CUFF Review: 'Itchy Fingers' Is Horror for Theatre Kids Directed by Anna Nilles & Marco Jake

Starring Zachary Schultz, Elsa Guenther, Samantha Newcomb, Jeff Prather
CUFF Review: 'Itchy Fingers' Is Horror for Theatre Kids Directed by Anna Nilles & Marco Jake
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A socially awkward aspiring comedian living with a single parent, the uncovering of a dark plot that causes a descent into madness, and a whole lot of clown makeup. At first, one might think this synopsis sounds a lot like 2019's Joker. This is, in fact, the premise for Itchy Fingers, the brainchild and second feature film of writers and directors Annie Nilles and Marco Jake. However, this is where the familiar similarities come to an end — instead of bombastic dance scenes and murderous violence, Itchy Fingers is quiet and brimming with eeriness and mystery.

Ernie (Zachary Schultz) is a fresh high school graduate with big dreams of becoming a famous stand-up comic, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his comedian father (Jeff Prather) despite his nervous demeanor and lack of people skills. Unable to get a job and finding little success posting his stand-up routines on YouTube, he auditions at a community theatre. Ernie becomes unsettled when he gets cast as a school shooter in a play written by the theatre's director, Ms. Reddy (Elsa Guenther), when all he wants to do is be funny. When Ms. Reddy's direction style starts to push him further and further to the brink, Ernie begins to suspect that there may be something sinister forming behind the scenes that he must discover before he loses his grip on his sense of self.

The words "theatre kids" and "terror" are not ones that people would normally associate together, but Nilles and Marco manage to make these two tonally different worlds collide perfectly. Theatre kids can now say they have their own horror movie — not in the sense of jump scares or slashers wearing Halloween masks, but the kind of horror that makes a person question their own sanity as they slowly slip down the drain into madness.

Schultz knows exactly how to strike the perfect balance between making viewers feel both sympathetic and deeply uncomfortable in his performance as Ernie. The audience will cringe at how awkwardly Ernie tells a joke, but will go soft when they recognize a relatability in him, cooped up in his bedroom watching Vine compilations online and dreaming of being like his comedy heroes all within the same scene. Guenther as Ms. Reddy is spine-chilling, lulling the audience into a false sense of safety with her kind and encouraging nature, but slowly melding into a menacing force that will have them worrying for Ernie's fate.

There's an uncanny quality to the film — on the surface, this looks like a normal group of people putting on a play in a normal local theatre, but you can feel it in the atmosphere that something is off from the moment Ernie steps foot on stage. This is amplified by the lingering shots of the empty theatre hallways and an unnerving score composed by AJ Nilles.

Ernie's castmate Maggie (Samantha Newcomb) delivers a passionate speech in which she expresses her discomfort and hesitancy to participate in a play about a school shooting; to her, the play is exploiting the pain and trauma of gun violence without adding anything new to the conversation. It's a scene that could serve as a thesis statement for the film as a whole, where the ethics of dark subject matter in art and the lengths a director will go to shake an excellent performance out of their actors are brought into the light.

By the end, the audience is left wondering if Ernie has officially lost his sense of reality, or if there were hints of it wavering before. Despite the abrupt and slightly rushed conclusion, it is one that will not spoon-feed, but instead prompt intense reflection and interpretation. Watching Itchy Fingers sparks the dreadful feeling of listening to someone tell a painfully unfunny joke and forcing yourself to laugh out of pity. But instead of wishing you could leave the room, you'll fasten yourself to your seat to hear how the joke ends, taking in all the excruciating tension along the way.

Calgary Underground Film Festival runs online from April 23 to May 2, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website. (CUFF)