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‘Porno’ Review: Religious Teens Battle a Sex Demon in Gutsy Horror Comedy Debut — SXSW

Keola Racela's first feature boasts seriously X-rated gore (trigger warning: exploding balls), and many clever narrative choices.

“Porno”

SXSW

In response to our current political hellscape, it seems there’s never been a better time for horror lovers, from box office hits like “It” and “A Quiet Place,” to instant indie classics such as “Hereditary” and “Suspiria.” Fewer and farther between, however, are newer additions to the beloved subset of horror-comedies, though “Get Out” and the burgeoning “Happy Death Day” franchise stand out as two successful (and very different) examples of how to marry humor and horror. That’s why “Porno,” which recently premiered in competition at the SXSW Film Festival, represents such a thrilling entry to the genre. This gory teen comedy blends laughably outrageous carnage with a legitimately scary plot to delightful ends. Throw in a winking fetish for cinephile culture and audiences are sure to go wild for the gutsy film.

Taking place in one location, an old school movie theater circa 1992, “Porno” finds four teenage staffers and a cranky older projectionist haunted by a sex demon while closing up one night. The movie begins with the crew holding hands in a prayer circle, setting the scene for their faith to be tested during the ensuing action. New manager Chaz (Jillian Mueller) is in charge for the evening, but she’s distracted by her unrequited love for Ricky (Glenn Stott), a jock with a secret. Peeping Tom Abe (Evan Daves) and his spazzy best friend Todd (Larry Saperstein) are slowly crumbling under the weight of their voyeuristic tendencies, and Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann) just wants to please the lord, preaching the gospel of a straight edge lifestyle.

When the kids finally get a night off, they are given a choice to view one of the theater’s two current offerings: “Encino Man” or “A League of Their Own.” (Cue detailed teenage boy debate over the number of boobs in “A League of Their Own”). Upon discovering what they assume is a drunk old man who has broken into the theater after hours and chasing him through a hole in the wall, the gang discovers a hidden archive full of dusty film reels. Most appealing among the findings is a film wrapped in a leather-bound case and emblazoned with a mysterious symbol.

When Jeff reluctantly fires up the projector, up pops what looks like a softcore porn horror film, complete with a busty brunette, buckets of blood, and a strange ritual involving a curved blade. Playing their innocence for humor, one asks “is this an art film?” while another wonders, “do you think that’s how all pornography is?”

It isn’t long before they’re seeing visions of the sexy demon Lilith (Katelyn Pearce), who exploits their hormonal teenage fantasies to penetrate their psyches. Even Jeff is not immune to her charms, and he suffers greatly for his bravery in going head to head with the medusa: In a callback to an earlier joke, she explodes his balls with her mind. It’s the movie’s boldest and most nauseating visual joke, we see more than enough shots of the gruesome damage. It’s a ridiculous and unforgettable sequence, and it firmly places “Porno” in the hallowed halls of horror movies with impressive make-up effects that belie their tiny budgets.

“Porno” is the feature filmmaking debut from Columbia film school grad Keola Racela, who has edited and/or directed a slew of award-winning shorts. Racela guides the action with a self-assured hand, pacing the action at a steady clip and eliciting convincing performances from the cast of mostly newcomers. Racela edited the movie as well, and his choices here are perhaps his most effective; a few well-timed sharp camera turns easily establish the film’s comedic style. When Todd’s head suddenly pops into frame from below, broom in hand, one can sense a director already visualizing the edit.

Racela benefits from a funny script, too. In their feature screenwriting debuts, Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli demonstrate a masterful grasp of teen boy dialogue, as evidenced by the following exchange:

Jeff: “Yeah, right. The only lady you’ve ever seen naked is your mom.”
Todd: “My mom’s dead, freak!”
Jeff: “Prove it!”

More impressive, however, is how the various narrative threads of this proudly pulpy horror outing coalesce into a satirical take on puritanical religious teachings. Jeff’s irritability, Ricky’s aloofness, and Abe’s obsession with watching people pee are all direct results of their attempts to control their natural urges, which religion has taught them to do. Though their curiosity unleashes a holy hellscape of demonic proportions, the real demons in “Porno” are self-denial, self-blame, and blind adherence to the rules. Pornography, devilish though it may be, ultimately leads to their salvation from forces even more insidious than a sex demon — societal ones. With a moral like that, we could all stand to watch a little “Porno.”

Grade: B+

“Porno” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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