This film was picked for me to view and write about. While I would love to blame Grindhouse Theology’s very own Trevor Almy completely for this, there is literally nothing he could do to actually make this happen outside of coming to my home and holding a gun to my (or my wife’s) head. I actively chose to watch it and am actively choosing to put “words” to “paper.” I have found something to write about. For this, I, simultaneously, apologize and invite you to share in what will probably be the only thoughtful piece ever written about David G. Radford’s 2015 film, The Night of the Wererooster.
Radford, known mainly for short films, found inspiration for his debut film within an ever-expanding mythology—whether it need happen or not—of were-creatures. There have been plenty of films that focus on the wererooster’s more sexy, prominent cousin, the werewolf (or lycanthrope). There was even a brilliant animated feature film from Aardman Studios about a wererabbit. But what of the rather peckish wererooster? Where art thou, wererooster? No one, until Radford, was concerned about telling his story. Roosters are not really known for destruction or violence unless we are speaking about the utter lack of consent the cock shows towards the hen. And the mild irritation his crow delivers to the unfortunate sleeping souls in the nearby house. This is why the threat of the wererooster is so far outside the realm of humanity’s general knowledge. Unless, of course, you are Harvey Weinstein (and his male contemporaries) who I am surprised has not garnered such apt comparisons.
Before we go farther, I need to apologize (again!) to Susan Sontag for betraying “Camp” by speaking of it. “Camp,” according to Sontag’s 1964 classic essay, “Notes on Camp,” is like Fight Club, to speak of it is to betray it. I, therefore, am going to betray it in this essay. It must be done, however. I have been “forced” to after all. Sontag thus defines “Camp” as:
“…the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not…Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-As-Playing-A-Role…Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying…In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails…When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in ambition. The artist hasn’t really attempted to do anything outlandish.” (pg. 3-7)
Sontag, like many pioneering film academics, is grasping for the elusive definition. However, this gives us enough space in which to evaluate that which is before us. The Night of the Wererooster is good “Camp” by the standards set out by Sontag and therefore deserves as much attention as any other “acclaimed” film. That it is art, pure and simple. The gatekeepers of Film would not give this the time of day because it does not have the publicity, the reach, or the pedigree in order for their opinions to be noteworthy within their echo chambers. Those who tread in the realm of critiquing straight-to-video, b-films, exploitation flicks, etc. will only exclaim their love with an undertone of irony. Being sincere in one’s critique of film is difficult when attention is priority and our intentionality is constantly at odds with our self-justifications. The film currently stands at 4.9 out of 10 with 39 reviews on Internet Movie Database. I would make a good guess that a majority of the positive ratings of the film are done with a dose of irony. It is “good”, not good.
The main element of Sontag’s conception of “Camp” that might create an impediment to our worthy and righteous goal is whether The Night of the Wererooster is naive. As Sontag states:
Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying…In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.
Many—let’s be honest, most—people who find this film on a streaming service are not going to click play expecting anything but tongue-in-cheek silliness. It’s a damned wererooster after all. We would normally think of naivety as not knowing any better. Some semblance of innocence involved in the endeavor of acting on something. There is no world in which Radford is taking this concept on with no acknowledgement of its silliness; he has to be in on the joke on some level. I don’t know the man, but, considering the use of unsubtle homosexual subtexts, clear chicken puns in the script, and the film’s farcical characters, he knows what he is doing and he’s choosing to do it anyways. The content is not naive.
There really is no moment of seriousness in this whole film except for the flashbacks between Buddy and his father (played by Radford himself) who is trapped within a severe depression. With the exception of the rather stiff acting (mainly on Buddy’s part), this scene is played straight in an otherwise giggle-worthy screenplay. On the whole, one could not say the film is “serious,” even if it contains attempts at being “serious.”
So, if it’s not “naive” and it’s not “serious” on its surface, can this film actually be “Camp”?
It seems to me that naivety and seriousness have layers beyond the surface level that a casual viewer might not pick up on. The film may not be naive in the least bit, but the filmmakers can be naive in their attempt to put these ideas to film. Radford had to be naive when it came to executing the film. The depression storyline between Buddy and his father was never played for laughs; it was meant to be a genuine moment of pathos. Radford ends up delivering perhaps the best and most realistic acting within the film and he has the least amount of screen time. A “bad” film would not aim so high as to deliver commentary on mental health in the midst of slasher schlock.
Along with the depression flashback, there are moments of fascinating—if ham-fisted—philosophical inquiry. Bobbi Courts, our veteran cryptid hunter, is trying to explain to Buddy the nature of the wererooster. He says:
“The supernatural always affects the natural. Warps it, distorts it…Take the power of a chicken with talons, beak, survival instinct and add a human without compassion…”
While this dialogue is far from poetic, it can be taken seriously. It can be dealt with on metaphysical, epistemological, and, perhaps, even ethical levels. Name the last time you watched a Scary Movie or one of those Not Another… movies where spoof is as high as the filmmakers are reaching. Most of the jokes and riffs are low-hanging fruit, made to appeal to the lowest common denominator of funny bones.
The Night of the Wererooster, underneath its bizarre concept, its hammy dialogue, stiff acting, and ludicrous conclusion, has legitimate thoughts that it posits to the audience. The idea that the supernatural actually affects the natural world is essential to the Christian faith. Or any faith for that matter. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and the rest are seeking transcendence beyond the material to the spiritual. They all believe that the non-material can be deeply moved and influenced by the divine or spiritual. So the potential for a wererooster is within the liminal spaces of this world if we have a healthy understanding of transcendence beyond materiality. This does not mean a wererooster does or has ever existed, but it does mean that if the gods, God, the void, etc. wanted to deliver unto us a full-man, full-rooster, then, by all means, they could form it from the dirt, the mud, the elements of the very earth and breathe life into it. If they are truly who they say they are.
Do a quick search for podcasts on cryptozoology and handfuls will show up that dig into the witnesses of the bizarre and unbelievable. Thousands of people have experienced oddities that are not easily explained by the constraints of empiricism. The fact that they believe that one can experience Sasquatch, Aliens, Nessie, among others, is because their epistemology allows for an enchantment that the Enlightenment wrested from the world. The materialism of rationalism does not provide a satisfactory evidential answer for everything a person can feel or sense. The hunter’s epistemology within this film can be placed over and against the over-reliance on the rationalism that the other characters assume for most of the film. He is more prepared for the dangers of the world, because he knows there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
And the question of what such a creature would be like could be its own practice in philosophical and theological wonder. It asks an essential question that haunts philosophy and science to this day: what is the definitive difference between humanity and animals? There are and have been many answers to this question throughout the history of the liberal arts.
On a more practical level, if we go back to the analogical tie to the #MeToo movement, we can see how the mix of rooster and man creates a subhuman ethic. Men, given over to their base nature—talons, beaks, survival instinct, their animal nature—can find themselves degrading image bearers in their push to devour and consume according to their desires. They do so without consent if their prey is seen as merely an object to satiate them. They become like a wereroosters, deep down they know it is wrong, but they give in their animal desires anyways. The cock wins out.
Now, I am not trying to give Radford more credit than he deserves by drawing these things out of his imagery and dialogue. I am simply making a case that these elements can give us insight into the potential naivety of the director and writer even if the content of what they are putting on the screen is not naive. The process of making this film found Radford and crew being dead serious in making the best—and perhaps funniest—film they could make.
As Sontag states:
When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in ambition. The artist hasn’t really attempted to do anything outlandish.
The Night of the Wererooster could be called many things, but mediocre in ambition is not one of them. The whole idea is outlandish, it is so far outside of the box that when someone reads the title of the film, they don’t automatically think, “Oh, yeah, I never would have thought of that.” No one would have ever thought of that. This film could literally be the photo in the dictionary next to outlandish.
…the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not…
The woman that is hyper aware of her feminine qualities. Lou consistently directs everyone’s attention to her breasts and draws attention at every opportunity to the disparity between her name and her gender. She’s not merely a woman, she’s a “woman.” The man who fakes hyper-masculinity to hide his actual sexual preferences. He’s not a man, he’s a “man.” These characters and their hyper-exaggerated traits all play into the film’s sense of “things being what they are not.”
There is no clear-cut answer here, of course. Other people will see the argument for “bad” over “Camp” to be more clear. It is simply easier to write this film off as bad and move on instead of interrogating whether it is art in any sense of the term. Yet, here is the crux of the issue. Even The Night of the Wererooster, when given our time, requires complexity when deconstructing the reasons why it is good or bad or camp or otherwise. Neither is it sacred nor secular. Many of the people behind the film are probably not religious—though they might be—yet there are ideas and moments in the film that recall sacred ideas, tensions, and doubts. The Wererooster is wholly other, it is affirmed by some and disbelieved by others. By the end, those who affirmed its existence are vindicated. That’s a very religious concept utilized within the narrative of a “Camp” film.
The Night of the Wererooster would, without any doubt, be considered “low art.” It doesn’t hold the same production values that “prestige” films do. It doesn’t have an established and respected director behind it. It doesn’t have the same talent behind the camera as “serious film” does. The acting is not top notch. The writing is stilted and silly. All of these things are true. Yet, what is the common denominator behind all of this? Money and Power. These things, at the core, are how we distinguish between “high” and “low” art. This distinction came to fruition through the racial practices of phrenology, a practice that “proved” the superiority of the white European against blacks and immigrants. Those with money and power—who control the studio machinery and promotional business—get to define what is superior and what is not. What gets a theatrical run and what goes straight to video or streaming platforms. Often buried amongst the thousands of films on those platforms. Film started out as low art at its inception, a carnival freak show in its own way. However, as the technology improved, the realm of film became ever more colonized by the rich and powerful who owned the means of production. This “low” art began to be appropriated by them. Film, in order to be acceptable to the highest social classes, had to be baptized as “high” art. It was now meant to be taken seriously and taken away from the immigrants and the lower classes of society.
As for the “sacred” and “profane” distinctions, they are merely christened language for the same divisions. It is a way of claiming the “divine right” of “high” art. Forcing the divine to stamp something as “His” because we are afraid of a God who rules all, sustains all, thinks all, knows all, loves all, and can see all the beauty of human creation. He does not see high and low art, he simply sees human endeavor to create and each flawed attempt to express what He put in our hearts.
This is not to say that there can’t be differences in quality between, say, An American Werewolf in London and The Night of the Wererooster. They are both outlandish, but one group of filmmakers was able to accomplish their vision more consistently. They also had a better budget and better talent available. But to distinguish one as “high” and the other as “low” is basically just a nice way of saying that a movie will be blocked because it didn’t have a budget, it didn’t meet some arbitrary level of production value, so the studios and producers are not going to give it the same promotion to get it seen. It’s a false class distinction devised by studios and others in power to consolidate their profit and their image as film to be taken seriously.
Radford, and the rest of the crew, proved to me that there is still creativity out there and a willingness to put something so outlandish on the screen regardless of the amount of money they have in their coffers. More so even than the studio output that floods our theaters week to week, The Night of the Wererooster retains the spirit of cinema, the spirit of Meliés, the Lumiere Brothers, and those other lights who divined the “low art” of moving pictures. It seems to me that Sontag was on to something by digging deep into the concept of “Camp,” because it could be said that “Camp” is the last creative bastion cinematic art and isn’t stalled due to lack of money, power, or ability. When art becomes a venture for profit, becomes “high,” the adventure of film, the absurdity of the act of making a film, and the constraints of budget are diminished and with it, the rebellious act of outlandish “low art.”