Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Just when you thought the found-footage horror subgenre was stuck in a rut, here comes pornography to the rescue.
Lucky Bastard is an NC-17 found-footage horror movie set in the world of adult cinema that's nothing if not certainly outrageous. It's also, on paper, risky business. At this point, the found footage label is enough to alienate millions of genre fans who now love to complain about that done-to-death style of filmmaking. But adding that extra "skin flick" dimension? Lucky Bastard might as well have been sold as "This Movie Will Give You Herpes."
But as it turns out, Lucky Bastard is one of the best found-footage movies to come along in years. That adult rating? Director Robert Nathan and company more than earned that polarizing, viewer-limiting restriction. Nudity is abundant, and the language is very blue.
Dark, unpredictable, and at times unflinchingly brutal, Lucky Bastard gradually descends into a modern-day Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer if Henry had been a wannabe Ron Jeremy. The script, co-written by Nathan and Lukas Kendall, is wisely structured as a build-up—a grim, homicidal payoff preceded by lighthearted, kinky foreplay. See, there's a website called Lucky Bastard, run by adult film director Mike (Don McManus). It's designed to be a porno lover's wet dream come true: one Average Joe gets selected to, on camera and after signing waivers and taking an STD test, have sex with his favorite porn star. The professional beauty in Mike's next production is Ashley Saint (Betsy Rue), a single mother of two who's ready to go legit and chuck up deuces to pornography, but she also needs money to support her children. So, for a quick $1,500, she agrees to intercourse with Dave G. (Jay Paulson), a timid ginger with a military background and a touching sob story about losing his brother to cancer. Ashley feels for him.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Dave G. isn't the normal, friendly dude Ashley, Mike, Mike's girlfriend/aspiring porn star mistress Casey (Catherine Annette), and the rest of the production crew thought he was. For starters, he signs his name as "Ernest" on the mandatory release form; off camera, before they have sex, he calls Ashley by her government name and cites the names of her two kids, pieces of info only a stalker fan would know. He's extra sensitive about people making fun of him and about women touching his member. Which, of course, Ashley does with all of her seductive and expert hand skills. After busting too early in front of the camera crew and a revved-up Ashley, Dave snaps and starts dropping bodies both nude and fully clothed.
The rub, pun intended, in Lucky Bastard is that the whole thing is amateur hour, from Mike's half-assed directing chops to Dave's abilities as a mass murderer. Guided by a collection of strong, authentically raw performances from his cast, Nathan pulls off something that most found-footage moviemakers fail miserably at: he makes the characters, the world, and the situations all seem real. When Dave grabs a gun, he doesn't suddenly become Charles Bronson—he's a bumbling madman without a master plan. His crimes are messy, minus any predetermination. But they're also affecting, since Lucky Bastard's first half is nicely devoted to establishing Dave and the soon-to-be corpses around him. Even the sleazy Mike is written as more than a money-grubbing smut peddler—he's a family man who also happens to be a sex wrangler, and that duality connects thanks to McManus' performance. That's what happens when an NC-17 found-footage movie somehow co-stars an accomplished character actor whose prior credits include The Shawshank Redemption and Magnolia.
Add on to that a Mad Men pedigree here, too. Don Draper loyalists should recognize Jay "Dave G." Paulson from his appearances as Dick Whitman's half-brother, Adam. Paulson never oversells Dave's third-act bloodlust. When the gun's emptied and his kill tools are disposed of, he's back to being a horny guy who's powerless against Ashley Saint. It's a cleverly executed shift from cold-blooded killer to helpless male kitten that sets up Lucky Bastard's honest and impressive ending.
Yes, the NC-17 found-footage porno horror movie nobody expected to be anything more than a gratuitously titillating lark has ties to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Paul Thomas Anderson. With PTA in mind, it's fair to ask: Is Lucky Bastard the Boogie Nights for the Blair Witch/[REC] crowd? No. Nathan and Kendall are gunning for people who watch porn, not those who make their livings producing the sleaze. The film owes more to Man Bites Dog and Funny Games than Rollergirl and Dirk Diggler. Before the end credits roll, the film's sole character still breathing looks directly into the camera before shutting it off, as if to say to Lucky Bastard's audience, "Are you satisfied? Is that what you came here for, nasty asses?"
To which you'll feel compelled to say, "No, actually—we came here for some cheap thrills and even cheaper T&A, but that's not what we got. We got something more." We, those open-minded enough to give Lucky Bastard a shot, have been given a a surprising horror movie about pros who give brains like they're geeky (word to Nicki Minaj) that's made with considerable, well, brains.
Lucky Bastard opens at Cinema Village in New York City today, and at Laemmle's NoHo 7 Theatre in Los Angeles on March 7.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)