The Reversal of Gendered Violence at the Start of Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s synth-scored vampire Western Near Dark is, like most 80s horror entries, a strictly style-over-substance affair. A coven of road-weary vampires comb through the quiet roads of the American Southwest for bloody, late night meals, only finding conflict in their internal squabbles over who should be allowed to join them for the hunt. The movie is most memorable for its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, the unhinged alpha male performance from Bill “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” Paxton, and the dive bars, oil rigs, and desolate motels that define its setting. Still, there’s a surprisingly potent moment of tinkered-with gender politics at the film’s beginning that lingers in its atmosphere, informing the surface pleasures that follow. If it weren’t for the opening sequence, the film would play like a romantic tragedy about two star-crossed lovers from irreconcilable worlds, like a vampiric Romeo & Juliet. Instead, it’s a thematically powerful genre film. Near Dark‘s opening is the strongest sequence in a movie that wouldn’t be half as good without it.

A group of tough guy townies greet each other with the masculine ritual of friendly, pantomimed violence, a kind of literal ribbing. As group, they ogle a female stranger who emerges, alone, outside a nearby dive bar. After arguing over which of the young, wannabe cowboys has dibs on approaching her, she’s flirted with by a farmer’s son, who’ll later prove to be our de facto protagonist. Licking ice cream like a child and being stalked like prey by young, sexed-up Western men, we immediately fear for this woman’s well-being. The townie talks her into his pick-up truck, which he uses to drive her to a nearby, isolated horse stable, despite her protests that she wants to go home before dawn. Flirtatiously lassoing her and hiding the truck keys in his pocket, the man is essentially holding this stranger hostage for “a kiss.” He’s in control of the scene and the never-ending history of sexual violence perpetrated against women by a “boys will be boys” rape culture prompt us to expect her to suffer a vicious attack in this moment of blatant vulnerability. Then, when the two strangers do kiss, the gendered power dynamics of their exchange shift. The woman’s vampiric fangs are exposed and it’s the man that’s made vulnerable, an provocative reversal of the dynamic the audience expects.

It’s difficult to say, exactly, how this opening affects the rest of Near Dark. After the strange couple exchanges their initial kiss, the woman shifting into the dominant position for leverage & sinking her vampire teeth into her victim’s neck, their power dynamics essentially remain fixed. The man, now a vampire himself, remains dependent on the woman who turned him, sometimes literally crawling towards her to be hand-fed blood. It’s tempting to read the film as a kind of allegory for sexual trauma after the violence of their initial exchange. The man limps away into the light of dawn and immediately starts smoldering in his contact with sunlight, like a sexual assault survivor left alone the morning after an attack. The trauma of being turned has caused him to fall out with friends & family, with no one to turn to for help except the uneasy camaraderie of fellow vampires. Like with many victims of violence, he’s also dependent on & forgiving of the women who turned him, remaining emotionally attached to his abuser. The strength of the film’s opening sequence is evident in the way its echo touches every exchange that follows, even though it’s only a few brief minutes in a much larger picture.

It’s unlikely that any of those direct, concrete metaphors about sexual assault trauma or domestic abuse were intended to carry on throughout Near Dark‘s runtime. What makes the gender reversal of the violence in its opening sequence so powerful is that it’s handled delicately, without a strict 1:1 metaphor in its vampiric disruption of gendered power dynamics. The breathing room that decision to leave its meaning ambiguous allows is essential to making the film’s following scenes, which are more focused on 80s stylishness, carry much more significance in a cultural, gender politics context. Bigelow appeared as an actor in the 1983 feminist D.I.Y. punk masterpiece Born in Flames. She’s the only female Oscar winner in the Best Director category, with no women even being nominated since her win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Still, when I think of what her work in the Hollywood system signifies in a feminist context, I always think to the beginning of Near Dark. The way the physical language of the film’s opening scene evokes the power dynamics of a highly gendered social interaction between strangers and then flips the exchange on its head to shift power & vulnerability is tense, arresting stuff. What’s even more impressive, though, is how the inversion of that expectation then lingers in the film’s otherwise flashy atmosphere, turning what should be a fairly standard vampire romance into something much more socially & intellectually evocative.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Horrors of Self-Contradiction in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

The 1932 exploitation horror Freaks has always had a reputation for controversy, even losing a third of its original runtime to drastic edits meant to soften its abrasive effect. After the wild success of the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula for Universal, director Tod Browning was given total freedom to jumpstart MGM’s own horror brand in a project of his choice. Urged by little person performer (and future member of The Lollipop Guild) Harry Earles to adapt the Tod Robbins short story “Spurs” for the screen, Browning chose to draw on his own past as a circus performer for a film that ultimately ruined his career. As a historic, pre-Code horror relic, Freaks has a fascinating cultural cache that only improves every passing year. It’s a film that’s just divisive now as it was over eight decades ago, however, largely because it’s divided in its own dual nature. Freaks is both a deeply empathetic call to arms against the social stigmas that surround its disabled “circus freak” performers and a horrifically exploitative “Get a load of these monsters!” sideshow that defeats its own point. Which side of these warring, self-contradicting intents ultimately overpowers the other is a question largely of genre, for which horror might not have been Browning’s wisest option.

As David Lynch later proved with The Elephant Man, it’s entirely possible to tell a heartfelt, empathetic story about real life sideshow performers through a Universal Monsters aesthetic. In the younger, less nimble days of horror cinema, Browning was a lot less confident about the technique. The majority of Freaks is not a horror film at all, but rather a comedic melodrama that happens to be set in the insular community of a traveling circus. With the campy, braying line deliveries of a John Waters production, the little people, conjoined twins, amputees, and microcephalics of Browning’s cast pal around in what’s essentially a hangout comedy. In a typical joke, two men remark on the intersex performer Josephine Joseph, “Don’t get her sore or he’ll punch you in the face,” and then maniacally laugh as if it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. An opening scroll & a carnival barker preface this comedy with a plea for the audience to empathize with its “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs, stressing that they are only human beings whose “lot is truly a heartbreaking one.” As we watch the titular “freaks” live, laugh, and love in the film’s first act, the only detectable trace of horror is in the way they’re treated by able-bodied outsiders. Harry Earles falls for an erotic dancer who plans to marry & poison him in a plot to rob him of his inheritance. She & her strongman secret lover are grotesquely cruel to their “circus freak” co-workers, whom they openly mock for their disabilities. The comedic melodrama of the film’s opening concludes with the two wicked souls making out in front of Earles & laughing in his face on their wedding night. When hiws fello circus performers famously chant, “One of us! One of us! We accept her!” to welcome the new bride into the fold, she shrieks “Freaks!” in their faces and violently rejects the offer, campily revealing who the True Monsters are.

The self-contradiction at the core of Freaks kicks in immediately after that wedding celebration. The film shifts focus from the horrors of social cruelty to the supposed horrors of its disabled cast as they exact revenge on the erotic dancer who is gradually poisoning their “circus freak” brethren. Although Browning’s script makes a point to stress the humanity of his characters in the film’s opening half, he leans in heavily on the exploitation of their physical appearances as “living monstrosities” in the film’s final act. What was once an unconventional hangout comedy with a tragic mean streak reverts to the Universal Monsters model of Browning’s roots, reducing the “freaks” to silent, wordless monsters who stalk their erotic dancer prey from the shadows until it’s time to maim. In a mood-setting rainstorm, the circus performers crawl towards her with knives wedged in their teeth, all of their pre-established humanity now replaced with the supposedly grotesque image they strike as onscreen monsters. It’s arguable that without this conclusion Freaks would not technically qualify as a horror film, but by backsliding into the exploitative nature of horror as a genre, the movie effectively undoes a lot of its argument for empathy. Essentially, if the story Browning truly wanted to tell was that the performers were ordinary people who happened to have abnormal bodies, he should not have told that story through a genre that requires them to be visually shocking monsters.

As a visual achievement, a cultural time capsule, and a one of a kind novelty, Freaks has more than earned its place in the Important Cinema canon, if not only for inspiring the masterful The Elephant Man to accentuate its virtues & undo its faults. As a horror genre entertainment, however, it’s too self-defeating to qualify as a creative success. Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating his disabled circus performers like inhuman monstrosities and then marches them through genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. You could generously argue that societal cruelty & bigotry is what leads the film’s disabled characters to inhuman violence at the climax, but the film concluding on that violence for exploitative effect is too much of a self-contradiction to brush off entirely. Freaks‘s most effective mode of horror is in presenting a moral discomfort in the disconnect between its words & its actions, especially as its story gradually shifts genres while it reaches for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

-Brandon Ledet

Unfriended (2015), Friend Request (2017), and the Value of Committing to Your Gimmick

The recent German horror import Friend Request was always going to suffer unfavorable comparisons to its found footage American predecessor, Unfriended. Not only was the film originally titled Unfriend in its German release, but it also follows a plot about a group of morally flawed teens who are hunted through social media from beyond the grave by the vengeful ghost of a peer they bullied into suicide, just like in Unfriended. Although it generally has been met with shitty reviews and an ocean of eyerolls, I quite enjoyed Friend Request as a modern slice of digital schlock. It’s in so many ways a conventional horror film that just happens to graft itself onto themes of social media-era technophobia, but those are two aesthetics I generally have a fun time with, so the proposition of that formula isn’t such a raw deal for me. The film’s comparisons to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, did the film no favors, however. By stripping Unfriended of its defining found footage gimmick & applying its same story to a more formulaic horror aesthetic, Friend Request illustrates just how silly & ineffective that Blumhouse-produced modern classic could have been if mishandled. You can’t fully appreciate the tonal miracle of Unfriended‘s social media horror achievements until you see the film cheapened by Friend Request, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as committed to their shared gimmick.

The thing I love most about social media horror & thrillers of the 2010s is the way they document the mundane details of what modern communication actually looks like. Unfriended‘s structure as an 80 minute “real time” conversation via Skype, framed from the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop, could not be a more perfect vessel for that kind of internet-age time capsule. An unseen laptop operator clicks from program to program (Facebook, Skype, music players, meme generators, creepypasta forums, Chat Roulette, etc.), simulating the exact experience of communicating in a groupchat circa 2014 (give or take a murderous ghost). Friend Request is much looser in its social media documentation. Before its various kill scenes start bloodying up the screen, the film does pay a lot of attention to what scrolling through a “Facebook” timeline looks like (it’s actually a generic knockoff of Facebook, but the effect is the same). The plot is advanced through timeline-scrolling montage, with attention paid to mundane functions like cover photos, “liking,” “friending,” etc. When the killer Facebook ghost starts tormenting her main victim with video posts of their friends’ suicides, the film also lingers on details like error messages, deleting posts, disabling accounts, etc. The traditional ghost story narrative structure of the film (as opposed to Unfriended‘s found footage structure) prevents it from capturing too much of the 2010s social media zeitgeist past that, though, as only a few stray details can make it to the screen between kills.

Fully committing to the social media gimmick does more to distinguish Unfriended from Friend Request than just in terms of memorable novelty & capturing a cultural time capsule; it also makes for a genuinely eerie movie-watching experience for the audience. Watching a story unfold on a laptop screen feels real to our own experience browsing the internet (whether or not we’re idiot teen bullies who deserve to be murdered by a vengeful ghost). This verisimilitude extends to the frustration of pop-up ads, lagging, and desire to control the mouse cursor ourselves in a way that builds genuine tension between each supernatural kill. Stripped of that gimmick, Friend Request struggles to find ways to make the 2010s social media experience scary. Instead, it looks to generic, haunted house-setting horror movie scares to build that tension, constructing its kills around the mirrors, baby doll parts, woodland settings, and swarming bugs we’ve seen so many times before. Without that tension, the movie’s technophobic scares amount to something much sillier than what the (playful, but effective) kills that Unfriended achieves. When the Facebook ghost is revealed to be employing “demonic” code that transcends our 1’s & 0’s or when the laptops themselves are designated as being evil, dark magic objects that must be destroyed, the film can only be appreciated as a goof. Thankfully, it knows how silly it’s being and makes room for lines like “Unfriend the dead bitch!” in its porn-tier dialogue.

Friend Request isn’t completely devoid of fresh contributions to the social media horror genre. Its criticism of the way we curate the image of our lives & are fake-polite to strangers for attention online isn’t anything new, but I did find some fascinating detail in the way it overlaid images of characters’ faces in their device screens along with their timeline scrolls, as well as the way it made the concept of having absolutely zero friends on an outline platform seem eerie & bizarre. Mostly, though, the film is fun as a campy, internet-age lark and an illustration of just how well-mannered Unfriended‘s own social media horror aesthetic is handled. Unfriended‘s full commitment to its found footage social media gimmick is more impressive in terms of craft, more useful in terms of cultural documentation, and more effective in terms of delivering traditional horror scares through fresh, innovative devices. I can only recommend Friend Request as a delightfully dumb slice of internet age schlock. The more fully-committed Unfriended, on the other hand, is essential viewing, one of the more significant horror canon entries of our time.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Mom (1994)

Mention Serial Mom to a suitably knowledgeable crowd, and you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh yeah, that was his [Waters’s] last…” and then some trailing off. His last great film? His last successful film? Depending upon whom you ask, both are true, or neither. Whatever your thoughts on it, although it’s part of his post-Hairspray mainstream canon, it’s pure John Waters, even if it does sacrifice a great deal of his notable filth (and maybe picks up some cohesion along the way).

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect wife and mother in a squeaky-clean Cleaver-esque family, as noted in the text itself. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Rikki Lake) all dote on her and are doted upon in turn. Everything is a picture of idealized domesticity, except that Beverly is severely mentally ill and holds intense grudges against those she perceives as having slighted her. She acts out relatively harmlessly at first, making obscene phone calls to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, acting against type), but quickly escalating to murder when Chip’s teacher claims at a parent-teacher meeting that he thinks the boy’s interest in horror film is affecting his academic work. Once she crosses that line, she falls down the slippery slope at a rapid pace, snowballing into murdering of Misty’s crush Carl (Lonnie Horsey) for rejecting Misty and bringing another girl (our old friend Traci Lords) to a local swap meet, as well as a various others who are impolite or rude. This leads up to a trial of great spectacle, in which Beverly represents herself and discredits various witnesses and earns the sympathy of the jury, including Patty Hearst (credited as Juror #8), although the films ends on an ambiguous note about the ultimate fate of Beverly (and her family).

As always with Waters, this film is hilarious, with touches of absolute comic genius. Undersung comedian Justin Whalin has a minor role (and a major scene) in the film, and Patricia Dunnock is consistently fantastic as Chip’s (girl?)friend Birdie. There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in this film (that “pussywillow” scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.

After all, isn’t Serial Mom the more palatable version of Female Trouble? Or, more accurately, doesn’t (Female Trouble + Polyester) – Desperate Living = Serial Mom? I’m pretty sure my math is right here. Like Dawn Davenport before her, Beverly Sutphin goes on a killing spree and ultimately stands trial for her crimes. But whereas Dawn got the chair, Beverly, lovable insane Beverly, gets away with her crimes (maybe). Dawn gives a pre-execution monologue like she’s getting an Oscar; Beverly’s story is transformed into a TV miniseries and victims of her crimes are willing to sign away their story rights. Both films are chasing a thesis about the celebrity of crime, but Serial Mom does it through the eye of someone who’s seen twenty years of growing media attention and the resultant dilution of public outrage into ironic (and perhaps unironic) antiheroism, not to mention someone who crossed the Rubicon into the mainstream (for better or worse). What I’m saying is this: you can get Kathleen Turner and America’s Darling (D.A.) Sam Waterston into a movie wherein a man gets stabbed in the back with a fire poker and his liver has to be removed from said implement comically, but not a film in which a chicken is crushed to death by fucking. John Waters couldn’t make Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos in 1994, and maybe that’s a good thing; it gave him the opportunity to tackle a similar concept in two different ways, and although the size of an audience isn’t the sole factor in determining success, it can’t be said that Serial Mom didn’t reach a larger audience. What (if anything) it lost along the way is worth the sacrifice to create a John Waters movie you can (almost) watch with your mom.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Real life is a total bore, which is why most “based on a true story” movies come across as fairly mundane in comparison to revisionist pieces that play fast & loose with the facts. There are few biopics & fact-faithful dramas that can stand up to the entertainment value of Sofia Coppola dressing up Marie Antoinette in Chuck Taylors & Siouxsie and The Banshees or Todd Haynes supposing that Oscar Wilde was a space alien who passed on extraterrestrial queer magic to glam rock gods/lovers “David Bowie” & “Iggy Pop.” These factual liberties always rely on the excuse that they are aiming for a greater macro truth larger in scale than the finer details of reality, but in a more practical sense they also make for better, more interesting art. The early 00s horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire, co-produced by Nic Cage of all people, dives head first into this playful style of historical revisionism in its retelling of the production of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. On one level, the film aims to capture a greater truth about the essence of Nosferatu, particularly that the film’s power lies in the illusion that its monstrous star, Max Schreck, is a real life vampire & a force of Evil, not just a great method actor in harrowing makeup. Mostly, though, the movie uses that conceit as an excuse to have fun with the setting & aesthetic of a silent film shoot, an excellent springboard for horror-themed comedic absurdity.

Besides its irreverent search for entertainment value over realism, Shadow of the Vampire largely excels based on the casting of its leads. Willem Dafoe’s vampiric estimation of Max Schreck & John Malkovich’s perverted/exasperated straight man visionary F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, are excellent foils for each other, so similar in their violently ambitious thirsts that the actors could have too easily swapped roles. Dafoe’s physical comedy as Schreck, particularly in the buffoonish rodent faces he makes between takes, somewhat disrupt his illusion of a dangerous monster by turning him into a horny goofball. Murnau’s fear of & exhaustion with Schreck’s antics, which take vampiric method acting to the point of real life murder & blood-drinking, are hilarious in their participation in a straight man tradition. He struggles in vain to maintain normalcy & complete the shoot despite his star (who may or may not be a “real” vampire) gradually murdering his entire crew. The movie has some fun with real-life Nosferatu lore, especially in the detail that it shamelessly ripped off Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but mostly just has a laugh at the idea of method acting taken to a cartoonish extreme. There’s a pretty clear road map in that line of humor for a movie to make fun of Jared Leto’s behind the scene antics on the set of Suicide Squad, presuming anyone remembers that film in 80 years. Imagine a comedy about DCEU execs wondering in fear if Leto was just a pretentious ass terrorizing his coworkers with dead pigs & used condoms for no reason or if he was a real life murder-clown. Shadow of the Vampire already delivers that kind of meta movie-production humor, one that works especially well whenever Malkovich & Dafoe share the screen.

Even with its irreverent historical revisionism & violent screwball comedy antics, Shadow of the Vampire still impresses with its sense of visual style. With the intertitles, Art Deco stylization, and wood panel cameras of the silent film era, the movie has much classier stage dressing than what would typically accompany comedies this goofy. As an actor who had to survive Shreck’s vampiric thirsts, Eddie Izzard especially has fun with the vaudeville style vamping that defined the performances in most silent pictures. This is especially amusing in juxtaposition with the snootiness of Murnau’s sense of self-importance & the supposed prestige of black & white filmmaking. Shadow of the Vampire also frames this imagery with the drastic Dutch angles & color filters of a comic book movie to match its over-the-top tone, recalling touchstones like Burton’s Batman & Raimi’s Darkman. Unfortunately, this visual energy doesn’t bleed over much to the narrative style. Shadow of the Vampire is structured in a way where Nosferatu is shot in sequence so that the movie & the movie-within-the-movie can run parallel in their progress. It’s a clever structure that pays off well overall, but something feels frustratingly unrushed in the stretches where the production of Nosferatu is halted due to Schreck’s bloodthirsty ways. Whenever the Nosferatu film shoots are derailed, Shadow of the Vampire feels like a kind of hangout film, very much relaxed in delivering its horror & comedy beats. I don’t especially mind hanging out on these silent horror sets in this comic book vision of 1920s Berlin, but it’s rarely a good idea for a comedy to feel this unintentionally labored.

Most importantly, as an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd. The odd thing is that this tone is just as true to the spirit of the original Nosferatu as the suggestion that Max Schreck may have been a “real” vampire. The actor’s 1922 performance is oddly tinged in slapstick humor, including one scene where he carries his own coffin under his arm that would have been considered “too much” if restaged here. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been resurrected as a half creepy/half goofy comedy icon in films like What We Do in the Shadows & Shadow of the Vampire, even if they had to tear apart the truth to get to his essence.

-Brandon Ledet

A Dark Song (2017)

A lot of the reason why we’re experiencing such a rich indie horror boom in recent years is that there’s a concrete methodology to producing a solid, inexpensive horror film that can, in turn, make a tidy, near-guaranteed profit. Small scale horror scenarios confined to cheap, insular locations with intimate, no-name casts are like little assembly line machines with a set-in-stone order to how they can deliver the most immediate effect while keeping overhead in check. What’s so striking about the Irish indie A Dark Song is how this stick-to-the-basics reliance on horror filmmaking method & process is reflected in its own plot. As we watch A Dark Song’s two main players attempt to summon dark spirits in a regimented, by-the-books ritual, it’s easy to see their religious dedication to process & tradition reflected in the production of the film itself, which attempts to summon a dark spirit (and modest profit) of its own through admirably limited means. Indie horror filmmaking is itself a kind of regimented, traditionalist ritual that doesn’t always heed results, but when it works it’s (dark) magic.

A grieving mother turns to a self-taught occultist for help in staging a ritual that will aid in the process of coming to terms with her young son’s death by putting her in contact with literal demons & angels. The pair are locked away from the rest of the world in an old house for months, where they prepare for the Kaballist ritual as if preparing for battle. It’s at first difficult to take the occultist at all seriously as he switches his garb from bucket hats to ceremonial robes, but he apparently has extensive experience & hands-on research related to the task at hand. The mismatched pair purify their bodies by abstaining from food, sex, and alcohol. They draw geometric chalk lines on the floorboards in various rooms and recite prayers meant to “unshackle the house from the rest of the world” &”push off into the void.” There’s an obvious, meticulous method to this regimen, one the occultist enforces like a drill sergeant as he berates the grieving mother/paying customer in violent, overly macho bursts. Of course, his dedication to the rules of the ritual eventually do pay off in a spectacular supernatural breakthrough; there wouldn’t be much of a movie if it didn’t. Still, he often comes across as an abusive ass and the mother only puts up with his self-aggrandizing behavior because she’s as desperate to see the ritual’s result as the audience is.

I felt slightly let down by the climax & fallout of A Dark Song‘s conclusion, but it’s difficult to imagine a payoff for a movie this small-scale that could satisfy what the build-up promises to deliver. What’s odd is that the payoff almost doesn’t even matter, because the build-up of the meticulously-executed ritual is so satisfying in its own right (rite?). In the zeitgeist of modern indie horror this one lands somewhere between the aesthetics of Baskin & I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, yet exceeds both titles in quality & overall effect because of its dedication to small-scale methodology. There’s something psychologically satisfying about watching two insignificant players follow a meticulous recipe for something much bigger than them and then reap the supernaturally outsized rewards for their troubles. I love the way that same dedication to precise regimen can be seen reflected in the filmmaking style that produced it. A Dark Song is a kind of time-tested horror movie alchemy that turns a small scale drama about two broken people alone in a house together into something much larger than its limited means. The movie itself is a kind of dark magic incantation in that way.

-Brandon Ledet

Life (2017)

I know in my heart that it’s reductive to discuss a film solely in terms of genre, but that kind of categorization & attention to tropes is all the mental energy I can really afford the recent sci-fi horror Life. With characters & dialogue that linger with you for about as long as a fart and insipid, free-floating camera work stylization that distracts more than it enhances, Life has little to offer anyone not already on the hook for its basic genre thrills. It’s a decent enough spaceship horror with creature attacks that delight in their novelty & brutality just enough to excuse the waste of space human drama they interrupt. If you’re looking to Life for ambitious, heartfelt cinema you’re going to leave dejected. As a genre exercise, however, it’s a mild success that more or less pulls its own weight.

A spaceship packed with near-future scientists discover the first sign of extraterrestrial life. Initially the size of a microbe, this alien species grows exponentially in dimension, strength, and intelligence throughout the film until it ultimately poses a threat to humanity at large. When the size of a tiny translucent mushroom, the little Baby Genius bastard is strong enough to break every bone in a scientist’s hand. It grows from there to some kind of flying killer starfish to resembling an evil translucent Creech, making this more believable as a Monster Trucks prequel than the Venom prequel it was idiotically rumored to be upon initial release. Nicknamed Calvin, this evil little bugger is the obvious star of the show, as his wet blanket victims have nothing compelling to do or say between his shockingly violent attacks. Ryan Reynolds does his usual “lovable” asshole schtick & Jake Gyllenhaal reprises his stoic blue collar caricature from Southpaw, but for the most part our cosmonauts are a boring wash of measured British whispers, all interchangeable & instantly forgettable. I even had a difficult time differentiating the two female leads despite one of them being played by Noomi Rapace, who I’ve seen in several films before. Calvin was an interesting enough design & enough of a killer brute to hold my attention throughout Life on his own, but it is a shame he didn’t have more interesting people to kill.

As far as Alien retreads go, Life isn’t even the most interesting one to be released this year, not while Michael Fassbender is making out with himself in Alien: Covenant. The one interesting idea the film brings to that formula is in having the idiot scientist who first prods the monster with his finger actually being verbally chastised by his coworkers for acting like an unprofessional fool, when in other examples of the genre they’d all act that way. Beyond that, the film can only deliver thrilling monster attacks & an interesting creature design, unless you think an overly dramatic reading of Goodnight Moon is enough to carry an emotional climax on its own. Luckily for me, I’m already a huge sucker for space horror as a genre and found Calvin both charming & nastily brutal enough for the film to feel worthwhile. It’s reductive to say so, but your own interest level in that genre’s minor chills & thrills will likely dictate your experience with this one as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet

Marjorie Prime (2017)

Originally written for the stage, Marjorie Prime tells the story of multiple generations of the family of Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman with dementia. Her companions over the years range from two separate dogs named Toni-with-an-i, a caretaker who lets her sneak cigarettes (Stephanie Andujar), her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), and a holographic avatar of her late husband Walter (John Hamm), appearing as he did in his younger years. At the start of the film, Marjorie’s “Prime,” the avatar of Walter, is still learning from her. He helps her with his dementia: providing companionship, reminding her to eat, and recounting (and editing when asked) stories of their past together when Marjorie can’t remember. Tess is disturbed by his presence and his appearance, but John convinces her of the program’s value. When Marjorie dies, Tess gets a prime of her own in the form of Marjorie to deal with her grief. And so a cycle is created, one that echoes and ripples into eternity.

This is a deeply somber and introspective film, a poignant meditation on the nature of what we call memory and how we define it as an objective history as well as how, at its core, “memory” is ultimately both fallible and malleable. As Tess points out in the film, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.

If you search for the film online, it’s defined as a drama/mystery, but that’s not entirely accurate. There is a dark family secret that slowly unscrolls and unspools over the course of the movie’s runtime, recounted in different ways by different people (some of whom aren’t people at all), but it’s not a mystery that you want to solve. The characters in the film don’t want to remember, and that affects the viewer as well; once you know the truth, you remember that the urge to expunge is often as powerful as the urge to record, that the desire to remember is counterposed by all the things we wish we could forget.

Marjorie Prime is at turns celebratory and solemn, weaving back and forth through different perspectives and memories that seem at times false and sometimes too real, and occasionally both. The direction is organic, and the audience is drawn into the film naturally, as if you are in the living room with Tess and Marjorie as they discuss Tess’s own daughter, Marjorie’s memory of the night that Walter proposed, or going to get Toni-with-an-i 2 from the pound in “the old Subaru,” and how the more time passed the more Toni 1 and Toni 2 became the same dog in Marjorie’s memories. The deft hand of subtlety is felt throughout, be it in evidence of recurring musical talent among the women in the family (Marjorie the violinist, Tess the pianist, and the unseen blue-haired Reyna and her band), or in the way that the passage of time is reflected by the appearance of new lamps and other furniture, or in the film’s final moments, which have a distinct “There Will Come Soft Rains” vibe. It’s a story that will follow you all the way home and get into bed with you, and you’ll appreciate the companion for as long as it will let you, before it too passes into the unending waves of time that erode away memory as surely as the ocean obliterates footprints in the sand.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond