This is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. I threw it in the trash, said Stern of Woolgar 2000, the only feature film written and directed by Brian Johnson, star of the late AMC men’s comic strip and co-host of the popular Say ‘Em Steve Dave podcast.
Stern’s reaction undoubtedly reflects that of many who saw Vulgar, director and producer Kevin Smith with a budget of about $100,000.
A vulgar film that combines the cruelty of the first crushing paintings with the nightmares of David Lynch in the suburbs is truly unique, a film that deserves enough veneration after years of constant discussion. But the original never worked.
Vulgar follows Will Carlson (hired actor Brian O’Halloran), a struggling clown abused by his mother and hated by his neighbors and even by many of his skinny customers.
One day Carlson got the idea to make an extra scratch. He’s gonna be the bachelor clown. While the bachelor waits for the stripper, Carlson goes out in clown makeup and hangs out like a fat model.
The plan fails when Carlson, who calls himself Vulgar, is hired by three hillbillies, a father and the sons of a trio that can even drive Lynch crazy. Men beat and raped Carlson and videotaped the whole thing. It was during this extremely disturbing sequence that Stern disabled the image. And also when the scariest line in the film disappears from the screen: I’m gonna hate you.
Smith said the line has been haunting him for years, and the crazy embrace of vulgar darkness has driven him in part to make his own journey to horror in the Red State for the first time since 2011.
Vulgar is a great film about exploitation, which eventually inspired me to create the Red State, Smith said in the comedy episode.
Smith’s love for Woolgar is part of a remarkably twisted creative circle, as Woolgar himself was inspired by Johnson, who wondered what was behind the story of the changing clown who originally represented the View Askew brand, a painting by Walt Flanagan, who hosted Johnson in Tell ‘Em Steve Dave and who also starred in The Comic Book People.
Anyway, back to the story.
Carlson finally rescues the baby as a hostage, and suddenly his dreams come true. He becomes a local hero and gets his own TV show. After all the abrasions and insults, it’s all starting to pay off for Carlson. There’s only one problem. A videotape reappears on the surface and Carlson is suddenly blackmailed. And there’s a lot more at stake than money.
What makes Vulgar uncomfortable for some – beyond the dark main plot – is his commitment to his ideas. It’s never too graphic or horrible to be considered shit, but the lo-fi quality and the refusal to look away from more realistic consequences and focus on the beautiful things we see, make it really disturbing. Although on the surface it may be a story of revenge, the film is surprising because it goes deeper into the themes of post-traumatic stress and karmic retribution.
If you’ve never seen Vulgar before, you really have no idea what’s going on, because Johnson doesn’t follow a typical three-part structure. His writing is as honest and ruthless as the cheap lens that allows us to see how it all happens.
Vulgar also contains some of the most underestimated horror pieces of its kind. The grand prize went to Jerry Levkovitz, the clan leader who raped Vulgar. He spits out his lines like poison, and there’s not a minute a man feels like an actor. His performance alone creates a feeling of disgust at all the other scenes.
Matthew Mahar and Ethan Supley are also pretty crazy, but the other real representative of the painting is O’Halloran. He proved that he could play a sweet whore in the Clerks movies, but this film gives the actor a chance to really dig deeper than his other roles and show us what potential he really has. It is sad, pathetic and delightful in equal parts of the image. O’Halloran shoots scenes – rape is just the tip of the iceberg – most actors would never agree. It collapses before our eyes, and so convincing that it is difficult to really get rid of vulgarity.
Also watch out for the cameos of many people in the Askyu family. Kevin Smith has a role in the film, along with producers Clerk’s Scott Monsieur, Jason Muse and joker Brian Quinn, and Walt Flanagan.
This year Vulgar celebrates its twentieth anniversary, but its themes are as sonorous and powerful as when it was first released. Although the film of course doesn’t resemble the horror of today’s high-definition movies, it is so brutal, so honest and so unique that it rubs against your skull and never leaves.
Even 20 years later, it’s still an unforgettable event.