Stitched-together and expanded to feature-length via a pair of the director’s pre-existing short films, John Huckert’s THE PASSING (1983) is precisely the kind of unusual and highly-compelling micro-budget discovery that fans of Vinegar Syndrome have grown accustomed to. As with Brian Damude’s must-have Canadian-lensed obscurity, the crime thriller SUDDEN FURY (1975), which they released last year, VS have once again provided another fantastic, extras-filled Blu-ray / DVD combo of the present atypical, science fiction-tinged film, which will hopefully warrant a looksee for anyone searching for something a little more esoteric, as opposed to just the same-old/same-old.
Elderly lifelong buds Ernie (James Carroll Plaster) and Rose (Welton Benjamin Johnson, playing a male character despite his traditionally female name) have been living together since the death of Ernie’s wife. While it’s never made abundantly clear, Rose may himself be dying, but has accepted his mortality with an equal amount of grace and melancholy. Ernie, on the other hand, tries his darnedest to ensure that the pair of them make the best of the rest of their lives; both these old guys know full-well that the end may be near and come without warning, however. Meanwhile, through a series of somewhat disconnected—at first disorienting—scenes involving Wade (director Huckert) and his family (including a rather startlingly graphic sexual assault on his onscreen wife), he winds up on Death Row for the accidental killing of his wife’s attacker. Despite the initial disjointed effect, these two disparate major plotlines do eventually intersect when Ernie is given the opportunity to participate in a new experimental procedure by means of his family doctor, whereas, rather than going to the gas chamber, condemned murderer Wade instead opts to take part in a heretofore-unknown experiment at a mysterious (fictional) institution known as the Maryland State Rejuvenation Center…
In spite of the narrative’s deliberately slow pacing, THE PASSING remains thoroughly engaging in its exploration of life and death… as well as reincarnation. Confounding at first—although both its gradually-comingling stories do come together in a logical manner eventually—the film frequently drifts into out-of-sequence flashbacks, generating a cryptic, verging-on-hypnotic aura over the course of the running time. The somewhat amateurish-if-earnest performances also add immensely to the proceedings, with principal performers James Carroll Plaster and Welton Benjamin Johnson as Ernie and Rose being especially memorable. Offering affecting psychological character studies that encompass love, loss, loneliness and the inexorable aging process from cradle to grave (“First thing you know, you’re 20. And now you’re 40. And then it just goes faster and faster!”), THE PASSING never becomes monotonously pretentious, even during some of its many tangential philosophical ruminations, while the scenes at the aptly-named Rejuvenation Center are spartanly sparse, displaying a highly-impersonal ambiance of cold, clinical sterility akin to some of David Cronenberg’s early works set in dehumanized, dystopian near-futures.
Barely released theatrically, THE PASSING did receive a decidedly scant independent VHS videocassette release in the ’80s, then, in the early ’00s, budget-pack specialists Brentwood released it in no less than three separate, colourfully-titled box DVD sets, including Ancient Evil – 10 Movies, the dozen-pack Blood Soaked Cinema– Bite Night (“Twelve Times the Terror”!) and also Blood Thirst – 4 Movies. Given the film’s differing master print sources, VS succeeded in performing a mini-miracle bringing this long-passed-over rarity into the HD age with their newly-scanned 2K transfer taken from (quote) “16mm archival elements”. Shot and developed over a seven-and-a-half year period—how’s thatfor dedication!—utilizing recycled, reedited and newly-shot footage, things look surprisingly good in spite of the original celluloid’s numerous scratches, some occasional film jitter and what-have-you, but this is really nothing to quibble about at all, and the vibrant colour scheme during THE PASSING’s latter half really POPS off the screen upon occasion. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono audio track also sounds fine, with no real issues whatsoever, although it does sound a tad coarse and tinny whenever the score utilizes such hoary old ‘lo-fi’ 78rpm show-tunes as Ray Henderson’s classic “That Old Gang of Mine” (published by Irving Berlin, Inc. for The Ziegfeld Follies way back in 1923).
The VS BD/DVD’s copious extras begin with a much-welcome audio commentary from director Huckert moderated by Tom Fitzgerald of EXP TV wherein they discuss the film’s still-humbler beginnings as The Water That is Passed, a short subject that probably best-resembles the finished feature it became. Director Huckert goes on to discuss his close relationship with principal actors Plaster and Johnson, as well as discussing Ernie and Rose, a second short film they made together, which likewise provided THE PASSING with still more additional footage to extend its running time; it’s also revealed how it was fellow Baltimore filmmaker John Waters—“The King of Trash” himself!—who suggested that Huckert might want to add some extra more-exploitable elements into his final product. It’s an interesting, relaxed and detailed discussion, that also includes plenty of anecdotes. Top marks all around! In Passing Time (22m31s), Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck interviews freelance DP Richard Chisolm, who discusses how he met director Huckert and producer Scott Guthrie and eventually got involved with the production. He describes Huckert as a (quote) “sensuous, dedicated filmmaker” and goes on to provide plenty of details about both the THE PASSING specifically as well as the Baltimore indie film scene of the time in general; reminiscences which include some of Chisolm’s later work (such as HBO’s much-lauded series THE WIRE [2002 – 2008]). In Water Under the Bridge (15m55s), writer and co-producer Mary Maruca is once again interviewed by Mr. Holecheck and reveals that John Huckert was one of her English students at the University of Maryland and was asked by him to co-write the screenplay, even though she playfully referred to herself as (quote) “such an ingénue”. She also speaks most highly of both Plaster and Johnson and their credible naturalism in front of the camera, discusses the stresses inherent in trying to shoot a film without any money, plus the (quote) “un-Godly amount of time it took to finish”. Like Chisolm, she also praises Huckert’s unwavering dedication to his pet project.
In light of the film’s pieced-together structure, VS have also included Huckert’s short films in their entirety, including the aforementioned The Water That is Passed (27m50s, 1976), Quack (24m21s, 1976), Einmal (9m06s, 1979) and Ernie and Rose (28m48s, 1982). The extras conclude with a short-but-superb stills gallery (2m00s) of archive material. As per usual for VS, reversible artwork is also provided, while the first 2000 copies include a Limited Edition slipcover featuring artwork from Earl Kess, Jr. Order it from Vinegar Syndrome here.