From the opening image of tea being brewed on a bunsen burner, Jim Hickcox’s feature debut openly advertises its DIY status. With its hand-puppet flashbacks to ancient undersea battles, and its basic creature design that, in one notable case, amounts to little more than garbage bags and gaffer tape, Soft Matter offers low-to-no-budget sci-fi – and the performances too, ranging from deadpan casual to shrilly over-the-top, suit a film that revels in its own bargain-basement sensibilities. It’s slacker trash camp – and the prominent rôle played by a mop bucket (used as a portal by an ancient marine deity) betrays the film’s Troma-like affiliations.
The story is simple. Assisted by Dr Grist (Hal Schneider), Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone) conducts mad science experiments in a facility, transforming human patients into gooey mutants in her attempt to find the key to immortality. Meanwhile laidback Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II) convinces her friend Haircut (Devyn Placide) to take over the supposedly abandoned site as an exhibition space for his ghost-themed street art. As these two worlds improbably converge, an ancient sea-god (played by Sam Stinson, voiced by Mykal Monroe) surfaces to ensure that the gift of everlasting life is restricted to the lobsters and jellyfish that are its proven allies.
Along the way there are animated pop songs about dead turtles, lengthy disco dancing sequences, and interludes with randy tentacular hybrids, all increasingly lit up like a cheap giallo. Both the presence and appearance of the sea-god make comparisons to The Shape Of Water inevitable, but at its heart, Soft Matter presents a strange intersection between low art and the will to live forever. If graffiti artist Haircut “love[s] doing monsters”, then the monstrous patients also paint their walls with faeces-like ooze – and while Kriegspiel, like many an artist, seeks to make herself eternal, Haircut just wants to create something that will make his momma love him. With this, perhaps Hickcox has.