Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is a cringe comedy as overlong as its title
Your mileage may vary.
Andrew Bowser’s Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is the rare movie that, from the very first scene, lets audiences know that they’re either going to love it or hate it.
Viewers familiar with Onyx, Bowser’s weirdo Satanist YouTube character, will likely fall into the former category; everyone else, flip a coin. Onyx’s misadventures are documented through skits and bits on Bowser’s 10-year-old channel, BowserVids, and you may benefit from browsing the library before tuning in for 100 minutes of the schtick. Then again, you may be feeling bold.
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is a locus for Bowser’s sense of humor and his fondness for a broad array of 1980s pop cultural ephemera: Saturday morning cartoons, Ghostbusters and The Goonies, Amblin Entertainment, Beetlejuice especially. His influences fall neatly in line with recent haunted house slapstick productions, too, like the Goosebumps films, and Eli Roth’s woefully underloved The House with a Clock in Its Walls – movies that don’t skimp on horror, but have an emphasis on lighthearted fun. But everyone has their own definition of fun. Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls might not fit yours.
Onyx, real name Marcus J. Trillbury, dwells in his warlock’s lair, surrounded by an army of action figures, heavy metal posters, and other bric-a-brac to indicate his alignment with devilry. The lair, of course, is his bedroom in his mother Nancy’s (Barbara Crampton) house, and he’s a warlock the way pro gamers are athletes, meaning “not at all.” Marcus is a loser. He works a dead-end job at a burger joint, where he takes as much pride in his employment as possible. He gamely hides his loserdom, though, expressing himself in spectacularly purple language ending on rising intones, so even his loudest declarations of Satanic loyalty sound like he’s asking permission.
But Onyx has high aspirations. He’s entered a contest to meet his idol, Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs), a TV personality and elder statesman in the field of dark magics. In no time at all, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls lets the viewer know the contest’s results: For once in his life, Onyx is a winner. Off he goes to Bartok’s mansion with his four fellow winners, Jesminder (Melanie Chandra), Shelley (Arden Myrin), Mr. Duke (Terrence ‘T.C.’ Carson), and Mack (Rivkah Reyes), likewise similarly motivated by the pursuit of evil for their own reasons, and each in their own ways.
Bartok has gathered the quintet to aid in a ritual that, if completed, will summon a demon and reward them all with power untold, but it’s made clear upfront that Bartok has a hidden agenda, and also that his succubus assistant Farrah (Olivia Taylor Dudley) doesn’t much care for that agenda. In all of this, Onyx himself is the naif. Bowser’s focus is on him, naturally; the marquee reads “Onyx,” after all. But his one-way fanboy relationship to Bartok renders him blissfully unaware of literally everything going on around him, good and ill, and likewise funnels Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls into a very specific kind of comedy.
Cringe humor is a broad style. You can start with The Office, either British or American, and arrive at, for instance, the work of Gregg Turkington and Tim Heidecker. Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls lies somewhere toward the Office end of that spectrum on account of Onyx’s painful obliviousness, but with the added effect of his manchild background. Nerdery is in, and has been for close to a decade, as comic books and Dungeons & Dragons have been reclaimed as mainstream-acceptable pastimes. But that doesn’t make Onyx himself, or the jokes Bowser sets up, widely palatable, and if the jokes don’t land for you, nothing else here will.
Bowser contents himself with Onyx being Onyx for about the first hour, and then pivots on an emotional axis with a tender moment between him and Mack, where the character’s squirrelly accent drops and he lets the real Marcus come out; it’s sweet, and honest, and frankly feels like Bowser speaking for a generation of men like Onyx (and possibly Bowser himself) who grew up lonely because their interests didn’t mesh with others’ interests. The moment lingers for the rest of Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls’ running time and, if you make it that far, even recasts the story preceding it. Friendship is a treasure.
Another treasure: The monsters and puppets and animatronics that pepper the film’s plot. What a joy to see physical critters on screen when it’s so damn easy to turn to CGI instead; a demon in a box, a growing army of ghouls, Farrah in her true form, Onyx as a cross between a Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers character and Meat Loaf in the video for “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That),” recreated by Bowers and Dudley, all add tactile pleasure to Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, an element worth savoring whether or not the gags tickle you. They have mass. They have presence. You feel like you can reach through the screen and touch them.
The sensation is delightful, and one of the best achievements horror cinema can strive for regardless of their secondary genre. Horror has to involve its audience on a primal level. The FX work in Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls hits that goal, and it’d be a waste if Bowser chose not to try his hand at making more monster movies in the future. But this film’s success boils down to the comedy; extending a YouTube routine into a feature is a daunting feat, and ultimately Bowser’s work here grows overlong before the third act. At 70 or so minutes, the foray into cinema might have landed better. At 148, it’s too much.
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls premiered at Sundance on January 23.