It is pretty easy to dismiss Scott Reynolds's 1997 The Ugly as a cut-rate Kiwi knock off of the far superior Silence of the Lambs. After all, that's pretty much what it is. The flick revolves around a very familiar premise: a woman must conduct personal interviews with a incarcerated serial killer, finding the truth about his past while resisting the caged psycho's efforts to crawl inside her head. Admittedly, The Ugly includes a whole supernatural angle and there's a distinctly un-Silence-ish focus on the life story and thwarted central love of the killer (though, honestly, this seems as if it was heavily "influenced" by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer); still, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen the film's core premise done better.
That said, after the initial disappointment, I found myself digging on The Ugly to a surprising degree. While the plot seems to be, at best, a serviceable jerry-rig of parts from better flicks, the film brings a pleasingly excessive, low-fi, originality to its visual presentation that reminds me of the giddy stylistic excesses of flicks like Evil Dead and Dead Alive. Not that The Ugly has the same splatter aesthetic – compared to the goo and gore of those other two films, The Ugly is downright demure. Rather, like Evil Dead and Dead Alive, The Ugly loses its stylistic inhibitions as it goes along, getting aggressively odder and more boldly quirky even as it settles in a predictable narrative mold. The film gives off a sort of film tech geek charm, a product of its formal playfulness, that I thought was genuinely amusing.
For example, during one of the film's many flashbacks to episodes within our killer's bloody career, we see Simon (the film's homicidal protagonist) off a dude outside a rock club. The scene's only soundtrack is the power pop that, one assumes, is pouring out of the club. Simon catches a glimpse of a witness: a young girl inside what appears to be an abandoned furniture factory next to the club. Simon bursts into the club after her and, once inside, the music stops and the film is silent. Watching this scene, I assumed that the change in the soundtrack was strictly diegetic. The sound cut off because the characters where now isolated from the source. However, as Simon and his witness play a frantic game of hide and seek in the factory, the sound cuts in and out, alternating between blasting cheese rock and silence. Ok, I thought, so it isn't diegetic; instead, the filmmakers are having a little fun with sound design. However, at the end of the scene, Simon catches the witness and notices that she's got a non-functional hearing aid. She's deaf. The sound was, in fact, diegetic from the start and it was switching from the Simon's "point-of-hearing" (if that's a term) to the witness's throughout.
The film's playful style isn't always so clearly in the service of some descriptive or thematic function. Throughout the film, for example, blood is depicted as being inky black in color (except for one odd scene at the end of the flick where blood runs a standard red). Why? I have no idea. One could also make a drinking game out of every time an empty shopping cart appears on screen. I might be missing some profound significance empty shopping carts have in New Zealand culture, but I doubt it. They're there because they're there. Drink.
There's also the curious acting style that's too straight-faced to be overtly campy, but too broad to be considered realistic. This is most notably true of Roy Ward's Dr. Marlow, who seems like a bizarre impersonation of a B-movie asylum warden. As the movie goes on, even Marlow's outfits get more and more like something out of Mark Robson's 1946 crazies-and-costumes melodrama Bedlam. And his final scene is so inexplicable as to be laugh inducing, and intentionally so I think.
Still, unlike Jackson or Raimi's films, The Ugly never just takes off the breaks and goes nuts. Both Evil Dead and Dead Alive fulfill their narrative designs by the three-quarter mark and then become a sort of plotless action/comedy splatter showcases. In contrast, The Ugly has a narrative arc it is wedded to and that keeps it from spinning off the rails. Which is unfortunate as the plot is the film's weakest element and this forced march along a very well tread saps the energy of the flick, chills the mood, and smoothers the wild energy that might have elevated it to cult fave status.