It happens every now and again. You settle down in your lounge chair to watch a title that you've never heard of, hoping beyond all hope that it doesn't suck the root out of elephant tusks and swearing you'll never torment your sensibilities so - ever again. You begin the potential bastardization with all hopes dashed and all prayers unanswered. As the first few minutes fly by, you realize something: your jaw has dropped to somewhere around the planet's upper mantle and the disbelief is of the good, grinning kind. Suddenly, another absurd plot twist slaps you in the chin. But instead of whining like a woman, wondering why you had to be hampered with another horrible excursion into cinematic excrement, you're ecstatic. Like a fetish fiend in B&D paradise, you gladly endure blow after blow and demand more. As the acting moves from mannered to mania, you cheer with internal joy, your heart leaping like Johnny LaRue's own rapid rabbit organ. By the time the third act rolls around and the radiant story arcs all make their final attempts at cohesion, you're practically giddy, ready to release all your major bodily fluids (and firmaments) in one last act of entertainment expulsion. And then to realize that everything you've watched, each element of unexpected excellence you've just witnessed has a crazy cracked subtext, makes the lot that much more mudlucious. Such a puddle-wonderful experience can too be yours if you give Troma's Outlaw Prophet a chance. Only the messed up mind of writer/director/actor/composer David Heavener could have created a science fiction action adventure centering on a cosmic reality show in which personified particle beams fight mechanics of the living dead controlled by an evil network programmer. Seriously.
Oh, and by the way, the movie is a religious allegory about the second coming of Christ.
John 141 is a "frequency" (actually, 'Kenneth' would have been a better name), an intergalactic wavelength that is inserted into various alien bodies and then transformed into a humanoid shape to participate in the galaxy's most popular reality show, Escape 2020. Each episode, John is require to take a predetermined challenge from network chief McBride. All he can utilize are his wits, his weapons and the aid of a telepathic computer named Molly. Sometimes John wins. Other times he loses. His most recent appearance resulted in an American space flight being shot down. And now McBride wants to destroy the entire planet. John must beam down to Earth, make friends with a runaway foster child that cannot speak and uncover the truth about God, faith and religion. He also has to appear on a cosmic talk show to pump up publicity for the series. Part of his "panel" is to fight another evildoer to the death.
John makes his way to Paris...Tennessee and immediately wanders into a Baptist Bible BBQ. Since John is in reality an electronic transmission, he messes up the ham radio alien exploration experiments of hippy dippy do-gooder Jenny. She is trying to contact life outside of our solar system, much to her seminary student fiance's chagrin. When she meets John, he seems disturbed. Maybe it's because McBride's overall-wearing zombies are stalking him. Or maybe it's because he dreams about angels dancing disco. John finally finds the toddler runaway, whose name is Amy, and since he can communicate with his mind, the mute and the mook become fast friends. But McBride is not happy about this. Seems he is a DEMON living inside an alien body that, of course, is then transformed to look human. His master plan is to corrupt all the souls of the universe by addicting them to violent television (that's why he produces Escape 2020).
McBride kidnaps Amy. John discovers the truth about his nemesis' wicked ways and the third act plot revelations come fast and furious. You see, John is the new Messiah, Jesus in a skintight leotard and a rock and roll hairstyle, come back to save the galaxy from the boob tube broadcasting Beelzebub. But first, he must learn about faith and God before he can defeat the dastardly deity. With the help of Jenny and a newly humanized Molly, our Savior must battle the star-chasing Devil, save Amy and spare infinity's audience the idea of gratuitously violent television shows.
Outlaw Prophet is dead brilliant. There, it's been said and it's not being taken back. Like the whacked out works of David Lynch or the lunatic fringe flights of fancy favored by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this low budget journey into the center of David Heavener's evangelical mind is as flabbergastingly inventive and bizarre as the universes created by those other obtuse auteurs. Heavener, long a staple of the b-movie independent actioner, appears to have finally found a formula to mix all his passions and proclivities into one mind-boggling brain bending motion picture. Like a cinematic carpet sweeper, Heavener (who did practically everything himself on this film except manufacture the film stock) has cast his narrative net to the four winds and swept Haroun's sea of stories for every last potential plot point and storyline strand. In one film we have all of the fictional sci-fi melodramatic filaments: aliens, space, computers, radio waves, telepathy, shape shifting, brainwashing, device implantation, foster children, abandonment, trailer trashing, pre-school runaways, grilling, picking, grinning, sinning, salvation, ham radio, strange frequencies, reality television, ratings, Van Dykes, morphing, mutations, zombies, kung fu, car wrecks, The Bible, the Antichrist, the new Messiah, death, rebirth, angels, demons, disco, adoption and bad children's programming. Yet somehow, Outlaw Prophet makes all of these divergent elements coalesce into a fine mist of monumental moviemaking.
It takes a rare and refined talent to get this all to work, and yet Heavener finds a way to make his cockeyed Christian vision, as well as his rock and roll musicianship and personal faith, serve the final cut. What Heavener manages is a kind of an innocent idiot savant con job, an entertainment flim flam in which you think you are getting grade Z direct to video VHS filler, but because it is channeled through his outrageously original independent movie mentality, you instead receive a strangely evocative substitute for his street preaching. Heavener is a deeply spiritual man and needs to make sure that the message gets across. But he also has that "New Christian" attitude, one that individuals like Willy Ames and Carman use to super soft sell their salvation. They all know that God is a tough act to hawk to demographically challenged audiences, so they spice up the brimstone with all manner of special effects and action figure permutations. Davy dives into the same pool of sermonizing schooling that these other deity die-hards indulge in. But he is subtler about it, much less Good Book thumping and pumping. Heavener must wear a WWJS bracelet around his wrist, asking the simple cinematic question "What Would Jesus Shoot?" Such divine inspiration seems to "direct" his moviemaking, like it was storyboarded by a higher power.
And dammit if Outlaw Prophet ain't about the most entertaining thing to come down along the puke pipe in years. Heavener is a more laconic Miles O'Keefe, playing a combination interstellar warrior and roadshow choreographer with a mane mop of hair and a pair of wrap around shades. He houses his asymmetrical torso in snug-fitting leggings and jet-black hose that make him look like a Shakespearean stevedore. His acting style stems from the clenched teeth school of stern lecturing and he rarely registers an emotion above a glare. Yet his acid trippy dialogue, all pseudo science speak and ridiculous future factors is so rich and overripe that you can't help but believe in his electrified amperage entity. Even as he lies around sets festooned with tiny foam rubber extraterrestrial dolls and lighting effects swiped from Studio 54, the lame sci-fi ambience works. When he's fighting off fiends who look like overtired baggage handlers or loading the screen with CGI images of Bible study (gotta love the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth acronym) Heavener always has his eye on pleasure, not pontification. His prosaic posturing over the importance of religion and God is never specious or pompous. And just when you think the inherent idiocy of his futuristic action adventuring is going to meander so wildly that it will spin the Earth off its rotational axis, this video visionary rights the ship and sails it right on to happy fun land.
Heavener isn't afraid to try anything and everything to entertain. This kitchen sink approach succeeds because of the carefully constructed universe Heavener and his characters inhabit. If you set this sputtering spiritual piffle inside the actual secular world in which we live, you'd end up with a farce of a joke wrapped in a ridicule worthy rib-tickler. But Heavener is smarter than this. He sets Outlaw Prophet in a close approximation of our society, yet there is also a strange, foreign quality to the people, places and things. Jesus freak hippies aren't really into contacting extraterrestrial life, even if it is to do a little ET soul salvation. Four-year-old foster mutes just don't up and runaway from home especially not carrying a raggedy doll and a lunchbox packed with a banana and a single pretzel. Interstellar probes don't speak like Southern dandy vo-coders or resemble oversized dim sum when they're deactivated. But all of these bizarro elements plus dozens more shape and define the wonderfully wacky world of Outlaw Prophet and help explain the borders of balderdash we are about to dive into. Heavener will have you believing in interplanetary programming directors, the saving grace of the FM signal and the idea of Christ coming back as a butt-kicking alien. And you'll laugh at, love and lap up every mesmerizing minute of it.
There are those who may feel that this is simply overstating the excellence of Outlaw Prophet, artificial recognition of how kitschy and campy the freakish and outrageous can be. But the truth is much more mundane. Outlaw Prophet works as a film of such jaw slacking strangeness and aesthetic anesthetic because of Heavener's complete commitment to his vision. It's that raw nerve visual bombast, the desire to borrow from every type of movie known to man to sell a personal ideology about the nature of religion, that turns Outlaw Prophet from a USA Network exercise in inaction to a perceptive, if perplexing cinematic sensation. It hard in this redux reality we live in to think that there is anything truly original left in the motion picture Pandora's box. But thanks to David Heavener and his insane insights, Outlaw Prophet becomes the exception that proves the rule. You've never seen anything quite like this fumble of formulas. Sure, this film borrows from a lot of divergent sources, but it comes together in a way that wholly its own, and we have the twisted talent of David Heavener to thank for it.
Looking like it was shot on video and then transferred to film, Outlaw Prophet has some definite print and transfer issues. Looking washed out and a little worse for wear, the 1.33:1 full frame image is fuzzy and indistinct. But the bigger problem comes from the odd DVD mastering. During pans and dolly shots, the film blurs and ghosts, as if it were attempting to create a shuttered effect. It is very distracting and leads to some confusion in the action scenes. This could be some manner of Troma trouble, a digital disc defect or the direct by-product of the movie's creation; in any case, it makes a true goof of a film look that much more amateur.
Thankfully, the Dolby Digital Stereo is clean and green, brimming with the ersatz Christian rock that Heavener extols. This multi-faceted talent tosses in a half dozen retro-80s pop tunes with the emphasis on Jesus and God, but always couched in terms that the teenyboppers will understand. The aural presentation of this Messiah music is just one of the highlights of the soundtrack. The dialogue is delivered in crisp clarity and the cheesy sound effects come alive on the nicely crafted track.
Troma needs to retool its thinking process when it comes to such original product as this, and other interesting auteur entries. Heavener's website is filled with mostly media friendly press release pieces and the majority of the material about him on the Internet focuses on his past successes/failures. If Heavener is truly a man with a message, why not take the sacrosanct bullet and let him advocate a little. A commentary would have been nice, or a simple interview featurette. His filmmaking style is indeed quite specialized, so a 'making of' or 'behind the scenes' would also have fit the bill nicely. All we get though are Troma trailers, performance videos by artists other than Heavener, the standard pack of Lloyd Kaufman's independent film promotion and a few interactive features. But the focus here should have been on Heavener and his renegade Outlaw Prophet. Just hearing him explain the disco-dancing angels would have been worth the price of admission.
When asked what he liked best about movies, Gene Siskel said that he enjoyed a film that surprised him, that always left him guessing what would happen next. Roger Ebert extended a view that stated, rather succinctly, that a movie should take you to a time or place you've never been to before. Well, it's doubtful that either of these illustrious critics, either in life or in death, would champion Outlaw Prophet. They would dismiss the amateurish nature of the filmmaking and the muddled mixed metaphor messages, and shout for Aroma the Wonder Skunk to take an on-set seat. But they would be denying their own standards for successful cinema. David Heavener's ode to aliens and the omnipresent is a 'never know what's around the corner' creation of conflicting cinematic tenets. And it truly transports you to a version of the universe that barely resembles the cold-hearted craven creepiness of our post-millennial planet. If there was any justice in this world, Heavener would be hyped as the saving grace of Christian cinema, a man who could out box Carman's craven Champion and meltdown Megiddo into several hundred celluloid prayer cards. Sure, he made his name starring in violent vehicular car crash creations, carving out a niche as a somewhat almost known b-movie star. But his foundation is in his faith and if given the chance, he could set his sights on some real reel salvation. But don't let all the Testament trapping throw you. Outlaw Prophet is a work of warped genius that has to be seen to be believed.
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