“The film you are about to see is a work of fantastic fiction, ooh, but it’s realer than you think,” states Cryptessa (Etcetera Etcetera) to the camera at the beginning of Alice Maio Mackay’s third feature, T Blockers.
Shot in monochrome, dressed for gothy glamour and lit like a queen of the silent screen, Cryptessa embodies the spirits of TV horror hostesses Vampira and Elvira, not only promising campy pleasures to come, but also framing Mackay’s film precisely as a film.
“It’s only a movie,” the gender-ambiguous Cryptessa repeats mantra-like at the end of their spiel – and sure enough, T Blockers (formally designated “a transgender & queer film”) occupies the slippery space of metacinema, offering films within films and reality converted to filmic fantasy, with Cryptessa reappearing at various points to offer chorus-like commentary on self and otherness, monstrosity born and made, integrity and alienation, and other elusive dichotomies that preoccupy both trans experience and horror movies. Cryptessa is sometimes outside the principal narrative, and sometime within it introducing other, inset films, and the boundaries between all these constructed, interpolated realities are constantly blurred, so that Cryptessa’s equivocal status as both outsider and insider comes to reflect the mixed feelings of protagonist Sophie Castle (Lauren Last) about her own shifting identity.
Like writer/director Mackay, Sophie is both a trans woman and an independent, ultralowbudget, Adelaide-based filmmaker, using her art to work through, and give expression to, her individual emotions. When we first meet her, she is writing an autobiographical script dramatising her difficult coming out to her family, but even as she types “sounds of thunder rumbling”, she is interrupted by an actual rumbling. This is, in fact, an earthquake, unleashing an ancient worm-like parasite which spreads itself through weak, vulnerable and gullible men, amplifying their hatred and aggression, making them even bigger homophobes, misogynists and transphobes then they already were.
Gifted, thanks implicitly to her T Blockers, with the ability to sense the presence of the infected, Sophie at first struggles to work out what is going on – but fortunately there is a recently rediscovered film, Terror From Below, shot in 1991 by underground trans filmmaker Betty (Calliope Jackson, voiced by Cassie Workman), which recreates the circumstances of the parasite’s last emergence and Betty’s violent resistance. Now armed with information and a cause, not to mention with baseball bats and hockey sticks, Sophie, her roomie Spencer (Lewi Dawson), new boyfriend Kris (Toshiro Glenn) and tough-as-nails bartender Storm (Lisa Fanto) form a masked vigilante group determined to turn the worm – and to continue Betty’s legacy with their own sequel.
“This monster stuff would make a sick movie,” Sophie is told by her ‘early 20s Araki type’ brother London (Joe Romeo). He is referring specifically to the ‘hungry monster inside’ that is his drug addiction, and laying out in explicit terms both how monsters can be metaphors, and how readily such metaphors can be realised in films. This is programmatic for T Blockers, which is both an allegorical story of a trans woman gaining self-confidence and learning to fight for who she is, and a B-movie, inspired by lots of other B movies, full of aliens and arse-kicking.
Sophie’s anxieties – about her identity, about her career, about her place in an often hostile and terrifying world – are here transformed into a collection of palatable movie tropes which might for some be a mere entertainment, but for others are, like Betty’s film-within-a-film, a guide to surviving a life periodically taken over by “every skinhead and incel… running around town with a tiny little hard-on”.
Lit in stylised colours that might – simultaneously – be described as giallo-esque or bisexual, T Blockers is a celebration of LGBTQ esprit de corps, a call to arms against fascist oppression, and also a fun psychotronic schlockfest. Think the gonzo spark of Ed Wood and John Waters (both duly name-checked here), resurrected to address male insecurity and female solidarity in contemporary South Australia.
T Blockers has its Canadian première at Fantasia 2023