Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018)

I admire the Mexican indie horror Tigers Are Not Afraid for laying all its cards on the table before it even displays its title. Onscreen text explains that drug cartel violence has effectively left many Mexican cities “ghost towns,” with countless orphaned children left behind by the abducted & the murdered. Then, a classroom of children are assigned to write their own fairy tales as a creative writing exercise, just before that classroom itself is disrupted by gang violence & gunfire. In these opening moments we’re introduced to nearly everything the film has on its mind as a post-del Toro dark fairy tale about young kids navigating the seemingly empty streets cleared out by oppressive drug cartels. The “ghost town” descriptor from the opening text is made literal as the vengeful spirits of the cartels’ victims haunt the orphaned children & their deteriorating urban environments to the point where drug wars feel like an ancient, eternal Evil with no perceptible beginning or end. Tigers Are Not Afraid announces this grim scenario upfront in clear terms, but that does little to demystify the moment-to-moment discoveries of its horrific details. Hearing about it & dwelling in its consequences are two entirely different experiences.

Children not only carelessly play near dead bodies in the streets, but are literally followed home by the resulting blood, which moves with intent & apparent sentience. Recalling the fend-for-yourselves childhood narratives of George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, and Nobody Knows, the parentless social structures established here sketch out a world where the only adults around are teachers & murderous drug dealers. Then the teachers disappear. The remaining kids are left alone in their own fight for survival against the villainous Huascas gang. Haunted by the ghosts of the dead (sometimes even the ghosts of their own families) as they call out for revenge, the kids find a balance between remaining under the killer cartel’s radar and re-establishing a semblance of justice in the world by striking back. Tales of cannibalism, Satanic rituals, magic wishes, and shapeshifting tigers complicate their understanding of the conflict, but their main concern is daily survival. An unorthodox domesticity emerges among the children in the rubble as they nomadically shift from one squat to the next, just outside the cartel’s reach. The ghosts of the dead call out for a climactic showdown between the warring factions, which is exceedingly dangerous, seeing how the children are outnumbered & outgunned.

While Tigers Are Not Afraid declares its entire dark fairy tale ghost story about drug cartels conceit upfront, it still leaves plenty of room to surprise in its details. Images of skateboards, rooftop dance parties, animated graffiti, pianos in flames, and ghosts seemingly made entirely of darkness establish an otherworldly urban aesthetic entirely unique to the picture. The film is also admirably committed to its own sense of brutality, threatening to destroy young children by bullet or by ghost without blinking an eye. Anyone especially in love with similar past works like The Devil’s Backbone or The City of Lost Children should find a lot worthwhile here, though there’s a specificity to the Mexican drug cartel context that saves the film from feeling strictly like an echo of former glories. The movie reveals few surprises in the execution of its initial premise except maybe the depths of its brutality, its willingness to incorporate conventional ghost movie scares into its fairy tale tone, and its commentary on how political corruption makes its grim world possible. I suppose its obedience to ghost story & dark fairy tale tropes elsewhere is what makes it a genre picture to begin with, but it finds plenty opportunity in its details to establish its own magical, nightmarish space.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Good Manners (2018)

A long, winding picture that’s shy to reveal its basic genre or intent to its audience, Good Manners is a strange, unexpected beast. It would be near impossible to define the film in terms of an overarching theme (outside the undercurrents of class & gender politics that flow throughout), since its two halves are clearly bifurcated in both tone & genre. It would also be reductive to frame Good Manners as a monster movie I caught at a horror film festival, as that context did little to set expectations for the patient, sincerely dramatic rhythms of a story that sprawls & shifts in mood as it explores the logical consequences of an illogical crisis. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. Minute to minute, Good Manners discovers its dramatic rewards in the emotional beats of a dark fairy tale that follows its own inherent progression instead of the command of a central metaphor. As a whole, it offers the welcome novelty of centuries-old, long-familiar stories about monstrous transformations recontextualized in a new, unpredictable package. That alone is a commendable achievement.

A financially strapped black woman takes on a position as a live-in nurse at the edge of São Paulo, Brazil. Recalling the economic power disparity in the art cinema classic Black Girl, she finds herself helplessly subordinate to her wealthy, pregnant employer’s whims as her nanny position expands to include cooking, cleaning, and emotional labor duties that far exceed her original job description. However, the power dynamic shifts drastically when the employer’s pregnancy brings on strange, unexplained stomach pangs and violent sleepwalking episodes. Her cravings for raw meat also push the pregnancy into menacing, supernatural territory, with only the nanny at hand to take the abnormalities seriously. This vulnerability lands the pair on more equal, even amorous footing as the dread of the approaching birth threatens to upend their little remaining stability. Eventually, the pregnancy-themed body horror of the first half reaches its inevitable, fever pitch climax. Halfway into the runtime, Good Manners outs itself as a lowkey monster movie with fairy tale rhythms to its narrative, only for the timeline to then jump seven years into the future to further explore the consequences of that disruption. The second half of the film is a sad, anxious echo of the first, with its own conflicted relationships & inevitable consequences building to a secondary, unavoidable monster movie climax.

It feels odd to tiptoe around the reveal of the central monster’s nature in the film, since it’s telegraphed to the audience long before it arrives onscreen or its name is spoken. There’s too much horror lore in the canon for the significance of the moon cycle or an ultrasound technician remarking what big eyes, mouth, and hands the unborn baby has to go unnoticed. The patience of the reveal is almost a sly joke, as the movie delivers the exact monster you expect, just in a different form than how you’re used to seeing it. Depicted through both CG & practical puppetry (when not restlessly shifting inside a pregnant belly), the monster in question is an adolescent beast—dangerous, but in need of parental care. The movie isn’t shy about delivering typical creature feature goods in later scenes set in traditional horror movie locales (like an after-hours shopping mall), but it mostly evokes a post-del Toro fairy tale take on adolescent monster narratives like The Girl with All the Gifts or Let the Right One In. It’s a film about motherhood & unconventional families first and a monster movie second, a declaration of priorities made explicitly clear by how long it takes for the monster to even appear.

Good Manners is distinctive in ways that stretch far beyond its narrative patience & temporal sprawl. Animated flashbacks, operatic musical tangents, and the visual precision of a Canadá music video push its take on the creature feature into totally unexpected territory that transcends any of its telegraphed genre tropes. On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet

Moonbeam’s Childhood Terrors: The Secret Kingdom (1998) & Magic in the Mirror (1996)

The most shocking revelation in our Movie of the Month discussion of the Charles Band-produced children’s fantasy film Magic in the Mirror was that I was the only member of the Swampflix crew who found the movie to be a total nightmare. While everyone else found the film’s villains— humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make delicious tea— to be amusingly quaint, I cowered in fear of their menacingly cheap presence. I stand by my description of those tea-slurping murder-ducks as resembling “a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement” and believe a large portion of the movie’s appeal to be the discomfort of their design. Schlockmeister Charles Band’s production company Full Moon has long been fascinating to me for pumping out cheap, R-rated horror films that feel like they were intended for children. In the mid-90s, Band somehow made his aesthetic even more terrifying by deliberately making films for children’s media sensibilities, but still allowing his violent, horror impulses to shine through. If the cheap duck costumes from Magic in the Mirror are not a compelling enough argument that the Full Moon children’s media sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment was more horrifying than most of Band’s deliberately horrific productions, I’d like to submit 1998’s The Secret Kingdom as Exhibit B. The Secret Kingdom follows Magic in the Mirror’s exact formula of infusing a fairly innocuous down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy adventure with truly horrific character design, but its own childhood terrors are much more blatant & inarguable than the ducks that disturbed me so much in our Movie of the Month.

Mysteriously, neither Charles Band nor Moonbeam’s names are listed in the opening credits of The Secret Kingdom. IMDb lists Band as an “uncredited executive producer” on the film, though, and his fingerprints can be found all over the premise thanks to his seemingly lifelong obsession with miniature bullshit (see: Dolls, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, etc.). In this particular case, a pair of snotty siblings are transported to a miniature, war-torn kingdom located beneath their kitchen sink, due to a magical lightning storm (or some such nonsense). A world of miniature terrors awaits them there, thanks to a maniacal dictator’s obsession with achieving “perfection” through elective surgery. The Minister of Perfection barely fights back his Nazi undertones as he proudly shows off his favorite “perfected” creations: people with smoothed-over flesh instead of eyes, Nazi cops with metal places for faces, a creepy S&M dog-man who aids in hunting undesirables, etc. The Alice in Wonderland-riffing premise of The Secret Kingdom isn’t too far off from the basic plot of Magic in the Mirror. The only differences are in their Mad Libs-style details: instead of a fantasy kingdom the kids are transported to a steampunk metropolis; instead of traveling through a mirror their adventure is prompted by an ancient lighting rod; instead of negotiating a war between two queens they negotiate a war between a surgery-addicted bureaucrat & a band of woodland rebels. The only major difference between them is that the terror of the Minister’s creations are unambiguously horrific, while the menace of the humanoid ducks is vague enough to be debatable. Director David Schmoeller (who also helmed the horror oddities Tourist Trap & Puppet Master for Band) makes his blatant horror intentions clear in jump scares & references in the dialogue to titles like The Bad Seed & The Elephant Man. Charles Band’s stated vision for Moonbeam was to produce children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard hedge”, but by the time The Secret Kingdom arrived late in the sublabel’s run a glimmer of that hard Full Moon edge reemerged in the work and was all the more terrifying for its contrast with the safe children’s fantasy picture surrounding it.

It’s possible I find The Secret Kingdom more outright creepy than Magic in the Mirror because it hits closer to home. First of all, the non-sink portion of the film is conspicuously set in New Orleans and reminds its audience of that locale often with a slew of gratuitous local details: The St. Louis Cathedral, The Natchez, French Quarter street performers, Mardi Gras parade floats, above-ground cemeteries, street cars, issues of the Times Picayune, etc. More significantly, the tiny-world-under-the-kitchen-sink premise is very reminiscent of the (presumably problematic) film The Indian in the Cupboard, which was a VHS era staple in my childhood. It might seem odd that Band would produce an intentional knockoff of a flop that lost $10mil at the box office, but I suspect that it’s possible he may have felt like he could improve on the premise as the king of miniature bullshit. Even if their similarities are only an instance of parallel thinking, Band’s way of putting his own unique stamp on the premise was hiring a horror director responsible for one of the most disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre-modeled 70s slashers in charge of a children’s film and populating it with eyeless, dog-like, Nazi victims of state-ordered surgery. Band may have truly thought of Moonbeam as a way to produce Full Moon-style pictures “with no hard edge” for a younger demographic and that may have been the case with early Moonbeam pictures like Prehysteria!, which sweetly supposed “What if dinosaurs were miniature & danced to rock n’ roll?” By the time he got to the eyeless goons of The Secret Kingdom and the child-boiling duck-people of Magic in the Mirror, though, I believe he lost sight of that mission statement. The children’s film backdrops that clash with these nightmarish monstrosities only make them appear more horrific by contrast and the sensation that dynamic generates just feels plain wrong. I don’t think the Moonbeam catalog necessarily reflects the creative heights of the Charles Band aesthetic in terms of absurdism or novelty, but it did often generate the most legitimately creepy imagery of his schlocky oeuvre, if not only for those creations’ soft-edge context.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film this comparison to its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play, and last week’s look back to Moonbeam’s premiere picture, Prehysteria!.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Fierce People (2005)

One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to LoveFierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.

With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma.  Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.

I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.

-Brandon Ledet

Woodshock (2017)

If you celebrate Mardi Gras correctly, it tends to require a lot of drinking, walking, and dancing in the New Orleans sunshine, which usually means you arrive home exhausted in the early afternoon without much else to do for the rest of the day. It was in this fragile state that I decided to finally catch up with the low-key psychedelic thriller Woodshock, since I had surmised from the film’s advertising & reputation that it would likely be a calm, soothing watch. Indeed, Woodshock does rely on the stillness & calmness of a mechanized slideshow to establish its calming, psychedelic mood. The film also obsesses over the low-energy imagery of redwood forests, spend-all-day-in-your-underwear depression, and barely-busy marijuana dispensaries as it slowly creeps up on something resembling a psychological thriller plot. I can’t exactly say that it’s a wholly successful film or even an overall enjoyable one, but I can confirm that if you’ve had a loud, busy day reveling in the oppressive North Caribbean heat, this film’s gentle, floral mood is the perfect cannaboid tonic for your physical & mental aches. It was serviceable as post-Carnival comfort food for me, anyway. In that refractory mental state, I couldn’t have handled much more stimulation than what it glacially delivered, even though I likely would have been a lot more impatient with it on any other day of the year.

Kirsten Dunst generously donates her time as the film’s lead, a weed dispensary employee stuck in a haze of grief after the loss of her mother. Torn between her blue-collar logging worker boyfriend and her need to recover from a recent tragedy in privacy, our sullen protagonist mostly just drifts through the frame in her underwear while staring at trees or the ceiling. This insular crisis is disrupted by an even bigger problem when her gloomy daydreaming leads to the accidental sale of poison-laced joints (meant for an assisted suicide patient) to an unwitting stoner. Haunted by her mistake, she rolls several poison joints for her own consumption in what proves to be a failed suicide attempt. Instead of dying from a monster high, Dunst’s flailing protagonist finds herself violently hallucinating and committing increasingly dangerous acts while blacked out under the laced devil weed. Unfortunately, her hallucinatory descent into violence & madness doesn’t begin until about an hour into the film’s obnoxiously padded 100-minute runtime and doesn’t amount to much thematically. As an experiment in double-exposure photography and a gentle exploration of floral wallpaper psychedelia, though, it can be occasionally rewarding. It also helps that the final shot is almost stunning enough to trick you into thinking you’ve watched something substantial, when you’ve actually just been scrolling through a depressive stoner’s well-curated Instagram profile for two hours.

I was frequently impressed with Woodshock’s soft-psych visual aesthetic. The everyday majesty of the film’s impossibly tall trees, prismatic light, and tragic bedroom gloom makes filmmaking feel like a natural fit for directors Kate & Laura Mulleavy’s shared background as fashion designers. The bummer is that the movie these images serve is wholly uninterested in searching for something clear, novel, or substantial to say. I’ve seen too many movies recently that explore similar thematic territory in a more fulfilling narrative, while remaining just as visually interesting. I didn’t care for the Instagram gloom exploration of A Ghost Story either, but it felt more committed to its reflections on the haze of grief. The Lynne Ramsay psych thriller Morvern Callar was just as reliant on striking imagery & a well curated soundtrack to loosely construct its narrative, but did so with a scrappy, cranked-to-11 gusto that Woodshock never manages to convey. Most significantly, the ayahuasca-themed drama Icaros: A Vision is incredibly deft at the way it mixes grief, hallucination, and calming meditation into a clear, satisfying story that puts Woodshock to shame. The only thing I can say Woodshock does that I’ve never seen before is reverently film plastic sacks of weed as if they were the holiest of Nature’s gifts to humanity. Pot is never half as interesting as stoners believe it to be, though, and the tension of whether or not a character will smoke a poisoned joint often comes across as silly at best, when it really needs to sell pure, devastating drama to make the movie work.

No one needs me to tell them that Woodshock is underwhelming as a whole. It’s already one of A24’s worst-received releases to date, destined to be quietly forgotten by time. All I can report is that the Mulleavy sisters do have a worthwhile cinematic eye that will likely pay off in better movies down the line and that if you’re looking for a soothing, post-party cool down after an exhausting round of day-drinking, it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t watch it if you’ve got enough mental energy to be distracted by your phone or any other available stimulation. It can only hold your attention if you’re entirely drained of your capacity to wander off or look away.

-Brandon Ledet

Truth or Dare (2018)

There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer “Truth or dare?” their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, “It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.” I’ve already exhaustively stressed in the past how important high-concept/low-budget horrors about the evils of the Internet are for being willing to document what modern life online looks & feels like in a way that classier productions would tend to avoid. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

It’s tempting to bail on enjoying Truth or Dare? in its initial setup & character introductions, which make for a very shaky first act. In an opening sequence so cliché it was parodied in The Cabin in the Woods a half-decade ago, a group of college age friends embark on their Last Spring Break Together and are met with a supernatural evil on the journey. Lured into a drunken, late-night round of truth-or-dare by a mysterious stranger in an even more mysterious abandoned Mexican church, the group is locked into a demonically-possessed version of the schoolyard game that follows them home and threatens their lives. Taking turns in several rounds, each character is challenged by hallucinations of the Snapchat Filter Demon into following through on truth-or-dare prompts or violently dying in refusal. Besides a closeted gay character and hilariously oblivious party bro (“I can’t say no to shots. Everybody knows that.”), none of these College Kid archetypes especially stand out as distinct individuals. They’re instead used as personality-free placeholders for the movie’s deployment in awkwardly staged moral dilemmas. The dares indicated by the film’s title are almost exclusively acts of lethal violence, but the real hook of the premise is in exposing the truth behind people’s desire to be seen as charitable & good. The demonic game of truth-or-dare forces characters to act out their unspoken desires and to confess their most shameful secrets in grand displays of public humiliation. The hidden selfishness of the self-righteous is a particular fixation of the game, as characters are challenged to back up statements like “I didn’t have a choice” or to prove claims that they’d sacrifice their own lives to save many strangers’. Honesty is the most highly valued virtue in Truth or Dare?’s worldview and it’s one the movie searches for in the most gleefully cruel ways possible.

Although the initial setup is a little labored (a probable side-effect of having five writers share one screenplay), Truth or Dare? gets exponentially more ludicrous (and, thus, fun) as its titular game escalates, ending on a surprisingly ambitious note with implications that are incredibly far-reaching & clever, considering the film’s lowly starting point. It’s possible to find more fully committed versions of the film’s central gimmicks in better works. The pitch-black exploitation comedy Cheap Thrills offers an even more cruel indulgence in depicting a series of violent dares gone out of hand. While Truth or Dare? verbally admits its Shapchat filter gimmick in the dialogue and adopts cell phone aspect ratios in its opening credits, it has nothing on the fully-committed Sickhouse, which is essentially a The Blair Witch Project remake staged through a series of Snapchat posts (and originally posted on the Snapchat app itself). Nerve might even be a better midpoint between the two gimmicks, where a series of escalating dares are filtered through the language of social media. The acting & character work in Truth or Dare? are aggressively bland. The music feels like faux-inspirational Chariots of Fire/allergy medicine commercial runoff. The PG-13 rating indicates both its potential for truly disturbing violence and its loyalty to genre cliché. On the Blumhouse scale, this film is more Happy Death Day than Get Out. On the Evil Internet horror scale, it’s more Friend Request than Unfriended. Still, its specificity as a Snapchat filter horror (as opposed to a Snapchat platform horror) distinguishes it from previous app-based schlock and its follow-through on the implications of its demonic truth-or-dare premise wholly makes up for its first act unease. If nothing else, I can report that the film’s ending is the most satisfying trash-horror resolution I’ve seen since the evil doll cheapie The Boy, a reference I intend as the highest of compliments (it did rank high on our collective Top Films of 2016 list, after all). Between leaving me on that high note and generating its terror through a disposable mode of online discourse, Truth or Dare? very easily endeared itself to me. I wish more people were having this much fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Alaska is a Drag (2018)

I have a personal pet theory that drag and pro wrestling are the two most vital modern artforms specifically because they’re opposite sides of the same gender performance coin. I’ve yet to see that exact dichotomy explored on the big screen, but I feel like we’re inching closer to it every year. A 2012 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a pro wrestling challenge (resulting in a Kenya Michaels and Latrice Royale tag team I’d kill to see weekly on WWE) but cinema is still behind the curve. 2016’s excellent The Fits established a similar masc/femme gender dichotomy between boxing & rhythmic dance, however, and the playfully titled Alaska is a Drag has now pushed that dynamic even closer to my ideal project by profiling a character caught between the worlds of boxing & drag. This microbudget indie isn’t exactly about gender performance (neither was The Fits, really), but it does allow that subject to weigh heavily on its mind as it floats effortlessly between the rigid boundaries of strictly gendered worlds. Alaska is a Drag is a delirious tale of small town brawn & glamor transcending a harshly cold environment to establish its own gender-defiant space in the world, all within the vessel of a single magnetic, instantly lovable lead performance.

Leo (newcomer Martin L. Washington, Jr.) is a factory worker at an Alaskan fish cannery who struggles to feel at home in a small industrial town without a strong, visible queer community. With more complaints about how he can’t wait to get out of this town than a mid-90s Less Than Jake album, he hangs his dreams for a better future on becoming an “international drag superstar” by way of moving to Hollywood. It’s not too difficult to see why he might want to get away. His go-nowhere job at the fish cannery is swarming with macho bullies who persecute him for being openly queer. His best friend/twin sister is dying of cancer. His dad is a compulsive gambler that keeps their household anchored to the poverty line. The only boy around with the confidence to flirt with him is a straight-identifying puzzle who gets just as dangerously black-out drunk as everyone else in town. The only refuges from these grim, isolating surroundings are a gay dive bar (operated by Margaret Cho) and an equally sparsely attended boxing gym (operated by Jason Scott Lee), spaces where he gets to express the fierceness & glamor the world stifles in him otherwise. Plot-wise, it’s a typical coming of age story that inevitably barrels toward the big boxing match & drag show climaxes you’d likely expect, but as a character study it’s exceedingly easy to fall in love with Leo, no matter what aspect of himself he’s presenting.

Director Shaz Bennett reports to have conceived the screenplay for Alaska is a Drag while working in a fish cannery herself, daydreaming about the lives of her fellow factory workers. The movie reflects that loopy daydream logic in its unashamedly cheap CGI rainbows & washes of Aurora effects that gleefully clash with Leo’s working-class surroundings, recalling the similar flights of fancy in last year’s Patti Cake$. There is both a misery & a dark humor to the repetition of monotonous routine in factory work as presented in the film, something that’s only interrupted by the disco balls & glitter of Leo’s drag superstar daydreams. As the daily rhythms of repetitive factory work begin to resemble song, Dancer in the Dark-style musical reveries mentally transport Leo to his drag-themed happy place. He doesn’t start to fully explore his own unique identity until he incorporates drag & boxing into a simultaneous, boundary-free expression of his full personality, importing golden boxing gloves into his drag-themed reveries & bringing makeup into the boxing ring at his sister’s behest. If drag & boxing are coded as opposing forces of gender expression in the film, Leo’s triumph in self-actualization is in learning to combine them to establish a well-balanced persona (which is, again, fairly similar to the central character arc in the far less gleefully silly The Fits).

Washington’s performance as Leo is the main draw here, especially in sequences where he interacts with Maya Washington, playing his sister Tristen. It’s baffling that the two actors are not related in real life, considering their lived-in chemistry & convincing familiarity. There’s nothing the movie could possibly muster to match the endlessly endearing energy of the twins voguing, mean-mugging, and playing dress-up out of small-town Alaskan boredom, not even Margo Cho performing in a drag king get-up or an ancient drag queen hissing bitchy quips through their tracheotomy hole. Alaska is a Drag struggles to create substantial drama outside the siblings’ desire to skip town, but it does excel in clashing the glamor of their international drag superstar daydreams with the harsh reality of dead fish & grim factory work. It flirts with the trappings of coming-of-age queer misery dramas, but mostly indulges in the fantasies of escaping that backdrop through the gender-exaggerated mediums of boxing & drag. Alaska is a Drag is not exactly the drag & pro wrestling gender performance daydream I’ve personally entertained while going about my own daily monotony, but it was close enough to at least partially satisfy that craving without making too much of a big deal out of it. It instead weaves its own gendered dichotomy into a character study of a put-upon young dreamer who desperately needs the mental escape both drag & boxing offer. Washington does an incredible job of making that character a thorough joy to watch, as Bennett deftly backs him up with a colorful fantasy world backdrop that emerges from between the cracks of a grim, industrial setting.

-Brandon Ledet

Blockers (2018)

Although the recent coming-out melodrama Love, Simon had only a (very) minor impact at the box office, its significance as a safe, middle-of-the-road queer narrative within the larger mainstream filmmaking picture has been discussed at length in nearly all critical circles. An entire episode of the bonkers teen soap opera Riverdale was even dedicated to Love, Simon’s cultural impact on queer visibility, which seem outsized considering the sanitized, post-John Green mediocrity promised in its ads. The consensus argument seems to be that Love, Simon is important because of that mediocrity, that gay teens deserve their own bland popcorn fluff just as much as anyone else. It’s pointless to argue against that perspective, but for anyone who’s not especially interested in that kind of safe, sexless teen romance no matter what its orientation, I’d like to offer the high school sex comedy Blockers as potential counterprogramming. In Blockers, sex is exactly as fun, stupid, silly, gross, and awkward as it should be in a high school-set comedy. The film shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of the teen sex comedy’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. It even has a remarkably deft coming-out story built into its DNA that matches the sentimentality promised by Love, Simon without the accompanying sexless schmaltz. I don’t mean to suggest that makes Blockers a better film by default or that Love, Simon doesn’t deserve the critical attention it’s being afforded. I’m just saying that if the ads for Love, Simon left you cold, Blockers might just be the trashy teen sex comedy antidote you’re looking for. It might even satisfy your craving for a modernized John Hughes emotional journey in the process.

Set over the course of a single night (prom night!), Blockers details the bungled execution of a “sex pact” between three teen friends who all plan to lose their virginity in tandem. Because they’re young women and not the typical Apatow-modeled dudes who usually helm these pictures, this plan was met with extreme resistance from their snooping parents. Leslie Mann is finally given to something to do for once as a stressed-out Alpha Mom who wants to protect her daughter form repeating her worst mistakes. John Cena, appearing in Pure Dad cargo shorts, is the typical overprotective father who’s terrified of his teen daughter’s sexuality despite his better judgment. Ike Barinholtz is the most nuanced of the three. He generally disagrees with the other parents’ sex-negative paranoia, but also wants to protect his own daughter, who he knows to be a closeted lesbian, from committing herself to a traumatizing heterosexual experience just to feel like she belongs. The heightened delusions & deranged coddling impulses that torment these parents are the butt of the film’s ultimate joke; their fear of young female sexuality is an eternally embarrassing punchline. Meanwhile, the three damsels they attempt to rescue (Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon, and MVP Geraldine Viswanathan, who steals every scene she’s afforded) are doing just fine navigating all the awkward, grotesque, humiliating, and absurdly silly pitfalls that accompany pangs of teenage horniness, as countless dudes in losing-your-virginity comedies have in the past. The blatant double standard in question is extensively & explicitly challenged in the film’s dialogue, but Blockers is rarely outright didactic in its sex-positive politics. Moralizing about the policing of femme teen sexuality is instead allowed to be a background flavor that enhances, but does not overpower the usual gross-out gags that steer the genre: butt-stuff, drug-trips, puke, unwelcome nudity – all the standard hallmarks of a post-John Waters mainstream comedy.

Like with most teen movies, the three girls’ personalities are visually established early on by their bedroom décor. The main girl’s bedroom is not as distinctly coded as her two besties’, but it does prominently feature a clue as to where the movie’s heart lies: a Sixteen Candles poster. Both Love, Simon and Blockers are chasing the John Hughes model of capturing the modern teen zeitgeist in a single picture and it’s lovely to see that they both feel the need to include prominent queer narratives in that mission (even if they happen to follow a coming-out misery pattern we’ve seen exhaustively repeated onscreen before). Blockers separates itself from Love, Simon in the open acknowledgment that sex & romance are both hilarious & disgusting, which is always going to be the more attractive route for me as an audience. I don’t think its own mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy are exactly revolutionary. if nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in its own continuation of a John Hughes tradition. Just like how critics are calling for a wave of normalized queer narratives in the Love, Simon vein, I’d love to live in a world where we’re afforded at least one of these gross-out femme sex comedies a year. Continuing to keep prominent queer characters as part of that tradition would also be ideal (which is admittedly something you don’t get in my pet favorites The Bronze or The To Do List), which is partly why Blockers is a shockingly well-considered precedent for how the teen sex comedy genre can remain both modernly relevant and true to its gross-out roots.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #54 of The Swampflix Podcast: Hulkamaniacal Schlock & Nobody Speak (2017)

Welcome to Episode #54 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-fourth episode, James & Brandon wrap up an exhausting pro wrestling marathon week in New Orleans by looking back to the cinematic career of Hulk Hogan, the most notorious pro wrestler of all time. They discuss the films of Hogan’s career-high Hulkamania period and his career-low legal troubles as detailed in the Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017). Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet