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Andrew Bowser made a name for himself posting videos on his YouTube and TikTok channels where he plays a nerdy-wannabe-occultist guy named Onyx the Fortuitous. Onyx speaks distinctively, almost like an old-timey radio announcer, except with less confidence. There are bursts of vocal power, crescendoing, before petering out into uncertainty, punctuated with a barely-heard (and very funny) "I don't know." His videos often went viral. Thousands of YouTube hopefuls strive for even half of Bowser's success. This is even truer now, with the opening of "Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls," a feature film written, directed, and edited by Bowser, funded partially by Kickstarter. Now, Onyx the Fortuitous has more room to play than a ten-minute YouTube video.
Clearly inspired by '80s horror films and horror-comedies like "Gremlins" or "Fright Night," "Onyx the Fortuitous" starts in a "Breakfast Club" way, with five people, misfits all, showing up at the gloomy mansion of their shared idol, famous occultist Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs). They've all won an online contest where the prize is a weekend with Bartok. Bartok will lead the group through a ritual revealing the secrets of immortality. Bartok's green-haired assistant, Farrah (Olivia Taylor Dudley), is in charge of the five participants, fielding questions with barely concealed eye-rolls. The five winners couldn't be more different. Marcus J. Trillbury (Andrew Bowser) lives at home with his mom (horror legend Barbara Crampton) and stepfather, works in a burger joint where he is routinely bullied, escapes reality through his alter ego Onyx the Fortuitous and is, unsurprisingly, a virgin. Jessminder (Melanie Chandra) is an intense tattoo artist, convinced she and Bartok were married in another lifetime. Shelley (Arden Myrin) is a manic, chipper Christian housewife, traumatized by life events into embracing Satan. Mr. Duke (Terrence 'T.C.' Carson) is an intellectual, philosopher, and linguist drawn to the dark arts through his interest in ancient texts. And finally, there's Mack (Rivkah Reyes), a kindly non-binary witch.
It's almost immediately apparent that Bartok is not really who he says he is, and neither is Farrah. Perhaps the contest was a false front, and Onyx, Mr. Duke, Shelley, Jessminder, and Mack are "winners" in a much more sinister game. People start to disappear. Mr. Duke tries translating the scary-looking "grimoire" to see what might be next on the agenda. Onyx constantly gets into scrapes on his own, stumbling into a secret passageway behind the walls, seeing things he should not see, and having his own Scooby-Doo-style adventures.
If you aren't familiar with Onyx (I wasn't before viewing this film), "Onyx the Fortuitous" might be a tough watch. Onyx is annoying (and is supposed to be), and a little of him goes a long, long way. But Bowser knows what he's doing. The tone is consistent, even with a couple of speed bumps for exposition. The film is a love letter to the midnight movies and haunted-house double-features of the '80s, with their synthesized scores, purple lightning bolts, gleaming gemstones in the hilts of daggers, scary-looking religious texts, obviously fake cobwebs, etc. Nothing slides into self-seriousness, not even the small flashback where we learn where Onyx's compulsive "I don't know"s come from. Even with the scary stuff and silliness, the overall mood is sweet. I mean this as a compliment.
The sweetness comes from Bowser's obvious affection for the material and the genre. Onyx is not the "star" here. This is an ensemble piece, another smart choice on Bowser's part, seeing as the whole thing began on his YouTube channel. It would have been easy to center himself in every scene and shot, but he doesn't. The cast is fun to watch, and they all have good chemistry. There are goofball asides (a short glimpse of Bartok alone in his room made me howl) and a full Meat Loaf-inspired music video, complete with grand piano and candelabras. If anything, "Onyx the Fortuitous" could have benefited from leaning in more heavily to the silly and grandiose.
Characters based on a comedy sketch often flounder in longer formats. Their quirks and tics are hilarious in a sketch but quickly wear out their welcome. We've seen this repeatedly when various "bits" on "Saturday Night Live" are wrenched into a feature-length and can't sustain interest. "Onyx the Fortuitous" really stretches the tolerance level for the Onyx character, and if you're not up to speed on the backstory, the whole thing might feel like an irritating inside joke. This is a risk.
But here's the thing: In a world of encroaching AI, of corporate-run movie franchises more interested in selling merch than making good movies, of safety-driven bottom lines, a film like "Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls"—coming out of the brain of one man, funded by fans and supporters—is reason to celebrate. This is living the dream. This is making the story you want to make, getting it done however you can, pulling together funds from here and there, planning well, and casting well. I saw it alone in my apartment, and sometimes it dragged. But I have no doubt "Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls" would crush it at midnight in a crowded movie theatre. The film knows what it's doing and why it's doing it. It wears its affection on its sleeve.
Now playing in theaters.
Andrew Bowser as Onyx the Fortuitous
Olivia Taylor Dudley as Farrah
Jeffrey Combs as Bartok the Great
Rivkah Reyes as Mack
Terrence 'T.C.' Carson as Mr. Duke
Barbara Crampton as Nancy
Melanie Chandra as Jasminder
Donna Pieroni as Masha
Shane McCormick as Young Onyx
Michael Monsour as Tanner Bois