If you, like me, grew up in the ‘90s, there’s a good chance you rented some weird movies. During the heyday of the video rental store, an entire industry existed to crank out fast-and-dirty kiddie films, aimed somewhere between the suburban wonder of Steven Spielberg, the bratsploitation of Home Alone, and the instant marketability of Gremlins. Most of these films were outrageously cheap, but it didn’t matter: kids, as they say, will watch anything, and parents would gladly pay a few bucks for something to throw into the VCR to keep them busy for a couple of hours. Most of these films have, for all intents and purposes, vanished; DVD labels aren’t exactly clamoring to give them the Criterion treatment, and they’re absent from all but the most fly-by-night of streaming services. But a generation of reformed video addicts have grown up with these weird little movies rattling around in their psyches (my personal favorites were Adventures in Dinosaur City and A Gnome Named Gnorm). PG: Psycho Goreman, the new film by Astron-6 alum Steven Kostanski, more or less does for this peculiar sub-subgenre what Grindhouse did for exploitation films of the ‘70s. I’m not sure what it will mean to viewers even a few years older or younger than me, but I had a big, dumb smile on my face the entire time.
During a high stakes match of “Crazy Ball” (an elaborate, Calvinball-like game involving arbitrary rule changes and, apparently, a good amount of digging), young siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) accidentally unearth an enormous, glowing sarcophagus in their backyard. This turns out to be the living tomb of a towering alien warlord (played in the flesh by Matthew Ninaber and voiced by Steven Vlahos), who quickly liquifies a few street thugs and makes his home in an abandoned warehouse, loudly plotting world domination. What this creature doesn’t realize, however, is that young Mimi has pocketed a luminescent gem linked to his lifeforce, leaving him in complete thrall of this eight-year-old tyrant. Naming her new friend Psycho Goreman (or PG for short), Mimi naturally takes him shopping, gives him a stack of “hunky boy” magazines to read, and ignores his constant grumbling about how much he’d like to kill her. Meanwhile, PG is being hunted by the authorities from his home planet of Gigax, led by the ruthless Pandora (played in human form by Anna Tierney, with Kristen Macculloch handling suit details). The stage is soon set for a battle between, in Mimi’s words, “evil and slightly-less-evil.”
In many ways, PG feels like the world’s most expensive and ambitious shot-on-video horror film– and I say that with the utmost affection and admiration. Like the best and most demented SOV auteurs, Kostanski approaches the material with pure, gleeful enthusiasm, throwing every gross-out effect and dumb-silly joke he can think of directly at the screen. Unlike those camcorder savants, however, Kostanski is a bonafide professional; he co-directed the spectacularly gruesome BUFF favorite The Void, and contributed gooey SFX to such works as Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and NBC’s cultishly beloved adaptation of Hannibal. Subsequently, while PG wears its rough edges as a badge of honor, its stop-motion and creature effects are really good (there’s some CGI too, but it’s mostly perfunctory and used to underscore the practical effects). In a running gag, PG frequently regales his young companions with tales of intergalactic warfare, each time clearly as an excuse for Kostanski to showcase another handful of outlandishly designed monsters (amusingly, the film’s production notes include two full pages’ worth of bios for creatures who are onscreen for five minutes, tops). It’s not hard to imagine Kostanski and his collaborators staying up late and cracking each other up with their designs.
PG is not, by any stretch, a children’s movie– there’s probably only so many graphically exploding heads you can include in your film and still legally call it “family entertainment”– but I can’t think of a film that feels more specifically and perfectly geared toward ten-year-olds (again, to be clear, I mean this as a compliment). The violence may be extreme, but there’s an inherent goofy sweetness to its humor that makes it feel more like an R-rated episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? than a crass, Troma-style sickie. It helps that the young leads are genuinely funny– not in the practiced, mini-adult style of contemporary Disney Channel offerings, but in the way that actual children are funny. Hanna in particular is a riot, hamming it up and tearing into the material with such gusto that you can only imagine what her real-life parents have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Like the film itself, the performances are rough around the edges– no one will mistake these kids for the next Haley Joel Osment or Jodie Foster– but they’re having fun in a way that’s rare to see captured on film. We’re only a few weeks into 2021, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hanna sneaks her way into my Best Actress ballot come December.
In case it’s not obvious by now, PG: Psycho Goreman is a very silly movie, and if you don’t approach it on its defiantly corny wavelength you may find it a long slog indeed (it’s also hampered slightly by an overly drawn-out final battle, five minutes of cuts to which would likely make the film seem about 20 minutes shorter). If, however, you grew up on terrible ‘90s cassettes and take-out pizza, you’re unlikely to find a more delightfully strange diversion. Even the soundtrack makes it feel like a dogeared gem from the “Previously Viewed” bin, filled with radical-dude guitars, an end-credits rap reiterating the plot, and an out-of-nowhere musical number in which the kids form a band (with PG on drums) and sing a power anthem entitled “Frig Off” (sample lyric: “I’m the heckin’ best! / Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”). As odd as it feels to say about a film containing multiple dismemberments, PG is, frankly, an adorable film. If it had been out when I was in fourth grade, I would have demanded repeated rentals.
PG: Psycho Goreman
dir. Steven Kostanski
Available for digital rental Friday, 1/22 via the Brattle Theatre and Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening rooms
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