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Movie Review by L.L. Soares
To say this is a strange one is an understatement.
When I first heard about KUSO (2017) it was concerning the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where several audience members walked out (since then, filmmaker Steven Ellison stated that it was only “20 out of 400”people). Then, in June, it was announced that the film would only be available on the horror movie streaming service, Shudder, making its debut on July 21st. By this time, some people were calling it the “grossest movie ever made.” Curious about this one, I ended up taking advantage of Shudder’s free trial period to check the movie out.
KUSO was made by Steven Ellison, an electronic musician and rapper who goes by the name of Flying Lotus. I’ve enjoyed a lot of his music, which is what first made me interested in seeing KUSO. Its “gross” reputation just made it more intriguing. The credits of the movie simply say it was directed by “Steve.”
There are four different storylines going on throughout the film, interrupting each other, and interspersed with fake news reports, commercials, and such, as if we’re watching some alien TV station. A news report says something about an earthquake, and then rapper Busdriver comes on to rap about the incident, bringing a musical element to the film.
Because of the earthquake, there’s been some kind of contagion going on. Everyone we see seems to have pimples and boils, and everything looks kind of filthy. It’s a very effective way to create a mood, and right from the start there’s something unsettling about KUSO.
The first storyline is called “Royal,” and involves a woman named Missy (Iesha Coston), and her lover, Kenneth (Oumi Zumi). To get him off, she strangles him while he masturbates, but she won’t let him touch her. She also has a scarf she wears around her neck at all times, that she won’t take off. We find out why later.
The second story, “Mr. Quiggle,” involves a woman named B (Bethany Schmitt, who looks especially spooky with her whited out eyeballs and facial boils), who sits on a couch all day with two “interdimensional creatures,” smoking a bong. The creatures look like furry monsters with TV screens for faces and are voiced by Donnell Rawlings and comedian Hannibal Buress. At one point, B is taking a pregnancy test in the bathroom when a guy named Phil (comedian Tim Heidecker) pops his head out of the toilet. He had sex with her while she was passed out at a party and seems obsessed with her. She goes to a clinic for an abortion. The clinic is also a place where people go to get rid of their anxieties. Another patient in the waiting room is Manuel (Zack Fox), who has a fear of breasts. His treatment involves a doctor named Dr. Clinton (funk legend George Clinton himself!), and a creature that lives in his butt named Mr. Quiggle.
The third story, “Smear” is about an ugly little kid named Charlie (Shane Carpenter) who has boils on his face (again), eats gross food his mother makes for him every day, and goes to school. The schoolhouse scene reminded me a lot of a similar scene in Richard Elfman’s surreal classic, FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980), where the “children” are all adults. In KUSO, one of the “kids” even has a full beard. When Charlie has an “accident” in class, he’s sent home. Instead, he goes to the woods, where he finds a monster that looks like a living hill with a mouth. Charlie rubs excrement on the thing’s tongue. Later, the tongue has been replaced with a man’s head, living inside the mouth.
The final story, “Sock,” involves a Japanese woman named Angel (Mali Matsuda) who crawls around on the floor of her apartment and chews on concrete. She is looking for her baby, which she plans to sacrifice, when she falls into a deep hole to a place that seems to be Hell.
Everything about KUSO is ugly. Everyone has boils and scabs on their faces, and there’s much vomit and fecal matter. I can see why it got its reputation for being gross, because it is.
(By the way, kuso is Japanese for “shit.)
You can identify a lot of Steven Ellison’s influences and they’re mostly good ones, from David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD to the previously mentioned FORBIDDEN ZONE (like that movie, KUSO also has musical numbers and weird animation); to videos by the band The Residents, and the early films of John Waters.
How much you like this movie will depend on how strong your stomach is, and your tolerance for movies that wallow in the grotesque. There’s very little in the way of plot, and the logic is definitely twisted. But Ellison succeeds in creating a unique world of his own, which is a major feat. While I can’t say I enjoyed all of KUSO, I definitely appreciated what it was trying to accomplish. And its complete embrace of weirdness is admirable. I give it three knives.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares
(KUSO is now available exclusively on the streaming service Shudder)
LL Soares gives KUSO ~three knives (out of 5).