On April 20, 1999 students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their fellow students (as well as a teacher) at Columbine High School in Colorado before committing suicide. The incident traumatized an entire nation, and in the wake there was a flurry of media attention, often looking to point the finger at a cause – or series of causes – for what ended up being referred to (in typical media fashion) as the “Columbine Incident”. There was plenty of blame to go around, but it was the popular culture that the two teens loved – dark, industrial music, violent video games, horror movies – that got the most attention from the various news sources and politicians.
It made such an impact that several films were devoted entirely to the incident including: Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT and Michael Moore’s documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. ELEPHANT was filmed in 2002 and while it was critically lauded, it was also criticized for being released so soon after the incident. But it wasn’t the first dramatization of the event. In fact, only months after the Columbine High Massacre filmmakers William Hellfire and Joey Smack – both already deeply involved with low-budget horror and exploitation filmmaking – decided to make a gonzo dramatization of the incident. DUCK! THE CARBINE HIGH MASSACRE was originally released on October 26th, 1999, just six months after Columbine occurred, and you can imagine that the response was less than favorable.
Now, it’s in bad taste. In fact, it revels in its bad taste – from the juvenile comedy, to the exaggerated caricatures, to the blaring hardcore soundtrack. But a decade removed from the incident itself, it’s also a remarkably brave and occasionally poignant satire on an event that many Americans have never been able to come to terms with. Treating an incident that scarred so many like the material for a whacked out Troma comedy makes for fascinating and occasionally jaw-dropping viewing, but it’s the quieter moments and smaller decisions that make DUCK! so fascinating to watch. Using the very combination of pop culture that was blamed for the incident to comment on it, even without any sense of delicacy, puts the film in a class and category high above most of its bad-taste low-budget brethren.
The first of those interesting decisions is casting the directors William Hellfire and Joey Smack as Derwin and Derick, the Harris/Klebold analogues. The two have an easy chemistry, and their interplay feels surprisingly legitimate. They make for a convincing and sympathetic portrayal, though neither fit into the easy category of bullied and disaffected youths. Their classmates all fit into simplistic stereotypes; the Car Kid, Song Girl, Goth Boy and an array of jock bullies, and are named as such in the film. Even the parents of the various students are played by the same two actors in various costumes, exemplifying the interchangeability of the authority figures. The media are relentless and manipulative, the principal is lecherous and cowardly, and the police are completely incompetent. Moments of surreal humor – such as when Derwin and Derick purchase their weapons and the guns are displayed as if prizes in a game show, complete with topless, gas-mask wearing models showing them off – bring to mind some of the more extreme moments of Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS. While the message definitely isn’t subtle, that there’s anything of substance here at all is a massive surprise.
The plot is pretty much exactly what you might expect from what you know of the real incident. Derwin and Derick are classmates at Carbine High who find themselves ostracized due to their odd appearance, attitude and interests. Derick’s miserable home life leaves him distressed and suicidal, while Derwin is more sarcastically aloof until he’s beaten terribly by a group of jocks (and has the word “freak” carved into his stomach). Using a combination of home-made bombs and purchased guns, the two eventually break into the school (where at first the students barely notice them), before killing a collection of the students in a variety of grisly and bloody ways. As the media circus surrounds the school, the two finish their spree before committing suicide, leaving the survivors to search desperately for meaning.
Now, while Derwin and Derick are generally presented sympathetically, they do spend an inordinate amount of time surrounded by (or wearing) Nazi paraphernalia, and there’s a bizarre subplot concerning the color of the “Afro-American” character’s brain that will definitely raise a few eyebrows. That said, the film is oddly hesitant to make much commentary on race, rather obviously staying away from slurs and appearing to white-wash (or ignore) the main characters’ more unpleasant traits. Thankfully the film holds off from presenting the pair as full-fledger martyrs, though they remain the most relatable characters throughout.
Few of the supporting characters make their mark very strongly, though softcore queen Misty Mundae does a fine job as “Bible Girl”, playing her despicable, hypocritical character with just the right amount of self awareness. Equally as fun is Kendall “Shorty” Ward as “Afro-American”, the token black character that has most of the film’s best (and most profane) lines. Most of the other “student” actors do well, though many of the most minor characters – the 911 operator, the television reporter, the Internet class teacher – are as pitiful as you would expect from such a low-budget production.
But it’s Smack and Hellfire’s ability to wring actual emotion out of their scenes together that is the lingering memory of DUCK!. The final moments between Derick and Derwin are horrifying, touching and sad, and the choice to make their eventual suicides messy and visibly painful is a reflection of a film that consistently refuses to take the easy route. The film ends with a series of satirical interviews with surviving characters, parents and other people of interest who seem more interested in their own profile or whether the “big game” is cancelled than the incident that just occurred. Again, while it’s hardly subtle that one of the final lines come from a teenager watching the coverage and going “Next year we should blow up OUR high school. We could be on TV.”, it’s a reflection of a lot of the anger and confusion that was being broadcast at that time.
More than ten years after the fact, and with a slew of school shootings in its wake, the Columbine High Massacre still provokes a lot complex and passionate responses from the general public. Even now the idea of a comedy based on such a tragic incident is enough to elicit looks of disgust, so you can imagine the response when DUCK! THE CARBINE HIGH MASSACRE actually found a home video release in 2000. It remains difficult to watch, with some bad taste elements that are legitimately unpleasant, but it’s also a shockingly brave in a way that you rarely see in low-budget film-making. For viewers with strong stomachs, it’s a supremely rewarding viewing experience.
Two Nightmares out of Five – SHOCKING SUCCESS
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
Join us this week for the latest DAILY GRINDHOUSE PRESENTS: NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES PODCAST where Moe and Myself will have a chat about DUCK! THE CARBINE HIGH MASSACRE.
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016