Chicago experienced a golden age of repertory film screenings in the early 2000s. And since I had just moved to the city proper, I took full advantage of the situation. From seeing the “lost” (aka fake) films of J.X. Williams at the Chicago Underground Film Festival to attending an intimate screening of Martin in a Columbia College classroom with George Romero in person, my life was changed on a weekly basis.
During this time, picking up the monthly print calendar from the Music Box Theatre was like Christmas morning. Friday the 13th at midnight! Jim Jarmusch in person for Down by Law! The premiere of Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War! Most of the screenings at the Music Box were introduced by a guy named Rusty Nails. His intros were smart, spazzy, and enthusiastic — basically, the ideal type of human to lead a sold-out audience into a 35mm double feature of The Toxic Avenger and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV.
Little did I know that around this time, Rusty Nails made Acne — a movie that’s just as smart, spazzy, and enthusiastic as the person who made it.
Before heading out on a road trip, teenage siblings Franny (Tracey Hayes) and Zooey (Rusty Nails) drink contaminated tap water. But instead of getting heartburn, the tops of their heads turn into gigantic zits — zits that must be FED! Because if Franny and Zooey don’t supply their zit-heads with a steady supply of oily foods (cream cheese, sticks of butter, Hershey’s chocolate bars), they turn into brain-dead zombies that kill. Franny and Zooey take to the streets and amass a following of other contaminated zit-heads. We get a tour of crust-punk hangout the Fireside Bowl, scenes of the zombies invading convenience stores, and an acoustic song played by Zooey that sounds like a combination of Nirvana and Daniel Johnston. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the toxic water is the result of a military and big business conspiracy to wipe out teenagers and make more money because corporate rock still sucks.
In other words, the 1990s were alive and well in 2000.
To appreciate underground genre movies, you have to know what you’re getting into. For every brilliant discovery, like Sarah Jacobson’s I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, you’ll have to deal with dozens of pretentious, art-fart bummers that are more exhausting than having brunch with Johnny Depp. Acne isn’t pretentious or a bummer. Shot on sparkling 16mm in black and white, this movie plays out like an otherworldly mixtape comprised of the filmmaker’s influences. Acne absorbs the abstract sci-fi concepts of Alphaville, the caffeinated humor of We’re All Devo, the body-horror creeps of Night of the Living Dead, and the romantic idealization of 1950s trash culture — and spits them out at us. Literally, because there are many scenes of zit-heads barfing. This movie is honest and pure. The plot rarely makes sense, but Nails avoids irony and focuses on sincerity. That’s the key to creating a hypnotizing underground movie, rather than an agonizing one.
In a mid-2000s interview about Acne, Rusty Nails said, “I tried to imagine what it was like to live in other time periods and what it was like to make movies in different eras.” That approach worked. Like Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, Acne creates a headspace built on familiar influences, but ends up . . . somewhere else. That’s not something that happens at random, or by kids fucking around with a camera. Nails was in his mid-30s when he made this, and his experience shows. But all zits eventually pop. And Acne is no different. The movie slows down during the second half due to a few unneeded tangents. You can tell that it was made by a first-time filmmaker who could have tightened things up with the input of a creative partner. But this is a still a 65-minute blast of exceptionally strange concepts and cool visuals. That’s enough for me.
I don’t know what happened to Rusty Nails’ filmmaking career after 2008. But I’m sure he’d be happy to know that today, Acne would feel right at home at a midnight movie screening in a theater full of appreciative weirdos.