Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) is seeking his big break as a standup comedian, but it's safe to say his jokes are nothing short of dreadful, delivered to a completely silent nightclub audience who sit grim faced through his routine, one of them whimpering barely audibly as he begins to cry in his misery. Once Marty gets off stage to no reaction he is paid and walks home with his best friend Gus (Bill Paxton), a manically cheerful chap who always carries an accordion; Gus tells him he was great, and the only reason he couldn't hear any reaction was because they were laughing on the inside, but what Marty really needs is a gimmick...
For many, The Dark Backward is one of the least funny comedies ever made, so fixated on its disgust and degradation that they find it impossible to enjoy: just when you think it can't get any bleaker, writer and director Adam Rifkin ups the ante, as if taunting the audience, daring them to laugh at what comes across as having been penned in one of the most Stygian depressions any screenwriter has ever suffered through. Part of the explanation of that would be that he wrote it aged nineteen, so his ideas of what would be entertaining and boundary pushing would be different to what a more mature author would have created.
Even then, it took him four years to get it made, and it's one of those projects you can barely believe got a release, never mind made in the first place and able to attract all these fairly big names to act in it. There's an explanation for that too: the production company saw Nelson's name attached and didn't bother to read the script, allowing Rifkin to go his own way and fashion a work true to his artistic vision, even though that vision was insanely unfriendly in its worldview, especially for a movie that was ostensibly a comedy. Yet watching it there was a bizarre integrity to this, as it was patently the movie Rifkin had in his mind and after all this effort, exactly what he wanted to convey.
Which was a twisted showbiz rise and fall yarn, except that Marty's rise is so stunted that the fall appeared to be pretty much consistent from beginning to end. His jokes hardly qualify as humour, but as with much of this are so anti-funny that they grow weirdly fascinating, and that's before the main plot point arrives which almost brings him to fame, when he gets a lump on his back. Soon the lump has turned into a little hand, and not long after that Marty has a fully grown (and moveable) arm there, which he is initially embarrassed about until Gus convinces him this is exactly what his act needs, and the agent (Wayne Newton) who turned them down before is now very interested indeed.
Of course that's nothing to do with Marty's jokes, it's down to his new limb, and the parallels between the entertainment industry and a freakshow could not be more plain, nor more laboured. All around the meek, very un-Judd Nelson character are a collection of grotesques, with Paxton walking away with that honour as Marty's fellow garbage collector who thinks nothing of eating any thrown away food he finds, or even tonguing a naked corpse he finds at the local dump - fortunately he's interrupted before he goes further. He also has a fetish for enormously fat women, is possibly a psychopath, and is determined to succeed off the back (!) of Marty's success; I suppose he actually has a talent for the accordion, which is more than his pal does, but it's Paxton's pitching this at a mood of near hysterical cheeriness that makes him so memorable. With every detail from the sets to the advertising to the TV shows designed for maximum skincrawling qualities, The Dark Backward was a success of sorts, but very few would want to sit through something so revolting twice (or once). Music by Marc David Decker.