The Pizzagate Massacre (aka Duncan) had its international première at Grimmfest 2021
In the opening sequence of writer/director/editor/producer/composer John Valley’s feature, a reporter (Derek Babb) addresses the camera about recent incidents of mass murder in Texas linked to a debunked conspiracy theory, and about footage shot by an eyewitness which would “introduce the world to the most dangerous man in America.” The film’s title, which was originally Duncan, would immediately have followed, forging an instant association between this supposedly dangerous spree killer and the film’s protagonist Duncan Plump (Tinus Seaux), a long-haired, bearded Texan militia member with a van full of firearms, a paranoid relationship with the world beyond, a tribal link to white supremacy, and a somewhat sexualised (though he denies it) infatuation with television conspiracy theorist Terri Lee (Lee Eddy). Yet the title has now been changed to The Pizzagate Massacre, clearly evoking the all-too-real Pizzagate conspiracy theory that went viral in 2016 and has recently been revived by QAnon, and that initially motivates Duncan’s actions, while also promising, as the prologue has already done, a lot of bloodshed to come.
What is most striking about this introduction is its overtly mediated nature. We are not watching the incident of the title itself, but somewhat confused reportage of it, in an oversimplified account of a complicated, chaotic sequence of events that the rest of the film, in flashback, will lay out more carefully. In fact, The Pizzagate Massacre is concerned with a collision between Duncan and the media, the latter initially embodied by Karen Black (Alexandria Payne), whose improbable name also binds the film to exploitation cinema. Karen is an intern on Terri Lee’s programme who, after being fired on her first day, invites Duncan to be her protective backup as she tries to infiltrate Tootz Pizza in Austin, Texas, claimed by Terri to be the stronghold of ‘lizard people’ who perform unspeakable acts on abducted children in the basement. Duncan follows Terri’s show closely, and while he broadly believes in an élite cabal of reptilian manipulators, he also knows, having done his own independent research, that the building where Tootz Pizza is based has no basement – but he agrees to tag along anyway, not least because he is as attracted to Karen as to Terri. And so when this white good old boy, with his confederate number plates and even more offensive tattoos, forms an unlikely alliance with a young black woman, he is revealed to be full of unexpected contradictions, even as this road trip from their home town of Waco to Austin and back again will leave a trail of bodies. The film’s Texan location, the opening forecast of slaughter and even Duncan’s combi van all point to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), although viewers may recall that, significantly, the owner of the similar vehicle in Tobe Hooper’s horror classic was not the villain but a victim.
The Pizzagate Massacre traces the recent, right-ward shift of America towards corrosive clickbaiting, Trumpian fake news, self-serving mendacity and a media-stoked divorce from reality. Valley sets his film mostly in Waco, where in 1993 the Branch Davidians met their fiery end during a federal raid and siege. This location’s history serves as a sort of origin story to explain the legacy of the next, post-Davidian generation, well-armed and deeply distrustful of authority. In case the point is missed, Duncan is said to be a literal son of the Branch Davidians’ late leader David Koresh, and Duncan’s own inner conflicts derive from his mixed feelings about a controversial father, himself accused of extensive child abuse before his death no less than ‘deep state operatives’ are today. Duncan may constantly question the narrative of the mainstream media, but he is also surprisingly sceptical about the details of conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the militia to which Duncan belongs may be a church-based ma-and-pa operation run by decent old Hollis (Mike Dellens), who is more concerned with the quality of his wife’s cooking than with any armed uprising, but the winds of political change are embodied by the much younger Philip (played by Valley himself), a ridiculous yet obviously dangerous figure who hopes to displace Hollis from the group’s leadership through his own pugnacious, fear-mongering, rabble-rousing rhetoric.
Duncan is intense, unsocialised, and knows his way around a gun – yet even as he is framed as an Arthur Fleck or Travis Bickle type primed to explode into violence (and the endings here certainly allude to the brothel attack in Taxi Driver and the on-air shooting in Joker), The Pizzagate Massacre plays for the most part as a comedy of errors. Here, all those who bear arms also bear responsibility for the incompetent clusterfuck that follows, and all those (which is to say, all of us) who watch and judge and take sides are also confronted with our own complicity in wanting to see Karen’s (and by extension Valley’s) movie be about a rogue individual rather than about a more sophisticated scenario where blame ranges far and wide. The deeply cynical ending exposes a media machine that panders to – and profits from – simplistic fear and outrage. Duncan, it will turn out, is a complex character, far more layered and nuanced than his mediated image suggests – and Valley challenges viewers to see beyond fragmentary truths to a bigger, fuller picture of a muddled man caught in the crossfire of the moment, and publicly crucified for it.
“There’s something fucked up, underneath,” Duncan will tell Karen. He is talking about himself and his tats rather than about Tootz Pizza and the dungeons of depravity supposedly below its ground floor, but he might just as well be describing the broader society in which this film takes place, and in which we are all now having to live and die. So while its satire is funny, this film also comes with a deadly serious message hidden in its basement.
strap: John Valley’s timely satiric comedy of errors makes serious fun of militias, the media and madness in the modern age
© Anton Bitel