Going back eight years is not much of a throwback in time. Yet writer-director Travis Betz‘ Lo (2009) is worthy of a Throwback Thursday shout-out anyway. It’s an overlooked and undervalued film that deserves a wider audience.
A genre-blending horror comedy musical with romantic drama elements, this indie picture takes a lot of chances and still succeeds. This is saying something when you consider that the first film that comes to many cinephiles’ minds when asked to think of horror comedy musicals is that venerable ‘midnight movie’ and cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, dir. Richard Sharman).
This one came to me recently after languishing in my Netflix DVD queue. It was on this watchlist for so long that I couldn’t remember why I added it. “Round up the usual suspects”: Billy Crash and Jonny Numb, hosts of the inimitable movie podcast, “The Last Knock” (iTunes). It has that ‘quirky’ feel (sorry, Dave K.) that often marks the picks of these two horror aficionados — in this case, Billy Crash.
Still, I have to admit that, when I received the DVD in the mail, the blurb on the jacket made me despair. “Another failed indie attempt that does too little with too much,” I thought. I’m biased by my recent and disappointing viewing of 2016’s Antibirth (dir. Danny Perez).
Instead, I found that Lo does a lot with a little. First, it has a simple premise. A young man, Justin (Ward Roberts), conjures up the demon Lo (Jeremiah Birkett) in order to rescue his lover April (Sarah Lassez), who has been kidnapped and taken to Hell by another demon, Jeez (Devin Barry).
Second, most of the film uses one basic set, transformed with versatility by production designer Amy Montgomery. In fact, it’s almost like a play in this regard. Yet the varying camera positions, shots, and angles captured by DP Joshua Reis convince the viewer that it’s a movie. The presence of staged skits (one includes a campy rock musical number) within the world of the story further differentiates the film from the stage. All these skits are funny in a sardonic way. The humor gets a boost from the choice to show and include the backstage area and its stage crew in the flashbacks provided by these mini-stories within the story.
Third, Betz complicates his story in a clever way. It has ironic twists and turns (including some gender-bending at the end) that I can’t detail here without giving away too many spoilers. The dialogue is snappy, particularly that of Lo and Jeez, who are played with gusto by Birkett and Barry. The story achieves verisimilitude despite its break with everyday reality in part because of the high-quality special effects makeup work of Tom Devlin and Kazuyuki Okada and costume design by Molly O’Haver. As in Rocky Horror, catchy original music also plays a large part in the success of the overall story.
Last but not least, Betz modulates the emotional tone of the film with skill. This feat is difficult to pull off when blending genres. It’s also high-risk, as failure leads to a ridiculous hodgepodge of a movie. Here, it’s a near-perfect manipulation of audience attention and empathy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should definitely check out this short feature film (at just over 80 minutes of runtime). After all, Lo won the Audience Award at the 2009 Shriekfest. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd.