Deathgasm first crossed my path shortly before its premiere at SXSW last year. After seeing a teaser trailer, the mix of black metal imagery and off the wall violence piqued my interest. As chance would have it, I did not get to view the film until nearly a half a year later but that was probably for the best. Packed in a sold out midnight screening at my favorite local theater, Deathgasm became more than just a film, it became an experience. While a rowdy, drunk crowd more often than not makes for a terrible night at the cinema, it couldn’t be better for something like Deathgasm; with its laugh out loud shock and Gore, Jason Lei Howden’s debut was a sure fire hit that night.
The horror comedy is probably the most difficult of all sub-genres in horror to effectively pull of. There is a very legitimate reason as to why: horror and comedy are working to elicit entirely different and (often) opposing emotional responses. We are not usually laughing when we are scared and, vice-versa, we are certainly not scared when we are laughing. To effectively pull off both — something that even the best of horror comedies hardly do —, is one of the hardest tasks. Admittedly, Deathgasm is far more of a comedy than it is a horror film, but it is a stalwart effort that is filled with enough nightmarish imagery to really connect. Deathgasm feels like a seasoned veteran, one that knows all the right notes and hits them in perfect beat.
Deathgasm takes its cues from the best of teenage-set comedies, following an oddball named Brodie who, after moving in with his Christian aunt and uncle and miserable meathead cousin when his mother is institutionalized, is forced to rediscover himself at a new school. These films generally posit their leads as misunderstood outsiders, and Brodie is no different. His obsession with metal (fit with long hair and patched vest) and penchant for sketching violent (yet humorous) and satanic imagery in his notebooks makes him the black sheep of his school. Eventually, Brodie finds a companion in fellow townie and metalhead Zakk (the scene where they bond over records is one of the film’s best and most sincere). After forming their band Deathgasm, the two seek out their idol Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure), who is rumored to live in their town, but in the dilapidated home of the famed metal singer the duo encounter more than they can handle. In Dagger’s home, the two uncover the sheet music for a piece presumed to grant those who perform it limitless power but, in doing so, Brodie and Zakk accidentally release a plague of demons upon the world. With the town quickly becoming possessed, the fate of the world is left in the hands of Brodie and Zakk.A visual-effect artist turned writer-director, Howden has an firsthand, intimate understanding of how to effectively blend CGI in modern horror. As CGI continues to evolve there are far less egregious uses of the technique, but it still remains one of varying success. At its worst, CGI can nearly ruin a film. Thankfully, Howden has the CGI act in service of the visuals adding to the film’s comic book-like aesthetic. The possessed town’s people look outstanding, and the gore and blood (and there is plenty) is well handled in Howden and his crew’s hands. The reason that the CGI here is so effective is because it is supported by the use of a great deal of practical effects. There are gallons of blood spilled in the short runtime — though Howden laments that there could not be more —, ‘straight’ horror directors need to take a cue from Howden.
Any film that serves to honor a musical subgenre (especially an underground and/or extreme one) is always vulnerable to questions of authenticity. We have seen this time and time again with the use of punk in film (I wrote this article for those interested), as well as recently (and somewhat amusingly) with people’s distaste of what they believe was an inaccurate representation of jazz in Whiplash — though those viewers may have missed the point. Ultimately, it comes down to what the film is trying to do and while Deathgasm may not be the most fluent representation of extreme metal in cinema’s history, it definitely lovingly pays tribute in a way that feels sincere. As it turns out, the reason behind this sincerity stems from director Howden’s actual love of metal — which you can hear in the audio commentary. The only real misstep I would argue is the song written by the iconic Rikki Daggers, which is sort of mindnumbingly basic. Whether intentionally a joke (as in, how could these kids possibly forget this four chord song) or just an oversight, it does call attention to itself — it’s not a bad tune though.Deathgasm shines bright in its casting, with nearly every role being filled effectively. As Brodie, the timid, head-banging lead, Milo Cawthorne is superb. The iconic image of the metalhead is often someone who is dark, cold, and brooding. Yet anyone who has spent any real time with any actual metalheads will know that this is, more often than not, not the case. In reality, metalheads are often nerds, just those that substitute pocket protectors for embroidered patches. Cawthorne brilliantly imbues this spirit in Brodie, creating a character that not only feels real but also demands an emotional connection from viewers. Brodie just might be one of the most sympathetic, best sketched characters in any horror film of 2015. Similarly, James Blake as Brodie’s far more nefarious friend Zakk, also turns in a hell of a performance. While Zakk less sympathetic, his turn is still extremely charismatic. Zakk is the sort of character that you will love and hate at the same time. It is to the credit of Blake that this works, and, by the end of the film, the nuances in his performance make his role far more sympathetic than it could otherwise be. Finally, Kimberley Crossman — as Medina, Brodie’s love interest — is stunning. Her natural comedic sensibilities are clear from the start, but Crossman also fantastically handles all of her character’s more courageous turns.
The plot for Deathgasm is somewhat par for the course, but through the madcap humor, fleshed out characters, and dazzling visual palette Howden transforms Deathgasm from potential dud to a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Howden has an impeccable sense of comedic timing and — be it nationally informed of not — creates a film that feels right at home with Peter Jackson’s own horror comedy legends. Along with fellow countrymen’s What We Do in the Shadows, Deathgasm proves itself to be one of the best horror comedies in years and certainly of 2015. Its an evocative, quickly paced, a genuine work, elevated by moments of emotion resonance sprinkled throughout. Be it in the aforementioned meet cute between Brodie and Zakk or in the sweet ice cream date between Brodie and Medina, Deathgasm has a real heart to it but one that never undermines its overall tone. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Howden has Brodie and Zakk face off against Brodie’s possessed aunt and uncle, equipped with only sex toys as their weapons. While the scene incited a near riot of laughter, the continual use of dildo humor nearly overstayed its welcome. However, as a show of Howden’s talents, he knows just how to turn the joke around once again and finishes the scene in fine fashion. It is scenes like this, sprinkled throughout the film, that prove just how much promise Howden shows.Following a very limited release, Deathgasm is now widely available on Blu-ray via Dark Sky Films. There was a brief controversy over Walmart’s choice to “censor” the cover image and title, in fear of upsetting its Christian customers. While Walmart’s actions were without a doubt silly, Deathgasm producer Ant Timpson perfectly summed it up with his comments on Facebook, stating, “[Deathgasm has] been retitled at all Walmart stores as Heavy Metal Apocalypse, which has resulted in much brouhaha on social media…Walmart being the #1 US retailer of home video gets to call the shots. Personally, I think it’s a kind of a knee-jerk reaction, especially considering they have more extreme mainstream titles on display like I Spit on Your Grave, which mixes sex and violence in a salacious manner whereas Deathgasm is strictly out for laughs. The team is just happy it’s finally out and buyers can choose to grab it where ever they want including Amazon and all other retailers.”
The Blu-ray features a crisp presentation of the video and audio (something that is sort of a given with digitally-shot films), and does feature a few nice supplementary features. Of all, the best addition is the commentary track from writer-director Jason Lei Howden. Howden is very candid about the small budget (and even some of the mistakes made along the way) and how he had to overcome the challenges. Howden is quite funny on the track, although there are a few too many breaks in discussion that could have been probably have been avoided had Howden been joined by a second party. In the track, as mentioned, Howden also shows his real love of metal, stopping to comment on his love of bands like Emperor, Deicide, and the likes. Additional features include Bulletbelt’s music video “Deathgasm,” as well as the trailer and teaser for the film. It would have been nice to see some more features outlining the VFX work done on the film or interviews with cast and crew, but what is offered is certainly appreciated.
I decided to forgo an individual top 10 list this year, but had I presented one Deathgasm would have been high on it (and does wind up as an honorable mention from our polled, collective list). There are very few genre films released that manage to be effectively humorous, engaging, and emotionally resonate, but Deathgasm does it all and more. Deathgasm is as close as any film in the aughts has come to effectively reliving the spirit of a film like Dead Alive, and with hopes it represents the start of a brilliant career from Howden.
Deathgasm is now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Dark Sky Films