My wife was away last weekend, so I took the opportunity to have a movie watching marathon. I went out to the theater to see Beowulf and Michael Clayton and watched The Invisible, Exiled, Hostel, Hostel Part II, L'Iceberg, Mr. Brooks, and The Tripper on DVD. Out of all of them, the movie I'm most interested in talking about is The Tripper.
So, The Tripper is David Arquette's homage to Z-grade exploitation movies: part sub-Friday the 13th slasher flick, part psychedelic freak-out a la Psych Out or The Trip (duh). It's a designer cult movie, like Planet Terror or The Devil's Rejects: it's transgressions of good taste and the rules of good filmmaking are all calculated.
Arquette really nails the feel of these movies, but I couldn't help wondering exactly what kind of achievement that is. How impressive is it to purposefully make a really bad movie? More importantly, how enjoyable is it to watch a movie that's trying to replicate that really bad movie experience?
My answer to both questions is: sort of.
(1) What Arquette pulls is sort of impressive. For one thing, he manages to achieve a consistent style and tone. For another, he gets lots of little details right: the awkward editing during the action sequences is awkward in exactly the right z-movie manner, as if each shot is always a few frames short of what it should be. Or the way the location seems like it was chosen because it's on land that one of the filmmaker's relatives owned and not because it really makes all that much sense in terms of the story.
And though the whole thing is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff is, as these things go, subtle. The sense that what you're watching isn't a real bad movie mostly come from some of the actors giving believable, low key performances (Lukas Haas). Luckily, a lot of the actors give appropriately lousy performances to make up for that (Paul Ruebens).
Still: is this an example of a filmmaker realizing some kind of "artistic" vision or more an example of a filmmaker making a virtue of necessity? That is: if you don't have any hope of making a good movie, try your hardest to make a bad one instead.
(2) I thought that the movie was only sort of enjoyable to watch.
I started comparing this to Grindhouse:
Death Proof took a z-movie idea and filtered it through what I would consider an almost European art film sensibility (i.e, the overly talky scenes, the repetition, etc.). That is: it doesn't function like a z-movie at all, really. It helps to have some knowledge of z-movies to pick up on its references and to appreciate the way it plays its variation on the crazy macho killer theme, but, to me, watching it felt more like watching an art house movie* - more late-David Cronenberg than early-David Cronenberg.
The Tripper, though, functions and feels just like a z-movie. On its surface, it really does look like the kind of movie you might find on MST3K.
Planet Terror was a mash-up of every crazy z-movie trope, but it was kind of a mess: it was all high points and it also went out of its way to let you know how funny it thought its jokes were.
In some ways, The Tripper is a better film: lower keyed, better paced, with more consistency of style and tone. It's a better recreation of genuine z-movies. But as bad as I thought Planet Terror was, it served its function of getting the audience revved up. The problem with The Tripper is that it ends up being uninteresting in the same way that a lot of actual z-movies are uninteresting. What can be fun about watching z-movies is that every once in a while something completely, accidentally cool/gonzo/ridiculous/beautiful/amazing/hilarious happens. But it's not as much fun (for me at least) when these things are done on purpose, especially since The Tripper doesn't really give me anything else (i.e. interesting characters, elaborate set pieces, etc.). So, while Planet Terror is, I think, not as thoughtfully made, The Tripper calls into question the whole idea of "thoughtfulness" when it comes to making a z-movie pastiche.
*This may be why this movie wasn't really a hit with audiences.