There's a fine line between reverence and rip-off, an incredibly thin tightrope between hijacking and homage. Just because you are enamored with someone's artistic efforts doesn't mean you have to steal them for yourself. You can pay tribute and stay original as well. Most first time filmmakers just don't get this, though. They tend to believe that if Tarantino tossed it up on the screen, if Gilliam managed to glorify it or Burton settled for nothing less, they too will not compromise - just copycat. That is why we see so much derivative dreck in the independent/ no budget/ homemade movie biz. Originality is such a rare commodity that those who are looking to break into the big leagues don't want to try for their own vision, they'd really rather just 'borrow" someone else's.
At first, Buzz Saw appears to be another of these big screen burglars. It wears its references loudly and proudly and never fails to announce them frequently and often. But instead of being a slave to their showcase, locked in a duty-bound dimension from which there is no escape, directors Robin Garrels and Dave Burnett actually manage to forge something original out of their love for the work of others. And while many may not like the obvious nods to far more famous filmmakers and their recognizable riffs, credit has to be given to this brave, brash combo. Rarely does absconded admiration lead to uniqueness. But in the case of this somber, strange tale of spacemen and slaughter, crackpots and chemical dependency, we get such a fully realized rarity.
Pete and Cass are maintenance men at the Pea Tree Apartments. Each one is an addict: Pete loves alcohol, while Cass craves everything else. They spend their days punching the clock, chewing the fat, and occasionally fixing the flaws in their decrepit old building. When Pete sees an ambulance leaving the property one morning, and learns that one of the older residents has been found dead, he naturally thinks nothing of it. Cass, as expected, has an opinion on the circumstances of the death, since he has a very strong outlook on EVERYTHING.
Intermixed between the service calls and lunchtime trips to the Goody Goody, the Pea Tree is suddenly overrun with corpses. The retarded son of a bizarre old man is found gutted. An odd computer geek girl is discovered rotting away in her bathtub. The local police officer, a good friend of Pete's, begins to suspect Cass. After all, the jittery janitor is a notorious dope fiend who hangs out with an equally unsavory group living in one of the more rundown units. But with the electronics and tools seemingly coming to life on their own, and a couple of creepy kids turning up to take notes on the carnage they see, something...sinister is going on at this doomed domain.
Unlike any movie you've seen - especially in the increasingly redundant homemade horror film category - Buzz Saw almost defies description. Like watching an alien invasion splatter fest as envisioned by David Lynch or some freaked-out foreign visionary's take on modern suburban America, this is one of the most irregular and referential films you are likely to see coming out of the indie world. Co-directors Robin Garrels and Dave Burnett pay homage to the stylized illusions of their iconic idols (Lynch, the Coen Bros.) to offer up an original take on fright and tension. This is the Twin Peaks of terror, the Mulholland Dr. of mad Martian chronicles - expect, it's really none of those things. Indeed, Buzz Saw refuses to play by the policy of convention. It wants to thwart expectation while drafting a new set of rules by which to complete its calling.
There are so many good things going on here that some could misconstrue this movie as some manner of outsider masterpiece. And for the most part, this description is apt. Unlike other exercises in peculiarity and precariousness, Garrels and Burnett understand odd. They never fail to fill out their fictional realm, giving it those details that keep us believing in its occasional improbable authenticity. This is just not weird for weird's sake, but a true attempt to fashion fantasy onto film, to make the world in which we live and breath seem just a little off-kilter. Buzz Saw is quirky and crazy but not completely buried inside its idiosyncrasies either. As a result, we get a fantastic if sometimes flawed look at the unconventional lives of equally eccentric people. That we get involved with these individuals, caring about their crackpot concerns is part of Buzz Saw's sensational sensibility.
Indeed, the clever and careful characterization is the first thing that draws you into this dream state as daily routine. Both from a writing and acting standpoint, Buzz Saw contains enough strange and/or plaintive personalities to fuel an entire series of cinematic outings. Any of the apartment dwellers we follow could have their own narrative, from the crazy computer geek in the run down room, to the group of junkies arguing over their next fix. Both of our leads live lives so full of unanswered questions and unresolved issues that seeing them battle their own demented demons for 97 minutes would make equally evocative entertainment. But again, Garrels and Burnett balance the density with the diversion, keeping the movie light and airy while providing palpable menace and equally obvious melancholy. Someone looking for an expressionistic view at mental illness and co-dependency can stop their journey. Buzz Saw belies its seemingly simple intentions to come up with one calm, considered cinematic asylum.
Then there are the surreal circumstances of the narrative. Pete is a diabetic alcoholic, working a dead end job at an apartment complex possessed by alien children, and overrun with residents from Hell. Cass is his own personal propaganda machine, a drug addict addled with more mindbending conspiracy theories and social stratagems than plain ole common sense. Together, they are the Frick and Frack of failed dreams, two lost souls struggling through life without a single set connection to reality. In one of the movie's most stunning conceits, Garrels and Burnett make it appear that Pete and Cass could both be the killers. They also suggest that neither one is. Certainly, we see Cass disassemble the body of an OD victim in the maintenance shop, but we are never quite sure if the dismemberment even happened. It is especially true when he's more or less caught red handed and...nothing much of consequence occurs.
The makers of Buzz Saw love to buck convention this way. Like the auteurs they long to mimic, they take a decidedly different approach to every aspect of their film. That is why we have a slasher film with very little of the genre's standard stiffness, a character study with only minor concern for consistency, an extraterrestrial exercise that completely downplays the sci-fi situations and a dark comedy that emphasizes the gloom over the gags. Add in the delightful particulars sprinkled throughout the sets, a wonderful way with incongruity and conceptual clash, and several signature visual themes that simultaneously run through the imagery (the numbers on the apartment doors, the taglines on the t-shirts worn by a wheelchair bound crank-head) and you've got one great big gambit. Indeed, Buzz Saw takes so many chances, and risks so much ridicule that when it pulls into the final sequence and closing shots, you can't help but rejoice that it made it all the way with its integrity and originality intact.
Certainly, Garrels and Burnett stumble on occasion. Pete's dad, a once drunk ex-clown is just an excuse for deadpan irony. And while her son plays an important role in the movie's frantic finale, Fuchsia is not really that interesting a character. She doesn't really represent what the filmmaker's think that she does (goodness and luminosity, with just a touch of the sinister in her designs) and her presence seems purposeful, not organic. Similarly, Buzzy the boy hero is another dangling loose end. While the young actor portraying the precocious one certainly looks the part of pensive and perplexed, he doesn't have enough scripted inner drive to even suggest the bravery we see later on. And some of the questions these filmmakers pose are so interesting (what was the weird girl doing with all the computer equipment, why does everyone have black or blackened eyes) that to leave them ambiguous is unfair.
Still, for something just slightly off center, for a horror film that brews up its own concoction of creeps and crawls, Buzz Saw is something special. Flushed with symbolism, unique in its approach and just reverential enough to be worship, not outright theft, it is hard to hate this stimulating and effective film. There will be some who will try, who will decry its leaps in logic and argue that the bloodletting and gore aren't gratuitous enough, but that would be dissection for the sake of dissent. If you simply allow this weird, wicked vision to have its way with you, to seep into your brain like the French fried fever dream it is, you'll truly enjoy this journey into the realm of the unreal. Garrels and Burnett should be praised for parting ways with old school concepts of homemade cinema. They have crafted something that feels as epic in scope as they probably imagined their project to be.
Shot on digital cameras and processed to look like film, Buzz Saw does have some transfer issues. There is heavy grain in the 1.33:1 full screen image, as well as an overall fuzzy feel. Some of the lighting and framing is very effective, while other times we wish for a more straightforward approach to the visuals. The colors can often feel faded, and the dichotomy between dark and light is not very deep. While this all may be part of Garrels and Burnett's dreamscape design, it can make the optical aspect of Buzz Saw a little underwhelming.
One of the best aspects of this movie's tech specs is the amazingly opaque sonics. The filmmakers obviously took time to properly modulate their Dolby Digital Stereo mix, making sure elements like music and sound effects didn't overpower the dialogue. Also, Garrels and Burnett understand the power in subtlety and silence. Buzz Saw is not a non-stop cacophony of score and shouting (though it does have its hyperactive moments). Instead, this film takes as much care and concern for its aural presentation as it does its more enigmatic elements.
Sub-Rosa comes through again, offering up a DVD bonus package that is substantial and substantive. Over the course of this densely packed disc, we are treated to not one, but two commentary tracks, a behind the scenes featurette, a complete subplot that was edited out of the film, a series of outtakes and deleted scenes, a short film entitled Last House, a preview trailer for Buzz Saw and other Sub Rosa products, as well as stills gallery.
While the mini-movie is all arty pretension (too many crazy camera angles and tricks to successfully sell its spurned lovers' storyline) and the trailers tend to be spoiler heavy, the rest of the added content is excellent. The excised subplot involving the creepy couple called the Nulls is rather interesting, since it gives us another look at the murderous modus operandi of the narrative. Though it is probably the least developed of the numerous victim tableaus, one still gets a feel for the filmmakers' vision.
The deleted scenes are also fascinating, as they provide insight into characters (Pete's dad, Cass) that were otherwise omitted from the movie itself. One gets a similar sensation from the Behind the Scenes featurette. Though it is heavy on the goofing off, and does lapse into silly showcases for tired cast and crewmembers, we still learn some fascinating facts about this production. Without a doubt however, the best extras on this DVD are the commentaries.
The first track features directors Garrels and Burnett, along with star Stephen J. Heffernen (Pete). The second alternate narrative features actors Jason Allen Wolfe (Cass) Lisa Anne Harness (Fuchsia) and Chris Grega (Joe the Cop). Of the two, the first is far superior. The performers-only track is rather sparse, with the cast getting far too caught up in the film to provide anything but the most basic information ("It was cold.", "That was nasty."). The filmmakers plus Pete offer up a very loose, very lively discussion. While they tend more toward the anecdotal as well, they do explain a great many of the movie's many mysteries, acting as a true supplement to their story and sensibility.
While it's true that Buzz Saw definitely dances to its own unique drummer - and occasionally misses a step along the way - this is still a frighteningly fun and enjoyable film. The direct lifts from other filmmakers are not overly aggressive, and the tendency to take everything inherent in the genre with a wink and a nod is exciting and challenging. Of course, there will be those who fail to tune in to its twisted tenets, who just don't get what Garrels and Burnett are going for. Yet such quibbles are to be expected when one pushes the boundaries of believability and genuineness. Sure this is really just half-baked horror helped along by an ironic eye and a keen ability to thwart principle, but in the staid and stifled world of most no budget indie cinema, such attempted artistry is greatly appreciated. You may not understand everything that happens at the Pea Tree Apartments, but you'll definitely be glad you settled in for this 97 minute visit.
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