One of the genuine pleasures of seeing nearly 200 films in a year (I’ll probably fall a half dozen short of that in 2019) is discovering truly independent gems like Chained for Life that all too often get lost in a crowded, noisy multiplex. The sophomore feature from writer/director Aaron Schimberg (Go Down Death), Chained for Life debuted in Chicago over the summer, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival to be precise. It’s a fitting festival home for this slightly weird, awfully endearing story of a film shoot in an abandoned hospital starring Jess Weixler (Teeth) and Adam Pearson (Under the Skin); it returns for a theatrical engagement at Siskel Film Center this week.
Through a decent portion of the film, you might not know exactly what you’re watching, and that’s of course as it’s meant to be. The narrative of a film within a film means that Schimberg can have some fun with his location, a creepily retro locale that’s actually still partially in use, and his characters, who are both themselves and their second characters. Weixler is Mabel, an ingenue flexing her artistic muscles in the English language debut of a European auteur; the self-awareness of this plot point alone is a delight, as those of us steeped in this sort of thing will appreciate (and those not will, too). The horror film they’re making features a supporting cast of “freaks,” a sort of parade of those with oddities that, in another time, were off-putting enough to be deemed scary. Pearson, who has a form of neurofibromatosis, plays Rosenthal, one of this crew of “freaks” making his first film and finding it hard to settle into life on set. Mabel offers to share some of her acting tips with him, and the two strike up a friendship. Weixler and Pearson share a remarkable chemistry that charms in every scene they share.
Schimberg’s first film was released in 2013, meaning he’s had several years to percolate on the story and themes of Chained for Life, and it shows. He’s crafted something wholly unique as it navigates the serious and meaningful as deftly as it does the darkly funny and creepy. What’s more, he takes what’s already an interesting premise from a unique perspective and centers his cast of “freaks”—those disabled or disfigured by circumstances beyond their control—in a beautifully thoughtful way.