Winner of the coveted Forever Award from GenreBlast 2022, “Gouge Away” may be short on budget and polish but not on creativity.
GenreBlast gives out the “Forever Award” for a film that “a film that truly encapsulates the spirit of the fest — fiercely independent, highly original, and spectacularly innovative.” This year’s recipient was Jeff Frumess’ Gouge Away, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Although it doesn’t appear Frumess (Romeo’s Distress) is too fond of sticking with typical filmmaking conventions and has opted instead for an arthouse approach with his microbudget effort, he makes up for a lack of polish with interesting visual storytelling and a quirky cast that helps keep things entertaining.
As the film opens, somber music accompanies a compelling tableau — Buddhist iconography commingled with whipped cream, a sinister-looking mask of apparent oriental origin, some strange-looking capsules, a mysterious trail of blood, as well as a weeping man, Stanley (Jacob Trussell), trying to comfort himself with bitter, ritualistic meditation.
Though it is difficult to make sense of without context, it stands out enough to be remembered later when that context is unfolded by the plot.
The superimposed, garish title with a bloody backdrop and sounds of gory mayhem is the final brushstroke for the first “chapter”. It sets the scene in contrast to the previously idyllic backdrop.
The creative chapter title cards between scenes (accompanied by the cartoon image of an imposing, long-armed figure wearing the aforementioned mask) do help the action move along at a brisk pace, although sometimes they seem superfluous. For example, we join another man, Tony (Matthew Rittaco), in another idyllic setting wearing a wife beater and jeans and doing apparent Yoga poses, and…cut! That’s it for Chapter 2.
Our first bit of dialogue introduces us to Diana (Jeannine Frumess). She is complaining that the aforementioned mask is “haunting her” because it belongs to her estranged boyfriend Stanley (the crying man from Chapter 1). She gives the mask to Tony from Chapter 2.
Tony puts the mysterious mask in his car and brings it to a dojo that seems to be abandoned; mild creepy music ensues.
He leaves with the mask and then promptly gets up to some clandestine phone activities with some sort of shady character named Whiskers (Jack Wheeler), whom he implores to search for his missing friend before the scene inexplicably changes to an elderly woman (Renee Mandel) who is smoking a licorice cigar and petting a plush fox, sharing a bit of surly monologue in the middle of Tony and the detective’s exchange.
At this point, there is a slightly frustrating lack of clarity about who is who and what role they play, but nothing is unforgivable.
Cut to a city building, then an interior where the Whiskers is playing chess with himself; his smart-assed henchman Pickles (Zach Spicehandler) tells him Tony has arrived. He gives Tony the bad news that his friend overdosed on gas canisters filled with a mysterious drug called “EEHEE” (some of which we saw in the cryptic opening scene). He also gives Tony an evidence box containing the drug and paraphernalia.
Oh, dear. Tony has decided to try the drug. Turns out it’s a powerful hallucinogenic agent. Hallucinations ensue.
Tony then meets with Diana again, asking her questions about Stanley and their relationship. There are flashbacks to some dialogue Diana and Stanley had in better days, and we see a highly functioning Stanley, apparently before he started on the drugs.
The film does have a lot of comic relief, including a fake TV show called Family Time Machine.
There is some romance between Stanley and a couple of his exes, which we get to see through flashbacks. However, there’s a bit of inconsistency between flashbacks being relayed from one character to another and just flashbacks for their own sake.
At times, the film definitely takes more of a comedic turn, particularly with Stanley’s antics during some of the flashbacks.
But these seem abrupt and tonally out-of-place – the film doesn’t seem quite sure whether it’s a drama or a comedy (there is no such thing as a dramedy, I don’t care what anyone says).
Perhaps this was purposeful to make Stanley’s descent into addiction all the more tragic.
That seems likely until we realize that Stanley’s gateway drug was nitrous from whip cream canisters, making it a little harder to take seriously, especially when the colorful camera and sound FX are used to emulate Stanley tripping balls, literally after the first huff.
This is all recounted to Tony by way of Cherry (Candy Fox), another ex of Stanley’s.
We then get to see Stanley gouge his eyeball out with a spoon after he has a bad trip. Yeah, it’s a bloody mess.
A Pulp Fiction-esque throwback to an earlier scene offers a different perspective.
We find out the elderly woman from the previous scene is a drug kingpin called Bad Nana in a flashback that shows Tony in his younger (and longer hair) days. Also, if we hadn’t figured it out earlier, it turns out Whiskers is a small-time crime boss himself looking to horn in on Bad Nana’s action.
Tony tracks down his next link to finding out who supplied his friend with the drug that killed him — a dealer named The Hot Dog (Chris La Vigna) — followed by a disgusting interrogation and bloody execution, followed by…yoga? Yes, after killing the supplier, Tony has an impromptu yoga session in the woods.
Tony continues to the next higher-up dealer (Brandon Parker), killing him as well before being jumped by the least tough gang in gangbanger history.
Y’all had one job.
But three against one with an axe, golf club, and baseball bat vs. his switchblade just couldn’t cut it (facepalm). Anyway, it’s a good excuse to do the ridiculous fight scene in the dark, complete with pain and death screams, breaking glass, and lots of stabbing noises.
There’s a bit of a nice payoff when Tony exits the building covered in blood, Bruce Campbell style.
The movie is trying really hard to be a comedy at this point, which wouldn’t be so bad if it had been consistent with the laughs throughout.
We basically have a crime drama with comedic elements, with the style of comedy in this awkward limbo between Napoleon Dynamite and Beverly Hills Cop.
For example, Tony’s Uncle Elmo asks him to do some yoga poses for him…just because.
Then we get the “big reveal” — which, if you didn’t see it coming, should make you feel really, really dumb.
There’s also another big reveal concerning the designer drug behind all the protagonists’ problems, which is pretty horrifying. Oh, and there’s yet another aha moment which, in my opinion, is quite silly, but I can’t be mad at them for the creative effort.
The action sequences aren’t going to win any awards, but at least they’re accompanied by a rockin’ soundtrack. I just wish the FX team had opted for hydraulics over CGI with some of the blood. That said, there is some fantastic gore that elevates the whole thing.
Kudos to the actors, the director, and the rest of the crew for cranking out an entertaining micro-budgeted effort which begs the question: What might they have accomplished with a few million dollars?
I hope Gouge Away becomes a stepping-stone for the creative team behind it, and that question gets answered someday, hopefully, sooner than later. Once it gets a proper release, it will definitely be worth checking out.