Strand Releasing,

Todd Verow

Jim Dwyer,
George LaVoo,
Todd Verow
From the novel by
Dennis Cooper

Michael Gunther,
Craig Chester,
Jaie Laplante,
Raoul O'Connell,
Michael Stock,
Parker Posey,
James Lyons,
Alexis Arquette,
Michael Waite,
Alyssa Wendt,
Mark Ewert

Unrated, 88 minutes

Dangerous Liaisons
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2009

It has been over a decade since I first encountered Frisk (1996), Todd Verow's controversial first feature film. I was well aware, at the time, of the debate that waged within the gay community over this movie. I didn't quite know what to make of Frisk; I found the film to be electric and well crafted but the story rather... pointless. Still, I was unable to get the film out of my mind. I even went out and bought the book that it was based on, expecting new insights but still not getting it. This was one of those film experiences where you find yourself continually asking the question - pardon my French - what the fuck am I watching? Over the last year, I have written about four of Verow's later films, Bulldog In The Whitehouse, Between Something & Nothing, Vacationland and Anonymous, and I decided it was time to take a second look at his "notorious" Frisk.

Frisk premiered at the 1996 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and its reception was on par with the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring in 1913 and the first screening of Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's shocking Surrealist short, Un Chien Andalou in 1929. The film polarized the audience and nearly caused a riot. There was a very vocal faction within the gay community that insisted that all of our films depict only positive portrayals of gay people. Half of the audience loudly walked out of the screening and many of them returned at the end to boo the movie and the filmmaker.
And what was all the fuss about? Based on the equally controversial 1991 novel by Dennis Cooper, Frisk is the story of a young gay man who is obsessed with sado-masochistic sex and whose urges may, or may not, have led him to become a serial killer. The non-linear film is narrated by Dennis (Michael Gunther) in the form of a letter written to his old best friend/fuck buddy Julian (Jaie Laplante), and his younger brother, Kevin (Raoul O'Connell). Dennis and Julian used to get high and indulge in 3-way sex and, sometimes, Dennis liked to get a little rough with their tricks. When Julian left for Paris with an older man, Dennis fell for Kevin but that "seemed too big of a responsibility at the time" and he left town. As Frisk opens, the two brothers are on their way to see Dennis for the first time in years, and are debating whether the letter he sent is to be trusted or if their old friend is just making its violent and murderous contents up.

As a young teenager, Dennis liked to frequent an adult book store. Gypsy Pete (James Lyons), its proprietor, notes the lad's interest in bondage magazines and shows Dennis his private stash of snuff photos. Dennis is transfixed by the pictures of a young man who is tied up, with a plastic bag duct-taped around his head, and appears to be dead. A few years later, Dennis will discover that the photos were faked when he, and Julian, trick with the model. The man's name is Henry and he is played by Craig Chester (Swoon, Adam & Steve). Henry is a nerdy type who likes to be beaten and cut while having sex and he will meet a nasty end later in the film.

Dennis graduates from vanilla to violent S&M and, before long, he begins to kill the tricks whom he brings home. He then hooks up with a deranged couple played by James Lyon and indie goddess Parker Posey, and the three of them abuse, kill and eviscerate a series of unfortunate men.

But is Dennis really committing these murders? His reliability as a narrator is suspect. He also writes letters about the killings to a hustler friend and his girl and - as she so astutely points out - would he really admit to killing people in writing and then include his return address? Is he just fantasizing and writing his own unique brand of porn? The line between reality and fantasy is further blurred when the young actor who plays Dennis as a teen also portrays one of his victims, and James Lyon plays both the bookstore owner who showed Dennis the alleged snuff photos and one of his later killing spree accomplices.

Frisk is a walk down the dark side like you've never seen before. It is a thoroughly unpleasant story that, nevertheless, grabs you by the throat and never lets go. But it is a very schizophrenic film that is ultimately an exercise in style over substance. Frisk is beautifully crafted on a visual and visceral level but, at the end, you have to ask yourself: what was the point of this tale?

It's not a horror film. It's not a crime drama. It's not even a psychological study. Dennis is such a blank slate that we know absolutely nothing about him; a fault that can be traced back to its source material. (In all fairness, Frisk is not a book that lends itself easily to cinematic adaptation.) Aside from an early exposure to violent porn, there is no character development to supply the audience with any clues. There is no childhood trauma or abuse - his family and backstory isn't mentioned, and even Sweeney Todd is given a reason for why he cuts the throats of his barbershop customers. Mental illness is never suggested. Perhaps this is the point; that our hold on reality is so tenuous, and the tendency for savagery so rooted in on our DNA, that anyone can snap at any given moment. But, ultimately, does it even matter if Dennis is really a killer or if he is just making this story up? Is the answer to this question enough to hang a full length novel and film upon?
Although Frisk asks more questions than it answers, ambiguity is not always an end that justifies the means. As a rule, people do not become serial killers, or harbor such thoughts, just because they looked at alleged snuff pictures in their youth. To suggest this would mean giving credence to conservatives who insist that pornography is inherently dangerous. To hypothesize further would mean divulging the ending (wherein the key to unlocking Frisk probably lies - make sure you watch the film until the end of the credits) and I'd like viewers to decide for themselves what this film is really about.
Charges of homophobia were leveled towards the film. Activists who were tired of Hollywood's history of psycho gay killers didn't want to see members of our own community committing the same transgressions. Why would a gay filmmaker want to make a new Cruising for the 1990s? This is an interesting question and not without merit. But it is unfair to lump Frisk in the same category as the ones that fired our rage in the past. (Fight Club [1999] and American Psycho [2000] can probably be considered as Frisk's stepchildren.) In Frisk's defense, it is nowhere suggested that homosexuality has anything to with our protagonist's motives. And besides, it's also worth pointing out that the 90s began spendidly with queer films taking huge risks (The Living End, Poison, Zero Patience, to name a few) and, by mid-decade, many movies were becoming more mainstream and playing it safe. Frisk certainly shook up the status quo.
Frisk was also attacked for its violence but the brutality and gore is actually kept to a minimum. The intensity level of this film leads filmgoers to believe that they are seeing more than they actually do. Verow's camera is often hand-held, in close and right at the center of the action and thus hides as much as it shows. There are many close-ups of eyes and wide open mouths. The music is loud and punkish, reds and oranges dominate the color scheme. Most of the more graphic violence is described in voice-overs. The editing is frantic and fragments the action, much like Hitchcock's classic shower murder in Psycho (1960). Flesh (and penises) are abundant and this helps to drive home the obvious sexual thrill of the violent goings-on. Most of the victims are attractive (Dennis is a hot number himself) and the audience is often titillated but then punished for enjoying the ample beefcake.
However, despite my doubts over its impenetrable plot, the film still inflames my desire to explore its mysteries. Certain scenes are seared into my brain forever; the creepiest appears at the film's midpoint when Henry, the model for the faked snuff photos, is stoned out of his gourd and goes to the home of a sadist and allows himself to be bound in his basement. His captor begins to tease him with a knife and tells them that he has always fantasized killing one of his tricks but something has always held him back from actually doing it... but not this time. The camera stays on a tight close-up of actor Craig Chester's face and his stoned expression, as he realizes that he is about to die, induces chills. In fact, his story would have made a compelling film in its own right.
Two performances are stand-outs. Chester's nuanced portrayal of the self-conscious slave ("if you could change one thing about me, what would it be?") is, at times, hilarious with just a hint of pathos. Parker Posey's genius for improvisation (Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind) is legendary and her quirky portrayal mesmerizes while supplying some great Pulp Fiction-style moments. Verow's unconventional casting also includes Michael Stock from a very dark 1993 German queer film about addiction, street punks and the S&M underground called Prince In Hell. Alexis Arquette also appears as one of the victims. Michael Gunther, as Dennis, is a hunky Tom of Finland mannequin with a tribal tattoo around his large bicep; a tabla rosa open to numerous audience interpretations. The director and the book's author, Dennis Cooper, have brief cameos.

In closing, Frisk will never please everyone. Most viewers will either love it or hate it. Frisk is a challenging film and it pushed a lot of boundaries - not to mention buttons. (The same was true of the book. - the encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture - reports that a leaflet, once distributed in San Francisco, screamed that "Dennis Cooper Must Die! Must Die! Must Die!" and suggested that Cooper was a murderer, himself.) Far from being a forgettable film, its meaning will undoubtedly be debated still for some time to come. Verow, a director who continues to make personal films on his own terms, certainly made an auspicious debut with this one and got everyone's attention.


More On Todd Verow:
Bulldog In The Whitehouse
Between Something & Nothing
The Boy With The Sun In His Eyes
Deleted Scenes

Leave Blank
Bad Boy Street

Berlin Film Festival Essay:
No More Mr. Nice Guy
a Manifesto by Todd Verow

More on Craig Chester:
Adam & Steve
Save Me

Parker Posey also appears in:
Waiting For Guffman
Adam & Steve

Alexis Arquette also appears in:
The Trip