Director Todd Verow's debut feature, "Frisk," is an uneven but generally successful attempt to translate the work of novelist Dennis Cooper to the screen. Like the earlier "Swoon"-- which also dealt with violent and sexual behavior in a morally ambivalent tone -- pic invites general controversy but won't likely break out beyond gay urban auds. Subject matter may necessitate bypassing an MPAA rating.

Director Todd Verow’s debut feature, “Frisk,” is an uneven but generally successful attempt to translate the work of novelist Dennis Cooper to the screen. Like the earlier “Swoon”– which also dealt with violent and sexual behavior in a morally ambivalent tone — pic invites general controversy but won’t likely break out beyond gay urban auds. Subject matter may necessitate bypassing an MPAA rating.

Cooper has long stirred unease in the gay community, where his depictions of Blank Generation types impassively fixated on drug use, sex and (especially) sadism/murder fantasies are both prized and decried.

That “Frisk” works as film at all credits Verow and company; the source material might easily have resisted dramatic translation.

Adapting Cooper’s 1991 novel, the screenplay adopts a more chronological form while maintaining Cooper’s complex, somewhat unresolved balance between multiple storytellers who might be relating actual events or fantasies.

Protagonist Dennis (Michael Gunther) is attracted as an L.A. teen to sexual envelope-pushing; he later meets a masochist, Henry (Craig Chester), he’d once seen “dead” in apparent snuff photos.

A move to San Francisco does little to alter his brutal course. Dennis becomes obsessed with a gay porn actor (Michael Stock), then succumbs to homicidal urges — first acting alone on a hustler, then “joining forces” with a like-minded couple (James Lyon, “Party Girl’s” Posey Parker).

He confesses the deeds in a letter to two brothers, former L.A. pals. They suspect he’s made it all up. After same duo turns up in S.F., film ends ambivalently with another (possible) murder.

Cooper’s characters wear their dark desires like a hard shell. Dennis wants “to kill people to get answers.” But what are the questions? Explanatory motivations, family histories, career and monetary circumstances (sex workers aside, nobody seems to have a job) are not disclosed.

This obsessive, sealed atmosphere lends Verow’s murderous set pieces a real banality-of-evil queasiness. When Henry is seen meeting his alleged end in a sadist’s home “dungeon,” and when the infernal trio torment a junkie hustler (Alexis Arquette), the staging seems awkwardly, distressingly real.

These scenes rely largely on suggestion. Still, there’s certainly enough limit-pushing verbal and visual content here to ensure that “Frisk” won’t be visiting the multiplexes. Unlike Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation,””Frisk” offers little joyride distancing. It’s arty in a raw, often sordid mode.

Verow does manage to include some welcome notes of black humor, especially in Chester’s first scene and Parker’s Nietzschean thrill-seeker. Otherwise, perfs are variable. The director succeeds less in straight dialogue scenes than in experimental montages (video, B&W, speeded-up footage) to create a decadent “underground” milieu.

Lensing in 16mm deploys hot-color lighting to good effect; an industrial score by the group Coil also contributes much to the film’s challenging intensity.

Like recent U.S. gay-indie forebears “Swoon,””Poison” and “The Living End, “”Frisk” disturbs in ways that will both intrigue and limit its potential viewership.

Frisk

(Drama -- Color -- 16mm)

Production

A Strand release. Produced by Marcus Hu, Jon Gerrans. Executive producer, George LaVoo. Co-producer, Richard Huggard. Directed by Todd Verow. Screenplay, Jim Dwyer, LaVoo, Verow, based on the novel by Dennis Cooper.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm), Greg Watkins; editor, Verow; production design, Jennifer Graber; sound/music design, Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz; associate producer, Wlodarkiewicz. Reviewed at Variety Club Screening Room, San Francisco, June 16, 1995. (In S.F. Lesbian/Gay Film Festival.) Running time: 83 min.

With

Dennis ...Michael Gunther Henry ... Craig Chester Ferguson ... Parker Posey Punk ... Alexis Arquette Kevin ... Raoul O'Connell Julian ... Jaie Laplante Pete ... James Lyons Gary ... Michael Waite Susan ... Alyssa Wendt Uhrs ... Michael Stock

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