Night of the Tentacles (2012) Night of the Tentacles/Heart Attack (2012) **˝

     Once again, a micro-budget, direct-to-video horror flick unexpectedly rewards what little patience I came in willing to extend to it. This time, it was a matter of tribute paid to just the right influences, for Night of the Tentacles is basically Dustin Mills’s cinematc fan letter to Frank Hennenlotter. I’m a fan of Hennenlotter’s too, as you may recall, and I’ve often wished that his style would attract just a few more copycats (since Hennenlotter himself remains one of the least prolific of his generation of cult filmmakers). This film is about 40% Brain Damage and 30% Basket Case, with both components filtered through a more modern comic sensibility which rather reminds me of Zombieland. Night of the Tentacles is a tad less authentically skuzzy than its inspiration, and lacks as well its conspicuous “outsider art” quality, but Hennenlotter mimicry in any form is rare enough that I’m not going to complain too loudly.

     24-year-old David Garber (Brandon Salkil, from Skinless and Bath Salt Zombies) is a struggling artist— which is a polite way of saying that he makes most of his scant money drawing gross sci-fi porn scenes for creepy shut-ins who commission him via the internet. Garber has no friends except for his dog, Charlie, and no real-world love life at all. The latter state of affairs is rendered doubly torturous, too, by the paper-thin walls of the tenement building where he lives. Mona and Iggy, the couple next door (Melissa and Michael Blair, functionally reprising their roles from Zombie A-Hole, even if they can’t technically be playing the same characters), fuck constantly, and David can hear their every thrust and moan as if it were happening in the room with him. On the other hand, the same fault in the insulation also enables him to eavesdrop on the girl downstairs (Nicole Gerity) as she masturbates— which she does with such regularity that you could almost set your watch by her. The reason that’s deserving of an “on the other hand” is that David has developed a serious crush on his downstairs neighbor, even though he doesn’t so much as know her name. And maybe it’s just as well that they have no actual contact with each other, since what David has chosen to do with the knowledge vouchsafed him by shoddy building techniques is to synch his own jerking-off routine to hers. A real icebreaker there, right?

     Our hero is right in the middle of pulling his pud with his ear to the living room floor when he has his heart attack. I assure you that you’re no more puzzled than he is to see a man his age suffering such an affliction, but it turns out that Garber has a congenital circulatory defect. The hospital is able to set him to rights temporarily, but in the long run, he’s going to need a transplant. The waiting list for those is awfully long, though, and David has no way to pay for such an operation even if it weren’t. Meanwhile, Mr. Fleck the landlord (Mills himself, who also stepped in front of the camera for Slimy Little Bastards and Invalid) makes a point of reminding him that the rent is due on the first of the month, hospital bills or no hospital bills. On the upside, the girl downstairs— Esther— also heard about David’s illness (but presumably not about what he was doing to bring it on), and she comes up to wish him well with a batch of cookies made from her grandmother’s recipe. Wonder of wonders, Esther seems to like the dysfunctionally introverted schmuck even after talking to him, and she leaves with a promise to make a point of seeing more of him in the future.

     Still, the twin specters of death and destitution have put David in a very receptive mood by the time a second unexpected visitor drops in that night. That would be Satan— no, really! The Devil (also Dustin Mills) appears around midnight in Garber’s flat with an offer to fix him up with a potentially immortal new heart. David wouldn’t even technically be selling his soul, because Satan assures him he’s already got a lien on that just on account of the lad’s wastrel lifestyle and lack of religious conviction. As for the heart itself, that’ll be easy as pie. “Everything’s wireless these days,” the Devil says, so Garber’s new ticker will be fine to stay in the locked coffer in which it’s presented to him. All David has to do is to click “ACCEPT” on the end-user agreement, and then take good care of the heart for as long as he wishes to live. David rightly has a whole litany of qualms about the proposed transaction, but Satan is very good at fast-talking suckers, and Garber is nothing if not a sucker.

     It was awfully clever of Satan to replace the traditional Faustian contract with an end-user agreement. After all, people read contracts, but when was the last time you took more than the most cursory glance at the little clod of verbiage that pops up when you open an account with YouTube or Dropbox or the Unsolicited Dick Pic Message Board? The trouble, so far as David is concerned, is that deals with the Devil always include a ton of fine print, and he’s first astonished and then horrified to discover what he’s really agreed to. For starters, his new heart is not so much a heart as a cyclops-head/vagina-dentata/claw-tentacle monster. And that business about taking care of it? First and foremost, it means David has to feed the thing— and what it eats is live creatures. Furthermore, buried somewhere in all that documentation Garber didn’t read was a promise to feed his new heart not merely the animals that might satisfy its minimum nutritional requirement, but two humans each week for so long as the pact is in force. And as Belial the customer service devil (Easter Casket’s Eugene Flynn) helpfully clarifies, any breach of the end-user agreement will result in both David’s immediate death from heart failure and his subsequent commencement of eternal torment in Hell.

     When you put it like that, perhaps Garber can find a few people whom the world (or at least he and his dog) would be better off without. Mr. Fleck, maybe, or the appalling bitch on the third floor (Jackie McKown, from Theatre of the Deranged II and Her Name Was Torment)— or Mona and Iggy, for that matter. Unfortunately, even all that carnage won’t buy David more than two weeks, and he spends that time getting closer and closer to Esther. What makes the latter unfortunate, you ask? Well, seeing the two of them happy together gives the demons in David’s life the idea that she’s the one the heart should really be eating. With each passing day, David runs an increasing risk of having nothing to show for all the grotesque moral compromises he’s already made.

     It’s possible that much if not most of my affection for Night of the Tentacles can be accounted for solely by how far it exceeded my abysmally low expectations. When you’re bracing for a hit with the crap-mallet, “painless and frequently fun” feels a lot better than perhaps it inherently is. Night of the Tentacles isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, and there’s something ineffable missing from it— some quality of comic timing, some miscalibration of its attempts to shock— that rankles me. Nevertheless, there really is a lot to like about this movie, even if there isn’t too much to love. I can see why Dustin Mills makes such a habit of casting Brandon Salkil in his films. With his rubber face and his complete disregard for his own dignity, Salkil is a natural comedian. If he put a tad more work into refining his dramatic acting to match, I could well imagine him breaking out into some degree of cult stardom. Mills himself displays a knack for pacing and story logic that that is far too rare among micro-budget auteurs, and the sharpness of his wit compensates for the immaturity of his sense of humor overall. For every sophomoric fumble like the scene of synchronized masturbation that sets the plot in motion, there’s a countervailing moment like the Bob Newhart-esque phone conversation whereby David lures Mr. Fleck to his doom. The heart is a bit disappointing as a monster when we finally see it, but it’s a charming character throughout. Mills and the uncredited performer who supplies the creature’s voice (possibly one and the same, for all I know) learned all the right lesions from Brain Damage and The Little Shop of Horrors. My favorite part of Night of the Tentacles, however, is hands down Mills’s portrayal of Satan. It’s a neat character design, first of all. Instead of serving up the expected goat-man or red guy with horns and a barbed tail, Mills ran with the “Lord of the Flies” epithet to create a disturbingly insectile Devil with wiry fur, a stiff, armored hide, and no recognizable facial features except four glowing, faceted eyes. The characterization is just as unusual, too. With his sarcastic demeanor and inexplicable Cockney accent, Mills’s Satan is like something that would haunt Guy Ritchie in a fever dream. I believe I’ve mentioned on prior occasions that I’m a collector of non-standard Satans, and I’ve never seen one like this before. Suddenly it seems like a good thing that there are several more Dustin Mills pictures lurking in my pile of old screeners that I never got around to reviewing.

 

 

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