One of the fun things about horror B movies is that they tend to put their trailers on each others’ DVDs, so that a significantly large chunk of the movies we now watch are foreign, independent, or direct-to-DVD B grade whose titles we jotted down from the opening trailers of some hit-or-miss disc or another. As I suppose snobby film fans have known for years, the ratio of quality to drek is surprisingly similar to the Hollywood promoted movies; only the budget is smaller.
This is how we came across Otis, which we likely never would have any other way, and which I’ve never really seen anything quite like. If I had to condense it, I’d say it’s what torture porn would look like as conceived and executed by John Waters.
The basic plot is this: Anytown’s suburbia is being afflicted by a serial killer of the pyschopathic man-child model, the titular Otis. Otis is abducting pretty blonde teenage girls, imprisoning them in his basement dungeon, and forcing them and their parents to act out his fantasy of dating a popular cheerleader, taking her to the prom, and then having his way with her afterward. He names his victims Kim, and when the fantasy inevitably encounters some point of failure, he kills them and hacks them to bits. Once we’ve met Otis, we meet the Lawson family, a two-working parent family with a dyspeptic father, an overworked-but-caring mother, a nihilistic and semi-delinquent teenage son, and a blonde, beautiful teenage daughter. Otis selects the Lawson girl as the new Kim after the previous Kim meets her end, abducts her, and the rest of the movie flows from there. The FBI comes, drama ensues. Things don’t go entirely to Otis’s, or the audience’s, script.
I honestly can’t tell whether the movie couldn’t decide whether it was supposed to be a satire or a straight up horror movie, or if it simply tried to have it both ways at once. It oddly enough DOES work both ways, which is definitely not on the strength of the writing, but rather on the strength of the acting; the writing is mediocre, but the ensemble cast is very strong. Daniel Stern provides an extra dose of weirdness for anyone who watched movies in the late eighties and early nineties, as he’s playing basically the same character he did in them and is definitely more than a little stressed out to be way, way out of genre. If you can imagine a late-middle-age version of the tall burglar from Home Alone coping with his child’s abduction and then coping with finding himself involved in a scene from Hostel on his wife’s insistence, that’s about it.
The scenes with Otis himself and his brother are played straight to genre; Bostin Cristopher manages to make Otis genuinely menacing and genuinely pathetic at the same time, making him come off as an utter loser but still dangerous for all that. His scenes forcing his victims and their parents to “play along”- including his childish glee in saying things like “fuck” out loud- are more than a little stomach-turning. Ileana Douglas manages to pull off a similar trick as mother Lawson, who never quite loses her matronly, mom-next-door vibe even when she’s quite seriously proposing to feed someone a smoothie composed of their own fingers and toes. Ashley Johnson as the abducted daughter does a good job pulling off a mix of terror, contempt, and quick-witted moxie- all the more surprising as she also did an excellent job pulling off vapid and shallow on our first introduction. Jere Burns as an FBI profiler assigned to the “Kim” case manages to pace some of Hollywood’s finest scenery chewers, causing a maddening amount of “Who IS that guy and where is he from?” for us, which we concluded was mostly a case of him doing a good imitation of Dennis Leary and Willem Dafoe, depending on the scene.
If I’m being incredibly unclear, it’s because a large amount of what made this movie work despite its schizophrenic nature was constantly doing things that were just a few degrees off the expected for whatever genre it was currently inhabiting. That the family eventually fights back in their own over-the-top spree of violent revenge is not a particularly devastating spoiler, but a lot of the details of the execution wouldn’t work quite as well seen coming. All in all it was definitely a nice antidote to horror ensemble casts that are designed purely to be killed off one at a time for the audience’s gratification at seeing them finally shut up.
I don’t think it would hold up on repeated viewing, and I don’t intend to test the theory, but it was very definitely worth the first watch. Give it a shot if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.