Sunday, February 28, 2021

Princess Dragon Mom: The Early Years

aka PG: Psycho Goreman

Written and directed by Steven Kostanski

Spoiler alert: moderate

In truth, one gets what one deserves with Psycho Goreman.  It is, after all, just a piece of trash clinging desperately to the zeitgeist, remixing the trash of another zeitgeist as a form of, let's be charitable, and say "parody"; it does this with enough, let's say, "verve" to be mistaken for a creative and earnest pastiche, and that's not a complete misapprehension, though by the end of it, it's become pretty much the least honorable thing in the world, the lazy, intentionally-bad genre spoof.  But even the most negative connotations of the word "spoof" don't quite capture how sloppy and random it gets as it comes in for its landing.  Maybe the absolute best-case scenario for this kind of small-budget nostalgia bomb is a Turbo Kid, and that film's the only reason why I watched this one.  Turbo Kid, as you may or may not recall, turned out pretty good, and I didn't want to be in the position of ignoring a movie for years just because I thought it sounded pandering and dumb.  But then, Turbo Kid was made by Canadian filmmaking collective RKSS, who are legitimately talented, insightful, affectionate, and critical, which is how Turbo Kid led to Summer of 84, one of the very few examples of the 2010s' crushing wave of nostalgia for the 1980s producing anything actually great, or, frankly, even capable of engaging with its influences and period beyond the shallowest levels.  Psycho Goreman shares something of the same roots, being the new feature from Steven Kostanki.  A fellow Canadian, Kostanki is formerly of another northern collective with much the same predilection towards repackaging the genre ephemera of yesteryear.  You will not be shocked to discover that Psycho Goreman does not represent a repudiation of this predilection.

That said, it would be unfair to imply that it didn't represent some improvement over the last film of his that I watched, The Void, a film that, thanks to an Internet publicity campaign touting Kostanki's practical effects magic, got enough traction amongst horror fandom to make Kostanki a minor "name," despite the results of his efforts being about as empty of personality or good filmmaking as a movie could get.  (If we're being brutal, and why not, it wasn't even especially interesting as a effects showcase.  Maybe Kostanski's franchise project between there and here, The Leprechaun Returns, was better, but I somehow doubt it, whereas I expect I wouldn't like Manborg, either.)  Well, whatever else it does or doesn't do, Psycho Goreman at least has personality.  It's just that it has a personality that alternates between cutely charming and maddeningly aggravating, the problem being when it gets stuck in the latter mode about two-thirds of the way through and never recovers.

So what we have in Psycho GoremanPG for short (though I would rather not call it by its alternate title, PG: Psycho Goreman, despite the obvious chuckle it's trying to get out of that reference)is a tale of ancient intergalactic war that's found its way to Earth, as filtered through an irony sieve built out of maybe-not-entirely-fond remembrances of 80s and 90s popular culture, especially Japanese tokusatsu shows such as found their way to America in recontextualized form, i.e. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  As such, it has essentially the same set-up as the actual 2016 Power Rangers movie: eons ago, an evil demigod was buried on a nameless rock in the backwaters of the universe.  Guess what, it's Earth, and somebody's about to dig him up and dub him "Psycho Goreman."  Those particular somebodies are Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her brother Luke (Owen Myre), who are out playing some kind of Calvinball one day, with Mimi winning as usual, until they up the stakes so that the loser of the next match is obliged to bury themselves alive.  Luke still loses, and it's in the process of digging his own grave that he unearths a glowing whatsit, which Mimi claims as the spoils of victory.  As it turns out, what they unearthed was the deathless prison of that universal evil mentioned earlier, and, upon awakening from his slumber, he meanders about town and murders some criminals most kroovily.  But the purple gem, now in Mimi's possession, is bound to his lifeforce, and when they encounter this villain, Mimi realizes that she who possesses the stone controls his every action.  Thus armed with a "Psycho Goreman," she intends to have some fun with her new toy.

So yeah, it's literally a kid playing with their action figure.  But with the twist that, while Mimi controls PG's body, she does not control PG's thoughts (or, more to the point, PG's mouth), it's also endless variations upon the idea of a full-tilt child sociopath bossing around a lippy astro-monster who's obliged to obey, but who can still snarl funny, impotent threats at her, and terrify everybody else.  When this is all that Psycho Goreman wants to be, it's actually a very fun movie, and I happily admit PG himself almost always got me to laugh.  Kostanski gets more mileage out of this premiseeven visuallythan I think anybody could've rightfully expected, especially in the running gag of the monster holding forth on his backstory in lavishly-produced ("lavishly" for a tiny no-budget production, mind you) flashback sequences that always get interrupted by the shitheel children, who may have even prompted the exposition, but stopped listening ten seconds into his answer anyway.  Psycho Goreman's very obvious MVP, then, is Steven Vlahos, who overdubbed PG's voice (Matthew Ninaber filled out the suit, and, credit where it's due, it never occurred to me while I was watching it that these were two separate performances).  Vlahos's electronically-modulated roars, along with Ninaber's body language, are genuinely hilarious, full of a Saturday morning cartoon megalomania approximating the wounded dignity of a fallen god, incongruously and amusingly arrayed against the quotidian crapulence of North American suburbia.

It's amazing that this takes as long as it does to get old, and I expect part of that is the way the cosmic plot gets weaved in just enough to keep things freshfor of course PG's old enemies, and his old allies, become apprised in due course of his resurrection, and make their way to Earth for a final reckoning.  The former are led by Pandora Templar (Kristen MacCulloch, voiced by Anna Tierney), an avatar of the film's surprisingly well-developed background mythology, and all of them are rendered with exquisite low fidelity: the alien costumes threaten to turn the film into extraordinarily-elaborate cosplay for an alternate universe's Doctor Who, and, on a design level, there's really nothing bad to say at all about Psycho Goreman's imaginative menagerie of old-school creatures, from PG's naked purple drooling Satan to Pandora's backup dancer for the Cybertonic Spree to, of course, the panoply of puppet characters that manage to be as (or more) persuasive than the characters with whole bodies inside them.  (Nobody is quite as iconic as Rita Repulsa or Zedd, but few are, really.)  Meanwhile, since Kostanski's thing is 80s-style Gordon/Yuzna B-horror, this tribute to 90s-style Power Rangers villainy is frequently punctuated with massively gross violence, most of which is interesting, some of which (like the CGI cube that makes Pandora's human host easier to handle, or PG's warrior ritual for dealing with "honorable foes") is honest-to-God inspired.

The problems start seeping in immediately, however, and they are huge problems: every human in this film is, or becomes, unwatchable.  This permeates Psycho Goreman, which is built around some of the most irritating kids a kid's adventure ever had to deal with, and while of course it's intentional, at some point Mimi's domineering psychosis and Luke's abject servility shade into an indistinguishable monotone, and the only nice thing to say about that is to note at least Hanna is energetically pursuing her childish monster with a really aggressive performanceI'd go so far to say she's "good," in that she's doing what the script asksand that Myre's blank-eyed confusion is, I guess, all Luke deserved.  The parents (Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey) are actually worse: they feel like Kostanski was documenting two amateur comedians doing a grating improv show on the theme of a marriage between a pair of gender stereotypes, and he grants them a mystifying amount of screentime to continually respond to one another's shrill "yes, ands."

Yet, really, the parents are only a special case of the big thing that's wrong with Psycho Goreman, which is that it can't even be serious about being unserious; it can't ever quite decide what kind of unserious it's going to be.  It bounces back and forth, with a story that devolves into the most disconnected vignettes imaginable, based on new, made-up rules for how this universe works: what began as a consequence-free cartoon where a nude purple monster can walk down the street without even drawing attention turns out to also be a universe where the world's least convincing movie cops show up for no apparent reason but to be killed in another skitand now, here's the trite "emotional" ending nobody asked for, emphasizing how badly we've blown our budget but at least "paying off" on an idea seeded early in the screenplay in ways that feel like a machine came up with it.

By this point, it's full-on backyard cinema, and depressing.  But it maybe shouldn't come as a real disappointment: a movie that, presumably, wants to pay homage to Super Sentais and Ultraman and Super Inframan by doing them up with cool gore effects does not appear to have retained the services of a fight choreographer, and the action it gets up to feels like LARPing with random squibs going off, a pell-mell of barely-mobile actors that Kostanski can't edit around, perhaps making things worse when he tried.  The worst thing, though, is how it attempts to parody the heartwarming kid's adventure ending by playing it straightthough, again, calling this "parody" suggests some level of visible effort or humor.  Instead, it's as unfunny as most of everything else in the final half hour, but also brutally drawn-out; above all, it ruins the one thing the movie did still have going for it, the cheerful immorality of a child and her pet monster, well on their way to world conquest.

Despite looking so idiosyncratic and personal, then, Psycho Goreman winds up feeling incredibly cynical.  It's not just the ending, but most of the last half, really; it becomes a collection of sketches instead of a story, because there is no story, just a lot of references and in-jokes (oh, look, Phantasm I think, yay) and "gags" that are only "gags" because the idea is that this stuff is bad.  It feels like a movie made to hit a checklist of crap nerds like, while congratulating them for the amazing feat of recognizing that it's stupid.  It also looks like fucking ass, with cinematographer Andrew Appelle plausibly never having learned how to use a camera, or at least why you use a camera, going by some of the terrible things happening with focus, lens choice, and color timing.  (At least Berlin//Blitz's throwback score is pretty good.)  By the end, all it's got is cringe and irony.  It becomes more akin to an indulgent, aimless Internet project than a real moviehorrifyingly, the thing that Psycho Goreman reminds me of most of all isn't a beloved kid's show from the 90s or a horror movie from the 80s, but something like Kickassia or To Boldly Flee, that is, movies made by people who made it their profession to "humorously" "review" beloved 90s shows and 80s horror flicks on YouTube and YouTube's predecessorsand all the joy of creativity it started out with has long-since vanished by the time we finally make it to the end.  Of course, "finally" isn't the most complimentary word to use about a 95 minute feature, either.

Score: 5/10

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