At first glance, and based solely on the brief description widely given to this film (“A skateboarder named Orpheus and friends go to Hell to stop television signals that are brainwashing America”), you’d think that this was a low-budget, skateboard version of They Live. You’re kinda right (after all, this movie did come out just two years later), but that’s too limiting of a description for this mythologically based skate punk rock opera. Yeah, you read that last sentence correctly.
If you’re even remotely familiar with Greek mythology, you’ll put two and two together the second you see the name Orpheus and the word Hell. That takes a lot of the guess work out of what this movie is all about, but the way that it’s put together is surprisingly good, especially coming from a writer and director (and star of the movie) who had zero film making experience. Robert McGinley simply rounded up a bunch of his Seattle skater and/or musician friends, and made it happen. Sure, as a result, the acting isn’t really great, but you know what? It’s not really awful. Maybe that’s not the most ringing endorsement, but whatever.
Of the Seattle area folks to appear in the film, perhaps the only one that would potentially be more widely recognized is Stephen Jesse Bernstein, a poet and performance artist who released recordings with Sub Pop records and opened for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Notoriously mentally unstable (I mean, the guy once did a poetry reading with a live mouse in his mouth…), the character of Axel was created specifically for him. In the film’s first scene, we see Axel, a veteran of an apocalyptic war who lost the use of his hips, sitting on his skateboard, screaming obscenities up at a building. Seems about right for a guy like Bernstein.
Axel, Orpheus, and their whole crew (Scratch, Razoreus, the members of Orpheus’ band, The Shredders, and of course, his girlfriend Eurydice) all live in an area known as the Grey Zone – just a series of shipping containers. Apparently these guys were hip to that whole trend long before architects started slapping them together. One night, Axel, Scratch, and Razoreus catch an odd program on TV, emanating from the Euthanasia Broadcast Network (EBN), which seems to be sedating and hypnotizing everyone who watches it. Determined to find out what’s going on, they shred down to the local club to see Orpheus and The Shredders rocking out. Our first introduction to Orpheus is seeing him up on stage, delivering a poignant monologue – “There’s an old saying… nobody likes me… everybody hates me… I guess I’ll go eat worms. Don’t do that.” – before launching into “Worm Song”. The legitimate quality of the band’s dark synth-rock is a tad surprising until you find out that two of the members of the band (who scored the film) are Roland Barker and Bill Rieflin from industrial music juggernauts Ministry. Score another piece of cred for this film.
After nearly assaulting a guy with a video camera who was a bit too interested in Eurydice’s dancing, Orpheus splits the scene. What ensues next, in the midst of a romantic moment for the two love birds, will forever be etched in my mind as one of my favorite lines to ever be said on film. When Eurydice asks Orpheus a question about his music, his response is, “I’ve dedicated my life to the sound of metal insects screaming in a wall of oatmeal.”
I’ve dedicated my life to the sound of metal insects screaming in a wall of oatmeal.
I could seriously just end the review right here, and tell you that if you’re not at least intrigued enough to see the movie based off of that line alone, that there’s something wrong with you, but let’s move on.
The following day, Orpheus and Eurydice are to be wed, and somehow the EBN has seen Eurydice’s dancing and, well, they plan to make her a permanent part of their lineup. Which, you know, means killing her and taking her to Hell since that’s where they broadcast from. Sneaking their way in as caterers, they manage to at least kill Eurydice (I’d say spoiler alert, but c’mon, this is standard Greek mythology here) while Orpheus is distracted playing some weird, synthy, electronic guitar prototype that was supposedly developed by Jimi Hendrix. Don’t question how someone living in a shipping container shanty town got his hands on something like that to give as a wedding gift.
From here, we see the familiar tale of Orpheus played out, with a few twists. Yes, he goes to Hell to retrieve Eurydice, but Hell is am underground TV network. Oh, and his parents work there, shredding people’s memories (literally, shredding paper that contains the memories of everyone who dies and goes to Hell). Yes, he’s given the chance to escape Hell with his true love as long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’ve both exited. True to the story, he blows it, though in this case it’s thanks to Axel shouting out Eurydice’s name. Voila, the door to hell is closed, and our hero surprisingly doesn’t seem all that upset.
But wait, it doesn’t end here! There’s still the matter of a special skateboard from Hell that lets you shred a parking garage known as Devo, and of course, shutting down the EBN. It really is an interesting mix of mythology and They Live, as performed by a bunch of punk skaters, and is well worth a watch. I don’t want to give away any more of the story beyond the mythology that most people are familiar with, but there’s the aforementioned special skateboard, there’s pizza, there’s more Hell, and there are explosions. All in all, it’s a pretty rad post-nuke, sci-fi flick. The VHS is long out of print, of course, though you can still track it down with a little digging. Alternatively, you can pick up a package deal containing a DVD of the movie and the soundtrack (on vinyl, duh) from Light in the Attic Records. Highly recommended!