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Dustin Putman

King Cobra  (2016)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3 Stars
(Release Date: February 14, 2017) – Just out of high school, Sean Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) has left behind his San Diego home and single mother (Alicia Silverstone) under the guise of a film production internship. In actuality, he has struck up an online friendship with porn producer Stephen (Christian Slater), the one-man-band mogul behind Cobra Video, and come to shoot a video for him under the name Brent Corrigan. The year is 2006 and, with YouTube still in its infancy, paid internet porn remains a wildly lucrative business. When Brent proves to be a big hit, he agrees to stay on as one of Stephen's star attractions, living with him at his unsuspecting house in the suburbs. After the luster fades and Sean tries to break his contract, it paves the way for blackmail, criminal accusations, and finally far worse once desperate, in-debt porn producer-actor Joe (James Franco) and his top performer/boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen) enter the picture.

Based on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway's true crime book "Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice," "King Cobra" is a riveting behind-the-scenes glimpse at the largely homegrown web-sex industry of the early twenty-first century before unraveling into something altogether darker and more disturbing. Writer-director Justin Kelly has made a tight, frightening, luridly sexy drama, one which follows two sets of characters—Sean/Brent and Stephen, and Joe and Harlow—as fate prepares for their explosive paths to collide. Even if details and occasional names have been altered from the real-life story on which it is based, this telling nonetheless revs with observant, unbiased authenticity and an ongoing aura of portent over where things are headed.

Garrett Clayton (a dead ringer for Zac Efron who, not surprisingly, played Link Larkin in 2016's "Hairspray Live!") is striking as the naïve yet manipulative Sean Lockhart/Brent Corrigan, his youthful charisma and attractiveness making it easy to understand why Stephen (and his thousands of viewers) are instantly taken with him. Christian Slater (2013's "Stranded") is excellent in one of his best recent film roles, bringing empathy, savviness and repression to his middle-aged, one-foot-in-the-closet producer Stephen. James Franco (2016's "Goat") and Keegan Allen (TV's "Pretty Little Liars") sizzle in their scenes as Joe and Harlow, living beyond their means and willing to do whatever necessary to keep afloat. In key supporting turns, Alicia Silverstone (2013's "Ass Backwards") affectingly expresses both maternal love and an understandable sense of confusion and shame as Sean's mother Janette, and Molly Ringwald (2015's "Jem and the Holograms") is largely underused as Stephen's sister Amy.

Accompanied by composer Tim Kvasnosky's pulsing score, "King Cobra" adeptly depicts the equal parts allure and tragedy possible within a sometimes fun, often cutthroat business centered around one goal: getting off its libidinous customers. Director Justin Kelly takes an economical approach to his storytelling, shedding an intimate light on disparate human portraits of passion, greed, madness, regret and redemption. The film understands the moral gray area of their actions and stays within it. None of the players are wholly innocent or irredeemably guilty, and some are capable of doing especially bad things—things they can never take back. "King Cobra" is compelling and erotic, provocative and foreboding, catching the eye and, ultimately, in one's throat.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"King Cobra" has a predominately straightforward, realistic aesthetic, and the Blu-ray's 1080p transfer does a nice job of accurately capturing the intentions of director Justin Kelly and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb. Detail and clarity are consistent and unmistakably of the high-definition persuasion, and moments of more dramatic neon lighting (as in a couple interior car sequences) hold up well without any signs of bleeding or aliasing. Banding pops up early during studio logos, but is unnoticeable in the film proper. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is all about the score and soundtrack, boasting a full, throbbing potency while frequently guiding its characters through the scenes. Dialogue is never less than crystal-clear. Chances for dynamic surrounds are few and far better—there are no explosions or action of which to speak—but the music keeps the back channels satisfyingly active. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also included.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Justin Kelly
  • Outtakes (7:42, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:13, HD)
Bottom Line
Released theatrically by IFC Midnight and distributed on home video in conjunction with Shout! Factory, "King Cobra" is a fascinating, often penetrating true crime drama set in a business that has rarely been explored with this high a profile in narrative cinema. An unsettling story told with an effective mix of wild abandon and thoughtful restraint, the film skirts the line between exploitation and more serious-minded pursuits. It's really quite well done. An insightful filmmaker's commentary track adds additional value to the release. "King Cobra" comes highly recommended on Blu-ray.

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© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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