Combat Shock

combatshockAs sociology, Combat Shock is nonsense. It perpetuates the ugly, bigoted notion that the only type of Vietnam vet is the PTSD-ridden, shell-shocked monster ready to wake up in the middle of the night and strangle his wife, thinking she’s Charlie. That he’s a massacrist who loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Frankie1, our protagonist, has no job and no money, and lives among degenerates, drop-outs and freaks. If Combat Shock had been a sober drama about his descent, instead of a bat-sh*t crazy combination of Eraserhead, Videodrome and Jim Thompson, it would be as useless as every post-Platoon Oliver Stone movie.

But Combat Shock is as crazy as all that, seeped in semi-plausible surrealism that makes this, the story of Frankie’s last day on Earth, look like he is already in hell.

Opening with stock footage of the Vietnam War and a sequence of Frankie all alone, pursued by four Vietnamese in the jungle, Combat Shock establishes its nightmare vision early on. In the jungle, he passes bodies in increasing states of mutilation, until the sight of ruptured innards, exposed ribs and severed limbs becomes a kaleidoscope, projected onto the sleeping face of present-day Frankie just before he wakes.

Waking life is not much better than the nightmare. Frankie has no job. The toilet’s broken. His wife is a hectoring nag, taking care of his deformed baby while another gestates inside her. And the deformed baby — which looks like some kind of slick faceless ghost — constantly cries, a sound effect as obviously electronic, and unsettling, as the crying seagulls in The Birds.

As his world grows increasingly antagonistic or indifferent, he spends his days walking the streets. A thug named Paco runs the streets, and Frankie owes him money. His junkie friend Mike almost mugs him, then tries to enlist him in mugging someone else. Frankie waits half the day in line at the unemployment office only to be told there’s nothing by the pill-popping job counselor.

Combat Shock has been derided as depressing and lauded for its gritty realism, and I think both miss the point. There are touches of stark reality in the film. Mike, when he can’t find an unbroken needle for his heroin, digs a hole in his arm with a coat hanger. When Frankie stops two young sisters from arguing, the older one, all of 12, asks him if he’s looking for a date. She’s a prostitute, brought into the business by Paco. But there is just as much abnormality that propels the film out of the world of “gritty street drama” and into something weirder and grander. The office of the aforementioned job counselor is covered in posters and cut-outs from newspapers, including, right over his head, an enormous picture of what looks like Donovan in a tuxedo.

The television that Frankie’s wife cannot get any pictures on, just audio, catches a soap opera with the stars saying, in escalating ecstasy, “John! Marsha!” It starts out as hack filmmaking. As the Johns! and Marshas! get more frantic, and obviously coital, it becomes a comment on and mockery of his desultory marriage.

Not to mention the Vietnam sections. Not to mention Frankie’s abortive attempts to reconnect with his dad, or his poorly timed purse-snatching, or the messianic, apocalyptic ending that reminded me of the conclusion to Jim Thompson’s compelling and bizarre Pop. 1280. Combat Shock is cheap, obvious, and (at times) amateurish in its acting, soundtrack, and mise en scene. But it has the courage of its strange, strange convictions. If it’s junk, then it is exactly the sort of junk junk cinema should be.

1Could Frankie be named after Frankie Teardrop from the Suicide song of the same name, with a similar narrative? I’d like to think so.

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