In his book Mr. Know-It-All, John Waters claims that in order to be successful in life, “You need two people to think your work is good, yourself and somebody else (not your mother).”
Filmmakers Craig Jacobson and Cassandra Sechler are ahead of the game — they can count me as a third person who thinks that Elliot is very, very good.
This movie doesn’t have a traditional plot. Instead, it’s like that time you took acid at your friend’s parents’ house and sat in the shallow end of their pool while searching for meaning in the ripples which turned into tiny planets that you visited and met new friends who were dressed like characters from The Dark Crystal in Kenneth Anger drag. What I’m saying is that Elliot might give the impression that you’re watching a sci-fi movie about a custodian named Elliot who sleepwalks through a space station in a dystopian nightmare void. But really, it’s just a receptacle for total sensory overload.
Elliot was shot on vintage VHS camcorders. The sets, costumes, miniatures, and props were constructed out of garbage bags, cardboard boxes, latex, and duct tape. The movie bleeds neon out of every frame. Synthesizers bleep, bloop, and moan eternally. Images that look like they were output on a dot matrix printer from an Amiga computer are overlaid throughout. There are skull-faced Stormtroopers, tentacle monsters, and piles of slime that talk. Aesthetically, Elliot feels like a zero-budget adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel filtered through the DIY ingenuity of The Strangeness and a fourth generation VHS bootleg of Forbidden World (aka the finest Alien rip-off ever made). But this isn’t an ironic throwback, like most nu-VHS features that have popped up over the last decade. Director Jacobson and assistant director/make-up artist Sechler harness old technology to forge something new, singular, and stupefying — just like Anna Biller with The Love Witch and Zachary Oberzari with Flooding With Love for the Kid. From the production design to the nightmarish vibes, Elliot is an incredible accomplishment and a beautiful example of 21st century outsider art. It’s also one of the only instances where I can use the term “acid wash” as a descriptor and not feel embarrassed.
As great as all that sounds, you should know that Elliot is an abstract exercise in style that prioritizes bong hits over storytelling (“Here, you will become your desires, drifting through fantasy and idealization!”). On the commentary track, Jacobson reveals that the movie is “about OCD.” And that’s about all we get. If you can hang with this approach — like I did — you’ll find 68 minutes of blissed out mood. But if it sounds like your personal Kryptonite, you can probably just stick with Critters 4 and call it a day.
If nothing else, Elliot proves that it’s still possible to make unearthly art by picking up a camcorder and following your dreams. There’s hope for us all.