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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Blending conspiracy, kung-fu, stop-motion, and Jesus Christ makes for a damn fine cult movie

Blending conspiracy, kung-fu, stop-motion, and Jesus Christ makes for a damn fine cult movie

Screenshot: Arrow Video
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The condemned: Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway (2019)

The plot: Lots of people set out to make “cult” movies. Lots of people fail. As we’ve discussed before, there’s no formula for making a cult film—all you can do is follow your own muse and hope you end up with something unusual and compelling enough that people are willing to make the trek out at midnight to hoot and holler at your creation alongside a bunch of other strangers. (It’ll be interesting to see what the midnight movie circuit could look like in the post-coronavirus future.) When it works, there’s nothing like the strange alchemy of entertainment and oddity that characterizes a beloved cult film—normally the idea of something being both populist and experimental is a contradiction in terms. But that’s the magic of these movies: They make weirdness that plays to the cheap seats, fun and fascinating in equal measure.

And in terms of out-there ambition, there’s nothing quite like Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway. A crowdfunded feature from writer-director Miguel Llansó, the movie is a giddy mashup of exploitation genres, fusing retro aesthetics and styles with Afrofuturist fantasy, stop-motion animation, cold war paranoia, techno-babble conspiracy, and more. (I could go on: ’70s Filipino exploitation, old-school kung-fu, lurid ’60s Euro-porn…) With a shoestring budget, it utilizes film crews from at least five different countries and three continents, jumping between realities and concepts with abandon, while somehow keeping an internal logical consistency to the otherwise nonsensical plotting. That’s impressive enough, but making it fun to watch on top of all that lunacy is what elevates the film above the wannabe-weirdo cinema constantly flooding the ranks of student films and micro-budget studios.

Look, I’ll do my best to convey the basics of the plot, but full disclosure: There were at least a half-dozen times during my second viewing of this film—solely intended to be for the purpose of writing down the narrative as it unfolds—where I threw up my hands in defeat. The year is 2043 (marketing materials say 2035, but an in-film advertisement is for a 2043 auto, plus who knows, also it doesn’t even remotely matter), and a pair of CIA agents are assigned to journey into the government’s virtual-reality computer system—code-named “Psychobook”—in order to stop the spread of a “Soviet Union Virus” attempting to take over the system. Agents D.T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse, who also starred in Llansó’s feature-film debut, Crumbs) and Lt. Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo) enter Psychobook, where their avatars walk around in jerky stop-motion wearing masks of Richard Pryor and Robert Redford, respectively, but they soon confront the virus (or its architect?), Stalin, whose attack leaves Gagano in a coma in the real world, and blackmails Eldritch with video of the lieutenant sleeping with his superior’s wife.

From there, Stalin creates a complete duplicate of Gagano and sets him loose in Psychobook for reasons having to do with gaining access to CIA data. Back in the real world, Gagano’s boss Commandant Rebane (Lauri Lagle) breaks the news to Gagano’s kick-boxing wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas), who had been eagerly awaiting her husband’s quitting the agency so they could pursue their dreams—her opening her own kickboxing academy, him his own beachside pizzeria. Through his travels in Psychobook, doppel-Gagano (we’ll just keep calling him Gagano, this is confusing enough already) encounters a motley assemblage of characters who may or may not be other people stuck in Psychobook or digital-only beings, depending on the situation. But eventually, after a fight with some giant insects that shoot lasers (don’t ask), he encounters Roy (Guillermo Llansó), a man who had previously believed himself to be Jesus Christ, but who now informs Gagano that they are both actually participants in a research experiment at M.I.T., and the year is 1997.

Soon, the president inside Psychobook known as Batfro (Solomon Tashe), who dresses like Batman, has chased down his quarry Gagano, under orders from Stalin. But before he can kill him, Gagano ingests a substance that pulls him out, effectively killing him off. With his partner dead in the real world, Eldritch re-enters Psychobook and makes off with the digital copy of his deceased partner that Stalin made, and gives the flash drive to Malin, who uploads it to a portable TV, where Gagano tries to finish off his case. By the end, it’s unclear whether Roy was right and this was all an M.I.T. experiment, or whether that’s simply the virus taking over Gagano’s brain in the real world, or if something even more sinister is happening. Roll credits designed to look like an 8-bit arcade game from the ’80s.

Over-the-top box copy: There genuinely doesn’t seem to be anything—not even a tagline—on the cover of this film, which feels like a first, for Home Video Hell at least. Presumably they came up with the title and thought, “You know what? I think we’re good.”

The descent: Given that I’d never heard of any of the people in front of or behind the camera, and there’s no obvious high-concept premise to latch onto, this was a case of good old-fashioned successful marketing. Arrow Video Channel, the streaming service dedicated exclusively to cult cinema (you can access it in America and the UK via Apple TV), got the rights to this one as part of its launch of new June titles. I saw the name of the film and figured it’d be worth clicking on the trailer. That little two-minute advertisement for the movie did its job: Containing all the elements I describe above, it sells the film as an underground artifact, the kind of difficult-to-find curio that the internet has rendered increasingly nonexistent. It bears all the hallmarks of something that would’ve played on a double bill with a Jodorowsky film in the mid-’70s. That was enough for me.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Unless stop-motion masks of Robert Redford, Richard Pryor, and Stalin count, no, there’s no name draw here. Besides, I heard Stalin was a rotten dramatic performer.

The execution: Despite (or maybe because of) a constant procession of what-the-fuck sequences and an incomprehensible hash of narrative curlicues, Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway is start-to-finish entertaining, the kind of thing you wish you could’ve discovered flipping through channels in the middle of the night back in the day. (“Channels” were these things that existed before Lana Del Ray.) It has the stilted pacing of old exploitation, but never drags; it lingers overlong on faces and scenes, but without sapping energy; and it occasionally seems to lose the way when it comes to concluding subplots, but the entire house of cards that is the outlandish framing device never gets so muddled that you don’t have at least a vague understanding of what’s happening and why. Okay, that last one may not be strictly true; I was baffled 30 seconds into the agents’ first foray into Psychobook, probably because I had no idea who was who, but once I made the “Gagano=Pryor / Eldritch=Redford” connection, it all sorted itself out. See for yourself.

As the world inside Psychobook ping-pongs between Gagano and the various subplots of the antagonists, Llano gets the opportunity to indulge in his every genre-film whim. For example, at one point Stalin orders his underling, an Italian named Mr. Sophistication, to send his kung-fu masters to retrieve the Ark Of The Covenant. (This “Ark” turns out to be the very first Psychobook terminal, not the thing that melted Nazis’ faces off in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.) Given the retro-kitsch technology angle, I had assumed this would lead to some offscreen sounds of punching before the three martial-arts guys returned with the Ark. Imagine my surprise when an honest-to-goodness scene of fight choreography ensued—something far from dazzling, but solid enough to pass as a gloss on the real exploitation films from which Llansó is borrowing. (Of course, because he also loves old-school arcade games, you get a Scott Pilgrim-esque “Fight!” overlay.)

One of the most fascinating elements of the film are its locations and production aspects. It’s the first ever Estonian-Ethiopian film co-production, which makes it noteworthy already, but Llanos’ use of even more extensive settings and diverse array of actors demonstrates an admirable commitment to a kind of genuinely international and multicultural storytelling that’s vanishingly rare in the world. The actors are of all different races, languages, and abilities, but it never feels like Llansó is exploiting that disparity for comic effect as in exploitation flicks of old; if anything, the film is firmly and consistently on their side. Its sensibilities are bluntly opposed to Hollywood, or even America more broadly, and there’s an anti-authoritarian streak combined with a Debord-ian suspicion of media and technology that feels fresher than most bigger-budget techno-conspiracy cinema. In some ways, Jesus Shows You is more comparable to one of Shane Carruth’s lo-fi passion projects than the exploitation flicks Llansó so liberally mashes up, despite the wildly different tone and styles.

That international flavor manifests itself in different ways, from the intentionally bricked English overdubbing of all the dialogue to the markedly different atmospheres created by Llanso working with three different cinematographers in Ethiopia and elsewhere to establish the look of his blurring realities. And while that far-flung influence sometimes results in ideas or dialogue offensive in the States (Gagano, a person of short stature, is interchangeably referred to as “the midget” and “the dwarf” by other characters), more often it’s just cartoonishly, intentionally satirical, as with the Mr. Sophistication character only speaking in a ridiculous, Mario-like accent. Plus, the gratuitous use of stock footage contributes to the sense of am-I-really-seeing-this that animates so much of the material. For instance, at one point Batfro captures Gagano and two of his Psychobook companions, taking the prisoners via boat to Mr. Sophistication. The camera cuts to a scene of hippos bathing in a muddy riverside, and I was sure Llansó had just intercut some stock animal footage—until Batfro goes puttering past the same area in his boat, meaning Llansó actually shot that clip, too. It’s a genuine “whoa” moment.

But ultimately, there’s a reason this movie is called Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway, and yes, it involves the character who thought he was Jesus showing Gagano the way to the highway. Two-thirds of the way through the film, a character appears, and the viewer, or at least this one, immediately thought, “That’s gotta be Jesus, no?” Yes and no; here’s the character’s explanation for what’s been going down.

This is exactly the kind of movie I love to spring on friends during a night of drinks, a you-gotta-see-this curiosity that doesn’t feel like anything else out there. This is the kind of movie for which Home Video Hell was created; I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Probably while high.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: I hope so! I was skeptical of the film in its opening minutes—it seemed like another self consciously weird-for-weird’s-sake attempt to shock the bourgeoisie—but it slowly won me over, until I was actively sad when it ended. The amount of innovation and ambition on display, from the stop-motion scenes to the comically juxtaposed use of hand-drawn details for supposedly important locations, makes it a delight. Just look at the movie’s way of telling you we are now at the prestigious American school the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology:

Illustration for article titled Blending conspiracy, kung-fu, stop-motion, and Jesus Christ makes for a damn fine cult movie

Damnable commentary track or special features? Sadly, not. Right now this film only exists digitally, but I hope a wide enough audience will find it to spur a home-video release. [UPDATE: Between the original piece being written and the publication date, Arrow announced a September 14 blu-ray release for a special edition of the film including interviews with Llanso, commentary tracks by film critics, a visual essay exploring the film’s influences, and more. Yes, I will be ordering it.] Especially after hearing Llansó speak eloquently about his work in online interviews I’ve found, I’d be curious to see a larger behind-the-scenes look at his process. Also, I want the backstory on exchanges like this:

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.