Cory McAbee’s 2001 feature writing-directing debut, “The American Astronaut,” won a still-active cult following. But while that black-and-white sci-fi Western musical’s impressive idiosyncrasies wore a tad thin over 91 minutes, the stylistically and thematically similar “Stingray Sam” leaves one begging for more at one unflaggingly delightful hour. Structured as six serial-like episodes intended for viewing on every format from an iPhone on up, this wee off-kilter marvel bows theatrically Sept. 15 at L.A.’s Downtown Independent. It’s available via DVD and download that same day; further theater and fest bookings already stretch into 2010.
McAbee, of long-running cabaret-comedy rock band the Billy Nayer Show, here plays a lounge singer on Mars in an intergalactically corporatized future. His Stingray Sam is shanghai’d from that gig by a former jail-cell pal, the Quasar Kid (bandmate Crugie), on a redemptive mission: rescuing a now-rare little girl (the helmer-star’s very sportive 5-year-old, Willa Vy McAbee), kidnapped from her fugitive father by wealthy megalomaniac Fredward (Joshua Taylor) for reasons related to genetic engineering, which has resulted in male pregnancies favoring male children. Think “The Searchers” meets “Eraserhead” and you’re in the general neighborhood.
Goofy future-shock backstories ribbing current U.S. realities, such as privatized prisons, are cleverly illustrated in color still-collage sequences designed by John Borruso, drolly narrated by David Hyde Pierce. Live-action segs are beautifully shot in high-def black-and-white by Scott Miller.
The overall effect is hilariously digressive, campy yet deadpan. And awfully catchy: McAbee’s songs range from a “Rawhide”-like theme tune to swinging ’60s acid rock, cowpunk and an acoustic “Pretty Little Lullaby.” There’s even room on the soundtrack for brief traditional Indian and Chinese instrumentation.
The freewheeling pic accommodates everything from physical humor (notably an incredible “secret handshake” running gag) and delightfully staged wiseass musical numbers (opener “Welcome to Mars” wins goodwill enough for multiple features) to the genuinely sweet interactions between senior and junior McAbees.
Perfs ideally grok McAbee’s sensibility, which demands as specific a mix of comic exaggeration and quasi-amateur oddity as something like “Napoleon Dynamite.” Design/tech contributions are a model of microbudget esprit.