Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2015


Love and death metal

Intermittently charming 'Deathgasm' has the right attitude - just not enough of it

Dark Sky Films
Director: Jason Lei Howden
Screenplay: Jason Lei Howden
Starring: Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman, Sam Berkley, Daniel Cresswell, Nick Hoskins-Smith and Colin Moy
Rated R / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Deathgasm knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. Such clarity of identity, hard as it can be to find sometimes, is an admirable thing. But that's more than I can say for its execution.

This seems like the beta version of a much better movie. It's striving for Edgar Wright, but winds up with Jared Hess (only with more attitude and less sense of composition). It's a movie I wish I loved. There's an indelible charm to the way it blends edginess with sentimentality, rebelliousness with innocence. It's a movie in which puppy love and Satanic idolatry can comfortably coexist. A movie that both embraces and undercuts the naive spirit of its heroes.

But establishing an identity is one thing; ultimately it's just a starting point, and Deathgasm, when it's not haphazardly stumbling through plot developments, too often fails to harness its ideas into something propulsive or in any way consistent. It's not necessarily - or at least not entirely - an insult to say it has student-film qualities (because that's where it gets its awkward, outsider charm), but it definitely feels like too much of a work-in-progress, at visual and script levels both. There are sparks of inspiration throughout, but the mishandled and undercooked situations stand out more.

Part of the inconsistency seems to stem from a lack of assurance on when and how to push things comedically. By my count, there are exactly four instances of the film turning its scenario into comic gold - including one sequence in which sex toys are used as weapons against a horde of the demonically possessed. So writer/director Jason Lei Howden definitely shows the desire, and the ability, to exploit the material for the truly absurd value it contains. But too often, his tone seems to waver - as if he's unsure when to really play with the genre ideas and when to play it straight. Too often, the movie just seems content being affable. It's banking on our desire to empathize with the new kid in town - to embrace his new underdog friends, to hate his abusive relatives that he's living with, and to hope he gets the girl. All that is fine. But for a film about us-against-the-world metalheads, Deathgasm is actually pretty ... basic. It's taken the teenage-outsider template too much to heart, and so it winds up going through the motions.

Not even the first-person narration - which in so many movies fills in the narrative gaps and shortcomings, for better or worse - can do much to gloss over the most glaringly half-baked elements of the screenplay. The voiceover comes courtesy of our proverbial loner, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), whose sob story involves his drug-addicted mother getting institutionalized, forcing him to be sent off to live with his Aunt Mary and Uncle Albert. Those two are a jolly pair of shame-mongering Christian fundamentalists who've raised a violent brat of a son, David, who instantly takes a dislike to his cousin and bullies him incessantly at school.

Brodie finds friends only by accident or by default (who doesn't?) - first the only two kids who are just as much of a social pariah as he is, Dion and Giles (a pair of Dungeons & Dragons-loving nerds), and not long afterward, Zakk (James Blake), with whom he finds a common interest in the metal section of the local record shop. The four decide to start a band (this despite, as with most high-school bands, the fact that none of them are particularly musically talented). During this process, they quite unwittingly get their hands on a piece of music that, if played correctly, will summon Satan and his army of minions to Earth. Or at least this particular part of New Zealand.

It sounds like a teenage Tenacious D - it just doesn't have the manic energy or farcical imagination to match. And its storytelling is ... disheveled, to say the least.

David's girlfriend, Medina (Kimberley Crossman), for example, suddenly takes a liking to Brodie, for no other reason than the movie wishes it to be so. Then, when they've decided to meet up, the film concocts a scene in which a jealous Zakk shows up to meet Medina instead, tells her that Brodie told him to tell her he wasn't interested, and so the two of them (Zakk and Medina, that is) end up making out instead. It's not only a complete disservice to Medina as a character, but ludicrously contrived as a story choice - a "betrayal" subplot cheaply inserted for the sake of manufactured drama.

To a certain degree, that laziness is par for the course in Deathgasm, but that doesn't prevent it from being pretty damn delightful in fits and starts. Its charms are enduring, its actors likable, its basic instincts admirable. It just needs to be more than the sum of its intentions.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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