Saturday, July 26, 2014

DVD DUMPSTER DIVING: Dangerous Obsession...

It’s hard to say why the brain trust at Troma decided to release Dangerous Obsession on DVD this year. Perhaps someone thought the Esquire network’s recent re-airing of the old HBO Dream On series would create interest in Brian Benben, who stars in this film (originally called Mortal Sins) as Nathan Weinschenk, a brash private investigator from New York who gets involved in a complex murder case involving some transplanted Southern religious zealots. But even if there is a sudden renewed interest in the Benben catalog, it’s difficult to imagine that even the most devoted Benben completists would derive any pleasure from this cheaply made 1989 flick with its clichés and hack dialogue. I can’t even label this one as decent 1980’s kitsch.

When Reverend Park Sung (James Saito) is murdered in his Manhattan apartment, Weinschenk is hired by rival evangelist Malcolm Rollins’ (James Harper) who wants to protect his own Manhattan church (‘The Divine Church of the People’). Weinschenk also ends up protecting Rollins’ lovely daughter (Debrah Farentino), which adds a little steam to the proceedings. The daughter, you see, has a complicated sex life, as most women in movies did back in the late 1980s, whether or not they knew Mickey Rourke or Michael Douglas.

Weinschenk mines the humor of being a Jew in a nest of bible-thumping Southern vipers. True, the idea of Southern-fried televangelists setting up shop in Manhattan may have sounded edgy at the time (this was the 1980s, remember, when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were involved in serious scandals, and TV preachers had become popular punching bags), but the film is played out in such broad strokes that any good ideas are quickly crushed by cartoonish acting. 

Weinschenk, for instance, has the stereotypical Jewish parents who are oblivious to anything outside their little household. He also shares his office with a no-account male relative (I couldn’t tell if they were brothers or cousins) and there’s even a running gag where the Southern folks can’t pronounce his name.

If the Jewish stereotypes aren’t enough, we also get a lot of TV private eye clichés. As if he’s auditioning for a role in a network cop show, Weinschenk drives a classic 1950s car, and listens to classic R&B (I’ll give some points to this movie for including a cut of Jackie Wilson’s ‘No Pity In the Naked City’). He also thinks he’s a real wiseass, although his level of wit is restricted to lines like, “Nice work if you can get it.” Benben curses a lot, too, and while he can drop the F-bombs with convincing venom, he’s still stuck with playing a wooden character. The Southern stereotypes are pretty thick, too. The Southerners are all portrayed as bloated, effete, Jerry Falwell types, speaking in exaggerated, syrupy drawls; if you told me they were all stoned on Quaaludes during filming, I’d believe you. The perfectly named Brick Hartney has some success as the slimy Billy Beau Backus, playing his part like a community theater star vamping for his friends in the front row. Proving that some people know how to get out while they’re on top, Hartney never acted in films again. 

There are plenty of extras here, but none are about Dangerous Obsession. The extras are solely Troma related, including vintage trailers for The Toxic Avenger, Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1, Badmouth, Poultrygeist, and Cars3, plus a snippet of a Troma documentary called How To Sell Your Own Damn Movie, featuring filmmaker James Gunn discussing the dubious wonders of social media. 

For those who enjoy spotting character actors early in their careers, you’ll find a surprising number of them in Dangerous Obsession. Anthony LaPaglia has a small role, as does Maggie Wheeler, who went on to recurring roles on Friends, Ellen, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Anyone who has watched TV during the past 25 years will also recognize Peter Onorati, who has made a career out of playing guys named Angelo or Sal. Director Yuri Sivo and screenwriter Allen Blumberg have worked infrequently since 1989 – Blumberg has directed a couple of small projects, with Sivo’s highpoint being a couple episodes of the Swamp Thing TV series.

On the plus side, Dangerous Obsession is visually striking, with a sophisticated use of shadows and silhouettes. That’s no surprise since it was shot by underrated veteran Bobby Bukowski, whose recent work includes two excellent titles, The Messenger (2009) and, what is perhaps my favorite movie of the past few years, The Iceman (2012). Even while strapped to a no-budget howler like Dangerous Obsession, Bukowski shows the immense talent that would make him one of the most reliable and sought after cinematographers of the past two decades. (Hell, he even shot Shakes the Clown!) In fact, I’d only recommend this DVD to those who want to marvel at how a ham-handed script made on an Ed Wood budget can feature so many lollipops for the eye. Even the final shot is superb, with Weinschenk and his girlfriend arguing on a fire escape, the camera pulling back and wheeling around to reveal a lush New York skyline at what must have been the so-called magic hour. The idea that the evil Southerners are gone and the New Yorkers can get back to arguing among themselves is trite, but Bukowski shoots it like he’s practicing for his future.

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