Swan Song (2021)

One of the most surprising frontrunners for 2021’s Movie of the Year is the culinary revenge drama Pig, in which a world-weary Nicolas Cages emerges from retirement & isolation to smite his rivals with the fine art of fine dining.  I personally related to Pig‘s kitchen culture critiques more than I expected to, especially as someone who put themselves through college by working back-of-house positions for most of the 2000s.  But what about people with no kitchen experience?  What if you’re a veteran of less macho service industries, like hair salons & drag clubs?  Don’t you deserve your own revenge-mission drama that’s quietly bitter about the changing world?

Yes, Swan Song is essentially Pig for bitter old queens instead of bitter old chefs.  Udo Kier stars as a gay-elder hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio, who’s dragged out of retirement for one final mission (and to square off against his nemesis in glamor, Jennifer Coolidge).  “Inspired by a true icon,” he’s known in his community as “The Liberace of Sandusky,” but he dresses & quips more like a small-town Quentin Crisp.  Reassembling his gaudy costume rings & 70s leisure suits like knights’ armor, he embarks on a heroic journey to spruce the hair of his wealthiest client as she lays in her casket, carefully burning every bridge along the way between his old life & a new—to his eyes—less authentic world. 

Unfortunately, this is a case where the character is much stronger than the movie that contains him.  Swan Song constantly distracts from its own antique glamor with attempts at a distinctly modern, Sundancey style.  Despite its shockingly expensive soundtrack, it’s shot with the same cheap, bland digi sheen that’s plagued most quirky character studies on Sundance’s docket in recent decades (although the film notably premiered at SXSW, despite appearing tailor-made for that fest).  Its story structure is so by the numbers that you halfway expect Tim Meadows to interject, “Pat Pitesenbarger needs to think about his whole life before he dresses hair.”  And the frustrating thing is that the character is solid enough of an anchor on his own that none of the movie’s failed attempts at style or poignancy are at all necessary.  In an ideal world, this would get a Sordid Lives-style spinoff sitcom where Kier & Coolidge wage war in competing hair salons across the street from each other.  I could watch them bitterly banter forever, even if everything around them tested my patience.

There is one major advantage Swan Song has over the other quirky character studies that continually ooze out of festivals like Sundance & SXSW: it has a distinct point of view.  Udo Kier’s bitterness about the changing world can sometimes feel justified, as when he laments “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore” in frustration over cruising’s migration from bars to apps.  Sometimes, it feels pointlessly egotistical, as when he complains that younger generations should be “kissing his rings” for paving the road to their civil rights.  It at least has something pointed to say about the way community elders are often left behind by youth-obsessed gay culture instead of being properly revered & cared for, whatever the occasional limitations of that perspective may be.  It’s also amusing as a bitterly fabulous counterpoint to Pig, with truffles swapped out for vintage cans of Vivante hair gel.

-Brandon Ledet

Benedetta (2021)

Verhoeven is back, baby.  I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up.  Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven.  It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste.  Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting.  I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob.  Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists.  I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.

Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex.  Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy.  The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around.  The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent.  Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry.  The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine.  The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him.  Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it.  Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.

As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday.  The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride.  I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet.  Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer.  It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs.  No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence.  It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.

There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture.  It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts.  Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it.  I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night House (2021)

The movie is just alright, but Rebecca Hall is great: a tale as old as time.  I always hear that Hall is a powerhouse performer, but I’m used to seeing her play low-key, anonymous roles in genre movies like The Gift, Transcendence, and Godzilla vs Kong, where she tends to support instead of outshine the ooky-spooky monsters & ghouls at centerstage.  That likely says more about me than it says about Hall, though, since her fan-favorite performance as the titular role in the 2016 biopic Christine is widely available and I’ve yet to make time for it.  Luckily, The Night House is willing to meet me halfway by casting Rebecca Hall as the dramatic lead in a straight-forward horror film about a haunted house, wherein she’s the central focus of every single scene.  The movie itself is just okay, but her performance is fantastic, so I at least appreciated that it dragged me kicking and screaming into the Rebecca Hall fan club.

Viewed purely as a haunted-house movie, The Night House is only so-so.  It’s overloaded with exciting ideas, teasing tangents of Lovecraftian blueprints for a dark-magic home, silhouettes of ghosts formed by the negative space in architectural details, erotic foreplay with said negative-space ghosts, and a cursed netherworld that can only be accessed through lucid dreams.  Unfortunately, it’s frustratingly restrained in its execution of its most out-there concepts, only indulging in each for mere seconds before dragging the audience back to the dramatic reality they disrupt.  That dramatic core is yet another It’s Actually About Grief metaphor that has become so standard in modern horror, with Rebecca Hall being both physically & emotionally haunted by her recent suicide-victim husband.  In a decade, academics will have something smart & concise to say about why so many of our contemporary horror films are so fixated on the subject of grief, just as we’ve since explained away the early-aughts’ obsession with onscreen torture as a way to process American war crimes during the War on Terror.  In the meantime, there’s very little room for individual entries in the Grief Horror canon to have anything novel to say on the subject, so all The Night House can really do is create a spooky mood while repeating images & concepts you’ve already been exposed to many times before.  It is spooky, but I question if that’s enough of a draw considering how familiar its themes are.

The Night House is much more impressive as a showcase for Rebecca Hall’s screen presence, encouraging to flex her acting muscles in the same way the Grief Horror genre has already spotlighted Toni Collette in Hereditary, Elizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man, and Essie Davis in The Babadook.  Hall plays a wonderfully prickly, sardonic widow who refuses to wallow in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, instead choosing to prod at who he was and why he decided to stop being.  She’s haunted both by the gun violence that ended his life—often finding herself hearing, touching, and Googling guns whenever her mind drifts—and by a spiritual presence in her now empty home, seemingly rekindling their doomed romance from beyond the grave.  Weirdly, the movie often excels most when it’s not indulging in supernatural phenomena at all, chronicling Hall’s investigation into her husband’s secretive life outside their marriage and her wonderfully icy responses to the polite but condescending rituals of communal consolation that accompany all funerals.  She’s hurt, she’s hurtful, and she’s fiercely opposed to the idea of fading away quietly after her marriage’s violent end, despite that feeling like the only path offered in her empty, cursed home.  The movie asks a lot of Rebecca Hall as its emotional anchor, and she holds it all down with ease.  It’s just a shame the movie around her couldn’t quite match her virtuoso performance with something memorable enough to make it a must-see entry in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #146 of The Swampflix Podcast: Morgus vs Batman

Welcome to Episode #146 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon discuss New Orleans’s mad-scientist horror host Morgus the Magnificent and his unlikely influence on the original Batman movie.

00:00 Welcome

02:35 Gaia (2021)
07:00 Valentine (2001)
12:00 The Night House (2021)
15:40 The House of Exorcism (1975)

21:05 The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962)
41:47 Batman: The Movie (1966)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas and Brandon Ledet

Untitled Horror Movie (2021)

It makes sense that the next evolution in Scary Movie horror parodies would take aim at the “screenlife” genre.  The only other major developments in the past couple decades of horror filmmaking are much more difficult to mock in a joke-a-minute comedy:  the slow-moving dread of elevated “A24 Horror”, the politically conscious “social thrillers” that have followed in the wake of Get Out, the big-budget reboots of iconic horrors from foreign markets or the distant past, etc.  It’s not that our recent horror trends are unimpeachable; they’re just tricky to parody in any succinct, recognizable way.  Meanwhile, screenlife movies (found footage thrillers framed through the POV of a laptop screen) like Unfriended, Sickhouse, Spree, and Searching have very clearly defined aesthetics & tropes that can easily be mocked for cheap-shot humor.  As a huge fan of screenlife filmmaking as a distinctly modern aesthetic, I was stoked to see someone take aim at such an obvious parodic target.  That’s why it’s such a shame this early attempt at a screenlife parody is an unfunny dud.

Untitled Horror Movie is a COVID-era production in which five L.A. actors (all playing parodies of L.A. actors) separately filmed their contributions to a central script.  Those exact production conditions led to last year’s excellent British indie horror Host, which is clearly one of the very best films produced in the screenlife genre to date.  Meanwhile, Untitled Horror Movie does absolutely nothing interesting with the limitations of its production except to constantly point them out to the audience by casting actors as actors.  Instead of coordinating a clear, linear script between each contributor, the-film-within-the-film asks each actor to read the exact same lines as each other in overlapping edits that make no sense in tandem.  They’re supposedly collaborating on making a screenlife horror film together in their downtime between filming seasons of the fictional TV show that employees them, but their shared line readings imply they’re all playing the same character in the script-within-the-script.  When we take breaks from those screenlife horror samples, it’s only to hear actors squabble about agents, auditions, movie studios, and co-writing credits.  It’s all very lazy & confused, and I have no clue how recognizable performers (including Kal Penn and Never Have I Ever‘s Darren Barnet) were roped into something so uninspired while the best films in this genre are often populated by talented nobodies.

Maybe my issue here is that I’m looking for Untitled Horror Movie to joke about the tropes of its genre, when it’s much more interested in the lifestyle tropes of the vain, vapid L.A. actor.  Even then, the only performer that comes halfway close to being funny here is Katherine McNamara’s schticky exaggeration of the industry’s blonde-ditz archetype, and you can never get past the sense that she’s a poor substitute for Meredith Hagner’s performance as Portia on Search Party.  The only commentary it has to offer on screenlife genre filmmaking is to shoehorn the word “meta” into every other scene so that its premise and title appear to be much cleverer than they actually are.  The film-within-the-film is met with a bidding war between Lionsgate & Netflix for a robust distribution deal.  Meanwhile, this real-life movie was first presented in a livestream premiere and then sold its streaming rights to some sub-Tubi ad platform called Plex.  There is a ton of potential in the screenlife horror parody as a concept, and this leaves all of it on the table for something much less distinct.  Hopefully someone else scoops up the idea for a much funnier movie with a clear parodic POV.

-Brandon Ledet

Halloween Streaming Recommendations 2021

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means many cinephiles & genre nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can over the next month. In that spirit, here’s a horror movie recommendation for every day in October from the Swampflix crew. Each title was positively reviewed on the blog or podcast in the past year and is currently available on a substantial streaming service. Hopefully this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge. Happy hauntings!

Oct 1: Season of the Witch (1973)

“Influenced by second-wave feminism, Romero made a fantastic film about a dissatisfied housewife who dabbles in the occult, and he did it all with a budget of about $100,000 (it was originally $250,000 before his funding dropped). […] The first spell she casts is a love spell that results in her having a tryst with her daughter’s lover. It’s so scandalous! As she dives deeper into the occult, she has progressively intense dreams about someone in a rubber demon mask breaking into her home. The dream later becomes infused with her reality, leading to a shocking act that I won’t spoil in this review.”  Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy or free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 2: Parents (1989)

“One of those 1980s grotesqueries that takes satirical aim at the Everything Is Dandy manicured surface of 1950s Leave It To Beaver suburbia.  Bob Balaban directs the hell out of this pop art horror comedy, landing it somewhere between Blue Velvet & Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It also fits snugly in one of my favorite genres: the R-rated children’s film.  A delightful, unsettling novelty.”  Currently streaming on Amazon Prime or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 3: The Stuff (1985)

“I’ve watched the classic trailer for this one so many times on VHS & DVD rentals of other schlock over the years that I felt like I had seen it before, but it was entirely new to me. It’s no Q: The Winged Serpent but there’s still plenty overlap with the Larry Cohen Gimmickry and Michael Moriarty Acting Choices that make Q so delectable.  Tons of goopy, cynical fun.” Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Hoopla or free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 4: Lucky (2021)

“A high-concept home invasion horror about a woman who’s cyclically attacked by the same masked killer night after night after night.  This works best as a darkly funny act of audience gaslighting and a surprisingly flexible metaphor about gender politics. Recalls the matter-of-fact absurdism of time-loop thrillers like Timecrimes & Triangle, with a lot of potential to build the same gradual cult following if it finds the right audience.”  Currently streaming on Shudder.

Oct 5: Saint Maud (2021)

“Spoke both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic.   I appreciated even more the second time for what it actually is (an intensely weird character study) instead if what I wanted it to be (a menacingly erotic sparring match between Maud and her patient).  Currently streaming on Hulu.

Oct 6: The Haunting (1963)

“A masterpiece.  Impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while consistently creepy throughout.  It’s also gorgeous!  The camera is incredibly active considering it was shot in early Panavision.  Loved it far more than expected, considering how often this same material has been adapted.”  Currently streaming on Shudder.

Oct 7: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

“Highly stylized Euro sleaze about young newlyweds who are seduced & corrupted by bisexual vampires on their honeymoon.  The main villain is named Elizabeth Báthory but she’s played like a breathy, half-asleep Marlene Dietrich, and I love her.  The whole thing is just effortlessly sexy and cool all around.  Lurid in every sense of the word but somehow still patient & low-key.”  Currently streaming for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 8: The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

“Some great images & a consistently sleazy vibe wrestling with a super confusing plot that falls apart the second you think about it too long?  That’s a giallo.”  Currently streaming on Shudder or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 9: Madhouse (1981)

“Gorgeous, uneven schlock about a woman who’s hunted & tormented by her disfigured twin sister in the week leading up to their birthday.  The escaped-mental-patient plot is clearly a riff on the Halloween template, but its style feels much more like an American take on giallo than it does a first-wave slasher.  Cheap, delirious mayhem with equally frequent flashes of embarrassing broad comedy & impressive visual craft.”  Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy or free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 10: StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

“The director of the play-within-the-movie, a possible jab at Argento, is fully invested in his artistic vision … but that vision proves to be completely malleable if it sells a few extra tickets. There’s also a moment in which the director is confronted by the killer wielding a chainsaw and just throws a woman directly into the path of the blades, which, as someone whose knowledge of Argento is … extensive, seems like a pretty good jab at the older filmmaker’s less-than-modern take on gender dynamics.”  Currently streaming on Shudder or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 11: Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

“Loving giallo movies means loving digging through piles of the same-old-same-old to find the gems hiding among the tedium.  This one is one of the glorious payoffs that makes the hunt worthwhile.  It starts with a man awake but paralyzed in a morgue having to piece together how he got there before he’s buried alive.  The answers to that mystery are familiar, but told in a sober, coherent way that’s rare in the genre.  And it looks characteristically great in its Technicolor indulgences in the moments when it feels like flexing.  A highlight of the genre, but one I hadn’t heard of until I saw its disc on sale.”  Currently streaming on Shudder.

Oct 12: The Power (2021)

“A British body-possession horror about a religious zealot nurse with a mysterious past and a deeply damaged relationship with sexuality; the stylish debut feature from a young woman filmmaker, clocking in under 90min.  And somehow I’m not describing Saint Maud???  This actually might work especially well for people who wish Saint Maud was more of a straightforward horror film.  For me, they’re about equally great, but this one’s definitely a lot more immediately satisfying in delivering the genre goods and thematic sense of purpose.”  Currently streaming on Shudder.

Oct 13: The Vigil (2021)

“A pretty standard haunted house horror in its broadest terms, but it crams a lot of unexpected details into its Orthodox Judaism context: cult-deprogramming, Evil Internet tech, found footage video cassettes, body horror, demons, etc.  Reminded me most of the movies Demon (2015) & The Power (2021), and mostly holds its own among them in its mood & scares.”  Currently streaming on Hulu.

Oct 14: The Descent (2005)

“One of those warrior transformation horrors where a traumatized woman emerges from absolute hell stronger, crazed, and doomed.  Also super effective as a creature feature creepout but I like that it took its time arriving there, getting you invested in the characters before immersing them in mayhem.”  Currently streaming on Amazon Prime or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 15: The Toll (2021)

“Like a malevolent fae, The Toll Man traps wayward travelers who have the scent of death if they should be unlucky enough to find their way onto his road; someone with suicidal ideation or bound for an accident is then diverted into his realm so that he can extract his toll: death.  This has the potential to be more goofy than scary (The Bye Bye Man, anyone?), but in spite of its possible pitfalls, this one manages to work.”  Currently streaming for free (with ads) on The Roku Channel.

Oct 16: Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight (2020)

“It’s 10% Phenomena by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Oct 17: Pumpkinhead (1988)

“Honestly more of a Great Monster than a Great Movie, but the creature design is so cool and the budget is so bare that it’s easy to forgive a lot of its shortcomings.”  Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Shudder.

Oct 18: Impetigore (2020)

“An Indonesian ghost story about the lingering evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth (and horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said).  This walks a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in its Extreme Gore moments.  Handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play.”  Currently streaming on Shudder.

Oct 19: In the Earth (2021)

“This is the exact psychedelic folk horror I was expecting it to be, except with an entire slasher about an axe-wielding maniac piled on top just to push it into full-on excess.  Impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.”  Currently streaming on Hulu or for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy.

Oct 20: The Empty Man (2020)

“A dispatch from an alternate dimension where The Bye Bye Man was somehow an impressively ambitious work of art.  Considering its 2018 setting and its blatant riffing on Slender Man lore, it was likely even intended to be a contemporary of that mainstream-horror embarrassment, despite it being quietly dumped into pandemic-era theaters years later.  Feels refreshing to see a robustly budgeted studio horror take wild creative stabs instead of settling for routine PG-13 tedium, like trying to recapture the 1970s in the late 2010s.”  Currently streaming on HBO Max.

Oct 21: Possessor (2020)

“Apparently Brandon Cronenberg took note of the often-repeated observation that Andrea Riseborough loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable, and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror about the loss of Identity around it.  A damn good one too.”  Currently streaming on Hulu.

Oct 22: His House (2020)

“This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, disconnection, and the things we keep while other things are left behind. There’s so much unspoken but powerfully present in the interactions between Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as, respectively, Bol and Rial Majur.  There’s something so palpable in Bol’s desire to disappear into this new community, joining in with the old men singing songs to their futbol heroes and blending in by purchasing an exact duplicate of the outfit on in-store advertising.  By the time he’s literally trying to burn everything that ties himself and his wife to their past, it’s impossible to predict where the film will go next.  Even the most artistic horror film rarely transcends into something truly beautiful, but His House does all of this and more.”  Currently streaming on Netflix.

Oct 23: The Wolf House (2020)

“A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s completely fucked, difficult to fully comprehend, and I think I loved it.”  Currently streaming on Shudder, The Criterion Channel, for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy, or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 24: Cube (1997)

“A high-concept Canuxploitation cheapie with such a clear central gimmick that I’ve been comparing other movies to it for years (Circle, Escape Room, The Platform, etc) without ever actually watching it until now.”  Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy & Hoopla or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 25: Castle Freak (1995)

“For most audiences this would be an inessential novelty, but I’m honestly super embarrassed I’ve never seen this Full Moon-produced Stuart Gordon flick before, especially since Dolls is my personal favorite Gordon (by which I mean I’m more of a Charles Band fan, have pity on me).  Outside its creature scenes the movie is only a C-, but the actual castle freak is an easy A+, and since I watched it after midnight I have no patience to do the math on that grading based on its castle-freak-to-no-castle-freak screentime ratio.”  Currently streaming on Shudder or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 26: Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994)

“A cute e-girl demon runs away from home (Hell) to torment sinners on Earth as a vigilante superhero, and accidentally falls in love along the way. Sleazy yet goofily childish in a way only Charles Band/Full Moon productions can be.”  Currently streaming for free (with ads) on Tubi.

Oct 27: Shadow in the Cloud (2021)

“A total blast.  80 minutes of delicious, delirious pulp, settling halfway between a creature feature and a radio play.  Not for nothing, it’s also the first time I’ve ever been enthusiastically positive on a Chloë Grace Moretz performance.”  Currently streaming on Hulu or for free (with ads) on Kanopy & Hoopla.

Oct 28: Godzilla vs Hedorah (1973)

“Remains my favorite Godzilla film (at least among the relatively small percentage I’ve seen) and generally one of my all-time favs regardless of genre.  Proto-Hausu psychedelia emerging from a fiercely anti-pollution creature feature.  Perfection.”  Currently streaming on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

Oct 29: Monster Brawl (2011)

“This might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust their expectations to the payoffs of that format.  Everything I love & loathe about pro wrestling is present here: the over-the-top characters, the exaggerated cartoon violence, the infuriating marginalization of women outside the ring to Bikini Babe status, all of it.  It’s a pure joy to see (generic versions of) the famous monsters that I also love plugged into that template, especially when the announcers underline the absurdity of the scenario with inane statements like “For the first time in professional sports, folks, we’re witnessing the dead rising from their graves to attack Frankenstein.”  Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) or free (with ads) on Hoopla.

Oct 30: Psycho Goreman (2021)

“The movie I desperately wanted to see made when I was ten years old, by which I mean it’s R-rated Power Rangers.  Can’t say that novelty lands as sweetly in my thirties, especially since the Random! humor is so corny & poisonously self-aware.  All of the practical gore is aces, though, and I really hope kids who are technically too young to watch it sneak it past their parents. Tested my patience for cutesy irony, but could birth a lot of lifelong horror nerds so overall a net good.”  Currently streaming on Shudder or for free (with a library membership) on Hoopla.

Oct 31: Hack-o-Lantern (1988)

“Bargain bin 80s trash that’s half slasher/half variety show: featuring strip teases, belly dances, hair metal music videos, curbside stand-up routines, and amateur Satanic rituals to help pad out the runtime between its kill-by-numbers plotting. Wonderful programming if you’re looking for something vapid that’s set on Halloween night.”  Currently streaming on Shudder or for free (with ads) on Tubi.

-The Swampflix Crew

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2007)

It’s been five years since I first saw Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster anime Your Name. on the big screen, and it’s getting difficult to recall exactly why that movie felt so fresh & unique at the time.  That’s mostly because the years since have been flooded with shameless Your Name. knockoffs, from Fireworks to I Want to Eat Your Pancreas to the director’s very own Weathering With You.  The cost of breaking box office records is that other movie producers smell chum in the water, diluting the uniqueness of your product with countless cash-in copycats.  At least, that’s how I’ve been thinking about all the recent anime romances that combine big-teen-emotions with supernatural sci-fi & fantasy phenomena.  Maybe I’m giving Your Name. too much credit for its uniqueness in that genre.  Maybe I just haven’t seen enough teen-marketed anime in general to understand how all of these Your Name. “knockoffs” are just part of a much longer, more popular tradition that I’m just personally unaware of.

I’m mostly wondering about my genre ignorance here because I was outright shocked by the release date of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Its own indulgences in soaring teenage emotions and far-out time travel sci-fi make the film feel like a contemporary or direct precursor to Your Name., but it was released an entire decade earlier than Shinkai’s international hit.  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was seemingly met with much quieter fanfare than Your Name., so it’s less likely to have inspired an entire subgenre of copycats in the same way, but its director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, Summer Wars, Mirai) is a big enough name in the industry that Shinkai would certainly be aware of, if not outright inspired by his work.  I’m not saying that Your Name. is a carbon copy of what Hosoda achieved in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  If nothing else, the earlier film is working with much lower stakes and lacks the post-emo Radwimps soundtrack that makes Shinkai’s film so perfect for teen summer viewing.  Their cross-decade parallels just suggest a much larger world of romantic teen sci-fi anime that I feel completely ignorant to, an oversight I desperately want to correct.

The title The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is almost hilariously literal.  Our heroine is a high school student who stumbles onto a time machine device that allows her to physically leap through time.  More specifically, she can travel backwards through short bursts of time like a rotary dial, using her newfound supernatural power for petty, small-minded goals like acing a pop quiz, catching a missed baseball, and avoiding Mr. Bean-style slapstick mishaps.  Her “time-leap” abilities initially save her from riding her bicycle into an oncoming train, making her out to be a cutesy superhero variation on Donnie Darko.  However, she mostly uses them to repair her reputation as a forgetful, clumsy, unlucky, hopelessly tardy nerd.  That is, until the source, rules, and mechanics of her time-leap abilities are revealed in a mindfuck twist ending that ramps up the emotional, temporal, and romantic stakes of everything we’ve been watching her adorably stumble through. 

For most of its runtime, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is low-key charming & cute.  After its third-act twist, it pulls off a surprisingly powerful time-travel Teenage Romance that’s been slowly simmering until that point, to the extent where song lyrics like “Some feelings are more powerful than time” feel more appropriate & heartfelt than cloying.  I honestly have no clue how much of an anomaly the film is in the larger teen sci-fi anime canon, but I do know that the soaring emotions of that third-act romantic shift felt remarkably close to what impressed me in Your Name. so many years ago.  I like to imagine there are more films out there that pluck those same emo-teen heartstrings that I just haven’t discovered yet.  I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them if so, whether or not they dilute the uniqueness of the first film that turned me onto the genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #143 of The Swampflix Podcast: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) & Live-Action Dr. Seuss

Welcome to Episode #143 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss all four debaculous attempts to adapt Dr. Seuss’s illustrations into live-action, starting with the Technicolor musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).

00:00 Welcome

04:40 United 93 (2005)
10:05 Popstar (2016)
14:30 Riders of Justice (2021)

20:58 The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)
34:40 In Search of Dr. Seuss (1994)

43:43 How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
51:12 The Cat in the Hat (2003)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Kid90 (2021)

The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking.  No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema.  I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90.  A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again.  Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much.  Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator.  We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.

It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry.  I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form.  There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring.  Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery.  She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large.  In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands.  Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.

I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it.  So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away.  The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager.  There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette.  Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares.  The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else.  Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place.  I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.

-Brandon Ledet

The Amusement Park (1973, 2021)

Certified master of horror George A. Romero was never shy about the political messaging of his work.  An entire industry of repurposing zombies as metaphors for various social ills was built on the foundation of Romero’s decades-spanning Living Dead series, which touched on subjects as varied as Civil Rights Era racial tensions (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), consumer-culture excess (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), and the grotesque showmanship of George Bush-era Conservatism (Land of the Dead, 2005).  None of these overt message pieces were especially subtle in their central metaphors, despite the complaints you might hear from online goons about how much better horror was when it was “apolitical”.  Yet, Romero really outdid himself on that front with his “lost” 1973 horror curio The Amusement Park.  Commissioned by a Lutheran church somewhere between production of Season of the Witch and The Crazies, The Amusement Park finds Romero graduating from presenting his movies’ politics as thinly veiled subtext to directing a full-on, straight-up PSA.  Unfortunately, The Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania found Romero’s other filmmaking interests (i.e. his obsession with the fragility of the human body) too morbid for public consumption despite the director’s do-gooder politics, and so The Amusement Park was allowed to fester unseen for decades … until it was recently restored and properly released for the first time by IndieCollect.

The Amusement Park is an aggressively unsubtle message piece about America’s cruel disregard for the well-being of our elderly.  There is no room for interpretation of that thematic purpose, as it’s stated directly to the camera—in plain terms—twice.  Actor Lincoln Maazel addresses the audience about the horrors of being geriatric in the United States, especially if you’re lower class.  The loneliness, exploitation, and abuse he describes hasn’t changed much in the half-century since this hour-long PSA was filmed, so it’s not as if its politics have become at all irrelevant.  They’re just a little hammy, recalling classic scare films about the dangers of recreational drug use that caution you to consider whether you’d like to have scrambled eggs for brains or take so much LSD that you scream at a hotdog.  Maazel explains that the film is meant to make the audience “feel the problem” of ageing in a country that treats its elderly like week-old garbage.  He warns “One day, you will be old” in what feels like an outright threat.  Then, once all that thematic groundwork is laid to justify the indulgence, Romero starts playing with the Lutheran church’s money, staging a nightmare-logic horror show in a traveling-carnival setting – featuring Lincoln Maazel in-character as an avatar for our nation’s abused elderly as he stumbles through the indignities of This Amusement Park We Call Life.

Since it’s so thematically blatant and thin, The Amusement Park is most worthwhile for its grimy D.I.Y. surrealism.  Romero obviously cared a lot about the political messaging in his work, but you can also tell he’s just having fun inserting jarring, horrific images into the film’s mundane carnival scenarios.  Lincoln Maazel starts his journey in a sterile, all-white prototype of the Good Place lobby.  He emerges from that limbo through a magical door to a carnival of metaphors, where various elderly victims are bullied around from attraction to attraction by disrespectful youts.  The bumper cars are subject to traffic laws enforced by disbelieving cops who disregard elderly women’s statements as the mutterings of old biddies.  Rollercoasters post unfair eligibility requirements for ticketholders, declaring you must be THIS wealthy to ride.  Fortune tellers predict young lovers will grow old together in lonely, decrepit slums with no social infrastructure to help them age in good health or dignity.  It’s all very obvious and to-the-point, but Romero treats each set-up with a matter-of-fact absurdism that feels daringly artistic & nightmarish for a Christian-funded PSA.  It’s hard to tell exactly where he crossed the line for his Lutheran backers (the eerie intrusions of The Grimm Reaper in the back rows of carnival rides? the vicious beatings & head wounds suffered by Maazel’s cipher protagonist? the time loop narrative structure?), but it’s also not shocking that this isn’t the PSA they felt they had agreed to fund & distribute.

There are certainly better places to find the kind of grimy, low-budget surrealism Romero plays with in The Amusement Park – from Carnival of Souls to Messiah of Evil to even the director’s own Martin.  Still, this is a wonderfully disorienting curio with some genuine anger behind its dirt-cheap mindfuckery.  The artificial version of life presented here is confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, and lonely.  Our most vulnerable populations are doomed to be taxed, robbed, neglected, beaten, and imprisoned in nursing homes until they die alone, out of sight and out of mind.  No matter how much fun Romero is having in the background with carnival barker parodies and rubber monster masks, you can tell he’s fired up about the political task at hand.  You just don’t have to go digging for what that political messaging might possibly be, as it’s announced loudly and often like ticket prices at a carnival booth.

-Brandon Ledet