Lagniappe Podcast: Stoker (2013)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker (2013) — a high-style Gothic melodrama modeled after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

00:00 Welcome

03:30 The City of Lost Children (1995)
06:35 The X-Files (1998)
10:40 The Unholy (2021)
13:24 A Perfect Enemy (2021)
14:34 Stowaway (2021)
16:12 The Toll (2021)
19:27 Saint Maud (2021)
21:30 Promising Young Woman (2020)
27:56 Psycho Goreman (2021)
37:17 Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
41:48 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
42:33 Pig (2021)
47:15 Hackers (1995)

49:40 Stoker (2013)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Stowaway (2021)

“They sure don’t make [X] like they used to” is something that I either never tire of hearing or can’t stand to hear someone say, depending upon who’s making the statement and what they’re complaining about. “They sure don’t make gender theory like they used to” is a statement that could go either way, varying wildly depending on whether it’s a radical person at your local DSA meeting or a talking head on any news outlet. “They sure don’t make Confederate monuments like they used to” is a delight to hear if the person saying it is pleased, but would be a huge red (and treasonous) flag if the speaker is wistful for the days when they could indulge in their Lost Cause nonsense without inspection. Nothing in life is ever really stable, but one thing that they’re still making just like they used to are contemporary(ish) medium-to-hard sci-fi dramas about Things Going Wrong in Space. 

Medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) originally applied for a position with space exploration agency Hyperion because she thought that “I was rejected by Hyperion” would be a funny story to tell at parties. To her surprise, she was accepted for a position for a two-year Mars mission, alongside biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), whose work revolves around the possibility of using algae as a feasible atmosphere conversion medium. Leading the mission is Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), for whom this is a bittersweet journey, as it marks her third and final interplanetary trip. Their ship, the MTS-42, has an interesting configuration: the upper stage booster remains attached to the ship proper by a tether, and using centrifugal interia, provides artificial gravity for the crew. After a bumpy takeoff, the astronauts get down to the business of making the journey to Mars, but it turns out that this was no run-of-the-mill shaky departure: the ship’s weight is off due to the presence of Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a support engineer working as part of Hyperion’s ground crew, who was caught between two modules and trapped aboard the vessel. Worse still, his presence has inadvertently damaged the ship’s carbon dioxide scrubbers, which are needed to ensure a breathable atmosphere for the astronauts and their accidental stowaway for the entirety of their journey. 

Although Stowaway is set in the not-too-distant future, as evidenced by the way that a trip to Mars is treated as a semi-regular aeroscience practice and the lack of a NASA presence (Hyperion is never identified as a government agency or a private corporation; its international crew implies the latter but the genuine concern that home base demonstrates regarding the lives of its astronauts implies the former). It’s still part of the genealogy of films that can trace their ancestry back to The Right Stuff but were defined as a genre by Apollo 13: realistic space dangers. Stowaway doesn’t break the mold that also created The Martian and Gravity, but it’s also not really breaking the mold of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations,” from which it draws its primary dilemma. “Equations,” which itself draws inspiration from works going back to the nineteenth century, takes its title from the calculations needed when a starfaring vessel whose margins of error are very small finds those margins exceeded by a stowaway (an intentional one in that text), in order to determine if there’s a way for both pilot and passenger to survive. There isn’t; the stowaway passenger in “Equations” makes the ultimate sacrifice upon realizing that her actions, however well-intentioned if poorly-informed, threaten the lives of an entire colony. 

That it fails to break that mold isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. “The Cold Equations” is considered a classic sci-fi story with values that resonate across time for a reason. Stowaway also circumvents two potential problems with updates to the central conflict of “Equations” as well: the ship in “Equations” is pretty clearly in violation of common sense safety standards (it was published 16 years before OSHA went into effect, after all) by failing to provide for even the smallest margin of error, and the teenaged stowaway intentionally boarded the vessel to see her brother. In Stowaway, we instead have an engineer who was accidentally injured and knocked unconscious before being sealed behind a panel prior to liftoff, meaning that he is an innocent in this situation; secondly, it’s not merely a matter that the ship can’t support more than three people, but that the scrubbers that are the safety precaution and could enable them to make it to Mars with an extra person on board are damaged. Every attempt is made to find another solution, including using the algae from Kim’s experiment to try and produce sufficient oxygen to make the rest of the flight, and a daring and thrilling climb across the tether to the second stage booster to collect any remaining oxygen from its tanks in an attempt to extend MTS-42’s atmospheric supply until they reach Mars, but ultimately, just as in “Equations,” not everyone will make it out alive. 

Stowaway isn’t likely to blow the average audience member away. Its appeal lies largely in its similarity to what’s come before in the Things Going Wrong in Space genre and applying hard contemporary science to its familiar plot, but therein lies its weakness; there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. The minimal cast is strongly composed, but although no one’s phoning it in, everyone involved knows that this isn’t their opus, so it’s no one’s career best performance either. Anderson is a standout, given that he’s the least seasoned cast member, and Kendrick manages charm and gravitas in equal measures in a rare non-comedic role. I have a feeling that this would play better on the big screen; I certainly remember being captivated by Gravity and Interstellar while watching them in theaters, and Stowaway has sequences that feel stifled on my TV at home. Hopefully, we’ll see writer-director Joe Penna’s next feature large and beautiful, but in the meantime, this one’s on Netflix if you’re itching for a near-future sci-fi tragedy. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Perfect Enemy (2021)

In March 2020, I started reading Marie NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In about a week before Texas went into its first lockdown. It was a stunning book, beautiful and discomfiting, about a woman, Nadia, who suddenly and inexplicably becomes othered by her community. Friends, neighbors, amenable ex-lovers, strangers, her pupils: overnight, she becomes a pariah to them, something different and perhaps even obscene. As I was on the bus on the way home from work, not realizing that it would be the last time I would be taking that route, I was reading through a passage about Nadia also taking public transportation, and her growing awareness of being watched and observed, and that paranoid feeling surged through me as the eyes of my fellow commuters began to dart from face to face, seeking any sign of illness or contagion. It was a distinctly surreal experience that I do not recall fondly. NDiaye’s writings seemed, based on my own admittedly limited cultural knowledge, very French; Heart focused heavily not just on the feeling of being ostracized, but also on the confusion of it, and through narrative sleight of hand managed to let the reader know that there was something about her situation that Nadia unconsciously understood but forced beneath the surface of her conscious mind. Despite her constant claims that she couldn’t imagine the reason for her situation, the reader always knew that she was more aware than she let on. Although the novel upon which A Perfect Enemy is based, Cosmétique de l’ennemi, is Belgian (albeit written in French), the summaries of it which I’ve managed to locate indicate a similar self-deception at the original novel’s core, which does not (forgive the pun) translate to the big screen, nor am I certain it could have translated.

Successful and renowned Polish architect Jeremiasz Angust (Tomasz Kot) has just finished giving a lecture in Paris about his philosophy of design. In so doing, he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (probably best known in the Western Hemisphere as the author of The Little Prince): “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is tied into his desire to design spaces which are to the benefit not of an aristocratic class, but to the societal underclasses, who deserve beauty as much as their supposed betters. En route to the airport to return home, he offers to share a cab with a rain-soaked young Dutch woman who gives her name as Texel Textor (Athena Strates). Despite the objections of the cab driver, they also turn back to retrieve Texel’s suitcase, which causes both of them to miss their flights. As they each wait for the next available flight, Jeremiasz politely attempts to rebuff Texel’s attempts to engage him in further conversation, especially once her interest in him is further aroused by the fact that he had designed the very airport in which they are currently stranded. He finally gives in to her begging to hear her out as she tells him stories about her childhood, promising one such tale about how she killed a classmate in her youth. As they adjourn to a very nice lounge, the miniature diorama of the airport shows two tiny figures inside painted to look just like Jeremiasz and Texel, in an otherwise monochromatic white sea. 

Texel tells three stories. The first is about her disgust with the sound of her stepfather’s eating as a child and how her own rejection of food due to textural issues led to her being punished by mixing up offal and other unappetizing food remnants to feed to the family’s cats, but forced herself to eat that mixture and discovered she loved it. The second story is about her friendship with another girl from school, who was much more well-off and of whom the poor Texel was deeply envious, even going so far as to destroy the wealthier girl’s toys out of spite. One night she prayed for the girl to die while stabbing a doll, and learned the following day at school that she had died in the night. Between these stories, Texel asks Jeremiasz about his wife, noting his wedding band, but he reveals nothing other than to say that he still loves her, which Texel doubts, noting that when someone loves another person, they can’t help but talk about them more than Jeremiasz is willing to speak of his bride. Jeremiasz says that Texel can’t possibly think that her prayers killed her classmate, but Texel tells her final story, about seeing a beautiful woman in a French cemetery, standing over a sculpture of a mourning woman that looks almost just like her. She falls madly in love with the woman instantly and pursues her, much to the woman’s dismay, and although Texel catches up with the woman and even knocks her down, the mourner manages to get away. Texel spends years trying to find her again, and when she does and realizes the woman does not recognize her from that day in the graveyard, she weasels her way into the woman’s home, only for the woman to eventually recognize Texel’s mad laughter, and then a tragedy occurs. 

Although there’s not much to spoil here for a first time viewer and I’m not giving this film a recommendation, I’ll still refrain from sharing too much about how Texel and Jeremiasz were connected prior to their “chance” meeting, although an astute reader may have already figured it out. That’s by far the least interesting part of the film. Maybe I’m simply still haunted by Hereditary, but I had really hoped that the recurring image of the tiny figures of Texel and Jeremiasz appearing in the model airport in the transitions between scenes would be a larger and more literal factor in the plot, and that perhaps Texel was some kind of avenging spirit or witch come to force Jeremiasz to confront or reckon with something from his past. I’m not saying that’s not what happens in the movie, but, again, I don’t want to ruin the ending or the journey should you find yourself with access to this film and time to kill. The twist isn’t telegraphed necessarily, but it is foreshadowed heavily enough that you’ll probably stay a few steps ahead of the reveal. Even if that doesn’t work, what does work in the “long conversation” part of Act II are Texel’s interruptions of her own stories to ask Jeremiasz what he’s imagining when she talks about childhood poverty or elementary school buildings, and corrects his mental images, which draw on his own experiences, with clearer and more specific ones that accurately reflect her past. I love movies about memory, and this is an interesting and dynamic way to confront, inspect, and visualize the imperfections of memory and imagination in a visual way. There’s also a striking scene in the final act of the film that’s evoked by the movie’s poster image, but to say more about it would give too much away.

Unfortunately, where A Perfect Enemy falls flat is in the performances. Although there’s something indescribably “off” about Marta Nieto, who plays the object of Texel’s affections, it’s Kot who delivers one of the strangest performances I’ve ever seen here, and not in a good way. At first I thought it might have been a language barrier issue and was fully prepared to, on this film’s behalf, argue that it might have been better to allow Kot to speak his native Polish and subtitle the movie instead of forcing him to speak English throughout, but I watched an English-language interview with him, and he speaks the language fluently. I cannot imagine what prompted the acting choice to deliver every line of Jeremiasz’s dialogue so stiltedly; as a result of it, Kot delivers a performance that is—and I hesitate to use this term without sufficient reason but there are truly no other or more accurate descriptors—Wiseaunian. I don’t think that Kot is a bad actor necessarily, but it’s such a huge distraction that one could almost (but not quite) overlook what an amazing performance Strates is bringing to the table. She manages to portray innocence, madness, and clarity of purpose in what could have easily been a textbook standard manic pixie nightmare girl, and I really look forward to seeing her in future roles. I’m also fascinated by director Kike Maíllo’s cinematic eye; there are a lot of breathtaking images here (most of which were included in the film’s extremely well-crafted trailer), and I can’t wait to see him take the helm of another thriller that’s less hampered by a familiar narrative twist and a wooden performance from its lead.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Unholy (2021)

I am a man who loves a haunted doll movie, as long as it doesn’t involve acting like the Warrens were anything other than scam artists. You can imagine my disappointment upon the realization that The Unholy, which I thought would center around a possessed toy, turned out to be something different entirely. That disappointment was tempered by the realization that, although I wouldn’t see an ancient doll wielding a knife against Papa Winchester, at least this would be a possession horror, which is another genre that I’m rather fond of. It’s pretty rote and paint-by-numbers, unfortunately, but the ending was sufficiently unconventional that I can’t say it’s the worst of its kind. Spoiler alert, I guess? 

Following a prologue set in 1845, in which a woman is hanged for practicing witchcraft and her soul bound to a doll, we find disgraced journalist Gerald Finn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travelling to rural Massachusetts to photograph a supposed cattle mutilation. Disappointed but not surprised to find nothing more than a teen prank on a farm adjacent to a church, Finn notices the gnarled tree from the prologue and, within its hollowed base, the “kern” doll. Seizing the opportunity to spruce up his underwhelming story, he breaks the doll’s china head and takes its photo, unwittingly releasing the spirit of the witch. While intoxicated later that night, he’s driven off of the road by the appearance of a local girl, Alice (Cricket Brown), in front of his vehicle. He tails her back to the tree, where she speaks in tongues and collapses. When relaying this to the girl’s uncle, Father William Hagan (William Sadler), both he and Dr. Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton) express surprise; Alice has been both deaf and mute since birth. Soon, however, Alice demonstrates that she can not only speak but has gained the ability to hear, and says that “Mary” is speaking to her, and has healed her. 

This attracts the attention of the local diocese, including Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado). Before long, Alice garners national and international attention, as she heals a boy who could not walk as well as Father Hagan’s terminal lung cancer, and the small town of Banfield becomes an epicenter of pilgrimages. Also rehabilitated is Finn’s journalistic career, as he’s soon fielding calls from his former editor Monica Slade (Christine Adams), who mere days before was dodging his calls while citing Finn’s previous career-ending lapse of journalistic integrity. When Father Hagan discovers the truth about the “Mary” with whom Alice is communing, and that she is in fact the spirit of the executed nineteenth century witch Mary Elnor, this revelation costs him his life, but puts Finn and Dr. Gates on the right track to stop Mary’s ascension on the night of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. 

There’s a fair amount of water-treading going on in this 99 minute budget horror, which could easily have been trimmed to a tight 80 and gone straight to streaming, perhaps as a surprisingly star-studded episode of Into the Dark or some other horror anthology. First time director Evan Spiliotopoulos has been working in the industry for over two decades now, with some noteworthy (if not praiseworthy) writing credits under his belt: the live action Beauty and the Beast, for instance, as well as The Huntsman: Winter’s War and the 2007 CGI animated Battle for Terra, which I don’t think anyone has ever heard of except for those of us who’ve seen the unskippable trailer on every single Wolverine and the X-Men DVD more times than are reasonable to admit. One wouldn’t think that the man who penned Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, and Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie would be up for the reinvention of possession horror, and that assumption would be correct. This is a script full of dialogue that you’ve heard a million times before (Slade: “I know you; you would sell your soul for a story.” Finn: “I’m pretty sure I already did.”) as well as some painfully embarrassing attempts at being hip. For instance, when Finn makes a mix for Alice, he cites Tupac as “old school” but mentions cites Billie Eilish as contemporary youth music in the same breath as The Smashing Pumpkins, as if Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 2019 and not 1995 (sandwiched directly between Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me). It doesn’t strike me as being intentionally ironic, either, as Morgan is a fine actor and could have easily delivered a wry lack of self-awareness if that had been appropriate. 

Of course, that Spiliotopoulos wrote Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure may actually be important to this movie’s ending. After reviewing various plot synopses of the novel from which the film is adapted online, I can’t determine if this is new to the adaptation or within the book, but Mary’s ultimate defeat isn’t the result of an exorcism. Instead, Finn wields his sullied reputation to sow doubt about Alice’s supposed miracles among the mass of congregants who have made their way to Banfield, preventing Mary from sucking up their souls and sealing her infernal pact. Mary, like Tinkerbell, has the “clap if you believe in fairies” limitation that requires faith in order to fuel her return, and by inverting this, Finn and Gates are able to weaken Mary’s hold over Alice and the populace. Of course, since this is a movie, the demands of the modern viewer require that we still be subjected to a show-stopping climax in which Mary appears in the burned flesh and her worshippers flee before her, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the fact that the narrative, which was theretofore about as canonical as a film of this kind could be, took a bit of a left turn into using skepticism as a weapon. It’s still not great, but if you’re stuck with limited options, there are worse possession retreads to spend some time with. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Toll (2021)

CW/TW: Discussion of rape culture as a source of anxiety and sexual assault. 

Cami (Jordan Hayes) is not having a good day. She’s en route to see her father (James McGowan), and since her flight touches down at 2 AM due to delays, she tells her dad she’ll take a rideshare to his place instead of expecting him to pick her up. Her mood does not improve when her driver, Spencer (Max Topplin), makes awkward attempts at small talk that tend toward the sinister; he reveals that he’s a bowhunter and, when asked what he hunts, includes “humans” on the list as a bad joke. Or is it? Cami’s suspicions are further aroused when Spencer attempts to take a turn onto a rural road that Cami doesn’t recognize, and she is not assuaged to see that the turn is indicated on the rideshare app’s navigation screen. As their path takes them through a deeply wooded area, Spencer’s car suddenly breaks down, stranding the two of them alone . . .

A few years ago, I looked up the reader reviews for Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book that I read on a flight in 2014, beginning my trip to New York with a good, hearty cry as the plane touched down at JFK. I was surprised by the negative reviews of it, until I dug a little deeper and saw that most of them were centered around the book’s length (178 pages) versus its cost (MSRP of $16.95 at the time). I had picked it up at the airport on my way out, so I knew exactly how much I was getting and at what cost, but it struck me as an immature (and grossly capitalistic) way to evaluate a piece of art. In fairness, during my more economically insecure (and less mature) days, I sometimes was affected by the same kind of thinking: “How can [band] charge full price for an EP that’s only 8 tracks?!” was a thought that passed through my brain more than once, and it fills me with shame to look back on it. It’s a toxic way of thinking, and from time to time I still have to remind myself of this, especially when it comes to movies. When I was a kid, movies (and of course books) were the only way I could escape an unhappy home environment for a little while, and when I was allowed to rent something from our local video store or borrow only one tape from the library, I felt cheated when it ended up being shorter than I expected. The anguish of wasting the one rental I was allowed that month in 1996 on a 45 minute tape of Carrotblanca that contained shorts I had already seen irrevocably changed my interaction with movies for the rest of my life; I still can’t pick up any form of physical media without immediately checking the run-time before I look at anything else. To me, the purported ongoing “bloat” of films to lengths greater than three hours isn’t a turnoff the way that it is for others; if anything, every time I see that a film is 150+ minutes, my interest is piqued like that Stan Kelly image that became a meme. This is decidedly not how Swampflix at large operates, where the “tight ninety” (™ Alli) is the preferred vision. 

All of that is (as is my wont) a needlessly and pointlessly indulgent digression and lead-in to the fact that I loved this 80 minute(!) thriller. Like Lucky, The Toll is a recent thriller that taps into —and unfortunately necessary—anxieties about existing in public spaces as a woman. In this month alone, my best friend expressed her concerns about parking in a pay garage so that we could meet her family downtown to watch the Independence Day fireworks; days later, she mentioned how fraught with danger it would have been for her to take the bus alone instead, and I have seen enough with my own eyes to know that her hesitancy is valid. Even without the benefit of hearing about the day to day horrors from countless first and secondary sources, as a man, I know how other men talk about women when they’re not around, and it’s terrifying. It’s easy to immediately sympathize and empathize with Cami, trapped alone in the woods with a stranger, even before things get “really” scary. 

Where The Toll plays with expectations is in what happens after the breakdown, which coincides with Spencer’s phone glitching and Cami’s dying. The audience watched as Spencer selected Cami specifically from a list of riders and this, along with our knowledge about the general shitshow that is patriarchal entitlement, primes us for where this story is presumably headed. However, once the characters are stuck in the woods, as they discover more and more reasons to mistrust one another, the audience is tipped off that something equally as pernicious but more ethereal is afoot. After several false scares, Cami opts to take off on foot towards the main road and leave Spencer behind, but discovers that there are now warning signs in the road that would prevent a vehicle from passing, warning of a road closure and graffiti’d with small notes and smiley faces that warn of the need to pay a toll of some kind. She soldiers on, and although she stays on the path, she finds herself back where she started, with one hiccup: she started walking away from Spencer back towards the main road from which they came, but she approaches him from the front, as if coming from deeper in the dark, dark woods. Spencer makes his own attempt to leave, but is likewise thwarted; in a beautifully underlit scene, he leaves the road altogether and sets off into the woods at a perpendicular angle, only to re-emerge from the forest onto the road from the opposite side. 

Other messages begin to appear as well. A warning about “The Toll Man” appears, written in the dust on Spencer’s back windshield. Cami discovers a cache of photos of herself in Spencer’s car, leading her to accuse him of stalking her and orchestrating the evening’s events, while he in turn is dumbfounded by this turn of events and accuses her of planting them; while neither are looking, the pictures disappear as suddenly as they appeared, as if they never existed in the first place. Assuming that someone in the woods is harassing them (The Strangers is mentioned), the two prepare to defend themselves, but they are eventually discovered by an older woman (Canadian treasure Rosemary Dunsmore) on a tractor, who offers to help them. When they relate their experiences, however, she realizes with horror that she will be unable to assist. “It’s been a long time; I’d forgot,” she says. “I’m not where you are. We’re looking at each other like we’re close, but you’re someplace else. You’re in his place. The Toll Man.” Like a malevolent fae, The Toll Man traps wayward travelers who have the scent of death if they should be unlucky enough to find their way onto his road; someone with suicidal ideation or bound for an accident is then diverted into his realm so that he can extract his toll: death. 

This has the potential to be more goofy than scary (The Bye Bye Man, anyone?), but in spite of its possible pitfalls, this one manages to work. I’ve recently been watching The X-Files for the first time, and although I know it’s a huge part of the show’s iconic imagery, every time Mulder and Scully go into the woods with their giant flashlights that are all-but-unnecessary simply because of how brightly backlit the trees are, I have to stifle a laugh (while watching the pilot, I turned to my best friend and almost shouted “Is that supposed to be moonlight?!”). That bled into the pop culture landscape a lot, and I’m pleased to say that the darkness that surrounds Spencer and Cami definitively looks like real, arboreal darkness. Their flashlight barely illuminates the first row of trees closest to them, and beyond that lies nothing but dread, inky blackness. The creepiness of it lingers, even after the Toll Man shepherds them away from the car and toward an isolated house, which contains other illusions that aim to warp their perceptions of reality, including images of Spencer’s dead mother (Jana Peck), who taunts her son with the secrets that she took with her to the grave when she killed herself. When the duo is separated, Cami is also confronted with images from her past; a canopy bed appears in the woods, where a younger version of herself is terrified after being assaulted by an “upstanding” young man (Thomas L. Colford); present-day Cami comforts her, but past Cami is in her head, and knows that although the wound is gone, the scar persists. A similar blending of indoor past and outdoor present was part of the visual language in The Ritual, and I loved it there as I do here. There’s something deeply uncanny about it, and as Cami is hounded by visions of the people who were present in the aftermath of her assault (very similarly to Lucky, although no one sings here), the impossible largeness of the darkness just beyond the treeline merges with the impossibly large weight of her past, while also descending on her in a way that can only be described as claustrophobic. 

The ending comes at the viewer fast, and I won’t spoil the conclusion here other than to say that the circle is fully closed. What we learn in those final ten minutes paints a new picture of everything that came before it, and this is the first film of 2021 that has made me feel like I’m already ready to rewatch it and see what I missed the first time. Although it feels like a Shudder release, it’s currently only available for rental or purchase, but when it comes to streaming, make sure to check it out. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #139 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daughters of Darkness (1971) & Lesbian Vampires

Welcome to Episode #136 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four stylish, retro horrors about lesbian vampires, starting with Daughters of Darkness (1971).

00:00 Welcome

03:00 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
04:20 Pig (2021)
08:20 Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
10:10 Zola (2021)
15:00 Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
22:00 The Night of the Hunter (1995)
29:30 Disclosure (1994)
33:22 French Exit (2021)

39:50 Daughters of Darkness (1971)
1:00:35 The Vampire Lovers (1970)
1:11:42 Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
1:24:55 The Hunger (1983)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Starstruck (1982)

Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom & Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual.  Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos.  It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut.  There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.

I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time.  Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.  To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.

Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show).  You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson).  The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.

Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway.  It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school.  The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible.  There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc.  None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though.  For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical.  It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.

The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship.  That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types.  Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band.  Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff.  Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot.  Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space.  It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play.  It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all.  Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out.  Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide.  The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.

The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition.  Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released.  That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision.  That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye.  It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.

-Brandon Ledet

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime.  As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly.  I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match.  Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache.  Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run.  If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends.  Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.

Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good.  A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking.  I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste.  The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose.  If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown.  If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity.  I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.

Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop.  The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime.  In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd.  The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts.  The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day.  It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.

The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long.  You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best.  You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting.  However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional.  The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order.  The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense.  More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish.  On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop.  Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.

If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer.  It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one.  However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did.  It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like.  Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is.  You might even call me a fan.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

I love the 1996 sci-fi comedy film Space Jam, by which I mean I was 10 years old in 1996.  Even as an adult, I find the movie fascinating as a corporate cashgrab mash-em-up of two disparate but popular brands—Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan—that accidently stumbled into sublimely silly post-modern absurdism.  The contortions Space Jam forces itself into to highlight both a post-baseball, career-reflective Michael Jordan and a hyperviolent, physics-defying cartoon bunny are incredible to watch, both from a place of ironic detachment and as in-the-moment entertainment.  Of course, it’s impossible for me to claim that Space Jam is objectively good, considering that anyone who was not a child in the mid-90s seems to despise it as a cultural scourge rather than just a middling, studio-made kids’ film.  I just want to confess up-front that I’m a Space Jam apologist; I even prefer it to the Joe Dante Looney Tunes film that supposedly fixed all its faults (according to more respectable tastemakers).  That way I can I credibly say I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy genuinely hopeful that I would enjoy the experience.  I did not watch this long-delayed sequel just to lazily dunk on it or call it out as the death knell of modern cinema.  I thought it might be fun.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is devoid of fun.  It succeeds neither as intentional comedy nor as accidental absurdism.  It lacks the shameless commitment to its own crass commercialism that the pushed the original Space Jam to the point of post-modern delirium.  Like the worst cash-grab sequels, it does its best to retrace the steps of its predecessor while suppressing all its strangest, most exciting ideas to the margins.  A New Legacy simply subs out Michael Jordan for his modern-day equivalent in LeBron James, then hangs up the towel.  James teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters to win a cosmic game of basketball so he can get back to his family . . . except this time the game is staged in a computer server instead of outer space.  That venue change allows the new Space Jam to rope in as many background characters as it can from the full library of Warner Bros. Entertainment IP including blasphemous “cameos” from “cinematic universes” like The Matrix, The Devils, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  That’s the kind of naked corporate-synergy flexing that has professional critics decrying the film as “an abomination”, “an apocalyptic horror movie”, and a “swirling CGI garbage tornado.”  Those layup hit-pieces were preloaded before the movie was actually screened for critics, though.  What really holds A New Legacy back is that it keeps its only new, exciting idea—that intrusion of characters from classic films outside the Looney Tunes brand—relegated to the background.  King Kong, The Penguin, and Baby Jane Hudson should have been shooting hoops alongside LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, not cheering them on from the sidelines in blurred-out crowd shots.

It’s most widely being compared to Spielberg’s post-apocalyptic VR thriller Ready Player One (which is much more critical of this kind of self-aggrandizing IP worship than it’s given credit for), but the basic premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy actually lands much closer to the underappreciated sci-fi bummer The Congress.  In a dystopian vision that only rings truer to out shithole reality every year, The Congress imagines a world where celebrities no longer physically perform in mass-distributed art, but instead are scanned-into a computer system that simulates their screen presence in AI emulations.  It’s the ultimate movie studio power grab, one we’ve seen echoed in real-life simulations of deceased performers in films like Rogue One (Peter Cushing), Furious 7 (Paul Walker) and, most recently, the ethically-shaky documentary Roadrunner (Anthony Bordain).  In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is offered the same opportunity: being scanned into the Warner Bros. “serververse” so his likeness can be plugged into whatever intellectual property the mega-corporation can scoop up before Disney gets to it first.  A New Legacy even maintains some of the dystopian undercurrent of Ready Player One & The Congress, with human beings cheering on the Looney Tunes team on one side of the court, fictional-product characters cheering on the opposing team of villains, and Don Cheadle orchestrating the entire event from the center as an evil algorithm MC (the film’s only decent, fully committed performance).  No matter how much its pile-on of disparate IPs in a single locale is supposed to register as Fun! and Cool!, the Warner Bros. studio itself is clearly positioned as the main villain of the piece, in direct opposition to its human, terrified audience, which it literally holds captive. 

It’s a shame that idea wasn’t pushed further.  If the entire point of this movie was for Warner Bros. to show off its extensive collection of intellectual properties, it should have just flooded the screen with them to the point where the audience was crushed under their immensity. Instead, it just sweeps them to the background so LeBron James can cosplay as a late-career Michael Jordan by recreating the exact plot beats & character dynamics of the original Space Jam in a new locale.  At least doubling down on its grotesque display of corporate synergy could’ve been memorable. As is, there’s nothing offered here worth sitting through A New Legacy to see, which I’m saying even as the rare dumdum who loves the original Space Jam, The Congress and, to a lesser extent, Ready Player One.  There are technically jokes in this movie, but none of them are funny (save maybe a couple throwback Silent Cinema gags featuring Wile E. Coyote).  It’s a full half-hour longer than the original, sacrificing the breakneck pacing that makes it such a breezy watch.  LeBron James is too concerned with being lauded as both the greatest basketball player to have ever lived and the ultimate family man to do anything risky or interesting with the material.  Even with all those missteps, though, A New Legacy‘s greatest sin is that it doesn’t push its one deviation from the original Space Jam to its furthest possible extreme.  Humorless movie nerds were already going to be pissed about it dragging characters from beloved classics down to the level of a Space Jam sequel no matter what, so there’s no reason for the movie to be timid about its shameless Warner Bros. IP promotion.  Fuck it.  Show Pennywise spin-dunking in Immortan Joe’s face, then high-fiving Free Willy and planting a sloppy kiss on Lego Catwoman’s blocky lips.  If you’re going to be blasphemous, at least have fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet