It didn’t take long to recognize Jesse T. Cook’s Cult Hero as an absolute must-see when I made my list of ten films I was excited about at the Fantasia International Film Festival. The way the synopsis presented the film reminded me of my college-aged days, discovering films like Super Troopers and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and watching them with friends. With the irrefutable impression of over-the-top action films like Miami Connection, New York Ninja, and Manborg, blended with the spoof comedy stylings of Nation Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, The Naked Gun films, and maybe a bit of Austin Powers, the film is lovingly garnished with horror elements of suicide cults, gory murder scenes, and ritual sacrifice. Fitting into an action-horror-comedy setup, trying very hard to provide something for everyone, how could anyone say no to Cult Hero?
I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of Cook’s in the past, but in all honesty, I didn’t exactly give the guy a fair shake. Years ago, I was excited to add a Blu-ray copy of Monster Brawl to my collection, a movie that promoted an epic tournament of monster wrestling. The film starred Dave Foley as a commentator, familiar horror faces such as Pumpkinhead’s Lance Hendriksen and Black Christmas’ Art Hindle, and many WWE superstars. The problem was that there wasn’t a real narrative, just a fun idea that alluded to the notion of a monster Mortal Kombat but needed lore to complete it. It’s been a while for Cook and me, and I’ll admit some of his films in the interim, Deadsight, The Hoard, and Septic Man, have interested me. Especially given his teaming with Pontypool writer Tony Burgess on two of those three.
Cult Hero uses the collaborative efforts of the people involved in those aforementioned projects. Liv Collins, who co-wrote and starred in Deadsight, stars as Kallie Jones, a controlling, manager-demanding realtor. Collins, Burgess, and Cook contributed to creating Cult Hero’s story, while Kevin Revie, the other Deadsight writer, wrote Cult Hero’s script.
Collins’ Kareny Kallie sends her depressed husband Brad (Justin Bott) away to a wellness spa and, when he decides not to return, believes he has been kidnapped by the manipulative guru, Master Jagori, running the place. The guru, played by none other than Burgess, is a master manipulator, luring men like Brad away from their stressful lives and into his circle.
Left with no alternative, Kallie hires Dale Domazar (Ry Barrett), a disgraced tv “Cult Buster” with an enthusiastic disposition, who botched his last job but is the only person willing to believe the easily outraged Kallie. Their adventure together propels them into murder, mayhem, and showing listings at Kallie’s properties. As Brad’s “ascension” date grows closer, Domazar will have to do what he does best if Kallie ever wants to see her husband again, busting this cult once and for all.
Brimming with absurdity, Cult Hero is a fun distraction, albeit one that gets bogged down by getting too wrapped up in itself. After an elaborate opening where Domazar’s hubris is put on full display, infiltrating a cult that winds up dead due to his actions, the film then gets bogged down in the intricacies of Kallie’s life. The exposition takes too much time setting the story up and arranging this odd couple’s introduction, which doesn’t convalesce until they finally meet about thirty-five minutes in the movie. From there, it’s a lot easier going, but it’s a bit more of a hurdle than I expected.
There’s a lot of situational awkwardness with Kallie obnoxiously rampaging on neighborhood children and playful moments between her and realty rival Cynthia Doyle (Jessica Vano). Doyle, a next-level realtor, is creating ridiculous videos for her listings that combine the allure of annoying hotel channel ads with a near Playboy edge. Kallie and her world-famous devil eggs end up having a lot of competition. Though this is the part of the film that becomes stretched a little thin, it still retains the viewer’s attention with its quirky humor.
Once Collins and Barrett are together, their performances are undeniable. They sell (and oversell) their commitment to these roles to the point you can’t help but love watching them together. Barrett broods nonstop with the intense, raspy voice of Pete Holmes’ College Humor Batman spoofs. Collins sometimes gets overshadowed by Barrett’s energy, but her consideration for every deliberate displayed facial expression during fits of outrage, playful emasculations, and appropriate shock is wonderful. Her dedication to Kallie and how she and Barrett punch up each other’s performances help produce a prolific comedic duo. Cult Hero’s protagonists garner comparison to MacGruber duo Kristen Wiig and Will Forte.
Burgess’ performance is very understated. He’s a cunning and sophisticated cult leader, more apropos to this comedic performance than I would have considered. Referring back to National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, Burgess feels in league with William Shatner’s villainous General Mortars, Shatner rarely played a villain. Still, it may have been one of his most memorable non-Captain Kirk roles. Burgess finds a unique balance between guru and madman, and it’s fun to watch. Particularly in the scene where he’s choreographing the upcoming ritual with his henchmen. Other times it felt like there were some references to ex-President Donald Trump (see the photo where a tiki torch becomes a flamethrower). It’s a lovely inference to megalomania mechanics.
If someone were to tell me they didn’t find any humor in this irreverent comedy, I’d tell them they have no sense of humor. I laughed often and retained a smirk throughout most of the film, finding the muted slapstick-styled witticisms regarding a cannibal-ritualistic eating of “the organ of continuation” extremely playful. The film never makes itself a full-scale spoof; I think some may have trouble with that. Instead, it becomes a cult-worthy B-movie of social satire and genre silliness. While there are plenty of things that I wished the movie would have done differently, even just going a little further with the gore and blood spray for the sake of the gag, I can’t help but feel that Cult Hero is going to achieve major success as a midnight film, especially among the modern-day college crowd of genre fans looking for a diverting film filled with unconventional ideas.
I will probably go back and give some of Jesse T. Cook’s films a look after seeing Cult Hero. The film isn’t perfect and may not be as bonkers as I was hoping for, but the film exudes a fantastic sense of fun and has a lot of quick-witted jokes that may go over people’s heads. I’m super envious of those who saw the film in the sold-out theater at Fantasia this afternoon because I’m sure the movie is going to be an even better group experience.
Cult Hero played as a part of the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 30. Raven Banner secured worldwide distribution rights to the film in June, but a wide release date has not yet been provided.