Pop Culture

Move Over, Joaquin Phoenix. Houston Has Its Own Joker

Joe Grisaffi as Joker in The Bat.
Screencap from "The Bat"
Joe Grisaffi as Joker in The Bat.
The internet is abuzz with anticipation over the upcoming low-budget Joker film starring Joaquin Phoenix. What little we’ve seen so far does look very interesting, but Houston has its own star who is suiting up as the Clown Prince of Crime. Joe Grisaffi (Manos: The Rise of Torgo, Haunted Trailer) is Joker in Marcus Vasquez’s upcoming fan film The Bat, set in the 1930s.

The seeds of the collaboration happened on the set of the Dean Corll biopic In a Madman’s World in which Grisaffi portrays Houston’s most infamous serial killer. Though filming wrapped in 2013, the movie remains frustratingly unreleased for a variety of reasons. Having had a chance to see a rough cut of it, I can testify that Grisaffi’s performance as the monstrous Corll is one of the best things to come out of the local film industry ever, even if only a handful of people have been able to see it.

Vasquez was involved in Madman in various capacities. He fell in love with Grisaffi’s portrayal and approached him about taking on the iconic role.

“He said he would have nightmares of me as Dean Corll, and that is what triggered him into thinking I would be a good Joker,” says Grisaffi. “He had no idea how excited I would be for him to ask that. He told me if I had said 'no' he would have just cast another villain.”

The trailer for the film has already been released, and so far it looks like Grisaffi is well cast. He has a classic approach to his Joker, and he looks like something right out of an Alex Ross painting. Eschewing the more grungy incarnations that have been the hallmark since Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight, Grisaffi resembles a modernized version of Cesar Romero from the 1960s Batman television show starring Adam West. That’s intentional since that is the Joker Grisaffi grew up with and is his biggest influence.

Taking on possibly the most famous pop culture villain outside of Darth Vader is not something that Grisaffi has done lightly, especially with legendary performances like that of Jack Nicholson before him.

“It’s absolutely intimidating,” says Grisaffi. “I tried to be sure I wasn’t harnessing their performances, make it my own. Watching myself I realize how much influence they had on me. Joker’s been done so well. You can’t compete with these guys. I tried to stay true to the Joker I grew up with, but there’s no way to do this role without influence. The Bat is going to be the most-watched of anything I’ve done, and the fanbase is so rabid about what Joker should be and should not be. It’ll be my most criticized performance, and I’m ready for that. You don’t take this on with that being a surprise.”

"The Bat is going to be the most-watched of anything I’ve done, and the fanbase is so rabid about what Joker should be and should not be." — Joe Grisaffi

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As a fan film, The Bat will likely get by being screened at comic conventions and on YouTube.com. Warner Bros and DC tend to turn a blind eye to such enterprises provided they don’t edge into money making ventures like the famously well-funded Star Trek fan film Axanar that was eventually sued by Paramount and CBS. Grisaffi hopes to have a screening at this year’s Comicpalooza.

When I spoke to Grisaffi back in 2013 about playing Corll, he was reticent to talk about how he had captured the mind of the gruesome rapist and killer for his performance. Joker was, by his own admission, a much easier monster to work as.

“I had no discomfort inhabiting Joker, pretending to kill people,” says Grisaffi. “Dean Corll happened. You’re playing a character that actually did these things. I found myself separating myself easily from that. Playing Joker you kind of go to the same place but knowing that it’s all fictional. It’s not scary.”

Nonetheless, there is something of the Ace of Knaves in Grisaffi that helps make him perfect for the role. On the set of Madman he told me the cast and crew were prone to constant dark jokes as a way to alleviate the horror of being in the same rooms in which Corll had murdered people. Laughing at the evil made it bearable, and there aren’t many things more Joker than that. Check out the trailer below.