Brooklyn Horror Film fest: PORNO Nails the ‘Film Within a Film’ Genre

Director Keola Racela’s feature debut, Porno, grabbed me pretty much instantly with the plot summary on the Brooklyn Horror Fest site:

“For a staff of Christian teenage theater workers in 1992, their Friday night crew screening options are between A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, ENCINO MAN or a mysterious old film reel they found in the basement. After convincing their projectionist Heavy Metal Jeff to load up the mystery film, the teens are entranced by a ritualistic erotic art film, mistakenly unleashing a sex demon in the process. They’ll have to keep their raging hormones in check as they battle for their souls in this raucous and gory mix of SAVED! and THE EVIL DEAD.”

Brian Dannelly’s 2004 Saved! doesn’t get nearly enough love, despite absolutely delivering in terms of depicting the hypocrisy inherent in some evangelical Christian churches, while at the same time really trying to not mock those who truly believe. Instead, by opting to depict the actual conflicts at the heart of so many people’s faith, the comedy managed to craft some deeply interesting and relatable characters.

Racela’s Porno – despite the sex demon and all – works best when it embraces that aspect of its story. Each character dances precipitously near the point of caricature, sure. Chaz (Jillian Mueller) is all gothy, “I’ll do what I want,” Todd (Larry Saperstein) is a horndog, theater owner Mr. Pike (Bill Phillips) is all Jeezy-Creezy tough-but-kind, Ricky (Glenn Stott) has a secret, and “Heavy Metal” Jeff (Robbie Tann) is a flannel-shirted projectionist.

Oh, and it’s 1994. Props to capturing the small-town theater feel with the two-screen cinema, staffed entirely by kids either in or just out of high school.

Back to the point I was making, though: the characters do fall into caricature, yes, but they also have these personalities which come out really well, for the most part. Tann as Heavy Metal Jeff throws himself into Porno the most, embracing the sheer intensity of his part, which is actually that of a straight-edge hardcore dude who listens to Uniform Choice’s “Straight and Alert” on his Walkman, and goddamn – high fives all around for that deep cut, right?

Mueller, playing Chaz, is kind of Porno‘s protagonist, despite this ostensibly being an ensemble piece. She’s the eyes through which we see most of the film, and there’s rarely an on-screen interaction which doesn’t include her or, failing that, her response to it immediately afterward. As an actress who’s primarily worked heretofore in stage productions, Mueller’s Chaz does aim a bit too strongly for the back of the theater at times, but functions well as a sort of analog to Alison Brie’s Annie from the sitcom, Community: soft-hearted, but able to switch gears into badassness when necessary.

All told, though, Porno has some of the unfortunate hallmarks borne by so many feature directorial debuts: the opening is crisp and snappy, setting things up well, and the initial action is quick to show up. That’s all good, but it’s hampered by a middle section where everything seems to be expository dialogue and far too much time between things actually happening. By the time the viewer starts getting some real action in last half hour or so, it’s hard to get back into the swing of things, and an ending which should have some solid emotional heft is hampered by the fact that you’re kind of just glad that it’s over.

The film discovered by the theater employees is absolutely the best part of Porno, full stop. So many small budget movies which utilize the film-within-a-film trope falter when it comes to executing the product which is the crux upon which their plot rests. Either by making the plot point movie look too good, or going too far in the direction of shoddiness, horror movies looking to use cinema as their locus of evil tend to stumble. Think of Chillerama, which is chock-full of horror homages, yet never quite hits with any of the four segments. I’d argue that the same goes for Inglorious BasterdsNation’s Pride never quite nails the look of celluloid, as well.

For the untitled film within Porno, though, Racela hits a stylistic and visual ace not seen since the likes of Mark Herrier’s 1990 slasher, Popcorn, and it’s film-within-a-film, The Possessor. The way in which the director and cinematographer John Wakayama Carey nail the look and feel of a Kenneth Anger short gone totally wrong is absolutely perfect in terms of the hallucinatory aspect. Over-saturated colors, double exposures, and cuts so quick, you can barely glimpse what’s happening: it’s all there, and it’s done note-perfectly.

But that middle section: oof. There’s far too much chatting, and not enough happening. Had Racela managed to figure out the horror movie equivalent of the Soderbergh walk-and-talk, we might’ve really had something.

As it is, though, when I enjoyed Keola Racela’s Porno, I really enjoyed it. That opening 20 minutes or so introduces characters, tone, and setting in a manner which does an amazing job of dropping you in the middle of these kids and giving you everything you need to know for the rest of the film. Every bad thing that’s going to happen gets alluded to, which is a very Chekov way of setting it up – nothing in Porno comes out of left field, and I love that.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!