Laguna Ave has its world première at FrightFest 2021
In the opening scene of David Buchanan’s Laguna Ave., a man in a balaclava sneaks into a building at night, and steals a hard drive and a mug with the name Russell on it from one of the offices inside, before very carefully and deliberately taking a dump on the desk. Back outside smoking in the carpark, he sees two others leave the same building with garbage bags full of materials that they have also stolen, and tails them to their – also his – residential address on Laguna Avenue. It is a strange, irrational coincidence, in a film full of alter egos, parallel paths and crossed circuits. The monochrome presentation, the cloak and dagger, and the LA setting, all suggest that this is a neo-noir, while the defecation and garbage bags point to something far trashier (while the shit also hints at this intruder’s unhinged derangement).
Cut to one week earlier, and it is revealed that the first thief was in fact the vengeful Russell himself (Russell Steinberg), a one-time musician now learning to cope with a prosthetic right hand, working on the periphery of film and television, and recently fired for sleeping on the job. Thoroughly lazy though also loyal to a fault, Russell is driving to distraction his more successful, more solvent, altogether better groomed girlfriend Rita (Stephanie Brait), who just wants him occasionally to have a job, to meet his rent and to do a bit of housework while she holds down her corporate gig as an executive. As she heads off on a business trip, Russell smokes, drinks and hangs out with his neighbours in the Laguna Ave apartment complex, while trying to work out who just moved into the ground floor – a mystery man at first staying out of sight, but making a racket at night and doing something that is draining the whole building’s power.
Eventually Russell will meet the sharply dressed and extremely well spoken downstairs neighbour Gary (James Markham Hall Jr.), an active proponent of accelerationism who has, like Russell, recently been laid off and is also seeking payback from his former employer – even as he amateurishly attempts to usher in the technological singularity, together with his cross-dressing partner Charlie (Sheridan Ward) who is undergoing more than one kind of transition. The problem is that Gary’s ex-boss is Rita, and as Russell gets drawn into his neighbour’s deranged plans for revenge, he will start losing his grip on both reality and his own surgically altered anatomy.
At first Laguna Ave. resides on a similar – if lower-rent – ‘weird noir’ block to Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) and David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake (2018), all three being LA-set paranoid mysteries that drift towards the cultic and even the apocalyptic. Yet Buchanan’s extremely low-budget oddity takes those films’ fixations with bodily functions, and gradually converts them to the body horror/sci-fi of Shinya Tsukamoto’s similarly black-and-white Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and James Cameron’s expressly name-checked The Terminator (1984).
Russell is up for most things, and happy to go along on Gary’s wild spree just so long as it seems fun. He even starts to share some of Gary’s conspiracy theories and delusions of grandeur. Both men, after all, are searching for meaning and empowerment in a world where they are marginalised misfits. Yet Russell’s essential schlubbiness grounds all this complicity and fugue in a strange buddy comedy that covers over casual, crazy murderousness. Earthy, appetitive and absurd, Russell seems to regard his peculiar adventures with Gary as just another diversion while Rita is away, little different from his spending a whole day alone in bed or his doing ecstasy enemas with drug-dealing neighbour Dan (Zachary Taylor). When the cat’s away, the mice (or maybe it is just mouse) will play. And once Rita eventually does return, it may be too late for Russell to get off the ride and return to face reality (and a body count) – and so Laguna Ave. takes him and us on a schlocky, gonzo trip into an altered LA, where the end of one man’s cosy, coddled existence is made to coincide with the end of the world as we know it.
strap: David Buchanan’s monochrome LA neo-noir cum comedy body/buddy horror is all at once gonzo schlockfest, trip and singularity
© Anton Bitel