Spanking the Monkey Review

Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) is a pre-medical student who has landed a sought-after internship in Washington DC. But his father Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson) has different ideas. A video salesman, he’s rarely at home and as a result Raymond’s mother Susan (Alberta Watson) has suffered depression and is immobilised due to a compound fracture of her leg. So Raymond has to stay at home, in an atmosphere so oppressive that his only time to himself is when he locks himself in the bathroom to masturbate – and the family dog won’t even let him do that. In such a claustrophobic situation, not helped by fumbling attempts at romance with Toni, the girl next door (Carla Gallo), mother and son become unhealthily close.

Spanking the Monkey was David O. Russell’s debut feature, following three short films. It was shot in twenty-five days on 35mm short ends, which was helped by Russell’s wife working for New Line who were at one point considering financing the film. It won the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Festival. It attracted the attention of the major studios and Russell has since gone on to make Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, films made on much higher budgets with major stars, but still maintaining an edge and an out-of-the-mainstream sensibility. However, none of these films was a major hit - Huckabees in particular bombed – and it remains to be seen how much “indie” Russell can remain in Hollywood.

However none of the films are as extreme as Spanking the Monkey, but that’s not saying a lot. Very well acted, Spanking the Monkey is a black, black comedy, funny but at the same time deeply disquieting., as you might expect for a film which centres on an act of consensual mother-son incest. It’s a film that leaves you to draw your own conclusions, though it’s a valid criticism that it tends to side in the latter stages with Raymond than with his mother, when the incest was both their responsibility. None of the characters are especially sympathetic: you wish Raymond would stand up to his parents more, and it’s clear by the end that he’s deeply screwed up. In that light, the film’s ending could be seen as a hopeful one, but I’m not so sure. The father is domineering to a fault, and also hypocritical – in the scenes where he’s phoning home from motel rooms, we can see women in shot he’s picked up while away from home.

Like David Lynch’s work, Spanking the Monkey takes an outwardly normal suburban family and peels away the surface to find profound dysfunction underneath. Not an enjoyable one, and its low budget does show, as do some first-time directorial flaws, but it’s one that does stick in the mind afterwards. Even if you wish it didn’t.

Axiom Film’s DVD release of Spanking the Monkey is PAL format and encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1 (opened up slightly from the intended ratio of 1.85:1) and anamorphically enhanced. At the time, before the wide takeup of video, many indies were shot in 16mm and blown up for cinema projection. At one time, this film might well have been made the same way, but in the end it was shot in 35mm. The improvement in picture quality is noticeable, with a smoother look, with the low budget preventing it being an overtly slick one, something that certainly suits this material. The transfer is faithful to how this film looks (as far as I can tell, twelve years after seeing the film in a cinema), with solid blacks and good shadow detail.

The film is rare for a 1990s film, even one on the low-budget indie level, for having a mono soundtrack. Even the most cash-strapped indies seem to be able to manage a basic stereo track. As this is a dialogue-driven film mostly set indoors, there’s not a lot of call for directional effects. The dialogue is certainly audible, even in external scenes which seem to have been recorded live – for example, the early scene where an aeroplane flies overhead while Tom is speaking. The music score sounds fine, though apart from some songs from the band Morphine, it’s dominated by a solo mandolin, so there’s not much call for stereo spread there. (In his commentary, Russell says that a score featuring a single acoustic instrument is very much a Sundance-indie cliché.) Unfortunately there are no subtitles available on this disc.

The main extra is a commentary by David O. Russell, recorded – as he reveals at the end – in 2005, just over a decade since the film was completed. Russell is an interesting speaker, telling us how a low-budget indie like this got made. He’s frank about the film’s shortcomings, and what he would have done differently now. Interestingly, the first choice for the mother's role was Faye Dunaway.

The only other extra is a gallery of colour stills. They are arranged in story order, so beware potential spoilers. A trailer would have been interesting, as this is hardly the easiest film to sell.

The early-to-mid 1990s could be considered a golden age for American independent films. Later on, Sundance generated its own set of clichés, and too many indies were obvious calling cards for the majors. Spanking the Monkey was hardly anyone’s idea of a calling card, but that’s what it turned out to be. It’s not in the absolute top flight of 90s indies, but it’s a well worth watching as its director’s first flight.

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