World premiere 13 June 2014
A guy wakes up in a hospital bed (or a bed somewhere), with no memory of how he got there or of the last few weeks or months of his life and with no certainty that what he does remember is even real. Its a tried-and-trusted way to open a film, and the 'memory loss' trope has made for memorable films like Christopher Nolan's Memento and Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall. East End director Ross Clarke, opening the 2014 East End Film Festival with his new film Dermaphoria, has the same game plan going on here.
One thing that I have always felt about the 'puzzle film', if we are going to use that term, is that structuring a film's narrative in such a way always runs the risk of losing the audience in confusion and frustration unless there is a strong hook to keep them anchored - be it a likeable and relatable character, motifs and visual and audio clues, humour, or some emotional weight. I actually think these aspects count for far more than any need to explain clearly what really happened to the characters on screen by the end.
Mulholland Drive is an example that springs to mind, a well regarded David Lynch film that I too rate highly, that has to my mind never had its narrative adequately 'explained' (though I often feel I am on the edge of 'getting it'). It is a fine line: a confusing narrative can draw viewers in with the intrigue, especially if the film in question has other appealing elements in the mix. But a tricky film structure can annoy viewers too; it can just look like the narrative has been chopped up on Final Cut Pro because it looked cool to the filmmakers at the time. With Dermaphoria, director Clarke walks that fine line and sometimes stumbles over it. His film was for me a largely a baffling ride in terms of following the story (and I am not alone, even star Ron Perlman claimed in the Q&A after the premiere that he had no idea what was going on either), but it was at least a technically adroit one with lush, eye-catching visuals and an excellent use of atmospheric locations that belied its small budget.
Set in the Deep South, the film's story (adapted from the novel by Craig Clevenger) focuses on narcotics cook Eric Ashworth (Joseph Morgan, The Vampire Diaries), who we see wake up in jail, suffering burn injuries and with his memory addled. He finds he is accused of arson, and the cops are soon piling on the pressure for him to recall what happened. Retreating to a shady hotel room, Eric turns in on himself. His mind seemingly shattering under the effects of a memory-recall drug - Dermaphoria - that we later learn he created (and presumably ingested at some point after the incident that later put him in jail), we are taken through a succession of jumbled narratives from uncertain time periods in Eric's life. Through our witnessing of these slivers of Eric's memories (or are they his imagination?) we see him encounter a variety of colourful characters, from local cop Detective Anslinger (Ron Perlman from Hellboy), to flamboyant drug kingpin Blanc (Walton Goggins from The Shield and Sons of Anarchy) as he falls into a drug cooking deal that seems set to go bad in a big way. The one constant pull across all these shards of unreliable memories or fantasies is the mysterious name of Desiree (played by Nicole Badaan), who seems to have been Eric's lover at some uncertain point in the past, but who's fate in the 'now' is unclear.
Clarke’s debut film is certainly a hallucinatory experience in terms of the slippery narrative, the kaleidoscopic colour palette and moody lighting, and the hazy heat of the New Orleans setting. Clarke has an eye for composition, for wringing atmosphere out of his locations with lighting and framing. One visually arresting scene sees Eric waking up wrapped in christmas tree lights, another haunting slo-mo sequence has him almost swallowed up in clouds of smoke sprayed by a pest controller on a gloomy hotel staircase. A more turbulent recurring memory sees him return to a wood cabin ablaze at night on the shores of the Mississippi River, a beautifully hellish vision crafted by Clarke. The locations: clapboard shacks, bars with shutters pulled low and fans spinning above, all evoke an appealing atmosphere of Southern Gothic Americana, and it is no surprise that Clarke has quoted films such as Angel Heart as influences. The cast of characters is colourful, almost comic-book like given the snappy accents and outfits, and cult TV and film fans will no doubt lap up seeing Ron Perlman and Walton Goggins wandering in and out of the story. Star Joesph Morgan is suitably simmering as Eric, who we get the impression was a something of a smart-ass bad boy with a brain back before his memory got fried.
It is a shame that, at least for this critic, the narrative puzzle became more frustrating rather than interesting as the film wore on. Partly this was because chunks of the dialogue sounded unintelligible, maybe due to mumbling or perhaps due to what sounded like an exaggerated Southern twang some characters seemed to be trying to effect; Walton Goggins being the chief offender here. But also the narrative lacked the kind of emotional hook that made Memento so dramatically compelling. In that film, the unending grief Guy Pierce's character felt for a wife he could not 'remember to forget', relieving the freshness of his grief every time his memory reset, made her a powerful presence in the film despite barely appearing. Here, the relationship between Erica and Desiree just does not register as strongly. Partly this is because actress Nicole Badaan is simply not given as much to do on screen as other characters and many scenes between her and Eric felt a tad saccharine, but on top of that the fragmented narrative makes it confusing to judge the path of their relationship.
Still, maybe if I popped one of those Dermapohoria pills, I could replay the film in my mind and figure out how to untwist the narrative. Certainly it would mean I could lap up those lush images on screen again.