Hope Madden has been an esteemed critic, journalist, and writer for many Columbus media publications and television for years. She and her husband, George Wolf, run MaddWolf, a popular film blog, and head the Fright Club podcast and horror film programming at the Gateway Theater. They know movies inside and out and they know horror. So it makes sense for Obstacle Corpse to be Madden’s first feature as a writer and director. It’s a high-concept horror comedy filmed in the Columbus, Ohio area and now available to watch on Amazon. Madden and Wolf are both part of my Columbus film critics’ group, and so I will, as I always strive for with reviewing Ohio-made indies, attempt to be as objective as possible knowing many involved in the cast and crew. Obstacle Corpse is, above all things, enjoyably demented. It’s a low-budget horror movie that understands that an indie horror movie is going to succeed through concept, personality, and mood, and Madden pays attention to each of those winning dimensions.

Sunny (Sylvie Mix) just wants to impress her domineering and dismissive father. She signs up for the Guts and Glory competition, a twelve-event obstacle course, to prove herself. Each contestant is expected to bring a partner, so she brings her best friend Ezra (Alan Tyson) who is ready to get back home and out of the woods pronto. That’s even before they discover that the teams have gathered for some brutal competition. Each team is also required to kill their teammate over the course of the grueling events, so will Sunny and Ezra survive, and will they possibly turn on one another to save themself from the deadly games?

The premise is a quick hook, a deadly version of an obstacle course, and makes twisted sense, not just from a canny take-something-from-childhood-but-make-it-deadly calculus of recent gimmicky horror. There are plenty of adult-oriented obstacle courses known for their physical endurance, like the Tough Mudders and Spartan Race and Ninja Warrior, so an escalation into literal life-and-death stakes as an experiential attraction makes sense in a twisted fashion. Madden has also done what I wish several other indie filmmakers would and distinguished her large net of crazy characters. There’s a wonderful sense of personality to the different groups, which helps the audience keep track of the many different faces, but it also allows the characters to be more playful. I don’t care why some would dress up like clowns for this competition and others as baseball players, I’m just glad that these characters are happy to stand out. I enjoyed a middle-aged man eager to transform every moment into a phony social media tableau. I readily enjoyed the hyper-competitive nature of Stephanie (Gareth Tidball), an intense woman who gets off on the thrill of each challenge. I enjoyed one grumbling angry man (Wolf) who could be counted on to struggle in last place no matter the obstacle. I enjoyed a tracksuit-clad bickering couple. I liked a family of siblings that distinguished itself in paired T-shirts, with one pair wearing “single” and the other wearing “double.” I didn’t quite understand it since they were both pairs but I liked the effort all the same. Even little details can add much.

The mood of Obstacle Corpse is chiefly one of carefree fun, an amiable tone that brings a comedic lightness to even the most ghastly of circumstances. It’s prevalent throughout the movie and makes the 80 minutes easy to digest. Madden’s good times are best summarized by the scene-stealing performance of Mason (Donovan Riley Wolfington, Madden’s son), a costumed chef dishing out cold vengeance from his ice cream truck. This character is presented as a change agent, an unexpected wildcard who is disrupting the establishment overseeing the games. He’s a live-wire of energy, channeling Deadpool or a Looney Tunes cartoon at different points, and he will dismember contestants while gleefully singing his violent versions of Christmas carols. It’s a standout performance in a large cast of varied characters, and Wolfington is just operating on another level of insane amusement. The character also becomes one to easily root for because he’s an antihero underdog taking advantage of others underestimating him, and he’s also that change agent, bringing a bloody sense of justice to those involved in the continuance of the games. A late-in-the-game revelation about his history made me wish for more development to better utilize the key info, but Wolfington is the best mascot for the movie’s demented charms.

Given its large cast, there are several that made a favorable impression as they navigated the comedy aspects. Mix (Poser, Double Walker) is a definite find for Columbus cinema and will be going places in no time. She is a natural actor and serves as our baseline of normality, a shifting concept in a world of violent mayhem. Tyson (Stowaway) is a great foil as Sunny’s friend. He’s more effete and unimposing, at first glance, so his incredulous reactions are a welcomed source of comedy and reason. Tony White does a lot as a clown/mime who befriends our “normal” characters. He gives a very expressive and charming performance, and yet there are a couple of moments where his tortured emotions serve as a surprising well of feelings (he is labeled as Sad Clown, after all). Even producer Jason Tostevin (Hellarious) has a laconic menace as the head of the games security, and he delivers a monologue about achieving your peak greatness that sounds like a self-help guru comfortable into the exploitative routines. He’s our face of the establishment, so as things begin going haywire from our anarchic chef, his discomfort provides a consistent outlet for satisfying comeuppance. You can tell the cast is enjoying themselves, and that casual camaraderie helps to add to the overall silly and bloody fun of the movie.

I wish the parameters of this killer event had a bit more clarity and development to really maximize the possibility. First, I thought that these many obstacles were themselves going to be part of the killer challenge, something akin to Squid Games where familiar childhood playground games have been transformed into life-and-death contests. That’s not the case, so watching characters overcome a cargo net or a set of tires feels somewhat disappointing because what would the appeal of this physical track be beyond the murdering? I think part of the joke is that these are ordinary park obstacles that are causing so many so much struggle. The rules of this course can also be rather murky. We see the enforcement of what happens when a contestant kills outside of an official obstacle course event, but the rest of the rules are left too vague. Contestants are welcome to bring their own weapons, like bats and knives, so could someone simply bring a high-powered gun and mow down the entire competition? How does this work exactly? What prize do the winners receive at the end other than having killed their partner? Did Sunny’s father understand what exactly she was getting into and approved? I’m also left slightly bewildered how many of these teams are family members that are so eager to kill one another. I’m not opposed to the possible fratricide plot, but I think the movie needs to present more conflicts within the couples to present as possible explanation for this murderous intent (maybe an old score to settle like stealing a girlfriend, maybe it’s an inheritance battle, maybe it’s sussing out what the particulars are of the familiar tension, etc.). It’s shocking to watch an older brother pitch his younger brother into a fire and kids killing kids (off-screen), but the shock value only goes so far, and having more setup or context could have added more satisfaction. I guess many are just wannabe psychopaths looking for any excuse to indulge their darker impulses.

I think about the brilliant simplicity of 2019’s Ready or Not. The movie’s premise is essentially a killer game of hide and seek, already a rather uncomplicated children’s game. But the filmmakers carefully established the rules and stakes, with the family holding to he belief they need to kill the person hiding before sunrise or else they will all die thanks to a generational curse. It’s outlandish but the movie presented all the vital information and then let things rip. In the case of Obstacle Corpse, it’s around the fifty-minute mark before our main characters, the normies, discover the actual deadly stakes of the game, and their response seems a tad… relaxed. Part of this is, as earlier described, the amiable low-stakes charm of the movie, so nobody ever brings too much of a sense of actual reality to the absurd competition and its slapstick violence.

I also wish Obstacle Corpse had coalesced more of a class-conscious political commentary. We are introduced to a wealthy couple who are bankrolling the games under the auspices of live online betting, a concept also explored in many other movies that summarize the villains as bored rich people betting on the lives of the poor (Squid Games, Escape Room, The Hunger Games, etc.). That works, though the script only gives us one or two check-ins with our wealthy couple as they seem more interested in canoodling than keeping up with their own spectacle. Maybe that signifies how blase they are about human life but it felt like a missed opportunity. I kept envisioning a version of Obstacle Corpse that really trained its fire on the callousness of the rich, with the teams each being a boss or CEO and some lackey or intern that they’re stringing along, meaning each competitive couple already has a class distinction. The plot informs us that the veterans know they are inviting their guest to their intended doom, so why not project onto a corporate or wealthy head and their contempt for a lower-class worker they see as literally disposable? Perhaps these fragile wealthy men think they’re so much more capable or threatening than they really are, a concept given some attention through the hyper-macho character of Richard (Brian Spangler) who can’t live up to his overblown expectations. There’s an overinflated sense of toxic masculinity that relates to physical dominance that was worthy of even more deconstruction and criticism. I think this dynamic would have allowed the movie to hone and target its ire with more potent satirical firepower.

Even with some of my misgivings about clarity and untapped thematic potential, Obstacle Corpse is an enjoyable horror comedy for fans. The blood gushes constantly and the gore is impressively grotesque for its minimal budget. There are some impressive shots for a movie 95 percent filmed in the woods. Madden has crafted a movie that works regardless of budget, with its larger-than-life characters and conflicts resulting from a strong and memorable high-concept premise. The emphasis is more on comedy than horror, like the world’s most demented summer camp outing. Given the large cast of characters, the movie always has a new batch of people to jump through, which keeps the movie fresh even when the suspense can slacken because of the comedic emphasis. It’s not a one-joke movie, and the fun of the cast can often be felt, especially the grand ball of a time had by Wolfington. There are things left out I wish had been explored further, but this is a solid start for Madden and her team in the realm of indie genre filmmaking. If you enjoy your comedy with a heaping helping of blood and bad taste, give Obstacle Corpse a chance.

Nate’s Grade: B-

This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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