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Review: ‘SXSW Film Festival: ’68 Kill’’

Variety logo Variety 3/17/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

Stepping just slightly outside the horror terrain he’s inhabited since an early run of Troma gigs (as actor, writer and producer), Trent Haaga’s second directorial feature “68 Kill” is much like his first, 2011’s “Chop” — as well as E.L. Katz’s 2013 “Cheap Thrills,” which he co-wrote — in that it’s a zesty black comedy whose nebbish hero gets subjected to a prolonged ordeal of painful misfortunes. This particular variation on that theme is based on Bryan Smith’s novel, yet the sadistic song remains much the same. Not everyone will enjoy this slide down a narrative garbage chute lined with thorns. But viewers and programmers with a taste for midnight-movie outrageousness will cotton to its mix of sleaze, quease and bad-taste absurdism.

DP Neeham B. Smith’s opening shot is of a fly stuck in honey — just as protagonist Chip (Mathew Gray Gubler) is hopelessly stuck on girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord), though it cannot be said that her primary quality is sweetness. In fact, beautiful though she is, her personality is downright punishing, literally so when delivering blows in the heat of passion. Nonetheless, Chip is smitten enough to put up with just about anything for her, including his smelly job with a septic-disposal company and her sexual services to their trailer-home landlord. He’s even reluctantly willing to go along when she insists they rob said landlord, whom she’s learned keeps $68,000 in cash at home in a safe. She also demands they take loaded weapons while claiming there will be no need for violence.

Naturally, the plan does not go as Chip expects — in fact, Liza takes far too much pleasure in doling out the bodily harm she’d promised him they’d avoid. In short order they’ve left two dead bodies behind. They also have an unanticipated captive (Alisha Boe as Violet) whose fate Chip likewise worries about, particularly when their first getaway stop is the home of Liza’s consummately creepy brother Swayne (Sam Eidson), who looks like a serial-killer for very good reason. The night is still young when Chip flees with Violet still in the car trunk and Liza, who does not take this “relationship breakup” at all well, in lethal pursuit.

“Criminal Minds” star Gubler, who was also amusingly harassed as the object of horror-comedy hauntings in 2014 indie “Suburban Gothic,” provides the right gormless appeal to keep “Kill” reasonably light and likable. That’s fortunate, since a lot of the content here pushes the envelope toward outright unpleasantness — particularly once poor Chip falls into the clutches of trailer-trash types who make even increasingly lunatic Liza seem reasonable by comparison.

Haaga and crew aren’t aiming for realism (let alone plausibility) in their raw-luck tall tale, but they straddle cartoonishness and cruelty evenly enough that what some will find hilarious may strike others as just gratuitously mean-spirited. You certainly need a tolerance for the kind of non-PC pulp noir cliches Smith was presumably sending up in print: Virtually every femme here is fatale —and, as well, a prostitute of one sort or another.

McCord (of the “90210” reboot) seizes upon her maniac-girlfriend role with considerable relish; supporting turns are likewise adept, if in need of a little nuance. The colorful, pacey package is nicely turned in all tech and design departments.

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