Are We Not Cats (2016)



One curious throughline that ties together a lot of body horror classics (besides the sadly dying art of grotesque practical effects) is the idea of doomed romance. Titles like The FlyPossession, Altered States, Splice, and Slither all make their inhuman, nail-splitting, mucus-gushing freakshows count for something by using a doomed romance plot as an emotional anchor. The surprise indie gem Are We Not Cats, delivered by first time director Xander Robin, flips this dynamic on its head. As grotesque as the film’s body horror imagery can be, not least of all in its moments of hair-eating & amateur surgery, its practical effects shock value always feels secondary to its central romance plot. Are We Not Cats toes the line between many genres: body horror, mental health drama, black comedy, surrealist fantasy. It’s first & foremost a doomed romance, though, one that’s infectiously celebratory despite the grotesque violence & grime of its direly tragic atmosphere.

An out of work garbage man finds an unexpected love interest in a lumber yard worker who shares a surprising amount of his peculiarities/afflictions: addiction, crippling loneliness, boredom, poverty, and (most importantly) trichophagia. Our two stray cat lovebirds suffer a rare psychological condition that urges them to compulsively eat human hair. One has a manageable condition that largely sticks to the tiny hairs of beards & arms, but the other is far more voracious. She chows down on the stuff wholesale, leaving entire scalps bare in her wake. There’s a tangible sense of impending doom in this sudden romance, as both addicts feel “weirdly sick” in a way they find difficult to express. Surely, this is somewhat attributable to their likelihood of consuming toxic amounts of jug wine & antifreeze for a cheap high instead of anything that could remotely be considered food, but eating large quantities of human hair also has its own inherent health risks. Have you ever seen a cat cough up an oversized, mucus-coated furball? This is far worse.

Are We Not Cats is a minor work in a lot of ways & features some narrative clichés you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker (an emotionally damaged male lead searching for a female love interest to “fix” him, for starters), but Robin finds a way to luxuriate in the narrative’s insignificance in a way that charms instead of deflates. His characters are society’s throwaway trash, at one point literally tossed in the garbage, so that everything they do is minor by nature anyway. More importantly, though, the film makes lyrical art out its discarded pieces. Instead of chasing the burn-out shrug of the similarly-minded psychedelic body horror Anitibirth, the film is confident that it has style to spare and instead builds its world around an intangible air of romance & desperation. For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like “When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?” The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.

-Brandon Ledet

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)




Between Battleship, Clue, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie based off a board game that I did not enjoy. It’s a strange feeling, considering how many awful movies based on action figures, video games, and comic books have been released over the years. My best guess as to why the board game movie has a fairly high success rate, besides not having a large number of chances to shit the bed, is that there’s a playfulness inherent to the sub-subgenre that calls for a kind of in-on-the-joke campiness that deflects a lot of potential criticism with a casual wave of the hand. The trailers for Ouija: Origin of Evil signaled to me, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. No pressure,” and the film itself followed through on that cavalier attitude. I’m not saying that Origin of Evil was the kind of lazy, winking affair you’d find in a Sharknado or a Lavalantula, but it did have a playful smirk in the way it chose to deliver its genre thrills, one that undercut any of its generic formula and made me wonder if I might be a fan of the board game movie as an artistic medium.

If there’s anything unfortunate about the ad campaign that hooked me into watching Origin of Evil, it’s that it revealed a little too much. Not only was every potential scare up until the last half hour thoroughly spoiled in the trailers, but the film’s few major narrative reveals were also spelled out in the campaign. Since we know ahead of time that a family of scam artist “psychics” who fake communication with the dead will be taught a harsh lesson by actually communicating with the dead through the titular haunted board game, there’s not much room left for the film to surprise in terms of unexpected story beats. Worse yet, the ads revealed that the youngest, most adorable member of the family would suffer a Linda Blair-style demonic possession that causes her to do & say all the freaky Creepy Kid Horror things we’ve been seeing on film since all the way back to Village of the Damned (if not earlier): spooky voices, inhuman contortions, ice cold precociousness, etc. Where Origin of Evil makes these already-expected tropes worthwhile, then, is in how willing it is to have fun with the very familiar space it carves out for itself.

Like with a lot of recent horror films, Origin of Evil sets its haunted house/board game horrors decades in the past, this time opting for the 1960s instead of the well-worn temporal setting of the 70s (like in The Conjuring & We Are Still Here). This not only makes room for beautiful sets & costuming in its production design and removes pesky horror-prevention inventions like cellphones & Google from the scenario; it also harkens back to a time when the ouija board was new & sacred. The religious adherence to rules like “Don’t play by yourself” & “Never play in a graveyard,” makes it all the more significant when they’re inevitably broken and violators are punished accordingly. Visually, the film also has a lot of fun with the detail allowed by the setting, digitally recreating “cigarette burn” reel changes & indulging in the most split diopter shots I’ve seen since Blow Out. There’s some fun touches in the dialogue that are specific to the era as well, like when a teen boy mansplains to a group of girls why we could never land on the moon & in the general Brady Bunch precociousness of the evil little girl at the film’s center as she gleefully channels the restless spirits of the dead. If set in 2016, Ouija: Origin of Evil might have been a generic, by the books blur (which, by all accounts, its 2014 predecessor Ouija was), but something about a rock ‘n roll 60s familial melodrama being invaded by an evil board game allowed a lot of room for camp horror efficiency & the film had a lot of fun playing around in that space.

It’s difficult to say exactly what I’m looking for when I go see a modern generic horror at the theater, but Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers it with ease. It’s got exactly what I felt was missing from other 2016 titles like The Darkness, The Forest, and (the worst of the bunch) Lights Out, bested only by The Boy in putting a smile on my face while supplying what I want from Modern Big Studio Horror, whatever it is. Director Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Hush & Oculus, has a great track record with making gold out of standard horror fare so far, so surely he should be given some significant credit for crafting an enjoyable prequel to a film I never plan to see here, but I also think there’s something to the board game movie as a novelty subgenre that made his playfulness possible. Using the ouija board as a centerpiece opened up a goofy-spooky playground for Flanagan to let loose in and it’s fun watching him gleefully run in circles with his camera within that environment.

-Brandon Ledet

American Honey (2016)


three star

American Honey was a very specific kind of disappointment for me, a type of letdown I only ever seem to find in buzzed-about indie releases. For months, the critical narrative surrounding this film has been that it’s intensely divisive. Even the film’s trailer, with all of its Shia LaBeouf-with-a-rat-tail earnestness & musings on the joys of making money/getting turnt, promised a production that could elicit a strong love it or hate it reaction. I went into American Honey expecting intensity, so I was oddly disappointment when I mostly found it to be fairly okay. Normally, enjoying a movie on the whole, but not finding it to be too big of a deal would still be a totally worthwhile, even comfortable cinematic experience. With titles like American Honey, Gaspar Noe’s Love, and The Revenant, however, the expectation is to have an extreme reaction, positive or negative, and it’s kind of a bummer when they don’t deliver on the divisiveness promised by their reputations.

Part of the reason films like this are such a letdown when they’re only moderately enjoyable is that they require so much work from the audience’s end. American Honey is deliberately light on plot, yet stretches nearly three hours in length. Its squared-off aspect ratio and daydreamy tendency to get lost in traditional beauty detail like hair blowing in the wind & flowers waving off the side of the highway play more like a lengthy scroll through an Instagram account than a feature film. The movie asks you to hang out in a closed space with Shia LaBeouf for hours on end; while LaBeouf is actually serviceable at worst here, that’s still a lot to ask from some people in light of his James Franco x1000 Misunderstood Artist public persona. The film clears these potential hurdles with ease, avoiding a lot of eyeroll-worthy indie movie cheese with a decidedly laidback, candid tone. However, its overall effect of capturing the directionless drift of a never-ending road trip might not be worth the headache required to get on its wavelength. If you meet American Honey halfway to buy what it’s selling (magazines or otherwise), the best you can hope for is a warm, comfortable meandering through America’s dead spaces and a visit with the young ghosts who haunt them. It’s an enjoyable experience, but one with a hefty toll.

A van full of teenage castaways tour America selling magazine subscriptions door to door, parking lot to parking lot. Although they could not care less about the product they’re peddling, the operation is handled like a “legitimate” business. They have orientation rituals, meetings, big seller rewards, and a boss figure who stands to benefit the most from their sweat & persistence as they remain fixed in their economic standing. These are America’s throwaway kids, drifters. They hitchhike, sport dreadlocks, dumpster dive for raw chicken, self-medicate with a steady diet of bong rips & grain alcohol. In the film’s more unique moments it strives only to see the country through their eyes. Economic desperation drives them down dusty roads, through cheap motels, and hundreds of miles past the families who abandoned or abused them. In their words, they “explore America, party, a bunch of stuff. It’s cool.” In our eyes it’s not cool at all; it’s depressing. The movie attempts to construct a will-they-won’t-they romance between two of the kids (LaBeouf’s mostly-nude body being part of that bargain) and to find moments of intense physical & emotional vulnerability in its narrative tangents, but it can never fully escape its status as a delicate, laidback hangout film, with all of the underwhelming impact that distinction entails.

British director Andrea Arnold captured this downstream drift with just as loose of a battle plan as you’d expect. In her own first tour of America, she’s acting as a sort of explorer/partier herself, packing the van with real-life drifter kid non-actors, which makes for some truly effective moments of quiet devastation. Sometimes she can reach a little too far in her attempts to capture America’s spirit. Her camera’s strange fascination with the mechanical ritual of line-dancing makes for a bizarre moment of authentic detail, but we also get shots of wildflowers juxtaposed with the blood river runoffs of slaughterhouses that really test the resolve not to roll eyes & walk away. There’s a sort of sweet, childish sensuality in the physical flirtation that builds the central romance, but the entire courtship is sparked with the lovelorn pair making eyes to Rihanna singing “We fell in love in a hopeless place,” which is just about the least subtle music cue possible; and I’m saying that as someone who typically places no significant value on subtlety. When the kids are daydreaming & sing-shouting along to the same endless repetitions of songs by Kevin Gates, Juicy J, and the like, Arnold captures something convincingly true & brutally sad about these nomadic ragamuffins pursuing an eternal road trip to escape the inevitability of “real life.” When she starts peppering the scenario with loaded guns, stolen cars, and soul-shattering romance, the movie loses its footing a little and resembles something much more generic & familiar.

The overall result, then, is a mixed bag. American Honey winds up being enjoyable, but maybe not worth all of the trouble it takes to reap its smaller, more delicate benefits. Like I said, calling a film out for being merely enjoyable is a strange complaint to get hung up on, but I’m honestly jealous of the folks who had a strong reaction to it, either way that response swung. I wish I could call this film high art or low trash, but I instead find myself drifting between the two extremes, mumbling half-remembered rap lyrics to myself & hazily waiting for my next drink.

-Brandon Ledet

The Handmaiden (2016)



I’m typically not a huge fan of twisty shenanigans in my movie plots, but director Park Chan-wook’s latest is a testament to the virtues of The Major Plot Twist as a storytelling device. The Handmaiden is a deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of BoundThe Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.

A petty criminal brings in an even pettier cohort for a conspiracy plot to gaslight a young heiress & rob her of her dowry once she’s declared insane. The young, naïve forger finds it increasingly difficult to live a lie as the heiress’s dutiful handmaiden as she finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with her would-be victim. The love is quickly revealed to be mutual and the film deals in largely the same unspoken, but physically expressed homosexual desire as Carol . . . until it culminates in an explicit, laugh-heavy sex scene (or three). Once their mutual desire is solidified & consummated the question is how much further the handmaiden is willing to deceive & exploit her lady. That is, until Park starts to have fun in deceiving & exploiting his own audience. There’s a near-endless sea of complex relationships, past abuses, planned double-crossings, and unthinkable depths of greed that Park plays close to the chest until he can use them to prank & subvert audience expectation. It isn’t a storytelling style I usually care for, considering how much attention it calls to its own cleverness, but The Handmaiden is so lovingly constructed & visually detailed that my personal apprehension with its tone means nothing. It also helps that the film often plays like a comedy, one where the humor lands consistently & sometimes even tenderly.

The Handmaiden is above all else a film about forgery. Its characters forge expensive books & jewelry, along with entire identities. The central conman forges a life where he can pose as nobility despite his empty bank account & lowly beginnings. The lady’s uncle/Master forges himself a new national identity, forsaking his Korean heritage for a false air of Japanese superiority, complete with a vast collection of his adopted country’s erotica & a particular obsession with the infamous octopus sex print The Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife. Most importantly, though, the film tackles the idea of forged desire. It pits the real-life sexual attraction between the lady & her handmaiden against the forgeries of the predatory masculine seduction forced by the conman & the hideously cruel uncle, making almost a divine object out of the genuine thing. In his own way, Park himself also deals in a kind of forgery – intentionally selling the audience a fake version of his own story before slowly revealing the genuine version of the real thing. He was smart to marry that storytelling deceit with the consistent theme of deceit in the film’s content; it works both as an acknowledgement & as a mission statement.

A lot of the fun of The Handmaiden is in trying to get a firm hand on the film’s tone. Depending on what moment you’re watching, it can play as a myriad of different genres: a farce, a revenge thriller, a ghost story, intense erotica, literal gallows humor, etc. Park Chan-wook is playful & adventurous in the way he navigates these moods, but he anchors the film to a solid foundation of highly specific, meticulously crafted imagery. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & sent design, which allows for plenty of room in its narrative sprawl for twist-heavy shenanigans. I don’t think it’s quite the exquisite art piece of the similarly twisty & playfully erotic The Duke of Burgundy, but the film also gives no implication that it’s aiming for that work’s quiet emotional impact. It mostly aims to have fun with its narrative & its audience and by that measurement it’s a major success.

-Brandon Ledet

Shark Exorcist (2016)




According to the Internet, schlock director Donald Farmer has dedicated fans. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that after watching Farmer’s latest release, a CG-plagued digital horror about a demonically-possessed shark. Shark Exorcist is a dirt cheap production, a winking, lazy B-picture that can’t even clear the low bar set by SyFy Channel mockbusters like Cowboys vs Dinosaurs and Lavalantula. It’s a shame, too, because the idea of Satan possessing a shark in a cheap slice of modern schlock was obviously enough of a hook to grab my attention, but the film has very little interest in following through on the potential of its own premise. Much like the carnie-esque film promoters of old, Donald Farmer seems like the kind of director who promises the world in his posters & trailers, but doesn’t care about actually delivering the goods once the tickets are sold.

A Satanic nun stabs an accuser to death near an urban lake & disposes of the body. She pleads to the water, “Lord Satan, accept my sacrifice! Send me an avenger.” Satan, the kindly obliging Lord that He is, answers her prayer in the form of a shark, or a red-tinted CG rendering of a shark. A year later a group of young girls are enjoying summertime leisure at the same lake, planning to “swim, work on your tan, just lake stuff.” One girl is bitten on the leg by the demon shark, naturally, and becomes possessed with its Satanic spirit. She freaks her friends out with her rapid recovery from the bite, sudden obsession with water, and (not least of all) serial murders using a vampiric set of shark’s teeth. A Catholic priest catches wind of the strange happenings of the demonic shark girl and makes it a personal mission to exorcise her body of the evil spirit. This lazy hybrid of The Exorcist & Jaws finally culminates with its natural conclusion, a reading of the line “We’re going to need a bigger cross!,” revealing the entire production to be a long setup to an empty punchline.

Normally, I would be all over a film with that exact plot, but Shark Exorcist is dedicated to a distinct lack of effort that makes the whole ordeal frustrating when it should be cheap fun. The bargain basement digital photography & soft core porn quality acting recall the midnight crowd favorite Birdemic, but without that film’s authentic, if misguided, sincerity. Characters in Shark Exorcist use smart phones that could easily make a higher quality picture than the one delivered (just look to last year’s Tangerine for proof). Local news reports & a reality television spoof called Ghostwalkers have a kind of Tim & Eric quality to their awkwardness in passing, but become frustratingly dull after long stretches. If this were a home movie or a high school project I might be able to give it a pass. I might even think it was kind of cute. As a production from an adult director who apparently has been making cult-minded schlock for decades, it registers as a lazy annoyance. The move is only 70 minutes long, but I got everything I could out of it in the first ten, which is not a great sign.

Still, because the premise is so damn silly, I could have forgiven all of Shark Exorcist’s sins if it had just delivered one simple thing: shark attacks. That’s all I ask. There are gallons of (embarrassingly unconvincing) blood in the film, but no true gore. After a shark bite the blood rests on the victims’ skin, with no attempt to give the illusion of a wound. Worse yet, there is not a single frame in Shark Exorcist where the demonic shark or its unsuspecting victim share the screen. The shark swims in a CG void and prepares to chomp. The victim, above water, screams. We then see their lifeless body, no point of contact depicted & no evidence of a wound.

I’m honestly curious about Donald Farmer’s career at this point, almost enough to double back and watch titles like Chainsaw Cheerleaders, Cannibal Hookers, and Vampire Cop. Surely as a man who’s been making B-pictures for decades he knows that a film this cheap needs to deliver the goods in term of gore or sex or something in order to make the price of admission worthwhile to his audience. The impression I get after watching Shark Exorcist is that he does, but he also doesn’t give a shit, which is a shame given the promise in this film’s premise. This is the rare case where a film might’ve actually benefited had its creator sold their idea to SyFy instead of making it themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)



I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Funhouse (1981), Tourist Trap (1979), and Tobe Hooper’s Influence on the Unconventional Slasher


The DNA of the slasher can mostly be traced back to the giallo murder mysteries of the 1960s & 70s where the gloved, off-screen killers of titles like Deep Red and Blood & Black Lace ran through disturbingly high body counts (of mostly young, beautiful women) in a distinct style-over-substance fashion. Filter the giallo genre through non-Italian titles like Psycho & Peeping Tom and direct its mayhem at the rebellious spirit of the American teenager and that’s more or less how you wind up with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers or what have you. Not all slashers fit that mold, however, and a lot of the genre’s stranger outliers seem to point back to an entirely different source of inspiration: Tobe Hooper. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a level of grime & idiosyncrasy to the early stirrings of slasher horrors that was almost unimaginable in 1974. Cautious not to repeat himself, he entirely shifted focus for his 1986 sequel to that iconic work, turning it into an absurd horror comedy (not unlike the curious shift in the MTV-themed cartoon Slumber Party Massacre 2). When Hooper first returned to the straightforward slasher in 1981’s The Funhouse, however, he brought back the same isolated weirdos vs. disrespectful teen brats dynamic of the first Chainsaw along with that film’s unmistakable grime, but shifted the details drastically with the specificity of a travelling carnival setting. By then, Hooper’s work had already influenced an entire crop of weirdo slasher outliers, though, and The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out as a radical work the same way 1974’s Chainsaw did.

The best example I can think of that adapts Hooper’s slasher deviations into a weird genre outlier is a film Britnee recommended during our evil doll movies conversation on the podcast. Her description of the 1979 horror oddity Tourist Trap sounded eerily similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with just enough quirk to distinguish itself from being a mere knockoff. In both films a group of suburban teens are slaughtered by an isolated family of outsider weirdos in the no-man’s-land of rural America. The major deviation in Tourist Trap is that the main killer’s backwoods family is made entirely of mannequins. Our terrifying hick killer commands telepathic abilities that allows him to animate his mannequin family so that they can physically attack his victims while singing in angelic voices or laughing maniacally. The supernatural element of these kills is largely different from Hooper’s style in his own slasher films (although not at all out of line with his titles like Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars). There’s an unmistakable, disturbing quality to the tone in Tourist Trap that points directly to the blueprint of a Hooper slasher, however. By the time the killer is wearing a doll mask & trying to make mannequins out of his teen victims Dead Silence-style, it’s all too easy to trace his origins back to Leatherface, who liked to uphold curious familial bonds of his own. Tourist Trap also has a weird crossdressing element that recalls the common slasher point of reference Norman Bates and as a whole is certainly unique enough to stand out on its own as an original work, but it owes a lot of its outlier status in the slasher genre to the strange space Hooper carved out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Released just two years after Tourist Trap, Hooper’s The Funhouse is in good company with the strange little supernatural horror. The Funhouse keeps its terror anchored in the real world in a way Tourist Trap’s telepathy doesn’t, but the grime & specificity of its carnival setting matches the eeriness of that film’s disturbing mannequin-covered roadside attraction. Also, although the dolls of The Funhouse don’t move on their own via magic, there are animatronic dolls in the film that add to a menacing atmosphere shared by Tourist Trap as soon as the opening credits. Adding a supernatural element to The Funhouse’s carnival-set genre thrills made for a laughably goofy experience in Ghoulies II, but Tourist Trap is too much of a nightmare to laugh off in that way. The way its killer (much like Gunther in The Funhouse) continually searches for love & validation despite his own brutality makes for too disturbing of a watch for the film to be brushed off as mere camp. Its laughing, singing, murdering mannequins have a sort of humor to them, but only in a cruel, twisted way that’s far more reminiscent of Hooper’s work than it is of Charles Band’s, despite that schlockmeister’s career-long obsession with killer dolls (and Tourist Trap director David Schmoeller later working on the Band-produced series The Puppet Master).

When we first discussed The Funhouse in our Movie of the Month round table we asked why it didn’t quite have the cultural staying power it deserved. The answer might be that because Hooper already opened the door for weirdo slashers like Tourist Trap years earlier, The Funhouse had too much company to stand out as its own strange work of nasty mayhem. Hooper had already changed the game in an earlier work & The Funhouse was mostly just a nightmarish continuation of that initial deviation. It found some really strange company in similar continuations, though, not least of all in this strange killer mannequins slasher.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: The Fly (1958) on the We Love to Watch Podcast


I was recently invited to join in on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the iconic 1958 Vincent Price sci-fi horror The Fly. It’s always great to have a chance to talk about the original version of The Fly, which is generally overshadowed by its wonderfully grotesque Cronenberg body horror remake, because has its own merits & idiosyncrasies that can often be too easily dismissed or misremembered. On a more personal note, though, it was also just fun to join in on a podcast I listen to regularly as a fan.

It’s already pretty rare to find a podcast as in tune with my own taste in film as We Love to Watch, but the show is even more remarkable in the way it approaches its selections from an honest & receptive place. Co-hosts Pete Moran & Aaron Armstrong have the easy chemistry of long-time friends, which makes for a consistently pleasant listen, even when they disagree or digress at length. More importantly, though, they discuss all films sincerely and humbly. They always looking for the legitimate value in a work, no matter how prestigious or seemingly insignificant, instead of an excuse to tear it down, which is exactly the way we strive to approach criticism in our own reviews on this site.

Give a listen to We Love to Watch’s episode on The Fly below! For fans of the Cronenberg remake, check back with them next week for an episode on that practical effects masterwork as a point of contrast. You can also dig through old episodes & clips on their blog & their YouTube page if you like what you hear. They tend to cover a lot of the same territory we do here, both on our own podcast & in our reviews (The Thing, Southland Tales, Possession, High-Rise, Phase IV, etc.), often with a completely different, playfully enlightening take on the material. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Watching The Dark Crystal (1982) with Toby Froud


I’ve been a huge Jim Henson fan basically my entire life. I grew up with The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and all of the Muppet movies. Given all of that, The Dark Crystal was a movie I watched a lot as a kid, but at that time, I don’t think any of the important detail stuck. It wasn’t until watching it last year as an adult I finally really appreciated it. The Dark Crystal functions in such a dense, beautiful world. It’s got new cultures, strange creatures, and symbols on top of symbols. I recently got the chance to see it with a Q&A by Toby Froud that expanded upon the time and love it took to create this masterpiece.

The Dark Crystal is an epic. It was Jim Henson’s passion project. He wanted to be known as a filmmaker and not just The Muppet Guy. It took Henson five years to make along with a team of highly dedicated creatives with a wide range of talents (jewelry making, costume designers, puppeteers, writers). Among them were Brain Froud who was the designer for The Dark Crystal and Wendy Midener who sculpted and created the Gelflings. They met working on the film. Toby Froud is their son and, following in the footsteps of his parents, a puppet fabricator for Laika. (He also was the baby in  Labyrinth.) Although The Dark Crystal was before he was born, he grew up with goblins and Gelflings all around, and has a unique perspective. It obviously was extremely influential for him.

Toby showed a slideshow of original concept art, screen tests, behind the scenes messing around, and supplied anecdotes to go along with each one. The Dark Crystal is one of the only movies in the world that is all puppetry. So many of the pictures showed just how much work and ingenuity these creatures took: men being stuck into Garthim suits, faces being sculpted, strange contraptions to figure out exactly how things would realistically move. Everything was crafted from the ground up. There was no story even to begin with. Jim Henson just started with images of creatures and ideas about the world; everything else just came as they started making things. People dedicated their time. Some people even risked their lives walking on stilts in Landstrider costumes on top of raised sets.

Given the dense nature of the world a lot of material has been written to expand it. There are the Creation Myths graphic novels and an upcoming full length novelization of events that occur after the original story. There have been rumors of a sequel coming for years, some sounding more serious than others. Toby Froud even said not to count the possibility out. That got me wishful thinking. A Laika-made Dark Crystal sequel is something that I would line up to see.

-Alli Hobbs

Shin Godzilla (2016)



30+ entries into the Godzilla franchise, it’s funny to think that the longest-running film series of all time would still be able to surprise its audience, especially after all of the violent/philosophical/chaotic/campy/what-have-you places it’s already gone in the past. That’s why I was shocked & amused that the franchise’s latest Japanese reboot, helmed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka That Thing from Tumblr that Baffles Me), was entirely different from the kaiju genre piece I was expecting when I entered the theater. Shin Godzilla is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of following Gareth Edwards’s mistake in recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.

In an American production the tendency would be to push for a lone hero to save Japan from its kaiju problem. A Japanese film about Japanese temperament, Shin Godzilla instead looks for the virtues in collaboration & the power of the hive mind collective. It’s largely in the first half of the film where this kind of political philosophy is played for satirical humor. A condemnation of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the film follows a bewildered Japanese government as they hold meetings upon meetings upon meetings about what to do about Godzilla in a process that produces inaction through belabored decision-making on what exact action to take. By the time any order is given the situation has shifted and the multilayered meetings & special emergency councils start all over again, like a rotary dial. Everyone is fearful of “rushing to judgement” and reads their opinions directly from print-out reports, so that nothing ever gets done in a Kafkaesque political process that goes in circles chasing its own tail. This slow process is depicted through the quick edits of a modern comedy, producing an interesting dynamic in its form vs. content divide. What’s even more interesting is how that dynamic evolves along with its titular laser-shooting monster. The ever-shifting official titles for the government’s ranks-climbing employees and their special councils & task forces for the “unidentified creature emergency” stop being played for laughs at a certain point and the tone understandably becomes morbid. Somehow even the slow, measured groupthink satirized in the first half is explained to have its own virtue and is eventually celebrated, especially in comparison with the rash, easy-fix violence proposed by foreign bodies like America & the UN. It’s a much more thoughtful & nuanced mode of political self-reflection than I ever would have expected from a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, I guess it would be a shame to review a Godzilla movie without talking about Godzilla itself. Like with Pulgasari & Hedorah, the kaiju in Shin Godzilla is a rapidly evolving creature that starts off pathetically ineffective & maybe even a little cute. That is, if anything that could be described as a lopsided feline turkey with dead fish eyes & blood-gushing gills could be considered “cute.” When Godzilla reaches its final form it’s named “God incarnate” out of respect for its adaptability & its capacity for survival, but it starts as a half-formed, difficult to look at mess of mismatched biology. It’s a stumbling weakling that only makes it more frustrating when bureaucratic inaction allows it to evolve & soldier on into near-immortality. The film’s CG renderings of its creature-driven mayhem can come across as a little cheap or odd-looking, recalling the bizarre digital imagery of titles like Big Man Japan, but it’s no more visibly artificial than the costumes & miniatures of the Godzillas of old, all things considered. Also, Godzilla’s final form is so undeniably badass that the film’s digital means aren’t really worth questioning or nitpicking. Like with most Godzilla films, the creature is second to the concerns of humanity’s response to its presence here, but when the god lizard is in action it’s just as weirdly fascinating as ever. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow.

There wasn’t a whole lot of laughter at our fairly well-attended Shin Godzilla screening, which means either that I’m exaggerating the film’s merit as a political comedy or that the satire isn’t translating consistently well across cultural lines. It’s been reported that Anno specifically wrote the film as a response to the government’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiishi disaster, where a tsunami caused a full-blown nuclear meltdown in Japan. I’m sure there’s plenty of rewarding political subtext you could read in Shin Godzilla‘s take on that tragedy, but it has a much wider scope of intent than merely addressing that one issue. Everything from Japan’s general foreign policy to the looming shadow of Hiroshima to the country’s very sense of national identity is tackled here. Shin Godzilla barrels through all of these ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the experimental framing & mixed medium experimentation (including moments of found footage aesthetic) of an indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could, no matter what some audiences seem to believe they want from the franchise. Outside of a few clunky details like a stray stumbling in screensaver-quality CGI or a goddawful stab at an American accent, this is Godzilla done exactly right. Its philosophical ideas are enthusiastic & exciting and the monster exists only to serve them, the exact ideal for a creature feature not aiming for cheap genre thrills or easy camp.

-Brandon Ledet