If you’re going to make a movie about snuff sex that isn’t just exploitative porn then you’d better have a damn good writer, excellent technical support, subtle acting and direction. "Hard" (review coming soon), for example, pretty much gets away with the most ghastly content because it does have all that—this doesn’t so I’m afraid it came over to me as exploitative and dangerous.
Denis writes letters to an old some-time lover, Julian, describing how he’s torturing and f****** young men to death. We see the deaths in some gory detail whilst Julian reads these stories. The film is incredibly confusing as other storylines are introduced; it’s goes from past to present then all over the place and the narrator seems to change halfway through.
There are some very sensual scenes where flesh is explored in great detail, but they are so squeezed between the hideousness, that they don’t really do any more than jar.
The lead character Denis is cute enough, but he’s such a cold, heartless fish, and we never really get his motivation that you can’t take to him. Despite being such hardcore gore and general unpleasantness, there is very little full frontal nudity and only one real (simulated) sex act. But it’s freaky and disturbing, so I wouldn’t watch this film for the sake of that.
All in all, I think if you actually wanted to watch this movie, knowing what it was about, you be slightly suspect. I had no idea, so I forgive myself for having watched it.
Avoid it at all possible costs.
*****This review contains big spoilers. Don’t read unless you want to know how book and film end.****
This movie departs from Dennis Cooper’s book in ways that completely change the writer’s conception of his story. People booed and walked out when the film was first shown in 1996. Mostly because it was deemed homophobic. Whereas they ought to have been protesting that it’s a travesty.
The story is about a gay man called Dennis who as an adolescent sees a series of snuff photos that direct his adult sexual obsessions. In the book Dennis is 13. For the film they’ve made him older, above the age of consent. I appreciate problems adapting a book that spans 20 years. Movie Dennis is early-mid 20s. Presumably to avoid unnecessary controversy- as if the subject matter wasn’t already pretty well out there- all the characters have been aged in this way. The setting is updated to post-AIDS 90s. Whereas the book has hippie kids experimenting wildly with 70s style drugged out sex at a time of total sexual freedom, the film shows adults knowingly playing out their fantasies in a very different era.
I can accept the age thing. It makes it easier to deal with graphic levels of violence that we’re not shown mutilation of a 10 year-old child. But the movie completely ignores that Dennis becomes obsessed with the physical type he saw in those photos- spaced-out, boyish, slim, big-eyed, dark hair, pale and smooth- and pursues this ideal of beauty so in effect a series of lovers is like one extended relationship without the problem of familiarity with the individual allowing boredom to seep in and ruin the fantasy. Movie Dennis comes across as a man who drifts aimlessly from one lover to the next. My mental images of all those involved bore no resemblance whatsoever to their onscreen counterparts. I accept that’s probably inevitable bringing a book to the screen. But they could’ve tried to cast actors of similar type: Julian looks a bit like Hugh Grant. Henry is podgy and non-descript. Pretty-boy porn actor/hustler Pierre becomes a German-accented shaven-headed macho-man.
A complicated, episodic and image-based narrative has been simplified. The novel would’ve been impossible to film otherwise. Dennis writes letters to old lover, Julian, describing how he goes round picking up tricks to torture, mutilate and kill, progression from sexual games they played with willing partners like spaced-out Henry. Julian shares the letters with younger brother Kevin, who’s convinced Dennis is making it all up. They go to visit Dennis, re-located from Amsterdam to San Francisco, to find out for themselves.
Which is where film and book diverge. In the novel Cooper reveals Dennis’ fantasies are exactly that. Not real. Whereas the film isn’t conclusive, and if anything made me believe Dennis is the serial killer of those letters to Julian. The book has us imagine extreme images of sexual violence and murder, forcing us to admit something evil and depraved can be erotically fascinating. By putting those images onscreen, even though it’s actually handled very effectively, making us think we’re seeing more than we do, the filmmakers impose images so we’re passive consumers of violent S&M pornography. Cooper’s book makes clear the division between erotic fantasy and horrifying reality- real murder is never sexy. If we believed the letters then we’re complicit in Dennis’ fantasy.
They’ve also added a female character not even in the book, and shoved her onto the cover thereby disguising that it’s a movie about gay sex. Maybe that was advisable as the director was vilified for homophobia, showing gay men as sadistic, sick, and depraved rather than PC, emotionally developed men for whom sex is part of a committed partnership that apes straight norms. And the German porn actor has been made bisexual and given a girlfriend, for no good reason.
I don’t know what my reaction to the film would’ve been had I not read the book the day before. This is a very subjective review. If I could separate book from film I think I could find good things to say. Maybe I’ll watch it again in a few weeks time. Despite my complaints, I’m recommending the film because, whatever else it does, it shakes you up. And the actor who plays Dennis is a bit of alright…just not Cooper’s character.