Few filmmakers have had as interesting a career as Ulli Lommel; fewer yet have made such a consistent amount of complete garbage. Although Uwe Boll seems to be everyone’s favourite scapegoat, he’s at least shown some capacity of improvement and desire to make something worthwhile. Lommel hasn’t. Lommel began his film career as an actor, working with mythical German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder in over twenty films. He moved to America in the late 70’s and hooked up with another rather mythical figure: Andy Warhol. Bumping around the Manhattan art world, he made a couple of movies that are admittedly more interesting from an archival point of view but do show that Lommel was around talented people at one point: the elusive Richard Hell vehicle Blank Generation and Cocaine Cowboys, an inexplicable crime film starring the unbelievable power-duo of Jack Palance and Andy Warhol. By 1980, he’d made his first horror flick (The Boogeyman, starring John Carradine) and never looked back.
Nothing if not prolific, Lommel has devoted the last ten years to cranking out a rather impressive series of bargain-basement flicks based on real-life serial killers. Some of them are basically cheap rip-offs designed to piggyback on the release of higher-profile films (as is the case for his Black Dahlia or Curse of the Zodiac) or, in true 42nd Street exploitation fashion, cheapo flicks released to cash on a recent, high-profile serial killer like Robert Pickton or the Beltway snipers. These films are usually released before the legal saga of whatever they’re covering has come to an end and star a smattering of Lommel’s would-be stock company (amongst the higher-profile stars he’s roped into his projects are David Hess and David Carradine – two really picky motherfuckers). I picked D.C. Sniper because no other film has been made from the real-life case, it stars one of Lommel’s only names in the form of Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree and, at a brisk 74 minutes (IMDB lists the film at 91 minutes but the DVD I got was definitely 74; the idea of twenty additional minutes of this shit is terrifying), is amongst the shortest of Lommel’s exploitation abortions.
That last part might very well be why I’m still here today.
The film opens with John Allan Muhammad (Foree) and his young accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo (Tory N. Thompson, who could certainly get work as Donald Glover’s stand-in if he wants it) sitting outside a gas station, eating gas-station-issue mashed potatoes. The older man is clearly a mentor to the younger guy, but the younger guy is the one who actually creeps into the backseat and shoots a young woman pumping gas. The film is made up mostly of these killings, black-and-white testimonial footage of Foree explaining the motives behind the killings and the tribulations of a couple of cops (Chris Kriesa and, of course, Ulli Lommel) on the case. The two cops pose as tourists and spend an inordinate amount of time walking around the Washington Monument, mechanically raising binoculars and cameras to their face in an ever-so-sneaky way.
I’ve reviewed some low-budget movies since starting Why Does It Exist? but none of them quite as low-rent as D.C. Sniper. Scenes of Malvo and Muhammad sitting in a parked car while Foree spews a rather impressive amount of generic psychopath philosophies make up the bulk of their screentime; I’d be worried about them developing bedsores on their ass if it wasn’t obvious the whole thing took a couple of days to shoot at most. The talky nature of the movie isn’t exactly surprising considering the rock-bottom budget of the thing and the fact that the script was co-written by Lommel and Foree. It hits a strange balance somewhere between cheapo exploitation and pretentious acting workshop, supplying Foree with a never-ending series of monologues in which to deploy the bug-eyed intensity that’s made him a cult figure over the years. It’s pretty obvious why an actor like Foree (a cult figure whose career has basically dwindled down to making self-referential cameos in B-grade horror) would choose endless monologues over coherence and story but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a good performance. The best way I can describe it is that Foree acts like he’s explaining to someone how he would play it; it’s like a filmed workshop, full of hesitation and shortcuts. This, by the way, is the only movie I can think of where one monologue fades into another monologue several times over.
The actual D.C. Sniper was deemed to be a psychopath; his explanations of motive were erratic at best and never solidified into anything but a series of loosely-connected ramblings. Either Foree and Lommel didn’t have access to Wikipedia when writing this or they thought that wouldn’t suffice, since Muhammad unspools a complicated series of motives including a) being passed up for a handshake by Hopalong Cassidy as a child; b) institutionalized racism; c) revenge on the US government for creating Gulf War Syndrome with vaccines; d) God told him to; e) creating an army of terrorists in godless Canada; f) his girlfriend dumped him. Although Muhammad’s incoherent ramblings did touch upon some grandstanding terrorist plans, Lommel turns the whole thing into an ooh-rah patriotic rant on the sanctity of America that never once seeks to uncover a truth beyond ‘America, fuck yeah’. A hell of a lot of words are uttered in D.C. Sniper but almost none of them serve any purpose.
Kriesa’s character is a harried cop looking for his daughter; a private eye has found ‘deeply disturbing’ footage of her winking at a camera and disrobing in what appears to be B-roll footage from a 90’s Skinemax production. He suspects her boyfriend of wanting to turn her into a ‘money-making Internet slut’ and turns to God. He bonds with his Texan buddy (Lommel plays a Texas native with all the naturalism of Human Centipede’s Dieter Laser) over their love of the job and walk around looking at shit a whole lot. At one point, they stop for salads and chocolate cake. You may be wondering, dear reader, what any of this has to do with the D.C. Sniper. That, my friends, is a foolish question.
D.C. Sniper takes the concept of exploitation padding way past its breaking point. If somebody somewhere along the line (rightfully) surmised that people would only want to see this movie to see people get shot in the head, Lommel certainly didn’t get that memo. Whatever prurient thrills you might get from the murders depicted here are far outweighed by the public-access-style footage of characters walking around Washington and inexplicable attempts at character development. In one standout sequence, Muhammad and Malvo visit Muhammad’s ex-girlfriend. She doesn’t want to see him and has to go to work, so she does. I sure am glad that the film took the time to establish this. In another sequence, Kriesa (haunted by newly discovered footage of his daughter winking in a cornfield) drives down to the river and explains how home-grown American terrorists drove out Britain hundreds of years prior to make a belaboured point about how proud he is to be an American and how he’ll fight against anyone that wants to harm it. That would be all well and good if it had anything to do with the events at hand.
Considering that Lommel’s movies are 75% padding and already play hard and loose with the facts, here’s an idea: why not combine them? Why not make an epic movie (it could even pass the 100 minute mark) where a cop with a heroin problem whose nine kids got sold into human trafficking has to investigate the BTK Killer, the Beltway sniper and the reincarnated corpse of Lee Harvey Oswald simultaneously? There’d be a lot less running around in circles and it would remain just about as factually relevant. I doubt anyone who actively seeks out a straight-to-DVD movie called D.C. Sniper would actually care. Hell, I’d watch it.
So why does it exist?
Although you wouldn’t know it from the Internet, there are a ton of people out there who don’t read movie news websites, movie reviews or People magazine. They can’t tell Ken Foree from Samuel L. Jackson (or Ken Jeong, for that matter) and to them, Hollywood did make an exciting action movie about the D.C. Sniper. Exploitation isn’t for the trenchcoat crowd anymore; if you want to jerk off to bondage Nazis, you Google it. No, exploitation is a con game designed to rope the innocent into watching something they recognize despite the fact that more thought was put into the popcorn they popped before slipping the DVD in. It’s the same cheap tactic that brings fake sequels into existence and I’m not against it as a concept; I just wish they’d be more fun. D.C. Sniper is boring, badly made and manages to contain absolutely nothing factual and have all of its inventions be infinitely more boring than reality. If for some reason you have to write a report on the Beltway snipers, kids, read the fucking book.
That is, if there is a fucking book in the first place. Who am I, Stephen Hawking?