Suzie (Wendy McColm) is first presented to us in a motel bathroom, her clothes loosely hanging from her and blood seeping slowly from her crown. She creeps back into the motel bedroom and sneaks past the fat trick laid on the bed, attempting to steal from his wallet and scarper. He awakens and throws her out of the room.

Tony Marsiglia's handheld camera then follows Suzie, a teenaged prostitute living rough in a squat with only a starved cat for company, through a handful of tragic days that will show her routine as the tedious, repetitive and destructive trap it truly is.

First, we get to see Suzie nip into the local 7-11 for food. She doesn't have enough money to pay for the measly groceries she's selected, and so is resigned to fellating the shop owner behind the counter. When she later gets "home" and opens her grocery bag to share her dinner with the cat, she realises that, along with a couple of cans of food, the shopkeeper's filled the bag with cigarette butts.

Gathering her creepy handmade dolls together - her Teddy Bears, or family, if you like - she then shudders into a sleeping bag and prepares for another night of sleeping without comfort.

The following morning, Suzie is up and out on the streets for another day of surviving. She begins desperately by visiting the home of a former punter, hoping to get some business. This goes predictably badly when the punter turns up with his wife and son in tow. Fleeing, Suzie then pays a visit to her hooker friend's bedsit, where she rest briefly on the settee while her friend "entertains" in another room.

By nightfall, Suzie is cruising the red light district looking for business. Another day of constant walking, no food and little rest leads to the night ending with Suzie suffering from stomach pains and hallucinations.

The following morning brings � much of the same. More aimless walking of the nameless city's streets, another trip to the hooker's bedsit (where Suzie has not one but two unpleasant experiences) and then off to the red light district, where she's picked up for what she thinks is a threesome but turns out to be something more sinister as she's led to an apartment where a gangster who looks like Denzel Washington awaits her.

SUZIE HEARTLESS continues along these lines unremittingly, offering a consistently bleak tone that assures you should not be expecting a happy ending. This is a life of humility, degradation, squalor, misery. It's also a life devoid of optimism and resigned to the persistence of fear and desperation as ways of simply surviving.

Marsiglia's film is extremely sombre, shot in long takes that are often free from movement or "action" of any conventional sense. It's a slow-moving affair, and yet it's never dull. This is thanks to the consistency of the deliberate pace, the extraordinary use of sound in the film (there is no dialogue, just distorted effects and music) and - especially - McColm's knockout performance.

The sounds are especially important in conveying the true nightmare of Suzie's predicament, the confused muffles and exaggerated grinding of everyday annoyances helping to place us in Suzie's scared, alienated mindset. It's a device similar to the one used by Lodge Kerrigan in the celebrated CLEAN, SHAVEN - used to different ends here, but just as devastating and intriguing in equal measures.

McColm is heartbreaking in the title role. Her young features and empty gaze, coupled with her tiny frame and dirty skin, make her a pathetic proposition - a chillingly authentic portrayal of wasted youth. Her fear in latter scenes really hits home, while the distress she conveys while being abused by a tattooed lady is astonishing. It really gets under the skin. And, given that she doesn't utter a word in the film, that's amazing.

In fact, all the characters in the film give superlative performances that help tremendously in giving this sober, earnest fable a hard-hitting impact without the use of dialogue. Rarely has so much nihilism, despondency and despair been conveyed so well in mere facial expressions.

Marsiglia wisely keeps graphic excesses to a minimum. As sorry as Suzie is, she's still a human being and it's her soul he's interested in. There are a couple of scenes of nudity and a couple of tame sex scenes, but Marsiglia keeps the documentary-feel of the action going and never treats his subjects like pieces of meat.

That said, he's still capable of delivering a shattering climax that pulls some nifty FX work out of the bag and delivers a most unexpectedly grisly finale. You will not forget these final images any time soon.

It sounds taxing and it is. SUZIE HEARTLESS is relentlessly grim and slow, accentuating the monotony and repetition of Suzie's downward spiral. It has no happy ending, and pushes emotional buttons even further throughout the film with occasional flashbacks to Suzie's happier childhood years. It's manipulative, slow and depressing. It's also a searing piece of work that explores the grimy side of prostitution more convincingly than anything in recent memory (it makes Marsiglia's own remake of CHANTAL look trite).

Also included in this 2-disc set is Marsiglia's 1996 directorial debut, PHEONIX.

PHEONIX is a beguiling arthouse feature filled with almost random, admittedly beautiful black-and-white images. The photography is stunning, as are the design and framing of each scene.

As for the story? It's a consciously muddled affair, knowingly obscure in a David Lynch style. We begin with a blonde hooker befriending a Forrest Gump-type geek on a park bench. Then we learn that he works as a coroner, and his next body to prepare ends up being hers.

He cuts her hair and fixes it to voodoo doll that he's been carrying around with him. He plans to use this against his parents - I think - who keep him caged in a giant cot and urge random strangers to teach him all about sex.

Interspersed between these scenes is the story of a pretty brunette waitress who spends her spare time worrying about her missing sister. Inevitably their paths cross and all manner of stylised madness ensues.

PHEONIX is extremely artsy, not only in it's carefully considered monochrome look (it's beautiful to behold at times) but in it's non-linear plotting and deliberately theatrical performances. It's rife with symbolic footage correlating sex and death, and is not strong enough dramatically to withstand it's own huge pretensions.

Having said that, it's surreal horror/noir at it's most obtuse, and while it's low budget reveals flaws that masters such as Lynch can curiously get away with, it's certainly interesting enough to sit through confused. The denouement is unsatisfying, but you get minor violence and some nudity along the way.

Both films are presented in their original aspect ratios (SUZIE gets the 16x9 1.78:1 treatment; PHEONIX is offered in original 1.33:1).

Both transfers are great. SUZIE proffers strong colours and sharp, clear images. So it should, it was shot on HD Video. It looks superb. PHEONIX was shot on 35mm, and the black-and-white transfer here is stunning. Images are remarkably clean and crisp, with strong blacks and excellent bold contrast.

English 2.0 audio graces both films (PHEONIX has dialogue) and is nicely produced in both cases.

Neither film has chapter options, so there's no scene-selection menus on offer.

Extras on disc 1 include an excellent commentary track from Marsiglia and producer Donna Kane. She barely speaks, but Marsiglia has a wealth of info to share on his 4-day shoot. He's understandably full of praise for last-minute cast McColm, and remains diplomatic when recanting how Misty Mundae had to pull out of playing Suzie's mother at the 11th hour.

Marsiglia says he got the idea for the film when working as a yellow cab driver, ferrying hookers to clients at various hotels. It's disconcerting to learn that some of the episodes in his Hellish film are based on their stories.

We also get a stills gallery of 53 colour photographs, spread across 4-and-a-half minutes to maudlin synthesisers.

Finally there's a 20-minute deleted scene that involves more tears from Suzie.

Disc 2 offers another commentary track, this time from Marsiglia alone. There are some candid moments in here where he speaks honestly of his inexperienced cast's limitations, plus plenty of gossip on budget, schedule and so on.

A stills gallery provides 51 black-and-white photographs set to a jazzy score over 4 minutes.

Next up is a new interview with the two female co-stars of the film (one of them can't remember much about the film and as a result her chat seems far too long; the other, in contrast, is far too choppily edited). This runs for an overlong 27 minutes.

1 minute of cast auditions footage follows, shot on video.

Finally, there's an 8-minute Making Of featurette with plenty of Behind The Scenes footage and a further minute of 16mm test footage.

Neither of these films is easy viewing. But they're both worth seeing. PHEONIX (referred to in the supplementary material by it's original US VHS title, "Ashes In Flames") is aesthetically delightful but pretentious in a way that screams "FILM STUDENT!" at you. While SUZIE HEARTLESS is a gem of anti-fun filmmaking.

And if there's any justice, it'll put McColm on the map as an actress of considerable talent.

Review by Stu Willis

Released by Alternative Cinema
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review