Even if you laugh at the kind of overwritten fantasy language that lends Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls its title, I still don’t think you’ll like the movie. Based around Andrew Bowser’s character from a bevy of viral videos, Onyx is 110 Kickstarted minutes of unfunny dithering, giving the writer/director another showcase for his muttery, nasal diatribes. His grown goth nerd combines ‘80s references and profanity at random, served with a sweaty, m’lady delivery (Onyx would probably refer to it as being like the Micro Machines guy) as outdated as the fedora-donned memes from which he takes his aesthetic. Shoving this middle school nightmare of a character into a half-hearted demon-summoning plot, Onyx aims for low-fi absurdity, like a Hot Topic Napoleon Dynamite or talentless Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny. It’s awful. To cringe at this movie’s dearth of comedy is a kindness, one that might actually be too good for its off-putting central performance.
And that’s really all there is to the movie. You’d have to find it amusing to enjoy the film, because if you don’t like Onyx saying a joke—then saying it again with additional volume and speed, like a kid in the back of class who just got the endorphin rush of a big laugh—you’ve got nothing else to hold onto. When Onyx isn’t running through his lines, Bowser loses interest in his own film, directing it like he’s killing time.
But there’s something gross about his anxious, compensating yammering, maybe because—no matter the shoehorned backstory—it always feels like the character’s joke is punching down, mocking furries, Satanists and other members of fringe subcultures (or, like one of his YouTube videos, homeless people) for an easy, bullying laugh. You can try to reclaim the word all you like, but when your sketches do numbers because of a “Weird [X] Guy” titling convention, you’re even straying from the equally exhausting trend that turned “geek” and “gamer” into capital-building buzzwords. Video games, comic books, horror movies and all the TV shows you loved as a kid are the dominant culture, folks. You can drop the persecution complex at any time.
All the people Onyx meets when he wins a contest, giving him a Satanic golden ticket out of his burger-flipping real life, are certainly self-assured. The dull group of stilted, single-joke characters are there to serve Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs), ready to help summon a demon. Naturally, this isn’t why they’re actually there, and Onyx has to toughen up for once to help out his new friends and figure out what’s going on. But the plot is too dull to reach the over-the-top, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness powering its horror-comedy influences, and its styling feels less like a satirical riff on other “gather a group at a spooky mansion” movies and more like a bunch of people cosplaying their Dungeons & Dragons actual-play characters.
Even with fantastical nods to werewolves, magic tomes and mind-controlling gems, there’re few meaningful gestures to the actual genre that it’s in (aside from the meta-examples of casting Combs and featuring a cameo from his Re-Animator co-star Barbara Crampton), and even fewer gags based around it. By far the best thing about the movie comes in the form of some shambling, tongue-lolling ghouls and fantastically fun demon puppets courtesy of creature designer Adam Dougherty. Who doesn’t love a silly demon puppet? They’re so colorful, enticing and odd that the whole movie should’ve been a horror-comedy based around them.
But it isn’t, so you’re left with the genre-agnostic pulpit from which Onyx rants about virginity, Gadget Hackwrench and Underoos. The nostalgia-based humor is in a tough spot, demographically: It aims towards neckbeards of a certain age that’ll get and/or relate to its “baby-man loves toys and cartoons” shtick, yet the film has the tone and aesthetic of a Nickelodeon TV movie. Its gags are childish, but with F-bombs aplenty. In its weird, stunted middle ground, it’s almost like a parody of how saturated our pop culture has become by the idea that recognizing something is the same thing as a joke. References to The Flintstones and Lite-Brite abound, then give way to riffs on Meat Loaf music videos and the ending of Beetlejuice.
But the stealing is actually preferable to when the movie thinks for itself. It all contributes to an interminable experience typifying a particular self-effacing brand of Content Creator that only became more mercenary as comic cons transformed into corporate marketing summits. Exploiting the idea of an underdog has never been more lucrative, and never more insulting than when it focuses on a nostalgia-obsessed white guy. Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is a one-joke movie, and that terrible joke feels as carefully and cynically constructed as an influencer’s daily confessionals.
Director: Andrew Bowser
Writer: Andrew Bowser
Starring: Andrew Bowser, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jeffrey Combs, Ralph Ineson, Rivkah Reyes, T.C. Carson
Release Date: January 23, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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