Psycho Ape! (2020)

The mini-DV backyard horror comedy Psycho Ape! proudly promises to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, and then it delivers exactly that.  In case the audience dare question the scope of that mission statement, the movie is careful to catalog as many dumb-and-cheap ape movies as it can for context.  It treats retro ape-movie ephemera as sacred relics: an official Congo boardgame, a pristine Blu-ray restoration of Schlock, a store-bought gorilla suit you’d expect to see in a Bowery Boys comedy, etc.  Single-scene characters debate their personal rankings of famous primate franchises like King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young as background-noise hangout banter.  When it devolves into a traditional bodycount slasher (with a gorilla-suit murderer instead of a kitchen-knife killer, naturally), the psych expert on the monster’s trail is Dr. Zoomis: a cheeky portmanteau of Dr. Zaius & Dr. Loomis.  Psycho Ape! goes absurdly overboard proving its credentials in dumb-and-cheap ape cinema scholarship, so that when it claims to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, you have no choice but to take its word for it.  I’m probably supposed to be aging out of this kind of bad-on-purpose, Troma-tinged schlock at this point in my life, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by something so lovingly reverent of such a disreputable, outdated subgenre – especially since it cites my personal favorite title, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, as one of the all-time greats.

On a dark & eerie night “25 years ago” (so, say, 1995), a “teenage girl slumber party” is crashed by a violent gorilla with an unquenchable bloodlust.  His weapon of choice is a standard-issue Chiquita banana, but it wreaks the same bloody havoc as kitchen knives & meat cleavers in traditional slashers.  Although most of the slumber-party teens are bludgeoned, stabbed, and choked to death by the phallic fruit, the titular psychotic primate does leave behind one anointed final girl: the obsessive ape-movie cineaste Nancy Banana (played by Kansas Bowling, director of the similar retro-schlock throwback B.C. Butcher).  In the following decades, the gorilla continues to kill at random, while Nancy Banana pines for the love that could’ve been, dedicating her life to becoming “the next Jane Goodall” (by which she means she really wants to fuck that ape).  They inevitably re-unite, and the film takes wild detours from its initial slasher template into retro romcom & beach party tropes.  If you’re at all familiar with the history of ape-falls-in-love-with-platinum-blonde cinema, you know that their cutesy romantic bond can only end in tragedy – complete with an obligatory spoof of the genre’s iconic “Twas beauty killed the beast” stinger.  The main difference is that this example also starts with tragedy and is careful to intersperse as many bloody banana stabbings it can afford in-between its cutesy romcom gags.

I just put more effort into pulling a coherent plot out of Psycho Ape! than director Addison Binek intended his audience to bother with.  Structurally, it’s more of a loose sketch comedy than it is a linear narrative.  Binek raised $7,500 in production funds through Kickstarter, then spent it all on goofing off with a gorilla costume, a camera, and as many friends as he could gather (seemingly including a ton of Troma alumni).  It’s basically a hangout movie for sickos, Motern for edgelords.  As proudly dumb & cheap as Psycho Ape! is, though, it’s anything but lazy.  Most hodgepodge horror comedies shot in this scatterbrained, tangential style are infuriatingly lazy (see: Da Hip Hop Witch), but Psycho Ape! establishes a distinctive internal logic that transcends any need for plot or scene-to-scene logic.  It’s a temporal mash-up of schlock ephemera from the past half-century: 50s Benny Hill grabassery, 60s lava lamp psychedelia, 70s first-wave slashings, 80s splatstick gore, post-Kevin Williamson 90s meta horror, 2000s digi-cam backyard movies, 2010s YouTube pranks, sub-Sarah Squirm 2020s gross-outs, and timeless scat & murder gags to tie them all together.  Some of the most sublime moments of the entire picture are just throwaway transition shots of Nancy Banana dancing with her gorilla beau in a vintage yellow bikini, with everyone involved openly laughing at how idiotic the project is on a conceptual level.  The fun they’re having on-“set” is infectious.  It’s a reckless party movie dressed up like a bodycount horror, but it’s oddly sincere in its dedication to having a good time and to honoring the ape-horror comedies that came before it.  I had a blast.

-Brandon Ledet

B.C. Butcher (2016)

It’s generally not the best policy to judge a movie based on its context instead of its content, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid doing so while discussing B.C. Butcher. Written by a 15 year old and directed in her dad’s (beautiful) backyard when she was 17, B.C. Butcher has a distinct teens-goofing-off vibe that makes a huge impact on its production value limitations and reasonable audience expectations. As young as she was, filmmaker Kansas Bowling did talk a big game in her promotional interviews for the film, citing names like Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Lloyd Kaufman (who distributed the film under his Troma brand) among her influences, names I didn’t know or care about until I was well into my 20s. Growing up in L.A. will do that for you, I guess, and Bowling is equipped with enough ingrained schlock history to know how to turn a small, unassuming camp film into a minor success. Shot on 16mm and coming in under an hour in length, B.C. Butcher looks & feels authentic to its trashy drive-in roots. This vibe carries over to the advertising’s David Friedman-esque claim that it’s the “world’s first prehistoric slasher film.” This isn’t the type of work that would normally bowl people over with excitement, but given the context of its production its’ difficult to shake the feeling that we may have another budding Anna Biller on our hands in Bowling: a young schlock historian looking back to old modes of B-picture filmmaking for new, interesting takes on since-stale genres.

In the year 1 million B.C., “before dinosaurs took to the skies,” a tribe of young prehistoric women are terrorized by two outside threats: a gross caveman who individually seduces members of the tribe only to cheat on them & an even somehow less gross monster that murders them one by one, slasher film style. The B.C. Butcher at least has a motive for his crimes against the tribe. He kills the girls as retribution for the slaying of his undead bride, who torments his nightmares with commands to kill! kill! kill! The caveman Casanova has no such excuse, driving the girls apart with his grotesque, predatory seduction merely for his own pleasure. The film boasts two “big name” actors: Kato Kaelin of O.J. fame plays the pantsless caveman loverboy and Kadeem Hardison, best known for portraying Dwayne Wayne on A Different World, is the off-screen narrator. The “plot” doesn’t get much more complicated from there, except maybe in the climactic moment where The B.C. Butcher sheds a magical tear, which was one of the film’s biggest laughs. That kind of slight, straightforward storytelling again feels true to Bowling’s schlocky roots and one of the smartest decisions she makes as a filmmaker is in limiting the runtime so that the story never really outwears its welcome. If it were actually released in the 60s or 70s it would’ve been the exact kind of throwaway junk that padded out a double bill at the drive-in. I mean that with love.

As something that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen a modern teen’s Tumblr or Instagram account, what B.C. Butcher excels at most is aesthetic. In the opening credits, girls pose in leopard print dresses, furs, and boas to a Coasters-type novelty song. In-between the film’s lightly gory kills, the same kids goof off while a punk soundtrack that sounds like it was provided by Burger Records, with band names like Vicky and the Vengents and The Ugly Kids, provides a pleasant aural backdrop for a mildly horrific version of playing dress up. These are, honestly, the best moments in the film. My favorite scene overall might be the mid-movie music video where The Ugly Kids mime one of their tunes on watermelon instruments. Bowling has a great eye for pure aesthetic, a saving grace that elevates her debut high above similar micro-budget horrors like Shark Exorcist & Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. She stumbles a little in a few stray decisions (it’s a little alarming that the only to black characters in the film are a killer ogre and a blind mystic), but there’s more than enough solid humor to be found in her gleefully schlocky details: character names like Anna Conda & Neandra, stock footage dream sequences, casual inclusion of plastic water bottles disrupting the prehistoric setting, etc. B.C. Butcher is a delightfully silly debut with a fascinating pedigree and even if the film itself doesn’t wholly satisfy every trash-gobbling viewer, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away incurious about where its teenage director is headed next.

-Brandon Ledet