Sundance 2023: Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls Review
When I saw the description for Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls on the Sundance Film Festival program, I admit I was excited. It promised “monsters, mystery, and mayhem,” a refreshing change from the fare I would be taking at a breakneck pace. Unfortunately, upon screening director-screenwriter-star Andrew Bowser’s film, I realized while it technically contains those three attributes, it also contains the gratingly obnoxious character: Onyx the Fortuitous.
Onyx the Fortuitous is Bowser’s creation that found an audience on YouTube. His videos, usually obliquely describing the character as ‘weird guy’, attract loads of views; some of which are in the millions. Admittedly I, nor anyone I know, was familiar with Bowser’s work. My first introduction to Onyx was this movie, his Kickstarter-funded directorial debut, and I have to say that I never want to meet him again.
Onyx is the pseudonym of amateur occultist Marcus Trillbury. His face is eternally set in an expression of fear and tension where every muscle in his body appears to be clenched. He delivers nearly every line with a dramatic lilt making all of his dialogue sound like a neverending series of questions. It sounds just like Gavin, Bruce McCoulloch’s verbose child character from Kids in the Hall. Gavin works because his annoying manner of speaking is indicative of the irritating twerp he’s supposed to be –that and the fact the sketches only last a handful of minutes. To have Onyx speak this way for the length of a feature film is an assault on the senses. The stress Onyx seems to constantly experience emanates through the screen and invades your nervous system making for a mercilessly unpleasant experience.
Onyx and four other occultists have been selected to participate in a satanic ritual at a spooky mansion led by celebrity devil devotee Bartok (Jeffrey Combs). Though the experience is meant to be dark and brooding, it seems as if it all takes place around 10:30 on a Sunday morning. As the five devotees follow Bartok’s lead, they learn he is not divulging the true purpose of their involvement.
The thing is, the plot is unimportant, a factor that unfortunately seems to have been agreed upon during production. The entire movie is simply a platform for Marcus/Onyx to do and say whatever he wants. While his fellow occultists are investigating or undergoing the rites and rituals prescribed by the huckster satanist, Onyx is just kind of off being distracted with anything but the matter at hand.
None of the characters comment on Onyx’s absent-mindedness, the only thing the story makes sure of is to make fun of him for being a “virginal loser.” The movie’s humor is mostly collected from thrown-away bits from 2000, where laughs came from contrived catchphrases and mispronouncing vowels in words. It’s an attempt at quirkiness that falls completely flat.
Much of the movie is meant to be a love letter to horror films. Among the deluge of love letter movies, this appears to be the most self-indulgent of them all, one in which the creator is more enamored with themselves than the subject.
Particular elements of the movie pay homage to the work of Tim Burton. Much of the imagery is borrowed from the unique, skewered look of Burton’s worlds. One of the few highlights of the film is the ghoulish creations. The animatronic monsters are impressive and fun as are the masks that, while lacking in dexterity, look like they are characters straight out of the Netherworld waiting room in Beetlejuice. The film also snags its happy-ending grace note from Burton’s 1988 comedy.
The inspired monster design doesn’t carry over to the human characters. The costumes and props appear to be largely purchased from a Spirit Halloween. The group looks like a random collection of comic-con cosplayers. Yes, there are those cosplayers who go above and beyond in their appearances but the looks of these characters come off as slapdash or first drafts.
Bowser tries to pull off something Burton was expertly able to accomplish: introduce an unpleasant, over-the-top character and at the end of a feature-length film, have the audience fall in love with them. It’s crazy that we all think fondly of an insolent, man-child character like Pee-Wee Herman, but we do. Burton was able to put him into enough situations where he wins over the skeptical people around him as so we are with him in the end.
As hard as Bowser digs into a Hot Topic patina of nostalgia, he offers just that. A cheap-looking, horror-themed bauble that is meant to convey a certain degree of macabre but is really just an attention-seeking gimmick.