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by Jay Seaver

"As promised, it's metal as f---. That your thing?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I skipped "Deathgasm" at Independent Film Festival Boston figuring it would play Fantasia while other things on the IFFBoston schedule might not otherwise play theaters, and the gambit payed off. Not just because the movie played, but because I don't know if the crowd would have been quite so metal in Boston, although who knows; that festival brings out its music fans. The point is, "Deathgasm" is a movie that plays to its audience and better with one, so keep that in mind.

For a raucous thing, it starts with a downer, as nice-enough teenager Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is orphaned, and winds up sent to a small town to live with his very religious aunt and uncle. There's a record store in town, though, which introduces him to heavy metal, and where he meets Zakk (James Blake), the town's other metalhead. Soon he's got a major crush on school beauty Medina (Kimberly Crossman), whom Zakk points out is way out of his league, while they start a band with fantasy geeks Dion (Sam Berkley) and Giles (Daniel Cresswell). When Brodie & Zakk find out that a metal legend is living incognito nearby, they go to his house and find the door open, and while they're chased out, Zakk has made off with a piece of sheet music that, when played, apparently can actually raise demons, and while these guys hate their town, they didn't mean to destroy it!

Writer/director Jason Lei Howden does nothing to hide that he is playing on parental fears of Satanism, especially back in the 1980s, with a big part of the gag here being that this movie is a demonstration of how absurd the idea that heavy metal music (or the Dungeons & Dragons that is the other band members' real passion) really can call forth the Devil's armies. Howden has great fun poking at the details of these beliefs, right down to how apparently the ony way to put the things this music did right is by playing it backwards. It's clever, and I suspect that a lot of the bits of the plot the seemed like outside characters tacked on for length would have been much funnier if I knew more about the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, especially how it manifested in the filmmakers' native New Zealand.

Truth be told, I actually found the bits before and around the horror-movie shenanigans a lot more fun; before any hints of the supernatural appear, Deathgasm is a very funny teen comedy that both has real love for its characters and recognizes how silly some of it is. Take the moments when Brodie and Medina hear metal for the first time; even those of us who don't particularly like it will have a hard time denying that Howden gets across how it can make someone feel like a god when they really need that - and he gets a laugh out of it, too. There's an earnestness to those scenes despite the fact that there isn't one believable teenager among the cast.

Not that the actors tend to look like they're in their mid-twenties that much more than is typical, and they play their parts well. There's a real charm to Milo Cawthorne's Brodie; he's dumped on a lot early on before finding his place (and almost destroying the world), and he articulates the natural despair well, while also laying the foundation for a guy who will prove likable even without pity, despite maybe not being the brightest. James Blake, meanwhile, manages to flex his jackass muscles as Zakk, bringing out the sort of narrowly-focused passion that makes him cool to someone like Brodie but an obvious jerk for others, often putting deadpan comedy to work in service of some kind of weird jokes. Kimberley Crossman's Medina starts out as the sort of beauty who seems seems a bit hemmed-in by how nobody else can understand why she might be angry, and is thus a lot of fun when she leaps into the absurdity and ridiculous violence with both feet.

And things do get crazy; like what seems like a fair number of recent New Zealand genre filmmakers, Howden has spent some time at Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop but although his true love seems to be Jackson's earlier gore movies, meaning he's got a lot of technical know-how to apply to the sort of movies often made by filmmakers who are just learning. The gore is therefore pretty darn good, messy and over-the-top in a wonderfully tacky way but very well-staged, and Howden proves nearly as adept with the frantic action as he does the earlier material.

It makes the movie into a bit of a cartoon, though. A good cartoon, but one which can seem arbitrary and mean all the way through after the movie started out kind of sweet underneath its cruelty. With the right crowd, that won't matter; the classic-metal soundtrack and splattery comedy will pull the audience through. If that's not really your thing, you may find yourself wanting to pick and choose the good bits, which is okay too, as there's more than enough to make the movie worthwhile.

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originally posted: 08/21/15 10:32:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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  02-Oct-2015 (NR)


  02-Oct-2015 (R)

Directed by
  Jason Lei Howden

Written by
  Jason Lei Howden

  Milo Cawthorne
  James Blake
  Kimberley Crossman
  Stephen Ure

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