Many snails were harmed in the making of this motion picture. But that’s hardly the only discomfiting element in Crispin Hellion Glover’s long-delayed debut as writer-director. Copyrighted in 1995, pic has been screened in various forms at the cult figure’s multimedia shows, finally making its official bow at Sundance. Somewhere between “Eraserhead” and “Gummo” as a bizarre private fantasia, “What Is It?” will strike many viewers as considerably more of a chore to get through, even at 68 slim minutes. Nonetheless, curiosity and Glover’s gonzo-geek mystique ensure midnight play before pic reaches a larger psychotronic fanbase on DVD.
Narrative, if the term applies, takes place in two separate realms that eventually somewhat overlap. In one, Young Man (Michael Blevin) goes on a rampage that includes the salting/stomping of many snails (some voiced by Fairuza Balk), sex in a graveyard, and the bludgeoning and/or suffocating of many humans. In another, an imperious ruler (a heavy-metal-haired Glover in floor-length fur coat) presides over a kingdom where nude women in creature masks romp, figures drift across a Guy Maddin-like primitive forest set on cotton clouds, and a blackfaced minstrel (Adam Parfrey) hopes to mutate into an invertebrate via snail-enzyme injections.
Eventually protags in both realms get the punishment they deserve.
Meanwhile, the auteur serves up an eventually repetitious program of outre shocks whose debt to Dada and Surrealism is a little too studied. “What Is It?” is duly grotesque, but there’s an adolescent, gross tenor to its content that prevents deeper resonance. Why cast the film largely with actors afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, if not to exploit how “weird” they look and sound? Why include the most inflammatory n-word references to blacks, including a country track by Klassic Klan recording artist Johnny Rebel? Why use as a running motif images of Shirley Temple (whose childhood movie dialogue is also sampled) in conjunction with swastikas and other Nazi totems?
Perhaps there’s no deep-text “why” here; sum effect is more deadening than offensive. And while barely nudging past feature length, “What Is It?” (which ran up to 15 minutes longer in prior public incarnations) feels quite long.
Lensing by Wyatt Troll is straightforward and brightly colored; other tech/design contribs are likewise of an archly faux-primitive nature. Soundtrack makes use of grandiose Wagner and Berlioz excerpts to ironic effect as well as tracks by late Church of Satan high priest Anton LaVey and Charles Manson.
Glover’s typically mannered yet autopilot perf here is infinitely less compelling than the remarkable ones that dominated underseen recent features “Willard” and “Bartleby.” As an actor, his eccentricities have long been treasurable; but “What Is It?” may reveal more about his mindset than most viewers will want to know.(Glover prefers inclusion of purported given middle name Hellion when his creative activities extend beyond the merely interpretive realm of acting.)
Lengthy closing credits — which are funnier than anything else in the film — end with promise/threat that this Part One will be followed by a sequel, “It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine!,” and trilogy finale, “It Is Mine.” Snail advocates can begin planning their protest actions now. Shot on 16mm, “What Is It” is available in both high-def (its Sundance projection format) and 35mm.