The term “stranger than fiction” gets bandied around so often in reference to documentaries about human subjects that it’s lost all meaning. And besides, fiction isn’t all that strange anymore, is it? Or rather, its become SO strange (Dr. Strange, perhaps) that the collective big budget output of Hollywood resembles nothing so much as stack of very-well-thumbed comic books whose plotlines are as outlandish as they are predictable.
So when I say “Tickled”, a documentary that begins by threatening to explore the world of competitive tickling before pursuing a much more sinister tale of corruption, is “stranger than fiction”, I mean much, much stranger. Maybe this is to the movie’s detriment as much as its credit, because it is difficult to reckon which part of the film is supposed to be its focus. Not on the inherently outré topic of tickling fetishists, an odd but probably mostly harmless fixation for most of those who endure it. Nor does “Tickled” find much to say, ultimately, about the worldwide web of exploitation and abuse of power that it uncovers, except that its, you know, bad.
But that isn’t a criticism, at least not a negative one, because I, for one, was absolutely rapt for the whole length of “Tickled”. Like “Catfish”, “Cropsey”, or “Resurrect Dead”, all films in which the documentary filmmakers pursue some question down the rabbit hole, the fun (if you can call it that) of “Tickled” is in giving yourself over to a slowly blooming dread. And certainly “Tickled” is at its best when it gives you the feeling that you’re being led inexorably towards some horrible revelation, something you’re not sure you want to know, but you’re sure you have to know.
Also like those films, the documentary filmmakers appear on-screen, and like any good noir detective, find themselves inextricably intertwined with the mystery they’re attempting to solve. In fact, our filmmakers made the film under the constant threat of lawsuit, and so their presence in the film is probably forgivable. And the profound strangeness of the “solution” to the film’s “mystery” goes a long way towards making the film’s faults forgivable. One of those faults may be a fault of creation, not exclusive to the film: once the mystery is solved, there’s not much that the filmmakers, or we, can do about it besides gawp at the sheer strangeness, and maybe even evil, of what they’ve found.
I’m trying to tell you how I feel about a film that made me feel very weird, without letting on what happens in the film. I’m not sure I’ve been successful at that. But I do have to make clear that this review should count as a recommendation without reservation. It’s a wild, flawed, utterly arresting piece of research and – whatever its flaws – is as suspenseful, scary and downright, well, strange.