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The charming serial killer, in fiction and reality, is as old as the hills, now essentially a cliche character used to indicate a heroine’s poor romantic choices. Also as old as the hills is the mercenary, self-involved artist character, frequently a filmmaker, as well as the mock-documentary format. Fast charging, as far as cinema conventions go, is the found-footage shocker (if we’re not already tired of it). Writer-director Colin Bemis had the audacity to combine not two but all four of those elements in his debut feature, and it would be fair to look at this unholy concoction with trepidation, if not outright horror. Fortunately, Strawberry Flavored Plastic works remarkably well as an often-chilling character study of a homicidal sociopath over the course of his self-described therapy.
Streaming outlets and niche distributors chasing the Fangoria crowd — or at least those who haven’t already stumbled upon Strawberry in alternative venues — will want to take a look, but the often mesmerizing film is strong enough to warrant a spot at major genre events before migrating to download.
Peekskill, New York, we’re told, has several unsolved murders on its books from 2016, which recovering junkie and sociopath Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow), just released from prison after serving nine of 16 years for another crime, claims as his handiwork. Keen to chronicle the life and times of a “working” maniac — and maybe capture the next Bundy or Dahmer on film — ambitious, budding documentarian Errol Morgan (Nicholas Urda) and his DP, NYU film school dropout Ellis Archer (Andres Montejo), give Noel a cheap digital camera and all the memory cards he can handle and let him loose. Problem is, they find out after they start that he’s a fraud and didn’t commit the unsolved murders. But he is a killer with an “unscratchable itch,” however.
Before long, Noel is opening up to the pair, and helping to paint a fascinating, contradictory, wholly complex portrait of one man’s demons, regrets, hopes and fears. Naturally, there are moments when their subject falls off the nonviolent wagon, as it were, forcing Errol and Ellis to question their culpability, and wrestle with a quickly building moral and ethical dilemma.
There are a lot of recognizable influences in Strawberry Flavored Plastic, among them the video diary creepiness of, er, Creep, the notoriety-seeking sleaze of Natural Born Killers (with way less blood) and the dispassionate talking-heads information delivery of an Errol Morris film (perhaps the source of the director’s name?), and it’s to Bemis’ credit that the film never feels derivative. The decision to abandon the charming-serial-killer story and dive deeper into Noel as a character and what makes him tick was a wise one. That examination accompanies a secondary, but chewy, meditation on the nature of filmmaking and what happens when the creator becomes part of the story. Should they stay involved? Should they share any troubling aspects with a third party, police or doctors?
Key to any of this succeeding on any level, though, is Bristow as Noel, and he’s more than up to the challenge, turning in an incredibly modulated performance designed to keep viewers (and Errol and Ellis) on their toes. Unpredictable in both sweetly sincere and gruesome ways, his Noel is precisely the kind of monster that hides in plain sight, and Bristow captures his dual nature effortlessly.
Strawberry Flavored Plastic isn’t perfect: Many of Noel’s fatalistic philosophical ramblings are straight-up pretentious (“Danger is just the anticipation of fear”); there’s a lot of time spent sitting in cars and even more time spent on static shots, which admittedly could easily be perceived as brave creative choices; and even at just over 100 minutes, some judicious editing wouldn’t be out of order. Ironically, Errol states near the end, “At some point I’m concerned we’ll be shooting just to shoot.” Instincts. Listen to them. Tech specs are scratchy at times, but the digital DIY nature of the film makes them a seamless part of it.
Production company: Neon Briefcase
Cast: Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo, Bianca Soto, Marisa Lowe, Raelynn Stueber
Director-screenwriter-producer: Colin Bemis
Executive producers: Jeff Miller, T.M. Bemis, Tracy Panos, Donald Panos, Rob Casasanta
Director of photography: Yoni Shrira
Editors: Steve Boghossian, Yoni Shrira
Music: Matt Barile
World sales: Mirovision
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