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Written and directed by David Hollinshead and Philip Thompson in their feature film debut, Essex Spacebin is a darkly funny movie in the Troma tradition. One of the taglines for the film goes, “the maddest thing you’ll ever see,” which is true enough, but not in in the kind of gonzo way you might expect. As much as Essex Spacebin wants to be a grossout comedy, it’s actually a fairly sensitive, though absurdist, portrait of mental illness. The stilted performances, the cheap FX, the homemade look, are definitely in the Troma style, but like the best Troma movies, there is plenty of brain food to chew on. Weird, yes, but also a rather heartfelt portrait of mental illness.
Lorraine (Lorraine Malby) is a plain looking, obese woman who is missing a few teeth. She’s got a fragile, sad look about her, which makes her easy to relate to. At first it seemed as though the filmmakers were going to make fun of her, but, no, they’re on her side. Convinced that there are secret star gates hidden in plain sight and encouraged by a weird rasta internet guru, Lorraine is always reaching for something bigger than her mundane, poverty-stricken reality. Ultimately she’s harmless, though everyone but her husband and her daughter, including her mother and her psychiatrist, belittle and abuse her.
Lorraine’s husband Bri (Philip Thompson) also lives in a world of fantasy. He’s a drug addict and unemployed, can’t take care of himself. He might have had brain surgery, but that all depends on whether you believe anything our unreliable narrators (mostly Lorraine and her mom) have to say. Lots of weird and funny drug scenes with this guy. One scene early on has Bri and some friends of his sitting around doing some pretty strong drugs. The drugs make them hallucinate, and they imagine themselves as cheap-looking CGI aliens in an early 1990’s-looking VGA graphics world. Later, Bri and his buddy smoke something or other given to them by the rasta which sends them off to a weird ancient Egyptian scene. Drugs, of course, are about illusions as much as Lorraine’s insanity.
This is a world where everyone is so involved in themselves and their own visions that they can’t take care of themselves, let alone other people. Lorraine’s daughter is a particularly sad case. Not only is she actually physically abused on her milk delivery route, having bottles smashed over her head, but she’s probably been sexually abused, too. Lorraine’s neglect of her daughter is unintentional. She’s too lost in her delusions to take care of her daughter. This is a hard lesson for the young woman to realize, but when Lorraine has to go away for a two-year stay in a mental hospital, she realizes that her mom has done her best by her. In voice-over, the daughter says, “I miss your apocalyptic visions.”
The camera movement and framing is expert, though highly stylized and distracting at times. Though this is Hollinshead and Thompson’s first feature, they’ve been making short films for over a decade, so they know their stuff.
The music by Andy Jenkinson is particularly catchy. It never gets goofy, which is a direction a lesser composer might have chosen for this kind of comic material. It’s creepy and beautiful and contributed in large part to my finding the movie more surreal that laugh-out-loud funny. It really brings out the sadness and vulnerability of the characters.
In the end, Lorraine does find a satisfying conclusion to her quest to find a star gate. Ultimately, whether or not Lorraine is delusional (she is) doesn’t matter very much. She finds a measure of happiness and peace, and that’s sometimes all we can really ask from our lives.