Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hunt (2020) & 2020 Election Cycle Satires

Welcome to Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss three recent satires that lampooned the 2020 presidential election cycle: The Hunt (2020), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), and Mister America (2019).  Enjoy!

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– The Podcast Crew

Flamingos Forever: John Waters’s Unmade Superhero Epic

It’s been nearly two decades since John Waters’s last feature film, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that there will ever be another. And that’s okay. The Pope of Filth appears to be totally content in semi-retirement, where he continues to entertain as an author and a travelling orator without having to beg movie studios for budgetary pittances. If Waters never makes another film again, at least he went out a return to form in A Dirty Shame, an underrated career retrospective that bridges the gap between his early-career gross-outs and his late-career “mainstream” comedies. Still, as he is the single greatest filmmaker of all time, it’s fun to daydream about all ~the John Waters projects that could have been~ had his Hollywood Studio cashflow not dried up so suddenly. A Christmas-themed comedy called Fruitcake (potentially starring Johnny Knoxville & Parker Posey) was the most recent unmade John Waters project drifting around the ether, but here are several others besides: a Wizard of Oz spoof called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead, an ill-advised adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces, some unholy mutant titled Glamorpuss, etc. It’s difficult to speculate on any of these unmade projects with any clear detail beyond a basic elevator pitch, though, because they mostly pop up in media coverage as fun anecdotes in Waters’s bottomless repertoire of fun anecdotes. That is, with one major exception.

The closest one of John Waters’s unmade films ever came to production was in the mid-1980s, when the director was staging his unlikely transformation from arthouse reprobate to a household name. The 1988 paperback Trash Trio features collects three screenplays from John Waters’s “trash period”: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the unrealized sequel Flamingos Forever. In the intro to the book, Waters refers to Flamingos Forever as his “first abortion,” a “stillborn” project that failed to secure the proposed $600,000 budget it would’ve needed to reach the screen uncompromised. There were many roadblocks to Flamingos Forever‘s journey through the Hollywood System birth canal: clueless producers insisting on rewrites that included more Hot Babes, Divine’s dwindling enthusiasm for its various gross-out stunts, and, ultimately, the death of the irreplaceable Edith Massey. There was a brief window where Waters could have got the film off the ground under the infamously sleazy Troma Entertainment brand, but he held out for a better opportunity that never came. It’s probably for the best. I’m personally appreciative that Waters pressed on to new, subversive textures in works like Serial Mom and Cry-Baby rather than revisiting Pink Flamingos for a victory lap sequel. Still, reading the screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio all these years later is a total treat, as his authorial voice (as well as the mind-searing vocal performances of actors like Massey & Divine) is idiosyncratic enough that you can mentally picture the movie more or less exactly as it would have been had it not been quietly aborted decades ago.

Fifteen years after the events of Pink Flamingos, Divine and her cavalcade of perversions return to Baltimore to reclaim their title as the Filthiest Family Alive. In a beat-for-beat rehash of the previous film, Divine brags to the press about her wicked deeds, drawing unwanted attention from jealous members of the Marble clan, now led by the deceased Connie’s equally vile, child-snatching sister. Gross-out pranks and violent crimes ensue as the two families once again clash over Filth supremacy, with Divine ultimately (obviously) coming out on top. Of course, narrative doesn’t matter nearly as much in a John Waters film as the gross-out stunts & character quirks. While Flamingos Forever retreads a lot of familiar ground, it’s packs plenty of gags that would’ve been a scream if they were realized: the Filth family moving on up to an absurdly artificial Pee-wee’s Playhouse type compound, Divine carrying around Edie in a baby holster, a deranged performance of “The Hokey Pokey” (one of several gags that found its way into the A Dirty Shame), etc. It’s also a wildly offensive vision in the way that you’d expect from a Pink Flamingos sequel, including jokes involving blackface, necrophilia, children in drag and on heroin, and male rape. Even with the slightly-ballooned budget, it’s a trash-era John Waters screenplay through & through. No wonder producers were squeamish to back it.

To Flamingos Forever‘s credit, it does its best to escalate the filthy antics of its central cast to match the escalation of the proposed budget, especially when it comes to Divine. Amusingly, the screenplay recontextualizes Divine as a kind of filth superhero, an avenger of Bad Taste. As her war with the Marble clan heats up, Divine reveals previously unexplored superpowers that confirm her divinity: levitation, X-ray eyes, the production of flying turds (many, many flying turds). She also contrasts the heroic quality of her own filthy antics vs. the child-snatching stunts of the Marble clan, explaining in detail the difference between Good Filth & Bad Filth (the way Waters will walk you through the difference between High Camp & Low Camp in his essay work). Divine’s saga as a notorious murderess who kills because she loves attention from the press is already sketched out in a crude precursor to MCU-style sequential filmmaking across multiple loosely connected films: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos. In Flamingos Forever, she would have solidified her stature as a filth superhero in that lineage, even providing a flashback superhero origin story for how she became so filthy (in stubborn opposition to her cleanliness-obsessed parents). Flamingos Forever would not have broken new narrative ground for Waters’s early Family of Weirdos character comedies, but it is amusing to consider how far it would have unintentionally pushed that familiar story into the modern territory of sequential superhero storytelling.

I’ve gradually come to peace with the realization that I’ll likely never see a new John Waters film again, a blow that’s been softened by several recent developments in his cinematic legacy: Waters’s newfound joy as an on-stage storyteller, The Criterion Collection’s wonderful restorations of his trash-era classics, the occasional opportunity to experience repertory screenings of his work with new audiences (which somehow always still inspires mid-film walk-outs all these decades later despite their notorious reputations). I’d also chalk up reading the unmade screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio as a similar comfort. It was a delightful to watch an unmade John Waters film projected only in the run-down drive-in theater of my mind (an experience I wisely saved for a hurricane-related power outage), even if his work is always better with an audience – as all comedies are. The unlikely Superhero Sequel qualities of the screenplay only added to that novelty, as movies this unabashedly filthy rarely secure Superhero Movie budgets.

-Brandon Ledet

Tito (2020)

It’s difficult to describe Tito without overselling what it can deliver.  Seeking a middle ground between sensory-assaultive arthouse horror and broad stoner comedy, it’s often more of a genre experiment than a proper narrative film.  I almost want to describe it as the unlikely overlap between Josephine Decker and Cheech & Chong but, again, that’s probably overselling it.  If a no-budget genre mash-up that reeks of bong water & brimstone is the kind of thing you’d usually seek out (think Buzzard, Woodshock, Mangoshake, Ladyworld, etc.), then you’re just as much of a doomed soul as I am and will find plenty seeds & stems to catch buzz off of here.  However, anyone expecting the typical payoffs of either a typical arthouse horror or stoner buddy comedy will have their patience tested early & often.  Tito is a lot more interested in mood & process than it is in delivering the goods.

First-time director Grace Glowicki casts herself as an impossibly timid geek (the titular Tito) who’s drawn out of his cowardly seclusion by an idiot stoner who barges into his life uninvited (credited only as The Friendly Neighbor).  Meanwhile, vaguely menacing demons attempt to invade the frame but never arrive, sending Tito into constant panic attacks over a danger that no one else perceives.  That central performance is consistently entertaining, grotesque, and frustrating throughout, like babysitting Crispin Glover while he suffers a traumatically bad acid trip.  The genderfuckery of the casting does little to inform the text; Glowicki merely allows herself the space to improv the character quirks of a pathetic worm of a man.  It’s nearly the most off-putting performance I’ve seen all year, bested only by the grotesque child-creature in Vivarium.  The stoner neighbor is no more endearing, stomping through Tito’s hermetic home space as an overgrown, hedonistic toddler.  Their relationship is the sour, curdled leftovers of a typical stoner-buddy comedy dynamic: two mismatched losers who only become more obnoxious & mutually destructive the more joints they torch.  The demons don’t do much to break up that nauseating dynamic.  They don’t do much of anything at all.  They’re just around, unseen & in-wait.

If I’m being hard on the character traits of Tito in particular, it’s because I see too much of my own worst tendencies in his grotesque cowardice.  Watching the hunched over, perpetually petrified loser jump at every sudden noise and flinch at every microscopic sign of aggression from other men is too familiar to this socially anxious Indoor Kid, although absurdly exaggerated.  By the time Tito was cowering behind the one person he knows at a crowded bar, afraid to make eye contact with any of the strangers (or potential demons) that surrounds him, I found myself laughing just as much at my own social awkwardness as the off-putting quirks that are particular to the performance onscreen.  If Glowicki taps into anything solidly recognizable here, it’s the way that exaggerated social anxiety is reflected in both her performance and in the sensory overload of her editing-room tinkering.  Every one of Tito’s paranoid-stoner mood swings is married to a violent swerve in the soundtrack, so that the audience is equally tormented & unnerved even though nothing especially horrific is happening to him (besides being pressured to hang out with the world’s most annoying neighbor).  The music is Tito’s mood ring, distinguishing his content, idle cowering from his terrified, pants-shitting cowering, which would look pretty similar without that aural assist.

Beyond the film’s grotesque reflection of my own social awkwardness & cowardly response to macho aggression, I most appreciated Tito for its weird-for-weird’s sake pranks on the audience.  Watching Glowkicki puke up a flood of breakfast cereal, fall under the hypnosis of CGI porn simulators, and furiously blow a bright red whistle while her character’s stoner-bro foil shouts punishingly repetitive variations of “Dude!”, “Man!”, and “Brother!” was more than enough to justify the 70min time investment, even if just barely.  I can’t promise that most people will walk away from the experience feeling that same satisfied curiosity (or even promise that most people will make it to the end credits).  Again, I really am trying my best to not oversell it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Berlin Bride (2020)

The no-budget surrealist oddity The Berlin Bride drifts untethered to a proper context or place in time. It’s clearly styled to look & feel like a 1970s Euro horror (or a 1970s lifestyle magazine, depending on the scene), but its cheap digital patina plants it firmly in the modern age in a way that betrays that intent. A 70-minute oddity uploaded directly to Amazon Prime by director Michael Bartlett himself, the film is letterboxed by CG red velvet theater curtains to fill a widescreen frame – something you’re much more likely to see in an illegal YouTube rip of vintage VHS schlock than in a new, officially sanctioned release. Anytime you manage to forget that this is a modern picture and not an authentic lost 1970s oddity, a flash of surreally cheap cut-‘n-paste CGI interrupts the illusion and jolts you back to a modern context. Mentally vacillating between those two disparate timeframes is a uniquely bizarre experience, one that only enhances the film’s dreamlike, absurdist tone.

The titular Berlin Bride is, in fact, a mannequin. Two reclusive 1980s Berliners split ownership over a mysterious shopping mall mannequin that’s discovered abandoned in a public park. One of the men uses her right arm to replace his own amputated one. The other treats the rest of her as his newlywed bride. Both relationships provide their challenges: the amputated lady-arm becomes sentient & nocturnally impulsive, while the “husband” of the rest of the mannequin becomes increasingly obsessive over that missing appendage’s absence from his newlywed home. The resulting clashes that resolve this tension are surprisingly violent, pushing the film into throwback Euro horror territory. Yet, for the most part The Berlin Bride feels like a bedtime fairy tale – stuck halfway between the understated surrealism of a Jan Švankmajer or a Michel Gondry picture, depending on the temporal textures of the moment. It’s a distractingly cheap, uneven film, but it’s also an endlessly fascinating one.

It’s tempting to apply some metaphorical reading to the modern fairy tale premise that unfolds here, maybe something about the possessiveness of masculine sexuality or the horror genre’s longstanding relationship with dismembered women. Neither of those thematic pathways are as satisfying as treating The Berlin Bride as a weird-for-weird’s-sake oddity, though. It’s unignorably contemporary to the modern digital self-publishing landscape, but it feels like it’s time traveled here from a previous era when movies could just be Weird As Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something. Its closest modern equivalent is a no-budget, backyard version of Peter Strickland’s work, which I mean as a high compliment. Otherwise, I don’t really know what to do with the temporally dislodged fairy tale violence presented here, except to say that it pleased me.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wolf House (2020)

My single-favorite film discovery so far this year is James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. porno reverie Pink Narcissus, a transcendent fantasy piece filmed almost entirely inside the beefcake photographer’s own NYC apartment. I like to think I’d have fallen in love with the gorgeous, hand-built artifice of that film in any context, but it struck a particular chord in the earliest months of the COVID pandemic when most of us were still adhering to strict social-distancing measures. The idea that you could construct your own beautiful dreamworld inside your cramped living space with just the right amount of artistic (and prurient) self-motivation was genuinely inspiring to me back in April, when the reality of how confined the next year of my life was going to be just started to sink in. And now, a few hellish months later, I’ve been confronted with Pink Narcissus‘s spiritual opposite in The Wolf House: a relentlessly grim, ugly film made under similarly confined domestic circumstances. Instead of reaching for artistic transcendence or beauty, it’s a D.I.Y. fantasy experiment that pummels you into the dirt with the communal cruelty, betrayal, oppression of the world as it really is: a confusing, alienating nightmare that only worsens the longer you survive it.

An experiment in stop-motion animation, The Wolf House filters historic atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s traumatizingly bleak, often difficult to comprehend, and I think I loved it. Contextualized as a “lost” classroom propaganda film warning locals against stepping on the commune’s toes (and commune members from attempting to escape its bounds), its paper-thin story is a simple tongue-in-cheek allegory about acceptable behavior in & around an exiled-Nazi stronghold. The Colony proudly reports itself to be an “isolated and pure” oasis in an otherwise menacing South American locale, and disparages a fictional young girl who dared to dream & play for her own amusement instead of working tirelessly to maintain The Colony’s glory. Thinking herself above subservience to The Colony, she runs away to play house with her disgusting pig children in a nearby shack, gradually starving to death without the sweet subsistence provided by the commune’s main export: honey. Meanwhile, wolves lurk outside the family’s door, waiting to devour them as soon as they step outside. This allegory is rooted in specific, real-life atrocities committed by German-Chilean communes like Colonia Dignidad, which can be difficult to fully digest without a post-film Wikipedia deep dive. However, it’s all anchored to two universally familiar cultural touchstones that cut through the confusion: Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the fact that Nazis are subhuman scum.

The Wolf House is much more immediately impressive in its visual craft than it is in its narrative. It recalls a cruder, less dignified version of Jann Švankmajer’s work, as if he were a reclusive serial killer rather than an erudite who went to art school for puppetry. Most of the film is quarantined in the pig-family’s dingy shack, with characters represented both as two-dimensional figures painted onto the walls & furniture (think Adventure Time‘s Prismo) and as barely-functional paper mâché grotesqueries. The entire three-dimensional space of their decrepit home is treated as a canvas, with objects being destroyed, painted over, reconfigured, and mutated in an ever-shifting, impossibly ugly nightmare. Every crudely animated movement within that hellish space is matched to an even more hideous sound cue: pig snorts, wolf breaths, wet smacks of paper mâché bodies breaking down & reforming, etc. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its fairy tale allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history. The Wolf House is one of those D.I.Y. art objects that feels more haunted than inspired, which is understandable considering the cultural history it’s attempting to process. It’s the ugly mirrorworld reflection of Pink Narcissus: a contained, domestic fantasy realm driven by pain instead of pleasure, grief instead of sensual exuberance. Its vision of domestic isolation is completely fucked, something that resonates deeply right now despite the film’s more alienating allegorical details.

-Brandon Ledet

Bad Hair (2020)

As a genre, horror comedies leave a lot of room for complaints from all directions. They’re often dismissed for not being funny or scary enough—depending on the audience—with the exception of a few canonized classics: Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive, etc. Bad Hair, the new satirical horror comedy from Justin Simien (Dear White People), is even more vulnerable to criticism than most newcomers to the genre, because it disregards those potential complaints entirely. A retro throwback about a killer hair weave wreaking havoc in the New Jack Swing era of the late 1980s, its premise sounds too goofy to take seriously as a horror film. Yet, its stubborn insistence on using that absurdist premise to tackle sensitive social topics (mainly how Black women’s hair is weaponized in race & workplace politics) means that it can’t just indulge in gory Looney Tunes buffoonery; it has to take its killer weave premise dead seriously at the start to earn the zaniness of its third-act horror comedy payoffs. That spooky-goofy-political whirlwind of tones is certain to alienate a large percentage of the audience who stumbles across this film on Hulu (who acquired it at this year’s Sundance film festival). Personally, I greatly admire that stubborn refusal to accommodate everyone, a boldness carried over from Simien’s previous work.

To villainize a sentient, evil weave, Simien has to dial the clock back to a time in the late 1980s when weaves were a near-mandatory fixture among Black women in the corporate American workplace. He sets the film within the image-obsessed office culture of Music Television, where a Black-marketed TV station is bought out by a soulless corporation that wants to seek a wider (read: “whiter”) audience. The VJ’s & office girls under their employment are pressured to get high-end sew-in hair weaves to maintain a hipper, more “professional” look (as opposed to their naturally curly hair), a modern continuation of the harsh chemical treatments used to straighten out Black women’s hair to meet an unfair, white European beauty standard. The cruelty of denying these women a choice in how to present their personal appearance combines with the physical discomfort of the weaves themselves to create a dread-thick atmosphere, as if these hair treatments were an unspoken magic spell. That horror undertone becomes exponentially more literal & more absurd as the weaves themselves start attacking both their hosts and the not-so-innocent people around them, reaching out in CGI tendrils to drink unsuspecting victims’ blood. By the end of the film, all subtlety & sincerity is abandoned in favor of a zany horror comedy free-for-all, but the road to get there is surprisingly thoughtful & grim.

When we recently asked the question “What are your all-time favorite movie endings?” on the podcast, my answer was Peter Jackson’s horror comedy classic Dead Alive. My personal favorite movie structure is a story that becomes steadily, exponentially more bonkers as it goes along, starting at its most well-behaved and ending in total, unrestrained mayhem. Bad Hair follows that exponential-chaos plot structure in a satisfying way. A lot of people are going to ding it for taking its over-the-top premise too seriously in its first hour, but I think that’s its saving grace. If it were zanier and less politically purposeful it would’ve gotten old real quick; instead it really earns the campy B-movie payoffs of its climax by laying a lot of thematic groundwork and, against all odds, establishing a genuine sense of dread. It’s a fun, surprisingly thoughtful horror comedy, one that was bold to tackle such a sensitive political topic within a genre that’s better suited for broad humor & slapstick gore than it is for subtlety or nuance. It’s not for everyone, but then again no horror comedy is.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Passion Fish (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch Passion Fish (1992).

Boomer: I was born in Louisiana and didn’t reside elsewhere for longer than a month or two for the first 28 years of my life.  It’s been over a year since I was last home. With the pandemic continuing to rage because some people are just too selfish and obsessed with the abstract concept of personal liberty to just stay home, what could have been a few fortnights of quarantine, isolation, social distancing, and loneliness have stretched into over half a year with no real end in sight, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to travel again.  Where I am now is a place of natural beauty, varied cultural interest, and urban elegance, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lack a certain verdancy that I sometimes feel a longing for.  Few things of late have made me more homesick than the movie Passion Fish.

NYC-based soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is left paraplegic following a mundane but nonetheless tragic vehicle collision, and returns to her long-abandoned parents’ lakefront home on Lake Arthur.  Unable to fully care for herself in a home that wasn’t built with the wheelchair-bound in mind, May-Alice’s resentment of her newfound immobility, loss of employment, and isolation lead her to lash out angrily at a series of home nurses who range from grossly incapable to overly familiar to simply not being a good fit.  The last of these is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who has her own problems.  Although the two women are initially mistrustful and intermittently antagonistic, Chantelle’s unwillingness to coddle May-Alice or to allow herself to become another in a long line of nurses driven off by her employer’s hostility forges a bond between the two women that eventually exceeds what either of them could have expected.

I was given this movie a few years ago as a birthday gift by a couple who were my first friends here in Austin, and with whom I played weekly trivia—religiously—for a few years. As we have similar interests, one of the games that we used to play (poolside, in the car, wherever) was the one where you connect two actors using a series of “acted alongside” connections.  For example, if one person suggests Pam Grier and the other suggests Audrey Hepburn, one might connect Hepburn to Veronica Cartwright through The Children’s Hour, then Cartwright to Yaphet Kotto through Alien, then Kotto to Pam Grier through Friday Foster.  I have a profound love for both McDonnell and Woodard, and bring them up frequently as a connector when playing this game, which led to the recommendation (and ultimate gift) of Passion Fish.  It has been one of the best recommendations ever, as it transported me fully not only back home to Louisiana but also to my childhood in the nineties.

Passion Fish also falls under one of my favorite genres/topics: the story of women on the verge.  May-Alice’s frustration, feelings of impotence, and what she perceives as the loss of her identity as a woman of moderate celebrity, are clear and powerful without falling into the trap of ableism, which it easily could have.  Her career is over, her place in society is gone, and she finds herself back in a home she never wanted to revisit and has spent her entire adult life running from.  As we learn in one of a series of vignettes in which she reunites with various people from her past, May-Alice was always an outsider in her community, the “weird girl” who stood out and was socially punished for it; it’s no wonder that she sees the loss of the lifeline that she used to flee this place as the end of her journey, while also dealing with the associated traumas of losing the functionality of the lower half of her body.  It’s not an abstract issue: she falls off of the toilet and is alone in her house for hours without assistance, and the lack of accessibility features (like ramps) in her home minimizes her world.

May-Alice isn’t alone on this precipice either, as it turns out that Chantelle has lied her way into her current position, having lost her nursing credentials (and custody of her daughter) after falling in with a man who gave her access to crack cocaine.  It would be easy to dismiss this as another lightweight “inspirational” movie (complete with a problematic trope or two) were it merely about May-Alice overcoming obstacles through the help of a sassy stereotype, and to some I’m sure it comes across as one, but Chantelle is no mere prop for May-Alice’s recovery.  She has her own problems, issues, fears, and even romance — all of which are separate from her relationship with May-Alice as both caregiver and friend, even if those disparate threads sometimes intertwine.  Powerhouse performances from both lead actresses are what push this beyond being some lighthearted pablum for the masses into something truly beautiful, while weaving in various coastal/bayou cultural touchstones like ghost mythology, local folks who are recognizable as people instead of archetypes, and lots (and lots) of zydeco music.

One of the other ways that Passion Fish rises above the rest of the crop is through its narrative throughline.  We start in a New York hospital in which May-Alice awakens to learn that her life has changed from a faceless, impersonal member of the medical staff.  From there, as she falters at adapting to her new circumstances and decides to go home to Louisiana—even as she encounters fans of her work—all of them remain faceless and unseen to us, like specters. Only once she’s back home do those around her begin to exist again, and so does she.  In one of our long-ago MotM reviews of Big Business, I was openly opposed to the trope of “Rural living is simply better to urban life,” and while there’s some of that at play here, I also think that it exposes the facile nature of that assumption as we meet people both shallow and deep from each of May-Alice’s worlds.

I really enjoyed this vignette-style set-up of characters, although I was a little disappointed that some of them never reappeared.  First we meet May-Alice’s closeted(ish) Uncle Max, who at first reads as a parody of a Tennessee Williams character before revealing a depth of character beneath his genteel Southern nature.  From there we are introduced to two of May-Alice’s childhood tormentors who recall their “friendship” with their now-famous(ish) victim very differently, going so far as to attempt to bond with her over the girl they used to bully, not realizing that they are one and the same.  We also meet a trio of women from May-Alice’s soap opera world, including the actress who now plays her role on The Young and the Stupid and her closest friend (Angela Bassett!).  Each of these encounters seems to set up a future interaction or confrontation, but reveal that both worlds have people who have a depth of personality (Uncle Max), those who have a lack of it (her childhood bullies), and those who portray vapidity but actually have a rich internal life (the actresses).

Of these and the other vignettes, there are some that feel like a potential that is unfulfilled, and some that feel perfect in their concision.  Brandon, which was your favorite interaction? Is there a character you wish we saw more of?  Are there any characters who reappear that you feel were too large a part of the narrative?

Brandon:  I can’t say that I was especially invested in the either of the male love interests that drift in & out of these women’s lives, and by the end I don’t think the movie was either.  The story doesn’t conclude with the two leads settling down for a humble Southern-fried life on the bayou with new respective husbands in tow, so the men’s presence mostly felt like a means to draw the women out of their shells.  I wouldn’t have minded if the men’s screentime had been cut a little short to reflect that eventual unromantic conclusion, either to allow more breathing room for the more engaging relationship dynamics or just to shave the runtime down to under two hours (this is one of those languorous Entire Afternoon movies that’s in no rush to get anywhere in particular).  Whereas the potential bayou beaus mostly feel disconnected from the women’s lives outside this brief retreat from “the real world”, the other side characters that pop in for a single visit do a lot to illustrate what their lives were like before their recent traumas transformed them.  You just have to consider them in contrast with each other rather than in isolation.

I most appreciated the contrast between the visits from the two groups of women from May-Alice’s past.  While her stay at her family’s Lake Arthur home has been restorative (largely due to Chantelle), the film is not at all shy about interrogating why it would be worthwhile to leave that “simple” life behind.  Her smiling, suburban childhood bullies that drop in to snoop & gossip are torturous demons in Good Christians’ clothing.  Consider that unannounced lunch-date in contrast with her chosen family of Big City artists who visit between filming episodes of The Young and the Stupid.  They might be just as flawed as human beings, but they’re genuine & kind in a way that transcends the small-minded, small-town misery the snooping locals represent.  If the two love interest characters add anything to this story, it’s in softening that Small Town vs. Big City divide by demonstrating that there can be genuine, kind-hearted people in even the most toxic of closed-off communities.  Still, the two visits from those distinctly opposed groups of women still say a lot about the urban-rural divide when considered on their own.  It’s a very real, very distinct contrast  that I’ve felt even just moving the short distance from “down-the-road” in St. Bernard Parish to New Orleans proper, a trajectory I never intend to reverse.

On a shallower note, I also most enjoyed the visit from the Big City women because it featured the film’s true centerpiece: the “anal probe” monologue.  It’s an excellent actor’s showcase for one of the visiting soap stars, who explains the never-ending embarrassments of trying to make it in a viciously sexist entertainment industry that would rather her appear nude or ruminate on extraterrestrial anal probes in trashy sci-fi dreck than genuinely pursue her craft.  That monologue is a showstopper on its own, but it also points to what I found to be one of the film’s more rewarding choices: its R-rating.  Passion Fish looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about proud women overcoming sudden adversity, but it pulls that off with an impressively direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the usual bullshit — the same way that the cannibalism & lesbian romance cut through the bullshit in Fried Green Tomatoes.  You can especially feel the effect of that vulgarity in the early scenes where May-Alice is still in her full Rude Soap Star mode, cursing her nurses & her own failing body in a long string of f-bombs — making her simultaneously more Difficult and more Relatable.

Britnee, how different do you think this movie would be if it had toned down that vulgarity for an easy PG-13 rating?  Do you think you would have appreciated Passion Fish any more or less if you caught an edited-for-TV version where they replaced the word “fuck” with “frak” in those early scenes (Battlestar Galactica style, in honor of Mary MacDonnell)?

Britnee: How did I go all this time without knowing about Passion Fish?  Late 80s and early 90s dramas revolving around Southern women are always a treat, and Passion Fish did not disappoint.  And to top it off, Alfre Woodard is one of my favorite actresses.  She was, of course, amazing as Chantelle.  I’d say this was one of her top performances, putting it up there even with her role as Betty Applewhite in Desperate Housewives.  Passion Fish is a film about one of the most important things that a woman can have: female friendships.  The connection built between Chantelle and May-Alice came off so strong without feeling over-acted, making me shed a tear or two at the end of the film.

May-Alice’s potty mouth made me connect with her character right off the bat.  Her frustration with her being a paraplegic and having her world upended would not have come across the same way if her language was toned down.  I think the film would still be enjoyable without all the more R-rated parts, but it just wouldn’t be the same.  And I also shared the same enthusiasm for the “anal probe” monologue, which television (at least at the time the film was released) would have most definitely cut out.  Passion Fish without the anal probe bit would be like Christmas without a Christmas tree.  It’s just plain wrong.

What Passion Fish did so well was balance the two stories of Chantelle and May-Alice without allowing one to overpower the other.  There was something so heartwarming watching both women who’ve hit rock bottom find their way back up while stuck with each other on Lake Arthur.  Hanna, did you also think that Chantelle and May-Alice’s stories were balanced?  Or was focus placed more on one character than the other?

Hanna: I thought that May-Alice and Chantelle’s stories were pretty well balanced, especially for a plot that could have veered into Driving Miss Daisy territory.  Movies about Black people rehabilitating white people can come off a little gross, especially when their identity is defined by their role as a caretaker for the white character in need of some personal growth.  I do think there was a touch of that in Passion Fish.  I learned a lot about May-Alice throughout the film; she was an outspoken Joan Baez fan in rural Louisiana, she’s a gifted photographer, and she’s an excellent cook.  Other than Chantelle’s history with drug addiction and estrangement from her father and daughter, I only know that she can’t cook and she doesn’t like the swamp, which are both negations of May-Alice’s characteristics.  I enjoyed the interruptions May-Alice’s visitors (her gay uncle, southern Louisiana frenemies, and New York art friends), who all help to paint a richer picture of her character and life up until this moment.  Meanwhile, Chantelle’s visitors are strict reinforcements of her history with drugs: the boyfriend who got her addicted, and the father and daughter she lost in the process.  Both May-Alice and Chantelle were given equal weight and both are portrayed as strong women with complex inner lives, but May-Alices’s story felt a little more expansive than Chantelle’s.

I think the difference can be mostly explained by the nature of the two women’s recoveries rather than a narrative disinterest in Chantelle’s story.  May-Alice learns that she can create a rich and valuable world for herself being paraplegic in southeastern Louisiana.  Meanwhile Chantelle is rediscovering her personhood in the wake of an addiction that stole her life, and has just reached the point where she can trust herself enough to nurture her life and relationships in the last stages of recovery.  We get to see Chantelle relax into herself a little with her love interest, but I wish we had the chance to see that happen more fully, and I wish her world could have expanded in a direction that didn’t involve May-Alice or another man.  In the end, I think Alfre Woodard’s performance was a godsend for this role; she brought incredible depth to a Chantelle’s character, which could have easily tipped into flat stereotype in an otherwise powerhouse drama driven by two utterly compelling women.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m tickled by how this film’s behind-the-scenes pedigree contrasts its seemingly ordinary surface details.  This not only includes an early cinematography credit for industry legend Roger Deakins, but also the fact that it was written, directed, and edited by John Sayles – a respected novelist & returning Movie of the Month champ who also penned our beloved urban creature feature Alligator (1980).

Boomer: I love Brandon’s identification of this as an “Entire Afternoon” movie (trademark that).  That’s precisely what it is, although I would also say it falls into that genre of “Your Mom Rented This in the Nineties.”  For your enjoyment, here’s some local coverage of the 20th anniversary of the film in Jennings, where it was largely filmed.

Britnee: I normally get annoyed when actors have horrible Cajun accents in movies, which Passion Fish did have in abundance, but the plot was so wonderful that the slow Southern drawl that Cajuns do not have didn’t bother me one bit.  I actually found it to be super funny when Rennie would slip in and out of his accent and would sometimes sound like a suburban dad from Connecticut.

Hanna: The Anal Probe scene was also a favorite of mine; it was desperately professional, heartbreaking, and funny.  It reminded me of “The Actress”, an SNL skit where Emma Stone plumbs the dramatic depths of “mom that finds her husband cheating on her with her godson” in a gay porno.  I’ve filed both of these bits under my file of female actors authentically dedicating themselves to the tiny scrap of material they’ve been afforded.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

One of the more uniquely charming aspects of horror nerdom is its consistent enthusiasm for the genre. Whereas superfans of pop culture behemoths like Star Wars or the MCU tend to relentlessly complain about the very thing they supposedly love, horror nerds are almost enthusiastic to a fault. There’s no morally repugnant, shittily slapped together frivolity of a horror film that won’t attract some lone weirdo to defend its honor as a highlight of the genre, which is the exact kind of rehabilitative positivity I like to see in online film discourse – even when I personally dislike the movie in question. Unfortunately, that communal enthusiasm does come at a cost. Once you start following enough horror media types from online publications like Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and Dread Central it becomes near impossible to determine which hype cycle to believe and which to ignore. Every week, there’s a fresh slice of direct-to-streaming horror #content that’s met with drooling enthusiasm from online horror geeks, most of it terminally bland at best. The community’s exuberance is infectious, which is how you end up watching hours of serviceable, 3-star titles like Satanic Panic, Porno, The Beach House, and Riot Girls on the promise that they will Totally Blow Your Mind, bro. Puzzling through that persistent enthusiasm to pick out the titles actually worth your time can be exhausting, and it’s a code I’ve been working on cracking for years.

The Mortuary Collection might be one of the few Horror Media-hyped titles from this year that actually meets the expectations set by its rabid enthusiasm online – even if just barely. A by-the-books, straight-to-Shudder anthology film, there shouldn’t be much for this seasonal Halloween programming to live up to. This isn’t a situation like the recent Books of Blood anthology on Hulu, which “adapted” horror legend Clive Barker’s iconic short story collection by draining it of all its intelligence & discomforting sexuality for a flavorless TV show pilot. The Mortuary Collection is an entirely original set of horror vignettes directed by a first-time no-namer (Ryan Spindell) for a streaming service that specializes in churning out mediocre low-budget productions in this exact milieu. Still, it was met with instant online hyperpraise attempting to canonize it as the best horror anthology since Trick ‘r Treat, a guaranteed future cult classic that will be streamed on loop for infinite Halloweens to come. That’s difficult to believe, not only because most direct-to-streaming movies have the cultural longevity of a fart in the wind, but also because I’ve so recently seen a masterful film that pulled off its exact tone & structure to much greater success: 1995’s Tales from the Hood. In both films, an eccentric mortician leads a visiting stranger through a series of vignettes involving the deceased clients in his morbid place of business, while his captive audience reacts to each story incredulously until their own tale is told in due time. Both films are well made. Both mix broad humor, excessive violence, and moralistic social commentary in with their traditional scares. Only one achieves that mixture with a distinctive political or storytelling POV, however, and the other is likely to be forgotten among the dozens of other routine, decently told productions just like it.

If there’s any one thing that distinguishes The Mortuary Collection within the grander horror anthology tradition, it’s Clancy Brown’s performance as the horror-host mortician in the wraparound. Brown has had plenty of memorable, meaty roles as a character actor over the decades (most notably as the creepy preacher from Carnivàle), but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him have this much fun. He is living his full Vincent Price fantasy in the wraparound story (with some hints of Angus Scrimm in his costuming), making a full meal out of every line he’s afforded. His foil is a smartass, jaded teen who’s seen way too many horror movies to be fully won over by his Spooky Mortician schtick, a line of post-Kevin Williamson meta-humor that only underlines how familiar & routine everything surrounding Brown’s performance can feel. And even the novelty of that performance is reminiscent of Clarence Williams III’s over-the-top antics as the kooky mortician in the Tales from the Hood wraparound. Which is fine. The truth is that horror movies don’t have to be wholly original or The Greatest Thing Ever to be worthwhile. I don’t believe The Mortuary Collection earns its initial hype as the next great horror anthology we’re going to be collectively rewatching & discussing every Halloween into perpetuity. It doesn’t meet that metric, but it also shouldn’t have to. It’s worth at least one spooky-season watch as a well-behaved, over-the-plate horror anthology, which is a much more reasonable expectation for productions on its level of budget & prestige – one that many other Horror Nerd Darlings don’t come anywhere near satisfying.

-Brandon Ledet