|Party Monster (2003)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Friday, 05 September 2003|
People paying to New York pop culture in the ‘90s heard of Michael Alig for two reasons. First he became famous for throwing outrageous parties for hordes of wildly dressed “club kids”; later, he became notorious as a murderer, turned in by his friend James St. James.
A few years back, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato made an Emmy-winning documentary about Alig, St. James, their scene and their downfall. Now Bailey and Barbato are back as writers/directors of a dramatized version of the history, which (like the documentary) is called “Club Monster.” It is the kind of trippy, slightly surreal but ultimately startlingly potent snapshot of an era that sticks with you. The filmmakers have captured the hectic, larger-and-more-irrational-than-life mood of the night, but what really gives “Club Monster” its rather breathtakingly bizarre kick are the lead performances of Macaulay Culkin as Alig and Seth Green as St. James. Both actors, doing a type of work they’ve never done onscreen before, wind up being weirdly mesmerizing.
We know from the start that Alig has murdered a drug dealer named Angel, first because St. James tells us and then because, in part of the film’s time-fractured flashback system that also repeatedly knocks down the fourth wall, Alig tells St. James. The duo take turns as narrator, jockeying for position even in the framing device.
In flashbacks, we understand that Michael was sexually abused as a child, while adults who suspected or even knew what was happening stood by and did nothing. This doesn’t fully explain the character, of course – plenty of people survive abuse without turning out like Michael Alig – but it does provide a basis for his self-distancing persona. Michael shows up in New York City as a refugee from the Midwest, an apparently sweet and wholesome young gay man who essentially begs James to show him how to get noticed. Although James at first can barely be bothered with this rube, he deigns to give the kid a few pointers – and is then flabbergasted to see Michael sail past him in the notoriety department. Both Michael and James have a flair for the dramatic which helps them gain longed-for attention, but Alig especially doesn’t have a clue what to do with it once he’s got it except to use it to get more attention. For awhile, Michael is happy cresting the wave of a phenomenon that rates national coverage. But as Michael’s lifestyle embraces utter lack of responsibility for anything, it’s inevitable that chaos takes hold. With chaos comes poverty, tug-of-war over available drugs on the premises and eventually murder. What’s surprising is not that the situation devolves into violence (though admittedly the manner and extent of it is startling), but rather that anybody involved has the wherewithal to eventually go to the police.
With its glittery, costumed, frenetic disco ethos, “Party Monster” does not immediately seem like spiritual kin to Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge,” but the two movies turn out to have much in common in addition to the central killing. Both films deal with open yet profoundly insular subcultures – ‘80s high school in “River’s Edge,” the Manhattan youth club scene of the early ‘90s in “Party Monster” – where any consideration beyond what to wear, what drugs to take and who to have sex with next requires major mental readjustment.
“Party Monster” is based on “Disco Bloodbath,” St. James’ account of his days with Alig that culminated in homicide. The film neither demonizes nor excessively whitewashes any of the characters. In fact, the filmmakers and their leading men, Culkin and Green, do something that is almost impossible to pull off in a narrative feature. We get a sense of true intelligence and playfulness from the leads at the same time that we comprehend how directionless and conscienceless they are. Green allows St. James to have a sort of bemused outlook that slightly insulates him, steering him clear of the extreme craziness that engulfs the others. Culkin is deliberately arch, but it’s not the actor overdoing it – instead, he is playing someone who is playing a public character. It’s rather like watching John Hurt tackle Quentin Crisp. For a moment, it seems as though the acting is incredibly overstated, and then it sinks in that we’re looking at a character who only feels safe when every move is its own presentation. It’s fascinating and nervy and ultimately thoroughly convincing. Chloe Sevigny is natural as a young woman who sees Alig as her ticket out of boredom, Dylan McDermott is good as Alig’s alternately irritated and intrigued employer and Marilyn Manson turns up strikingly as a fearless drag queen.
Bailey and Barbato pay homage to a truly outrageous visual sense. Without seeing the documentary, it’s hard to be certain if they are being faithful to or improving upon the costumes and makeup that appeared in Alig’s party extravaganzas, but here it is a mind-blowing eyeful – think Halloween in West Hollywood with a meaner attitude. (Green in a troll get-up is arguably wearing more makeup than he did when his “Buffy” character turned into a werewolf.) The high-definition video gives a you-are-there feel to the proceedings without sacrificing any impact in the bright colors on parade.
Disco pumps through the soundtrack, while composer Jimmy Harry contributes a contrastingly soft, clean piano-based score. The sound mix is good – we can usually hear the characters, even when the environment prevents them from hearing each other very well.
“Party Monster” is a character study that never pulls too far back from its subjects. The story is wild and sad, but Bailey and Barbato don’t want us to view it from a sense of distant superiority – they want us to feel as if we’re there at the time, and to a large extent, they succeed in their task.