Movie Review: Tickled

Published on April 22nd, 2016 in: Current Faves, Documentaries, Film Festivals, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews, Teh Sex, Underground/Cult, Upcoming Movies |

By Sachin Hingoo

tickled strapped

I think most of us are familiar with the “Wikipedia hole,” where you’ll go to the site to look something up and find yourself entangled in a long series of links to related-but-unrelated entries, only to forget what you came for in the first place. A rabbit hole like this is the only way I can describe Tickled, because it’s a documentary that begins with the most benign and banal of subjects and ends up as a three-continent-spanning pursuit of, well, I’m still not sure. The characters along the way have a Lynchian surrealness to them, never as repulsive and pitiable on the surface as they are under the skin, which is really saying something because some of them are pretty gross externally, too.

Tickled is partly an exhibition of the Streisand Effect, wherein a subject’s overwhelming desire to keep something hidden makes it that much more intriguing to those that investigate it. When New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier and Dylan Reeve initially contacts Jane O’Brien Media about an endurance tickling contest and receives a litany of shocking, entirely unprompted homophobic emails on a daily basis, it prompts him to dig deeper into the subculture, the company facilitating these competitions, and the associated videos, each of which is harder to watch than the last. While this is happening, you can’t help but think that none of this would’ve happened without those vitriolic initial emails.

Tickled’s clearest inspiration, film-wise, is 2010’s Catfish. Nev Schulman’s film spawned a television series on MTV and introduced “catfishing” into our lexicon for people who take extreme measures to assume a fake identity on the Internet, often for the purposes of luring in a sexual partner or to facilitate fraud. The element of exploitation in Tickled, though, is far more pronounced than it is in Catfish and expands its scope to an elaborate, international shell game of fake identities and whole fake companies (a horrifyingly masterful example of using the Internet for such purposes) that keeps the viewer guessing and dreading what’s to come. Intermingled with this are scenes of classically beautiful men being tortured in a nakedly homoerotic way. It’s nothing less than a sexually-charged Catfish on meth.

© 2015 A Ticklish Tale Limited

In a unique move, to say the least, Farrier chooses to interview a more… conventional tickling fetishist whose setup looks downright vanilla compared to the Jane O’Brien saga, as if to say #NotAllTicklers. I’m certainly seeing the contrast between the way the Jane O’Brien company has used and abused the “actors” involved in their productions and this other tickler, but both versions of these videos are tough to watch and even the “good” tickle fetish video feels pretty gross. I see what Farrier is trying to do but ultimately this part of the film seemed superfluous and partly an excuse to show more of this disturbing content than is necessary.

Farrier and Reeve don’t have to do a lot to establish the cringeworthiness of almost everything on display here, but I’ll say that they manage to make even innocuous scenes, like emails scrolling up a screen, or a list of mistakenly-linked files, or “the sounds of laughter emanating from a warehouse window,” as skin-crawlingly bothersome as anything horror has put out this year. The addition of a haunting and minimal soundtrack by Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Colour) over a fairly dry account of Farrier’s descent into this tickling empire is more than disturbing enough on its own, and he and Reeve should be commended for simply documenting it and laying it out in as understandable a way as the twisted tale will allow. Farrier’s on-camera interviews, some hidden, allow the most nefarious of his subjects to implicate themselves fully, while giving the more sympathetic ones a way to tell their disturbing accounts in a way that’s truly affecting.

Tickled is a fascinating, completely enthralling mystery with more stomach-turning elements than the last five horror movies I’ve seen this year, combined. Despite the amount of laughter on film here, I can pretty much guarantee that any viewer will walk away from this thing doing anything but laughing. In fact I think you’re more likely to be needing an exfoliating scrub to remove the sliminess. Being as big a fan of horror as I am, I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Tickled has its Canadian premiere at the HOT DOCS Film Festival in Toronto.

Editor’s Note: We received this “feedback” on our piece from Kevin Clarke, the subject of Tickled, and in the interest of fairness we’ve included a link to the website here. We leave it to our readers to judge for themselves.

Saturday April 30 / 9:45 p.m. / Bloor Hot Docs Cinema*
Monday May 2 / 10:30 a.m. / TIFF Bell Lightbox 3*
*Co-director David Farrier will be in attendance.

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