The Time(s) When Matt Farley Fell in The Pit

Our Movie of the Month ritual involves everyone in the crew taking turns introducing a film that no one else has seen yet. It’s an experience we try our best to enter blind, without any preemptive research. I failed that stipulation by just a week’s time this October by watching a stealth remake of CC’s first Movie of the Month selection, the 1981 Canuxploitation classic The Pit, without knowing what I was getting into. While I had never seen The Pit before, stray details of its cult-circuit reputation were still potent enough in the ether that I recognized I was spoiling the movie for myself by watching a parody of it a week early. The question is, how could I have possibly suspected that a parody of The Pit even existed until I was already watching it? What kind of deranged madman would even think to make a feature-length parody of that little-seen Canadian horror curio, much less actually follow through? The only possible answer, of course, is Matt Farley – but it’s a discovery that only leads to more questions as you track the ripple effects of Farley’s fixation on The Pit in the larger picture of his entire Motern Media catalog.

Once you’ve seen the original work, Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel is unmistakable as a feature-length homage to The Pit. I suspected as much when I originally watched Sammy (in my summer-long determination to watch all of Matt Farley’s available filmography), but what I didn’t realize was exactly how deep that influence seeped. In Sammy, Matt Farley changes his name to Jamie to match the protagonist of The Pit, even mentally de-aging his own character with a head injury to match the original Jamie’s emotional & sexual maturity. He carries an oversized, telepathic teddy bear that encourages him to violate the sexual privacy of his babysitter (including exact recreations of two key bathroom scenes from The Pit). He gets banned from the library for staging disruptive pranks. He wages war on a bratty neighbor named Abergail, who believes the phrase “funny person” to be the ultimate insult. He lures his perceived enemies to a woodland setting, where they’re eaten by a captive prehistoric monster that eventually breaks free to cause widespread havoc. Sammy is not a loose homage to The Pit; it’s basically a cinematic cover song, a low-key remake.

However, watching Sammy and watching The Pit are too wildly different experiences, mostly because of their respective, outright opposed tones. Part of what distinguishes Matt Farley from most microbudget, backyard horror auteurs is that his work is aggressively wholesome. I get the sense that he (along with frequent collaborator Charles Roxburgh) was raised on VHS-era horror oddities like The Pit, but doesn’t have the heart to recreate their cruelty. My favorite aspect of The Pit, beyond the volume & variety of its monstrous threats, was how uncomfortable & grotesque its depictions of pubescent sexuality could be. In The Pit, Jamie is a menacing pervert who squicks out his entire community with his weaponized libido, which he barely disguises with a Rhoda Penmark-style performance of innocence. In Sammy, by contrast, Jamie is an adult man conveying that exact childish sexuality, right down to the very same acts of bathtime inappropriateness, but somehow Farley makes its impact far less creepy. His favorite aspects of The Pit were obviously the more innocuous, absurd touches like the name Abergail, the “talking” teddy bear, repetitions of the phrase “funny person,” etc. When it comes to being genuinely creepy & sexually uncomfortable, he doesn’t seem to have the heart; it’s a wholesome monster movie aesthetic that makes his already hyper-specific regional cinema ethos all the more distinct.

When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to revisit Sammy in light of having recently seen The Pit (he is extremely, radically approachable), he “joked” that I must rewatch all of his movies in that context, as they were all influenced by that formative relic. I immediately saw his point. Besides Farley’s aggressively localized, microbudget version of horror-comedy worshiping the regional cinema ethos of The Pit as if it were a religious doctrine, his own movies follow its exact narrative pattern over & over again. In most contexts, The Pit’s structure of functioning as a psychological drama & a hangout comedy until rapidly mutating into a full-on creature feature in its final minutes would seem erratic & illogical. In the context of Matt Farley’s pictures, it’s a rigid blueprint. In most Matt Farley movies there’s a Riverbeast, a “Gospercap,” a cult of modern “druids,” or a shameless peeping Tom lurking in the woods just outside of the action for most of the runtime, then rushing in to cause havoc just minutes before the end credits. Watching Sammy, I was amazed that someone had committed to remaking a minor curio as underseen as The Pit (way back in 2002, long before every movie of its ilk got the 4k Blu-Ray restoration treatment). Since Matt Farley tweeted back at me, my amazement has only deepened, as I’ve since realized he’s been remaking The Pit over & over again his entire career as a filmmaker. It’s as impressively committed as it is baffling.

As interesting of a pairing as Sammy makes with The Pit, it’s not the first Matt Farley title I’d recommend to fans of that classic. His holy trinity of greatest accomplishments – Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Murder, and Marriage in Manchvegas – all convey the taste of The Pit’s influence on the Motern Media catalog you’d need to get the full picture, and they’re each much more satisfying as isolated works. (In true Matt Farley fashion, Sammy is part of a complex mythology of interconnected “druid” films, even though it doesn’t contain druids itself.) As a stunt & an act of stubborn follow-through, however, it’s astounding that Farley & crew completed a feature-length homage to that Canuxploitation gem in the first place, one made mind-bogglingly wholesome through revision & fixation. It’s worth seeing just for that commitment & audacity alone.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987), and last week’s examination of how it could have easily have been a Gooby-level embarrassment.

-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