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by Jay Seaver

"Hopefully coming soon to a neighborhood theater near you."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Porno" is the sort of movie that feels like someone should have thought of it and done it before, but I can't think of anything particularly similar, and I bet those with better catalogs in their brains won't think of a better "monsters in a run-down movie theater" picture (although, as this is very much my thing, I'm happy to hear what obvious example I'm blanking on ). Inspiration usually seems obvious in retrospect, and thus is inspired even before the nice cast and quality, fearless execution shows up.

It takes place in the early 1990s (Encino Man and A League of Their Own are on the two-plex's marquee), and as they do every Friday night, the teenagers who work there are going to watch a movie after the customers leave. Chastity (Jillian Mueller) has just been made assistant manager, and Ricky (Glenn Stott) has just come back from camp, though his talk of the girlfriend he met there have had no noticeable effect on Chaz's crush. Also working are Abe (Evan Daves) and Todd (Larry Saperstein), but before they can tell projectionist Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann) what they want to watch, a homeless man bursts in and uncovers a secret door, behind which they find a strange archive and a third screen in the basement. Obviously, when that happens, you watch what you just found - and, of course, it's inevitable that in addition to being more sexually explicit than anything these nice church-going kids have seen before, those reels of film are exactly the sort of thing hide and seal away in horror movies because they imprison a demon.

The last quarter-century or so of cinema construction has given us recliners, digital projection and sound, stadium seating, and, more to the point, buildings where even the first wave has more or less remained in its original configuration (even if the box offices are sometimes unnervingly unmanned). I will not argue for the superiority of the places that came before, their large screens awkwardly divided, their behind-the-scenes areas cramped and labyrinthine, and their projection booths filled with equipment bolted onto projectors that have been there since the silent era, but they undeniably have history and personality, and a large portion of the audience for this movie has probably spent enough time in those places for it to resonate. The oddity of the architecture combines with the way film holds frozen life to make the movie fantastical but also kind of right.

Still, what makes it work in unexpected ways are the kids, who aren't what you'd expect in either direction. There's not a quote-spewing know-it-all among them, for instance, which means the're not undermining the action with references and commentary (back in 1992, it took time for a young person to accumulate all that knowledge in a small town). That they're all sincere Christians is played as just part of the environment but not trivial, something which the rest of their personalities maps onto but which doesn't make them look like fools. They're kids who like movies the same way that most people do, just a little bit more, although this particular situation is trouble. The cast does nice work with them, too, especially Jillian Mueller playing Chaz as not sure how nervous she should be on a couple of levels and Glen Stott, whose aloofness is hiding a thing or two. The way their backstory comes out is clever and honest a huge deal for their environment even if a generation's distance leaves room to play.

Of course, half the gag winds up being that they are (outwardly) prudish and will get their faces (and other things) full of things that even much more cosmopolitan people might think is a bit much. It turns out to be an impressively gory horror movie, where everything is on the table and then some. The escalation is impressive, and the filmmakers push things so that there's a reason to laugh, wince, and thrill in every scene, making much better jokes about the nastiness of its mayhem, often twisting mean-spirited jokes into ones that are almost empathetic about the characters' hapless ignorance. It eventually goes for messy monsters over demons with the sort of personality who can upstage the heroes, which winds up a good call.

It should be a huge hit in the sort of rep houses that look like they might have been around in the 1990s, with bonus points if it spent some time as an adult theater in the 1970s/1980s. It's a fun ride even if one's community no longer has places like that, of course, a blood and clever horror comedy that speaks right to its audience.without pandering.

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originally posted: 02/01/20 01:33:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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