VORTEX (1982) – Written and directed by Beth B and Scott B, this independent sci-fi detective film starred cult figure Lydia Lunch and actor James Russo. This is one of those movies made with so little money – some of it from the National Endowment for the Arts – that it can’t really be held to the same standards as mainstream releases of its time.
Vortex, a murder mystery involving corporate and governmental corruption, is a fun relic of the days when indy filmmakers did not have access to the kind of technology that such mavericks do today. Here in 2022 it’s possible to buy hand-held equipment that would automatically make one’s movie project look better than many 1980s efforts. However, that does not make today’s filmmakers any more talented than those who came before them.
To be kind, Vortex was one of those films in which the ideas being presented and the bold images being shown on screen were the true point. Solid acting and expensive special effects were only occasionally part of the equation.
That being said, I do roll my eyes a bit at those critics who claim that the acting in Vortex and similar movies is stiff and awkward on purpose, to be ironically funny. “Carefully simulated amateurism” is my favorite excuse given by defenders of these productions.
I disagree that it’s intentional. Audiences can sense the difference between parody and incompetence. This Beth & Scott B production fails where the similar, arthouse sci-fi mystery Liquid Sky succeeded.
Taking it from the top:
LYDIA LUNCH, the singer and musician of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks fame, stars as private detective Angel Powers. A “Film Noir meets No Wave and MTV” feel is attempted in Vortex, but Lydia lacks the thespian talent to pull off a tough, hard-boiled detective persona. Again, though, defenders of the movie will claim that she’s intentionally being stiff, awkward and repeating her lines. Y’know. Ironically.
WILLIAM RICE portrays Frederick Fields, a ruthless, reclusive, wheelchair bound tycoon afflicted with paranoia and an obsession with avoiding germs. This Howard Hughes styled figure runs Fieldsco, a corporate giant swimming in lucrative defense contracts. Fieldsco’s technology is just advanced enough to have counted as science fiction in 1982, but is routine for 2022.
JAMES RUSSO, the most talented actor in this film, portrays Anthony Demmer, the former chauffer of Frederick Fields. Demmer has been exercising a near Svengali-level of influence over the crazed tycoon, rising from driver to right-hand executive aide in no time. The scheming figure has successfully cut off Fields from all his former business associates, convincing his boss that he’s the only one he can trust.
BRENT COLLINS, a dwarf actor who passed away in 1988, plays the bartender/ hit man called simply “Peter.” Collins’ performance adds a sinister air to the proceedings while also capturing a certain Ike the Spike feel. Peter uses Fieldsco’s “futuristic” weaponry to kill the people that Frederick Fields and/or Anthony Demmer want offed.
ANN MAGNUSON has the thankless role of Pamela Fleming, a female executive at Fieldsco who has dumped her former flame to become Demmer’s lover. Pamela is subjected to as much of Demmer’s verbal abuse and public humiliation as her male coworkers, but hey, at least they don’t have to sleep with the obnoxious prick.
THE STORY (SPOILERS AHEAD) –
Vortex starts out with Abscam-style video footage of a Congressman White (David Kennedy) openly taking bribe money from Navco, a competitor to Fieldsco. It turns out that the sting operation was not done by government investigators but by figures working for Anthony Demmer and Frederick Fields.
Our reclusive millionaire thought the congressman was in HIS pocket and doesn’t like such two-timing, so he and Demmer sic the diminutive killer Peter on the politician. Using taser technology, Peter whacks Congressman White.
Soon a jumpy, nervous Fieldsco officer resentful of Anthony Demmer’s meteoric rise to success hires private investigator Angel Powers to prove that Fields and Demmer had the congressman murdered. What can laughably be described as Angel’s “investigation” begins, but this movie depicts private detective work as aimlessly and inanely as Ed Wood depicted police procedures.
That nagging Ed Wood feel lingers in many scenes as actors blow their lines plus overact or underact via some of the most eccentric body language imaginable. Despite several very inventive and unironically arty shots from Beth B and Scott B, they often direct the actors scrunched up together like they’re in a huddle for a football game. Or trapped in a phone booth of the time period.
As the movie rolls along we learn that Demmer rose to his current position because he has been cynically exploiting Frederick Fields’ obsession with his own peculiar notions about patriotism, sexuality and “morality.” The following year, Videodrome would provide villains whose philosophies matched those of Fields.
Through it all, our heroine Angel Powers remains on the case, sometimes snubbing her former partner who has become a junkie and sometimes brainstorming with one of her contacts – a paranoid, computer-savvy hacker who hates the military industrial complex as much as Angel does.
The hacker plants booby-traps all over his claustrophobic apartment, and a potential bit of comic relief when Angel trips one of them winds up just evaporating into nothing, like so many other scenes in Vortex.
Through the hacker and her own gumshoe work, Powers learns that Fieldsco and Navco are not only competing with each other to develop satellites for futuristic warfare but also to develop mind control. In one of the most effective parts of the movie, we are shown human guinea pigs who are implanted with tech that allows remote control of their bodily movements and their thoughts.
Anthony Demmer and the rivals at Navco seem to be working with Soviet and East German scientists on these implants, which alarms the flag-waving side of Frederick Fields. The magnate is further put off when Demmer starts spending too much time trying to bed down with Angel Powers, little dreaming she is plotting to bring him down.
Eventually, Demmer and some Fieldsco personnel launch a quick raid on Navco, using the laser weapons they mean to mount on satellites to instead wipe out Navco headquarters. Angel, shadowing Anthony Demmer, witnesses this.
At length, the paranoid Frederick Fields interrupts Demmer one time too many when he’s trying to consummate his relationship with Angel. Anthony takes out his frustration on Fields by manipulating him into signing over to him control of Fieldsco, then murdering him through an overdose of his meds.
All of this leads to a violent confrontation between our heroine and our lead villain atop a night-darkened rooftop. Demmer attempts to rape Angel, but she defends herself and Anthony winds up falling to his death after a scuffle.
And that’s the finale of Vortex. Demmer may be dead but the inhumane projects at Fieldsco will presumably just go on under new management. There’s no attempt to capture a feeling of powerlessness on the detective’s part as she sees malevolent forces go unhindered. No, the movie just ends and the credits roll.
Vortex premiered on October 1st, 1982 at the New York Film Festival and, despite my mostly negative review, it does deserve some praise. In 1982 the story elements about defense department expenditures, “Family Values” and Reagan-era jingoism had not yet been overused. Plus the film does share a few virtues with works like Max Headroom, God Told Me To and the aforementioned Videodrome and Liquid Sky.
The soundtrack to Vortex is terrific, with Beth and Scott often using it to great effect with some of their most beautifully staged shots. The overall movie, though, stumbles along and can’t shake the bad movie atmosphere that clings to it. And if it’s a spoof, it’s a failed spoof.