Pop Culture

A mangy, flea-bitten ‘Hounddog’

After its toweringly inauspicious debut at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, “Hounddog” finally makes its way into theaters in what we’re told is a radically different cut.

I have no idea what the unfortunate audience at Sundance had to endure, but I can attest that what’s about to hit U.S. screens is a laughably lurid, vulgar parade of barefoot children, Gothic stereotypes, and “Fetch me a Co-Cola” dialogue you thought had gone out with “God’s Little Acre” and “Tobacco Road.” (I was more than once reminded of the humid 1961 sex melodrama “Claudelle Inglish,” which contained lines like “Tell me Ah’m pretty — pretty all ovah.”)

Dakota Fanning stars as Lewellen, a young girl growing up down South in the 1950s. She’s being raised by her stern, Bible-thumping grandma (Piper Laurie), although her father (David Morse) lives down the road a piece. Lewellen worships Elvis Presley and will perform her impersonation of him singing “Hound Dog” for anyone who asks.

One balmy morning, a creepy teen milkman — and we know he’s creepy because writer-director Deborah Kampmeier, demonstrating the kind of subtlety she exercises throughout the film, has covered his face with pimples — sees Lewellen lying on her father’s bed in her underwear. Later that same milkman, offering tickets to the Elvis Presley concert, rapes Lewellen.

That’s the scene that threw everyone into high dudgeon when the film screened at Sundance, and that sequence in and of itself isn’t the problem with “Hounddog.” If Fanning and her team of family members and managers thought it was appropriate for her to do a movie in which her character gets raped, that’s their choice to make.

The problem with “Hounddog” is everything else in the movie, from its use of thuddingly obvious metaphors (snakes!) to the lazy casting (Laurie as a fundamentalist termagant? Morse as a semi-abusive redneck? Seen it.) to the use of an African-American character — what some film historians have called the “magical Negro” — whose only purpose in the film is to help the white people out with their problems.

What’s perhaps most revolting about the film is Kampmeier’s attempt to pass this tawdry freakshow off as an Important Statement. She includes a page in the press notes with statistics about rape in this country, and while sexual violation is a horrible (and underreported) crime with devastating impact on its victims, raising the issue while publicizing the movie doesn’t make “Hounddog” anything but the disaster it is.

If the film is memorable in any way, it’s that it provides more unintentional laughs than any American film in recent memory. It’s funny enough when Morse’s character gets struck by lightning (in a scene with howlingly awful special effects and wire work), but when he then goes on to give the kind of performance that “Tropic Thunder” mocked in its discussion of stars playing the mentally disabled, you frankly won’t believe your eyes.

Add to that Robin Wright Penn’s embarrassing portrayal of a bruised Southern flower, plus any number of other ludicrous peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich moments, and you’ll find it hard not to hoot “Hounddog” right off the screen.

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