The Movie Waffler New to Shudder - GIVE ME PITY! | The Movie Waffler

New to Shudder - GIVE ME PITY!

New to Shudder - GIVE ME PITY!
An entertainer's live televison special takes increasingly dark turns.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Amanda Kramer

Starring: Sophie von Haselberg, Shelley Long, Cricket Arrison, M. Diesel

Give Me Pity! poster

Is the variety show still a thing? A mainstay of pre-21st Century British and American TV, the variety show was built around a celebrity singing and skitting in front of a live audience: networks trading on big names, building an hour or so around marquee personae in the service of light entertainment. Quick research reveals that during the '70s and '80s anyone who was anyone – from the Bradys to The Osmonds - had at least one season of such a vehicle, but, perhaps due to the more cynical awareness of modern viewers, today the variety show is the province of Krusty the Clown punchlines on The Simpsons (a joke which was dated even in the heyday '90s and subsequently left alone in the recent seasons), or the stuff of kitschy, knowing content such as that Christmas special Gaga did a few years back or that so-very-arch Bill Murray one.

Give Me Pity! review

It's hard not to imagine that even at the time there wasn't something profoundly hauntological about these shows, a perception perhaps facilitated by me having the Jacksons and Carpenters specials on in the background this morning as I write. The Carpenters one I knocked on is the infamous Space Encounters broadcast, a cheap but not quite cheerful Star Wars cash in where Richard and Karen are visited by aliens who require the MOR siblings to teach their planet how to sing. Gorgeous gleaming sets straight from Planet of the Vampires, underwritten sketches and unhinged canned laughter provide the narrative excuse for the duo's pristine easy listening pop (it's always interesting hearing their covers - like a straightlaced, hand clapping 'Dancing in the Street' here); all sponsored by Herbal Essences, "you’ll swear you have more hair." It's better than the Star Wars Holiday Special, but you get the impression that these shows were never destined for posterity, and the vaudeville delivery braced by the hyperbolic audience reaction give the rediscovered broadcast a weird, uncanny mien when divorced from context.

It's unnerving enough as it was, and so enter Give Me Pity!, Amanda Kramer's stark horror take on the concept of variety. The film/show is built around Sissy St. Claire's "First television special," which she has dreamed of accomplishing since she was "a girl" (this modern notion that fame is deserved just because you "want it" is upfront in Give Me Pity!, as is the insidious ploy of distress as authentic entertainment: "I can make myself cry, even that I am willing to share with you tonight," Sissy promises). In a stroke of ingenious, serendipitous casting, Sissy is played by Sophie von Haselberg, who literally could not be more Bette Midler's daughter: Bette redux, encompassing the great woman's shining charisma, talent and true-star ability to seem at once relatable while intensely magnetic; the Divine Ms. M repeated in her daughter doppelganger. Von Haselberg is a powerful presence in her own right, but the resemblance, along with the opening scenes red perm which deliberately recalls Midler in her 1988 Beaches pomp, adds to the pervading strangeness of Give Me Pity!.

Give Me Pity! review

The mise-en-scene of variety - false stages emptily over-illuminated by unforgiving key lights - are eerily recreated, with canned applause and laughter increasingly mocking as the show revolves through staples such as an audience Q&A (via a stuffed prop mail bag), confessional sketches and musical numbers ('You're a Grand Old Flag': camp banger). These sequences duly become more unhinged as horror infects the show; initially espied as a dark figure nearly out of shot, and then manifesting in technical issues and fractured editing which connote psychedelic break down. An early tarot reading (where the set disco ball is descended as a crystal ball - ha!) intones that Sissy has a "demonic energy," and this from a medium with no face: the imagery, from the retro-cringe to the more abject, is deliciously creepy. Presented in an academy ratio, with von Haselberg projecting in every frame, the effect is intensely claustrophobic. Sissy confesses that she's "always wanted to be haunted": be careful what you wish for, etc.

Give Me Pity! review

Yes, the targets Give Me Pity! inculcates are obvious: hollow fame, the empty need for validation, the quest for actualisation; all conferred within a television stage set which seems like the loneliest place on earth. Screened in airless 4:3, it does ultimately become a bit too much to endure. That said, the film is charged by the contradictory energy of not wanting to see a woman suffering a prolonged televised disintegration and that woman being played by Sophie von Haselberg, someone who I think it is impossible to tire of watching. Strikingly original and singular, its themes are so pointed and presentation so visually direct that Give Me Pity! is perhaps more art installation than movie, but never anything less than urgently convincing (I was thinking that it would work well fan-refitted as a framing device with horror shorts and movies interspersed within...). Early on, Sissy references television's golden age as a critical reminder of the sort of schtick that Give Me Pity! is taking off. And, ok, the variety show isn't a thing anymore, which does rob the film of a contemporary immediacy, but what other model is Kramer to satirise via a Faustian pact dynamic? Influencer culturezzzz? The once remove of Kramer's film is an uneasy joy, and the most fitting, and poignantly telling, tribute to variety the painstaking Give Me Pity! engenders is its acknowledged reliance on the star power at the centre of the genre and this film: "straight to your heart on demand, wooh!"

Give Me Pity! is on Shudder UK now.