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Sex, violence, and weirdness: The latest wannabe proves there’s no recipe for cult films

Sex, violence, and weirdness: The latest wannabe proves there’s no recipe for cult films

Home Video HellHome Video HellHome Video Hell is where filmic outcasts—straight-to-video, straight-to-VOD, or barely released—spend eternity.

The condemned: Rondo (2018)

The plot: Ah, the disreputable pleasures of a trashy exploitation thriller. Of course, at this point there are roughly 10 million of these kinds of things in existence, so it takes some ingenuity to try and stand apart from the crowd and give audiences a reason to check out your particular version of trash. Some people do it with lots of gratuitous blood and nudity; others try to inject some halfway decent action into the proceedings. But there’s always a third route: Get weird.

That’s the path chosen by Rondo, a molasses-paced slice of nastiness that nonetheless zips through its 88-minute runtime by never settling for a normal scene when it could do the stranger version of it. It begins with Paul (Luke Sorge), a military vet who returns home with “a fire in his head and a dishonorable discharge under his belt,” as the voiceover narration explains. Living on his sister’s couch while he tries to get back on his feet despite clear PTSD, he follows his sister’s advice and visits a therapist who encourages him to replace the alcohol abuse with sex, and hands him a card for what she promises will be a helpful sexual encounter.

But when Paul shows up the next night at the appointed hotel room, he finds a unusual scenario: Three men (including himself) apparently there to participate in a degradation fantasy with the young wife of a wealthy older man, facilitated by a sugary-voiced fixer named Lurdell (Reggie De Morton). What seems like a harmless if weird encounter turns deadly when Paul witnesses the murder of the guys who enter the bedroom before him, and he runs away, barely escaping with his life. He calls the police, the therapist, anyone he think might help, but since he’s a traumatized alcoholic, folks are dubious about his story, even his otherwise-supportive sister Jill (Brenna Otts).

Then a mid-film twist flips the narrative: Lurdell and his hired gun DeShawn (Ketrick Copeland) show up at Jill’s place in the middle of the night and kill Paul. Suddenly, our perspective shifts to Jill, who survives the attack and spends the back half of the movie plotting payback, aided by the siblings’ troubled father. She soon learns the therapist was in on it, setting up Paul and the other two random men (along with the woman they were recruited to have sex with) for a no-loose-ends murder, and Jill decides to get her revenge. If you suspect she eventually succeeds after some extended scenes where it looks as though she might be killed—and is forced into some revealing outfits in the interim—then you are not unfamiliar with the genre, my friend.

Over-the-top box copy: Befitting its status as a movie made by people smarter than a lot of the dreck we cover in this column, Rondo keeps it simple: “Sex. Murder. Revenge.” Also, there’s a glowing endorsement from Starburst Magazine of the film as a “cult classic in the making.” The blurb on the back of the DVD case then all but dares you to ignore it: “It’s hyper-violent, deviant, and downright wrong in all the right ways.”

The descent: The reason I got interested in checking this one out in the first place was because of something that has basically nothing to do with the actual film: The artwork. Emails I received promoting the film had a wonderfully retro design image, like something from a ’60s pulp novel, which piqued my interest.

Illustration for article titled Sex, violence, and weirdness: The latest wannabe proves there’s no recipe for cult films

From there, the trailer above led me to seek it out. I’ve never been the biggest fan of low-budget revenge thrillers, especially the shoddy and endless parade of interchangeable DTV ones that exist. But a few elements of this film stood out, even in a trailer that gets in, makes its case, and gets out again in under a minute: The slow zooms, almost Rossellini-esque, but with a vibe more Argento than smooth. The odd pivots between shots that resemble mid-range Altman and those that look like static soft-porn drabness, weirdly overlit and all. It’s a jarring mish-mash of styles that left me curious if the good-looking shots were a happy accident, or the bad-looking ones merely a dyspeptic shooting day. Answer? Neither.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Hahahahahaha please.

The execution: Uneven! While there are things to enjoy about Rondo (and in the pantheon of Home Video Hells, it definitely belongs in the top half), the clash of tones and aesthetics ultimately ended up being more frustrating than interesting. There are moments that look quite lovely, sequences that feature an excellent mix of imagery, sound editing, and performance that come together to create compelling cinema. And then there are the aforementioned shots that resemble outtakes from a soft porn shoot. Those are a bummer.

This scene from the home-assault sequence effectively transitions the movie from its first half to its second. Writer-director Drew Barnhardt has an excellent sense of spatial mapping, tracking out the rooms of the house in a way that fills the location and makes it seem larger than it is, as well as building tension by ensuring the viewer knows where every item (and character) are in relation to each other. It ends with a wonderfully lit shot of Jill hiding while hired gun DeShawn searches in the background, a pulpy comics page come to life.

Similarly, Barnhardt does a great job with sound. Following the murder of Jill’s brother right in front of her eyes, there’s a scene where she sits shell-shocked on her porch, while police talk to her, over her, and around her. But we don’t really hear any of that, because Barnhardt (again with a slow zoom) focuses solely on the noise of the sprinkler behind her, its repeating spatter on the window pane the clockwork noise intruding on Jill’s shattered world. It’s De Palma-esque, and it works marvelously.

Of course, to get to these artful touches, you have to sit through some pretty silly shit. And this is where the filmmakers get to play around in that perennial grey area known as, “Is it just bad, or is it intentionally bad as an homage to the bad movies of yesteryear?” It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for these retro throwback projects: In the wake of the grindhouse revival of the late aughts, suddenly everyone wanted to add digital grit to their exploitation films in order to make them faux-indistinguishable from something playing at midnight in Times Square in 1978. Did you like something? Great, that was the point! Did you think a scene was poor filmmaking? Oh, that was meant to be [insert one of the following] a reference to bad movie X / a joke / intentionally shoddy / a provocation, etc.

And that’s how you get scenes like the following speech, in the opening minutes of the film, where the therapist (before she’s revealed to be one of the architects of the murderous gang) tries to convince Paul he needs to get laid, and goes into excruciating detail about the kinds of things that might be helpful to him. As a monologue, it’s kind of funny, but it’s shot in the most perfunctory manner possible, a lazy two-shot that’s staged and lit to resemble a late-night Skinemax flick. It’s lame, is the general point, but you can almost feel Barnhardt nudging you in the ribs and going, “Eh? Eh?” Here, decide for yourself (headphones up if you’re at work):

This scene takes place before the opening credits, and establishes a clear tone of distancing irony for the film to follow. Subsequent speeches are quite similar, increasingly absurdist in nature yet with a detached delivery, like if a Troma script was performed in the manner of a Hal Hartley movie. This is never clearer than when Paul shows up for his mysterious sexual encounter, and Lurdell comes out of the hotel bedroom to explain the rules of the upcoming sexcapades to the three men recruited to participate (again, extremely NSFW talk):

The intentionally provocative nature of the material is always delivered with this kind of icy remove. For example, once the sex begins, and the woman is lying naked and limp on the bed while a guy has his way with her, we see shots of it, but only from Paul’s point of view outside the window, watching through open blinds. Or when Jill’s father is murdered by Lurdell and the therapist, they repeatedly stab him with a kind of resigned frustration, rather than enthusiasm or anger. And the film keeps upping the ante: After slicing Jill’s father to ribbons, the therapist grabs a wrench, returns, and bashes his brains in. Then, she goes and gets a container of gasoline, sets him on fire in her own bathtub—and returns to the couch to eat some ice cream.

The film’s button-pushing ways are more tiresome when it comes to racial politics. Having two murderous black guys—with one who barely talks, and is played as though he’s a bit touched in the head—committing a home invasion on a wide-eyed white woman is some pretty clunky “I dare you to be offended” nonsense. “I hate white people,” Lurdell adds, just in case you were going to try and overlook the hoary racial dimensions of all this. To be fair, there’s also a pretty good line at the end when Jill has turned the tables and is pointing a gun at Lurdell. “I know you’re mad,” he says. “But you’re just white mad.”

But the silliness eventually becomes the central element during the final act, instead of the icing on this cinematic cake. When Jill tries to pretend to be a high-end client who wants to recruit their services, Lurdell and the therapist (who turns out to be Lurdell’s wife) hold her at gunpoint, force her to strip down to her underwear, and then… proceed to have a cupcake-and-EDM party with their friends while she sits on a kitchen chair in the middle of the living room. Here’s a small sampling of the ridiculousness:

This is filmmaking with the apparent intent of hoping to create a cult movie that will be shown at midnight to stoned college kids. Which, even as I sort of enjoyed it in this instance, is also kind of a drag, because cult movies tend to become such only when the filmmaker has no intention of making one. Jodorowsky was just attempting to make the most artistically moving film he could when he shot The Holy Mountain, and we all know what a pure labor of love The Room is. You can’t set out to be weird for its own sake. (Okay, Rocky Horror admittedly gets a pass.) By the end of Rondo, all reality has been left behind. Even when Jill is pumping the bad guys full of bullets, Barnhardt has multiple squibs exploding at the same time, because logic is less fun than gonzo:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Honestly, it’s got a decent shot. This is a very accessible kind of stupid, made with talent and care, geared toward a particular type of movie fan who likes out-there shit. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.

Damnable commentary track or special features? Along with some deleted scenes and an entire half-hour commentary track of the music sequences with the film’s composer, Barnhardt and his producer Guy Clark do a director’s commentary track, which is peppered with dashes of pretension (Barnhardt says the film’s voiceover narration was “inspired by Barry Lyndon”), but also hilariously frank conversations about how annoying they find it to have to actually use multiple locations when making a movie (“You lose a whole day when you switch locations… But you just do it.”). At one point, Clark asks Barnhardt a question that sort of sums it all up nicely: “Was this shot inspired by anything?” [Long pause.] “Or… just good filmmaking?”

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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