Sex Madness Revealed (Kino Lorber, NR)

The audio commentary is a much beloved mainstay of home video releases. Some can be studious and others bizarre or humorous. Paul Thomas Anderson notably recorded the commentary for his sophomore feature Boogie Nights while inebriated, and confesses to learning much of what he knows about filmmaking from John Sturges’s commentary for Bad Day at Black Rock. With cult programs such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax opening the door to less academic, more comedic uses of the commentary track, there’s been a small influx of comedians and web producers supplementing films with their own narratives.

Sex Madness Revealed somewhat parodies those internet scholars and humorists while inventing a fictional backstory for a real but obscure exploitation film: Sex Madness (like Reefer Madness, but warning against syphilis instead of cannabis). Think MST3K meets What’s Up Tiger Lily? Patton Oswalt plays Jimmy Morris, “The Film Dick,” a giddy cinephile with unbridled pretensions who records a commentary with the unnerving Chester Holloway (Rob Zabrecky), the so-called Grandson of the “real” director of Sex Madness. Framing the commentary and underlying film is the desktop of an unknown internet user and devoted cinephile (whoever this is, s/he’s interested in dead Swedish actors, as evidenced by the tabs left up in the browser). Something interesting occurs, here, if we consider Sex Madness and The Film Dick’s commentary both pseudo-documentary, and that’s a triple decker meta-mockumentary. It makes for a most intriguing concept that teems with narrative possibilities. The story that writers Patrick Cooper and Tim Kirk whip up, however, fails to serve said premise, despite having a few strong moments here and there.

Sex Madness Revealed works best when it truly engages with the source material. Little oddities of the original film—likely just production goofs—receive new and often disarmingly chilling contexts. Confused looks into the camera by an actor, which can be chalked up to a bad performance, are interpreted as the actor witnessing something horrible occuring on set, just beyond the frame. An actress hiding her face in the shadows is no longer a throwaway acting choice, but a deliberate attempt to shield her legitimate terror as the insane director manipulates her from behind the camera. Unfortunately, these moments don’t get enough emphasis and, instead, the writing primarily serves to build up the fake history of the film which can’t actually be witnessed and ultimately isn’t as interesting.

The DVD features the original Sex Madness with no commentary; it’s possible that, for some, knowing the original story might make the mock-commentary more fun. The weird and frank treatment of sexuality and disease strikes one as rather outrageous for a film from the thirties, although the moralistic message explains how it kept the censors away. Still, you’ll want to avoid eating while watching, as the real footage of syphilis patients hasn’t dulled in shock value. Another special feature has Rob Zabrecky conducting a séance with comedian Will Forte in an attempt to contact W.C. Fields. The short plays like a combination of a comedy skit and paranormal TV show, with touches of experimental video, in much the same way that the main film does. Given that, the entire release ought to be watched as one multimedia piece in order to get anything out of it, as Sex Madness Revealed is weak as a standalone movie. On top of those features, writers Cooper and Kirk provide their own commentary—a real commentary of a fictional commentary of a real movie being played on a fake person’s computer. So that’s fun. However, I’m not compelled to return to this film, although I’ll be interested to see how far the idea can be pushed. | Nic Champion

 

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