Every masochist needs a sadist.
That was my overriding thought coming out of Hell of Famer Jeremiah Kipp’s “Painkiller” the first time I saw it years ago. Buried inside concepts of idealistic science gone wrong, human relationships strained to the breaking point and shadowy organizations represented by a well-dressed man, that phrase kept ringing in my head: Every masochist needs a sadist. This simple, effective through line is the basis for a brilliant short, with a top notch writer and an excellent director behind it. Of all the horror shorts I’ve watched since starting Death Ensemble seven years ago, this one is my favorite. It’s just that great.
“It’s not enough.” A female voice repeats that dreadful refrain over the main credits, setting the dark tone of the misery to come. A man in an expensive suit shows up at the door of a scientist. The scientist looks worn down and beat up. He pleads what scientists in horror movies always plead: You have to understand. He then tells the heartbreaking tale of how he and his girlfriend lab partner were developing something new and radical in the field of pain management. Their alternative is an organism that looks something akin to William Castle’s Tingler, something that eats pain and allows the poor cancer victim a pain free existence as the victim awaits death. It’s a noble cause, but when the two scientists decide it best to experiment with their new organism on her, things go horribly awry. How this leads to the woman with a hammer, blurting out, “It’s not enough,” I’ll leave to you to discover for yourself. Just prepare to be devastated, as “Painkiller” pulls no punches literally or figuratively.
“Painkiller” lays in the horror straight from the opening credits and never lets up. It’s unrelenting in its path, as is the organism. Janda’s script is compact, without an ounce of fat; it’s lean and mean, without any filler getting in the way of its brilliant story. Janda is a prize talent as a screenwriter, working out his vicious tale with surgical precision. He does more in 15 minutes than many so-called “masters of horror” can do in a 90 minute feature. Kudos to Jerry, who’s a boon to the horror community.
Paired with a great script, Jeremiah Kipp pulls out all the stops and executes a masterpiece. Kipp employs all sorts of odd camera angles, playing up the weirdness and exploitation of the tale. Even the scenes with the scientist explaining things to the man in the suit have a bizarre quality to them, an almost lurid approach that holds my interest. Two guys sitting around as one exposits to another can get boring; not in the talented hands of Kipp. He knows the genre inside out, and “Painkiller” becomes a warped, modern update of a 1950s programmer, with all the bells and whistles to keep it jazzed up.
Some powerful acting hold up a great script and stellar direction. As the female scientist, Kelly Rae LeGault goes all out in playing up pain and suffering. LeGault is a wild talent who frequently collaborates with Kipp, and she’s amazing here. She pushes the envelope to the limits and then breaks those limits. This was my first time seeing her on screen, and I’ve been in love with her acting ever since. As the male scientist, Thomas Mendolia has the less flashy role, but matches LeGault’s madness ounce for ounce with his profound dejection in his submission to failure. The scientist is a broken man, and Mendolia delivers the goods; his sadness is evident in one scene where he keeps referring to the female scientist as “the host” or “it,” and then utters lifelessly, “We were engaged once.” His noble failure has left him empty, with nothing but hurt as he lives on through this nightmare he created. As for the man in the suit… well, let me just say that I’m friends with Jerry Janda, and he’s the nicest guy in the world. But on film Jerry is an evil bastard. He plumbs the malevolence of his character with a cold, ruthless efficiency and provides perhaps the truest horror in “Painkiller.” Good old Jerry, a double threat right to the end.
Which leads me back to where this review started: Every masochist needs a sadist. I don’t really want to know what happens after “Painkiller’s” end credits roll. My imagination would lead me to dark, horrible places I don’t want to explore. Maybe that’s the best sign that “Painkiller” is genre filmmaking at its best. I don’t usually speak in superlatives, but “Painkiller” is a masterpiece of the short form, sweet perfection preserved on film. A talented writer, director and cast aligned to create a compact, vicious tale of terror that is next level filmmaking. If I’m the masochist, let “Painkiller” be my sadist.