Talisman (1998): Fear & Loathing in Romania

Matty knocks on the doors of perception and David DeCoteau answers with this oddball Full Moon chiller.

As he explained in the wonderfully candid commentary for his Romanian T&A flick, Bikini Goddesses (1996), David DeCoteau dislocated his elbow halfway through the making of TALISMAN. The first feature length Full Moon joint DeCoteau would shoot in Romania since Lurid Tales: The Castle Queen (1998) in 1994 (Talisman was shot back-to-back with his 45min kiddie monster mash, Frankenstein Reborn), the director was leaving for Talisman’s set one morning when he fell down the marble staircase in the hotel the film’s cast and crew were staying at. What followed was part farce and part nightmare: the cult auteur was whisked away to a Bucharest hospital that, by all accounts, was closer to Jacob’s Ladder (1990) than a medical centre. Thankfully, one bung from Full Moon’s Romanian producer, Vlad Paunescu, to the hospital’s administration later, DeCoteau was transferred to a less oppressive and far more sanitary hospital a country or two over in Austria, eventually returning to wrap the last four days of Talisman’s eight day shoot — albeit while off his box on painkillers. 

“Talisman was the strangest movie I ever directed because I was so drugged up,” DeCoteau chuckled on his yack track, and it’s hard to disagree with him. Though surrealism has powered DeCoteau’s work since Dreamaniac (1986) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), neither they nor the dream-lined vistas in subsequent Rapid Heart epics like Speed Demon (2003) and Beastly Boyz (2006) come close to the sheer weirdness of Talisman

Now, that’s not to say Talisman is cut from the same visual cloth as Dreamaniac et al. A couple of DeCoteau’s beloved Dutch angles and some janky digital warping effects aside, Talisman is a surprisingly subdued and dour-looking affair that eschews the helmer’s usual pomp in favour of a fairly sedate style and a dank colour palette heavy on the greys and blacks. Instead, the kookiness on display in Talisman comes not from the film’s sheen but from its inebriated manner and poise. Building upon the staginess of Full Moon stalwart Neal Marshall Stevens’ dialogue-driven script, Talisman is bizarre in the way that those conversations you have with friends when you’re both sozzled or under the influence are. It’s vague and elliptical — a movie of evasive sentences that bleed into each other and never completely form. Watching Talisman, it’s very clear that DeCoteau was indeed at the mercy of pharmaceuticals for a good fifty percent of it. However, like those mutual alcohol or substance-fuelled ramblings, amazingly, you can understand what’s being said. You get what DeCoteau is trying to do, irrespective of the relative lack of propulsion to Talisman’s narrative. 

A talky, steadily paced story in which a fresh-faced new arrival (Billy Parish) at a gloomy all-boys international school finds himself embroiled in the now DeCoteauian standards of murder, black magic, and homoeroticism, Talisman succeeds due to the quiet sense of doom that DeCoteau fosters within the confines of its epically themed but small in scale frame. Because despite DeCoteau wryly referring to the film as his guy-centric version of Suspiria (1977), Talisman is closer to Inferno (1980) in terms of its crushing demonic vibe, as opposed to the indulgent fairy tale excess of Argento’s better-known masterwork. Not aesthetically, mind: as already mentioned, Talisman is a picture of exposition and inference. The eerie presence of Costi Barbulescu’s heart-ripping Angel of Darkness aside, the creeping terror of Talisman lies within the hellish rapture that DeCoteau teases in hushed tones and pained sighs as characters slowly verbalise a frightening apocalyptic concept that lingers long after the end credits roll — especially as it skirts around such relatable topics as loss, grief, and alienation. 

And that, perhaps, is the key. There’s a human element to Talisman that transcends its pacing imperfections and drab wrapping. The structural similarities to DeCoteau’s preceding and subsequent school-based mysteries Absolution: The Journey (1997), Voodoo Academy (2000), and The Brotherhood (2001) are obvious — but the real link between them and Talisman is the aggressive and threatening edge to their gay-baiting imagery. Here, it’s embodied by Talisman’s secondary antagonist, Jason Adelman’s skeevy head prefect, Burke: a character whose lusts are as driven by his incessant need to control and dominate as they are anything sexual. And that’s freakier than any muted armageddon or chemical-induced fugue, accidental or otherwise.

USA/Romania ● 1998 ● Horror ● 73mins

Billy Parish, Walter Jones, Jason Adelman, Ilinca Goia ● Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Victoria Sloan’) Wri. Neal Marshall Stevens (as ‘Benjamin Carr’)

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