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DIRECTED BY: John Michael McCarthy
FEATURING: Sherry Lynn Garris, Adimu Ajanaku
PLOT: Country girl Ilsa discovers she is actually the daughter of the dead god Helvis, and travels to the pyramid in Memphis to resurrect him, while Black Jesus races to stop her.
COMMENTS: In the first few minutes, standing in a muddy Mississippi field, Black Jesus shoots one of his followers in the head and immediately resurrects him. And so begins Damselvis: a schizophrenic mix of Southern Gothic, grindhouse shocks, and rockabilly culture shot through a distinctively kitsch-surreal lens. It also begins the wild extended universe of John Michael McCarthy (or JMM, as he sometimes styles himself).
Damselvis is a simple hero’s journey (complete with a closing epigram from “Joseph Cambelvis”). Young Ilsa discovers her divine heritage as Damselvis and goes on a quest to fulfill her destiny. There is an unexpectedly serious theme about paganesque iconography (represented by Elvis, the chief deity of the pop culture pantheon) replacing the role of Christianity in American culture (a trend McCarthy celebrates); in other words, how rock n’ roll became bigger than Jesus. But it’s all done in a wacky, surreally comic sexploitation style: the journey is far more important than the destination. You keep watching for the abundant nudity (including a lesbian encounter in the woods), the campy biker violence, and the goofy supernaturalism, which climaxes with resurrected giant-eyeball Helvis emerging from his guitarcophagus to battle Black Jesus, who has transformed into a Rastafarian werewolf. You’re guaranteed never to have seen anything quite like this before (unless you’ve seen another JMM movie).
As a first outing, Damselvis‘ two-thousand dollar budget is painfully obvious. The camcorder photography gives it a Polaroid quality look. (Some cheap, lurid-yet-muted lighting and filters appear during the film’s more psychedelic moments to liven things up, but it still looks cheesy as hell.) The sound goes in and out (closed captions are recommended, though sometimes even they read “inaudible”). Locations are remote fields, back roads, junkyards, attics, cheap diners, and abandoned houses in Mississippi and/or Tennessee (there’s also one surreptitious shoot at a cool waterfall, and a brief stint inside the Egyptology display at the University of Memphis). Makeup is ridiculous. The actors are clearly amateurs winging it. The soundtrack is raucous lo-fi psychobilly from local Memphis bands (including JMM’s own Rockroaches). The highest production value goes into Damselvis’ costume: all angel-white, consisting of a vest with long fringes (reminiscence of a Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit), thigh-high lace-up boots, and hot pants. This aesthetic is charming to some, and certainly fits the film’s redneck surrealist atmosphere, but I would argue JMM’s future shot-on-film efforts benefit enormously from the infusion of a few extra thousand bucks.
Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis was a surprise Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome (via shot-on-video specialist partner-label Saturn’s Core). Given its shot-on-video provenance, the movie’s audiovisual quality is awful, including occasional VHS tracking errors. That’s as it should be; it’s key to the movie’s DIY authenticity. Since it’s under the Vinegar imprint, the disc includes a ton of special features, including a commentary from and interview with the director, a reel of behind-the-scenes footage that’s almost twice as long as the movie itself, JMM reading from his own “adult” comix (including the original “Damselvis”), footage of a Helvis-themed punk concert in Memphis, and trailers for other sleazily weird Saturn’s Core releases. JMM recently self-released his third film, The Sore Losers (1997), on Blu-ray, but we’re praying to Helvis to see his second, the long-unavailable Teenage Tupelo (1996), resurrected soon.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an utterly bizarre but completely enjoyable sixty-three minutes of rock n roll craziness… an odd mix of parody, black comedy, exploitation and overall cult movie strangeness.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)