In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
“Picture a flat surface. Out of the surface, one letter rises.”
“From the alphabet?”
—After Last Season
Far beyond the merely shitty and indifferent lies the valley of the bone-deep bad—the transcendently bad, the Ed Wood bad, the “Manos” The Hands Of Fate [sic] bad, the bad that is wrongly fascinating and captivating, the bad that spawns cults. When we speak of having a taste for these Z-grade bad movies, even treasuring them, what we’re talking about are those peculiar cocktails of the cringe-inducingly sincere and the vain, the obvious and the baffling, the naïve and the lurid, the out-of-nowhere and the plodding—the tendency of truly artless and amateurish movies to do everything in extremes. Anyone can be incompetent, but what distinguishes the bad sublime is that everything about it insists that the filmmakers are in fact operating at the upper limit of their competence. What’s more, the movies are almost always the work of eccentric, untrained outsiders who lack the good sense to hide their egoism, weird hang-ups, and women issues behind a veil of craft, like real artists do. Really, the essence of the bad sublime is that it’s a parody of movie-making ambition. The classical auteurism that French film critics foisted upon the world was based on the idea that filmmaking was a collaborative process, but that a great director could be its protagonist; in true examples of the bad sublime, he (and it always seems to be a he) is the overreaching tragicomic hero of a farce.
But let me tell you now about After Last Season, my favorite of the atomically incompetent low-budget curios of the mid-2000s-to-early-2010s bad movie renaissance. This is the same period that gave us The Room, Birdemic: Shock And Terror, Fateful Findings, Double Down, and A Talking Cat!?!, among many others. What these films all have in common is that they have a very high camp value and that it is very easy to picture the sequence of foibles and failures that willed them into existence. In their tenuous grasps of plot, human behavior, and especially small talk, which is always the most surreal-banal aspect of these things, you always find a consistent, kooky personality. But this is not at all true of After Last Season, a mystifying cine-object that was four-walled by its writer-director-cinematographer (credited under the vaguely human-sounding pseudonym of “Mark Region”) into a quartet of random Cinemark theaters for one week in the summer of 2009. Please believe me when I tell you that the movie 1) resembles an attempt at cinema by extraterrestrials; 2) is unlike any other motion picture made since the dawn of sound, and 3) fails in ways that will challenge a viewer’s preconceptions of human error. It may be the most radical and willfully abstract experiment in narrative to ever happen by accident—the Last Year At Marienbad of bad films.
Let’s start with the production values. All truly bad movies try to get away with some kind of cheapness, but After Last Season skirts the edge of representation: an MRI machine portrayed by a stack of cardboard boxes in a suburban den; an office played by an empty strip-mall storefront exposed down to the pipes and wiring, with random computer parts, broken furniture, and more cardboard boxes lying around the floor; newspapers portrayed by sheets of printer paper; microchips by Post-Its; a dorm by a utility room with the torn end of a roll of wallpaper covering about a fifth of one wall; a door leading outside by a closet that is visibly filled with even more cardboard boxes; a door leading in by a wall that an actor pretends to open by turning an invisible doorknob. I would estimate that half of the shots feature cardboard boxes, the other half sheets of paper (often blank) that for obscure reasons are Scotch-taped to doors and walls. All of this is shot on film (35mm according to the end credits, which also list dozens of nonexistent crew members; to my eye, it looks like Super 16mm) and lit with a single light that is often seen plugged into the wall behind the actors by an orange extension cord. There are also extended sequences of super primitive computer animation, and for some reason, all of the office desks are covered in vinyl tablecloths or possibly shower curtains.
I’ve seen After Last Season four times and can say with certainty that its narrative is incomprehensible, a machine-generated pastiche of Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller and supernatural mystery in which everything is in quotations marks. There is lengthy “exposition,” but it has no bearing on anything that follows; there are “twists,” but they are almost beautifully inane; there is “intercutting,” but it is dumbfounding. The dialogue itself consists of the sort of vague, lobotomized, pod-person non-statements exemplified by the title After Last Season. (“I’ve never been to that town, but I’ve been through it.”) There is a serial killer, an invisible man, and an invisible serial killer (unrelated, possibly a dream), and the whole thing takes place in Minneapolis, though it was filmed in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Your run-of-the-mill endearingly bad movie is shameless, strained, and derivative in a way that makes it obvious what kind of film its creators are trying and failing to make. To the best of my understanding, After Last Season is trying and failing to be “a film,” and its failures are so unique that they sometimes suggest a creepy misinterpretation of reality.
I’ll give you an example. One detail beloved by the Rocky Horror-style fandom that ruined The Room were the framed stock photos of spoons in the home of the main character, Johnny, played by the film’s Draculoid control-freak writer-director, Tommy Wiseau. That’s the sort of cruddy, last-minute low-budget set decoration that the average person can understand and have a good laugh about. But in After Last Season, which seems to have run into the same problem of getting to the set without the necessary prop family photos, the picture frames are simply all turned to face the wall. In another scene, Region presents a blank sheet of paper taped to a wall (one of many), poorly superimposed with the lettering he presumably forgot to print out before getting to the set. There is a prop textbook that is just a regular paperback with the word “neurochemistry” unevenly glued to the cover. It took me until the third viewing to realize that the random, ungodly long handheld shots of cardboard boxes in a snowy parking lot were supposed to be exterior views of the Prorolis Corporation, where most of the film is “set.” For if movies like The Room or Fateful Findings play like accidental parodies of director ego, then After Last Season is close to being a surrealist parody of narrative formula, its empty spaces filled in with abstract tedium, glitchy plot points, and, yes, cardboard boxes. Like the man says, if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.