Hacking his way into the movie biz Film: First-timer's crude slasher flick 'Handyman' wins notice.

November 29, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

One guy gets shot through the head. Another gets his fingers sliced off. A third gets barbecued in his back yard. And a fourth ... let's just say his insides end up where they're not supposed to be.

This is "Handyman," a twisted first film from Baltimore attorney Joel Denning. It may sound grisly and look amateurish, but it may land him a distribution deal, an appearance by the lead character at next year's Cannes Film Festival and maybe a foothold in the movie biz.

"I realize the movie is what it is, a first-time movie," says Denning, 39, who's spent five years taking postgraduate film courses at Towson University. "But it was a lot of fun to make."

City residents with cable TV can check out Denning's two-hour flick on pay-per-view, Channel 76. Everyone else interested in seeing what happens when a Vietnam vet gets pushed a little too far (he's already got a mechanical hand, hence the film's name) can see it next weekend at Fells Point's Orpheum Theater.

The idea that became "Handyman," Denning says, was "cooked up over several beers at the Charles Village pub." His friend, Jack McClernan, pitched the idea of making their "hero" a young war vet whose hand has been ruined. Denning built on that by suggesting the man be older, with a young daughter whose career as a violinist is ruined by a drunk doctor.

It's that malpractice that prompts Handyman's rampage, leaving the Baltimore police with some pretty gruesome murders to solve.

Shifting the focus from the father to the daughter, Denning says, "gave the story a little more depth." Making the man older, he adds, enabled McClernan to play him. McClernan's other qualification was that he was always available.

The writing, Denning says, took just a few weeks (McClernan gets script credit). Filming took place over 17 weekends at scattered spots throughout the city and Baltimore and Harford counties.

The resulting film has everything: loaded guns and bare breasts, robbers in Clinton masks and women named Helga who give massages, cute little girls (Denning's two daughters) and homeless men who double as streetcorner philosophers, corrupt judges and lawyers with ponytails.

The combination was enough to interest TROMA film distributors (whose other films include "Toxic Avenger" and "Killer Condom"), who have told Denning they will send an actor dressed as Handyman to Cannes next year if Denning signs with them.

"Handyman" is decidedly low-budget; the entire movie cost less than $20,000. In addition to directing, Denning did all the cinematography, often having to run the camera, turn on the sound and prompt the actors all by himself.

"That explains why some of the shots are a little bit static," he says. Also why some of the actors seem to be standing around, waiting for their cues, and why the sound tends to come and go.

Still, Denning is proud of his creation, and "Handyman" certainly should appeal to those whose tastes tend toward schlock: there's gore (the handyman is not a subtle guy), and there's sex, including a final scene set in a go-go bar that really doesn't have much to do with the rest of the film.

The first-time filmmaker, who spends his days as a bankruptcy lawyer for the law firm of Stephen L. Miles, is confident "Handyman" is just the start. He and his crew are set to begin two more films, a comedy and a sci-fi flick reminiscent, he says, of "The X-Files." He's even got his first big production planned, a legal drama he hopes to film in late 1998 or 1999. "We hope to have gotten our school-of-hard-knocks learning behind us enough by then," he says.

'Handyman'

On pay-per-view, channel 76. To order, check your cable guide for instructions. The film will also be shown at the Orpheum Theater: 11: 30 p.m. Dec. 5, ; 6 p.m. and 11: 30 p.m. Dec. 6; 6 Dec. 7.

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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