Evil Brain from Outer Space (1964)

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After the dispiriting slumps of the third title in the series, Attack from Space, I was starting to worry that I had already mined the Super Giant films for all of the entertainment value they could easily provide. The initial Saturday morning cartoon charm of the superhero Starman and his powers-providing wrist watch, the globe meter, had started to wear a little thin and without a worthwhile villain to thwart, the intergalactic buffoonery felt entirely flat. Thankfully, the concluding film in the series, Evil Brain from Outer Space returned the Starman saga to its batshit insane heights and reminded me of what I found so entertaining in the first place. Evil Brain from Outer Space repeated the formula that proved so effective in the Starman film Invaders from Space (the same formula that makes Batman such a consistently fresh property to adapt): providing Starman with such a wildly entertaining, chaotic villain that the audience is distracted from the fact that the hero is static & unchanging. Instead of Invaders from Space‘s Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman, Evil Brain from Outer Space complicates Starman’s eternal quest to prevent nuclear holocaust by pitting him against, well, an evil brain from outer space. What’s so brilliant about this evil brain is that, like so many Krangs to come, he commands an army of varied, subservient weirdos that keep the film interesting from scene to scene as Starman takes them out one by one.

There really isn’t much to convey here in terms of plot. A council of space alien peacekeepers on the Emerald Planet deploy Starman to prevent nuclear war on Earth . . . but every film in the series literally starts with that exact same premise, even that exact same footage. All that’s different here is the villain. Balazar is an evil genius from the planet Zomar, the most brilliant mind in the universe. He is promptly assassinated, but his brain is kept alive and operating in a transportable briefcase. This briefcase, of course, must be destroyed before the brain takes over Earth, presumably through some kind of nuclear threat. What’s great here is the way Balazar’s brain enlists a wide array of weirdos to exact his evil deeds. This includes eyebrowless alien men who try to throw knives at children, a bunker full of baddies dressed in matching Batman uniforms and constantly doing Nazi salutes, mutants who breathe radioactive vapor, some kind of a humanoid dragon who wears a fiant eyeball belt & multiplies like a Power Rangers villain, a Tom Waits-looking motherfucker with a hook for a hand, and a witch who haunts a ballet studio. Balazar is even so kind as to employ an Earthling in his evil army: a ludicrous-looking mad scientist with a hawk for a pet. Even this widespread of a treat is no match for the interplanetary heroics of Starman, of course, and each foe is dealt with in a tidy, 70+ minute romp. We even get to watch Balazar’s brain die, which is a fun treat, though it’s not nearly as gruesome as the similar conclusion to They Saved Hitler’s Brain. The film concludes as all Super Giant movies do, with Starman waving goodbye to his young child superfans as he flies back to his home planet. This time, however, he wouldn’t be returning to save them again, since the series had officially come to a close.

Evil Brain from Outer Space might be the most objectively entertaining of all the Super Giant films, since most movies in the series were edited down from two Japanese broadcasts in their American TV adaptations while this one was comprised of three: The Space Mutant Appears, The Devil’s Incarnation, and The Poison Moth Kingdom. Cramming three Starman films into a single, paired down vessel makes for an exciting episode in the series, one overstuffed with the one thing that keeps its rigid formula fresh: ridiculous villains. Evil Brain from Outer Space is the Super Giant title that most often winds up on large collections of horror & sci-fi films, despite the entire series being in the public domain, and that extra attention is honestly well deserved. Anyone who gets a kick out of the film should certainly track down Invaders from Space as well, as it boasts just as much cartoonish villainy in its interplanetary threats. Realistically speaking, the series never reaches any sort of mind-blowing heights of cult classic potential, but those two titles are delightfully inane oddities in their own way. Even the first film in the series, Atomic Rulers of the World, is entertaining in its own minor ways and only Attack from Space registers as a thoroughly mundane waste of time, which isn’t such a bad track record for an American superhero series cobbled together from scraps of Japanese television, all things considered.

The Super Giant movies were important when they were first broadcast because Ken Utsui’s portrayal of the interplanetary Superman knockoff Starman (a role he reportedly despised because of the snug costume & stuffed crotch) was the very first Japanese superhero to appear on celluloid. In the years since, after so many similar riffs on that same formula have come to pass, that significance has faded, but Starman has become relevant in a different way. In the era of post-Nolan superhero media “for adults,” I often need to return to a time when Saturday morning cartoon absurdism is the driving creative force in my comic book cinema. I find way more solace in stray properties like Roger Corman’s ill-received Fantastic Four adaptation and last year’s Ninja Turtles sequel Out of the Shadows than I probably should because of that yearning for a goofier time. Starman’s filmography fulfilled that niche nicely. I’d encourage anyone who similarly enjoys a goofy superhero movie with their morning cereal to at least check out Evil Brain from Outer Space or Invaders from Space the next time they’re looking to fill that void. The entire series might not be recommendable to binge on as I have, but Starman is charming & entertaining nonetheless, especially when he has enough goofy baddies to knock down in the face of nuclear destruction.

-Brandon Ledet

Slugs (1988)

Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón is a kind of enigma to me. How could the same man responsible for Pod People, the infamous MST3k episode that brought the world Trumpy, also have directed the gruesome splatter comedy Pieces, which nearly gives The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a run for its money in both humor & brutality? Some of the works listed in Simón’s resume look genuinely unwatchable, both in the sense of quality & in availability, but then there’s titles like The Rift that are reported to be one of the greatest practical effects horrors of all time. Simón’s American co-production Slugs seems to split the difference between the director’s notably amateur, almost kid-friendly horror and the masterfully technical special effects gore of his better-remembered works. It doesn’t exactly provide enough context to make the director’s schlocky oeuvre feel comprehensibly congruous, but it does fit comfortably on both sides of the fence that divides his work: the hopelessly juvenile & the disturbingly violent.

In the tradition of natural horror pictures like Alligator and Night of the Lepus, Slugs is a profoundly silly film about a supernatural invasion of, well, slugs. The movie makes direct nods to its likely genre influences, including an opening scene that riffs on the Jaws series by having the slugs drown a skinny-dipping teen in a lake. Then there’s the third act effort to explain that these especially violent slugs were mutated into their monstrous form by illegal toxic waste dumping, a tradition that dates back at least to Them!. There really isn’t much else to the film besides that basic slug invasion premise. The smartass health inspector of the small, rural town where the slugs attack makes it a personal mission to spread the news of the exact nature of the threat that’s killing the town’s already minuscule population. No one believes him until it’s too late, of course, and there’s a last minute effort to stop the little monsters in their slimy tracks once many, many lives are already lost. The plot is aggressively simple & overly familiar, especially for anyone who’s ever seen more than a few natural invasion sci-fi/horror films before. Simón manages to make Slugs an ideal version of that very much rote genre model, though, and he accomplishes that entirely through the novelty and the brutality of the film’s kills.

While the basic premise of Slugs is both silly & clichéd due to the size & nature of its titular threat, the violence & technical skills of its various kills elevate the material to the exact kind of goofy brutality people are looking for in cult classic drive-in fare. These giant, juicy black slugs not only carpet the ground and invade homes from the drains of sinks & toilets; they also bite with sharpened fangs and burrow into unsuspecting victims’ skin. In lesser natural horrors, the slugs’ dirty work would be depicted through a discovered, picked clean skeleton. Here, the little bastards turn their victims into exploding, bloodied meat, covering the sets and nearly the camera in untold excess of blood & gore. While never approaching the art film weirdness of the ants invasion piece Phase IV, Slugs similarly finds a genuine, basic discomfort in watching its slimy, little, slithering pests in what plays like nature footage caught in unnatural environments. It’s in applying that very real grossness to over the top gore that slugs could never possibly pull off at their size or mechanical ability where the movie sets itself apart. In one exemplifying scene, a man in a greenhouse chops off his own arm to alleviate the pain inflicted by slugs attacking it. In the struggle, he clumsily disturbs his gardening chemicals and the greenhouse explodes. What Slugs might be missing in the inventiveness of its basic DNA, it makes up for in the over the top excess of it’s bloody, defining details.

I don’t know if I’m any closer to understanding the full scope of Juan Piquer Simón’s career after watching & enjoying Slugs. I’d have this see more of his films to say that for sure. (I’m especially excited about checking out The Rift.) Slugs does seem to be a perfect balance of both the silly & the horrifically gory sides of the director’s aesthetic, though. It’s a movie both willing to include a line like, “Slugs, snails, what’s the difference?” as a meta joke on the inanity of its premise and feature a minutes-long scene of a poor, unsuspecting teen writhing on the ground as an army of tiny monsters bloody every inch of her body, inside and out. The film sacrifices a little momentum when it gets lost trying to track down & explode the offending slugs at their nest in the sewers and it may go a little too far in its cruelty when it unnecessarily depicts an attempted rape that has no direct bearing on the plot, but for the most part it’s the exact kind of half dumb, half shockingly brutal horror formula that goes great with a rowdy midnight audience and a case of cheap beer. It’s my favorite film I’ve seen from Simón so far, Pieces included, and it brought me just a little bit closer to understanding how the same artist responsible for Trumpy could also have helmed such grotesque, upsetting works as that splatter film classic.

-Brandon Ledet

Brain Damage (1988)

Six years after the release of Basket Case, Frank Henenlotter unleashed a new “boy and his monster” movie onto the world with Brain Damage, a film with a similar conceit to his first work but with even more disgusting special effects, a slicker production style, a new villainous creature, strong metaphorical subtext, and homoeroticism to spare. Though less well remembered than the cult classic that preceded it, Brain Damage is nonetheless a lot of fun, and may be objectively better than its predecessor.

The film opens in the home of elderly couple Morris and Martha (Theo Barnes and Lucille Saint Peter), where Morris has just returned from the butcher’s shop with a bag of animal brains. When he takes the brains to the bathroom, however, he descends into a state of panic upon discovering that the occupant he expected to find within is not present. The two frantically search the apartment, knocking over books and sculptures in a mad dash to find “him.”

Meanwhile, in a different apartment in the same building, protagonist Brian (Rick Hearst) is feeling unwell, so his brother and roommate Mike (Gordon MacDonald) accompanies Brian’s girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) to the concert that she and Brian were to attend. Brian later awakes to discover blood all over himself before collapsing into giggles and making his way back to his bed, where he has a psychedelic experience of soothing blue light and his room filling with water. When he awakens again some time later, he discovers a strange, phallic creature (voiced by horror host John Zacherle) in his bathtub. The creature, which we will learn is called Aylmer, speaks to Brian in a friendly, avuncular voice that belies his monstrousness, explaining to Brian that “This is the start of [his] new life, a life without worry or pain or loneliness. A life filled instead with colors and music and euphoria. A life of light and pleasure.” A confused Brian asks “Who are you… what are you?”, to which the creature replies “I am you. I’m all you’ll ever need.”

Thus a truly new life begins for Brian when the creature’s cutely-humanoid-in-an-E.T.-way (he even has very human blue eyes) face opens, Predator-style, to show a horrifying mouth full of monstrous teeth and a kind of biological needle that he injects directly into Brian’s brainstem. Inside Brian’s skull, we see the needle drop blue liquid that shoots sparks across the folds of his cerebellum, while Brian himself becomes euphoric and has vivid hallucinations. (For the sake of my potential future political career, I won’t say how I might know what drug-induced hallucinations look like or how they make one feel, but I will say that these are probably the most realistic ones committed to film.) Brian and Aylmer have a seemingly harmless symbiotic relationship for a few minutes, before Aylmer claims and eats the brain of his first random victim, with Brian none the wiser. Of course, he has to find out sooner or later, but will he be able to do anything about his accidental bargain with the devil in time to stop more killings? Or prevent himself from losing Barbara forever? Or before Martha and Morris figure out where their supplier has disappeared to?

There’s a lot going on in this movie, and it’s hard not to think of this as the Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge of Henenlotter’s oeuvre. Both films are much more homoerotic than their respective predecessors (both even feature the protagonist sharing a grimy group shower with a muscular older man, although the showering bodybuilder who spends a lot of screentime lathering himself in Brain Damage is much less sinister than Jesse’s coach). Both movies feature villains who are motivated by their need to possess the young man who assists them in their machinations, so that they can freely move about and sate their respective hungers. Both are also heavily steeped in their metaphorical imagery, although their central metaphors differ.

In Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy represents the protagonist’s repressed homosexuality, seeking to possess the body of Jesse to kill the female love interest whose kiss can help banish Freddy forever. In Brain Damage, however, Aylmer represents the specter of addiction that gradually begins to manifest in Brian’s life, forcing him to do things he finds morally abhorrent in order to get the fix that he now seems unable to live without and driving a wedge between Brian and the people who love him.

This metaphor is clearest in those scenes during which Brian sequesters himself in a seedy hotel to go cold turkey*. Aylmer tells the sweating, aching, withdrawing Brian that he can wait out the young man’s withdrawal symptoms, his deceptively friendly and paternal voice never wavering in tenor or becoming threatening, which is a particularly smart choice on Henenlotter’s part. In fact, the film’s final scenes are predicated on the intensity of action and self-deception that are so often an element of addiction, with the film bookended by Martha and Morris’s obsession with reclaiming their source. Although the film’s ultimate ending is indecipherable, the metaphorical subtext that serves as Brain Damage‘s structure is stronger than the more straightforward revenge narrative that is Basket Case‘s backbone, even if the homoerotic content is irrelevant to that central metaphor. The former is in many ways a more fun film, especially if you want to see the hero splash around in the bathtub playing with his new phallic best friend for an inordinate amount of time.

*Unfortunately, this is not the Hotel Broslin, so we don’t get to see those characters again. Duane and a basket-bound Belial, however, do cameo in a scene where they sit across from Brian on the subway, giving us the first indication that the duo lived through their ostensible demise at the end of Basket Case, two years before that film’s direct sequel.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I feel like I was uniquely qualified to enjoy watching the live action Ghost in the Shell, a hunch that paid off nicely. First, I watched the movie weeks after its fiercely negative hype had already died down. I also caught a free screening, which eased a lot of its potential moral dilemma in regards to its white-washed casting. Then there’s the fact that I have no personal attachment to its source material, having never read the original manga or seen the anime film that followed in the 90s. I went into Ghost in the Shell expecting nothing more than Blade Runner-runoff eye candy and a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot. The movie did not disappoint on either front. It’s an intensely beautiful, intellectually empty spectacle overloaded with laughably stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot machinations. I would never hold it against anyone who takes offense with how the movie functions as an adaptation or how it handles the casting of its front & center protagonist, but divorced from that context and considered solely as a trashy sci-fi themed shoot-em-up, it’s a deeply silly, surprisingly entertaining film.

In two upfront information dumps, one provided by onscreen text and one delivered by a slumming-it Juliette Binoche, we’re explained to be living in a dystopian techno-future where the cutting edge of robotics is bio-enhancements to the human body. Routine cosmetic surgery outfits citizens of a Future Tokyo with everything from robo-eyes to robo-livers to enhance both the practical and the recreational aspects of modern life. Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg protagonist is the next logical step in this technology: a human brain/soul (“a ghost”) implanted into a completely synthetic body (“a shell”). She’s not allowed to be her own autonomous person with this new merchandise, however. It turns out the Evil Corporation that implanted her ghost in its new shell intends to use her solely as a militarized bio weapon, erasing memories of her true past and ordering her to strike down people she might consider comrades if given freedom of choice. This inevitably leads to a dual quest to both track down her (embarrassingly ill-considered) origin story and to take down the corporate monsters who own her. And if that weren’t enough of a by-the-books superhero plot for you, she begins & ends the film perched like Batman on the edge of Tokyo rooftops, surveying the city she’s reluctantly doomed to protect.

What a city it is, though. The delicious synths, neon lights, and post-Blade Runner grime borrowed for this dystopian techno-future make for a surprisingly intense visual experience despite Ghost in the Shell‘s cookie cutter superhero plot. Billboard advertisements have evolved into kaiju-sized holograms, layering an eerie artificiality onto the city like .gifs flickering on a gigantic smartphone. The range of influences on this visual palette cover everything from the legitimately respectable (The Matrix, Advantageous, The Congress, Paprika) to the trashy media I probably shouldn’t champion as much as I do (Nerve, Tron: Legacy, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic). This isn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction with director Rupert Sanders either. I remember leaving his Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman thinking it hopelessly vapid, but hauntingly beautiful, like a feature-length perfume commercial. I’m not exactly sure what product Ghost in the Shell would be selling me as a 120min advertisement. Maybe those Pop Tarts with the bright blue icing or, I don’t know, light-up Reebox? Whatever it might be, I was totally on the hook to make the purchase even while recognizing to an extent just how much of a sellout dweeb with no moral compass it makes me.

The moral crisis at the center of Ghost in the Shell‘s production is the casting of ScarJo in the lead role, a character initially depicted with Asian characteristics in the original anime and manga. The live action version decided to double down on this casting choice by not only outfitting Johansson with an Asian-style haircut and making her & the few other white characters (in an otherwise diverse cast) the constant center of attention, but also by making her character a literal Asian woman trapped in a white woman’s body. If I were at all taking this film seriously, as I assume many dedicated Ghost in the Shell fans have, I could see finding that choice horrifically misguided. Instead, it plays to me as humorously clueless, just another colossal misstep in a film that’s essentially a long line of colossal missteps. Besides the racial implications of ScarJo’s casting, the film also hilariously misuses the cold, inhuman delivery that she’s employed so well in films like Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and The Jungle Book. It might entirely be a question of quality in dialogue too. I can’t say that Johansson is doing anything especially different in Ghost in the Shell than she does in any of her other non-human roles, but something about her robotic delivery of lines like “I will find him and I will kill him. It is what I am built for, isn’t it?” that plays more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate character study. By the time a villainous Michael Pitt arrives to attempt to out-do her robo-speech, all bets are off and Ghost in the Shell plays like an oddly violent, expensive-looking comedy.

Your personal experience with this disposable sci-fi action spectacle is going to depend almost entirely on how seriously you’re willing to take it. For those expecting an intricately crafted visual feast that presents a glimpse of a haunting, technology-ridden future, Ghost in the Shell will only offer you morsel-sized scraps: creepy “geisha bots” with segmented faces, neon-lit nightclub shootouts, a sea of writhing bodies in a brief dive into a machine’s subconscious, etc. What’s a lot easier to latch onto is the humor in the movie’s overblown absurdity. Spider tanks, robo-Yoda speak, casual references to something called “The Lawless Zone,” digital cloaks, blatant ogling at ScarJo’s naked, Barbie doll-smooth body: Ghost in the Shell is teeming with ridiculous production details and screenwriting choices. Any awe I had for its visual craft was equally balanced out by my frivolous amusement with throwaway lines like, “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost. Your ghost is yours.” Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, this strange mess of a film is fundamentally misguided as an adaptation of its source material, but also surprisingly impressive in its attention to its intricate Blade Runner Jr. production design and charmingly dopey in its reductively simplistic superhero narrative arc. It’s a delightfully dumb source of sci-fi action entertainment as long as you don’t ask for too much intellectual stimulation from it. You’re not going to get it.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

Mark Waters, Rear Window (1954), and the Delicate Slyness of Hitchcock Humor

Mark Waters is a wonderfully talented (if occasionally inconsistent) comedic director, but something I would never accuse his best-known works like Mean Girls & House of Yes of being is subtle or delicate. Waters works in broad strokes. His jokes can be pointedly satirical & smartly written, but they’re delivered in the loud, brash cadence of a mainstream comedy, not the hushed tones of dry wit. That’s why it seemed jarring that Waters would build a flighty modern romcom starring Monica Potter & Freddie Prinze Jr. around something as tightly controlled and quietly sophisticated as a Hitchcock thriller. Waters didn’t seek to upend just any old Hitchcock thriller, either. He built his delirious romcom around the basic concept of Rear Window, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It might be tempting to think of that romcom, Head Over Heels, as an act of cinematic blasphemy, a disrespectful transgression that drags down one of the Hollywood greats to the level of a Zoolander-style fashion world satire that indulges in such less-refined pleasures as shit jokes and oggling Freddie Prinze Jr.’s rock hard abs. The truth is, though, that Waters was not at all perverting a refined work of stone-faced seriousness, but rather exposing the Hitchcock classic for what it truly is: a stealth comedy in a thriller’s disguise.

Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a filmmaker is difficult for me to contextualize. It took a long while for the director to be recognized as the master that he is, since he often chose to work in the trashy trenches of genre cinema, mainly with thrillers. I grew up in a world where Hitchcock was already a respected name, so it’s difficult to conceive that high art thriller works Psycho & The Birds were initially considered by some critics to be tawdry, gimmick-heavy works of populism. Rear Window is a great, distilled example of the meticulous visual mastery that eventually earned Hitchcock his deserved respect. It finds him working with big Hollywood budgets & stars (you don’t get much more Hollywood than James Stewart & Grace Kelly), delivering a beautiful, Technicolor-rich mystery thriller where every image feels tightly controlled & meticulously planned. The sets of Rear Window have a proto-Wes Anderson dollhouse quality to them. The lavishness of the costume design tops even Douglas Sirk productions like All That Heaven Allows. Not a single hair feels out of place and each mechanical piece of the plot moves along like clockwork, even though the film’s star, Stewart, is supposed to convey a pathetic, disheveled state with his broken leg & unwashed body. With all of the film’s intricate visual design, complex plotting, and trick photography innovation at the inevitable climax, it’s easy to see Rear Window only as a gorgeous middle ground between a populist thriller & a high brow art film. The truth is, though, that the movie also slyly functions as a morose comedy. It never approaches the broadness if its 00s romcom counterpart, but it can still be openly silly all the same.

Rear Window is an intense thriller about a disabled man who can only watch in horror as he pieces together the murder of a neighbor by her traveling salesman husband. It’s immediately jarring, then, that the movie opens with the most upbeat jazz music imaginable, almost as if its credits were leading into a 1950s sitcom. It’s not a direct, 1:1 comparison, but the upbeat club music that deliriously pulsates throughout Head Over Heels seems to echo that exact tonal clash. The Mark Waters romcom also echoes the way Rear Window builds comedy around friction between the sexes. Monica Potter’s openly spying on her hunky (and possibly murderous) neighbor and her various musings on how she can only find the worst men in NYC are basically just a gender-flipped version of James Stewart’s idle banter about how women are weak-willed nags & his casual gawking of a young ballerina who practices her routines in her skivvies across the courtyard. Hitchcock pokes subtle fun at his debilitated protagonist for being something of a pervert & a misogynist by making him physically impotent while two strong women (a nurse & a girlfriend) run circles around him, acting on suspicions he can only voice. The stakes of the central murder mystery are severe, much more severe than they are in the convoluted diamond heist plot of Head Over Heels, but Rear Window‘s tension is constantly eroded with dry, verbal wit and the occasional visual gag to the point where the whole movie almost feels like a subtle comedy that just happens to revolve around a murder mystery. It even concludes on a comedic gag, a whomp-whomp reveal of James Stewart’s second broken leg (and just when the first one was almost healed!).

Head Over Heels is certainly much broader in its humor than Rear Window and doesn’t even attempt to match its inspiration’s attention to visual craft, but I don’t think its reduction of the Hitchcock classic to the level of trope-laden romcom is at all blasphemous. Head Over Heels borrows the basic voyeuristically-witnessed murdered aspect of Rear Window‘s thriller plot as a launching point, but deviates from Hitchcock’s tightly-controlled tension-builder, contained entirely in a single apartment, by branching out all over NYC into various genres & tones. Although it’s a much more restrained, subtly humorous work, Hitchcock’s classic is a sort of tonal mashup in its own right, refusing to take its morbid subject matter entirely seriously, even when life & love are dangling on the line. I can’t speculate that the director would’ve enjoyed watching what Mark Waters did to one of his most revered works, but as he was no stranger to populist cinema & tonally inappropriate humor himself, Head Over Heels feels oddly at home with his prankster spirit, especially for a by the books romcom.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander.

-Brandon Ledet

The Return of the Vampire (1943)

“The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by . . . The Return of the Vampire.”

By the 1940s the major studio horror boom most notably typified by Universal’s Famous Monsters brand had all but dried up. This was bad news for many horror legends, including enduring cult icon Bela Lugosi, who had been consistently typecast as vampires and mad scientist types since he first struck gold as the star of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Before heading into a long, dispiriting run of playing second fiddle or headlining B-pictures on poverty row, Lugosi had his one last gasp as a major studio leading man in the 1940s. Although he had played Dracula knockoffs before in titles like Devil Bat & Mark of the Vampire and Columbia could not secure rights to the Dracula name, The Return of the Vampire is widely considered to be an “unofficial sequel” to the Tod Browning film. It would by no means be Bela Lugosi’s last great film, but there is a certain class & production value to it that would be missing from most of his later works, so it’s an easy film to underestimate and, thus, be impressed by the ways it surpasses expectations set by its B-picture contemporaries.

The Return of the Vampire‘s narrative setting is split between the two World Wars. The Lady of a house being used as a makeshift infirmary to accommodate the casualties of that war is perplexed when a number of her patients appear to be suffering from anemia. Their only other shared symptom? Two small puncture wounds on each of their necks. This, of course, means there’s a vampire nearby, revealed to be Bela Lugosi’s Not-Dracula hypnotist. As he sleeps through the daylight, Not-Dracula keeps a werewolf on staff as a permanently hypnotized servant who does his bidding while he sleeps. Lady Jane and her own staff of medical academics recognize the signs of vampiric activity immediately and recite plainly for the audience rules like aversion to sunlight, stakes to the heart, lack of a reflection, the entire crash course. Their fight to slay the vampire & convert his werewolf servant back to his human form is a decades-long struggle that’s blatantly stated to be a Good vs Evil battle in the most traditionally Christian of terms. The only real variation to the way this story naturally plays out in the Dracula knockoff genre is in its wartime setting, which introduces a sense of chaos in its blitz-style attacks & air raids that frequently disrupt the flow of the conflict in a refreshingly inventive way.

The Return of the Vampire is a surprisingly classy, well-paced & well-funded production that relieves the sting of more degrading works Lugosi was paraded through in the 40s & 50s, titles like Zombies on Broadway & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. There’s a little Ed Woodian use of wartime stock footage, the werewolf’s Shakespearean delivery veers perilously close to camp, and the film’s smoke machine budget appears to be wildly out of control, but otherwise The Return of the Vampire is surprisingly convincing as a legitimate Hollywood production. I was at first a little weary of its Christian moralizing about the power of Good versus the pitfalls of Evil (especially because it’s antithetical to what audiences would have gladly been paying to see), but even that tension leads to a nicely played, calmly bitter climactic showdown at a church organ that’s all solemn grimace instead of overblown moralizing. The whole film has a quietly menacing tone in that way, with an intense focus in the imagery of hypnosis, werewolf transformations, and women & children being attacked in their sleep through blown-open bedroom windows. The Return of the Vampire isn’t as prestigious as previous Lugosi pictures like Dracula or The Black Cat, but it does excel at what separates these works from the poverty row B-pictures he’d soon slip into: atmosphere. That heightened sense of spooky, vaguely lavish horror film atmosphere is well worth luxuriating in, as it would soon disappear from Lugosi’s career.

-Brandon Ledet

Attack from Space (1964)

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Three films into the Super Giant series I’m finally starting to feel a little fatigued. Atomic Rulers of the World was a great introduction to the franchise, establishing the bizarre Superman knockoff Starman and placing him in the context of Cold War atomic paranoia. Invaders from Space kept Starman’s world fresh by pitting him against a ludicrous villain, the alien race of The Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman. Attack from Space is where the limitations of Super Giant, a made-for-Japanese-television miniseries that was chopped up & reassembled into four American features, really starts to show at the seams. There’s a sense of monotony & going through the motions in Attack from Space that even Starman, a spandex-clad space alien superhero & intergalactic cop, can’t overcome.

The main problem in Attack from Space is the lack of a compelling villain . The movie begins with the exact footage that begins every entry in the series: an Emerald Place space counsel deciding to prevent nuclear war on Earth by deploying Starman. From there, it’s the villains’ job to keep the to keep the formula interesting. Starman himself, however entertaining in concept, remains as rigidly unchanged as his introduction in each film. The villains of Attack from Space fail to carve out their own niche as a novel Starman foe, as they’re very much reminiscent of the nuclear arms dealers of the first entry in the franchise. The Sapphireans are the baddies du jour in this case, but for convenience’s sake, let’s just call them Space Nazis. They dress like Space Nazis; they salute like Space Nazis; I think even the movie itself has a hard time not referring to them as Space Nazis. There might have been a way to make this villain exciting if they stood out enough from the atomic gangsters of Atomic Rulers, but after the boundless absurdity of the Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman, they play as totally limp onscreen. The Space Nazis kidnap a scientist so he can point his dangerous satellites towards Earth or some scheme that’s just as vague & uninteresting, and the procedure of thwarting their evil Space Nazi deeds leaves little room for surprise & excitement.

There’s very little, if anything, on display in Attack from Space that you can’t see done better before or since in the Starman series, and the exercise ultimately feels pointless because of that lack of novelty. Although it aired in Japan after the broadcast of the titles that made up Invaders from Space (under its own original titles of The Artificial Satellite & the Destruction of Humanity and The Spaceship and the Clash of the Artificial Satellite), American producers placed it directly after the first film in the series, the one it most closely resembles. I think that was a massive mistake, as it would have signaled to me as an audience that Super Giant was a one trick pony. The film transports the atomic strife of Atomic Rulers into space, which makes room for some decent miniatures, explosions, rocket ship designs, and astronaut fashions. If those effects were smashed together with the novelty of Starman’s introduction in Atomic Rulers or with the space alien weirdos of Invaders from Space, it might have been enough for a worthwhile venture. As is, it feels like watching Space Nazis tread water for 70+ minutes in a punishing void of purpose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania (2017)

Look, I’m solidly, repeatedly on record as being a fan of WWE’s recent team-ups with long-dead Hanna-Barbera properties. Two Scooby-Doo crossovers (WrestleMania Mystery & Curse of the Speed Demon) and one Flintstones detour (Stone Age SmackDown) into this newborn era of Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling cartoons, I haven’t had a single sour experience yet. The larger than life personalities of “WWE Superstars” entering the far-out worlds of Bedrock dinos, fake ghosts, monster trucks, and Scooby Snacks is a perfect fit, especially since WWE likes to maintain the illusion of producing PG content despite building its entire empire on “fantasy violence.” WWE’s fourth collaboration with Hanna-Barbera, while not my favorite crossover so far, is no different in the way it delivers the absurd, over the top fantasy violence goods in a cartoon setting. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is the first new Jetsons content produced in nearly three decades, a feature that might mark a lowpoint in terms of that property’s overall quality, but still had me giggly over the way it handles a very specific kind of larger than life absurdity that only a pro wrestling cartoon can deliver.

This is one of those situations where an IMDb plot synopsis is all the information you really need to know if you’d be interested: “A snowstorm freezes Big Show solid for decades. When he finally thaws out, Elroy and George help him build wrestle bots. When Big Show uses them to take over their city, the Jetsons go back in time to enlist help from WWE Superstars.” Well, technically, that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate. You see, The Big Show doesn’t build wrestle bots himself; he overtakes pre-existing robots with his wrestling prowess after discovering in horror that World Wrestling Entertainment has evolved into World Wrobot Entertainment (the second “w” is silent) while he was frozen, making his livelihood an obsolete practice. There’s a dual level of fantasy going on here: one where The Big Show is currently in contention to be the World Heavyweight Champion (those days are long gone) and one where WWE is still thriving 100 years in the future. Whatever automated dystopia pro wrestling slips into is likely imminent too, as the wrestling bots featured in the film are mechanical versions of current superstars: Robo-Roman Reigns, Robo-Seth Rollins, Robo-Dolph Ziggler, etc. I guess there’s a third level of fantasy at work too, you know, the one where lil’ Elroy Jetson invents time travel for a middle school science fair. That aspect of the film can’t really compare to the spectacle of human vs robot pro wrestling, though. Really, what could?

The Jetsons’ presence in Robo-WrestleMania is secondary at best. Besides the initial thrill of having the long dead television show’s iconic theme music (a cheap pop that’s later repeated for a gag where WWE Superstars are similarly introduced) as well as the dead-on impersonations of the new voice cast, the Jetsons mostly just provide an appropriate backdrop for the robotic & time-traveling hijinks of the much more interesting pro wrestling personalities they mix with. A lot of the property’s “women be shoppin'”/men are workaholics humor feels uncomfortably outdated in a modern context. Rosie the sarcastic robot maid remains the only fresh & amusing aspect of the original Jetsons dynamic. She gets in some great lines here about how “If [The Big Show] makes a mess on the carpet, I am not cleaning it up” or about how Robo-Roman Reigns really turns her on/pushes her buttons. I also appreciated a gag where George accidentally wins a wrestling match and when asked to provide his in-ring name, he bills himself as the amusingly generic Future Guy. Again, though, it’s mostly just the Jetson’s futuristic setting that provides anything of value for the WWE Superstars to bounce off of, but it’s a context that pays off nicely

The biggest surprise of Robo-WrestleMania​ is how much effort The Big Show put it his vocal performance. I didn’t have much confidence in watching a kids’ film starting the lug after suffering through the abysmal (even by WWE Studios standards) Knucklehead. He plays a great heel here, though, anchoring the film with the larger than life, enraged growl of a classic decades-old wrestling promo, redundantly declaring himself to be “the world heavyweight championship of the world.” I’d even dare say there’s an ounce of genuine pathos to the way the living giant feels physically awkward in an automated future where his body & his profession are essentially now obsolete. I even wonder if that robo-wrestling angle was a mode of sly writer’s room commentary on the way pro wrestling has been morally sanitized & made less physically risky in the PG, publicly traded modern era. There’s some similarly satirical jabs at Roman Reigns’s persona here: he charges his fist as if he’s gearing up for his patented “Superman punch” only to fire off an autograph for a fan; Rosie only likes his robo-version for his good looks; his robo-version’s stilted, mechanical delivery of his “Believe that” catchphrase sounds oddly reminiscent of some of his on-mic botches in real life; etc. For the most part, though, Roman and the rest of the WWE Superstars take just as much of a backseat as the Jetsons do. This is The Big Show’s, uh, big show and he delivers surprisingly strongly in that animated spotlight.

I was mildly, pleasantly amused by Robo-WrestleMania just as I have been with all of these Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling crossovers. Still, I feel like the opportunities presented by these cartoon backdrops aren’t being fully exploited to match the inherent absurdity of the wrestlers who populate them. Besides the wrestling robots & off hand references to Seth Rollins’s frequent claim that he’s “The Future of WWE,” the 100 years in the future setting of Robo-WrestleMania isn’t pushed to its full potential. Imagine all of the places a cartoon about a time traveling pro wrestlers could go; I’d argue this movie settled on the least interesting one. Thinking about the self-aware psychedelia of what could pop up in a New Day cartoon or how much weirder a Jetsons crossover could’ve been if it were produced while Stardust was still with the company (something I’ve called for in every review of these damned things so far) makes me mourn for the things that could be if these crossovers strayed a little further from the wrestling ring and a little deeper into the personas of the weirdos who work in it. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is admirably silly as is, though, and it works remarkably well as a redemptive palette cleanser for The Big Show, who really needed it after the dregs of Knucklehead.

-Brandon Ledet