Poundcake (2023)

Poundcake had its international première on Fri 25 Aug at FrightFest

Someone is terrorising the streets of contemporary New York City. Like Jason Voorhees, (who notoriously visited Manhattan), Michael Myers, or Leatherface, this pattern killer comes with his own iconic headgear (a gimp mask) and weapon (chain). Still, far from slicing up young co-eds, or murdering at random, the hulking figure dubbed ‘Poundface’ (and played by the wrestler Bull James) is targeting a very specific demographic – straight white males – whom he literally rapes to death. In other words, even if Poundcake revolves around, and is named after, a murderer whose mute, relentless nature, and whose otherworldly presence (his mere proximity messes with smart phones and computers), ally him to an old-school slasher, there is something deeply unconventional, even subversive, about his modus operandi that seems in synch with more modern tensions in American society.

“We miss out on a lot of important conversations and insights when we shy away from things that are uncomfortable,” says Ronnie (Onur Tukel) as he and his wife Kika (Pia Paez) have dinner with their downstairs neighbours Ben (Ron Brice) and Teisha (Elizabeth Smith). “Everything should be on the table, every conversation. People should overshare. That’s how we solve problems, by talking things out.” The very fact that Ronnie is played by the film’s writer/director lends his words the force of a programmatic manifesto. For between the murder set-pieces that regularly punctuate it, Poundcake is very much a film of fearless discourse. On various podcasts, in apartments, gyms and bars, out on the streets, or at the board meetings of a firm seeking to find a replacement manager for the first victim Jamie (David Denowitz), everyone talks up a storm trying to peg just who the killer in their midst is and what he represents. Is he an avenger for the wrongs of patriarchy? Is he a myth designed to restore to the white male oppressor the sympathy of victimhood? Is he a joke? A zeitgeist? An avatar of all the anger and hatred simmering under society’s surface? Or is he just “something out of a damn dumb horror movie”? 

All these possibilities are discussed as Tukel’s ensemble of characters, in struggling to understand why the victims are all straight white males, also expose the shifting boundaries of their own homophobia, racism and sexism, and thus the fault lines of present-day, polarised America. “It’s all so confusing,” as Chinese office worker Christie (Laura Wei) will conclude in a staff discussion of race, colour, creed, ethnicity and bloodline, where identity proves more fluid than her coworkers’ simplistic categories can contain. Everyone here seems confused, even straight-talking, supposedly straight Ronnie, whose own obsession with anal sex, shared with the killer, has even his wife convinced that he must be gay. 

All this might sound deadly serious, but in fact Tukel’s film is a hilarious satire of a culture at odds with itself, and struggling to “kill the beast” with a little love, some understanding, and perhaps even a community-building singalong. Everyone here, from the killer’s victims to the sideline commentators, has something to say, and somehow manages to say it in the most absurd way, as Tukel teases out the many contradictions, both external and internal, in these characters’ clashing ideologies. Call it having your Poundcake and eating it too.   

strap: In Onur Tukel’s horror satire, a slasher with a very specific target demographic exposes fault lines in America’s culture wars

© Anton Bitel