VOD Releases: Hell's Kitty

Hell's Kitty is being marketed as a horror/comedy, but a better way to look at it is as a sitcom for horror fans. It has plenty of horror imagery, in-jokes for those who love the genre, and an impressive list of cameos by scream queens and kings including Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Berryman, and Oscar-darling fish-man Doug Jones. But it is also a very goofy tale whose brand of slapstick and slacker banter has its roots in the comedies of Kevin Smith, and especially the Clerks and Mallrats vein of underachieving twentysomething dudes and their dubious misadventures. In that sense, its closest analog is Adam Green and Joe Lynch's series Holliston, which likewise filters the standard sitcom formula through the lens of the horror movie nerd, and likewise stars the filmmakers as characters with their own names, alongside a revolving door of unexpected big-name (within the world of cult filmdom) cameos. In this case, the writer/director/actor playing himself at the center of Hell's Kitty is Nicholas Tana, and the film is the final iteration of a concept he has been working on in various forms over the last few years. It originated as a web series, for which Tana released 17 episodes with a respectable level of success between 2011 and 2015, and then was reworked as a web comic adaptation thereof. Now the project has morphed into a feature film, which is seeing it get its widest release yet.

And I do mean it when I say that the project has morphed into a film: this isn't exactly a new movie, but rather the web series re-edited into feature format, with a newly-shot wraparound device bridging the material. There's nothing really wrong with this: it's actually a pretty effective way to bring the series to a larger audience, as a single film might have legs on streaming services and DVD/blu-ray which a series of five-to-ten-minute episodes might not. I certainly had never heard of Hell's Kitty as a web series, and I'm pretty squarely in the target audience of a horror/comedy about cats, so that may be proof that Tana retooling his series into a film was a good marketing idea. But this also explains why it feels much more like a marathonned season of a sitcom than an actual film, which is probably its biggest shortcoming: it is unmistakably episodic, with many chunks feeling fairly unrelated to those surrounding them, with the passage of four years looking pretty obvious across the story's duration, and with the wraparound segments feeling pretty transparently like new material that solely exists to stitch together existing content. As a film, it doesn't quite cohere. But if watched as a marathon of a series in film form it is pretty entertaining – although still a very uneven (and very low-budget) series which, it must be said, is not as funny or as well-executed in its genre-blending as the conceptually-similar Holliston.

You can only chase the red dot without catching it for so long before you snap.

Nick loves his cat, Angel, but she's destroying his love life: any time he brings a date home, Angel gets jealous and territorial and lashes out at her. But lately things are going way beyond just aggressive cat behavior: Nick's dates are being horribly maimed by Angel's claws, and pretty soon his kitty actually has a body count. You see, Angel is possessed by some sort of demon who loves shedding blood and causing chaos, even if she's still adorable and affectionate when only Nick is around. Over the 17-episodes-turned-95-minute-feature, Nick and his slacker buddy Adam try to figure out what to do about their literal Cat From Hell problem, while having run-ins with various odd characters who threaten to escalate the feline crisis (most of whom are played by 80s horror stars in brief, often in-jokey, episodic cameos). At its core, the concept is a clever one, and when the humor deals most directly with the central problem of the possessed kitty (which is to say, when it is most firmly in horror-parody territory) it can be quite funny. Its Exorcist parody sequence is pretty hilarious, as are any scenes in which the cat actor (Tana's actual cat, Angel, who is playing a fictionalized version of herself just as Nick and Adam are) is tasked with viciously attacking people. She's a cat, so I can only imagine that trying to get her to act out scripted scenes was incredibly difficult: surely much catnip or laser pointers were involved, and I must guess that many attack scenes were shot by Nick tossing the cat onto the "victim" from off-camera and trying to capture Angel's authentic grumpy bewilderment. This is when the series works best, and most lives up to the promise of its endearingly goofy premise. The musical score – an Amityville Horror or Children of the Corn-style arrangement of creepy choral voices, except the voices are meows – is also really funny.

"Wait, you mean we're not gonna
play hockey on the roof?"
The problem with the movie/series is that too much of it gets caught up in the sub-Kevin-Smith horny-slacker-buddies humor which the plot is fleshed out with. Most of the situations which set up feline disasters are standard low-brow sitcom "awkward guy gets into an awkward situation with a hot girl, either through his own awkwardness or through the manipulation of his entertainingly douchy friend" tropes. In the hands of a writer as witty and clever as Kevin Smith, these decades-overplayed set-ups can still yield some pretty hilarious material, but Tana is no Smith, and the situations often end up feeling tired, played out, and reheated from an unexceptional '90s sex-comedy. It doesn't help that Nick and Adam have the exact same archetypal '90s-slacker-buddies friendship chemistry as Dante and Randall from Clerks or TS and Brodie from Mallrats: Nick is the exasperated, put-upon, frustratingly passive one whose relationships are a mess, and Adam is the snarky, wacky "free spirit" who is a total dick, but in a silly way that makes it seem not so bad. It all seems way too familiar and too tropey: we've seen it before, and we've seen it done better. Adam Green and Joe Lynch's Holliston sometimes struggles to overcome the same problems, but it largely succeeds on the strength of its clever and genuinely hilarious blend of horror movie geekdom into its sitcom tropes, which takes it into fresher territory; Hell's Kitty needed to lean more heavily on its demonic feline plot, and use the too-familiar dude buddy comedy a bit less. The cameos help spice things up and move things in this direction, but some of them are too short and arbitrary for their own good; I know this was a low-budget web series and they probably couldn't afford somebody like Michael Berryman for more than a day (if that), but they needed to give some of these people a bit more to do, and give their cameos a bit more room to breathe. They're fun while they last, and horror fans will really appreciate the ways in which some of their cameos parody their best-known roles, but they don't last lost enough.

"Well, at least this is no less dignified than some
of the stuff they made me do in The Guyver."
Overall, Hell's Kitty is an intermittently fun but not quite successful attempt at blending horror/comedy and sitcom formats. Tana certainly has a good concept that he sometimes comes close to realizing, but his execution doesn't quite work, and he too often sidelines the stronger point of his concept in favor of too-well-worn sex-comedy tropes. When Angel takes center stage as the titular evil kitty, she steals the show, makes for some funny sequences, and gives us delightfully bizarre scenes of the horror icons of our youth acting opposite a house cat. But when the focus shifts towards Nick's various ill-fated romantic subplots, it falls flat more often than not. That it feels much more like a marathon of a web series than an actual film isn't a problem, but what is a problem is that it was just an OK web series to begin with. It's probably worth a look if you're a fan of this particular sort of niche horror-nerd-sitcom - but the cat's pajamas it unfortunately is not.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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