Club Extinction

1990, Movie, R, 116 mins

Review

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A mad media genius commits mass murder for the sheer thrill of it in CLUB EXTINCTION, a splashy, fast-moving and darkly humorous remake of DR. MABUSE, director Fritz Lang's 1922 German classic.

Directed by Claude Chabrol, scripted by Sollace Mitchell (director of the American B-movie thriller CALL ME) and with an international cast headed by Alan Bates in the title role, CLUB EXTINCTION is something of a mishmash. But it's a mostly engaging mishmash with Chabrol operating in a satirically sinister mode that should come as no surprise to his devotees; since his acclaimed debut with BITTER REUNION in 1958, the former Cahiers du Cinema critic has helmed some of the darkest and most penetrating studies of obsession and, especially, murder ever to reach the screen.

West Berlin Police Lieutenant Claus Hartmann (Jan Niklas) is called in to investigate an epidemic of grisly accidents that have resulted in much loss of life. The carnage is being covered in meticulous, stomach-turning detail by German media giant Mater Media, headed by the mysterious Dr. Marsfeldt (Bates), who also owns a string of suspicious vacation resorts, Club Teratos, which are hyped in sultry, funereal style from video billboards throughout the city by super-spokesmodel Sonja Vogler (Jennifer Beals, as lazily enticing as ever). Hartmann's sleuthing reveals connections among the accident victims, Vogler, Club Teratos and Marsfeldt that initially lead him to believe that Berlin may actually be in the throes of a "suicide epidemic."

The higher authorities are skeptical and Marsfeldt begins waging an all-out media war against Hartmann's credibility, already undercut by his wife's suicide, which has left his own emotional stability suspect. But when Hartmann's police partner, recently returned from a Club Teratos vacation, turns up an apparent suicide, Hartmann becomes convinced that the suicides are in fact murders--the "weapons" being Marsfeldt's resorts, where potential victims are programmed to despair, then pushed over the edge upon their return home by subliminal messages planted in Mater Media broadcasts and reinforced by Vogler's video billboard pitches.

The deadly results provide plenty of grisly fodder for Mater Media and sustenance for Marsfeldt himself, whose disembodied, machine-driven heart gets an obscene adrenaline kick from the endless video coverage of tragedies and atrocities. Hartmann uncovers the scheme by going undercover at one of the resorts with Vogler, with whom he has become romantically involved, leading to the cliffhanger climax as Vogler and Hartmann race to Mater Media studios to stop Marsfeldt's crowning atrocity, a broadcast calculated to drive Berliners to mass suicide of apocalyptic proportions.

In contrast to many American genre pictures, the problems with CLUB EXTINCTION stem from aiming too high rather than too low. Its thematically ambitious screenplay finds parallels between its own plot points and contemporary social issues, ranging from the divided soul of pre-perestroika Berlin to AIDS, and the decadence of contemporary youth, whose cultural death obsession provides Marsfeldt with yet another money-making opportunity in his Club Extinction dance club (whose house band, Mekong Delta, is co-credited, with Paul Hindemith, for the film's score). Yet the only theme that is sustained over the course of the film, and undoubtedly the one that most interested Chabrol, is mass media's modernist tendency to draw its strength and influence from its tunnel-vision obsession with violence, tragedy and despair, a theme that will undoubtedly ring true to any Americans who have spent much time subjecting themselves to local evening newscasts.

Despite capable work from most of his co-stars, Bates easily steals the movie as the pseudo-human Marsfeldt, an overrefined, ambulatory corpse who derives cackling ecstasy from atrocity and therefore seems perfectly at home at the head of a media machine that lives on death. The satire of media excess throughout the film is the best-observed and most genuinely lacerating since Sidney Lumet's NETWORK. It is also a much-needed link for a screenplay that seems almost perversely chaotic. The conflict between Hartmann and Marsfeldt, rather than forming the dramatic core, is sidestepped in favor of Hartmann's meandering investigation that spends too much time and energy bringing him together with Vogler rather than advancing the plot.

That thankless task is left instead to a peripheral character, an investigative reporter for East German television, who actually uncovers the diabolical designs behind Marsfeldt's empire only to pass his findings on to Hartmann so he can perform the last-minute heroics. The overall effect is to make CLUB EXTINCTION confusing and hard to follow as it furiously crosscuts among its multiple protagonists and antagonists (Marsfeldt's right-hand man, who has infiltrated Hartmann's investigation, does much of the actual dirty work). Hence, it may take two, even three, studious viewings just to get clear who's doing what to whom and why.

However, mostly to Chabrol's credit, the going never gets boring, no matter how many times one views it. CLUB EXTINCTION is an absorbing and even amusing thriller with brains--even if it does take more brains than should be necessary to follow its helter-skelter plot. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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