The rise of digital filmmaking has inspired a never-ending flow of exploitation film fans to pick up the now-affordable tools of cinematic storytelling and make their own gonzo epics. The problem is most of these fans don’t have anything to say. They either settle for amateurishly imitating what they love or just enjoying the ego-trip of playing “filmmaker” at the audience’s expense.  What’s missing all too frequently is the vision and the personal investment that drove the classic exploitation films of yesteryear.

Thus, it’s a pleasant surprise to see a film like The Theta Girl, a micro-budget homage to exploitation days gone by that has a distinct vision to match its own style.  Made by first-time feature filmmakers in South Carolina, it’s as ambitious about its ideas as it is about its shocking content.

The Theta Girl tells the story of Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth D’Onofrio), a young woman who deals a designer psychedelic drug called Theta and lives with an all-woman punk band. Life is a mind-expanding carnal cavalcade for Gayce and her friends until someone begins a killing spree aimed at her inner circle.  She presses her drug supplier Derek (Darelle D. Dove) into service and they struggle to find out who’s responsible. Along the way, they cross paths with a sinister missionary (Shane Silman) and learn that Theta and its effects are more complex – and dangerous – than they imagine.

The resulting film hits the ground running and never lets up.  The first half delivers a barrage of punk music, drugs, sex and blood-spurting violence.  These elements are all delivered with style, referencing everything from 80’s splatter films to Liquid Sky, and have the kind of immediacy that you can only get from a film that was made quickly and cheaply by passionate filmmakers.

While The Theta Girl shows a sense of humor at times, it never descends into Troma-style attempts at making a self-conscious “cult film” and doesn’t try to pat itself on the back for being hip or edgy.  The same can be said for the performances, which are stylized without being cartoonish.  D’Onofrio is often furiously energetic as the anti-heroine, Dove brings a welcome warmth and gravity to his low-key performance and Silman invests his outsider bad guy with an unexpected but welcome amount of intelligence.  Look out also for Quinn Deogracias as the leader of the band, who cuts a fascinatingly androgynous figure that is half 1972 Ziggy and half 1982 punker.

At this point, it should noted that there is more to The Theta Girl than punkish shock aesthetics. The film will surprise viewers with its quirky and unexpected intellectual sensibility, a side of the film that becomes dominant in its second half.  David Axe’s script gives hero and villain psychologically complex reasons for the paths they choose. This aspect of their characterizations gets exploration prompted by their experiences with Theta (note: these are presented in a stylized way that suggests Ken Russell interpreting anime visual stylings in live action).  When the finale arrives, it’s as much a philosophical dispute about religion and morality as it is a bloody clash.

And there are other little surprises laced throughout the film that show Axe and director/cinematographer/editor Christopher Bickel are as interested in experimenting with content as they are with form.  There is a party/orgy sequence that is more joyous than prurient as it incorporates a variety of body types and sexual couplings in a open-minded, welcoming style.  A horrific mass murder scene flips the script by having squares be the bloodthirsty killers attacking the counterculture. A visit to veteran drug creators for answers proves that psychedelic adventuring doesn’t necessarily bring  wisdom.   Axe and Bickel aren’t just trying to recreate the past of exploitation cinema, they’re working towards an evolution of the form.

By the time the credits roll, you’ll be amazed that this is the work of first-timers.  Seams show if you look for them – example: line deliveries can get a bit overwrought and shout-y at times, particularly in the mid-section of the film, and the peaks of intensity need a few more meditative valleys to balance them out – but it’s astonishing just how much Bickel and Axe get right here and how innovative they often are in the results.  The technical accomplishments are quite impressive, too, with a number of visual effects that make the rough-hewn, low-budget style part of their expressive aesthetic.

In short, The Theta Girl is a bracing experience for exploitation film lovers.  It’s also quite inspirational for anyone looking to make movies outside the conventional system.  Simply put, this is exactly the kind of film the modern exploitation scene needs more of: a film where the intelligence is as fierce as the theatrics.