THE PIZZAGATE MASSACRE (2020)
Written and Directed by John Valley
Grimmfest 2021 Review
I’m not a truther when it comes to conspiracy theories: whether it’s 9/11 being an inside job, the Earth being flat, Covid being a ‘plandemic’ or the Royal Family cutting Diana’s breaks. Yet there’s something exciting about going down the rabbit hole to see some of the elaborate stories people come up with. The Pizzagate Massacre takes its name from an outlandish theory that, in 2016, the Democrat party were running a human trafficking and child sex ring from the back of a local pizza joint. It’d almost seem darkly funny if someone hadn’t gone down rifle in hand to try and bring the owners to justice. Still, as a subject for writer/ director/ co-star John Valley’s new black comedy, maybe it can be.
In this movie, we follow the interestingly named Karen Black (Payne). She’s a wannabe journalist who is having the day from hell – getting fired from her first day on the set of Terri Lee’s “news show” (think Infowars). And just as she learned about a secret cabal of lizard people raping kids in a pizza shop… Afterwards, a chance meeting with a gun-touting conspiracy theorist Duncan (Seaux) results in her going down to join him at the branch meeting of his right-wing militia. There’s a power struggle between him and his even more psychotic and constantly angry rival Phil (Valley), who wants them to become more militant. Sensing a great story, she asks if they could escort her to Austin to look into this pizza shop conspiracy, and after the latter says yes, the former reluctantly picks her up first. So off they go to the big city, where things get really out of hand.
It’s an interesting concept for a film and timely when considering the spread of Qanon nonsense in the States. Granted, the blend between horror and comedy never quite works, with the seriousness of the situation and the relatively crass humour making uncomfortable bedfellows. Yet I enjoyed the scenes that dealt with militia politics: could they be more than just a gun club? The road movie aspect is rewarding, too, with some moments that let us know the leads better – and the sequence where they reach Austin and are overwhelmed by it boasts some excellent cinematography. However, the star of the show is Seaux, who finds humanity in Duncan. He may be an unhinged racist, yet moments like him asking Karen how much they should commit to their cover story of being a couple are surprisingly relatable. I also liked that he seems oddly rational at points – at least for a guy who believes in underground cabals (but he draws the line at lizards). Still, it looks like the writers backed away from exploring some of the darker parts of his personality. For example, without going into specifics, there’s a scene where he has to take his shirt off that lays everything out for us but then just kind of ends.
Real people do fall for these groups – heck, I’ve even lost some friends to them – so I’d have liked to see him given a bit more backing story. Or at least see more of his daily life. Unfortunately, he’s not the only cast member let down by the material. Payne is charismatic as Karen, giving her a rookie charm. Still, I don’t think she’s able to sell the frankly baffling motivation. I get that there are people who believe in lizard people conspiracies – but I didn’t buy she would from the way we first meet her. Hence for much of the film, I was trying to figure out if she was doing this as a ruse. There’s no radicalization process – she witnesses one rant then is a convert. Were the conspiracy the plot revolves around a little less over the top, it may have made more sense: think secret paedophile cabal operating outside a pizza shop rather than secret lizard paedophile cabal. Now there’s a sentence I never saw myself writing. Karen is too much of a blank slate to be our protagonist, and though it’s oddly sweet seeing her bond with Duncan I think that was despite the at times rushed script that seemed to streamline their rapport despite his many red flags.
I know this is ostensibly a comedy, at least for chunks, but The Pizzagate Massacre deals with some serious themes. It also sets itself an even tougher task by exploring them from the point of view of characters we don’t have much reason to like. Duncan, Karen and Philip are flawed, which is good but too broadly written to be sympathetic or realistic. This meant I wasn’t emotionally invested in their journey for much of the running time, and the finale failed to transcend its obvious budgetary constraints to deliver on the dramatics. You know from the start it won’t end well – that’s a given. I wanted to want it to though. Really, it’s hard to know what Valley was going for here: if it’s a tragedy about how otherwise reasonable people can get sucked into this kind of mindset, then its characters aren’t afforded the necessary psychological depth. If it’s just about laughing at them, then the second half is way too grim. An interesting diversion, much like its subject matter, but it hasn’t made a believer out of me. Still, there’s more than enough to have left me curious.