The second edition of the AFI Dallas International Film Festival gets underway Thursday night. Among the dozens of films premiering for local audiences, Stuart Gordon's Stuck, inspired by real-life events that transpired in nearby Fort Worth, stands out like a sore thumb to me. The film received some good reviews when it premiered in Toronto last fall; our own Scott Weinberg called it "more of a twisted thriller than an out-and-out horror movie ... [with] a sly and simple streak of social commentary." But my interest lies in issues beyond the film itself. Namely, can fictional depictions of real-life stories affect people like secondhand smoke?
One evening in the fall of 2001, twenty-something nurse's aide Chante Mallard partied at a club, drank some alcohol, split a tab of Ecstasy, smoked some marijuana, left the club, accepted a ride from a friend, picked up her car at her friend's apartment, and climbed into her gold Chevrolet Cavalier. A few minutes later, she hit a man on a dimly-lit highway. She was a mile and a half from her house in southeast Fort Worth, Texas.
Gregory Glenn Biggs flew into her windshield head-first. Mallard headed home. Badly injured, bleeding profusely and stuck in the cracked windshield, the hapless Biggs pleaded for help. Mallard pulled into her garage, got out of her car, closed the garage door, and went to bed. Biggs died.
In the morning, Mallard enlisted the help of a former boyfriend and her cousin to remove the body and dump it in a park. ("I knew the dude was dead," the boyfriend later testified. "I tasted death in the air -- the same thing I smelled when my mama died.") When the body was found later that day, it looked like Biggs, 37 and homeless, was the victim of a hit and run accident. The case went unsolved for months until a tip led the police to Mallard.
A couple of weeks later, I opened my hometown paper to read the horrifying news. Known proudly as "Where the West Begins" (and less proudly as "Cowtown"), Fort Worth is a city of 400,000 located 32 miles west of Dallas, Texas. Despite its increasing size, when the news hit, the city became a small town: everyone felt the impact at the same time, everyone felt the same horror and revulsion, and everyone felt a bit of shameful community responsibility: why did it happen here?
Mallard was African-American and Biggs was Caucasian, but racism was certainly not a factor in the initial accident. Beyond that, Mallard's stunning lack of humanity clearly had nothing to do with race and everything to do with saving her own skin. (Later she testified that drugs ruined her life.) Eventually she was sentenced to 50 years in prison. She is not eligible for parole until she has served half her sentence.
Still, the question of "why" remains. Did the drugs so becloud her mind and emotions that she was completely drained of any fellow feeling? How can you leave a man to die in your garage? It could be argued that we all routinely pass by suffering everyday. Surely, though, it's a far different matter when you're directly responsible for the suffering -- and you could possibly stop it with one phone call. Would you make the phone call, no matter the consequences to your own life?
Mallard did not get away with her crime. And with all due respect to the horrific death suffered by Biggs, and the lasting trauma inflicted upon both families, it would be much simpler to leave the whole horrible thing dead and buried. But along comes Stuck to rekindle all those memories.
Gordon has changed the locale and other details. For example, the role of the nurse's aide is played by Mena Suvari, who won't remind anyone of Chante Mallard, though her boyfriend and other friends in the film are African-American. (Stephen Rea plays the victim.) The setting is Rhode Island, half a continent away and far distant from the scene of the crime, in more ways than one.
Local reaction to the film was limited to a trickle after its debut in Toronto. Robert Wilonsky, film critic for the alternative weekly Dallas Observer (owned by Village Voice Media), also blogs for the paper on local topics. He blogged: "It certainly has the potential to become a wide release, though it'll likely play the sick-and-twisted cult circuit; something about a dog finding a bone, you'll see. And when it does make its bow outside the fest circuit, expect the Mallard case to get a curtain call: Fort Worth figures prominently into the [Toronto] festival's official description of the movie ... Fort Worth, you're stuck with this one."
Wilonsky implies that only audiences on the "sick-and-twisted cult circuit" would go see the film, which is reminiscent of the calcified, offensive idea that there must be something wrong in general with people who see horror movies, whereas the horror fans I know tend to be happy and well-adjusted. His send-off might be considered just a snarky one-liner, but also evinces the attitude that Dallas residents still sometimes display toward the populace that lives in "Cowtown" -- as in, 'Those hicks deserve what they get.'
Fort Worth is the birth place of actors Bill Paxton, Larry Hagman, Wallace Langham, Fess Parker, Betty Buckley, Kate Capshaw, director Joe Johnston, and musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to Kelly Clarkson. Lou Diamond Phillips started acting in Fort Worth. Barry Corbin has a ranch nearby; so does Janine Turner. Some Fort Worth residents may be hicks, and some horror fans may be sick and twisted, but why is there an imperative to label -- and thereby minimize -- people, judging them by where they live and the films they watch? By extension, does that mean the film itself is deserving of more or less consideration?
Chris Vogar, film critic for the mainstream Dallas Morning News, recounted the case in his article and then commented: "If you don't mind the drastic deviations from the actual case, Stuck has serious guilty-pleasure potential. It could certainly make some cash on the horror market if it gets picked up for distribution ... Stuck will likely infuriate members of the Mallard and Biggs families, or anyone else who was closely involved with the case. Of course, most potential viewers were not involved with the case at all. They just want entertainment, including the Big Finish that Stuck delivers."
Christopher Kelly, film critic for the hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote in September: "The notorious case ... is here transformed into an enjoyably trashy exploitation thriller. Alas, the setting has been changed (from Fort Worth to Providence, R.I.), and the character based on Mallard is played by, um, American Beauty star Mena Suvari. Only in Hollywood."
In an article published this past Sunday, highlighting notable films playing at AFI Dallas, Kelly summarized: "The good news: This breezy camp horror movie should have audiences hooting with delight. The bad news: All associations with Fort Worth have been erased from the story, which was filmed in Canada and is set in Rhode Island. (From the files of 'Only in Hollywood': The African-American Mallard is here played by American Pie star Mena Suvari in cornrows.)"
Having lived in Los Angeles, New York, Fort Worth, Los Angeles again, and now Dallas, I've been alternately thrilled, outraged and disappointed by films set in or based on stories taking place in my various homes over the years. It's inevitable that such films have a greater resonance for residents (or ex-residents) and I'm always excited to see places I know on the big screen.
By comparison, only a tiny number of us will ever see our stories (true or otherwise) depicted in a film, so in a way, films about things we know -- or feel we know intimately -- become our own home movies, writ large. So why shouldn't we consider these films to be our own personal experiences that deserve deeper analysis?
I want to see Stuck. Not just because Stuart Gordon is a good filmmaker, and not just because it might have the thrills of a well-made horror film. Those motivations figure into it, but I also want to think again about Chante Mallman and Gregory Biggs and that terrifying night. I want to think again about chance and humanity and the choices we make in life. I want to ponder if movies are pushing me to think more about myself than others, if I would put my own selfish interests ahead of a suffering soul I could help.
And I want to wonder again why it happened in Fort Worth.
Research based on articles published in Fort Worth Star-Telegram, dated March 3, 2002; March 8, 2002; June 30, 2002; December 15, 2002; January 9, 2003; June 11, 2003; June 22, 2003; June 24, 2003; June 27, 2003. Articles have been archived online at the newspaper's web site.
UPDATE: Edited 04/01/08 to correct multiple misspellings of Chante Mallard's name.