The Divine Tragedies
Graham Denman as Charles
Jon Kondelik as Thomas
Hannah Levien Genevieve / Vanity
Barbara Crampton as Mother
Ken Foree as Homer
Sean Whalen as Doug
The Divine Tragedies is a thinking man’s horror film. It’s got plenty of gore and horror flick trappings, but more than that, it has the benefit of being a captivating character study. It’s both lively and fun, and on the other side of the token – esoteric and thoughtful – just like the clashing and ever-changing personalities of the boys themselves
Just because the story of The Divine Tragedies centers around two half-brothers, doesn’t mean it’s not a love story.
Charles (Graham Denman) and Thomas (Jon Kondelik) are an eccentric pair of brothers who are financially well off – still living with their drunk and invalid mother (Barbara Crampton). And with little to occupy their time, they entertain themselves by torturing others and dreaming of committing a perfect murder. The opening sequence has them playing a sadistic game with a drug addict (The People Under the Stairs’ Sean Whalen), offering the poor sap loads of drugs if he’ll remove the tip of one of his fingers – question is, how will he take off the digit? One method results in a bigger payload of drugs, the other way gets less. The brothers (per writer/director Prendes) are based loosely on the infamous case of Leopold and Loeb (also the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope). In that real-life case, the two men were homosexual lovers, while in The Divine Tragedies, they’re half-brothers – although their relationship could easily be interpreted as something more. They believe they’re better than the rest of the world, and with their perceived superior intellect (as in Rope), they think they can get away with murder. The first portion of the film has them on the search for the right victim. The remainder of the film follows the brothers as they deal with the changing dynamics of their deteriorating relationship. Their picture-perfect life begins to fall apart once they actually do find that “right victim”.
At the film’s heart is this relationship between these two brothers, and the switcheroo of their personalities and dominance is the driving force of the story’s path. Thomas has always seemingly had the upper hand, but once their perverse fantasies are actually fulfilled, he’s overcome with regret and despair. Charles on the other hand, basks in this new power and it takes him over the edge – forever leaving behind the finger-twiddling and awkward person he had always been.
Visually, the film is quite stunning. Using old Hollywood filming techniques (the rear projection in the “moving” vehicles as the boys drive through town), the boys are always in suits – ready for a night out, and the overall ambience lend an air of ‘50s nostalgia – even though it takes place now. On the other hand, there are also tinges of Tim Burton’s work throughout. Not only visually, but in the Danny Elfman-esque score by Michael John Mollo. I felt a little gipped, as I believe the film could easily have gone fully into this more cartoon-y, Burton-like world, and still maintained the strong and true relationship of the brothers. It felt like it couldn’t quite commit to one aestethic, and so – even though it looks good, it could have looked better. In this, the film floundered.
Performance-wise, Denman and Kondelik are both quite good, but I’d give a slight edge to Kondelik as the (eventually) more sympathetic brother. Thomas has more of a journey, from cold psycho to fearful and regretful – and the scene (discussed below) with Crampton is a remarkable piece of acting (for Kondelik and Crampton). There are real tears and real pathos in Kondelik’s performance. It’s not to say that Denman doesn’t deliver, but at the outset, Charles is already weird and awkward, carrying with him that “home-schooled”, improperly socialized behavior. So when the potent switch between the brothers materializes, it seems less of a stretch for Charles (and thus Denman) to move into the new powerful and insane role as the dominant sibling. However, Denman gets the best acting scene in the film’s climax, discovering the pain and regret which Thomas found much earlier – but by this point, this brilliantly emotional reaction (provided by Denman) is sadly just too late in the character journey for Charles.
In two supporting roles, horror regulars Barbara Crampton and Ken Foree (screen partners in the classic From Beyond) reunite (although only for one brief but important moment). Crampton channels a little of Piper Laurie’s role in DePalma’s Carrie as well as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. In a Q & A following the screening, director Prendes revealed that Davis was what he suggested to Crampton, and Davis was what he received. Crampton chews the scenery in a grand and wonderfully sleazy and boozy way. You love to hate her, and as I’ve said in so many other reviews of the past year (We Are Still Here, The Last Survivors), Crampton is all over the place – not in her acting, but in her ever-expanding resume. I personally can’t get enough of her, and based on this continuous string of horror hits, I’ll have no problem getting my fix. Of particular interest are her painfully biting moments with Thomas – clearly not the favorite child. The trucker mouth on the boys’ mother will practically leave you blushing, but also cheering for the absolute venom she delightfully spews forth.
But it’s Ken Foree who steals the show. He’s Homer, the detective on the case (once the brothers have accomplished what they’ve always dreamed of), and he’s got something more than paperwork, photographs and a gun to solve his case. He’s a psychic. Like Crampton, it’s always a distinct pleasure to find Foree on the cast roster of any film. We’ve all loved him since he gave us Peter in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead so many years ago, and every time he shows up, you know he’ll provide something worthwhile. Such is the case with his few scenes in The Divine Tragedies. His introduction to the boys, while they dine at their favorite eatery (this is also an important place to the boys, beyond enjoying pancakes) is a load of fun. It was mentioned in the Q & A that Homer’s delight at the coffee he is served – was all Foree – far and above what was on the page. His screeching praise of “mmmmmmm!” over the coffee’s flavor will have you instantly falling in love with Homer. Foree just brings a sense of fun and with his towering physique – a monumental on-screen presence in every way.
The Divine Tragedies is a thinking man’s horror film. It’s got plenty of gore and horror flick trappings, but more than that, it has the benefit of being a captivating character study. It’s both lively and fun, and on the other side of the token – esoteric and thoughtful – just like the clashing and ever-changing personalities of the boys themselves.