Moonbeam’s Childhood Terrors: The Secret Kingdom (1998) & Magic in the Mirror (1996)

The most shocking revelation in our Movie of the Month discussion of the Charles Band-produced children’s fantasy film Magic in the Mirror was that I was the only member of the Swampflix crew who found the movie to be a total nightmare. While everyone else found the film’s villains— humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make delicious tea— to be amusingly quaint, I cowered in fear of their menacingly cheap presence. I stand by my description of those tea-slurping murder-ducks as resembling “a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement” and believe a large portion of the movie’s appeal to be the discomfort of their design. Schlockmeister Charles Band’s production company Full Moon has long been fascinating to me for pumping out cheap, R-rated horror films that feel like they were intended for children. In the mid-90s, Band somehow made his aesthetic even more terrifying by deliberately making films for children’s media sensibilities, but still allowing his violent, horror impulses to shine through. If the cheap duck costumes from Magic in the Mirror are not a compelling enough argument that the Full Moon children’s media sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment was more horrifying than most of Band’s deliberately horrific productions, I’d like to submit 1998’s The Secret Kingdom as Exhibit B. The Secret Kingdom follows Magic in the Mirror’s exact formula of infusing a fairly innocuous down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy adventure with truly horrific character design, but its own childhood terrors are much more blatant & inarguable than the ducks that disturbed me so much in our Movie of the Month.

Mysteriously, neither Charles Band nor Moonbeam’s names are listed in the opening credits of The Secret Kingdom. IMDb lists Band as an “uncredited executive producer” on the film, though, and his fingerprints can be found all over the premise thanks to his seemingly lifelong obsession with miniature bullshit (see: Dolls, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, etc.). In this particular case, a pair of snotty siblings are transported to a miniature, war-torn kingdom located beneath their kitchen sink, due to a magical lightning storm (or some such nonsense). A world of miniature terrors awaits them there, thanks to a maniacal dictator’s obsession with achieving “perfection” through elective surgery. The Minister of Perfection barely fights back his Nazi undertones as he proudly shows off his favorite “perfected” creations: people with smoothed-over flesh instead of eyes, Nazi cops with metal places for faces, a creepy S&M dog-man who aids in hunting undesirables, etc. The Alice in Wonderland-riffing premise of The Secret Kingdom isn’t too far off from the basic plot of Magic in the Mirror. The only differences are in their Mad Libs-style details: instead of a fantasy kingdom the kids are transported to a steampunk metropolis; instead of traveling through a mirror their adventure is prompted by an ancient lighting rod; instead of negotiating a war between two queens they negotiate a war between a surgery-addicted bureaucrat & a band of woodland rebels. The only major difference between them is that the terror of the Minister’s creations are unambiguously horrific, while the menace of the humanoid ducks is vague enough to be debatable. Director David Schmoeller (who also helmed the horror oddities Tourist Trap & Puppet Master for Band) makes his blatant horror intentions clear in jump scares & references in the dialogue to titles like The Bad Seed & The Elephant Man. Charles Band’s stated vision for Moonbeam was to produce children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard hedge”, but by the time The Secret Kingdom arrived late in the sublabel’s run a glimmer of that hard Full Moon edge reemerged in the work and was all the more terrifying for its contrast with the safe children’s fantasy picture surrounding it.

It’s possible I find The Secret Kingdom more outright creepy than Magic in the Mirror because it hits closer to home. First of all, the non-sink portion of the film is conspicuously set in New Orleans and reminds its audience of that locale often with a slew of gratuitous local details: The St. Louis Cathedral, The Natchez, French Quarter street performers, Mardi Gras parade floats, above-ground cemeteries, street cars, issues of the Times Picayune, etc. More significantly, the tiny-world-under-the-kitchen-sink premise is very reminiscent of the (presumably problematic) film The Indian in the Cupboard, which was a VHS era staple in my childhood. It might seem odd that Band would produce an intentional knockoff of a flop that lost $10mil at the box office, but I suspect that it’s possible he may have felt like he could improve on the premise as the king of miniature bullshit. Even if their similarities are only an instance of parallel thinking, Band’s way of putting his own unique stamp on the premise was hiring a horror director responsible for one of the most disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre-modeled 70s slashers in charge of a children’s film and populating it with eyeless, dog-like, Nazi victims of state-ordered surgery. Band may have truly thought of Moonbeam as a way to produce Full Moon-style pictures “with no hard edge” for a younger demographic and that may have been the case with early Moonbeam pictures like Prehysteria!, which sweetly supposed “What if dinosaurs were miniature & danced to rock n’ roll?” By the time he got to the eyeless goons of The Secret Kingdom and the child-boiling duck-people of Magic in the Mirror, though, I believe he lost sight of that mission statement. The children’s film backdrops that clash with these nightmarish monstrosities only make them appear more horrific by contrast and the sensation that dynamic generates just feels plain wrong. I don’t think the Moonbeam catalog necessarily reflects the creative heights of the Charles Band aesthetic in terms of absurdism or novelty, but it did often generate the most legitimately creepy imagery of his schlocky oeuvre, if not only for those creations’ soft-edge context.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film this comparison to its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play, and last week’s look back to Moonbeam’s premiere picture, Prehysteria!.

-Brandon Ledet

 

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Magic in the Mirror (1996), Prehysteria! (1993), and the Half-Hearted Spectacle of the Moonbeam Fantasy Picture

While discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy picture Magic in the Mirror, a recurring theme in our conversation was the film’s blatant frugality. Magic in the Mirror was a kind of recycled production made from the scraps of a never-completed project titled Mirrorworld. In its same year of release, notoriously frugal producer Charles Band managed to squeeze a direct to video sequel from its leftovers, titled Fowl Play. Boomer noted in our initial conversation that part of Magic in the Mirror’s charm was that its rushed, amateur quality makes it feel as if anyone could have made it, including the audience at home. That charm extends to Charles Bands’ Full Moon Entertainment brand at large, which has a subpar batting average of great-to-terrible releases, but is admirable in its financial scrappiness and ability to stay afloat in an ever-shrinking indie movie market. Full Moon was likely at its height as a force in indie film production in the home movie market era of the early to mid-90s, which emboldened Band to extend his brand into several sublabels. This included both two softcore pornography branches and a children’s entertainment wing: Moonbeam Entertainment, which produced Magic in the Mirror. Full Moon features have always felt a little like children’s movies that happened to depict R-rated sex & gore, so in a way a Moonbeam Entertainment children’s fantasy wing was a totally natural progression for Band. The cheap, amateur delights of Magic in the Mirror seem to be typical of the sub-brand’s offerings, even if some of its earlier projects were better funded and of a higher profile. For instance, the premiere Moonbeam Entertainment release, Prehysteria!, should theoretically be of an entirely different class than Magic in the Mirror, but is more or less mired in the same concerns of amateurish craft & militant frugality. It’s the Charles Band way.

I can’t pretend to know the difference in budget between Magic in the Mirror and Prehysteria! (Magic in the Mirror is our first Movie of the Month selection without a corresponding Wikipedia page), but it’s easy to tell from context clues which was the more prestigious Moonbeam Entertainment release. The very first production of the Moonbeam sub-brand, Prehsyteria! is both the more prestigious and the more successful picture. Prehysteria! was directed by Charles Band and his father Albert Band (who also helmed my beloved Ghoulies II) themselves, while Magic in the Mirror was left in the hands of small time Full Moon player Ted Nicolaou (who, to be fair, also directed one of Full Moon’s best offerings in TerrorVision). Magic in the Mirror was sparse with special effects, leaving most of its visual spectacle to the over the top costuming of its killer duck-people and fairy queen. By contrast, Prehysteria! is practically a special effects showcase (by Charles Band standards, anyway). Its miniature dinosaur creations are achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and animatronic puppetry, which is seemingly where all the film’s effort & financing was sunk. Charles Band’s dream for Moonbeam was to create a sublabel of children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard edge” and it’s something he intended to achieve on the back of Prehysteria!’s success. The gamble paid off (for a while), resulting in two direct-to-video sequels and keeping Moonbeam afloat for half a decade. It’s an effort that required the same frugality that resulted in Magic in the Mirror, though. Band pushed the allure of owning VHS copies of the film by including a behind-the-scenes “Moonbeam VideoZone” featurette after the credits. That featurette reveals that the reason the film required co-directors was so that two units could shoot separate scenes simultaneously, wasting no production time. It was rushed to market in 1993 in the first place to ween off the anticipation for Spielberg’s dino spectacle in Jurassic Park. Artistically, it didn’t have much on it its mind beyond getting dinos on the screen in front of kids as quickly as possible because of that deadline. Prehysteria! may have been more of a top priority for Charles Band in building the Moonbeam brand than scraping together Mirrorworld’s leftovers into an afterthought feature in Magic in the Mirror, but the two films share his remarkably frugal thumbprint all the same.

In the tradition of the drive-in exploitation era, most Charles Band productions don’t feel the need to accomplish much beyond selling the premise of what’s on the poster. Magic in the Mirror promises a magical land of evil duck-people on the opposite side of a child’s mirror and once it gets there the film is content to remain inert. Prehysteria! is much the same in its own promise of a miniature Jurassic Park. The special effects behind the tiny dinos on the poster receive most of the film’s care and attention. The dinosaurs are given pop star names (Elvis, Madonna, Hammer, Paula) and are featured dancing to rock n’ roll. Although they could conceivably fuck you up even at the size of toy chihuahuas, they’re instead made to be as cuddly as Gizmo. They’re undeniably cute and that’s all most children are likely to care about when watching the film. Charles Band knows this and makes no effort to fill out the world around them. The kids onscreen who adopt the dinos (including The Last Action Hero’s Austin O’Brien among them) are bratty siblings with an archeologist dad. The dino eggs wind up in their possession because of an unintended cooler-swap, which angers the colonizing asshole (Stephen Lee doing his best Wayne Knight) who cruelly stole them from South American tribesmen. The villain wants “his” dinos backs. The kids want to hide them from the rest of the world. This conflict is established early in the first act and doesn’t change much form there, leaving everything outside how cute the dinos are in a state of stasis. The villain gets in exactly one campily amusing line: “I’m getting prehysterical over here!” The children, for their part, are only interesting in how queasy their relationship with their father’s sexuality can feel at times; they openly mention his desperate horniness as a single man, complete with his potential girlfriends for his affections and, worst yet, refer to him as “daddy” in prepubescent squeaks. Terrifying. Charles Band may not have invested as much characterization into the children as he puts into the dinos, but his inability to grasp the difference between a childlike & an adult tone occasionally makes for an interesting moment, if not only for the cringe factor.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Prehyteria! from the majority of the Moonbeam Entertainment output, it’s that it appears to have been an intensely personal project for Charles Band. He not only chose this film to launch Full Moon’s child-friendly sublabel and co-directed it with his own father, but the movie also reflects the one subject that could be said to be an auteurist preoccupation for the VHS era schlockmeister: miniature bullshit. From Puppet Master to Dollman to Demonic Toys to Evil Bong and beyond, Charles Band has basically built a career around stop motion and puppetry visualizations of (often evil) tiny beings in action. Prehysteria! isn’t one of the more exceptional specimens in that catalog in terms of filmmaking craft, but it is interesting to see his usual fixations filtered through a children’s entertainment lens (as opposed to his R-rated horror productions that just feel like children’s films). It’s the distilled ideal of a Moonbeam Entertainment production it that way. Still, for all the film’s special care and attention from the top man in the company, Prehysteira! largely feels on par with the half-assed, good-enough-to-print spectacle of Magic in the Mirror. Oddly, Magic in the Mirror feels like a more special picture than Prehysteria! because of that lack of attention. The animation & puppetry behind the dinos in Prehysteria! are impressive, but they raise questions in contrast to the rest of the picture on why none of that energy was matched elsewhere. Magic in the Mirror’s own scrappiness is noticably thorough by contrast. Its humanoid duck costumes are obviously handmade & amateurish, but there’s a sinister quality to their design anyway and the rest of the film matches that off-putting, off-brand, off energy in a way that feels more consistent than Prehysteria!’s super cute dinos dancing in a charisma void. Prehysteria! is the higher profile picture that’s likely to be more fondly remembered (i.e. remembered at all), but Magic in the Mirror is a much more honest, ugly picture of what Moonbeam’s commitment to frugality truly looked like. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bizarrely fascinating.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fowl Stench of Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play (1996)

The most immediate, visceral reaction I had to our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy nightmare Magic in the Mirror, is that it’s an absurd abomination that should not exist. While the movie makes some strides to justify its hideous existence though a half-hearted allegory about how imaginative kids are overlooked & undervalued, that well-intentioned narrative is just a thin sheen on the unintended horror of the film’s villains: “The Drakes.” For a kids’ movie about humanoid ducks who boil people alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes, Magic in the Mirror can be surprisingly sinister. There have been plenty low-budget rehashings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland over the decades, so the film doesn’t particularly stand out in its fairy tale premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world by traveling into an alternate magic realm through an antique mirror. The bargain basement, Howard the Duck-looking freaks that await her there do tend to linger with you in their own nightmarish way, however, and are the only pressing reason for thrill-seekers to dig the film back up from its VHS-era gravesite. If the largely forgotten, viscerally upsetting Magic in the Mirror shouldn’t exist, the existence of it dirt cheap, Drake-focused sequel is even more of an affront to humanity and all that is good in the world.

Like all schlock peddlers, producer Charles Band has hinged his entire career on aggressive frugality. Years after the abandoned production of a fantasy film titled Mirrorworld shut down, Band’s children-friendly Full Moon Entertainment sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment recycled materials from the unfinished work to create the horror that is Magic in the Mirror. Band’s frugality knows no bounds, though, and he managed to squeeze two productions out of Mirrorworlds’ discarded scraps. There isn’t much extratextual info available about Magic in the Mirror (this may be our first Movie of the Month selection without a standalone Wikipedia page), but it appears the film earned minor theatrical distribution through Paramount Pictures. A straight-to-VHS sequel to the film was produced simultaneously with the original, though, and both releases reached US audiences in 1996. It should be a smooth transition between the two pictures then, as if they were one 3-hour movie with a credits sequence intermission. Many of the potential pitfalls of cheap kids’ movie sequels should be avoided in a back-to-back production like this: the main kid shouldn’t have time to age out of their role and the shared cast & crew should ensure some level of consistence in overall quality. Somehow, the quality drop between Magic in the Mirror & Fowl Play was still notably drastic. Even as ill-conceived & glaringly cheap as the original Magic in the Mirror feels, it’s apparently the Citizen Kane of tea-drinking duck people fantasy cinema.

Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play is at least promising in its basic premise. After a quick (and necessary) recap montage detailing the events of the first film, Fowl Play reverses the original dynamic by having the terrifying duck people invade our world through the magic mirror for a change. I’m always down for a fun suburban invasion premise (which is why The Lost World is my favorite Jurassic Park movie, don’t @ me), but this dirt cheap, sub-Full Moon Production doesn’t follow through on the premise in any significant way. Instead of filming the humanoid duck tea-enthusiasts as they terrorize & boil alive the people of a small American city, the film frugally confines most of its runtime to a single living room. The evil mirror realm duck people merely mix in with guests at a lame, daytime costume party in a cheap living room setting, threatening menace in plain sight, but never delivering. What initially seems like a great premise for a Magic in the Mirror sequel eventually reveals itself to be another shrewd financial choice among many. The Drakes don’t invade our world through the mirror to open up the possibilities of the plot; they do it because the sets were even cheaper to maintain than the leftover scraps of Mirrorworld. It’d be impressive how this movie was pulled out of thin air if it weren’t so frustrating to watch as an audience.

From the cheap sets to the comic misunderstanding plot, Fowl Play feels like the pilot for a syndicated Magic in the Mirror TV show more than a proper sequel (I’m specifically thinking of the deservedly forgotten Honey I Shrunk the Kids TV series). The movie even ends with the protagonist from the first film making her first human friend, as if their weekly adventures were going to continue into perpetuity. Alarming details, like lipstick on a duck bill or carefully-prepared murder tea, carry over form the first film, but in smaller, cheaper doses. While Magic in the Mirror makes motions to justify its mallardian horrors with an overarching theme of childhood isolation, Fowl Play doesn’t bother. Its only narrative conflict is whether or not an already awkward costume party might become more of a disaster as it goes along, which I’m pretty sure has been the plot of many sitcom episodes. Magic in the Mirror was cheap, but at least it was somewhat ambitious. Fowl Play looks like it was scraped together in a panic as production on its predecessor was being shut down (which might actually be the case). The only scenario I could imagine where someone is really into it would be if they saw it before the first film and were caught off-guard by the ghastly visage of the Drakes. Even then, they’re given less screentime & less to do here, even though they’re referenced in the awfowl pun title.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 36: True Grit (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where True Grit (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes “when John Wayne puts the reins in his teeth and gallops across the mountain meadow.” On page 226 he mentions having spotted John Wayne in costume for the film’s production during a studio lot interview with Lee Marvin. On page 250 he details a separate interview with Wayne himself, who shows off his prop rifle from the film.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “One of the glories of True Grit is that it recognizes Wayne’s special presence. It was not directed by Ford (who in any event probably couldn’t have been objective enough about Wayne), but it was directed by another old Western hand, Hathaway, who has made the movie of his lifetime and given us a masterpiece. This is the sort of film you call a movie, instead of the kind of movie you call a film. It is one of the most delightful, joyous scary movies of all time […] It is not a work of art, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were. Instead, it is the Western you should see if you only see one Western every three years (an act of denial I cannot quite comprehend in any case).” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

In his original, gleefully enthusiastic review for the 1969 John Wayne Western True Grit, Ebert explains that the film “is not a work of art, but wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were.” This is just a few sentences after he dares to call it “a masterpiece.” I totally relate to the sentiment of those seemingly self-contradictory ideas, as it very much is at peace with how I watch & review movies myself. Ebert’s legacy as a film critic has always been one of subjectivity & populism, so it makes perfect sense to hear him declare a film to be genre-minded fluff in one breath and a stone-cold masterpiece in the next. Where I diverge with him on the topic at hand is in the specific genre he’s praising: Westerns. I’ve given many trashy horror & sci-fi pictures five-star raves over the three years we’ve been blogging here, but Westerns just really aren’t my genre. In fact, part of the reason the Roger Ebert Film School project has been on hold for the past six months (!!!!) is that I was dreading watching True Grit, which has a reputation for being on the best Westerns ever made. Adapted from a popular novel, inspiring a remake & a sequel, and earning John Wayne his sole Academy Award, it’s the kind of genre exercise that should appeal to even heretics like me, who’d rather watch the worst monster movie over the best cowboy thriller any day. Admittedly, True Grit did win me over despite my personal genre boundaries, but not necessarily by being a great movie first and a great Western second. It did so by side-stepping the roadblock I usually have with these Old West narratives: their traditionally macho POV.

If pressured to declare my favorite Western of all time, my answer would like likely be the recent Australian genre-bender The Dressmaker. Essentially reimagining the Western genre as a tonal mashup of Muriel’s Wedding and a 90s John Waters comedy, The Dressmaker is a classic guns-blazing revenge tale in which Kate Winslet takes out an entire town by sewing pretty dresses instead of firing a six-shooter. The Dressmaker is a genre standout to me because it’s an intoxicatingly feminine take on a traditionally masculine genre. To my surprise, despite ostensibly being a John Wayne picture, True Grit works in a similar way. Written for the screen by (McCarthy witch hunt victim) Marguerite Roberts, the film is largely about a bubbly teenage girl defiantly making her way through an intimidatingly macho world. Our plucky protagonist, Mattie (Kim Darby), has a Book of Henry-type preciousness in her willingness to steamroll adults’ wills and run the show. Her mission in the picture in an act of cold-blooded revenge, hiring two macho hard-asses (the drunkest & meanest of the pair being played by John Wayne, naturally) to kill the man who murdered her own father in an act of petty theft. She insists on accompanying the mission into Native territory herself, of course, and the movie builds a lot of tension out the danger she puts herself in by dangerously navigating “a man’s world.” Her presence isn’t nearly as aggressively femme as the energy of The Dressmaker (I likely would have been much more enthusiastic about the film at large if it were, to be honest), but it did help me adjust to the macho power fantasy of gruff Western lore instead of just mentally checking out completely, which is my usual experience with the genre.

I haven’t had many reasons or opportunities in my life to study the John Wayne Western as an artform, so it’s difficult for me to compare his Oscar-winning performance here with his more typical work. The couple times I’ve dealt with Wayne with any critical intent was in the cop thriller Brannigan (which was great) and the fire-fighting epic Hellfighters (which was terrible). But since Ebert is obviously a giddy fan of The Duke, I suspect that will drastically change soon. True Grit is likely as good of a crash course in John Wayne’s Western work as any I could have hoped for, if not only because the movie doesn’t take his heroics too seriously. A mean old US Marshall roped into a revenge mission while in a drunken stupor, you’d think Wayne’s antihero sidekick character would be all macho posturing & no levity. He’s wonderfully contrasted by Kim Darby’s authentic teenage femininity, though. The two butt heads immediately, him warning “I ought to paddle your rump!” and her spitting back that he’s “a sorry piece of trash.” The heart of True Grit is largely in watching the two partners soften to each other even more so than it is their shared revenge mission. The closing line of the film is Wayne shouting, “Come see a fat old man sometime!” jovially to Mattie, who has come to accept him as the drunk uncle she never had (when you might expect him to be closer to a replacement father figure). The drunk bastard even has a tender friendship onscreen with a house cat named General Sterling Pride, whom he snuggles with when he’s too tipsy to get out of bed. Wayne certainly plays the hardened gunfighter archetype he was famous for embodying in the film, one that’s even dangerously macho, but it somehow comes across as adorable instead of grotesque.

There’s plenty to True Grit I couldn’t identify with because of my arm’s distance relationship with the Western genre. The macho posturing, G-rated gun violence, and racist caricatures of any & all PoC that usually kill the mood for me (and, to be frank, bore me) in Westerns are all present & accounted for here. Although I could be tickled by the antiquated phrasing of “Hurry! I’m in a bad way!” when Mattie falls in a rattlesnake pit, the tension of that moment & other various gunfights never truly hit me, to the point where it’s utterly baffling that Ebert describes the film as “scary” in his review. Here’s what I’ll concede, though: if Westerns were my genre of choice, True Grit would likely be one of my favorites. It has a spark of the feminine subversion I loved so much in The Dressmaker, a glimpse into a less macho parallel universe where I wouldn’t generally find these pictures to be insufferably boring.  I suspect my experience with John Wayne Westerns can only go down from there, as Ebert’s love of the genre will probably lead me to far less hospitable territory for outsiders, but I can admit this one got past my typical defenses.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: Equinox Flower (1958)

-Brandon Ledet

New Orleans French Film Fest 2018, Ranked & Reviewed

Just in case you aren’t already aware, Swampflix is very much an amateur operation, which means there’s no one paying us to seek out & review all of the movies we cover. That amateur status, combined with our home base location in New Orleans (which is known more for its role in film production than film distribution), means we aren’t exactly on the front lines of film festival exclusives. Professional critics traveling to TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and so on are much more dependable for sneak peaks at festival circuit releases that will become a big deal later in the year when Top Ten lists & Awards Season thinkpieces flood the internet. With the documentary fest True Orleans gradually finding its sea legs and the Overlook horror film festival switching venues to New Orleans this year, that dynamic might be starting to change, but the two most substantial festivals in the city (both curated by the New Orleans Film Society) are more or less small fries in the larger film festival picture. I don’t mind that diminished scale one bit. Seeing a much-buzzed-about indie release months before it reaches theatrical distribution is not the highlight of the festival experience for me. What’s most exciting about film fests is the opportunity to catch microbudget releases that might not ever see big screen distribution at all; some never even make it to VOD. There’s also usually a few opportunities to see digital restorations of older classics big & loud in a communal environment you might not ever see them in again, which is a big deal in a city that’s . . . sparse with repertory theatres. As such, I usually try to do my best to review & podcast about as many of the films I can see at the two annual New Orleans Film Society-run festivals every year, projects that sometimes take months to complete because of our posting schedule and the amount of unpaid time & labor required to pull it off. Every year, I see more movies screening at each fest than I did the year before, take longer to review them all (naturally), and feel better about putting in the additional effort.

Of the two NOFS-operated festivals, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 28th Annual NOFF screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which I was able to catch 16 features (and a few shorts). This is practically an exponential increase from the 10 screenings I caught in 2016, the three I attended in 2015, and the one or two I’d stumble into as a casual cinephile in the years before we started blogging. Still, I feel like I’m only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task. NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. For the past couple years, I’ve been able to see about ten feature films a piece at each French Film Fest, which is a fairly substantial percentage of the 15-20 features that screen there. All films are at least partially French productions, most are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; last year’s My Life as a Zucchini ranked high on my Top Films of 2017 list. There were at least two screenings from this year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites just after one viewing. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year. That’s partly why last year we only podcasted about our experience at the festival, but this year I wanted to post a more formal ranking of all the films we saw there, no matter how delayed, the same treatment we afford the more gargantuan NOFF proper.

The 21st Annual New Orleans French Film Fest was staged at the Prytania Theatre in late February, 2018. Like last year’s spotlight on French New Wave innovator Jacques Demy, the highlight of this year’s festival was a small retrospective of films by Agnès Varda, who recently became the first female director to ever win an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement in the medium. CC and I will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival in early May (she’s more less become our official festival correspondent on the podcast at this point), but for now here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the 2018 New Orleans French Film Fest. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review (with one exception of a classic that I didn’t see the point in properly reviewing). Enjoy!

1. Double Lover (2018) – “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.”

2. The Gleaners & I (2002) – “I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth.”

3. Faces Places (2017) – “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered).”

4. Nocturama (2017) – “Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

5. Breathless (1960) – Watching Jean-Luc Goddard’s French New Wave classic Breathless for the first time (on the big screen!) likely “should” have been one of my highlights of the festival, but I was honestly more enamored with the presentation of the film than the movie itself. I’ve gushed here before about how much I cherish the Rene Brunet’s Classic Movie of the Week series at The Prytania, so it was wonderful to see a French Film Fest screening work itself into that weekly slot so seamlessly (a huge improvement on last year’s selection, Love in the Afternoon). As for Breathless itself, I appreciated it as a kind of cinematic ourobouros. Its flippant story if a womanizing car thief was obviously influenced by American gangster pictures, but filters that appreciation through a dangerous French New Wave aesthetic, which later influenced New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chainsmoking antihero, but appreciated that he admits up front to being an asshole and that most of the humor posits him as the butt of the joke. It’s got a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (perhaps especially violent) PePe Le Pee cartoon, which is kind of a problem (please nobody tell Max Landis).

6. Le Bonheur (1965) – “The floral, color-soaked Eden where Varda stages this adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from John Waters, Russ Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.”

7. Souvenir (2018) – “Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as ‘a woman’s picture.’ As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.”

8. Ismael’s Ghosts (2018) – “The audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.”

9. Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)“There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as ‘my beaming radium queen,’ his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her ‘a laboratory rat.’ It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so.”

10. All That Divides Us (2018) – “While All That Divides Us did little to impress me narratively or thematically, I frequently found myself surprised by its willingness to get downright nasty. Characters bet on dogfights, force victims to smoke crack at gunpoint, erotically choke each other during sex, blackmail, cheat, kill, and say meanly dismissive things to their sex partners like ‘You were good for my prostate.’ There are a couple stray moments of unintentional humor, but most of the movie’s fun is in its warped, tasteless imitation of 90s-era crime thrillers.”

11. 4 Days in France (2018) – “Maybe it’s simple-minded of me to posit that, because the plot is driven by a series of Grindr hookups, a More Explicit Gay Sex edict is the adrenaline shot 4 Days in France needed to feel alive & worth the effort. Either way, it was certainly missing something and more gay sex in this movie about a gay sex app might’ve been worth a shot.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Magic in the Mirror (1996)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon , Alli, and Boomer watch Magic in the Mirror (1996).

Britnee: Moonbeam Entertainment, the sub-brand of Charles Band’s Full Moon Features, produced some of my favorite children’s fantasy and sci-fi films during the early 1990s. VHS copies of Prehysteria!, Dragonworld, and Pet Shop always lingered around my family’s television, but the one Moonbeam film that I just couldn’t get enough of was Magic in the Mirror. There’s just something about the film’s wackadoodle story and low-budget quality that is both memorable and charming. Magic in the Mirror may very well be the root cause of my garbage taste in movies because, until recently reading through the overwhelming amount of negative reviews, I had no idea that anyone could dislike it.

Magic in the Mirror is a modern-day fairy tale. Mary Margaret Dennis is a young girl with an active imagination, but her botanist father and physicist mother fail to give her the attention and encouragement that she desperately needs. She spends most of her time with her imaginary friends, Bella and Donna, and doesn’t have much human interaction. After discovering a bag of magical golden berries and inheriting an antique mirror from her late great-grandmother, she crosses to the other side of the mirror. What awaits her there is a surreal world ruled by human-like mallards that have a passion for tea made of people, which is steeped for a mere 60 seconds (I usually let my Earl Grey steep for 3 minutes).

Brandon, there’s an interesting mix of science and fantasy in Magic in the Mirror. Most of the scenes with Mary Margaret’s mother involve her working on an invention (a laser beam that defies space and time) while Mary Margaret is trekking through a mallard-filled fantasyland. Is there a message being made about science versus fantasy in Magic in the Mirror? Or is it just two cool concepts combined to make one hell of a movie?

Brandon: If we’re going to single out Magic in the Mirror as “one hell of a movie,” I think we have to place the emphasis on the word “Hell.” Most of my appreciation of the film stems from the way it plays like a child’s half-remembered nightmare, so it’s funny to see it described here as “memorable and charming.” Before reading that introduction, I presumed it would be film’s nightmare quality that buried its imagery in the subconscious of 90s Kids™ who saw it young enough for it to torment them permanently, preventing it from being forgotten the way most Moonbeam Entertainment pictures have. Productions from Charles Band’s prime distribution label Full Moon (typified by franchises like Dollman, Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Demonic Toys) have always felt a little like kids’ movies that happened to feature R-rated monsters & gore. It’s only natural, then, that its (supposedly) child-friendly sub-brand would come across as an unintentional horror show. Magic in the Mirror was a production recycled from unused material for a canceled Full Moon fantasy film titled Mirrorworld (militant frugality is another one of Charles Band’s calling cards), so for all we know its magical kingdom of malicious mallards was originally designed to terrify adults, like the off-putting humanoid amphibians of Hell Comes to Frogtown. As an exercise in filmmaking craft, Magic in the Mirror possesses all of the cinematic artistry of a Wishbone episode. However, its villainous threat of humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes has a potency that far outweighs the limited means of its production values. In fact, the film’s aggressive cheapness somehow makes it feel even more sinister, as if we were an audience of children invited over to a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement. By shifting the focus away from intentional monster-based scares to a children’s fantasy context, Full Moon had somehow delivered one of the most genuinely creepy films in its catalog. Until I can forget the sounds of these cursed duck beings greedily slurping their murder-tea, I’m going to be losing a lot of much-needed sleep. I can only imagine that effect would be even worse if I had caught this movie in its early VHS days (although, like Britnee, I had a strong childhood fondness for Prehysteria!, so who knows).

While I’ll concur that the film’s mixture of science fiction & fantasy as if they were two sides of the same coin was interesting, I’m not convinced the movie thought through the significance of their convergence to any great extent (unlike the recent animated gem Mary and the Witch’s Flower). The mother’s invention of an antimatter raygun almost doesn’t qualify as sci-fi at all, since its childlike logic is so far outside the bounds of reality. The divisions between those two genres seem to be present only to mirror the divisions between Mary Margaret and her mother. Mary Margaret is a fantasy-minded child with an overactive imagination. The too-serious adults in her life (especially her mother) refuse to pay her any attention because they only care about boring, rigid adult stuff like science, careers, and facts. In a way, it’s totally appropriate that the sci-fi aspect of the mother’s antimatter raygun (along with the botanist father’s cataloging of magic berries) only make sense in a fantasy context, since the film is told from Mary Margaret’s detached-from-reality perspective. Magic in the Mirror is by no means singular in its premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world through a nightmarish adventure in a fantasy land; a short list of similar (but more substantial) works might include MirrorMask, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Labyrinth, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, His Dark Materials, and former Movie of the Month Paperhouse. The way it captures a young child’s isolation among adults who don’t have the time of day for their imaginative whimsy has its own merits, though, especially as Mary Margaret & her mother attempt to breach the invisible barrier of the mirror to reconnect with each other, each with their own tools (the magic berries & the raygun, respectively). This belittling feeling of being ignored by the too-serious, fact-minded adults around you is very relatable for kids and it’s one I can only remember being addressed this extensively in the much classier Val Lewton picture Curse of the Cat People.

Boomer, we seem to be painting two portraits of Magic in the Mirror here. One is a thoughtful expression of childhood frustration with being ignored by the adults who lord over you. The other is a subliminal nightmare that lingers only as a fear of cheaply costumed duck-people who boil children alive for the pleasure of the taste. Did either of these qualities overpower the other in your viewing of the film or did they work perfectly in tandem, like two realms on opposite sides of the same magic mirror?

Boomer: Unlike you, Brandon, I didn’t find the ducks–excuse me, Drakes–all that scary. Maybe if I were a child the first time I saw it, I would have had a different experience, but as it is, the flappy mouths and glug-glug-glug drinking sounds were too similar to the intentionally comical appearance of the eagle-headed colonel from Danger 5 to elicit anything other than laughter from me (which it did, every time). If anything, their sped-up waddling and the terrible flying effects render them adorably pathetic in spite of their menacing tea habits. Had I been a child during my first viewing, I would have found the Mirror Minders the far creepier creatures, as the thought of an oversized manchild in drab motley watching me from the other side of my mirror is a much more disturbing thought in its abstract than being boiled alive for a mere sixty seconds. I know that they’re supposed to be charming in a Mr. Tumnus way, but their high pitched voices and the “I used to be a birthday clown but now I live in the woods” color palette aren’t exactly virtues to me. I, too, am a longtime fan of Full Moon Entertainment, and frequently find myself extolling its virtues, like the fact that it was one of the first studios to have an interconnected film universe, with the eponymous main characters from their respective films coming to blows in the crossover Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys (which also featured a shrunken nurse from one of my personal favorites, Bad Channels, as Dollman’s love interest). That doesn’t mean I’m going to give a pass to just anything that Band put his hands on (I submit my review of Dungeonmaster as evidence), but I found this film more charming than alarming, despite the Mirror Minders. There is a bit of a creep factor, but it does, as you say, work in tandem with its more traditional fantasy fare.

The way that the film steals (or “pays homage to,” if you’re feeling generous) images from other dark children’s films of the 80s and early 90s really contributes to its overall charm. The influences of Lewis Carroll’s Alice duology are obvious (and explicitly pointed out in the film’s trailer), but Magic in the Mirror carves out a place in that same rhetorical space as 80s kid flicks with a dark undertones and anchors itself there. The visual of Mary Margaret approaching her great-grandmother’s herbiary could be from any number of films, but there’s a definite NeverEnding Story vibe as the framing calls to mind the moment that Bastian finds the book with the Auryn on the cover in Mr. Coriander’s book shop. Further, although Return to Oz hews closer L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels than the 1932 musical to which it is supposedly a sequel, it carries over the same “Oz is a hallucination/dream” conceit as the Judy Garland film. Once our heroine crosses back over into Oz, she meets the witch Mombi, who is played by the same actress as the cruel woman who runs the sanitarium in Kansas; her imagined mechanical man Tik-tok is influenced by the “face” in the machine that the woman intends to use to electrocute poor little Dorothy’s brain. This wasn’t a new idea even at the time (for instance, Captain Hook is traditionally played on stage by the same actor who portrays Mr. Darling, dating back to the earliest theatrical presentations of Peter Pan), but the similar dark tone to Return works to give Magic in the Mirror perhaps more gravitas than it rightly deserves. Dragora is played by the same actress as Mary Margaret’s principal, her vizier is the same actor as her mother’s douchey assistant, and all of the characters on the other side of the mirror have names that are similar to the scientific nomenclature in the herbiary. There’s no implication that the mirror world is a fantasy in the psychological sense (especially once Dr. Dennis crosses over and meets her royal doppelganger), but if the director were to claim he’d never seen Return to Oz, his pants would likely burst into flame.

Perhaps the most important commonalities in all of these works are the dual themes of grappling with and overcoming parental alienation coupled with a desire for the retention of the comforts of childhood, which bears some inspection. Dorothy Gale is an orphan being raised by her elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t understand her worldview or imagination. Bastian Balthazar Bux is the son of a widower father who keeps his child at arm’s length due to his grief over the loss of his wife. Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth feels overlooked by her family in lieu of the attention lavished upon new baby Tobey, and isn’t ready to forsake her LARPing to fall into the role of caregiver for her little brother. Alice’s parents are never mentioned, but readers can infer her relationship with her sister to be one of guardianship, and much academic ink has been spilled over this interpretation. In every instance the fantasy otherworld seems to be an escape but ultimately proves to be a crucible that causes each character to grow and have a better understanding of both themselves and their parents, and return home to find that, in their absence, the parental figures have learned to be more accepting of the child character as well. Dorothy realizes that there’s no place like home, and is moved by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s concern for her. Bastian learns that he can’t live entirely in his fantasies, and Mr. Bux sweeps his son into a long overdue hug after realizing that his blind grief over his wife nearly cost him his son as well. Sarah returns home with a newfound love for her brother and realizes that her fantasy world will always be there if she needs it, but shouldn’t consume her entirely; she has a pleasant interaction with her step-mother and realizes that being a big sister is an adventure all its own. The narrative of Mary Margaret and her parents follow this model so slavishly it’s almost paint-by-numbers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that these stories continue to be created and continue to be popular speaks to a near-universality of this metaphorical journey, and likely will as long as there are children whose budding maturity arouses confusing feelings of the dual but opposed desires for independence and attention, for individuality and community (so . . . forever).

My roommate has, of late, developed a fascination with soap operas. One of the reasons for this is that he loves anything that he feels like he, an amateur, could make himself. The Bold and the Beautiful so cheaply and poorly made that it captivates him, and I understand that, because that’s often how I feel about Full Moon (and Moonbeam) flicks. Other than the generally well-made puppets, there’s a pall of cheapness permeated with earnestness that lends these endeavors a charm that isn’t fully earned. As an example, I’d like to point to the scene where Mary Margaret finally meets the queen after escaping from the Drakes; you as the viewer should feel an air of majesty and magic around her, but that intended effect is completely undercut by the drabness of the dead grass all around her throne. Like, you couldn’t have sent someone out there the day before to spray paint the grass to make it uniformly, magically green? But no: this scene plays out in a field that is perfectly manicured but very, very brown. Alli, were there other parts of the film where it was obvious to you that the filmmaker’s reach exceeded their grasp? Did you find that endearing like I do, or no? What worked and what didn’t for you?

Alli: I’m going to be sadly honest here and say that this one just didn’t click for me as far as being amateurishly charming. I just thought it was bad. That being said, this discussion has given me a new angle to explore this.

Initially my reaction was that it felt like the children’s film version of Troll 2, but less fun because things that are obviously meant to appeal to children often just come across as obnoxious to me. The Mirror Minders, for instance, got on my nerves in a way that very few things can. (To get personal for a second, I think it’s something to do with the fact that Tansy reminded me of my ex.) I thought that the fact that the duck suits, while aesthetically great, were made in such a way that the actors literally couldn’t walk in them was so haphazard and ill-conceived. The whole plot felt taped together from bits and pieces that the writers found from previously scrapped ideas, resulting in an overall incoherence.

However, now I want to view it as if the purpose was to convey the feeling of a child’s point of view and how a child would approach filmmaking. I have a nephew who comes up with bizarre, horrifying ideas and plot lines that zig and zag in wild directions. If he were to write a movie, it would feel a little like this. Of course it’s a cheap aesthetic. Kids have a way of taking a book of unprotected pressed leaves and making it into a grimoire. In that way, I feel like the filmmakers here really hit the mark. It felt like they put a lot of time and energy into the ideas that really caught them and let everything else slide. For instance, the Mirror Minding chamber is a well-designed set that perfectly contrasts between the two worlds. The costumes for the queen and the Drakes are quite nice for a shoestring budget, even if waddling and running in those duck costumes seems like it was a dangerous endeavor. I feel like all of this put together would really appeal to children who hyperfocus on the ideas that they’re really in love with. And in that way, the movie works. Just not for me.

One of the things that seemed extremely undeveloped for me was Mary Margaret’s parents’ marital problems, which result in both of them trying to control their daughter’s interests and behavior whenever they happen to be paying attention to her. We see that her dad is a little bit of a depressed layabout and that her mom is a career focused scientist with her eyes on the prize, but everything else is given to us in hints. For instance, Lazlo seems to be constantly flirting with her, and the dinner scene seemed like a wildly inappropriate staging for a swinger’s party that a child was just dragged into.

Britnee, what do you think of that dinner party scene? Am I reading too deeply into this?

Britnee: The dinner party scene always seemed a little odd to me. And for a weird ass movie like Magic in the Mirror, that’s saying a lot. Mary Margaret is so out of place at that dinner. I know that’s what was intended, as parts of the film that take place in the “real world” spend a lot of time showing us how Mary Margaret doesn’t belong, but that scene just doesn’t feel right. No one recognizes that she’s a child, and she’s treated as a fellow grown up during the dinner. The dinner guests (Lazlo and his wife) do not like Mary Margaret one bit, and it’s more of a dislike of her being at the dinner rather than a dislike of her personally. The possibility of the two wanting to get it on after dinner with Mary Margaret’s parents would be a fantastic reasoning behind their strange behavior.

I wouldn’t put it past a Moonbeam feature to have some sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the film, even though this is 100% for children. Moonbeam movies are pretty trashy for being family features, which is probably why I’m drawn to them so much. I have this image of the film crew throwing back a few beers while saying something along the lines of, “Dude, wouldn’t it be funny if, like, Mary Margret’s parents wanted to get it on with Lazlo and his wife? That would be totally sick! Let’s make it happen!” So Alli, I definitely do not think that you’re reading too deeply into the weird dinner party scene and the marital problems of the parents. If anything, you’ve pointed out the obvious.

While on the topic of the parents, I found their characters to have some gender-swapped traits, as far as most parents in 90s movies go. The dad is a very soft-spoken, artsy fellow that is a little more understanding of Mary Margaret’s creativity, but the mother is a career-minded scientist that doesn’t seem to understand her daughter at all. Most children’s films of this era have a mother who is supportive of their child’s wild imagination, while the father has a very no-nonsense type of personality. I’m not sure if a statement was trying to be made here, but if there was, it’s not a very positive one. The myth of career women not being able to be maternal seems to be purposefully implied with the mother’s character.

Brandon, what are your thoughts of gender roles of Mary Margaret’s mother and father? Do you think that Mary Margaret’s mother is villainized for being a career-minded mother?

Brandon: It’s certainly valid to read that icy mother-daughter dynamic as an indictment of women who chase career opportunities at the supposed expense of their domestic responsibilities. There’s plenty of other examples of that shrewish, disciplinarian mother trope in 80s & 90s family-friendly cinema that makes Magic in the Mirror appear to be a thoughtless participation in a sexist cultural ideology (Sally Fields in Mrs. Doubtfire immediately comes to mind, if nothing else). I’m just not convinced that the mother is villainized, exactly. She’s more in desperate need of being reminded of the value of childhood play & open-ended imagination. As potentially (and wrongfully) critical it may be of the way the mother balances home life with professional ambitions, the dynamic she has with her less . . . intense husband does recall a common, unfair expectation of women to be the daily disciplinarians of children while fathers get to enjoy the benefits of filling a kind of goofball best friend role. It’s a dynamic that’s been more purposefully explored elsewhere (Lady Bird being an excellent recent example), but I do think it has a real life significance.

What I’m struggling to interpret in retrospect, though, is how the mother’s real life relationship with Mary Margaret correlates with her mirrorworld avatar. In more classic films like The Wizard of Oz & MirrorMask, real life characters’ fantasy realm counterparts are typically amplifications of whatever anxieties they inspire in the young protagonist. In Magic in the Mirror, actor Saxon Trainor is the most significant player to pull double duty as a character in both realms: she plays the uptight scientist mother in the “real” world and the floral, despotic queen of the mirrorworld whose rule of the land is being challenged by the Drakes. Boomer, can you help me make sense of what these two characters have to say about each other in tandem? The usurping drake queen is portrayed by the same actor (Eileen T’Kaye) who appears as Mary Margaret’s schoolteacher, Mrs. Mallard, so the avatars might be saying something about the role of authority figures in Mary Margaret’s life, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what. The easy answer is that the dual casting was solely a Charles Band-brand, money-saving manuever, but I don’t fully buy that.

Boomer: I’ll try! In the classic ’32 Oz, Margaret Hamilton is both the horrible Elmira Gulch, a shitty neighbor who taunts Toto into attacking her in order to have an excuse to have the dog put down, and then in the fantasy world (again, I feel the need to stress the idea that Oz is a child’s fantasy as being a film-only conceit) she is the Wicked Witch of the West who is Gulch’s reflection as a figure of evil and terror, right down to threatening Dorothy’s dog. In Return, the asylum attendants who move patient beds from place to place on squeaky wheels are reimagined in Oz as the creepy Wheelers, again played by the same actors. It’s a recurring trope of fantasy, as the majority of these films present the idea that a child’s fantasy world is a rhetorical space for that child to inspect, explore, and perhaps expunge their conflicting emotions about the world as seen through their eyes. As a society, we’ve progressed far beyond the relatively shallow understanding of human psychology that characterizes the work of Sigmund Freud, but there are still elements of his theories that hold true; he was of the opinion that, until they reach a certain level of maturity, children have a very black and white view of morality, and they cannot rationalize “good” and “evil” as being constituted within the same person. This was further explored by Bruno Bettelheim (admittedly also a problematic source) in his book The Uses of Enchantment: “all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects.” Essentially, most of these films are modern interpretations, adaptations, or reinventions of the fairy tale, and as such they textually examine the dichotomy of the “true” parent and the “pretender” parent. We see this most often in the way that fairy tales often feature an evil stepmother, which is a sanitization of older stories in which the biological mother was the cruel one. The switch to the use of the stepmother was an invention on the part of the Grimm Brothers (check out the chapter on the absent mother in Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde for more info about this phenomena). To further quote Bettelheim: “the typical splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and evil stepmother […] is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits the anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother” and it also preventing the associated guilt “about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her.”

Mary Margaret’s relationship with her mother is a textbook example of this dichotomy: her real mother, though loving, seems to have no idea how to interact with a child or even how children conceptualize the world; she even admits as much in her laboratory. As a result, Mary Margaret has a mother who cannot connect with her in the way that her father does, who has no room for flights of fancy or imagination. As Britnee noted above, Mary Margaret is essentially treated as a small adult and not a child. In contrast to her relationship with her father, who seems to work from home, have a job that even a child could understand, and have endless free time, her mother has a lab, has a job that is incomprehensible to a child (and me, really, because this anti-matter laser is fucking nonsense), has rules and boundaries that are enforced but neither explained nor understood, and is distant emotionally and often absent. With this as a source of unidentifiable (to a child) anxiety, it makes complete sense that Mary Margaret casts Sylvia as Queen Hysop in her fantasy world; the queen is an absolute authority who is likewise cold and distant, rules her kingdom with a set of seemingly arbitrary rules that are not explained, and exacts punishment without explanation. As a method of discipline, being “planted” is simply a fantasy version of being told to stand in a corner; as a worldview, a queen’s “I don’t have to listen to anything; I’m the queen” is not dissimilar from a mother’s “Because I said so.” It makes perfect sense that Mary Margaret would cast her mother in this role in her fantasy world.

Except! This isn’t Mary Margaret’s fantasy. The world on the other side of the mirror is completely real, and although Sylvia/Hysop are not the only doppelgangers/analogues on both sides, most of the characters aren’t. There’s no equivalent to Mr. Dennis on the other side, nor do Tansy or Bloom have mirror images on “our” side. Magic in the Mirror is trying to have it both ways, treating the fantasy world as a real place (like in the Oz books) while incorporating the conceits and rhetorical strategies of those works which treat fantasy worlds as literally fantasy and entirely in the mind of the protagonist (like in the Oz films). As a result, there’s a separation in the metaphorical batter that I think is causing your confusion. Alli, you mentioned that this film doesn’t work for you; I doubt that its internal inconsistency as to whether this is a fantasy film or a fantasy film is likely not the reason, but would you have preferred one or the other? Do you feel like you could have gotten more out of it if the filmmakers had chosen one tack and stuck with it?

Alli: The lack of internal consistency is definitely not what didn’t work here. I guess I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for cheaply made kids’ movies that I have for ones geared towards adults. I don’t think I can handle the unironic, saccharine acting or the film school aesthetic. There was a time and place for that in my life, and it’s sadly over.

However, if I have to choose, I think I would have preferred this movie to stick to the fantasy. I have a big soft spot for everything fantasy, and there’s really not enough fantasy films out there, which is probably why I’m such a big Del Toro fan. It’s a shame the vast majority of fantasy film is low budget and aimed at children, but I think children need fantasy and escape in their lives, however low budget it is. The idea of getting away to a mysterious land and being a hero is empowering, even in something as ridiculous as this. Whereas, a fantasy film would still be empowering, but those always have a bigger dose of the horror of self exploration. Alice learns that a dream world with a lack of focus isn’t all fun and games. Coraline learns to forgive her parents for being busy after finding out that an overbearing mom, albeit exaggerated, is terrifying. Mary Margaret never learns anything about her own behavior. She just escapes. And I like her all the better for not having changed and being the same creative, stubborn child at the end. That’s the beauty of true fantasy for children; kids find out that they were and are strong.

It would have been neat for the movie to retain both the internal fantasy elements and the fantasy/scifi elements like A Wrinkle in Time does. I know that’s a bit more elegant for fare of this kind, but I think it could have been done with a little less focus on the lives of the parents. The whole parental plot in general just felt like a placeholder for something else. Probably, more adventures and obstacles in this mirrorworld that they didn’t have the budget for or the inclination to write.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like that there’s no clear-cut good side in this story. Obviously, massive ducks bent on making tea out of other life forms is definitely bad, but who are the good people here? The queen literally plants her subjects after no trial or due process. I don’t see how that’s preferable to Queen Dragora. I guess the good side is the Mirror Minders? I don’t know, but I appreciate the subtlety.

Boomer: The fact that the main character’s name was Mary Margaret is terribly distracting. It took me a minute to realize why it was so familiar, until I remembered that this was the name of Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in the “real world” on Once Upon a Time, another piece of contemporary enjoyable-in-an-unintended-way-but-also-terrible fairy tale media that I happened to stick with for longer than I should have for reasons of my own (#swanqueen). Also, as far as a final question, what was up with the use of that county courthouse as the “castle” of Dragora and her comically sped-up waddling henchmen?

Brandon: While I might be the only member of the crew to be genuinely terrified by the look of them, I do believe the Drakes are the main reason to seek out Magic in the Mirror. Not only do they offer bizarre insights like an answer to the eternal question “What would Howard the Duck look like in lipstick?,” they they also include the laziest, most nonsensical “wordplay” you’re ever likely to hear in a finished screenplay. It’s unclear what failed puns were intended when Drakes refer to their mallardian queen as “your Quackiness” or “your Quacktitude,” but they’re laughably half-assed in the attempt. I should warn you, though: do not be fooled into watching the sequel Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play. Despite what may be promised in its title & cover art, there isn’t necessarily any more Drakes content in that picture than there was in the first one. Also, the whole thing appears to have been filmed in a crewmember’s living room while the sets of the first film were being hurriedly broken down, which might as well be the case since both films managed to secure a 1996 release. Full Moon truly is a wonder. If, as Boomer suggests, the charm of Magic in the Mirror is partly that you, an amateur, could have made it yourself, the charm of Fowl Play is that it looks like it could’ve been made by your kids. And not even the more talented ones.

Britnee: When the mallards make their infamous people tea, the people are steeped for 60 seconds. I don’t think that a human would necessarily die from being boiled alive for a mere minute (I refuse to Google this in fear of the results), but they would be severely injured once they are pulled out of the giant duck teapot. It would be interesting to know what happens to the people after the steeping. Are they given medical attention and returned to the other side of the mirror? Are they thrown in some sort of mass grave where they will eventually succumb to their injuries? I haven’t watched Fowl Play, but I’m almost positive this isn’t explored in the film. It would just be nice to know the full story, but maybe some things are better left unanswered.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Ringu (1998), Suicide Club (2002), and the Horrors of the Technological Myth

The opening dialogue of the 1998 horror genre game-changer Ringu is an urban legend, a Candyman-style recitation of the now-iconic curse that drives the film’s plot. At a casual slumber party, two teenage girls discuss a cursed VHS tape that, once watched, will kill its viewer in a week’s time. The scene starts playful, but once the reality of the tape’s existence is accepted the tone turns sinister. In the dead silence of their now-terrified mood, a landline phone rings loudly in an abrupt, bloodless scare. It’s difficult to see now in the 2010s exactly how monumental of a shift Ringu was on the horror landscape. Along with the found footage-pioneering The Blair Witch Project, Ringu helped usher in a new era of horror that shifted away from the previous decades of stale slasher rehashes & sequels towards a then-fresh aesthetic built on atmosphere & folklore instead of a mad, masked killer. Ringu’s success (and the success of its Gore Verbinski-directed American remake, The Ring) is often credited for sparking the “J-horror” wave of the early 2000s, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for inspiring a wave of technophobic horror works that adapted the concerns of earlier films like Videodrome to the culture of the digital age. The Grudge, Pulse, and Dark Water are perhaps the most notable properties directly inspired by the Cursed Technology folklore of RIngu, but I think few movies pushed its aesthetic into as weird & wild of a place as our current Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club.

I don’t believe it’s possible to truly, genuinely participate in modern mythmaking without including technology in the text. Ringu smartly fulfills that requirement by focusing on technology that’s just barely outdated: VHS cassettes, cable access television, Polaroid cameras, and landline telephones are all just barely-obsolete technologies that the film uses to establish the world of its televised curse. It also mixes in traditionalist concepts like vengeful ghosts & clairvoyant visions to match this new Evil Technology folklore with a sense of dark, old world magic. Suicide Club distorts this method drastically in the way most post-Ringu technophobia horrors tend to, by making its Evil Technology current. For all its strange pondering on the crepiness of cults, pop idols, cheerful children, and kawaii culture, Suicide Club is at its heart a movie about the evils of the internet. Released at a time when the internet was young & sparse, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the eeriness of haunted websites and the danger of anonymous message boards. The traditionalist technophobic lore of Ringu is an idea picked up from works like Videodrome and (going way further back) The Yellow King: the idea that viewing or hearing something cursed could be lethal. Most technology-obsessed horrors that followed in Ringu’s wake echoed that same pattern, killing its victims by exposing them to lethal websites. The basement-level trash pic FearDotCom even featured the tagline “Want to see a killer website?” to drive the point home. Suicide Club pushes the idea much further, disorienting its audience by emphasizing the way Online Discourse has “disconnected” us from our “selves” and using the internet to spread a killer idea instead of a killer website. The curse that spreads through the internet in Suicide Club is a philosophical question, dangerous information that can be passed on through new technology in just a few key strokes. By now, the technology on display in the film is just as outdated as anything was in Ringu, but that dissociative, information-spreading aspect of the internet remains creepily relevant.

Surely, the most iconic image in Ringu is its money shot of a wet-haired ghost girl climbing out of a television set to claim her final victim in the film’s closing minutes. Like Blair Witch, Ringu strayed from the traditional trills of a body count horror to focus more on atmosphere & folklore, so the emergence of this TV static ghost is a one-time affair. The ghost’s victims tend to die open-mouthed, as if in shock, their bodes discovered after the fact. Suicide Club is a much gorier movie, even opening with a scare of over fifty high school students jumping onto train tracks in a mass suicide pact, coating the screen in rivers of blood. Where Ringu lingers on the imagery of spooky technology, filtering the occultist images of its vengeful ghost girl through the digital camcorder grain of a VHS tape, Suicide Club mostly uses the internet as a conduit for its killer, suicide-inspiring philosophy. Given its more hyperactive, gore-minded style of horror, I’d understand if some people would bristle at my suggestion that the films should even be compared. Whenever I doubt Suicide Club’s direct lineage form Ringu, though, I just think back to its trailer. The ad focuses in on a creepy fax machine in the film’s hospital setting. Like with the spooky technology on display in Ringu, the fax machine is kind of an obsolete redundancy in the film, set in the early days of email. The ad pushes the connection even further, though, including cutting room floor imagery of long, wet, black hair emerging from the machine and stretching across the floor. The only way the image could have been closer to Ringu’s most iconic moment is if the fax machine were instead a computer monitor or a television set. For all its myth-minded tonal seriousness, Ringu also ends with a thumping, dance music club track over its closing credits, which isn’t all that different than the incongruous J-pop soundtrack that clashes with Suicide Club’s horrific indulgences in gore. Suicide Club isn’t as faithful to Ringu’s aesthetic as other technology-obsessed J-horror releases that it inspired, but the two films are inextricably linked in my mind.

I don’t understand the widely-held belief that the American remake of Ringu is somehow better than the Japanese original. Gore Verbinski certainly has a slick, distinctly cinematic eye and there’s a sensational scene involving suicidal horses that raises the energy level, but there’s nothing especially innovative about the picture. Ringu is much scrappier & more adventurous, looking for new, modernist modes of horror mythmaking on a bargain budget. It’s only a step above Blair Witch in that way, attacking an ambitious idea through drastically limited means, something The Ring could never claim. However, I do believe Suicide Club successfully picked up the better aspects of Ringu (particularly its technophobic version of modern mythmaking in a horror context) and pushed them into weirder, more ambitions places far surpassing the limited imagination of its inspiration. Ringu is a traditionalist, folklore-minded work in which ghosts invade our modern spaces through slightly outdated technology. Suicide Club, by contrast, is a wildly kaleidoscopic work of blood-soaked mayhem in which then-current technology is a conduit for unknowable, unstoppable evil. Even though I prefer the no-fucks-given audacity of the latter aesthetic, I do majorly respect Ringu for inspiring it. In case you couldn’t tell from my last two Movie of the Month selections, Suicide Club & Unfriended, I’m a huge fan of technophobic, internet-obsessed horror and I can’t imagine that subgenre existing in its current state without the guiding hand of Ringu (or the camcorder technology obsession of The Blair Witch Project, its American cousin).

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002), and last week’s look at its unexpected Danish counterpart, Bridgend (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VIII: Image of the Beast (1980)

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Welcome back, dear readers! When last we left off, Patty (Patty Dunning) was watching her dear friend Wenda lie down beneath the blade of a guillotine at peace with her impending death and reunion with her savior. So after an impressive but very looooong opening credits sequence we pick up . . . in a pre-Rapture supermarket. A very pregnant computer analyst named Kathy (Susan Plumb) and her PMD husband are shopping for produce, much of which has big scary barcodes, and she picks up a book by Beverly Kay about the coming importance of computers. They get to the checkout lane, and their cashier is Patty! Hi, Patty! She asks Kathy if she really wants to buy the book, as one of the stockboys read it and said it was pretty scary. Mr. Kathy’s Husband immediately starts in with his “It is scary!” rapture eschatology, and the two women agree that they just aren’t sure. We then smashcut back to the guillotine, with Jerry (Thom Rachford) and Diane Bradford (Maryann Rachford) forcing her to watch. Sandy (Sandy Stephens)* begs her not to throw her life away as a headless mannequin is removed, and Patty is marched up the steps and given one last chance to take The Mark. Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the ground and all of those assembled flee, save for Patty, who is still strapped into the decapitating machine. She finally makes her decision, crying out that she will take The Mark, but there’s no one around to hear her. Tension builds as the mechanisms holding the blade in place move inch by inch as Patty tries to remove her bonds . . . but not in time. I wish we’d all been ready!

We then find our new protagonist Kathy, who is hiding out with son, aged three (see the next paragraph), when they are found by Leslie (Wenda Shereos, who has nothing to do with the character of Wenda in the last film, which is confusing given that many of the characters in these movies have been The Danza up to this point), one of the group brought out alongside Wenda and Patty, but who managed to escape in the confusion following the earthquake. They are then discovered by a man in a UNITE military uniform (William Wellman Jr.), who demands to see their hands. When he sees that they have no Mark, he shows that neither does he, and introduces himself as David Michaels, admitting that he stole the uniform off of an officer against whom he acted in self-defense, although he doesn’t know if the man died or not. They escape in a military jeep, but Leslie is shot; David checks her body and assumes she’s dead, so he leaves her behind. Leslie is discovered by someone else, and that’s the last we see of her for the next hour or so. Kathy, her son, and David spend the night under the Jeep, but the kid wakes first and wanders off, where he runs across Reverend Turner (Russell Doughten), Patty’s old pastor who failed to preach the right kind of PMD Christianity™ and was left behind as a result; he’s living prepper style now, with a couple of chickens, a goat, an apple tree, and a positively gigantic Rapture map that, speaking solely in terms of square footage, might be larger than my apartment. He offers the trio shelter, and they gladly accept. David tells Kathy about his idea of using a counterfeit mark to keep them fed for as long as possible, and although she’s iffy on the morality of doing so, she agrees to help him try and “decode” the computer system that manages The Mark.

A quick aside here: the presence of Kathy’s son is an odd note, and it bears inspection. Often in these critiques I talk about the points of view of Doughten and those of, for instance, Left Behind co-authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye as if they are interchangeable and immutable, but this isn’t really the case. A couple of weeks ago, I explained the Pre-Millenialist Dispensationalist point of view to an acquaintance by drawing a diagram of how Christianity branches into Catholicism and Protestantism, then Protestantism into its various denominations, all the way down to dispensationalism, then millennial dispensationalism, then pre- and post-millennial dispensationalism, but it continues to branch and sect from there, if you can believe it. For instance, Jenkins/LaHaye are of the belief that people can still accept Christ after the Rapture and be saved, and Doughten et al. subscribe to this same ideology, with caveats. These films are self-contradictory on certain levels, as there is the occasional statement that people can acquire salvation post-Rapture, but only if they didn’t know about the Rapture before it happened; on the other hand, it’s stated over and over again that Patty could have been saved if she just hadn’t been so stubborn, despite the fact that she did know about the impending Rapture, given her discussions with Jenny and Granny as shown in flashback in A Distant Thunder. Jenkins/LaHaye make no such caveats, as Rayford and Pastor Barnes both make it clear that they had forewarning of the impending Rapture and chose not to believe, but this has no effect on the possibility of their post-Rapture conversion. Although I don’t remember the Left Behind books ever outright using the term “age of accountability” in the text (note: this is a link to a discussion of the AoA by a pastor, not an academic source), it is conceptually present as the text explicitly indicates that not only children are children taken in the Rapture, but fetuses as well (Fred Clark discusses some of the existential horror surrounding this spontaneous supernatural abortion in this blog post). We know that Doughten et al. also put stock in the “age of accountability” concept given that Wenda’s 18-month-old was raptured in the last film, but apparently that grace does not extend to the unborn, as Kathy says that she gave birth less than a week after the Rapture. I know this is a weird aside, but given that just about the only way that Republican politics actually align with true Christian ideals is when it comes to the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate, and this is a pretty jarring point of disconnect between two of the big movers and shakers in PMD theology, and both generally agree (in contrast to Catholicism, for instance, which argues that not even the unborn are untouched by Original Sin), it warrants a comment if nothing else.

Also demanding discussion is the way that every single piece of media that attempts to depict the Rapture has issues with political and technological progress, in a way that instantaneously dates each book or film in a way that cannot be ignored, especially as those proselytizers creating these preaching tools consistently refer to them as “history that has not yet happened.” The Left Behind books are, like MST3K, explicitly stated to take place in the “not too distant future” (sing it with me: “Next Sunday AD!”); each Thief film opens with a wall of text that warns that the film is fictional but the events depicted will come to pass. So, when Patty escaped the forces of UNITE in the last film and she had to pull over and use a phone booth, you have to accept that this will come to pass. In the first Left Behind book, the authors spend pages and pages discussing all the steps that Buck Williams has to take in order to connect to the internet from the plane he was aboard when the Rapture happened; still later in other books, an insane level of detail is provided about the communications system that the Tribulation Force (as the “protagonists” call themselves) have installed in their bunker, including all the failsafes and redundancies their expert put in place. And, as we discussed way back in the first Mirth article, a great deal of PMD thinking drew on the ideas of Hal Lindsey, who explicitly connected the “Gog and Magog” discussed in Revelation to the U.S.S.R., which gets left out of reprints for some reason (impressively, Image manages to avoid this, as Kathy and David mention Russia a few times but never refer to them as Soviets or make mention of the Soviet Union). It should also be noted that the creation of the UPC barcode caused evangelical Christianity to lose its shit, as it was “obviously” The Mark already present in our world. This panic has largely been supplanted in the evangelical consciousness by fear of RFID transmitters,** although there are some corners of the internet in which you can see that there are some people drawing a direct connection between them (at least I think that’s what this person is claiming; I have a hard time reading this without getting a headache). When UPC creator Joe Woodland died a few years back, Wired published an article indicating that he was still dealing with the fallout from his invention into the new millennium, as there are still those among us convinced that barcodes are prelude to The Mark. Even those who accept that UPC barcodes aren’t The Mark still write that the “barcode undoubtedly is paving the road for 666: the Mark of the Beast” (granted, that post seems to be from 1999), years after the conspiracy theory that the blank spaces in UPCs are actually sixes has been debunked.

I bring this up because the fact that both Kathy and David have backgrounds in computers is plot relevant in Image, and it doesn’t make much sense. After David dolls himself up with the fake Mark, he tells Kathy that he should be able to buy food using the money that belonged to the UNITE soldier whose uniform he stole. And I quote: “I’ve got his computer account number to his microfiche from his ID.” In 1980, that might have passed for believable dialogue, but I’m pretty sure that was never how computer systems worked (although I admit I’m not sure and am open to correction). It reminds me of a scene in an episode of Eerie, Indiana, in which the protagonist picks up the landline phone in his house and hears the data that is being transmitted through their home internet connection begin verbalized. There was a time when you could get away with making the internet or computer systems do anything, because almost no one in the audience new any better. It’s especially relevant here because so much of this movie is predicated on Kathy and David trying to “decode” The Mark using “hand computers” (“You mean a calculator?” – actual dialogue) and pencil-and-paper algorithms, even though what they’re trying to decode or what their end goal is isn’t made clear at all. Whatever that goal involves, it requires that David meet with Leslie, who suddenly reappears in the movie after a long absence; unfortunately, their rendezvous is discovered by our old friend Sandy and the forces of UNITE, while Kathy’s son is concurrently captured by the Bradfords, who are secret agents for the “Believers Underground Movement Squad,” UNITE’s agency in charge of rooting out underground Christians. The Antichrist’s forces try to use the child as leverage to get more information from David, but he refuses and is let to the guillotine, and the film once again ends as our intrepid hero faces death with dignity.

I feel like I say this every time, but there are some interesting sequences here that are intercut with such passionless scenes that, despite some pretty spectacular events, the movie feels flatter than those that came before Part of that could be the decision to kill Patty. After the opening scenes and the earthquake, we spend 30 interminable minutes getting backstory on our new main characters before the exciting stuff picks back up. Patty’s death scene is dramatic and legitimately tense, and in the commentary writer Doughten and director Donald W. Thompson are excited to talk about it. Thompson mentions that he got a call from a film critic who told him that it was the bloodiest thing she had ever seen in a movie, to which he responds that there’s actually no blood in the scene, which is sort of true: we don’t see any actual gore, but the guillotine’s descending blade is still bloodied from previous executions. Doughten says that they had to kill Patty off because of the actress, but their explanation is tight-lipped and there’s a lot to unpack: Dunning was starting to do a lot of personal appearances, “which was causing a strain on her marriage,” so they asked her husband if they could have her for just a few days, and he agreed, so they shot her death scene and moved on to new characters. To be quite honest, I have no idea what to make of this story, except that it feels gross and controlling on a few levels, like Dunning was tired of his wife being away and forced her to quit, allowing her a couple of days to wrap up her character arc. Dunning doesn’t mention being married (or still married) in her interviews in the special features that appeared on the Distant Thunder DVD, but I hope that either she and her husband went to therapy or they are no longer together, because it’s pretty extreme to demand that one’s wife stop working on a project after nearly ten years and with a minimal time commitment, especially when that project that is so obviously important to her as this one was to Dunning. I may disagree as to whether or not these movies should exist or if they serve to make the world a better place, but as discussed before, they’re much more heartfelt and valid than the Rapture panic media that followed, and they are at worst pretty harmless, despite some callousness on the part of the producers (more on that in a minute). As a result, the Thief series essentially changes horses midstream, as David becomes the new main character. I have to wonder how things would have gone differently if Dunning had been able to complete this film; Kathy shares some of her characteristics (a pre-Rapture “Christian” whose husband is among those taken in the event most notably) and at times seems to be like Patty in that she believes, but we never see her actually say The Prayer™, so her character arc may have followed the same path. Of course, having Patty hanging around and continuing to be obstinately doubtful in the face of continuing overwhelming evidence might have been too much to deal with; I’m just sad that our plucky (if histrionic and unbelievably stubborn) protagonist had such a sudden death, especially since she gives up in her final moments. It’s a meaningless death.

Speaking of meaningless deaths, Doughten and Thompson also talk about how they managed to acquire some of the more impressive shots in the film. For the footage of massive crowds in which people gather to see the False Prophet, Thompson gives thanks that it just so happened that the Pope was visiting Des Moines in 1979, so he was able to send a second unit to film the crowd; instead of the desired crowd shots of 10,000 people, Doughten says they ended up actually having 600,000 (although this source puts the number of attendees closer to 350,000). So far so good; I mean, if you believe in divine intervention, an appearance by the Pope is as close to living proof of it as you’re going to get, even if you’re not Catholic. On the other hand, Doughten also praises God for providing them the opportunity to obtain footage of a devastated landscape to portray the aftereffects of a “Bowl Judgment” fire. How were they able to do so? By filming the charred plains around and in the wake of the Mount St. Helens eruption. You know, the one that caused the deaths of 57 people. Praise God! And I know that they don’t mean to sound as petty in their commentary as this came across, but I did laugh out loud at this dismissive way that they talked about poor Dunning. And I quote: “Thom and Maryann Rachford came from Hollywood. Bill Wellman came from Hollywood. Susan Plumb, she came from Hollywood. Patty Dunning is from Des Moines.” What a glowing endorsement. They’re more appreciative of the child actor(s) that portray Kathy’s son, going on and on about how easy it is to direct children (praise that I’ve never heard before, especially given W.C. Fields’s famous advice). I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, but the kids in this movie are just the worst. There’re bad child actors, and then there are the kids in this movie, holy crap. Remember that baby doll in American Sniper that Bradley Cooper tried to make more lifelike by moving its arms with his fingers? That was more humanity in that chunk of plastic’s performance than any scene with Kathy’s child.

There are more plotting problems here than in A Distant Thunder, which make for a less enjoyable viewing experience. Of particular note is virtually everything having to do with the computers, because it makes so little sense. As noted above, the way that computer technology is used in this film treats it as akin to magic: the viewing audience can’t be expected to have the knowledge base to understand exactly what the protagonists are using computers for and thus don’t really explain it; I even doubt that they could explain it, since David and Kathy’s goals are unclear. That’s basic storytelling: defining what a character wants and examining that character by showing what lengths they will go to in order to achieve it. The larger goals, of opposing the Antichrist and converting as many people as possible before the end of the Tribulation period, are clear. But what they hope to accomplish by cracking the code of The Mark is left unanswered. I feel like I’m belaboring this point, but so much of the film hangs on this that it just drags the film down. There’s just too much confusion, and the audience can’t get no relief.

As with A Distant Thunder, there are some big set pieces that make the film more watchable than most propaganda. Other than that earthquake sequence, there’s also a pretty great car chase (the third in as many films, which I take to mean that they must be pretty fun to shoot) that ends with David driving a UNITE car through a house. It’s awesome! A handyman leaps off of a ladder as the car ramps into a front porch and just explodes out of the other side, and I really want to highlight how cool this shot is. Unfortunately, this is bracketed by two other sequences that fail in other ways. First, the hijacking of the UNITE car itself comes after a scene in the supermarket wherein both Kathy and David need to buy a pack of batteries for their “hand computers,” as they are limited to one to a customer. David gives Kathy directions about how they have to get into the line at the same time, and have to be rung up at the same time, and he has to have his batteries scanned by the cashier before Kathy’s transaction is completed, since they’re both working from the same counterfeit Mark and they’ll be arrested if they use them on separate transactions unless they both check out at the same time. It’s needlessly complicated, not to mention risky, when there are alternative options that are left unconsidered (like making more than one trip to the store, trying a different marketplace, or just coming back the next day). The sequence is admirably tense***, but an alarm sounds and our heroes give the slip to a UNITE guard who crashes into a stockboy carrying a cardboard box of loose raw meat and then keeps slipping on it for a comically long time. David is caught after the crash, but the Antichrist’s forces opt to let him go free in the hopes that he will lead them to other subversives; he slips their grasp but is almost recaptured and then gets away following a really confusing sequence wherein he grabs the landing gear of a helicopter while being pursued on foot; they fly him to a field, where he jumps off and runs away before they can shoot him. All of the assembled forces could clearly see him, and they pretty much just let him get away. That’s a first draft problem, and it becomes clear over the course of this film how rushed it was from conception to completion, in comparison to the others that preceded it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Kathy’s final scene: Jerry and Diane discover the cabin where she’s been sequestered, and she flees into the wilderness after Diane is grabbed by some kind of tail or tentacle. Earlier, Reverend Turner warned Kathy and David about the locusts spoken of in Revelation 9:7-10, along with a comically simple drawing of what they might look like, with special attention paid to their scorpion-like tails. As she hides in a culvert, he shadow of a scorpion’s tail appears behind her, and then the scene cuts away, with Kathy never to be seen again (at least before the credits roll; she might appear in the final**** film, Prodigal Planet). It’s clumsy and messy, although it brought to mind the appearance of Dario Argento’s mantis-Dracula*****, which gave me a chuckle.

Overall, this one is of a lower quality than either Thief in the Night or A Distant Thunder, and it has a lot of problems: obfuscating plotting, bad child acting, a couple of incomprehensible action sequences, and unclear goals for the protagonists. On the other hand, Wellman and Plumb are magnetic presences on screen, and Shereos also makes the most of her screentime. In keeping with the computer theme, the score incorporates some synthesizer beats, which is also a nice touch. Further, I have to give the writers credit for the fact that these characters, despite knowing that they are living in a prophesied time where world events will follow a strict outline, never stop trying to fight their fates. That’s real heroism, and I like it. Compare this to the characters of Left Behind, who not only do nothing to fight the Antichrist, but actively assist him in his goals (as delineated in this blog post by the ever-incomparable Fred Clark). Even Helen Hannah and her group did more than just cower in bunkers, as they were actively trying to interrupt the Antichrist’s broadcasts in Tribulation. On the surface, this one should be more exciting than its predecessors, but in practice . . . not so much. The things that it does improve upon warrant giving it the same score, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the quality of these movies is homogeneous.

* For the most part, the long time between features isn’t terribly obvious in this series. Over the course of eight years and three movies, the recurring characters of Diane, Jerry, and Patty remain largely unchanged. I’m not sure how old Stephens was in A Distant Thunder, but I have to assume she was close to the character’s age of 14/15, because in these scenes shot two years later, she’s about six inches taller and has a completely different haircut and turned blonde in a matter of (in-universe) seconds.

** It’s worth noting here that, occasionally, the PMDs and I agree. Microchipping your pet in case they get lost or adding an RFID sticker to your remote control is all well and good, but their paranoia about putting a tracking device in your body is well-founded. Don’t do that, to yourself or your children.

*** When the cashier’s register, um, registers a possible problem and she tells Kathy she’ll have to write out a receipt, Kathy manages to give her the slip by telling her “I left my baby in the car” and promising to come right back, which dates the movie but also gives me a weird nostalgia for when my mom used to go into the store without me all the time when I was a kid in the early nineties, which was common at the time.

**** Doughten and company planned a fifth film, The Battle of Armageddon, but it has yet to come to pass, and I find it hard to believe it could at this point. Even as of this third film, the series had been in production longer than the seven year Tribulation set to follow the Rapture, and technological advancements that were already wreaking havoc with the timeline would render the film impossible or ridiculous. You’ve got two choices: either set it in the time frame of the original films, in which case the intended point of this being a film of a future yet to come is completely lost, or make it contemporary, in which case all the scenes of reel-to-reel computers, discussion of microfiche, and the use of landline phones and phone booths (not to mention the fashion) would be impossible to reconcile. Sadly, Doughten appears in the DVD special features with a plea to donate toward this goal (the DVD was released in 2004), and with his death in 2013, it looks like all intention of going forward was forsaken. The film has an entry on the Christian Movie Database, but even the donation link on that page is broken.

***** Review here!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Esoteric Suicide-Epidemic Media of Bridgend (2016) & Suicide Club (2002)

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Brandon picked a flick for Movie of the Month that I simply didn’t care for. It’s not the first time we weren’t all in agreement on the MotM; Black Moon was a slog for me personally (although it’s one that I admit I might have enjoyed more if I had been in a different mood), as was Hearts of Fire, and I’ve picked a clunker or two (like My Demon Lover) or something that simply didn’t appeal to everyone (Alli hated Head Over Heels), but usually Brandon and I are pretty much on the same page. Not this time, however. It’s not an issue of subject matter, either, as teen suicides (well, staged suicides) are an integral part of my favorite movie of all time, Heathers; nor is it an issue of cultural differences, as I love the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa like Charisma and Cure, both of which are obvious influences on this film. But, boy, was this one a hard one for me to stay awake through.

So, too, was Bridgend, a more recent film about a rash of teen suicides in the small Welsh town for which the film was named. Starring Hannah Murray of Skins and God Help the Girl fame (or Game of Thrones, I suppose), Bridgend is directed by Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde and focuses on the real town of Bridgend, where nearly eighty people hanged themselves in the years leading up to 2012, most of them teenagers. Sarah (Murray) and her father Dave (Steven Waddington) have moved back to the area so that he, as the new leader of local law enforcement, intends to get to the bottom of this seeming madness. A lonely girl, Sarah is immediately recognized as having attended school with the local hooligan teens upon her return, and falls in with them, much to her father’s violent and overwrought consternation.

I originally discovered this film after binging on the Amazon Prime series Fortitude, an absolutely stunning Nordic-Brit co-production set in Svalbard. I wanted to find more Danish media and Bridgend appeared in a Netflix search. My roommate and I started the film, but he was so bored by it that we turned it off, even though I’m always at least a little bit invested in a movie that features a lot of attractive people going skinny dipping. After watching Suicide Club, I went back to the film to restart and finish it, but absence did not make the heart grow fonder. This is still a dreary film, and not just because of the subject matter. The direction and cinematography has been praised for its realism, with most reviewers noting the director’s background as a documentary filmmaker as the reason for Bridgend‘s lingering shots and invested depth of field. And while that’s likely true, the film’s similarity to non-fiction film-making is also its greatest failing.

At times throughout the film, we’re shown short glimpses of the teens’ interactions with their respective parents that paint them in an unfavorable light. Jamie (Josh O’Connor)’s interactions with his father (Adrian Rawlins), the town vicar, are strained, and there is one line that even seems to imply that there is sexual abuse at play in their relationship. This seems to be borne out in the way that the teens’ apparent leader Danny (Aled Thomas) embarrasses Jamie sexually when he discovers that Jamie and Sarah intend to run away together, but it’s never made explicit. There’s also the fact that Thomas (Scott Arthur) kills himself after a raging party in which his own mother sleeps with his mate Angus (Jamie Burch). And Sarah’s relationship with her father grows from notably cold and distant to outright abusive over the course of the film with little provocation and no explanation. There’s no insight into any of these relationships provided by the editing or any other filmic language; it’s all just presented as a series of vignettes with no thematic connection. That’s a great tack to take when you’re making a documentary, but not when making a narrative fiction film, as it leads to an overall sense of frustration and difficulty in investment.

I can see why this seemed like a good idea. No one knows why the kids in Bridgend keep hanging themselves, and to make a movie with a definitive statement that the cause is poor parental relationships or peer pressure is insulting and in poor taste at best. But if that’s going to be the case, why insert potential issues at all? Why make this film about Bridgend’s suicide trend, instead of creating a fictional town in which similar events take place and set your broody, somber, bathetic melodrama there? Suicide Club did much the same, and even though I was left unfulfilled by it, at least it didn’t pretend that it had something deeper on its mind.

What Bridgend does have over Suicide Club is a greater sense of visual cohesion, even if its narrative cohesion is only slightly higher. For one thing, it benefits from focusing on one character and her admittedly unclear journey, instead of being a series of scenes that are only barely connected thematically before introducing a police procedural element deep in the first act, and then moving to a woman who is (I guess?) our protagonist somewhere around the third hour of the film halfway through the second act. Bridgend, at least, maintains a consistent color temperature and depth of field and focus throughout. You’re not going to get whiplash as you move from a comically scored group suicide to an atmospheric creepy hospital at night to a genuinely eerie school rooftop mass suicidal leap to a parody J-pop music video. There’s going to be a lot of sighing, some head shaking, and you may even shout “Yes, but why?!” when Sarah frees her horse in order to avoid being sent to a riding school (not only is it completely lacking in subtlety as a metaphor, but it also is the only metaphorical moment in the movie, highlighting its absurdity and lack of imagination).

Neither film works for me, but one or both might for you. We can’t all agree about everything. Bridgend is on Netflix.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VII: A Distant Thunder (1978)

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Hello, dear ones. Can you believe it’s been over a year since we last checked in with Patty, the apparent protagonist of the Thief in the Night series? We were barely a month into the Trump Administration the last time I had the strength to watch one of these endearingly dated films about the Rapture, and as more and more bad news rolled in, I couldn’t find it in me to investigate further into the science fiction fantasies of the same group of people who put him in office, in spite of what their actual scriptures say about his kind (if you read Luke 16:19–31 and imagine anyone other than Trump as the rich man in this parable, then get out of your church because it’s lukewarm as shit).

We’re in a bad spot, America. Support for queer people just decreased for the first time. Immigrants are being seized by I.C.E. in the middle of their green card interviews, with the possibility of being held indefinitely, and Jeff Sessions’s rollback of Obama-era civilian-protecting statutes has troubled even notorious asshole Clarence Thomas, who wrote that creating a situation in which police can “seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” This, combined with Sessions’s signalling that white supremacy is A-OK with him means that American Fascism isn’t just an abstract concept anymore, it’s the real deal, and we’re not looking down the barrel—the barrel is in our mouths, and the safety isn’t just off, it’s broken. White supremacy detaining people, confiscating their property, and holding them indefinitely without the possibility of release . . . why does that sound so familiar?

How did we get to the point where a propaganda film about starving people in post-apocalyptic Des Moines being submitted to the rule of the Antichrist is actually escapist fiction, because at least the Christians in this movie can recognize the face of evil and resist it? I mean, I know why, but what the hell, America?

Back over in post-Rapture 1978 Des Moines, our old friend Patty (Patty Dunning) lies on a cot in a church that has been converted (no pun intended) into a camp for those who have not yet taken The Mark. Tomorrow, the group that is captive there will be trotted out and given the final choice: take The Mark or be executed. Despite the fact that she dreamed about the Rapture and most of the occurrences from her dream have come to pass, Patty is still in a panic because she hasn’t “received Christ as her Savior”*, and despite the protestations of her friends, she’s still not ready to do so. Patty’s a bit of an idiot, frankly. I’m pretty sure that Richard Dawkins himself would have gotten on his knees and said the magic words by now if he had witnessed the Rapture with his own eyes. Patty is joined by Wenda (Sally Johnson), who attempts to comfort her, and Kent (Kent Wagner), who tells her that she can find peace in Christ. Wenda’s younger sister Sandy (Sandy Stevens) tells the others to leave Patty be, but Kent and Wenda convince her to relate the story of how she came to be in this camp, in the hopes that it will help her calm down.

We then flash back to that fateful morning from the end of Thief in the Night, when Patty awakens from her nightmare about the Rapture to her new living nightmare of, um, the Rapture. Unbelieving at first, she flees to her pious best friend Jenny (Colleen Niday)’s house, only to find her missing, the radio still on and a stand mixer continuing to spin. From there, she makes her way to the home of her Christian grandmother (Jean Berg? Murial Hunt? As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of photos on the film’s cast page, more than half of the cast is not connected to a character, and if you follow the links, most of these people only ever appeared in this film or one of its sequels). Granny is also Raptured and gone, so Patty returns home; since she can’t afford the mortgage, she invites Wenda and Sandy to come live with her in Granny’s house, which they accept.

A world away (and far beyond the eye of this film’s camera crew), miracles happen. Two men who preach like Elijah and Moses appear in Jerusalem, and there are mass conversions of what Granny calls, in flashback, “sealed witnesses” (144,000 of them, in fact). One of these witnesses (surprisingly hunky Tim Doughten, son of screenwriter Russell Doughten Jr.) happens to appear to the women during one of their horseback outings, and Wenda accepts receives Christ as her savior. Patty’s friend Diane and her husband Jerry (Maryann and Thom Rachford) help the women out by using Diane’s position in a food bank to smuggle food bars to their home, in spite of Patty’s continual hysteria whenever she meets them, a holdover from when she dreamed that they turned her over to the Antichrist’s forces.

Wenda also befriends an older man named Jonathan (Curtis Page? Jim Ites? Who knows!) who wanders by a barn in which the trio is just, like, hanging out one day. She witnesses** to him, but is unsuccessful. She and Sandy are captured by the Antichrist’s forces, UNITE (see the second footnote in the Thief review), but Wenda manages to call Patty and warn her to flee the house. Patty then manages to not only disarm one of the two guards sent after her, but to bluff his partner into dropping his own weapon before she steals their van and gets away. For someone who spends 95% of this movie shrieking and in the most obtuse denial ever committed to film, Patty manages to be a bit of a badass here. She calls Diane to ask for help, only to arrive where she was directed to find that they want her to take The Mark.

We’re all caught up to the frame story now, where the captives have been huddled into the church’s nave and called in groups of four to either take The Mark or be executed. Sandy and Kent are taken, and Wenda makes a final attempt to get Patty to just pray already, but she’s still on the fence***. They are called next and taken outside, where we see the method of execution: a guillotine****. Diane, Jerry, and Sandy (Gasp! She took The Mark! And it was she who betrayed their little trio to UNITE!) appear to try to convince Wenda and Patty to take The Mark and spare themselves this death, but Wenda goes to her execution with quiet dignity. As the blade descends, we are once again left with a cliffhanger, as we freeze frame on Patty’s screaming face. What will she choose? What will you choose?

A Distant Thunder is both better and worse than A Thief in the Night. That same layer of seventies earnestness and, believe it or not, inventive filmmaking that made Thief so memorable is on full display here. I’ve seen and reviewed a lot of cheap, shot-for-nothing horror movies from this era (Cathy’s Curse from 1977, Mark of the Witch from 1970, The Love Butcher from 1975, and Abby from 1974 just to name a few), and the production value in A Distant Thunder is equal to or greater than each of these. There’s an unconvincing but impressive earthquake scene in which an entire set is shaken apart while Patty runs around it panicking, a legitimately thrilling car chase, and a truly magnificent barn fire, all of which combined probably ate most of the film’s budget. As someone who loves the minutiae of filmmaking, there are also places where I can see the film’s desires butting against its cost, and director Donald W. Thompson shows some real ingenuity in shooting around these monetary limitations to give the Rapture and its follow up events a sense of scale. Notable shots include Patty driving to Jenny’s immediately after the Rapture and dealing with a couple of different road blocks caused by accidents (presumably because the cars were unmanned, or because the unmanned vehicles killed and maimed unbelievers), including one vehicle turned on its side. As Patty pulls up to Jenny’s house, we see another “roadblock” manned by uniformed officers, but we only see the sawhorse barrier and the back of the police cruiser, “showing” this other accident solely through implication. It’s a tiny thing to find so praiseworthy, but demonstrates a level of competence in filmmaking that wasn’t very common for that era even among mainstream wannabe filmmakers, and which would be largely lost by the time Cloud Ten came along and made Apocalypse.

Part of this is the result of political changes. As someone raised deep, deep in the world of Evangelical Christianity, I can tell you: the people who grow up in or join these churches are fed a doctrine of constancy of ideology that does not align with historical reality. There’s an anti-factual devotion to the precept that Evangelical Christianity in its current form—culturally isolationist, politically involved, nationalistic, dogged by confrontational rhetoric using words like “war,” “battle,” and “soldiers”—is uniform across time, ignoring the fact that while most of the “movers and shakers” of American history may have been people of faith, they kept their personal and private lives separate. It wasn’t until the Reagan era and the GOP’s genius (and evil) move to predicate their political platform on drawing out the “silent majority” of Christians while also subverting that religion’s altruistic and utopian aims that we saw the beginning of the stark divisions that are omnipresent in political discourse now. This goes above and beyond the way that Christians are misled into believing that a party that is largely anti-Christian (as it is anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-tolerance, anti-immigrant, pro-wealth, pro-usury, etc.) somehow represents their beliefs as followers of Christ, it creates a rhetorical space of presumed correctness that lacks humility and is permeated with smugness.

Like Thief before it, A Distant Thunder is a film made as a preaching tool, yes, but one that was crafted with the explicit desire to render spiritual aid; the creators want you, yes you, to be saved now, because what’s coming for you if you don’t is going to be bad fucking news, and they genuinely want you to be saved from that fate. Compare that to the rhetoric of Kirk Cameron, the Left Behind series, and the various films that Pure Flix has been pumping out: these are products characterized by smug self-satisfaction, using the opportunity to “witness” to instead rub the noses of non-believers in how wrong they are. Cameron and his ilk don’t want you to be saved: they want the schadenfreude that comes from getting taken to heaven and then watching all those atheists and intellectual elitists suffer for being mean to them (that is to say: not agreeing with them immediately, not being won over by their fallacy-riddled argument techniques, having a different opinion, and refusing to go along with the idea that sodomites should be lynched).

I could spend hours and hours telling you about the different things that were forbidden to either me or other kids I knew who had similar home situations (as was almost always the case, the homeschooled kids I went to church with had it the worst), all in the name of further building a wall to separate Christian homes from The World, that evil place outside where Satan was putting kissing homos on television and Murphy Brown was having a child—without a husband! The rhetoric of 1990s Evangelicism was about building walls, while, intentionally or not, the 1970s Rapture fervor was about constructing bridges. And an inseparable part of this is the fact that the makers of the Thief series, since they hadn’t completely walled themselves off from the larger culture, actually knew something about film and filmmaking.

Director Donald W. Thompson may not be the best example of this, given that Thief was his first film and his body of work is largely in other Christian propaganda flicks, but I have no doubt that as a first time director, he was mentored by co-writer Doughten. Doughten was an un-credited co-director on 1958’s The Blob (according to this interview with his son Tim, mentioned above, Doughten was directly responsible for the casting of Steve McQueen in the lead role) and went on to direct 1967’s The Hostage starring Harry Dean Stanton, Don Kelly, and John Carradine, as well as 1968’s Fever Heat, one of the final film roles for Nick Adams. After that, his work seems to be solely in the realm of Christian cinema, but this background in, for lack of a better word, “real” movies gave him abilities that far surpassed the filmic Rapture doomsayers of later decades. Compare him to, for instance, Apocalypse director Peter Gerretsen, who only had two previous films under his belt, both of them apparently religiously themed and whose filmmaking incompetence is almost confrontational. Revelation, Tribulation, and Judgment, despite their varying qualities, were all directed by André van Heerden, whose previous work consists solely of “documentaries” with titles like Racing to the End of Time, The Mark of the Beast, Last Days: Hype or Hope?, and Startling Proofs. Based on the fact that his post-Judgment career has seen him return to these “documentaries” (Between Heaven and Ground Zero, 2012: Prophecy or Panic?, Dragons or Dinosaurs?, and Shadow Government), he seems like someone who believes in what he’s making but who follows the directions of his producers pretty closely. That’s the only way I can explain how he manages to make films with such wild variance in the basics: he’s a workman, not a craftsman. And those writers? Brothers Peter and Paul LaLonde, who appear to have never written anything that wasn’t about the Rapture, which explains why their films have non-Christian characters use terminology that only people who subscribe to their worldview would say; they’re so deep in the scene that they have no idea their jargon isn’t shared outside of their circle.

Other than the aforementioned workarounds to make the world of the film feel more fully realized, there are other visual flourishes in the movie that are well done and occasionally even subtle. There’s a dissolve to flashback at one point that finds Patty inspecting a porcelain statue of a white horse in Diane and Jerry’s house; the next time we see a similar transition, the camera lingers on an ornate red knight on a chess board, and only then does it become apparent that the film is tracking the passage of time with iconography of the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen. It’s a deft touch that is a credit to the direction of the film. There’s also a macabre elegance to the way that the characters herded into the chapel and presented with the choice to accept The Mark or die is a kind of infernal altar call, with the same nonthreatening cadence and vocal inflection as the ones you would see at Bethany World Prayer Center or The Rock Church that I attended in my youth; Patty ruins this a little by lampshading it, but it’s still a rather nice touch. It’s also a good choice to have those who take The Mark be kind and normal; the Apocalypse series (other than Judgment) shows those who accept the Antichrist’s mark as being either possessed by evil or cowering under it. Jerry and Diane actually seem like genuinely nice people, even if they think Wenda and Patty are going a little kooky out there at Granny’s house, and when they trick Patty into showing up at a Mark distribution center, they’re not trying to trap her but create a way for her to get the psychiatric help that, from their point of view, she desperately needs. The film does its best work in these small, intimate moments, like when Wenda and Sandy are taken to an Antichrist medical facility and see a woman begging for someone to feed her baby, but being turned away because she doesn’t have The Mark and refuses to get one. I also really like how the dam that Patty ran across (and from which she was eventually pushed) in her dream in Thief plays a significant role as a focus of the film (although I laughed out loud when she stopped the car there on the way out of town and told Wenda and Sandy that she wanted to “Show [them] what happened in [her] nightmare).

As with all of these films, however, there’s still much to criticize. Patty the actress is doing a damn fine job here, but Patty the character is intolerable, which makes sense when you consider the way that Evangelical Christians conceptualize non-belief: from their point of view, the reality that their understanding of the universe is accurate and factual is just so obvious (ignoring that, if the evidence was really so evident, the very concept of faith would be completely meaningless). Thus those who “don’t believe” actually do believe, they just refuse to admit The Truth™ because then they would have to give up their sinful ways or stop being mad at God for killing their mother when they were a kid (or, more succinctly: atheists don’t exist, only anti-theists who hate God because of a personal trauma or a desire to be “wicked” do). The budget shows through at certain points too, largely because of the reuse of actors. The man playing the Evangelical pastor who was a guest speaker at Patty’s church pre-Rapture*****, and whose lecture she flashes back upon multiple times, also plays a patient at the aforementioned medical center; the younger Doughten plays a doctor in the background in the same sequence, made obvious by his gravity-defying hair and general hunkiness. The “Jewish Missionary” (which is a problem in its own right; check out these three articles from Fred Clark that tackle the weird Anti-Semitism of some PMDs*****) also shows up in the church being prepared for either decapitation or The Mark, which seems like it might be further evidence of the under-sized cast. He’s just hanging in the background, but that giant Star of David pendant is unmistakable, and it’s a plot point earlier in the film that Wenda’s contact with a missionary is the reason for her abduction since the Antichrist, here called “Brother Christopher,” is trying to stamp out evangelism. It could be the same character and he was captured, or it might just be a goof. I also couldn’t help but laugh when Patty drove to Jenny’s house and, after discovering how her friend was taken in the twinkling of an eye, she finds a framed headshot of Jenny, which segues into a flashback (within the larger flashback) to Jenny warning her about the Rapture and what would come next. She then drives to Granny’s house and discovers a framed photo of her, which likewise fades into a flashback to Granny making gingerbread men and issuing a similar warning. At that point, you find yourself wondering if the whole film will consist of Patty just discovering people’s photographs and remembering them; it’s comical, but also fails to follow the law of threes, which ends up feeling a little frustrating.

Another thing that A Distant Thunder has over the other films that I’ve covered is one of the most exciting: DVD bonus features! There’s a commentary from Doughten and Thompson, which doesn’t span the whole film, but does cover the first 33 minutes or so, and it’s pretty dull, although there are a few gems in their discussion (most notably their explanation of why they chose to make the whole film a flashback—it makes it easier to follow for those who didn’t see the first movie and don’t know who Patty is). There’s also an interview with Patty Dunning in which she’s obviously struggling with the inevitable weight gain of old age. She looks fine, but she mentions being a gymnast in her younger age and being thankful for weighing so little during a previous film that required a stunt, and she talks about how she’s endeavoring to take good care of the vessel that God gave her. It’s meandering and sadder than you would expect. There’s also a feature where you can choose to have Dunning lead you in a prayer for salvation, which is fine.

The real gold, though, is in the “Answers” menu, which contains some frequently asked Rapture questions like “When is the Rapture coming?” and “What are the signs of the Rapture?” as well as other general freshman philosophy questions like “If God is so good, why does he allow bad things to happen?” Each of these features an answer from various Biblical “scholars,” almost all of whom look absolutely ghoulish, like centuries old monsters that were dug up for the purpose of shooting these videos and refused to allow themselves to be made up with cosmetics so as not to look like a sissy (here’s a tip to the maybe three of you left alive: film requires makeup, period). My favorite of these is Manfred Kober, who stands in front of his own Tribulation map on an easel (it differs from the one in the film only slightly) with a pointer that he stabs at the image hilariously when babbling some heresy about how this verse and that verse were meant to be connected thematically to create a picture of the Tribulation. Kober has a minimal internet presence, but you can check out his RateMyProfessor page, if you’re so inclined. The shortest of these clips is in answer to the question of what happens to children in the Rapture. It comes in at less than a minute long; the experts admit that they don’t know but that there are “implications” that children are sanctified by having a parent who is a believer. The issue that they don’t raise is that said passage says the same of spouses, which pretty much gives the lie to the various married couples who are split up when one of them is Raptured, a recurring element in these narratives (Jim and Patty here as well as Wenda and her husband*******, the protagonist of Revelation and his Raptured wife and daughter, and, of course, Rayford Steele and his departed Irene in Left Behind).

All in all, A Distant Thunder works, both as a film and an evangelism tool. Its focus on individuals and their choices instead of big elaborate spectacles separates it from the silliness, callousness, and destruction porn that make up later Rapture flicks. Clocking in at 75 minutes, it seems a lot longer, not because it’s slow (although it is that at times) but because it’s chock full of ideas. After the opening exposition, they hit the ground running and don’t look back, and the film is worthwhile for it. And as a metaphor for stubborn ignorance in the face of an obvious and grotesque evil, it is perhaps the most lucid demonstration of modern Evangelical Christianity, if only accidentally.

* This is a pretty strange turn of phrase, to be honest. In the church in which I was raised, one was said to have either “accepted Christ” or not. “Received” almost seems theologically incorrect, since, within this worldview, grace has already been received, but it’s up to the individual to accept it.

** For those of you unfamiliar with Christian terminology, this means “proselytize,” although how aggressive/annoying/genuine it is varies from denomination to denomination and person to person.

*** Even though modern Evangelicals are the ones most responsible for the election of Trump and they are supposed to see themselves reflected in the character of Wenda, who dutifully accepts her fate as a martyr and never wavers in her faith, Patty is the character that they are most like. She’s so fucking stubborn in the face of overwhelming evidence, but she just can’t bring herself to make the right decision because she can’t let go of her pride and admit that she is capable of being wrong. Trump could admit in a tweet tomorrow that he kidnaps babies to drain their blood for Melania’s baths and all your ignorant Facebook friends would spend weeks talking about how “lamestream media” is blowing it all out of proportion and that Trump is God’s sword on this earth (*ahem*). The irony is so thick that you can’t cut it with a knife, but it could crush the life out of your body.

**** From what I can tell, this is the first time that we see guillotines in Rapture fiction. Revelation 20:4 does mention the beheading of believers, but I find this particular methodology fascinating, as the intention with the invention of the guillotine was to find a more humane method of execution in comparison to other killing machines (specifically to replace the breaking wheel), and was created over a millennia after John’s Revelation. It’s curious that the Antichrist would go for the more humane option over, for instance, Stark-style (or, if you’re a paranoid Islamophobe, Islam-style) beheading with a sword. But this seems to set the tone for what’s to come, since we’ll also see death by guillotine show up in the Apocalypse series, and in Left Behind.

***** He even has a Tribulation Map that he pulls out and discusses, with a timeline. Get your own, only $12.95!

****** Pre-Millenialist Dispensationalist. It’s been a while, I know.

******* Wenda finds out that her husband got saved from a letter that arrives post-Rapture and which she reads on the way to Patty’s grandmother’s house; she actually freaks the hell out at this news because after her baby was taken in the Rapture, the only thing holding her together was the hope of seeing her husband again. It’s one of the more emotionally resonant scenes, since the primary audience will know that her grief is misplaced, but Wenda herself is understandably upset. Again, this reflects a depth of understanding of human nature and its nuances that the authors of Left Behind could never even pretend to have.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond