At various points in my life, I’ve gushed about one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, AFTER LAST SEASON, to anybody who would listen. It came into my life, as many strage and formative things have, by way of that grand wizard of Internet weirdness, my good buddy Nick Robinson.
I had recently moved to Los Angeles–in fact, I think I may have been there for little more than a month–when Nick passed around a movie trailer that would go on to live in infamy, at least amongst the small circle of film freaks that made up our core group of friends:
I apologize for the low volume on that clip, but it’s the closest thing I could find to the original trailer that first popped up on iTunes sometime back in the fall of 2009. Back then, it was little more than a very small blip on the respective radars of a handful of entertainment people: young, aspiring filmmakers who couldn’t believe that such an apparently low-budget (more on that later) flick written, directed and produced by Mark Region (a director whom nobody had even heard of) and starring a handful of completely anonymous actors had made it onto the front page. At the time, one popular tinfoil hat conspiracy supposed that the film was a piece of viral marketing for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, which was gearing up for release at roughly the same time (“Mark Region”, the theory went, was actually the identity of Mark Ruffalo’s character in WTWTA, and that After Last Season was the title of a film he was working on within that universe).
This theory was soon discounted when Nick discovered that the film was to begin screening in four bizarrely disparate locations: Rochester, NY, North Aurora, IL, Austin, TX, and last but not least, Lancaster, CA, which was a little more than an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. Nick invited a few of us to join him for a field trip and was undeterred when he received a lukewarm response. When he struck out for the wilds of Lancaster on his own, I thought that might be the last I’d heard of After Last Season, but later in the evening, I logged on to twitter and saw that Nick had live-tweeted the entire movie from a nearly empty Cinemark auditorium. His 40 character missives were the bewildered cries of a man slowly descending into the depths of madness. A few were accompanied by shots of the action onscreen, the bulk of which seemed to be sub-MS-paint quality CGI. A few days later, a blog posted a short video that one of the three other audience members had shot in the parking lot of the theater (the video has since been removed from the web, sadly) immediately following the screening. Nick and the other attendees recounted the eel-slippery “plot”, as best they could: it seemed to involve blank pieces of paper, directions, and dialogue that sounded as though it had been cobbled together through a random series of ESL exercises. One guy said it made him feel as though he was suffering from schizophrenia, and another volunteered that After Last Season was a murder mystery that took place “inside the architecture of the mind”. He was able to keep a straight face for less than a second after dropping this gem.
I had to see this movie.
As luck would have it, Nick had been lobbying hard for the entire Reel Grit (a film enthusiast collective founded and run by indie producer extraordinaire Brian Udovich) crew to take a field trip back to Lancaster, and I jumped at the opportunity. After a full day of running errands and answering phones at Merv Griffin Entertainment, I hopped into my car and headed North into the mountains. It was well past dark by the time I arrived in Lancaster, a small town of just under 160,000 people that seemed to consist almost entirely of strip malls. I got my ticket, and joined the rest of the Reel Grit faithful inside.
It’s hard to describe the experience of watching After Last Season for the first time. It’s often mentioned in the same breath as other indie film cult-oddities like The Room, Troll 2, and Birdemic–low-budget passion projects that fail so utterly and singularly that they cross some sort of threshold that separates wholly terrible movies from pieces of found art. The Room is the bellcow of this sub-genre, and still packs audiences into theaters around Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country almost every month. Troll 2 is such a phenomenon that its young star, Michael Paul Stevenson (now a very-grown up and accomplished documentarian) created his own celluloid examination of these silver screen failures and the people who love them, Best Worst Movie. However, After Last Season stands apart from these films in that it far outshines its contemporaries in terms of sheer and utter incompetence. The directors of the above-mentioned films seem to at least grasp the basic grammar of what a movie is, but foul up the execution and landing so badly that the movies become riotous balls of “what the fuck?!?!”. After Last Season, on the other hand, so grossly misunderstands the fundamental principles of narrative, plot, and character that all of the cinematic shortcomings seem minor. There are few laugh-out loud hilarious moments of in ALS. Rather, the entire film exists as a giant, neon, blinking question mark of Outsider Art.
The plot, inasmuch as one exists, is as follows: there are some murders happening in an unnamed location that is also home to a University and some sort of mysterious corporation (I think it’s supposed to be a pharmaceuticals company). As the investigation into these crimes ramps up, some Psych students conduct a study using computer chips that create a telepathic link between the two people wearing them. One person is able to project images and scenes into another person’s mind using only their thoughts. Something goes wrong, however, and the students are able to see inside of the aforementioned killer’s mind which allows them to witness a previous murder and helps them predict and prevent an upcoming one.
That’s as detailed a synopsis as I can give, and that’s speaking as somebody who owns a copy of this movie on DVD and who has seen it more times than I can count. The above paragraph is also far more coherent and linear than any of the events in the film itself, which peppers the story beats with long, long, LONG scenes of characters speaking to each other about nothing in particular. Great swathes of screen time are dedicated to meandering conversations about local geography (“I haven’t been to that town, but I’ve been through it,”), banal minutiae (“They have printers in the basement you can use,”) and jaw-droppingly poor special effects (the previously mentioned MS paint graphics). Every aspect of ALS is so bad, nonsensical, and utterly bland that the movie is mostly boring. However, the film somehow becomes paradoxically fascinating in its flatness. It’s hard to believe that it’s possible to avoid drama for so long, even on accident, but thus is the firm commitment to the nothing that happens in ALS for an excruciating ninety minutes.
The film also appears to have been shot for almost zero money, and when I say zero, I mean zero. Trying to figure out just where any of the budget went is enough to make one’s head hurt. The actors (bless their hearts, they’re trying) are horrible. The sets consist of a single house and what appears to be a series of basements in unused industrial spaces. Sometimes these are augmented with blank pieces of 8×11 white paper, presumably in a caricature of production design (in one scene the paper is arranged to resemble crown moulding, in others sheets are used as stand-ins for signs or newspapers with no adornment other than unformatted word processor text). Occasionally these same pieces of paper seem to be scattered according to a madman’s carefully considered plan, the driving focus of which is never made apparent. Countless shots linger for seconds at a time on empty chairs for no reason whatsoever. Several cardboard boxes covered in butcher paper are presented to the audience as an MRI scanner with a completely straight face. More than 2/3rds of the movie features a strange sound-mixing anomaly that results in a low, muffled, deep-groaning “wash/warp” effect lying underneath everything. From start to finish, After Last Season appears as a textbook example of what happens when talentless people try to create something out of nothing.
Imagine our surprise when it was revealed (exactly how I forget, but I remember this figure being established as fact through some source) that the budget of After Last Season came in at a whopping $5 MILLION. For a film shot by a nobody, starring nobodies, in (we would later find out) retail spaces in and around suburban Massachusetts, this seemed completely impossible. Our minds started working overtime, trying to piece out what exactly was going on. The mammoth budget was made all the stranger by the fact that the flick was “four-walled”, meaning that instead of going through traditional distribution channels, the filmmaker (or somebody connected to the film, anyway) had paid the owners of several theaters to rent screen space for a limited run. This is more or less the filmmaking equivalent of vanity publishing. It also seemed telling that the people in charge of getting this movie out there (if they were different people than Mark Region himself) decided to four-wall this clusterfuck in four seemingly random towns across the US (though all of them are relatively close to major film markets).
The theory Brian Udovich came up with–that wound up seeming very plausible after several conversations I had with the male lead, Jason Kulas–was close to a real-life version of the same scenario from The Producers. This was an embezzling scam. Some con artists figured they would pose as Hollywood big-shots, find a deluded aspiring filmmaker, get him and his loved ones to raise a whole bunch of money for “expenses” and then cut every possible corner, fart out a crap movie that nobody would care about at minimal cost, four-wall it in several out-of-the-way theaters where nobody would see it, and quietly pocket the excess cash when the movie failed. The perfect crime.
What started as a fanciful notion began to seem more plausible when word spread across the Internet that ALS‘s brief theatrical run was ending, along with a very persistent rumor that the existing 35mm prints of the film would be DESTROYED following the final screenings. Our group of friends went into panic mode. I myself personally called the Cinemark in Lancaster several times and tried to talk my way into buying the print from them. I was turned down, as was fully expected, but wasn’t expected was that the person on the other end of the phone would be completely perplexed and enthralled at the attention this movie was getting. He would go on to tell me that he had been swamped with phone calls all day from different people asking if they could buy the print, one of them calling long-distance from Australia. I ended up having a long conversation with this guy, about all the rumors and theories, and asked if it was true that the print was going to be destroyed. He told me that Cineamrk had received a call from somebody claiming to be associated with the film who told them to destroy the print once the paid-for run had come and gone. This person was informed that the Lancaster Cinemark wasn’t in the business of destroying film prints, lacked the facilities to do so, and that–as this employee told me–the theater wasn’t able to verify that the person on the other end of the line was involved with the film in any way whatsoever. So as far as this employee knew, no, the film was not going to be burned.
Nick had been doing his own sleuthing during this time period, and we hopped on the phone during lunch to swap a few tories. He had apparently been tracked down by the male lead, Jason Kulas, via facebook, who had been more than eager to dish out the dirt about his experience shooting After Last Season. According to Jason, Mark Region was a pseudonym; the director was clearly speaking English as a second language, and was of Asian descent with a heavy accent that made taking his direction difficult (among other reasons). Most of the sets were property owned by his family, and, as was suspected, the bulk of the scenes were shot in unused retail spaces and warehouses. With no heat. In the middle of a Massachusetts winter (you can actually see the actors’ breath in some of the scenes). Jason also told us that his audition took place in the café of a chain bookstore (I think it was a Barnes & Noble), and that almost all of the cast had similar stories. Jason, like most of the cast, was hired almost immediately after reading with no callback. I seem to remember some other strange details about a “producer” who was spotted around the set at various times but who never talked to anybody.
Anywho, the Reel Grit crew loaded up one final time to go catch what would be the last theatrical screening of After Last Season in Lancaster. We were there to pay our respects to what would go down in history (at least in our little circle) as one of the most truly bizarre films we had ever witnessed, something that might never be seen again, by anyone. After it concluded, Brian asked to speak to a manager: one last-ditch effort at trying to grease some Cinemark Palms into conveniently “misplacing” the print. The man he spoke with was a real true-blue corporate type–a nice guy, but a middle-aged manager in a suit who was clearly having none of our shady Hollywood hipster shenanigans. We observed the conversation from afar, and after a few minutes, Brian and the fellow in the suit disappeared into the back.Were we were actually going to score a print of this thing after all, and secretly screen it amongst our friends for years to come? Sadly not. Udo came back to our fold holding the plastic auditorium title insert over his head, as triumphantly as he could manage. However, he did have a story to tell. After Udo pled his case with the Cinemark top brass, the sympathetic manager took him into the projection booth and said that he would be allowed to copy down the shipping information so that he might be able to write to Mark Region or the producers and request a copy of the print. However, once they were inside the booth, the manager looked around, frowned, and called up another employee to verify a few things. This employee, sounding just as confused as the one I had spoken to on the phone, said that the film had not shipped to the theater in cans as is customary, but had arrived on reels, loose in a cardboard box, that bore no return address. Add another hash mark to the “something fishy is going on here” column.
There may or may not have been an effort to convince Region to make DVD screeners available to certain parties, and the name “Brian Grazer” may or may not have been invoked, I really don’t remember. In any event, After Last Season did finally screen at Reel Grit, and the members who hadn’t been on those initial runs to Lancaster didn’t seem to fully appreciate the strange, savage, beautiful boredom of this little flick that never could and never would. Later, it would be announced on the ALS website that a limited run of DVDs would be made available for sale through Amazon Marketplace. I snapped one of these up for much less than I was willing to pay for it, and it sits on my shelf proudly, one of the few things I own that is well and truly “rare”, both in the immediate, literal sense, and in the sense that you don’t often run across a weird little piece-of-crap-gem like After Last Season.
By the way, that website is still up, though the bells and whistles have been ramped up, and some of the surrounding murmurs about the film’s weirdness have been paraphrased and spat out into some copy that’s half a “making of” screed and half an attempt at a compilation of exciting critical blurbs. It would seem that Mark Region is still trying to make something of After Last Season to this day. As it stands now, the film continues to be little more than a blip, even in the minds of cult film fanatics. It’s a failure even within the realm of failure, which makes it all the more unique and all the more depressing. Maybe one day the film freaks of the world will spread the gospel of After Last Season far and wide, and the rumors and secrets that surround this strange little movie will finally get the recognition they deserve. The only thing is, like the film itself, the story of After Last Season is only interesting because of how much we will never, ever, be able to know about it.
I hope it stays that way forever.