Most real-world and folkloric taboos alike have lost some of their ability to outrage in entertainment form — the never-ending zombie vogue has devalued cannibalism, while childhood sexual abuse has become the lazy screenwriter’s fallback explanatory plot revelation. But even in an era of almost-anything-goes internet content, snuff movies retain their ickiness and ambiguity as a possibly mythical phenomenon that humanity’s capacity for evil suggests surely must have really existed somewhere.
It’s a gamy thing to use as fodder for humor. It’s central to the mixed bag that is “A Beginner’s Guide to Snuff” that Mitchell Altieri’s film turns a tasteless comic conceit fairly frivolous and inoffensive. Murder has long been fodder for lightweight black comedy — what community theater hasn’t staged “Arsenic and Old Lace” with nary a murmur of controversy? — but snuff is something else, with its suggestions of sadistic perversion and seamy entrepreneurship. It’s somewhat impressive that this latest feature by the prolific Butcher Brothers (erstwhile co-director Phil Flores takes a backseat as executive producer here) renders an inherently repulsive idea farcical enough to bounce jokes off. The problem is that this watchable indie isn’t all that funny, clever or surprising despite its outré premise.
Lower-rent versions of the Wilson brothers whom no Wes Anderson has yet “discovered,” Dresden (Joey Kern) and Dominic Winters (Luke Edwards) are Minnesota siblings transplanted to L.A. in search of acting fame. It’s proved elusive to the point where they face returning to Chez Mom & Dad’s in shamed defeat. Dresden, the older and more maniacal blond of the two, cannot stomach that fate. He seizes on a potential last-chance breakthrough: Entering a horror-movie contest whose winner gets a quarter mil in production costs plus industry contacts. It’s also his brainstorm that they not only make a faux snuff film but heighten its prize-magnetizing “realism” by actually kidnapping and terrorizing their star. Once the footage is in the can, the prospect of career liftoff will presumably keep her from, say, criminally prosecuting the Winters.
All this seems a pretty terrible plan to the comparatively grounded Dominic, but he lets himself be pushed into it by big bro. After an unfunny sequence in which the latter insults auditioning actresses at a cattle call, they settle on Jennifer (Bree Williamson), who seems smart, attractive and game enough to forgive them when the ruse is exposed. They duly kidnap her — not without considerable bruising struggle — then take her to the warehouse their doting landlord, Jorge (Perry Layton Ojeda), has lent them for the evening.
Strapped to a table, at the mercy of two masked abductors, Jennifer appears terrified at first, despite her ersatz tormentors’ bungling and bickering. Dresden begins taking his role a little too seriously (evidently he has a history of instability), which exacerbates tensions between the brothers. Then there’s the fact that a real-life killer has been running around L.A. castrating men, something noted insistently enough to ensure it will sooner or later prove central to the narrative.
Kern and Edwards make an amiable pair of goofballs, and there’s an occasional bright line (amid too many in-joke movie references) in the team-written script. Still, “Beginner’s Guide” is rather tepid in laughs and outrageousness so long as the focus is on the boys, with their familiar “Dumb and Dumber” dynamic and ineptly faked bwa-ha-ha villainy. It gets livelier when the tables are turned, our heroes discovering their captive is considerably craftier — not to mention deadlier — than they.
Even then, the film feels relatively uninspired and tame, raising a few chuckles but nary an eyebrow. It should be said, however, that soap veteran Williamson fully rises to the occasion of her character’s hidden dimensions — if the material were better, she’d have knocked it out of the park. There’s also fun to be had from the scenes with Ojeda, who wrings sly notes from the potentially tired stereotype of the older gay neighbor whose lust objects are so corn-fed clueless they assume he’s a “ladies’ man.”
It’s another middling effort by the Butcher Brothers, who haven’t matched the pleasant-surprise peak of their 2006 vampire-family opus “The Hamiltons” (not even in its 2012 sequel, “The Thompsons”). While they’ve stayed pretty much within the horror genre since, at least they continue to approach it from different angles, with variable success but no lack of industry.
Though small in cast and location scale, “Beginner’s Guide” is decently paced and shot. The retro ’70s look of the opening credits proves one among several avenues it doesn’t pursue enough (or at all) after introducing, another such being the underlapped satirical potential in Dresden’s crazy inner voice being that of a motivational infomercial spokesman (Carter MacIntyre).