Roger Corman, these clowns never knew ye…
by Adam Miller
Not since Vanilla Ice’s COOL AS ICE have I found a film so inexcusably distasteful. I will try, however, with the Insane Clown Posse vehicle DEATH RACERS to be a little more thoughtful than I was in my diatribe against COOL AS ICE.
I don’t know if the fact that both of these films feature “rap” artists says anything about attitudes latent in that genre of music. Both Vanilla Ice and ICP are outliers—polar opposites, really—on the continuum of rap. So rather than scapegoat rap music as the common denominator between these catastrophes, I’ll suggest that perhaps artists drawn to a kind of talentless extremism are wired to produce works as awful as DEATH RACERS.
Insane Clown Posse (ICP) for those who don’t know is a two-man horror/hardcore rap group from Detroit whose lyrics and themes draw upon a self-created mythology of damnation, torment, and carnivals. The group has been around since the early 90s and I was surprised to see them featured on the label of DEATH RACERS (2008!). Due to their apparent timelessness, one would think that ICP could have had more than just a few of their songs loop repeatedly throughout the film.
According to the script of DEATH RACERS, ICP fancies itself as “subversive” of the elite but also the elite’s scapegoat for youth violence and nastiness, which I think makes them a tool of the elite. A subversive tool of the elite… I think. This begs an early question that I’d like the reader to keep in mind throughout this review: how exactly does ICP define subversion?
DEATH RACERS is a knock off of DEATH RACE (2008) which in turn is a remake of DEATH RACE 2000 (1975). In terms of production history, DEATH RACERS is most like the original in that it was clearly filmed on a small budget with a short shooting schedule (eleven days, if I recall from the audio commentary). The similarities end shortly thereafter. There is little actual racing in DEATH RACERS (though, admittedly, plenty of death) and the political/media satire of the original film, though foggily present, is incidental to the warped politics of the film’s “black humor.”
The plot, for what it’s worth, pits four teams of criminals against an evil mastermind—The Reaper—who plans to release a neurotoxin into the country’s water supply (via an iMac, apparently). The four teams are armed with their super cars and must drive into the Red Zone, a cordoned off city where the dregs of society are allowed to run train. The rest of the film plays out as conflict between the racers and The Reaper’s henchmen.
Much of the film’s levity comes from the staples of bad moviedom. Line delivery is almost universally stilted by the actors. Classic gems from the script include the nonsensically mundane:
“Whatcha’ got there?”
“Charts, tables, projections.”
Non sequitur vulgarities:
“Fuck me on Tuesday, how the hell do we get out of here?”
And the most common, adolescently single-minded, mixing of popular catchphrases:
“Houston, we have a problem: We’ve got wood. Petrified wood.”
All of this is cushioned by the wall of sound that is ICP’s lyricism, e.g:
“You’re a fucking penny pincher / You never give an inch’a.”
The visual is little improvement over the audio. Most of the film is shot through filters that make a yellow car appear pink in most sequences. Too bad, because when filters aren’t used, the lighting on the film isn’t that shoddy. I guess the director wanted something “edgier.” As mentioned earlier, there is little “racing” footage and there is a nary a scene where a character is actually depicted being struck by a car (rather blood spatters from off screen). I have a feeling this isn’t for lack of trying on the production’s part, for there is plenty of gore once the characters dismount their vehicles.
But let’s talk about the real problem with this movie, the problem which takes it from being pleasantly bad to disturbingly so: its politics (do I strike the same chord in all these reviews? You betcha’). In this case it is primarily politics towards women which I find most troubling. There are two central female characters (one of the death race teams) who are depicted as “black widows” ready to kill their mates after sexually gratifying them. Throughout the entire film they are called bitches, whores, puntas, etc. On one level, of course, the two women literally are those epithets, though I seriously doubt ICP is stretching far outside its usual use of (performance?) language towards women.
Ultimately, one of the women is kidnapped by an evil cyborg who chains her to a table, “masturbates” in a corner, and then attaches a long, metallic cyborg penis and rapes the woman. The cyborg is eventually interrupted and defeated with much smattering of blood. The woman seems to recover from the ordeal without much incident and it is clear that the film intended this scene as comedy.
ICP has been led into a harem and are being seduced by whores. In foreplay, they tickle the whores’ breasts with hatchets. The harem’s madam enters, calls ICP artists and poets, and then pulls out large sheers and informs the clowns that she is about to cut their balls off. The clowns go into battle mode and slaughter the whores. The madam is left on the ground, a hatchet buried in her chest, blood spewing from her mouth as ICP interrogates her. Once they have all the information, the camera cuts to the madam’s perspective as one of the clowns buries a hatchet in her face.
Both of these scenes feature two similar components: violence towards women and castration anxiety. On the one hand the male cyborg does not have an organic penis of his own (and thus, one assumes, cannot actually receive physical stimulation from the rape) and thus merely acts out violence against the whore. In the case of ICP and the madam, the threat of castration is again coincided with violence towards women. Stating these similarities as I just did the only thought I hope comes to mind is: well, that’s obvious.
And indeed it is obvious—one doesn’t need Freud or feminism to “get” what’s going on in those two scenes. Which brings me back to the question I posed earlier in this review: how exactly does ICP define subversion? No doubt the “elite” establishment would balk at such depictions of violence towards women. Does this automatically make those depictions subversive? Perhaps one could argue that, by depicting the explicit rape of women and anxiety of castration the film is illuminating that the establishment already punishes women and fears its own castration (by ICP?), albeit in more sublimated ways.
I find it hard to accept that a simple reproduction of society’s ills is curative much less subversive. I love films which succeed on irony, but admit that irony is a qualified tool. Curiously, my reaction to DEATH RACERS reminds me of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, another film whose suggestion of subversion just didn’t match up with its depicted morals. So maybe I just don’t get it. Or maybe, to borrow a phrase: sometimes a hatchet buried in a woman’s breast is just a hatchet buried in a woman’s breast.