Holy shit was The Chair an exhaustively disturbing ride. The film adaptation of Alterna comics popular graphic novel also marks the major motion picture debut of the independent publishing label, and let me tell you, if this is any indication of what we can expect with future feature-length outings, Alterna will have a bright future in independent film-making to go along with their success in comics.
But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's talk story.
The Chair is a sordid, bleak tale about the tortured souls imprisoned at a gruesome prison facility run by a sadistic warden (played somberly by Bill Oberst Jr.) that comes across as a mix between a Scooby-Doo villain and a hyper stylized Nazi scientist. More specifically though, the film focuses on the (innocent) prisoner Richard Sullivan (Timothy Muskatell), his relationship with the warden, and his desperate attempt to not only survive, but cling on to whatever shred of sanity he has left remaining. With the harsh realities of the facility forcing Sullivan to match it's brutality while also facing his disturbing past, the real challenge rests not in surviving, but doing everything in his power to keep his humanity.
It's in this struggle where the aforementioned disturbing nature of the film rear's it's grotesque head. Now, I've seen some highly depressing prison-based dramas before, but something about Chad Ferrin's take here was borderline unbearable. Again, it's odd that it's effectiveness to provoke me emotionally was even the case, given that the unspeakable acts of violence brought upon the hapless prisoners, wasn't anything I haven't seen before. Mutilations, electrocutions, sodomy - it's all here; and not to sound like an uncaring insensitive asshole, but it's all been done before, countless times. Yet here I was, wincing and grimacing throughout, hoping these poor bastards would simply die already, lest they endure anymore of the warden's particular brand of justice. So what was it then; what was it about this film in particular that allowed it to get under my skin so easily? Thinking back to the original graphic novel, in search of answers, it instantly dawned on me; THE DARKNESS! The all consuming, suffocating darkness that was ever present nearly the entire run of the film, elevated each moment of brutality and poignancy to an effective level it otherwise wouldn't have reached.
Following very closely to the aesthetic qualities of the graphic novel it's adapted from, The Chair works by allowing the viewer to see only whats needed by controlling very masterfully, the lighting and composition of each scene. Everything is lit and framed in such a way as to maximize the bleak nature of the film's subject matter while also emphasizing the hopelessness of each prisoner; imagine being left to nothing but your inner-demons, since well, there's barely any natural light (save for flashbacks and a handful of scenes in the warden's office) to provide even a moments reprieve. This, along with RIchard Sullivan's constant teetering between frothing animalistic madman and broken, reminiscent, hopeful soul, makes a complete viewing of The Chair a draining, unrelenting endeavor.
And then there's Roddy Piper's character "Murphy" who, in my honest opinion, actually inflicts worse punishment - both physical and mental - on the inmates of the facility. Of course, Piper playing asshole isn't something we haven't seen before, but it's mostly ever been the like-able kind of asshole that has us rooting instead of booing. Here, he challenges Doug Hutchison's "Percy" (The Green Mile) for the mantle of ultimate degenerate and manages to intimidate much more effectively than his WWF alter-ego Rowdy Roddy Piper, could ever dream of. Suffice to say, he's a bad dude, and his performance here (delivered with such aplomb) is yet another reason among many why Roddy Piper and his contributions to film (and the entertainment industry in general) will sorely be missed.
The Chair is a darkly heavy film on it's own, but there's no question that this being the charismatic actor's last film, certainly added to the air of despondency. As such, you're constantly reminded of the despairing situation at hand, that there's very little hope of redemption for any of the players involved, and even when that hope bears fruit, it's not without demanding it be had in trade for something steep in cost, something permanently affecting.