Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story and The Puppet Asylum: an entwined documentary and short film showcase the talents of a first-time director with Down’s Syndrome

In this documentary-short double bill, we follow the creative successes and struggles of filmmaker Otto Baxter, a 35-year-old man with Down’s Syndrome, as he directs his first project – an autobiographical horror-musical called The Puppet Asylum.

29 August 2023

By Kim Newman

Otto Baxter on the set of The Puppet Asylum in Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story (2023)
Sight and Sound

Otto Baxter admits early in the lively, affecting documentary that is the first half of this double bill that he has been on camera for much of his life. In Otto: Love, Lust and Las Vegas (2009), filmmakers Peter Beard and Bruce Fletcher followed the 21-year-old Otto as he negotiated his first sexual experiences.

A natural clown who expertly plays himself for the camera, Otto – who has Down’s Syndrome – nevertheless has come to the point where he wants to take control of his own narrative – insisting on a sign-off caption which states that viewers should watch his film The Puppet Asylum because “it’s much better than this rubbish documentary.”

Beard and Fletcher’s Otto Baxter: Not A Fucking Horror Story and Baxter’s own The Puppet Asylum are the most entwined feature and short programme since Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Terry Gilliam’s The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983) – in which the main attraction was literally invaded by the supporting short mid-way through the action.

Chris Smith’s American Movie (1999), also about an eccentric filmmaker (Mark Borchardt) struggling to complete a short horror film (Coven), has a memorable turnaround punchline after a mostly comic catalogue of disasters and such absurdities as Borchardt not really knowing how to pronounce the title of his own film. When we see Coven, it’s not an Ed Wood-like botch but an impressive, atmospheric work.

Otto Baxter doesn’t play the same trick, and the revelation that Otto’s film is assured and effective comes as no surprise (cinematographer Lorenzo Levrini gives it a lush, Tim Burtonesque look) – but we similarly have a sense of problems which have to be overcome to get The Puppet Asylum finished, compounded of course by global pandemic. Baxter absolutely qualifies for auteur status thanks to the way he channels autobiography into genre, using horror to raise personal issues which, Beard and Fletcher note, he has never really talked about.

Beyond the making of the film, Otto Baxter sets out the experience allegorised in it: Otto was given up for adoption by his birth mother Alex and raised by the compassionate, dedicated Lucy Baxter. Both women feature in fictional form in The Puppet Asylum (represented by MyAnna Buring and Rebecca Callard), and also in interviews which present them in more nuanced form than the fiction.

Otto is particularly galled that his birth parents never sent him birthday or Christmas cards or presents – a circumstance replayed in the film. However, his fictional avatar is dogged not by neglectful parents but by a monster trickster figure called the Master (Paul Kaye), who might in a certain light be an avatar of the documentarians. The Master captures the devil-horned ‘freak’ Otto and draws sustenance from his magic abilities. In his film, with its grand guignol Victorian setting, Baxter explores his own personal fears (of being institutionalised after Lucy’s death) and fantasies (of using his power for revenge).

A heroic figure, Otto is always self-deprecating, and we glimpse the complicated other lives he lives between sessions on camera; the film mentions that he’s part of a drag troupe, but not that he’s acted professionally on stage and film. He jokes that the only reason he’s made a film is to publicise his new career as a male stripper. Many issues he faces – such as budget drying up mid-shoot – could affect any project, and he even benefits from a cultural shift as funding bodies start to value allowing the disabled to tell their own stories rather than relying on the well-meaning, slightly long-suffering Peter and Bruce.

There are darker moments. Otto has to be gently talked through the minefield of inappropriate behaviour in a post-#MeToo film industry, since he doesn’t quite believe that as director of a film he’s now in a position of power and some of his half-joking flirtatiousness could be construed as harassment. One performer is seen having an intense uncomfortable talk with Lucy in Otto Baxter.

The documentary’s last reel parallels the climax of the short, which breaks the fourth wall to pull back from fiction as narrator Adeel Akhtar argues with Otto the director about where the story is going and is overruled as Otto reinforces his control over the narrative. Here there’s a sense Beard and Fletcher’s roles as the primary tellers of Otto’s story have come to an end – though, like Lucy, they have legal status as his advocates – while the hero of their film prepares to extend his vision with a follow-up film, “a Christmas horror called Satan Claus”. 

 ► Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story and The Puppet Asylum will be screening in cinemas as a double bill from September 1 and will both be available to stream on NOW TV from September 23. 

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