Now, there are cult movies and then there are CULT movies. There are movies that gradually find exposure and a dedicated audience. There are movies that barely make a whimper initially and take years to catch on. And, there are movies so notorious and/or scarce they become the stuff of back alley legend.
Reflections of Evil (2002) may be the first modern, digital equivalent of the underground cult film. Its origins are the usual grassroots, one man show, cult story. With some inheritance money in hand, Damon Packard set out to make his own movie. Set out, in wild abandon, with a rough idea, some inspiration, 16 and 8 mm cameras, a library of his favorite sound sources and 70's television clips, and a Mac with Final Cut Pro. While it made the rounds to some festivals, what really set Packard apart from the pack of unknowns trying to get their indie feature seen was his approach to distributing his film. He made 29,000 DVDs, left them all over Los Angeles, from college campuses to ATM machines, and mailed multiple discs to famous people- straight to their home addresses in many cases, breaking an old rule of movie biz protocol.
The bizarre reactions he gained may be just as interesting as the movie itself. Packard discovered that stacks of DVD's were just thrown away and discarded. So, common folk were surprisingly reticent to accept a free DVD of a movie. As for the famous people, some unsolicited weirdo film showing up on their doorstep lead to befuddlement and even downright anger. Read all about it at the films main site reflectionsofevil.com and this article for more backstory.
As for the film, imagine ERASERHEAD if done by a 70's pop culture, blockbuster film fed, LA kid.
Bob (Damon Packard) is an obese, sugar addicted, quite possibly insane, street seller of cheap watches. He still lives with his mother, who despite her henpecking complains cannot control her weird son. Given to Tourretes-like screaming fits and gorging himself on sweets, Bob is a seeming magnet for violence, be it from random pedestrians, homeless people, or dogs that assault him as he walks around LA. Well, that is the bulk of the film, a series of such wonderfully bizarre scenes. From Bob falling to the pavement and splatting blood from his head, to encountering raving LA denizens, for Bob, it is an aggressive City of Angels where even the helicopters seem to violently cut through the sky.
Flashbacks to 1971 reveal Bob as a kid with his mother and sister, Julie (Nicole Vanderhoff), taking a Universal Studios tour. Julie gets off the tram, wanders around the backlot, and stumbles upon a young Steven Spielberg making his first film Something Evil. She then meets the Golden Guru and his followers who entice her with drugs. After what can only be described as a 2001ish psychedelic nightmare, she apparently OD's and is sent into the afterlife where her ghostly spirit wanders. And, eventually, we come to find she is looking for Bob.
It is really pretty difficult to sum up. It is hit and miss brilliant, mainly due to its fairly incoherent plot, but it works because it is given to some inspired gonzo stuff. The disheveled Bob, who wears layers and layers of shirts and a tangled mess of headphones, stands in front of billboards for Dianetics to Miss Congeniality while some random guy squeels at him either an insult ("Baby Huey") or challenges him to fight. There is his Rodney King moment where Bob tussles with the cops and steals a police cruiser, which plays out like a scene from E.T. complete with Spielbergian shots of wide-eyed children. A scene where he goes home to his indented spot in his mother's living room looks like a scene from a gothic horror film on crack. Packard references the 70's as much as a Tarantino flick, taking particular idoltrous aim at Speilberg and Lucas. Packard so successfully captures a paranoid urban atmosphere, it actually left me wondering wether or not he is truly touched in the head.
This version of Reflections... is 90 minutes long, which is much shorter than the mammoth 120+ minute cut that first floated around. I picked up my copy of the extended cut from bijouflix.com. This version loses some wackier moments, like the Tony Curtis intro, and plays a tad safer, less lawsuit worthy, replacing inspired stuff like "Shindler's List: The Ride" in the Universal finale sequence with" Kinski's List (as in Klaus): The Ride." (oh, and Packard was put on the lifetime ban list for illegally, guerilla style filming at Universal Studios) Still, from little music cues to stolen imagery, there is a lot of material remaining that wasn't cleared for rights. While truncated, Reflections... really benefits from the tighter pacing. I gotta' say, due to the repetition of the harassment scenes and the "where the hell is this going?" plot, that full 2+ hour cut feels like it is about six hours long and is a chore to sit through. Honestly, Reflections... is such a film, that no matter what length, you really have to be in a certain mood to tolerate. Packard was wise to make an edited version, and since that first cut was distributed for free, odds are it will always be out there, somewhere, probably in the public domain (I think bijouflix still sells it). At least this version is getting a little more exposure, finding its way onto amazon and netflix. God knows, we need more Packards.
The DVD: Gokart
Picture: Non-anamorphic, Full-screen. Well, folks, it is rough. But, considering its origins, appropriately so. Packard may have blown that inheritance money, but it is still very much an underground film and technically limited. The choice of film stock and processing varies, from the 70's stuff looking disco era relic, the current stuff a little more bright, and the theme park footage finale, fittingly, is mostly handicam. Technically it has some digital encoding artefacts, particularly image noise like macro blocking and chroma bleeding. Still, with a fringe film, it becomes a little more forgivable that it didn't go through Criterion level treatment.
Sound: 2 channel- holy shit. Most of the film was shot without sound, or Packard chose to overdub anyway, so its rough anarchic nature is heightened by obvious dubbing and extensive vocal tweeking. The sound mix is absolutely over the top and abrasive. It is like Japanese noise rock, a Warner Bros cartoon, blockbuster Hollywood film score, lunatic asylum ranting, and a static drenched 70's AM radio playing a Carpenters tune all rolled into one. The soundtrack is credited as "Original score by Gyorgy Ligeti and John Williams." I identified a lot of sound clips taken from everything from Krull to The Birds. It is incredibly raw, totally insane, and lo fi brilliant.
Extras: Behind the Scenes (21:13). Indie filmmaker/writer Thad Vassmer cheekily looks at the making of the film, particular the wacky crew drawn into Packard's underground world. Brief interview bits with Packard are pretty good, like his answer to what can other film makers learn from him, "Nothing. It's a monumental waste of time." It plays more like a piece about underground Hollywood, rather than about the specific innerworkings of the film.— Deleted Scenes (2:30). More or less a bunch of fragments with titles like "Sugar Balls, Bob harassed by Texans," and "Bob as Hitler."— Trailers— Packard Shorts/Trailers "Lincoln Breakdown" and "Chemtrails."— Photo Gallery.
Conclusion: Sublime in its silliness, its vulgarity, its urban commentary, its throwback nostalgia, and most of all, its indie enthusiasm, Reflections of Evil is everything an underground cult film should be. It is the cinematic equivalent of outsider art. If it sounds like it is up your alley, do yourself a favor and check it out. It'll fry your brain... in a good way.