Brandon: This summer, every major American sports conglomerate—the NFL, the NBA, MLB, etc.—publicly debated whether it was safe to restart operations as the COVID pandemic stretched on months beyond what was initially projected. This debate was unnecessary in the world of “sports entertainment“, however, as pro wrestling companies like WWE, AEW, and Impact! never shut down operations in the first place. Continuing a notoriously shitty history of exploiting their roster for maximum profit (see: lack of employee benefits for wrestlers because of their dubious status as “contract workers”), WWE has maintained consistent weekly broadcasts and monthly Pay-Per-View specials while COVID halted the rest of the entertainment industry. Unsurprisingly, the company had a breakout of coronavirus cases among its staff in late June and still continued weekly broadcasts without interruption. While it would have been impossible to maintain operations without any risk of COVID outbreak (imagine opponents wrestling while somehow also maintaining a six-foot distance), there have been some performative measures to make WWE’s broadcasts appear “safe”. The eeriness of watching wrestlers perform in empty arenas, in front of LED screens of webcam-wielding fans at home, or for their enemies on the other side of a plexiglass barrier has been a fascinating symptom of our dystopian times. The real gem of COVID-era pro wrestling, however, has been WWE’s increased reliance on pre-taped, off-site matches.
While the COVID pandemic has made pro wrestling even more immorally dangerous for its workers, it’s also made pro wrestling more cinematic. The over-the-top, deliriously silly pageantry of wrestling that attracts me to the “sport” in the first place has been especially heightened this year. We’ve seen #SwampFight matches set in haunted wetland shacks straight out of True Detective, Season 1. This year’s Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View featured a #CorporateLadderMatch: a vertical fight from the lobby to the rooftop of WWE’s corporate headquarters. My personal favorite was the #FireflyFunhouse match: a darkly surreal, Lynchian descent into the troubled psyche of John Cena, possibly the single greatest wrestling segment of all time. The rules of reality have been entirely broken & disregarded in favor of delivering the most memorably entertaining matches possible, which is something I wish this proudly unreal “sport” pursued more often. While these pre-taped, off-site pandemic matches have been a freshly exciting development for modern pro wrestling, they don’t feel like a total anomaly. I’ve not only seen similar matches within pro wrestling broadcasts before (mostly in Attitude Era segments set at funerals & boiler rooms and in the Hardy Boyz’ recent “Broken” series for Impact!), but they also distinctly recalled a little-loved B-movie from 2011 that I hold near & dear to my stupid little heart: Monster Brawl.
Monster Brawl is a one-time-only pro wrestling tournament between famous monster archetypes, held in a haunted graveyard to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”. It’s staged as if it were a real-time Pay-Per-View broadcast of an actual pro wrestling event, with comedian Dave Foley & genre film veteran Art Hindle providing live action commentary as traditional ringside announcers. Competitors with generic famous-monster gimmicks like Werewolf, Zombie Man, Lady Vampire, Mummy, and Frankenstein (“Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it,”) fight to the death in a standard-issue wrestling ring in the middle of a spooky graveyard straight out of a 1950s B-movie. Scratch that; it’s a set straight out of the #BoneyardMatch at this year’s pandemic-altered WrestleMania, wherein real-life famous monster The Undertaker buried opponent AJ Styles alive in a pre-marked grave. I don’t know how to convey how awesomely stupid it is to watch classic monster archetypes murder each other in a wrestling ring if that premise doesn’t automatically speak to your sensibilities the way it does to mine. When I see a Louisiana-themed Creature from the Black Lagoon knockoff named Swamp Gut who’s mostly made of trash and is pissed off about wetlands erosion, my heart just sings. I do hope that audiences outside this exact B-movie/pro wrestling fandom Venn Diagram could at least appreciate the film’s commitment to the bit, however. It establishes a very simple famous-monster-deathmatch-tournament premise upfront and never steps outside of those parameters to win over any potential detractors.
This might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust their expectations to the payoffs of that format. Everything I love & loathe about pro wrestling is present here: the over-the-top characters, the exaggerated cartoon violence, the infuriating marginalization of women outside the ring to Bikini Babe status, all of it. It’s a pure joy to see (generic versions of) the famous monsters that I also love plugged into that template, especially when the announcers underline the absurdity of the scenario with inane statements like “For the first time in professional sports, folks, we’re witnessing the dead rising from their graves to attack Frankenstein.” That combination delivers all the deliriously absurd action I’ve been enjoying from COVID-era WWE programming without any of the behind-the-scenes worker exploitation spoiling the mood. In fact, it looks like it was genuinely fun to conceive & film, judging by the loving care that went into the detailed character designs of the monsters and the unembarrassed commitment to the Pay-Per-View broadcast gimmick.
Hanna, while we’ve all been known to enjoy a cheap-o horror movie or two, you’re the only other member of the crew who watches pro wrestling with any regularity, so it’s probably safest to start with you. Was there anything particular about the spirit of “sports entertainment” that you saw accurately represented in Monster Brawl? How well do you think the film mimics the feel of either current or classic wrestling broadcasts – then, now, or forever?
Hanna: I should preface this by saying that I am the kind of wrestling fan who likes the idea of the Repo Man, so I realize that my opinions about what makes wrestling appealing may not be shared by the majority of the Sports Entertainment community. Apart from the athleticism and the glorious spots, wrestling makes me happiest in its highest moments of theatricality and absurdity. I also love horror movies, and I’m especially interested in global horror mythologies. In theory, this movie should have been a dream come true for me; I was so ready to love it, but ultimately it fell flat (in part due my extremely high expectations).
Unfortunately, I think that Monster Brawl’s fatal flaw is its monsters; for a movie focused on wrestling and goofy monster tropes, I didn’t find the characters that compelling. For the most part, the monsters didn’t fulfill any of the three criteria that generally attract me to wrestlers: they weren’t dramatically engaging, they weren’t scary, and they weren’t funny. You could argue that it’s hard to establish the kind of character investment that WWE has years to build in an hour and 29 minutes, but the pure glee that Swamp Gut instilled in me kills that argument (the Swamp-speak diatribe against pollution is one of my favorite movie-watching moments from this year). He’s the only character with a unique or memorable identity, the only one that I found myself rooting for – and he gets squashed by a werewolf! Despicable booking. How did they get the other monsters so wrong? How did a slimy pile of green swamp trash have more charisma than a vampire?
It’s absolutely possible that I’m being too hard on this movie; I don’t think it intended to be a masterpiece. Still, I was so disappointed at the untapped potential in the premise. I at least would have enjoyed it more if the camp had been turned up a few notches. What did you think, Britnee? Did the Monster Brawl monsters resonate with you? I know that you’re a sucker for theatricality, so did this film pique your interest in wrestling?
Britnee: Monster Brawl is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I really do enjoy watching wrestling because I’m a sucker for all things tacky and trashy, but I honestly don’t watch it all that much. I’ll watch clips online or watch a match or two when I’m indulging in someone else’s cable, but that’s pretty much it. Monster Brawl really felt more like a wrestling match than a movie, but could it be that wrestling matches are actually more like movies than I thought?
The part of the film that I kept going back and forth on were the monsters. It was like a Spirit Halloween store threw up on the screen. I actually enjoyed the cheap looking costumes and makeup effects because it really went with the B-movie vibe, but the biggest disappointment was the lack of creativity with their characters (except for Swamp Gut, of course). Like Hanna, I really wanted the monsters to go all out and have fun with their characters. Most of them just made gross scary noises and boring comments to one another. I was laughing immediately at the Witch Bitch character when she was introduced in the film’s beginning, but as time passed, she just became so boring. I wanted her to do insane witchy stuff during her battle with Cyclops, like brand a pentagram on his head or shove a broomstick up his ass.
The lack of creativity with the monsters was the only negative thing about this movie for me. Otherwise, it really was an all around good time. The tiny details in some of the stories were super funny, like the Mummy character being called a MILF (Mummy I’d Like to Find). Those little cheeseball moments reminded me why wrestling is great.
I know that the format of Monster Brawl is that of a wrestling tournament, but I wonder if the film would have been a little better if there was some sort of focused plot. For instance, what if there was more of a focus on just one of the monsters and their journey within the tournament? Boomer, did you enjoy the film adapting to the mold of a wrestling match? Or would you have preferred something different?
Boomer: It would appear that I am the only MotM-participating Swampflixer who has no interest in wrestling whatsoever. It’s not that wrestling didn’t try to grab hold of me with all of its might: my fifth grade class went completely apeshit for WWE while the rest of the world was getting into Pokémon and Animorphs (both of which were forbidden at our evangelical school), and there was even a tie-in promotional episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which the not-yet-famous-as-an-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared as … an alien cage fighter (it’s bad, although Jeffrey Combs is a delight as always). But despite all the pageantry, the sweaty homoeroticism, and the constant barrage of subliminal (Voyager), liminal (constant advertising and even airing on Sci-Fi/Syfy; a half decade period of Austin 3:16 shirts for sale in every store in America), and superliminal (being forced to watch wrestling events at elementary and middle school sleepovers) advertising, I was never all that interested. I can tell you that I know the names Chyna, Sting, and of course mainstream/mainstream-adjacent figures like Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Dwayne Johnson, but until this moment I was unaware that there are two famous “The Undertaker(s),” and, don’t judge me, but I’m more interested in the monster truck. I knew of Jimmy Hart, but only as the former trope namer for “Suspiciously Similar Song” on TVTropes. So the fact that this follows the format of a big Pay-Per-View match is news to me, but isn’t surprising, because the cultural touchstone that I couldn’t stop thinking about was Celebrity Deathmatch, which I would often see portions of while waiting out the clock for Daria to start. It followed a pretty similar trajectory; I didn’t really care for Celebrity Deathmatch either.
Of the things that others have mentioned liking about the film, I also enjoyed the overall cheapness of the costumes, which did in fact feel like they were kitbashed together from a Spirit Halloween or the seasonal section of a Savers or Big Lots; the unblinking eye on the Cyclops was particularly endearing in its “Let’s make a movie, gang!” aesthetic. It was a wise idea to intersperse these throughout the film before each match instead of frontloading the movie with all of the narrative elements and then devolving into the wrestling scenes. It took me over two hours to watch this 90 minute feature because every time a fight started, my eyes glazed over and I completely dissociated from the experience, my mind alternating between flashbacks to those sleepovers and my desire to be doing anything else while Jesse Simpson and Matt McCulloch re-enacted the moves that they saw on screen. I had to deliberately remind myself to pay attention, rewinding to make sure I hadn’t missed some element that would give me something else to write about in this segment other than Voyager, reciting segments of Roger Ebert’s review of North, and my boredom. As a longtime fan of Swamp Thing (both the character and the terrible eighties TV show), I did get a kick out of Swamp Gut, and I liked how his introductory segment was framed like a TV documentary show from a formerly-respectable-but-not-so-much-anymore station. I also really liked the potential of Witch Bitch, who could have been a lot of fun. The idea of a time-displaced Colonial Era witch finding meaning in the ring could have made for an interesting story, like a Million Dollar Baby-Eater, but her introductory segment took a turn for the very mean spirited almost immediately, and her early defeat made it clear that she was more of a placeholder than someone worthy of investing time in the characterization of.
I did like the aforementioned “Frankenstien’s monster if you’re a dick” joke, though. I’m glad that, even nearly ten years ago, everyone was already tired of that pedantry. It reminds me of this, one of the best Onion articles from the time when they were making satire and not just predicting the next horrible thing this administration was going to do.
Britnee: I would love to see more of Swamp Gut. He needs his own movie where he wrestles swamp-polluting douche bags. This is what will save the planet.
Hanna: Like Brandon mentioned, this wouldn’t have been a wrestling movie without some Bikini Babes. One is completely dedicated to the part of cheering on the monsters (or at least marginally enthusiastic), and the other looks like she’s mourning her career in the cemetery.
Boomer: In the recent podcast where Brandon and I talked about A Tale of Two Sisters, I admitted that I know I tend to be the most negative Swampflixian, although I still adhere to the maxim that enjoying something is more interesting than hating it. But now, at long last, with everyone else finding something to enjoy here and me being completely miserable, I am glad to have finally paid my debt for forcing everyone to watch Live Freaky, Die Freaky, which was universally reviled. I can rest easy now.
Brandon: I knew recommending this movie would be risky, but I’m glad we can all at least share in our love for Swam Gut. It also seems like the movie is somewhat successful in “working” the audience the way a real-life wrestling promotion would. Getting us heated over Swam Gut’s loss immediately after falling in love with his eco-terrorist politics is classic pro wrestling booking. It’s even something that’s been recently echoed by Daniel Bryan’s “Eco-Friendly Heavyweight Champion” angle on WWE — playing heel by plainly voicing his heartfelt climate change concerns.
Another great example of this is the way the two women wrestlers are booked in the intergender matches; it’s frustrating to watch Witch Bitch lose so viciously to Cyclops in the first match, but that tension makes Lady Vampire’s victory over Mummy in the very next round all the sweeter. I find that keeping the monsters simple & generic allows the audience to quickly get invested in those broad archetypes’ failures & successes. They’re instantly familiar to us and, thus, easy tools for emotional manipulation during the matches. That’s A+ in-ring storytelling in my book.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020
-The Swampflix Crew