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Friday, January 29, 2016

Review: B.C. BUTCHER Has A Loose, Campy Charm

A couple years ago, an interesting film project began making waves on Indiegogo: 17-year old Kansas Bowling wanted to make a slasher film set in prehistoric times. While the film only raised a small amount of the funds it wanted to in that campaign, Bowling was still able to make a 52-minute long movie, which ended up being picked up for distribution by Troma, the legendary schlock merchants behind films like The Toxic Avenger. Troma was in the news a lot a year or two ago as people realized that James Gunn, the director of 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, got his start there on films like Tromeo and Juliet. Now, Bowling has joined Troma's ranks and her caveman slasher comedy, B.C. Butcher, is available streaming online.

In B.C. Butcher, a group of cavewomen led by mean-girl Neandra (Leilani Fideler) and her lieutenants, innocent Poppy (Molly Elizabeth Ring), blind Bamba (Devyn Leah), and catty Anaconda (Natasha Halevi), are all hunted down by a monster from legend after brutally slaying one of their own. While the set-up feels like a riff on something like Halloween, with a burly, disfigured man hunting down a group of nubile young scream queens, the reality of the film is considerably weirder than that: Bowling's film is more indebted to the free-wheelin' 1960's than the gritty 70's. A fight scene is scored to an off-brand knock-off of "Yakety Sax," the cavewomen are all dressed in leopard print with visible make-up and plastic-bone accessories straight out of The Flintstones, and at one point, L.A. rock band The Ugly Kids, in character as a group of thick-witted cavemen, give us an extended song-and-dance number, complete with them playing 'stone age' versions of their instruments.

There are plenty of cheaply-made retro-leaning spoofs available right now, from the truly abysmal (The Chickening) through the bad (Kung Fury) to the reasonably enjoyable (Manborg), but they're all working from essentially the same palette. Play on an exaggerated caricature of 80's culture that relies more on nostalgia than on actually stringing together a decent sequence or a genuine joke, gloss everything over with a purposefully ugly digital sheen - you can't criticize the insipid design and ugly cinematography now, you see; it's on purpose - all hidden behind an ironic distance. There's no sense that the filmmakers love what they're riffing on, no point to the exercise beyond, "Remember this? Wasn't that weird?"

B.C. Butcher, on the other hand, is very clearly a labor of love. Bowling pulls deep from the annals of cinematic history to craft something wholly original, a mish-mash of John Carpenter, the Monkees, girl gang films, Russ Meyer, and much more. It's ridiculous, camp cinema that pillages decades of film history, even down to the way it was shot: On 16mm film, a decision made after talking about cinematography with the man who shot The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If tossing up intentionally cheesy digital effects and backgrounds is the easiest possible way to go, shooting a prehistoric film on 16mm is like trying one hand behind your back before stepping out on to the court.

But the handicap turns out not to really be a handicap at all, because B.C. Butcher understands how to construct a joke. Bowling has little by way of restraint, which means there are plenty of jokes that go on too long or just flat-out don't work, but the sheer amount of fun being tossed at the screen throughout its short runtime ensure that something new will be along if one loose gag doesn't work. B.C. Butcher is half the length it was originally intended to be, presumably because of funding woes, which is part of why I suspect it relies more on comedy than horror, leaning into the cheapo aesthetic hard and playing with what the audience expects from camp horror in some entertaining ways.

Its actors do a fantastic job highlighting and toeing the line of that aesthetic. Leilani Fideler and Natasha Halevi play Neandra and Anaconda with all the charm of a Valley Girl sorority president and her conniving best frenemy, and they bring a wonderful, empty-headed looseness to their roles. 57 year old Kato Kaelin stars as the hunky love interest all the cavewomen are swooning over, and he gives a truly bizarre performance as what appears to be a playfully gay class clown. Only Devyn Leah strikes a bit of a bum note for me as the group's blind seer, saddled with an accent that never really coheres into either a genuine part of her character or a joke. She gets in some solid physical comedy, but her Bamba is, unfortunately, the group's straight-man.

Kansas Bowling's debut film is anarchic, and while it often doesn't work - and will likely repel people not on her particular comedic wavelength - it's a breath of fresh air in a genre that needs some help right now. B.C. Butcher is a weird, scattershot movie, but as a piece of camp horror-comedy, its passion and playfulness shine through. This may not be terribly critical, but the movie is just fucking fun. Sometimes, with enough charm and an inventive spirit... that's enough.

BC Butcher is available now streaming on Troma Now, a subscription streaming service (that is offering a free trial...) of the Troma library. Written by Kansas Bowling & Kenzie Givens and directed by Kansas Bowling, BC Butcher stars Leilani Fideler, Natasha Halevi, Devyn Leah, and Molly Elizabeth Ring.
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