Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy

One of the great mysteries of Matt Farley’s backyard-movie catalog for Motern Media is how many films, exactly, fit under that umbrella. Farley has been making microbudget narrative features with friends & local weirdos for decades, but any “official” list of Motern titles, even when cross-referenced between his IMDb page & Motern’s website, is deliberately incomplete & unclear. Although the full list of titles is seemingly unavailable (outside of asking Matt directly by Twitter or by phone, as he is very available), it is clear that the “official” Motern Media movie catalog is marked as starting with an interconnected series of films Matt & friends produced in the early 2000s about ancient druid cults disrupting modern New England. Like Matt’s frequent impulses to craft triple albums, six-hour marathon concerts, and 20,000 song catalogs, this early Druid Trilogy is a stupefying work of outsized ambition. The plan, as Matt explains it, was to make a 7-part film series on this single druid theme. Only four films were completed before the project was (presumably wisely) abandoned, three of which were released, leaving behind a charmingly imperfect, oddly open-ended trilogy with an absurdly complex mythology. If anyone would have had the prolific energy & single-minded stubbornness to see a 7-part series of supernatural comedies about modern-world druid cults through to completion, it would have been Matt Farley, so I have to trust that jumping ship after the initial trio was the right thing to do. As it stands, though, Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy is exactly the glimpse of Motern Media’s early stirrings you might want to explore after falling in love with more fully-realized works like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas.

The first entry in the Druid Trilogy and, thus, the first “official” Matt Farley movie is the 2002 comedy Adventures in Cruben Country. What is sure to play as a fairly standard backyard movie project to the uninitiated will feel like a shocking revelation to already converted Motern devotees. All the way back in the early 00s, when I was but wee high school dweeb, Matt Farley’s pet subjects of walking instead of driving, the novelty songwriting process, the joys of one-on-one basketball, and Halloween costume monsters stalking the woods just outside of town were already fully-formed, lived-in obsessions. In an early, fictional version of what would eventually become The Motern Media Infomercial Podcast, Matt rants at length on a radio broadcast soapbox about how much better the world would be if everyone walked everywhere instead of driving cars, an argument you can still hear him make verbatim in the 2010s. In the film, he’s playing the fictional character of Matt Farley, the Musical Mayor of Thomasville. The film is a kind of fantasy where he can exercise the same auterist control he uses to run Motern in real life while governing an entire city of loyal citizens who have to listen to his official dispatches & novelty songs with rapt attention. True to form, Matt is far more interested in indulging himself with this Musical Mayor fantasy than he is with staging a conflict with the cult of “druids” (black-magic creeps with bedsheets for “cloaks”) who stalk the woods in nearby Cruben Country. When the mayor’s plan oversteps its bounds by proposing that Cruben Country be converted into a massive playground packed with basketball courts, however, the druids encroach to discredit him, threaten his journalist girlfriend, and essentially exile him from Thomasville. The highs of Adventures in Cruben Country never quite match the best of Farley’s work, but it’s still a successfully funny, adorable hangout comedy with strong Adventures of Pete & Pete vibes that telegraph what he’d later accomplish in Manchvegas. The movie is most astonishing in its early glimpses of novelty song-scored basketball games, extensive rants about walking, and Kevin McGee villainy – all of which would be better deployed later in his catalog, but are amazing in the earliness of their arrival here.

Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel doesn’t exactly pick up where Cruben Country leaves off. Or does it? There are enough stray elements in common between the two films to suggest that Sammy is a direct sequel: Kevin McGee’s casting as the main evil druid; Matt’s ex-journalist love interest; a series of underground tunnels ostensibly intended to encourage walking; props like frying pans, frozen pizzas, and mystical jars of dirt worshiped by the druids, etc. However, there is no mention of Matt ever having been mayor of his small New England town. Also, I’m 90% sure the film is intended to be a direct parody of the early 80s cult horror The Pit (which I’m reluctant to confirm, since we’ll be discussing it as a Movie of the Month this October and I don’t want to prematurely read too much about it). The complex mythology of dirt-worshipping, government-infiltrating druids is maintained as background detail in this film, which mostly concerns an adult, brain-damaged Matt Farley, who has renamed himself Jamie and spends his days talking to an oversized teddy bear. The bear, named Sammy, issues commands to the infantilized Matt, eventually leading him to feeding human sacrifices to a tunnel-dwelling monster in the woods. If Cruben Country recalls Manchvegas, Sammy is much more prescient of the nastier tones of Freaky Farley, with the teddy bear encouraging some real disturbing Norman Bates/Peeping Tom behavior between non-sequitur gags about misshelved library books & frozen-pizza binges. The narrative of Sammy is just as incongruous with Cruben Country as the tone, as we never see the accident that transforms Matt into Jamie, nor are given direct indication if Matt used to be mayor. Is Sammy even set in Thomasville or are these films only of a series in the sense that they rearrange talisman props & characters into Madlib style configurations? They each feel self-contained enough for the latter to be true. I could easily ask Matt directly for the answer to these questions and for insight into what the unreleased Druids Druids Everywhere & the three unproduced films in the druid series might have been, but I’m honestly having more fun truing to parse out the mess on my own than I would with a clear, direct answer.

The third (and most artistically satisfying) release in Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy is Druid Gladiator Clone, a film I’ve already reviewed at length & one I quite enjoy for its aesthetic resemblance to early 00s pranksters like Tom Green & the Jackass crew. If you haven’t fully caught the Motern bug, but are still curious about these early druid-mythology comedies, it’s the one to see, as it delves furthest into the unnecessarily complex (even in Motern terms) lore; it’s also, on a basic level, the funniest of the trio. As a trilogy (and abandoned heptalogy), however, this collection of work is remarkable in its microbudget ambition & its deadpan commitment to the silliest of premises. In other words, it’s pure Motern. Matt Farley already had his humor & his pet obsessions fully developed and ready to broadcast to the work in the early aughts. What the Druid Trilogy afforded him & director/co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh was a D.I.Y. film school environment where they could learn the details of comic timing & maxed-out absurdity that would later lead to more substantial (even if just as low-budget) work. This crop of films is the exact Early Motern insight I was looking for. It’s probably for the best that Farley’s earlier attempts at backyard filmmaking (as well as mysteriously unavailable titles from later in the catalog like Obtuse Todd) are still just outside my reach. Much like the disjointed, irreconcilable plots of these three loosely connected films, the Motern movie catalog is all the more fascinating for maintaining a slight air of mystery.

-Brandon Ledet

Druid Gladiator Clone (2002)

Slipping further back into the Motern Media catalog of Matt Farley film productions, I was beginning to worry that I was wasting time & energy in search of the initial high I found in standout titles like Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. A self-funded, microbudget “backyard” filmmaker, Farley has been making movies with his friends & family for decades to little outside fanfare, but something in his D.I.Y. auteurism really clicked when he reached his creative apex in Manchvegas & Riverbeast. It’s difficult to know even where to start when digging through Farley’s pre-Riverbeast titles, as their quality varies wildly (despite their shared financial ceiling). It’s difficult to even discern what qualify as his “official” releases. Most sources cite Freaky Farley as the official Motern Media debut, perhaps because of that film’s (largely unsuccessful) push for film festival submissions. Farley himself lists at least three prior full-length pictures on his own website, all available on YoutTube. IMDb, to the contrary, lists the first Matt Farley production to be Druid Gladiator Clone from 2002, a homemade movie that feels like it was designed for YouTube streams, even though it predates that site by years (and its current form only has about 1,000 views on YouTube to date). Seemingly captured on MiniDV camcorders and boasting special effects work that appears to have been pulled off with Apple’s pre-loaded iMovie software, Druid Gladiator Clone would appear from a distance to be an entirely skippable frivolity, even in Matt Farley’s microbudget terms, something not even worth its IMDb listing. Miraculously, Farley managed to turn it into a bizarre delight decidedly of its era, something as essential to Motern Cinema as the 16mm summertime slasher spoof of Manchvegas or the start of his modern digital era in Riverbeast. Druid Gladiator Clone is a dangerous film, because it’s one that might convince you that all Matt Farley productions are worth giving a chance, even the “unofficial’ castaways.

Farley & career-long co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh somehow transform the budgetary limitations of their camcorder equipment by leaning into its significance in early 2000s pop culture. Druid Gladiator Clone is staged with the fish eye lens “tracking” shots & “candid” camera techniques of a late 90s skateboarding video, aligning it with significant MTV media of its time like the Jackass series & The Tom Green Show. The movie is essentially a prank show made entirely harmless because its pranks’ “victims” are featured players who are in on the gag. Matt Farley stars as a modern-day druid named Farley, naturally, who zaps unsuspecting victims with his lightning-like “Beams of Goodness.” It’s initially very difficult to pinpoint exactly what this inane mythology means. Every time Farley shoots cheap CGI lightning out of his fingertips, the unsuspecting recipient of his Beams of Goodness immediately falls unconscious, appearing dead. Farley even lifts & drops the arm of each victim three times with bizarrely methodical repetition to ensure their zonked state. This effect is only temporary, though, and victims of his supernatural pranks tend to recover within a half hour of being struck by his fingertip lightning. In true Motern Media fashion, this mildly sinister set-up is then made weirdly, aggressively wholesome as Farley discovers that his lighting beams can be used to put his victims in a good mood instead of zapping them unconscious. This development contradicts what his druid superior (Motern regular Kevin McGee) trained him to believe. This shift from menacing pranks to learning the power of positivity occurs in the first third of the movie, leaving a full hour of runtime to be eaten up by romantic sitcom mix-ups, “gladiator battles” between fellow druids in latex Halloween masks, and Farley “fighting” the cloned version of himself promised in the title (by challenging him to a round of H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court). Mostly, Druid Gladiator Cone is a series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed “cloaks” (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.

As with all of Matt Farley’s productions, part of the joy of Druid Gladiator Clone is the accomplishment of its own completion. The college setting apartments & classrooms recall the art project ambitions most young twenty-somethings have about making full-length movies with their family & friends. What’s miraculous about Farley & crew is that they had the dedication to follow though on those ambitions and have been making backyard movies on a semi-regular schedule for over two decades running. What’s even more miraculous is that nearly all these pictures, even the ones stretching back to the Motern family’s college days, are not only watchable, but even worth enthusiasm. I wouldn’t suggest anyone begin their Matt Farley journey with Druid Gladiator Clone, but if you already have an affinity for Motern’s house style & find joy in seeing repeat players show up like old pals (this film is particularly humanizing for Kevin McGee, even though he plays a villain), it’s a surprisingly rewarding experience. The idea of a Jackass-style candid camera prank show where everyone’s in on the ruse and no one gets hurt is so weirdly wholesome & earnest, especially once applied to an unnecessarily complex supernatural mythology about “druids” (shirtless, magical boys) learning how to become better people. Structurally, Druid Gladiator Clone is barely held together in a sketch anthology style, recalling horrendous microbudget productions like the Blair Witch Project spoof Da Hip Hop Witch. The main difference is that Farley & crew are naturally, genuinely funny, something that doesn’t require much structure or budget to feel worthwhile. My enjoyment of this wholesome college prank show makes me fear that I’m too deep under the Motern Media spell to effectively watch any of Farley’s output with a critical eye. I’m so on hook for their eternally juvenile antics that I’m in awe of the commitment it took to capture the low-budget spectacle of this camcorder sketch comedy anthology, even with its defiant inattention to basic craft & exploitation of dirt cheap special effects software. Someone send help.

-Brandon Ledet