You could call “Die Mommie Die!” campy, or silly, or overwrought; you could say its surprises are telegraphed and its big twist is more like a gentle curve.
Whether these qualities are intentional is more difficult to determine. Either way, this homage to such camp classics as the late-career Bette Davis vehicles “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte,” is like nothing else you’re likely to see at the movies.
But that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s insular and a bit standoffish, as if screenwriter-star Charles Busch isn’t even trying to appeal to anyone outside his established fan base.
Veteran drag performer Busch pays tribute to the tragicomic divas of the past with his portrayal of Angela Arden, a washed-up ex-singer who has retreated from the public eye since her less-talented twin sister died under mysterious circumstances. (Nothing upsets Angela more than listening to the duets she recorded with her sister.)
It’s 1967, and Angela is unhappily married to Sol Sussbaum (Philip Baker Hall), a fading producer of Stanley Kramer-type message pictures who complains about “those kids with the beards” who are messing up the old studio system.
They have two teenagers: a daughter, Edith (Natasha Lyonne, badly miscast and out of her element), who has a borderline incestuous relationship with her father, and a dimwitted, gay, sexually voracious son, Lance (Stark Sands).
Angela has taken up with a gigolo tennis instructor (Jason Priestley) who caters to her vanity but makes her uncomfortable with his constant questions about her sister. With Sol ready to use Angela’s dalliances as grounds for divorce, Angela kills her perpetually constipated husband with a suppository laced with rat poison.
It’s the movie’s liveliest scene, with Angela wailing, “Now you know how I felt all those nights you forced yourself on me!”
Edith is sure that her mother killed her father, and she enlists her brother to help prove it and exact revenge — exposing Angela’s long-kept secrets along the way.
Despite its origins on the stage, “Die Mommie Die!” works perfectly well as a movie.
Busch, who previously adapted and co-starred in his own “Psycho Beach Party,” opens up the screenplay nicely, allowing director Mark Rucker to employ such dated devices as rear projection to tie the movie aesthetically to the films it celebrates and parodies.
But Busch’s sensibility is far better suited to the New York stage than to the mainstream multiplexes where “Die Mommie Die!” will play as the fourth and final entry in the eclectic Sundance Film Series.
Still, there are pleasures to be had, particularly in Hall’s tart, vinegary performance as Sol, Frances Conroy’s earnest turn as the housekeeper loyal to him and the deadpan debauchery of Priestley’s gigolo, who fulfills the sexual needs of Angela, her daughter and her son.
At the very least, this movie is something different.