The Haunting (1963)

The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.

It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.

I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.

The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.

-Brandon Ledet

The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

If you want to be unnecessarily pedantic about what qualifies as a true giallo film, The Corruption of Chris Miller might not qualify. In the strictest sense, giallo is a schlocky, overstylized murder-mystery genre specifically made in Italy, mostly in the 1970s. Although clearly contemporary to that 70s Euro horror sensibility, The Corruption of Chris Miller is a Spanish production, performed in English, and stars a famous French chanteuse. However, even though it was staged on the wrong side of the Italian/Spanish divide, the film is a pure giallo experience by nearly every other metric. Its gorgeous visual palate (bolstered by Eastman color processing), needlessly complicated kills, acrylic paint stage blood, and consistently sleazy vibe all check off the exact tones & tropes expected from the genre. More convincingly yet, its slow-paced, convoluted mystery plot is incredibly confusing even after all the facts are presented in the final reveal, falling apart the second you think about it too long. That’s a giallo, bb.

Breathless-vet, pop star, and political subversive Jean Seberg stars as a young psychobiddy in training: a lonely, middle-aged woman who imprisons & psychologically torments her stepdaughter as revenge against the husband who left them both behind. She runs an explicitly man-hating household, teaching her step-daughter (the younger Spanish pop star Marisol) that “Men don’t love. They injure. They invade. It’s always cruelty and violence with them.” Meanwhile, she’s the sole source of the home’s cruelty & violence – gaslighting & sexually “seducing” her stepchild as a half-thought-out mode of revenge against a man who isn’t present and couldn’t care less. That is, until she expands her operations to a full-on bisexual harem by inviting a dangerous drifter into their home as a handyman: a British stud whom the audience suspects might be a thieving killer of local wealthy women. Is this drifter actually the killer, as all of the evidence suggests? Or is the killer one of the two central women-in-conflict? Or is it a throwaway side character the movie loses track of the minute after they’re introduced? The answer will only betray & confuse you, especially after you rewatch the kill scenes to review the evidence.

As always with gialli, the mystery itself is not as important here as the style & the mood. The tension in Seberg’s lavish home (i.e. lesbian torture dungeon) is wonderfully staged and feels entirely separate from the murders in the surrounding village. Even the kills themselves feel wholly distinct from one another, as the killer is wildly inconsistent in their choices of disguise, weapon, and victim. The closest the film comes to solidifying a recognizably iconic slasher villain visage (like a Jason or Michael Meyers mask) is a sequence where the killer dons a rain slicker, a scythe, and sunglasses while executing an entire family in their home. My personal favorite kill, however, is the opening scene in which they dress like a grotesque Charlie Chaplin pantomime to kill a woman they’ve just slept with. The way the killer continues to perform Silent Era schtick as The Tramp even after the murder had me howling, and I’m not sure the movie ever reached that level of upsetting amusement again. Attempting an entire proto-slasher about a killer in Chaplin drag might have been the film’s best chance as an all-timer in the giallo genre. It at least would have afforded it a sense of consistency, which it’s desperately lacking.

Unless you’re an Italian essentialist, The Corruption of Chris Miller lands squarely in the giallo pantheon – both in satisfying the requirements of the genre and in terms of quality. Replaying & picking apart the plot in your head is an exercise in futility that only gets more frustrating the further you drift away from it. At the same time, its sleazy atmosphere, over-the-top violence, and indulgences in gorgeous artifice reward that confusion with plenty in-the-moment pleasures.

-Brandon Ledet

Impetigore (2020)

The Indonesian ghost story Impetigore shocked me, chilled me, and left me guessing where its story was headed until its very last minute. That’s an extremely rare quality to find in a modern horror film, especially one that sticks this close to the tones & conventions of its genre. In an ideal, perfectly-functioning movie industry, Impetigore would be the kind of well-funded horror flick that hits wide theatrical release regularly: handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the traumatizing shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play. Instead, it’s an international export that premiered to mildly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance before quietly finding its way to streaming on Shudder with little fanfare. Impetigore should be an industry norm. Instead, it’s a minor miracle.

It starts with a concise, conceptually brilliant cold open in which a highway tollbooth employee is stalked and eventually hunted in her glass cuboid prison by a machete-wielding maniac. Before he raises his weapon for the deathblow, the crazed killer complains in a reasonable, weary tone, “We don’t want what your family left behind. Please take it away.” That short-story slasher intro then opens up to a much wider, richer tale of an intergenerational curse. A young, desperate woman treks back to her seemingly well-to-do family’s isolated village, hoping to reclaim any generational wealth she may have left behind when she was whisked away to the big city as a child. It turns out her family’s domineering presence in the village is represented by more than just a large house & a fear-inciting name. It also lingers in the form of a vicious curse that torments & disfigures each new generation of the community, so that whatever exploitative evils they committed in the past continue to haunt the present in an active, malicious cycle.

Reductively speaking, Impetigore offers an on-the-surface metaphor about the persistent evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth. However, the rules & origins of its ghostly curse mutate & self-complicate often enough that it doesn’t feel lazily considered or over-simplified. That’s rare in a modern horror film, where each plot development is typically expected to hold some metaphorical Meaning in a 1:1 allegory. Impetigore’s relationship with Extreme Gore freak-outs is similarly distinctive in the modern horror landscape – walking a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in the grotesque details of its cruelty. This is a film that weaponizes your imagination against you for maximum dread, then somehow exceeds the worst-case-scenario imagery you conjure instead of shying away from the discomfort (often by depicting horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). It’s also a movie that features several traditional Indonesian puppet shows, just in case you’re not already thoroughly entertained.

I very much wish Impetigore weren’t exceptional, that its handsomely executed but appropriately bleak grotesqueries were just another shock-of-the-day horror. As is, it feels like a role model for how well-funded modern horror should look & operate – offering a glimpse of a better, more fucked-up cinematic landscape. It is exceptional, and it should be celebrated as such.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Monster Brawl (2011)

Our current Movie of the Month, the low-budget horror comedy Monster Brawl, might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s partly because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a pro wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust expectations to the payoffs of that format. A one-time-only deathmatch tournament between famous monster archetypes in a haunted graveyard to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”, it’s staged as if it were a real-time Pay-Per-View broadcast of an actual pro wrestling event. Monster Brawl‘s feature-length commitment to that structure can be alienating if you’re not immediately tickled by its absurdity, which proved true for most of The Swampflix Crew. This turned out to be an extremely self-indulgent Movie of the Month selection on my part, as no one else in this polluted swamp seemed to have a good time with it. Whoops.

As a result, recommending further viewing to anyone who enjoyed Monster Brawl and wants to see more movies on its shamelessly trashy wavelength is somewhat of an empty exercise. It appears that no one enjoys Monster Brawl, outside maybe appreciating the creature design for the bayou-dwelling eco terrorist wrestler Swamp Gut. Regardless, here are a few recommended titles if you—improbably—loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar goofball horror comedies that traffic in the same grey area between creature feature & pro wrestling PPV.

Santo vs. The Vampire Women (1962)

No discussion of the intersection between pro wrestling & cheap-o horror would be complete without the masked luchador Santo. A wrestler so beloved in Mexico that he was practically a folk hero, Santo’s in-ring celebrity was exported to the big screen in over 50 feature films, many of them within the horror genre. I can’t speak to the quality of the majority of Santo’s cinematic output (much of which was never translated to English), but I can heartily recommend his most financially & culturally successful picture: Santo vs. The Vampire Women. It’s a film that’s most well recognized in the US for being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s a fun pro wrestling-themed Halloween Season watch even without that ironic mockery (especially without, honestly).

Amusingly, Santo vs. The Vampire Women mostly keeps its horror & its wrestling separated in the plot. Santo is hired by a worried father as a kind of bodyguard to protect his vulnerable daughter who is being actively recruited by a vampire coven, as the luchador comes from a long line of ancestors who are sworn “to eliminate evil of all kinds.” Unfortunately, the professional demands of being a popular sports entertainer means that Santo is often too “busy” to help keep the daughter-stealing vampire women at bay, as he’s often tied up with a wrestling match he can’t get out of. The novelty of the film’s wrestling angle exists almost entirely independently from the main action, which means that the story has to stop dead still to make room for the on-screen luchador matches the same way a porno’s story stalls for lengthy depictions of sex.

Even so, the Satanic ritual imagery & buxom vampire coven are so Cool on their own that this would be a solid horror cheapie even without the novelty of the wrestling angle. Anyone with an appreciation for pro wrestling pageantry and Poverty Row knockoffs of Universal Horror classics should have blast with the spooky-campy atmosphere established here. And maybe it’s for the best that it kept its wrestling & its plot separate, since Monster Brawl synthesized those two elements into a single structure-defining gimmick and practically no one enjoys it.

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Monster Brawl is not the only gimmicky fight tournament movie that I love more than I likely should. I also have a huge (likely nostalgic) soft spot for Paul WS Anderson’s big-screen adaptation of the gory button-masher Mortal Kombat. Much like how Monster Brawl structures its story around a Pro Wrestling Pay-Per-View, the Mortal Kombat movie goes out of its way to maintain the tiered tournament structure of its video game source material. It’s a little better funded than Monster Brawl and a little less committed to their shared gimmick (the official fights don’t start until 40min into the film in this case), so in comparison it stands out as a slicker, more accessible variation on the same deathmatch tournament theme.

Instead of fighting to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”, the combatants of Mortal Kombat compete “to defend the realm of Earth” from an “emperor sorcerer demon” who seeks to subjugate & steal the souls of every living being. The humans who enter this interdimensional deathmatch tournament (Mortal Kombat all-stars Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang) face off against evil creatures much less culturally overfamiliar than the Universal Monster knockoffs featured in Monster Brawl — mostly demonic ninjas with black magic control over elements like fire, ice, and … shapeshifting reptiles? Much like how Monster Brawl has its clear stand-out monster with Swamp Gut, however, the real star of Mortal Kombat is the four-armed mutant freakshow Goro — a beautiful blend of clunky animatronics and shitty mid-90s CGI.

The best argument for Mortal Kombat being a superior precursor to Monster Brawl is the way it keeps the audience’s energy up throughout, mostly by periodically re-playing its insanely high-BPM techno theme song as a constant pep-up. A hissing Christopher Lambert also hams it up for the camera as the wise “lightning god” Raiden in a way that stands out more than any single performance in Monster Brawl, which is more about playing on familiar archetypes than establishing anything novel or nuanced. If you found yourself amused by the premise of Monster Brawl but frustrated by the execution, Mortal Kombat might be the slicked-up, smoothed-out version of the film you were looking for.

Septic Man (2013)

Monster Brawl is not the first time director Jesse T. Cook has let down a member of The Swampflix Crew. In the earliest months of the blog, James published a two-star review of Cook’s feces-themed creature feature Septic Man, in which a sewer worker is trapped in a contaminated septic tank and subsequently transforms into a hideous turd monster. James wrote, “Watching a filth-covered man roll around in a septic tank for an hour and a half didn’t turn out to be as fun as I expected. […] Septic Man had the potential to be like a darker Toxic Avenger but instead has none of Troma’s charms and ends up being every bit as bad as its premise would imply.” He goes on to call the film “drab”, “ugly”, “depressing”, “boring” and, most bluntly, “crap.” Naturally, after subjecting everyone to what turned out to be a miserable experience watching Cook’s previous film, I felt that it was my turn to suffer Septic Man myself as penance.

James was right and wrong. Septic Man is only 80 minutes long; it’s also crap. It’s like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Troma got into the gritty Eli Roth-era torture porn game. I dare say I was charmed by it, though. The way the grunt sewer worker is financially pressured to keep working during a water contamination pandemic only to be transformed into a hideous Poo Beast just happened to hit me at the right time, considering the parallel labor exploitations of the COVID age. The gradual Turd Monster transformation was also surprisingly solid as a practical effects throwback (although he’s obviously nowhere near as loveable as our beloved Swamp Gut; no one is).

If I’ve learned anything from this exercise it’s that I have terrible taste and cannot be trusted, especially when it comes to the oeuvre of Jesse T. Cook. This blog is a septic tank of bad takes, and I am but the filth-mutated man trapped inside it.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #119 of The Swampflix Podcast: Tales from the Hood (1995) & The 1990s Black Horror Renaissance

Welcome to Episode #119 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss the Spike Lee-produced horror anthology Tales from the Hood (1995) and its place in what Horror Noire describes as The 1990s Black Horror Renaissance. Enjoy!

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

– The Podcast Crew

Season of the Witch (1973)

In one of the more recent episodes of The Swampflix Podcast, Brandon, James, and I got together to virtually discuss what we categorized as “smart zombie movies.” During the recording, I mentioned that I’m not a fan of George Romero’s zombie films, such as Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. I find them to be boring, and I just really don’t care to waste time watching them. I know that is a blasphemous thing to say since he is considered to be one of greatest horror filmmakers of all time, but I’m just speaking my truth. Then, a few nights ago, I stumbled across a film called Season of the Witch. At first, I thought it was my favorite entry in the Halloween series (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), but it actually turned out to be one of Romero’s earliest films. It also happened to be considered one of his worst. Of course, I ended up enjoying it.

Season of the Witch has an interesting backstory. It was written and directed by George Romero and produced by his first wife, Nancy Romero. It was originally marketed as a softcore porn film called Hungry Wives with a poster that featured drawings of a few sultry women and the tagline, “Caviar in the kitchen, nothing in the bedroom.” The film itself is far from being anything close to a softcore porn; well, minus one quick sex scene and a few nude moments. It was the distributor who pushed Romero in the softcore direction, wanting him to incorporate pornographic sex scenes between the film’s main character and her young lover, but Romero refused. He had a different vision.

Influenced by second-wave feminism, Romero made a fantastic film about a dissatisfied housewife who dabbles in the occult, and he did it all with a budget of about $100,000 (it was originally $250,000 before his funding dropped). The main character, Joan Mitchell, is played by actress Jan White. White is somehow only credited with acting in four films (many of them from the 1970s). I was shocked to find out that her acting career was so short, because she is phenomenal in Season of the Witch. She has such a naturally entrancing, striking look that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Something about her is so delightfully haunting. To make things even better, she wears some of the most magnificent beehive wigs and late 1960s/early 1970s fashion. There’s also tons of cobalt blue carpet throughout the film that serves as an exquisite backdrop for her fabulous looks.

Season of the Witch starts off in a very exciting way. It opens up with a long dream sequence where Jan is walking in the woods while being ignored by her husband, and encountering all sorts of other bizarre dreamlike things (spooky music included). It gives off major The Feminine Mystique vibes. Jan is a housewife with an abusive husband and young-adult daughter, so she’s at the point in her life where she’s trying to figure out what her next step is. At a neighborhood party, she discovers that one of her neighbors is a witch. This sparks an interest in her, so she decides to explore the practice of witchcraft. There’s a great scene where she goes into town to shop for witchy supplies while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays in the background. The first spell she casts is a love spell that results in her having a tryst with her daughter’s lover. It’s so scandalous! As she dives deeper into the occult, she has progressively intense dreams about someone in a rubber demon mask breaking into her home. The dream later becomes infused with her reality, leading to a shocking act that I won’t spoil in this review.

Season of the Witch is not a horror movie, so don’t go into it expecting anything of the sort. It’s also not the softcore porn it was marketed as initially. It’s simply a wonderful drama that explores the internal struggles of an unhappy suburban housewife through the use of witchcraft. I was so impressed with this film, and I have a newfound appreciation for George Romero. I can’t wait to explore more of his non-zombie movies from this era. Hopefully I’ll find more hidden gems like Season of the Witch.

-Britnee Lombas