Hanging out with Rusty Nails is like watching a performance of Dada nonsense–he’ll slip into the voices of different characters, cite health statistics, then suddenly belt out his favorite song. He seems to be incapable of providing simple answers.

“I just had this weird idea,” he says when asked about the concept behind his first feature, Acne. “I thought of this huge zit on somebody’s head, the size of a mountain, and a helicopter landing on top and popping it.”

Call him offbeat, or maybe calculating. His 74-minute black-and-white debut belongs to the Roger Corman school of horror comedies, following a brother and sister as they search for the diabolical corporate and government conspirators behind the contamination of a city’s water supply. Without warning, hapless citizens feel compelled to rub their noggins with chocolate, butter, or cheese to nourish themselves, causing sales of oily foods to skyrocket–precisely the greedy schemers’ plan.

The six-year project began after Nails and cinematographer Richard Menzia met in the back room of the Halsted Street bar Manhole, where everyone is required either to wear leather or to go bare chested. “We sat there with our shirts off discussing the possibility of making Acne and trying to figure out what we wanted to do,” he recalls. “We were sort of an abysmal, sad, pathetic sight, because everyone else there was superbuff.” Nails’s loose and lanky form is the color of a peeled potato.

Nails grew up primarily in Boston. When he was 16, his mother bought him a Super-8 movie camera, and he started creating collages of “crazy” images. “I would do little things with stop motion,” he says, “and I would just make short, skitty films and horror movies.” One of the shorts was screened in a Boston art gallery.

Around the same time, Nails fell under the spell of punk music, whose do-it-yourself ethic encouraged him to take matters into his own hands. “It didn’t seem like I was going to Hollywood anytime soon,” he says. In Acne, raw sound effects often accompany odd visuals–Ladle-brand cream cheese squishes noisily when it’s applied to someone’s volcanic blackhead. There’s also music by the Dead Kennedys, Alice Donut, Tilt, and Devo, whose singer, Mark Mothersbaugh, insisted on screening the film before granting the rights to the song “Mongoloid.”

True to its low-budget inspirations–1950s movies like The Day the World Ended–Acne plays with more serious themes, particularly in its depiction of a consumer culture trying its best to ignore the spread of an HIV-like virus. “Acne is partially a tribute to a lot of older films,” he says. “I like to cover issues with comedy.”

Not surprisingly, Nails’s biggest hurdle was making the movie with practically no money. Mostly, he says, he relied on friends, who chipped in a minimum of 25 bucks apiece. “They saw how I was losing my mind.” He also held six benefit concerts at the Fireside Bowl, Lounge Ax, and the now-defunct Czar Bar. And he earned a bit from odd jobs and yard sales. “I would stand on the corner and sell just about anything I could,” he says. Three grants from Columbia College added $3,000, bringing his total budget to $12,000. And more than 125 people played some part in making the film. With the exception of a makeup artist who urgently needed rent money, no one was paid.

Acne and short films by other local filmmakers will be shown this weekend as part of the Uncut Film Festival at the Music Box, which screens at midnight on Friday and Saturday. (See also the Critic’s Choice in Section Two.) Admission is $8; a portion of the proceeds will benefit Open Hand Chicago, which provides meals and groceries to homebound people with AIDS.

–Kathryn Bertram

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rusty Nails photo by Jim Newberry.