In David Cronenberg’s freakish, genre-bending classic Videodrome, a sleazy cable TV boss seeks out the most sleazy entertainment he can find to put on his channel – but then discovers a disturbing underworld that he wished he’d never seen.
There are several curious parallels between Tickled, a new feature-length documentary hailing from New Zealand, and Cronenberg’s 1982 movie – not that Tickled’s reporter, director and narrator has much in common with Max Renn, the protagonist of the latter. But TV reporter David Farrier, who normally specialises in those fluffy stories you see at the end of the news, soon finds himself in way over his head when he starts investigating something called “competitive endurance tickling” – a supposed sport that fronts for something far more sinister.
It all begins when Farrier stumbles on a company called Jane O’Brien Media, and one of dozens of videos posted all over the web: groups of young men, clothed in sportswear, tickling another young man who’s restrained at the wrists and ankles. Even at this early stage, there’s a creepy edge to the footage; maybe it’s the sense that, for all the writhing and giggling, the tickling bouts vaguely resemble torture.
Or maybe it’s the strange absence of background detail; in Videodrome, Renn finds disturbing footage of people tied up and violently beaten in front of a red clay wall. The videos in Tickled take place in front of a pure white backdrop – there’s no spectators, no clear signs of a referee, or anything else that might make the tickling look like a sport. If it all sounds a bit kinky, that’s because it is.
Thinking he might be onto an odd yet light-hearted story akin to a cat fashion show or a pumpkin that looks like a US president, Farrier emails the company behind the videos to find out more. Stunned when a series of homophobic and abusive messages are sent in reply, Farrier – and co-director Dylan Reeve – dig further. And further. It’s fair to say the rabbit hole takes them to some very strange places indeed.
If you’re a fan of documentaries, particularly of the bizarre variety like Errol Morris’ Tabloid or Bart Layton’s Oscar-nominated The Imposter, you won’t want to know anymore about Tickled, because you’ll enjoy the gradual drip-drip of bizarre information for yourself. Unfolding like a detective story, Farrier’s film takes all kinds of turns – one or two predictable, some amusing, others highly unsettling. In terms of its construction, Tickled is less assured than the two examples cited earlier in this paragraph, and it’s really closer in tone and filming to the online dating documentary, Catfish – it’s all hidden cameras and stake-outs in hire cars.
That Tickled lingers a little too long in some areas – such as a scene where Farrier drops in to meet a more approachable tickling fetishist – is forgivable, given the uniqueness of the story overall. Even the narration, which feels overused at first, begins to work in the documentary’s favour when the threats against Farrier take on a more aggressive tone.
What Farrier finds at the bottom of the rabbit warren isn’t quite as phantasmagorical as the revelations in Videodrome – no fleshy guns or throbbing televisions here, obviously – but Tickled does express something remarkably similar. Out there, in the ocean of society, there are some very dark islands indeed – and while the explorers brave or foolish enough to visit those places may shudder at what they find, their discoveries also say something valuable about the nastier side of our nature.
Tickled is out in selected UK cinemas now. A list of places showing it can be found here.