Deceit ★★★★

If you enjoy this review, check out my book RADIOACTIVE DREAMS: THE CINEMA OF ALBERT PYUN. I reviewed every one of Albert Pyun's films and interviewed some of his closest collaborators.

I'm always amazed by the directors that can make a film for no money and no time yet somehow pull it off like a well-choreographed heist. Fred Olen Ray's HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS may not be a great film, but I love the fact that Ray was able to finish it over a weekend, with a few favours, and a lot of courage.

The story goes that Pyun was unhappy with his experience on CYBORG. He had wanted to make a pessimistic black and white acid Western called SLINGER, but Jean Claude Van-Damme and the producers decided they wanted a tonally similar follow-up to the Canon’s surprise hit BLOODSPORT. After many arguments, Pyun was strong-armed to do some re-shoots for CYBORG, and in retaliation, he cooked up an impossible heist: He would make an entirely new feature film with the resources for the pick-ups. Pyun wrote an original script, picked a location for the reshoots that would fit CYBORG and DECEIT's needs and he got the production to pay to rent the gear for a week. This was the masterstroke because when he wrapped CYBORG's shoot on a Thursday night, the camera rental house didn’t expect returns during the weekend, which means that Pyun had three free days with equipment that had to be returned on Monday. DECEIT would cost $22,000 and the actors would have to limit themselves to a single take for each shot.

You can’t shoot much in three days that isn’t pornography or a filmed stage play, so Pyun settled on a variation of the latter. His idea (writing under the pseudonym Kitty Chalmers) was about a car filled with people that pick up a hitchhiker, and when the man (Norbert Weisser) murders everyone except one woman (Samantha Phillips), he traps her in a warehouse and admits that he’s an alien that is going to destroy the planet in an hour.

Also, he wants to have sex with her.

The goofy alien angle doesn't wholly mask a grim set-up that could have quickly headed into a torture porn-ish direction, especially when the woman is forced to undress to her underwear at gunpoint, but before you know it, the woman turns the tables on her captor. When she refuses to pleasure him physically, he seems to be able to read her mind and accuses her of being a slut. She reacts furiously and points out that he has no idea who she is, and that just because he has psychic powers, doesn’t mean he knows her. Before the viewer’s eyes, the victim becomes the alpha as she verbally pummels her intergalactic captor until he’s revealed to be nothing more than a pitiful “Nice guy” who desperately wants to be laid as a form of validation. Pyun pushes things a little bit too far in terms of the threat of abuse, but when things look like they’re about to take a gross turn, he swings things in a surprise. Everything is admitted to be a lie. The captor says he has a mental health condition. And then another man shows up and claims to be a doctor. Have they all escaped from a mental asylum? Is the radio really saying that a nuclear war has started?

While the script half-heartedly tries to play up some ambiguity, it's pretty apparent early on that Pyun is going full sci-fi. Yes, the two men are aliens, and yes the earth is about to be destroyed for a reason consistent with Pyun's world view) The film is less about what's true, but who will convince who? Will the two men, both of them representing different extremes, be able to gaslight the woman into falling for them? The emphasis on circular David Mamet-ish dialogue and a penchant for yelling may aggravate some viewers, but it kept me engrossed till the film’s final moments. Veteran Pyun performers Norbert Weisser and Scott Paulin do an admirable job as the two aliens (one crazy, the other slick) and Samatha Phillips pulls her weight as the emotional centre whose thrown from belief to doubt over and over again, without ever losing a sense of self. Pyun limits his shot selection to a few set-ups, but they’re always visually appealing, and the primary location sports a giant oscillating fan that beautifully illuminates some picturesque shafts of dusty light. Pyun could have easily phoned something in that played up the exploitative elements. Instead, he takes a big swing at delivering a movie with a strong feminist message (a major theme of his work) that highlights the strength and independence of his female lead. The skeezy men may try to take advantage of her - whether by force or by money - but their undoing comes because she’s stronger and more empathetic than both of them combined. It’s a noble message, but its rendered a little problematic when the film demands the protagonist to be stripped to her bra and panties for most of its running time. Still, I’m glad Pyun attempted it, and the film’s final moments are impressive in its direct FUCK YOU messaging.

I’d be willing to bet money that Pyun drew inspiration from Edgar G. Ulmer's poverty row classic DETOUR to make this similarly titled production. Both share an impoverished reality (Ulmer claimed he shot DETOUR in six days for $20,000. In truth, it was way longer and more expensive) and the parallel story elements (the hitchhiker, a man and a woman facing off) seem too prevalent to be a coincidence. And just like Ulmer’s film, DECEIT is an articulation of Pyun’s tortured state of mind - his protagonist is trapped, convinced that what she sees with her own eyes is incorrect as promises are made that will never be delivered on. His internal thoughts take the form of radio broadcast breaking into the picture with questions like “Is this even a movie?” and “What's the point of life?” that gently poke at the nature of the production's existence as its protagonist is tricked, lied to and convinced that the obvious is anything but the truth.

It’s refreshing to watch DECEIT and realize it's one of the rare gambles that Pyun was able to pull off successfully. He shot 13,000 feet of film, finished the picture (which came out to 10,000 feet), sold it to Mehanhem Golan. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t make much of a splash and is rarely discussed - which is a shame - because the sheer fact it exists should be enough cultural mystique to motivate the curious to check it out.

FUN FACT: The people on the poster are nowhere to be seen in the film.

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