Party Monster Review
If you’d told me in 1992 that Macaulay Culkin would one day be a competent actor, I’d have laughed in your face. If you’d gone on to tell me that, eleven years later, he would be giving a brave and affecting performance as a vain, homosexual junkie, I’d have vomited up my lunch in disbelief. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. In Party Monster, he really is as good as you wouldn’t have believed he could be. The film is a bit of a mess, albeit an interesting one, but Culkin – along with the ever-excellent Seth Green– makes it something surprisingly compelling.
The film is based on the book “Disco Bloodbath” by James St James, a witty and horribly believable account of the rise to prominence in the New York club scene of Michael Alig. Alig (Culkin) was a narcissistic featherbrain whose initially attractive ditsy personality gradually grew into something considerably more sinister as drug dependency took hold. James St James (Green) is initially just as much of a vain airhead as Alig but he slowly becomes the horrified observer of Alig’s breakdown and attempts to act as some kind of conscience. Now in his thirties, Alig was convicted of manslaughter and is currently serving a prison term. The film attempts to explain how Alig grew from a bullied gay teenager into a drug-addled killer and in particular the way he manipulated the people around him; notably Keoki - “You’re going to be my boyfriend” – and, most disastrously, Angel – “I’m going to turn you into a drug dealer”.
The first thing that struck me about Party Monster was its similarity to Paul Schrader’s 2002 film Auto Focus, another study of a life careering into irrevocable disaster. Schrader’s film is a lot more controlled and rather more analytical but the subjects explored are extremely similar. A key difference is that Party Monster is a good deal more stylised, taking on to some extent the personality of Alig to become just as hysterical as its subject. This isn’t altogether a comfortable thing. The film is delicately balanced between the objective dread of Schrader’s film and the deliberately confrontational camp of gay filmmakers such as the brilliant Bruce LaBruce. Yet the filmmakers - Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – aren’t quite capable of the balance and the film keeps turning, for want of a better word, ‘square’ on us with a finger-wagging tone that assures us of how much it disapproves of Alig’s behaviour. It uses the character of Peter Gatien (McDermott),the club owner initially lionised and then despised by Alig, to provide the moral lessons and the film crashes down to earth with a shattering thud whenever he turns up.
This material was originally presented by Bailey and Barbato in a 1998 documentary of the same title which has been said to be rather better than this film. Personally, I found the documentary more lurid than convincing and it lacks anything even resembling subtlety. At least this 2003 film version has some quiet, even touching moments and from all appearances, Culkin and Green give the characters of Alig and St James rather more dignity than the men had in real life.
The credo espoused by Alig is “Money, Success, Fame, Glamour”, as good a summation of the emptiness of the late 1980s / early 1990s as you could wish for. The spiritual emptiness resulting is hinted at here and there in a rather more subtle way than Alig’s personal unpleasantness and it may well be the case that Bailey and Barbato are better at providing a context than examining a specific. Certainly, the visualisation of the club scenes is often stunning, full of colour, life and compelling sleaze, and the use of light is constantly impressive – a scene between Culkin and Sevigny, bathed in red light in a tent is particularly memorable. Montage is frequently employed, often for a disorientating effect during the drug scenes – which is effective – and sometimes simply for stylistic excess – which isn’t.
But the best scenes generally just involve the characters sitting and talking, when the overheated direction relaxes and gives the actors space to do their work. Macaulay Culkin is superb as Alig, making a deeply unpleasant character oddly sympathetic at times without begging us to like him. The reservation I have is that he doesn’t seem convincingly gay – he looks like a straight actor playing camp which isn’t entirely satisfactory, particularly since any sexual activities are either sidetracked or omitted. Seth Green has a similar problem but he does wonders with the difficult character of St James, who has to begin as a prancing queen and end up as a moralist. The other actors do good work too with standout moments from a quiet, reserved Dylan McDermott and a memorably intense turn from Wilson Cruz as the pathetic, doomed Angel. Surprisingly, the normally impressive Chloe Sevigny doesn’t make much of an impression. The film gained some publicity for its casting of Marilyn Manson as the transvestite Christina. He’s fine but hardly in the film and it’s not what you could call a stretch for him.
Essentially, Party Monster is a study of a character who thought that his behaviour had no consequences and was proved wrong. He thought that because his whole life was an act, that no-one could really get hurt. But he was wrong – quite apart from anything else, he got hurt. His conviction that he was untouchable led to his downfall. The film goes awry at times – notably its moralistic tone during the last third – but at its best it is a compelling study of a person gone horribly wrong. The period recreation, incidentally, is spot-on with the kind of fanatical eye to detail that you would normally expect from a Merchant-Ivory epic. The music, in particular, has been chosen with an eye to evoking memories which, if my reaction is anything to go by, may not be entirely pleasant. For the first hour at least, it’s intoxicating presentation of people doing appalling things has the kind of perverse voyeuristic thrill which so many of us enjoy even though we might not want to admit it. The energy and voluptuous excess which is brought to these scenes is so much fun that you might be a little disappointed when the film begins to point the finger.
Party Monster had a very limited release but gained a considerable cult following and Fox have done a good job with the DVD release. It has been issued with two different covers – a ‘club scene’ cover and a ‘disco ball’ cover - but the contents are the same.
The film is presented in two versions – a fullscreen version, which I won’t waste your time about, and an anamorphic 1.85:1 version. It looks pretty good with the vivid colours and harsh contrast of some scenes presented very effectively. Some artifacting is present at times and the blacks are not quite as deep as they should be but this is generally a good presentation of an obviously low budget and deliberately rough and ready production.
Two soundtracks are provided - English and Spanish – both in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. This is serviceable and effective, offering a very good presentation of the insistent song score and clear dialogue which stretches over the front channels. Nothing very spectacular of course but certainly acceptable.
A number of special features have been included. Ideally, the original documentary from 1998 would have been included for comparison but this is available elsewhere if you want to take a look at it. The major extra is a commentary from the directors which is eloquent, detailed and interesting. My appreciation of the film was certainly enhanced by listening to it which is all you could ask for. We also get a 9 minute making-of featurette which is EPK stuff but mildly diverting with some amusing interviews. The prospect of an interview with Michael Alig is tempting but the 5 minute result is a bland disappointment. There are brief interviews with some of the cast members, none of which are particularly enlightening, some rather incoherent behind-the-scenes footage, and the original theatrical trailer. The latter is interesting in that it doesn’t really give prospective viewers much idea about what the film is like, resembling a cross between Boogie Nights and Bright Lights Big City.
There are 24 chapter stops and no subtitles.
Party Monster is a much better film than you might think and it does offer the bizarre spectacle of Macaulay Culkin giving a convincing performance. The DVD presents the film pretty well although most of the extra features come across as filler rather than anything very substantial.