Kuso premieres on Shudder July 21.
It’s nearly impossible to categorize the first feature-length film by Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus, the experimental beatmaster, music producer and rapper). Made up of multiple, wildly varied vignettes that intersect and revolve around the theme of a chaotic post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, where every surviving human is covered in grotesquely bubbled sores, Kuso is an astounding feat of animation, humor and practical effects. Also, George Clinton plays a Svengali doctor who can cure all your ailments … as soon as you lure the crustacean from his ass with a song — a cappella or with fresh beats, whichever you prefer.
It might sound like what’s become known as “body horror,” but what’s unsettling here isn’t limited to the sores and the fleshy gore. So thoroughly conceived that it demands appreciation if not quite love, Kuso offers gross-out Afro-future horror — and ideas — for the dank-memes generation.
Ellison’s influences are immediately evident. Vintage and contemporary Japanese video game art, with explosions of color from every direction, pervades his animations, though with the adult themes of hentai — witness a cave jam-packed with blood-squirting breasts and writhing tentacles. These omnipresent vulgarities come to seem less gross and offensive as they avalanche over us, more indicative of the dreamlike, free-associative logic of meme culture than they are a considered provocation. (They’re certainly not meant to be sexy.) The animation, in fact, takes on a warped, psychedelic, DeepDream quality. Down this rabbit hole, every visual element is a Freudian archetype. Everyday things — especially body parts — become primal, menacing.
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David Firth, the British animator known for his cult flash-animated Salad Fingers and his chill-inducing frail character voices (like ASMR gone very wrong), collaborates with Ellison on multiple segments, and their aesthetics sync up: The first Salad Fingers features a lettuce-digited man whispering about how much he likes to touch rusty spoons — which feels disgusting, even if you can’t identify exactly why.
Ellison pairs his beautiful, bizarre creep-out experiments with excellent live-action story lines that are at times furiously funny, in the darkest way imaginable. The Buttress, a Los Angeles rapper, plays a captive woman who, with her milk-white eyes, suggests the witch from The Evil Dead. Her captors? Two lazy, multicolored mop monsters — voiced by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. Buttress, impregnated by a guy who lives in the toilet (Tim Heidecker), has to get an abortion. At the clinic, the paperwork she’s handed is simply a sheet of paper with various pictures of wire hangers — she has to choose one. Jokes like this seem like they could have been crafted over too much wine at one of my all-lady potlucks, while we bitched about restrictive abortion laws; Adult Swim’s white male–centric bumpers and shows traffic in similar non-sequitur gross-out humor, but Kuso possesses an outsider’s POV.
There is no shortage of references here, from Donnie Darko to the best of J-horror, and keeping up with them can be a joy for those knowledgeable in genre-film history. The production design of a lush magical forest evokes Space Is the Place, the lo-fi video aesthetic of a sitcom set reeks of urban-horror classics like Def by Temptation, some twisted humor is ripped from Tales From the Hood, and the puppets and gory makeup pull from the best of Joe Dante and cult classics such as Joe’s Apartment. One of my favorite elements has to be the fake commercials Albert Clinton (Clinton) stars in, boasting the cheesy psychedelic animation of the Y2k era. Ellison seems to have found inspiration everywhere. Kuso doesn’t so much seem to have been directed by him as to have erupted from him, in one spontaneous 90-minute burst of pressurized nightmares.