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Freaks and frauds

The Boston Underground Film Festival celebrates both
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 18, 2008

THE WIZARD OF GORE: Is Crispin Glover not only Montag the Magnificent but also Montag the Misogynistic?

The Boston Underground Film Festival | Brattle Theatre + Harvard Square: March 20-23.
Freaks you expect, but frauds and hucksters also populate the loosely defined subculture known as the underground. Far from castigating these phonies, the films in this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival embrace them as perhaps the most “underground” of all. At first infuriating, these poseurs prove not only endearing but inspiring as well.

Such is the case with Darren Curtis & Pat Kiely’s WHO IS KK DOWNEY? (2008; Brattle: March 22 at 9:30 pm), which opens with the disclaimer that any resemblance to any characters living or dead is “fucking coincidental.” Gratuitous use of the f-word (usually a red flag of hipster phoniness) aside, the resemblance is not fucking coincidental at all, the film being a freewheeling send-up of J.T. Leroy and the literary hoax The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. (Then again, Leroy is neither living nor dead but invented.) Terrance (Curtis) and Theo (Matt Silver) can’t understand why their punk-rock and literary aspirations have failed — after all, they’re as egocentric, pretentious, and talentless as anyone else. Then Theo realizes they’re not phony enough, so he turns his lurid novel about a teenage hustler into a “memoir,” setting up Terrance as the wasted “author.” Result: instant celebrity! For all that it’s obvious, Who Is KK Downey? is unexpectedly funny and pointed.

More bogus is the ’zine editor in THE WIZARD OF GORE (2007; Brattle: March 20 at 7:30 pm + March 21 at 2:30 pm), a trust-fund baby who favors a ’40s retro look, right down to the fedora and the rotary phone. He’s looking for the latest, hippest thing to feature in his rag, and he thinks he’s found it in Montag the Magnificent (Crispin Glover!), whose gruesome magic tricks are all too realistic (and misogynistic). Our hero turns investigative reporter, immersing himself in a dense plot too unwieldy for either him or director Jeremy Kasten to handle.

Wizard is a remake of the 1970 original by Herschell Gordon Lewis, a schlockmeister in the mold of the subject of Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary SPINE TINGLER: THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY (2007: Brattle: March 22 at 7 pm; Harvard Square: March 23 at 2:30 pm). From the ’40s to ’70s, Castle as producer and director fell somewhere between Ed Wood and Alfred Hitchcock, but his true gift was for marketing. The trashy pleasures of The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959) are secondary to the inspiration of such gimmicks as “Emergo,” “Percepto,” and, in Strait-Jacket (1964), as talking head John Waters puts it, “the greatest gimmick of them all — Joan Crawford!”

The style of Spine Tingler is hardly underground, but the subject certainly is. Same thing with Steve Balderson’s documentary UNDERBELLY (2008; Brattle: March 23 at 5 pm), a portrait of the irrepressible Pleasant Gehman a/k/a Princess Farhana, an ’80s punk-rocker who reinvented herself as a belly dancer/striptease artist/goddess of female empowerment. She is shown at various festivals and gigs, and her comments on her craft and recollections of her mind-boggling life and times provide a brief history of one niche of the underground. And not only can she undulate her abdomen with unnerving skill, but she’s fucking hilarious — she’s the real thing.

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