Now that John Waters is safe for Broadway, someone has to step up and keep homegrown Baltimore cinema transgressive. Writer/director Daniel Bell seems up to the task. Bell's new shot-on-video feature Night Fifty is every bit as cheap-looking and outlandish and provocative as Waters' films used to be, but Bell isn't interested in camp laughs. According to his Web site, studiothreefilms.com, the budding auteur grew up on a steady diet of blood-spattered, breast-festooned drive-in exploitation shockers; Night Fifty makes it clear they made an impression. It's hard to imagine anyone watching this film all the way through without thinking of leaving at least once. That's a compliment.
Waters may be Bell's spiritual godfather, but Night Fifty most resembles a deranged knockoff of David Lynch. What little linear narrative there is involves a clique of black-clad lipstick lesbians (Abigail Poplin, Erika Valencic, Tracie Jiggetts, and Marlene Rosoff) trying to make a quick buck by stealing bioweapons from the government (!), but Bell quickly back-burners the plot for random twists and outrages. Out of nowhere, Rosoff's ringleader carjacks a Beemer-driving soccer mom and tosses her crying tyke off a bridge. We meet Mr. Ward (Richard Reade), a corpulent gray-haired patrician type whose private life includes making porn, indulging in debased sex with hookers and with his morbidly obese adult son (Andy Lafferty), and brutal murder. Along the way, innocent 1950s and '60s pop standards play, mysterious elderly fixers loiter in anterooms while faux nightclub divas lip-sync, blood gushes, vomit erupts, lipstick smears, and lights flicker mysteriously. Somehow, deus ex machina-meets-Wizard of Oz, everyone ends up on a black-and-white 1950s TV variety show. Think Mulholland Dr. meets Eastern Avenue.
It's hard to say that Night Fifty is good, exactly. At the same time, it is undeniably impressive and perhaps more memorable than you might wish. Bell and his crew made the most of their rudimentary resources, summoning up several atmospheric sequences that put most such hand-rolled films to shame. The cast is amateurish, but a cut above the usual level and nothing if not committed. And like the best of his Z-movie forebears, Bell shows an eye for the eye-grabbing, whether it's two femme lovers necking on the banks of the Patapsco to Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk," a nearly naked Asian man go-go-ing at gunpoint, or an execution gone wrong carried out by flashlight. Not good, then, but not bad.