Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Tom of Finland (2017)

I can probably count on one hand the number of biopics that have struck me as phenomenal, formally impressive cinema. Stray examples like Ed Wood & Kinsey leap to mind as I attempt to recall biopics I’ve instantly fallen in love with, but for the most part the genre feels like an endless line of passable-but-unremarkable exercises in filmmaking tedium. Tom of Finland has joined the ranks of biopics that have transcended that mediocrity for me. Depicting the adult life of the Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation. The only disappointment I have with Tom of Finland is that most audiences don’t seem to be on its wavelength, dragging my enthusiasm down with bafflingly unenthused reviews.

Part of the reason Tom of Finland is so impressive in its transcendence of biopic tedium is that it entirely forgoes the birth-to-death trajectory of that genre’s traditional narrative structure. Glimpses of the artist as a successful older man, a reluctant young soldier, a closeted adman living with his sister, and a smitten middle age romantic who happens to generate pornography, mix in a cyclical, sublimely lit intersection of vignettes that play like sardonically funny paintings in motion. The domestic softness of Laaksonen’s home life mix with the transgressive, leather-clad brutes of masculine sexuality that define his pornographic artwork and invade his daydreams as horny, in-the-flesh hallucinations. War-related PTSD becomes inextricable from the erotic, as he fetishizes a handsome soldier he killed in battle as a young man. Orchestral sweeps find divine beauty in the danger of cruising men in public & producing illegal, sexually charged art. Tom of Finland jumps time & skims consequences, trusting its audience to follow along without being held by the hand. It’s a delicately sweet portrait of an artist that’s often interrupted by queer disco reveries & seas of hairy men posing in the leather getups that turned Laaksonen on so much that his depictions of them inspired an entire spectrum of sexual fetish. If arranged in a linear order or stripped of its playfully hallucinatory erotic fantasies, Tom of Finland could easily be the middling biopic its critical consensus reports it to be. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike drift through the life of an artist with one of the mostly highly dedicated, specialized cult audiences imaginable.

I might understand the complaint that Tom of Finland isn’t brutish or sexy enough to fully convey the transgressive spirit of its subject’s work if it at all seemed like Laaksonen was as wildly over the top as his drawings. The tension between his mild-mannered demeanor and the over-sexed aggression of his art is one of the film’s more rewarding charms. He’s far from a sexless character, shamelessly flirting with men and discussing his work in blatantly honest terms like, “My cock is the boss. If I have a hard-on I know it’s good.” Like most people, though, Laaksonen is portrayed to be not nearly as wild as his sexual fantasies might suggest, which makes it all the more amusing when he’s delighted/dazed to see his work come to life in the “heavy leather” queer kink communities they inspired in New York City & San Francisco. The sudden deluge of this dedicated fandom hits the audience with the same jolt of surprise, its accompanying disco soundtrack feeling just as surreally out of place as the imagined sexual fantasies that intrude on the physical spaces of his daydreams. The contrast between this playfulness and the high art cinematography & production design make for one of the more exquisite biopic experiences I can ever remember having in my lifetime. Normally, I’d worry if the fact that I saw this at a New Orleans Film Fest screening made me more enthusiastic because of the excitement of the environment, but a faulty stop & start projection and a fussy late night audience was actually more of a distraction than an enhancement. Given the less than ideal screening where I watched this beautiful film, it’s a miracle I enjoyed at all, much less instantly fell in love. Now I just need to figure out exactly why so few people seem to be on the same wavelength.

-Brandon Ledet

Get Excited! Swampflix is Returning to NOCAZ Fest This Weekend

Attention, Swampflix readers in the New Orleans area! We will be exhibiting this Saturday (November 18th) & Sunday (November 19th) at the fourth annual New Orleans Comics & Zines Festival along with a bunch of other super cool comics & zines exhibitors. For this year’s festival we made a massive print version of the entirety of last year’s Movie of the Month conversations.

We will be also selling print versions of our “Marabunta Cinema“, “Lugosi Vs. Karloff“, “Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.” and “Wrestling Cinema” pieces, as well as 2015’s Movie of the Month conversations in their entirety. They all feature dozens of new illustrations & hand-transcribed text from the site and the two Movies of the Month zines are ~90 page whoppers featuring work from everyone who contributed to the site those two years.

We will be tabling from 11am-4pm on Saturday & 12pm-4pm Sunday at the Main Branch of the Orleans Public Library on Loyola Ave. For more info on the festival, check out their website at Nocazfest.com & refer to the poster below.

We hope to see y’all there!

-The Swampflix Crew

Bob Dylan’s Indifference towards Hearts of Fire (1987), The Press, and Life in General

The only reason to ever dig up our current Movie of the Month, the 1987 rock n’ roll melodrama Hearts of Fire, from its VHS format burial ground is to gawk at how baffling Bob Dylan’s presence is in the film. Cast as a washed up rock n’ roller with an attitude problem & Bad Boy sex appeal, Dylan is insanely wrong for the role. Every mumbling line reading of flirtatious cynicism & every moment of tough guy macho posturing plays like an unintended joke. Dylan consistently fails at the basic task of pretending like he cares about the young woman he’s meant to seduce or the hotel room furniture he lazily smashes as he sleepwalks through the whole ordeal as if he were a man twice his age. It appears as if Dylan’s presence in Hearts of Fire was entirely a marketing decision cooked up by his agent and the music industry legend himself had zero interest in fulfilling the project’s basic requirements. Dylan needed an image rejuvenation after his 80s gospel period pleased no one, but was entirely indifferent to any opportunities presented to accomplish that turnaround. He simply didn’t give a shit.

If you need any confirmation of Bob Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire, there’s a BBC-produced documentary about the making of the film, titled Getting to Dylan, that should make his total lack of interest in the film crystal clear. 1980s press organizations were just as baffled by Dylan’s decision to star in the film as we are now, looking back. It had been decades since Dylan had appeared in weirdo art movies like Don’t Look Back and Renaldo & Clara, so no one could parse out why he chose to revive his nonstarter cinema career with a love triangle music drama where he plays a washed up rocker archetype clearly written for Mick Jagger. Determining the answer to this question was no easy task, since Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire extended to his feelings on speaking to the press and, seemingly, being a living human being. It takes producers of Getting to Dylan almost halfway into their hour-long runtime to get their subject to even speak on what drew him to the project. His answers are, to be expected, mostly a series of cryptic mumbles. When asked what his favorite scenes in the movie involve, he shrugs, “I don’t even know the scenes in the movie, to tell you the truth. They’re all good, I guess.” The only time he seems like he cares about or even knows what’s going on in the movie is when he jokes that he’s being standoffish with reporters because he’s “getting into character.”

As easy as it is to have a laugh at Dylan’s indifference towards the press & his craft as a dramatic actor, Getting to Dylan does offer some insight into why he feels that way. The cynics & sycophants of pop media journalism are grotesque monsters in the BBC doc. First of all, although they’re professionally tasked to ask Bob Dylan questions about Hearts of Fire, they care even less about the movie than he does. While he’s sitting directly next to a stone-faced Fiona (the actual star of the film) he’s asked why he’s debasing himself with such lowly pop culture material when a writer of his talents could presumably have penned a better movie himself. Journalists use Hearts of Fire as an excuse to get close enough to the notoriously reclusive Dylan to ask questions about what the really want to know: the details of his heyday in the 60s & 70s folk scene. Dylan shrugs off the praise heaped on him by music journalists in the film, shyly making self-deprecating nonsense like, “I just write [songs] because nobody tells me I can’t write ‘em.” He shoots down grandiose statements about his work with mumbled repetitions of “Not really,” until the reporters who’ve desperately tried to get him on the mic the entire film ask questions that have nothing to do with his work at all, searching for tabloidish info about his family life & potential assassination attempts. The press is just as gross in their coverage of Hearts of Fire as Bob Dylan is aloof.

There’s nothing especially significant or revelatory about Getting to Dylan. The short-form TV doc is mostly amusing for watching the BBC attempt to cull together scraps of interviews & promotional clips for a movie its subject has less than zero interest in promoting. They have to meet Dylan more than halfway to produce something that resembles a finished product, which is more or less just desserts considering the way they chose to cover his involvement in the film. The most animated Dylan becomes in the doc is in an out of nowhere tangent where he (idiotically) complains that modern, synthesized pop music has “no roots” & “no foundation.” For that brief moment real life old fart Bob Dylan resembles the old fart he was hired to play in Hearts of Fire, a character who similarly turned up his nose at 80s pop & new wave. It’s kind of a shame he couldn’t translate that passionate distaste for modern music into an authentic performance in the film, but it’s still entertaining in its own way to watch him half-heartedly trash a hotel room & seduce a woman half his age with nearly inaudible mumbles and a profoundly stupid earring.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the Bob Dylan rock n’ roll disaster Hearts of Fire, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #43 of The Swampflix Podcast: 90s Shaqsploitation & Power Rangers (2017)

Welcome to Episode #43 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-third episode, we bravely dive headfirst into the Only 90s Kids Will Understand™ deep end. Brandon and James discuss the movie career of famed NBA player/rapper/podcaster Shaquille O’Neal with special guest “Shaqspert” Julia Broussard. Also, Brandon makes James watch the 2017 Power Rangers reboot for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Love and Saucers (2017)

There was an audible wave of giggling in my audience with the opening line of dialogue in the documentary Love and Saucers. The subject of the doc, visual artist David Huggins, explains directly to the camera, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extraterrestrial. That’s all I can say about it.” It’s somewhat understandable that an audience would titter at the outlandishness of that claim and the movie that parses out the details of David’s stories is often content to find humor in its absurdity, but I was personally more struck by the confession’s supernatural terror. David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a “Get a load of this weirdo!” line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.

Huggins lives a mostly solitary life, holed up in his Hoboken apartment/art studio with piles of sci-fi & horror themed VHS tapes & paper backs providing inspiration for his illustrations. He proudly displays titles like The Day of the Dolphin, Sssssss, Teenagers from Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, and Son of Frankenstein for the camera, explaining why the sci-fi genre and the VHS format are so important to him. At 72 years old, he’s stuck in his ways: working a menial job at a nearby deli, keeping his stories of alien abductions private outside his family & follow paranormal enthusiasts, and painting Impressionist illustrations of his memories interacting, erotically, with the space aliens that have targeted him throughout his life. There’s a wide variety of species within these alien tormentors’ ranks, including the classic “greys,” a bigfoot-type “hairy guy,” the humanoid aliens David fucks, their hybrid offspring, and a voyeur mantis who enjoys watching their copulation. Whether or not audiences cosign belief in the creatures’ existence, David has to live & cope with reality daily and there’s a tragic sense of terror in that isolation & grief.

Love and Saucers follows the same approach to oral history documentary filmmaking that Rodney Ascher employs in his docs about sleep paralysis & The Shining-inspired conspiracy theories. David is allowed to tell his own story directly to the audience with no editorial judgement made on his personal account of the facts. He’s an endearing man with an unshakable smile, so this is far from a portrait of a Henry Darger-type recluse. Still, his stories of repeat sexual encounters with an alien species have a distinctly menacing tone underneath them, one the film accentuates by intercutting them with images from David’s illustrations, like a nightmare intruding a wandering thought. The matter of fact way David explains things like, “This is my other body,” and the fact that his illustrations are genuinely fascinating works on their own leave the film with a sincere sense of heartache & menace. I understand the temptation to treat Love and Saucers & David’s accounts of his personal history with alien sex as a goof or a lark, but much like its subject’s art this movie mostly functions like a strangely beautiful nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

Young and Innocent (2017)

When Gus Van Sant attempted a shot-for-shot remake of the Alfred Hitchcock proto-slasher Psycho in the late-90s, he found it frustrating that recreating exact moments from the original frame by frame zapped the magic from the horror he was staging. Early on in the process of remaking Psycho, Van Sant had to abandon the shot-for-shot gimmick to allow his actors more freedom to perform and his film more room to stand on its own. It was a smart decision, as the more interesting aspects of the 1998 Psycho were where it strayed furthest from the Hitchcock original: the vibrant colors, the in-stereo Danny Elfman score, the surrealist dream imagery that invades the various kill scenes, etc. The main problem with Van Sant’s Psycho is that it didn’t deviate further from Hitchcock, that it was precious about being blasphemous to its source material. The no-budget indie Young and Innocent plays much, much looser with the Hitchcock roadmap in its own Psycho revisionism, to the point where it even transforms the original’s genre from horror/thriller to lowkey romcom & coming of age drama. Young and Innocent obviously can’t compete with the slickness of Van Sant’s production, considering the scale of its financing, but its willingness to play around with the basic components of their shared source material instead of letting them be is much more artistically admirable & worthwhile.

Although it cribs its title from an entirely different Hitchcock thriller, Young and Innocent’s debt/homage to Psycho is apparent fairly early in its first act. A teenage girl named Marion is spurned by a summertime fling, who happens to be a counselor at her Emily Dickinson writing camp. Miffed, she makes off with the camp’s debit card and takes the first available bus out of town. If you’re not already seeing the Psycho parallels while Marion listens to imagined catty criticism of her character & her poetry on this rebellious bus ride to nowhere, they should be unignorably blatant by the time she rents a motel room from a young weirdo named Norman, who makes incessant small talk about his mother & offers her dinner in his office (this time pizza delivery instead of sandwiches). The movie keeps you guessing from there, teasing the infamous shower scene & heavily implying that Norman might just be the murderer you’d expect, but allowing Marion to live far longer than she did when she did when she was played by Vivian Leigh. A lot of the same elements from the original Psycho persist even as Marion continues to be alive, including investigations from her sister & local law enforcement. Mostly, though, Young and Innocent plays like a summertime hangout film that finds awkward comedy in an unlikely romantic spark between Norman & Marion, so it’s actually not like Psycho at all.

Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions. It’s interesting to see how much it differs from 1998’s much higher-in-profile Psycho remake, especially in terms of tone & genre, while still capturing the spirit of certain details from Hitchcock’s original more accurately. Gideon Shil’s Norman Bates stand-in, for instance, is much more convincing as a nervous weirdo than Vince Vaughn’s estimation of the same Anthony Perkins role, despite his status as a crazed killer being much more of an open-ended question. By dwelling on Marion’s vulnerability in a world full of potentially dangerous men for a much longer stretch of time, the film also feels more revelatory of Hitchcock’s original intent than the more faithful carbon copy of Van Sant’s efforts. Young and Innocent finds endearing, quirky coming-of-age humor in a classic work that should not be able to support that light of a tone, which is a very admirable distinction for a film with its undeniably meager means.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Allergic to Cats (2017)

Because its Adult Swim platform reached so many television sets and the show’s aesthetic somehow informed a wave of early 2010s advertising, the frenetic surrealism of Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! might just turn out to be one of the most influential touchstones of modern media. The awkwardly non-professional acting, aggressively hacky jokes, absurdist shock value grotesqueries, .gif-like repetition, and deliberately low-fi visual palettes of mid-2000s artists like Tim & Eric and PFFR are starting to creep up in feature length cinema in a palpable way. Often, this psychedelically aggressive amateurism can be nihilistic in its dedication to irony & emotional distance, as with the recent shock value gross-outs Kuso & The Greasy Strangler. Those instances can be their own kind of ugly delight, but what’s even more exciting is when films like The Brigsby Bear imbue this modern form of low-fi psychedelia with something Tim & Eric never had: genuine pathos. The dirt cheap passion project indie She’s Allergic to Cats operates on both sides of that divide. It embraces the grotesque, ironic absurdism of “bad”-on-purpose Tim & Eric descendants to craft a VHS quality aesthetic that amounts to something like John Waters by way of Geneva Jacuzzi. More importantly, though, it allows the earnest pathos of desperate, pitch black cries for help to disrupt & subvert that all-in-good-fun absurdism with genuine (and genuinely broken) heart to strike a tone that’s as funny as it is frightening & sad.

She’s Allergic to Cats opens with the admission “I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies, but instead I groom dogs.” In a land where everyone dreams of being in show business, we focus on the Tailwaggers-employed pet groomer who dreams the smallest. Michael is, by most estimations, a loser. He grooms dogs by day to afford to live in a rat-infested apartment where he works on his VHS “video art” projects & watches Bad Movies in isolation by night. His greatest ambition in life is to direct an all-cat remake of De Palma’s Carrie, but he’s laughably bad at pitching the idea to anyone he can get to listen. She’s Allergic to Cats chronicles a series of minor conflicts in Michael’s hopelessly minor life: negotiating with his Tommy Wiseau-like landlord over rat extermination possibilities, struggling to balance his pet-grooming career with his passion for VHS art, attempting to orchestrate a hot date with Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant (the titular “she”) despite his life & home being an unpresentable mess, etc. These trivial conflicts are frequently interrupted by the movie’s most substantive modes of expression: the VHS-quality stress dreams that invade Michael’s everyday thoughts. Spinning cat carriers on fire, naked human flesh, squinched rat faces, and rodent-chewed bananas mix with onscreen text cries for help like “My life is shit. My life is a mess. My mess is a mess,” and so on. Laurie Anderson-style voice modulation & Miranda July-style art project tinkering break down Michael’s comically drab life into a sex & career-anxious nightmare.

Buried somewhere under Michael’s sky high pile of dirty dishes & analog video equipment is a lonely, decaying heart. She’s Allergic to Cats does a great job of subverting the Tim & Eric-esque absurdist irony it touts on the surface by cutting open & exposing that heart at Michael’s most anxious, vulnerable moments to strike a tone halfway between campy comedy & surrealist horror. With a warped VHS look reminiscent of a mid-90s camcorder & a taste for gross-out lines of humor like .gif-style repetitions of expressed canine anal glands, She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls “I need help” across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.

-Brandon Ledet

Super Dark Times (2017)

One thing that hasn’t yet been fully addressed in our current crop of kids-on-bikes throwback thrillers like Stranger Things & IT is that teenagers themselves are grotesque monsters. While most Amblin-inspired nostalgia horrors are content to pit flawed, but lovable scamps against supernatural monsters, Super Dark Times instead makes the more difficult choice of presenting the teens themselves, especially teen boys, as the inhuman creatures worthy of fear. The teenagers of Super Dark Times are gross idiots whose masculine aggression & feverish libido are disturbingly typical for their hormone-addled age range . . . until they result in a very atypical body count. There’s, of course, plenty room in this world for more idyllic depictions of teenage suburbia in crisis, where everything is well-meaning & wholesome except supernatural foreign invaders. Super Dark Times messes with that formula in an interesting way, however, by being more critically honest about the evils lurking in the real life kids who bike around those neighborhoods.

Two lifelong friends fill their days with standard teen boy grotesqueries: scrambled satellite signal porn, ogling girls in their high school year book, stale weed, junk food, performative cussing, etc. There’s a detectable face/heel dynamic in their relationship, where one of the kids is frequently invited to parties & is more socially fluent, while the other is more of a bitter shut-in. Mostly, though, they’re inseparable in their suburbanite exploits, which is how they wind up sharing guilt over the accidental death of a classmate, with a little help from a dangerously sharp sword & some old-fashioned masculine aggression. Most of Super Dark Times is wrapped up in the fallout of this life-destroying tragedy, following the more agreeable of the two boys as he feebly attempts to keep their involvement in his classmate’s disappearance quiet. He’s absolutely terrible at acting normal & covering his tracks, barely containing his mounting paranoia & crippling guilt as he also has to navigate school work, home life, reciprocated advances from a romantic crush, and increasingly intense stress dreams that jumble all of these anxieties into an incoherent cerebral torture. Then things get even worse.

Because of its genre and 1990s setting, it’s near impossible to avoid comparing Super Dark Times to more hot ticket kids-on-bikes throwbacks like IT & Stranger Things, even though its sentiments are likely more in line with small budget indie outliers like Gabriel & I Am Not a Serial Killer. You can definitely find Only 90s Kids Will Understand™ details in the setting if you know where to look for them: Walkman players, bagel bites, Bill Clinton, True Lies, PM Dawn, the aforementioned scrambled porn. The closest the film ever gets to cutesy nostalgia, though, is in depicting a high school kid having a deadly serious conversation on a tennis shoe phone. Its sense of dread is much more lyrical than merely evoking a half-remembered era through pop culture touchstones. The menace of the wilderness, the memories of longingly staring at girls in class, and the anxious nightmares of jumbled-up sex, blood, and divine swords make the film feel both dangerous & subliminally disturbing. Better yet, it even has a point of view in its depictions of the grotesque, unchecked evils lurking in teen boy masculinity that’s much more meaningful than any pop culture throwback or supernatural monster could’ve been in its place. Super Dark Times might not be the most fun kids-on-bikes thriller released in 2017, but it’s impressively honest & lyrically brutal in a way more films in the genre could stand to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Jigsaw (2017)

I never had much interest in the Saw franchise or the general torture porn subgenre it helped pioneer, even though I should have been in its exact demographic during its nu-metal heyday. The only early installment I can remember seeing is Saw 2, a mind-numbing theatrical experience due both to its for-its-own-sake gore & its entirely unjustified last second plot twist. Still, I had hope that the most recent sequel, simply titled Jigsaw, might be able to reshape the franchise into something fresh & newly interesting. Produced over a decade after its most recent predecessor & directed by the Spierig sibling duo behind the weirdo genre entries Predestination & Daybreakers, Jigsaw stood a good chance of finding a new, exciting angle on a previously unpleasant, aggressively empty franchise. Instead, it merely repeated the pattern laid out by previous Saw films: shock value torture scenarios striving to top themselves in violence & absurdity without narrative purpose, followed by a last second twist meant to fool you into thinking the previous 90min were less vapid than they first appeared to be. Jigsaw is, oddly, more of the same from a franchise that’s been laying dormant since 2006. It’s not an especially pleasant or exciting experience thanks to that trajectory, but it does offer insight into how the horror landscape has evolved (for the better) over the last eleven years.

Plot is probably an entirely irrelevant component at this point in the Saw series, except to say that Jigsaw is at it again! After being thought dead for a decade, the Rube Goldberg-inspired serial killer is apparently up to his old games, trapping seemingly ordinary, unrelated people in unnecessarily complex death traps as punishment for their moral shortcomings. In order to escape death by boobytraps, Jigsaw’s victims must mutilate themselves & confess to the world the many ways they’ve failed as human beings. Most of these scenarios are tied to guilt over selfishness & self-preservation, but none register as anything more than excuses for gore & screaming, incoherent mayhem. Meanwhile, a parallel police investigation tries to make sense of the newly surfaced “game” & its subsequent, torn-apart dead bodies. Will they discover the apparently resurrected Jigsaw (or his astute copycat) before all of the players in the latest game are killed? Will a last second twist completely undermine whether the game or Jigsaw’s current state ever really mattered? Even if you can stay awake long enough to find out, it’s doubtful you’ll leave the experience sated, unless all you really turned up for was a few stray moments of cruelty & gore.

Truly, the only reason to seek out Jigsaw is to admire how much better the horror landscape is now than it was a decade ago. The depth & range of horror titles being produced by boutique labels like Blumhouse & A24 in the modern era is an embarrassment of riches. Jigsaw returns us to a time when Lionsgate had the run of the place, torture porn was the rule of the land, and every horror movie was required to look like it was filmed in Rob Zombie’s dorm room. What’s even more interesting, though, is the way the Saw franchise’s influence has been dispersed through pop culture at large. Much like how runway fashion innovation eventually trickles down to Wal-Mart bargain racks, Saw is now a part of everyday, pedestrian #content. Jigsaw‘s morgue examinations of destroyed bodies are barely more gruesome than anything you’d see on CSI-type police procedurals. Its backstory flashback structure that adds puddle-shallow context one victim at a time to its archetype game-players recalls the storytelling format of Orange is the New Black. Even the “games” themselves have become wholesome weekend entertainment for the whole family, thanks to Escape Rooms & the like. Saw & its grimy torture porn ilk are not only creatively anemic in comparison to indie horror in the 2010s; their blades have also been dulled & diluted by pop culture at large to the point of being completely harmless.

If the Spierig brothers add anything new to the Saw franchise, it’s in Jigsaw‘s last minute shift from serial killer horror to superhero origin story. Even that territory has been thoroughly covered before in the long-deceased television series Dexter, though. It also occurs too late into the story to forgive the well-behaved franchise carbon copy that eats up the majority of the runtime anyway. The only value this film holds, then, is a reminder of how wonderful it is that this kind of bland, pointless cruelty is no longer the norm in horror circles. Jigsaw is enlightening & worth examination if you look at it as a point of contrast for how much the horror landscape has changed since the last entry in the franchise, but I doubt I’ll accept any future invitations to “play a game” all the same.

-Brandon Ledet