You'd think that any film that kicked off in the world of fetish tickling videos would be content to stick with its colorful subject. But Tickled, a head-spinning documentary that begins on the fringes of that strange scene—with hunky young guys being held down by other hunky young guys to have their nipples flicked and their feet feathered—is just getting started. In peeling back the layers of its bizarre story, the picture grows dark, and then much darker, and more and more disturbing. Among several other things, this is a mini-master class in investigative journalism, in an era that no longer prizes that costly undertaking.
David Farrier, the movie's co-director, is an unlikely hard-news hound. In his native Auckland, New Zealand, Farrier is a cheery "lifestyle" TV reporter, a toiler in the trenches of froth, chatting up the guy who eats live frogs or the woman who calls herself "the donkey lady." Human oddity is his beat, and he's always alert to its latest manifestations.
One day, clicking around the Internet, he comes upon a video devoted to "Competitive Endurance Tickling." Farrier is engrossed. The production company—an outfit called Jane O'Brien Media—is soliciting headshots from "young athletes" aged 18 to 24 to take part in the company's monthly tickling events in Los Angeles. Those selected to compete will be flown in free from anywhere in the world, put up in a fancy hotel, and given $1500 in cash.
Farrier feels a story coming on. He emails Jane O'Brien Media, requesting an interview. The response is startlingly harsh. Someone has clearly researched Farrier, and learned that he is openly gay. An O'Brien communiqué says that the company's tickling competitions are "passionately and exclusively heterosexual," and that any "association with a homosexual journalist is not something we will embrace." She also calls Farrier "a little gay kiwi" and, to be entirely clear, a "faggot."
Now Farrier is really interested. He brings in his friend Dylan Reeve, an Internet savant with a TV background of his own. Reeve discovers that Jane O'Brien's site is owned by a German company that maintains 300 other tickling domains. He and Dylan begin blogging about all this, and soon receive a letter from a New York lawyer threatening a lawsuit unless they stop poking around in Jane O'Brien's business. The company next dispatches three men to Auckland to make this point in person. These emissaries are not happy to find Farrier waiting to greet them at the airport with a cameraman in tow (he is now shooting this documentary, with Reeve as his co-director). "We're not gonna have a good time if you do this," one of the men says, rather menacingly. Farrier is warned that "there's a lot of money" behind the O'Brien operation, and that he should be sure that "whatever you plan to do is gonna be worth the trouble that this person is gonna put you through."
Now the film takes off in a wholly unexpected direction. Working with Kickstarter funds (and later a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission), Farrier and Reeve and their shooter, Dominic Fryer, fly to L.A. for the next O'Brien tickling competition, which they've learned is being held at a downtown video studio. Bluntly rebuffed at the door, they instead locate a former tickling contestant, a young man called J.T., who recounts how the O'Brien company put what he thought were his audition tapes up on YouTube without his permission. When he objected, J.T. says, the company did everything it could to try to ruin his life. ("Your family better watch out….")
Next, Farrier and company fly to Orlando to visit a man named Richard Ivey, who runs his own tickling-video company. Ivey explains that tickling is a sort of bondage-lite—it's all about dominance and excruciation. Ivey recalls that many years ago he made an online connection with a woman named Terri Tickle, who was posting her own all-boy videos on the Internet. This leads us to a low-level Hollywood casting director named Davis Starr, who went to work for Terri Tickle back in the late '90s. Starr eventually became disgusted with Terri's cruel exploitation of her video subjects, and he quit. In response, Terri sent out incredibly abusive messages to people he knew—and even his mother—describing him as a "hairy, horny and hook-nosed homosexual pornographer." Farrier is startled—Terri Tickle, who has since vanished, sounds an awful lot like Jane O'Brien.
But who are these people, really? No one has ever met Jane or Terri face to face. And what about that German tickle-video empire? With legal threats piling up, Farrier and Reeve persist, using classic investigative methods: exhaustive research, endless phone calls, extensive travel, and a bold willingness to confront sometimes obstreperous players on-camera. In the end, they finally penetrate to the heart of this twisted mystery, confronting an individual so unsavory, one recoils in disbelief.
Farrier continues to be harried by lawsuits (the latest papers were served at a documentary festival in Missouri last March). But he's never backed down, and Magnolia Pictures and HBO, the distributors of his film, have been equally steadfast. We can be grateful for that. Tickled—a combination detective thriller, horror story, and exercise in raw social observation—is a stunning piece of work. Despite its jocular title, the movie is no laughing matter.