Tarantino knows how to write a cool, motherfucking criminal. The kinds of guys who’d shoot you just as soon as buy you a drink. Pop culture literate, slickly dressed crooks.
Tarantino did not write the Item. Dan Clark did.
You probably don’t know Dan Clark. As best I can tell, he’s still working in Hollywood. He used to run a television show that was designed to be the Ren and Stimpy of Jim Hensons Muppet stable. The Item is his foray into midnight movie schlock; creatures, transvestites, obscene amounts of blood, comedy and crime. It premiered in 1999 after having what seems to be a fairly successful run in the festival circuit. Ain’t it Cool News loved it. Variety did not.
The Item has the Holy Trinity of bad movies; it’s written, directed and starring Dan Clark. It’s campy and weird. It has a monster that looks like a large rubber phallus in bondage gear and a mad scientist with long white hair. It’s got sex, both fairly standard and incredibly unsettling. Blood, whenever flowing, is copious and expelled with great force. Simply speaking, it has all the anatomy of a great, bad movie.
But it ultimately fails. Why?
Perhaps it is in the reference material. For the most part, you can see where Clark is drawing from. The midnight movie, the grindhouse flicks that are the soul of Tarantino’s work, is the foundation of the Item. But simply playing with the concept without understanding the basis for it doesn’t work. It is a surface level take on the cool crook, even on the monster flick. The Item riffs on two disparate concepts — Tarantino and Alien — but without any depth.
For starters, there’s the creature.
Movie monsters tend to look like at least one of three things : a man in a rubber/fur suit, sphincters, and dicks. You could make an argument about penis envy or “what is really on the male mind” but it’s ultimately an easy shorthand for a gross out. It’s alien, but grounded in reality. As mentioned before, the monster in the Item (referred to frequently as “a monkey” due to an early misunderstanding) looks like a cartoon penis wrapped in leather straps. At one point, the main characters artist girlfriend pronounces it “uniquely feminine.” But it’s ultimately a set up to the joke that the creature looks like a penis. That’s it.
In contrast, take the monsters in Alien. They have elements of sexuality to them — the face hugger is ultimately a stand in for the aliens penis, the first death an act of alien rape. Not played for jokes, obviously, because where Alien is a drama, the Item is a comedy. But removed from the commentary or depth of the source material, it becomes the basest referential humor. Get it. It looks like a dick.
The movie does this frequently, skirting the line of being actually entertaining and falling instead into the trap of following other films without understanding them. It’s referential but removes the context. Done worse or better, it might have managed to be entertaining. As it was, it fell flat.
There’s a sequence, after the characters have undone whatever goodwill you might have towards them by murdering a group of innocent art students in a full anime gore-fest, where they stop and eat Chinese food. While sitting there, the group talks. But instead of allowing the topic to focus on one funny anecdote or moment (in Tarantino, prime examples would be Vince and Jules “Royale with Cheese,” or the Reservoir Dogs conversation about tipping) they just quickly cut between a bunch of juicy sound bites. The stand out one is where the art student girlfriend explains that being wealthy is the highest form of art. It’s the basis for an interesting concept -and indeed her relationship with the crooks, an artist among murderers, has the potential to be legitimately fascinating but it’s never explored. Like any moments of potential interest, it’s cast aside in favor of overwrought humor that tastes like a seventeen year old edgelord.
At the risk of sounding like someone discussing an art school film: I get it, I just don’t enjoy it. When, after killing someone, our antihero pees a smiley face in the ground I can see the outlines of what might be a joke. It just falls on its face and wiggles haphazardly in the dust.
Even things that should be funny in a “so bad it’s good” way feel less like well-intentioned mistakes and more like straight to camera nods to the viewer. A prime example of this is the penis monster who also has a voice. I’m not sure that any voice would have made any of these sequences better or worse, but the Item is voiced like a cartoon dragon. It sounds like something out a children’s show, and I guess that’s the joke? Get it. The voice is anachronistic.
Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge. It’s just not that funny.
Maybe it’s a product of its times. The Item came out in the 90s, when Internet was a slow connection to a boob tube and the weird shit was actually hard to find. Nowadays you can stumble upon something actually quiet strange rather than something play acting at absurdity. Maybe it’s meant for someone who wasn’t 9 when this film was at Sundance. When people write about my generation, which they usually do poorly, they talk about the quest for authenticity. Kids my age, they say, are obsessed with legitimate stuff. Finding a fake is the worst. The Item, it’s comedy and its referential humor, feel like an uninteresting fraud.
You can check it out on VHS, but save yourself the money and watch a Tarantino movie instead.
Homophobic language and situations : a series of characters are introduced who are labeled “drag queens.” It’s not clear whether these characters are actually drag queens, gay, or trans. Pronouns are mixed, sexuality is handled in a way that is not incredibly nuanced.
Blood — this might be the bloodiest movie I’ve ever seen. If blood is something that makes you nauseous, avoid this.