Studio: East Sierra Films
Director: Jason Rutherford
Writer: Jason Rutherford
Producer: Jason Rutherford, Dieter Dixon
Stars: James Henderson, Diane Ayala Goldner, Tiana Cara, Peter Stickles, Mike Endes, Nicole Hawkins, Austin Stoker, Kitten Natividad, Lloyd Kaufman
A struggling screenwriter suspects he might be the serial killer murdering disruptive patrons at Los Angeles revival theaters.
Let’s devote a moment to discussing how a screening environment influences perception of a motion picture. Writer/director Jason Rutherford’s “Shhhh” screened as part of Beyond Fest 2014 at Sid Grauman’s famous Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Right away, there was something off about this film’s inclusion.
Prior to the day of its screening, “Shhhh” didn’t actually appear on the schedule posted at Beyond Fest’s website, although it was listed on the American Cinematheque site as a free screening that would be taking place. At the previous Beyond Fest screenings I attended throughout the week, the festival hosts never mentioned “Shhhh” as upcoming while they were pimping shows playing the rest of the festival. It wasn’t promoted in the Beyond Fest Twitter feed until the day of the presentation, either.
The literal treatment of the movie’s title by festival organizers seemed suspicious. Like the unexpected dropout of “Hyena,” was this a case where some last minute issue was still up in the air, hence a bet hedge to stay quiet until everything shook out? Or were they keeping the movie on the down low for a different reason? All I knew about the film going in was that I was unsure if it was actually going to screen or not.
I watched the online trailer for the first time before leaving for the theater and had my first hint of trouble. It looked bad. Really bad. Poorly shot. Poorly acted. Incredibly cheesy. But maybe this would be another intentionally goofy spoof along the lines of “The Editor” (review here)?
When the film was introduced by a person other than the usual Beyond Fest hosts, suspicions appeared confirmed. Someone was deliberately keeping the movie’s festival association at a minimum, at least when compared to any of the other films shown throughout the week. And for good reason, as it turned out.
Here is the problem with something like “Shhhh” being part of something like Beyond Fest. You can’t have a festival that features movies starring Daniel Radcliffe, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ryan Gosling, or in-person appearances from Chuck Palahniuk, Nacho Vigalondo, and Nicolas Winding Refn, and then slip in a first-time filmmaker’s homegrown movie whose chief selling point is a cameo by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman. How am I expected to view a micro-budget horror-comedy with inexperienced actors when I just watched John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis personally introduce “Halloween” the night before?
Now here is the flipside. I’m not even sure if I should review “Shhhh” at all, because I don’t fully understand what the purpose of this movie even is. A Q&A afterward revealed that there were still tweaks to make, although no amount of mere tweaking can save this wreck, so could this even be considered a final cut? Is “Shhhh” just an experimental lark by some friends looking for ways to waste their weekends? Or is it intended to be taken seriously as a commercially viable horror movie? I can’t tell if this movie is consciously aware of how poorly produced it is or not.
“Shhhh” centers on Harris Holden, a struggling screenwriter whose days are spent working two kitschy Hollywood jobs and whose nights are occupied by attending revival house film screenings with his mother. One such theater is the Egyptian, going a long way toward hinting at whatever behind-the-scenes connection saw the movie included as part of Beyond Fest’s programming. No matter where mom and son go, each screening is plagued by a crying baby, a chair-kicking goon, a bag-rustling jackass, or a girl on her cell phone. Afterwards, each unruly patron is dispatched in an alleyway by a mystery murderer in gory fashion. With his own mind cracking, Harris begins wondering if he might secretly be the cinema serial killer and not even know it.
Since I’ve already written a text wall about the screening, I’ll offer observations on the film itself in easier-to-digest bullets describing the kind of movie “Shhhh” is:
- The chairs in the movie’s police interrogation room are the same ones purchased from Ikea currently sitting at opposite ends of my kitchen table. That’s the level of production design happening here.
- The duo doing the interrogating, and handling the police investigation, are the most ridiculously unbelievable plainclothes detectives ever. It looks like their wardrobe came from American Eagle and their prep work consisted of watching two hours from a Labor Day “Law & Order” marathon.
- The person playing Harris’ co-worker/friend resembles Clark Duke approaching middle age.
- Sound quality operates at one of two extremes. Dubbed ADR is made more conspicuous by a complete absence of ambient noise and levels that sound like the actors were trying to swallow their microphones. In other scenes, dialogue echoes off of so many walls that they may as well have filmed in the Grand Canyon. At least one exterior shot sounds like the mic was placed directly in the exhaust pipe of a Metro bus.
- While gory, the makeup FX are absurd. A fake belly on a pregnant woman inspires laughter at how silly it looks, but I don’t think that was intentional.
- Camerawork is regularly out of focus. Unlit scenes are so dark and grainy that close-ups make it look as though everyone has ants crawling all over their faces.
- Speaking of close-ups, the camera is often pushed in as close to the actors as the microphones were during looping.
- The overwhelming thought I couldn’t shake while watching the film was whether I wanted spicy garlic traditional wings from BW3’s on Hollywood after the screening, or if I wanted to hit up Pink’s for a Brooklyn-pastrami Swiss-cheese dog. I went with Pink’s.
The movie’s hook is its shoutouts to Los Angeles landmarks, particularly arthouse theaters known for midnight movies and retro screenings. That means plenty of roles for the folks associated with these places, which makes for terrific in-jokes and winking favors for the small cabal of friends and family in the know about who these people are. For the other 99.99% of the audience, it makes for eye-coveringly awful acting.
The most tolerable scene features Joe Pilato of “Day of the Dead” fame. Anyone familiar with Pilato’s personality, either through previous roles, interviews, or convention appearances, will get a kick out of his scene-stealing turn in “Shhhh.” For some reason, Pilato’s name is missing from both the front and end credits on the cut screened. I have no idea what the reason for this is, but whatever the explanation, it makes for a nice segue.
A short anecdote summarizes everything there is to know about “Shhhh.” Over thirty hands went up in the air in the Egyptian’s 100-seat Spielberg Theater when the question came of who was part of the cast or crew. It turned out that I had been sitting next to one of the actors throughout the duration.
The movie ended. The crowd filed out slowly. Not realizing that a critic was overhearing the whisper, this actor now walking behind me bemoaned quietly to a fellow performer that s/he should not have used his/her real name in the credits. My lips are sealed to protect this person’s identity, but s/he was dead serious and not joking in the least bit.
Unless you are a Los Angeles revival house enthusiast who wants to shout, “I’ve been there!” every time a building exterior is shown, I don’t know who would be interested in seeing “Shhhh.” Normally, I would assume interest from family, friends, crew, and cast, but that last one doesn’t seem to be the case either, since at least one of them, maybe even two, would rather his/her name not be anywhere near it.
I’m rating “Shhhh” with one out of five stars, though I confess I don’t even know what that means. I felt like I was watching a filmmaking freshman’s home movie, and I was confused to the core about what the point of it all was. Writer/director Jason Rutherford is evidently a devoted cinephile, and I’ve no reason to doubt that everyone involved in this endeavor gave everything they had. Unfortunately, everything they had only amounts to a movie that is, well, see above.
Review Score: 20