Obtuse Todd (2006)

Backyard New England filmmaker Matt Farley’s bread & butter is the same go-to genre that most no-budget directors rely on: the horror comedy. Farley (along with close collaborator Charles Roxburgh) is obsessed with the teenage hangout intermissions between kills in the slasher & rubber monster subgenres of horror in particular. Expanding on the goofy surrealism of that downtime affords his films a uniquely bizarre quality you won’t find in any other cheap-o D.I.Y. horrors. The subtly surreal, humorously underplayed hangout film does have firm roots in other D.I.Y. filmmaking corners, though, not least of all the post-Clerks “indie” picture. With Obtuse Todd, Farley & Roxburgh attempted to graduate from the goofy backyard horror comedy to the Film Festival oddity, another routinely overlooked genre that’s mostly cast off into the independent distribution void – seen by few and enjoyed by even fewer. In fact, the film has become something of a “lost” work in the Motern Media catalog, as it failed to earn any of the film festival entries Farley & Roxburgh submitted it for, so it’s been officially “unreleased” to this day (except as a “hidden” bonus feature on Gold Ninja Video‘s recent Blu-ray release of Farley’s magnum opus, Local Legends). Matt Farley is nowhere near a household name, so it’s difficult to convey how excited I was to finally watch this discarded Motern classic. It’s like someone handed me a free DVD copy of The Day the Clown Cried just to see me smile.

As always, Matt Farley stars in the film as a Matt Farley type: an amateur songwriter named Todd who suffers a go-nowhere desk job so that he can pay his rent (and write more songs). Most of the action is confined to Todd’s unadorned, white-walled apartment (presumably where Farley himself was living at the time of production). And by “action” I mean hilariously inane dialogue exchanges in which Todd navigates complicated relationships with the few other characters in his orbit: a workplace crush he cannot muster the confidence to ask out, a precocious teenage stranger who obsessively calls him at all hours of the night after a fateful misdial, and that girl’s father – a meathead brute who initially threatens to beat Todd to a pulp for being a “pervert” but eventually becomes his bandmate instead. Most indie hangout comedies of the 90s Slacker Era would have maintained this simple, interpersonal drama as a day-in-the-life portrait of eccentric characters. Farley & Roxburgh can’t help but tilt their version of the no-budget Festival Movie into some kind of genre territory, though, so Obtuse Todd takes some wild swings at transforming into a psychological thriller instead. Todd’s over-the-phone teenage stalker doesn’t deal with his increasingly stern rejection of her advances lightly, and the second half of the picture shifts from Clerks to Misery as she exacts her deranged revenge. And that’s somehow not half as strange of a development as how Todd’s songwriting career takes off with his new bandmate/bully. I can see how film festival programmers would have been baffled or underwhelmed by Obtuse Todd as a cold submission, but in the context of the Motern canon it makes total sense and is a total delight.

I wish Obtuse Todd had arrived later in Matt Farley’s catalog, and it could make for an interesting direction for the Motern brand to return to in the future. This oddity arrived before the crew’s major creative breakthroughs in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, in a time when they were still producing small-scale pranks like Druid Gladiator Clone & Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy. The only element at play that really feels like they’re operating at full power is Motern celebrity Kevin McGee’s performance as Todd’s bully/bandmate. Watching the two mismatched weirdos singly wildly popular novelty songs about food is explosively funny, especially in juxtaposition with the film’s more grounded Indie Drama & Psychological Thriller influences. Otherwise, Obtuse Todd feels like a dry run for what Farley & crew would later accomplish with success in the self-promo self-portrait Local Legends. For any of those minor comparisons & clarifiers to make any sense at all, you already have to be fully immersed in the Motern Media cult, in which case you should already be stoked that this is finally out there in the world regardless of its limitations. As such, all I can really do is encourage you to buy the limited-edition Gold Ninja release of Local Legends—one of the greatest films of the 2010s—before it goes out of print. Obtuse Todd‘s inclusion on that disc is pure lagniappe, but if you’ve read this far into this review you surely recognize the value of that gift. Its delayed thriller plot, novelty songs about apple pie, and maniacal close-ups of Matt Farley brushing his teeth are alone treasures worth seeking out for anyone who’s already been indoctrinated into the Motern Media cult.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet