What was the last subversive musical comedy you saw that made you laugh, think, and tap your toes all at the same time?
In Existo (pronounced “Ig-zees’-toe”), director Coke Sams taps the creative wellspring of actor/singer/composer Bruce Arnston. Better known as being the creative force behind the majority of the Ernest films (as in Ernest P. Worrel), Existo is a wonderfully irreverent send-up of political extremists.
The film is set in land where art is a four letter word (maybe they’re spelling it wrong) and creativity has to remain underground. The only safe haven for artists and free-thinkers in this land of mandated morality is The Sewer, an underground cabaret run by den mother/drag queen Colette Whachawill (Gailard Sartain). Fortunately, The Sewer is about to witness the long-awaited return of mind-blowing (and mind-blown) performance artist, Existo (Arnston), and his partner, Maxine (Jackie Welch). The two quickly decide to do battle against the televangelist-led government and its laws against subversive activities such as art, perversion, and self-determinism. As a means to this end, they rally the culturati of The Sewer to form bands of roving guerilla performance artists. Who knows where they might strike next?
The demented demagogue Existo is not without his weakness, however. Frequent Sewer-dweller, the slimy Ruben Dupree (Mark Cabus), was once a friend to Existo but now spends his days at the right hand of televangelist Dr. Armond Glasscock (Mike Montgomery). Dupree’s lascivious mind devises a scheme to use vapid pop-tart singing sensation, Penelope (Jenny Littleton), to distract Existo from his crusade. It’s Penelope’s mission to sway the unstable artistic savior to the side of the scrupulous in time for the Apocalypse. It’s up to Maxine and the others to convince Existo that right is wrong and save him from drowning in his soup.
Along with songs penned by Arnston and direction by Coke Sams, Existo shares the wacky creativity and inventiveness of the Ernest film series. Certainly, not all of the Ernest movies are of the same quality. However, of the films at least Ernest Goes to Jail belongs next to Raising Arizona in terms of its quirky and clever comedy. I’m not about to try to re-evaluate the career of Jim Varney, who has a minor role in Existo, after his untimely passing. I wrote the first draft of this review the day of his death-unbeknownst to me at the time. I have always maintained that Varney got a bad rap from folks sick of his TV commercials and a handful of his movies which where seemingly aimed at children. However, his defunct Saturday morning TV show, “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest”, should have been lauded by those who championed ground-breaking television such as “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” “The Ed Grimley Show,” “Bump In The Night,” and Ralph Bakshi’s “Mighty Mouse.”
That said, Existo is certainly aimed at a different audience than the Ernest movies: a more mature, artistically motivated crowd as opposed to suburban families looking for cheap, safe entertainment. Existo boasts a handful of fun musical numbers and some unique characters centered around timely subject matter. Moreover, Existo is most subversive in its portrayal of the fatuous right wing, self-righteous left wing, and the mentally ill messiah, Existo, as being equally silly!
Winner of the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature at MicroCineFest ’99 and the Audience Award at San Francisco’s IndieFest, Existo is the clarion call that the United States is in desperate need of reviving the concept of “midnight movies.” If any film has begged to be shown on the silver screen in the wee hours while suburbia slumbers and the hip lumber about looking for challenging entertainment, this is it! To see if Existo is playing in your town any time soon check out www.existo.com.