View Askew regular Bryan Johnson’s directorial debut VULGAR received a very limited theatrical release in the US during April 2002 and now hits DVD courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
Brian O’Halloran plays Will Carlson who scrapes a living performing tricks at children’s parties dressed as a clown called Flappy. Despised by the neighbourhood, who see him as a freak, and down-trodden by his demented mother (Deborah Karr) who resides in a nursing home, Will hatches a plan to re-invent himself as an adults clown entertainer called Vulgar in order to make extra money. Donning bald clown mask, make-up, suspenders, panties and bustier, (resembling a cross between Leigh Bowery and Divine) Will arrives at a bachelor party rendezvous only to be beaten an raped by a middle-aged man and his two adult sons, who film the proceedings on video.
Despite the urgings of his best pal Syd (played by director/writer Bryan Johnson) to report the incident and get an AIDS test, Will decides that his predicament will only lead to more hostilities from the neighbourhood and press, and destroy what little credibility he still has as a children’s entertainer. Returning to his day-job as Flappy, Will encounters a police road-block due to a domestic disturbance in which an estranged husband takes his daughter hostage and demands a meeting with his wife whom he intends to kill, Will decides to rescue the girl and overcomes the husband who is promptly arrested, and subsequently hailed a “hometown hero” by the local news and press agencies. His popularity soars and Flappy becomes a national celebrity complete with his own tv show as a children’s entertainer. When the gang that assaulted him get wind of this they decide to extort money from Will by threatening to expose highlights of the rape in order to bring about his downfall, but Will has other ideas…
VULGAR is a rape revenge thriller with a difference; a black comedy so bleak it will have most audiences squinting with laughter as well as being horrified – at an opening night party it was rumoured 50 people walked out of the film’s first screening in disgust during the assault scene. Although not being overtly graphic, the MPAA demanded several cuts in order to avoid an NC-17 rating; to scenes involving the rape, a bottle breaking over a character’s head, and references to a character wearing a diaper being referred to as a child. Fortunately, Lions Gate have issued an unrated version with the cuts re-instated, together with an R rated version for distribution to US stores such as Blockbuster.
Despite being shot on 16-mm, Lions Gate’s DVD, as a 1.85:1 transfer is nicely presented bearing minimal film grain and accompanied by a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that does justice to Ryan Moore’s foreboding jazz score that shifts style between comic Keystone cops style piano to circus sax delirium. Despite Flappy’s contrived clown to the rescue sequence (Chapter 11: “A Spark”) the script is nicely developed and contains some hilarious dialogue, though some may find several scenes involving Will and Syd somewhat verbose.
Considering this is Johnson’s directorial debut he does a nice job, I particularly enjoyed his handling of family interplay involving the three rapists and the interpersonal exchanges between Will and his mother in which she makes him scapegoat for her condition. The denouement is tense but injected with a heavy dose of dark humour and nicely photographed by Dave Klein. The DVD is loaded with extras including a 37-minute documentary in defence of DOGMA (that has nothing to do with VULGAR), an audio commentary by Johnson, Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, Brian O’Halloran and Monica Hampton, deleted footage (including an alternate ending), film festival notices, and a photo gallery. Definitely one to check out.
Carl T. Ford