By definition, exploitation films tend to be exploitative. This is especially of the horror variety, where there is a notorious tradition of yes, exploiting so-called deformity or pronounced physical differences for shock and fear. Tod Browning’s Freaks is the most hotly debated example, but the case of Rondo Hatton (best known for playing “The Creeper”) is probably more on-point. That is the sort of film-within-the-film a rather Herzogian director is shooting, but the wider film that encompasses it is rather thoughtful and responsible. Viewers will have to take a long hard look at themselves as they gaze on the unconventional cast of Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life, which opens tomorrow in New York.
Mabel will be playing Freda, a blind German lass, who falls in love with a fellow patient at a mildly mad doctor’s private sanitorium, but she spurns him when she regains her sight. The rejected lover will be played by Rosenthal, an occasional actor living with neurofibromatosis. Everyone thinks it is cool to take a photo with Rosenthal, but it is really the worst kind of patronizing, ego-stoking behavior. Mabel is the exception. She quite likes Rosenthal, perhaps even romantically, or maybe just as a method exercise.
The title is presumably a reference to the notorious 1952 exploitation movie Chained for Life, starring conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton (there are indeed conjoined twins in this Chained too). However, it is the references to Freaks that will really jump out at cult movie fans. “Herr Director” is making a movie of that ilk, but Schimberg did not. Nor did he merely serve up a lecture tisk-tisking us for our prurient gawking. Instead, gives us an unusually intriguing and strangely moving relationship, brought to life by the two terrific co-leads. It is hard to say whether Mabel and Rosenthal truly share a romance, but it is something.
Sadly, it would probably strike Hollywood as opportunism if the distributor launched an awards campaign for Adam Pearson, but his performance as Rosenthal is worthy of such attention. It is truly a charismatic and humane turn that never resorts to cheap sentimentality. Likewise, Jess Weixler is both mysterious and vulnerable as Mabel. It is also a bit mind-blowing to see Charlie Korsmo ham it up as Herr Director, his first screen appearance in twenty years. Fans might suspect this is a bit of an in-joke, since he is best known for playing “The Kid” in Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which featured plenty of the grotesque villains that the comic strip was famous for.
Schimberg garnered a fair amount of notice for his ultra-indie debut, Go Down Death, but the film itself didn’t land. However, he has clearly honed his skills over the intervening years. Chained is a remarkable auteurist work, that effortless segues from objective reality to the film-in-production to fantasies, stories, dreams, and reveries. Although he keeps viewers off-balancing and guessing, it is clear every disorienting step is intentional, carefully crafted, and weirdly effective. It is not a horror movie, but it offers a challenging perspective on the horror genre. Highly recommended, Chained for Life opens tomorrow (inexplicably on 9/11) in New York, at the IFC Center.