Wild, weird documentaries are easy to come by these days; just poke around Netflix for a while and you’ll run into a bevy of them within a matter of moments (there’s one about a pelican on a bridge that’s a doozy). Few, however, are as bizarre and absurdly riveting as Tickled, a well-made journalism doc that investigates a network of underground tickling competitions. It’s an ostensibly giggle-inducing idea, but what’s found upon viewing is a hidden world so unsettling, corrupt and dangerous it’ll give you nightmares about personal violation and abuse that goes far deeper than a few pokes to the belly.
Our guide is New Zealand entertainment journalist and reporter David Farrier, who prefaces the film by saying he’s “made a career of looking at the weird and bizarre side of life.” Whatever oddities he’s seen in his line of work (he covers Hollywood and attends red carpets regularly, so he’s probably seen his fair share), nothing can compare to the strangeness he uncovered when he decided to investigate a video link titled “Competitive Endurance Tickling.”
What he saw was certifiably bonkers: The competitors were all young, fit, model-material males who strapped each other to gym mats and used their fingers to make their muscly counterparts squeal. It’s one hundred percent as creepy as it sounds – a PG porno that piqued Farrier’s curiosity immediately. Shortly after he launched an investigation on the video and its production company (Jane O’Brien Media), he and his associates were slammed with a deluge of legal and personal threats.
Following a simple interview inquiry, he was denied in a startlingly cruel fashion (a Jane O’Brien Media employee called him a “faggot” in one of the initial emails and stated that the company would not embrace “association with a homosexual journalist”). It’s scary business for sure, but Ferrier and his colleague Dylan Reeve decided that instead of leaving the story be, they’d fly to America from Auckland, continue to uncover the truth behind the viral tickling videos, and confront the people behind all of the hateful threats.
There are no laughs from this point forward, but to go into full detail about what transpires stateside would only ruin the experience. What the intrepid filmmakers find is a labyrinth of dark obsessions, shattered dreams, sinister conspiracies and desecration of the dead. Who is Jane O’Brien, really? Why did these young men agree to partake in such curious acts on camera? What would compel someone to spend inordinate amounts of money making tickling videos and spitting a seemingly endless stream of cease-and-desist venom at anyone who looks into their seedy, secretive business? The plot only gets uglier as it goes, but Ferrier keeps pushing, going to great lengths to take down the mastermind behind a worldwide operation of true, unadulterated evil.
Those going into Tickled expecting a quirky subculture doc will likely be shocked and appalled by the seriousness and severity of what the film has to offer, but preconceived notions be damned, this is one of the most mesmerizing docs I’ve seen in recent memory. A lot of that has to do with Ferrier’s fearlessness; some of the tensest, most frightening moments will have you writhing in anticipation and contempt, but he keeps his cool under pressure and isn’t afraid to ask people hard questions face to face. His interview style is one of the “good cop” variety, designed to disarm his subjects enough to get them to cough up real dirt without them noticing how aggressive his questions actually are behind his soft-spoken, straightforward delivery. He’s a sweet guy, but man, has he got balls.
Tickled is designed to feel like we’re discovering the sick truths behind Jane O’Brien Media alongside Ferrier and Reeve, and for the most part, it achieves this feeling – though the revelations are presented in a much more linear fashion than the filmmakers’ real-life investigation likely would have unfolded, which slightly disrupts the spontaneity of it all. A more fluid narrative approach would have been welcome, but what’s here is nonetheless engaging, horrifying and more disturbing than any popcorn horror flick you’ll see this year (on many levels). Stranger than fiction? Definitely. Better than fiction, too.
Chilling and inexplicably fascinating, Tickled is a looping left hook of a documentary; it'll knock you out, and you won't know what hit you.