several scenes show Nelson making random phone calls in an attempt to solicit funds for some police organization – only to use the cash to buy booze and sausage for himself!
Most of the story follows a rigid pattern, with frequent detours into other weirdness. Accompanied by the play-by-play of narrator Nelson, the Vampire Woman leaves her grave at the old haunted house and prowls the countryside, hissing and growling, until she finds a victim. These victims (46 by Nelson’s count) include Ghost-hunter Richard Crowe, Fearless Leader Flores (twice!), local rock band Matter (who also provide the eerie soundtrack music), Nelson’s friends and family, and whoever else he can drag in front of the camera. While other directors cast professional actors in their films, Nelson insists on realism. Rather than follow a rigid script, characters behave as they naturally would in such common situations as finding the remains of someone pretending to be dead. I half expected to be among the victims myself – Nelson has a habit of just turning on his camera and putting people into his films without them knowing it. After each attack, someone phones Det. Nelson, who usually complains of being too busy pigging out, sleeping, or watching his own monster movies to be bothered with an investigation.
In part 2, the action begins to vary a bit. With the populace (except for Det. Rock) aware of the vampire threat, the Vampire Woman is forced to turn her fury upon the animal kingdom – slaying cows, deer, and even fish to satisfy her thirst. A detour provides a visit with night club “comedian” and actor Keith “Noodles” Nelson, who does some wobbly stand-up and a scene from The Hustler (twice!) – until the offended Vampire Woman kills him. Some more of Nelson’s friends are killed and rise from death as living vampires. This finally erases Rock’s disbelief in vampires. Some he has to kill himself, others die through their own clumsiness. With the aid of stalwart Sgt. Pepper and the morbid coroner Dr. Jerry, Rock begins to slowly close in on the monster.
Is Nelson trying to say that modern horror films have for the most part sunk to the level of a TV fishing show, with the monster hooking one bass after another until it runs out of beer, bait and insect repellent? Does the interminable footage of Det. Rock eating and boozing signify that most of these films are as interesting to watch as watching someone else watch them – or is it all a sad commentary on American consumer culture: as the Vampire Woman drains the population, the apathetic Det. Rock can only wallow in his own gluttony…?
More likely that Nelson is merely filling up tape. While most filmmakers spend a lot of time editing their films down to “tighten the pace”, Nelson doesn’t waste a single inch of videotape. Nelson doesn’t run his outtakes under the closing credits – he leaves them right in the film, where they can be enjoyed in context. With a Nelson film, you never have to worry that you’ll miss something if you’re interrupted while watching it – it’s likely the same thing will be happening when you return as when you left.
It would be easy to dismiss Nelson’s work as trash, but there is an undeniable charm to them – the same sort of charm that makes a high school play so enjoyable. There’s no denying Nelson’s obvious affection for his chosen medium and subject matter – a love of pure cinema to match that of any other auteur (and none of them ever made a film with absolutely NO MONEY whatsoever).
I recall one night years ago coming across a weak signal from a Mexican TV station, and watched through a static haze as two wrestlers had a series of fake matches, each time donning different costumes. As one wrestler entered the ring wrapped in mummy bandages, casually strangling bystanders on the way, the extreme trashiness of the image had me half imagining that the whole thing was real – that I’d somehow tapped a broadcast from a Twilight Zone where the living dead signed wrestling contracts. Nelson’s backyard videoddities have that same quality, mixing banal reality with the most godawful playacting – a psychotic stew of amusements both intentional and unintentional. If Nelson leaves in a flubbed line, does it really matter whether he screwed up or left it in because it’s funny – or is unaware that it’s a flub at all? Like the seediest of patently phony sideshow carnivals, the atmosphere of the scam makes it worth the ticket price. There’s falsehood in the magic, but there’s also magic in the falsehood – all of which makes for a kind of real magic.
Vampire Woman is a film that is calculated to entertain Nelson himself, and is calculated no further than that. Whether or not it entertains you…. Well, that’s a little ol’ Rorschach test you’ll have to take yourself.