“Psychopathia Sexualis” exists in the gray area between ponderous stylization and campy affectation. Helmer Bret Wood employs an eclectic array of storytelling devices — referencing everything from German Expressionism and silent cinema to puppet theater and true-crime reality TV — in an ambitious but frequently risible attempt to dramatize case histories selected (seemingly at random) from the 19th-century medical research of Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Theatrical prospects are dubious at best, but there’s definitely potential for specialty-market video sales.
Wood attained notoriety with his docu “Hell’s Highway” (2003), a sporadically shocking collection of highway safety films. With this feature, however, he takes a more subdued approach to the obsessions, maladjustments and misadventures of “sexually inverted” Victorians recorded by Krafft-Ebing.
Episodic pic has the look of a budget-strapped “Masterpiece Theater” miniseries, with Atlanta locales (primarily interiors) subbing for various European settings. But the stiff moves and flat line-readings of the actors (drawn mostly from regional stages) are on the level of historical re-enactments for a History Channel docu. As the thesps go through their motions, faintly disapproving commentators — psychiatrists? historians? film critics? — drone on the soundtrack.
Daniel May makes a creepy impression as a blood-lusting semi-invalid with a pronounced resemblance to the infamous somnambulist of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Bits and pieces of the character’s story are scattered through the pic, leading to an ironic payoff. And Lisa Paulsen and Veronika Duerr struggle against the odds to inject genuine pathos into a soft-core episode about a love that dare not speak its name.
More often, however, “Psychopathia Sexualis” seems both plodding and snickering in its almost comically tepid rendering of masochism, homosexuality, necrophilia and, briefly, cruelty to animals. (The closing credits reassuringly note: “No chickens were harmed during the making of this film.”)
Whatever the seriousness of Wood’s original intent, his pic appears destined for screenings at times and places where viewers will feel free to provide their own running commentaries. Indeed, one can idly imagine audience members decked out in the make-up and costumes of their favorite characters, much like devotees of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”