When you watch as many movies as I do you tend to see many of the same things countless times: tired clichés, derivative performances, familiar conceits. It’s becoming rarer and rarer to see something truly unique, something which feels genuinely new. But now and then you come across a filmmaker with a voice so singular that it cannot be ignored, the kind who produces work which is wholly their own, whose style is unmistakable and distinctive. David Lynch, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese… these are the kinds of filmmakers who leave an indelible stamp upon anything they touch. Mary Crawford is that kind of filmmaker. Now, I am in no way implying that Ms. Crawford’s films are of a similar level of quality to, say, Taxi Driver or Seven Samurai. Indeed, she falls a good bit short of that mark. But I’m quite confident I could pick a Mary Crawford film out of a lineup every time, and there’s certainly something to be said for that.
My first exposure to Mary Crawford was through a film called An Easter Bunny Puppy. At the time, my friends and I were on a talking dog kick, having recently sat through Vampire Dog and Paws. But while those films were more frustrating than they were worth, I almost immediately identified An Easter Bunny Puppy as something special. The film begins with a still shot of the poster, over which narration is placed. The voice belongs to Russ, a talking corgi who explains several things of note to us, the audience:
- Russ is not the puppy on the poster
- The puppy on the poster is not actually in the film
- Russ is not the Easter Bunny Puppy
- We can hear what Russ is thinking because, for the duration of the film, we have inexplicably become telepathic
Upon hearing this last piece of news I immediately tried to read my friend’s mind, now being telepathic and all, but unfortunately it was not to be. Apparently, the experience of watching An Easter Bunny Puppy only imbues you with the power of hearing the thoughts of dogs, and since there were no dogs in the room I have no way of refuting the film’s claims.
After such an odd opening I was prepared for anything, and to my delight the film got even stranger from there. In the first scene a writer named Jennifer, played by Mary Crawford regular Kristine DeBell (Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy), reads us an entire chapter from her book, acting out the parts with a series of grating voices. Instantly the film is simultaneously fascinating and almost unbearable. After a few agonizing minutes Jennifer gets a call from her publisher, who informs her that she must write a book about an “Easter Bunny Puppy.” Not a book about Easter, or a book about a puppy, but a book about, specifically, an “Easter Bunny Puppy.” To me this request seemed a bit odd in its specificity. Anyway, Jennifer doesn’t know much about Easter Bunny Puppies because she’s Jewish, so she has to learn about the holiday by doing what she calls “research”. She and her daughter accomplish said “research” by taking part in a EIGHT MINUTE SEQUENCE WHERE THEY DYE EGGS which must be seen to be believed. I urge you to go on Netflix, find the film and see how much of this sequence you can bear to watch. After watching it twice all the way through I’ve become so desensitized to pain that I sometimes wonder if I can still feel anything at all.
From there the film gets pretty predictable. Jennifer’s daughter has a crush on a boy but she’s embarrassed when he sees her in an Easter Bunny costume (which she puts on to contribute to her mother’s research) so she pretends that she has a twin sister who likes to dress up like animals and wear glasses but then they all go on vacation together so she has to pretend to be herself and her twin but then one of the friends of the boy she likes falls in love with the twin so she has to carry on romantic relationships with both of them at the same time for some reason even though she legitimately likes only one of the boys but then it turns out that the boyfriend of the mother of one of the boys is a criminal who has buried faberge eggs in the woods where they’ve come to hunt for easter eggs but then the dog picks up the egg by mistake and then the guy threatens to shoot everyone and it turns out that Russ really was the Easter Bunny Puppy all along. So in other words, the film is about as nice and simple as Eraserhead. Also like Eraserhead, An Easter Bunny Puppy contains a haunting original song, sung not by the Lady in the Radiator but by Russ the corgi himself. This lyrics are quoted below in their entirety:
“I am the Easter Bunny Puppy
Pooping out Easter bunnies
See I made a funny
Needless to say, the film made quite an impression on me. There are plenty of bad films out there, and I couldn’t care less about most of them, but I genuinely feel that An Easter Bunny Puppy has a valid reason to exist: it truly does feel like no other film I’ve ever seen. In this age of sequels, reboots and remakes An Easter Bunny Puppy stands alone. Curious to see whether or not the film was a fluke my friends and I tracked down another film of Mary’s, also available on Netflix, called A Talking Cat!?!, and I was overjoyed to find that the magic remained as strong as ever. Paramount to my enjoyment of the film was the voice of the titular cat, played by none other than Eric Roberts. As I watched the credits I immediately dismissed the tinge of familiarity that name carried with it. No, I thought, that can’t be THE Eric Roberts, the same Oscar-nominated actor who appeared in The Pope of Greenwich Village and The Dark Knight, the man whose praises were sung by Mickey Rourke during his memorable Independent Spirit Awards acceptance speech, the brother of Julia Roberts, still one of the most beloved and respected film stars of her generation. And yet, it was THAT Eric Roberts, and every line he delivered in A Talking Cat!?! sounded to my ears like the mutterings of a burned-out drunk slouched down in a corner booth in a dive bar forgotten by time, sucking down his fifth bloody mary of the evening and bitterly regaling the empty chair before him with tales of the man he once could have been. In this particular film his toxicity felt wonderfully surreal, and it enlivened every scene in which he appeared tremendously. Also enjoyable was Ms. Crawford’s new reliance on special effects, the nature of which should really be experienced without prior explanation. It was, perhaps, not the equal of An Easter Bunny Puppy, but it was certainly good enough for me.
The third and, for the time being, final film of Ms. Crawford’s I viewed was A Halloween Puppy, aka A Magic Puppy. This time Eric Roberts was back, both as the voice the puppy and, more surprisingly, as an on-screen character who appears at the beginning and ending of the film. Compared to his performance as Duffy the cat, Roberts here seemed downright jovial. A quick imdb search revealed that A Halloween Puppy had been filmed before A Talking Cat!?!, indicating, as I had predicted, that his performance in the latter film might indicate his emotional and mental state after completing the first. In this film Crawford explores somewhat broader themes, dabbling a bit in discussions of the occult, identity and the nature of trust. Also, there are TWO scenes where Kristine DeBell eats grass, almost certainly in an attempt to bond with the talking dog, who clearly hates her judging from the way he desperately squirms while she tries to rub his belly. Overall, A Halloween Puppy was my least favorite of the three films but it as an example of one special director’s pure and unadulterated vision it is absolutely worth a watch.
As it stands, it seems that Mary Crawford has not yet found her audience. The few reviews she has received have not exactly been positive. For example:
“Filmed by a 10 year old with an iPhone, A Talking Cat!?! is the heartwarming story of a cat who has the voice of a middle-aged man with questionable motivations.” -- Amazon user Jerrett Swarr reviewing A Talking Cat!?!
“It isn’t even good-bad, like Tremors 3...” -- imdb user adamwho reviewing A Halloween Puppy
“There’s a really weird montage where Phil and Chris scan articles of clothing using a small desk lamp…” -- craveonline.com reviewing A Talking Cat!?!
“It was boring, slow, dull and bland. It took 27 minutes for Eric Roberts to turn into a dog.” -- imdb user Pumpkin_Man reviewing A Halloween Puppy
“The cat on the cover is NOT Duffy... WTF?” -- Facebook user Ed McDaniel reviewing A Talking Cat!?!
“THAT’S NOT THE RIGHT CAT ON THE COVER!” -- an uncredited Netflix user reviewing A Talking Cat!?!
“BE WARNED: THE CAT IS CUTE, BUT NOT THE CAT ON THE POSTER!!!?!!!” -- imdb user edibely reviewing A Talking Cat!?!
“Parents need to know that An Easter Bunny Puppy is a misleading film that appears to be about some variation of a bunny-puppy and kid-friendly frolicking, but never fulfills that promise.” -- commonsensemedia.org reviewing An Easter Bunny Puppy
And yet, for all of these harangues, I see something positive in the work of Mary Crawford. She belongs on a long list of auteurs whose work I don’t appreciate, people like Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone and Bernardo Bertolucci, but she is certainly an auteur. There are a number of characteristics which define her films: a never-ending stream of pointless establishing shots, repetitive music which sounds like it belongs on an episode of the Teletubbies, endless montages featuring looping footage, plots which are simultaneously simplistic and absolutely bizarre and talking animals who are apathetic and bitter (even the comparatively cheerful Russ from An Easter Bunny Puppy says at one point that he “wants to die...”). These are the kind of traits that might not be seen as positive by most viewers, but the fact remains that Mary Crawford’s films simply could not have been made by any other filmmaker on Earth, and I feel that’s reason enough to give her work a bit of consideration and thought. As Pope John Paul II said, “a society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” Is it right to discourage an artist like Mary Crawford just because her films don’t happen to fit our notion of what a “good” piece of work should be? Shouldn’t it be enough that she’s trying, that she has a truly singular voice, that she’s giving the world something no one else could? Let me be the first to praise Mary Crawford for, at the very least, trying something new and staying true to her vision. Take the time to look at her films carefully and you might find something genuinely inspirational in her conviction. You might even learn a little something along the way.
Of course, Mary Crawford doesn’t really exist. A quick imdb search will reveal that. In fact, “Mary Crawford” is really a man named David DeCoteau. He has made more than 100 films since 1985 under a variety of aliases, many of them female. His most famous works are probably three straight-to-video entries in the venerable Puppet Master series. Indeed, his film Retro Puppet Master (made under the alias Joseph Tennent) is discussed at some length in Greg Sestero’s wonderful memoir The Disaster Artist, an account of his experiences making the legendarily bad film The Room. These days, DeCoteau generally alternates between making talking animal films as Mary Crawford and directing soft-core gay pornographic thrillers under the “1313” brand, which partially explains the presence of one extraordinarily homoerotic sequence in A Talking Cat!?!. As a test of his other work I watched a bit of Retro Puppet Master and found it generally unengaging. It seemed much drier than the other films I’d seen of his, much more contained and subdued. I found another film of his, A Christmas Puppy, even more difficult to bear. It possessed all of of the amateurishness of his other talking animal films with practically none of the charm. Also, the dog, predictably not the one on the cover and not even a puppy for that matter, was only in eight shots, and it never moved on camera, so there's that. Upon reflection, it seems to me that Mary Crawford really is more than an alias. She is an alternate identity, a more distinctive filmmaker than David DeCoteau himself, a captivating fragment of a divided psyche. Regardless of where DeCoteau himself stands as an artist, Mary Crawford is a fascinating creation, one whom I hope he will continue to explore. She has already brought me a great deal of happiness, and in the end who can really ask for more than that? - Max Castleman