Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #4 The Dark Backward (1991)

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For the latest selection in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0: Payola with Honor, the column where I let a reader/patron choose a movie for me to watch and write about in exchange for a one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon page, a reader once again chose a movie I had been vaguely planning to re-watch and write about for a while. 

That was true of the first entries in the column—Miami Connection, 3000 Miles to Graceland and Pass Thru—as well. I would say that was a coincidence but it’s more likely that you guys know me pretty well, and know what kind of movies I would like to write about, and would be passionate about writing about, and have been fortuitously been choosing them for CNR 4.0. 

That does not mean that you’ve been choosing good movies for this column. Oh God no. Though I had an absolute blast with Miami Connection, which is pretty much the epitome of “good/bad”, I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece of craft and the testosterone-poisoned Elvis/Tarantino riff 3000 Miles to Graceland and Neil Breen’s latest exercise in cinematic megalomania, Pass Thru, were fun to watch and fun to write about precisely because they were so flamboyantly, unashamedly awful. 

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The fourth entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, Adam Rifkin’s grotesque 1991 cult comedy The Dark Backward is similarly terrible and similarly memorable and distinctive. Goodness knows, if you can’t be good you should at least be interesting, and The Dark Backward is nothing if not interesting. Repellent, ugly, misanthropic, disgusting, sure, but also undeniably interesting and unusual.

That goes for Adam Rifkin, its eccentric writer-director as well. The only thing keeping Rifkin from being an important, major cult filmmaker is that his films aren’t very good. 

Oh sure, many of Rifkin’s projects sound incredibly promising on paper. A Dazed & Confused style period stoner comedy about a bunch of burnouts and their wacky misadventures en route to a golden-era Kiss concert? Sounds awesome, or at least a guilty pleasure but holy fuck is Detroit Rock City ever terrible? A wacky comedy of mistaken identity co-written by the formidable team of Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Bruce Campbell? That similarly sounds, if nothing else, morbidly fascinating, but the screenwriters of 1992’s The Nutt House hated the film so much, along with everyone else, that they had their names taken off it. 

Even the sleazy gun-for-hire work Rifkin did early in his career pseudonymously has taken a life of its own. I’ve never seen Rifkin’s 1990 film The Invisible Maniac, for example, but I have enormous affection for it all the same due to Stuart Wellington lovingly referencing it on many episodes of The Flop House. 

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I just got in Rifkin’s latest directorial effort, The Last Movie Star, a film world buddy picture starring Burt Reynolds and Chevy Chase. If those two had starred in a movie together in 1978 it would have spelt boffo box-office. It would have been a cinematic and pop culture phenomenon on par with the Superman movie and the first motion picture pairing a bare-knuckle brawling Clint Eastwood with an alcoholic, sex-addicted orangutan. 

Today, however, that’s a pairing that screams “direct to streaming” and honestly, isn’t even that impressive for a late-period Adam Rifkin movie. Before The Last Movie Star, Rifkin’s previous film was 2016’s Director’s Cut, a crowd-funded meta horror movie written by and starring Penn Jillette. Considering that Jillette managed to co-write and star in a terrible movie directed by the legendary Arthur Penn, I don’t exactly have high hopes for his collaboration with Rifkin, but damned if that project doesn’t at least sound interesting. 

And that’s just a small sampling of Rifkin’s prolific output as a screenwriter, director and actor. The filmmaker’s career nearly got off to an auspicious start when a late 1980s remake of Planet of the Apes he’d written nearly got made when the would-be wunderkind was barely old enough to drink. 

 Wacky!

Wacky!

That monkey business never materialized, so, after a few low-budget films, Rifkin made his big bid for cult immortality with 1991’s The Dark Backward, a movie so feverishly obsessed with notoriety that the movie should only have ever played at midnight to stoned or drunk audiences shouting belligerently at the scream. 

The Dark Backward miscasts Judd Nelson as Marty Malt, a hunched-over loser who works as a garbage man by day and at night performs what can charitably be called stand-up comedy for an audience of Diane Arbus-like grotesques. Comedy is inherently subjective with the notable exception of Marty’s act, which is objectively terrible. Coated in a thick layer of flop sweat, his greasy hair shellacked unnaturally to his scalp with a nervous schoolboy’s wide part, Marty delivers material that is less funny ha ha or funny strange than unfunny-dispiriting. 

Marty’s only friend and supporter is his coworker Gus, an accordion-playing libertine who will fuck anything that moves and even things that do not, as evidenced by a deeply queasy-making scene where he encounters the naked body of a dead woman decomposing in an garbage heap and begins molesting her. 

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Gus is played by the late, great character actor Bill Paxton, who could be a little dull in leading man roles but was a wicked, warped genius at playing insanely over-confident, overly aggressive assholes. 

The Dark Backward gives Paxton an opportunity to play a character who makes the shit-kicking redneck vampire motherfucker he played in Near Dark seem like an Atticus Finch-like exemplar of stoic dignity by comparison.

In The Dark Backward, Paxton is committed the way Divine was committed in Pink Flamingos. He’s committed in the way Nicolas Cage was committed in Vampire’s Kiss. He’s committed in the way the brainwashed young women who murdered for Charles Manson were committed. There's a genuine spark of madness at the core of Paxton's performance that makes it impossible to forget, no matter how badly you might want to. 

Paxton plays one of the most stomach-churningly repulsive characters in the history of American film, and I mean that partially as high praise and partially as gobsmacked criticism. Paxton’s performance here is so extreme and so unhinged that it transcends conventional ideas about “good” and “bad.” 

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Gus is a casual necrophiliac, something the movie sees as not terribly dissimilar from his insatiable lust for obese women, sometimes one at a time and sometimes in small groups, and his wolfish designs on Marty’s dream girl, a dead-eyed waitress played by a young Lara Flynn Boyle. In The Dark Backward, even beautiful women like Boyle are covered in a thin coat of slime. 

The losers, human gargoyles and walking freak shows of The Dark Backward seem dirty and diseased on a biological level. The movie seems to take place in a world devoid of fresh air or showers, a garbage realm of putrid odors, peeling wallpaper and free-floating despair. Rifkin aspires to the dream-like surrealism of David Lynch. Instead, the movie bears the shrill, grating cartoon exaggeration of a mid-1980s David Lee Roth video. 

I watched Paxton fuck and grin and eat his way through this rampaging, oppressive ugliness with a distinct train wreck fascination. Even in a movie where everything is loud, everything is grotesque and everything calls attention to itself and its own shit-encrusted wackiness, Paxton’s performance stands out like a blast of flatulence in a silent cathedral. 

 Not James Caan's finest moment 

Not James Caan's finest moment 

In some ways Paxton gives too big and intense a performance. Next to the hurricane force of Paxton’s lusty crudeness and crude lustiness, the overwhelmed Nelson can’t help but seem like even more of a clammy, sweaty, forgettable nobody, even when a full-sized arm inexplicably begins to grow out of his back. 

Marty’s mutation breathes new life into his career. He’s no longer just a singularly unfunny comedian whose material is so bad it calls the entire art form of stand-up into question: he’s a singularly unfunny comedian with a third arm who awkwardly turns around to show off his back-arm while Gus provides accompaniment on his accordion. 

Awkwardly pausing to turn reveal a bizarre abnormality would do irreparable harm to Marty’s comic timing if he had any timing to begin with. He does not. No, Marty doesn’t tell jokes so much as he presides over their agonizing public deaths. Nevertheless, the novelty of Marty having one more arm than most lands him a bottom-feeding agent in the form of Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton), and then a gig performing at a demented children’s show hosted by Twinkie Doodle (King Moody). 

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When everything about a movie is as gross and disgusting as humanly possible, grossness loses its impact. Lurid, delirious excess ceases to be shocking and becomes commonplace. That’s why the key to David Lynch has always been the interplay between light and dark, all-American wholesomeness and all-American debauchery. If every character in Blue Velvet were as insane and violent as Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, that character would be far less effective and memorable. 

That’s the problem with The Dark Backward. There’s no beauty or innocence to counteract all its misanthropic ugliness. Marty is probably the closest thing the movie has to an innocent, or a sympathetic figure but as limply, forgettably played by Nelson, he’s three arms, a shitty haircut and a whole lot of sweat in search of a character. He’s not nice, he’s weak. Paxton completely dominates the film to the point Nelson begins to seem like a minor supporting character in his own story. 

The Dark Backward has many of the elements of anti-comedy. Marty bears a distinct physical resemblance to the great fictional anti-comic Neil Hamburger (AKA Gregg Turkington) and the film has all the right influences: David Lynch, John Waters, Devo and The Dr. Demento Show. But those were all blessed with a strong point of view: The Dark  Backward is ugly for the sake of ugly and weird for the sake of weird. 

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The film is almost worth seeing for Paxton alone. Paxton’s unhealthily, pathologically committed performance transcends this unrelenting ugliness by counter-intuitively being even uglier and more disgusting than everything around him. If vulgarity was greatness, The Dark Backward would be Citizen Kane, a slightly better movie also made by a twenty-five year old wiz kid. It’s not, however, and The Dark Backward is ultimately just gross.

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