SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS BY PASSING THROUGH THE GATEWAY CHOSEN BY THE HOLY STORSH (dir. Vivieno Caldinelli, 2018)
As implied by its precocious title, this film is a somewhat messy, convoluted, but occasionally charming horror-comedy. When Claire (played in a fun wide-eyed turn by Kate Micucci) and her boyfriend Paul (Sam Huntington, who also fulfills his role well as an unemployed loser), both from Ohio, rent a new apartment in L.A. after she lands her dream job in an advertising agency, things start to go south. They discover a popular local cult (that of the titular Holy Storsh) have chosen their location to commit suicide in the bathtub in service of their beliefs. Rather than treating this with any degree of seriousness or even creepiness, the film heightens its irreverent humor by having the couple decide to keep their reasonably located and priced place and help the cult members along in achieving their eternal bliss.
The film revolves around sequences that espouse the seven stages of the cult, such as to “Unshackle Yourself From The Burden Of Overthinking,” but confusingly do not always seem to adhere to the spirit of the stage presented in the title card. Claire and Paul become drawn in by the beliefs of the cult, using them to enhance their personal lives. Claire even uses one of their tenets to launch a successful advertising campaign. In this respect, Storsh offers a parodic take on the oversaturated market of religious and self-help books, where people can pick up anything by even an insidious author and become interested in and influenced by it.
Where the film falls flat is in its belabored attempt at quirky humor. Though there are a few scenes that provide genuine laughs, most notably an extended sequence where one of the cult members in the tub seems unable, after several attempts, to die, the majority of the jokes don’t land. It wastes talent like Dan Harmon as a bumbling and inept police officer who writes screenplays in his spare time, and Rhea Seehorn as a conniving social climber married to a millionaire. These characters come off as exaggerated stereotypes. Maria Bamford and Brian Posehn deliver short, wasted cameos as hysterical members of Storsh. Even a partially-animated sequence with Paul explaining the reason why he cannot find a job is more of a desperate reach for absurdist humor than it is truly funny. The film commits the cardinal sin of a horror-comedy, particularly one that appears to be trying so hard; it simply isn’t all that funny.
It’s a shame because the premise is certainly ripe for dark comedy and there is a lot of talent involved. With a sharper, smarter script, this could have been an excellent success. The film doesn’t seem to have an interest in either delving too deep and dark into the cult material or satirizing Claire and Paul’s small-town innocence too harshly. One has the feeling that if the envelope had merely been pushed a little farther, laughs would have come more naturally, and there wouldn’t have to have been the desperate need to reach for them.
THE SECRET POPPO (dir. Nevi Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce, 2018)
THE SECRET POPPO is a unique mystery/sci-fi film that takes place in Chicago. It is very difficult to get into unless you are able to fully absorb and enjoy the personality of Jonald Byron (Nic Luzietti), whose presence drives and dominates the film. Luckily Nic is a fun and funny guy who is very captivating and amusing to watch. He is the titular “Secret Poppo,” who is in search of the granddaughter he has lost touch with, Eleanor Byron Jr., and who is following several enigmatic clues to find her.
For a low-budget film, THE SECRET POPPO deploys many digital special effects, such as unique wipes and super-impositions. It plays with these as an element of joyful absurdity, not necessarily as a mechanic to advance the plot, as it does with its driving, jazzy supporting score. All of these highlight Jonald’s journey as he continues following leads. The loose plot is not much more than an excuse to present scenes of Jonald making new discoveries, which range in depth from the finding of Eleanor’s roommate to the rumination that maybe he wasn’t a good husband.
Most of the film is made up of Jonald’s voice-overs, which are musing in nature. It is truly a project that takes place the majority of the time inside his head, which is a risk for an indie genre movie. This film at least slightly pulls it off, though again, if you are not invested in the lead character, it is doubtful it will work for you. It was clear from the cast and crew’s presentation that they are all good friends, and the entire piece comes off as what it likely is, friends improvising a film together and having a blast. That will either have the effect of the audience being able to lose itself in the ride and enjoy it, or feeling isolated like they’re an outsider. There are doubtless some who would describe THE SECRET POPPO as weird for the sake of being weird, or overly precious or “twee.” The collective is so warm and obviously having so much fun that I felt the enthusiasm was somewhat contagious.
The sci-fi elements come into play both as Jonald is searching for his granddaughter, and more significantly, when he discovers her. These moments will come off as goofy and unjustified if you are expecting too much of the film. They are definitely not there to add any seriousness or more complexity to the film, but more surreal humor. Before this screening, we were warned to look at it with the abandon of a child, and in that respect, THE SECRET POPPO is playful and endearing.
The Secret Poppo will definitely not be to everyone’s tastes. But if you are willing to suspend belief, let go, and enjoy the journey, it is adorable, enjoyable, and even occasionally philosophical.
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (dir. Stephen Chiodo, 1998)
The repertory screening of this cult classic on the final night of Cinepocalypse drew a huge crowd and they all seemed to be having a lot of fun. Steve Prokopy, who was interviewing the Chiodo Brothers, said something along the lines of, “Thanks for fucking up our childhoods.” I was there to agree with that sentiment, and could recognize it more as a horror-comedy as an adult, even though it terrified me on late-night TV as a child.
KILLER KLOWNS still employs some of the best pre-CGI special effects out there (those large, exaggerated clown costumes and cotton-candy hives are still terrifying). In addition, it was cast really well (with Suzanne Snyder as the hapless Debbie, and John Vernon as the hard-edged Curtis Mooney). It’s a great example of an underground film that utilized its budget well and hit all the right notes for the alternative fan base it was trying to reach.
The plot of the film is, unsurprisingly, very simple. When clowns from outer space decide to start capturing and killing people in the small town of Crescent Cove, everyone reacts and tries to take action. The movie is based less on the plot and more on specific creepy scenes of the clowns’ diabolical actions, like trying to entice a little girl while hiding a mallet in back, or producing a puppet show in a ploy to ensnare a helpless victim. These scenes are still effectively disturbing and chilly.
KILLER KLOWNS holds up well as both a horror and a comedy. In particular, two hapless citizens driving an ice-cream truck provide a lot of humor, as do the antics of the local police force. The Chiodo Brothers’ vision of the surreal clowns at their games are still very frightening, but there are also many laughs found in the town’s efforts to derail them. Not to mention, the synth-driven theme song is wonderful. It is still highly recommended as a big-screen viewing.