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Wicked World

2009, Starring Eddie Platt, Barry J. Gillis, Judy Humbel, Maria Delgado, Don Klees. Directed by Barry J. Gillis (Exosphere Motion Pictures).

Another disasterpiece from the mind of Barry J. Gillis, Wicked World may not be quite as brutally confusing as Things, the 8mm cult classic he and director Andrew Jordan concocted in 1987, but it often comes close. Almost 21 years in the making, Wicked World is a far more personal film that feels genuinely unstuck in timegrainy VHS thrills with overblown digital effects, unflinching stalk 'n' slash tropes that suddenly explode into flashy cutting and a mind-bending flashback structure that gives the Toronto-shot film a noticeably off-kilter, almost dreamy quality.

Things hit VHS in 1989, and Gillis apparently began shooting Wicked World the following year, though he didn't complete final editing and post-production on the raw footage until 2011. The film largely revolves around former serial killer Harold (Eddie Platt), a now-lobotomized madman who reminisces about his murderous past while a nurse wheels him around a mental institution (that looks suspiciously like a public school). Endlessly philosophizing about the nature of his uncontrollable violent tendencies in droning narration, Harold recalls stalking and killing a dozen or so innocent victims over the years. including prostitutes, armed robbers that wear plastic bags over their heads as disguises and even drunken couples watching Things. Usually wearing a gas mask, Harold is always lurking around the corner with machetes, nunchucks and axes ready to stain young flesh with splashes of CGI blood.

Harold's next door neighbour, corrupt police officer Grant Ekland (Gillis), is somehow mixed up in all this mayhem. Grant offers a flashback that attempts to explain it to his girlfriend and also to the audiencefive years ago, just after he was stripped of his badge after shooting a prostitute and some innocent onlookers, Grant came home to find her murdered by Harold. Grant is itching to avenge his wife, but it's unclear whether he will ever have the chance too, as Harold and Grant barely seem to be in the same film. Grant's tragic trajectory is less interesting than Harold's, but there's still plenty of hilarity as he beds girls, blows away innocent people and slaps kids in wheelchairs.

By the end of the film, the flashback structure gets confused with reality, and viewers will start to question whether Harold is really a killer or whether this is all in his head--flights of murderous fancy that have been playing out in his damaged brain this whole time as part of a "story." Whether Gillis fully intended this or not—it may simply be a byproduct of trying to make sense of the existing footage in the editing room two decades later--it's pulled off with a surprising subtlety that makes viewers question what they've seen without resorting to the theatrical "mindfucks" favoured by Hollywood. It's the best part about the filmexcept for maybe another round of classic dialogue, including "I hate helicopters! I hate life!", "Harold, I know your three daughters committed suicide this week but you have to lighten up," and the eternal question "Why do girls and bullets exist?".

Whereas Things was an attempt to mine the same blood-soaked ground as some of Gillis and Jordan's favourite VHS nasties, it's clear that this time out Gillis wanted to shed some of the genre trappings and express something about the violence, murder and brutality that too often defines humankind. But the film's vaguely misanthropic titlea reference to a Black Sabbath songand the philosophic tone don't quite mesh with the slasher-inspired scenes. Harold's bloody attacks on nude victims and voyeuristic stalking are pretty standard '80s horror fare and don't make much case against violence in either direction. Gillis also has an axe to grind over political correctness, but it's unclear how it really relates to the film beyond basic questions of film censorship for objectionable material.

Matching the film's nihilistic streak, the violence does occasionally lean towards a slightly harder, more realistic edge, though. Before the opening credits roll, a quiet, bespectacled man loses it and shoots a mullet-sporting bro, who's been pawing his half-naked sister, and his party animal pals. This scene has an unflinching, slightly cinema verité quality (Harold only watches this atrocity from the balcony before moving in to kill the survivors). This harsh violent tone returns towards the end of the film as three girls enact a bloody suicide pact and, later, Grant is mobbed and badly beaten by a mob.

Things was somehow successful as a piece of outsider cinema that was still fun despite its ineptness. While Gillis' techniques have undeniably improved, the final version of Wicked World is a discomforting mix of digital and analogue technologyshot on grainy 16mm, the screen will suddenly twist into a dated, digital whirlpool effect. Question marks randomly appear onscreen in some scenes and the fourth wall is even broken by "pop-up video"-like text that identifies one of the actresses as cheating on her boyfriend! One of the murder sequences has Harold gouging out a victim's eyes in a nicely done practical effect, while just moments later a pixilated dismembered hand digitally floats across the screen. And, like Things, the sound mix is incredibly aggressiveloud news reports, cuckoo clocks and machine guns interrupt the action, and dialogue is mostly post-dubbed, heavily processed, and sometimes doesn't fully fit with the onscreen action.

But the most curious aspect has to be the modern, fast-cut montages that take over during Harold's murder scenes. Gillis, a perfectionist, must have felt these scenes didn't quite work as originally shot, because he tries to make them more intense with zooms, lightning-paced editing and, in one scene, oozing blood that covers almost the entire lens, obscuring Harold's actions. It's a little frustrating, if only because it works against the unflinching reality of the rest of the film and makes viewers wonder what the original version might have looked like.

Shot largely in Toronto, Wicked World is a nice treat for Hogtown viewers, who will recognize all sorts of locations, from High Park to back alleys and suburban Scarborough streets. But the unorthodox anti-violence message at the core of the film seems to be expressed in a very Canadian way, too. This is a far cry from Hollywood's jingoistic romanticization of the machines of war or heart-on-the-sleeve rebukesit's really a tragedy about the unstoppable violence in the world and the feeling of powerlessness that comes out of that, a theme that still rings true. Though the message is sometimes confused, as it tends to fetishize the murder sequences as much as any other slasher outing, it's clearly deeply felt by Gillis. If Things is Jordan and Gillis' Plan 9 From Outer Space, then this is Gillis' Glen or Glenda?, a bizarre message film that again attempts to straddle the wide gap between avant-garde and genre filmmaking.

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