By MADELEINE KOESTNER
Starring Tinus Seaux, Alexandria Payne and Lee Eddy
Written and directed by John Valley
Paper Street Pictures
DUNCAN opens like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode: a thin, clean-cut man in a suit explaining the crime that the movie is about. After that, the next shot is of a Confederate flag. Writer/director John Valley isn’t dancing around any difficult topics in his, as he calls it, “Grindhouse PizzaGate Satire.” Surprisingly, the movie manages to present an intelligent exploration of these topics while also being a bloody and violent hell of a good time.
A world premiere at Nightmares Film Festival’s current on-line Masquerade event, DUNCAN introduces us to Karen Black (Alexandria Payne), a young black woman who has just started as an intern for an alt-right news program anchored by conspiracy-theory-spouting extremist Terri Lee (Lee Eddy). Lee is a clear stand-in for Alex Jones, constantly turned up to 10 on and off camera. She barks that the mainstream media is mocking her for telling the truth–the truth being that lizard people are running a child sex ring in the basement of an Austin establishment called Tootz Pizza. Lee’s conviction is so strong it sends Karen into a panic, and after a mistake on set, she’s fired on her first day. In hopes of proving herself as a journalist, she seeks the help of a militia man from Waco, TX to travel with her to Austin for an investigation of the pizzeria. Enter: Duncan Plump (Tinus Seaux).
With DUNCAN and this year’s found-footage shocker MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN, it seems that, yet again, exploitation and horror movies are ahead of the curve when it comes to reacting to current events. Conspiracy is a topic we’re being bombarded with day in and day out, as in the U.S., fringe conspiracy theorists are gaining frighteningly powerful platforms. What may have started as ridiculous is luring in more and more innocent, gullible minds. That’s how a story as silly as PizzaGate results in assault in real life, which is hard to wrap one’s head around–so DUNCAN is here to explain. This is an exploitation film from start to finish, turning that tragedy into a bizarre, funny action flick. Part fake-news melodrama, part comedic gun-toting road movie, DUNCAN is like a grindhouse mash-up of TAXI DRIVER and NETWORK. Valley has managed to imbue his script with both thoughtful critiques and a lot of dumb fun, mixing well-timed, shocking sight gags with blood splatter.
Duncan lives in his van, hangs out in Lee’s studio parking lot and has an unsettling collection of guns. Yet he means well. Seaux, who previously worked with Valley on several videos for two of the greatest modern rock bands, A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit, brings a sincerity to the role, convincingly playing him as someone well-meaning who has made extremely poor choices in his past, and just keeps making them. Even if some of those choices are permanent and unforgivable, he is trying.
The best decisions made on this production, in fact, were in the casting. This group can seriously act! Because every performance is wacky and entertaining, it’s far more appealing to go on this weirdo, ethically muddy journey with them. Valley even plays a role himself, as Duncan’s militia rival Philip. He’s a monster with huge, hate-filled eyes, and embodies that white nationalist idiot the average person should naturally be terrified of. Last year, I watched another genre film inspired by real events: MOPE, concerning a series of murders perpetrated by a background porn actor with a machete. I struggled with that one, because even an exploitation film can become exhausting when it is constantly bullying and belittling its lead, even if they are reprehensible. It was therefore a brilliant choice for Valley to play DUNCAN’s most despicable character, giving the audience a target for their anger. We hate Philip, and can applaud when he gets shit on.
But the movie lets us judge DUNCAN’s title character ourselves. Because it treats Duncan with compassion, that allows the audience to see someone who’s become wrapped up in an insane conspiracy as human. Instead of being instructed to hate him, we’re allowed the space to pity him.
To be Duncan is the fantasy of anyone who has fallen victim to a conspiracy like PizzaGate, who thinks they are smart enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, who fantasizes about being in a secret militia, that nothing is what it seems, the world is out to get them, and they are the hero. That their display of the Confederate flag is about history, not racism. And it’s ridiculous. Fantasy is a blast, much like DUNCAN is a blast. But this is scripted entertainment. No one is “the good one” in a white nationalist militia.
Head over to Nightmare Fest’s official website for the rest of the Masquerade program, which runs through October 25, and for ticket and badge sales.