Beginners (2011)

threehalfstar

Immediately after falling in love with 20th Century Women, a film I’ve retroactively declared the best movie of 2016, I went home to watch writer-director Mike Mills’s previous work, Beginners. The immediacy of dividing into Beginners was not necessarily an extension of its convenient availability on Netflix Streaming (not that it hurt), but more a result of the film’s obvious connection to Mills’s subsequent work (and, in my opinion, his best to date). Much like 20th Century Women, Beginners finds Mike Mills in a self-reflective mode, capturing a semi-autobiographical moment in one of his parent’s lives in a loving, spiritual work of non-linear cinema. Instead of detailing the impossibly endearing persona of his ever-present mother like in 20th Century Women, Beginners tackles his much more complex relationship with his once-distant father. The two movies aren’t perfectly, exactly analogous but they’re undeniable in their parallels and they work well as sister films (an odd thing to say about someone obsessed about his parentage as an only child).

Beginners opens with Mills’s on-screen surrogate (an as-charming-as-ever Ewan McGregor) cleaning out the house his father lived & died in as an old man. In what’s appearing to be a trademark narrative style, Mills tells the entire life story of the recently deceased parent up front, then doubles back to color in the details for context. We learn immediately that he was not a great father to his only child in his youth, being mostly absent for his son’s formative years. This is explained largely to be a result of his quiet suffering as a closeted homosexual, something he concealed from the public until after his wife’s death. We mostly see the man as his son remembers him: openly gay, struggling with poor physical health in his 70s, acting as a makeshift father figure for his much younger weirdo boyfriend, and shining as happier than ever. This narrative thread mixes with a separate timeline where his son, grieving for the loss of both of his parents, struggles to form a healthy romantic relationship based on the ideals of the home he grew up in. He also struggles with a self-absorbed ennui he solemnly knows his parents didn’t have the luxury of, due to the times of War and queer & Jewish persecution that dominated their own heyday.

Reductively speaking, Beginners is not as impressive of a film as 20th Century Women. At times it can feel like a less-confident trial run of that far-superior work. It’s still a great movie in its own right, though, one that excels due to the same multi-media, multi-POV approach to a narrative structure Mills would later apply to its follow-up. Still images & physical photographs are used to evoke a period setting. Historical context seeps in to inform the film’s non-linear biographies through news footage & coldly presented facts. The scope of its story pulls back not just to cover its characters’ lives, but the essence of life on Earth. In my personal favorite touch, the nonverbal thoughts if the deceased father’s Jack Russell terrier are presented in subtitles, a detail that increases in frequency as the dog becomes more of a central character. Although I can’t cite Beginners as my favorite Mike Mills movie, it’s easily one of the best Jack Russell terrier movies I’ve ever seen, rivaling even Russell Madness (a lofty target, I know). In watching the dog communicate thoughts like, “The darkness is about to consume us if something drastic doesn’t happen right now,” or the father drunkenly discovering the simple joy of gay club music or his son learning to become a more loving, empathetic person in his grief-stricken moment of crisis, Beginners unfolds as an interesting, delicately beautiful work of personal revelation. Comparing it to the virtues of the immediately similar works from its director might undercut some of what makes it so special as a singular piece of art, but it is special all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, 2011)

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fourstar

When I went over to a friend’s house to watch a movie, he presented me with several recent rentals and let me pick one. “What’s this one?” “An early anti-western.” “And this one?” “Oh, that one’s really good, but I need to wait to watch that one with my girlfriend.” “What’s The Skin I Live In?” “It’s a horror film by Pedro Almodóvar.” So in.

Of  course, my only real experiences with Almodóvar came over ten years ago, when I saw Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) and La mala educación (Bad Education) in my freshman year of college, and a few years later when I saw ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) and was displeased with the film’s overall themes. Still, although the former two films have faded in my memory like paper flowers left in the sun, I was excited to see his approach to a straight-up horror flick. That’s not really what The Skin I Live In was, but it was all the better for it.

The film follows Roberto Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a plastic surgeon who has tragically lost both his wife and daughter to suicide, the former after she catches sight of the reflection of her badly burned face following extensive reconstructive surgery, and the latter after a lifetime of mental illness resulting from witnessing her mother’s fateful leap to her death. As a result, he keeps a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) locked away in a (metaphorical) gilded cage in his palatial home and experiments on her to create a skin that is resistant to fire. Vera’s only connection to the outside world besides Roberto and a few television channels is Marilia (Marisa Paredes), a domestic servant of Roberto’s who has been with his family since before his birth. When Roberto is away, Marilia’s son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) reappears during Carnival and discovers the imprisoned Vera and believes that she is actually Roberto’s dead wife, with whom he had an affair.

While Zeca forces himself on the woman he believes to be his lost love, Roberto returns and kills him to protect the fact that he has secreted Vera away. Vera’s offer to stay with Roberto, ostensibly out of love for him, elevates her from captivity to his bed, where dreams relate the tale of the fateful night that drove Roberto’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) to her final throes of madness. Six years prior, Roberto took Norma from the sanitarium that has been her home for many years to attend a wedding, where she meets Vicente (Jan Cornet). Vicente is a sensitive young man who works in his mother’s vintage boutique, but who is nevertheless too fond of recreational drugs– so much so that when he hits it off with Norma at the wedding, he is too pilled-out to recognize that she is mentally unwell. As various young couples in the same garden engage in sexual acts, Norma objects to Vicente’s physical advances; as he disengages, she bites him and he strikes her before fleeing the scene. Roberto comes upon Norma lying near the tree as Vicente speeds away on his motorcycle, leaving the surgeon to assume the worst.

That’s already spoiler-heavy enough that I’m hesitant to say more, as I encourage you to seek the film out and form your own opinion, especially given some of the more controversial elements. As a trigger warning, it is imperative to understand before viewing that there is at least one rape scene in this film. Perhaps there are more, but given the film’s various and occasionally conflicting points of view on agency, consent, deception, gender, mental health, and overall sexual politics, you as a viewer will find yourself questioning the motivations and preconceptions not only of the characters but also yourself. (Also, unlike Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, the sexual violence is treated respectfully, rather than as erotic or titillating, which it s a valid criticism of Almodóvar’s earlier work.)

At turns provocative and disquieting, The Skin I Live In is relentless in the way that its unfolding narrative forces the viewer to re-evaluate every previous scene with each new revelation. Do our sympathies for Roberto outweigh the fact that the well of his monstrosity is deeper and darker? His ultimate fate is a consequence of his inability to accept the reality of his life (which is related to his being a plastic surgeon, which is conventionally considered a position that exists solely due to society’s vanity) and let go of that which has been lost (which is more reflective of his well-intentioned scientific drive to build a better human skin through unethical experimentation, as well as his activities as a reconstructive, restorative plastic surgeon). It’s a film that rewards close attention and empathy; as each fleshy layer is peeled away, the viewer finds him- or herself challenged, but the experience is ultimately fruitful.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Sickhouse (2016)

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threehalfstar

I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dentist (1996) and Brian Yuzna’s Search for His Very Own Horror Franchise

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One of the few minor details that bugged me about Brian Yuzna’s otherwise satisfying class politics body horror Society was that it left its abrupt conclusion open for a sequel instead of chasing a more logical narrative end. It’s now been over two decades since Society‘s initial release and, although the idea of expanding the original film’s scope to include other shunting-obsessed wealthy circles like Hollywood or Washington DC sounds promising, there still has yet to be a proper sequel. Leaving Society open in that way, then, has only weakened its own fortitude as a standalone film. Yuzna would have to look elsewhere to establish a horror franchise all of his own the way Nightmare on Elm Street is closely associated with Wes Craven and Alien is associated with Ridley Scott. Yuzna directed two Re-Animator sequels, Bride of Re-Animator & Beyond Re-Animator, and served as a producer on the first, but that series truly belongs to Stuart Gordon. He also directed two sequels for the Christmas-themed slasher series Silent Night, Deadly Night, but that franchise is way too loose & haphazard to claim an authorial voice. Brian Yuzna’s very own horror franchise wouldn’t be found in completing works others had started, but in staking his own ground as the director of both The Dentist (1996) & The Dentist 2 (1998). The Dentist may not have the cult classic staying power of Society as a continually referenced horror work, but its effect is just as equally, brutally fucked up, and it’s easy to see how a single madman could be responsible for both acts of cinematic sadism.

Usually when you rewatch a movie that scared you as a kid, it turns out that it wasn’t so traumatizing after all. That wasn’t my experience with Yuzna’s 1996 body horror slasher The Dentist. If anything, The Dentist felt ten times more nightmarish than it did to me as a kid on this most recent watch. It’s a deeply, almost unforgivably upsetting work, playing as if the shunting sequence from Society were stretched out to feature length instead of capping off an otherwise conventional late 80s horror. Co-written by Yuzna & Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon, The Dentist stars Corbin Bernsen as a killer dentist eventually known as Dr. Caine, who on the surface wouldn’t be all that different from any other cliché of a refined sadist who listens to classical music while slaying/mutilating his victims, except that he hurts them through the delicate nerve centers of their mouths. Some people have a difficult time stomaching on-screen violence directed towards eyeballs or fingernails or groins or any number of specific locations on the body because of a physical aversion to witnessing its depiction. I’m that way with dental-themed gore. The visual of a tooth being pulled or a tongue being split physically hurts me every time, so The Dentist wouldn’t have to do much to make me sweat in fear & anxiety. In fact, it’s likely that catching this film on HBO at a young age is partly why I’m that particular kind of squeamish in the first place. With the first The Dentist film, however, Yuzna & Gordon found a way to make the premise even creepier by aligning the audience POV with the mind of the deranged killer who would inflict that kind of pain in the first place. It is, on every conceivable level, a deeply uncomfortable experience.

In what’s essentially a slasher film take on Falling Down, The Dentist aligns the audience’s perspective with that of a hateful, Conservative monster who has a total meltdown once his marriage starts to fall apart. After wrestling with paranoid suspicions that his wife is sleeping with the pool boy, Dr. Caine does some sleuthing & catches the two lovers in the act (on their anniversary, no less) and suffers a full-blown psychotic break. In his pitch black misogynist fantasy, he confronts the pair mid-fellatio and forces his wife to bite the pool boy’s cock at gunpoint in a moment to so hateful against women as a species it would make even Russ Meyer blush. This is the exact seething anger lens we see the world through in this film. We already know Dr. Caine is evil because he fantasizes about hurting his own wife and obsesses over the state of every one he meets’ teeth, but even that isn’t enough for Yuzna, who doesn’t traffic in subtlety. Enraged by the witnessed infidelity, Dr. Caine shoots a dog out of spite, goes to work at his dental practice to mutilate multiple victims (mostly women & children) during sadistic oral procedures, and eventually cuts out his own wife’s tongue as a gift on their big anniversary date. It’s deeply, spiritually upsetting stuff, misanthropic violence paired with creepy internal monologues about how, “Nothing, no matter how good or pure is free of decay. Once the decay gets started, it can only lead to rot, filth, and corruption.” Divorced from Dr. Caine’s hateful paranoia about a “lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene” and his personal hangups about how sex = filth, The Dentist is still a horror show. In close-up, medical detail, gums are punctured by hooked teeth scrapers, teeth are violently yanked from their grooves, tongues are stabbed with high-pitched drills, molars are ground into white powder, etc. Yuzna shoots these nightmare visuals through an unflinching fish-eye lens, something usually reserved for a children’s Saturday morning TV show, a music video, or a comedy, but it’s impossible to take the gore lightly. Still, it’s in marrying that visual terror to an even uglier, more difficult to stomach world view and never allowing a second of escape from either that Yuzna found a way to sustain the abject disgust of Society‘s shunting sequence for the entirety of a feature film.

The Dentist 2 (1998) would not be able to repeat that trick. Leaving behind the philosophical monologues on tooth & soul decay that made the first one so especially unnerving, this sequel follows the same pattern of a lot of horror follow-ups and focuses instead on increasing the gore. Yuzna even brings in Society collaborator Screaming Mad George to contribute to the film’s horrific special effects (one of ten shared projects between the two sick bastards), tipping his hat to the fact that gore had become a priority over writing. Escaping from the pristine, dream space psych ward where he had been locked up at the conclusion of the first film, Dr. Caine hides under a false identity in a small, isolated town where he’s now the only qualified dentist (after brutally murdering the one already operating there, of course). The first The Dentist film already stretches audience belief of how long Dr. Caine could possibly get away with killing & mutilating patients before being stopped either by law or by mob rule, but the second one really has no concern for anything resembling reality. The plot isn’t anything to speak of, other than that the dentist is made to feel jealous by a new woman’s sexual desires in a new locale while his mutilated wife from the first film hires a PI to track down his whereabouts. Instead of philosophical diatribes about filth & decay, the film signifies its killer’s murderous insanity through his constant hallucinations of rotting teeth, roaches crawling in his parents’ mouths, and non-existent demons with cartoonishly long tongues (who would’ve fit right in with members of Society). Dr. Caine periodically cuts his arm to relieve these hallucinations, at one point giving himself a crimson mask once they become unbearable in their persistence. There are a couple noteworthy moments, like Dr. Caine joking that “Pulling teeth is like, well, pulling teeth!” during an interrogation, a single-scene cameo from Clint Howard, and the wife from the first film finger fucking the dentist’s mouth to tease out his tongue for a fitting act of revenge, but for the most part The Dentist 2 is all gore! gore! gore! And you know what? It kinda works. I was sweating in fear during the oral horror scenes as much in the sequel as I was with the first film, despite logically knowing that it was a desperately inferior work.

Diminishing returns and forgotten thematic nuance is a large part of the nature of horror franchises as an art form, though, and it’s fitting that Brian Yuzna’s only franchise all to his own got to see that roundabout way of success. The Dentist 2 left its conclusion just as open-ended as Society‘s for a sequel that likewise never came, but Yuzna had already succeeded in scoring his very own franchise just by getting two films deeo. You can feel it as soon as Dr. Caine delivers the first film’s declaration, “I am the instrument of hygiene, the enemy of decay and corruption, The Dentist. And I have a lot of work to do.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Dentist has been treated with the same cult classic longevity as Society, a film it rivals at the very least in pure shock value. It’s so overlooked that its entire “Production History” section on Wikipedia reads, “The Dentist was shot in Los Angeles in a residential home.” That can always change, though. Maybe Society‘s Trump-era cultural resurgence will inspire more people to look back to The Dentist the way I just have or maybe people will dig up the first one just to see Baby Mark Ruffalo make an appearance in a few brief scenes. Either way, whether it remains obscure or not, Brian Yuzna has succeeded in creating a horror franchise in the way Society never became. It’s a damn disturbing one too.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990), and last week’s celebration of minor scream queen Heidi Kozak.

-Brandon Ledet

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2017

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There are 47 feature films nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards. We here at Swampflix have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2016 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2016 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1. 20th Century Women, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.”

2. Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Visual Effects

“A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent.”

3. Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design

Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are somewhat mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.”

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4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

“The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!”

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5. Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography

“It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.”

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6. Zootopia, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.”

7. Hidden Figures, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

“As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ sign and declared that ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,’ after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers.”

8. Moonlight, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomi Harris)

“In Moonlight, Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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9. Arrival, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing

Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.”

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10. La La Land, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.”

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11. I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary

“It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp.”

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12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion.”

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13. Star Trek Beyond, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real ‘classic style’ Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.”

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14. The Jungle Book, nominated for Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).”

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15. Captain Fantastic, nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)

“Six kids wielding knives, late-night gravedigging, and skinning animals all sound like elements to a rather disturbing horror movie, but, surprisingly, all exist in Matt Ross’s latest comedy-drama, Captain Fantastic. Those with a slightly darker sense of humor will get a kick out of this film, but it really has something to offer everyone, such as family values, brief nudity, religious humor, and a heart-wrenching love story. I had no idea who Matt Ross was, and I was surprised to see that he directed less than a handful of movies because he did such a ‘fantastic’ job with this one.”

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16. The Lobster, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.”

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17. Jackie, nominated for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.”

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18. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams)

“What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.”

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19. Nocturnal Animals, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)

Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).”

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20. Loving, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)

Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.”

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21. Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing

“I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.”

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22. Fences, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Support Actress (Viola Davis)

“Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone.”

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23. Suicide Squad, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness; it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their ‘art’, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.”

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24. Doctor Strange, nominated for Best Visual Effects

Dr. Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.”

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25. Elle, nominated for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)

Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s ‘behind you,’ having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #24 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Elephant Man (1980) & Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor Melodramas

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Welcome to Episode #24 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-fourth episode, CC makes Brandon watch David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) for the first time in light of John Hurt’s recent passing. Also, CC & Brandon discuss Douglas Sirk’s infamous run of Technicolor melodramas produced by Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. Enjoy!

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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German filmmaker Douglas Sirk has dozens of titles to his name as a director, but the influence of his career is often condensed down to his handful of Technicolor melodramas produced by Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. I had never seen a Sirk film in my life until recently, but the cultural impact of those Technicolor pictures was so significant that I could easily recognize their echoes in works as disparate as Far from Heaven, The Fly (1958), Polyester, and Gods & Monsters. Perhaps the most iconic title among Sirk’s most well-known American works is the Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Dismissively categorized at its time of release as a “woman’s picture,” All That Heaven Allows may not have been fully appreciated in its initial run the way Sirk’s Imitation of Life eventually was just a few years later, but its reputation as an intricately constructed art piece has only grown in the decades since. I can only report that even after having seen its visual aesthetic assimilated & absorbed in a countless number of films throughout my life, All That Heaven Allows still makes for an intense, powerful first-time watch as a modern viewer. I’m in awe of its craft & its efficiency and still a little tipsy as I’m writing this from drinking in its lush, color-soaked artistry. I think I’m an instant Sirk fan, an immediate convert.

The story told here isn’t necessarily what’s important to the film’s appeal. Despite being 38 years old at the time of production, Jane Wyman plays a middle aged widow worried that her life is heading towards a lonely end. Her social circle of sycophantic elbow-rubbers & town gossips can only offer her calculated cocktail parties & polite company. Her bratty children, a Freudian scholar daughter & a brutish meathead son, selfishly plot for her to live a life alone in front of the television, described in-film as “the last refuge of a lonely woman.” Everyone seems to have concrete ideas about what the widow should do with the rest of her life and they circle around her, ready to pounce on any misstep she makes in choosing her path. Imagine their shock, then, when the woman allows herself to be seduced across class lines by her much younger gardener, played by the movie star handsome (and famously closeted) Rock Hudson. Will she leave behind her life of stuffy cocktails in the parlor for the raucous lobster boils her young beau shares with his equally money-ambivalent friends? She wants to value romance over social status, but the town’s prying eyes & her selfish kids’ disapproval make the decision difficult. The hot young landscaper offers her a more natural, fulfilling life than the self-conscious one she leads and the film’s central conflict lies in whether she’ll have the courage to accept the offer before it’s too late.

Keeping the story a thinly structured narrative frame is a smart choice, as it allows plenty of room to focus on the film’s real draw: a nonstop visual feast. Sirk lights his interiors with only the harshest, deep cold blues clashed against the most breathtaking yellow warmth. It’s like watching giallo, except with romance instead of murder driving its central mystery. Just watching a character transition from a candlelit parlor to ice cold moonlight, the lighting swapping roles between those spaces to match their movements, is enough to make you gasp. Sirk’s eye for exterior settings & Nature is just as hyper-real. Studio lot suburbia (sets that were later reused for episodes of Leave It to Beaver) looks like impressionistic paintings. Rock Hudson serves as our gateway to this Natural dreamworld, hand-feeding deer in his own backyard and drawing the audience’s attention to the trees that populate his impossible, artificial landscape. I haven’t seen colors this breathtakingly deep and sets this cinematically dreamlike since I first witnessed the Criterion restoration of The Red Shoes. It’s truly a marvel and Sirk’s camera knows how to frame & capture its most savory pleasures. By the time All That Heaven Allows was over, I felt as if I were drunk. Not too bad for “a woman’s picture,” huh?

It’s so easy to get swept up in this film’s beautiful homes, costuming, and interior lighting that time begins to take on a different pace altogether. All That Heaven Allows flew by for me. It worked like a quickly-paced seduction montage set to a sweeping orchestral score, as if Rock Hard Hudson were sweeping the entire audience off its feet, not just the hot to trot widow he takes a fancy to. It’s tempting to attribute a lot of the film’s entertainment value to its production design & its intense Technicolor dreaminess, but Sirk shows a masterful hand in matching that cinematic artifice to a concisely told, rapidly paced, delicately tragic seduction story. All That Heaven Allows is a perfect object, the ideal version of what it sets out to achieve. I doubt that’s the last time I’ll say that about a Douglas Sirk film, but it’s still an inarguable fact.

-Brandon Ledet

The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)

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Sometimes a movie is only useful in illuminating what makes its better version so successful. Last December, I was so floored by the unexpected greatness of The Vampire and the Ballerina that I immediately sought out another title in its general vicinity in a desperate search for a similar gem. Both The Playgirls and the Vampire & The Vampire and the Ballerina are 1960 Italian horror erotica about a group of oversexed professional dancers being terrorized by vampires in an isolated, crypt-like castle. Only one of those films is at all entertaining or artfully constructed, though. The Playgirls and the Vampire is the exact kind of deflated trash I expected to watch when I was surprised by the startlingly artful The Vampire and the Ballerina. It’s a thoughtlessly tossed-off cheapie with all the naked skin & bloodshed of its superior contemporary, but none of the eroticism or sense of style.

I had high hopes for The Playgirls and the Vampire after its opening shot: a long, quiet pan over a drastically lit crypt that ends when a hand moved the lid to a coffin from within. This is more or less when the film’s interest in thoughtful cinematography ends. A bus load of exotic dancers are derailed on the way to their performance due to a storm. The master of the castle where they take refuge shows a peculiarly intense interest in one of the girls, who looks suspiciously like a painting of an ancient woman on one of the walls. Long vampire cliché short, this girl is converted into his vampire queen and her fellow dancers are hunted individually over the film’s short, slight runtime. Nothing in the plot matters nearly as much as finding excuses to show skin. Girls sleep corseted, there’s some leering shots of their stocking-clad gams, and when the playgirl vampire appears in the dark to drain her former manager’s blood there’s a brief glimpse of her bare breasts (which I guess was risque in 1960, even for European genre cinema). In that last scene, the vampire playgirl is lit interestingly to initially obscure her naked body and the film concludes with an amazing practical effect where the castle’s master ages Dorian Gray-style over an animated series of mat paintings. Everything else is forgettably bland, though, even when the girls are stripping to dance for the camera, and those two moments would be better served as .gifs than as parts of the larger, less interesting whole.

I wanted to find some kind of camp value in The Playgirls and the Vampire, but the film was stingy even with that potential mode of entertainment. I guess I was amused by the way the goofball manager’s English dub included such classic Italian phrases as “Wassa matter?” & “Wassa matter you?” and the way the dancers roamed the castle chasing kittens or unlocking secret doors by suggestively stroking axe handles could be occasionally amusing, but those moments weren’t nearly enough to turn me around on the film’s overall limp sense of style, humor, and sexuality. The only real value I found in The Playgirls and the Vampire was personal validation that The Vampire and the Ballerina really was that good and I wasn’t exaggerating its accomplishments. If anyone ever questions my love for that movie I now have a perfect point of contrast to show them how the exact same formula could be executed disastrously wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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It was a little difficult for me discuss Anna Biller’s recent camp cinema triumph The Love Witch in full detail, at least partly because I don’t have the full mental library of reference points she was pulling from for the film’s psychedelic goth erotica pastiche. There’s an endless sea of cheap, sexed-up, psychedelic horror from the late 60s & early 70s that I don’t know nearly enough about to speak with any kind of critical authority. The Velvet Vampire easily fits that bill, though, and as soon as I saw the trailer my mind went straight back to Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. The interesting thing about watching The Velvet Vampire in this context is that because it’s a Free Love era horror picture directed by a woman, Roger Corman protigee Stephanie Rothman, it already has some of the feminist underpinnings foreign to the genre that Biller would later bring crashing to the surface in such a pointedly satirical way. The Velvet Vampire is by no means a forgotten pillar of fiercely feminist cinema; it’s just as much of a compromise between thoughtful art house horror & sexploitation smut as anything you’d expect to see from its spooky erotica peers. Its feminine gaze & dreamlike tone within that genre framework did help me better understand where The Love Witch was coming from culturally, though, a quality I expect to find in plenty more titles as I slowly catch up with Biller’s encyclopedic knowledge of this corner of schlock.

This dirt cheap, Corman-produced horror (alternately titled Cemetery Girls) starts by following a female vampire’s POV, an odd choice for a protagonist, as she’s threatened with sexual assault and stabs her would-be attacker, a nobody biker, to death in public. She calmly washes her bloody hands clean in a fountain while blues singer Johnny Shines wails onscreen about how she’s an Evil Woman (another odd choice). Later, we see our “Evil Woman” scouting potential victims at an art gallery and convincing a young married couple to visit her place in the desert for the weekend. The horny dolt husband (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘s Michael Blodgett) drags his perpetually annoyed wife out of the hellish desertscape just so he can ignore her and openly flirt with their vampiric host. They don’t even try to hide it either. While sitting down for dinner, the titular vampire describes her dune buggies to the lout right in front of his not-having-it wife, “It’s slow getting started. At first it takes a little manipulation. But once it’s warmed up it really comes alive. And you have to watch out. It’s really hard to control.” Subtle stuff. During the day she takes the couple sight-seeing to such exotic locations as a desert shack and an abandoned mine (fun!). At night she calmly watches them sleep & fuck from behind a false mirror and invades their dreams to seduce them individually with her feminine wiles. She’s not harvesting their blood for her own sake, though. She merely needs it to sustain the mummified, undead body of her husband, whose open coffin she visits often.

The frustrating thing about The Velvet Vampire is that it’s almost something truly great. The dreamscape seduction scenes have a surreal Altered States quality to them that makes them immensely exciting and there’s a few stray moments of cinematic beauty elsewhere in shots of the titular vampire eating raw liver in her lingerie or lying naked in her husband’s coffin. The film’s also slightly transgressive in its third act shift toward lesbian seduction once the husband is no longer interesting as a plaything, especially in the vampire’s monologue about men’s envy over the power of female sexual pleasure. The film doesn’t follow through on any of its genuine art film impulses, though, so it’s much easier to take delight in its campier touches like its rubber bats, loosely defined vampire rules (sunlight’s apparently not a problem), and inane dialogue (listening to a man scream in pain, the dolt husband shrugs it off with, “It’s probably just a coyote.”). Because The Velvet Vampire is so beholden to the slow & stoned hippie energy of its era (as opposed to the much more alive go-go erotica of The Vampire and the Ballerina), though, it’s difficult to get too excited about the film’s occasional pleasures that languidly float by onscreen. However, as some insight into the kind of territory Biller might’ve been mining for The Love Witch, it was invaluable, especially since it clued me in that female filmmakers have been working in the genre as long as it’s been around. Their work is just a lot harder to come by.

-Brandon Ledet

Heidi Kozak: Undersung Scream Queen

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There’s a lot to be shocked about in February’s Movie of the Month, Brian Yuzna’s satirical class politics body horror Society, but long before the incestuous, gore-soaked surrealism of the film’s climactic shunting began I found one of my biggest shocks in a very minor casting choice. The protagonist’s Valley Girl brat girlfriend was a very much unexpected face, the same actress who played the drummer in one of my favorite discoveries last year: Slumber Party Massacre II. Heidi Kozak has a tidy little career as a television actor to her name, most notable from her arc on the long-defunct drama series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Her feature film career, however, is much more limited. After a single scene debut as a street tough in the Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, Kozak enjoyed a brief run as an undersung scream queen in three 80s horror classics: Slumber Party Massacre II, Friday the 13th Part VII – The New Blood, and, of course, Society. Her respective roles as Sally, Sandra, and Shauna in these films were never big enough to snag top bill or make her anything close to a household name, but Kozak did find a way to leave a huge impression on horror schlock as an art form in just a few years’ time.

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Sally

I ran through the entirety of the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy twice last year, not because each entry in the series blew my mind, but because the second film in particular was a life changer. Slumber Party Massacre II is an MTV-inspired fever dream of slain teenagers & nightmarish hallucinations that completely reinterpreted its straightforward slasher predecessor as a kind of surreal live action cartoon. All four girls in the film’s central garage rock band (a surprisingly decent The Go-Go’s knockoff) who embark on the titular doomed slumber party road trip are exciting to watch as performers. Courtney’s got the Final Girl timidity, Amy’s got the Best Friend sincerity, Sheila’s got the Rock Star sex appeal: each are entertaining in their own right. Still, I’d argue that Heidi Kozak’s performance as the band’s drummer, Sally, is a definitive show stealer. She not only features prominently in the movie’s most stomach-churning practical effects showcase (just one of her two onscreen deaths in the film), but she also brings a distinct Valley Girl cheese to the character that would make the actor so easily recognizable in her later horror works.

We don’t know much about Sally as a character except that she’s boy-crazy and she’s a drummer. The drumming part is something Kozak sells hilariously unconvincingly, endlessly miming the same repetitive motions with her drumsticks while the soundtrack does its best to make her seem competent. She does sell the character’s boy-crazy delirium quite well, though, chiming in as often as she can with announcements like, “I met this outrageous guy! He was such a babe,” and “I know what Courtney’s getting for her birthday . . . a boyfriend!” Sally seems to be her social group’s air headed cut-up, prone to shouting half-formed thoughts like, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything,” and “Do anything you want to! Good times!” It’s easily the most dialogue Kozak is afforded in any of her works as a minor scream queen and she makes Sally out to be such a fun, bubbly character that every moment she’s onscreen is a gift. This is especially true of the first of her two onscreen deaths in the film, when Courtney hallucinates that a pimple Sally’s been worried about all weekend grows to encompass the entirety of her face and explodes all over the bathroom. It’s hideous, highly effective gore work and a much more memorable moment than when she’s later impaled by the killer’s phallic guitar drill. Poor Sally.

Most Killer Outfit: In the pillow fight scene, Sally sports a yellow crop top with Daisy Duke cutoffs and an asymmetrical ponytail. It’s the perfect outfit for any summertime sleepover, but it’s especially sporty for when you might need to flee from a demonic sex monster and his giant, guitar-shaped drill.

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A year after her scream queen debut in Slumber Party Massacre II, Kozak hit it big time (as far as mainstream horror franchises go). Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood practically lifted the Sally character wholesale from her previous film, only leaving behind her beloved drum kit. I can’t say that I especially enjoy this late-in-the-game franchise entry, but I do appreciate that it occupies the sillier end of Jason Voorhees lore that makes movies like Jason X and Jason Takes Manhattan, some of my favorites of the series. In this loosely sketched out version of Crystal Lake mythology, Jason’s dead body is reanimated & freed from its watery grave when a troubled young teen accidentally exercises her Carrie-like telepathic abilities in his general vicinity. Unfortunately, the film finds a way to make this ludicrous premise punishingly dull, despite some promising ideas about Jason functioning as a supernatural curse. There’s only two worthwhile aspects to The New Blood once the plot gets stuck in its by the books slasher rut: an inventive kill in which Jason smashes a girl zipped up in a sleeping bag against a tree (a kill later satirized to even greater effect in Jason X) and the casting of Heidi Kozak as inevitable victim Sandra.

Again, there isn’t much difference between Sandra & Sally in terms of character work, except that Sandra actually gets to act on her boy-crazy teen horniness while Sally only got to gush about it. In her introductory scene, Sandra is shown sunbathing and ogling a nearby hunk. In her second scene, she’s screwing a different boy, her boyfriend, in the back of a van, essentially marking herself as ineligible for Final Girl status, a surefire victim for Jason’s swinging machete. It’s in this romantic pairing that we get to see a different side of Kozak that wasn’t already covered in Slumber Party Massacre II. Because her wealthy boyfriend is hosting a teen party at his uncle’s Crystal Lake cabin, Sally winds up playing party mom during a large portion of the film’s first act. She’s still operating within her usual ditzy Valley Girl caricature, but now with a flustered sense of responsibility that has to negotiate between her oversensitive boytoy and some rowdy teens who just want to get drunk & screw. She makes no show of hiding why she’s with the wealthy dipshit either, answering his question, “When did you fall in love with me?” with a teasing, “The first time I saw the enormous size of your beautiful . . . wallet. The bulge in your pants was calling my name. Sandra, Sandra!” Unfortunately, Sandra’s life on this Earth is cut short when she gets the idea to go skinny dipping in Crystal Lake, one of Jason’s biggest pet peeves. She watches in horror as her boyfriend is decapitated on the shore and her naked body double is subsequently drowned. It’s a shame too, because she was one of the few compelling characters in a film that desperately needed more of them, yet she was one of the first to go.

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Most Killer Outfit: In accordance with her status as a more horned-up replica of Sally, Sandra sports a skimpier version of the yellow crop top & short jorts outfit from the previously mentioned pillow fight in her big skinny dipping scene. This time, however, it’s paired with a nude body double instead of an asymmetrical ponytail.

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Shauna

Society is easily the strangest film in Kozak’s trio of horror outliers, depite each work being uniquely goofy in their own unique ways. Kozak reprises her Valley Girl routine for one final go-round in Brian Yuzna’s cult classic body horror, but not as a participant in the gore-soaked “shunting” climax, neither as a victim nor as a wealthy mutant “sucking off” the life force of the lower class. Instead, Shauna is a total outsider to the entirety of the plot. She’s just as clueless as the film’s protagonist as to what supernatural evils lie under the surface of the film’s well-to-do Society, but instead of investigating the Truth, she spends the entire film trying to join the ranks of a ruling class that has no use for her. Her character traits aren’t much different than Sally’s or Sandra’s, but Shauna’s ditzy, boy-obsessed teen routine is put to a much stranger use, likely because Society itself is much less structurally formulaic than the two straightforward slashers she worked on previously.

Shauna has exactly one goal in Society: to earn an invitation to rich cad Ted Ferguson’s party. She does not succeed. The high school cheerleader schemer pretends to be so into and in love with the protagonist, Bill, but her interest in him seems to be a political move based on his football star social status and potential election as senior class president. When Bill finds himself entangled with a potential love interest that actually wants to have sex, Shauna is incensed not because she’s jealous of the affair, but because she wasted so much emotional work with Bill and never earned that Ted Ferguson invite she wanted so badly. Once their romance is fully dissolved, Shauna’s storyline is left by the wayside and she disappears before the climactic shunting, forever an outsider, never to be heard from again.

As an actor, Heidi Kozak similarly disappeared. Her work as a minor scream queen dissipated within three glorious, but short years and it’s doubtful she’d be remembered for any other popular media contributions, except maybe by the most dedicated Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman fans. I’d say she fully deserves to be remembered now, though. All three of her horror projects have proven to be such strange genre outliers with unexpected cult status longevity and she makes a striking presence in each instance. She’ll never enjoy the status of a Neve Campbell or a Jamie Lee Curtis, but she’ll always be a cherished scream queen to me.

Most Killer Outfit: In the scene when Shauna confronts Bill for his cheating ways, she shows up at his house in a skin tight denim dress, paired with a candy red sports car. She looks incredibly powerful in that getup and Bill was a fool to let her go in his pursuit of the truth about the shunt, especially since his eventual fate was entirely unavoidable.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990).

-Brandon Ledet