Where do old porn stars go when they 'die?' Not when they literally pass away and no longer cease to exist as living, breathing (f-ing, s-ing) individuals? Well, there's always work behind the scenes, and many have made the transition to Internet based business models...and quite successfully. Still, for most, the urge to be legitimized and escape the stigma of a career committed to sex is too much to bear. Instead, they continue in their carnal ways until the ultimate voting entity - the viewing public - demand they put their clothes back on. And then there's someone like Aramis Sartorio. Under the name "Tommy Pistol" he has been a Burning Angel mainstay (with titles like The XXXorcist and Evil Head) and alt-genre stalwart. Still, a life in service of smut was less than profitable, personally and psychologically. So his mainstream alter ego, Sartorio, has decided to "kill him off." The result is the riotous The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol, a film that becomes even more meaningful when you realize its autobiographical/real life subtext.
Tommy Pistol (Sartorio) is lost. Unable to land a poor paying job as a movie extra, his wife (Karen Sartorio) has laid down the matrimonial law: give up the dream of being an actor and get some legitimate employment, or lose everything. Well, one year later our miserable main character is alone in his filthy apartment, pleasing himself to porn and nuking yet another specious convenience store frankfurter. Baked and borderline insane, he starts to project, subconsciously, on where his dead end career choice might actually take him. Initially, he imagines being exploited by a ruthless snuff film producer (Caleb Emerson). Then, he get all proto-political and decides to become a production assistant/assassin to none other than former Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Finally, he morphs into a sleazy XXX filmmaker, stuck with a star (Daisy Sparks) oozing with a nasty supernatural staph infection...and he still has two important scenes left to shoot. What's an imaginary man in mid-midlife crisis supposed to do now? Punt?
The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is one of the best bow-outs ever. Along with efforts by buddy and partner in peculiarity, Caleb Emerson (Die You Zombie Bastards, Frankie in Blunderland), this insanely addictive film finds the proper balance between David Lynch like surrealism and tainted Troma bedlam. At first, it all seems like a overwrought inside joke. Without any knowledge of who Tommy Pistol really is, or the actor's actual existence behind the pseudonym, the entire project is perplexing. It's funny as Hell and weirdly disgusting, but it still seems to be a prolonged pet project. Then, we you realize who is in the cast, when you see that Pistol/Sartorio is actually alluding to his own issues in the business, everything goes doubly bonkers. Gruesome Death suddenly shifts from an all out gross out comedy with terror overtones into a massive mea culpa, guilt coupled with a series of depictions inferred in every act of violence and vileness. This is a response to all the claims of personal humiliation and degradation, and the result is a revelation.
This is a near masterpiece of misery. All the gross out gagging and genital joking is merely a mask for one of the most perceptive pieces on the state of pseudo-celebrity ever. Sure, we laugh at the various anarchic allegories set up within the individual vignettes, but there is more here than over the top performances and buckets of blood. The theme here is clear - it's almost criminal what people will do for even a slight suggestion of fame, and those behind the scenes know (and exploit) it. Similarly, the Ah-nold aspect - complete with political shun/shout-out - illustrates the other extreme: fame as a force for nothing but pure dictatorial evil/abuse. The first assistant (played in meta fashion by Mrs. Sartorio) is so put upon and spun around that she doesn't even realize that she's being scammed. When Tommy takes over, the desire to usurp the former superstar turns into a splendid slasher/stalker riff.
Finally, the whole infected porn star situation (lifted in part from a previous film by Pistol) is indeed disgusting, but it also argues for the damaging 'do anything' mentality that sweeps through the horrifying Hollywood scene. Pawing through the pus and open sours, it's clear that the siren song of success will bring people face to face with their own baser instincts. In fact, Pistol/Sartorio is clearly arguing for the loss of his own humanity. Throughout The Gruesome Death, he portrays himself as a clueless killer, a cruel manipulator and murderer, as well as a flesh peddler devoid of even the basics of personal dignity. The view becomes even more harsh when you look at the bookend material - here is a man who lost it all in pursuit of a dream that never fully materialized...and now he imagines it's too late, too much of him is gone. Sure, the symbolism is shocking in its scatological bent, but it's also true. In many ways, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is A Serbian Film with a far more serious sense of humor - and a much better message.
Considering how it was made and the financial limits involved, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol looks pretty good on DVD. The 1.85: 1 anamorphic widescreen presentation lacks a certain level of detail and the filmed on video transfer can dull both the colors and the clarity. Still, Sartorio shoots the material with an eye for the visual and this release capitalizes on his intriguing approach. Images are spellbinding in both their gruesomeness and good humor.
On the sonic side of things, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix makes sure we hear every line of loopy dialogue in crystal clarity. The rockin' soundtrack eats up much of the ambience once it kicks into gear, but for the most part, this is an excellent sounding home theater offering.
This DVD is loaded! In fact, it has so much meaningful added content that it comes dangerously close to earning a Collector's Edition tag. First up is an excellent director's commentary, Sartorio supplying a nice mix of self-deprecation and behind the scenes dirt. Then there is a nearly hour long backstage featurette, followed by interviews with many in the cast. We are then off to Space Camp as Joanna Angel take us through a decent (and unrated) Funny or Die sketch. Pistol's past in improv gets a shout out as Sartorio shows us sketches in Welcome to Queens. We then get a couple of music videos, another short or two, a selection of soundtrack material, information on the band who supplied the score, trailers, and slideshows. On a level with many of the best digital preservationists, this DVD package is like a Criterion Collection to crudeness - and that's a good thing.
All nasty naughtiness aside, this is a triumph of imagination and invention, a truly original work that argues for that age old adage of art imitating life, and in this case, a big visa versa. Sartorio may be embarrassed of Pistol and the public persona 'he' created. He may also be less than proud of the work he forged in his name. But the truth is that suffering usually begets success. The road to this triumph just hurts a whole helluva lot more than the route taken by others. Even if he never makes another straight film the rest of his life, Aramis Sartorio has unleashed a crackpot classic on the unsuspecting, brave film fan. While it may not appeal to all tastes, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is a terrific triumph of outsider will that is Highly Recommended, even if you are not that adventurous when it comes to horror comedy. Imagine something like Nekromantic as written by Judd Apatow and you get the idea.
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