Gender-bending 'Mommie'

Pop culture parody and Sundance Festival hit opens in D.C.

Die Mommie Die!

R, 90m Starring: Charles Busch, Jason Priestly, Natasha Lyonne and Philip Baker Hall Directed by Mark Rucker Opens Oct. 31 at Loews Georgetown as part of the Sundance film series

3 / 4 stars

"Die Mommie Die!" works as both a parody and homage of '60s detective films in which the protagonist is an aging celebrity, fading in a whirlwind of lies, sex and murder.

Screenwriter and star Charles Busch plays Angela Arden, a singer whose notoriety is waning. She decides to murder her wealthy husband (Philip Baker Hall) in order to reap the benefits of his will. Her children Edith (Natasha Lyonne) and Lance (Stark Sands) grow suspicious of their mother and attempt to reveal her as the killer. Meanwhile, Angela's personal gigolo (Jason Priestly) uses his intense sexual presence to infiltrate the family for his own cryptic reasons.

The tone of this film is set by Busch, who plays the female lead of Angela, despite being a man. According to Busch, the part was always meant for him.

"The director [Mark Rucker] wanted to make a movie starring me," Busch said. "That was sort of the point of the whole exercise. I was nervous that if they can't raise the money, the only way they were going to make the movie was to cast Sharon Stone or Faye Dunaway. You sort of want to put it on paper that you can't cast anyone else."

"Die Mommie Die!" was originally performed as a play written by Busch in Los Angeles and was adapted for the screen by first-time film director Rucker.

"I wanted to do a play based on Sophocles' "The House of Atreus" and update it - put it in contemporary terms," Busch said of writing the original play. "I immediately thought I should put it in the style of a '60s detective film."

The film combines overdramatic acting from some top-notch talent (such as P.T. Anderson's frequent collaborator Hall), with allusions and references to Betty Davis and Joan Crawford films.

Rucker explained that he and Busch "went even further into looking at some different kind of '60s movies, some acid-trip movies, obscure student safety ... films, and a movie called "The Trip" with Peter Fonda."

"We looked at some Italian horror movies," Busch added. "We kind of went all over the place but focused on the main impulse for where the movie lived in the late '50s, early '60s Ross Hunter films. Sort of the same influences that "Far From Heave" had."

"Die Mommie Die!" is successful at maintaining its style throughout the film and most of this is thanks to the gifted cast, led by Busch. Busch usually spends most of his time on the written aspect of his work, while dabbling in acting (he had a stint on the prison show "Oz" and a bit part in "The Addams Family Values"). His previous film, "Psycho Beach Party," which he also wrote, was similar in that it parodied a particular genre of film. While Busch appeared in the film, it was only a small role.

The other standout performance of "Die Mommie Die!" is Priestly as Tony Parker. Priestly plays on his previous television celebrity by commanding an ultra-serious persona while knocking boots with nearly every member of the infamous Sussman family.

"He was our first choice for the role and one of the producers from the movie was Anthony Edwards, the actor from "ER," and he knew Jason and said he should come in and talk to us," Rucker said. "He came and he loved the script and signed on over a year before we actually made the film."

Some of the most amusing moments from the film come from Busch's romantic scenes with Priestly.

"I had never kissed anybody on camera and I was a little freaked out, and weird and nervous," Busch said of filming these scenes with the ex-"90210" star. "I was afraid that he's so straight and all, he was going to be weirded out too. It was all very odd and he was a very cool guy and just grabbed my head and said 'Dude, here's what we're gonna do. I'm going to turn your head to the left and turn my head to the right and we're going to do it.' And then we did it and it was over so quick. He was a very cool guy."

Busch and Rucker portray a finely tuned ability to intertwine their references to other films within several aspects of "Die Mommie Die!" Rucker explained that what most filmmakers might have considered setbacks actually benefited this production.

"There are several times in the movie where we do what are called 'opticals,' where there will be a cross-fade or a wipe ... and when you do that you have to go back to the beginning to the take you are using, and through the beginning of the take you lose a generation of the film," Rucker said. "That's because we didn't have expensive opticals. We couldn't afford to. When you go back and look at the movies that we were inspired by, they also have the same optical problems, because of the less sophisticated technology, so in a way it turned out exactly how it should be."

These pop culture tie-ins weren't limited to written and technical aspects. Even the way some shots were composed echoes back to certain films.

"Everybody who worked on this movie really did their homework," Busch said. "At one point we were shooting this dinner scene and I could see my reflection in the window and I said to Kelly Evans, the director of photography, that this looks just like a scene in "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte." And she said 'Well yeah, because we copied it exactly.'"

"Die Mommie Die!" is slated to open on Halloween, and this marketing decision seems to represent a studio that does not really know how to classify its movie. Richard Kelly's anfractuous masterpiece "Donnie Darko" was released two years ago on Halloween and was virtually ignored in its opening. The studios stuck it there because it didn't seem to fit the typical Hollywood genre mold. It seems as if "Die Mommie Die!" might suffer the same fate, despite its recent success at the Sundance film festival.

This interesting and unique film should find its audience on video and DVD in the coming years, as fans of provocative gender-bending films like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" check out "Die Mommie Die!" based on word of mouth and critical praise.

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