A silence fell over the bus full of journalists that were being ferried from a preview of 20 minutes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comedy, “Bruno,” over to see Sam Raimi’s new horror film “Drag Me to Hell.” The mood was so unexpectedly solemn that one prominent online journalist asked loudly, “Why is it so quiet in here?” to which another replied, “Because we’re all traumatized.” Indeed, what we had witnessed was true to the introduction given by a SXSW/Fantastic Fest staffer who said, “what you’re about to see is rough footage…it’s nasty,” referring to the image quality before adding about the content, “well, not nasty…maybe some of it.” That was an understatement.
If the 20 minutes that were shown in Austin on Sunday were an accurate indicator, “Bruno” may not only best Cohen’s last starring role in “Borat,” but may even be funnier than nearly anything that the comedian did during his HBO series “Da Ali G Show.” Cohen taped a video introduction for three extended scenes from the film, sitting at an editing bay and, almost surprisingly given his desire on “Borat” to stay in character, wore street clothes and spoke in his native British accent. As an audience that included the likes of Morgan Spurlock and New York Times columnist David Carr looked on, Cohen blithely introduced himself as the guy who came up with “Wa Wa We Wah” as a catchphrase and presented Bruno as “a funny old chap.” Though the plot is too unnecessarily complicated to explain here, the gist of Cohen’s latest improvised comedy has his gay German fashion host alter ego losing his job shortly before Fashion Week, which leads to a journey cross-country to Hollywood with the goal of becoming the “biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler.”
When Bruno realizes that an adopted baby could give his career a boost, he interviews parents of prospective babies to use in a photo shoot. The first set of clips Cohen presented was a series of horrifying responses by the would-be stage parents to a line of questioning about how far their infant would go to get the job. Bruno peppered the parents with queries such as, “Is your baby comfortable with bees, wasps and hornets?” and “Would your baby be comfortable being dropped from the fourth floor of a building?” (One particularly ambitious mother shook her head, “Probably.”) Bruno’s baby obsession continued into the second round of clips, which Cohen introduced as taking place in “some ghastly shithole called Texas,” to an approving round of applause from the audience. His character Bruno isn’t so lucky when he struts out on stage for the talk show “Today with Richard Bay,” and announces his love for African-American men in front of a largely African-American audience. To make matters worse, Bruno carts out an African-American baby wearing tight brown leather pants and a T-shirt with the word “Gayby” embossed in gold on the front. He taunts the crowd with claims that he swapped an iPod for the baby and he considers babies to be a real “dick magnet,” but what brought down the house were the photos he then revealed, showing off of his African-American child being swarmed by bees in one and at the center of a mock crucifixion in another, looking like sick and twisted Anne Geddes portraits. Still, Cohen saved the best clip for last, a wrestling match shot somewhere in hillbilly country after he makes a transformation into “Straight Dave,” a heterosexual, army fatigue-clad wrestling promoter with the televised wrestling show “Straight Dave’s Man Slamming Maxout.” I wouldn’t want to spoil what happens, but if you’re suspicious of Straight Dave’s sexual orientation, you’re probably right to be and the scene that follows when Straight Dave is called out as a “fag” involves Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” a wrestling match and spectators wearing shirts with slogans like, “My Asshole’s Just for Shitting.”
Shockingly, it was Sam Raimi’s new horror film that was the tamer part of Universal’s canny double bill at SXSW, though not by much. Billed as a work in progress, “Drag Me to Hell” premiered in front of a crowd with a significant fanboy presence that was riled up by Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles’ rousing introduction and gave Raimi a standing ovation as soon as he stepped on the Paramount stage. What Raimi gave them in return was a strange bit of slapstick (he pretended to mistake a Four Seasons Hotel citation for excessive noise as his speech to the crowd and held his tie in front of his face and said, “who turned out the lights”) and a frightfest that should please any of his devoted fans. Beginning with an ’80s-style Universal logo, the film actually seems as though it could’ve been made during the 1990s, fitting nicely between “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness” with a wacky sense of humor and literally eye-popping scares. Alison Lohman stars as a bank loan manager who gets cursed by a old lady whose home is about to be foreclosed upon, at which point nearly everything she touches seems to squirt blood, goo or some disgusting mixture thereof. It’s a fun little diversion for both the audience and the director, who probably needed to get something like this out of his system before returning to make “Spider-Man 4.”