You know, sometimes before even walk into a horror movie you know it’s going to disembowel you. I don’t mean that in the gore sense of horror but mainly in the visceral part of you: right inside your very emotional core.
Writer and director Richard Bates Jr. punches you in the stomach with his horror comedy Trash Fire. His characters don’t pull their punches either. Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabelle (Angela Trimbur) are a paradox. They are clearly a dysfunctional couple that appear almost completely unsympathetic. At the same time there is an honesty to their characters that is compelling and for all their cruel words to each other a genuine love. It’s not romantic love but that kind of fierce imploding magnetic force that is just there. It can’t really be explained. It’s like their violent truths cancel or balance rach other out.
Initially the real horror intermixed with sharp and unforgiving witty one liners was watching Owen and Isabelle’s relationship. And then Violet (Fionnula Flannigan), Owen’s cruel and twisted religious fanatic grandmother and Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), Owen’s reclusive younger sister are introduced in this dynamic.
Isabelle is pregnant and in order to convince her to keep the baby and continue their relationship Owen agrees to reunite with what is left of his estranged family. Owen has seizures based on a fire that killed his parents and covered eighty percent of his sister’s body with third degree burns. He also ran away and abandoned Pearl to their grandmother years ago.
It goes about as well as you can expect.
The characterization in Trash Fire is excellent. Richard Bates Jr. plays with your expectations. Violet is evil and creepy but she is refreshingly hilarious. Pearl is a complex character with her own desires, a sweetness tempered by a degree of creepiness, an incredible awareness, and an anger and sadness towards her scarring and her life rivaling that of the Phantom of the Opera. The slow reveal of just how badly she’s physically disfigured is also subverted. Pearl is actually one of the most compelling LGBTQ characters in a horror movie I’ve seen. The fact that she is shut in a room most of the time, and makes crafts out of the mirrors she breaks says a lot of things. You also learn that her scars don’t even begin to equal the ugliness in the human interactions we see throughout this entire film.
Even Owen and Isabelle, who I thought I’d enjoy seeing killed or maimed became more sympathetic as they spent time at Violet’s house. They seemed worse when surrounded by a flat, ubiquitous one-dimensional world often portrayed by the horror genre as “normal” than when dealing with the honest dysfunctionality and eventual evil of Owen’s family life.
There are some confusing bits of course. Sometimes the character developments are jarring: like they have been written after the fact. Owen’s differing recollections could be the result of PTSD and its screaming distorted segments of his family on fire, and maybe serial killing takes a while to warm up in Violet’s twilight years, but there is literally one character towards the end of the film that goes … nowhere. He comes into the scene and he is gone. It is a minor plot point that could have at least been a death but just does nothing.
All that said, Trash Fire‘s ending hits like a son of a bitch. Richard Bates Jr. couldn’t be at the After Dark screening and in his Director’s Words he said he almost wished he could be there to give the audience a hug. The movie ends as dysfunctionally as it began and I know that I will always remember Trash Fire for it.