Divided into chapters entitled ‘Monsters’, ‘Fiends’,’Thugs’ and ‘Criminals’, this aptly-titled shaggy dog crime story switches moods from comic to gruesome to surprisingly emotional and has a certain laid-back attitude which contrasts oddly with the occasional doses of ultra-heavy splatter and some fairly grim business involving (trigger warning) sex slavery and organ-harvesting.
It opens in what must be one of the first explicit depictions of Trump’s America as a corrupt ICE agent (Jose Rosete) rousts a family of illegals from a motel at dead of night – facing down the African-American owner, Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), with a simmering threat – and then turning them over to flamboyant Los Angeles crime boss Teddy ‘Bear’ Haynes (Mark Burnham), who cuts out the eldest daughter to be penned up in his grim brothel and executes the mother before gruesomely harvesting her organs. Then, the film takes a bizarre turn with the introduction of El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a masked Mexican wrestler and heir to a Santo-like tradition of champions of the downtrodden, who has been reduced to working for Teddy, and suffers the humiliation of treading down on those who look to him for hope because Teddy’s adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) is carrying his child and he hopes for a son to carry on the Monstruo tradition. El Monstruo also suffers from berserker blackouts from which he awakens to find he has performed extremely brutal acts – he grants a girl’s impulsive quinceanera wish that her father never lay hands on her again in an uncalled-for splatting – that tip the film further out of the naturalistic crimeworld into something more comic booky.
Later developments bring on more cast members who are part of a telenovela tangle – Crystal is Kaylee’s real mother, having given her up for what she thought was adoption, and Teddy has sold her Kaylee’s kidney for her ailing loser husband, telling her it was a voluntary act of charity and not mentioning the pregnancy. To kidnap the girl, who is on the point of relapsing into heroin use and has come to believe El Monstruo a dangerous lunatic, Teddy coerces ex-hood embezzling accountant Keith (co-writer Shaye Ogbonna) into making the snatch, and Keith picks up his just-out-of-jail friend Randy (Jon Oswald) to help him, only to find that Randy has had a huge swastika tattooed on his face in jail though he insists he’s not a racist and against all odds turns out to be one of the more reasonable folks in this mess. The chapters overlap a little, with some scenes shown from different perspectives – usually undercutting the grimness a little by showing that even the most desperate characters (save the genuinely monstrous Teddy) have softer, nobler sides. The legend of El Monstruo, which comes complete with a song, may be embodied in an unworthy goon who keeps being mistaken for a party clown or a cosplayer but is a genuine inspiration … and the finale does find the tradition maintained with ‘once you put on the mask, you can never take it off’.
Director Ryan Prows – who co-wrote with Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Maxwell Michael Twoson and Ogbonna – keeps things grounded in a localised neighbourhood, mostly travelling between the motel and a taco place that’s Teddy’s evil lair, and doesn’t indulge in too much of the Tarantino-Coen Bros chatter that usually binds this sort of thing together. It’s all the funnier for leaving some things – the berserker rampages, the horrors inflicted on Randy in prison, the key character of Randy’s girlfriend who’s become Keith’s nagging wife – offscreen and letting the audience fill in the blanks. Its grimmer elements may go too far for some audiences, though it prefers to show the aftermaths of head-blastings and hand-wrenchings and leaves most of the sexual abuse behind metal-plated doors.