Paranoid characters are nothing new in film, horror films especially. The paranoid figure is usually the correct one. She is the one to realize the danger is real. He is the one to realize they are out to get him.
What happens when the paranoid figure is the danger himself? Does a history of abuse leading to a life of crime make you more sympathetic to his plight? Does the knowledge that he genuinely believes outside forces control his actions somehow mitigate the consequences of his crimes?
The Ugly is a serial killer perspective horror with a thriller framing device. Admitted thrill killer Simon requests Dr. Karen Schumaker conduct an independent psychiatric evaluation before his trial. Dr. Schumaker is willing to do anything to get the truth out of Simon, even turn the mental hospital staff against her to make her more sympathetic to the murderer. Simon relives his life in such vivid detail that he begins to imagine the doctor in the background of his memories.
As an exploration of paranoia, The Ugly is a masterpiece. Neither Simon nor Dr. Schumaker are reliable narrators. They don’t trust each other, the facts, or their memories, so the audience doesn’t know what to believe. The viewer is forced to parse through black blood, silent screams, and an anguished baby-faced killer to find the truth. However, the facts slowly shift until everyone and no one is culpable for the strange series of switchblade murders.
It is this brilliant recreation of paranoia that makes The Ugly such a problematic film. The tonal shifts and inconsistencies are difficult to watch. They’re not scary and they do nothing to advance the plot or characters.
An argument could be made for intentional surrealism in the flashbacks but it doesn’t hold up. One scene clearly uses the style, but it is alone in that regard. The rest are as varied as melodrama, exploitation, and even sci-fi in style.
Writer/director Scott Reynolds sacrificed the opportunity to make a great film for the chance to make a memorable and shocking one. The poor cohesion actually makes the exploration of paranoia more potent. Surrealism may have been the goal, but Brechtian may be a better descriptor.
The Ugly is a film cushioned in alienation techniques to force the viewer into the head space of a serial killer. It’s an interesting cinematic experiment with some haunting imagery, but ultimately too frazzled to hit as hard as it could.
Thoughts on The Ugly? I think the black blood is perhaps the most striking device I’ve seen in one of these serial killer perspective films ala Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog. What do you think? Sound off below.