Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are both connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Ken: Jim, I went into this week’s feature certain I would be prepared to give it a critical drubbing. Yet, I am here to say that although this unquestionably counts as a bad movie, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is perhaps the most sincere effort we’ve yet tackled here on Bad Movie Diaries. And I would also be remiss not to give a shout out to our Paste Movies colleague Dom Sinacola for pointing us in the direction of the prolific works of today’s auteur, writer/director/star Matt Farley.
Jim: Ken, this movie is unique. It’s the lowest budget thing we’ve watched during any installment of Bad Movie Diaries—actually, I kind of assume it’s the lowest budget thing we ever will watch during an installment of this column—but it may also be the “best” movie we’ve watched. Or at least the best one, as Obi Wan would no doubt say, “from a certain point of view.” At the very least, it is nothing but unique. I should note though, that although we’ll be talking a whole lot about Matt Farley in this post, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is actually directed and co-written by Farley’s producing partner Charles Roxburgh. Farley just happens to be THE FACE of the duo, it would appear. Note: Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is available in full, for free, via YouTube, in glorious 480p.
Ken: And I need to say right up front that he’s an enthusiastic face. At the end of the credits of Riverbeast, one of the items entreats you to “CALL NEIL STUART,” the hero of the film, and provides a phone number. My sister-in-law dialed it and I’ll be damned if Farley, who plays Neil, didn’t answer by the third ring and was game to roleplay his character for a bit. After my sister-in-law passed the phone to me, I asked him a few quick questions about his work. He puts his number in many of the things he produces—films and the more than 19,000 songs he’s uploaded to YouTube and Spotify—and said Riverbeast, like all his films, is the result of his close friends and family members sacrificing time and effort to make these movies. When actors don’t show for shoots, he says it is common practice to just rewrite the script on the fly. All in all, he said this took about a month’s worth of shooting spread out across a few months.
Ken: For the record, he said he gets maybe four or five calls like mine a year.
Jim: That is truly amazing, Ken.
Ken: But we haven’t even begun with the premise of this harrowing monster movie. Why don’t you tell us about it?
Jim: Okay. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is meant to essentially be a parody or satire of ’40s and ’50s-era cheapo monster movies, a la the Creature From the Black Lagoon sequel The Creature Walks Among Us in particular. Farley plays Neil, a “superstar tutor” who has been living in disgrace away from home ever since he had an encounter with the fabled “Riverbeast” three years earlier. Suffice to say, no one believed his wild stories about the monster living in the woods/river, and the public backlash fueled by a muckraking local journalist caused his former fiancée to leave him at the altar and pretty much ruined his life. The film picks up as Neil returns to town, where literally everyone immediately picks up where they left off, alternatingly mocking him for his Riverbeast encounter and praising his godlike, preternatural tutoring abilities.
Ken: It was really hard for me to figure out how satirical or how earnest this work was, and indeed, what the time period was supposed to be. A few characters are clearly modeled off that clean-cut ’50s-type era and the dialogue is all incredibly stilted and unnatural. But there are clearly some things which are 100% meant to evoke baffled laughter, such as the father of one principal character who is described as a “former professional athlete,” with no elaboration on what sport he played. Over the course of the film, he’s shown playing three or four different sports. It’s one “wtf?!” detail in a movie avowedly full of them.
Jim: I feel like I might have a bit more experience in this sort of independent, quirky comedy arena, Ken. There’s almost a genre of sorts for films like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You—low-budget parodies that are simultaneously aware that they’re low quality, and make their own lack of quality into a recurring joke. This one commits to that ethos fully. The most popular examples of a similar film would probably be the works of Larry Blamire, such as The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, but you might remember another that we watched—the work of Glenn Berggoetz. Remember To Die Is Hard, Ken? A lot of the same themes. Ludicrous dialog, bad acting, bizarre casting, and yet somehow quite charming despite it all.
Ken: My brother and his wife did specifically name-check Cadavra in discussing this film during our post-movie cheeseburgers, so I’m glad there’s some consensus here.
Ken: I must say that the audience knows what it’s getting right at the start. The movie opens with a Severe Narrator—a middle-aged gentlemen who is clearly reading off cue cards—who warns us of the terror in store, and explains one of the movie’s gimmicks: That the screen flashes red to tell us exactly when the dreaded Riverbeast is about to appear. It could be something straight out of a ’50s late-night double feature picture show.
Jim: Yeah, these seem like direct references to both the intense awkwardness of “Criswell” in the intro of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and the style of gimmicks employed by director William Castle in movies like 13 Ghosts.
Jim: But you’re right that no one could be taking the movie seriously from the beginning, because only a few minutes in, Matt Farley begins to sing the opening song. And whoa. WHOA, Ken.
Ken: That came at me out of nowhere, I have to say. I think it would be accurate to say that Farley’s songs bemuse the listener. Is this bad music, Jim? Is it secretly great? I don’t KNOW.
Jim: I don’t think we need to sugarcoat it: They’re bad songs. Purposely bad? Make the argument if you want, but even if they’re “bad on purpose,” they’re still bad. As it turns out, this seems to be Farley’s main mode of employment, and he is ridiculously, insanely prolific at it, operating under a philosophy of simply uploading the most songs possible to YouTube and Spotify under a plethora of different personas and band names. The songs are all short, minimalist and hyper specific, the idea being that he’ll corner so many micro-niches and search results that the sheer number of songs will result in a steady flow of income from advertising and royalties. And I guess it’s worked? He wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t working on some level, right?
Have you checked out many of these, Ken? Because I dove into them, and they blew my damn mind.
Ken: I have not had enough time to truly delve. Maybe you’d like to quickly list off a few examples for our intrigued readers?
Jim: Exhibit A: Here is a song about James K. Polk, from his project “Papa Razzi and the Photogs,” which is a YouTube channel specifically dedicated to quick ditties about any figure, historical, fictional or contemporary, who happens to cross his mind. At the time of this writing, it has seven views on YouTube. It’s just sitting there in case someone searches for “James K. Polk songs.” I want to know: Who are the six other people who have listened to this song, besides myself? And what exactly is wrong with their mental state?
Ken: It’s humbling to think that this very article will probably drive that total up. We should mention that his songs for Riverbeast were released under the band name “Dying Elk Herd.”
Jim: He also has channels that are dedicated to songs about bodily functions, musical movie reviews, and one amazing channel that just sings specific names over and over and over again. That channel has HUNDREDS OF ENTRIES, Ken. They’re all just a single name, sung repeatedly to the exact same tune, which sounds like a keyboard preset. It makes you question the man’s sanity.
Ken: It kind of does, though I question his sanity less than the people who click-farm or leave fake Amazon reviews, I guess?
Jim: He’s literally done songs for both Kenneth and Ken. Take your pick, dude.
Ken: I’m … flattered?
Jim: The man is thorough.
Ken: We promise, by the way, that all of this is necessary to get the full degree of … enjoyment? Appreciation? ... out of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You. Knowing this is essential as our story gets rolling with that wild river party tune by the band that Neil Stuart once helmed. But the band has broken up! Because Neil saw a Riverbeast and nobody believed him. He’s gone from the best tutor the town’s ever seen to an outcast pariah, abandoned by his fiancée.
Jim: I agree; it’s essentially impossible to enjoy this film as intended unless you understand what they’re trying to do. Anyway, once Neil returns to town, he quickly falls back into his old groove—pathetically suggesting that his ex-wife come back to him, and being praised as the universe’s greatest tutor. He finds a commission teaching Allie, an independent, exotically verbose young woman who was kicked out of her last finishing school for the crime of exposing her professor as a perverted peeping Tom. Her dialogue is bizarre, but pretty much the best.
Ken: I want to actually point out that all these characters seem to be walking around with a thesaurus in their back pockets, but you’re right that Allie’s lines are the most endearingly sesquipedalian. Are finishing schools still a thing, by the way?
Ken: In any event, Neil reconnects with friends but also runs afoul of enemies like the unfriendly local journalist Sparky Watts, whom Neil insults by calling “MUCKRAKER!!!” He’s also competing for his ex-fiancée’s affections with her new boyfriend, a lout with a son who is never not referenced in dialogue as “from a previous marriage.”
Jim: The film’s dialog is frequently hilarious in general, but the weird thing is that it’s often just the random throwaway lines that are the most funny. During a conversation Neil has with those friends of his, there was a part that cracked me up when the two friends get into an argument about sharing food, and one exclaims, “One doesn’t share butternut squash; it’s too difficult to share! It’s common courtesy with peanuts!”
Ken: That elicited howls of approval from my audience, too.
Jim: There’s also an exasperated bride in a wedding scene who exclaims, “This is not the wedding of which I dreamt!” That phrasing cracked me up.
Jim: People in the reading audience will probably be noticing at this point that we’ve barely mentioned the Riverbeast yet, but it’s not really our fault—he doesn’t actually show up and attack any of the characters until a full 50 minutes into the film. It’s a pretty rough slog to get there.
Ken: It is unquestionably a long and rough ride to get to the conflict, yes. Most of the movie becomes a series of encounters with friends and family and enemies, interrupted by the occasional dance party as Neil’s guitarist roommate gets his mojo back, returns to street performances, and falls in love with a young woman—a “vagabond” who teaches everyone the value and versatility of kitty litter.
Jim: There’s really no way to argue to the contrary—the movie is far too long. I was very concerned about this as soon as I saw the runtime was even 97 minutes. That’s fine for a well-produced studio feature, but if you’re making something as low-budget and obviously thrown-together as this, there’s no need for pretension—something that looks like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You should automatically be 80 minutes, flat. Credits included. The longer you ask the audience to go along with this type of joke, the harder it becomes to sustain it.
Ken: I, too, was concerned at that run time, and boy howdy were we both justified.
Jim: This was more like, “I can’t cut that scene with my landlord in it; he’s giving me 20% off rent this month for putting him in my movie!”
Ken: You really get that impression!
Ken: In any event, all these amateur actors are at least game for the script, which finally starts unleashing the Riverbeast on the people who have tormented Neil, all of whom find random reasons to be wandering in the woods. At first, Neil is thrown in jail as a suspect by the unsympathetic sheriff, but then more townspeople find themselves consumed by the vicious Riverbeast. With only his remaining friends and literally no weapons or equipment, he enters the woods again to do battle with his nemesis, apparently intending to tear the beast apart with his bare hands.
Ken: Now, this is a good time for you to paint us a word portrait of the beast itself, Jim.
Jim: The Riverbeast clambers from the creek that they charitably refer to as a “river” looking sort of like a mutated, giant crossbreed between a mole rat and a barracuda that was horribly burnt in a fire and tried to soothe its wounds by covering them in a salve of mud and wet leaves. For reasons unknown, it has fingers made of tree twigs. It can’t really move or do much besides stand there and wave its arms, but it’s not that bad a monster costume, all things considered. I’ve certainly seen far worse in movies that had bigger budgets than this.
Ken: I actually thought the sound effects for its inhuman snarling and growling weren’t half bad, on reflection.
Jim: The fact that I don’t remember them at all, after watching the movie yesterday, can only mean that they must have been acceptable. Matt Farley’s singing, on the other hand, I remember in great detail. This is telling.
Jim: We should also mention that this film is a bit of a mess on the technical side, as you would no doubt expect it to be. From shot to shot, the white balancing and colors change drastically, while the audio changes in volume and clarity in every scene. There are random sound effects that are louder than any of the dialog, and one particularly hilarious walking montage where they didn’t even try to match the overdubs to the characters’ flapping mouths.
Ken: The score is also a very intrusive house guest—the kind that can’t read the room at all.
Ken: The film’s mastery of special effects really takes off near the end, when the group does battle with the vicious Riverbeast on its own turf. Its claws seem deadlier than a Dark Souls boss’, but Neil endures quite the beating from it.
Jim: I would love to see various big-budget Hollywood blockbusters with new scores from Matt Farley. Imagine The Dark Knight, except by Matt Farley.
Ken: I’m laughing uncontrollably at that thought, Jim.
Jim: Anyway, the final battle with the Riverbeast is indeed the stuff of cinematic legends, but it costs the life of Allie’s professional athlete father. May he dominate the court of his choosing in heaven—which is a real thing that his daughter says afterward at his funeral, by the way.
Ken: Now, just like this film, we put an important detail on the mantle in Act 1 of our chat: The obsession Neil’s roommate’s girlfriend has with kitty litter. I won’t deprive you of the joy of telling our readers why that’s such an important detail.
Jim: Well, as it turns out, kitty litter is more than just practical and endlessly useful in this movie—it’s also deadly. Because when you throw a little bit of it on a Riverbeast, they kind of just gently lie down, whimper and die. While you stand there and casually sprinkle more kitty litter on the corpse, just to make sure. Who knew?
Ken: Certainly not me! But we’re talking a creature of unmatched physical strength and athletic prowess! This leads us to our denouement, in which Neil is vindicated, Allie becomes the new star reporter of the poorly laid-out local paper, and a statue of her father is commissioned. It’s strange that this statue looks as if the actor is just posing there in silver street-performer makeup.
Jim: Is that strange? Atlanta is filled with such statues. They’re at all the intersections, although they seem to change places during the night. Should I be concerned?
Ken: Only if they ask you for money.
Ken: So, Jim, there seems to be little more to say about this masterpiece of personal art. What, if anything, are you walking away from this with?
Jim: I walk away with a genuine appreciation for the cheesy tone they set with the film, and an admiration for how the director was able to get all of the actors on the same page in terms of matching their tones for the delivery of some its more absurd lines. It helps bring a necessary cohesiveness and lets you know that everyone is in on the joke, even while the film is simultaneously full of genuine badness in other respects.
Jim: Before we close, I need to share my final, most amazing discovery from the vast musical library of Matt Farley.
Ken: Am I prepared for this?
Jim: It’s a song called “Sometimes I Feel Like Such a Hack,” and it appears to be the star of the film exploring his own failings and lack of fame in the most painfully honest and sincere manner imaginable. It has four views on YouTube at the time I’m typing this, and it makes me want to simultaneously laugh and weep. It’s really sort of brilliant.
Ken: I’ll close with this: There are tons of people out there who say they’re going to make movies or write books or whatever, and they don’t. Farley is putting his stuff out there and seems to be a good sport about it. I kind of can’t help but respect him. And I challenge you to find something this earnest next month, Jim.
Jim: I’m almost certain that will not be happening. But I will try. You do realize that by the time we do another one of these in a month’s time, Matt Farley will probably have written another 1,000 songs?
Ken: I wish him the best of luck. Until next time, Jim.