The Overlook Film Festival 2022, Ranked & Reviewed

The sudden appearance of The Overlook Film Festival on the local scene in 2018 & 2019 was an unholy, unexpected blessing. There are only a few substantial film fests staged in New Orleans every year, so for an international festival with world premieres of Big Deal horror movies to land in our city was a major boon. It was almost too good to be true, so after a couple off years of COVID-related delays, I was worried The Overlook might not make it back to the city. But here we are again, praise the Dark Lord.

Two dozen features and just as many shorts screened at the festival over the course of a single weekend in early June. It was overwhelming. Self-described as “a summer camp for genre fans,” The Overlook was centrally located, corralling almost all of its screenings to the new Prytania Theatres location at Canal Place. It was wonderful to attend this unbelievably cool genre extravaganza again, especially after two years of seeing their incredibly sharp programming talents get absorbed by the online-only Nighstream festival.

Listed below are all nine features I caught at The Overlook Film Festival that weekend, ranked in the order that I most appreciated them, each with a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. For a more detailed recap of our festival experience beyond these reviews, check out the next Lagniappe episode of The Swampflix Podcast, where I will be discussing the fest in full with local critic Bill Arceneaux.

Mad God

Phil Tippett’s stop-motion passion project is both a for-its-own-sake immersion in scatological mayhem & an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything.  It’s meticulously designed to either delight or irritate, so count me among the awed freaks who never wanted the nightmare to end.

Flux Gourmet

David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s returned to his early works to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art.  This feels like Peter Strickland revising Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing absurdism he’s achieved since.  The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between.

Deadstream

A found footage horror comedy about an obnoxious social media influencer getting his cosmic comeuppance while livestreaming his overnight tour of a haunted house.  This was a constantly surprising delight, getting huge laughs out of supernaturally torturing a YouTuber smartass with a sub-Ryan Reynolds sense of humor.  It effectively does for Blair Witch what Host did for Unfriended, borrowing its basic outline to stage a chaotic assemblage of over-the-top, technically impressive horror gags.

Good Madam

I will be interested to compare this with Nanny once that makes its way to the general public, since both films revisit Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl through a supernatural horror lens.  Considered on its own, this is perfectly chilling & sharply political, pushing past an easy metaphor about a house being haunted by apartheid to dig into some surprisingly complicated, heartbreaking familial drama.

Piggy

Not enough people have seen The Reflecting Skin for the comparison to mean anything, so let’s call this Welcome to the Dollhouse for the Instagram era.  A bullied outsider’s coming-of-age horror story accelerated by a cathartic, torturous team-up with the neighborhood serial killer.  It’s made entirely of pre-existing genre building blocks, but it still feels freshly upsetting & perversely fun in the moment.

Swallowed

Low-budget queer body horror about a drug deal gone horrifically wrong, featuring sharp supporting performances from Jena Malone & Mark Patton.  Has some great squirmy little practical gore gags that keep the tension high throughout, but I was most thrilled just to see a harrowing queer story that wasn’t about coming out or gaybashing.  Even more thrilled to see a movie where fisting (almost) saves the day.

Hypochondriac

Queer psych-horror about a potter who’s being hunted down by his childhood trauma, represented by a Halloween costume wolf (halfway between the Donnie Darko bunny & The Babadook, except the monster wolfs ass).  More charming than scary, but judging by the “Based on a real breakdown” title card it’s coming from such a personal place that it’s easy to root for.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

What if Harmony Korine had to be less choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie?  It’s certainly a step up from The Bad Batch, but I’m not convinced Ana Lily Amirpour has lived up to the potential of her debut yet.  Smart programming for the opening night of Overlook Film Fest either way, since it’s steeped in plenty of Nawlins Y’all flavor to acclimate the tourists.

Watcher

A little too lacking in scene-to-scene tension & overall novelty for the fourth Rear Window riff of the past year (bested by Kimi & The Voyeurs in those rankings, surpassing only The Woman in the Window).  Still, I appreciate the icy mood it echoes from post-Hitchcock Euro horrors of the 1970s, and the ending is almost enough of a shock to make up for the dead air. 

-Brandon Ledet

Watcher (2022)

According to my count, there have now been four significant riffs on the classic paranoia thriller Rear Window in the past year, each starring freaked-out, disbelieved women in the James Stewart role.  That trend could a response to the increased social isolation during the pandemic making us simultaneously agoraphobic and nosy about strangers’ lives (now seen entirely through the digital windows of social media apps).  Or it could just as likely be that Hitchcock’s’ influence is eternal, and several Rear Window projects have happened to bottleneck in their distribution paths at a weirdly apt time.  Either way, Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is done a huge disservice by this sudden deluge of Rear Window riffs, maybe even more so than its unintended sister films.  Understated & unrushed, Watcher is a little too lacking in scene-to-scene tension and overall novelty to stand out in its crowded field (bested by both Kimi & The Voyeurs in those rankings, surpassing only The Woman in the Window).  I appreciate the icy mood it echoes from post-Hitchcock Euro horrors of the 1970s, and the stern narrative follow-through of its ending is almost enough of a shock to make up for the preceding dead air, but I’m not convinced that’s enough to make it especially noteworthy or even worthwhile.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as an out-of-work actress who moves to Bucharest at the behest of her workaholic boyfriend (Karl Glusman, Devs).  Alienated by her endless days alone in the apartment and her inability to speak Romanian, she becomes more of a quiet observer than she is an active participant in her own life.  Worse yet, a neighbor she can see from her apartment window has taken to staring back with an intense fixation on her every move, even when she leaves the relative safety of her new home.  The actress is convinced her stalker is a neighborhood serial killer known as The Spider, so she sends the few men in her life to violently threaten him & interfere before his obsession gets out of hand.  As their patience for humoring her suspicions wears thin, Watcher becomes a fairly typical Believe Women thriller.  Its only distinguishing details, really, are the fashions & architecture of its Eastern European setting and the cold, stubborn brutality of its conclusion.  It’s thematically rich in its intricate gender politics, especially in the way Monroe is dismissed & infantilized by the men in her social circle and endangered by demonstrating even the most benign friendliness to male strangers. The tonal & visual expressions of those themes are just a little too calm & well-behaved for the movie to stand out as anything special.

My fixation on Watcher‘s lack of novelty is likely just as much of a result of seeing it in a film festival setting as it is a result of its recent competition among other, flashier Rear Window updates.  Watcher played at this year’s Overlook Film Festival among dozens of similar low-budget genre films with their own abundance of pre-loaded comparison points.  To my eye, it’s the one that most suffered from its dedication to long-running genre tradition (at least among the nine titles I watched at the festival), precisely because it’s the one that was least interested in attention-grabbing novelty.  And yet it’s the one title that was simultaneously playing in AMC theaters elsewhere in town, while most of the bolder, weirder Overlook titles I caught will get nowhere near screens that size.  I appreciated the opportunity to see Watcher in a theatrical environment, since its distribution through Shudder means most audiences will force it to compete with smartphones for their attention when it inevitably hits streaming.  It’s a pretty good movie with admirable political convictions and an effectively eerie mood.  It’s just also nothing special, really, at least not when considered in comparison with its competition – Overlook, Soderbergh, Sweeney, or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad God (2022)

By the time Phil Tippett’s stop-motion freak show Mad God closed this year’s Overlook Film Festival, it was up against a towering wall of anticipation – not just from over the weekend but from decades of production delay.  The finished product was very divisive in the room.   It was my favorite movie I saw all festival, while the lovely chap I was chatting with in line on the way in said it was his absolute worst.  Teasing out his reasons for despising it, it sounded like he experienced Mad God purely as a for-its-own sake immersion in scatological mayhem, with no meaning or emotion behind its non-stop, nonsensical gore gags.  He also had no idea what the movie was about or how it was made before the screening started, other than it was one of the more hyped titles on the program.  Knowing Mad God’s backstory as an abandoned project from the early 90s that was recently completed through horror nerd crowdfunding on Kickstarter, I found it to be an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything.  We’re probably both at least a little bit right.

There’s no spoken dialogue in Mad God, nor is there a discernible narrative.  It’s a movie built entirely on nightmare logic, where one bizarre event mutates into another with no strict reasoning behind the progression. It’s mostly an animated experiment in scale.  A faceless soldier with no discernible personality or inner life follows his mysterious master’s marching orders to explore a post-apocalyptic hellscape populated by specimen-jar freaks of all shapes & sizes.  It’s like the unexplained, awesomely scaled Space Jockey reveal in 1979’s Alien repeated over & over again as our faceless, soulless protagonist explores dank hellpits populated by grotesque monstrosities big & small.  The scale of these hideous creatures’ violence also varies wildly, from petty squabbles over who has to shovel the shit of the bigger monsters that tower above them to real-life footage of nuclear blasts.  Phil Tippett did not work on the special effects for Alien, but he did work on other beloved genre classics like Star Wars, Robocop, and Starship Troopers.  If Mad God is “about” anything in particular, it’s about displaying the full dark magic of what his stop-motion wizardry can do on-screen.  The clay soldier is more of a starting point than a proper protagonist, as the movie has more to say about Tippett’s adventures in the industry than it does that disposable, replaceable explorer.

The story goes that Tippett began working on Mad God while doing the animated effects for Robocop 2 in the early 90s.  When he was subsequently hired for special effects work on Jurassic Park, he was convinced that the stop-motion medium was an inevitable dead end, soon to be replaced by animatronic sculpture & CGI.  The project was then shelved for three decades until younger collaborators in love with his traditionalist techniques convinced Tippett to complete the abandoned project.  Smartly, he appears to have left the original, shot-on-film footage from the project’s early days mostly untouched.  The first half is like a lost artifact from an era when artists like Dave McKean, the Quay Brothers, and Jan Švankmajer ruled over a steampunk hellworld that’s since been paved over by brightly lit computer graphics.  The original footage ends with the clay explorer being decommissioned & dismantled, and we cut to modern digital footage of fellow genre filmmaker Alex Cox (as a wizardly Tippett surrogate) plucking an identical, soulless soldier from his vast, unanimated supply to send on another mission in new dank hellpits with new grotesque monsters haunting them – now in crisp HD.  Tippett marks the passage of time between these bifurcated segments with repeated images of clocks, candles, death, and rebirth.  In the tension between its two parts, it becomes a self-reflective story about the resilience of personal creativity.  As an artist he has no choice but to keep sending his little soldiers out into the cruel world, hoping one of them one day completes their mission.

Mad God is meticulously designed to either delight or irritate.  It’s especially grating in its soundtrack’s relentless use of crying babies & ticking clocks, making a large contingent of the audience wish the term “Silent Cinema” was literal.  You can count me among the awed freaks in the room who never wanted the nightmare to end, though, especially since I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to see it projected on the big screen again.  Catching Mad God at Overlook was vital, even though it will soon be streaming on Shudder in a more accessible, affordable presentation.  I don’t know that I’d have the mental willpower to watch the entire runtime without glancing at my phone when it’s available to stream at home, but in that theater I was outright mesmerized.  It’s a spell that doesn’t work on everyone, but it’s a powerful source of creative dark magic if you can open yourself up to it.  Knowing the backstory of how it was made might be an essential part of that receptiveness, but it’s a stunning work of visual art no matter the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Hypochondriac (2022)

Hypochondriac is a slow-building psychological horror in which a clay potter is haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.  Whatever expectations you may have about its tone or intent based off that description and the nonstop flood of self-serious Trauma Horror that’s followed in the years since Hereditary is likely off-base.  To start, the metaphorical Trauma Monster is represented onscreen by a low-rent Halloween-costume wolf, falling somewhere halfway between the Donnie Darko bunny & The Babadook.  Furthermore, the monster wolfs ass.  Hypochondriac is an irreverent, queer, oddly erotic approach to mental breakdown psych-horror.  It never fully tips into horror comedy territory, but it constantly prods the audience to laugh for much-needed tension relief.  More atmospheric horror films about Trauma & Grief would do well learning from its levity.

We meet the adult version of our potter-in-crisis dancing to Jessie J while working a shift at the LA hipster pottery boutique that pays his bills.  He appears relatively happy & well-adjusted considering the violent childhood clashes with his schizophrenic mother that creep up in sporadic flashback.  He’s employed, romantically paired, stable.  That is, until a single phone call from his estranged mother’s cell sends him spiraling – losing his mind, the function of his hands, and every relationship he’s built as an independent adult in his freaked-out moments of dissociation.  The Donnie Darko-inspired Trauma Wolf who appears during these episodes doesn’t physically attack him, exactly, but it scares him enough that he hurts himself.  His unresolved, unsafe relationship with his mentally ill mother (and his own loosening grip on reality) is the real villain of the story, and the wolf mostly show up as its mascot.  When they touch, it’s more often to make out than it is to tear each other apart.

Hypochondriac is more charming than it is thrilling or scary, but it does have plenty of charm.  From its flashes of heartfelt romantic tenderness to its ZAZ-level parody of the pottery wheel scene from Ghost, the movie is a constant surprise in a way that few Trauma Metaphor horror films have been in recent years.  It has its own unique visual language in a way you wouldn’t expect from such a low-budget effort, framing most of its action through the fish-eye lenses and high-angle pans of security cameras but breaking off into kaleidoscopic mirrors in the most intense moments of dissociation.  Director Addison Heimann is brimming with D.I.Y. ambition here, and judging by the “Based on a real breakdown” title card that kicks this off, it’s all coming from such a personal place that it’s easy to root for him.  I can’t say his debut feature is a knockout, but he has my full heart and attention.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube (2021)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss last year’s Japanese remake of the classic Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997).

00:00 Welcome

01:55 Drag Me to Hell (2009)
04:45 Evil Dead (2013)
10:30 Being John Malkovich (1999)
13:40 Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978)
19:30 Interview with a Vampire (1994)
26:00 The Overlook Film Festival
31:37 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
38:00 Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

41:27 Cube (2021)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Deadstream (2022)

Because I’m such a glutton for screenlife horror films, my expectations when approaching each new entry in the genre are pitifully low.  For every genius laptop-POV thriller out there like Unfriended, Host, and Spree, there’s ten times as many dull, uninventive imitators like Searching, Safer at Home, and Untitled Horror Movie.  Screenlife filmmaking is such an easily affordable, attention-grabbing gimmick that the genre has become overcrowded to the point where it’s no more of a novelty than carbon, oxygen, or tap water.  I’m still always thirsty for more found footage chillers about cursed internet broadcasts, though, so I couldn’t resist the unassuming haunted house horror comedy Deadstream when I saw it on the program for this year’s Overlook Film Fest.  I went into the movie expecting more post-Unfriended mediocrity, which is likely why I found it such a constantly surprising delight.  It got huge laughs in a way that transported me back to Overlook’s joyous screenings of One Cut of the Dead the last time the festival was staged in-person in 2019.  It’s easy to roll your eyes at the simplicity & tardiness of its premise in a market overcrowded with so much screenlife #content, but Deadstream is a verified crowdpleaser.

Deadstream essentially does for Blair Witch what Host did for Unfriended: borrowing its basic outline to stage a chaotic assemblage of over-the-top, technically impressive scare gags.  A found-footage horror comedy about an obnoxious social media influencer getting his cosmic comeuppance while livestreaming his overnight tour of a haunted house, it also functions as a kind of internet-era tech update for the vintage media nostalgia of the WNUF Halloween Special.  The influencer in question is a smartass YouTuber with a popular channel named Wrath of Shawn and a sub-Ryan Reynolds sense of humor.  He’s occasionally funny but relentlessly grating, not to mention casually sexist, racist, and classist.  Hot off six months of “cancellation” for an “insensitive” YouTube stunt he’s reluctant to sincerely discuss, he attempts to earn back his audience & sponsors with a night spent in the aforementioned haunted house.  There, he runs afoul the ghost of “Odd Duck Mildred”, a Mormon-raised poet and victim of suicide who violently hijacks his livestream to promote her own poetry.  Even while being supernaturally tortured for his sins against humanity & good taste, Shawn remains brand-conscious in his self-referential catchphrases and shameless audience engagement tactics – a true heel to the end. 

The shitheel YouTuber’s way of delivering frat boy one-liners in a Steve from Blue’s Clues voice is dead-on in its parody of social media celebrity.  He’s so heavily weighed down by his camera equipment & brand-awareness duty to his sponsors that it’s impossible to get him to interact with the world outside his tablet screen with any semblance of sincerity. Thankfully, Mildred is there to slap him around as an undead audience surrogate, throwing exponentially absurd, gross-out scares in his path until the entire house is crawling with spooks & ghouls who’ve joined her cause.  The movie itself never feels like a mess, though, despite its potential to devolve into the found-footage equivalent of Spookies.  It’s very careful to explain the camera angles, editing tech, and audience input that makes its live-feed broadcast plausible, down to Shawn visibly pressing play on his Walkman’s pre-loaded “Shawn Carpenter” soundtrack to build tension.  There’s an ambition in thoroughness & scale here that represents the very best of what the screenlife format can do for filmmakers with little funds but plenty imagination.  Deadstream is an excellent argument that the genre is still thriving even as it’s become more pedestrian.  More importantly, it’s a very funny, effectively scary horror comedy where the worst things happen to the worst kind of person.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Madam (2022)

Waiting in the lobby for a sparsely attended but vocally appreciative screening of Good Madam at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I was confronted with a phenomenon that consistently baffles me at festivals: Why do huge crowds always line up for local premieres of big-budget movies that will play in multiplexes nation-wide in a week or two when there’s so much smaller, weirder stuff with no distribution playing on other nearby screens?  The crowds swarming to get a slightly early look at the Scott Derrickson chiller The Black Phone was absurdly disproportionate to my Good Madam crowd, despite the likelihood of the latter film screening at even indie venues like Zeitgeist or The Broad in the next few months being relatively thin.  Is it really all that important to see a new, robustly budgeted movie “first”, before it leaks out to the unwashed masses?

By the end of Good Madam, my bafflement at that impulse did soften a bit.  I can at least relate to the urge to see a new movie with fresh eyes, unclouded by the oncoming storm clouds of Opinions on the Internet.  Specifically, I wish I could have seen Good Madam when it first premiered at TIFF in 2021.  The film is just as emotionally potent & politically relevant nine months later, but since that premiere it’s been met with a spiritual competitor in the 2022 Sundance selection (and Grand Jury Prize winner) Nanny.  Both Good Madam & Nanny happen to revisit Ousmane Sembène’s arthouse classic Black Girl through a supernatural horror lens, so it’s now impossible to consider Good Madam in isolation while that unexpected sister film breathes down its neck.  I’m curious to compare Good Madam to Nanny once they both make their way into the general public, but I also would have loved to experience Good Madam undistracted from the comparison. I would have loved to catch it early at TIFF.

Considered on its own, Good Madam is perfectly chilling & sharply political, pushing past an easy metaphor about a South African home being haunted by apartheid to dig into some surprisingly complex, heartbreaking familial drama.  Our heroine in distress is a single mother mourning the recent loss of the grandmother who raised her and the subsequent loss of her grandmother’s home.  Desperate, she moves in with her birth mother, a lifelong domestic worker who occupies small, undecorated rooms in an extravagant, empty house owned by her white employer.  The creeping dread that torments them in that home is expressed in both physical & metaphorical terms: ghosts of workers & pets who died on-site decades ago; the visual absence of the white, bedridden employer; ominous shots of the woods behind the home; etc.  It all swirls into one heartbreaking tale of how lifelong domestic service work can steal Black laborers away from their real families, a curse that’s often passed down from generation to generation with little hope to break the cycle.

Of course, even as a pair of recent parallel thinkers, Good Madam & Nanny do not exist in a vacuum.  There are plenty recent, vibrant supernatural horror films that take satirical aim at the lingering curse of colonialism & the African diaspora.  Good Madam recalls titles like His House, I Am Not a Witch, and Zombi Child just as much as it resembles Black Girl.  It even has aesthetic ties to the modern American classic Get Out, especially in the way the white employer’s clanging service bell recalls the chilling teacup scrapes of Catherine Keener’s hypnotism technique. The existence of Nanny does not detract from Good Madam’s eerie dark magic in any way. Part of the fun & tradition of genre films is seeing how different titles communicate with & mutate off each other.  I just wish I could have seen the former film without knowing the latter exists, which I suppose isn’t all that different from Ethan Hawke superfans wanting to see The Black Phone before it sparks a proper Discourse.

-Brandon Ledet

Piggy (2022)

I’ve been working up the courage to watch Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl for two decades now, building its power in my mind as the kind of post-Haneke heartcrusher that’s specifically designed to ruin my day, and possibly my entire life.  The high-style, low-budget thriller Piggy is as close as I’ve gotten to taking that icy Breillat plunge to date, as it processes a lot of the same squirmy coming-of-age discomforts through more recognizable, digestible genre tropes.  Piggy also has a dark, winking sense of humor to it that keeps the mood oddly light as it stares down the ugliest truths of an outcast youth.  Since I haven’t yet seen Fat Girl and not enough of the general public has seen The Reflecting Skin for that comparison to be meaningful, let’s go ahead and call Piggy an update of Welcome to the Dollhouse for the Instagram era.  It’s the kind of button-pushing indie that’s made entirely of pre-existing genre building blocks, so it’s easy to discuss entirely through its similarities to earlier titles, but it still feels freshly upsetting & perversely fun in the moment.

“Piggy” is, of course, a term of disendearment lobbed at our teenage anti-heroine by her thinner, more popular bullies.  While her peers pose pretty for a nonstop flood of Instagram hearts, Sara cowers behind the counter of her family’s butcher shop, desperately hoping to coast her way through puberty unnoticed.  Her bullies are relentless, though, whether they’re the teen girls who oink at her from the side of the public pool or her overbearing mother who berates her for letting candy stain her teeth & expand her belly.  That’s why she’s in no particular rush to rat out her neighborhood serial killer, who shows parasocial sympathy for Sara’s plight by abducting & torturing all of her harshest critics.  Every second Sara withholds the killer’s identity & location from local cops, it becomes increasingly unlikely her nemeses will be recovered all in one piece.  It’s a trade-off she’s willing to make, though, at least of a while.  She’s finally found the space to develop as an independent young adult on the other side of the butcher counter without her bullies suffocating her – using her newfound freedom to experiment with teenage thrills like masturbation, marijuana, and lies.  Besides, she’s developed an incredibly inappropriate crush on her adult serial killer “friend,” so there’s plenty incentive to just sit back & see how it all plays out.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s a satisfying, upsetting progression to how Sara’s violently accelerated maturation is matched by director Carlota Pereda’s visual aesthetic.  There’s a soft, pink innocence & nostalgia to the film’s earliest scenes that feels totally at home in teen girls’ Instagram feeds & bedroom decor.  By the final stretch, Sara is submerged in the dingy dungeon greys of the torture porn 2000s, losing her childhood innocence to her own newfound selfishness.  It’s a worthwhile journey, as she emerges from the other end of that blood-drenched tunnel as a much more confident, fully formed person.  Piggy is more of a character study than a proper thriller in that way; everything is in service of tracking Sara’s emotional development.  And since it recalls so many coming-of-age horror stories that came before it, all it can really accomplish is to add Sara’s name to the list of all-time great outsiders who’ve already Gone Through It onscreen: Dawn Wiener, Maya Ishii Peters, Anna Kone, Dawn Davenport, Juliet Hulme, etc.  I have no clue where Anaïs Pingot of Fat Girl infamy resides on that prestigious list, but I hope to one day have the courage to find out.

Flux Gourmet (2022)

David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s recently revisited his early work to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art.  I didn’t have time to catch Crimes of the Future opening weekend because I spent those four days submerged in the lower-budget, lower-profile offerings of The Overlook Film Festival at Canal Place.  From the vantage point of that Overlook microcosm, the premise & circumstances of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet appeared eerily in sync with what I’d been reading about the new Cronenberg.  Strickland obviously doesn’t have as deep nor as prestigious of a catalog as Cronenberg’s (yet!), but there’s still a clear, circular career arc to his latest bedchamber dispatch.  Flux Gourmet feels like Strickland revising the giallo-tinged Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing, one-of-a-kind absurdism he’s achieved in the decade since.  The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between, just as Crimes of the Future reportedly lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and his late-career philosophic cold showers.

Strickland’s preposterous performance art fantasy world is enclosed in an artists’ colony that patronizes “culinary collectives” & “sonic caterers.”  Its current artists in residence are an avant-garde noise band that mic & distort routine, mundane cooking processes for a rapturous audience of pretentious art snobs.  Their work recontextualizes the sounds of food prep as both a difficult-listening version of music and as a low-key form of witchcraft, recalling the fuzzy borders between foley work, madness, and divine transcendence in Berberian Sound Studio.  Despite their inscrutability as artists, they suffer every dipshit rockstar cliché you’d expect from broader, more accessible comedies like Airheads, This is Spinal Tap, and That Thing You Do. The film essentially gives the witchy performance art collective of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria the VH1 Behind the Music treatment, with petty squabbles over what to name the band, how much creative input the frontwoman allows the rest of the “collective,” and what they’re going to eat on tour overpowering the more supernatural goings on at the art institute. 

If Strickland’s kinky, insular phantasmagoria has anything to say about the real world outside its walls, it’s in the way it satirizes the creative process of all commercial art, no matter how fringe or intellectual.  Every character at the culinary art colony has a direct equivalent in the production of music, movies, and fine art.  Gwendoline Christie funds the collective’s work, limiting their creative freedom with producer meddling & studio boardroom notes just to flex her authority.  Longtime Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed plays the hothead bandleader, enraged by every one of her collaborators’ minor creative suggestions, especially Christie’s.  The list goes on from there: Asa Butterfield as a go-with-the-flow bandmate who tiptoes around his hot-tempered bosses; In Fabric’s Richard Bremmer as an insufferable academic who intellectualizes everything the band accomplishes without contributing anything to the project; a faceless audience who shows their appreciation for the band’s performances in writhing backstage orgies; etc.   My personal favorite is, of course, Makis Papadimitriou as a quietly suffering journalist who attempts to remain objective & separate from the work but gets sucked into the absurd drama of the band’s creative process anyway.  Not only is Strickland more appreciative of the journalist’s significance in the artistic ecosystem than most art-world satires normally are, but he also uses the writer as a constant fart-joke delivery system in a way that tempers the film’s potential for pretension.

I don’t know that Flux Gourmet’s art-world parody has as much to say about the creative process as The Duke of Burgundy has to say about romantic power dynamics or In Fabric has to say about fetishistic obsession.  I’m also at the point with Strickland that I don’t need him to prove his greatness with profound statements or unique observations about the world outside his head.  The nail-salon talons & over-the-top Euro fashions of his visual aesthetic remain a constant delight, as does his naughty schoolboy sense of humor.  I wouldn’t recommend Flux Gourmet as Baby’s First Strickland, just as I imagine Crimes of the Future wouldn’t be as valuable of a Cronenberg gateway as bona fide classics like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, and eXistenZ.  I guess if there’s any way Strickland has the one-up in that comparison, it’s that there’s a lot less homework you’d have to catch up with to understand his whole deal, so Flux Gourmet is an easily digestible delicacy for the those with only a slightly advanced palate.

-Brandon Ledet

Swallowed (2022)

One of my all-time favorite festival experiences was watching the body-horror romance Are We Not Cats? on the Audubon Aquarium IMAX screen during the 2016 NOFF.  Generally, Overlook Film Fest offers way more gruesome, upsetting gore imagery to New Orleans audiences than NOFF does, but there was something about seeing that particular film’s D.I.Y. surgery gore on a 50-foot screen that really made me squirm.  I was thinking a lot about that absurdly ginormous, hideous spectacle while watching the queer body horror Swallowed at this year’s Overlook.  Swallowed‘s tender, grotesque gore may have been scaled down to the more reasonably sized screens of Pyrtania at Canal Place, but its Cronenbergian discomforts recalled that exact Are We Not Cats? IMAX screening in a way that made me outright nostalgic.  It was especially nice to squirm in unison with a freaked-out, in-person crowd, which is exactly what Overlook offers New Orleans horror nerds every summer it returns here – even if they don’t have access to the pomp & scale of an IMAX venue.

Considering how few people showed up to that one-of-a-kind screening of Are We Not Cats?, Swallowed‘s appeal for most gore-hungry audiences is obviously going to have nothing to do with my niche film-fest nostalgia.  Instead, Swallowed stands out as a rare queer horror story that has doesn’t rely on coming-out anxiety or small-town gaybashing for its sources of terror.  It’s even rarer as a movie where fisting (almost) saves the day.  Swallowed is a small-scale story of a drug deal gone horrifically wrong.  Two friends looking for easy money (on the eve of one moving to L.A. to pursue a porn career) take an ill-advised job smuggling narcotics across the Canadian border for cruel, armed strangers.  As the title suggests, they’re forced to ingest the smuggled goods instead of hiding them in their truck, learning far too late that the package in question is no ordinary street drug.  By the time they they’re informed they’ve swallowed Cronenbergian drug-bugs on the verge of “hatching” inside their crisply-abbed gym bodies, the movie makes an abrupt stop.  The back half is less focused on thrilling plot twists than it is on prolonged surgical & scatological bug extraction.  There are some gnarly practical gore gags that keep the tension high throughout, and the always-welcome Jena Malone & Mark Patton put in sharp supporting performances as the no-nonsense dealers who desperately want their bugs back.  It’s all super fucked up & super gay, which is always a winning combo.

Have enough people seen Are We Not Cats? to meaningfully recommend Swallowed as its queer sister film?  Unlikely.  It’s the connection that’s most meaningful to me, though, as this is the exact kind of niche, low-budget genre film I can only watch alone on streaming unless festivals like Overlook bring it to the city.  Its vision of authentic, lived-in gay culture is not exactly inviting to outsiders.  It’s speaking directly to that demographic, zeroing in on gay-specific fears of truck stop cruising gone haywire, overdosing on off-brand boner pills and, most horrific of all, communal tubs of Vaseline.  As grimy as that public-bathroom-hookup corner of gay culture can feel, there’s a real tenderness & camaraderie shared between its two central players (Cooper Koch as the soon-to-be porn star & Jose Colon as his life-long, lovelorn BFF).  The only reason it doesn’t fully tip into the body horror romance territory of Are We Not Cats? is that our heroes in distress are afraid of souring their friendship.  It would be outright sweet if it weren’t for all the psychedelic bug drugs eating them alive from the inside.  I’d recommend anyone whose ears perk up at the phrase “queer body horror” to check Swallowed out as soon as it’s accessible.  In the meantime, please pour one out for the city’s only legitimate IMAX theater, formerly located at the Aquarium.  It’s been decommissioned & dismantled, never to screen 50-foot gore gags again.

-Brandon Ledet