Episode #120 of The Swampflix Podcast: Hack-O-Lantern (1988) & Metalsploitation

Welcome to Episode #120 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss four novelty horrors from the metalsploitation era: Hack-O-Lantern (1988), Trick or Treat (1986), Rock n Roll Nightmare (1987), and Shock Em Dead (1991) — all of which are currently streaming for free on YouTube. Happy Halloween!

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– The Podcast Crew

The Changeling (1980)

Most movie nerds participate in some kind of annual ritual every October, whether it be attempting to cram in (at least) 31 new-to-them horror films over the course of the month or just slightly, generally shifting their viewing habits towards #spookycontent. My own personal project this year was to clear out my stack of unwatched horror DVD & Blu-ray purchases that have been gathering dust since last Shocktober, something I unexpectedly accomplished halfway into the month. That kind of single-genre overload can be a fun, celebratory way to commemorate one of the calendar’s best holidays (second only to Mardi Gras), but it also has a way of flattening the distinguishing details of individual titles. Catching up with a somber, stylistically restrained classic during these annual horror binges is always somewhat risky, as they’re often drowned out by the zanier, more attention-grabbing films you bookend them with. All of that is to say that I finally watched the beloved ghost story The Changeling this month and I did not get much out of the experience. Despite its reputation, I found it merely okay.

A lonely music professor—played with a severe grimace by George C. Scott—grieves a recent tragedy in his family by renting out an Old Dark House near the university where he works and haunting its hallways all by his lonesome. While sulking around this echoing, dusty Gothic palace, he uncovers another familial tragedy from decades past: the murder of a young disabled boy whose ghost becomes his roommate and partner in crime. The professor may not be able to heal the wounds of the abrupt tragedy that wrecked his own family life, but he can at least distract himself from the pain by pursuing justice for this drowned ghost-boy. The resulting vigilante mission is one of somber self-reflection and unexpected political intrigue, pitting the pitiful old man against corrupt politicians and the even more intimidating biddies of The Historical Preservation Society. A few haunting images of underwater phantasma, flaming staircases, and animated wheelchairs occasionally cut through the oppressively quiet, lonely misery that hangs over the house, but for the most part everything remains excessively morbid & low-key.

The other canonized title that The Changeling reminded me of the most was The Exorcist. That may read as a high compliment, but what I mean is that I found it an admirable drama but a boring horror film, unable to see the Exquisite Classic it is in others’ eyes. Weirdly enough, I do get a huge kick out of The Exorcist III, which also stars George C Scott. Go figure. It’s possible that had I seen The Changeling outside of the annual cram-session horror binge of Shocktober rituals, it might have made more of an impact. However, I can’t make too many excuses for it in that context, considering that my favorite new-to-me discovery this month was the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which isn’t exactly a gag-a-minute riot. Regardless, The Changeling is a film I can’t muster much enthusiasm for outside discussing it in terms of this year’s Halloween season viewing docket. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what my to-watch stack looked like at the start of the season and a best-to-worst ranked list of how much I enjoyed each title.

  1. The Haunting (1963)
  2. The Descent (2005)
  3. Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)
  4. Millennium (1989)
  5. Limbo (1991)
  6. The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)
  7. The Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
  8. Pacific Heights (1990)
  9. Pumpkinhead (1988)
  10. Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead (1991)
  11. Body Snatchers (1993)
  12. The Changeling (1980)

-Brandon Ledet

Body Snatchers (1993)

It turns out not every movie adaptation of the 1958 novel The Body Snatchers is Great; some are just Okay. The 1956 and the 1978 adaptations—both titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—are reputable sci-fi horror classics, but that streak apparently ended when the material was imported into the 1990s. Body Snatchers ’93 had ample talent behind it to match the reputation of its looming predecessors, including the same producer as Invasion ’78 (Robert H. Solo) and creative contributions from genre film legends Abel Ferrara (director), Stuart Gordon (co-writer), and Larry Cohen (story). Unfortunately, that deep talent pool doesn’t amount to much onscreen. This particular Body Snatchers is serviceable but forgettable, something that might be easier to overlook if there weren’t so many superior realizations of the same material to compare it to.

Whereas the first two Body Snatchers adaptations explored themes of Conservatism, conformity, and paranoia in American cities & suburbs, this 90s Kids™ update moves its action to a military base. A moody teen brat who’d rather listen to her Walkman than her parents is horrified when her family moves to the rigid, regimented confinement of a military base to accommodate her dad’s career. That horror over militarized conformity only worsens when alien pod people start replacing the humans among the macho brutes in her midst, eventually including the few burnout friends she’s made on the base and members of her own immediate family. The manifestations of that horror are familiar: alien tendrils invading sleeping victims’ orifices and already-converted pod people snitching on still-human holdouts with hideous shrieks. They’re just updated with a new backdrop location & updated 90s era effects.

Weirdly, the film that most makes Body Snatchers ’93 feel obsolete is not any of the preceding direct adaptations of its source material but rather a loosely-inspired work that arrived to theaters five years later. Between the film’s 90s grunge sensibilities and its moody teen girl POV, it recalls a lot of what Robert Rodriguez later achieved to greater success in The Faculty. Body Snatchers is dourer & less fun than Rodriguez’s film, though, which I suppose is the Abel Ferrara touch. As a result, it’s difficult to find much in this film worth recommending that hasn’t been bested elsewhere, except maybe in a few standalone scares: a deflated goo-filled skull here, an alien-infested bathtub there, etc. Still, it’s a moderately serviceable sci-fi horror that sneaks in a few effective chills & practical gore showcases in a tight 87min window – even if they aren’t in service of something spectacularly unique.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunting (1963)

The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.

It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.

I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.

The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.

-Brandon Ledet

The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

If you want to be unnecessarily pedantic about what qualifies as a true giallo film, The Corruption of Chris Miller might not qualify. In the strictest sense, giallo is a schlocky, overstylized murder-mystery genre specifically made in Italy, mostly in the 1970s. Although clearly contemporary to that 70s Euro horror sensibility, The Corruption of Chris Miller is a Spanish production, performed in English, and stars a famous French chanteuse. However, even though it was staged on the wrong side of the Italian/Spanish divide, the film is a pure giallo experience by nearly every other metric. Its gorgeous visual palate (bolstered by Eastman color processing), needlessly complicated kills, acrylic paint stage blood, and consistently sleazy vibe all check off the exact tones & tropes expected from the genre. More convincingly yet, its slow-paced, convoluted mystery plot is incredibly confusing even after all the facts are presented in the final reveal, falling apart the second you think about it too long. That’s a giallo, bb.

Breathless-vet, pop star, and political subversive Jean Seberg stars as a young psychobiddy in training: a lonely, middle-aged woman who imprisons & psychologically torments her stepdaughter as revenge against the husband who left them both behind. She runs an explicitly man-hating household, teaching her step-daughter (the younger Spanish pop star Marisol) that “Men don’t love. They injure. They invade. It’s always cruelty and violence with them.” Meanwhile, she’s the sole source of the home’s cruelty & violence – gaslighting & sexually “seducing” her stepchild as a half-thought-out mode of revenge against a man who isn’t present and couldn’t care less. That is, until she expands her operations to a full-on bisexual harem by inviting a dangerous drifter into their home as a handyman: a British stud whom the audience suspects might be a thieving killer of local wealthy women. Is this drifter actually the killer, as all of the evidence suggests? Or is the killer one of the two central women-in-conflict? Or is it a throwaway side character the movie loses track of the minute after they’re introduced? The answer will only betray & confuse you, especially after you rewatch the kill scenes to review the evidence.

As always with gialli, the mystery itself is not as important here as the style & the mood. The tension in Seberg’s lavish home (i.e. lesbian torture dungeon) is wonderfully staged and feels entirely separate from the murders in the surrounding village. Even the kills themselves feel wholly distinct from one another, as the killer is wildly inconsistent in their choices of disguise, weapon, and victim. The closest the film comes to solidifying a recognizably iconic slasher villain visage (like a Jason or Michael Meyers mask) is a sequence where the killer dons a rain slicker, a scythe, and sunglasses while executing an entire family in their home. My personal favorite kill, however, is the opening scene in which they dress like a grotesque Charlie Chaplin pantomime to kill a woman they’ve just slept with. The way the killer continues to perform Silent Era schtick as The Tramp even after the murder had me howling, and I’m not sure the movie ever reached that level of upsetting amusement again. Attempting an entire proto-slasher about a killer in Chaplin drag might have been the film’s best chance as an all-timer in the giallo genre. It at least would have afforded it a sense of consistency, which it’s desperately lacking.

Unless you’re an Italian essentialist, The Corruption of Chris Miller lands squarely in the giallo pantheon – both in satisfying the requirements of the genre and in terms of quality. Replaying & picking apart the plot in your head is an exercise in futility that only gets more frustrating the further you drift away from it. At the same time, its sleazy atmosphere, over-the-top violence, and indulgences in gorgeous artifice reward that confusion with plenty in-the-moment pleasures.

-Brandon Ledet