For some people, reality is a choice and they would rather not. Why be an office drone when you can be a star, even if it’s only for a night and in a dress made of toilet paper? This was the thinking behind the Club Kids scene and the backdrop for one of New York’s more infamous crimes, known colloquially as The Club Kids Murder.
The monster of the title is Michael Alig, who, before achieving a more mainstream fame with his criminal behavior, was the king of the club scene, organizing increasingly bizarre gatherings in New York’s gilded 80s. He’s played by Macaulay Culkin, who blithely discards his squeaky clean kid star persona with what can only be described as relish. His Alig is not just a monster of a party-planner, but a monster of self-absorption as well, with mannered self-awareness and the same angel’s face that was left home alone once too often. The metamorphosis from wide-eyed to jaded is tempered with an underlying seed of innate decadence waiting for the right soil in which to flourish and a needy personality that attracts leagues of co-dependents. Chief among them is James St. James played by Seth Green in a spectacularly over-the-top orgy of pretentious sartorial preening. St. James starts as Alig’s mentor, “He was out for revenge, that’s what I liked about him” is the way he puts it, and then watches in melodramatic angst as he becomes a footnote to his protégés legend. In that it is St. James memoir of those times, “Disco Bloodbath,” that forms the basis of the film, though, we can assume he feels the score has been evened up.
Bailey and Barbato have been down this road before with their chilling documentary of the same name on this subject. In creating a feature out of the material, they have carefully kept the audience hermetically sealed within the surreal world that Michael and James ruled. The inner logic of the club scene where down is not just up, but any direction that you want it to be, would work no other way. The story is a bleak one of overdoses and insouciance, but Bailey and Barbato juxtapose it with bright colors and a pernicious sort of hyperkinetic whimsy that throbs with desperate nihilism in the telling of it. A love scene in a dumpster between Alig and his new beau Keoki, (Wilmer Valderrama) cuts away discreetly to a display of fireworks worthy of 50s B film; or, better St. James, dressed as a troll, decked out with a third eye glued to his forehead and towering green hair, overcoming his own self-obsession as he tries to comfort Alig’s blissfully clueless mother (Diana Scarwid), who’s been tossed aside by her son in favor of another heroin high.
And of course, there are the costumes. No club kid would be seen in the same outfit twice and dressing up was a competition that led to blood brides, bondage queens, gilded Asian idols, and other flights of fancy often created from whatever was at hand. To add to the verisimilitude, the extras in the party sequences were recruited from the ranks of former Club Kids sporting their creations. The closest we come to making a detour into the real world is the owner of the club where Michael throws his infamous parties (Dylan McDermott), a calculating and none too scrupulous deal-maker who sports a pirate-style patch over his missing eye.
The whole is narrated by St. James, starting with the opening scene of the documentary reproduced with scrupulous attention to detail. From there, the filmmakers tell the story in flashbacks, and are unafraid to break the suspension of disbelief as well as the fourth wall by having characters argue with each other over the direction the film is taking and, occasionally, addressing the audience as well. It doesn’t make the characters, particularly Alig, more lovable, but it does get at the underlying drives that made him in particular reach for the ever more outrageous. Taken as a whole, the effect is like watching a kaleidoscopic train wreck hurtling towards Alig’s murder of Angel the drug dealer. You know you shouldn’t be watching, much less be fascinated as you will be in a way that makes it impossible to turn away. Still, there is more to the film than simple voyeurism. Call it what you will, a morality tale, a cautionary fable, one walks away with a sense of catharsis, that, to quote Blake as the film does, the road to excess leads to the temple of wisdom. But only if you’re wise enough to see that the wisdom is that of moderation.