Spooktober Leftovers: Trash Fire (2016)


Well, now. I’m not gonna talk about the election. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about the election at all; we’re gonna keep it out of this. What I am gonna talk about today is this movie, which I wanted to include in my truncated Spooktober celebration last month but was unable to do thanks to the convoluted nature of distribution deals.

Today’s movie is Trash Fire, the latest offering from director Richard Bates, Junior. Mr. Bates first came to my attention with his 2012 debut Excision, a film I rhapsodized years ago on Ferretbrain and which you can find rhapsodized far more effectively over on Weird Fiction Review. Trash Fire returns Bates to some of the familiar territory of Excision, and while it has its rough patches, it is a far better movie than its title would suggest.

The first third of Trash Fire is devoted to the young couple of Owen (Adam Grenier, best known as Not-Mark-Wahlberg from Entourage) and Isabelle (Angela Trimbur), and to call their relationship “dysfunctional” and Owen “troubled” would be to put a very kind face on it. Owen is, quite frankly, an prick. He drinks, demands sex from Isabelle, and goes out of his way to antagonize everyone he meets. It’s a bit of a wonder that Isabelle has put up with him for three years, but she gives as good as she gets against him, and there’s a bit of a subtext of him being something of a fixer-upper for her. They try to do the normal-couple thing with Isabelle’s friends and brother, but Owen usually manages to find a way to ruin the occasion. Honestly, these scenes are the funniest parts of the movie, with the social awkwardness of something like Curb Your Enthusiasm driven by aggression rather than narcissism. However, while Owen is hateful, he’s not a complete write-off; along with the alcoholism, he also suffers from bulimia and recurring seizures connected to traumatic childhood memories which are only caught in glimpses at first.

More of Owen is revealed at the half-hour mark, when Isabelle confesses that she is pregnant with his child. While initially resistant to the idea in the most spectacularly callous way possible, he eventually comes around to the idea of fatherhood and wants to make amends. To do so, Isabelle asks that he reconnect with his only surviving relatives, his grandmother and his sister, but therein lies the rub. Owen’s childhood was an unhappy one; trapped in a home run by a strictly Christian father and a promiscuous mother, he grew up angry at the world, wishing his parents were dead. Thanks to a propane unit he incorrectly installed, he got his wish and got his sister horrifically burned in the bargain. The two siblings were sent to live with their grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), an arch-Christian matriarch who soon had the two of them plotting their escape. Suffice to say, Owen made it out, and little Pearl didn’t.

From here, the movie shifts gears. If Excision was Bates’ grotesque reinterpretation of a John Hughes-type coming-of-age movie, Trash Fire is his take on a Meet the Parents-sort of domestic comedy. Unfortunately, the only parent here is Grandmother Violet, a malevolent figure out of a fairy tale. According to Bates’ own commentary, Excision was partly as a way to work out his feelings towards his Southern Baptist childhood, and Trash Fire can be read as another take on the same material. However, while some sympathy was extended to Phyllis, the matriarch of Excision wonderfully played by Traci Lords, here Violet is a holy monster. Fionnula Flanagan plays her wonderfully; every line is delivered with a withering condescension designed to chip away at whoever is speaking, all whilst affixing them with a beautifully hateful glare that can peel paint. Violet only grows more horrible with time, as the truth behind the fire and her plans for her grandchildren are revealed.

However, it is the begotten sister Pearl whose figure ends up haunting the film. Annalyne McCord, who previously assailed the title role of Pauline in Excision, returns in heavy makeup as Pearl, and once again she handles the role without flaw. Indeed, for me seeing McCord working with Bates again is the indie-horror equivalent of De Niro and Scorcese; when they’re together, magic happens. There’s a lot of Carrie in Trash Fire (and in Excision and in Lucky McKee’s 2002 debut May, another favorite of mine), but while those movies imagined versions of Carrie as the disturbed figure, Trash Fire imagines a Carrie who never escaped, never lashed out, and festered into adulthood. Pearl is first introduced as a figure that haunts her grandmother’s home, and indeed seems to command its space far more effectively than her grandmother, finding peepholes and sliding down darkened hallways without anyone noticing her. Her grandmother may own and dictate, but she inhabits. At first she’s only seen in bits and pieces, peeping in on Isabelle or sliding her dinner plate across floor before fleeing up the stairs. When she does come into focus, McCord plays her as a contradiction, with a little girl’s sing-song voice cloaking a frightening aggression that can boil up out of nowhere.

Pearl and Violet end up overshadowing the film in its latter half, partly due to the strength of the actresses, but here I think the core issue is the direction. Bates is great with tension (and indeed, much of the last third of Trash Fire had me clutching my armrests like nothing else this year) imagery, and character work, but I feel he’s still trying to figure out how to handle bigger films. Excision was essentially a character study, and so it could work by just focusing on one character and having a string of events drive her along in her descent. Trash Fire operates with multiple interacting characters, but at times it seems to struggle with juggling four characters. After a while, even Owen, despite being the ostensible center of the film, gets lost in the shuffle.

Still, the key skill for any horror fan is to find the good in flawed movies, and there is a lot about Trash Fire that I loved. I hope for nothing more than for Bates to keep working, his collaborations with McCord to continue, and for McCord to finally get some recognition for her work. Seriously, just watch Excision; the fact that Annalynne McCord never got an Oscar for that movie is criminal.

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