This bleak, basement-budget melodrama is part of a minor though burgeoning film movement that might best be described as new wave noir. Borrowing their expressionist style from predecessors of the 40s and 50s and updating it with a hip nihilism, other noteworthy examples of this movement
include the 1990 releases THE HOT SPOT, THE GRIFTERS, WILD AT HEART, MIAMI BLUES and Carl Colpaert's DELUSION, co-written by HORSEPLAYER director Kurt Voss. These are films that seem to wallow in a modernist miasma of deceit, despair, disloyalty and, most of all, death; at their best, they bring a
dark, brittle humor to their desiccated visions of a world spun wildly out of control.
To keep his many demons at bay, Bud Cowan (Brad Dourif), a killer working off his parole in the icebox of a Los Angeles liquor-convenience store, has turned his life into an obsessive routine. Cowan starts the day at the track, playing the horses. From there, it's straight to George's (Vic
Tayback) store, where he stocks the walk-in refrigerator. After work, he goes straight back to his apartment, directly across the street from the store, where he eats a frugal dinner of hard-boiled eggs and settles down to calculating the odds on the horses running the next day.
Setting the plot in motion is the arrival of sinister new neighbors: Matthew (M.K. Harris), an up-and-coming artist working against a tight deadline for a forthcoming gallery show, and Randi (Sammi Davis), his sister, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. Also counting emotional voyeurism
among his perversions, Matthew pushes Randi into affairs with other men and then uses her lovers as the subjects of his work. They settle on Bud as their next "subject" knowing nothing about his past, although they should have picked up a clue early on, when Bud declares his heartfelt hatred for
art and artists. Sirens should have gone off when Bud later confesses to Randi that he was the violently abused son of a wealthy artist manque. Instead, Matthew orchestrates the affair between Bud and Randi that soon leads him from being a teetotaler to sucking up beers by the case as well as
skipping the track and not showing up for work, which gets him fired. Of course, it doesn't quite stop there. The film boils down to a deadly battle of wits between Bud and Matthew with Randi caught in the middle.
HORSEPLAYER's main problem is that it fails to develop this conflict or its characters beyond their sketchiest outlines. As it is, what plot there is could fill a one-hour episode of "Tales From the Darkside," here padded out to feature length. The lack of character development is most evident in
the failure to make anything important of Bud's obsession with horseracing, a rather substantial lapse considering the film's title. Still, several new wave noir films have provided showcases for standout performances (Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Connelly and William Sadler in THE HOT
SPOT; Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening in THE GRIFTERS) and HORSEPLAYER proves no different as it asks the cinematic question: When will people learn not to mess with Brad Dourif?
Dourif, who played Satan in THE EXORCIST III and gave distinctive voice to the killer doll Chuckie in all three CHILD'S PLAY movies, steals the show as Bud. Randi, however, remains something of a blank, despite Davis's sexy, provocative performance. (Miss Davis is discreetly listed in the credits
of TV's "Homefront" as Sammi Davis-Voss.) Matthew is the most fully fleshed-out of the tawdry trio, but he proves so deeply repulsive that we're not sure we want to know him.
Still, for all of that, HORSEPLAYER has an undeniable, nightmarish authority that causes it to gnaw at the subconscious long after it's over. If Voss is not yet quite up to fully articulating his characters or dramatic concerns, he projects an insider's feeling for his chosen low-level milieu
that keeps us interested even if we're not quite sure why. He's also helped by Dourif who, in contrast to Voss's ironic emotional distancing, plunges fully into Bud's dark obsessions with a hallmark spontaneity that has made him a mainstay of the B-movie fringe beyond his occasional forays into
big-budget evil. The combination may not make HORSEPLAYER a great film, but it's well worth the time for anyone with a taste for the compellingly offbeat. (Sexual situations, adult situations.)
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