Alli’s Top Films of 2017

It has been a year, both good and bad, mostly bad, but it’s the worst years that inspire some of the best art. Or at least that’s the bit we’re all told, as suffering artists. There were a lot more original stories of note for me this year, rather than remakes and book adaptations, so there may be something to that.

It being a rough year for me, though, which meant I fell behind, and because of that I’m keeping my ranked list short at 5.

1. The Shape of Water – It’s a tragedy to me that the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon got treated so badly. It’s an injustice that scientists would resort to killing and maiming a creature instead of just trying to avoid and passively observe it in the hopes of understanding it. The Creature always deserved better, and I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so. The revisionist justice of this movie is emotional comfort food for me.

Besides the Creature getting a better ending, The Shape of Water also serves as a countercultural rallying cry. The outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits work together to foil the plans of the establishment. Working class women, the lowest paid of anyone in America, actually get back at condescending bosses. Del Toro gives us a vision of hope and empowerment.

The cast is fantastic! Michael Shannon is horrifying. Sally Hawkins sweetly plays a mute rebel. Octavia Spencer gets a great role as a proud black woman in the time of the Civil Rights movement (when many proud black women made a difference and provided a strong backbone to the movement, only to be unfortunately overlooked). Doug Jones, though. He has played some of the most iconic del Toro roles: the Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth and the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Now, he will forever be known as the sexiest fish man onscreen.

I already knew I would love this movie just from del Toro’s name alone. He is one of my favorite currently working directors. The art he creates is lush and fantastic. He has a way of preserving the fun and excitement of fairy tales while also never letting his audience forget that there’s a real terror to them. With The Shape of Water he hands us another original modern fairy tale with a bittersweet ending, because he knows exactly what people like me want: a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid.

2. Get Out – What can I say? So many writers have written so many pieces that offer better words than I could.

I’m glad that it didn’t just focus on the horrifying explicit racism, but the neoliberal hypocrisy that comes from the wealthy elite “nice white people.” The awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color all help it succeed not only as a political movie, but also as a horror. The final act is a bloody catharsis that reminds me in many ways of the famous Anansi “get angry” monologue from the TV adaptation of American Gods:

Angry is good. Angry gets shit done. You shed tears for Anansi, and here he is, telling you you are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease. He is telling you there isn’t one goddamn reason you shouldn’t go up there right now and slit the throats of every last one of these Dutch motherfuckers and set fire to this ship!

American media has been rightly political in recent years. Get Out is another wonderful commentary on how weird and messed up the good old USA is.

3. mother! – I’ve always had mixed feelings about Aronofsky. I hate Requiem for a Dream, but absolutely love Black Swan, as Brandon and I discussed in the Swampflix Podcast episode about “ballet horror.” I went into mother! knowing it was one of those movies that elicits extremely polarizing reactions. I tend to be in the love it camp when it comes to those, and this was no exception.

It’s full of religious allegory, sure, but it also plays out like the absolute worst anxiety dream ever. I felt so personally offended by all the rude guests Mother had to deal with. The sink isn’t braced!! You weren’t invited! Just leave already!! Then the movie just totally breaks down into bonkers chaos, with literal bombshells and mobs. It’s all so gorgeous and frustrating.

I like the audacity of pointing out the wrongs and bizarreness of the Bible in an often heavy handed and overly dramatic movie. (I mean, what is the Bible itself if not heavy handed and overly dramatic?) The mother is so often referenced in Christianity, but where is she? The women of the Bible are so taken advantage of. It’s not right. Not in their own homes.  As the titular character played by Jennifer Lawrence screams at the godlike character of Javier Bardem, “YOU’RE INSANE!”

Really, that one line sums up the whole beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie.

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – Superhero movies are everywhere and, because of that, vigilante justice is normalized to a certain extent. We cheer when robbers and thieves actually get caught and put in their place by Spider-Man or Batman or whoever else decides to focus on small criminals that day. Realistically, going after bad guys and taking them down is terrifying and scary, yet we’ve all had the temptation to put a bike thief or burglar in a headlock. This movie is about giving into that, getting justice for yourself, and fighting the assholes of the world.

Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore elegantly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey strongly carries this movie on her back. She somehow doesn’t even get outshined by Elijah Wood playing an awkwardly sweet “sword guy” with a dog named Kevin! The chemistry between the two of them is sweet and wonderful here. The concept of revenge is dissected and not glamorized at all. The gory violence, raging criminals, and shady underbelly of the world are put on full display.

The world is a horrible place, but if you have a katana-swinging nerdy neighbor with a rat tail, it’s probably going to be A-Okay.

5. Ingrid Goes West – Is there a more relevant movie to the times that will soon be completely obsolete and irrelevant? iPhones, Instagram aesthetic, self-made social media personalities . . . What will the future think of our preoccupation with that culture? A charming fixation on the New or beating a dead horse with a stick? Either way, the cynical approach Ingrid Goes West takes is a new direction and tone, not the wariness and fright of Unfriended or other social media based horror.

Instead of following the victims, we follow Ingrid, Aubrey Plaza, an Instagram obsessed stalker who just wants to be friends with and be like the popular girls. So much so that she assaults a girl and has a stay at an inpatient facility for her mental health. Shedding some of her usual deadpan delivery, Plaza opens up at points and shows true vulnerability. Ingrid is not an easy character to empathize with. She’s manipulative and pathetic, but like all of us she has problems. It’s hard not to observe her flaws and see them as exaggerated versions of your own insecurities and needs. Plus, the people she aspires to be are the intolerable rich hippie types who curate their own Instagram aesthetics: found object art, mason jars, “sun bleached” hair, and airplants. It’s hard to feel sorry for try-hard rich kids who attempt to look “just thrown together.”

At times Ingrid Goes West feels like another, “damn kids with their phones” rant, but honestly we all know people like the ones in this movie, and we all wish they would just get off Instagram for a minute (at least).

Honorable Mentions

Movies I desperately want to talk about but couldn’t quite rank:

The Little Hours – Aubrey Plaza is on a roll. I hope she never stops. Although here, Kate Micucci steals a lot of the spotlight.

I can’t say too much about this movie other than it’s ridiculous, hilarious, and made a lot of Catholics upset. My favorite scene is where a few nuns get drunk and start singing.

A Ghost Story – Problematic as hell, of course. Brandon has every right to hate it and people have every right to judge me for appreciating a lot of it. I hate the choice to work with Casey Affleck. I hate him and his male entitlement, and honestly him being in this movie feels totally unnecessary. Luckily, most of the time his face is covered with a sheet. And he barely gets any dialogue. Yes, he scares off a hardworking single Latina mother by breaking all her plates. Yes, it’s sort of pretentious on top of all of that.

But it’s extremely emotionally manipulative and I feel like that bears saying. At the end, I even thought it was good. I like the concept of a ghost being a loser who can’t let go, stuck in a fixed point. I like the idea of the classic image of a ghost in its burial shroud as the costuming. Also, in the end, he was the negative vibes of the house he desperately wanted to stay in, so it feels revelatory to watch this jerk bro silently face infinity itself. I like to imagine when he gets the note at the end of the movie it just says, “My boyfriend is a jerk.”

I wish this movie had been made with a different cast and a different sort of ghost. Why not the ghost next door even?

It Comes At Night – Speaking of anxiety dreams! I have in the past suffered from a bunch of different parasomnias, including but not limited to: night terrors and sleep paralysis. I typically try to avoid movies that play off of those, but this one is just too good and too spooky. I found a little bit of the acting to be off and I still think the ending is a little weak, but it’s well worth the watch if you want a slow burn creep-out.

-Alli Hobbs

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Freaked (1993)

When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.

Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.

Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  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. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: 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).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fury (1978)

When watching The Fury, one gets the distinct feeling that it’s an adaptation of a Stephen King novel that King never wrote. This is perhaps unfair to novelist John Farris, given the width and breadth of his large body of work, which predates King’s. Then again, if you take a look at his Wikipedia page, The Fury is his only novel that actually has its own page; prolific though he may be, one must wonder whether or not his prose has much staying power. There are certain trappings that make The Fury feel like a King work, not the least of which is having Brian De Palma at the helm, just two years after he directed the first King adaptation with 1976’s Carrie (and a year before the second, Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV Salem’s Lot). The film also features mysterious agents working for an unnamed government agency that is similar to the role played by The Shop in King’s works, Firestarter most notable among them; the paternal relationship that forms one of the movie’s emotional cores likewise echoes, or rather presages, that of Charlie and her father in that novel.

Of course, Firestarter was published in 1980, two years after the release of The Fury (and four years after its publication date), so take from that what you will. Did King rip off The Fury? Is the superficial similarity due simply to the fact that De Palma’s Carrie influenced the perception of King in the public sphere? Perhaps the similar theses of Firestarter and The Fury were simply born out of similar anti-authority distrust and anti-government paranoia that sprang up in the wake of Nixon’s 1974 impeachment and the spilling of government secrets that accompanied his fall. (Any similarities between the phrase “Firestarter and The Fury” and the title of a certain questionable-but-plausible book about another polarizing and demagogic American “leader” are unintentional, if interesting.)

The Fury opens with Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas, in his sixties and still obviously capable of beating the tar out of a man a third his age) and his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) preparing to return to the U.S. after spending most of Robin’s life in exotic locales as part of Peter’s work with the aforementioned, unnamed agency; Peter is retiring. Robin is hesitant, not just because he barely remembers the states, but also because he has his doubts about the special institute where he will be enrolled upon his return, a kind of school for psychics. Peter is confident, however, that Robin will succeed in any environment. Their idyllic last days are interrupted by a seaborne attack from sheikhs with machine guns, and Robin is spirited away by Peter’s former partner, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), while Peter is seemingly killed. He has survived, however, and sees Childress paying off the apparent attackers for their false flag operation; Peter shoots Childress, maiming him, but Robin is already gone.

A year later, Chicago teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) is noticed by one of Sandza’s old compatriots, who calls the older man to tip him off that he’s discovered another psychic, one who might be able to help him find Robin. This informant is killed immediately; Childress has been keeping tabs on him, and uses the phone call to track down Peter, who must flee from his hotel in his underpants. He makes contact with Hester (Carrier Snodgress), an old flame and his secret informant within the aforementioned psychic institute run by Jim McKeever (Charles Dunning), which has already recruited Gillian. Working together, can Hester and Peter rescue Gillian from Childress’s clutches? Can Gillian help them find and rescue Robin? And after a year of being honed and trained to be Childress’s psychic weapon, can Robin truly be saved, even if he can be found and freed?

I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I’ve written here where I note my love of seventies and eighties conspiracy thrillers. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that certain social events have a far-reaching and undeniable effect on the media of that time. The seventies were fertile ground for the genre, given the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Nixon’s actions that led to his impeachment, and the resultant collapse of the American public’s faith in its leadership. This was the fertile well that gave us Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and The Parallax View, as well as countless others. It’s no surprise that conspiracy thrillers with a supernatural (or at least a  parapsychological or science fiction) twist would emerge as well: The Fury, of course, as well as the aforementioned Firestarter, but also Scanners (psychics created as the result of careless prescriptions with untested drugs, à la the tragedy of Thalidomide babies), Capricorn One (a faked space mission, the cover-up of which endangers the lives of the astronauts involved and the journalists who discover the truth), and others.

I would wager that, in spite of the similarities between The Fury and Firestarter, the latter does not plagiarize the former; they were both simply born out of similar sentiments and sweeping social (and sociological) anxieties. It’s also possible that future Class of 1999 director Mark L. Lester, when filming Firestarter for its 1984 release, took inspiration from the films that came before it. The novel on which the film was based mentioned that the use of psychic powers caused “tiny cerebral hemorrhages,” which simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. Lester instead invoked the image of the psychic nosebleed, a common trope now (see its use in many works as shorthand for strenuous psychic activity, most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things); in fact, many people believe that this was the first use of this visual, but in fact it goes back at least as far as Scanners three years previously, and a bleeding nose is involved with psychic phenomena in The Fury, although in this film it is the result of a psychic attack, not a symptom. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of convergent ideas coming to bear in a short amount of time, and perhaps homage, but not evidence of intellectual theft.

With regards to The Fury itself as a film, this is a classic that deserves to be seen. The film features a great soundtrack by John Williams, fresh off of his Oscar win for Star Wars. There’re also some truly dynamite effects used to demonstrate the use of psychic power, the most effective being a shot of Gillian being fully transported into a vision of Robin inside the institute as she stands frozen on the stairs, the past playing out in a rear projection as the camera swims around her. It’s truly stunning, especially for 1978 and on a budget of a mere 5 or 7 million dollars (different sources conflict each other on this matter). One of the film’s greatest overall strengths is the way that De Palma invests time in the daily lives of the people who are tangentially affected or in some way attached to the agency and its pursuit of Gillian and brainwashing of Robin. We spend a few minutes with the family whose home Peter invades in his initial flight from Childress’s men, and we get to know a lot about their interpersonal relationships in a brief span of screentime. There’s even friendly banter between agents on surveillance duty about coffee and chocolate; these are small moments, but they paint the world of the film in vivid hues, giving us a lived-in sense of time and place where other, lesser filmmakers wouldn’t have bothered.

Getting back to the topic of anti-government paranoia in mass media, perhaps we will soon see a resurgence of films in this rhetorical space, given the current political climate. We are already seeing a revisitation of the Pentagon Papers with the release of The Post, and even 2016’s Zootopia got in on the action. Until this movement takes full flight, we can take comfort in the arms of films past that reflect the anxieties of our present. After all, if we survived it before, we can survive it again.

As of January 2018, we are still here, and The Fury is streaming on Netflix. Good night, and good luck.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

I suscribe to the belief that British director Ken Russell was one of the most underappreciated madmen in all of trash cinema. Titles like The Devils, Crimes of Passion, and Altered States stand as immaculate works of over-the-top shock value provocation. Russell filtered the seedier sex & violence of schlocky genre films through the meticulous aesthetic of art house cinema. He operated as a kind of bad taste prankster who knew deep in his bones how to appeal to a more refined audience, but gleefully indulged in cartoonish violence & sexual humor instead. It’s difficult to say exactly which Ken Russell film would be the perfect introduction to his hyper-violent, oversexed, art house pranksterism (Crimes of Passion is a personal favorite of mine, at least), but his 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm is as good of a place to start as any. The film operates as a kind of crash course in his pet obsessions as a crude auteur: hallucination, transgressive sex, religious blasphemy, lethal women, etc. It’s by no means his classiest or his most formally precise feature, but it covers a lot of ground on exposing audiences to what makes his work exciting & worthy of reappraisal, while still making no excuses for how cheap & ludicrously ill-considered his personal brand of provocative trash-art cinema could be.

Russell admittedly plays loose with the plot details of Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm novel, reducing its atmospheric (and by all accounts incoherent) horrors into an erotic farce about reptilian vampires. He still shows more respect than that pulpy source material likely deserves, however, as it was written late in Stoker’s life when his mental facilities were fading and included many strange bouts of Dracula-rehashing & racial philosophizing Russell smartly excised. One major difference between the book & the movie is the choice of when to reveal the true nature of the villain. Stoker saves the revelation that the conniving female royal of his novel is actually a shapeshifting snake (“worm” is kind of a misnomer) until very late into the proceeding. Russell, however, wastes no time. Actor Amanda Donohoe’s shapeshifting reptile villain is costumed to look like a bipedal cobra in the film; she wears hoods, scarves, and cowls that immediately make her appear snakelike in her cold, ultra-modernist rural England mansion. She makes no real attempt to hide her reptilian nature from potential victims either: she steals a giant dragon-like snake skull discovered in the first scene for an occultist ritual; she invites visitors to her home to play a Snakes & Ladders board game; she boasts of going “snake watching” in the woods. Long before she reveals her comically oversized vampire fangs & spits hallucination-inducing venom, the audience is well aware that she’s some kind of humanoid “worm.” Russell spends no more time covering up that his villain is a monster than Todd Browning did in his Dracula adaptation. As soon as you see her, you know. The mystery, then, is what sexual, sacrilegious terrors she’s planning to exact on her villains.

Hugh Grant appears as a kind of Van Helsing archetype destined to defeat this reptilian sex villain as part of his family heritage. Peter Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg, and Sammi Davis round out the cast, partly to maintain Stoker’s original story structure and partly to diversify Donohoe’s victims. Donohoe slithers around in high class dominatrix gear, sexually teasing & occasionally draining the blood of the entire crew and any horny teen boys who happen to wander into her lair. She flicks her tongue before lunging in for a kiss, like a snake surveying its prey. She spits a hallucinatory venom that triggers trippy, sacrilegious imagery pulled directly from previous works Altered States & The Devils. She occasionally transforms into a giant, Falkor-like snake puppet that recalls an especially demonic creation from Sid & Marty Croft. All of this torment & mayhem culminates in a demonic sex ritual that involves a deadly strap-on phallus and a bottomless pit where Donohoe feeds her almighty worm beast. The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).

Loving Ken Russell means disregarding any & all personal desire for subtlety. Very early on in The Lair of the White Worm Donohoe sensually sucks snake venom out of a hobbled cop’s leg while a cheese-coated saxophone wails on the soundtrack, matching the already porn-level acting of the film’s brayed line readings. In that moment, we know the nature & intent of the villain, the film’s disregard for coming across as erotica, and the exact tone of absurdist humor & violence Russell intends to amuse himself with. All three of those elements are only heightened & dragged further away from subtlety from there. The Lair of the White Worm may not be the director’s most carefully constructed or well-considered work, but it’s pure Ken Russell, something to be cherished by trash-gobblers & cinephiles alike.

-Brandon Ledet

Rat Film (2017)

I can’t think of many corners of cinema as alive with innovation & experimentation right now as the documentary & the essay film. Weirdo 2017 titles like Swagger, I Am Not Your Negro, Beware the Slenderman, Casting JonBenet, Love and Saucers, and The World is Mine were some of the most formally & tonally surprising experiences I had with movies all last year. Despite the obvious constraints of working with non-fiction subjects, the digital age post-Herzog documentary is proving to be one of the most vibrantly creative cinematic art forms we have at our disposal. Enter Rat Film, another small scale weirdo doc that’s been garnering buzz for well over a year before finally being released on VOD in recent months. In an elevator pitch, Rat Film can be described as an essay film on the lives & deaths of the rat population in Baltimore and the unlikely ways the comings & goings of those rodents relate to systemic racism in that city’s history. The details of how that essay is laid out are fascinating, however, as Rat Film explores a near-psychedelic multimedia approach to documentary as a craft, to the point where its form is just as significant as its subject. That dynamic honestly feels par for the course for a modern doc, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.” So says an affable city worker interviewed here whose entire job is to locate & poison rats. Rat Film profiles a wide range of personalities on the rat-obsession spectrum: pet owners, pest control city workers, amateur rat catchers, musicians who experiment with rat-operated theremins* (Dan Deacon, specifically), etc. These small voices in the larger conversation on Baltimore’s rat overpopulation are interwoven with a history lesson on the political & scientific evils perpetuated by a Dr. Richter, who used rat populations to justify social engineering in bizarre treatises like “Rats, Man, and the Welfare State.” A long history of racial segregation & social experimentation emerges among the film’s kaleidoscopic images of crude computer simulations, Google satellite photos, fireworks, drag racing, snakes, and of course, rats. Lots of rats, from the pink jelly bean infants to the massive, dog-scale behemoths. Instead of neatly explaining how all these disparate elements tie together into a cohesive whole, the movie instead ends on an ambiguous note of science fiction absurdity, leaving its audience to stew in the discomfort.

Admittedly, Rat Film is much drier and not nearly as kinetic as what’s advertised in its trailers. The house cat documentary Kedi is much more impressive in finding ways to document the secret lives of impossibly uncooperative animal subjects; Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog was much bolder in experimenting with the weird tone that can be struck with emotionally-distant, National Geographic-style narration in lines like “Does a blind rat dream?” Rat Film can also frustrate in its stubbornness to justify its own indulgences, such as what a heavily-featured drag racing speedway has to do with Baltimore’s “rat problem” at all. Even with those weak spots in consideration, Rat Film is still one of the stranger reflections on systemic racism, animal behavior, and the emptiness of modern life you’re ever likely to see onscreen, much less all at once. With an ambient Dan Deacon score that jarringly alternates between unexpected images to the cue of static pops, it’s a film that’s held together mostly in its commitment to deconstruction & looseness. There’s enough material here that would be worthy of a no-frills, straightforward documentary, but the experimental cinema approach of Rat Film is much more likely to draw (and maintain) attention than a more traditional work could. It’s also just one piece in a much larger gestalt that suggests there’s even more surprise & experimentation to come in the essay film medium, which is what excites me most.

*In college, I was in a band that used to play shows with a local punk group that featured a rat-operated theremin as a main player, which is a memory I was happy to have this film loosen. I do remember that particular rat meeting an unfortunate end, however. The volume of an average punk show was probably super bad for him (see Rock ‘n’ Roll High School for details there) and I think the heat of their tour van is eventually what did him in. R.I.P., little buddy.

-Brandon Ledet

Staying Vertical (2017)

Every now & then you’ll encounter a strange picture about writer’s block written by someone who’s obviously suffering writer’s block. These movies are usually penned by Charlie Kauffman, but in this case it’s Stranger By the Lake’s Alain Guiraudi who’s driven mad by the blank page into making something deeply, surreally frustrated. Staying Vertical is an abstract nightmare of mistakes & obligations haunting a frustrated writer as he avoids his professional responsibilities at the expense of everything he holds dear in life. Our creatively stumped protagonist starts his journey with a nice job & total freedom. His biggest worries are being rejected while cruising for sex or becoming consumed with boredom. By the conclusion, just a year later, he’s homeless, destitute, a public pariah, an estranged father, and literally surrounded by wolves. The events that lead him down that path can be logically explained in a linear progression, but that logic falls apart once you apply them to a larger metaphorical meaning. It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudi needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.

I have no problem admitting that some of Stranger by the Lake’s immediate appeal was its explicit depiction of casual gay sex, a kind of shock value transgression that paired wonderfully with its emotional thriller beats and thematic explorations of dangerous intimacy & loneliness. Staying Vertical boasts a lot of the same in-your-face vulgarity, including hardcore intergenerational sex, close-up shots of genitalia & human birth, and bizarre dialogue like, “Even if I wanted to, I can’t sleep with my son’s grandpa.” It’s far from a nonstop bacchanal of Kuso-esque perversions, though. Mostly we watch our writer’s block-afflicted protagonist drift through the French countryside, a major city, and a village in-between, racking up a mounting weight of responsibilities & obligations as he avoids the one thing he should be doing at the outset. In his aimless wandering through an unfulfilling life he establishes an absurd scenario where there’s essentially five people in all of France and they all want something from him that he’s unprepared to deliver. His obligations surround him like a pack of wolves, a point that’s driven home when he’s literally surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Of course, this kind of purposeless, for-its-own-sake shock value & absurdity is going to strike many people as incoherent nonsense. The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy. I can’t say I wouldn’t have rather have Guiraudi’s fearless, straightforward story about wolves, sheepherding, and the state of farm life in the face of modernized industry, but the extreme, absurdist self-reflection he delivers in Staying Vertical instead is fascinating, occasionally haunting stuff. I just hope he’s okay.

-Brandon Ledet

Britnee’s Top Films of 2017

1. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is hands-down my favorite film of 2017. What I adore the most about this coming-of-age cannibal film is that its terrifying plot feels so real. The main character, Justine, was so relatable to me, even though our lives are vastly different. The way she is able to portray her emotions when encountering new, unfamiliar social situations while trying to figure out her internal struggles was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a fictional character. Aside from the emotional side of the film, Raw also has some of the coolest/grossest gore scenes of the year. This is definitely not one for those with weak stomachs.

2. Split – James McAvoy is one of my all-time favorite actors because he gives every performance his all, and that’s exactly what he does in his lead role in Split. It’s a thriller that’s able to make you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist, whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible sense of feeling trapped and confused overwhelmed me to the point that I had to remind myself that I was in my own bedroom, where I do most of my movie-watching. Like with most M. Night Shyamalan films, Split is an endless puzzle. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, you get slapped in the face with an ending that is guaranteed to blow your mind.

3. Get Out – This is a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Get Out is the perfect blend of horror, comedy, science fiction, and tear-jerking moments, so there’s a little something for everyone. The sound of a teaspoon stirring in a ceramic teacup has haunted me just as much as the film’s surprise ending.

4. IT – Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring original television miniseries, but the film is completely different in the best way possible. For a film that centers on a killer clown, the spooky clown scenes are sparse; but when they occur, they are absolutely terrifying. This was the only film I saw last year in 3-D, and it was on of my most memorable 2017 film experiences for sure.

5. Okja – The silly CGI super pig Okja completely stole my heart, weird farts and all. Okja is a wild ride filled with themes relating to food production and animal rights, but it never loses focus on the main point of the story: the friendship between a young girl and her pet/best-friend. I watched Okja with my dog (who looks a bit like Okja), and I squeezed her so tight for some of the tear-jerking scenes. It’s amazing how a CGI super pig has made me question many of my life choices.

6. The Lure – This was the last film I watched in 2017, as it was featured at Brandon and CC’s New Year’s Eve movie-watching extravaganza. It was nothing short of a blessing. Gore had never been so glamorous! When it comes to movies about mermaids (possibly my favorite “mythical” creature), they’re either fairy tale-like or violent; The Lure is able to beautifully mix the two into a swirl of Polish horror insanity. Oh, it’s also a musical packed with loads of fantastic synth-heavy music that I immediately fell in love with.

7. mother! – The hype for mother! was just as enjoyable as the film itself. Advertisements branding the film as the “most controversial movie of the year” were around every corner, but when the film actually came out, people began to shit on it so hard. That’s when I became even more interested in watching it! It received a lot of criticism for containing very obvious allegories, but that’s one of the qualities I enjoyed the most, as it added to its unintended silliness. The bottom line is that mother! is just a lot of stupid fun and has a pretty sick scene at the end that shouldn’t be missed.

8. The Babysitter – This Netflix original teenybopper horror-comedy about a satanic babysitter is just as amazing as it sounds. The Babysitter is a satirical throwback to 80s teen horror, loaded with vibrant colors, fun musical numbers, and hilariously violent death scenes. Of all the movies in my top ten, I have watched The Babysitter the most. It’s just a fun movie to throw on after a long day of work.

9. Hounds of Love – Not only is this the title of my favorite Kate Bush album, but it’s also one of my favorite films of the year! Hounds of Love reminds us that human beings can be complete monsters. The film is loosely based on the Australian Moorhouse murders, and it does a great job of depicting the real-life tragedy that involved the capture and torture of a young woman by a sadistic couple. This is one of those movies that would be difficult to watch more than once, but as a true crime fan, I can’t rave about it enough.

10. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – If you’re wondering what Elijah Wood has been up to lately, he plays a dorky rat-tailed neighbor to Melanie Lynskey in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (possibly the longest movie title of the year). The film follows the eccentric Batman and Robin-like duo on their quest to get stolen goods back from a group of dangerous criminals. It’s the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was.

-Britnee Lombas

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

I’m struggling fully getting on board with the macho genre throwbacks of S. Craig Zahler. I did enjoy his instantly infamous cannibal gross-out Bone Tomahawk, despite my general distaste for Westerns and the feeling that its participation in “Native savage” tropes is a little too easily excused. I guess on some level I also enjoyed his follow-up to that attention-grabbing debut, the violent prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99. The overdose of testosterone running through Zahler’s films is wearing me down, though, a feeling that’s only compounded by his work’s slow-to-act, self-serious tone that “elevates” schlocky concepts with extended runtimes & deliberately over-written dialogue. Zahler is very good at what he does: revitalizing long-dormant “trash” genres with a fresh sense of meticulous craft & feel-it-in-your-bones brutality. There’s just a large part of me that misses the versions of these pictures that were quick, goofy, and less steeped in unexamined machismo.

I’m usually not a fan of his “lovable asshole”/Tough Guy with a Heart of Coal routine, but Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast here as a broken macho man on the wrong side of the law (and economic hardship). Recently laid off and facing the early signs of a crumbling marriage, his overly muscled protagonist becomes a reluctant drug-runner for some sneering, racial & homophobic slur-slinging Bad Guys, a career path that obviously lands him in jail. Once inside the pen, eternally typecast creep Udo Kier threatens the safety of his pregnant wife unless he assassinates a man held at the Maximum Security population of Cell Block 99, a prison within the prison. Motivated by this wicked act of blackmail, our anti-hero descends into the lower levels of the prison, as if clearing obstacles in a video game, by violently attacking/physically dismantling the guards & fellow prisoners. He eventually finds his target, but also engineers a spectacular act of revenge on his blackmailers in the process, leaving many destroyed bodies of (literally & figuratively) faceless baddies in his wake.

This plot feels just as akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris cheapie from the 1980s (especially the part about the wife being held ransom as blackmail) as it does to the grindhouse prison movies Brawl in Cell Block 99 lovingly pays tribute to. The setup to the violent spectacle of the payoff takes much longer to develop, however, attempting to build a genuine emotional response out of its narrative those films never achieved. I’m not convinced Zahler achieved it either. I was on board for the film’s scraped-against-concrete, Saw-level torture device violence. However, outside being impressed by a stray turn of phrase, I was left completely cold by the emotional core of the story it told. This detachment was only made worse by its ugly, high-contrast digital photography and even uglier commitment to brute force masculinity. It’s not like the movie isn’t critical of Vaughn’s brutal machismo either. Early on, unchecked masculine rage is made to be monstrously grotesque, especially as he dismantles an entire car by hand out of romantic anger and benevolently lords over his tiny, shrinking domain. It only gets worse as he applies that same destructive masculine anger to human bodies, something the movie is well aware of. I just found the experience of dwelling in that headspace for over two hours to be exhausting & ultimately alienating, a similar feeling I had with Zahler’s previous film. Not everyone will have that experience, of course. Much like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a technically well-made picture and your patience for diving into the depths of destructive masculinity will determine much of your experience with it.

-Brandon Ledet