Subversive cinema is a slick, twisted genre unto itself. Some may call it avant-garde or celluloid theater of the absurd, but when you look past its peculiarities and eccentricities, what you end up with usually is a social commentary clouded by lots of outlandish and arcane ideas. They are almost always visually vibrant films, movies that make their statements in broad bands of color, or intricate sketches of homage and reference. The ideas inside can be equally striking, providing lessons in life and living that few have ever considered or contemplated. And it's pretty much a guarantee that, if they have been pondered, it wasn't in a way as unusual and unique as this motion picture manner.
There is a major caveat, however, when one attempts this manner of seditious storytelling. On occasion, one's filmic eyes can grow too big for their canvas, and overwhelm the necessary narrative elements with excessive eye candy. It's a tenuous and tricky tightrope to walk, and people who only playact at moviemaking can occasionally get swept up in its overdone optical opulence. The results are not revolutionary but ridiculous, mired in a murky sense of purpose and even greater guarantee of confusion. Beg! by director Robert Golden is one such formidable fence sitter. On the one hand, it is a starkly original work, a film that denounces class and obsession as it celebrates slime and vileness. But somewhere between the gore and the glory, the movie misses a few beats, keeping it from being the dissident classic it strives to become.
St. Caninus Hospital is not your typical English infirmary. It is a disgusting, decrepit place with its own hot jazz nightclub and an underground vivisection ward. The administration is waiting for a major report so that they can make serious changes to the place, and prime in their sights is the Women's Ward and its head, Dr. Penny Second. Unfortunately, Dr. Second is protected by her father, a senior member of the staff, and well-respected physician on his own. But when he suddenly takes ill, the anti-female faction is poised to strike. It's another incident, however, that suddenly gets the hospital's undivided attention.
The head of neurology is found dead. He was drugged, and a live dog was sewn up inside his stomach. Naturally, when both awoke... His death sparks several tangential issues. He was Dr. Second's lover. He was also a supporter of some of the staff changes. The enigmatic head of security wants the killer and puts his top man on the case, a vile detective named Stiltskin. The cop immediately falls in love with Dr. Second. As his obsession grows, so do the number of bodies, each one with a dog sewn up inside. It may take more than police work to uncover the individual behind the killings and save Dr. Second from the budgetary chopping block - among other things...
Apparently saved from cinematic oblivion (at least in Region 1) by a company that truly care about independent art, Troma brings us Beg! one of the most unusual titles in its entire catalog - and that's saying a lot, considering some of the craziness they've handled over the years. Imagine Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom directed by Peter Greenaway, or Brazil helmed by David Lynch and you begin to get the idea of the type of hallucinogenic horror show you are getting here. Based on a stage play (Lord knows how this material worked in a theater setting) and fluctuating wildly between dense, dark comedy and Grand Guignol bloodletting, this is a nightmare as neo-futurism, an allegory in which all the symbols and icons are slightly bent and broken. It is hard to fathom exactly what scribes Peta Lily and David Glass had in mind when they made up this monster. There are expositional gaps, corrupted characters designs and internal logic leaps o'plenty. Add in director Robert Golden's daring, perverse eye and a cast that's part cartoon, part creature feature, and you've got a map of the entire cinematic world at your disposal. Like any adventurous filmgoer, our creative team expects you to pick up the parchment they forged and discover the path to perfect understanding.
There is some amazing material here, images and imagery that are austere in their originality and power. The disco where the doctors and nurses unwind is like Blue Velvet's Slow Club gone carnal. The singer, a solitary figure with piercing eyes and an amazing physical presence, seems to shriek her songs in primal screams of pain. There is an odd connection between her and Dr. Second, and it may have something to do with all the testosterone flowing around them. Beg! is a movie about men, about their 'dogged' determination to get ahead and their willingness to patronize those without power. Dr. Second is only one of four or five women we see in the entire hospital. Beside our chanteuse, the rest are nurses with various physical maladies (bad teeth, skin blemishes) marring their professional appearance. Indeed, our terrifying torch and our steadfast doctor are the only visions of loveliness in what is otherwise a grubby, grimly world.
Following in the footsteps of his far more famous idols, Golden does love the juxtaposition between beauty and bile. Beg! is a film filled with such explorations of the sacred and the profane, the gorgeous with the grotesque. Everything about the film's visual sense is laid out in polar opposites - people, places and things - that each have their own deranged, demented doppelganger. Golden continually plays with those conventions, making his points with both power and subtlety. Dr. Second is the obscure object of affection for two different and divergent men during the narrative - the oily, muscled Det. Stiltskin who looks like a bursting boil in need of lancing, and the natty dressed and clipped demeanor of fellow Dr. Rogers. Of the two, Stiltskin is truer in his feelings. Love crashes over him in waves of torment and anguish. He even goes so far as to surgically alter his chest so that he can carry a picture of Second close to his heart - literally.
Rogers, on the other hand, is a dashing man who, unbeknownst to Second, holds the key to her fate in his hands. He is behind the negative report that will close Second's ward, and he also has his hand in other aspects of the hospitals "secret conspiracy" that may or may not have something to do with her father's condition. Throughout most of the movie, Second is seen as a pawn, a caring and considerate doctor undermined by a bureaucracy ruled by inefficient, effete men. Her father has paved a very difficult path for her to follow. As a fellow doctor, he set standards so high that Second seems unable to ever reach them (and thus, her last name). Naturally, we get a shift in this dynamic as well, and in a couple of cases, it really undermines Beg!'s aesthetic. In a film where a killer is on the loose, where everyone and anyone could and can be something they are not, to have not a single soul be what they appear to be is disorienting and odd. It more or less works here, but may baffle some people who wondered why they waited around for the denouement.
Then there are the dogs. Naturally, with a hospital called "St. Caninus", a plot point revolving around death by dog, and a noisy pooch who starts the whole crime scene ball rolling, Golden fixes the cur as one of this main symbols. But other than the obvious link as MAN'S best friend, it is hard to see where the bow-wows fit in. If Golden is linking men to their mongrels, he never makes the connection clear. The head administrator has a perky little poodle with an irritating hairdo, but the rest of the staff is puppy free. A young rape victim enters the Woman's ward, and Dr. Second is obsessed with making sure the girl doesn't loose her pet. Dr. Second doesn't own an animal, but she seems obsessed by a dream in which a dog-like creature attacks her. Frankly, the link between people and pincher is underdeveloped, as if Golden assumed we'd fill in the blanks for what "dog" actually stands for. It is obviously part of the play's concept (where do you think the title comes from), but it's too bad that it's not more fully fleshed out. There is nothing quite as aggravating as an incomplete metaphor.
Still, when a movie can be controversial, thought provoking, visually arresting, intellectually challenging and cinematically adventurous, it's hard to hate the minor factors that just don't add up. Beg! is not a perfect film, and one images that it would have played a lot better had it been seen when it was originally released (1994) and not 11 years later. The acting is proficient and effective, and the movie is directed and designed with a fatalistic flair for the bizarre. Still, Beg! does become a bit of a mixed bag of often bewildering ideas. It seems to stand for something that neither the writers nor the filmmaker want to own up to. Instead, we get puzzle box picture making that is stunning to look at, but tough on the old noggin. We're willing to go along with subversive, rebellious ideas. Cinematic anarchy is almost always fun and refreshing. But Beg! makes us work too hard...which may be the ultimate rationale behind its peculiar, unpredictable sense of storytelling.
Troma is again praised for picking up this title and releasing it to the general DVD marketplace. They don't win many brownie points on the visual presentation however. First, the good news. The colors are sensational and the print is uniformly clean. We get lots of excellent contrasts and just scant amounts of grain and compression. Now the bad news. This cinematic oddity is presented in a non-anamorphic image that will make individuals in love with their 16x9 systems weep over the lack of consideration. A film like this NEEDS its original aspect ratio preserved, and while the letterboxing is fine, the lack of such technical respect is unnerving.
Typical of Troma titles as of late, the Dolby Digital Stereo is overmodulated and brash. Sound effects wipe out important dialogue. The music manages to be both delicate and bombastic, sometime in the same scene. Whenever chaos occurs onscreen - and it can be often in this film - the cacophony is almost deafening. True, this is a movie with a heightened sense of realism and fantasy, but to overemphasize aurally what is happening in the film seems rather unfair to the DVD audience.
Sadly, Troma does not trick out this DVD with lots of added content. This is odd, since Beg! is the kind of film that demands explanation and context. Instead of the pleasant but perfunctory introduction by Lloyd (which at least avoids the Fill in the Blank format he's favored over the last several titles) we should have been given a commentary. Instead of the collection of standard Troma merchandising and trailers, we should have received a behind the scenes documentary, or an interview featurette with cast and crew. Part of bringing an unknown cinematic entity to the public is understanding that a proper stage needs to be set for its unveiling. Simply dumping a difficult film on an unprepared audience is a recipe for digital disaster - and, honestly, Beg! deserves better.
Not everyone will like Beg! There will be those who see the glitter and the gore, the comedy of manners clashing with the stupefying surrealism and simply throw their hands up in stupefaction and non-caring. Others will take one look at Robert Golden's grand design, his careful tweaking of British convention with horror film highlights and immediately dig the new breed. This critic sits somewhere in the middle. As an experiment in style INSIDE substance, a freakish fever dream of dogs and the doctors who employ/destroy them, Beg! is a monumental achievement in everything that makes cinema exciting. But as a memorable work of understandable storytelling, as a non-linear take on office politics and interpersonal problems, it is very tough going. Like all films in the subversive genre, we are dealing with a highly individualistic filmmaker working from a highly specialized place in his or her own image factory. Sometimes, they succeed. Occasionally they fail. Beg! is neither, but nor is it a bust. It's hard to define and defend, and in the world of the avant-garde, that may be the best, truest badge of honor.
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