Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1999)

15. The Apartment Complex

With the commercial failure of “The Mangler,” Tobe Hooper had finally been permanently banished to the world of television and direct-to-video cinema. Following the 1995 release of that movie, Hooper directed two episodes of “Nowhere Man” and an episode each of “Dark Skies,” “Perversions of Science,” and “Prey.” Many of these shows were produced in the aftermath of “The X-Files” repopularizing spooky TV. So it’s no surprised that Hooper’s next feature length credit would also be made for television. “The Apartment Complex” was produced for Showtime, the same network that aired “Body Bags” five years prior. Though easy to overlook, the humble film may actually be the best thing Hooper has been involved with in years.

Stan Warden is a young man who recently moved to California for education. Pursuing a psychology degree, and wondering what he’ll write his thesis about, he finds money running low. So when he sees an ad in the paper for a position as the manger of an apartment complex, he immediately takes the job. As soon as he enters the complex, he finds the place off-putting. The residents are strange, including a homeless man living outside the building, a pair of models, a man who claims to be a CIA agent, a would-be psychic, and others. After pulling a bloated dead body out of the filthy pool, Stan suddenly finds himself being pursued by police as a murderer. He also begins to wonder if he’s going insane, all by himself or because the apartment is driving him crazy.

“The Apartment Complex” premiered on Showtime on Halloween night of 1999. This certainly suggest the film was intended to be spooky. All the advertisements sell the movie as a thriller. At the start, “The Apartment Complex” certainly seems to be going in this direction. Stan is introduced to the landlord, named Dr. Caligari. Turns out, the man he thought was the landlord was actually someone else entirely. The former tenant of Stan’s room was seemingly an obsessive compulsive man with psychotic tendencies. The residents of the apartment all seem to have ulterior motives, possibly having it out for Stan. There’s a missing room in the apartment, suggesting that there’s something sinister about the location itself. All of this is before the bloated corpse is pulled from the pool. “The Apartment Complex” actually does an alright tone of creating a slightly disorienting tone, drawing the audience in.

However, these elements are eventually revealed to be something of a misdirect. “The Apartment Complex” isn’t a horror movie at all and only marginally qualifies as a thriller. Instead, the movie is most focused on quirky comedy. The police pursue Stan with such dogged determination that it becomes funny, as they dig up his apartment and confiscate his stuff. The apparent psychic living in the building attempts to seduce Stan, stripping down to the nude in his bed. The romance Stan potentially forms with one of the tenants is sidelined by her boyfriend, a bizarre macho caricature. Despite the murdered body, there’s little grisly about “The Apartment Complex.” Instead, the movie develops a friendly, offbeat tone that is inviting to viewers. The titular location is weird but you kind of enjoy spending time there.

The most consistent directorial trademark throughout Tobe Hooper’s career has been his interest in expressive set design. Though it’s never really gone away, it’s usually harder to spot in his television credits. This isn’t the case with “The Apartment Complex.” The landlord being named Dr. Caligari is only the most obvious shout-out to Expressionistic cinema. The swimming pool, an important plot location, has an odd, triangular shape. The buildings jut out at off-center angles. The hallways even directly recreate “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s” angular set design. The individual rooms are often packed with small details, granting a lot of personality to the room.

While its script is comedic and its story is often morbid, “The Apartment Complex’s” tone often borders film noir. Stan frequently narrates the story, contemplating his situation, his slipping sanity, and whether or not he can ever figure out his thesis. This narration is, more often then not, very distracting. it often feels like it was added to the movie after the fact. However, it points towards the movie’s noir aspirations. The photography often drapes the characters in expressive shadows. Mark Adler’s score is filled with boozy saxophone and waltzing brass, which also recalls noir. While more a goof on the neo-noir movement then a proper entry in it, “The Apartment Complex” gleefully adds this to its tonal mix.

If there’s any element of “The Apartment Complex” that is overdone, it’s Stan’s psychology background. He often chit-chats with a bust of Sigmund Freud. While at school, he watches mice navigate a maze. His monologues directed at the mice often pair with the movie’s plot turns. That self-reflective attribute builds towards the final moment, where the title is revealed to be a pun. The apartment building is often compared to the mazes the mice are seen wandering. While the story happily puts Stan through absurdist hell, the apartment complex is ultimately too appealing a location. There’s no threat of the main character going insane.

As an thespian, Chad Lowe is not especially well regarded. He’s most well known for having a more famous and successful older brother. (Or maybe for being Hilary Swank’s ex-husband.) However, as Stan Warden, Lowe gives a solid performance. He’s funny, often responding to the story’s unexpected turns with bafflement. He mines decent laughs from the character’s confusion. He also sells the affection Stan develops for the apartment’s tenants in time. Lowe ultimately proves to be compelling, calmly guiding the viewer through the movie’s goofball world.

Lowe also has decent romantic chemistry with Fay Masterson as Alice, the tenant that eventually wins his heart. Despite the movie’s heightened world, Masterson is one of the more grounded characters. She’s game, leaping into another actor’s arm and spending a portion of the story in a skimpy nightgown. Patrick Warburton plays her boyfriend, Morgan. Warburton has a hugely affable comedic presence, often using his baritone voice to get big laughs from simple lines. In “The Apartment Complex,” Warburton plays a bully. He beats up any man who he thinks is interesting in his girlfriend. Late in the film, it’s implied that he beats her too. While an unpleasant character, Warburton’s talent goes a long ways towards making Morgan seem off-beat and quirky, instead of just outright unlikable.

There are other notable faces living in the apartment. Amanda Plummer plays Miss Chenelle, the psychic that lives there. Plummer’s naturally eccentric energy is well suited to this project. She delivers all of Chenelle’s dialogue with a spacey affectation, managing to make simple lines rather funny. She’s also oddly sexy in the part, which peaks during her extended nude scene, appearing on Lowe’s bed with the intention of seducing him. Another familiar performer is R. Lee Ermey as Frank Stanton. Stanton claims to be a former CIA agent and seems to enjoy spying on the other tenets. He’s ultimately proven to be harmless, even likable. Ermey gets some of the film’s funniest lines, such as a reoccurring line about a chase lounge. By the end, he even becomes likable, his gruffness hiding a friendly heart.

“The Apartment Complex” fills even the furthest corners of its ensemble cast with likable characters. Tyra Banks seemingly plays a version of herself, an up-and-coming model living in the low rent housing. Banks has some okay comedic chops. Her roommate is a female body double, who introduces herself to Stan by beating him up. The detectives who harass Stan are played by Ron Canada and Miguel Sandoval, both of whom get some laughs. Jon Polito appears as Dr. Caligari, happily playing up the character’s cheapskate personality. Obba Babatunde plays Chett, the homeless man, providing some likable unhinged elements to his few scenes.

There’s a free-floating absurdist streak throughout “The Apartment Complex” which manifests itself in unexpected ways. At one point, Stan receives a strange package. Inside is a boa constrictor. It escapes the box, slithers into the complex’s plumbing, and pops up during important times. After the dead body is fished out of the pool, somebody slips sunglasses onto his face and cigarettes into his lips. It seems likely to me that “The Apartment Complex” was meant to launch a series. Many of these elements are left unexplained, probably with the intention of building upon them in an on-going story line. Since that TV show never appeared, these dangling plot threads instead add to the movie’s earnestly quirky, goofy atmosphere.

I expected “The Apartment Complex” to be a horror film or, at the very least, a thriller. The murder mystery aspect of the story is resolved in a free-wheeling way, practically being unimportant to the rest of the plot. That’s because the dead body in the pool, and the question of who is responsible, isn’t the reason to watch “The Apartment Complex.” Instead, the TV movie works because of its likable off-beat tone and its cast of memorable characters. I have no idea if the movie would’ve worked as a series. However, the film is solid enough that I probably would’ve watched it. By no means a masterpiece, “The Apartment Complex” is still the best movie Tobe Hooper has made in quite some time. [Grade: B]

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