Monday, November 6, 2023

"It Kind of Gives Me the Spooks" - Deadly Lessons (2006)

One genre we have never discussed here at Senseless Cinema is the category of films I like to call "four-wall messiah" films, named after the "four-walling" distribution practice in which an individual or company rents a movie theater in order to present their film. The four-wall messiah genre is a specific type of film in which a usually wealthy filmmaker creates his or her (never her) film and presents himself as a savior within the narrative of the film. Of course, filmmaker Neil Breen is the most famous practitioner of this type of film, but others include the writer/director behind today's classic, Stuart Paul. Mr. Paul's first film, Emanon (1987) was a film in which he played a homeless man who is literally believed to be Jesus. In the ensuing years, Mr. Paul has made various other films in different genres, but perhaps his most ambitious work is Deadly Lessons.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are ambivalent or worse about the film and the message that is Deadly Lessons. For example, reviewer monsieurcs writes, "The movie has no surprises at all, other than the continuing surprise that you'll have at every inept frame that is up on screen." (The same reviewer writes that Deadly Lesson's technical qualities are incompetent, which is objectively ridiculous.) Reviewer  daronhennessy writes simply, "This movie is in-your-face bad." And reviewer Chubbynluv writes, "It should be shown in every film class as an example of what NOT to do."

Read on for a fuller appreciation of the visionary and epic (i.e., 2 hours and 18 minutes long) Deadly Lessons...

The film begins with a black screen as the hero intones: “In one way you will be insulted by my asking you to rise above to a higher level of consciousness. And on the other hand it can be looked upon as a compliment that you were the one chosen to rise to the occasion. Arrogant bastard, I thought to myself. Who the heck was he talking, like he was some saint or something religious?” Then the narrator describes his mother, a nurse who thought he needed help.

As the film’s credits play out as handwritten words on posters and projects in an elementary school (with the final “written and directed by” credit not showing the director’s name, as a teacher is in the process of erasing it from a chalkboard), a woman reaches a classroom full of children. In front of the classroom stands Stuart Paul, the film’s middle-aged, bemulletted writer/director/star, conducting an “experiment” showing the children they shouldn’t fear flying. “Everyone, please close your eyes and listen closely to my voice. Imagine now that you’re dreaming,” he says. “Wave your arm up and down freely. Imagine it’s so light and easy as if it were a beautiful bird’s wing. Up and down, up and down, up and down, yes.”

As he speaks, the children in the room become weightless, flying around the classroom. (Their eyes are, of course, open so as not to fly into each other.)

“Keep your eyes closed, nobody peek,” says the man, whose name is Simon Conjurer (the surname pronounced variously through the film normally as CONjurer and sometimes as conJOOrer).

“I’ll never be afraid to fly again,” says one of the kindergarteners after the children fly back to their seats.

The woman observing the class, Betsy, says “Mr. Conjurer” as she raises her hand and stands up, though she is comedically stuck in her small desk. Simon grins, addressing her predicament: “Please. Angles are very important.”

Betsy sits down silently. Meanwhile, Simon turns a globe of Earth into a blank white sphere. He explains, “Now, because of nature and most of mankind have worked so very hard through the eons of time to create a perfectly balanced, happy world, that’s what I hold in my hand for you to look at.” He turns the blank sphere back into a globe, which flies around the room. “But we got to take care of our world, because if we don’t it could disappear, just like…that!” The globe turns into a dove.

The kids all walk to look at the dove. Simon addresses Betsy, but before they can talk one of the children asks Betsy, “Mrs. Nurse, can you take my temperature?”

“Don’t you feel well?”

“Uh-huh, but if the world disappears, I know I’m going to be sick.”

Simon chuckles, telling the boy he just did a magic trick.

Betsy speaks to Simon from her heart: “I heard that you guide a healing class of psychic journey. That you’re a gifted channeled of divine supernatural origins. And that you’re a man of mysticism, magic who heals the sick of mind.”

“Really. Where’d you hear all that?”

“From a crazy man. Used to be. He’s good now. He used to be so angry and dangerous, always stealing, but tells me you had the devil out of him.”

“Who is that? Mr….”


“Mr. Evil. Yeah. Did he ever change his name?”

“No.” She tells him she needs a miracle because of her son, who calls himself Rebel, even though his real name is Roberto. He almost committed suicide by jumping off a building, but in a flashback we see that he fell into a flatbed truck piled with mattresses due to a quick-thinking neighbor. Betsy begs Simon to help her: “A good sometimes make a stuck horse jump in the mud to its feet.”

At night, Simon Conjurer drives through the streets in his gigantic SUV (somehow reinforcing his save-the-earth message to his kindergarteners). The vehicle is filled with flat-panel televisions showing a video of Mr. Conjurer explaining his philosophy. Rebel sits next to Simon in the front seat, though he is not in the SUV willingly, as he tells Simon he will have the man arrested for kidnapping.

Simon allows Rebel to get out of the vehicle, but after a minute Rebel decides to return, as he clearly has a seed of hope within him. “How you gonna help someone like me anyways, huh?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” says Simon.

In a comedic twist, Rebel (who gives a nuanced performance punctuated by constant head nods) will only go with Simon if Rebel is allowed to drive, though he has no license. Simon allows this, and the vehicle screeches rapidly around a corner.

The filmmakers cut to their surprising ace-in-the hole: the great Jon Voight playing the villain of the piece, a rival psychiatrist to Simon Conjurer named Dr. Crazx (pronounced “Craze-X”). Dr. Crazx, a grotesque man whose nose resembles the putty nose of Orson Welles in Bert I. Gordon’s Necromancy), sits in a luxurious office with his cigar-smoking female compatriot, a college dean, as the two complain about their rival. Dr. Crazx growls, “Simon Conjurer is a self-concealed, self-righteous, disreputable, contemptible, false good-doer we could do without” as he chews a candy bar. He adds, all in one breath, “He’s a threat, not only to this academic establishment, but to the better of society, I tell you. The man is a charlatan, playing tricks on innocent and vulnerable subconscious minds, rearranging the neurons of content into a barbaric concealment and defilement of psychotic delusion for which he masquerades as a miraculous cure!”

(Dr. Crazx, it must be added, is described as a Pulitzer Prize-winning psychiatrist, though it is unclear for what he won the esteemed prize.)

After Dr. Crazx leaves the dean’s office, the dean reveals (to herself) that she is a graduate of Conjurer’s class. She takes a large, framed photo of herself and Simon Conjurer out of a desk drawer.

At Simon’s class, we see the various disturbed individuals who need help—an overweight man, a man squeezing a tennis ball, a man reading a comic book, a man who apparently can’t keep his shoes on, a woman popping pills from pharmaceutical bottles—before Simon arrives and writes an important formula on the chalkboard: E = mc^2, which means “Enlightenment = mind control.” (There is no indication of why or how “control” is squared.) The students include people named, perhaps oddly, WYSIWYG, Andrea, Platehead (aka Crack), Scorpion, Willow, Lulu, Toons, and Tears.

When Scorpio, who has anger issues, attacks Rebel, Simon breaks up the fight: “You’re gonna use instinct and inspiration in a good and proper way.” Simon then hands each student a copy of an ancient Necronomicon-like book, explaining that “The right words in the proper order can create or destroy worlds.”

 Simon asks Rebel to start reading from the book. “You kidding?” Rebel says. “I mean, who wants to read a book?” He mumbles, “I never read a book in my whole life.” (I believe that is what the young man says, as his mumbling is nearly incomprehensible.) Rebel walks to the doorway, done with Simon’s methods. “Who the hell are you, Prophet Man, that I should trust you?”

Simon replies eloquently, “Just some smart aleck that’s challenging you to a duel of wits to see whether it is I who breaks you of your fear, or you who breaks me of my convictions.”

Convinced, Rebel sits back down in the classroom. “I ain’t got no fear, huh. What fear?”

Everyone in the class admits what they want to find in the book—the solutions to all their problems (i.e., alcoholism, gambling, appetite, rage). They also segue into a religious discussion about God. After ten more minutes discussing the book  (whose title Simon tells them is “Prophet Without a God”) and their problems, the student Andrea discovers that she and all her classmates are described in the book, which includes all their names, as well as a teacher named Ryan Plogo, a stand-in for Simon Conjurer.

“What kind of spook book is this?” asks Scorpio.

“Yeah,” says Lulu. “It kind of gives me the spooks.”

The book goes on to describe an X-shaped scar on “Ryan Plogo’s” nose. The camera glides toward Simon, showing the bridge of his nose, which shows a kind of crease that one might mistake for a scar, though it is not X-shaped. Also, the book describes a self-inflicted scar on Rebel’s skin spelling out D-A-D, which Rebel reveals to be real.

Oddly, all the classmates have disfigurements such as missing ends of tongues, tattoos, and scars. Each character, somewhat embarrassingly, reveals their disfigurements. Of course, this serves to bond the reluctant classmates together, particularly the male model who only has one nipple.

The last student to display a disfigurement is Tears, the young depressed woman, whom the book says has a tattoo of a kiss on her backside. Tears herself believes this, but when she (or perhaps a body double) pulls down her pants, there is no such tattoo. Simon reads further from the book: “And Tears had only thought that she had the kiss of love on her backside, for sometimes she couldn’t differentiate between reality and fantasy.” (Simon’s distinctive pronunciation of “differentiate” must be heard for the viewer to fully appreciate Stuart Paul’s performance.)

Lulu reads even further in the book, which helpfully explains not only the plot but also describes what is happening nearby without the filmmakers needing to show the action. Lulu reads, “Ryan Plogo knew he would be teaching himself what he already knew.” (This sentence is not explained further.) “The others would learn this too, but there was no time to lose. For just then, Dr. Crazx along with Dean Elkwood were pulling up with the authorities to arrest Ryan Plogo. His only crime was in his unyielding search for truth and commitment to justice. He defied the conformist establishment, breaking the threshold of lies which fester havoc in the minds of men. Could it be he knew that Dr. Crazx had a hidden agenda of evil awaiting?”

“What’s this Dr. Crazx look like?” asks another student.

“Humpty Dumpty,” says Lulu, possibly looking at an unseen picture in the book.

“Yep, he’s coming.”

Indeed, the doctor, the dean, and several officers are downstairs, approaching the building.

For unknown reasons, Scorpio confronts Simon, grabbing his shoulder. Simon reflexively tosses Scorpio through the air, showing incredible strength.

Despite the approaching authorities, the classmates argue for several minutes, trying to decide whether to stay in the classroom or leave. They eventually decide to all leave together, making an enormous amount of noise as they scramble down the hall. Dr. Crazx storms into the empty classroom. When he fails to find Simon, he leaves, vowing to find the man, though he simply leaves the classroom and goes away, not investigating the school.

The film cuts to a city street, where a little girl has fallen off a building and died. The investigating detective complains, “Damn, I’m sick of murder. Especially young murder.” The authorities believe Simon is at fault, having brainwashed the little girl into thinking she can fly. (Interestingly, while the rest of the film involves its characters repeating story points to make certain the viewer is following, this bit about brainwashing is efficiently handled in one line of dialogue.)

In a Hitchcockian shot, the camera cuts to an overhead view of the scene, then rotates to show a skyscraper, then pulls back to reveal it is inside a child’s room, where a young boy wearing a cowboy hat for unknown reasons looks at the window. His mother enters his room to tell him what happened in kindergarten was just imagination and that he can’t really fly like a bird.

Down on the streets, a large moving van past a movie theater playing Master and Commander (2003), revealing the film takes place in 2003. Simon Conjurer and all the classmates sit on the bare floor in the back of the van, the rear door open to reveal Los Angeles traffic whizzing by. The classmates discuss their addictions and their lack of access to food, alcohol, drugs, etc. as well as the fact that their teacher turned out to be a murderer wanted by the police. “You guys gotta believe me, I’m innocent,” Simon says.

“Face it, guys, we’re all desperate losers,” says one of the classmates. “We have no other choice but to believe in him now.” (Her logic, I must admit, is unclear.)

They continue reading the book in the back of the van. WSYWIG, the man addicted to eating and concerned about his weight, reads aloud about himself, prompting a flashback to his childhood. 

Eventually, a police car finds them and attempts to pull the van over.

Oddly, the van fails to pull over. The classmates all panic and begin to hyperventilate, forcing them to come to each other’s aid and relax. Triumphant music swells, though the police car still chases them, siren blaring. WYSYWIG says, “Pickled onions! I think I just figured out how to get myself out of an anxiety attack. By helping someone who’s in the middle of an anxiety attack.” The epiphany prompts a flashback in which WYSIWIG realizes why he overeats. It involves burglars breaking into his house as a child and his mother failing to do anything. “Holy cucumber salad!” he says. “I just realized why I eat myself into oblivia [sic]. Ever since that day, I shove food into my fat face [sic] trying to ease my own anxiety!”

“One down,” Simon says, “nine to go.”

In a turn of events as shocking as it is confusing, Scorpio climbs through a door in the van, presumably into the cab. The film cuts to a few minutes later, as two LAPD officers hold guns on the two drivers of the van, whom we have never seen before. The officers laud Scorpio and his classmates as heroes; the officers apparently believe the classmates to have been kidnapped. Even more surprisingly, there is enough plastic explosive in the back of the van to “blow downtown into the harbor.” The drivers were terrorists.

Of course, Scorpio is thus cured of his anger problems, having seen justice work out. Prompted by the book, he explains he was angry because his father used to beat him up, and his grandfather used to beat up his father.

Two down, eight to go.

The classmates walk away from the van. Also, the police car drives away, even though the explosives are still in the unattended moving van sitting at the curb.

Meanwhile, Dr. Crazx is at a bookstore, signing copies of his latest book The Summation for a long line of fans. He signs his book with inappropriate notes like “Suicide not that bad!” Dean Elkwood arrives to confront the evil doctor. She hands him a copy of Simon’s book with a note inside implying that the kindergartener didn’t jump out the window but was pushed. As Dean Elkwood leaves, Dr. Crazx has a heart attack.

Simon and the classmates break into Dr. Crazx’s apartment, which looks more like a museum, and they look for evidence of Simon’s innocence. This leads to more epiphanies and cures in short order. Tears realizes her mental issues are the result of repressing memories of her father taking advantage of her at knifepoint. The alcoholic realizes her father was a drunk, so she doesn’t need to drink anymore. The male model flashes back to his father-figure uncle, who smoked all the time and called him ugly, and realizes his addiction to cigarettes was due to low self-esteem. The anorexic woman realizes she doesn’t eat to keep men away from her. The drug addict flashes back to an impressive single shot where her father drove over a little girl riding a bike, killing her and simply driving away. (Such an experience, it must be noted, would drive anyone to drugs.)

Shockingly, the classmates also find that Dr. Crazx has hidden the “lost” Library of Alexandria in a medium-sized room in his apartment. Platehead, the gambling addict, reveals he has great knowledge of ancient philosophy, though this does not yet lead to the solution to his gambling problem.

The classmates continue to read their own magic books, which now call Simon Simon instead of Ryan Plogo.

In a comedic sequence clearly inspired by the oeuvre of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the two detectives investigating the kindergartener’s death break into Dr. Crazx’s apartment, forcing Simon and the classmates to hide in various locations, including what used to be called a “mummy case” complete with a mummy. The detectives, hearing someone else at the door, hide themselves, eventually crawling on all fours and bumping head-first into each other.

Dr. Crazx enters his apartment and runs straight to the library room, looking through his own published volumes for something, but not finding it. He sees one of Simon’s books in the room and opens it reluctantly, explaining himself to himself before doing so: “Psychology is infantile child’s play for me. I won the Pulitzer Prize for my genius knowledge of how man’s moronic mind works. Only a complete imbecilic retard would try to use psychology on me. It can only backfire.” Still, when he opens the book, he opens the book and, bizarrely, spits a chunk of chocolate into the air so it falls on a random page, which describes a confrontation on the roof between Simon and Dr. Crazx. The film cuts to this self-same scene.

In their confrontation, Simon accuses Dr. Crazx, whom he’s known since they were both children, of killing Simon’s wife. Also, Dr. Crazx mentions they have both come to the conclusion that the divine (known as “God” or “the Force”) doesn’t exist. Dr. Crazx pulls out both a gun and a sword as he pulls a switch that drops a concrete plank leading out over the dark city. “Now start believing you’re a bird,” Dr. Crazx says. “Flap those wings, for you’re about to leap into the great void.” He forces Simon to walk the plank on top of the apartment building.

As Simon walks the plank, Dr. Crazx confesses that he killed the kindergartener. “It was a perfect crime to incriminate and get rid of you!”

Simon falls off the building. He descends in slow-motion.

The film cuts back to Dr. Crazx reading the book. Unfortunately for him, his chocolate has obscured what happens next.

Simon and the classmates escape the apartment and, for unknown reasons, steal the moving van, which presumably still contains the plastic explosives. (One might expect the van and explosives to play a role in the film's climax, but one would be mistaken, as neither is seen or mentioned again.) In his apartment, Dr. Crazx retrieves a handgun (hidden, it must be noted, underneath a sculpture’s phallic protrusion, which the evil doctor fondles for several minutes) and gives chase, while the detectives remain hiding in the apartment.

In perhaps the film’s most bizarre sequence, Simon interrupts Dean Elkwood as she showers in an unusual waterfall-equipped bathroom located in a large suburban house.

When Simon touches her nude shoulder, Dean Elkwood says eloquently, “I would think this a rather abrupt, brazen try at conciliation.”

She drags him into the shower and kisses him. “I am so wet,” she says suggestively.

“Now we both are,” he says awkwardly.

They have sex in the shower, though Simon keeps his jeans on. Fortunately, the sex scene is observed by the young man who questions his own sexuality, and his enjoyment of voyeurism gives him the answer: he is heterosexual.

Of course, Dr. Crazx breaks into the shower room at gunpoint, forcing Simon to take off his clothes (he is, thankfully, clothed in the next shot) and running away with the nude Dean Elkwood.

Instead of chasing the villain, Simon and the classmates return to their college classroom. Platehead realizes his gambling addiction is the result of his believing he had bad luck due to cracking his head when falling out of the ambulance he drove, so he buys lottery tickets for his classmates. Now Rebel is the only classmate who has not been cured. However, Rebel is not in the classroom and nobody knows where he is. Also, all the pages in the magic books are magically blank. Simon explains that they have all found their paths and are healed and happy. The classmates all demonstrate that they have solved their problems by, for example, throwing alcohol out the window and kissing girls, even though we have already seen that their problems were solved.

Further, Simon explains that he believes the classmates hallucinated the whole story because they were able to solve their own problems from within.

The film then takes about ten minutes to explain the group’s questions about how some classmates were able to read parts of the book pertaining to other classmates, a seeming inconsistency in the story. In short, they subconsciously knew each other’s stories somehow.

Although almost none of the story actually took place, one of the classmates looks out the window and sees Dr. Crazx and the police arriving at the school. The officers reach Simon’s classroom and begin to arrest him, but they are interrupted by the two detectives, who bring with them an esteemed citizen of the city who witnessed Dr. Crazx throwing the kindergartener off her apartment building.

“How could you know it was me on the roof?” Dr. Crazx asks in a reveal worthy of an episode of a forgotten Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 1970s. “I was wearing a dark raincoat and shades.”

The police take him away. Dean Elkwood kisses Simon. The only story left to wrap up is that of Rebel. In a startling coincidence, the esteemed citizen of the city who witnessed the murder of the small child turns out to be Rebel’s wealthy father.

In the end, Simon finds a handwritten note in one of his books that gives him instructions for his next class, which is simply to give them a hypnotic suggestion and everything will work out. The note is signed “Signed: Friend.”

In a curious coda, we see Rebel, known again as Roberto, as he volunteers at a hospital. In voiceover, he explains his thoughts: “As if awakening from a very realistic dream, I was left with that groggy hangover one gets when awoken. It was clouding my mind as to what was real and what was imagined.” He goes into a hospital room with his mother, the nurse who recruited Simon in the beginning, as his mother comforts a grieving woman. “At first you pretend, and then it becomes real. Pretend you’re as light as a bird.”

The woman floats off her bed like the kids in the kindergarten classroom.

Plus, all the lottery tickets were winners.

And Dr. Crazx writes a novel about Simon called “Prophet without a God.”

The End 

Mr. Stuart Paul should be commended for writing, directing, and starring in Deadly Lessons and proving that even a world with no gods needs messiahs. The film's complex themes can all be boiled down to one point: Fathers are the cause of all mental illness. Furthermore, all mental illness can be cured with the help of a support group and a quick flashback.

In reviewing Deadly Lessons, of course, one must point to Mr. Paul's own performance as Simon Conjurer, a taciturn father-figure who personifies the idea of "tough love." But one must also mention the wildly grandiose performance of the great Jon Voight as Dr. Crazx, perhaps the most unhinged performance of Mr. Voight's storied career. The performance cannot be described, so I must urge you to witness it for yourself. Suffice it to say that Mr. Voight could have and should have played every villain in Batman's rogue's gallery, particularly the Penguin -- and in fact one might say he does so simultaneously during his every scene in Deadly Lessons. The cinematic gods, though they do not exist, must tip their hats to Mr. Voight for his astonishing performance in this film. The rest of us must do the same. (And we must never, ever ask how much money Mr. Paul paid Mr. Voight to appear in this film. That would be gauche.)