Panic Fest 2023: Abruptio is a Troma movie with puppets, and that’s a neat experiment if nothing more

Still Abruptio 1 1

HellBent Pictures LLC Sweet Home Films

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

It’s not often you find yourself asking, “If this movie didn’t have puppets, would it be any good?” but that’s what I kept thinking as the credits rolled on Abruptio at Panic Fest last weekend. Evan Marlowe’s surreal, squicky thriller gets a lot of mileage from the fact that its cast, while operating in real-world locations, is entirely made up of sketchy-looking life-size humanoid puppets, voiced by a stacked cast of voice performers. 

The bizarre remove created by Marlowe’s stiff-moving puppets takes an otherwise cliche, derivative tale and makes it more creative. [Learning in the Q&A following the film that Abruptio started life as a live-action movie, however, takes nearly all that credibility away.] It’s a neat idea, stretched a bit too thin at feature length.

Les Hackel (voiced by James Marsters) is an unhappy office drone with a high-maintenance girlfriend (Kerry Finlayson) and a deadbeat friend, Danny (Jordan Peele). He still lives at home with his disapproving parents. One day, Les discovers a bomb has been implanted in his neck by mysterious means. He’s not alone, as he learns when he goes over to Danny’s house. Les’ friend tries to kill him, but can’t bring himself to, resulting in the bomb in his own neck blowing his head off. 

Les quickly learns that to survive, he has to follow the instructions given to him over his phone within a certain timeframe, otherwise he’ll suffer the same fate Danny did. This results in him stealing a car, and partnering with a sleazy standup comic named Sal (Sid Haig) to murder a family and take over their home, then killing Sal as well. 

Les undertakes further criminal activity with a thug named Clive (Darren Danbrough), who he later runs afoul of. He also meets Chelsea (Hana Mae Lee), a community college student who tries to help him solve the mystery of his predicament. This may or may not involve aliens or Les’ own latent psychosis, as he goes deeper down the rabbit hole and in and out of a psychiatric hospital.

There’s not a lot of internal logic underlying Abruptio which, in a moment of prestige-y gonzo entertainment like Everything Everywhere All at Once or Mrs. Davis, isn’t a critique. There’s nothing more purely cinematic than making up a story and trying weird stuff to see what happens—that’s how some of our greatest filmmakers got their start. However, EEAAO and Mrs. Davis have thematic depth that elevates them above the childlike imaginative impulses that created them. There’s not enough substance in Abruptio to suggest there’s much going on under the surface. 

That surface, however, is pretty cool. The lo-fi nature of Abruptio’s puppet actors heightens the movie’s absurdity while making its frequent violence both cartoonish and jarring. You’re so weirded out by how awkward and aesthetically unpleasing these puppets are (it feels like a lot of work was put into making them look poorly-crafted) it barely matters that the plot feels like something your freshman film school pal cobbled together after watching Reservoir Dogs and Falling Down.

Essentially Abruptio is a neat experiment that would work well as a short film, where concept and resourceful ingenuity reign supreme. As a feature film, however, it needs more to really shine. Marlowe displays impressive Lloyd Kauffmanesque instincts here, as well as commitment, and Troma fans may well find Abruptio is great in and of itself on that level. But there’s still untapped potential here that could go even further.

Still Abruptio 2 1

HellBent Pictures LLCSweet Home Films

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

Categories: Movies