The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.

Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.

Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.

It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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The Bad Batch (2017)

It’s insane how rapidly Ana Lily Amirpour’s public estimation has plummeted since her well-received debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made her one of the top directors to keep an eye on in the indie scene. A couple awkward (to put it lightly) Q&A session and Halloween costume incidents later and Amirpour is sitting at the helm of one of the year’s least loved high profile horror releases. Her druggy, cannibalistic road drama The Bad Batch lacks the critical support its fellow artsy fartsy cannibal picture Raw has enjoyed in 2017, finding few fans to defend its ambling, highly stylized version of a modern horror. I honestly went into the film hoping to file a contrarian opinion and get some blood flowing back into Amirpour’s veins. The Bad Batch boasted the same visual slickness & feminist bent that I enjoyed in her debut, except maybe shifting its palette from Jim Jarmusch to Harmony Korine (particularly his best works to date, Gummo & Spring Breakers). On paper, it’s the exact brand of bright colors & pop music ultraviolence I love in my modernist schlock, but in execution I can’t quite convince myself to enjoy what’s on the screen. What’s even more surprising than the way Amirpour’s reputation has faltered so quickly is that a movie this visually & conceptually exciting can feel so punishingly dull.

In a not-too-distant future, Texas, Florida, and Burning Man have all combined forces to create film history’s tackiest dystopia. The titular “bad batch” are a community of criminal outcasts fenced in outside the rule of law in a Texan desertscape that’s “hotter than the Devil’s a-hole.” A culture of scavengers & cannibals emerges from this outlaw nation, where people fill their downtime with drugged-out raves & prison yard workouts. Suki Waterhouse stars as a fresh-faced newbie to this flesh-eating community, one who immediately loses two limbs to cannibalistic reprobates on her first day as a member of “the bad batch.” She eventually escapes their clutches and makes her way over to a more hospitable raver community, where she gets entangled in a glacial plot involving a missing child. Other recognizable faces in the cast are obscured by bizarre character choices & costuming: Keanu Reeves in Tony Clifton drag as King of the Raves; Jim Carrey as a mute, sunburnt hobo; (most disastrously) Jason Momoa as a Cuban family man. It’s mostly a Battle of the Ridiculous Accents from there, as most of the violence happens quickly & early and the two hour runtime pulls a Terry Gilliam-esque feat of feeling three times its length. For a movie so sure of itself visually & aesthetically, The Bad Batch feels oddly short on ideas to occupy its time.

The most frustrating aspect of The Bad Batch is that it has the building blocks of a much more fun, rewarding movie already in its arsenal. I have no doubt that what Amirpour filmed for the project could be re-edited into a crowd pleasing spectacle of pop horror mayhem. The bubbly soundtrack (which includes needle drops from Ace of Base, Die Antwoord, and Culture Club), Speedos & watermelon-print jorts costuming, and beached jetskis & neon lights set design all suggest a movie far more fun than The Bad Batch ever dares to be. With more energy and a shorter runtime, the film could’ve been a blast as a live action sugar rush, but as a slow-moving art film it just lays there, rotting in the sun. The best parts of the film are dialogue-free indulgences in high fructose imagery (much like A Girl Walks Home, the film’s best scene simply watches a woman enjoy solitude in her bedroom). Any instances of plot or dialogue digging for meaning beyond these surface pleasures are either cringe-worthy, blunt statements of unearned themes or laughable moments like an embarrassingly edited, never-ending acid trip or the Richard Kelly-ish line, “What if all the things that happened to us happened to us so the next things that are going to happen to us can happen to us?”. That’d be fine if the movie were about half as long & twice as fun or violent, but as is its minor pleasures are buried under a massive bore.

I’m not quite ready to give up on Ana Lily Amirpour. I doubt the movie-world at large is either. Her imagery and bloodthirsty Millennial sensibilities are too immediately interesting to abandon just yet, but I’d be a liar if I said The Bad Batch in particular is worth anyone’s time. Until I hear that the film has been trimmed down or punched up into the wild ride horror comedy free-for-all it should’ve been in the first place, this is one Texan dystopia (among many) that I plan to leave forever in the rearview. Let’s just be hopeful and chalk it up as a standard sophomore slump.

-Brandon Ledet

I, Tonya (2017)

I can already tell I, Tonya is going to be bitterly divisive with most audiences, since I’m harshly divided on the film myself. For the first half hour I was totally onboard with the humorously cruel rehabilitation of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s public persona. Margot Robbie delivers a phenomenal, humanizing performance as Harding; Allison Janney is even more of a force to be reckoned with as her terror of a mother. Both women are deeply flawed, but recognizably genuine human beings from a harsh economic & social background, portrayals that transform a tabloid sideshow into something resembling empathy. Then the beatings start. I, Tonya aims for a tone similar to early Alexander Payne works like Election & Citizen Ruth, where the mood alternates rapidly between quirky comedy & pitch black cruelty. The film is far too tonally messy and not nearly confident enough in its structure for me to always make those leaps, however. It’s difficult to be in the mood to laugh half a breath after watching your protagonist get punched full force in the face, thrown against a wall, pulled by the hair, cornered with a gun, and so on. The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.

I, Tonya is told through several contradictory, direct to the camera monologues that allow characters to reshape public perception through voice-over guidance. As Harding, Robbie delivers two clear mission statements for the film through this device. In one, she complains that she’s been beaten and abused both physically & emotionally throughout her entire life without any public sympathy, while Nancy Kerrigan is America’s Sweetheart for being whacked one time in the kneecap. The dark, matter of fact humor of that statement is representative of the film’s most subversive strengths, which completely flip an outsider’s perspective on the figure skating world’s most infamous controversy. The other mission statement line is where I, Tonya completely loses me. Harding bluntly accuses the audience of continuing her abuse by lambasting her in the press after her husband & his conspirators were caught rigging the competition by bashing Kerrigan’s knee. Pointing an accusatory finger at the audience in this way might work in a more self-aware, tonally sober film, but it feels completely out of line for a black comedy that exploits Harding’s hardships for cruel humor, essentially continuing the sideshow aspect of her story that it aims to condemn. I, Tonya wags its finger by jarringly interrupting its quirky character humor with sudden & brutal acts of deeply upsetting physical violence leveled on its star. The movie continually invites you to enjoy the humor of her situation’s absurdity before telling you you’re scum for obliging. It tosses out free candy only to slap it out if your hand and call you a greedy fuck for accepting it. Separately, I was onboard for Harding’s earnest public rehabilitation and the awkward humor of her working class background. I just found the way violence & audience-shaming editorializing was used to fuse those objectives together to be deeply unpleasant, if not morally repugnant. This is a spiritually ugly film, which might be fine if it were confident enough in its own convictions to own up to that ugliness.

Because I, Tonya‘s moral self-contradiction already had me cornered in a defensive position, I found myself picking at its formal shortcomings in a way I might not have if I were more fully convinced by its tone & objectives. There’s an uncanny valley quality to the CGI of its skate routines that feels both like a distraction & a terror. Its 70s-specific needle drops (despite telling a 90s story) of songs like “Spirit in the Sky” & “Break the Chain” feel as unwittingly cliché as the soundtrack of Robbie’s last major effort, Suicide Squad. The direct-to-the-camera narration is choppily arranged & inelegantly employed, especially as the film largely drops its over-the-top comedic tone in its never-ending third act. Janney & Robbie are uniformly wonderful, but they feel like they’re floating detached from the narrative of their worthy, but mismatched costars. The way real life footage of the conspirators in Kerrigan’s attack is used to justify the continued sideshow aspect of the work soured me even more on the film’s moralistic finger-wagging and sudden bursts of bone-crunching violence. Even the Miramax logo in the opening credits churned my stomach, for reasons that should be obvious. Yet, if I were more convinced by the confidence in the tone & humor of I, Tonya I could totally see myself forgiving or even embracing this scrappy sense of crudeness in craft. Part of the reason I find the film so frustrating is that it’s almost a success, but its self-contradiction is just miscalculated enough for everything to feel like a gut-wrenching failure. I honestly spent most of the picture wishing that I was rewatching the much less prestigious Melissa Rauch comedy The Bronze instead. It’s a trashier, less tonally ambitious version of an Olympics-setting black comedy than what I, Tonya aims for, but at least it doesn’t spit in your face for laughing at its own jokes.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudbound (2017)

Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.

Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.

Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

With funding for movie projects being drastically polarized between dirt cheap indies & international blockbuster behemoths, many directors who used to thrive as mid-budget risk-takers have been driven to television & streaming platforms to finance their works. Even names as big as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and *shudder* Woody Allen have had to recoil to outlets like Showtime, Netflix, and Amazon to secure proper funding for their midbudget creative projects. Spike Lee has now joined their ranks, with an upcoming Netflix series adapting his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, to a streaming television format. In some ways, the basic idea of adapting this film to television makes total sense; She’s Gotta Have It is already episodically structured & relaxed in its candid, direct-to-the-camera discussions of youth & sexuality in ways that feel ripe for televised storytelling. In other ways, though, the news is a little bit of a bummer, mostly in what it means for the current status of Big Name directors who used to be the gods of indie cinema and the vibrancy of the independent filmmaking boom She’s Gotta Have It helped instigate.

She’s Gotta Have It is essentially a sex-positive hangout film. Our POV character is Nola Darling, a young Brooklynite who openly & honestly maintains three simultaneous sexual partnerships. Despite each partner’s urging for her to go monogamous, she refuses to apologize for or back down from her sexual autonomy. She introduces herself & her plight to the audience in a series of Bergman-esque, direct-to-the-camera monologues, as do her three opposing beaus: an uptight business prick, a well-meaning but toxically jealous romantic, and an immature goof (played by Spike Lee himself). There isn’t much plot outside the tension of this premise, which is amplified by scenarios like all four players sitting down for a shared Thanksgiving meal, one of her beaus demanding she see a psychiatrist for sex addiction, an act of consensual rough sex that darkly transgresses into rape, etc. Mostly, we just sympathize with Nola as she struggles to remain an independent, antonymous person despite all of the outside pressure in her life, which even comes from her female best friend (who also has the hots for her) & an endless parade of male strangers who deliver corny pickup lines in a photo shoot void. It actually sounds more like the plot of a TV show than a feature film when you consider it in that context, but as a D.I.Y. debut from a young, scrappy filmmaker it does work surprisingly well as a one-off feature.

A lot of She’s Gotta Have It is understandably rough around the edges. The unprofessional acting is charmingly scrappy, but also awkward & misshapen. There’s a music fantasy sequence that could be transcendent & lovely, but feels a little corny & flat instead. The movie desperately wants to have an open, progressive mind about sex, but often falls prey to the same toxic masculinity it’s critiquing, especially in the way it handles the aftermath of a sexual assault. These stray quibbles do little to poison the overall mood, though, if not only because the just-getting-started Spike Lee displays so much giddy excitement for the material. For all of its awkward missteps as a debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It just feels incredibly cool. It conveys a 90s Attitude about casual sex years before pop acts like TLC & George Michael would define what that even means. Its stark, black & white cinematography & slideshow photographs frame Brooklyn as a vital, artistic neighborhood where black culture is thriving as a natural echo of the Harlem Renaissance (decades before Brooklyn was a hot commodity). As many young filmmakers do, Lee throws as many of his personal passions & influences as he can at the screen: hip-hop, jazz, The Wizard of Oz, Malcolm X,  Zora Neale Hurston, etc. Individual moments may falter within that aesthetic but it’s such an infectiously rich framework for this film’s snapshots of youthful sexuality & black masculinity in 1980s, big city America. Lee pays special attention to the craft of his personal brand within this cool aesthetic too, already introducing the film as A Spike Lee Joint & a 40 Acres and a Mule production, as if that meant anything to an audience who never heard of him before.

I’m not sure that She’s Gotta Have It is going to be able to retain that cool cultural cachet & artistic vibrancy as a Netflix series. However, a television show should easily be able to stay true to the spirit of its source material without much trouble. I’d much rather that Spike Lee have the opportunity to continue to make weird, outlier projects like Chi-Raq & Da Sweet Blood of Jesus than have to return to early career nostalgia for online “content,” but at least he’s chosen to adapt a project that’s already primed for a TV format. The only real difference is that if he casts himself in a role this time, he’ll have to play the uptight business prick instead of the youthful court jester. In so many ways, it’s not 1986 anymore.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving Vincent (2017)

It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.

In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.

Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.

-Brandon Ledet

The Florida Project (2017)

Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.

Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hearts of Fire (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon & Boomer watch Hearts of Fire (1987).

Britnee: Known as the film that killed critically acclaimed director Richard Marquand (Return of the JediEye of the Needle, etc.), the 1987 musical drama Hearts of Fire has somehow managed to disappear from the cinematic landscape. It’s so strange for a film with such a well-known director and big name actors (Bob Dylan & Rupert Everett) to not achieve even cult status. I’m not going to beat around the bush here. Hearts of Fire is terrible. It’s so terrible that it went straight to video after spending a very short time in theaters. Until this day, it’s difficult to get a hold of a physical copy because it was never released on DVD, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be.  All of this negativity aside, I wholeheartedly love this movie. It’s a lot of stupid fun without trying to be funny, and that’s why I just had to make the Swampflix crew watch it for Movie of the Month. The film stars music legend Bob Dylan as a washed up rock star turned chicken farmer named Billy Parker. Billy develops an uncomfortable romantic friendship with a young musician, Molly McGuire (Fiona). Molly plays small gigs with her band at her hometown bar (somewhere in Pennsylvania) that’s filled with some very interesting characters, including a barmaid who looks like a combination of Large Marge and Dolly Parton. Billy stumbles into the bar and quickly develops an interest in Molly.  He sort of becomes her mentor, but it’s also obvious that he wants to get in her pants super bad. It’s so hard to watch middle-aged Bob Dylan flirt with a teenager, and it gets even worse when she flirtatiously calls him names like “Dirty Old Man.” Billy is performing in London, and he takes Molly along for the ride. Almost immediately after landing in London, Molly runs into her all-time-favorite singer, James Colt (Rupert Everett), the hottest name in modern music. It doesn’t take long for Molly to be caught in a love triangle between these two men while also striving to achieve her dream of being a superstar. The chemistry between the three main characters is perfect. Dylan moves like a zombie and mumbles truckloads of nonsense, Fiona is a bubbly teen with a great raspy singing voice (Bonnie Tyler meets Laura Branigan), and Everett is the stereotypical 80s pop star. When the three interact with each other, it’s pure entertainment.

The character Billy Parker was initially written for Mick Jagger, but he turned down the role because, well, the script was crap. I’m so thankful he did because Dylan is hilarious in this movie without even trying. He literally mumbles all of his lines and pretty much sleepwalks throughout the entire movie. Dylan was obviously not very excited about starring in Hearts of Fire, and it shows through his acting. He must’ve been very desperate for cash at that point in his life.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dylan’s acting in Hearts of Fire? Was he attempting to portray a tired, old rock star or was he actually a tired, old rock star?  How different would this movie be if Mick Jagger had taken the role of Billy?

Brandon: The originally intended, Mick Jagger version of Hearts of Fire at least makes more sense. Billy Parker is a hard-drinking, fast-loving rock n’ roller, a lifestyle Jagger had genuinely been living for decades by the time this film was released. I don’t necessarily believe that Jagger’s rock n’ roller energy could have saved the film’s embarrassingly lifeless script (which was co-written by Showgirls/Basic Instinct coke monster Joe Eszterhas, of all people), but he could at least have afforded it some authenticity. As Britnee suggests, part of what makes Hearts of Fire so memorably bizarre is that Bob Dylan is absurdly miscast in the role. First of all, unlike Jagger, Bob Dylan does not fuck. Not that he’s a 76 year old virgin or anything, but he’s more of a music industry legend for his rambling, radical politics poetry than he is for pure sexual charisma. Second of all, 1980s Bob Dylan especially does not fuck. Fresh off a creative slump where the singer-songwriter churned out several little-loved gospel records as a Born Again Christian, Dylan was as soft & as unsexy as ever. That’s why it’s so weird to see him don the leather-clad costuming of a rock n’ roll toughie; nothing in his past as an indignant hippie folk singer or a mediocre gospel enthusiast suggests he had earned the right (give of take a recording or two with The Band). The conceit of the film requires Dylan to be playing himself, but not quite, so that he credibly turns heads when he saunters into rock clubs unannounced. Instead, he’s playing a version of himself that never actually existed. This is made doubly strange by the fact that Dylan has the energy level of a man twice his age. He’s less than 50 years old in Hearts of Fire, but he has the charisma of an ancient geezer, to the point where when he smashes a hotel room in a moment of supposed rock n’ roll excess, all the audience can do is laugh at the labored, slow-motion movements in his old man body. Dylan was tasked with making Hearts of Fire cool. Rather than achieve that impossible task, he turned it into a joke.

As fun as it is to gawk at a past-his-prime Dylan slowly seeping out of his range as a dangerous rock n’ roller romantic lead, I do feel really bad for Fiona here. I have to assume Hearts of Fire was even more damaging for her career as a VH1, Pat Benatar-era rock n’ roll singer than it was for the director’s, if not only because I’ve never heard of her before. She’s actually super charming as the film’s lead, Molly McGuire (except maybe when she’s performing the lifeless radio rock that poisons the soundtrack), which makes it a total shame that she’s asked to act circles around a cardboard cutout of Bob Dylan, a man 20 years her senior. With Mick Jagger in the opposite role, there might have been more of a chance for an erotic spark between Molly & Parker to earn film’s baffling R rating, despite Jagger being roughly the same age as Dylan. Instead, we watch an old man leer at Fiona through drooped eyelids between nonsensical, patronizing mumblings about the dangers of the music biz. Her younger, more viable option for a romantic partner is a synthpop twit played by Rupert Everett, who’s essentially laying out a roadmap for Russell Brand’s career as a public nuisance two decades later. He’s no better than Dylan’s old fart, has-been rocker, really, and the men in Molly’s gradually appear to be two versions of the same asshole on different ends of a shared career trajectory. Their patronizing treatment of Molly as a muse & a protégé instead of a professional equal is exemplified even by their respective choices for a “first date” location: an ice cream parlor and a carnival. They treat her like a little kid (just one they happen to want to sleep with). What’s extra gross about this dynamic is that the movie leers right along with them. Rock n’ Roll was very much still a Boy’s Club at the time of Hearts of Fire‘s production (maybe even more than ever, thanks to the groupie-exploiting hijinks associated with hair metal) and the film obliges the male gaze’s interest in Fiona’s body just as often as it allows her to play music. The camera drools over her as she skinnydips, sleeps pantsless, and forgoes a bra in her sound booth recording sessions. Fiona not only deserved a better pair of rock scene buffoons to lust after her; she deserved a better movie overall.

Boomer, what did you make of Fiona’s performance and her positioning at the center of this bizarre rock star love triangle? Was the Boy’s Club perspective of the film’s version of rock n’ roll at all offset by details like her ultimate decision to choose neither man as a lover & the one lovemaking scene that focused on Everett’s naked flesh for a change? Or was the movie just as limiting of her potential as the leading man-children who populate it?

Boomer: I thought Fiona was quite charming, actually. For the first 45 minutes of the film I found the scenes that focused solely on her to be the best part: her deprecating interactions with her shitty boss, her short but sweet scene with her roommate, even her objections to joining her bandmates in their new gig (despite her objections that she doesn’t play lounge music being bratty in a Reality Bites way). But every time Dylan was on screen, all of my good will just got sucked right out of me. It wasn’t just his performance (which was, make no mistake, terrible), but also his overall look and demeanor. Young Dylan was a cutie pie, and the elder Dylan now is like a noble statesman in his appearance, but a shudder ran down my spine when Molly asked him to go skinny dipping with her; she’s young and effusive and adorable and he looks like someone took 60s Dylan’s face and turned it into a tanned and cracked handbag. All I could think about was this exchange between Bart and Marge in “A Fish Called Selma”: “Why did they make that one Muppet out of leather?” “That’s not a leather Muppet, that’s [Bob Dylan]!”

Which is not to say that Everett serves as a better love interest. His sex scene with Fiona may have focused more on his flesh than hers, but it is to the film’s detriment, as the scene itself is the least erotic love scene that I’ve born witness to since Argento’s Phantom of the Opera. Everett is not an ugly man (I’d argue that his shower scene in Cemetary Man could make any receptive audience member, wombed or not, pregnant), but he’s never been more unappealing than in this greasy mullet and untweezed unibrow. He only barely manages to be more attractive than Dylan by virtue of the fact that he’s not sporting Dylan’s embarrassing earring, which was as distracting as it was pathetic.

Despite being surrounded by so much poor decision-making in the way of casting, costuming, and everything else, Fiona manages to be likable and ebullient. I did spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to her fame, however. In a film like this, when a semi-naive country girl is dropped into the lap of a more experienced performer and explores his world of fame from the inside, you expect there to be a certain kind of turning point. Although Colt is subtly inferred to drink too much, Molly never falls into chemical dependence or is forced to confront the fact that her lover is a rock star with a libido to match and he “needs” more than one woman, nor does she have any real failings. The suicide of one of Colt’s fans is the only real obstacle in her life or career after she leaves Pennsylvania, and she’s really only involved tangentially as a witness. Her decision to take neither of her proposed love interests as her endgame partner suggests a kind of feminism, but ultimately feels more like the screenwriter didn’t expect women to experience fame and all of its accompanying temptations and pitfalls the same way that men do, or even at all.

Britnee, do you think that there was a faded rock star in 1987 who could have played the Billy Parker role without it coming off as creepy and weird? Would it have been a better choice to hire an actor who could sing instead of a singer who could(n’t) act? Who would you have cast instead in the roles of Parker and Colt, and why?

Britnee: The thing about washed up rock stars is that they are usually highly unattractive and just hard to look at in general (Bret Michaels immediately comes to mind), so the idea of any real-life, washed up rock star successfully playing the role of Billy Parker seems close to impossible. Most of the musicians that I immediately thought of were still big names in 1987, but their careers are over and done in this day and age. Honestly, I think that 1987 Iggy Pop would have been the best choice. Bob Seger would come in as a second choice, but he’s got a dad vibe to him that isn’t sexy at all. He’s got a very interesting personality and he definitely knows how to work his sexuality, unlike Dylan. Iggy Pop would probably make the unavoidable creepiness of Parker’s character much easier to stomach, but the idea of casting an actor that can sing in the Billy Parker role makes a lot more sense to me. It’s a film after all, not an album. Take a look at James Colt. Everett’s singing wasn’t amazing, but his acting was pretty good. Come to think of it, having a real-life musician in the role of James Colt would have been a better choice, if a musician had to be in the film. Even if the younger musician sucked at acting, more people would have seen this movie and it wouldn’t have flopped so hard at the box office.

In my fantasy recasting of Hearts of Fire, I’m imagining Chris Sarandon as Billy Parker. I recently watched Fright Night and was reminded of how he really does own the screen. As for James Colt, I would cast my favorite 80s music bad-boy, Billy Idol. He’s just so much fun! He’s got some decent acting skills as far as music videos go, and his charisma is out of control. His personality is so vibrant compared to the blandness that is Everett, and it’s what the role of James Colt desperately needs. This is a guy who is the biggest name on the music scene, so lets give him some flare.

Sometimes when musicians take on acting, it does work in their favor. For instance, David Bowie, Cher, and Barbra Streisand had many successful roles in major films. However, most of the time, it just doesn’t work out.

Brandon, after all of the flops that feature musicians attempting to be actors, why do you think this is still such a prominent occurrence in film? Why don’t they just give it a rest? Is there some sort of method to the madness?

Brandon: I have to assume that most acting turns from musicians are  marketing decisions, not artistic ones. When David Byrne directs a weirdo art film like True Stories, it’s obviously coming from a place of artistic passion, but it’s a different story altogether when, say, Vanilla Ice stars in a rap-oriented remake of a Marlon Brando motorcycle picture. Vanilla Ice likely didn’t get into the rap game thinking the best way to purely express himself would be as a leading man in a high-fructose romantic comedy. That decision had to have been made for him through a series of boardroom meetings over marketing data that suggested Cool as Ice would boost his album sales & cultural cachet. I can’t speak for Bowie, Cher, or Streisand’s respective movie industry success stories as either passionate work that happened to pay off or marketing decisions that stuck because of natural talent, but Hearts of Fire is most definitely seeped in the desperate cash grab end of that dichotomy. Fiona’s marketing team was likely invested in catapulting a rising star with a hit motion picture, while Dylan’s own publicity team was attempting to borrow some Mick Jagger edge to forgive the sins of his thoroughly un-cool gospel period that immediately preceded the film. I’m pretty sure that Hearts of Fire proved to be an embarrassment & a failure for both musicians, but it’s especially cringe-worthy for Dylan, whose prematurely senile mumblings in the film did absolutely no favors for his dangerous rock star street cred.

Most marketing decisions are a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition made while a pop star is Having a Moment. To hammer the comparison home, I have to assume that Cool as Ice was greenlit when “Ice Ice Baby” was endlessly looping on the radio. By the time the movie hit theaters, however, Ice’s moment had more or less passed and audiences’ thirst for him had, um, cooled. Hearts of Fire feels similarly late to the table. The late 80s was admittedly a strange, stagnant time for radio rock. Nirvana wouldn’t break through until a few years later (as immortalized in the documentary title 1991: The Year Punk Broke), so most genuinely subversive rock n’ roll movements at the time (punk, sludge, thrash, etc.) were largely invisible to mainstream audiences. Still, even a cheesy hair metal soundtrack would have been more cutting edge than the stubbornly old-fashioned 70s arena rock and post-Benatar VH1 rock Fiona & Dylan were tasked with selling as cool here. Even the Soft Cell & Human League style of new wave pop Everrett’s character is supposedly a sell-out for playing would have been years & years stale by the time Hearts of Fire was released. They might as well have made fun of him for singing disco. Casting Bob Dylan as a dangerous, sexy rock star isn’t the only way Hearts of Fire fails to keep its finger on the pulse of modern rock either. When Fiona & company play “aggressive” rock meant to rile up the British punks pogoing in the London audience, it plays like an unintentional joke. In a real life 1987, those kids would have laughed them off the stage for performing the music their parents listen to.

Boomer, I get the general sense that punk & metal aren’t entirely Your Thing as much as other music genres. From that outside perspective, was Hearts of Fire‘s version of dangerous 80s rock n’ roll as noticably, laughably out of date for you or could you more easily excuse the inauthenticity of the youth culture it was selling?

Boomer: Untrue on the count of the first, but correct with regards to metal. I think you’re probably thinking back to this passage from my Shock ‘Em Dead review, and you’re remembering it correctly: “I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy […] who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me.” So, yeah, as with some things that I like, there’s a bit of personal backlash against the devotees rather than the thing itself; I think that this feeling is evident in the way that I’ve written about Christianity in my The Late Great Planet Mirth articles as well. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with my roommate, who pointed out that he’s always associated Star Trek and the Grateful Dead with each other in his mind, because they’re both works of art that are as famous for their fandoms as they are for the text itself; as much as I would like to enjoy metal, the fandom is simply too toxic for me to enjoy.

My obvious punk days are behind me (it’s hard to show your commitment when you no longer have enough hair to die or ‘hawk), but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a fan of the music or the ethos, although I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the slow infiltration of nationalism into the punk scene (admittedly not as deep in the bone as it is in some pockets of the metal scene, where it seems to breed like a weed) disturbing and disconcerting. Like, seriously, Nazi punks fuck off.

Overall, I found the film to be laughable in its attempt to be “hard” or “edgy,” although I credit that feeling more to simply being a person and not a punk fan. I mentioned it before, but I found Molly’s insistence that she doesn’t play lounge music to be the complaint of a contemptuous brat. I’m reminded of a story I read about a flautist who had been coddled and fawned over from an early age and reached high school as a prodigious talent but also a confrontational and sententious jerk. His high school band raised money by performing an annual community concert wherein they played various compositions with which the general public was familiar, like the Star Wars hero theme and the score to Harry Potter; he refused to participate because doing so was “beneath” him. He was accepted to Julliard but flunked out within a year because he felt that he knew more than his professors. At the time of the last update that the author of the story (a former high school bandmate) had heard, the flautist was now having to live on Earth with the rest of us, with no prospects in his desired field but still clinging to his delusions of musical godhood and not having learned the humility that usually accompanies such a fall from grace. I look at Molly and consider her age and have to ask, just how many dues could she have possibly paid? How could she possibly be so naive? But then the film sees fit to have a haggard musical genie come along and sweep her away from her podunk town, which makes the film a fantasy of wish fulfillment for every backwater kid who knows three chords and thinks they have a story to tell. With that in mind, I’m not surprised that the narrative is so acutely lacking in self-awareness of how these stories play out in real life that we’re supposed to agree with her and be swept along in her wake, but you hit the nail on the head with the words “laughable” and “inauthentic.”

Boomer: I’ve never seen a film so hell bent on not pulling the trigger on Chekhov’s Gun. When Billy first rolls into town, the handle of a revolver is hanging out of the front of his jacket. I’m pretty certain that we also see the same gun sitting on the counter in his kitchen near the end of the film, but we never see him using it at all. There’s not even a scene where he takes Molly out to the back forty to shoot tin cans off of a fence while he pontificates about some metaphor comparing the cans to men who will try to steal or subvert her talent. Sure, we get to see one of Colt’s (har har the irony) fans use a gun, but it’s not the same one. I kept wondering when Billy’s gun was going to come into play, but it never does. That’s a first draft problem, but this is also a first draft movie, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.

Brandon: For a much more authentic look at a singer-songwriter struggling to establish her own voice in the oppressive Boys’ Club of 1980s rock n’ roll, I highly recommend 1982’s Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The feminist messaging is more pointed, the songs are more believably punk, and you get to have a glimpse at a before-she-was-famous Laura Dern. As much as I allowed myself to be charmed by Fiona as a personality, I think Hearts of Fire is really only worth digging up to laugh in Bob Dylan’s face as he bizarrely attempts to pass himself off as a sexy, dangerous rock god & fails miserably. The Fabulous Stains, by contrast, is a genuinely great movie set in a notably similar atmosphere.

Britnee: I’ve recently watched a couple of interviews with Bob Dylan around the time Hearts of Fire was filmed, and he is just as tired in real life as he is in this movie. He should’ve gone on a two-week cruise instead of making a movie to get some of his energy restored. But as sad as it sounds, I love how horrible he was, and I love how horrible this movie is. I wish it had achieved cult status so there could be midnight showings with fans dressed up as James Colt (in oversized suits and greasy mullets).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #42 of The Swampflix Podcast: Five “Final” Destinations & Valentine (2001)

Welcome to Episode #42 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-second episode, we celebrate Halloween by looking back to some post-Scream mainstream horrors from the early 00s. Brandon and Britnee dive head first into the entirety of the Final Destination franchise. Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Denise Richards slasher Valentine (2001) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Afflicted (2014), Unfriended (2015), and the Future of Found Footage Horror

After the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror market was flooded with found footage echoes of that pioneer work that diluted its legacy. Titles like [Rec.], Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, and straight-to-DVD dreck too bland to even be named exhausted the possibilities of how the found footage gimmick could be kept fresh on the horror landscape despite the limitations of its form. There’s still an occasional success that follows a traditional found footage formula (The Visit & Creep both immediately come to mind), but for the most part that subgenre still feels oddly faithful to the roadmap laid out by Blair Witch almost two decades ago. For me, the most exciting developments in found footage gimmickry have been the instances where movies leave behind the handheld camcorders of Blair Witch entirely and switch up the technology of the devices used to record their horrors. Our current Movie of the Month, Unfriended, is my go-to example of how updates in technology can keep this genre alive. Framed entirely within the POV of a laptop screen during a deadly Skype conversation, Unfriended offers a new, novel perspective on found footage storytelling. It recaptures the “It could happen to you” verisimilitude of Blair Witch’s camcorder format without merely repeating the trick. The subsequent shift to smartphone POV (via Snapchat) in Sickhouse wasn’t quite as memorable, but at least offers hope that future technology jumps can keep this genre fresh. We can’t continue to produce carbon copies of The Blair Witch Project and expect them to remain effective. Its modes of “documentation” no longer reflect the way we film our lives, in supernatural thrillers or otherwise.

I believe Unfriended is the best technology jump I’ve seen among Blair Witch descendants, but it wasn’t the first. A year before Unfriended hit wide release, a much smaller indie horror titled Afflicted offered its own Blair Witch technology advancement in what could (reductively) be described as GoPro Horror. Written, directed by, and starring Derek Lee & Chris Prowse (who use their own names & old photographs in the film), Afflicted adapts vampire transformation horror to the format of a reality show-style travelogue. Two American buddies take a break from their daily drudgery as an I.T. bro (who’s suffering an aneurysm-causing brain disorder) & a low-level documentarian (who just wants to shake his bestie out of his medically-induced rut) to backpack through Europe in search for excitement, experience, adventure, and distraction. They document their every waking moment on a shared “video travel blog” titled Ends of the Earth. Things take a bad turn when the aneurysm-suffering tech bro engages in a one night stand hookup with a French girl and is unwittingly turned into a vampire. The bubbly self-promo energy of the reality show travelogue then slips away as the focus shifts to documenting the supernatural changes in his body, which range from the ailments & abilities of a superhero to those of a bloodthirsty monster. By the end of the film he’s a fully feral Nosferatu, wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris with wild abandon. Afflicted is an exciting balance of dirt cheap, accessible technology (most notably in its use of GoPro footage) and large scale CGI horror spectacle. The tension between those two aesthetics pumps fresh blood into the veins of two over-drained horror subgenres (the found footage horror & the vampire myth) while still maintain the feeling of two normal buds making a no-budget indie together. As the technology of its camera equipment becomes more obsolete, it might stand a chance as surviving as an essential cultural document, just as Unfriended captures what life online feels like in the 2010s (except maybe with less vampirism & ghost murders, respectively).

As much as I remain impressed with Afflicted’s use of new technology to revitalize the found footage gimmick, I do have to admit that its basic accomplishment have become less novel over time. Spring offered a much better version of the supernatural European vacation from Hell narrative (sans the found footage device). They’re Watching (although total garbage) was more fully invested in the reality show turned found footage horror format (which still has more room to be fully explored). Most importantly, though, Unfriended’s commitment to framing its entire story through a single Skype session has since made Afflicted’s only occasional use of GoPros seem a little half-assed in retrospect. At this year’s New Orleans Film Fest I saw a darkly funny, merciless drama titled Damascene that proved it’s possible to film an entire movie on GoPros without it inherently feeling like a Hardcore Henry-style first person shooter. Afflicted mostly saves its GoPro sequences for its final, action-packed stretch as our vampiric antihero is being chased by Interpol for his crimes against innocent Parisians. Most of the movie is seemingly filmed on handheld digital camcorders, which makes it more a direct Blair Witch descendant than the much more fully committed Unfriended. Still, an intense focus is placed on the technology behind the documentation, even including a scene where all of the documentarian’s gear is laid out & cataloged on a hotel room bed (chest-mounts, GoPros, zoom lenses, etc.). The movie also finds the technological novelty in its attention to the two buddies’ travel blog, especially in how they crowdsource information through the comment sections. Afflicted may be slipping in my estimation in how its GoPro horror gimmick is used to revitalize the found footage format, but it’s still endlessly impressive in how it punches above its weight by playing with the latest available technological tools.

Although Afflicted is not as fully committed to its employment of GoPro technology to revitalize found footage horror as Unfriended was with Skype or Sickhouse was with Snapchat, it’s still worthy as an early signifier that the genre will only survive & remain fresh if it’s allowed to keep up with the technology of its time. I’m not convinced that Afflicted would have been half as interesting as a vampire transformation narrative or as a found footage horror piece without its GoPro technology & travel blog documentation providing modern online culture texture to its basic aesthetic. Just a year later, Unfriended did the same for the traditional ghost story within a found footage context, although admittedly with a fuller, better-realized commitment to its gimmick. It’s unclear what the next technology jump is for the found footage genre (although it’s likely a return to the Sickhouse smartphone gimmick is likely what’s next for Unfriended 2, at least), but the further the genre moves away from the handheld camcorders of The Blair Witch Project the better. There’s no reason for the genre to remain stuck in the technology of 1999 and the more it makes an effort to keep up with the gear available to its characters in the era they’re terrorized onscreen, the more effective it will remain as a mode of true-to-life horror & a cultural document.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017), and last week’s discussion of our hopes for it just-announced sequel.

-Brandon Ledet