Joe Grisaffi (In a Madman's World, Pirate of the Caribbean) is back in the director's seat with a brand-new horror flick as part of a new Roger Corman-esque approach to elevating the Houston horror film scene.
Conjoined is the story of Siamese twin sisters who move in with a man they meet through an online dating service. Alina (Michelle Ellen Jones) is sweet, kindhearted, and just looking to finally find a man to love her in the form of the shy and awkward Stanley (Tom Long). Her sister Alisa is dark, sarcastic, and quick to anger after suffering years of abuse from society over their condition. Stanley tries his best to make a life with Alina while at the same time seeking a man who can make Alisa happy, but finds himself knee-deep in dead bodies as Alisa murders potential suitors.
"Alisa is the ultimate outcast/freak," said writer Chuck Norfolk via email. "She and Alina have spent their whole lives taking literal and figurative beatings. She thinks she might finally have found a place where she belongs but in the end she is just back to where she started. Outcast."
The strange film, penned by Chuck and Tim Norfolk of Haunted Trailer fame, came about because Bob Willems at Champion Entertainment in Houston is looking to launch a horror subscription service, and was willing to accept horror films across all levels of quality. Intrigued, Grisaffi offered to make one cheap and quick, and took the idea to the Norfolks to see if they could craft a single location script that could be filmed in a few days. Conjoined is the result.
I had a chance to talk to Grisaffi some months back about the Willems idea, and how it was very similar to the approach Roger Corman had originally taken. Corman was famous for trying out new, unproved talent on low-budget genre films, and in doing so launched some of the greatest directors of the last forty years. If Corman hadn't offered Martin Scorsese the opportunity to direct Boxcar Bertha, he might never had a career. The same can be said for Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and more. All of them got director credits and real, hands-on set experience thanks to Corman's willingness to offer low-budget schlock a forum as long as you could get it in the can.
When viewed through that lens Conjoined is pretty damned good. Sure, it looks kind of dollar store because it is kind of dollar store (It had a $2,000 budget), but somehow that makes the moments of brilliance stand out even more. In a weird way, the flaws make the film.
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For instance, in order to get the movie up to a full-length running time Grisaffi employs tons of long, awkward pauses in conversations between characters. At first these are just unbearable silences that force the viewer to appreciate the absurdity of the situation (Are we really to believe a conjoined twin would offer to move in with a man and not tell him that she was physically attached to a sister?). As the film progresses, though, Stanley has taken to laughing through them with an insane whimsy that becomes quite eerie and unnerving.
Possibly my favorite part of the whole film was that of a cam girl played by Deidre Stephens. After logging out of Skype chats with Alina Stanley usually immediately opens a window to the barely dressed Courtney, who always offers her more naughty services but is perfectly happy to accept Stanley's money just to listen to him talk about his worries regarding dating and living with the sisters. There's just something utterly wonderful about the way Stephens portrays the character as unapologetically greedy and willing to exploit lonely men for cash, but is alt the same time perfectly sincere in her desire to comfort and advise Stanley as long as he's paying for it.
Oh, and Sara Gaston is in the film as well playing a police detective that never solves the crime, never interacts with the main cast, and spends her entire on-screen role playing with a bunny candy dispenser and giving long, strange monologues about sickos into her Dictaphone. One of these days Grisaffi is going to have to get around to letting Gaston play Detective Waters, who also previously appeared in Grisaffi's Dead of Knight in her own feature film. Until then we'll just have to settle for these little drops of completely random badass weirdness.
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In the end Conjoined is fluff and blood, but it is fun.
"We set out to make the production of Conjoined fun," said Grisaffi. "We were not going to sweat the details. If something wasn't ready or didn't go as planned, we just rolled with it. That was our strategy and my direction, planning to use our mistakes and make them part of the fun."
Mistakes there are a-plenty, but there are also strangely wonderful touches that show a greater talent waiting underneath for more money and bigger opportunities. Grisaffi makes great bad movie, and is an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers everywhere.
Conjoined premiers at the Houston Community College Spring Branch campus on Saturday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. For more information visit conjoinedmovie.com.