by Jason Coffman
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Horror comedy is always a tricky proposition. Tipped too far in favor of comedy, it loses its teeth. Err on the side of horror, and a film risks becoming something even more unsettling than a standard horror film (Bob Balaban’s Parents immediately comes to mind). Otis is a strange film, one that veers wildly from a tone and atmosphere of genuine unease to scenes and dialogue that are so wacky, they seem carted in from another film entirely. The concept of the film is solid, but the execution is sadly lacking and wildly uneven.
Otis (Bostin Christopher) is a pizza-delivery man who kidnaps blonde teenage girls and tries to get them to act out his dream prom date with “Kim” (what he calls all the girls) in his spare time. He’s built a basement room with girly stuff, cameras, and powerful heat lamps so he can watch his victims and punish them if they stray from the script. One night, Otis delivers a pizza to the home of the Lawsons and meets his next victim, Riley (Ashley Johnson). Riley’s family is mildly dysfunctional—her brother Reed (Jared Kusnitz) has problems at school and tries to videotape Riley in her underwear to post on YouTube. Her parents, Will (Daniel Stern) and Kate (Illeana Douglas), are a frustrated contractor and an obsessive health nut.
The family hasn’t been getting along very well lately, but they come together after Riley disappears. Soon, we meet Otis’s abusive brother, Morton (Kevin Pollak), and the disgusting FBI Special Agent Hotchkiss (Jere Burns). Morton terrorizes Otis with verbal tirades, while Hotchkiss constantly insults and talks down to the Lawsons (along with everyone else in his path), all while Otis is trying to get Riley to get with his program and obtain approval from her parents for their upcoming “date.” Riley quickly realizes that her only way out of her captivity is to do what Otis wants, and she becomes Otis’s best “Kim” yet. Once she manages to escape, the story changes course drastically as the Lawsons decide to deal with Otis on their own rather than give Agent Hotchkiss the chance to screw up the arrest and let Otis go free, but their plan hits a major snag thanks to Morton.
Writers Eric Jendresen and Thomas Schnauz take a few satirical jabs at media sensationalism and victim exploitation, mostly using the incredibly off-putting Agent Hotchkiss’s constant seeking of the limelight as a base. This would have been fine in a film that didn’t actually have Otis as a character in it—he’s genuinely creepy and other than Riley, Otis is easily the most likable character in the movie. Bostin Christopher’s excellent performance as Otis makes him scary and funny but also unnervingly convincing, and in a film where the tone often dives into slapstick territory he doesn’t really belong. Otis and Riley seem like characters unwittingly dropped into a genre parody, especially when the Lawsons decide to take justice into their own hands in a series of scenes with some painfully “ironic” character turnarounds and some all-out faux-Beetlejuice on the film’s score.
There’s a lot to like about Otis, but the constantly shifting tone and the distracting 80s-pop soundalike soundtrack make it tough to keep watching. Additionally, the characters of Morton and Agent Hotchkiss are both so spectacularly hateful that it takes a concerted effort not to stop the movie every time they appear. There are some fun plot twists throughout Otis, but too often they lead somewhere that just doesn’t make sense. Otis starts out promisingly enough, but soon becomes another victim of the old curse of the horror comedy: Otis himself tips too far into the horror direction while everything else in the movie goes the other way. It’s worth a look for horror fans looking for something a little different, but mostly Otis feels like a missed opportunity.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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