Disgusteen (1990)

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Released in 1990, Disgusteen is a low budget vampire film from Screeching Weasel front man Ben Weasel, which he’s described as “an awful movie … which was basically worthless.”[5] It’s really not that bad, throughout this essay I’ll explore the construction of the film, its themes and of course music. With a title derived from a Teenage Head song, as I’m sure you may expect the film is filled with top punk music and features some of the best punk characters on film.[5] Disgusteen follows Elizabeth’s transformation from upper class school girl to blood thirsty punk vampire as she grows to enjoy her new life among her captors the “Ashtray Punx.” Led by vampire Frankie, the “Ashtray Punx” are a gang “hellbent on hate, they kill, maim, torture, and say nasty things to various members of society.”[4] Coming across as a student film or something thrown together by friends, it’s not quite at the standard of B or C grade horror. Apart from the poor picture quality the film is pretty decent although its appeal is limited to die hard Screeching Weasel fans.

Disgusteen surpasses the ridiculously dressed, mindless thugs that were the punks in such 80’s flicks as Class of 1984 (1982) and Return of the Living Dead (1985). Being involved in punk, Weasel managed to construct realistic punk characters that are more so over the top and bizarre in their actions rather than dialogue or costume. According to Dan Vapid, “Class of 1984 and Repo Man had an influence as did films by John Waters like Pink Flamingos and Polyester. Basically any degenerate character in film was discussed as we all liked those films a lot at the time.”[2] There is no shortage of bizarre violence in Disgusteen, highlights include, Spiro decapitating his boss and serving his finger on a pizza. Another act of ridiculous violence occurs when a private eye visits the punk house in search of Elizabeth, Eva answers the door. She initially attempts to deny knowing her and when that fails she seduces him into pulling his pants down and bites his dick mid fellatio. The violence is campier than gruesome, always delving into the ridiculous, (with lots of fake blood,) and the comedy that ensues whether intentional or not sets a fun tone for the film.

Written and directed by Ben Weasel after Screeching Weasel’s first break up, Disgusteen for the most part was scripted with some improvisation.[2] The acting is what you would expect from a cast of untrained actors and at moments is quite dry with a few exceptions. Performances by the “Ashtray Punx” bring the punk attitude needed to pull the film off. Spiro played by Dan Vapid (who had never acted before and hasn’t since,) successfully brings a sort of over the top, nihilistic punk rock attitude to the role.[2] Erik is punk in a similar vein, it feels as though he’s playing a character that isn’t too far removed from his real life persona. Eva, the only female member of the “Ashtray Punx,” plays a soft spoken valley girl with attitude to some effect. Ben Weasel’s performance as Frankie carries the film, delivering by far the most natural performance, he basically translates his stage persona to film. Admittedly with better supporting actors the film would have been far more enjoyable. The film opens with Elizabeth fighting with her mother whose overacting and shrill voice makes you almost want to eject the tape, sadly subsequent scenes with her parents are just as painful.

With more adventurous cinematography and editing the film could easily be filed along with films from the emerging indie genre of the time.  The silly special effects and simple editing techniques used to conceal them add to the quirky charm of the film. Editing is used to conceal knife wounds when Frankie cuts his arm (throughout the film), and the closing scene where Frankie burns Clark alive. In scenes where Frankie cuts himself, he pretends to cut his arm with the blades edge obscured from view. This is spliced with a mid-shot from a different angle revealing his bleeding arm. It works although due to the lack of cuts throughout, it is more noticeable. In the closing scene, Frankie douses a collapsed Clark in petrol on the edge of a suburban street, this shot is spliced with another of Frankie setting a dummy of Clark a light. The editing is quite effective here, although the unrealistic dummy lets the scene down. It is important to keep in mind that Disgusteen had a low budget and special effects were generally terrible in B movies of this era anyway.

In the context of the vampire genre, Disgusteen belongs to what Tim Kane describes as ‘The Sympathetic Cycle,’ a term categorising vampire films from the late 1980’s to the mid 2000’s.[1] Vampire films from this era tend to move away for the aristocratic realm and insert the vampire narrative in a modern everyday context.[1] The vampire films of this era construct a clear distinction between the vampire as a hero and other vampires who are demonised and portrayed as evil.[1] Frankie is the vampire the audience is led to feel sympathy towards as he was targeted by a homophobic vampire. Frankie gives background information on how he turned, “The guy who did it is named Clark. He doesn’t like homos. So he’s idea of fun is going out and making homos vampires then leaving them to die.”[4] This leads the audience to sympathise with the victimised Frankie and positions Clark as the antagonist who is bigoted and sadistic. The audience is never led to feel too sympathetic towards Frankie or the other “Ashtray Punx” as they devour innocent victims and leave their bodies in their basement.

Many of the supernatural qualities of vampirism are abandoned, the fangs, pale complexion, and capes are gone in favour of the average person.[1] In Disgusteen the aforementioned vampire conventions are dropped, the vampire characters do not feature any distinguishing visual features. Frankie explains what it’s like being a vampire to Elizabeth who has recently turned. During he’s monologue he reflects this abandonment of traditional vampirisms, “You don’t got to worry about the shit that you’ve read in fucking books or seen in movies about vampires, garlic. Fucking, you can sleep any time you want, you don’t have to sleep during the day, sun ain’t going to hurt you, fucking stake through the fucking heart’s not going to do anything.”[4] Further moving away for the traditional genre, Disgusteen along with other films from ‘The Sympathetic Cycle’ adopt elements of teen drama (when Elizabeth fights with her parents and her boyfriend), helping to reinvent the vampire film for a new generation.[1]

Apart from representing marginalised characters on the fringe of society, the film further reflects a punk stance towards wealth, religion, and mental health. The film opens with a fight between Elizabeth and her mother over partying and spending money. Her mother asks her to “accept Jesus Christ as her lord and saviour” while rambling almost incoherently, fed up with her mother’s “religious bullshit” Elizabeth leaves.[4] The television at the “Ashtray Punx” house is repeatedly shown playing footage of televangelists, depicting preachers telling how their lives were turned around by religion. The film and punk in general reject religion’s didactic approaches in favour of living life without abiding by rules and authority. Elizabeth’s parents are upper class and represented as uptight and cold. When Elizabeth is dragged back to her parents’ home by Clark, they are in discussion with a doctor about a lobotomy and as soon as she enters they sedate her with handful of pills. This criticism of the over prescription of mood altering drugs is more relevant now with the prevalence pharmaceutical advertisements.

Weasel manages to weave a subtle Stockholm syndrome element into the plot where Elizabeth quickly empathises with her captors. The character Elizabeth is set up at the beginning to feel alienated from her strict mother, feeling she isn’t welcome at home. She is seemingly abandoned by her boyfriend and social circle at the party early on. The “Ashtray Punx” abduct her and she wakes at their place angry at first, she can leave but after realising she has nowhere to go, stays and soon becomes one of them. It’s a difficult task to make a character want to stay with those who kidnapped them but it manages to work. It succeeds as the people in her life early in the film are portrayed as shallow and sterile, while the “Ashtray Punx” present the opposite, they are living a carefree lifestyle and accept her when everyone else rejects her.

The film is set in Chicago, throughout there are references to real locations and few that aren’t. The majority of Disgusteen is shot in the “Ashtray Punx” inner city loft. It’s a shabby punk house with a banner proclaiming ‘tomorrow will be much worse’ and walls covered in punk flyers and posters including a prominent Mr T Experience poster. Elizabeth goes to the fictitious Hitler High school in Glendale Heights and resides in the affluent neighbourhood of Northbrook before living with the “Ashtray Punx.” Towards the middle of the film Frankie and Erik go to Bluett Park to use the playground in Mt Prospect. Spiro worked at the real restaurant D-Gee’s, one of the actors in the film had access and they were given permission to film there.[2] The majority of the external scenes are shot in the northern suburbs of Chicago around the Prospect Heights area where members of Screeching Weasel grew up.[5]

The soundtrack is incredible, featuring of course Screeching Weasel but also ‘Bricks’ by Crimpshrine during the playground sequence and ‘A Song About A Girl Who Went Shopping’ by Mr T Experience when Eva and Elizabeth go shopping.[4] The emphasis is on the music during these scenes, there is no dialogue or background noise. The soundtrack really elevates the film, featuring the top punk of the time, mostly Lookout Records bands and also original London punks The Lurkers with ‘Drag You Out.’[4] The standout song in the film is the title track ‘Disgusteen’ by Ben Weasel and 8 Bark.

In regard to the title track ‘Disgusteen,’ Ben Weasel wrote in the linear notes to ‘Kill the Musicians’ that he recorded, “a pretty cool tune he wrote and performed with 8-Bark called, duh “Disgusteen.”[5] 8 Bark entered “Curved Air Recording” studio, used for their first 7” ‘Twelve‘ earlier in 1990 to record the track with Ben.[3] 8 Bark were an early 90’s Chicago punk band with an almost alternative, Dischord Records sound, although on ‘Disgusteen’ they are straight up pop punk in the vein of Screeching Weasel. Guitarist on the song Douglas Ward states that the studio used for the recording of ‘Disgusteen’ was located “in Crystal Lake, and the owner/engineer was a guy named Alan Purvey. It was a project studio in his house, and Alan wasn’t a punk, he was an older-than-us guy (maybe in his mid 40s, early 50s) who was into recording.”[3]

Looking back on this time, 8 Bark guitarist Douglas states, “Ben and I were friends, and 8 Bark had been playing for a little while when he was working on the movie. He asked us to back him on the track, and we did. It was myself, Brian K (8 Bark’s drummer), Steve S (8 Bark’s bassist), and Ben. I think Ben played the keyboard/organ backing track as well.”[3] The song outlines the plot, depicting the central charter Elizabeth’s journey. Lines like ‘Hanging out with vicious thugs, her life’s a toilet bowl’ and ‘Disgusteen, her life’s so pitiful’ represent Elizabeth’s new life after her abduction which consists mostly of hanging out in a punk house watching television. It’s a fun and straight forward melodic punk song that sounds amazingly well developed and performed for such a short lived collaboration. The song is rad, it definitely sounds more Screeching Weasel than 8 Bark and would fit right in on ‘My Brain Hurts.’ The keyboard section around the 47 second mark sounds eerily similar to one that would turn up on ‘Cool Kids’ a few years later.

Disgusteen is an elusive film that you’ve probably only read about a couple of times. There isn’t a lot of information out there and the film is hard to find, although it is well worth seeking out if you have any interest in early nineties punk. Don’t expect to be able to just download or buy a copy on Amazon as the film was never widely distributed. In 1990 Ben ran advertisements in the back of Maximum Rocknroll and recorded VHS tapes as needed.[3] Since its release unauthorised copies were made and distributed, apparently there is also a sixty minuted edited version someone made, copies can still be found on EBay. Hopefully this essay gives some context and insight into what the film is all about. Disgusteen deserves more praise than it’s received, it’s not bad like others have said. It’s quirky with all its low budget special effects and larger than life characters, but above all else it is nice snapshot of an era.

Thanx to Douglas Ward and Dan Vapid for the quotes and also Jun for the DVD.


Reference List

[1] Kane, T. (2006). The Changing Vampire of Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Growth of a Genre (1st ed.) Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.

[2] Vapid, D. (2016). Disgusteen. September 10. [Facebook Message].

[3] Ward, D. (2016). Disgusteen Recording. September 9. [email].

[4] Weasel, B. (1990). Disgusteen. Directed and Produced by Ben Weasel. Chicago: Anxiety Video.  DVD.

[5] Weasel, B. (1995). Screeching Weasel – Kill the Musicians [CD Linear Notes]. Berkeley: Lookout Records.

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