On a budget of $14,000 and the experience level of DIY beginners comes a non-direct homage to grindhouse and exploitation films in The Theta Girl. Moving through the festival circuit like a force of nature, The Theta Girl is a case of indie genre cinema 101. You find a story that is compelling, that connects with the audience, not expensive to make and reflects sub-genres of horror that push the boundaries on every level.

The Theta Girl focuses on a young woman named Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio) who, after an unexplained but rough upbringing. decides the world needs to burn. Dealing an otherworldly drug called “Theta,” Gayce feels like she is doing the right thing by getting everyone hooked one yellow pill at a time. Walking to a music club one night, she picks up her latest shipment from a straight-edge dealer named Derek (Darelle D. Dove). Coming out of an alley, she bumps into a born-again preacher named Marcus (Shane Silman) who knows Gayce from somewhere in the past. Giving him attitude as she walks by, Marcus and his fellow brothers follow Gayce to the club where she is set to deal “Theta” with her mute best friend. Arriving in time, she hooks up with her friends who are an all-female rock band called the “Truth Foundation.” Dealing Theta to the club crowd, the drug creates an existential experience, communal awakening with a god like entity that sounds like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons. In hind sight, it remains of the Peanut’s character in a darker and older way.

As each person experiences the entity different, Marcus is shaken and sees this as a sign that his religious beliefs are being tested by this evil. Like the Old Testament, Marcus turns to rapture for all those connected to Gayce and the deceiver drug. As Marcus and his brothers go on a killing rampage, Gayce must deal with the fallout of her decisions to change the world with Theta.

To be honest, at first I did not like The Theta Girl. I felt the film was just another no-budget attempt to create a bygone era of cinema. The colors, lighting, props, costuming felt gritty and thrown together. It’s basic and inexperienced but it works. Filmmakers Christopher Bickel, David Axe, and the rest of the cast and crew were on a mission to recapture the grindhouse and exploitation style from previous decades. That unpolished feel of the film grows on you as you take in more viewings. That no-budget indie genre magic begins with the casting and the characters who all are different shades of grey. Bickel challenges the viewer to connect and live vicariously through them. The characters of Gayce and Marcus are especially complex, with in-depth back stories given during the narrative. Silman as the character Marcus is a force on screen with a power that is like holy lighting and thunder from the heavens. As unlikable as Gayce is at times, Donofrio’s presence and embodiment of the character brings a flawed humanity, moxie and fierce personality in each scene. Like Lauren Ashley Carter and Hannah Fierman, Donofrio eyes also pop on screen telling a story in themselves.

The Theta Girl showcases a philosophical narrative that at times challenges the viewer. The intelligence of the story by Axe engages the audience raising the level of film greatly. I believe it is a key reason why it has found homes in several notable film festivals. The themes of religion, nature versus nurture, sexuality, identity and more rise above the grindhouse exterior and transfer from page to screen. Have no fear though, the horror troupes and taboos are on full display. The first act features an orgy sequence with full exposure that also shows space and the disconnect of Gayce to those closest to her. Fans of grindhouse cinema get their share of low-budget FX makeup with blood, guts, gore and uber-violent kills interwoven throughout. The first act of the film showcases a battle of bands with the performances being a focal point and echo throughout. The theme of music plays a constant role throughout the film with a 1980’s influenced score.

This film is a weird, brutal and niche project that fits for some but will push others away. AGAIN… watch this more than once as I changed how I felt after more than one viewing. The Theta Girl along with recent no to low budget genre entries like Lowlife, Union Furnace and 3 Dead Trick or Treaters shows genre fluidity with this crop of new wave filmmakers who are taking what they grew up on and cultivating cinema in their own image.

The Theta Girl was recently shown at the Boston Underground Film Festival.