A self-consciously creepy exploration of aberrant psychology and sick behavior, “Cleopatra’s Second Husband” is a shrewdly crafted but largely disagreeable riff on the subject of house-sitters from hell. First-time feature director Jon Reiss evinces indisputable control over his dubious material, which most directly recalls the Pinter-Losey classic “The Servant” in its look at an insidious power shift between unsavory men in a household. Pic won’t be to most tastes, but its weirdness could land it a small berth at offbeat theatrical venues or midnight slots.
Reiss states that he was inspired to write the script by his unfortunate experience in giving his house for a month to vet New York indie filmmaker Amos Poe, who reportedly let the fish die and left the house in total disarray. Certainly the situation depicted is a nightmare from the word go, and only gets worse from there.
Everything on view is heavily exaggerated, from the characters to their predicaments, which makes them diffi-cult to take from the outset. Robert (Paul Hipp) is an ineffectual “art” photographer who is totally overpowered by his little fuehrer of a wife, Hallie (Bitty Schram), who not only calls all the shots but stipulates lovemaking on command, based on her ovulation cycle.
Over her husband’s feeble objections, Hallie agrees to have friends of friends house-sit for them in L.A. while they vacation in upstate New York. Upon their early return, they not only find the fish dead and their house a mess, but are begged by the hunky Zack (Boyd Kestner) and sultry Sophie (Rhada Mitchell) to let them stay on for a while longer, since they haven’t yet found a place of their own.
Astonishingly, Robert and Hallie agree. Ill-mannered and inconsiderate, the interlopers embarrass their nervous hosts by indulging in loud, strenuous sex at all hours. When Hallie discovers that her husband has succumbed to Sophie’s considerable charms, she storms out, and for a moment one imagines that the picture might improve by virtue of her absence, so overbearing is the character.
Unfortunately, Sophie takes off a mere 10 minutes later, leaving the remaining 55 minutes for the two men to duel it out for dominance.
At first it seems like a laughable mismatch, with Zack able to bully, intimidate and physically brutalize his wimpy housemate at will. But Robert emerges from a long hibernation with a sinister plan to gain the upper hand and literally keep Zack pinned to a board and under observation, like the vermin he photographs.
Final section, in which Zack suffers in direct proportion to the extent of Robert’s dementia, is highly unpleasant, if not at all gruesome or graphic in its specifics; claustrophobics will have a particularly hard time. There are touches here of such previous filmed studies of deep-end behavior as “The Collector,” “Repulsion” and “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” although current item is both far more implausible in its details and less haunting in its effect.
Music video vet Reiss and d.p. Matt Faw know how to shoot for unsettling impact, and those who enjoy un-motivated deviant behavior will no doubt find things to relish. Perfs are all several notches over the top, but Kestner has undeniable force and socks over his character’s arrogance and enthusiasm for game-playing.
Tech contributions are solid. Title is meaningless to the pic’s content, although director has said that it’s an allusion to how Marc Antony (actually Cleopatra’s fourth husband) was destroyed through his relationship with the Egyptian queen.