Today from the Nashville Film Festival, I’m covering two films that are playing as part of the festival’s Graveyard Shift Films program, and horror fans in particular will want to seek them out. Jim Cummings’ “The Beta Test,” which he directed, wrote, and starred in along with PJ McCabe, is a thrilling and funny skewering of Hollywood and toxic masculinity, while “The Murder Podcast” is a horror buddy comedy that combines a supernatural mystery with blood and gore and a humorous take on content creation. You can read my reviews of both of those films below.
With “The Beta Test,” writers and directors Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe really went for an erotic thriller, but make it funny. Cummings also stars as Jordan, a Hollywood agent preparing to marry his fiancée Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) went he receives a strange—and tempting—note in the mail: a formal invite to engage in an anonymous sexual encounter. A paranoid Jordan starts investigating the origins of the invite, which go deep into intricacies of digital data and preying on the fragile egos of powerful men. The exploration of toxic masculinity is one of the most fascinating and effective elements of “The Beta Test.” Through several men, including Jordan, we see how frequently feel entitled to belittle or take advantage of women, both personally and professionally. One of the most chilling scenes in the movie is not one involving physical violence, but one in which Jordan berates a female assistant at work over absolutely nothing. “The Beta Test” is also a scathing and hilarious critique of Hollywood; through Jordan and his coworker PJ (played by McCabe), we see how a few powerful people with money try to control creatives. Both the script and direction are sharp, and Cummings’ lead performance is also great. The way the fast-talking Jordan boldly attempts to get his way in any situation makes him, among other things, totally unlikeable, but also so funny. “The Beta Test” is strange and hilarious and occasionally violence and ominous, and while not all of those elements quite come together in a perfect whole, they make for a massively entertaining time. And it feels appropriate that Cummings and McCabe circumvented the Hollywood infrastructure that “The Beta Test” skewers to fund and create their film.
“The Beta Test” will screen at the Nashville Film Festival on Monday, October 4 at 10 PM at Belmont University. Runtime: 91 minutes.
“The Murder Podcast” begins with the brutal and creepy murder of a single man who lives with his mother, who is also murdered not long afterwards. It’s a tense scene, wonderfully staged in a dark room where anything or anyone could be lurking in the shadows, but it isn’t too scary. In fact, much of “The Murder Podcast” isn’t overly frightening because it’s first and foremost a comedy. After the opening murder in writer and director William Bagley’s film, we meet Chad Thadwick (Andrew Mcdermott) and his best friend Ed (Cooper Bucha), a pair of stoners who host a podcast called Ramen Reviews where they—you guessed it—review ramen. Like so many young people today, they are trying to make a career out this endeavor, but their podcast isn’t popular enough to get them the sponsorships they need to make some money. In the meantime, Chad lives in the basement of his sister and her boyfriend’s place, working a dead-end job that barely allows him to pay the bills. But when Chad learns about the murders, he gets an idea: he and Ed could switch gears and host a true crime podcast, where they investigate the murder in real time. The problem is, they aren’t especially good at it; Chad gets sick just looking at the gruesome crime scene photos, and they are constantly being thwarted by their small town’s cop, Officer Stacheburn (Levi Burdick). There’s surprisingly a lot going on in “The Murder Podcast,” and Bagley’s screenplay does a pretty decent job connecting everything, especially the supernatural elements (this isn’t just your average everyday serial killer on the loose) with Chad’s family past (his father was branded a lunatic for his belief in existence of a witch haunting the town). But while it’s entertaining, “The Murder Podcast” never leans far enough into any of these elements to stick the landing. There’s some commentary on content creation and hustle culture, but it barely scratches the surface of that, outside of the fact that it is obvious that Chad is only interested in making a true crime podcast for money and popularity, not because it’s something he’s passionate about. The mileage of the comedy varies, and the same can be said for the mystery, although that element from start to finish is realized pretty successfully, from the witchy lore to the well-paced climax that is filled with action and excitement while also hammering home the importance of Chad and Ed’s friendship. The results may be middling, but “The Murder Podcast” is still an entertaining romp filled with blood, magic, and ramen.
“The Murder Podcast” is available to watch in the Nashville Film Festival’s virtual cinema from September 30-October 6.