When The Pit Got Bigger, So Did Its Scares

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Britnee mentioned that the film’s premise stoked her déjà vu of another 80s horror gem she had seen in her teens: The Gate. At the time I had never heard of The Gate, but catching up with it since I totally understand the confusion. A Canadian horror oddity about children releasing demons from a hole in their backyard, The Gate shares many basic attributes with The Pit’s DNA. At first glance, it almost seems like a more conventional take on the exact same material. While The Pit follows an oversexed, vengeful monster child who terrorizes his own community like a prurient Rhoda Penmark, with the pit-dwelling troglodytes he releases serving as his flesh-eating pets, The Gate echoes a more traditional dynamic where innocent children face supernatural dangers through no real fault of their own. The hole-dwelling demons of The Gate are described as “minions,” but they’re minions of The Devil, not the children who unwittingly release them. The Pit also boasts a grimy, microbudget quality that finds its scares in emotional & sexual discomfort, recalling other small-budget creepouts like The Baby or Pin, while The Gate is much more reliant on the physical scares of special effects work – depicting its demonic threats through traditional means like rubber monster costumes, forced perceptive photography, and stop motion animation. While The Gate blows up The Pit’s basic aesthetic to a grander, more traditional stage, however, it maintains the earlier film’s basic strangeness & willingness to throw as may varied, plentiful scares at the screen as it can manage in its 80min runtime. If anything, the increase in budget & ability to produce literal, physical dangers in the same childish headspace as The Pit only makes The Gate more terrifying.

Writer Michael Nankin explained that he constructed The Gate around “the nastiest thoughts from [his] childhood,” a tone that’s nailed perfectly in the final product. By its overwhelming finale, the film feels like a sky-high pile of varied demonic monstrosities, but each scare is generated from the detailed-fixated nightmare logic of any & all childhood anxieties. The premise is simple: two young friends discover a hole in a suburban backyard and unwittingly perform a Satanic ritual that transforms it into a gate to Hell. While being babysat on a parents-free weekend, they’re forced to contend with a wide range of hideous beasts & impossible supernatural oddities that emerge from the hole until they seal the gate with another ritual. Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control. It’s a far cry from the telepathic teddy bear & rubber monster suits simplicity of The Pit, but the same loopy adherence to nightmare logic & willingness to escalate the extent of the threat on an exponential trajectory remains.

I’d be curious to know if The Pit was a direct influence on The Gate, which seems likely given their release dates, Canuxploitation origins, and childlike fascination with hole-dwelling monsters. It’s possible that this is a case of parallel thinking, where two 1980s filmmakers tried to recreate what inspired their worst nightmares as children and used the same starting point (a backyard hole) as their initial writing prompt. The better-funded special effects work of The Gate pushed that premise to its scariest extreme, but both films tap into the darkest corners of childhood anxiety in their own impressive, respective ways. As Britnee stated when she first compared the two: “I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.” I imagine there are entire subcults of children who were traumatized by catching either title (or both!) on late-night cable at just the right age. These are the kinds of uneasy horror films that look & feel like they were made for children . . . until they very much don’t. The Pit subverts its children’s media aesthetic by tapping into menacing sexual discomfort. The Gate goes for much more traditional, physical scares in its own depictions of hole-dwelling Evil, but its nightmare logic & gleeful sense of cruelty leads to even bigger scares than what’s lurking in The Pit. I’m not sure what was going on in 1980s Canadian holes that inspired these two terrifying oddities, but I’m grateful that it was immortalized onscreen. I just wish I had seen both films at the age when they really would have burrowed into my subconscious, when I would have been too young to fully comprehend why they’re terrifying, but just the right age to share their sensibilities.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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Movies Screening in New Orleans This Week 10/18/18 – 10/25/18

There’s a wonderful overlap of goings-on in the city this week, as New Orleans Film Fest is descending upon us just as we approach Halloween. There are hundreds of titles screening all over the city for NOFF and we plan to cover at least a dozen or so of all types and shapes and genres for the site in the coming weeks. For the purposes of keeping our weekly Now Playing feature spooky all October, I’m only going to highlight a few horror-related NOFF titles here, so you can work the festival into your regular Halloween-season movie binging. Happy hauntings!

Spooky Movies Screening at New Orleans Film Fest

Pig Film A vision of a post-Apocalyptic hellscape that accentuates its microbudget production values with Eraserhead-quality industrial grime, set on a rust-coated hog farm. Of the few Halloween-adjacent selections I found in NOFF’s lineup, this one appears to fall closest to pure horror. Pig Film is screening (for free!) in its US Premiere at the The Advocate’s headquarters Sunday 10/21, 4:15pm, and at the Contemporary Arts Center Tuesday 10/23, 3:45pm.

Empty Metal Another psychedelic dystopian nightmare, this time about a punk band that gets recruited by a violent, revolutionary militia of gun-toting weirdos. Early descriptions of the film position its aesthetic somewhere between Green Room & Born in Flames, a combo that easily has me on the hook. Empty Metal is screening at The Advocate’s Headquarters Saturday 10/20, 8:30pm, and Tuesday 10/23, 3:45 pm.

Chained for Life This one’s inclusion is a bit of a cheat, as it’s clearly a drama, not a horror film. However, it’s a drama that’s reported to explore the way horror cinema has historically exploited & objectified disabled & disfigured performers on the screen, with particular connections to Under the Skin and Tod Browning’s Freaks (even borrowing its title from a thriller starring Freaks-standouts The Hilton Sisters). Chained for Life is screening (for free!) at the Contemporary Arts Center Thursday 10/18, 3:00pm, and at The Advocate’s headquarters Sunday 10/21, 9:00pm.

The “Late Night” Shorts Program I’m going to try my best to attend more short-film programs this year, as it’s a branch of the film fest experience I usually miss out on. The “Late Night” Shorts program seems to lean closer to Halloween-adjacent content more than most of the other packages, including films about nervous breakdowns, murderous cheerleaders, unicorn-eating dinosaurs, and zombie-like gentrification invasions. The “Late Night” Shorts are screening at the Contemporary Arts Center 10/19, 9:00pm, and at The Advocate’s headquarters Tuesday 10/23, 8:15pm.

Spooky Movies Screening Elsewhere

Halloween (2018) – 40 years (!!!!) after the John Carpenter original helped Shape the early stirrings of the slasher genre, this timeline-resetting sequel promises to return the series back to its grounded, horrifying roots. The early buzz is strong, the creative team (fronted by David Gordon Green & Danny McBride, of all people) seems genuinely passionate, Jamie Lee Curtis is back to afford it legitimacy, and it’s the exact right time of the year to see this kind of thing big & loud with a first-weekend crowd. Hell yeah.

Venom A C-grade superhero movie that treads water for at least a half-hour, then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy with an outright Nic Cagian lead performance from Tom Hardy. Venom is a less satirically pointed, big-budget version of Upgrade or a modernized Henenlotter, but its highs are also much funnier (and surprisingly queerer) than either of those reference points. It’s a lot of fun if you maintain your patience through the first act.

Bad Times at the El Royale Six whole years ago, Drew Goddard’s debut feature Cabin in the Woods brought the meta-horror of Wes Craven works like New Nightmare & Scream to a new level of comedic what-the-fuckery. His only credits as a director since have been a couple (excellent) episodes of The Good Place, so this twisty, star-studded neo-noir follow-up feature is much-anticipated (and is supported by one of the year’s best trailers).

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween I didn’t expect to love 2015’s Goosebumps movie nearly as much as I did, but it ended up excelling as a children’s primer for life-long horror fandom, like a Monster Squad update for a generation raised on CGI.  I’m going into this sequel with a much higher level of anticipation, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies Screening in New Orleans This Week 10/11/18 – 10/17/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, focusing on some spooky selections to help kickstart your Halloween celebrations.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Bad Times at the El Royale Six whole years ago, Drew Goddard’s debut feature Cabin in the Woods brought the meta-horror of Wes Craven works like New Nightmare & Scream to a new level of comedic what-the-fuckery. His only credits as a director since have been a couple (excellent) episodes of The Good Place, so this twisty, star-studded neo-noir follow-up feature is much-anticipated (and is supported by one of the year’s best trailers).

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween I didn’t expect to love 2015’s Goosebumps movie nearly as much as I did, but it ended up excelling as a children’s primer for life-long horror fandom, like a Monster Squad update for a generation raised on CGI.  I’m going into this sequel with a much higher level of anticipation, for better or for worse.

The House with the Clock in Its Walls Eli Roth made a name for himself in one of horror’s worst creative slumps: the torture porn nu-metal aughts. He hasn’t been of much interest to me as a result, but recent tongue-in-cheek pranks like the Keanu Reeves head-scratcher Knock Knock have been slowly changing my mind on that, so his directing a PG-rated haunted house comedy for children certainly has an unignorable allure to it. I’m foolishly optimistic.

Hell Fest It’s October, which means it’s time to indulge in as many gimmicky, mainstream horrors as possible before Halloween comes & goes. This one is set at a haunted house amusement park, appearing to fall halfway between the grime of The Funhouse & the slick production of the Final Destination series in its basic aesthetic. It almost doesn’t even matter if it ends up being any good; it’s just the exact right season to see a ridiculous horror movie big & loud with an early-run crowd.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Halloween (1978) – Catch John Carpenter’s genre-pioneering slasher on the big screen before its latest decades-late sequel hits the multiplexes next week.  ‘Tis the season! Playing Friday 10/12, Saturday 10/13, and Sunday 10/14 as part of Prytania’s Kill-o-rama series.

Dracula (1931) – Tod Browning’s Universal Monsters classic is mostly notable for its killer lead performance from Bela Lugosi as its titular vampire (and most enjoyable when accompanied by Philip Glass’s 1990s score, which likely won’t be included with these screenings), but it’s also too legendary to be missed in a proper theatrical setting. Playing Sunday 10/14 & Wednesday 10/17 as part of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Mandy Panos Cosmatos’s follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow is being sold as a badass psychedelic freakout starring an unhinged Nic Cage in a heavy metal revenge fantasy. The truth is much stranger than that, as the film is in actuality a slow descent into the Hell of personal grief, much more grotesque & distressing than anything that could be considered feel-good badassery. It’s metal. It’s psychedelic. It deserves to be seen as big & as loud as possible. Just don’t expect it to be a party. Only screening at The Broad Theater.

Venom A C-grade superhero movie that treads water for at least a half-hour, then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy with an outright Nic Cagian lead performance from Tom Hardy. Venom is a less satirically pointed, big-budget version of Upgrade or a modernized Henenlotter, but its highs are also much funnier (and surprisingly queerer) than either of those reference points. It’s a lot of fun if you maintain your patience through the first act.

-Brandon Ledet

Film, Representation, and the Historical Record

Why we care

For the second consecutive year, the writers here at Swampflix have been attempting to complete the #52FilmsByWomen challenge posed to us by the organization Women in Film. The pledge is simple enough: to try over the course of one year to watch the equivalent of one film per week by a female director or female writer. As a staff member of a library, I started to wonder what films from within our own collection qualify and how do I find that out? A team of several colleagues, including my co-author Rachel Tillay and supervisor lisa Hooper formed to answer this question about our own collection, with the aim to create a tool that would allow other institutions to similarly analyze their own holdings.

The Representation Problem

Recently, students of film and film arts have begun to ask whether the creators of film accurately reflect the human record. Studies such as “Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015” have explored the relationship between creators and whether they accurately represent the human condition. Interest in the unequal rates in which women fill various positions has been particularly acute. Women in Film found that “women comprised 11% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2017.” Women are slightly more likely to be involved in other parts of the creative process. For example, “overall, women accounted for 16% of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 films. Women fared best as producers (24%), followed by executive producers (15%), editors (14%), writers (10%), directors (8%), and cinematographers (2%).” These studies all point to the importance of further examination of the factors that lead to inequality in hiring and funding practices in movie business.

The Data Cycle and Libraries

While the factors that lead to inequality in the creation of film are being examined, the role discrimination plays in other portions of the data cycle have not been examined. The data life cycle is the process which occurs between the creation of a film and the inclusion of that film as part of the inspiration for a new film. This is the work of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. For example, libraries collect or acquisition film into their collections, describe the films (also known as creating metadata or cataloging), and store the content for the long term. Specifically, two of the most common, long-standing characteristics of libraries are that they are a “collection [of] what is deemed to be important information” and that they “preserve the information for future users.” [Evans, G. Edwards and Margaret Zarnosky Saponaro. Collection Management Basics, sixth edition pg. 2]

Nevertheless, libraries are not living up to their own ideals regarding properly recording the wealth of diversity present in modern culture. In fact, one of the topics being discussed passionately in recent conferences (such as ALA 2018 held this past June in New Orleans), is how can these organizations work to increase inclusion in their own organizations and the wider community, preserve the record of oppressed peoples, and correct past practices which suppressed the knowledge and values of minorities. In this context, the question about diversity in film becomes, “is the work of a diverse population being acquired, described, and preserved by historical institutions?” When libraries acquire film and make it available for loan we are supporting the status quo if we collect more films by men, describe them more accurately, loan them out more often, and save more of them for future watchers. Additionally, the libraries that exist on the margins often struggle to protect the collections they’re preserving. As an example of the scale of the loss, the sample collection of data we are examining begins with DVDs bought in 2005. All other DVDs owned by Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, and a number of other items, were all lost when ten feet of water filled the bottom floors of the library during Hurricane Katrina.

If, however, we can begin to correct this bias by collecting, describing, loaning, and preserving more films by women or other under-represented groups, we are participating in creating a more accurate version of the historical record and succeeding in our mission, as well as providing a more equitable set of data from which new films will draw for their inspiration.

A New Tool

For this reason, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has begun to explore our own collections and is developing a free tool that will allow other preservers of the historical record to examine their own collections to answer these questions. Our initial project has been to examine what percentage of our DVD collection was directed by women and what percentage of the directors whose work we have collected are women.

This project was more difficult than desired because only recently have library metadata (or catalog) records for DVDs been allowed to incorporate demographic data about the creators, and the majority of records created by libraries around the world rarely include this data. Unfortunately, in the complex calculus of balancing comprehensive records for all information and detailed records, many new fields like those for demographic data are often ignored. Additionally, the terminology that should be used in demographic fields is still in development. Catalogers and metadata librarians are exploring how to describe gender in sensitive and accurate ways. The terminology must encompass cis and trans, male, female, and gender non-conforming identities. It must be useful for grouping and analyzing large sets of data, be relatively stable, and be extensible as terminology change over time.

Fortunately for our purposes, cataloging records do almost always very carefully note who the agents associated with the creation and dissemination of each object are. The names are recorded according to a very detailed set of predictable rules, many creators of multiple works are assigned their own name format to distinguish from people who have the same name, and they are included in the same place in every record. Many records also use terminology or codes that describe the role each person played. We were also able to harvest into our dataset lists of female directors from Wikipedia’s female directors list, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, and Collider.com’s The Most Exciting Female Directors Working Today. We created Python scripts and regular expressions that interpret the most common data structures in libraries (inverted names, often followed by dates or other identifying information) into direct order (First Name Last Name). We documented the process we used for creating and applying these so that others can recreate or extend our work. Finally, we compared the imperfect lists that resulted. We were disappointed to realize that only a bit more than 4% of our DVDs have female directors. We are hopeful that as we add missing names to our data, that the percentage will increase. However, we are also going to put more effort into acquiring films with female directors in an attempt to create a more representative collection.

We invite you to participate in this work! Ways you can participate include:

  1. Contributing to lists of creators on Wikipedia who belong to under-represented groups.
  2. Examine your collections, or collections you have data for. (Spoiler alert: it would take some effort, but nearly all libraries have provided some information about their holdings publicly online). Because our code is available for free online, you can reuse it as well!
  3. Check our work! Is there something obvious we’re missing? If you find something we should take into account, you can even submit suggestions through Github and we would love to add them in!

-Rachel Tillay & CC Chapman

Movies Screening in New Orleans This Week 10/4/18 – 10/10/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including some spooky selections to help kickstart your Halloween celebrations.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Hell Fest It’s the start of October, which means it’s time to indulge in as many gimmicky, mainstream horrors as possible before Halloween comes & goes. This one is set at a haunted house amusement park, appearing to fall halfway between the grime of The Funhouse & the slick production of the Final Destination series in its basic aesthetic. It almost doesn’t even matter if it ends up being any good; it’s just the exact right season to see a ridiculous horror movie big & loud with an early-run crowd.

Venom The early reviews of this Tom Hardy comic book horror have been fiercely negative, but also makes the film sound like essential viewing for its potential as over-the-top camp. You can’t call something “gleefully stupid” or “as bad as Catwoman” and expect me not to be there opening weekend.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – Long after the silent 1920s Lon Chaney original helped launch Universal’s Famous Monsters brand, the studio attempted to stage a talkie remake that eventually became this RKO picture instead, one of the most expensive productions in RKO history. A lavish horror classic that seems worthy of being experienced on the big screen for some early Halloween season chills. Playing Sunday 10/7 & Wednesday 10/10 as part of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Suspiria (1977) The new 4k digital restoration of the Dario Argento face-melter is returning to The Prytania after its sold-out screenings played to ecstatic crowds last October. The giallo lighting has never looked more intense, the Goblin soundtrack has never been more deafening and, since Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming remake has recently been gathering intense buzz on the festival circuit, there’s never been a better time to revisit this cult horror classic. Playing twice nightly at The Prytania Theatre.

Mandy Panos Cosmatos’s follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow is being sold as a badass psychedelic freakout starring an unhinged Nic Cage in a heavy metal revenge fantasy. The truth is much stranger than that, as the film is in actuality a slow descent into the Hell of personal grief, much more grotesque & distressing than anything that could be considered feel-good badassery. It’s metal. It’s psychedelic. It deserves to be seen as big & as loud as possible. Just don’t expect it to be a party. Only screening at The Broad Theater.

A Simple Favor – Paul Feig graduates from churning out over-the-top, female-led comedies like Bridesmaids & Spy to delivering an over-the-top, female-led noir in what amounts to a tongue-in-cheek riff on thrillers like Gone Girl. Boomer had a lot of fun with it, reporting “It would be a mistake to let this curiosity slip into obscurity without giving it a watch.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Pit (1981)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Pit (1981).

CC: When I was first asked to join Swampflix I was both excited and apprehensive because I knew that I would soon have to select a Movie of the Month. How could I possibly choose something that I’ve seen but none of the experts at Swampflix have? I was doubly intimidated when I was informed that my first selection would be the October Movie of the Month, which has traditionally been a horror film. Thank goodness for my years of idly watching whatever garbage played during daytime television in my cable-free, pre-internet childhood. I saw The Pit around the same time I saw the 1979 film Prophecy, a sci-fi horror featuring a truly disturbing mutated, skinless bear. As a result, I kinda mixed some parts of the two in my mind. Mainly, the disturbing gore.

The Pit is a 1981 Canuxploitation (Canadian schlock) horror film that was for some strange reason filmed in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. It follows the story of socially inept and lustful 12-year-old Jamie, who discovers a pit full of monsters he calls “Tra-la-logs” (instead of troglodytes) in the woods behind his house. He quickly discovers the monsters will eat any meat he supplies them, even . . . HUMAN FLESH! When Jamie’s not pushing his enemies into a pit of monsters, he’s blackmailing librarians for sexy nudes and stalking his babysitter. Oh yeah, and he talks to a teddy bear who may or may not be demonically possessed. In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, “This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

Boomer, what did you think of The Pit? Were there too many plot elements and horror tropes or was it delightfully overstuffed?

Boomer: I loved this movie. It definitely felt a little sporadically organized, given that there are at least three different kinds of horror going on here (psychological/psychosexual, supernatural [arguably?], and cryptozoological), and that means that the film is being pulled in multiple directions at once, but while that certainly means that it runs the risk of being muddled (and it shows its seams at times), it hangs together pretty well on the whole, minus a few things that I would consider to be poor choices. I really like that, for the most part, the film acts as an insight into the mind of a repressed little boy who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s stuck in a state of arrested development and lives almost entirely in his own imagination, and his parents are so unprepared to deal with his specialized needs (or as Sandy says, “exceptional children”) that they treat their son like an alien being. At first, the things that we learn about Jamie—like that he was wearing a superman cape (presumably as a loincloth) and swinging around in trees pretending to be Tarzan—are unusual, but not bizarre, antisocial, or dangerous enough to warrant the kind of response that his family and community provide: old ladies talking about his maladaptive behavior when he is within earshot; getting punched in the face by a bully with no apparent repercussions for the larger, more aggressive boy; the cruel taunts and pranks from Abergail [sic]; and arguably the worst, Marg Livingstone, who treats Jamie as if he were an aggressive adult sex offender released on parole, rather than an odd little boy who needs a good talking to. If a child develops a crush and acts on it inappropriately, you would think an adult would first scold the kid and then get the parents involved if it happened again, but Marg just hides behind bookshelves like a creep instead of tackling the problem head-on like a grown-up (not that this excuses what Jamie does to her later). He builds, of course, to violence and sexual harassment (his extortion of Marg under threat of violence to her niece is when he really crosses the line), but his community already despises and ostracizes him at a time when the audience can’t help but sympathize with him.

There’s a lot that happens in implication here, much more than in other horror movies of the era, area, or budget. Jamie’s father looks to be at least a decade older than his mother, if not two, so the audience is left to assume that there’s a bizarre sexual energy in the house even before the parents abandon the boy in the hands of a local college student they barely know. On top of that, we get Jamie’s monologue in the bath about how his mother often washes him and washes him, even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, implying that Mrs. Benjamin goes a little “Piper Laurie as Margaret White” whenever Jamie acts out. Honestly, the amount of sexual repression and psychological damage, combined with the “child with a secret” trope and the northeastern US backdrop, give the whole thing a Stephen King vibe all the way through. When we hear Teddy speaking, he does so with Jamie’s voice, much like little Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend that helps him interpret the world around him when adults fail to provide even the most scant or answers (or sympathy). The titular pit is almost the least interesting aspect of the entire film, except as an objective correlative metaphor about the giant hole in Jamie’s understanding of the world that leads him to do some pretty fucked up things. For me, the only real problem is when the “tra-la-logs” in the hole are revealed to be literal and real and not just aspects of Jamie’s psyche. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does irrevocably change the tone when the psychological inspection of Jamie is interrupted for 20+ minutes by characters we’ve never seen before: a toothless and typical “monsters eat skinny-dipping teenagers” scene, an abbreviated police procedural about finding the missing persons, and a bunch of camo-hatted hunters pursuing the troglodytes back to their pit and shooting them all.

Reading up on the film, apparently the original script was more explicit in the fact that the action of the film was all in Jamie’s mind, with no escaped troglodytes and nothing supernatural about Teddy. To me, the influence of that first script is most apparent in the scene where Jamie forces Marg to strip, as we see Teddy’s (read: Jamie’s) voice coming from a recording on the other end of the phone line instead of, for instance, coming from the bear himself. On the other hand, there’s also the scene where poor Sandy finds Jamie’s nudie mags and then puts them back where they were, while Teddy’s head turns to the door after she leaves, clearly indicating that there is something not-of-this-earth about the bear. There was clearly a lot of studio interference going on here, and I wish we could see the film as it was originally intended, but nonetheless I’m delighted that I’ve finally seen it.

I’ve been hard on all of the adults in this film with the exception of Sandy (who certainly has moments where she could be a better influence on Jamie and help guide him into being less antisocial, but overall is fairly balanced in her treatment of him and only freaks out when he really crosses the line, like when he sneaks into the bathroom while she’s showering), but the one I feel most perplexed about is Marg. The film acts as if we’re supposed to have more empathy for Jamie, and reasonably so (at least at first), while Marg in general reacts very poorly to Jamie’s affections, crude though they may be. Again, why would you not address a twelve year old boy about how inappropriate it is for him to put your picture on a nude? By acting as if it never happened, you’re doing nothing to alter or change this behavior, which is irresponsible and bizarre, especially when you are an authority figure in his life. Brandon, am I being too hard on Marg?

Brandon: I think the issue is that you’re being too soft on Jamie, which is making you overly judgemental of Marg by extension. Jamie’s prurient interests in adult women goes far beyond the typical crushes of boys his age and instead weighs on the community around him as a genuine sexual menace. The creepiest thing about it is that he knows his predatory, privacy-violating behavior will be excused by the adults around him because of his apparent juvenile innocence. He’s like a horned-up version of Rhoda Penmark (of The Bad Seed) in that way, playing the part of a curious child who loves his teddy bear whenever anyone’s looking, but privately operating as a sexual sociopath with complex schemes on how to exploit the older women around him for cheap thrills. I don’t get the sense that we’re meant to sympathize with Jamie, but rather are supposed to be creeped out by his premature sexuality & his overreaction to bullies (both actual & perceived). His juvenile horniness feels like a threat that’s terrorized his community long before the film’s narrative starts, as indicated by his parents’ deliberate absence, his long back-history of traumatized babysitters, and Marg’s already-established paranoia in his presence. I’m totally on Marg’s side in suspicion & fear of that horny little devil, which is why it’s so satisfying when he ultimately meets his demise at the hands of his own Rhoda Penmark-type equal (in a conclusion that makes no logical storytelling sense, but strikes a perfect note of poetic justice anyway).

Jamie’s terrifying, predatory sexuality is a large reason why I fell in love with The Pit, because it’s a genuinely horrific threat that effectively creeped me out even though the film at large is campy & over-the-top. As already suggested, this is a film that’s delightfully overstuffed with non-traditional monsters: flesh-eating troglodytes, a telepathic teddy bear, and a horny pubescent boy. Because of the cheapness of the troglodytes’ Roger Corman-level costuming & the bear’s cartoonish vocal dubbing, it’s easy enough to laugh those threats off as being too goofy to take seriously. Jamie’s predatory sexuality is much more difficult to dismiss, recalling other unconventionally eerie films of the era like Pin, The Baby, Sleepaway Camp, and Flowers in the Attic that transcend their limited means by tapping into adolescent sexual discomfort. Britnee, did you similarly find Jamie’s sexuality to be the creepiest threat in The Pit? Were the tra-la-logs or the telepathic teddy bear at all scary to you or did they play like campy jokes in comparison to the horny little boy who considers them friends?

Britnee: When I think of what scares me the most in general, it’s children like Jamie. Creepy, sleazy little perverts who think they’re untouchable. I wanted to jump through the screen and light that teddy bear on fire just to punish Jamie for being a gross creep. Also, it seemed like the teddy bear had part of his soul, so burning it would possibly destroy Jamie (like Voldemort’s horcruxes!). Even if the tra-la-logs were more realistic and genuinely terrifying or if the teddy bear was possessed by a demonic spirit and using a child to do its dirty work, nothing even comes close to how terrifying Jamie is. He’s also at the age where kids are the most annoying: not quite a teenager, yet older than an elementary school student. All of these horrible things combined made it really difficult for me to have any sort of sympathy or understanding for Jamie, and this is why I don’t have children or work with children.

What I love most about The Pit, other than the fact that it contains my worst fear (creepy kids), is that it’s so unpredictable and goes in a ton of different directions. I just didn’t know what to focus on. Should I have been concerned about the tra-la-logs climbing out of the pit and wreaking havoc on the innocent folk of this small town? Or should I be more worried about the possessed teddy bear guiding a perverted kid in the wrong direction? I didn’t really know, but I also didn’t really care because all of the distracting little subplots made the ending of the film all the more shocking for me. There’s nothing quite like a film that ends with a twist, and oh boy, was this ending twist so satisfying. I went home and slept like a baby after the movie ended.

CC, you mentioned watching this as a young kid. How was watching it again as an adult? Is there anything that you were more scared of in the film back then that didn’t scare you in the recent viewing? Or vice versa?

CC: As mentioned previously, I had somewhat blended the plots to both The Pit and Prophecy in my 6-9 year-old brain and as a result, didn’t really remember much of The Pit beyond the glowing eyes of the tra-la-logs. It’s a strange detail to fixate on too, since the tra-la-logs themselves get so little screen time. I’m surprised that Jamie’s extremely disturbing Teddy did not leave more of a lasting impression. Mind you, I was terrified of clowns, the dark, some dolls (especially Chucky or Chucky-adjacent ones), Troll II, Freddy Kruger, walking up staircases or down hallways, and cars so I probably was just trying to make sure that at least teddy bears could stay on my “safe” list. It should also be noted that none of the weird sexual stuff stayed with me, but that might again be my baby brain trying to protect me from the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons this film did stick in my mind is that it’s not particularly scary. A psycho-sexual thriller starring a 12-year-old and lacking in significant jump scares is more creepy and off-putting than most horror I had been exposed to at this age. Boomer, what’s your take? Is The Pit a scary movie? Does it even count as horror?

Boomer: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this film to be “scary” per se, and not just because it turns into a bargain basement Don Dohler (redundant, I know) movie in the third act. I’m in agreement with Brandon and Britnee in that the scariest thing about this film is its function as a disturbing exploration of the psyche of an oversexed pubescent boy, and Jamie is, as Brandon notes, a genuine sexual menace. I just find myself having more sympathy for Jamie (initially; he falls off the slippery slope very quickly). I think that may have more to do with how old/mature we interpret Jamie to be and whether or not he has some kind of social disorder or is on the autism spectrum, and I’m quick to admit that this is likely due to my reading of the film being rooted in my own horizon of limited experience.

When I was in the fifth grade at a repressive Christian school, the students in my class were on a rotating schedule of who was to deliver the lunch orders for the entire class to the cafeteria in the mornings. I remember clearly that this happened on a Thursday, because the lunch room was in back of auditorium that was used for assemblies and in which the middle and high school students had “chapel” assemblies every week. The previous night, the son of the pastor who headed the megachurch of which the school was part had been caught in flagrante delicto with the school secretary’s daughter in his car during the Wednesday night service. Every student in grades 6-12 had been gathered in the auditorium to watch an “educational” video in which one of the talking heads (not those) stated clearly that “We [adults] always know when teenagers are having sex, because the boy is always angry, and the girl is always crying.” Leaving aside the more subtle nastiness in that statement (the heteronormativity, the prurience of adults with regards to teenage sexual behavior, etc.) and focusing on the extreme inappropriateness of the ideas presented in it, this is deeply fucked up. That’s not even getting into the fact that the girl in question was expelled and the pastor’s son was allowed to continue to attend school, and the undeniable sexism of that, not to mention the implicitness of the fact that this decision should not be questioned; after all, wasn’t the pastor ordained by God and thus above having his decisions questioned?

This was just one piece of a 5000+ component puzzle of my understanding of sexuality in an extremely religious and oppressed household and community. For years, if there was a girl who was crying at school, the only logical conclusion was that she was a slut (she couldn’t possibly have been simply frustrated at the overall sexism and degradation she experienced at this school, or in a home headed by a patriarch who considered this a sufficiently healthy learning environment . . . right?). There was nothing healthy about my own understanding of sex and sexuality until I was in my late teens at best, and even then, I was still possessed of toxic ideologies and regressive attitudes that have taken years to unlearn, and which I still find myself noticing and confronting in my life on a daily basis. I could recount dozens upon dozens of stories just like this one that illustrate how my own mind and that of many others I knew were warped by an abusive home, school, and church life that created one Jamie after another. I’m certainly not saying that I think Jamie shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions; he definitely should. Leaving aside the extent to which Jamie is mentally capable of understanding what he’s doing (more on that in a moment), I just see his home life and the repressed reactions of his parents and community as being contributing factors to his personality problems: he explicitly says that his mother enjoys bathing him despite the fact that he is at an age where he should be able to bathe himself (hinting at potential molestation); he says that his mother often bathes him even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, which immediately makes me think of poor Carrie White getting locked in her closet by her mother for her “uncleanness”; when he acts inappropriately, his father snatches him up, threatens violence, and doesn’t even consider having a conversation about consent, privacy, or the inappropriateness of voyeurism; and ultimately, his parents completely abdicate their responsibility to raise their child and leave him in the care of a stranger with, at most, a day or two’s warning.

At least one source I’ve found indicates that screenwriter Ian Stuart’s original script was explicit in its demonstration that Jamie had a developmental disorder, that The Pit was intended to be “an earnest exploration of the inner life of an autistic child” and that “[the] tra-la-logs and the talking bear were all products of Jaime’s mind, and his perversions were mostly interior.” Although no one in the film talks about neurological atypicality vis-a-vis their relationship to socialization issues (other than Sandy’s oblique references to working with “exceptional children”), after having worked in education, the signs that Jamie is on the spectrum were apparent to me in my reading of the film. With this in mind, he clearly has parents who are completely unprepared, ill-equipped, and unwilling to do the hard work of raising a special needs child. It doesn’t make his actions forgivable (in particular, the peeping at poor Marg under the threat of proxy violence is completely inexcusable and the most nauseating thing in the whole film), but I see the reactions of the adults in his life to his actions as making them complicit in the escalation of his behavior. To loop back around to CC’s question, I wouldn’t say that the film is “horror” per se, but it does effectively demonstrate the disturbing way that children with disabilities are often abused and neglected. The Arc, an organization that was originally created to assist people neurologically atypical individuals in finding legal recourse against institutions that denied services to them, reports that one in three children with autism or some other kind of mental impairment will experience abuse in their lifetimes (although they indicate that there’s insufficient study data to confirm all of their findings, and they do not differentiate between abuse by parents and other entities like caregivers or teachers).

Any properly socially aware person can see that the sexist, unequal treatment of male and female children and the cultivation of a “boys will be boys” mentality that denigrates the lived experience of women contribute to a society in which someone like Brett Kavanaugh can come within spitting distance of a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land while his accusers are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence. The difference is that at the time of his (“alleged”) infractions, the older and neurotypical Kavanaugh was mentally competent to take responsibility for his actions, while Jamie is (arguably) an autistic child whose need for specialized care is neglected by his parents and who is ostracized and isolated by his community. His curiosity about sexuality combined with his punishment for having said curiosity, devoid of any kind of education about why his actions are inappropriate and reprehensible and how they can be expressed more healthily, turns him into a ticking time bomb of perversion (and worse). To me, this is a movie about the horrors of abuse, neglect, complicity, and the failure of communities (on the familial and societal level) to take responsibility to teach young men about consent, assault, bodily autonomy, boundaries, and respect. The true horror of The Pit is that it acts as a mirror of society and shows us how rape culture can be perpetuated: “This is how you get Jamies. This is how you get Kavanaughs. This is how you get Brock Turners.” The only difference is that Jamie (again, arguably, given that nothing is ever made explicit about his neurological state) lacks the mental faculties to meditate on his toxic ideologies and change them without some kind of guidance, which he is denied at every turn.

Brandon, bearing in mind that the screenwriter originally intended to make Jamie’s autism explicit, and that this was one of the many changes made by the studio between conception and release, do you see any of that implied on screen, or am I giving the film too much credit? Does it affect your feelings about Jamie? Is the “Hollywoodifying” of the script (like making the bear’s possession and the existence of the tra-la-logs explicitly real on top of dropping Jamie’s disorder) something that you observe as a continuing problem in the film industry (i.e., are there any recent films in which the “seams” between the original intent and the finished product are so obvious)?

Brandon: The thoughtful child-psychology drama you’re describing is clearly detectable early in The Pit, but it’s something that gets muddled the more the film indulges in the schlocky horrors offered by the tra-la-logs, the telepathic teddy bear, and Jamie’s weaponized libido. To note a particular way that dynamic changes, consider the shifting implications of how Jamie’s relationship with his parents tracks from beginning to end. When Jamie’s just a sexually confused, mentally disturbed young boy who can’t differentiate between reality & fantasy, his parents come across as abusive brutes, ill-quipped to properly raise a child with special needs (or any child at all, really). Later, when the horrors of the film are made explicitly real and Jamie is demonstrated to be a cold-hearted, perverted killer who takes orders from a demonic toy and feeds (mostly undeserving) victims to his pet troglodytes, that parent-child dynamic shifts dramatically. The threats of physical violence, reports of inappropriate bath time scrubbing, and eagerness to delegate responsibility for the little creep to unsuspecting babysitters are still disturbing on their own merit, but they can easily be read as desperate, last-ditch efforts from parents frustrated by & fearful of a murderous, horned-up monster child. Any credibility The Pit might have had as a sincere inner-life portrait of a troubled child on the spectrum is lost as soon as magic is shown to be real & Jamie starts deploying it against his enemies . . . but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing.

On some level, I recognize that an intellectual, measured approach to Jamie’s dysfunctional psychology would likely be the more ethical path for The Pit to take, but as an appreciator of shameless, bonkers genre films, I’m honestly deeply appreciative that the original script underwent the “Hollywoodization” process instead. I’ve seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to thoughtfully capture the imagination & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a teddy bear. It was 2009’s unintentionally terrifying curio Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended what-the-fuck factor (thanks largely to being covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast) – the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous treats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s-good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. The Hollywoodization of The Pit is partially what saves it from being an embarrassment. As an audience, we’ve practically been trained to expect the restrained “It was all in Jamie’s head” reveal from the original script, which is what makes touches like the teddy bear’s unexplained anthropomorphism or the tra-la-logs’ third act escape from the titular pit such mind-blowing developments. The producers may have pushed for an intellectually hollower effect with those changes, but it feels like they’re breaking unspoken storytelling rules as a result, and the film feels like something much wilder than the Gooby precursor it easily could have been (considering its production value & quality of dialogue).

Because of the types of films I’m most typically drawn to (“messy,” over-the-top, “style over substance” genre fare), I more often run into unintentionally implied messages & themes rather than ones that have been erased or diluted in production. Sometimes, these unintended messages can be delightfully absurd, such as how Juame Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror film Orphan makes adopting a child appear to be a dangerous terror or how the 1989 fantasy comedy Teen Witch encourages young women to ditch their loyal best friends for easy popularity without there being fallout or consequence. Sometimes, the result is shockingly offensive, such as how the 2016 horror Lights Out encourages parents with depression to heroically commit suicide to spare their children of the burden or how this year’s G-rated talking-animal comedy Show Dogs groomed children to be accepting of sexual molestation (before appropriate outrage had that underlying theme removed from the film while it was still in theaters). Whether delightful or abhorrent, I always find this kind of unintentional messaging in cheapo cinema to be fascinating, even more so than tracking the ways a screenwriter’s original intent was diluted on its way to the screen. As such, I find myself scratching my head over what the completed, explicitly supernatural version of The Pit is saying about Jamie & childhood psychology more than I am fretting over what may have been lost from its first draft on the page. The final version of the story isn’t saying much (if anything) substantial about children on the spectrum, but it’s loudly ranting about something, however incoherent.

Britnee, what moral or message are you getting from The Pit as a completed work, if any? What is the film ultimately saying about Jamie & childhood psychology?

Britnee: If there is any moral message that I got from The Pit, it’s “You can’t be a little shit without being punished.” I saw Jamie as a terror of a child who ran around terrorizing people for sheer pleasure and killing people who got in his way or did him “wrong.” The more harassing and killing he did, the more I hoped that he would be punished for his actions in some way, which in the end, he did. Not once did I think about what was causing him to be so horrible. I just assumed he was pure evil. Now that it’s been a while since I initially watched the film and I’ve read Boomer’s take on Jamie’s character, I definitely see how Jamie was a victim of abuse and neglect. For instance, when I watched the bathtub scene, I thought he was acting like a perv and manipulating Sandy into the bathing him for sexual pleasure. My dislike for his character made me disregard his cries for help when he told her about how his mom bathed him hardcore even when he’s not dirty. While Sandy seemed concerned after hearing this, she did nothing. Sandy was really the only person he seemed to trust (he even told her the tra-la-log secret!) and she failed him. So between Sandy and his neglectful parents, he really didn’t have anyone to guide him in the right direction and get him the help he desperately needed.

In regards to childhood psychology, the film may be trying to say, “Hey, if you have a disturbed kid like Jamie, pay attention to their abnormal behavior and get them help before they do some serious damage.” It’s possible that Jamie would’ve had a chance if his parents would have brought him to a therapist or psychiatrist instead of ignoring him, hoping the problem would just go away on its own. All that being said, I still really hate him, but I sort of understand why he’s such a terrible human being.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I usually don’t do any prior research for Movie of the Month choices before watching the films, but I did a quick Google Image search for The Pit because it sounded like a movie I watched as a teenager. The movie I was thinking of was 1987’s The Gate, which is about a group of kids that unleash demons from a hole in their backyard. I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.

Brandon: The Canuxploitation factor of The Pit, combined with its Wisconsin shooting locale, is undeniably part of its value as a curiosity. There’s a whole outsider-artist industry of regional genre cinema out there that rarely reaches wide distribution or acclaim, but can be fascinating in its creative dissonance with routine Hollywood filmmaking. To that point, I accidentally spoiled myself on some of the film’s stranger touches when I recently watched Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel for an unrelated viewing project. Farley himself is an outsider, regional artist who makes backyard movies with friends & family in New England, far from The Pit’s Wisconsin locales. He must see a kindred spirit in The Pit’s aggressively local aesthetic, though, as Sammy is – unbelievably – a feature-length homage/spoof of this little seen cult classic, set in Farley’s Massachusetts haunts.

As strange & highly specific as The Pit can be, there’s an entire world of regional cinema weirdos out there producing curios just like it for barely existent audiences (and in the case of Sammy, I mean just like it). As an amateur, localized film critic with a deliberately D.I.Y. blogging aesthetic, I find that pocket of outsider filmmaking to be inspiring, if not outright heroic.

CC: I’m a big fan of films where children are put in danger (like The Goonies, The Monster Squad, or even The Nice Guys) so a film where children are both in danger and the source of the danger are really enjoyable for me. I’m glad my co-writers were also able to have fun with this weird gem.

Boomer: Super grateful that CC brought this gem to the table. I’d like to apologize for any lack of clarity on my part with regards to Jamie’s monstrosity and if it appeared I was trying to completely deflect responsibility for his behavior onto the myriad of (mostly bad) adult caretakers and gatekeepers in his life. I’d also like to forewarn any interested parties that, should you find this film on YouTube, although it will at first appear that it’s been mangled in some way and starting in the middle, but no, that’s just the way that it is.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Brandon presents Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Halloween Report 2018: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means many cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (and the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!

Art House Horror

If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.

Hereditary  (2018) “I wasn’t in ‘critical film theory’ mode while watching Hereditary. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension; I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.”

Mandy (2018) – “Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.”

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.”

Annihilation (2018) – “As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). That’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth, Garland changes the theme of the novel from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level.”

Good Manners (2018) – “On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.”

Shock Corridor (1963) – “Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.”

Cyber-Horror

The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. Here are some above-average horror films that have shrewdly exploited that modern world mystique for eerie scares.

Suicide Club (2002) – “Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the Internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell.”

Perfect Blue (1997) – “Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.”

Unfriended (2015) – “I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.”

Assassination Nation (2018) – “Besides maybe Revenge, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film match the extremity of its gender politics exploration this year, something that feels just as necessary & cathartic as it is unsettling. It’s a topic that’s now inextricable from the tones & tactics of modern life online, something the film was smart to recognize & tackle head-on. Its overall spirit is prankish & prone to bleak humor, but Assassination Nation is less of a comedy than it is a violent uprooting of cultural misogyny & sexual repression in the Internet Age.”

Truth or Dare? (2018) – “As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer ‘Truth or dare?’ their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, ‘It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.'”

Gothic Horror

A literary-minded horror subgenre that’s sadly grown out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but still one with a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit “alive.”

Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) – “Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name.”

Beast (2018) – “There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core (sold wonderfully by actors Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn) and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make the films feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake.”

Marrowbone (2018) – “Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped.”

Mainstream and Traditional Horror

It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.

The First Purge (2018) – “There’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times.”

The Strangers (2008) When asked, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ the masked assailants only answer, ‘Because you were home,’ a response so succinctly chilling it was eventually marketed as a tagline. That just-because ethos is a powerful source of terror that largely substitutes any need for a fully-developed plot. Likewise, the look of the killers’ masks is distinctly memorable enough on its own to fill in any void left by their oppressively sparse dialogue. The Strangers dwells in the terror of negative space and the absence of intent, a much more satisfactory source of scares than what’s usually achieved with the home invasion template.”

Jennifer’s Body (2009) – “The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty. That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of the film; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position. It’s what makes Jennifer’s Body unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.”

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – “As an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd.”

A Quiet Place (2018) – “Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.”

Weirdo Outliers

Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies categorization. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in entirely unexpected ways.

Lair of the White Worm (1988) – The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).”

Upgrade (2018) – Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

Unsane (2018) – “Like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position.”

The Children (2008) – “Kids can be cute, but they’re also a nuisance & a terror to anyone who’s looking to have a quiet moment of relief from familial stress. The 2008 British horror cheapie The Children understands that terror deep in its bones and builds its entire story around the evil & the chaos screaming children bring into the already stressful environment of a holiday get-together. It’s not one of the most tastefully considered or slickly produced Christmas-set horror films I’ve ever seen, but it does capture that exact kind of domestic, familial terror better than almost any film I can name, save maybe for The Babadook.”

Ghost Stories (2018) “Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.”

Creature Features

Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.

The Fly II (1989) – “Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors.”

The Shape of Water (2017) – “Although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the ‘other’: a ‘commie,’ a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.”

The Untamed (2017) – The Untamed adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to ‘elevated horrors’ of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually penetrates human beings with its tentacles. The film alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) – “The story is familiar, but flows incredibly naturally from scene to scene with an editing room finesse atypical of this genre territory. The special effects also feel above par for the material, from the head-to-toe detail of the rubber monster suits to the distorted faces of the lighting strikes to the weaponized fog the creatures deploy when abducting their victims. All the surface level narrative details of I Married a Monster from Outer Space are exactly what you’d expect from its title; the attention to detail in its craft just happens to be a cut above.”

Blue My Mind (2018) – “If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.”

The Giant Claw (1957) – The Giant Claw is a perfect little B-movie gem, an efficient reminder of why throwaway genre trash from half a century ago is still worth digging through. Its creature design is hideous, its dialogue is inane, and its lofty sci-fi ideas aren’t worth even the paper they’re scribbled on, but The Giant Claw is the rare discarded horror schlock that achieves a kind of sublime stupidity that can’t easily be found in its peers.”

Matt Farley’s Backyard Horrors

A microbudget filmmaker who’s been making Roger Corman-style rubber-suit monster movies with friends in New England for decades to little fanfare, despite churning out consistently endearing horror comedies.

Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) “The real centerpiece of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is not any of its monster attacks in the woods, but rather a lengthy wedding sequence staged in a backyard that starts with a petty argument over potato casserole and ends in a minutes-long dance party. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is at its core a hangout film, in that it’s a document of friends hanging out & staging gags around the non-existent legend of a non-existent monster & the public triumph of the one man who believed it to be real. It’s the story of Matt Farley’s miniature media kingdom in a microcosm, as it’s the story of a man possessed by a singular obsession finding himself at odds with a world that could not care less.”

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2010) – “The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Matt Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about ‘good natured, harmless pranks’ guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with ‘teen’ romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand.”

Druid Gladiator Clone (2002) – “A series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed ‘cloaks’ (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.”

Campy Spectacles

If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, often intentionally. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.

Death Spa (1989) – “The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.”

Serial Mom (1994) – “There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in Serial Mom (that ‘pussywillow’ scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.”

Blood Bath (1966) – “You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.”

All About Evil (2010) – All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of director Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.”

She’s Allergic to Cats (2017) – She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”

Mom and Dad (2018) – “Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey;’ stay for the pitch-black humor about ‘successful’ adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.”

Special Features

Every link listed above is for a review we’ve posted on the site. If you’re looking for lists or articles from our horror tag instead, check out our Boomer’s Favorite Horrors by Decade lists, Brandon’s attempt to define the term “A24 horror,” and CC’s comparison of Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm adaptation to its Bram Stoker source material.

-The Swampflix Crew

 

Defining the New Extremity

On a recent episode of the podcast, Britnee & I were flattered to be joined by fellow Krewe Divine member Cindy Miller, who performs drag locally as CeCe V DeMenthe. When asked what topic she’d like to discuss on the show, Cindy chose to contemplate the changing art house cinema scene in New Orleans, with a focus on the way things have evolved (or devolved) since the 1970s. Citing a time when weird, ambitious, outrageous spectacles as wide-ranging as Fitzcarraldo, Caligula, and Pink Flamingos would screen in legitimate theaters (as opposed to dive bars & art gallery spaces that sometimes stage art house screenings in the 2010s), she painted a picture of a much more robust, invigorated arts cinema scene. A lot of that art house nostalgia is very convincing too. The internet has shifted the cinephile’s community from local, in-the-flesh sects to a global, disconnected hegemony. Anticipation for a new release is shared in large scale on the internet more than it is experienced in a local scene of art house regulars who’re accustomed to running into each other with each Event Movie. The funding for weird, artsy experiments has also diminished, in terms of both production & distribution. The massive scale of independent films like Caligula & Fitzcarraldo are entirely foreign to the bare-bones budgets of modern indies. Likewise, the marketing behind the modern art picture (save maybe for an A24 production) is anemic compared to the grassroots hype machine of the past. It’s cheaper now than it ever has been to make a movie, but it’s becoming near-impossible to get that movie seen as a result.

That last point was where I differed from what Cindy was saying about there not being any new weird, challenging freak-out pictures at the movies. The budgetary scale may have diminished and jaded, seen-it-all audiences may be more difficult to shock. However, my bet is that there are more weird-ass, freaky-deaky, what-the-fuck art films being made now than ever before. It’s getting them noticed while they’re still fresh & in the theater that’s becoming extremely difficult, especially as media news skews more to MCU, Disney, and Oscars coverage than niche cinema (for obvious$ rea$on$). What I’ve started to compile, then, is a list of recommendations of recent weird art films that prove, at least to me, that shocking, highly stylized cinema isn’t dead – it’s just poorly marketed.

I’ve listed below 20 movies I believe to exemplify the modern extremity of artsy-fartsy movies that somehow managed to reach a sizable theatrical audience, no matter how quietly. These movies, all reviewed since Swampflix was launched in 2015 (and so excluding notable titles like Under the Skin & Upstream Color that we never officially covered), are not necessarily my favorites in the modern canon, but rather the ones I believe best continue the 1970s art house circuit tradition of playing to an audience who can express an appreciation for both John Waters & Ingmar Bergman in a single breath. They are listed in order of streaming availability, not quality. I’ve purposefully avoided more genre-faithful pictures in this vein (such as the “elevated” A24 horror aesthetic), as well as recent films I haven’t seen yet but I’m sure would fit right in: Climax, The Wild Boys, Let the Corpses Tan, etc. The selections lean to unsubtle, morally . . . questionable, self-amused provocations aiming to get a rise out of their audience while indulging heavily in the basic cinematic pleasures of sight & sound. These are 20 recommended streaming watches for a local, Divine-inspired drag queen who wanted to see that new, somewhat widely-seen features could still be dangerous, shocking, beautiful, sickening, and fun. I hope I somewhat captured the vibe of modern cinematic extremism here, the notable swing-for-the-fences freak-outs of the 2010s.

The Neon Demon “I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Greasy Strangler “I found The Greasy Strangler to be an amusingly perverse provocation, one that works fairly well as a deconstruction of the Sundance-minded indie romance. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Forbidden RoomThe Forbidden Room is, in a lot of ways, pure Guy Maddin aesthetic with little to no consideration given to purpose or accessibility. The film is funny, strange, visually astonishing, but purely there to amuse itself with its very existence. The Forbidden Room is High Art with a prankster’s spirit, a feast for the eyes much more interested in juvenile humor than any specific narrative. Its a story within a story within a story within a story story structure is a pure down-the-rabbit-hole adventure, a dizzying mess of dueling timelines that individually hold less & less significance as they multiply. ” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

NovemberNovember is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality. The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.” Currently Streaming on Amazon Prime.

mother!“Recalling the artificial environments & darkly funny social horrors of surrealist masters like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Luis Buñuel, mother! is on a very basic level a surreally menacing comedy about the horror of having guests over who will not leave, a sentiment I identify with more than I likely should admit.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime & Hulu.

The Duke of BurgundyThe Duke of Burgundy’s varied shots of a butterfly & moth filled specimen room sets a tone for how the film operates. It’s a narrative that relies on repetition & ritual, much like the repetition of a specific butterfly specimen is repeated within the display cases. Similarly, each image is tacked to the wall, hovering to be appreciated like a precious, organic object. Strickland finds emotional resonance in the film’s central relationship, but he also spends inordinate amounts of time reveling in the textures of the world that surrounds them. Filming the couple through mirrors, fringes, and fabrics, Strickland finds the same reverence for the sense of touch here that he did for sound in his 2013 ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a challenging prospect for viewers, but the rewards are glorious.” Currently streaming on Hulu.

Tale of Tales “It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

High-RiseHigh-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Raw “I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called RawSuspiria meets Ginger Snaps,’ which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Staying Vertical – “The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Evolution “If I had to boil my take on the film down to a single adjective it’d be ‘stubborn.’ Evolution presents a cold, discomforting world in which children are put in danger for a supernatural purpose, a circumstance the film has no interest in explaining, only for the camera to quietly, clinically stare at their unlikely predicament. Anyone who might have complained that the obscured, supernatural terrors of 2016’s flagship horror breakout The Witch were too loosely defined & uneager to entertain would cry themselves to sleep watching what director Lucile Hadžihalilović has carefully constructed here. For anyone with a little patience in the way they approach densely puzzling horror cinema with unconventional payoffs, however, it’s an eerie submersion in a stubbornly confounding nightmare, a rare kind of disorientation that’s entirely unfamiliar to the world we live in.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

We Are the Flesh“I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome).” Currently streaming on Shudder.

The UntamedThe Untamed adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to ‘elevated horrors’ of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually penetrates human beings with its tentacles. The film alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Beyond the Black Rainbow – “Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a straightforward cinematic experience, but instead works more like ambient music or a poem. In an age where the lines dividing cinema & television are becoming increasingly blurred, there’s an exponential value in movies that work this way. Recent mind-benders like Beyond the Black Rainbow, It Follows, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears are much-needed reminders that there are still things cinema can do that television can’t, no matter how much HBO wants you to believe otherwise.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Wetlands – “Most likely the cutest movie about an anal fissure you’ll ever see, Wetlands is by and large an exercise in depravity. It’s as if de Sade or Bataille had written a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy. If there’s a particular bodily fluid, sexual act, or unsanitary pizza topping that you absolutely cannot handle this may not be the movie for you. However, those who can endure a heap of gross-out humor are well rewarded for their fortitude. Like its 18 year old protagonist Helen (expertly played by Carla Juri) the film’s hard, shock value exterior is really a front for a big old softie lurking under the surface.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Goodnight MommyGoodnight Mommy is a smart, taut movie that is beautifully composed and cinematically crisp, full of beautiful exterior landscape shots that highlight the isolation of the two boys and contribute to the logic of their slowly building paranoia in a home that no longer feels safe and a caregiver they cannot recognize.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

The Lure The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.” Currently a $4 VOD rental.

Double Lover “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.” Currently a $4 VOD rental.

Mandy “Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.” Currently a $5 VOD rental (and playing at The Broad Theater).

Kuso “With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with the internet. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.” Currently a $10 digital purchase on Amazon.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 9/27/18 – 10/3/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including some spooky selections to help kickstart your Halloween celebrations.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Assassination Nation A feminist cyberthriller take on the Salem Witch Trials that appears to fall halfway between Unfriended & The Purge – like a meaner, glibber Nerve. This got extremely divisive reviews out of Sundance earlier this year, which has me twice as curious as I’d already be for any Evil Internet thriller, one of my favorite modern genres.

Hell Fest It’s the start of October, which means it’s time to indulge in as many gimmicky, mainstream horrors as possible before Halloween comes & goes. This one is set at a haunted house amusement park, appearing to fall halfway between the grime of The Funhouse & the slick production of the Final Destination series in its basic aesthetic. It almost doesn’t even matter if it ends up being any good; it’s just the exact right season to see a ridiculous horror movie big & loud with a first-weekend crowd.

Lizzie – A costume drama/psychological thriller in which Chloë Sevigny plays famed 19th Century axe murderer Lizzie Borden and Kristen Steward costars as her servant/lover. I don’t know how to sell that premise to you if you’re not already on the hook. Only screening at AMC Elmwood.

The House with the Clock in Its Walls Eli Roth made a name for himself in one of horror’s worst creative slumps: the torture porn nu-metal aughts. He hasn’t been of much interest to me as a result, but recent tongue-in-cheek pranks like the Keanu Reeves head-scratcher Knock Knock have been slowly changing my mind on that, so his directing a PG-rated haunted house comedy for children certainly has an unignorable allure to it. I’m foolishly optimistic.

Phantom of the Opera (1943) Long after the silent 1920s Lon Cheney original helped launch Universal’s Famous Monsters brand, the studio produced this Technicolor talkie remake to mixed commercial & critical success. It may not be the ideal version of Universal’s Phantom offerings, but it still seems worth seeing on the big screen for some early Halloween Season chills. Playing Sunday 9/30 & Wednesday 10/3 as part of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Suspiria (1977) The new 4k digital restoration of the Dario Argento face-melter is returning to The Prytania after its sold-out screenings played to ecstatic crowds last October. The giallo lighting has never looked more intense, the Goblin soundtrack has never been more deafening and, since Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming remake has recently been gathering intense buzz on the festival circuit, there’s never been a better time to revisit this cult horror classic. Playing Sunday 9/30 as part of Prytania’s Kill-o-rama series.

Mandy Panos Cosmatos’s follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow is being sold as a badass psychedelic freakout starring an unhinged Nic Cage in a heavy metal revenge fantasy. The truth is much stranger than that, as the film is in actuality a slow descent into the Hell of personal grief, much more grotesque & distressing than anything that could be considered feel-good badassery. It’s metal. It’s psychedelic. It deserves to be seen as big & as loud as possible. Just don’t expect it to be a party. Only screening at The Broad Theater.

BlacKkKlansman BlacKkKlansman is a much better-funded, more commercially minded picture than we’ve seen from Spike Lee in years, one that filters satirical jabs at Trumpian racial politics through a classic buddy cop genre structure & a historical look back at the not-so-distant past of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging between such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea, making for one of the year’s most essential cinematic experiences.

White Boy Rick Extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster Video instead of a modern stylistic freakout. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, but that’s not always a bad thing.

SearchingFull disclosure: this one is a controversial pick among the Swampflix crew. It’s basically the Lifetime Movie version of Unfriended, where a trashy genre we love for its cruelty & absurdity is softened by safer, less goofy sentimentality so that it can appeal to the cheesiest of suburban parents. James & I complained about it at length on a recent episode of the podcast, but Britnee was a big fan, as she’s all-in on the Lifetime aesthetic. Either way you fall, it’s worthy of discussion and its success can only mean good things for a gimmicky, technophobic genre we all love.

-Brandon Ledet

Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet