In 2016, a heavily armed North Carolina man barged into a Washington, DC-area pizza joint, intending to investigate a baseless conspiracy theory that it was secretly torturing children in a basement it didn’t actually have. Shots were fired and panic ensued, but no one was physically harmed. Improbably, those real-life events are now the subject of a feature film.
That incident came courtesy of Pizzagate, a far-right internet conspiracy theory that asserted a pizzeria secretly hosted a cabal of Satanic, possibly cannibalistic Democratic politicians and celebrities running a child sex trafficking ring. The restaurant in question has never really shook free of the attention of depraved Pizzagate believers, and the topic remains sensitive to this day. That open wound, however, has since festered into the rabidly pro-Donald Trump QAnon movement — which in itself is a kind of national horror story.
Enter Duncan, an indie horror-comedy film that takes its inspiration from the Pizzagate incident and, more broadly, burgeoning conspiracism across the U.S. in recent years. Duncan is the debut feature of Austin, Texas-based director John Valley, who previously directed dozens of music videos. He shot the movie on a shoestring budget, and the results allegedly spooked film festival organisers with its controversial subject.
It’s also sparked backlash from conspiracy theorists, some of whom spammed the trailer’s YouTube comments with messages declaring the movie to be part of a campaign to cover up Pizzagate-style atrocities. Others seemed to believe Valley was a fellow traveller. (Valley has since released a statement clarifying that he is not.)
As it turns out, Duncan isn’t really about secret pizza torture chambers at all, instead using a fictional version of Pizzagate as a launching point to explore the toxic mindset of conspiracy theorists. Local TV host and Alex Jones/InfoWars stand-in Terri Lee leads her viewers to believe that a secret cabal of pedophilic lizard people are torturing kids in the basement of Austin’s Tootz Pizza. (That’s about as specific as the claims get.) Wannabe reporter Karen Black, freshly fired from Terri Lee’s station for dropping a hot mic during filming, seeks to get back into her ex-boss’s good graces by travelling to Tootz and gathering video evidence.
To do so, Black enlists Duncan Plump, the only competent member of a local paramilitary group. He reluctantly agrees to handle the “tactical side” of the operation, infuriating another militia leader who believes Duncan is jockeying for control. And so off they go on a road trip from hell in Duncan’s windowless van.
Things go south quickly, in part because the plan has no chance of success — much like the pizza parlor it’s based on, there isn’t even a basement at Tootz — but also because conspiracy theories and heavily armed militants are an inherently volatile mix. When two people with already limited capacity for clearheadedness are thrust into extreme circumstances, their every poor decision drags them further into a bloody mess of their own making.
Despite the “grindhouse Pizzagate satire” tagline, Duncan is, first and foremost, a character study. That journey into the depths of the title character’s mind is both pitiful and harrowing. Duncan is deeply confused, juggling multiple beliefs that, while maybe coherent to the character, are clearly incompatible to the viewer. He’s an obsessive far-right fanatic who brandishes weapons in front of protesters and proclaims a sincere belief in lizard people; he also seems genuinely disturbed at the prospect of hurting anyone and decries Terri Lee as a peddler of disinformation with “worms in her brains.”
This is exactly the type of person conspiracy movements like Pizzagate or QAnon attract: disoriented, malleable people searching for acceptance and a purpose. By immersing themselves into an alternate fantasy world with clear archetypes of good and evil, they can roleplay as the protagonist of reality — one of the chosen who can see past the grand illusion. If it wasn’t lizard people torturing children in the basement of a pizza parlor, the focus of Duncan and Black’s fantasies would shift to something else: 9/11 trutherism, mass shooting denialism, New World Order fearmongering, 5G quackery, organised hate. Duncan’s latter half shatters the title character’s illusions of control, leaving him to pick up the gory pieces.
Duncan doesn’t ask the audience to sympathise with conspiracists or their enablers, just to understand how they got there. And it is undeniably well-executed. Valley’s film is gorgeously shot and its John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack is a standout. In spite of the grim subject matter, Duncan is funny — boasting one of the more memorable dick jokes in recent memory — and Valley manages to cram it all into the brisk hour and a half playtime typical of a genre which usually has much less to say about the state of society.
Some minor stumbles aside, Valley has pulled off a mean feat for any director, let alone one making their debut: translating a nearly incomprehensible internet movement into a tight, well-scripted film that, unlike the news, is actually fun to watch.
Duncan doesn’t have a release date yet, but Valley says he is exploring distribution options and is hoping to have it available for viewers in 2020.