It is easy to look at the passionate fanbase for this micro-budget, b-movie pastiche and to conclude it’s an ironic watch. The jokey user reviews that declare it to be ‘my Black Panther (2018)’ or ‘my Hamilton (2020)’ mix with the multiple entries about somebody showing it to their friends and them ‘not getting it’ to imply classic so-bad-it’s-good status. A film to put in the category of The Room (2003), Troll 2 (1990) or even Fateful Findings (2013). To view this film that way would be a mistake. Yes, this film is arguably amateurish and conventionally sloppy, but it is so by design.
This doesn’t then push it into the dreaded category of actually attempting to be so-bad-it’s-good, films like Sharknado (2013). Because Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is earnest, witty and honest. The film is not trying to be bad, nor is it at all bad. In fact, I would call it a masterpiece. There is a wholesome sincerity to the movie which is antithetical to irony, making this a film where you are always laughing with it and never at it. This is the result of charming characters, a smart script and a whole host of well deployed techniques. It is also elevated by scrappy charm. Once again, the film looks conventionally bad, an awkward sub-TV movie aesthetic. But, here that is matched to the small town setting of the film, a story of plucky underdogs that is purposefully alluding back to 50s B movies, as well as TV soaps. It is a chosen aesthetic, something being pulled off that only adds to the appeal.
So, what the hell is this movie? Well, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is a 2012 adventure-comedy (with elements of camp horror and romance) directed by Charles Roxburgh, co-written with him and Matt Farley. Farley also functions as producer, composer, and lead actor, delivering an incredibly natural, witty and convincing performance that is yet another reminder that the film knows what it is doing. Farley’s Neil Stuart is the straight-man anchor that the film’s silliness reverberates around. He feels at home in the role but genuinely embodies a really charming character, the film’s emotional centre. The rest of the characters are quirky or off-beat, but never too much so. Characters aren’t jokes or affectations, each has a surprising amount of humanity. The performances vary but even this is additive, once again evoking a small town, off-beat feel. There is also the sense that everybody is trying to make everybody else laugh, and seeing one actor in particular trying to stifle giggles after every line delivered is a joy.
Even the narrative is fun, as it evokes its own world and completely envelops the viewer. Neil has returned to town after years away, he left the town as a laughing stock as he kept talking of a dangerous Riverbeast that lived nearby. His unproven, and seemingly ludicrous, claims led to him getting left at the altar by his then fiancée, and to a general loss of credibility. This last point is important: Neil, you see, is the best darn tutor that Rivertown, USA has ever known. Yes, the town is called Rivertown, USA and is usually referred to as exactly that. This is a perfect example of the film’s key success: its script. Farley has this wonderful ability to just know that certain groups of words are innately funny. The dialogue is very stylised, all verbose but in a way that’s very playful. The film loves the feel of language and plays around with word choices to engineer comedy. It also masters the comedy of repetition (the comedy of repetition), bringing phrases back as verbal rhythms that repeat and diverge. The film is so good at running jokes, establishing a moment that feels weird for weird’s sake and then turning it into a returning bit, or just bringing it back later in inspired fashion. Once again, this is not an irony watch. This is a sharply made comedy with a really strong script.
Everything is an excuse to showcase this. First of all, we find ourselves in a town where tutors are heroes, and belong to clandestine bodies, where there is a local but old-timey paper with a gossip hound columnist that is accompanied by a photographer with an old fashioned camera. Why this camera? Why not. The film enjoys some affected visual humour, with incongruous or repeated things that should be commented upon but never are. This includes the lead character’s obsession with chocolate milk, a returning sight but never really mentioned. This comedy of omission is delightful, once again cementing the strange, but utterly endearing, world of Rivertown, USA. This small town does really feel like its own country, and you fall in love with the characters.
As you can tell from the title, this is a monster movie, but there’s rarely any monster in it. This is often the Achilles heel of the monster movie. You will hear Calvin and I on our kaiju podcast frequently complaining about how monster films don’t have enough monster in them. Here, the monster is an excuse to focus on the townsfolk. The characters are so endearing, the dialogue and performances so delightful, that you never miss the monster. The absence or presence of the Riverbeast becomes its own joke, an affectation and a catalyst for human drama and ludicrous plotting. If there is a monster, a few of the residents take up that mantle. We have the now fiancé of the woman that left our hero at the altar. He’s a scumbag but he also produces a lot of great running gags and is such a great foil to our lead. Maybe our gossip hound is the true beast, his barbed typewriter always getting Neil in trouble, always catching him out. His character is genuinely analogous to Burt Lancaster’s columnist in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Public opinion revolves around his writing and reputations are made or marred by whatever is on the front page. In fact, The Sweet Smell of Success is a lovely comparison point, it too wields an affected script and uncanny world in order to craft pure entertainment. Both films have a way with speech, understand the flow of words, and are willing to commit to exaggerated realities for audience satisfaction.
The Riverbeast does, of course, need mentioning. The design is purposefully shoddy, an unconvincing and off-brand suit based on Gill-man, the eponymous beast from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). His existence is unexplained and mostly unbelieved. He is a genre artefact that functions mostly as a tone setter. His overt campness orientates the film for the viewer and his deliberate ridiculousness facilitates the strangeness of the human drama. He is so well deployed, though. When watching, I was reminded of a film module I undertook at university, where one of the assigned pieces of reading was about the music in Jaws (1975). The article argued that the music was integral to the film in that its usage turned a non-diegetic piece into a diegetic feature. An unspoken agreement is made between film and audience in which the iconic theme for the shark functions as a musical denotation of the shark. There is no shark without the theme and no theme without the shark. This is never broken: at no point is the music used manipulatively. Here, music becomes a special effect, masking the limitations of the shark prop by indelibly tying the creature to such imposing music. So much of the physical presence, and actual fear, of the shark comes purely from the music.
At the very start of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You, we have a random man warn us about what we are about to see. He promises Riverbeast action and advises that sensitive viewers may wish to look away. Therefore, imminent Riverbeast attacks will be foreshadowed by the screen flashing red. It is an invasive feature and a brilliant one. This introduction is hilarious, and is another brilliant example of how the film creates a tone and gets the viewer not only on its wavelength, but starts to explain what kind of film it is. From this point onwards, the flashing red works like the theme in Jaws, giving extra impact to the Riverbeast, but also helping with the pacing. To return to an earlier point, this is why the lack of monster works. You are never waiting for the monster, you are never truly ‘surprised’ by the monster. The film has already made a deal with the audience and has indicated that the beast is part of a larger gag, and that it will be deployed deliberately. This also makes for such satisfying moments when you know exactly what is going to happen and the joy is watching it unfurl in front of your eyes. Once again, it is very silly, but it is so purposeful. It is such a good idea and is in concert with the rest of the film.
So, do let this Riverbeast get you! Don’t be put off by the fanaticism around this film or, more accurately, do not be misled. This is not an ironic watch, this is not so-bad-it’s-good. This film is a smartly made comedy and one of the funniest comedies of the last ten years. It has so much charm and so much plucky spirit, but there’s also a precision to it. Even when it is shoddy and shambling this is by design, all the result of filmmakers who know exactly what they are doing and know just how to achieve their vision. Because this is a film of vision. It is aware of the constraints of micro-budget filmmaking and uses that as part of the film, as opposed to trying to push beyond it. The result is a film you will want to watch again and again, always finding new things to love and laugh along with, and something you will be desperate to share with likeminded friends. So, I implore you, give into the Riverbeast or start spreading its gospel.