Elizabeth Harvest (2018)

In the age-old folktale of Bluebeard, a well-to-do monster of a man gets into the habit of marrying women only to murder them once they disobey his one rule: do not look behind the forbidden door in his castle. Once his current wife gives into her curiosity and opens the door, she finds that what lies behind it is the corpses of his former wives. Sebastian Gutierrez’s most recent film, Elizabeth Harvest, is essentially the Bluebeard fairytale, but instead of the corpses if multiple dead wives, the room is filled with clones of one wife. It’s just as crazy as it sounds.

Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a seemingly innocent scientist, brings his new bride, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), to his huge, mysterious, and obnoxiously clean home in the middle of the woods. The house is a mix of the glass house in the movie The Glass House and the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so it was both fascinating and terrifying. There are two caretakers in the home: Claire (Carla Gugino), a mysterious, quiet woman with an obvious connection to Henry, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a young, blind man that mostly keeps to himself. The two add to the unwelcome feeling of the already spooky setting. As in the Bluebeard tale, Henry gives Elizabeth free reign of the home and all the luxuries that comes with it, but she is forbidden from entering one room. While Henry is away, Elizabeth enters the forbidden room only to find pods with clones of herself. Once Henry discovers what Elizabeth has done, the film shifts away from Bluebeard and becomes something entirely different.

Gutierrez throws in some impressive visual effects at all the right moments. There are a couple of scenes with split screens that focus on what different characters are doing in different parts of the home during highly intense moments, which I absolutely loved. There’s also lots of bold color and high fashion throughout the film, especially with Elizabeth. She has vibrant red hair, piercing blue eyes, and wears lots of haute couture. Watching her walk through different rooms in the home was like flipping through the pages of Vogue for a “Sci-Fi Meets High Fashion” issue. The film comes very close to being one of those style over substance works, but the uniqueness and intensity of the plot keeps it balanced.

Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.

-Britnee Lombas

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They’re Coming to Get You! (1972)

As this October continues to materialize, it appears that this is going to be the Halloween of Bad Cuts for yours truly, following the recent screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena that I recently attended, plus the badly mangled VHS release of Mario Bava’s A Hatchet for the Honeymoon that recently found its way into my possession. The most recently discovered victim is Sergio Martino’s Tutti i colori del buio (All the Colors of the Dark), which was released to the English-speaking world as both Day of the Maniac and They’re Coming to Get You!, the latter of which is the cut to which I was subjected.

Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) is a woman suffering from a series of intense visions, apparently as a result of the trauma of miscarrying her child when live-in boyfriend Richard (George Hilton), a pharmaceutical rep, was at the wheel during a car crash the previous year. He insists that she keep taking her mysterious vitamins and that these will help to allay her hallucinations. Jane’s sister Barbara (Susan Scott) feels that Jane would benefit from a visit with her employer, psychologist Dr. Burton (George Rigaud), but Richard doesn’t believe in therapy and forbids Jane from going. Meanwhile, Jane also meets her new neighbor Mary (Marina Malfatti), who convinces Jane to join her at a “Sabbat,” promising that participating in the ritual helped her when she had similar problems. Jane’s visions primarily revolve around a man with preternaturally blue eyes (Ivan Rassimov) stabbing a woman to death, until she starts to see him in the real world: following her onto the metro, sitting in Dr. Burton’s waiting room, and standing outside her apartment complex. Finally, she also agrees to participate in the Sabbat, which turns out to be a Black Mass in which she is given a goblet of dog’s blood to drink by the dark priest (J.P. McBrian).

This description makes the film seem much more linear and consistent than it is, and perhaps the original film makes sense. What follows is completely discombobulated. The apparent Satanists attempt to convince Jane that she must kill Mary, and then show her Mary’s body, claiming that Jane followed through. Dr. Burton convinces Jane to spend the evening at his country house, where she will be safe from the Satanists, but she arises the next morning to find the caretaker and his wife murdered, only for Dr. Burton to return and be murdered as well before Jane is saved by Richard. Richard and Barbara seem to have some kind of past relationship, and he also makes eye contact with Mary early in the film while being observed by Jane, implying that he is somehow involved in her machinations, but nothing comes of this in the cut that I viewed; in fact, the They’re Coming to Get You! version ends with Jane finding the dead body of Richard in their apartment’s stairwell and then being discovered by another neighbor, who assumes that Jane killed him. Did she? Even for a giallo, this is a notably incomprehensible film.

According to a comparison between different versions that I was able to find online, the complete film establishes more connections between characters, and has a narrative that extends for another six minutes beyond the sudden conclusion of the They’re Coming to Get You! cut. Notably, the Satanists are actually drug dealers, and Barbara may be involved with them. I can’t speak to that version’s competency, but I can say that this cut should be avoided, if possible. Track down a complete version; that’s what I intend to do.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

When The Pit Got Bigger, So Did Its Scares

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Britnee mentioned that the film’s premise stoked her déjà vu of another 80s horror gem she had seen in her teens: The Gate. At the time I had never heard of The Gate, but catching up with it since I totally understand the confusion. A Canadian horror oddity about children releasing demons from a hole in their backyard, The Gate shares many basic attributes with The Pit’s DNA. At first glance, it almost seems like a more conventional take on the exact same material. While The Pit follows an oversexed, vengeful monster child who terrorizes his own community like a prurient Rhoda Penmark, with the pit-dwelling troglodytes he releases serving as his flesh-eating pets, The Gate echoes a more traditional dynamic where innocent children face supernatural dangers through no real fault of their own. The hole-dwelling demons of The Gate are described as “minions,” but they’re minions of The Devil, not the children who unwittingly release them. The Pit also boasts a grimy, microbudget quality that finds its scares in emotional & sexual discomfort, recalling other small-budget creepouts like The Baby or Pin, while The Gate is much more reliant on the physical scares of special effects work – depicting its demonic threats through traditional means like rubber monster costumes, forced perceptive photography, and stop motion animation. While The Gate blows up The Pit’s basic aesthetic to a grander, more traditional stage, however, it maintains the earlier film’s basic strangeness & willingness to throw as may varied, plentiful scares at the screen as it can manage in its 80min runtime. If anything, the increase in budget & ability to produce literal, physical dangers in the same childish headspace as The Pit only makes The Gate more terrifying.

Writer Michael Nankin explained that he constructed The Gate around “the nastiest thoughts from [his] childhood,” a tone that’s nailed perfectly in the final product. By its overwhelming finale, the film feels like a sky-high pile of varied demonic monstrosities, but each scare is generated from the detailed-fixated nightmare logic of any & all childhood anxieties. The premise is simple: two young friends discover a hole in a suburban backyard and unwittingly perform a Satanic ritual that transforms it into a gate to Hell. While being babysat on a parents-free weekend, they’re forced to contend with a wide range of hideous beasts & impossible supernatural oddities that emerge from the hole until they seal the gate with another ritual. Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control. It’s a far cry from the telepathic teddy bear & rubber monster suits simplicity of The Pit, but the same loopy adherence to nightmare logic & willingness to escalate the extent of the threat on an exponential trajectory remains.

I’d be curious to know if The Pit was a direct influence on The Gate, which seems likely given their release dates, Canuxploitation origins, and childlike fascination with hole-dwelling monsters. It’s possible that this is a case of parallel thinking, where two 1980s filmmakers tried to recreate what inspired their worst nightmares as children and used the same starting point (a backyard hole) as their initial writing prompt. The better-funded special effects work of The Gate pushed that premise to its scariest extreme, but both films tap into the darkest corners of childhood anxiety in their own impressive, respective ways. As Britnee stated when she first compared the two: “I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.” I imagine there are entire subcults of children who were traumatized by catching either title (or both!) on late-night cable at just the right age. These are the kinds of uneasy horror films that look & feel like they were made for children . . . until they very much don’t. The Pit subverts its children’s media aesthetic by tapping into menacing sexual discomfort. The Gate goes for much more traditional, physical scares in its own depictions of hole-dwelling Evil, but its nightmare logic & gleeful sense of cruelty leads to even bigger scares than what’s lurking in The Pit. I’m not sure what was going on in 1980s Canadian holes that inspired these two terrifying oddities, but I’m grateful that it was immortalized onscreen. I just wish I had seen both films at the age when they really would have burrowed into my subconscious, when I would have been too young to fully comprehend why they’re terrifying, but just the right age to share their sensibilities.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Apostle (2018)

Netflix has been cranking out phenomenal original horror series and movies this year, most notably The Ritual, which is easily one of the greatest horror films to come out in 2018. Just this past Friday, Netflix also released the period horror film Apostle just in time for Halloween, and it did not disappoint. The first half of Apostle is very tame and mysterious, and the latter half spirals into blood-soaked insanity. I absolutely loved it.

It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), is on a mission to save his sister from a pagan cult that kidnapped her for ransom. He travels to a remote island populated only by cult members and goes incognito as a follower. The cult elements in Apostle are a slight nod to The Wicker Man, as the cult members are seemingly average folk inhabiting an isolated island, but the cult in question is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a horror movie. They worship a Goddess that inhabits the island, and they essentially keep her prisoner and feed her human blood to give her enough energy to produce crops from the islands tainted soil. The cult leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), discovered her and claims to be her prophet, and just like any narcissistic douchebag that gets a taste of power, he starts to lose his grip on reality. Everything essentially goes to hell in a handbasket when Prophet Malcolm is overthrown by a psychotic cult member, and Thomas is caught up in the brutal carnage while trying to get his sister off of the crazy cult island.

What I loved most about Apostle, other than the badass bloodthirsty Goddess, is that there is a tragic Romeo and Juliet type love story between two young cult members in the midst of all the madness. Honestly, Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to what happens to these two. There’s just something about forbidden love within a cult that really holds my attention.

Apostle is visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a “cult” classic.

-Britnee Lombas

Movies Screening in New Orleans This Week 10/18/18 – 10/25/18

There’s a wonderful overlap of goings-on in the city this week, as New Orleans Film Fest is descending upon us just as we approach Halloween. There are hundreds of titles screening all over the city for NOFF and we plan to cover at least a dozen or so of all types and shapes and genres for the site in the coming weeks. For the purposes of keeping our weekly Now Playing feature spooky all October, I’m only going to highlight a few horror-related NOFF titles here, so you can work the festival into your regular Halloween-season movie binging. Happy hauntings!

Spooky Movies Screening at New Orleans Film Fest

Pig Film A vision of a post-Apocalyptic hellscape that accentuates its microbudget production values with Eraserhead-quality industrial grime, set on a rust-coated hog farm. Of the few Halloween-adjacent selections I found in NOFF’s lineup, this one appears to fall closest to pure horror. Pig Film is screening (for free!) in its US Premiere at the The Advocate’s headquarters Sunday 10/21, 4:15pm, and at the Contemporary Arts Center Tuesday 10/23, 3:45pm.

Empty Metal Another psychedelic dystopian nightmare, this time about a punk band that gets recruited by a violent, revolutionary militia of gun-toting weirdos. Early descriptions of the film position its aesthetic somewhere between Green Room & Born in Flames, a combo that easily has me on the hook. Empty Metal is screening at The Advocate’s Headquarters Saturday 10/20, 8:30pm, and Tuesday 10/23, 3:45 pm.

Chained for Life This one’s inclusion is a bit of a cheat, as it’s clearly a drama, not a horror film. However, it’s a drama that’s reported to explore the way horror cinema has historically exploited & objectified disabled & disfigured performers on the screen, with particular connections to Under the Skin and Tod Browning’s Freaks (even borrowing its title from a thriller starring Freaks-standouts The Hilton Sisters). Chained for Life is screening (for free!) at the Contemporary Arts Center Thursday 10/18, 3:00pm, and at The Advocate’s headquarters Sunday 10/21, 9:00pm.

The “Late Night” Shorts Program I’m going to try my best to attend more short-film programs this year, as it’s a branch of the film fest experience I usually miss out on. The “Late Night” Shorts program seems to lean closer to Halloween-adjacent content more than most of the other packages, including films about nervous breakdowns, murderous cheerleaders, unicorn-eating dinosaurs, and zombie-like gentrification invasions. The “Late Night” Shorts are screening at the Contemporary Arts Center 10/19, 9:00pm, and at The Advocate’s headquarters Tuesday 10/23, 8:15pm.

Spooky Movies Screening Elsewhere

Halloween (2018) – 40 years (!!!!) after the John Carpenter original helped Shape the early stirrings of the slasher genre, this timeline-resetting sequel promises to return the series back to its grounded, horrifying roots. The early buzz is strong, the creative team (fronted by David Gordon Green & Danny McBride, of all people) seems genuinely passionate, Jamie Lee Curtis is back to afford it legitimacy, and it’s the exact right time of the year to see this kind of thing big & loud with a first-weekend crowd. Hell yeah.

Venom A C-grade superhero movie that treads water for at least a half-hour, then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy with an outright Nic Cagian lead performance from Tom Hardy. Venom is a less satirically pointed, big-budget version of Upgrade or a modernized Henenlotter, but its highs are also much funnier (and surprisingly queerer) than either of those reference points. It’s a lot of fun if you maintain your patience through the first act.

Bad Times at the El Royale Six whole years ago, Drew Goddard’s debut feature Cabin in the Woods brought the meta-horror of Wes Craven works like New Nightmare & Scream to a new level of comedic what-the-fuckery. His only credits as a director since have been a couple (excellent) episodes of The Good Place, so this twisty, star-studded neo-noir follow-up feature is much-anticipated (and is supported by one of the year’s best trailers).

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween I didn’t expect to love 2015’s Goosebumps movie nearly as much as I did, but it ended up excelling as a children’s primer for life-long horror fandom, like a Monster Squad update for a generation raised on CGI.  I’m going into this sequel with a much higher level of anticipation, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Blade Trinity & Night of the Creeps (1986)

Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Orphan (2009)

Jaume Collet-Serra is an interesting fella. I’ve gotten to know the Spanish-born Hollywood director through his recent string of high-concept, single-location thrillers like The Shallows, where Blake Lively fights a vengeful shark while stuck alone on a rock, and The Commuter, where Liam Neeson takes down a global conspiracy network from a pedestrian commuter train. However, before Collet-Serra was making over-the-top Liam Neeson thrillers that could be reductively described as Taken on a Train (The Commuter) or Taken on a Train (Non-Stop), he got his start directing mainstream horror productions for Hollywood bigshot Joel Silver. The first was a fairly innocuous remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax, best remembered for its stunt casting of Paris Hilton. Collet-Serra’s sophomore effort was something much more novel, an aughts perversion of The Bad Seed that leaned heavily into shocking twists & children being depicted in sinister, adult scenarios. 2009’s Orphan was a modest hit that has been largely forgotten in the decade since, only remembered by those most incensed by its controversial amorality & head-on dedication to tastelessness. It’s also quite possibly Collet-Serra’s best work to date, as it allows the director to chase a new bonkers idea every few minutes instead of tying him to a single concept at feature length. As much as I’ve come to respect Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.

Vera Farmiga stars as a grieving mother whose third child was miscarried, stillborn. Nightmares about horrific, gory childbirth scenarios and guilt over past relapses into alcoholism plague her marriage with an insensitive oaf played by Peter Sarsgaard. To help alleviate the trauma of losing her would-be youngest daughter in childbirth, she decides to adopt – turning a family tragedy into an act of charity. The adopted child is a precocious, morose little girl with a cold Russian accent & a mysterious past, coming across like a 90s Goth update to Rhoda Penmark. The titular orphan’s old-fashioned wardrobe (including a ribbon choker she refuses to be seen without) looks like it belongs to a fairy tale princess, teasing a supernatural twist in its gradual reveal of her background. Whatever the cause, she’s deliciously evil, taking perverse pleasure in staging “accidents” that harm other children, purposefully spying on her new parents mid-coitus, and eventually just full-on murdering adults with guns, knives, and hammers. The reveal of her true biography & motivation to kill is astoundingly tasteless, ludicrous, and easy to guess well before it’s explained; the journey to get there is still a perversely fun ride. Collet-Serra turns each set piece & heinous act into a new toy to play with, the same way he’d later gleefully fool around with all possibly novelties offered by the planes, trains, and bloodthirsty sharks of his subsequent thrillers. The ill-considered morality of Orphan suggests that there is great danger in adopting an unknown orphan with a foreign-born past, which is a much more harmful angle to take than movies like Cooties, The Children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which reflect parents’ fears of their own kids. My guess is that neither Collet-Serra nor fist-time screenwriter David Leslie Johnson paused long enough to consider that morality as they chased this preposterous scenario’s potential for over-the-top, in-the-moment thrills. To be honest, the movie is all the more entertaining for it.

I’ve come to associate Collet-Sera most closely with over-the-top visual gimmickry, which is his most consistent auteurist tell. As absurd as their basic premises can be, some of the things that most stand out to me about the director’s post-Taken thrillers will be the way he constructs a time-lapse montage in The Commuter or the way he makes text messages appear visually dynamic in Non-Stop. Orphan’s best quality is in the freedom it allows Collet-Serra to indulge in this visual gimmickry in a variety of locales. The way he shoots kitchen window reflections, POV angles from car doors & paintings, and (in an early precursor to A Quiet Place) children communicating via American Sign Language is endlessly fun, as there’s a new toy for the director to play with in every new set piece. The pinnacle of this over-stylized visual artistry is a sequence set on a children’s jungle gym in a public park, which Collet-Serra shoots like a Gothic horror set in a maze. The menace of children-at-play on plastic slides & monkey bars is delightfully handled with a straight-faced terror, concluding with a genuine jump scare despite the tableau’s built-in absurdity. If made a decade later, Orphan might have been entirely set in that single jungle gym set piece, with the titular villain chasing around the same pint-sized victim (presumably not played by Liam Neeson) at feature length in a challenge to see how far the premise of that chase could be stretched. Here, it’s allowed to thrive for just a few minutes as an isolated novelty before the film moves onto its next ridiculous indulgence (and there are plenty more to come). It’s a willingness to visually experiment & indulge that keep the movie perversely fun despite the amoral implications of its twisty, ill-considered plot.

There’s a generous reading of Orphan that sees its fear of adopted children gone murderously rogue only as a reflection of Vera Farmiga’s character struggling with her own anxieties as a “flawed” mother with a shaky past. Farmiga sells the emotional core of that conflict as best she can, especially in arguments with a husband (Sarsgaard) and a therapist (esteemed character actress Margot Martindale) who are cruelly dismissive of her skepticism over her new adopted daughter. The film just has too much gleeful, amoral fun for that reading to fully play out, especially in scenarios where the orphan is beating victims to death with a hammer or inserting herself into adult, sexual scenarios with a perverse curiosity. The Babadook is a film about a mother who is unsure of her own stability & value as a nurturing parent. This film is more of an update to The Bad Seed, where it’s the kid who’s clearly at fault & taking pleasure in the chaotic violence that surrounds them. It’s a set-up with some disturbing, half-cooked implications about the adoption process as a result, something I wouldn’t fault any viewer for finding too distasteful to be entertaining. Personally, I consider Orphan to be an exquisite slice of mainstream-horror trash and a thoroughly entertaining showcase for a visually-skilled director who can’t help himself whenever afforded an opportunity to over-indulge in a set-specific gimmick. I’d love to see Collet-Serra return to this style of filmmaking, where his tones & gimmickry are allowed to be more free-wheeling & varied in their minute-to-minute whims instead of being dedicated to a single concept for an entire film. It’s a looseness in premise & morality than I believe has produced his best work to date.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Double (1984)

What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.

On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.

There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).

The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond