Postmortem (1998): Pyun & Sheen, on the Slab and on the Piss

Matty cracks open a cold one and takes Albert Pyun’s Charlie Sheen-starring serial killer thriller for a retrospective stroll. Featuring comments from producer Gary Schmoeller!  

Though failing to reach the heights of the Relentless series and Russell Mulcahy’s similarly dour and creepy Resurrection (1999), POSTMORTEM (1998) stands as an absorbing if flawed entry in the straight-to-video serial killer thriller cycle initiated by The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and codified by Se7en (1995).

Of chief interest are the auteur licks of director Albert Pyun. A filmmaker never afraid to embrace dark material, Postmortem joins Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996), Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels (1996), and Omega Doom (1996) as one of his darkest works; the concluding chapter of an ink-black quartet connected by themes of chaos, horror, and existentialism. In those movies, said topics were situational. They were symptoms of the ravaged future-shock worlds in which their dystopian narratives took place. Postmortem, with its gritty, slice o’ life rooting, is quieter and more personal and internalised. As with many a ‘90s Pyun romp, George Mooradian’s photography is key. His and Pyun’s final collaboration [1], the bulk of Postmortem is presented like Adrenalin: in long, constantly moving Steadicam shots. However, Adrenalin’s immersive and dizzying style was reactive; a way to convey the terror felt by its characters. Here, Pyun, Mooradian, and Steadicam operator Alastair Rae’s swirling compositions are used to mirror the inner turmoil of Postmortem’s protagonist, James MacGregor.

Performed with an agreeable intensity by Charlie Sheen (billed as ‘Charles’), MacGregor is a frazzled American detective-cum-true crime writer — haunted, of course, by a failed marriage, an estranged relationship with his young daughter, and his Disturbing Last Case™️. Having elected for a refresh sesh in bonnie Scotland (well, Glasgow), the hard drinkin’ hack’s whisky-soaked exile is soon interrupted: first by a mysterious serial killer who torments him via faxed mock obituaries ahead of each murder (a now amusingly dated touch), and then by the Glasgow Five-O, who believe MacGregor responsible for the spate of exsanguinated naked dead women that are being dumped in the area. A striking interrogation scene following the discovery of corpse numero uno twists the suspense screws with authority: bathed in a sickly orange glow, Pyun captures the inherently nightmarish situation of being a stranger in a foreign country accused of something you didn’t do perfectly. 

Somewhat disappointingly, the rest of Postmortem — which was written by John Lowry Lamb and Robert McDonnell — takes a far more ordinary route in terms of plotting. MacGregor is quickly eliminated as prime suspect. Instead, he sobers up and helps the local constabulary (led by Pyun’s Mean Guns (1997) star Michael Halsey, replete with dodgy Scottish accent) catch the actual culprit. Pacing becomes a minor issue too. There’s an air of repetitiveness to the talky, titular moments of postmortem, and it gets a little wearying the amount of time Pyun spends flouncing around the white, sterile walls of the Jarman-esque briefing room as Sheen, Halsey, and Billy Elliot’s Dad — sorry, the ever-excellent Gary Lewis — bicker. 

Thankfully, such quibbles are superseded by Pyun’s further aesthetic wizardry [2]. A robustly assembled daytime foot chase through Glasgow’s grey-hued city centre packs a visceral and emotional wallop, resulting in a genuine jolt when the killer appears and encouraging a shout of “fuck yeah!” when you realise that MacGregor has found his mojo again. And despite an unfortunate lack of gore reducing the vitality of Postmortem’s fleeting giallo-spiked set pieces, Pyun demonstrates a nice line in macabre lyricism. A sacrilegiously posed nude cadaver in an empty swimming pool is a stunning image, and the sequences inside the killer’s dank lair — which are often intercut with dream-y, Francis Bacon-tinged flashbacks to formative experiences that flesh out their backstory — possess a chilly and suitably upsetting potency. 

Filmed under the title ‘Obit’ and released on tape either side of the Atlantic in winter 1999 [3], before it vanished into DTV purgatory, Postmortem earned a degree of infamy due to Sheen’s behind the scenes shenanigans. In Glasgow for six days of Postmortem’s ten day shoot during July ‘97, the notorious wild child had a swarm of minders — but, after a particularly heavy bender (allegedly in the presence of equally troubled football hero Paul Gascoigne), he managed to ditch them in order to go trawling for guns and cocaine in the city’s crime-addled Easterhouse district, in the company of a twenty-three year-old prostitute. 

In 2015, Postmortem’s producer and Pyun’s former Filmwerks collaborator, Gary Schmoeller, also told me the following about working with Sheen: 

“Charlie had an entourage of six people. His mother, one of his brothers, and four other people — we had to fly them over from Los Angeles to Glasgow with first class plane tickets and put them up in first class hotels. The whole idea was that they’d just get Charlie to the set. Once he’s on the set, he’s fine. A total pro: he knows his lines, hits his marks — just a consummate professional. But, by God, he parties, let me tell you [laughs]!”

Schmoeller continued: 

“When you’ve got a SAG actor, one of the deals we have is to provide transport to and from set. So I hired this limo company in Glasgow and I told them, “Our obligation is to get Sheen to and from the set. Anything else and it’s on his dime”. And on day two of shooting, they called me up and told me that he’d ran up a $1,500 bill [laughs]. They dropped Charlie off at the hotel, he told them to wait, had a shower and got dressed and whatever, and came back down to the limousine, got the driver to find him some cocaine and to take him to a bar. So I said no way: we’d pay the first $250 but the rest is Charlie’s dime. He got $3 million for Postmortem and I bet he spent half of it while he was in Glasgow for the week [laughs]. He’d wander into random bars and say, “Alright, everybody on me!” and would sit there and drink and party with everyone for hours and hours, paying for every drink in the house. The local papers got wind of him being in town and he had a write-up on him every day; about how good a guy he was, about how he partied with everyone, what he was up to, what drugs he was doing… He was one hell of a character.” 

[1] Mooradian lensed every Pyun film between Kickboxer 2 (1990) and this. As Mooradian explained to author and Schlock Pit pal Justin Decloux in his book, Radioactive Dreams: The Cinema of Albert Pyun, his split from Pyun happened organically. To quote Decloux: “They simply drifted apart”.
[2] A shame, then, that nearly every version of Postmortem currently available on DVD or for streaming comes from the same ugly tape master. The sole widescreen release is an out of print Scandinavian disc.
[3] Via Sterling in the U.S. and Film 2000 in the U.K. — a pair of companies that Postmortem’s co-producers, Imperial Entertainment, had distribution deals with. 

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