Schlarb, Ohio…s small town overrun by misfits, freaks and weirdos
When a new boarding/halfway house opens for recently released mental patients, the small town of Schlarb, Ohio seems instantly overtaken by lunatics. Among the misguided morons is Dickie, a near homeless halfwit who rummages through the town trash for all his personal needs. There is Pricey, an infantile young woman who cares for her rag doll child as if it was alive. There is The Clapper, who believes his hands control all the technology in town. There's Crazy Connie, who enjoys angering the locals with her gutter ways. And then there's Caduceus, a bald behemoth who silently monitors the young people as if on a secret quest. The population of Schlarb hates their new neighbors. The teens belittle and tease them and the adults mistreat and abuse them. They even refer to them by a derogatory name—Townie—noting that they, now, represent what Schlarb is all about. But one day, things begin to go completely askew. Dickie stumbles upon a corpse, and feeling very lonely, takes the lifeless female form home for some tenderness. A man assaults Pricey and her precious doll goes missing, so she decides to replace it with a friend's living male child. And when Caduceus is targeted for harassment by the high schoolers, he turns the tables, and decides that a certain young women needs to be "cleansed" for her sins. Innocence turns disturbing as one by one, the population of Schlarb learn the truth about their fellow Townies.
As a movie, Townies feels like an incomplete idea. At only 71 minutes, we get too many characters and too few fully developed storylines. Whole subplots seem edited out and other players introduced last minute, without logic or need. With a cast so large and diverse, we can only remember individuals by what they look like or how they act. They never resonate as distinct real people. Sure, a few have memorable personas, but this seems more a result of casting, not scripting. And all this lack of clarity is not conducive to creating…well, to creating "something…".which is the other big unfinished part of the film. It's hard to tell just what the filmmakers had in mind for the tone and tenure of Townies. Was it to be a comedy—because the DVD jacket and all the related material seem to want to sell it as a sick comic caper? If so, it lacks any real jokes and no definable characters into which humor can be injected. Is it supposed to be horror, a kind of mentally challenged version of Freaks? Again, if so, that fails, since there is never an attempt to create a sense of dread or evil. The townies may be unholy hellspawn or criminally cracked, but aside from Caduceus' desire to "cleanse" the popular girl of her wickedness, there is never an ill motive established. And if the movie is supposed to be some sort of theater of the absurd slice of everyday small-town, an outrageous recalling of similarly themed sick fests by the likes of John Waters or Kenneth Anger, well then, Townies again misses the boat. It's not that there aren't interesting ideas and visuals at work. It's just no one let them get beyond the vague, first draft rough conception stage.
Townies would have worked much better had the focus been narrowed a little. After all, when the movie finishes shoving ancillary characters like "the Licker" and "Crazy Connie" to the side, we are really truly left with three interwoven and completely competent tales (and characters) to focus on. Yet director/writer Wayne A. Harold must believe that we would never follow the misadventures of a deaf/mute wandering child woman, a dumpster diving lonely loser, or a self-professed prophet of decency. No, he insists on dumb sex jokes, even more outlandish juxtapositions in tone and random retreats into tastelessness for his sense of compelling cinema. But he cannot make the jigsaw style work. This Slacker for savants is just too jumbled to be engaging. Again, if he had made the entire film about the disturbed Pricey, her squirrel killing (and eating) grandpa, and the trauma that turned her into a forever in pigtails thirty year old pre-adolescent, he could have peppered the sides with Dickie's garbage pile dead gal and Caduceus' spiritual quest, and a great movie could have been created. Even within a low budget and certain equipment restrictions, ideas—carefully constructed and polished to perfection—can sell almost any conceit. But Townies would rather shock than satisfy. It wants to leave people with the stench of necrophilia or the nausea of a urine shower long before it wants to create sympathetic characters or realistic stories. If forgiven for its shortcomings, there is a lot to admire about Townies. But those pitfalls are very deep, very damaging, and very disturbing.
Filmed in a grainy black and white that heightens the overall unreal quality of the story and people involved, Townies looks pretty good in this Tempe DVD transfer. Obviously made on a budget of about ten bucks Canadian, the print here is presented in a full frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio that loses very little. This is not a movie that needs widescreen or some anamorphic tweaking to broaden (or exemplify) its impact. In a frame filling image, the movie works fine. The blacks could be crisper, since we sometimes find ourselves watching a movie made out of various shades of concrete, but the substandard image does help the film. On the sound side, the aural presentation is merely passable. This is a dialogue and occasional silly background music movie; not much to get your speaker-to-speaker immersion jollies on.
Like previous releases from Tempe, this company really shines in the addition of bonus material, which greatly adds to the context and understanding of the little known title they are championing. Unfortunately (and unlike the case for, say, Skinned Alive), most of the bonus features for Townies are ancillary aspects of the production. We get a brief look behind the making of the film, but it is very cursory and hardly illuminating. Then there are several interview sequences with star Toby "Dickie" Radloff. Billing himself as the "Genuine Nerd from Cleveland Ohio," his presence and mannerism are mesmerizing. He is about one half step away from the character he plays in the film. And he is more than happy to discuss his life, his likes, and his career. But none of this helps us understand Townies any better. We may learn about Toby's love of the Fuddruckers hamburger, but how this film came about is left for two final extras.
First, there is the full-length commentary featuring Harold and cast members Radloff, Craig Russell (The Clapper), and Jay Gelahof (William). While very sophomoric (more times than we care to listen to, the gang tries to turn the narrative into a party time drinking contest/game complete with a bell sound to indicate when to crack open another cold one. There is still some important information to be gleaned from this fractious account of the film's creation. Yes, the film is based on Harold's life (the city he lived in had mental patients wandering around, who they indeed called Townies), and many of the events that occur onscreen (William's mother and Chico, The Licker's exploits) are presented almost verbatim. Sure, Harold admits that the film is more about the people than the plot, but it seems he forgot that what he knows about the townies should be shared with the audience. Just because he recognizes it, doesn't mean we will. Also included is an odd first film from Harold, a short about sexual assault and the living dead (?) called Payback is a Bitch. It's hard not to envision Mark Borchardt and Mike Shank of American Movie sitting around with Harold talking about how they envisioned and mapped out this "sucker," as it has the high minded stench of a self-righteous attempt at making an "important" no-budget slice of horror. But it also highlights the issue with Townies. Buried at the center of both the noble if really nothing to it short and this more fleshed out fable about life in a suddenly insane small town are decent stories, waiting to be lovingly dredged up and worked into something special.
Townies could have been a powerful, artistic statement about the mentally challenged and the way in which they/we perceive us/them in society. Instead, it's just a series of raw ideas fed through a subtly remover and splashed across the screen like vomit along the ceramic tiles of the bathroom floor. Townies could have soared. All it does is shock…sort of.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Commentary with Filmmaker Wayne Alan Harold and Stars Toby Radloff, Jay Geldhof and P. Craig Russell
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