In the golden age of television, families, and friends would stay home to watch weekend night specials. These programs featured new songs, dance moves, and a good time, but before streaming or even VCRs, these programs needed to be watched live or you would miss out on the experience. The one-offs of these programs provided a unique moment in television history for the audience to share, but it also presented the opportunity for millions of viewers to observe the celebrities’ missteps and screw-ups. Recently playing at the Fantasia Film Festival, Amanda Kramer’s GIVE MY PITY pulls from the familiar genre of 70s TV to create a truly original film.
A glamorous and demonic movie production starring Sophie von Haselberg (who looks very much like her mama, Bette Midler) begins with the similar appearance and tone of a Saturday night special but soon starts slipping into glimmery filtered segments that strongly resemble the surreal dark comedy short Too Many Cooks. The grainy VHS quality of the film along with the familiar stage performances taken right out of the 1970s will instill some nostalgia (and even sadness) in anyone with an interest in retro television or live performances.
Sissy St. Claire (von Haselberg) dreamed of one thing as a little girl: Making it! She always wanted her very own television special because she is dying to be known. So, she promises us an evening of conversation, art, drama, laughter, and much more. However, this shining starlet was not anticipating the Masked Man (M. Diesel) would be her costar, and apparently, he does not like to share the stage. The film shows skits, songs, and personal addresses to the audience, and while the imagery seems bright and cheerful, each segment eventually takes on a darker tone. Sissy tries to keep a brave face and continue with the special, but obviously, some dark force wants the star to doubt her abilities and even fear her life choices.
The first few minutes show an unknown celebrity, and an unaware audience might think they are watching a long forgotten (or yet-to-be-discovered) version of Cher or Barbara, but then the camera changes from the perspective of the at-home-audience and we suddenly see through the perspective of Sissy. Glancing off stage, Sissy sees a Masked Man and his presence causes quite a bit of disruption to the program as the leading lady stumbles during her dance routine and even the footage becomes visually altered. The audience applauds but gives no acknowledgment of the terror and unease shown on the actress’s face. Either assuming the reactions reflect the intended script or because only Sissy can see and hear what’s behind all the glitz and glamour.
There have been plenty of one-woman specials or stage performances before (Gilda Radner’s is my favorite), but this might be the first one-woman horror show. Aside from some backup dancers in a couple of scenes and the ever-looming Masked Man, Sissy remains the only one on stage. She wants fame at all costs and despite each bit of her special becoming sabotaged in some way, she perseveres under the belief that the show must go on. Not only do we witness Sissy’s frustration with unreliable guests and the punishing eye of the public, but we also see her battle with her own insecurities. The price for fame is high and Sissy makes it clear she will sacrifice anything and everything to earn just a little bit more of the spotlight.
The 70s loved their campy evening specials, so Kramer’s use of classic Prime time television seems almost too bizarre of a choice. Filmed like an old variety show, PITY will blind you with sequence and dazzle you with an original 70s-style soundtrack. Each segment offers a new kind of eccentricity to an already over-the-top style of television. The story does offer a pretty serious lesson about the crippling anxiety which comes with feeling inferior, but Kramer wraps everything up in such a dazzling piece of disco that even the intense moments become engulfed in the bizarreness. Aside from the absolutely unique approach to horror, GIVE ME PITY! showcases an incredible amount of talent with retro effects, fun choreography, and catchy songs.