Those with mysophobia, look away.
That’s the first thing I can really say about Adam Rifikin’s (billed here as Rif Coogan) 1991 opus, The Dark Backward. Watching this movie, you’ll wonder if Rifkin wasn’t somehow the illegitimate love child of John Waters and David Lynch. The collision of shock, shlock, and surreality is a prevalent tone.
In 1994, I started working at video stores in earnest. Full time was more of a choice than a requirement. The cinematic world was my oyster and I took full advantage of it. It’s where I finally saw Ghandi, The Godfather, Ben Hur (the good one), Lawrence of Arabia (which has become one of my all-time favorites), Casablanca, and all the greats of film. Once that first month was over and I had finished the classics, it became time to dive, full-blast, into my true love, Cult & B-Movies.
I ate through Corman, Lynch, Waters, Jodorowsky, Fulci, Argento, etc … I enjoyed Cannibal Ferox, Last House on the Left, I Spit On Your Grave, and more of the like. I built an entire section in the store dedicated to nothing but Troma movies.
When one of the locations closed (the chain was called Palmer Video, I’m pretty sure there were only about 100 stores in the New Jersey area. I managed about five of them), we received all their tapes (yes, VHS days FTW). Among these were a whole new assortment of films that I’d never seen! How wonderful it was!! Included was this little film called, The Dark Backward. I looked it up and it seemed to one of my five copies that the chain had. I would later learn the reason.
The film had some pretty decent names in it, Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton, and the then very popular due to her role in Twin Peaks, Lara Flynn Boyle. However, despite it’s pedigree, the film made only $28,654 in it’s theatrical run and was almost universally panned by critics, both professional and otherwise. It sounded like the perfect film for me!
It delivered on all my hopes.
Adam Rifkin wrote The Dark Backward when he was 19 years old and made this film at age 25, so there’s this wonderful absurdity to it that could only ever come from someone in that age. If you’re in that age range, you understand, if you’re older, look back at yourself and you’ll likely understand what I mean. Rifkin would later go on to make some more pretty awesome films like Small Soldiers, Night of the Golden Eagle, Chillerama, and The Chase starring Charlie Sheen and a fresh off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristy Swanson. You could also partially blame him for giving Adam Sandler his first film, but I think that can be forgiven for that.
I find it perhaps best described as a tale of how you can find success in ways you might never have considered, the loss of it and betrayal inherent, and how, as long as you don’t give up, redemption can be found in the lowest of places, delivered via metaphor and analogy by an alcoholic, junkie hobo at the height of a drunken stupor.
The setting: Some random, filthy city. Like a post-collapse Detroit, but somehow out of time. Teeming and seething with all manner of filth and miscreants lurking not in a dark corner or alley, but rather all over. This whole city is a dirty, dark alley.
Enter Marty Malt. Garbageman and terrible Stand-up Comedian. Marty lives out his drab, dull, life going through his day-to-day drudgery in a weird world covered in filth. His only respite in life comes from his friend, fellow garbageman and accordion player, Gus, and his miserable and depressed girlfriend, Rosarita.
Gus is an interesting character. He’s optomistic if nothing else. He supports Marty’s dream to become a comedian, laughs at his terrible jokes, keeps him company and tries to be the light in an otherwise dim existence. However, Gus’ sincerity and motivations are suspect, which become increasingly apparent as the film proceeds.
Rosarita? Well, it seems that she’s only with Marty because….*shrug*
One day, Marty notices a large, tender bump on his back. He goes to a doctor (an odd cameo by James Caan), who berates him, slaps a band-aid on the lump, and sends him off. Over the next few days, the lump continues to grow, until it emerges as a third, fully formed arm.
Rosarita is disgusted and leaves Marty, the club where he does his stand-up kicks him out, and Gus uses him as a freak show for his girlfriends, who as characters themselves can best be referred to as sitophiliacs.
However, at Marty’s lowest, Gus, slightly showing his more sinister, manipulative side, tries to cheer Marty up by bringing him to a seedy agent and getting him a gig as a sort of “Freak Comedian”. Marty tells a joke, and then slowly spins around, showing all three arms raised as Gus plays accordion.
Everything actually looks good for a while, until, inevitably, it all falls apart. Leaving Marty in a worse place than he started.
Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending of sorts, but I won’t spoil that for you. You need to experience this oft-overlooked cult classic for yourself.
Fun Fact: Judd Nelson was originally turned down for the role because he was too much of a “handsome, leading man”-type. Supposedly, he wanted to prove otherwise, and is said to have auditioned for the film by going incognito as Marty Malt and performing the character’s routine throughout LA.
I met Bill Paxton at NYCC a few years ago, and told him how much I admired his career and the roles he’s taken. Once I buttered him up a little, I hit him with my love of The Dark Backward. I expected him to balk at my bringing it up. Instead, he laughed in surprise, and went on about how much he loved the movie. When later researching it, I found this quote from him:
“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood. Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round. And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…” – Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward
How to watch The Dark Backward.
- Get some friends together for a movie night. (one where you don’t have to work the next day is best.
- Get some booze, but DO NOT go fancy. Cheap Beer/Wine/Liquor will fit this movie best. (if you’re under 21, get some Jolt or energy drinks)
- Make a big pan of easy/cheap eats. Pizza rolls, nachos, pigs in a blanket…wait, scratch that, even those are too fancy for this movie.
- Get all your talking/texting done. Put your phones away, this is friends and movie time you savage.
- Go if you have to and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
- Make sure that there’s a bucket ready for anyone with a weak stomach, just in case the bathroom is being used at the moment. The movie isn’t that gross, but there’s this one scene. All I’m going to say is, “chicken”.
- Put the kids to bed and let the dog out.
- Turn the lights off, turn the sound up, get comfortable and enjoy the film.
I mean, to be sure, that should be the rule for most movies, sans bucket and food & beverage restrictions. But for a movie like The Dark Backward, you’re going to want to give it your full attention.
It’s an odd film. No one will deny that. However, for all it’s weirdness and filth, it’s a film that feels like a fairy tale. One where, although you’re not quite sure what the lesson is, you’ll want to watch over and over and share with your friends.