I enjoyed “The Scribbler” (2014) when I first saw it last year, but somehow I didn’t get around to blogging about it. A recent, positive interaction with a friend on Tumblr reminded me that I had posted only a photoset of images from the film. So I watched it again (both viewings were via Netflix).
The second run-through proved even more fun than the first. This independently-produced science fiction thriller (which, I might add, has more than a little bit of the horror and comedy genres in its mix) tells an over-the-top story that is nevertheless believable on its own terms. I think that this is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is based the excellent graphic novel of the same title, created by British cult comics artist Dan Schaffer, who also wrote the screenplay. Director John Suits (“Breathing Room” ) and cinematographer Mark Putnam (“Extracted” ) managed not only to retain but also to enhance the noirish, surrealistic feel of the original graphic art text — right down to the section titles, which are included as part of the set design.
The residents of Juniper Towers, a high-rise halfway house for psychiatric patients who have been discharged from inpatient care — but aren’t quite ready for the “real world” — have been dying at an alarming rate. All of the victims have jumped (apparently) off the top of the structure, leading it to be nicknamed “Jumper Towers.” Eventually the police get involved as the bodies keep landing outside the building. Suki (Katie Cassidy), one of the residents, is a prime suspect, so she’s interviewed by a detective, Moss (Michael Imperioli), and a criminal psychologist, Silk (Eliza Dushku), which allows her to tell her story in flashback sequences.
Who are Suki and the Scribbler? Well, they are the same person — sort of. Suki suffers from a particularly complicated case of multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder), One of her “alters,” whom she calls “the Scribbler,” writes rather than talks — and writes backwards — when it takes control of her body.
The uniqueness of Suki’s case makes her an ideal subject for a research project that her psychiatrist, Dr. Sinclair (Billy Campbell), is running. He treats her experimentally with Siamese Burn Therapy, a painful procedure involving a machine that recalls that used for ECT (i.e., “shock therapy”). After a few sessions of this treatment, which gradually eliminates “alters” one by one, she improves enough to be discharged to Juniper Towers.
She finds that she’s been assigned a “suicide suite” on the top floor. There she encounters Hogan (Garret Dillahunt), whom she knows from when they were patients on the psych ward. Hogan has somehow gotten himself a room at Juniper Towers, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an all-female building. He’s working this arrangement for all it’s worth, providing a “service” to all of the women (of which there is quite an — er, “interesting” — assortment) in the building. There’s only one problem — everyone he’s slept with has jumped to her death soon afterwards.
Still haunted by the voices of her personalities (who keep up a running commentary on her life), Suki’s supposed to continue her treatment with a portable unit that Dr. Sinclair gives her. She does so, but finds that the Scribbler takes over after each treatment, rewiring the machine in ever more powerful and frightening configurations. She also runs afoul of Alice (Michelle Trachtenberg), a jealous psychopath who haunts the stairwell, pushing others down the stairs (which Suki has to take because she has a phobia of elevators). Meanwhile, women keep jumping to their deaths.
Suki’s worried that she might be the murderer, since the Scribbler leaves her notes that contain the word “killer.” After each treatment session with the Siamese Burn unit, the Scribbler becomes ever more powerful as Suki’s other personalities are eliminated. Suki eventually realizes that the Scribbler has paranormal abilities, which she begins to be able to channel. Hogan tries out the machine and realizes that it brings out his true identity. Suki begins to suspect that her real personality is that of the Scribbler.
Then she learns about “Patient 99,” a psychotic serial killer who has recently escaped from the psych ward. When she snoops in Dr. Sinclair’s files, she finds a photograph of Patient 99, who looks just like Alice. Could it be that Alice is responsible for all the deaths at Juniper Towers? This suspicion leads Suki to an epic showdown with Alice after the latter gets access to the Siamese Burn unit and tries it on herself.
Frisco Kid’s Take
Just like a comic book or graphic novel, this film asks you, from the get-go, to accept at face value the world that it presents. So, if you’re looking for scientific accuracy about psychiatric symptoms and realistic representations of mental illness, or are a stickler about details of police procedure, you won’t like this movie. Its fantasy world is populated with women (and one man) who are presented as having serious mental illness, but most of them (except for Suki), in the real world, would be diagnosed at the worst with severe personality disorders. Also, most of the characters are very much like those found in a comic book — they are representative types, not rounded dramatis personae. Finally, if you’re looking for a film that has a deep message based on a coherent, well-reasoned worldview, you won’t be pleased. Although this film is full of bon mots, its best lines tend more towards the comic than the cosmic.
That being said, “The Scribbler” nonetheless easily drew me into its milieu. I found myself liking both Suki and Hogan and their non-conformist, hedonistic, quasi-cyberpunk attitude towards life. The other characters are less three-dimensional, but nevertheless highly entertaining (including one who walks around naked due to a pathological aversion to clothing). One reason for this is the comedy, often dark, that swirls throughout the film like the chocolate ribbon in fudge ripple ice cream. Sometimes it is actually hilarious — for example, there is a talking dog (also named Hogan and belonging to Alice — psychoanalyze that) who speaks with a British accent — or is he really just Suki’s psychological projection of one of her alters? Either way, I dare you not to laugh.
The production is slick, with clever production design, graphics, and special effects. It manages to pack in tropes from several genres, including science fiction, noir crime, horror, and thriller. The acting is spot-on, especially the delivery of clever and/or funny lines. Finally, the original movie score matches well with and complements the visual action. This one belongs in your queue.
Overall Rating: 3 1/2 talking bulldogs out of 5