Some films, like “The Shape of Water,” transport you with fantastical beauty and provide an elevated escape from bland reality. Some films, like “Get Out,” hold a mirror up to society and force you to think about the terrors waiting outside the theater. And there are some films that you watch on a rainy Saturday morning, in your comfy pants, and you may not be deeply moved, but you’re cackling and having a hell of a good time. That’s “Soft Matter.”
“Soft Matter,” which describes itself as a mix between the aforementioned “The Shape of Water” and “Get Out,” is the feature directorial debut of Jim Hickcox (who also wrote and co-produced the film). The film is labeled as a comedy-science fiction-horror and… yup, that pretty much sums it up. The film stars Ruby Lee Dove II, Hal Schneider, Mary Anzalone, and the combined performances of Sam Stinson and Mykal Monroe as the Sea God. It’s a quick little ditty, topping off at 1 hour and 12 minutes in length. It was filmed in (my hometown) Austin, TX.
A brief synopsis: Two graffiti artists break into an abandoned, allegedly haunted, research facility in hopes of creating an art installation. There they encounter a team of demented researchers that are seeking the key to immortality by creating hellish experiments, blending human victims with sea creatures. The callous pride of the scientists summons an ancient Sea God, and now both the young artists and the research team must flee for their lives (along with two unwitting art lovers).
This flick, simply put, is absurd. It’s clumsily hilarious in the way that cult classics like “Troll 2” are and punctuated with the straight-up bizarre. These are statements offered with a smile, because one of the great joys of cinema is watching something that is just for fun. “Soft Matter” from the outset has a seemingly intentional retro vibe, reminiscent of 2016’s “Beyond the Gates.” It hearkens back to the silly, colorful feel of older mainstream horror. The performances by the cast, while not always masterful, are funny and sincere, with Hal Schneider being a standout. The tone is light and comedy remains at the forefront. Goddamn, at moments, this movie is hilarious. A major prop that I must give to “Soft Matter” is that it’s quite resourceful, especially in the creation of some costumes. The Sea God is an impressive creation with Hollywood-caliber effects and execution. This creature shares the screen with homemade monsters and it warmed the heart to see good ole bootstraps filmmaking (what Mister Sacks lacked in beauty, he made up for in personality).
An extension of this innovation that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t was the use of animation to detail flashbacks and sequences that would have been difficult to shoot on a modest budget. This worked in the origin sequence of the Sea God. The scene was funny, the setup was clever, and it took the fable of the Sea God almost to the level of a children’s story which was – dare I say – artful. An earlier musical animated sequence did not land as well and was one of the moments (and there were a few) that made me raise an eyebrow at the choice.
This movie is fun, and I’m not here to hold its feet to the fire over not being “The Shape of Water,” but there were some flaws. “Soft Matter” has a sort of odd double ending, the first being a direct homage to “JAWS,” in the destruction of the monster. A gentle reminder from a critic: Never remind your audience that they could be watching a better movie. The “second ending,” the final battle between unconventional heroine Kish and a power-obsessed Dr. Kriegspiel, felt a little out of place. I will give it props in that it was the moment that some of the odd style choices started to grow on me, and I thought the scene was well-done. However, it was victim to the overall issue with “Soft Matter”: odd pacing and sometimes wavering in focus. This movie needed either a half-hour more time or one less story arc.
For all the flaws, there were a few moments that more than made up for it and kept the film fun. The characters of Miss Teath and Randolf were absolutely delightful – such a welcome addition to the cast and I loved every moment that they were onscreen.
And I don’t know why we needed several minutes of a slime monster dancing under party lights, but I’m so glad that it was there.
If you’re a B-Horror fan and looking for something a little different, you might try “Soft Matter.” It is available on-demand May 22.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.