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July 22, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #29 - The Ugly

"I killed them because I'm the ugly."

I admit that I know a little bit about unnecessary use of the word "the", but that statement seems a little off to me. If I were someone with a psychology background who heard that confession from a serial killer, I'd be a little worried. In the case of The Ugly - a 1997 thriller from New Zealand - that's the confession offered by Simon Cartwright (played by Paolo Rotondo), a seemingly good-looking and soft-spoken young man who's killed plenty of people with a straight razor.Simon was picked on as a child, thanks to his timid nature and the fact he couldn't read well due to dyslexia. This led to an accident with some bullies that disfigured the left side of his face for most of his childhood, which only hindered his progress further. His single mother lacked sympathy, telling him that his deadbeat dad planned to come back to kill her and her ugly son; while also often abusing Simon physically and emotionally. Simon apparently embraced the ugliness by killing his mother, and now still sees his deformed past image every time he looks in the mirror.

As we witness the life story of Simon via flashback and observe the behaviors of the clearly psychotic people who run the asylum that holds him (the most prominent guard is a dreadlocked and shirtless fellow with "INTENSITY" tattooed across his gut who looks like he just got out of a bar fight with Russell Crowe), it's easy to feel some sympathy for Simon. And when we see the adult Simon who's recovered physically, we really want to believe that there is a good side to him. Unfortunately for Simon, he hears voices. "The Ugly" speaks to him.
The other star of our story is Dr. Karen Schumaker (played by Rebecca Hobbs, who looks a LOT like X-Files star Gillian Anderson), the aggressive psychiatrist who Simon has asked for in an attempt to sort out his story and clear his name. She's definitely a crusader type, determined to prove the sanitarium's head (who looks and sounds a lot like Hugo Weaving) wrong and to figure out what really was pushing Simon's buttons. Unlike The Silence of the Lambs before it, The Ugly doesn't spend much time on "quid pro quo". Simon is too weak go toe-to-toe with Dr. Schumaker, the same way he was too weak to fight back against his mother.

Though The Ugly definitely borrows from the Lecter formula, as mentioned above, the supernatural twists that come from "the visitors" clearly differentiate The Ugly's tone from that film. The viewer shouldn't get a rise out of the interaction between the killer and the questioning woman this time - one of Lambs' strong points - because The Ugly's focus is on harnessing how disturbed "Simple" Simon really is. The film also plants Simon in a world of ugliness by replacing what we'd expect to be red blood with a black bile that adds a disturbing slime to the film. This ugliness is enhanced even further by the rare glimpses of Simon's "visitors", the gross specters he sees which seem to have been borrowed a couple years later for William Malone's House on Haunted Hill remake (and which also were spoiled back when they decided to throw it on that Boogeymen: The Killer Compilation DVD that almost every horror fan picked up back in 2001).
Though the film was completely lost when it got a theatrical run in America in 1998 - smack in the middle of the era of shiny, bloodless, "hip" slasher films - this revisit has me more convinced than ever that The Ugly is one of the lost gems of modern horror. In fact, this feels a lot like the film Rob Zombie's Halloween films could have been, thanks to the focus on childhood trauma and scuzzy looking aggressors with visible chest hair. Unlike Zombie, first-time director Scott Reynolds doesn't try to go over the top with his visuals, letting the characters do the talking as the dull backgrounds add a dark tone without trick lighting or posters of old rock bands.

Bad advertising doomed it long ago (seriously, just look at that trailer below), but The Ugly is still out there, and I think it can win over most any horror fan. While there are a few too many "Nah, we were kidding, that didn't really happen" moments and the host asylum is clearly the worst run loony bin of all-time; The Ugly succeeds thanks to a psychologically interesting lead character (who's realized perfectly by Rotondo) and a few doses of unsympathetic gore. When the film gets as far as it can with Simon's story, the final touches are handled with a surprising simplicity that opens the mind just before the film fades to black. The Ugly might not answer all my questions about Simon - and I'd darn sure love to see Simon's story go on in future films - but it still manages to resonate as a deeply affecting thriller.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

3 comments:

Matt-suzaka said...

I loved The Ugly when it came out and from what I remember of it, pretty much agree with your thoughts. Incidentally, I very recently bought the movie on DVD at this badass video store that sold tons of DVDs. It was only like 3 or 4 bucks. More horror fans do need to check it out, that is for sure.

Jinx said...

This had comletely passed me by. But I'll be certainly be checking it out now. Thanks Mike!

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