Everyone who works at the one-screen movie theatre in a small Christian town has varying degrees of trouble in their past. Todd (Larry Saperstein) and Abe (Evan Daves) are both peeping toms, even though Todd’s the only one who officially got in trouble for it. Ricky (Glenn Stott) is keeping something major from everyone but the theatre manager and Christian life coach Mr. Pike (Bill Phillips). Chastity, or Chaz, (Jillian Mueller) is a newly converted goth after her cousin smuggled in some new cassette tapes of The Cure and others. And Jeff (Robbie Tann) is a recovering addict who Mr. Pike helped get onto the straight and narrow again. Even Mr. Rogers-ish Mr. Pike has disturbing metaphorical skeletons in his office closet. But this surface-wholesome environment takes a turn for the dark in director Keola Racela’s horror film Porno after the gang finds a secret basement underneath their workplace that hides much more than secrets.

With the backdrop of Christian purity culture firmly established, the basement reveals that the beloved town cinema was once a den of iniquity. But more disturbing than the porn posters on the wall to these sexually repressed youngsters is the reel of film they unearth and subsequently watch. Channeling a giallo-horror vibe and nods to Suspiria and Lords of Salem, the provocative film features what appears to be some kind of Satanic ritual. But the kids don’t turn it off because of all the nudity. “Is this an art film?” innocent Todd asks, having never seen an actual porno in his life. Once played, the film takes on a life of its own as it invokes an ancient sex demon Lilith (Katelyn Pierce) — or succubus — who begins literally sucking the life force out of the men’s penises, all of whom are now trapped inside the movie theatre.  

What begins as a darkly whimsical 90s period piece, high school horror homage, and commentary on purity culture quickly fragments into an uneven narrative that never quite found its footing. It didn’t help that the pacing was all off, making this hour-and-a-half feel much, much longer, and not in a good way. There were too many moments where the actors were staring at something off-screen for drawn-out beats, an attempt at ratcheting up tension that never materialized. A more discerning editor could have easily cut 15 minutes from this to make it faster paced and as a positive side effect, much scarier. 

Porno also couldn’t decide what at heart it was. Is it a camp horror comedy? A straightforward demon possession narrative? A 90s high school drama? Or something else entirely? With stronger writing and tighter editing, these elements might have worked together since the story itself is solid. But as it stands it felt like Porno was battling itself as the cast battled the sex demon. I had high hopes this would eventually pick up steam by the end, but instead it ended with a predictable, slight fizzle, and promptly fell flat.

On the other hand, the cinematography and light design were beautiful and creepy and added a lot of 90s horror charm to the film. While the gore and violence were often over the top, I have to admit I’m a huge fan of succubus narratives and did enjoy what Porno brought to the table as the sex demon ripped off several penises, and often on screen. Seeing that this was a mostly male-lead production, the fearlessness in showing this kind  act gets a nod of appreciation from me. Often succubus tales end up becoming soft-core porn, and I liked that in a lot of ways Racela and writers Matt Black and Lawrence Vanicelli diverged from this often-sexist trope to some pretty shocking ends. Also, it’s rare that we see male full frontal at all on screen at all, and I was impressed at how much peen there was to balance out the succubus walking around full-bush naked for most of the film.

Porno’s social commentary that critiques purity culture and the hypocrisy that always seems to follow is spot on. But it needed to be developed in a more nuanced way. Without the buckets of exposition in Porno there would have been an opportunity to really dig into how this 90s theme is relevant to today. Porno seems to have its own internal logic and social message, but something was missing in the writing to really bring that point home. The film really wanted to be an insightful commentary on religion, addiction, pornography, and temptation. But the stilted dialogue and overlong pauses for dramatic effects that never really came kept dragging me out of the state of suspended disbelief I go into especially when watching horror movies.

Unfortunately, Porno is what happens when you try too hard to insert social commentary in a narrative without adequate understanding of how exactly to accomplish this without the seams showing at every turn. This movie ends up being a great reminder that good writing coupled with a social justice consciousness isn’t as easy to do successfully as many other horror films have made it look, and especially in the recent years since Get Out changed the playing field entirely.

Overall I think that horror fans, especially those who particularly enjoy the possession and demon sub-genre, will enjoy Porno even for its problems. The film is still mildly entertaining for its subversive moments even in spite of its slow pacing and expository writing. 

The post SXSW 2019 Review: ‘Porno’ appeared first on Black Girl Nerds.

SXSW 2019 Review: ‘Porno’

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