Written and Directed by: Jason Lei Howden
Starring: Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, and Kimberley Crossman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You know that evil heavy metal that your parents hate you listening to?"
To understand where Deathgasm is coming from, you have to crawl into the headspace of a teenage metalhead. Maybe that doesnít necessarily describe you at any point during your life, but you probably at least have some vague notion about the weirdo outcasts who scrawled pentagrams all over their notebooks in high school. Deathgasm feels like it screeched to life straight out of the daydream doodles in one of those notebooks, so you have to retreat to the part of your brain that craves having its nuts blown off by an avalanche of ferocious riffs and outlandish gore. You have to remember what it was like to be amused by nothing more than chainsaws and sex toys pummeling demons in the face. Basically, you have to go back to a time when all you really wanted was The Evil Dead by way of Rock Ďní Roll Nightmare. Luckily, this doesnít require a lot of effort on my part.
For the most part, thatís pretty much what Deathgasm is: part heavy metal ode, part splatter movie tribute, all fucking radical Kiwi gorefest aimed at the spike gauntlet enthusiast inside off all of us. Our surrogate is Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), a disaffected metal fan whoís been shipped off to rural New Zealand to live with his fundamentalist aunt and uncle. An outcast at both home and at school, he only finds solace in his CD collection and trawling through record store vinyl stacks. Itís there that he meets Zakk (James Blake), a fellow metal fan with more of an anarchic edge. Despite a lack of talent and knowledge, he agrees to form a band called Deathgasm, and, before he knows it, Zakk has him prowling through abandoned buildings, recovering mythical metal artifacts from reclusive metal idol Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure).
Unbeknownst to them, Daggersís sheet music holds genuine hellraising power. Even when Brodie finally decodes the Latin phrasing and realizes as much, he canít resist plowing through the crunching, bone-shattering riff that ushers in a demonic apocalypse on this sleepy town. In many ways, Deathgasm feeds off of and into metal stereotypes with reckless abandon but does so in a playful manner: this is a film where ďdevil musicĒ actually conjures the devil. Fictional song titlesólike ďIntestinal Bungee JumpĒóare absurd to the max. Brodieís daydreams even resemble the covers of metal albums, as they involve him riffing on the top of a mountain with a couple of scantily-clad babes lying at his feet as lasers blast from his eyes. Deathgasm realizes that metal tends to be ridiculous.
Even though my ties to the metal subculture are loose at best (for whatever reason, I never strayed too far from the alt-rock crowd), itís not too terribly difficult to understand why thereís so much crossover between its fans and horror aficionados. Both often indulge in the sort of lurid, taboo material thatís ghastly to just about everyone else. Itís no surprise, then, that Deathgasm absolutely revels in its horror elements, so much so that it practically doubles as a stadium anthem for all the stuff that causes our heads to explode, like severed spines, disemboweled guts, and, well, exploding heads. Sometimes, itís tough to tell to which scene director Jason Lei Howden is more attuned because his film so perfectly blends the devil-may-care attitude of both horror and metal. The best visual representation of Deathgasm would be someone throwing up horns caked in entrails.
Howden seems to be especially cognizant of his place within the very specific New Zealand horror tradition, as he takes cues from splatstick progenitors Bad Taste and Dead Alive. He does this not only by simply blending laughs and gore but by stretching each gag to its most absurd point. Itís not enough that our two heroes attempt to fend off a demonic horde with dildosówhatís much funnier is that it actually works because thatís exactly the sort of thing that would amuse the target audience for a movie called Deathgasm. Even the ominous death cult looking to help usher in the apocalypse is a campy triumph: I havenít seen a boardroom execution this hilarious in a while, and Delaney Tabronís turn as its vampy (eventual) leader makes for an indelible antagonist. Deathgasm is as much of a gut-buster as it is a gut-muncher.
Itís also an impossibly sweet movie. Since it plays as more of an inside joke pitched by an insider (Howden has said that the film was inspired by his own upbringing, not that you need to hear that as confirmation), Deathgasm understands that, for all its macho posturing, metal is about brotherhood and friendship. It just so happens that the bonds form over albums from bands named Anal Cunt. If Deathgasm didnít grasp this, I imagine itíd still be a fine romp, if not sort of an empty one. You need the sense of affection Howden obviously has for his characters, and it manifests throughoutóeven in the bullshit teenage drama that threatens to unravel the group when Zakk tries to steal Brodieís girl, Medina (Kimberley Crossman). That even this canít tear them apart seems right: Zakk might be a bit of a dick, but heís an eternally cool oneóheís the shaggy-haired guy that you look up to even when you know you shouldnít.
Also feeling very right: allowing Medina to outshine both of these thrashing knuckleheads. Not content to be a lame third wheel, she harbors her own thrashing metal dreams and emerges as the groupís preeminent demon slayer. In a movie fueled by bromance, Crossman is the unexpected star, plowing through demons with blood-soaked aplomb as she puts up with the dweebs surrounding her. Make no mistake: Deathgasm recognizes that thereís actually a thin line between metalheads and full-on geeks. Brodie may roll his eyes when his nerdy buddies subject him to a game of D&D, but, deep down, both he (and the film) realize heís not too far removed from them. Cawthorneís low-key performance subtly captures the inner goodness of this sort of guy: beneath his hardass metal front, Brodie is such a good kid that you actually find yourself cheering when he maybe goes a tad overboard during one particular slaying spree.
Ultimately, itís that sense of nerdy camaraderie that allows Deathgasm to resonate like the most triumphant, wailing riff imaginable. Itís in this respect that Howden truly grasps the Kiwi horror legacy. Sure, the righteous gore of Peter Jacksonís early work is what grabs everyoneís attention; however, itís the soul of those films thatís captured audiencesí hearts. We see that formula recur in Deathgasm, just as it did in recent Kiwi efforts like Housebound and What We Do in the Shadows. With this trio, New Zealand has proven to be a true genre hotbed, one thatís given rise to filmmakers who realize mountains of gore donít mean much if we donít care for those buried beneath them. Because of this, itís high time we began to accept them as our new horror overlords. In the meantime, may we also continue to hail Satan.
Deathgasm arrives on Blu-ray from Dark Sky films. In addition to a commentary from Howden, the disc includes behind-the-scenes featurettes, a trailer, a teaser, and a music video.
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