“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil”
DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard
FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff
PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.
- Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
- Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
- Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
- Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or a the manifesto of a genuine madman.
Trailer for Reflections of Evil
COMMENTS: Although there is a loose story to Reflections of Evil, if you could somehow watch the video with the scenes shuffled in random order, it wouldn’t make much difference. The movie is a dip into the mind of writer/director/editor/star Packard and his alter-ego Bob. An angry, confused, paranoid—but creative—world teems in the echo chamber of his skull. What Packard means to communicate through Reflections isn’t entirely clear; the movie waddles from idea to idea like its overweight hero wanders around town peddling his cheap watches, never earning enough to do more than restock. Packard may have made about as much off Reflections as Bob does selling knockoff watches at $5 a pop, but there is a key difference: the director is doing what he loves. As repulsive as the movie and its hero often are, his drive to be heard shines through, forging its own brand of redemption through expression.
That’s not to say the movie is an easy watch, although those in the right frame of mind will find it a fascinating character study. The incoherent narrative will drive normals away, and even the most radical cineastes may have difficulty with a film that somehow manages to be rambling and repetitive at the same time. Reflections‘ biggest detriment is that it spends too much time following Bob around on his daily rounds as he sweats under layers and layers of shirts (to make the character look even more obese than the already stocky Packard—at one point, Bob claims to weigh 400 pounds). Bob stuffs his face often and obscenely. In a pathetic lunch scene, he is unable to sop himself from taking bites of a sandwich while his mother berates him about his overeating. Wandering through the city, he sees only madness and anger. In one scene a schizophrenic yells at non-existent FBI agents in front of a Scientology testing center, while an Elvis impersonator dances on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the reverse shot. Adding wrath to gluttony on his list of sins, Bob repeatedly barks, or is barked at, by passing dogs, and curses, or is cursed at, by random pedestrians. His self-loathing pours out of himself and into the streets; everyone he passes is shoving, hurling insults, and berating strangers, and Bob is just joining in. L.A. is an angry, unforgiving city of misfits, but Packard continues to demonstrate this point long after it has been made, in scenes that feel like they go on for hours at a stretch. Bob’s antics feel like something we shouldn’t be watching: too raw, too personal, too painfully confessional for public viewing.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Packard drenches his video in subjective audiovisual trickery that makes us feel like our minds are slipping away. Most of the sound is post-synced, and silly voices are often sped up or slowed down. The sound effects are outrageous: the foley artists may have been told they were working on a cartoon for preschoolers. When Bob eats cereal it sounds like a lion devouring a gazelle. Distorting lenses warp faces like PCP kicking in. Packard uses every editing and post-production trick in the Final Cut Pro arsenal; double images, bizarre color correction, a bloody spiral emitting from a homeless man’s head, mirrored images, over- and under-saturation—whatever it occurs to him to throw at the screen on an insane whim. He edits in scenes from Sani-Flush commercials, the “ABC Movie of the Week” “The Undersea World of Jack Cousteau,” a trailer for White Line Fever: basically, anything you might have seen surfing channels on a Wednesday night in 1975 (although a couple of frames from a 1990s first-person shooter video games make it into the rotation, too). Halfway through the movie, we get back-to-back dream sequences, one from sister Julie (who revisits her own overdose, shown in tie-dye colors) and one from Bob, who sees masked faces out of horror movies, a barking dog, outtakes of L.A. street life, E.T., and a guy in a bad blond hippie wig skipping backwards, while a demonic choir quietly chants a Black Mass. In the intermission between these two montages, a squabbling old couple watches TV. Now that’s anti-entertainment!
If you’re trying to follow along at home, the basic structure of Reflections of Evil follows the following pattern: Bob wanders around an L.A. suburb yelling and vomiting, followed by a flashback to him peddling watches on the street and squabbling with his relatives months earlier, followed by a flashback to Bob and sister Julie’s childhood, then back to more depressing Hollywood street scenes in the present, leading to a climax of sorts at Universal Studios Theme Park. Interspersed through all of this are shots of Julie wandering around in her diaphanous nightgown. As mentioned before, repetitive scenes of Bob wandering around town witnessing, suffering and delivering abuse take up far too much of the running time. But the outline above doesn’t describe why the film fascinates. It’s the indulgent oddities strewn about that keep us watching, and wondering what the hell is going on. The fact that the TV-watching couple (whose set only receives programming from the Seventies) have a Nazi flag on their wall (with a smaller Nazi flag pinned on top of it). The unexplained shots of helicopters prowling the skies. The pile of headphones that scuttles away on its own, frightening grandma. The psychedelic music video that breaks out when Julie wanders away from Bob, complete with groovy hippie-chick extras with heart-shaped sunglasses and brothers with afros larger than the rest of their heads. A sudden discussion of chemtrails. A chapter heading proclaiming “III. Madness: Beyond the Infinite.” (There were no chapters I or II announced). A single randomly inserted shot of a headline reading “Elvin Lesbian story ‘Apple’ Picked Up by Miramax.” (( Spoiler for this otherwise inexplicable moment: “Apple” was a short film Packard made in 1995, featuring lesbian elves. )) A neighbor who fires a machine gun at Bob. A poster of Bob on a light pole reading “WANTED: FOR COOKIE THEFT.” A purgatory where souls are condemned to re-enact amusement park disasters. Multiple misspellings in the crazy credits. And Spielberg references everywhere, from E.T’s recurring face to “Schindler’s List: The Ride” to the moment when Julie wanders onto a set where a young Steven Spielberg is filming a movie-within-the-movie called Something Evil. Technicians are electrocuted lighting a scene, and young Spielberg shouts, “Keep rolling!” as they lie there twitching.
Critics picked up on the Spielberg references, concluding that Packard was attacking the emblem of the Hollywood establishment as an example of modern commercial filmmaking at its most callous and destructive, as opposed to Packard’s pure personal vision. This is a natural and logical conclusion to draw from these scenes. The only problem is that Damon Packard is not a natural and logical author. The available biographical information insists that Packard not only admires Spielberg, particularly the Spielberg of the 70s and early 80s, but even holds him up as a hero. This suggests that maybe the early critics were wrong about the significance of the Spielberg scene. Maybe it’s not a satirical attack on commercial Hollywood, but, rather, Packard put the sequence in because he thought it was cool for Julie to stumble onto a film shoot. This further raises the eerie possibility that maybe the critics are also wrong in seeing Reflections of Evil as a critique of modern America as a land turned into a nightmare dystopia by media oversaturation. Maybe, the movie is just a collection of stuff Packard thinks is cool, which happens to appear within Bob’s personal nightmare by coincidence. Packard uses the 1970s media clips he has lying around on VHS tapes because they’re convenient, because they add an illusion of production value, and because his characters (like he himself) came of age in the Seventies and never stopped fetishizing that decade’s styles and fashions. It’s all complicated by the fact that we can’t figure Packard himself out; he arises from nowhere, out of no established cinema tradition. The movie mixes cleverness, naïvety, and a sort of autistic obsessiveness about Seventies culture and conspiracy theories. We can’t be sure what’s a put-on and what’s sincerely intended: is Packard mocking conspiracy theorists, or does he believe we have good reason to fear Big Brother? The mystery of the man who could produce such a singular artifact is more exciting than what actually appears onscreen. Packard is a talented editor with a fantastic imagination, but he lacks discipline and focus. Is he a multimedia genius for the postmodern age, or an outsider artist with B-movie sensibilities and no real sense of irony? Reflections of Evil could be raised as evidence for either hypothesis.
Or neither. Remember Thad Vassmer’s observation about Reflections: “The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you.” The film’s allure is that it’s a peek inside the seething, elusive mind of one Damon Packard, autodidactic oddball and real-deal American weirdo—and I mean that in the most complimentary sense possible.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It is hit and miss brilliant, mainly due to its fairly incoherent plot, but it works because it is given to some inspired gonzo stuff… Packard so successfully captures a paranoid urban atmosphere, it actually left me wondering wether [sic] or not he is truly touched in the head.” –J. Doyle Wallis, DVD Talk (DVD)
“The indescribable hypnotic effect this bizarre film has is created by camera warps, disjointed editing, loud, exaggerated and silly sound effects and voice-overs, repetitive insanity, lots of random angry people, dreamy sequences of his dead sister roaming a strange deserted city and other random scenes of 60s hippy-culture satire, TV shows and Spielberg bashing.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Reflections of Evil (2002)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Damon Packard – You Tube – Packard’s YouTube page has the complete 2004 alternate cut of the film (spread across 10 minute segments), selections from the original version, and a “making of” doc, along with newer work and other odds and ends
Lost in the 70s: The Art of Damon Packard – This 31-page article by Casey McKinney, original publication unknown, paints by far the most complete public portrait of Packard
Watch Reflections of Evil, the Horror Film by Damon Packard -The Fandor page for the film has eight stills from the film
Reflections Of Evil: Steven Spielberg’s Paranoia And Conspiracy Theories – Nathan Smith uses Reflections of Evil as a jumping-off point to discuss conspiracies in the works of Steven Spielberg
Five Questions with Damon Packard – Only one of Collin David’s questions directly rates to Reflections of Evil
DVD INFO: Alhough it should be unavailable for reasons both legal and commercial, Reflections persists in many different versions, with run times listed all over the map. Packard’s original cut of the film is no longer in print, but with over 20,000 DVDs pressed, copies can still be found reasonably priced on the secondary market (buy). This version reportedly includes Packard’s short “Early 70s Horror Trailer” as a bonus. The edition viewed to compose this review comes from “Screamtime Films” (buy) and was released in 2016; it’s reasonably complete, containing the “Wooden Ships” sequence, although other bits were snipped (an appropriated “introduction” by Tony Curtis doesn’t make it onto this disc). The only extras are a trailer for Reflections and other Screamtime films. Vital Fluids released an 2005 DVD with most of the unlicensed material removed (buy). This version was re-cut by Packard himself, with some scenes re-shot. It runs for about 90 minutes, and those who’ve seen it report that it plays like an entirely different movie (some prefer it for its relative brevity). No special features are advertised. Finally, per DVD Talk’s 2005 review, there’s a disc floating around out there somewhere from an outfit called either Go Kart or Gokart, which is also the 90-minute alternate cut version but which includes a few extras: Thad Vassmer’s mini-doc “The Making of Reflections of Evil” and about two-and-a-half minutes of outtakes.
Reflections is also available streaming on Fandor in a cut with a listed 115-minute running time (Screamtime’s cut runs 128 minutes) (subscribe). Fandor has a relationship with Packard, and also hosts many of his shorts and mini-features.
(This movie was nominated for review by “eyeswideshut1212.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)