We often find ourselves apologizing for low budget films, pointing out some shining moment in an otherwise poor showing of production value, cinematography, script, acting, sound. Often a brilliant concept is hampered from full expression by these constraints, and it falls to us to point out what’s beautiful in a beautiful mess. Occasionally though, the exactly right material in exactly the right hands is exactly what it should be at the small budget. Proof: first time director Christopher Bickel’s The Theta Girl.
Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio) is a beautiful party girl who hangs out with an all-girl punk band called The Truth Foundation. She is selling a newfangled hallucinogen called theta (the greek symbol for death), delivered for her by a homeless friend named Leonard (Kenneth Briere) who lives out back of the club with his spaniel, Bo.
On her way to the club Gayce catches the unwanted attention of a pack of apocalyptic bible thumpers led by Brother Marcus (Shane Silman) harassing people on the street. Marcus seems sure he knows her, and they follow her. The club is a deliberate retro glam punk repo-man style freak-out that looks like a lot of fun. The bartender doses the Jesus freaks with theta.
As the theta kicks in the trip seems to reveal a simultaneously experienced pocket universe of Lynchian alternate reality. There’s an entity that speaks to the groovy people in nonsense backwards bird sounds but everyone hears a message. It’s pretty coherent as long, prolonged derangement of the senses goes.
“…a deliberate retro glam punk repo-man style freak-out…”
Outside the club after the show Gayce finds Leonard dead and Bo missing and this sets her off on a rage induced hunt for the killer and revenge. Leonard’s intestines are set out in the theta symbol, so she starts with her theta connection, Derek (Darrelle D. Dove), the only black main character in the film and apparently the only sane person around. From there all hell breaks loose.
Derek has a “crazy fucking white people” look of disbelief on his face through the whole movie. Naturally he’s the only one who gets caught by the cops.
After their theta trip Brother Marcus and his mormon-esque peddlers of pamphlets have transformed into an apocalyptic death cult bent on laying the lord’s vengeance upon sinners. They commit a Manson family style mass murder at the Truth Foundation band house. It’s a straight up bloodbath with some fascinating ways to die. Metaphorically interesting as well: bible thumpers killing the truth.
This punkrock gore-fest is also a philosophical film with talented actors, a solid script, good cinematography and sound. This film succeeds not in spite of the budget, but rather because the filmmaker integrates the gritty look and simple environments. The sound is particularly noteworthy, that seems hard to get right in indie film and Bickel left nothing on the table there… the dialog, sound effects, and music are recorded with clarity and high quality.
“‘Other than killing your friend and chaining you to an engine hoist, how am I an agent of darkness?'”
Bickel lives in Columbia, SC, and shot the film there. The actual setting of The Theta Girl, while clearly Southern in nature, isn’t specified, but when you grow up in the South under the influence of the church that old time religion is pervasive. You get the hellfire and damnation stories, and repeated blow by blow long-play descriptions of the crucifixion along with your potty training. You may, later in life, decide the washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb narrative makes no sense to you intellectually. You may declare yourself atheist or agnostic, convert to Judaism, or decide you’re a Zen Buddhist. None of that matters: you will never shake that bleeding-out Christ on the cross image from your mind, it’s written too deep. The Southern Gothic universe of the film reflects this, almost incidentally, in the terrifying psychopath street preacher Brother Marcus. Shane Silman plays the character’s rage artfully.
As we circle the abyss faster and faster Gayce ingests a giant hit of theta to induce shared hallucination so she can interrogate one of Brother Marcus’s boys. “Other than killing your friend and chaining you to an engine hoist, how am I an agent of darkness?” Gayce is death come a-knockin. Victoria Donofrio’s performance carries the film with great presence and her large expressive eyes.
It should be clear by now that this film is not for the squeamish. A little bit indie art film, a little bit horror, a little bit gore porn (with some actual porn), all adds up to a whole lot of edgy, thoughtful, quality entertainment. The Theta Girl premiered on Friday the 13th at Atlanta’s Y’allywood film festival and is now out on the festival circuit.
The Theta Girl (2017). Directed By Christopher Bickel. Written By David Axe. Starring Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio, Kenneth Briere, Shane Silman.
7 out of 10