Overview: While investigating a lead on competitive tickling, New Zealand journalist David Farrier, who specializes in amusing and bizarre material, risks his career and more to uncover a much more serious story. Magnolia Pictures; 2016.

It Starts With A Laugh: Any ticklish person knows the feeling of panic, usually just after the initial chuckles that prepend the breathless laughing. Anxiety spikes as your body desperately tries to alert your brain of the trouble, some threat over which there is no control, by sending a confused expressive reaction. The new documentary Tickled, from first-time directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, is something of a loose simulation of the act from which it derives its title.

The film opens with a montage of interviews showcasing some of Co-Director David Farrier’s earlier work with farm animals and face-painted demons and Justin Beiber, establishing the young journalist’s reputation for pursuing light-hearted, chuckle worthy news material. Farrier himself exhibits a charmingly awkward disposition, his wry wit unavoidably reminiscent of fellow New Zealand filmmaker and comedian Jemaine Clement and in appearance, Farrier resembles an even-skinnier and somewhat unkempt version of John Oliver. Not only is he instantly likable as a film character and narrative voice, but there’s a constant sense that he might not be so prominently featured were he not the first victim in the film’s narrative order. All of this makes the initial vitriolic e-mail exchange that much more troublesome and perplexing. When Farrier sends a very basic and cordial interview inquiry to a company that hosts Competitive Endurance Tickling events, Debbie Kuhn replies on behalf of Jane O’Brien Media with an explanation that the company wishes to avoid association with homosexuality (Farrier is openly gay). Her language is more than just a little bit threatening and malicious. In its evident homophobia and menace, Kuhn’s reply is also a bit hypocritical; as your imagination might have already discovered, there is no way to think of male-on-male tickling competitions without a tone of homo-eroticism, particularly given that Ms. O’Brien’s participant solicitations explicitly request young athletic men and the videos always have the tickle recipient tied to a bed.

And Then, You Can’t Breathe: From that initial exchange unfolds an exposé piece in which every new reveal feels like an added puzzle piece but only obscures the understanding of the layers of organized abuse and character assassination, which is seemingly spearheaded by one (or maybe two?) individuals. Legal threats are delivered, then an awkward visit from a trio of men playing good investigator/bad investigator/weird-as-fuck investigator, and then the threatened filmmakers fly to America to investigate more closely. After finding that most participants in the tickle videos are violently opposed to discussing their experience, a few scattered voices come forward to describe their experience of being harassed, blackmailed, and psychologically abused in response to their efforts to remove their videos or escape the tickle circuit. Farrier and Reeve find stories of former participants having had the video and damning letters forwarded to employers and potential employers, the video being posted on URLs carrying their legal names, and, in the case of a talent scout who backed out of his role, seething and hateful letters being sent to his mother cruelly mocking the death of her son and his brother.

There are three sliding plates here—the phasic forward development of our Western culture’s progressive attitude toward atypical sex interests, American class structure crumbling atop its own foundation of expanding inequity, and the growing predominance of the virtual space where identity is imaginary at worst and performative at best—and in the cracks, new terms of power are being invented, abused, and weaponized. We know that the mysterious person driving these “tickle cells” has an exorbitant amount of wealth while most of the participants are consciously chosen from economically struggling areas. Since the targeted performers were scouted for athletic builds, the testimonials come from muscular but defeated men. An MMA fighter pushes back but seems only to damage himself, in spite of his assured words of recollection and reinvention. Traditional markers of masculine strength—physique, aggression, competition—mean nothing in the newly established currencies of power that are currently beyond moral and legal regulation. Many of the recruited victims were minors when they participated in the videos, and now, in their mid-to-late 20s, they have been terrorized to the point of defeat, undeservingly dispirited and emotionally neutered men hiding in compromised lives. Their genders and age are inconsequential when we realize how susceptible we all might be to this sort of ruinous treatment if the senseless crosshairs ever find us, particularly when the film shows just how insular and untouchable the abuser or abusers are in this case.

And Then the Panic: If this all sounds like the stuff typically explored by horror films, then I have done a good job in selective description. Tickled is a horror film. Even if this non-fiction exercise has elected to present its evil entity with a more virtual and invisible mutant skin over the standard slasher mask, the movie is positioned to end up as the year’s best monster flick. It seems likely that many will make the more superficial read and compare Farrier and Reeve’s documentary to 2010’s at least narratively if not factually dishonest Catfish, but that comparison is a bit unfair and almost without value. In Tickled, when its two filmmakers sit in wait for the professional abuser’s white SUV, the closest comparative filmic affect might be the moment in Zodiac when David Fincher films the creaking basement boards. In both instances, overmatched investigators are trapped by curiosity and obsessive duty on a collision course with an enemy more menacing than they can measure. A late movie phone call to a relative of the abuse perpetrator, a call answered by a damaged and frightened voice, sounds chillingly like a knowing caution from someone who survived a horrific encounter with the monster.

Overall: Tickled is an unshakable film but it is difficult to explain why without altering the experience, so you will just have to trust me when I say that you do not want to miss this one.

Grade: A-


Editor’s Note (06/03): An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the three men visiting David Farrier in New Zealand on behalf of Jane O’Brien as being attorneys. This is untrue and the mistake has been corrected.