Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Frenzy (1972)

Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.

The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.

All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.

-Brandon Ledet

Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

The Perfection (2019)

On paper, The Perfection sounds like it should be exactly My Thing. It’s an over-the-top, weirdly horny, queer horror cheapie after all – the kind of heightened trash that clashes cheap made-for-VOD genre sensibilities with an exquisite fine art setting. That’s why it’s so disappointing that I ended up hating the film early & often, practically despising it more for being almost enjoyable yet barely watchable than I would have if it had no potential for greatness. Only outdone by Under the Silver Lake in terms of wasted potential, this is truly one of the biggest letdowns of the cinematic year so far, but I almost feel as if I’m letting myself down by failing to enjoy it. It’s like someone poisoned my catnip.

I can’t get too far into the premise of The Perfection here without ruining its intended payoffs for those who might still enjoy it. The what-the-fuck-is-happening quality of the plot is one of its strongest assets, as long as you aren’t as utterly appalled by its unearned reveals as I ultimately was. It’s at least safe to say that Allison Williams stars as a world-class cellist who returns to the music academy that trained her as a child before her years of seclusion in caring for her sick mother & intensive therapy. The music academy’s director (Steven Weber) is cautiously suspicious of her return but delighted for the opportunity to hear her play with his new star pupil (Logan Browning). Things escalate quickly as the two women’s exquisite musical collaboration transforms into a passionate sexual tryst and then, almost immediately, a complex series of betrayals, revenge, cruelty, and bloodshed. This first act set-up prompts you to question the history, intentions, and mental stability of all the players involved, and the perverse fun of its fallout is in those mysteries being fully, exploitatively exposed. To reveal any more in this review would be a crime I’m not willing to commit, except to say that all of The Perfection’s twisty roads only lead to disappointment.

There’s plenty for me to complain about here. As with the similarly promising-but-disappointing Always Shine, The Perfection immediately hinders itself with gimmicky early-aughts-horror editing tricks – practically begging for audiences’ patience with promises that “Things will get wacky & crazy later! Hold tight!” Besides the artificial jump scares generated purely through those edits, the film repeatedly rewinds scenes of intense violence & betrayal to over-explain what was really going on – when those rewound flashbacks only reveal was already blatant & obvious. Ideally, the film would have just let its trashy premise clash against its pristine High Art setting, as superior films like In Fabric, Grand Piano, and Argento’s Opera have before it. Instead, everything about it comes across as cheap except that it happens to have a cello soundtrack. The film is also never quite as surprising as it believes itself to be, telegraphing many of its shocking Twists long before it rewinds itself to explain what was already obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before – undercutting its own value as a what-the-fuck-is-happening oddity at every turn. Nothing typifies this more than a last-minute wig reveal where a central character yanks off their own wig to expose a smaller, scragglier wig underneath . . . and not much else.

The truth is, through, that I would have readily forgiven all these minor sins against good taste if the third act’s morbid obsession with sexual assault hadn’t been such a letdown. This a violently gory, sensually horny, playfully twisty genre film that touches on Lovecraftian fears of breaking through reality to reach divine, horrible transcendence through beautiful music. I don’t understand, then, what it finds so alluring about the horror canon’smost repugnantly pedestrian go-to for creating tension & conflict for female characters. It’s as unearned as it is boring, frankly. You can’t promise your audience the endless horrors of the great abyss only to deliver the cheapest, laziest form of cinematic violence there is – especially since that violence has a long history of exploitation without justification in the themes of the text.

I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to have a good time with this ludicrous schlock. In fact, I envy anyone who did. I even suspect my distaste for it will cause conflict with other Swampflixers around Best of the Year list-making season, since it’s the exact kind of thing we usually praise around here. Indeed, I even found plenty to enjoy from scene to scene: the psychedelic freak-outs, the gory body horror, the comical over-utilization of split diopter shots, the tension of a world-class cellist summoning all their willpower to not shit themselves on a public bus, etc. I just can’t personally get past how much the film wastes its own potential in its editing, its handling of sexual abuse, and its eagerness to over-explain and then re-explain to the audience what’s already embarrassingly obvious. The fact that it should have easily been one of my favorite films of the year only makes it stand out as one of my most hated, however personal that reaction may be.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/18/19 – 7/24/19

Here are the few movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week and are presumably much, much worthier of your time & money than the goddamn Lion King remake.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

The Art of Self Defense Jesse Eisenberg stars in a Foot Fist Way-reminiscent dark comedy set in a martial arts studio, satirizing Men’s Rights Activists and the general milieu of toxic masculinity. Playing only at AMC Elmwood.

Crawl The killer shark genre has already been revived in recent summertime trash titles like The Shallows & 47 Meters Down, so we’re far past due to bring back an even cooler killer creature from schlocky cinema past: the alligator. There’s no telling whether Crawl will stack up to killer-gator classics like Alligator & Alligator People, but our trashy, swamp-dwelling asses are excited no matter what.

Wild Rose – Irish pop singer Jessie Buckley follows up her excellent performance in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast with a critically lauded film about an aspiring country musician from Scotland. Features songwriting contributions from Mary Steenburgen of all people, who claims to have woken up from an arm surgery with the uncanny ability to write country hits. Playing only at AMC Elmwood.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

The Last Black Man in San Francisco – One of the best movies of the summer is a bizarro Sundance drama about gentrification & friendship. A wildly inventive directorial debut that filters anxiety & anger over housing inequality through classic stage play Existentialism & Surrealism touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Playing only at The Broad Theater.

Midsommar Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is yet another lengthy, morbidly funny meditation on grief, but this time wrapped around the folk horror template established by The Wicker Man. It’s a divinely fucked up melodrama about empathy, gaslighting, breakups, and finding your flock – whether they be academia bros or bloodthirsty cultists.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) – A brilliant coming-of-age queer teen comedy that filters the abusive horrors of gay conversion “therapy” through a 90s John Waters aesthetic while somehow maintaining a sweetness & empathy that combination should not allow. Easily one of the greatest films of all time, fresh off its 20th  anniversary. Screening free to the public (with donations encouraged) Wednesday 7/24 at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Granny (2019)

Between the releases of Greta & Ma in recent months, it seems as if the psychobiddy genre might be making a quiet comeback in American movie theaters. It’s arguable, though, that the genre has been alive & well on our television sets for decades even without this theatrical-release revival, thanks to the melodramatic schlock regularly churned out on the Lifetime network. While the trope of once-respectable grande dames losing their minds & becoming crazed killers used to function as late-career revivals for aging stars as high on the food chain as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland, it’s since trickled down into made-for-cable schlock on Lifetime for sorta half-famous stars from long-forgotten soap operas & B-pictures. Few Lifetime Original Movies are as blatant about their participation in this hagsploitation tradition as Psycho Granny, which sidesteps the usual Lifetime method of hiding its exploitation cinema intentions behind titles like Wife, Mother, Murderer, by essentially just naming itself after the top Google result for “psycho biddy synonym.” Originally pitched under alternate titles like Lineage of Lies & Granny’s Home, Psycho Granny’s shamelessly honest moniker is a decisive affirmation that Lifetime has been keeping this sleazy tradition alive even in the decades when major studios have been slacking. And, just to drive the point home, it was aired as a double feature with another Lifetime Original titled Killer Grandma.

Just because Lifetime makes psychobiddy cheapies the most often doesn’t mean they make them best, though. At least, I don’t think you’ll find anything in Psycho Granny that wasn’t done to greater delight in Greta or Ma. Instead of world-class acting giants like Isabelle Huppert & Octavia Spencer slumming it in delirious genre trash unworthy of their talents, we’re treated to a typifying performance from Robin Riker, most “famous” for starring in the (badass, but underseen) creature feature relic Alligator nearly 40 year ago. Psycho Granny opens with its best scene, a camp tableau in which Riker toasts/berates the dead bodies of her “family” members arranged about the dining room table, all recently poisoned by her traditional, grandmotherly turkey dinner. The rest of the picture is standard Lifetime Movie fare: a trashy, low-energy thriller in which Riker’s delusional “grandmother” character elbows her way into a young, pregnant couple’s lives – convincing them that she’s actually family and not a sociopathic killer. Like in Ma, she scrapbooks relics from her crimes in a menacing tone. Like in Greta, the humor and the horror of the scenario derive from the moments when she drops her helpless-old-woman facade to reveal the monster underneath – usually in Gollum/Sméagol-style arguments with herself in the rearview mirror of her car. The effect of these common touches just comes across a little dulled here, as if they were business as usual for the Lifetime Original Movie format, not wild, delirious transgressions from actors who should know better.

Psycho Granny is mildly fun & incredibly sleazy in the way all Lifetime movies are. There are some delightfully absurdist details in Riker’s behavior (including a weird fixation on her newest granddaughter-victim’s toilet flushing habits) and an occasional line like “I would kill for a glass of Pinot right now!” that stand out as primo Lifetime fodder. The move also hits its most ideal strides once Riker starts killing again in the third act – disposing of her victims in specifically grandmotherly ways: strangling busybodies with the hanging tennis ball chord in the garage and bashing skulls in with whistling teapots. Where the movie really shines, though, is in having Riker’s “No more wire hangers!” trigger be Millennials sending too much time on their phones. The film is obsessed with young husbands & mothers being distracted from quality family time by “burying their faces in their phones,” so that when Riker chastises their smartphone addictions, she’s playing directly into the generational resentments of Lifetime’s aging, judgmental audience. It’s a detail that recalls not only the wire-hangers trigger from Mommie Dearest, but also the wearing-white-after-Labor-Day kill from Serial Mom and the chicken-beheading mania of (possibly the greatest psychobiddy of all time) Strait-Jacket, which I mean as the highest compliment. The film never threatens to match the heightened fever-pitch camp of those pinnacles of the genre, but it does help connect the dots between traditional psychobiddy tropes and the usual goings-on of the Lifetime network.

The only inkling I had that Psycho Granny may have achieved more than the usual Lifetime standard is that it was directed by Rebekah McKendry, co-host of the excellent Blumhouse horror podcast Shock Waves. McKendry promoted the film as a “darkly comedic thriller” on her own social media, and the opening turkey dinner tableau hints at that subversive impulse. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly standard Lifetime movie about an aging, smartphone-hating woman who’s gone headfirst off the deep end. Which is to say that it’s a three-star campy pleasure in the age-old psychobiddy tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Child’s Play (2019)

I honestly have no idea why Orion Pictures bothered slapping the Child’s Play brand name on this evil-doll horror comedy, beyond the easy box office returns of its name recognition and the fact that its parent company, MGM, owned the rights. With a quick redesign of the killer Chucky doll and a few nodding references to the original franchise removed, Child’s Play (2019) could easily transform from a deviant remake of a beloved genre relic into an entirely new evil-doll franchise of its own design. Protective, enthusiastic fans of the original Don Mancini series have been cautions to support this corporate retooling of the director’s work, since he’s built a long-running series of passionate, campy, queer horror novelties out of the bizarro slasher premise for decades (with Brad Dourif in tow as the voice of the killer doll for the entire run). I can see how outside voices dialing the Chucky brand back to its origins for a franchise-resetting remake could feel like a betrayal to longtime superfans (especially since series steward Mancini is still making films & television shows featuring Dourif’s version of Chucky to this day). For casual fans like me, however, this MGM-sponsored blasphemy is an exciting development in Chucky lore. This is the exact right way to pull off a worthwhile remake: return to the original germ of an idea, strip away everything else, and then build something so new around it that it’s hardly recognizable. The 2019 Child’s Play remake would have been much more upsetting to me if it were a mindless, risk-adverse retread of what Mancini had already accomplished. Thankfully, it’s instead entirely its own thing separate from Mancini’s work, the ideal template for a decades-later revision.

While the 2019 Child’s Play is a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. In addition to borrowing the Child’s Play brand name, this film also makes direct references to other titles in that exact inappropriate-kids’-horror-canon: The Texas Chain Massacre II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, RoboCop, etc. In that way, it reminds me more of what Charles Band accomplished with Full Moon Entertainment (which is overflowing with straight-to-VHS titles about killer dolls) than it does Mancini’s work under the Chucky brand. Like most of the Full Moon catalog, Child’s Play ’19 is a violent, R-Rated horror film that perversely feels like it was intended for an audience of children, which will have to sneak their way into a movie theater (or access to unsupervised late-night streaming) to enjoy it. That’s why I was bummed to see so few pro critics & Letterboxd mutuals have a good time with this over-the-top shlock. It’s so blatant about its efforts to tap back into the goofy, childlike imagination of the straight-to-VHS nasties of yesteryear that it even makes fun of the inane “That would never happen!” complaint that’s frequently lobbed at these things in the 2010s (during a slumber party screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II). I was saddened, then, to see real-life movie nerds critique the film for being silly & illogical as if those weren’t its selling points. As a collective audience, we could all benefit from lightening up & going with the flow instead of straining to “outsmart” the exact kind of genre candy we used to enjoy back when we had an imagination. It’s fucked up to say so, but I hope the right kids find this film at an inappropriate age, just like how I found titles like The Dentist & The Lady in White too young in my own day.

Mark Hamill takes over the vocal booth duties from Bard Dourif in this iteration, performing Chucky as a more of a Teddy Ruxpin cutie gone haywire than a misogynist murderer on bender. That’s because the remake drops the original film’s premise of a serial killer installing their own damned soul into a doll’s body via a mysterious Voodoo ritual in favor of something more “modern”: my beloved The Internet Is Trying To Kill Us horror subgenre. Newcomer director Lars Klevberg updates Chucky to the 2010s by giving him a Luddutian makeover as a malfunctioning piece of future-tech. The killer doll isn’t Evil, necessarily. Rather, he’s a symptom of what goes wrong when we automate too much of our daily lives, submitting our autonomy to computers in exchange for comfort. The Buddi doll is now a home appliance connected to every other automated tech in your house: lights, thermostats, self-driving cab services, home-use surveillance drones, The Cloud etc. When one of these dolls inevitably goes haywire through faulty programming, these conveniences now become an arsenal to dispose of humans who dare get in the way of his friendship with this “best buddy” (the child who owns him). Chucky himself has become a real-life horror of technology as well, as the animatronic puppet used in the film has been smoothed out into a distinct Uncanny Valley look that’s frequently bolstered with cheap CGI – meaning he’s often creepy though the limitations of his animation as much as anything else. It’s up to a ragtag group of neighborhood tykes to stop the doll before he causes too much havoc with all this future-tech, as the adults in their lives don’t believe something so innocent-looking & benign as a Buddi doll could possibly be responsible for the community’s murders. Similarly, it’s up to the kids in the audience (who really shouldn’t be there, the scamps) to preserve this deeply silly film’s legacy, since adults’ lack of imagination is failing them in real life too.

It would be easy to confuse the new Child’s Play for one of those standard modern-era remakes of 80s horror classics that mistake an origin story for the killer and a more generally self-serious, muted tone as an “improvement” in revision. This is a major studio production after all, one with recognizable faces like Aubrey Plaza & Brian Tyree Henry lurking in the cast. I was delighted to discover, then, that it’s something much stranger & more unapologetically goofy than that: a film that’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place. There may be some 2010s-specific updates to the material in the technophobia of Chucky’s design and the Adult Swim-type glitch edits & meme humor that accompanies it, but otherwise this feels like a perfect 80s horror throwback. It recalls the over-the-top delirium of basic cable & VHS horror from the era, while also exceeding as an entirely new, silly thing of its own design. It’s damn fun, an it’s a damn shame how few people have remembered how to have fun with ludicrous genre films of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death Kiss (1932)

Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Dracula a year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.

Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.

Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

-Brandon Ledet