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SXSW Film Review: ‘Porno’

Small-town cinema staff unleash a demonic spirit from an old film can in this uneven comedy-horror.

Director:
Keola Racela
With:
Evan Daves, Larry Saperstein, Jillian Mueller, Glenn Stott, Robbie Tann, Peter Reznikoff, Bill Phillips, Katelyn Pearce.

1 hour 38 minutes

One of the more amusing promotions in the history of exploitation cinema was for Jess Franco’s sexy-arty 1967 “Necronomicon.” In the U.S., it was released as “Succubus,” but the distributor claimed that title was too shocking for publication, so newspaper ads included a phone number that could be called to hear the lascivious-sounding word (and its definition). That self-imposed hurdle pales next to the one filmmakers have handed themselves with “Porno,” a comedy horror that despite its XXX moniker (and some gore) mostly plays like a retro teen mall-flick fantasy in the spirit of “The Lost Boys” or “Gremlins.”

Keola Racela’s film gets off to an amusingly self-aware start as youthful staff at an early 1990s movie house inadvertently summon up a real succubus hungry for their bodies and souls. Unfortunately, “Porno” gets more uneven as it goes on, with a somewhat slack midsection and a mix of earnestness, broad comedy, titillation, and moralizing that neither fully gels, nor makes something unpredictably wild out of those clashing elements. A bit of editorial tightening could brighten what’s likely to be a streaming future.

A mandatory prayer circle at the beginning of their shift suggests some mission higher than showing “A League of Their Own” and Pauly Shore vehicle “Encino Man” for the employees of a small-town cinema in 1992. Afterward, prissy Mr. Pike (Bill Phillips) leaves the place in the hands of Goth-styled Chastity (Jillian Mueller), newly appointed to assistant manager. She’s to supervise a combative “straight-edge” projectionist known as Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann); mischievous Abe (Evan Daves), who frequently drags guileless Todd (Larry Saperstein) into trouble; and fellow high schooler Ricky (Glenn Stott), Chaz’s crush object, just back from a mysterious summer sojourn at some corrective “camp.”

When things wind down for the evening, the crew discover a disheveled old coot (Peter Reznikoff) roaming the premises. He runs amok before disappearing into a hitherto unknown, hidden doorway. It leads to a secret additional theater whose less-than-suitable-for-children fare is suggested by such vintage posters as “10 Foot Hole, 10 Foot Pole.” The indigent man is nowhere to be found there, but among other weird errata, the staff find a musty old film can of 35mm reels and decide to thread ’em up.

What they see is the highlight of “Porno”: A nice replica of Kenneth Anger-ish occult psychedelia circa 1970. It mostly just puzzles the viewers, who being good Christian youth in a pre-internet age have no idea whether it’s supposed to be a “dirty movie” or an arty one. Of course. playing the film unleashes the onscreen succubus (Katelyn Pearce), who then preys on each person’s desires to steal their souls.

Though there’s a fair amount of nudity here (mostly Pearce’s), “Porno” is fairly juvenile in its “ewww” attitude towards sex, leaning more toward crude humor than anything overtly arousing. Lamberto Bava’s 1985 Italian hit “Demons” is recalled in premise (trapped in a theater by an evil movie) and some visual aspects (lots of Argento-style colored lighting gels). But its high energy is missed in a film whose midsection loses some momentum, and whose climaxes are just OK. Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli’s screenplay could use some sharpened verbal wit, while the violence — notably some genital-mutilation gore — is neither funny nor scary enough to seem more than just gratuitous given the jokey overall tone. Likewise, the film takes the characters’ Christian beliefs just seriously enough to douse the initial edge of satire, yet not seriously enough to have any emotional resonance,

Performances are competent, though Tann is given perhaps a little too much leeway for a turn less comically inspired than the director or actor seem to think. Effects work, some deliberately on the cheesy side, is decent enough, while overall design and technical aspects are polished within the bounds of a little (if complicated) interior setting. Carla Patullo’s score is a nicely poker-faced channeling of fantasy-action soundtrack tropes from a generation ago.

There’s an amiability of intent and execution that keeps “Porno” watchable. But at the same time, its somewhat harmless tenor keeps the lid on a concept that would be much more memorable if it took its various sacred and profane elements further — in any or all directions.

MORE FROM SXSW:

SXSW Film Review: 'Porno'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 7, 2019. (In SXSW Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: An Evoke presentation. (Int'l sales: Cinetic, New York.) Producers: Chris Cole, Sarah Seulki Oh. Executive producers: Christopher H. Cole, Matt Black, Laurence Vannicelli.

Crew: Director: Keola Racela. Screenplay: Matt Black, Laurence Vannicelli. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): John Wakayama Carey. Editor: Racela. Music: Carla Patullo.

With: Evan Daves, Larry Saperstein, Jillian Mueller, Glenn Stott, Robbie Tann, Peter Reznikoff, Bill Phillips, Katelyn Pearce.

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