Cross-Promotion: Knock Off (1998) on Crushed Celluloid’s Jean-Pod Van Damme Podcast

I was recently invited back to join in on another episode of Jean-Pod Van Damme, a podcast that, as you’d likely guess, is solely dedicated to the cinematic wonders of the Muscles from Brussels, JCVD. Hosted by Marcus Jones of the movie blog Crushed Celluloid (which has an eponymous flagship podcast as well), Jean-Pod Van Damme is a irony-free celebration of one of action cinema’s more unlikely stars, a meathead European martial arts expert who stumbles in convincingly delivering his laugh lines. In this specific episode of JPVD, Marcus & I discussed the 1998 Van Damme/Rob Schneider team-up action comedy Knock Off. Directed by Tsui Hark (the same Hong Kong legend who directed JCVD’s team-up with Dennis Rodman, Double Team), Knock Off is a kind of spiritual sequel to the film I discussed with Marcus the last time I guested on his show.

Give a listen to Jean-Pod Van Damme’s episode on Knock Off below! And if you like what you hear, you can find Crushed Celluloid on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their regular ol’ homepage for more enthusiastic takes on fringe genre cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Hatred (2017)

Sometimes a movie comes along that’s so awful, you wonder why anyone even tried, or how anyone who watched the final product could have ever signed off on its release. The Hatred is such a film: a bargain basement haunted house flick about four young women and a little girl being terrorized by the apparition of the long-dead daughter of a Nazi war criminal via a mystical object that induces hatred. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds.

The film opens with an overly long sepia-drenched prologue showing the day-to-day rural “1950s” life of Samuel Sears (Andrew Divoff, aka the title character of the Wishmaster series, and definitely someone who deserved better than this), an escaped Nazi higher-up who now lives a life of simplicity on his “farm” alongside his wife Miriam (Nina Siemaszko) and daughter Alice (Darby Walker). Samuel receives an ugly iron cross talisman along with a personal letter of thanks from Hitler himself for his service, both of which he boards up inside his Nazi paraphernalia room. Alice, ignorant of her father’s past, wants to start going in to town and open herself up to being courted by local boys, but Samuel keeps her locked away in their home. One day, however, his anger is so great that he drowns Alice in a water trough and hides her body. The local police are unable to locate her body and assume that she has run away. Miriam eventually kills Samuel and leaves the home herself, never to appear in the film again.

In the present day, Regan (Sarah Davenport) is en route to the home of a family friend/professor, to babysit his daughter Irene (Shae Smolik) for a period of time. My apologies if this is vague, but so is the screenplay. Along for the weekend (?) are her friends (Gabrielle Bourne, Bayley Corman, and Alisha Wainwright). After a couple of run-of-the-mill scares and the occasional bump in the night, the ghost of Ashley enacts revenge and picks the girls off one by one until the film concludes with Generic Horror Ending 3.01A: Final Girl™ and Precocious Innocent Child™ escape from Haunted House™.

This feels like a movie that fell through a portal to a parallel dimension where David Decoteau makes films for a straight male audience. Decoteau, for those not in the know, earned his stripes directing B-horror fare like Creepazoids! and sequels to various Full Moon properties, like Puppet Master and Prehysteria. In the late nineties and continuing into the new millennium, however, he took up directing direct-to-video in-name-only horror flicks starring young actors and underwear models looking to break into the industry. His filmography is largely composed of fare like The Brotherhood and its five (!) sequels, Boy Crazies, Haunted Frat, and other homoerotic “movies” that exist primarily as vehicles for long, static scenes of nubile white twinks with only one film credit showering and running around the woods in their briefs. Also, sometimes Alexandra Paul is there.

With the rise and spread (no pun intended) of the internet, the demand for softcore not-quite-porn subsided, leading Decoteau to new heights of laziness, churning out family fare like A Talking Cat?! and An Easter Bunny Puppy. This isn’t meant to be a dig at Decoteau; the man got his start working for Roger Corman after all, and movies like Beastly Boyz are an important part of DTV film history even if they’re no longer relevant. And the man obviously learned a lot from Corman, seeing as he managed to release seven films in 2011 alone. The problem is that it’s painfully apparent that he’s not even trying anymore. He just shoots all of his movies in and around his house now, with no attempt to hide his apathetic approach to cinema (there’s a couch made out of the back of a VW Beetle that appears in every single film).

The Hatred is in this same vein. The midcentury “farmhouse” that is the setting for the introduction (which takes up over a quarter of the film’s runtime and is, despite its laziness, still the best part of the film) is obviously a modern home, in spite of the half-assed attempts to disguise this with set dressing. It’s not out of the question that the Sears family would have a wicker loveseat or ornamental mirrors, but they probably wouldn’t have been the kind you can see at your nearest Target, or have been awkwardly placed in the background in such a way that it was obviously covering a modern electrical outlet. The sepia is so omnipresent that you get the feeling you’re watching a film set in the 1800s, not the 1950s, and the dissonance of that visual rhetoric makes it impossible to take it seriously, even when Divoff, Siemaszko, and Walker are giving decent performances (regardless of truly atrocious dialogue).

This is a movie that’s coming apart at its (very visible) seams at all times. The location is never established in the dialogue; there’s a shot of the North Carolina flag early in the film, but when Regan’s gaggle of gal pals is giving her a hard time about her decision to move to “the country” from “the city,” we’re never given a clear picture of where either of these places are supposed to be. Is “the city” Raleigh? Is “the country” Louisburg? The lines as written and recited paint a picture of Regan as a NYC gal moving to some distant backwater. There’s an ineffable haziness to the whole film that would be notable if the filmmaker was creating a timeless dreamlike Everywhere, but it’s not–it’s just lazy. As further illustration, in the same scene where this “expository” dialogue is spoken, the girls express appreciation for “hot cowboys.” The audience does not see these cowboys in a reverse shot, nor did the director stick an extra in a flannel shirt and jeans and have him pass between the women and the camera; it’s just the four of them looking off-camera and exaggeratedly waggling their eyebrows. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

What separates this from being a true alternate universe Decoteau film, however, is the overall lack of any impropriety. One of the girls (Stock Character 40A.4™) is killed by the vengeful spirit while talking her boyfriend out of phone sex, which is so scandal-free it’s almost laughable. There are no shower scenes or long tracking shots of Regan and a friend slowly walking down a hallway in their bleach-white undergarments. All of the girls are quite pretty and are perfectly suitable as the gender-bent equivalents of Decoteau’s stable of twunks. In fact, I would dare say that they’re all far more talented than any of the one-and-done “actors” from Decoteau’s films, giving performances that range from passable to decent, although the lead actress feels a little insincere, like an overly-kind waitress that you recognize is being nice to you because she has to (here’s a tip, boys: she’s never flirting with you; she’s working).

Normally, even if a film is objectively bad, we here at Swampflix can still find something nice to say about it, or advise that there could be a specific audience who could glean some nugget of joy from a mess. Not this time, I’m afraid. To call this film “half-assed” is to betray an ignorance of fractions; I’d be surprised if even a quarter of an ass was used in the making of this film. There’re too many great movies, streaming and not, to waste your precious time on this stinker.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Little Evil (2017)

When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to the horror classics of her youth whenever I was fortunate enough to be left behind while my father went deer hunting. We watched Carrie, Halloween (which she and my dad had gone to see in the theaters on their first date, although he left halfway through and waited for her in the lobby), and one of her favorites, The Omen. In case there are any among you who have never seen it (and shame on you), The Omen stars Gregory Peck as an American diplomat whose child dies at birth; he is convinced to adopt a local orphan instead. He and his unwitting wife name the child Damien, and as the child grows he starts to suspect, correctly, that little Damien is the Antichrist. There were a few sequels (including one where the adult Damien, played by Sam Neill, is an American politician) and a remake released on the apropos date of 06/06/06.

Although the remake is one of the better revisitations and reimaginings of the early millennium (perhaps helped by the fact that I find both Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber to be quite charming), my new favorite follow-up is 2017’s Little Evil. Adam Scott plays Gary Bloom, the new husband of Samantha (Evangeline Lilly) and thus stepfather to Lucas (Owen Atlas), who dresses and acts just like Damien, including using a “goat” sock puppet to talk in a low demonic voice. Samantha is completely blind to (or hilariously complacent about) the blatantly supernatural events happening around her: bloody rain, flickering lights, the backwards speech of the priest at their wedding, even Lucas’s use of a compelling voice to tell his teachers to kill themselves.

Gary gets conflicting and terrible advice from the other stepfathers in his community, including Victor (Kyle Bornheimer), Wayne (Chris D’Elia), and Larry (Donald Faison). The best and worst of these is Al (Lady Dynamite‘s Bridget Everett), his co-worker and a woman so butch she considers herself to be a part of the stepdad community. Everett all but steals the show here; she’s hilarious, and her deadpan delivery of her lines about her own stepson and her relationship with the new wife are perfectly timed and exquisite. Rounding out the case are the always-welcome Sally Field as a social worker and Clancy Brown as Reverend Gospel, an end-times theologian.

After Lucas causes his birthday clown to set himself on fire, Child Protective Services gets involved just as Gary seeks out professional help, including the assistance of a demon hunter, just as in The Omen. But unlike The Omen, Little Evil evolves into a story about something else: fatherhood, and the need for good role models. The film ultimately makes a surprisingly heartwarming statement about the nature of paternity and the importance of love over biology.

The film is not without a few low points, of course. There is a bit of the film that drags in the middle, as it gets wrapped up in some of the typical dudebro lowbrow comedy that we’ve come to expect from directors like Judd Apatow, but director Eli Craig (who gave us the fantastic horror comedy/pastiche Tucker and Dale vs. Evil back in 2010) shifts back into gear pretty quickly after this, and the high points more than make up for the less-than-perfect moments. Lilly is also a high point of recommendation; embodied by another actress, Samantha might have come across as dim-witted or inept, but Lilly finds the perfect balance between defensive (but lovingly) maternal and comically missing the point.

Little Evil is a Netflix original, so it’s presumably not going anywhere soon. If I were you, I’d use the last days of January to watch as much Futurama as you can before it leaves the streaming platform at the end of the month. But when that’s done, go back and check out this easy-going comedy. And also, watch The Omen if you haven’t already, you Philistine!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2017

1. Get Out – Jordan Peele’s debut feature displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form as it pushes past discussion of explicit racism to explore the awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime. It’s a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

2. mother! – A sumptuous movie with haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. A movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence. A beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie that might just be the most important major studio release of 2017.  mother! demands discussion & analysis in a way most major studio releases typically don’t. The important part of that discussion is not whether you are personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.

3. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is one of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017, but it’s also much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its marketing would lead you to believe.  A coming-of-age cannibal film about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood, Raw is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement. Although there are plenty horror elements at play, the movie also works as a dark (dark, dark) comedy. It’s gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing.

 

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – A movie about getting justice for yourself and fighting the assholes of the world, this is the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was. Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore deftly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey’s mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic. It vacillates between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence, but it also demonstrates a wealth of heart and subversiveness.

5. The Shape of Water – A vision of hope & empowerment. Revisionist justice for the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Guillermo del Toro’s latest is emotional comfort food for the outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits of the world. A brutal, lushly shot fairy tale, The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid. It’s also a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit, especially in seeing the world’s true, institutional monsters overcome by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, an older queer man, and their sexy fishman accomplice.

6. Split – A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. Split is a thriller that makes you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor Joy), whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible trapped & confused feeling overwhelms even as the film descends into gleefully trashy genre tropes that don’t at all deserve the attention to craft M. Night Shyamalan affords them.

7. IT – Steven King’s novel IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence upon the road to maturity, a book that holds the record for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work, but last year’s film adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in it and brings it to life. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring TV miniseries adaptation from 1990, but the film is a major improvement on that attempt. Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year, an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT is a declarative, back to the basics return to Event Film horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

8. Logan – A somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death, this R-rated X-Men film’s throat-ripping hyperviolence offers a legitimate glimpse into the grim future of Trump’s America. It also breaks new ground as a superhero narrative that finally tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster. This is a neo-western set in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year.

9. The Lure – Gore has never been so glamorous! The Lure beautifully mixes fairy tale lore with glitterful violence and a fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack to deliver a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. The film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, addiction, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and fluid sexuality while still maintaining the vibe of a nonstop party or an especially lively nightmare.

10. Marjorie Prime – The best hard sci-fi film of the year is a deeply introspective and meditative piece on the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age. The ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to our imperfect personal narratives. This serene, philosophical stage play adaptation about artificial intelligence dwells on these themes at length, mostly to the sounds of distant waves crashing and softly spoken dialogue. Marjorie Prime is the most quietly elegant film listed here, but it’s also the most philosophically rewarding in its reflections on memory, truth, and the erosive nature of time.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Ken Russell’s Streamlined Modernization & Perversion of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell’s 1988 film adaptation of the 1911 Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm is often criticized for being an adaptation in name only. Critical consensus is that Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm maintains only minor details of Stoker’s original premise and the most the two works share is a common title. It’s true that Russell’s adaptation strays much further from its source material than 1922’s Nosferatu does in its faithful, but copyright-infringing bastardization of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The film The Lair of the White Worm is not a blasphemous, in-name-only adulteration of a sacred text, however. Bram Stoker’s White Worm novel is incoherent pulp. It’s a tawdry mess of a work written late in the author’s life, long past when his mental facilities were at their sharpest. Russell modernized and drastically altered basic components of the late author’s work, but he was much more faithful to the source material than what’s typically acknowledged. There’s even a prideful title card that proclaims, “Screenplay by Ken Russell from the Bram Stoker novel” to boastfully acknowledge their posthumous collaboration. Russell did not disrespectfully diminish a well-loved literary work. The filmmaker streamlined and enhanced an imperfect, misshapen novel that had been largely (and perhaps rightfully) forgotten by time by accentuating its most worthwhile aspects. He transformed a painfully slow read into a wildly fun horror film.

Although Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is a mid-length novella, it reads like a rambling epic that drones on for thousands of pages. Its story is essentially a simplistic rehashing of Dracula, in which a naïve outsider intrudes on a world of supernatural menace while conducting entirely unrelated, mundane business. Instead of providing legal service for suspiciously inhuman royalty like the solicitor Jonathan Harker in Dracula, The Lair of the White Worm’s naïve outsider, Adam Salton, is thrust into contact with similarly inhuman gentry by neighborly proximity. During a routine getting to know the attractive neighbors visit, Salton finds two wicked figures tormenting the innocent women of the house. One of these figures, Sir Caswall, is a weak carbon copy of Count Dracula. Although his apparent vampirism is never made explicit he physically resembles Bram Stoker’s most infamous creation and shares Dracula’s passion for hypnotizing women, this time under the guise of practicing “mesmerism.” The second tormentor, Lady Arabella, is more of a creation original to this novel. Lady Arabella is gradually revealed to be a shape-shifting “worm” (skewing closer to a giant snake or a dragon than an earthworm) known to feed on locals who dare encroach on its territory. While Dracula touches on the danger of female sexuality, Lair explicitly refers to our villainess, Lady Arabella, as a “cocotte”, French for prostitute. Despite her Anglo-Saxon good looks, a dangerous fiend like Lady Arabella could “infect” respectable English women with her serpentine (and independent) ways and seduce men to their ruin.

Furthering the Dracula parallels, a Van Helsing-type (Sir Nathaniel) helps Adam concoct a plan to destroy the worm’s pit below Diana’s Grove, but instead of confronting the villainous Arabella and Caswall on their adjacent ancestral lands, Adam and his wife Mimi bafflingly run around the countryside in an effort to avoid the villains. Lady Arabella is responsible for her own destruction by running a wire directly from the kite to her own well in hopes of lurig Caswall into her clutches. The villains’ fate is sealed by a random lightning strike that ignites dynamite meant to destroy the pit below Arabella’s property, where the worm is known to feed. It’s as if the lightning were a direct punishment from God or, more likely, Stoker had no idea how to wrap up a mess of a plot he had dug for himself.

Russell’s screenplay adaptation cleans up the mess Stoker made by combining and excising characters to essentialize what makes it distinct from being yet another Dracula. One major change was combining the Dracula and Van Helsing archetypes of Sir Caswall and Sir Nathaniel into a single character. Portrayed by a young Hugh Grant, Lord James D’Ampton is a destined hero ordained by heritage to destroy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Lady Arabella in the Stoker version) once she’s revealed to be a shapeshifting, killer “worm.” D’Ampton remains a “mesmerism” enthusiast, but in the way of a snake-charmer, a skill willed to him through family to aid in his task of hypnotizing and slaying the titular worm beast. Two major villains tormenting Derbyshire, England is one too many for a work this simple; Russell was smart to remove the most Dracula-reminiscent one of the pair. His other character changes are basic modernizations meant to update Stoker’s outdated material to a 1980s setting. For instance, the naïve Adam Salton character (now named Angus Flint and portrayed by Peter Capaldi) is an archeologist, not newly-landed gentry. This style of modernization did require some major changes in terms of character traits, however. Russell removed the bizarre racial fixations Stoker focused on in his novel. In particular, Stoker exhaustingly others an African immigrant servant to Sir Caswall and a biracial female love interest for their cultural and (worse yet) supposed biological differences. Oolanga is framed as an obviously evil character. He writes, “But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”  Meanwhile, Mimi Watford is compared favorably to her white, but passive & tragically doomed cousin as an exotic, fiery beauty: “Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock she is sprung from; Mimi almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset.” Russell excises this aspect of the work entirely by casting white actors in their roles and diminishing the parts they play in the central story. There is both a shrewdness and a cowardice to Russell’s avoidance of the uncomfortable racial issues at the heart of his Bram Stoker source material, but it’s ultimately an improvement that helps declutter the work just as much as removing the redundant, Dracula-reminiscent villain.

Russell had to polish and streamline Stoker’s original vision to craft a fun, watchable horror movie out of the rubble, but the novel plays directly into the auteur’s pet obsessions. At the heart of Stoker’s novella is a deep-seated fear of female sexual autonomy, detectable in the sexual imagery of Lady Arabella’s phallic “worm” form and the vaginal cave where that monster feeds. Russell was well established as a sexual provocateur by the time he adapted Lair of the White Worm in 1988. Transgressive works like Crimes of Passion and The Devils had already allowed the director to indulge in blatant depictions of the perceived horrors of autonomous female sexuality in a way Stoker’s much earlier novel could only subtly imply. Streamlining The Lair of the White Worm’s most exciting components allowed Russell more time to exploit the Cronenbergian sexual menace inherent to the character of Lady Arabella (Lady Sylvia). He wastes no time revealing that she is a shapeshifting, humanoid snake, unlike Stoker who saved her mysterious villainy for much later in his novella. Before actress Amanda Donahue is even depicted spitting venom or baring comically oversized fangs, she is costumed wearing cowls and headscarves that accentuate her reptilian nature, affording her the silhouette of a bipedal cobra. This allows more time for Russell, who was never one for subtlety, to indulge in the character’s over-the-top sexual villainy. Her consumption of young, innocent locals is made explicitly analogous to sexual desire and is even tied to an elaborate sex ritual that involves a giant, sharpened phallus (a favored instrument of death for Russell, as indicated by its inclusion here and in Crimes of Passion). The director’s screenplay may play loose with the details of its source material, but there’s enough of Bram Stoker’s influence detectable to see why he was drawn to it. Russell maintained the mesmerism hypnosis of the novella, but made it a psychedelic side effect of Lady Sylvia’s venom (in imagery directly pulled from his previous works Altered States and The Devils). Russell latched onto Stoker’s subliminal sexual anxiety, but elevated it from subtext to the forefront. He even held onto the Dracula-reverberating aspects of the novel by accentuating the comically oversized, vampire-like marks Lady Sylvia’s snake bites leave on her victim’s necks. Russell made major changes to the novella, but in a way that was more of a personalized distillation than a disrespectful dilution.

Besides cleaning up its loose ends and blatant character-based redundancies, Ken Russell improved The Lair of the White Worm by making it fun, memorable, and genuinely unnerving. Many movie adaptations of literary works are derided as lesser echoes of superior source material. Russell, by contrast, altered a near-forgotten work for the better. As Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm was never considered to be an especially well-written or even well-conceived literary work, the decades-late, culturally updated revision had to come from a genuinely enthusiastic place as a reader. Ken Russell was himself no stranger to critical consensus that his work was over the top, messy pulp and saw some of his own perverse passions in Stoker’s little-loved final novel. His adaptation may have been more dedicated to bringing out those auteurist similarities between their two minds than it was to faithfully mimicking Stoker’s work, but given the lowly place where the novel started that’s something of an honor.

-CC Chapman

Alli’s Top Films of 2017

It has been a year, both good and bad, mostly bad, but it’s the worst years that inspire some of the best art. Or at least that’s the bit we’re all told, as suffering artists. There were a lot more original stories of note for me this year, rather than remakes and book adaptations, so there may be something to that.

It being a rough year for me, though, which meant I fell behind, and because of that I’m keeping my ranked list short at 5.

1. The Shape of Water – It’s a tragedy to me that the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon got treated so badly. It’s an injustice that scientists would resort to killing and maiming a creature instead of just trying to avoid and passively observe it in the hopes of understanding it. The Creature always deserved better, and I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so. The revisionist justice of this movie is emotional comfort food for me.

Besides the Creature getting a better ending, The Shape of Water also serves as a countercultural rallying cry. The outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits work together to foil the plans of the establishment. Working class women, the lowest paid of anyone in America, actually get back at condescending bosses. Del Toro gives us a vision of hope and empowerment.

The cast is fantastic! Michael Shannon is horrifying. Sally Hawkins sweetly plays a mute rebel. Octavia Spencer gets a great role as a proud black woman in the time of the Civil Rights movement (when many proud black women made a difference and provided a strong backbone to the movement, only to be unfortunately overlooked). Doug Jones, though. He has played some of the most iconic del Toro roles: the Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth and the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Now, he will forever be known as the sexiest fish man onscreen.

I already knew I would love this movie just from del Toro’s name alone. He is one of my favorite currently working directors. The art he creates is lush and fantastic. He has a way of preserving the fun and excitement of fairy tales while also never letting his audience forget that there’s a real terror to them. With The Shape of Water he hands us another original modern fairy tale with a bittersweet ending, because he knows exactly what people like me want: a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid.

2. Get Out – What can I say? So many writers have written so many pieces that offer better words than I could.

I’m glad that it didn’t just focus on the horrifying explicit racism, but the neoliberal hypocrisy that comes from the wealthy elite “nice white people.” The awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color all help it succeed not only as a political movie, but also as a horror. The final act is a bloody catharsis that reminds me in many ways of the famous Anansi “get angry” monologue from the TV adaptation of American Gods:

Angry is good. Angry gets shit done. You shed tears for Anansi, and here he is, telling you you are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease. He is telling you there isn’t one goddamn reason you shouldn’t go up there right now and slit the throats of every last one of these Dutch motherfuckers and set fire to this ship!

American media has been rightly political in recent years. Get Out is another wonderful commentary on how weird and messed up the good old USA is.

3. mother! – I’ve always had mixed feelings about Aronofsky. I hate Requiem for a Dream, but absolutely love Black Swan, as Brandon and I discussed in the Swampflix Podcast episode about “ballet horror.” I went into mother! knowing it was one of those movies that elicits extremely polarizing reactions. I tend to be in the love it camp when it comes to those, and this was no exception.

It’s full of religious allegory, sure, but it also plays out like the absolute worst anxiety dream ever. I felt so personally offended by all the rude guests Mother had to deal with. The sink isn’t braced!! You weren’t invited! Just leave already!! Then the movie just totally breaks down into bonkers chaos, with literal bombshells and mobs. It’s all so gorgeous and frustrating.

I like the audacity of pointing out the wrongs and bizarreness of the Bible in an often heavy handed and overly dramatic movie. (I mean, what is the Bible itself if not heavy handed and overly dramatic?) The mother is so often referenced in Christianity, but where is she? The women of the Bible are so taken advantage of. It’s not right. Not in their own homes.  As the titular character played by Jennifer Lawrence screams at the godlike character of Javier Bardem, “YOU’RE INSANE!”

Really, that one line sums up the whole beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie.

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – Superhero movies are everywhere and, because of that, vigilante justice is normalized to a certain extent. We cheer when robbers and thieves actually get caught and put in their place by Spider-Man or Batman or whoever else decides to focus on small criminals that day. Realistically, going after bad guys and taking them down is terrifying and scary, yet we’ve all had the temptation to put a bike thief or burglar in a headlock. This movie is about giving into that, getting justice for yourself, and fighting the assholes of the world.

Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore elegantly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey strongly carries this movie on her back. She somehow doesn’t even get outshined by Elijah Wood playing an awkwardly sweet “sword guy” with a dog named Kevin! The chemistry between the two of them is sweet and wonderful here. The concept of revenge is dissected and not glamorized at all. The gory violence, raging criminals, and shady underbelly of the world are put on full display.

The world is a horrible place, but if you have a katana-swinging nerdy neighbor with a rat tail, it’s probably going to be A-Okay.

5. Ingrid Goes West – Is there a more relevant movie to the times that will soon be completely obsolete and irrelevant? iPhones, Instagram aesthetic, self-made social media personalities . . . What will the future think of our preoccupation with that culture? A charming fixation on the New or beating a dead horse with a stick? Either way, the cynical approach Ingrid Goes West takes is a new direction and tone, not the wariness and fright of Unfriended or other social media based horror.

Instead of following the victims, we follow Ingrid, Aubrey Plaza, an Instagram obsessed stalker who just wants to be friends with and be like the popular girls. So much so that she assaults a girl and has a stay at an inpatient facility for her mental health. Shedding some of her usual deadpan delivery, Plaza opens up at points and shows true vulnerability. Ingrid is not an easy character to empathize with. She’s manipulative and pathetic, but like all of us she has problems. It’s hard not to observe her flaws and see them as exaggerated versions of your own insecurities and needs. Plus, the people she aspires to be are the intolerable rich hippie types who curate their own Instagram aesthetics: found object art, mason jars, “sun bleached” hair, and airplants. It’s hard to feel sorry for try-hard rich kids who attempt to look “just thrown together.”

At times Ingrid Goes West feels like another, “damn kids with their phones” rant, but honestly we all know people like the ones in this movie, and we all wish they would just get off Instagram for a minute (at least).

Honorable Mentions

Movies I desperately want to talk about but couldn’t quite rank:

The Little Hours – Aubrey Plaza is on a roll. I hope she never stops. Although here, Kate Micucci steals a lot of the spotlight.

I can’t say too much about this movie other than it’s ridiculous, hilarious, and made a lot of Catholics upset. My favorite scene is where a few nuns get drunk and start singing.

A Ghost Story – Problematic as hell, of course. Brandon has every right to hate it and people have every right to judge me for appreciating a lot of it. I hate the choice to work with Casey Affleck. I hate him and his male entitlement, and honestly him being in this movie feels totally unnecessary. Luckily, most of the time his face is covered with a sheet. And he barely gets any dialogue. Yes, he scares off a hardworking single Latina mother by breaking all her plates. Yes, it’s sort of pretentious on top of all of that.

But it’s extremely emotionally manipulative and I feel like that bears saying. At the end, I even thought it was good. I like the concept of a ghost being a loser who can’t let go, stuck in a fixed point. I like the idea of the classic image of a ghost in its burial shroud as the costuming. Also, in the end, he was the negative vibes of the house he desperately wanted to stay in, so it feels revelatory to watch this jerk bro silently face infinity itself. I like to imagine when he gets the note at the end of the movie it just says, “My boyfriend is a jerk.”

I wish this movie had been made with a different cast and a different sort of ghost. Why not the ghost next door even?

It Comes At Night – Speaking of anxiety dreams! I have in the past suffered from a bunch of different parasomnias, including but not limited to: night terrors and sleep paralysis. I typically try to avoid movies that play off of those, but this one is just too good and too spooky. I found a little bit of the acting to be off and I still think the ending is a little weak, but it’s well worth the watch if you want a slow burn creep-out.

-Alli Hobbs

Freaked (1993)

When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.

Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.

Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fury (1978)

When watching The Fury, one gets the distinct feeling that it’s an adaptation of a Stephen King novel that King never wrote. This is perhaps unfair to novelist John Farris, given the width and breadth of his large body of work, which predates King’s. Then again, if you take a look at his Wikipedia page, The Fury is his only novel that actually has its own page; prolific though he may be, one must wonder whether or not his prose has much staying power. There are certain trappings that make The Fury feel like a King work, not the least of which is having Brian De Palma at the helm, just two years after he directed the first King adaptation with 1976’s Carrie (and a year before the second, Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV Salem’s Lot). The film also features mysterious agents working for an unnamed government agency that is similar to the role played by The Shop in King’s works, Firestarter most notable among them; the paternal relationship that forms one of the movie’s emotional cores likewise echoes, or rather presages, that of Charlie and her father in that novel.

Of course, Firestarter was published in 1980, two years after the release of The Fury (and four years after its publication date), so take from that what you will. Did King rip off The Fury? Is the superficial similarity due simply to the fact that De Palma’s Carrie influenced the perception of King in the public sphere? Perhaps the similar theses of Firestarter and The Fury were simply born out of similar anti-authority distrust and anti-government paranoia that sprang up in the wake of Nixon’s 1974 impeachment and the spilling of government secrets that accompanied his fall. (Any similarities between the phrase “Firestarter and The Fury” and the title of a certain questionable-but-plausible book about another polarizing and demagogic American “leader” are unintentional, if interesting.)

The Fury opens with Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas, in his sixties and still obviously capable of beating the tar out of a man a third his age) and his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) preparing to return to the U.S. after spending most of Robin’s life in exotic locales as part of Peter’s work with the aforementioned, unnamed agency; Peter is retiring. Robin is hesitant, not just because he barely remembers the states, but also because he has his doubts about the special institute where he will be enrolled upon his return, a kind of school for psychics. Peter is confident, however, that Robin will succeed in any environment. Their idyllic last days are interrupted by a seaborne attack from sheikhs with machine guns, and Robin is spirited away by Peter’s former partner, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), while Peter is seemingly killed. He has survived, however, and sees Childress paying off the apparent attackers for their false flag operation; Peter shoots Childress, maiming him, but Robin is already gone.

A year later, Chicago teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) is noticed by one of Sandza’s old compatriots, who calls the older man to tip him off that he’s discovered another psychic, one who might be able to help him find Robin. This informant is killed immediately; Childress has been keeping tabs on him, and uses the phone call to track down Peter, who must flee from his hotel in his underpants. He makes contact with Hester (Carrier Snodgress), an old flame and his secret informant within the aforementioned psychic institute run by Jim McKeever (Charles Dunning), which has already recruited Gillian. Working together, can Hester and Peter rescue Gillian from Childress’s clutches? Can Gillian help them find and rescue Robin? And after a year of being honed and trained to be Childress’s psychic weapon, can Robin truly be saved, even if he can be found and freed?

I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I’ve written here where I note my love of seventies and eighties conspiracy thrillers. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that certain social events have a far-reaching and undeniable effect on the media of that time. The seventies were fertile ground for the genre, given the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Nixon’s actions that led to his impeachment, and the resultant collapse of the American public’s faith in its leadership. This was the fertile well that gave us Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and The Parallax View, as well as countless others. It’s no surprise that conspiracy thrillers with a supernatural (or at least a  parapsychological or science fiction) twist would emerge as well: The Fury, of course, as well as the aforementioned Firestarter, but also Scanners (psychics created as the result of careless prescriptions with untested drugs, à la the tragedy of Thalidomide babies), Capricorn One (a faked space mission, the cover-up of which endangers the lives of the astronauts involved and the journalists who discover the truth), and others.

I would wager that, in spite of the similarities between The Fury and Firestarter, the latter does not plagiarize the former; they were both simply born out of similar sentiments and sweeping social (and sociological) anxieties. It’s also possible that future Class of 1999 director Mark L. Lester, when filming Firestarter for its 1984 release, took inspiration from the films that came before it. The novel on which the film was based mentioned that the use of psychic powers caused “tiny cerebral hemorrhages,” which simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. Lester instead invoked the image of the psychic nosebleed, a common trope now (see its use in many works as shorthand for strenuous psychic activity, most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things); in fact, many people believe that this was the first use of this visual, but in fact it goes back at least as far as Scanners three years previously, and a bleeding nose is involved with psychic phenomena in The Fury, although in this film it is the result of a psychic attack, not a symptom. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of convergent ideas coming to bear in a short amount of time, and perhaps homage, but not evidence of intellectual theft.

With regards to The Fury itself as a film, this is a classic that deserves to be seen. The film features a great soundtrack by John Williams, fresh off of his Oscar win for Star Wars. There’re also some truly dynamite effects used to demonstrate the use of psychic power, the most effective being a shot of Gillian being fully transported into a vision of Robin inside the institute as she stands frozen on the stairs, the past playing out in a rear projection as the camera swims around her. It’s truly stunning, especially for 1978 and on a budget of a mere 5 or 7 million dollars (different sources conflict each other on this matter). One of the film’s greatest overall strengths is the way that De Palma invests time in the daily lives of the people who are tangentially affected or in some way attached to the agency and its pursuit of Gillian and brainwashing of Robin. We spend a few minutes with the family whose home Peter invades in his initial flight from Childress’s men, and we get to know a lot about their interpersonal relationships in a brief span of screentime. There’s even friendly banter between agents on surveillance duty about coffee and chocolate; these are small moments, but they paint the world of the film in vivid hues, giving us a lived-in sense of time and place where other, lesser filmmakers wouldn’t have bothered.

Getting back to the topic of anti-government paranoia in mass media, perhaps we will soon see a resurgence of films in this rhetorical space, given the current political climate. We are already seeing a revisitation of the Pentagon Papers with the release of The Post, and even 2016’s Zootopia got in on the action. Until this movement takes full flight, we can take comfort in the arms of films past that reflect the anxieties of our present. After all, if we survived it before, we can survive it again.

As of January 2018, we are still here, and The Fury is streaming on Netflix. Good night, and good luck.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond