Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Reflections of Evil is a 2002 independent film written, produced and directed by Damon Packard.

 Bobby and his big sister Julie are visiting the Universal Studios Tour one warm '70s summer day. Suddenly, Julie is gone, and Bobby is left with his bewildered grandmother. Julie is never found. Years go by, and Bobby grows up to be a disgruntled, angry street vendor with a temper like a faulty blasting cap. He views the world as a series of standoffs, and is constantly lost in a free-flowing stream of his own unconscious thoughts. When he's not being confronted by evil bums, he's harassed by angry dogs, teeth bared and ready for the attack. Bobby is also obese, an issue exacerbated by his unbridled love of sugar. As he spends his days wandering a wasteland-like L.A., he reflects on his past (including a sighting of a young Steven Spielberg) as he constantly battles with inner and outer demons. To Bobby, the world is an ugly place, and when he holds it up to the mirror of his mind, all he sees are Reflections of Evil.

It is safe to say that Reflections of Evil is a work of stunted genius. It is the intricate and scattered effort of a freaked-out filmmaker overdosing on '70s TV, horror anthologies, and a severe lack of psychotropic drugs. Playing like a perverted version of the Me Decade staple ABC Movie of the Week, with a little Night Gallery and Gary Collins-era Sixth Sense thrown in for good measure, this cinematic rant is a brave, baffling film. It is mise en scene as mosaic, atrocity as artistic aesthetic. Imagine if you could peek inside the soiled, throbbing psyche of Cousin Dell from Wild at Heart, or dig beneath the surface of the sound to find the true inspiration for Fred Lane's snuff film soundtracks, and you get the basic idea of what this maniacal movie is aiming for. There has probably not been a more telling take on our corrupted cultural mindset than this visualized assault. As a statement about the inherent heinousness, anger, distrust, and psychosis bubbling under the surface of our suburban social order, these reflections are very potent indeed.

The creator of this crackpot acid trip, one Damon Packard, is a story unto himself. The long version is full of obsessions, disappointment and audacity. The short version goes a little something like this: desperate to be a filmmaker, part-time street vendor Packard pools the funds from a recent inheritance, catalogs his collection of film and TV footage, improvises an idea, and sets off to make his own movie. After completing the project (like the recent Tarnation, an Apple computer-crafted collage that's part narrative, part labor of love), Packard makes more than 20,000 DVD copies of the project and distributes them for free. He leaves them around L.A. (in stores and at ATMs) and mails many directly to celebrities. He gets the occasional response (several messages, both good and very bad, have been catalogued on Packard's Web site), and finds a champion in Sylvester Stallone's son Sage. But mostly, Packard laments—in long, free-form Internet rages—about the lack of recognition, both monetary and meaningful, for his work. The lack of attention is sad, but understandable. If you don't understand the lines and forms in a Pollard painting, if you fail to grasp the connections and themes in free-form jazz, if David Lynch's short films leave you perplexed and pained, you will not embrace this movie's entertainment value. Packard is playing on an irritated ethereal plane unlike any other. His brilliance is in the ability to recall the past perfectly, while making it mesh within a post-modern isolation and anger. Certain phrases that have come to define our modern life ("I will kill you," "You don't want to f*ck with me") are repeated incessantly, spoken by gang members, hobos, cops, and everyday citizens. Packard's character is on the verge of an all-encompassing breakdown, a man battling for a stake in his own sanity. Some of the material here is darkly disturbing. Other parts are ludicrous and hilarious. Between Bob's battles with his abusive grandmother (who refers to her overweight grandson as "disgusting" so often you think she's suffering from some manner of mental vapor lock), and his confrontation with the hostile populace of L.A., you don't know whether to laugh, cry, or just shut the goddamn DVD player off.

Packard's muse may not be pleasant, but it is very powerful. Reflections of Evil is experimentalism in the form of excess, a public working-out of some very private problems. Obviously, Packard has cinematic penis envy in the form of a certain S. Spielberg. The entire film seems centered on the Universal Studio's era of the blockbuster auteur (specifically, a little TV film called Something Evil), and Reflections takes potshots at E.T.'s daddy as readily as it reveres his overriding filmic force. The nods to the ABC Movie of the Week are wonderful, since they recall a time when terror and suspense was found inside slow-motion tracking shots and ghostly images of young women wandering aimlessly.

Packard does attempt to impose a kind of narrative basis for what happens here (it's standard shock-theater twist-ending fair) but the truth is that he appears to be functioning in more of an autobiographical than fictional mode. Packard may just be passing off his oddball eccentricities and in-house idiosyncrasies on the audience (what's with all this Chemtrail conspiracy crap?), but the way he says it goes to the very heart of the motion picture experience. Few films play with the conventions of cinema as effectively and as menacingly as Reflections of Evil. Decades from now, scholars will probably point to this film and find it to be a defining moment of no-budget independent filmmaking. But with Packard's luck, one could also easily see it being roundly rejected and forgotten forever. That's the mystery of his muse. That is the ambiguity of this ambitious, amazing work.

Here's a little praise for Go-Kart Films as well. Coming from the world of punk rock music, their dedication to the DIY spirit of the genre is commendable. Over the last few months, movies like Ball of Wax, Ding-a-ling Less, and Grace and the Storm have proven that this company has a real eye for the unusual and unique. Reflections of Evil definitely falls into this category. The technical presentation is amazing, from the excellent 1.33:1 full frame image, which looks purposefully flawed to reflect the multimedia approach by Packard, to the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack that features snippets of popular film scores, crazy voice-over acting (Packard even overdubs his own voice), and lots of Industrial-inspired noise pollution.

One brief side note: This DVD runs a little over 100 minutes. The original film was over 138 minutes long, and contained several montages made up of found movie and TV footage, as well as parodies of Star Wars, Schindler's List, and E.T. Most of this material has been edited out. There were also several issues with song licensing, which means a few important tunes are missing here. It would be nice to see the full version, but money matters will obviously keep that from happening.

Indeed, for Damon Packard, the entire world is crafted out of conspiracy and cabals. It is forged out of a Free Mason sense of secrecy and purposefully set up to subvert the efforts of those wanting to make a difference. Reflections of Evil is a stuttering shock treatment approach to understanding this indecipherable design, a movie masquerading as a madman's mission statement. No one said the truth would be comfortable or easy. No one said the past was pain-free. Bobby understands this all too well, and just like his motion picture protagonist, Damon Packard also suffers with the obvious oppression of everyday life. This is an amazing cinematic shriek. It should not be missed.
Review by Judge Bill Gibron - DVD Verdict
"I loved this film the first time I saw it and I thought it was one of the best films to come out in 2002, I programed it at the Seattle Underground Film Festival and it was a huge hit." - Jon Behrens

137 MIN
If you like this film you should check out these other great films by Damon Packard available on DVD.

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