Friday, 27 May 2016

Scars of Youth

Director: John R Hand
Writer: John R Hand
Producer: John R Hand
Cast: Jeremy Hosbein, Amanda Edington, Bruce Culpepper
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

This is the second feature from John R Hand whose first film, Frankensteins (sic) Bloody Nightmare, is one of the strangest that I have ever reviewed: an avant-garde horror film with a deliberately (I think) impenetrable narrative. The most distinctive thing about Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare - and one of the few things that can be said about it with any degree of certainty - is that many of the shots were extreme close-ups, often lit from unlikely angles, rendering the whole film into a feature-length version of one of those ‘can you tell what this everyday object is?’ photo puzzles.

One of the few things which can be said with any degree of certainty about Scars of Youth is that Hand has at least now decided to move the camera further back so we can see who’s who and what’s what, although some scenes take place in deep, black, impenetrable shadows with only one item - usually a face - clearly lit. And nearly all the other scenes are shot with gels so that there’s a red shot or a blue shot or whatever.

Unfortunately, while the visuals are clearer here, the sound falls down badly. There is not a great deal of dialogue but much of what there is has been distorted so it sounds like an intercom or dodgy microphone. And fairly lengthy stretches of speech are consequently rendered incoherent. This may be deliberate - Hand breaking up the audio just as he broke up the visuals last time out - but I somehow doubt it. And while I’m not sure the film would be any easier to follow if I could hear the dialogue, I would at least have liked to give it a try.

You will undoubtedly have noticed, because you’re an intelligent person, that I have so far completely avoided any mention of what Scars of Youth is actually, you know, about. And that is because I haven’t a damn clue. I can tell you who is in this film, who made it, how long it is. I can even tell you that it is set 200 years in the future, thanks to the opening caption. But the plot? The characters? Hand is as obtuse and avant-garde as he was before.

Unless one is a pretentious wanker who spouts pseudo-intellectual rubbish and believes that every word is true, it is extraordinarily difficult to review avant-garde films. High-concept ones like Phone Sex are slightly easier but this is a film which definitely has a plot and characters, it just doesn’t want to take the easy option of revealing them to the audience.

The central character is called Paul (Jeremy Hosbein). His mother (Amanda Edington) has become addicted to some sort of drug which prevents her from ageing but makes her skin photo-sensitive and she now lives in a derelict building on the other side of a checkpoint. There are walls and fences which were erected a few decades ago by some figures wearing white protection suits (aliens? soldiers? Government agents?). Paul has a friend called Harold (Bruce Culpepper) who regularly smuggles across the checkpoint a small cylinder containing a recording of Paul counting or reciting the alphabet (because it is his voice that his mother needs so it doesn’t matter what he says). Paul lives in some sort of plastic tent with lots of old hardback books. We see flashbacks to when he was young, played by Hosbein’s own son Donovan (his mother, of course, played by the same actress without need for special make-up), and a photographer (John R Hand himself) took a picture of the two of them.

I think.

And most of that I gleaned from the first 15-20 minutes, after which it all becomes hopelessly - but I believe, deliberately - entangled and bizarre. For example, the recording cylinder never seems to be mentioned again. I would be lying if I said I had the slightest clue what is going on.

Let’s see what the synopsis on the JRH Films website says: “In a post-apocalyptic world 200 years in the future, society has broken down into fragmented groups who now dwell within a tangled wood, completely unaware of any civilization that exists beyond and governed by the white-suited agents of some ominous force, which could perhaps be nothing more than a high-tech manifestation of their own guilt and suffering. In this world, a young man living in a decaying wreck of a dwelling struggles to come to terms with his bleak existence while trying to save his mother from the grip of a strange black fluid which seems to prolong life but at the same time leaves it's users in a drug-like haze and causes scar-like tissue to cover their bodies.”

Well, er, that’s pretty much what I said. But that’s the first 15-20 minutes and this runs 82. What actually, you know, happens?

Very little happens, frankly, and it happens at extremely slow speed. There are long stretches where Paul or someone else simply stands still, pausing for a really long time. Maybe they’re thinking deeply.

But you know, all credit to John R Hand. He makes defiantly individualistic, personal, artistic films. The things that set his movies apart from the mainstream, from our conventional definition of a ‘good’ film, are things which he has created deliberately. Every image, every sound (well, maybe not the overly distorted voices), every edit, every bit of this film is Hand making a statement. I don’t know what that statement is, but I would rather sit through a John R Hand film, however incomprehensible (and consequently, it must be admitted, soporific) that might be, than suffer some of the don’t-know-don’t-care amateur rubbish I’ve reviewed on this site.

A few of the cast were also in Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare and one, Evan Block, was also in Drew Bell's Freaks remake Freakshow. Block is credited as ‘thief’ here but I honestly couldn’t tell you what that involved or where he appeared. I don’t recall anyone stealing anything in the film. But maybe they did.

Three years ago I didn’t give Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare a rating because I honestly had no way to judge it, no reference points, no appropriate criteria. I’m going to do the same with Scars of Youth, I’m afraid. How can I possibly give any sort of quantitative rating to a film which I didn’t understand? All I can say is that I think this is an improvement on the last one.

Review originally posted 14th February 2009

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