Kino pairs up their two features written and directed by Bret Wood, Psychopathia Sexualis and the more recent The Little Death, both of which were available separately, in one handy two pack. The discs are identical to the single disc release, the only difference here is a clips cover that holds the two DVDs together. Here's a look...
Psychopathia Sexualis is an interesting movie. It's isn't always perfect, in fact at times it is a bit flawed, but it is never less than interesting. Described by its writer/director as an attempt to bring to life the writings if Victorian era Vienna based sexual philosopher/psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose writing was, at the time of its publication, very controversial stuff. Krafft-Ebing is known for his efforts to shed some light and understanding on various acts considered perversions and Wood's film jumps right in and embraces all of the kink that his work offers.
Shot with an eye for period detail, Wood sets the film in the Victorian age which gives his cast ample opportunity to strut their stuff and his wardrobe team to really go nuts. Everyone here is decked out in period finery, as the film moves from on scene of graphic softcore sex to the next, bridged by what Krafft-Ebing wrote, which provides some welcome and necessary context. This isn't a movie heavy on plot, rather it's more like a series of set pieces and while some of them are admittedly very sexy and creatively staged, shot and lit, there are definitely times where the point seems to get lost in and amidst the bumping and grinding.
The movie's biggest flaw, however, isn't direction or recurring themes but the acting, which tends to be overdone and very stagey. What might have worked in front of a live audience on camera comes across as periodically forced and occasionally overwrought, making certain scenes that should have been intriguingly sexy unfortunately melodramatic. This makes it tough to convince ourselves that what we're watching is the real deal and when you can't convince, you can't connect. The film does succeed o on a visual level though, with plenty of lush camerawork and beautiful lighting making those overacted scenes of fairly graphic sexual inspections lovely to look at. The film is a little long at just shy of one hundred minutes in length and some more judicious editing choices probably could have helped out a bit here, but overall the visuals are strong and the movie has a rhythm to it that's so completely odd that you can't help but wonder where it's going to go next.
Ultimately Psychopathia Sexualis winds up an interesting work simply because it's based on some interesting material. The fact that in Kraft-Ebbings time sex wasn't really discussed even in medical circles makes his pioneering work and text significant in both historical and psychological perspectives. That Wood's movie stumbles in adapting to it is not just understandable but completely expected given the difficulties of taking something like this and making a movie out of it. It does manage to give us an interesting look at that era's views on homosexuality and supposed cures for it, sadism, vampirism, BDSM, water sports, lesbianism and plenty more. Some more connective bits would have helped but as it stands this is a good try and worth a watch for the curious even if the end result is imperfect.
The Little Death:
The Little Death is set in the Victorian era and begins when three young men, all friends, head into a brothel for an evening of entertainment courtesy of the lovely ladies employed there. The two eldest pair up with some prostitutes almost immediately, wasting no time and bound and determined to get their money's worth, while the third and youngest, Cyril (Clifton Guterman), is considerably more hesitant. Soon enough, he pairs off with a pretty young blonde named Lily (Christie Vozniack) who asks him to buy her a drink. He obliges, despite the fact that he doesn't have much money and the porter she enjoys are pretty expensive. When she asks for a second, Cyril heads over to interrupt his two friends, both in the heat of passion, hoping he can convince them to leave but his efforts are in vein.
He heads back to the bar and finds that the prostitute has vanished. While this is going on, a reformer bent on bringing a certain prostitute out of the brothel and back to proper society shows up. This woman, Eleanor Malchus (Courtney Patterson), is certain that the girl she is looking for is here and refuses to leave. She's brought to the private room of the man who runs the establishment and is told that she isn't here, while Cyril, understandably curious, tries to figure out just what is going on. The rest of the movie, as the packaging aptly puts it, a 'psychological game of cat and mouse' as our puritan heroine wrestles with her morals, Cyril with his curiosity and Lily with her very being.
At just seventy five minutes in length you'd think that The Little Death would go by quickly but the first half of the film drags a bit. Granted, some set up is required to get to the finale, and the finale does pay off, but the pacing of the beginning section of the film is its weakest aspect. Those who stick with it, however, will likely wind up fairly impressed with how all of this plays out. Wood's picture blends some bizarre sexual overtones with a few standard detective story/thriller elements and manages to make them work. Attention to period detail helps to set the mood, as the sets constructed for the movie really help to put us right there in the Victorian era with the characters as this all plays out. Nicely shot by director of photography Chris Tsambis and set to an appropriately quirky score by composer Paul Merger, the film transcends its modest budget and winds up looking and sounding quite lush. The ornate furniture of the brothel contrasts in interesting ways with the debauchery that goes on there and once the film takes its dark turn as it passes the half way mark, what at first seems classy and sexy soon turns rather sinister and more than just a little bit twisted.
Performances are pretty good across the board and if things are a little bit stagey at times, well, that makes sense as this was based on a play called Life And Death by Frank Wedekind, with liberal doses of Anton Checkov's short story A Nervous Breakdown mixed in for good measure. Had Wood done a little more to pull us in early one this would have rated higher but as it is, the pay off makes the slow pace of the first half more than worth it. Those who don't mind a slow burn and who appreciate a genuinely unexpected twist with some mild kink peppered throughout should give The Little Death a chance.
Both movies were shot on digital video and so the transfers here are pretty clean, there are no print damage issues to note. Some mild compression artifacts pop up in the darker scenes of both movies but overall the 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfers show good detail and nice color reproduction. Some mild shimmering can be spotted if you're prone to looking for such things but overall this is a crisp, clean and nicely detailed image. Both movies also make use of quite a bit of color tinting to get that sort of period look, it's fairly effective but it does sometimes result (intentionally) in some unnatural color reproduction in those scenes but again, this is part of the intended look, not a problem with the discs. All in all, both movies look quite good on DVD.
Psychopathia Sexualis includes Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo options, no alternate language or subtitles are provided. The 5.1 track gets the edge for doing some interesting pans with the score but this is a fairly front heavy mix. It sounds good though, with some occasional effects coming from the rear channels and helping to heighten tension and mood. The only audio option for The Little Death is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, there are no alternate language options offered up nor are there any subtitles provided. A 5.1 mix might have made a few scenes a little bit more lively but that's really the only complaint you can levy here. The dialogue stays clean and easy to understand and the levels are properly balanced. There are no issues at all with any hiss or distortion and all in all things sound just fine here.
Psychopathia Sexualis has a good bit of supplemental material, the bulk of which is made up of a collection of interviews with some cast and crew members. Interviewed here on camera are writer/director Bret Wood, producer Tracy Martin, director of photography David Bruckner, actress Lisa Paulsen, actor Bryan Davis and composer Paul Mercer. As you'd expect, we get some input on what it was like working on the film both in front of and behind the camera as we learn about character development, script ideas, the movie's score, different techniques used for the visuals and for the performances and more. There's quite a bit of material here and while it might have been better edited into one more cohesive feature or maybe a commentary, if you want to know more about the odd movie these guys have made, this will scratch that itch.
Also worth checking out is the isolated shadow puppet sequence that is used in the film and an accompanying documentary on how that scene was put together. Here we see how the puppeteers used shadows and light in interesting ways to get the right look for one of the standout sequences in the movie. Two short films from Bret Wood, the eight minute Judgement from 2005 and the seven minute Rapture from 2007 are also found on the disc and they're as interesting and bizarre as the feature. If you enjoyed the main attraction, take the time to check these out as they work on the same sort of level.
Rounding out the extra on the disc are a couple of trailers, nine deleted scenes that were likely cut for pacing reasons and which don't really amount to a whole lot, a still gallery, some script excerpts and some text information about Krafft-Ebing, related case histories and the book on which the movie is based. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
Extras for The Little Death start off with a pretty interesting Behind The Scenes featurette in which the bulk of the cast and crew are interviewed about their work on this project. This offers up some insight into Wood's creative process as a writer and director and also shows us what it was like on the set of the movie while it was being made. Cast members chime in on their characters and their experiences here and some clips show the sets from a different angle allowing us to get a look at the technical side of the production.
Also included on the DVD is a seventeen minute short film entitled The Other Half that wood made a few years back in 2008 that follows a woman who goes to rather extreme measures to deal with the problems caused to her by her disabled husband, a man with a serious penchant for cruelty. It's worth watching and a nice companion piece to the feature. Rounding out the extras are a handful of deleted/extended scenes and a trailer for the movie.
If you've got the single disc release of these two movies, there's no need to double dip on this two pack as it doesn't offer anything new. With that said, Bret Wood has made some interesting movies and Kino's presentation of both Psychopathia Sexualis and The Little Death is solid, with lots of extras that help add context to these two odd movies, both of which are worth checking out, particularly for those with a taste for the odd. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.