There’s no better subject for a documentary than a tragic, constantly put-upon hero fighting for his or her dreams in the face of insurmountable odds. If those dreams involve filmmaking, even better: Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts Of Darkness, Werner Herzog in Burden Of Dreams, Terry Gilliam in Lost In La Mancha, and Mark Borchardt in American Movie all fit the starry-eyed auteur bill to varying degrees, each plowing ahead with their near-impossible projects despite inhospitable weather and/or inhospitable kitchen cabinets. Add to that list Psychopath’s Victor Marquez, a garbage man living in rural Oklahoma whose long-abandoned dreams of becoming a Hollywood FX wizard inspire him to transform a wooded area near his home into an elaborate haunted theme park (“Not a hayride,” clarifies a friend) called Psycho Path. Or at least that’s the plan. Directed with great affection by Marquez’s nephew Manny (and produced by Milwaukee’s About Face Media), Psychopath is the story of oversized ambition, comically mundane obstacles, and the value of pursing a singular dream—even if that dream involves bungee-corded vampires jumping out of trees and terrifying junior high students.
Introduced in the opening minutes via old VHS tapes, Victor Marquez is painted as a gifted makeup artist and a “big kid”—the prototypical “cool uncle”—prone to crafting detail-perfect Klingon prosthetics and rounding up his family to star in TNG-inspired home movies. Fast-forward to 2005, where the now-middle-aged Marquez is working as a garbage man in Sperry, Oklahoma, his moviemaking aspirations permanently on hold due to family obligations and the everyday demands of real life. But a recently purchased piece of flood land (“A shithole,” confesses another nephew) stirs Marquez’s dormant love for horror FX. He’ll create a multi-scene haunted theme park on the property, complete with animatronics, toxic “zombie houses,” giant anacondas, headless horsemen, and chainsaw-wielding madmen, all meant to delightfully scare visitors out of their wits and entrance fees. Never mind that he quickly finds himself deep in debt, betting his future on an attraction that will be open one month out of the year.
Helping him doggedly chase down his foolhardy vision is a ragtag troupe of misfits worthy of Ed Wood: an out-of-work buddy who needs something to do; an overbearing stand-up comedian more interested in throwing parties and showing off his CAD skills; a wannabe protégé named Kage Hunter who kneels at the alter of Anne Rice and takes things a little too seriously; and Marquez’s long-suffering but supportive wife, who also happens to be his former high school gym teacher. (A scene where she recounts a California road trip spent listening to nothing but Heart’s Dreamboat Annie is a quietly touching moment.) Standing in Marquez’s way is an equally diverse group: suspicious and downright hostile neighbors; a county board seemingly unwilling to give the project the go-ahead; and a group of actors and hangers-on that make the Max Fischer Players seem like a highly trained Shakespearean company.
All throughout, director Manny Marquez nicely sidesteps numerous pitfalls that tend to sink similar docs. Beyond a short intro and a coda, the filmmaker disappears from the picture and wisely lets Victor’s story speak for itself. His depiction of rural Oklahoma is matter-of-fact and never condescending. There are plenty of scenes of sparsely attended volunteer meetings and hilariously awkward auditions, but the film is anything but mean-spirited. The ending—poignant and unexpected in more ways than one—is earned.
Strangely, if Psychopath has a single fault, it’s Marquez himself. Likable and mild-mannered, passive and easily swayed, he’s hardly a wild-eyed Coppola or a gregarious Borchardt. He’s simply a nice guy, miles removed from the “psychopath” of the film’s title. Luckily, the cast of characters surrounding him more than make up for his subdued charisma, especially the defiantly odd Kage, who ends up becoming the film’s emotional center. But maybe Marquez’s sometimes-timid nature is the point: his Psycho Path is meant for others to be enjoyed, and Psychopath keeps the focus on the family—and the adopted family of friends—surrounding him. Sometimes the dream is bigger than the dreamer.
Psychopath screens at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival Friday, September 26, 9:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre; Sunday, September 28, 2 p.m. at the Fox Bay Cinema Grill; and Saturday, October 4, 4:15 p.m. at the Times Cinema.
Dir: Manny Marquez | 106 min. | 2014 | USA