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Absolutely no need for her to endure its rough spots: even though he hasn’t directed a picture in seventeen years, Nathan has lost none of his mojo in the gore department. That’s how he attracted a cult following with The Long Island Cannibal Massacre (1980) and They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore (1985), giddy, grisly films whose budgets rest squarely on the cost of the super-8 stock they were shot on. Gruesome as it is, They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore is an outrageous send-up of suburban mores, while his last feature-length work to date, Vermilion Eyes (1991) was so intensely personal that his DVD distributor chose not to release it.
Clocking in at twenty minutes, Abracadaver! is part of “Worst Fears,” a series of shorts from England’s Pathetique Films. (For a list of their other titles, click here.) In the past Nathan wrote, produced, photographed, edited and directed his pictures, but here he’s working under producer David McGillivray with a full cast and crew, and a screenplay by Jak E. Arthur. Despite a reportedly tumultuous production history (you can read McGillivray’s take on it here), it resonates with Schiff’s distinct voice and pet themes.
Which, on the surface, concern murder and mayhem, bloodletting at the hands of determined, chainsaw-wielding psychos. But there’s also something darker between the lines, an emotional detachment within characters stuck in a cyclical rut of longing, their passions warped by ongoing desperation. It permeates Vermilion Eyes (a unique portrait of depression and Nathan’s best film) and haunts Abracadaver!, in which a shiftless hetero man (the suitably bewildered Marc Edward Newman) gets an assistant’s job for an older gay magician (a magnetic and scary Peter de Rome).
McGillivray was approached by the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival when they were looking for movies to show at their 2008 gala. He felt Arthur’s script would be suitable and, given its horror angle (the magician dismembers victims onstage), contacted Schiff — who has no gay leanings whatsoever. An instance of fortunate alchemy, these disparate elements work to the advantage of the scenario. By the end, like Newman’s character John, we’re not quite sure what’s going on, but the intensity snowballs and snares the attention.
Outside of its “crowd pleasing” disembowelments and a disturbingly prolonged death scene, the sense of alienation penetrates like a creeping malaise. John’s uneasy job interview with the magician is inexplicably held in a deserted snowy forest; his sexual tryst with Michelle (Erica Leigh Boseski) feels mechanical and obligatory. As he did in Vermilion Eyes, Schiff observes everyday situations through a jaundiced eye. When John literally spills his guts out on stage, Michelle laughs maniacally from the audience. Call it Sartre Chainsaw Massacre: Schiff transcends genre for existentialism. It makes you wonder what he could do with a lot of money and a cast and crew willing to go the distance.