Would you ever…? (Please…just say no.)
Taboo (from the Tongan tabu): Forbidden; as in, It should be taboo for anyone responsible for this ludicrous picture to work in Hollywood again. Ever.
Facts of the Case
Three preppy collegiate couples convene on New Year's Eve to drink heavily and play parlor games. Get your scorecards ready as the public address announcer identifies the players and their positions:
• Starting at Slacker, it's Benji (Derek Hamilton, Out Cold).
• At Slut, we have Benji's gal Kate (Lori Heuring, Mulholland Drive).
• Batting cleanup and playing Lush, it's the perpetually swacked Piper (Amber Benson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
• At Pharisee, the none-too-subtly named Christian (Nick Stahl, Bully).
• And warming up in the bullpen, today's starting Prude, it's the icy Elizabeth (January Jones, still recovering from a childhood spent denying that she's the sister of Jupiter Jones from the Three Investigators mysteries).
This year's game involves each of the six brats responding anonymously in writing to a probing sexual question: Would you have sex with a minor? Would you sleep with a person of the same sex? Would you have sex for money? Would you be surprised if the answers to all of the preceding are yes? (The only No is elicited by the query Would you sleep with your partner's best friend? At which the audience scoffs, "Yeah, right.")
Suddenly it's next December 31, and the gang's all together again to ring in another year. At the stroke of midnight, a package arrives containing five cards, each bearing a scathing label: Prostitute, Infidel, Homosexual, Rapist, Hypocrite. (Did you already guess that these labels connect back to the questions from last New Year's Eve? Then you're smarter than anyone involved in this film is.) Almost immediately, the bodies start dropping. Like you didn't know.
Inane (from the Latin inanis): Empty; insubstantial; lacking significance, meaning, or point; silly; for synonyms, see Taboo. This film artlessly juxtaposes the style and sensibility of the worst episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery against some of the most inept scripting, direction, and acting ever committed to celluloid. And it's not just a little bit bad—it's dreadful. If this film were underwear, Inspector 12 would reject it. If it were a contestant on American Idol, Simon Cowell would refuse to send it on to the next round. I've seen first-year film student projects accomplished with more panache than this steaming mess.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Taboo was filmed in Romania. (I'm not sure why—there are no exterior scenes, and only one location. It could have been filmed at my house for all it would have mattered.) Perhaps had it been filmed in Romanian, it might have turned out better. At least if it hadn't, it would be harder to tell. Writer (and I use that word guardedly) Chris Fisher's screenplay mashes an overdone And Then There Were None rip-off into Cruel Intentions, adds a dash of Clue (only without the comedy), then weaves it together with dialogue so lifeless and trite you'd swear the actors (and I use that word guardedly) were improvising it as they went along. Halfway along, the scribe inserts a new twist that doesn't improve matters any, and in fact sends what little credibility the movie had to this point spinning off the cliff into incoherence.
Fisher entrusts this masterwork to the butterfingered grasp of director Max Makowski, who manages through cinematically illiterate camera work and haphazard editing to make Taboo an even more ghastly experience than it had to be. Makowski's framing is consistently laughable—several times we sort of see characters do things, but not really, because the key part of the shot occurs just off-screen. (Example: one of the female characters tries to seduce one of the men, saying, "What do you think of my nightie?" Because the camera is set at a tight two-shot, she could be wearing greasy overalls, a down vest, and Doc Martens for all we can tell.) The editing is even worse—take the opening sequence, which starts so abruptly (and without titles) that I thought for a moment my DVD player had skipped the first chapter. No such luck, I regret to report.
Although all six of the actors have previous credits—some even in good films—everyone performs as though it's Week One of rehearsals at the local community theater. Miss Cleo would give a better reading than anyone in this cast. The only actor who displays so much as a heartbeat, naturally, is given the smallest role (Eddie Kaye Thomas at least attempts to be funny as the caustic token Jewish kid), while the two deadest weights—Nick Stahl and January Jones—have most of the big scenes. One can only hope these folks found great restaurants, bargain shopping, and a favorable exchange rate during their sojourn in the Balkans. [Editor's Note: No such luck, in Nick Stahl's case. He's filling master thespian Edward Furlong's shoes in the third Terminator film, due Summer 2003.]
The one factor in Taboo's favor is its brevity—only 81 minutes, including credits. But be warned: 81 minutes in the arms of someone you love is a whole other timespan from 81 minutes with bamboo splinters being shoved under your fingernails. Taboo bears far closer resemblance to the latter. 81 is also the number of IQ points I felt being leeched out of my skull through my eye sockets while I watched this travesty.
Columbia TriStar doesn't attempt to transform this sow's ear into a silk purse. In fact, the studio paid so little attention to this direct-to-video bomb they didn't even bother to verify the aspect ratio. The keep case advertises the film with this oxymoronic legend: "Presented in a FULL SCREEN VERSION, approximately 1.85:1." For the record, the transfer is roughly 1.85:1, not full frame (which is closer to 1.33:1, or 1.37:1 for many classic films), and appears to be anamorphic. It's a weak transfer overall, with the flat affect of a made-for-TV production. Given that most of the film takes place in low light settings, blacks show very little depth, and colors across the spectrum are muted and dull. Fuzzy edges crop up throughout the picture, especially in the occasional brighter sequences. I also noticed a surprising amount of print defects (doubtless the stock was purchased on the cheap) for so recent a film.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix is even poorer than the video, if that's possible. Ryan Beveridge's by-the-numbers score is cranked far too prominently in the track, such that it frequently overwhelms the dialogue. (Then again, that may a selling point.) There are scattered lame attempts to create some excitement with sound effects, but the only audio approach that helps this film at all is the mute button.
Just so we can get in and out quickly, the menu of supplements is limited to trailers for three other abysmal-looking flicks, including the Madonna opus Swept Away.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Who's the target audience for this movie? The premise suggests an abundance of sex, but libidinous teenagers (and those who love them) will be disappointed to find there isn't any nudity here (the few sex scenes take place mostly off-camera). Devotees of slasher flicks will be appalled by the relative bloodlessness. Fans of the six actors (if such there are—based on these inert performances, one would wonder why) can see them presented in more complimentary fashion elsewhere. People who enjoy the board game with the same name should stick to playing the game, which is intellectually stimulating and doesn't have anything to do with this movie anyway.
Destined for the fast track to the cutout bin at a video retailer near you. Might make an attractive coaster. Might also cause chromosomal damage.
Guilty on all counts. Probably guilty of additional crimes not named in the indictment—it's that bad. The Court issues its sincere apologies to the noble citizenry of Tonga for the crime committed against their language by the title of this film.
We're in recess.
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• Bonus Trailers: Swept Away, New Best Friend, So Close
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