[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Porno is a Delightfully Silly Creature Feature

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Screened at Fantasia 2019:

An old rule in horror movies is never go into the basement. Basements always host a variety of evil things, just waiting to be unleashed on the world. And while that’s usually reserved for creepy houses and cabins in various woods and/or mountains, Keola Racela’s debut feature adds movies theatres to that illustrious list. And while the conservative and repressed teenagers in Porno don’t find a Necronomicon made of human flesh in the bowels of their theatre, they do discover a 35mm film that has a whole lot of human skin it…It’s a porno. They find a cursed porno.

That took a moment, but I got us there.

The movie opens on a couple of pervy teenagers, looking through a window at a couple making vigorous love to each other. One of the teenagers is a nerdy guy named Abe (Evan Daves) who looks like a cross between 90s Chris Klein and a young Brad Dourif and he is enjoying the view. But his similarly nerdy friend named Todd (Larry Saperstein) desperately wants them to leave because, “I can’t get in trouble for this again.” They both work at a local theatre, run by a prissy and incredibly religious Mr. Pike (BIll Phillips).

At a brief prayer circle Mr. Pike leads before every opening (“for The Devil dwells just below our feet!”), the rest of the cast is quickly introduced. There’s Chastity (Jillian Mueller), the newly appointed Assistant Manager who is described by Mr. Pike as someone that “no amount of makeup can conceal her love of Christ.” And there’s Ricky (Glenn Stott), the All-American Jock with those incredible good looks and a super hero jaw who has just returned to their flock. Finally, there’s the projectionist everyone (to his chagrin) calls Heavy Metal Jack (Robbie Tann), who spouts moralistic musings like, “He’s not doing the drugs. The drugs are doing him.”

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While the time period is never mentioned, Encino Man and A League of Their Own are the two movies playing at the theatre so I’m guessing it’s 1992. After a typical night at the movies, Mr. Pike allows his small congregation (AKA employees) to pick the movie to watch, while he goes back home. But a kooky old man (Peter Reznikoff) has somehow made it, drunk and delirious, into the theatre and uncovers a secret basement, boarded up with a cross burnt into the plywood.

Chasing him into the basement, the group uncover a second theatre that has posters for movies called “10 Foot Hole 10 Foot Pole.” Being good Christian boys and girls, they don’t completely realize that they’ve stumbled upon a porno theatre, complete with a dusty old 35mm movie reel. Long story short, they play it and unleash a succubus that begins to wreck havoc on these repressed Christians.

Written by Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli, Porno wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The titular porno on screen takes inspiration from a lot of the underground experimental filmmakers of the 60s and 70s, like a straighter Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising, mixing surreal imagery, the occult and sexuality. The theatrical setting and demon-run-amok theme brings to mind the Italian Demons and the color scheme and some shots are reminiscent of the older Italian horror films. And while it never reaches the manic heights Demons, it has some incredible practical effects and blood splatters. One particular, er…piece of practical effects work actually had me cringing at its realistic design and the incredibly bloody spectacle that the camera lingers on for so long.

I’m talking dick trauma, y’all. There’s a lot of it. And it’s incredibly (read: painfully) well done.

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But what I didn’t expect was a second act that focused less on the titillation that a movie named Porno would suggest and more on the repressed nature of this Christian group. Each of the teenagers have secrets or vices or repressed feelings that the demonic succubus uses to her benefit. The theme is explored to a large degree in the second act, as the teenagers who’ve been lied to and manipulated for years are forced to examine some painful truths. The theatre in the basement is also a physical representation of repression. The puritan owners of the theatre literally boarded up the past in an attempt to hide it from the world and forget about its existence. There’s actual themes being explored here, under the gore, as the teenagers start to realize just how complicit they are because of their blind faith in some duplicitous religious figure.

It’s all very surprising and heartfelt, for a movie about a naked succubus who wants to explodes people’s nuts and drain them of their bodily fluids. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the themes are completely paid off in the third act. Some of the resolutions feel a little pat and while this is ultimately a creature feature, I expected a bit more of a thematic ending, given the second act spends almost its entire time with the teenagers exploring their feelings.

That said, it also has a plot point centered around a male striptease set to Liverpool Express’s “I Want Nobody But You” and that’s pretty damn awesome. I really loved this silly movie. Yes, the pacing is uneven and the jokes sort of stall in the second act. And yes the events leading up the climax are a little clumsy. But the mix of juvenile humor, unabashed nudity and gore combined with characters I found myself rooting for and an actual thematic purpose made me a fan.