Whilst we’re finally experiencing the certain studio projects that the pandemic momentarily stalled from their original release dates, the last year has also made way for many made-during-COVID productions to seep through the schedule too. Two creatives who put their lockdown status to viable use were Charles Busch and Carl Andress, lifelong friends and collaborators who – and this by no means is intended to shame those that weren’t quite as pandemically productive – wrote a script over Skype, produced it the moment restrictions eased, and turned out The Sixth Reel, a personality-plus, production-petite comedy that gloriously rejects any trace of subtlety.
Busch, known for his female impersonations, campy Broadway temperament, and on-screen efforts Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party, headlines The Sixth Reel as Jimmy, a collector of all things film memorabilia whose distinct habit for befriending like-minded enthusiasts as they reach the end of their life has earned him something of a wicked, “black widow”-adjacent reputation; “Would you believe this is the fourth time I’ve discovered a dead body?”, is his knowing note to a police officer investigating another deceased acquaintance.
The deceased was the kindly Gerald, and Jimmy has been called upon by Gerald’s niece Helen (Julie Halston, having a ball) to assist in offloading his estate. Gerald was something of the black sheep of his family, and Helen being the only relative that stayed in contact means she has personal stakes in his belongings, taking Jimmy’s advice that an estate sale at his apartment is the best way to assure no-one takes off with any prized goods.
It’s at the estate sale that both The Sixth Reel‘s playful ensemble and the titular device that proves more valuable and troublesome than many could have predicted grace the narrative with their presence. This sixth reel, you see, is that of the legendary lost Lon Chaney silent mystery film London After Midnight from 1927. Given that the reel in the film is a reference to a real property – the last known copy of London After Midnight was destroyed in the MGM Studios vault fire of 1965 – there’s an extra layer of admiration and respect for the medium present throughout Busch’s film, though given his love of all things classic cinema it shouldn’t really come as that much of a surprise.
Less a genre parody like Die, Mommie, Die! or Psycho Beach Party, but still delighting in a sense of madcap peculiarity, The Sixth Reel is a simple, at-times charming, others zany comedy about art appreciators confusing their enthusiasm with greed; Margaret Cho‘s high-end art dealer Doris, Tim Daly‘s might be queer, might be from London film professor, and a disturbingly endearing Doug Plaut as Jimmy’s best friend (or is he?) all having a gay (pardon the pun) old time as a slew of the vultures hoping to get their hands on the reel for their own monetary benefit.
Though the film itself is likely to cater to a more specific audience, those that understand its references and classic temperament should be rightfully tickled by the intended nonsense and cinema love that Busch and co. have so affectionately adhered to.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Sixth Reel is screening as part of this year’s Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival, which is being presented in cinema across various New South Wales locations and on demand between February 17th and March 3rd, 2022. For more information head to the official Mardi Gras Film Festival website.