Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

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“The eternal wonders of space & time. The faraway dreams & mysteries of other worlds, other life. The stars, the planets: man has been face to face with them for centuries, barely able to penetrate their unknown secrets. Someday, the barrier will be pierced. Why must we wait? Why not now?”

Judging by the above prologue, the 1950s writers behind Cat-Women of the Moon really wanted to fuck outer space. Like, all of it. The film’s phallic symbol space rocket searches the cosmos for something to “pierce” & “penetrate” from minute one, but the film doesn’t find a tangible target for its desire of interstellar sexual conquest until more than halfway into its measly 60min runtime. The titular cat-women of the moon, played by the less-than-infamous “Hollywood Cover Girls” don’t appear until more than a half hour into their own film. The movie mostly functions like a cheap version of a Planet of the Vampires or The Angry Red Planet, with a bewildered crew of astronauts exploring a strange alien terrain (this time not venturing any further then our own moon) and facing challenges presented by the life they unexpectedly encounter there. When these alien monster obstacles take the shape of meteorites & giant moon spiders the film remains fun & lighthearted, but more than a little indistinct. For some reason, it’s the hidden Dark Side of the Moon city of sinister women in black catsuits with a passion for misandry & ritualistic dance that distinguishes Cat-Women of the Moon as above average, 3D-era schlock. I just can’t place my finger on it.

The men of the doomed astronaut crew are outnumbered & made vulnerable when their only female member, the navigator, falls under the hypnotic spell of the lunar cat women and leads them to peril at the underground city where the sexed-up aliens dwell. Her strange directives are at first perceived as a “touch of space madness” and her crew is already in danger by the time her unwitting betrayal is revealed. The men of this lunar expedition (it’s not clear if it’s the first mission to the moon, but they’re certainly the first crew to breathe oxygen in a moon cave, which is something) sought to “pierce” & “penetrate” the mysteries of space and initially believe their buxom alien hosts to be a great conduit for that conqueror’s spirit. However, the moon women prove to be far more powerful than the Earth men could imagine, commanding abilities that include teleportation, telepathy, and hypnotism. While the men make plans to make love & swipe some precious moon gold, the cat-women plot to steal away their only female crew member & pilot their rocket ship back to Earth where all men will be killed or enslaved to make room for more lunar cat-women. There’s an interesting push & pull between the film’s posturing bravado & its villainous “We have no use for men!” misandry that makes this a really fun, almost anachronistic watch. This isn’t quite the man-bashing roadster gangs of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but it might be somewhere in the same ballpark in its own silly way.

It’s kind of incredible just how much of Kubrick’s 2001 blew this entire space-exploration B-picture genre apart, but the painted lunar backgrounds & tiny rocket ship models presented here are still beautiful & interesting in their own quaint way. The cat-women’s moon city in particular has a quality to it that looks like a cross between a chess board and a De Chirico painting in an interesting way. As you can tell by the film’s title, though, visual craft is far from what makes it interesting or distinct. Cat-Women of the Moon’s mix of man-hating sex kittens, gigantic spider puppets, hostile lunar terrains, and the men desperate to survive them is what makes the film a blast as a quick, cheap B-picture with a  killer titular hook. If watching something this unrepentantly silly & leering sounds a little exhausting at an hour’s length, I at least urge you to watch the film’s trailer below. Its promise of alien women who are “everlastingly beautiful … and without men for centuries!” just waiting to “lure men into the den of bloodthirsty moon monsters” is just as silly as anything that happens in the film, which it should be mentioned features red-blooded Americans carrying cigarettes & guns on the moon’s surface, as is their cosmos-penetrating right. I recommend the film for a cheap, schlocky thrill not too far off from a visually realized work of erotic fiction, but this two minute ad is also a work of art in its own right.

-Brandon Ledet

Halloween Report 2016: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

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Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means a lot of cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently trying to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror films year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report, here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!

Art House Horror

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If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.

The Neon Demon (2016): “The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. Days later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. This film is going to make a lot of people very angry and I’m certain that’s exactly the reaction Refn is searching for, the cruel bastard. At the same time it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year. I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.”

The Witch (2016): “A lot of times when you tell people that you really liked a horror movie the first question they ask is ‘Was it scary?’ Now, that’s not a requirement for me to enjoy myself at a horror showing. Horror can be funny or gruesome or just eccentric or interesting enough to make questions about whether or not it was scary to even be relevant. With The Witch, however, I can actually answer that question bluntly & with enthusiasm. The Witch is a scary movie. It’s a haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan, so it has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was a scary movie, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying.”

High-Rise (2016): “High-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.”

Tale of Tales (2016): “It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.”

The Boy (2015): “Much like the empty, existential trudge through life at its desolate motel setting, The Boy brings its pace down to a slow crawl for most of its runtime. Most of the film plays like a lowkey indie drama that turns the idea of morbid fascination into a mood-defining aesthetic. It isn’t until the last half hour so that the film becomes recognizable as an 80s slasher version of Norman Bates: The Early Years. It takes a significant effort to get to the film’s horror genre payoffs, but allowing the film to lull you into a creepily hypnotic state makes that last minute tonal shift all the more satisfying.”

The Body Snatcher (1945): “The Body Snatcher is surely one of the best of Karloff & Lugosi’s collaborations and a fitting note for the pair to end their work together on. The film’s promotional material promises The Body Snatcher to be, ‘The screen’s last word in shock sensation!’ which might not be true for cinema at large, but is at least literally true in the context of Lugosi & Karloff’s appearances together on film. It was the final word.”

Goodnight Mommy (2015): “Goodnight Mommy is a smart, taut movie that is beautifully composed and cinematically crisp, full of beautiful exterior landscape shots that highlight the isolation of the two boys and contribute to the logic of their slowly building paranoia in a home that no longer feels safe and a caregiver they cannot recognize.”

Silent Horror

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If the above list of art-house horror titles is a little too modern for your tastes & you’re curious about the genre’s origins in the 20s & 30s, here are some particularly great examples of horror cinema’s early beginnings.

A Page of Madness (1926): “A whirlwind of rapid edits, bizarre imagery, and an oppressive absence of linear storytelling make A Page of Madness feel like a contemporary with, say, Eraserhead or Tetsuo: The Iron Man instead of a distant relic of horror cinema. It’s an early masterwork of disjointed, abstract filmmaking and it’s one that was nearly lost forever, considered unobtainable for nearly four decades before a salvageable (and significantly shortened) print was re-discovered.“

The Phantom Carriage (1921): “The Phantom Carriage is well worth a watch even outside its massive influence on the likes of Kubrick & Bergman. The film was noteworthy in its time for innovations in its ghostly camera trickery and its flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure. Those aspects still feel strikingly anachronistic & forward-thinking today, especially the gnarly phantom imagery, but you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate what’s essentially a timeless story of brutally cold selfishness & heartbreaking remorse.”

The Bat (1926): “The Bat is a must-see work of seminal art. It’s not some antiquated bore with an antagonist that was plucked from lowly ranks for a higher purpose. The film directly influenced the creation of Batman, but it also achieves its own, exquisite Art Deco horror aesthetic that recalls the immense wonders of the Hollywood classic The Black Cat, except with more of a creature feature lean.”

Destiny (1921): “Released in the wake of the seminal Swedish masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Destiny (sometimes billed as Behind the Wall or Weary Death) offers yet another striking image of Death as he conducts his business of harvesting expired souls (this time depicted as a passenger in a carriage instead of the driver, oddly enough). The early German expressionism landmark expanded the limitations of film as a medium, even cited by legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock & Luis Buñuel as proof that cinema had potential & merit as an artform. The film’s ambitious special effects, unconventional storytelling, and morbid mix of death & romance all amount to a one of a kind glimpse into modern art cinema’s humble silent era beginnings.”

The Lost World (1925): “The same way the blend of CGI & animatronics floored audiences with “realistic” dinos in Jurassic Park‘s 1994 release, the stop motion dinosaurs of 1925’s The Lost World were an unfathomable achievement at its time. When the source material’s author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle screened test footage for the press (at a magician’s conference of all places) The New York Times even excitedly reported ‘(Conan Doyle’s) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily life like. If fakes, they were masterpieces.’ Imagine writing that ‘if fakes’ qualifier in earnest & how quickly that writer’s head would have exploded if they got a glimpse of Spielberg’s work 70 years later.”

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920): “An ancient German Expressionism creature feature about Jewish mysticism, The Golem: How He Came Into the World bounces back & forth from being an incredible work that nearly rivals Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon in sheer beauty & ambition and the most standard issue silent horror you can conjure in your mind.”

Giallo

Dario Argento is one of the all-time horror movie greats, right up there with Mario Bava as one of the masters of the highly-influential giallo genre. His work is a perfect blend of art house cinema & trashy genre fare, the exact formula Swampflix treasures most. Boomer was in the midst of tirelessly covering all of Argento’s films at the time we posted our Halloween Report last year. He’s since finished the project and covered a few non-Argento giallo pictures in its wake. Here’s the best of what’s been posted since.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996): “What separates art and sculpture from prose, film, drama, and music is that those media incorporate time as an element of the story, progressing in a more or less linear fashion from beginning to end. Paintings and sculptures do not have this luxury, and thus must evoke an emotional rapport and create a rhetorical space through a still image, implying motion with static visuals. The Stendhal Syndrome, in many ways, acts as a series of set pieces that are presented out of order, and must be ordered after viewing. You cannot read The Night Watch from left to right like a sentence; you first see the figures highlighted by chiaroscuro, and then focus on other faces, or the figures’ clothing. Syndrome is much the same, and the attempt to recreate this kind of experience on film is laudable in its audacity and its success. I simply wish that they appeared in a movie that was praiseworthy for the content of its story as well.”

The Church (La chiesa) (1989): “So much is left unexplained that La chiesa fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness.”

Sleepless (2001): “Sleepless isn’t necessarily a return to form with regards to inventive cinematography, but it does feature several set pieces that effectively ramp up the tension while also being visually dynamic in a way that Argento hadn’t shown an aptitude for in the nineties–not even once. The first of such set pieces, the chase aboard the train, stands out as being particularly remarkable, and may be one of the best from the director’s entire career.”

Body Puzzle (1992): “Body Puzzle is a fun little giallo thriller, with delightful cinematography and a plot that works, for the most part. The tension builds slowly as it becomes apparent that there is no safe place for Tracy no matter where she goes, and the final reveal is foreshadowed in a manner that is utterly unexpected but fits all the clues that we have seen so far, minus a red herring that I am certain made most contemporary reviewers rather pissed, given the film’s overall low aggregate rating.”

The House with Laughing Windows (1976): “There’s a lot to unpack in The House with the Laughing Windows, and I like that the entire village is in on the murders, a la the original Wicker Man or the modern classic Hot Fuzz, although the reason for why the consent to be complicit in the murders requires inspection. As is the case with many gialli from this era, there is a larger cultural context that I am unfamiliar with, and that knowledge may lend itself to a clearer interpretation of the film’s themes.”

Confined Space Thrillers

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One of the more unexpected trends of 2016 is how many high quality confined space thrillers have terrorized filmgoers throughout the year. Here’s some of the best examples of claustrophobic horrors we’ve seen this year.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016): “10 Cloverfield Lane is less of a ‘sister film’ sequel to the (shrill, annoying, insufferable) 2008 found-footage sci-fi horror Cloverfield & more of a tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture. I’m not sure that it’s the first film to depict the selfish nastiness & misanthropy at the heart of ‘survival’ types in the context of the horror genre, but it’s the first I’ve seen and it’s damn effective.”

The Invitation (2016): “The isolation of the main character’s skepticism makes The Invitation feel just as much like a psychological horror as it does a reverse home invasion thriller (where the victim is invited as a guest to the threatening stranger’s home). With the production value just as cheap as the fictional party’s wine looks expensive, The Invitation has a way of feeling like everything’s happening inside of its protagonist’s head as he works through painful memories in a storied space, as if he’s navigating a nightmare or a session of hypnotherapy. Thankfully, the film goes to a much more interesting & terrifying place than an it-was-all-just-a-dream reveal, but the psychological torment of the film’s nobody-believes-me terror adds a layer of meaning & emotional impact that would be absent without that single-character specificity.”

Don’t Breathe (2016): “Even with all of its flaws, Don’t Breathe is a delightfully wicked and taut horror thriller with great influences from other films in the same genre and outside of it. Beyond the ‘blind person fends off home invaders’ similarities to Wait Until Dark and the superficial similarities to The Edukators, there’s a lot of The People Under the Stairs in Don’t Breathe’s DNA (minus that film’s exploration of the race-related nature of economic disadvantage, which is lacking here).”

Green Room (2016): “Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread.”

Emelie (2016): “It’s rare that a thriller can get away with being this tense while showing so little onscreen violence. Emelie knows exactly what buttons to push to sell the discomfort of its children in peril scenario, especially when the kids are forced into exposure to above-their-age-range experiences like witnessing a python’s feeding habits or passionate fornication. If it had somehow worked those same provocations into its desperate-for-distinction conclusion I would’ve been much more enthusiastic about its value as a complete product. I really like Emelie, but with a better third act I could’ve fallen madly in love with it.”

Creature Features

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Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.

Alligator (1980): “Campy creature features were a hot commodity around the time Alligator was released (Piranha, Humanoids from the Deep, C.H.U.D., etc.), and usually the film gets thrown into that group. Yes, there are many campy moments in Alligator, but it’s actually an excellent, well-rounded film. I would go as far as to say it’s close to being on the same level as Jaws.”

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957): “The main innovation I Was a Teenage Werewolf brings to the table is the very basic idea of a teenage monster. It’s difficult to imagine modern horror cinema without teenage monsters. Transforming into a heinous, bloodthirsty monstrosity is a perfect metaphor for the hormonal powder keg of puberty and has been put to effective use in countless horror pictures. Even the werewolf teenager picture has evolved into its own genre, including titles like Ginger Snaps, Cursed, and, duh, Teen Wolf. In 1957, however, this idea was entirely foreign & even somewhat controversial.”

Pulgasari (1985): “Even without its exceedingly surreal context as a document of unlawful imprisonment under Kim Jong-il’s thumb, Pulgasari would still be highly recommendable as a slice of over-the-top creature feature cinema. I’m far from an expert in the hallmarks of kaiju cinema, but the film felt wholly unique to me, an odd glimpse into the way the genre can lend itself to wide variety of metaphors the same way zombies, vampires, and X-Men have in American media over the years. The titular monster ranges from cute to terrifying, from friend to enemy over the course of the film, which is a lot more nuanced than what I’m used to from my kaiju.”

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968): “Perhaps the strangest detail about the ghost monsters in Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare is just how kid-friendly they look. I don’t use the comparison to the soon-to-follow work of Jim Henson and Sid & Marty Krofft lightly. Many of the creature designs are just aching for plushie doll or action figure merchandise, a sensation backed up by the film’s broad physical comedy & the fact that they befriend children in the film. What’s strange about this is that so much of the film would be a nightmare for certain young audiences. Ghosts take shape from magical, colored mists in spooky swamps. Buckets of giallo-crimson stage blood is spilled in the film’s many brawls. Adult language like ‘damn’, ‘bastard’, and ‘hell’ are liberally peppered throughout the script. This is all jarring at first, but when I think back to staging action figure battles on the living room carpet, that sort of violent crassness actually makes total sense. Children can often be goofy & violent in the same breath, so then it’s really no surprise that Spook Warfare was somewhat of a cultural hit upon its initial release. Even as an (admittedly goofy) adult, the mere sight of the film’s gang of monsters was enough to win me over as a fan, effectively bringing out my inner child enough to sidestep any concerns with plot or general purpose. Sometimes monsters brawling really can alone be enough to make a great film & Spook Warfare stands as a prime example of that maxim.”

Attack the Block (2011): “There are plenty of reasons for sci-fi & horror fans to give Attack the Block a solid chance. It’s a perfectly crafted little midnight monster movie, one with a charming cast of young’ns, a wicked sense of humor, and some top shelf creature feature mayhem. The film doesn’t need John Boyega’s teenage presence to be worthy of a retroactive recommendation & reappraisal, but that doesn’t hurt either.”

Clown (2016): “Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of ‘That guy!’ character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon ‘classics’, it’s a genuinely great product.”

Daikaijû Gamera (1965): “Gamera is essentially a too-soon remake of Godzilla, but it’s a Godzilla remake that features a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that can turn its shell into a flying saucer. I don’t think I need to explain any more than that to get the film’s basic appeal across. It’s a concept that pretty much sells itself.”

The Shallows (2016): “The film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.”

How to Make a Monster (1958): “Instead of staging a logical physical altercation of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein from the previous pictures, How to Make a Monster instead depicts a movie production of that altercation. Set on the American International Pictures movie lot, the film centers on the make-up artist who created the look of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein and his mental unraveling during the production of a film where the two monsters meet onscreen. It’s the exact kind of meta horror weirdness I was a huge sucker for in Wes Craven films like New Nightmare (except maybe a little cheaper & a little goofier) and it works like gangbusters.”

Weirdo Outliers

Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies expectations. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in completely unexpected ways.

Tourist Trap (1979): “Tourist Trap instantly became one of my favorite horror films of all-time. I literally got goosebumps several times throughout the film, and I’m not one who gets scared easily. I highly recommend Tourist Trap for anyone remotely disturbed by mannequins or psychopaths.”

#horror (2015): “An explosion of emojis, group texts, cyber-bullying and, oddly enough, fine art, #horror is an entirely idiosyncratic film, a sort of modern take on the giallo style-over-substance horror/mystery formula, with its stylization firmly in line with the vibrant vapidity of life online in the 2010s. It’s such a strange, difficult to stomach experience that it somehow makes total sense that the film premiered as The Museum of Modern Art in NYC before promptly going straight to VOD with little to no critical fanfare.”

Hardware (1990): “The onslaught of roboviolence that dominates the final 2/3rds of Hardware is a chilling glimpse into Cronenberg’s America. Hardware‘s basics are very simple: a damsel in distress is trapped by a scary monster (robot) and any attempt to rescue her leads to more bloodshed. As trashy & campy as these genre films can be, however, Stanley manages to make them uniquely terrifying & unnerving. Hardware is both exactly just like every other creature feature I’ve ever seen before & not at all like any of them. I don’t know what to say about the film’s particular brand of horror other than it subliminally dialed into a part of my mind I prefer to leave locked up & hidden away. Stanley’s debut feature is both a schlocky horror trifle & an unholy incantation that puts the ugliest aspects of modernity to disturbing, downright evil use.”

The Nightmare (2015): “Ascher’s follow-up applies Room 237‘s judgement-free presentations of wild supposition to a different subject entirely: the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Halfway between the late night paranormal radio broadcast Coast to Coast AM & the hyper-artificial dramatic re-enactments of Rescue 911, The Nightmare pushes the boundaries of what a documentary even is & what it possibly could be. Ascher’s approach has little concern for evidence or context, but instead builds narratives from the oral history end of anthropology.”

Trick ‘r Treat (2007): “Although Trick ‘r Treat is far from perfect in terms of consistency & tone, its reverence for Halloween as a social & spiritual institution makes it a perfect candidate for the annual revisits I usually reserve for The Monster Squad & The Worst Witch. As soon as one of the first characters introduced is brutally murdered for offense of griping, ‘I hate Halloween,’ and talking down their decorations a day early, the film establishes its mission statement: to protect the sanctity of dressing up in costumes & eating candy at all costs.”

Bone Tomahawk (2015): “Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, ‘You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,’ but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work.”

Southbound (2016): “As a modern horror anthology, Southbound mostly delivers both on its genre-specific surface pleasures & its interest in boundary-pushing narrative innovation, which is more than you can say for most modern horror films it resembles. Besides, it features David Yow wielding a shotgun like a raving lunatic. Where else are you going to find that? (Please don’t ever tell me there’s an answer to that question.)”

Horror Comedy

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Here’s some recommendations in case you’re looking to have some yucks along with your scares.

Goosebumps (2015): “I personally would’ve preferred if Goosebumps had been anchored more by practical effects rather than its somewhat tiresome CGI (although there were some genuinely effective visual cues like a beautiful funhouse mirror sequence & a sad little box labeled ‘Dad’s Stuff’ in the film) but the younger generation of kids in the audience are highly likely not to care about that distinction. For them, the film is more or less perfect as a primer for horror & horror comedy as a genre, CGI warts & all and, honestly, that’s all that really matters.”

Krampus (2015): “Other than it being a horror film about a murderous Christmas beast, one of the weirdest things about Krampus is that it made it to the big screen. Most Christmas horror movies go straight to DVD. I can’t even remember the last time a Christmas horror film was in theaters. It may have been the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, but I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s always a good sign when a campy movie makes it to theaters. Krampus brought in over $16,000,000 on its opening weekend, which is pretty impressive considering its campy reputation. Bad taste is alive and well!”

Ghostbusters (2016): “It’s subtle, but there’s a lot of love and respect for Ghostbusters as a franchise in this film, no matter what you’ve heard. Some of the more slapsticky moments went on a little long for me, but there’s too much fun to be had to stick your head in the sand and ignore this movie just because the ‘Busters aren’t the same ones that you grew up with. And, hey, if Dave Coulier replacing Lorenzo Music as the voice of Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters or the creation of the Slimer! shorts to pad out the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters hour didn’t destroy the Ghostbusters legacy, this certainly won’t either.”

The Final Girls (2015): “If you happen to be a fan of 80s ‘camp site slasher films’ like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. Save reading reviews (like this one, for instance) for after you give the film a chance. It’s best to go into this movie cold if you can manage it. I wish I had, anyway.”

Deathgasm (2015): “On the surface, Deathgasm has a lot more in common with the chaotic 1980s horror franchise Demons than it does with zombie fare like Dead Alive. It’s just that the films’ eye-gouging, throat-slitting, head-removing, blood-puking mayhem is played almost entirely for grossout humor instead of the discomforting terror inherent to films like Demons. This is especially apparent in the gore’s juxtaposition with rickroll gags & the goofy image of kids in corpse paint enjoying an ice cream cone. The horror comedy of Deathgasm is far from unique, though. What truly makes Deathgasm stand out is its intimate understanding of metal as a subculture. It’s easily the most knowledgeable movie in that respect that I’ve seen since the under-appreciated Tenacious D road trip comedy Pick of Destiny. I mean that as the highest of compliments. The difference there is that Pick of Destiny (besides being relatively violence free) got a lot of the attitude right, but didn’t have bands with names like Skull Fist, Axeslasher, and Beastwars on the soundtrack. Deathgasm not only looks & acts the part; it also sounds it, which is a rare treat.”

Campy Spectacles

If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, sometimes intentionally and sometimes far from it. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.

My Demon Lover (1987): “I honestly didn’t expect My Demon Lover to be much different than the other hundreds of campy 80s comedies out there, but it actually does a great job standing out on its own. At first, the film didn’t seem like it was going to be anything but a cheeseball comedy about a fruit burger-eating airhead that falls for a perverted homeless guy who may or may not be a killer demon. Thankfully, things become much more interesting as the film goes on. The monster movie and romcom elements of My Demon Lover come together to create a rare combination that makes for one hell of a memorable flick.”

Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987): “The Slumber Party Massacre II gets everything right on its approach to slasher-driven mayhem. The origins & specifics of its killer rock n’ roll sex demon are just flat out ignored. All you know, really, is that he kinda looks like Andrew Dice Clay (although I’m sure they were aiming for Elvis) with a Dracula collar on his leather jacket & a gigantic power drill extending from the neck of his electric guitar (or ‘axe’ in 80s speak). He mercilessly disembowels & impales teen victims on his monstrously phallic weapon/musical instrument all while shredding hot licks & doling out generic rock ‘n roll phrases like ‘This is dedicated to the one I love’ & ‘C’mon baby, light my fire’ before each kill.”

The Flesh Eaters (1965): “The Flesh Eaters is horrifically violent for a mid-60s creature feature, paying great attention to the special effects of its blood & guts make-up. Many credit the film as being the very first example of gore horror & it’s difficult to argue otherwise. The anachronistic-feeling intrusion of extreme violence in what otherwise feels like a standard Corman-esque B-picture is beyond striking. Although I’ve seen far worse gore in films that followed in its wake, the out-of-place quality the violence has in The Flesh Eaters makes the film feel shocking & upsetting in a transgressive way.”

The Boy (2016): “I expected The Boy to play out more or less exactly like the last PG-13 evil doll movie to hit the theaters, the largely disappointing Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Annabelle, but the film sets its sights much higher than that light supernatural tomfoolery. It’s far from wholly original as a horror flick, but instead it pulls enough wacky ideas from a wide enough range of disparate horror movie sources that it ended up being an enjoyably kooky melting pot of repurposed ideas.”

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016): “It’s a well-informed balance between heady subject matter & campily melodramatic execution that makes Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? such a riot, a formula that holds true for all of Lifetime’s most memorable features whether they focus on co-ed call-girls, wife-mother-murderers or, in this case, lesbian vampires. This film has the gall to approach topics as powerful as grieving over familial loss, coming out to your parents, and the horrors of date rape, but does so only as a means to a tawdry end, namely inane mother-daughter shouting matches & young, lingerie-clad girls making out in spooky graveyards. It’s wonderfully trashy in that way, the best possible prospect for made-for-TV dreck.”

Cursed (2005): “I wouldn’t rank Cursed up there with Wes Craven’s best or anything like that, but I don’t think the director was aiming for that kind of accolade with this film anyway. Cursed finds Craven relaxed, having fun, and paying tribute to the monster movies he grew up loving. Throw in a time capsule cast & some classic werewolf puppetry/costuming from special effects master & John Landis collaborator Rick Baker (when the film isn’t indulging in ill-advised CGI) and you have a perfectly enjoyable midnight monster movie pastiche.”

Victor Frankenstein (2015): “Victor Frankenstein‘s latent homosexuality (which really does stretch just beyond the bounds of bromance), laughable atheism, and grotesque body humor all play like they were written in a late-night, whiskey-fuelled stupor, the same way the film’s monster was constructed by the titular mad scientist drunk & his perpetually terrified consort. I know I’m alone here, but my only complaint about this film is that it could’ve pushed its more ridiculous territory even further from Mary Shelly’s original vision, with Victor planting wet kisses on Igor’s cheeks & Rocky Horror’s ‘In just seven days, I can make you a man . . .’ blaring on the soundtrack.”

Death Ship (1980): “It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes Death Ship engaging. It’s a disappointment in most regards. The acting is terrible, the characters are under-developed (to the point of wondering if anyone even tried at all), and the premise is never really fully explained. There are some shocks, but they’re too hokey to be convincing or effective. In fact, there’s almost nothing redeemable about this film at all. Yet, I still enjoyed it. Maybe not as a spooky Shining-esque boat horror I assume they intended, but as a campy masterpiece.”

Cooties (2015): “Cooties may be a dirt cheap horror comedy, but it finds a downright lyrical, disorienting visual language in the spread of its central epidemic. You feel like a little kid who just spun too fast while playing ring around the rosie watching the film’s violence unfold. It’s fun to watch as a horror fan, but it must’ve been even more fun to film for the little kids who got the chance, given how much of the film’s violence resembles typical playground activity.”

Rubber (2011): “A full-length feature film about a killer car tire might sound a little narratively thin to wholly succeed, but Rubber sidesteps that concern by adding a second plot line concerning meta audience participation to its formula. Rubber is not only an unnecessarily gritty/gory version of the classic short film The Red Balloon; its also a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the audience who would want to see such a gratuitous triviality in the first place.”

Special Features

Every link listed above is for a review we’ve posted on the site. If you’re looking for lists or articles from our horror tag instead, check out our look at the horror works of comedic director John Landis, our comparison of the vampire mafia in Landis’s Innocent Blood with the zombie mafia of Shrunken Heads, our guide to the onscreen collaborations between horror legends Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff, and this list of five must-see, sharkless Jaws knockoffs.

And as if that weren’t enough already, we also have podcast episodes on Felt#horrorBoxing Helena, evil doll movies, AlligatorA Page of MadnessMartyrsThe Flesh Eaters, The Fly, and Possession.

Happy Halloween!

-The Swampflix Crew

 

A Town Called Panic: Double Fun (2016)

threehalfstar

Double Fun isn’t exactly a sequel in a traditional sense, although it is the latest theatrical release in its franchise since the 2009 feature A Town Called Panic. Rather than standing as a feature length follow-up to its madcap stop motion comedy predecessor, Double Fun is a “one day only” (it actually screened over two days at Prytania Theatre) theatrical event that cobbled together several short films from the A Town Called Panic catalog to reach a very slight feature length as a loose anthology. As a trip to the cinema Double Fun was an amusing novelty, not quite living up to the manic brilliance of the original A Town Called Panic movie, but still functioning fairly well as a crash course in the Belgian cult television show’s surreal, maddening mode of crude stop motion animation & slapstick comedy. It was great to see something so aggressively trivial play out on the prestige platform of the oldest running cinema in New Orleans, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the experience essential (like I would have with Prytania’s 100 year anniversary screening of Cinema Paradiso last year).

The main bulk of Double Fun were two mid-length shorts, titled “Christmas Panic” & “Back to School Panic.” I usually detest watching Christmas-themed media out of season, especially when it’s sacrilegious to the still-approaching holy day of Halloween, but I’ll make an exception when it means watching the KaBlam!-style antics of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian on the big screen. Of the two 2016 shorts, “Christmas Panic” was noticeably inferior to the high concept insanity of “Back to School Panic,” but it was still amusing to watch the Panic gang rob both the kindly Santa Claus & the abusive jerk neighbor Steven in the name of the true Christmas spirit: greed. “Back to School Panic” was the true attraction of Double Fun, starting with a very simple plot of Cowboy & Indian trying to avoid having to return to the classroom and somehow winding up playing with a Being John Malkovich situation inside a farm pig’s mind. “Christmas Panic” was cute & the mini-shorts that buffered the two featured segments of Double Fun were a great glimpse into the humble beginnings of the franchise, with the de-evolution monsters of “Cow Hulk” especially standing out as a treat. However, if A Town Called Panic fans are to seek out just one segment of this theatrical event, “Back to School Panic” is the one that most stands out as exemplary of what makes this manic stop motion franchise so weirdly endearing.

Double Fun works best as a crash course in Panic if you have already seen the feature film, which is likely a much better starting point. The way the anthology is curated answered a few lingering questions I had after watching the absurdist feature film. My main ambiguity about whether the franchise was intended for children or stoned adults was somewhat resoundingly answered by the rowdy groups of young tyke attendees at the screening who met the series of shorts with transfixed silence & wholesome giggling. In a way it seems like the series is moving in a more kid-friendly direction in general, especially in making Horse more of a father figure to the increasingly childlike Cowboy & Indian and in softening the music cues. There’s still the requisite partying, alcohol, theft, violence, and manic tension that makes A Town Called Panic distinct as dangerous-feeling children’s media, but the shift was noticeable. Watching the 2016 shorts mix in with the shoddier quality of the series’ humble beginnings was also illuminating as a recent convert, as was hearing the English-language voice actors in the dubs, which took some getting used to, but felt like insight into how the show is typically packaged outside of Belgium.

If you’ve never seen A Town Called Panic before, I urge you to start with the 2009 feature, as it’s a great reminder of the wonders of stop motion as a medium, even when crudely executed. Double Fun is great supplementary material for the already converted, especially in the unreal sci-fi absurdity of “Back to School Panic,” but it’s not necessarily something you need to kick yourself for missing in its very brief theatrical run. If either of those storylines had been used as a launching point for a proper feature length sequel, however, I might be singing a different tune.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #14 of The Swampflix Podcast: Trash Humpers (2010) & The Films of Richard Kelly

inaworld

Welcome to Episode #14 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourteenth episode (our second in Skype exile), Brandon discusses all four feature films by Richard Kelly, director of September’s Movie of the Month The Box, with returning co-host Bill Arceneaux and Caliornia-based film critic Rick Kelley. Also, Bill makes Brandon watch Harmony Korine’s found footage oddity Trash Humpers (2010) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Your Cat is Dead.

-Bill Arceneaux & Brandon Ledet

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

hobbit

three star

campstamp

In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like LegendLabyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.

A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.

Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Krisha (2016)

fourstar

As I mentioned in my less-than-thrilled review of Knight of Cups, I just don’t have the capacity within me to fall in love with a Terrence Malick flick. Yet, I keep returning to the director’s work because there’s so much promise in his raw material. Turns out the answer to this self-conflict might actually be to follow the career of Malick’s collaborators rather than to keep returning to a director that continually burns me. Tree of Life was one of my all-time most disappointing trips to the theater, but it did introduce me to the wonderful talents of actor Jessica Chastain & cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both of whom I have been keeping a close eye on ever since. What’s even more surprising, though, is the out of nowhere talent of young writer/director Trey Edward Shults, who had worked on the sets of Malick productions Tree of Life, Weightless, Voyage of Time, To the Wonder, and *shudder* Knight of Cups, but just made his own debut film Krisha. In his very first feature film effort the young talent has in my mind beaten Malick at his own game. Malick has an undeniable talent at constructing an image & a hypnotic tone, but his intensifying disinterest in narrative has left his films dull & meaningless experiences for me. Trey Edward Shults obviously paid close attention to how to evoke the potency of Malick’s raw material, but repurposes it for a clear, deeply personal narrative that makes its impact count for something. Krisha doesn’t always resembles the tone poem hypnosis of a Malick work, but when it chooses to use that cinematic mode as a storytelling tool it makes the impact count for more than any 30 seconds of a Malick film ever has in the past.

A lot of what drives home the impact of Krisha is the heart aching sincerity. The film’s central story is based on a real life tragedy in Shults’s family, stars his family, and is filmed in his parent’s home. This is an undeniably cheap-looking production, but the pain & anguish it reveals transcends its means. A woman returns to the cautiously open arms of her anxious family after a ten year separation & estrangement. There’s a mystery to the past trauma that has kept the estranged family member, Krisha, as an arm’s length black sheep, an ambiguous separation represented by the image of a deformed finger & the occasional tense accusation of her “selfishness” & “abandonment.” Although the exact circumstances of Krisha’s departure are never made explicitly clear, she does carry the faux-spiritual air of a recovering addict, calling her GPS “a lying bitch” in one breath & then claiming that she’s “working on becoming a more spiritual person” in the next. As the mounting tension of her tentative return to the fold escalates along with the stress inherent to orchestrating even the most congenial Thanksgiving meal, Krisha seems to be slowly barreling towards a relapse into abuse (both substance & familial), like a turkey slowly reaching the right temperature on an oven rack. The layering of tension in Krisha is methodical & deceptively casual. Once the pressure is released, however, it’s difficult to think back to a moment when the film felt at all civil or tightly contained. The Malickian looseness of the film’s final act is lightly suggested throughout, but once the Shults goes for broke with the tactic it almost feels as if the film had always been that way, just as its titular antagonist had never truly been “spiritual” or reformed.

Besides Shults’s strong command of image & tone, a lot of what makes Krisha stand out is the titular performance from his real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild. Her stressed-out addict’s faux hippie costume of serenity & acceptance is a bravely difficult balance to toe, especially considering the metatextual factoid that she’s portraying a real-life member of her family. Krisha’s pathetic attempts to make herself useful in the kitchen or to personally connect with individual members of a family she does not know would be absolutely devastating if it weren’t coming from such a phony, selfish place. Other non-actors in the film give memorably great, effective performances, most notably a grandmother figure who makes the horrors of dementia feel way too real, but this is undeniably Krisha Fairchild’s show. The film opens with her starkly framed & vulnerably staring down the audience, somewhat similar to Thomasin in The Witch, and the performance gets no more vain or glamorous from there. It’s a truly unique mode of self-effacement for grim, unblinking, deeply personal art.

I may have been overselling the Malick vibes of Krisha a little too hard in my opening screed here, mostly based on the fact that I watched it so soon after Knight of Cups, a film it surpasses in intensity & impact with so few brushstrokes, not to mention that Shults had worked on both films. Without that connection you could surely find other works for easy comparison points. The arrhythmic score & cacophonous soundtrack of dogs barking & familial chattering recalls the insufferable sonic tension Paul Thomas Anderson punishes his audience with in Punch Drunk Love. The mood-evoking images of a turkey grotesquely getting prepared for the oven & general search for an open-ended, eerie tone brought me back to the terror in the ordinary established in this year’s surprise knockout punch The Fits. If you go into Krisha expecting a Malick derivative you’re going to be severely underwhelmed & agitated. Instead of copying the director’s feature length search of tone poem submersion in pure, disjointed imagery, Krisha uses that narrative approach as one of many tools in its back pocket, only to be wielded when it’s most useful.

For a first time filmmaker with an obvious eye for powerful imagery, Trey Edward Shults shows a surprising amount of restraint, saving his showier moments of technical prowess for when they best serve the story he’s telling. That story is a familial drama turned into a psychological horror of ambiguous, tension, one Shults & his family apparently had already lived through once off-camera. It’s a fascinating debut that far exceeds its obvious financial limitations and I’d much rather watch whatever the young talent has lined up next then another navel gazer of a slog like Knight of Cups, a film that’s only proven its value by inspiring better art in other works.

-Brandon Ledet

Drag Becomes Him (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

One of my favorite aspects of the drag queen reality show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is that the system works. A lot of viewers believe a (completely believable) conspiracy that the show’s winners are predetermined & cherry picked for success (yet another theory that supports my contention that drag & pro wrestling are essentially the same thing), but I don’t really care if that’s true. My favorite contestants on the show are generally the queens crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar (except maybe in the recent case of Kim Chi), which is good enough for me, no matter what mechanism produces that result. I was curious, then, when I discovered a documentary on Jinkx Monsoon, the winner of season 4, lurking on Amazon Prime, as they were my favorite contestant on their season of the show. Truth be told, Drag Becomes Him is an interesting doc whether or not you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with any regularity. It’s essentially a portrait of an artist who happens to make it big in a crowded field of similar talents. Although ostensibly a vanity project, the film has very little vanity as it mostly shows drag performer Jinkx Monsoon in various stages of undress & overwhelming stress. It’s a low-key document of a significant time in the unglamorous life of a performer embedded in one of America’s most glamorous & most underappreciated art forms. And even as a standalone film divorced from Monsoon’s celebrity, Drag Becomes Him still commands an interesting, unique vision & narrative, a surprising feat for a film obviously crowdfunded & cheaply made.

Jinkx Monsoon states nakedly, both in a figurative & a literal sense, that they desire “to be known as an artist, not just a female impersonator”. A Seattle queen from a very artsy, performance-based scene (as opposed to the appearance-obsessed world of “pageant queens”), Monsoon has a kind of put-on, Old Hollywood demeanor that makes it difficult to differentiate between performer & character. A theater kid type who’s always “on”, Monsoon might be a bit much to have around as close friend, but they’re a joy to watch onscreen & seem to be very sweetly sincere in an art scene that seems prone to very jaded personalities. The film is structured around Jinkx explaining the basics of drag as an art form as they slowly apply makeup & accessories, making that awkward transition from looking like a Buffalo Bill-type psychopath while in half drag to becoming a larger than life persona. Simultaneously, a narrative emerges of both Monsoon’s personal life in a broken home & their professional career from performing at the age of 15 to cutting their teeth at local clubs to becoming an enterprise with several dedicated employees. Drag Becomes Him has the benefit of a wealth of footage from every stage of Monsoon’s career, but the way it juggles all of those narratives without seeming overburdened or reading like an A-B linear Wikipedia article points to a surprisingly adept team in terms of directing & editing. This is a small scale, low stakes documentary, but it’s one done exceedingly well.

One thing I did not expect form Drag Becomes Him was how wild Jinkx Monsoon would come across in their personal life. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they were kind of pigeonholed as a relatively tame personality in contrast with their competitors. Here, Jinkx does sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as convincingly as any queen, getting stoned & partying in celebration in a newfound high point of their career (and deservedly so). The film has a completely different tone from Drag Race, skewing kinder & more gently sincere, but it does traffic in the same unapologetically gay headspace. The way it openly leers at masculine bodies is refreshing, since this kind of content can often be phonily de-sexed in order to put a wider audience at ease. Still, Monsoon’s life is far from one continuous, glamorous party and the film finds humor & fascination with the inconveniences of the logistics of drag: the indignity & discomfort of tucking, the machinations of taking a piss while buried under layers of clothing, typing while wearing cartoonishly long nails, etc. The only aspect of Monsoon’s life the film skips over is the narcolepsy revealed during their reign on television, which seems like a curious detail to avoid. Everything else is laid bare.

I don’t think you have to be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race to enjoy Drag Becomes Him. The film carves out its own space entirely separate from the show’s very particular camp aesthetic. I was especially surprised by how it establishes a sort of digital pastel look all of its own that both serves its subject’s personality & helps distinguish the film as a work of art. I do think, however, that you’d be hard pressed to finish the doc without being at least somewhat a fan of Monsoon. They bare so much of their vulnerabilities as a real-life personality & their artistic sensibilities as a drag performer that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling intimately connected. I entered Drag Becomes Him as a previous convert to all things Monsoon & I left as an even bigger, more dedicated fan. Jinkx is a talented artist & Drag Becomes Him makes a convincing, intimate case for how significant their art form can be.

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic (2009)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I have a bad track record with modern CG animation as filtered through companies like Disney & Pixar and a traditional 2D, hand-drawn animation feature is increasingly difficult to come by, so stop motion might very well be my final refuge in animation as a cinematic medium. This might help explain why (besides them being lovingly crafted & emotionally devastating) titles like Mary and Max & Kubo and the Two Strings have stood out to me as some of the more memorable animated features of the last decade. The 2009 stop motion madcap comedy A Town Called Panic, adapted from a cult Belgian TV show of the same name, doesn’t aim for the same awe-inspiring depth & beauty of titles like Kubo. All things considered, it’s probably a lot more in line with the slapstick antics of something like Shaun the Sheep. However, its tactile visuals, which go out of their way to call attention to its stop motion format, and its manic comedy style make for a much more memorable, enjoyable experience than most of your standard talking CG animal features could. I’m not saying that A Town Called Panic is automatically “better” than all CG animation features because of its virtue as a stop motion work (at the very least, it’s highly likely that Zootopia will make my Top Films of 2016 list at the end of the year and it easily falls under that umbrella). I just find it remarkably easy to tap into the film’s headspace because I am in love with its methods, however crudely executed.

Stop motion studios like Laika pride themselves in pushing their medium to a technical extreme, smoothing out the movement of their figurines through CGI doctoring and striving to achieve grander, larger scale accomplishments in their films’ action sequences. A Town Called Panic is refreshing in the way it casually approaches the medium, intentionally drawing attention to the crudeness of its visual style. Its characters are simple figurines anyone could pick up out of a dollar store toy bag: a cowboy, an Indian, a horse. Their character names are just as simplistic: Cowboy, Indian, Horse. When they run from danger they have to hobble violently because of the limited movement of the plastic bases attached to their feet. There’s a world built around their overly simplistic shapes; pianos, cars, houses, and computers are designed so that they can be operated by horses. It’s not the intricately mapped out, multiscale world of Zootopia, however. It’s more like a children’s playset. I haven’t seen stop motion employed so casually & so conspicuously since KaBlam! in the 90s. The approach doesn’t necessarily read as lazy, though. It merely works as a reminder of how effective stop motion can be as a visual medium even when stripped down to its bare parts. The animation in A Town Called Panic is just complicated enough to deliver the physical comedy & whimsical absurdity of its story. It’s function over fashion, but in its kids’ playset simplicity the film does achieve its own aesthetic.

The plot is similarly bare bones. As with a lot of television series, especially comedies, A Town Called Panic plays like several TV episodes strung together instead of a traditional feature-length movie plot. Cowboy, Horse, and Indian are three roommates who’ve formed a strange, symbiotic domesticity within their household. Horse is the responsible adult of the house, while Cowboy & Indian are his goofball foils. They kick the plot into action when they forget Horse’s birthday & build him a barbecue as a last minute present. Through a mistake anyone could make, really, Cowboy & Indian order 50 million bricks instead of the mere 50 required to build the barbecue and decide to hide the bricks from the much put-upon birthday boy. For all of its manic energy & physics-bending absurdity, the best attribute of A Town Called Panic is its comedic patience. There’s a great payoff to the absurd visual gag of “hiding” 50 million bricks, but it’s a very slow, methodical reveal that relies on the strength of comedic timing even more than it does on situational humor. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a stop motion feature more confident with showing absolutely nothing happening onscreen in lingering shots so the impact of its long-game gags can pay off with greater comedic confidence. The setup of the bricks leads to many ingenious punchlines and episodic adventures, including an Atlantis-esque underwater colony, scientist kidnappers, and farm animal ammo in a territorial war. The absurdity is gradually, incrementally escalated, though. It’s a payoff that doesn’t arrive immediately, which is both surprising for a feature with such manic energy and impressive in terms of comedic confidence.

Overall, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact tone of A Town Called Panic from the outside looking in. Is the franchise intended for children or stoned-out-of-their-mind college students? Both? It commands neither the cutesiness of Wallace & Gromit nor the dramatic ennui of Anomalisa, leaving it in some kind of stop-motion libido. Outside of a few details like alcohol consumption, marital infidelity, and the occasional potty language of words like “bastard” & “dumbass” it’s hard to say for sure that kids wouldn’t be able to watch it over parental concerns, but the humor isn’t exactly “adult” either. Its irreverence & whimsy recalls the stop motion comedy of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it traffics in the crude simplicity of something like KaBlam!. Maybe if I were Belgian I’d have better context for A Town Called Panic’s target audience, but as an American Doofus & a stop motion fanatic all I can say is it’s very funny and I’m glad it exists. It’s rare to see a comedy in an medium brimming with so much minute-to-minute energy, yet patient enough to let longterm gags reach their full potential before payoff. This is a confident work of a very particular, unique mode of stop motion comedy & entirely deserves the traction it’s gaining as a cult curiosity on an international scale.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Hell (2016)

three star

What is it about Californians’ disposition/DNA that makes them so susceptible to cults? Whether it’s a documentary like Going Clear or a far-fetched thriller like The Invitation, I always get the sense that a California setting is downright essential for a fertile cult breeding ground. The recent CNN documentary Holy Hell only strengthens that argument. When its cult subject The Buddhafield begins in California it flourishes, offering a spiritual utopia for college educated depressives in the midst of Reagan-era yuppiedom. It isn’t until the cult moves from California to Austin, TX that its promise of inner peace starts to fall apart in favor of the cult culture cliché of serving an enigmatic leader as a Master. Not far from the atrocity of Waco, The Buddhafield miserably & deservedly crumbled. In West Hollywood it looked like The Garden of Eden, except with the unusual uniform of Raybans & Speedos.

One of the stranger aspects of Holy Hell as a cult life expose is its ungodly wealth of access. Documentation Will Allen was a film school student nursing childhood obsessions with Death & “The Truth” when he entered The Buddhafield cult on the ground floor, so he poured his filmmaking passion into documenting the “truth” that he found with his new “family” for the decades he was hypnotized under his Master’s spell. It’s rare (I hope) that a cult as contemporary as The Buddhafield would be this unknown & this under the radar, but Holy Hell’s hook is how intimately associated & submerged its documentarian was in the menacing organization’s trenches. Allen knows exactly how to make a cult look inviting & attractive to an outsider because he lived through it himself. He initially portrays The Buddhafield as an oasis of young, attractive, talented people losing touch with reality in the wilderness as they begin to feel “Alive” for the first time & revel in “freedom from self.” He then slowly introduces the more disconcerting aspects of life at The Buddhafield, like a ritual where members are hypnotized into “knowing,” “seeing,” and “tasting” God & the gradual realization that their “spiritual leader” is a selfish, life-destroying monster that permanently damages the very victims he dares call family. At the beginning of Holy Hell, members of The Buddhafield rationalize “If this is a cult, at least it’s a really good cult.” By the end they’re left empty & permanently scarred by a human monster who still abuses young, malleable minds today (back in the holy mecca of California, of course) . . . if they were able to escape his mental grasp in the first place.

It’s tempting to get hung up on the weirder aspects of Holy Hell and treat it like a tale of curiosity like Tickled or Finders Keepers, but the abuse at the center of this documentary runs even deeper than that of those deceptively dark human interest stories. It’d be easy to reduce this story down to its weirder details, like a cult member who’s convinced that he’s making fruit salads “for God” or The Buddhafield’s strange abstinence policy or the fact that although individual members essentially work as the cult leader Michel’s employees they were still charged money for their weekly hypnotherapy sessions. There’s a lot of very specific detail to get distracted by here. However, the film’s main function is as an expose of Michel’s inhumane crimes and abuses. Holy Hell’s real life horrors are way too grave for the film to be treated as an arm’s length curiosity. It’s not a flashy documentary; it doesn’t feel too different from what you’d normally expect form a CNN production. Yet, its intimacy & the ongoing atrocity of its subject makes for a fascinating watch. At the very least I’d recommend it as a double feature to drive home the severity of Karyn Kusama’s recent thriller The Invitation. As a pair the films call into question the dangers & menace of faux spirituality, not to mention make California look like a hellscape below its sunshine & bare skin surface.

–Brandon Ledet

Knight of Cups (2016)

onehalfstar

Full confession up front: I don’t “get” Terrence Malick. The filmmaker has an admirable eye for breathtaking imagery & in theory I like the idea of the way he deconstructs the very concept of narrative cinema, but I simply get no enjoyment out his work. The much-beloved Tree of Life in particular might be the single most personally disappointing trip to the theater I can remember, based on the critical hype I was riding in and the wave of dejection I rode out. As a collection of isolated images Tree of Life succeeds in provoking awe & reflection. As a two hour theatrical experience, however, it’s an extreme exercise in patience with Sean Penn whispering vague, pretentious nothings about humanity & motherhood.

I mention this here because Knight of Cups is a deliberate doubling down on Tree of Life’s worst impulses. It trades in the former film’s suburban America setting for a similar snapshot of a wealthy man’s vacuous life in Los Angeles & swaps out Sean Penn’s whispered vagueries for those of Christian Bale, but the results are mostly the same. I feel like both Tree of Life & Knight of Cups establish their best selves & all they can offer in their opening few minutes, as if they were a resume for a cinematic skillset instead of an actual product. Both films have the feeling of an art school student trying to prove their worth in an early gig car commercial, except the car never arrives & the credits never roll. What frustrates me the most about Malick is his obvious wealth of raw material. If there weren’t so much technical skill displayed in his films I’d never feel the need to return to his work, but there’s too much promise here for me to simply walk away. He’s the filmmaking Roadrunner to my critical Wile E. Coyote. I just keep returning for more punishment, never learning my lesson.

It would feel disingenuous to tack on a plot synopsis for a review of Knight of Cups. The best I can put it is that Christian Bale is sad from having casual sex with too many beautiful models & attending too many Hollywood soirees. He navigates a world of strippers, luchadores, outer space, pool parties, and nothingness. Malick constructs “fragments, pieces of a man” in a disorienting display that might be intended to mirror the emptiness of his protagonist’s existence, but ultimately feels far too exhausting & reverently celebratory in the process to resonate as meaningful. There are a few interesting moments here or there – like when a promise of stillness is interrupted by an earthquake or when you can spot a seemingly random Famous Beautiful Person, say Joe Manganiello, in the background of an L.A. party – but for the most part the film is a wash. Once it hits its hypnotic rhythm it’s extremely difficult to focus on. The voice over becomes a foreign language and the beauty in the imagery loses its initial poetry. By the end credits there’s nothing left to feel but drained, empty, and at least a little bit cheated.

The wealth, beauty and ennui of Knight of Cups feels very much akin to a music video. Imagine, if you dare, a version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film where nearly every actor is white and all of the pop music has been replaced with more spoken word poetry. Better yet, imagine Kanye West begging on loop that there please be “No More Parties in L.A.” for two solid hours with no indication that the party will, in fact, ever stop. The opening title card of Knight of Cups suggests that the film would be best enjoyed with the volume cranked, but I felt the exact opposite way. The film is probably best enjoyed with the soundtrack muted & replaced with something more narratively exciting & cohesive, like a rap album or, honestly, dead silence while you take care of some household chores.

I would say that after this film & Inland Empire I’m proving to have a back track record with the glacial, narratively sparse high art meditations end of cinema, but that’s not necessarily true. I fell madly in love with The Neon Demon & Heart of a Dog, which while not on an exactly comparable wavelength as Knight of Cups, at least follow a similar approach to valuing imagery & cinematic hypnosis over linear storytelling. The truth is probably a lot more likely that Knight of Cups wasn’t my thing because Malick himself just doesn’t do it for me. He probably never will, but I’m too fascinated with the glimpses of brilliance lurking in his exhaustive haze of artistic pretension to walk away. Much like Wile E. Coyote, I suspect this won’t be the last time I fall off this particular cliff. I’ll just keep doing it forever.

-Brandon Ledet