Way Down in Chinatown is bizarre and often incomprehensible. Sometimes shrill and discordant, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes discombobulating. These aren’t criticisms of the film, merely observations. It was designed to be all of these things, and quite a bit more.
The story opens with Victor and Jessica Mitchum, a playwright and producer, respectively, who want to put on a musical about the apocalypse. Their plans are somewhat derailed by the actual apocalypse, which chooses rather inconveniently to descend slowly upon the world while Victor and Jessica are in the middle of rehearsals.
One of the hallmarks of the apocalypse is a bright light and shrill noise which occurs intermittently throughout the film. It’s irritating to the audience, but it’s supposed to be—it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it didn’t cause some discomfort. Whenever the noise and light occur, bad things happen—often someone dies.
As they produce their play and do their best to survive, Victor and Jessica are pursued by two rather creepy, alien-looking creatures with a hidden agenda and poor communication skills, who want to use the Mitchums’ theatrical talents for their own, possibly nefarious goals.
Aside from the apocalypse, there are two major themes that appear over and over again throughout the movie. The first is worms. Worms are everywhere, including some rather icky places, for reasons that are eventually somewhat revealed in one of the weirdest and most experimental sequences in the film. The other theme is the 1930s folk song “Goodnight, Irene,” which is sung repeatedly over the course of the movie. Its presence is explained a lot more clearly, but it somehow ends up seeming even more strange for that fact.
This movie is definitely not for everyone. It’s very odd and difficult to understand, and parts of the film can be grating and bombastic. But, it’s definitely unique and intriguing in its own bizarre way. It can be funny or terrifying, or occasionally both, in a whistling-in-the-dark sort of way. The dialogue is clunky and awkward at times, but this is due in part simply to the surreal nature of the film and the characters. Part horror, part sci-fi, and part noir, it’s black and white and, though very low budget, has its influences in German expressionism, making it very interesting to look at, even when you haven’t a clue what’s going on.
Say what you will about this film, it’s intricately crafted. Every grotesquely-made-up character is designed that way. Every irritating sound, swelling into a desperate cacophony, is carefully planned and placed to make you feel a certain way. That way isn’t always pleasant, in fact more often than not, it’s the opposite. It’s sometimes abstract and often visceral. But, it’s always deliberate.
That being the case, this film is more an experience than anything else. The story and plot elements are secondary to the feelings it evokes. If you’re open to a new experience, and let the film take you where it wants to go, regardless of how insane the destination, then you might enjoy this movie. But, if you’re not a fan of having films make you feel weird, uncomfortable, and irritated sometimes, then this is not the movie for you.