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MURDER A LA MOD (1968; Something Weird Video).

I've been dying to see this film for over 25 years, and thanks to Mike Vraney and the good folks at SWV, it's finally being released later in 2006! Mixing thrills, death, sexual quirks, sly humor, crazy fashions, and plenty of cinematic razzle-dazzle, this mind-blowing underground effort by a young, unknown director named Brian De Palma was only his second feature (following 1966's THE WEDDING PARTY, though MOD was the first released). Meanwhile, most of his actors were making their screen debut, with the exception of THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's incomparable William Finley, who starred in De Palma's 1962 student-short WOTON'S WAKE and also penned MOD's super-groovy theme song. (Note: also look for future SISTERS-starlet Jennifer Salt as a screen-test "bird.") Margo Norton plays Karen, a college girl who's head over heels in love with handsome but obviously unstable photographer Christopher (Jared Martin, future star of the SF TV-series THE FANTASTIC JOURNEY, as well as De Palma's college roommate). Artistically tormented and suffering from a bagful of sexual hang-ups, Christopher is currently lensing an avant-garde skin-flick entitled ART MODEL, a voyeuristic tale of a perverse director, Otto (Finley), who molests his actresses. In the opening scenes we've already witnessed a pretty young model getting her throat slit, as well as creepy, strip-off-your-clothes screen tests, but we've never exactly sure what's real or simply a portion of this movie-within-a-movie. Though barely out of film school, De Palma already had his fetishes and Hitchcock influences firmly in place, as the story shockingly shifts gears in mid-film and Karen's best friend Tracy (Andra Akers) briefly takes center stage. De Palma also dishes up varied versions of the same significant time period as seen by different characters, amidst dizzying shifts in perspective. We've got a "boy genius" artist, a sleazebag producer (Ken Burrows, also the film's actual producer), a wacko lead actor, the occasional female corpse, plus a potential mix-up with a real ice-pick and a prop one -- but trust me, who's to blame (and why) isn't as cut-and-dry as you might initially think. The b&w cinematography by Bruce Torbet (BASKETCASE) overflows with striking compositions, Finley brings a hyperactive comedic dementia to the second half, and even though the story eventually self-destructs with an O.D. of style-over-substance, it's all brilliantly off-the-wall. Meshing reality and moviemaking until it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, this is clearly a film that could've only been conceived in the late-'60s. It's energetic, inventive, hip, and within the first minutes you know you're in the hands of a filmmaker who truly loves cinema. Sadly, this shotgun-blast of deranged suspense is more memorable than anything De Palma has created in the last two decades.

© 2006 by Steven Puchalski.