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'50s horror through a funhouse mirror

Bill Plympton's `Hair High' goes heavy on visual storytelling and light on script. But fans will be fine with that.

April 13, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Veteran independent animator Bill Plympton relishes the grotesque, often as concealed within the beautiful. His fifth feature is "Hair High," a 1950s teen horror-romance, safely stocked with all the expected components -- but as reflected through his distinctive funhouse view.

For those unfamiliar with the artist, who's been nominated twice for Oscars, his "Plymptoons" feature a throwback, hand-drawn style with rough-looking sketches, in which some aspects may suddenly thrust forth in alarming detail.

In microscopic close-up, pretty girls applying makeup become the sum of unappetizing caking of mascara and the unappetizing sounds of the slathering on of lipstick. Facial expressions expand to monstrous exaggerations.

The new film involves a high school love triangle bound for gory. It's "Carrie" as co-directed by Tim Burton and David Lynch and cross-pollinated with "Rebel Without a Cause," with the heroic loner a scooter-driving nerd.

Among the letter jackets, proms and tired-sounding '50s-style music lurks the macabre, seeded with a surprising amount of sex and gestated in increasing absurdity until emerging in full-boned, surreal horror. Hit frappe on the blender and the toxic fumes cause the hallucinations Plympton uses to tell his story.

Primary voice talent includes Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Silverman and Eric Gilliland; in smaller roles are Ed Begley Jr., Beverly D'Angelo, and Keith and David Carradine, among others. For connoisseurs of hand-drawn animation, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and Don Hertzfeldt (of the utterly insane "Rejected") also briefly lend their pipes to the cause.

But dialogue is incidental in Plympton's arcane world.

The nearest to wit the script comes is in strained double-entendres; the rest might as well be silence. Thus viewers are deprived of Silverman's cuddly-wolverine charms, although Mulroney does manage to inflate to the appropriate swelling as the vile BMOC.

Plympton's stories are told mostly visually, and thus it is with "Hair High," with its towering, ornate coifs, lust-maddened football mascots in chicken suits and love-struck flies adoringly regurgitating. One very weird, almost-touching scene wordlessly depicts the exchange between the young lovers as they realize their connection.

The familiar vengeful ghost story doesn't hold up for all 78 minutes. It could be conveyed with considerably greater economy, but that's not the animator's style. He's clearly not concerned with conventional notions of momentum, so at times the film sags badly.

Not that these qualms will dissuade Plympton fans, who can gorge themselves on this smorgasbord of the bizarre. "Hair High" is not for everyone, but it's not like anything else out right now.

"Hair High." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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