I’d like to tell you that Jonathon Sharkey is a brilliant satirist. Unfortunately he’s not. The subject of W. Trey White’s recent documentary, The Impaler, Sharkey takes himself very seriously, which is too bad. He’s not a bad guy, really, just boorish and full of himself. It wasn’t until the second half of the film, when Sharkey lands in jail and White is forced to point his camera at peripheral characters, that the film became interesting. White is compelling on screen and his gentle quest to find the truth of the matter provides an antithesis to Sharkey’s self-obsessed drama.
Self-proclaimed vampire Jonathon Sharkey ran for Minnesota governor in 2006 and it is his campaign that the film focuses on. He’s running for President now on a platform that emphasizes impaling anyone who disagrees with him. Although claiming to have a PhD in political science, Sharkey shows an alarming ignorance regarding the American political system, such as there being three branches of government and the simple fact that murder is against the law. He seems to envision his presidency as the rule of a despot rather than democratic leader, and he models himself on Vlad Dracula, the 15th century Wallachian prince upon whom the legend of Count Dracula is based (The “vampire” story was actually made up by German monks as revenge for the crimes Dracula perpetrated upon them.)
Fighting the constantly invading Turks and always outnumbered, Dracula built his reputation through his absolute ferocity on the battlefield. As a last stand against the Turks he had his men create a “forest of the impaled,” impaling 20,000 dead and dying Turkish captives. Horrified, the Sultan called for a retreat. Dracula lived during a time when pretty much anything gory and vengeful might happen to you at any time. Dracula was particularly cruel and is perhaps the most famous psychopath in history, but he did live in a kill-or-be-killed age. None of us, I reckon, would like to go back there.
Torture was common in the 15th century and many leaders used impalement as a political terror tactic – Dracula just did it better than anyone else. Here’s a description of impalement from Dracula: Prince of Many Faces (Florescu & McNally, Back Bay Books, 1989):
Usually, it is said, the stakes were carefully rounded at the end and bathed in oil so that the entrails of the victims should not be pierced by a wound too quickly fatal when the victim’s legs were stretched wide apart and two horses (one attached to each leg) were sent cantering in different directions while attendants held the stake and body firmly in place.
In contrast, The Impaler shows Sharkey trying to make an impalement stake in his backyard. He has bought a 2 x 4” at the local hardware store, but doesn’t have the right saw or anything to clamp the stake down on so White tries to hold it for him as Sharkey cuts sad, jagged bits out of the wood. Imagining this man acting upon his boasts – having the stomach for it – is ludicrous. When he is arrested for outstanding warrants, he puts up no fight and trades in his cape for the orange garb of prison.
The imprisonment is lucky for viewers, though, because this is where the film gets interesting. Relieved of Sharkey and his mugging for the camera, White goes on the road to discover the truth about the vampire’s life. He talks to Sharkey’s ex- (or maybe not ex-) wife who claims he has a cross-dressing fetish and a female alter-ego. In perhaps the film’s most poignant scene, White interviews his religious young son at the edge of a lot filled with toilets. Shy and afraid, the boy clearly misses his father, although he’s not altogether sure why.
Other characters include old wrestling buddies who aren’t really sure what has happened to Sharkey, whom they know as “Rocky Adonis Flash.” They’ve been told that Sharkey is dead and remember him fondly as a rather inept but likeable fellow. Sharkey’s old coach teaches the filmmaker a few moves, providing some comic energy and reminding the viewer of the bravado of the wrestling world that Sharkey is trying to capitalize on just as Jesse Ventura did, although Ventura seemed to understand the joke. The film ends with Sharkey out of prison, confronting the camera and forgiving everyone who badmouthed him in the film.
Sharkey is at heart a huckster and he seems rather more panda bear than psychopath. His need for attention is such that he’ll bite his arm to “feed” his pagan-practicing wife (who has dentures and can’t bite deep enough to draw blood). It’s the equivalent to sucking a cut on your finger and they go about it like a couple of goofy teenagers.
Unlike filmmaker Michael Moore, who goes for the kill, White has a warm onscreen persona and although his presence drives the second half of the film, he still tries to stay out of it. He never makes fun of his characters nor does he try to influence what the audience thinks or feels. That’s pretty impressive actually, because Sharkey is crying out to be ridiculed. During the first half of the film White pretty much sits like a fly on the wall, essentially waiting for something to happen. When his star becomes inaccessible, he is forced into action although his attempts to sort through the stories ultimately fail and he never fully unravels Sharkey. For my part, I have to admit, I didn’t really care. What does interest me is the confusing effect Sharkey has on other people’s lives – the effect of so much unchecked narcissism in action.
Ultimately what we see is Sharkey the showman. Unfortunately he’s not a terribly good one. He claims to have gotten the most press of any third-party gubernatorial candidate, but it is clear the only reason for this is the vampire spin. He dons an American flag shirt for an interview with Tucker Carlson for a segment called “Curious Situation” during which he says his campaign slogan is “the New Deal for Minnesota.” “Oh, come on!” exclaims Carlson, “You’re a Satanist vampire wearing an American flag t-shirt and ‘a New Deal for Minnesota’ is the best you can come up with?!” The pathos of it is that clearly Sharkey really can’t come up with anything better. He struggles to get past vampirism to talk about his platform, which includes hiring Mafiosi to rub out drug dealers. It’s a sad moment when the viewer realizes this guy
really does believe everything he’s spouting and he doesn’t have a clue that everyone around him is laughing.
Dracula, despite being crazy, was a keen politician absolutely unafraid to use brutal terror to rule his people. Sharkey is all inflated swagger and we are complicit in feeding his delusions. Kudos to him for generating all the attention he craves. In return The Impaler allows us the simple pleasure of being gawkers at an accident. Long live irony.