James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series


Quick take: It took a lot of guts—literally—for homegrown Columbia, SC psychotronic filmmakers Christopher Bickel and David Axe to pull off their first feature. Despite a shoestring budget, an inexperienced cast and numerous technical limitations, however, these self-proclaimed “novices” have nonetheless dinged a solid exploitation base hit, bouncing way out deep in centerfield. In short, The Theta Girl is a blood-soaked hoot.

Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio) goes gonzo in The Theta Girl.

Walking the dark streets of a degenerated urban dystopia, doll-eyed Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio) at first seems to be a part of the problem rather than the solution: she slings a psychedelic street drug similar to DMT, but as we’ll soon see, with the zeal of a preacher rather than a predator.

“Theta,” as she explains of the pills, yellow and round as a 1970s smiley face, is “more than a drug. It’s a door.”

Where Theta’s doorway leads is open to interpretation by both user and filmgoing audience alike, but for those familiar with matters esoteric, it appears the substance offers a quick entrance to a kind of astral plane, one in which users have actual shared experiences. A mysterious demiurge figure also speaks directly to users, Gayce in particular. (Fans of modern psychedelic shaman Terrence McKenna will nods their heads and murmur mm-hm.)

Theta offers such a satisfying experience, in fact, that it’s later declared by her, “I stopped believing in ‘real’ a long time ago.” In a troubled world rife with substance abuse, crime, and murder, who wouldn’t want an escape from reality.

For some, however—like a group of actual street preachers who get dosed against their knowledge and proceed to go on a retributive, bloody rampage of killing—Theta leads more to a kind of violent exploitation movie hell than a psychedelic heaven.

When faith turns freaky. “Apocalypse isn’t free.”

And once the preachers attack and kill a group of Gayce’s innocent and loving friends, she finds a new mission: retribution, as well as stopping them before they kill again.

“I know who did this,” she declares in a classic movie moment, “and where he’s going next.”

That’s all the filmgoer really needs to know of the plot, which takes us many familiar places in movies of this sort, even proudly wearing a few tropes on its sleeve (my favorite was the “how did they manage to dig a grave that big that fast”). But the tone is not meta, and it’s not a parody—everyone here plays it straight.

Perhaps best of all, The Theta Girl surprises in its final act with a rather pointed and compelling turn into what might be called a philosophically gnostic rumination on the nature of reality, and the possibility of existence on other dimensional planes. Unlike many such indie film efforts that run out of steam or lean heavy on latex and red-dyed corn syrup over story and character, the movie finishes strong, leaving a resonant taste in both intellect and heart. The events of the climax and denouement, tragic yet somehow positive, feel earned on an emotional level, as well as being somewhat mysterious.

“You want me to do what in the what-now, now?”

The charm and skill of the lead actors doesn’t hurt in selling this story. Donofrio’s Gayce commands the screen in every scene, carrying the picture with aplomb and energy. Her partner in crime, Derek (Darrelle D. Dove), suffers life-threatening circumstances beyond his control with charm and the occasionally appropriate hysteria of a supporting character who finds he must choose loyalty over his own safety. He owes a debt to Gayce not because of the drug dealing, but as we find out, simply because he craves a true friend and life connection.

On the other side of the coin, Gayce’s street-preaching nemesis Brother Marcus (Shane Silman), represents a bad guy not only unhinged by his faith to the point of murder, but with a surprising connection to her past. The movie opens with this character, so twisted by God’s continued silence that he literally pounds a golden religious icon into his own forehead. It’s not subtle, but lays out nicely the movie’s themes and tone from the first frames. Mike Amason (“Papa Shogun”) also turns in a memorable turn as a gleeful, cackling expository figure who seems like a malevolent mix of Santa Claus and Timothy Leary, with a brief flashback to a younger version offering a chance for director Bickel to make the most of his own Hitchcock moment.

Papa Shogun, mixing drugs, popsicles, and a few shotgun blasts.

Having said all that, The Theta Girl‘s low-low budget—less than the price of a used car, as a title card reads—makes itself glaringly apparent in quite a few scenes, but the story doesn’t ever stop long enough for viewers to spend any undue time considering the technical limitations. The overall impressive imagery, acting, and sure-handed mise-en-scène of filmmakers who know the territory more than make up for problems like low-lit nighttime sequences, an uneven sound mix, as well as scenes that probably could have used more coverage.

But really, no need to offer much criticism on this level—Bickel and Axe already know well the problems they faced. And yet, they managed to overcome many obstacles to produce a feature film that not only satisfies and pays homage to its myriad influences in a respectable and entertaining manner, but offers stick-to-the-ribs thematic elements sure to thrill any thoughtful viewer. Kudos to the filmmakers, cast, crew, and financiers of an accomplished, gore-filled and thoughtful exploitation thrill-ride.

A word to the squeamish and prudish: This non-campy romp offers T&A and stage blood sufficient to please aficionados of extreme cinema, including an orgy sequence with enough full-frontal nudity to strike fear into the hearts of any MPAA screening panel worth its salt (and which hasn’t, in this case, provided a rating).



About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

Leave a Reply