Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

This … experience (I’m not quite sure it’s a “movie”) opens in an awkward flashback to a time four years ago that barely resembles our present reality, so I will, too. Back in November of 2017, I rode a bus with an exposed face to a movie theater that was located in the same strip mall as an honest-to-goodness travel agency, where I pushed a lever on a dispenser that provided me with a plastic straw that wasn’t even wrapped in paper, just piled into said dispenser with all of its brethren willy nilly by a teenage employee using their bare hand. And I used that straw to drink an ICEE that was as blue as the sky and as big as my femur. The film that I went to see that grey November Saturday was the theatrical release of Justice League, which I found … sufficiently diverting. “Look!,” I typed with my naïve little fingers, “Up on the screen!” digits as yet unravaged by just how stupid, undignified, and dangerous life was about to become, in every single way it possibly could. “It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud!” I wrote, not really thinking myself clever but pressed to come up with anything better. “It’s Justice League!” Now, here we are, a pandemic, an insurrection, and three and a half years later, and the revelation is at hand, and I have to say, it troubles my spirit (which we’ll get into in a minute here), if not my sight, vexed to nightmare.

I’m speaking, of course, about Zack Snyder’s Justice League

What a rough beast to come round at last, slouching towards HBO Max to be born! There’s no way that the modern reader doesn’t know what I’m referring to, but in case you are reading this some decades in the future, when the internet has collapsed in on itself and there’s nothing left to read but Cathy comics, the fabled Swampflix Tablets, and Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, I’ll explain. Once upon a time, there was a movie that wasn’t finished because of a tragedy in the director’s life. As a result, directorial duties were handed off from Zack Snyder (aka the film bro’s Michael Bay) to Joss Whedon (aka the thinking man’s Harvey Weinstein) so that the latter could hopefully bring to the DC film franchise some of the tangential Marvel prestige that the former’s previous films had failed to garner. Whedon churned out a mediocre-at-best live action cartoon that was cursed with the worst production problems since God decided to make Richard Stanley into the modern day Job, plagued by contract disputes about facial hair, beset by horrible jokes about the nature of brunch, and savaged by most critics. Immediately, the drowning vermin in the extended gutters began to demand “The Snyder Cut,” and Warner decided to just go ahead and do it, teaching all of the too-online Twitter incels the valuable lesson that you pester and pester and pester long enough (40 months, as it turns out), you’ll eventually wear down everyone enough to get what you want. I’m sure that won’t have any long term consequences that we’ll all regret forever! 

As a result of the death of Superman (Henry Cavil) at the end of Batman v. Superman, a mysterious cube on Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is activated. This cube is one of three “mother boxes,” sentient computers that, in this version, are used in conjunction with one another to terraform planets into the same hellish landscape as Apokalips, the home of DC supervillain Darkseid (Ray Porter), an omnicidal monarch whose life’s work is to find the Anti-Life Equation, which can be used to subjugate and enslave by destroying all free will in the universe. Diana relates to Bruce “Batman, obviously” Wayne (Ben Affleck) that, in some prehistoric past, Darkseid had visited earth and attempted to unify the mother boxes, but that his attack was repelled by a group of Amazons and gods, Atlanteans (who had not yet migrated to beneath the waves), and humans, with a Green Lantern thrown in there for good measure. The mother boxes themselves were left behind when Darkseid’s forces retreated, and each group—man, Atlantean, and Amazon—were given one of these MacGuffins to guard and stand vigil over. Now, the boxes are awakening after countless centuries of dormancy, and the first has called to the villainous Steppenwolf to reunite it with its fellows in order to turn everything into magma. And it’s up to Bruce and Diana to unite the seven, or six rather, in order to combat him. 

The first attempted recruit is Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the son of an Atlantean woman and a human man, with one foot in both worlds and at home in neither (I assume this is explained in Aquaman). He all but laughs in Bruce’s face and disappears into the sea. Elsewhere, Diana meets Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former Gotham City University football star who prior to the start of the story was in an accident that claimed his mother’s life and should have killed him as well. In a desperate move, his father Silas (Joe Morton), a STAR Labs scientist with access to the excavated mother box that was to be guarded by mankind, uses the alien technology to save Victor’s life, turning his son into a walking deus ex machina who also happens to be the emotional core of this narrative. Like Aquaman, he too also initially rejects Diana’s offer to join her and Bruce, since he’s too busy doing things that actually make the world a better place (like redistributing wealth, albeit very, very slowly). The only luck the duo have in soliciting assistance is when they meet Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), a speedster whose superpower lets him move at such speeds that it sometimes affects the flow of time itself. Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is trying to find the third and final mother box in order to do his thing, and this plan includes abducting anyone who’s been near it, including Silas, which brings Cyborg into the fray. They track the abductees to one of the Snyder Cut’s multiple nondescript industrial locations and manage to free them, but even with an assist from Aquaman, they get their asses handed to them, so they decide to cut through this Gordian Knot by digging up Superman’s rotting corpse and bringing it back to life with the mother box, like you do. 

Via technobabble and superheroic shenanigans, they manage to resurrect Superman, but it’s Pet Sematary rules so he’s not all there at first, at least until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and they fly away together, and the two of them reunite with MARTHA (Diane Lane) back at the now-repossessed Kent family farm for a bit while the other five supes fly off to Russia to attack Steppenwolf’s base. Superman eventually joins them, and there’s a lot of CGI action for a really long time, and then the credits roll. Or rather, they don’t, as this thing has more fakeout endings than Return of the King. We get a prison break, a harbor rendezvous, and a dream sequence/future vision that leads into a scene in which Bruce meets the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), all for the price of admission, which I guess is just whatever you were already paying for HBO Max.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is (infamously) presented in 4:3, which means that it’s in the same aspect ratio as the television you watched as a child (presuming you’re old enough to read and enjoy this website), which honestly did wonders for the release as a whole. Any time something was very, very dumb, my unconscious just said, “This isn’t cinema, it’s TV from the Baywatch generation,” and my conscious was like “pew pew lasers, zap zap zap.” The fact that it’s broken into segments that make it perfect for viewing in chunks while riding an exercise bike, which is the only way that I do anything now anyway since we’re all getting vaccinated and immunized and I will once more have to be perceived in public again, doesn’t hurt either. Although I hate to give the subset of internet weirdos who build their whole identity around the claims that Disney buys positive reviews and that the DCEU is some kind of grand artistic statement instead of an inconsistent corporate product any credit for being right, even if only by accident, this version of the narrative does things that Marvel would legitimately never do. For better or for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not going to have a bunch of Scandinavian women ululating on a gravel beach because someone rented Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and although that’s not a metric of greatness, it’s moody and atmospheric in a way that I didn’t expect. So, yeah … this is good, actually? 

Which is not to say that it’s good consistently. There are many, many scenes that take place solely in the realm of The Mind, and not in a way that’s beautiful or complex so much as a way that’s very … brown acid. Everything about the epilogue is pure hot steaming garbage, especially the much-vaunted reappearance of Jared Leto’s Joker. Maybe it’s not the best barometer, but I often use the rapidity of how quickly a TVTropes page grows as well as its editorial tone (or lack thereof) in combination with the Twitter discourse to gauge just how problematic a given fandom is, and I have to say, YIKES. In what is easily the narrative’s worst scene, Joker and the Bat have a super macho, aggro argument about the deaths of loved ones that prompts Affleck’s Batman to proffer a death threat that’s delivered with the same exact cringe as BVS’s infamous “Why’d you say that name?” or the out-of-context Dick Grayson line “Fuck Batman” from Teen Titans, but since the worst people on the internet have adopted kinning/LARPing the Joker, they’re eating this scene up like it’s cherries jubilee on the Fourth of July. It just goes to prove that giving these people this cut of Justice League is possibly the worst thing that we have done as a society. It’s like it’s the last week of school and a bedraggled fourth grade teacher has finally given up on trying to improve the morals, education, or enlightenment of a boy who doesn’t respect his female classmates’ bodily autonomy, the opinions of any individual other than himself, or why it’s wrong to torture small animals, and just gives him a candy bar to shut him up before we head into the long, dark summer slide of western civilization, turning and turning in the widening gyre. 

So how to grade something like this? It’s unequivocally a better experience than the theatrical cut, which I gave a 3.5 star review (albeit with the Camp Stamp signifier). It also demands some kind of qualifier to any measure of its quality, however, as things fall apart upon inspection, and the centre cannot hold… your attention for very long, but to call this “camp” doesn’t seem right either, despite the weirdly performative nature of its machismo. But can I justify giving this a 3.5+ star review with no real warning to the potential viewer who uses Swampflix as a guide to quality? I’m flipping a coin and living with the decision. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, StageFright: Aquarius is a 1987 giallo film directed by Michele Soavi, who got his start assisting Dario Argento and shooting second unit work on Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. His second film was the previously reviewed La chiesa in 1989, but this freshman feature has a lot of style, which spackles over the occasional slip-ups that are common in debut films. 

Our film opens on a grimy street, as a woman in a platinum wig seeks an honest night’s work, only to be attacked and pulled into a shadowed entryway. This causes a commotion as a dozen people gather and stare at her murdered body, only for the killer to suddenly and energetically burst forth from the door and begin to dance as we pan out to see that the street is just a set on a stage in a modestly sized theater, and our characters are but actors on it. Well, most of them are actors; some are dancers, and there’s also an inexplicable saxophone player in a billowing Marilyn Monroe dress perched on one of the faux rooftops. The killer happens to be wearing a giant owl head, and it’s one of the strangest but most fascinating openings I’ve seen in a film in this genre. The choice to open with offscreen traffic noise and slowly pan up a city street makes for a clever misdirect that is also ultimately a metaphor about the film’s own method of doing more with less

After wounding her ankle on-stage in the opening scene, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) acquiesces to the prompting of Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) to sneak out of the side door and get her ankle treated, without the permission of egomaniacal director Peter (David Brandon). They charm affable theater owner/property manager Willy (James Sampson) into letting them out through the side door. It turns out that the hospital that Betty knew about that was nearby is actually a psychiatric hospital, but as Betty points out, psychiatrists do attend medical school, so after an encounter with an unfriendly nurse, Alicia sees a doctor. On the way out, she asks about the room that has bars over the door, and the women learn that the prisoner is serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who’s awaiting trial. Wallace escapes from his room due to an orderly’s carelessness, and, hiding in Betty’s trunk, returns with them to the theater. Alicia is immediately fired upon return, and while Peter is dressing her down, Betty is killed outside with a pickaxe. 

Surprisingly, Alicia discovers this almost immediately and the police are called and arrive at once. Her body is taken away, there are reporters, it’s a whole deal. Two patrolman (Soavi in a cameo, with Mickey Knox as his older partner) are stationed outside of the theater and Willy clocks out for the night, entrusting Peter to lock the place up. Instead, he has “ingenue” Corinne (Loredana Parrella) hide the key so that everyone is locked in and forced to participate in an all-night rehearsal so that they can open the play early and capitalize on the tragedy. Of course, that means that Irving is now locked in with the cast as well as their producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida). The first to be subdued is Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, credited as John Morghen), who portrays the killer within the play; Irving takes his owl head mask and uses it as his disguise to get close to Corinne in the scene in which she dies, only for onlookers to respond too slowly to the dawning realization that she is actually being murdered. And, as she’s the only one who knows where the key is, they’re in for a long night. 

The play within the movie is about a fictional killer named The Night Owl who preys on vulnerable women and murders them. The characters within the film also recognize that the play is a stylish but trashy cheap thrill masquerading as something more; one character describes it as a “thoughtful musical” when asked, but this “artistic endeavor” is fully funded by a sleazy businessman who doles cash out of a briefcase like a gangster. The director of the play, 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. 

Speaking of the play, in order to enjoy the movie, it’s important not to worry about what the production’s narrative is or how it could possibly work, and I think this might be an intentional comment on Italian horror as a genre as well. We see several disparate scenes, included but not limited to: 

  • The aforementioned scene in which a sex worker played by Alicia is pulled into a dark alcove/building and murdered, then the owl-headed killer bursts out and dances while a woman plays a saxophone on a rooftop above. This appears as the film’s opening but is presumably not the beginning of the play, as Alicia’s role is repeatedly referred to as the “lead role,” despite her being killed in this scene. 
  • A scene in which Laurel (Mary Sellers) is dancing on a bed while wearing a red wig and dressed as Raggedy Ann–not just a dress like Raggedy Ann’s, but literally dressed as the doll, apparently. We later see that she’s even wearing pads that simulate a body shape that’s essentially identical to the patented Ann doll. This part is apparently non-essential to the plot, as Laurel is tapped to replace Alicia in the aforementioned lead role when Alicia is briefly fired for getting her ankle checked out, and there’s no mention of someone else taking on Laurel’s old role. 
  • The love/killing scene in which Corinne does an interpretive dance around her bedroom while mooning after but also fearing The Night Owl. Although Corinne is intentionally styled to appear more prudish/innocent than the other female characters, there’s no doll on the bed in this scene or any indication that she has a Raggedy Ann. 

I leave it to the giallo fanfiction writers of the world, which I assume exist (if only because I can’t be the only one, right?) to put together a feasible narrative in which these scenes might appear, but I like to think that this is supposed to reflect how most giallo films are often composed of striking individual scenes that ultimately add up to a whole that is greater—but less comprehensible—than the sum of its parts. This film is no exception, although it’s much more fun and compelling than many of its peers, despite occasional wonkiness. For one thing, I fully support the decision to get up in the catwalk above the stage more than once; in a theater, that’s a natural place to stage a scene, but the film puts both of its catwalk scenes in Act III, which makes it feel narratively unbalanced. The dubbing in this one is particularly funny, as there’s the characteristic slight syncing/emphasis issues that are pretty common in Italian cinema, but while most characters are clearly speaking (possibly phonetically memorized) English that’s been dubbed over, there’s no attempt to do so with Ferrari. Either he’s just straight up speaking Italian or every one of his lines was rewritten between filming and voiceover. There’s also an inconsistency of verbiage, as the events of the night are given the nickname “The Sound Stage Killings,” but this isn’t a sound stage; it’s a live theatrical performance space. Those quibbles are fun and easily ignored, but I did have some qualms with the finale. The movie reaches a natural conclusion (our final girl defeats the real Night Owl and escapes to notify the police), but it keeps going for some reason, following her return to the theatre, where she reunites with Willy. In shoddy ADR, he endlessly repeats a line about how the apparent prop gun that was found in one of his desk drawers and which turned out to be useless against Irving is, in fact, a real gun as the play crew had initially guessed, but that none of the actors had figured out how to turn the safety off, only for there to be one final altercation with Irving. The pacing of it is all off, and it feels like it was added to pad the runtime (even with this scene, it’s a lean 86 minutes); forgivable, but not very fun. 

StageFright: Aquarius is currently streaming on Shudder, although the title is styled much less interestingly as Stage Fright.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

There are many shades to The Joan Crawford Noir. Mildred Pierce is, of course, the crown jewel of the genre – a transcendent work that’s equal parts moody crime picture & proto-Sirkian melodrama. For its part, Possessed splits the difference between the typical Crawford noir and her future subgenre of psychobiddy thrillers, leaning into the powerhouse actor’s unmatched skills in portraying woman-on-the-verge mental unraveling. By contrast, The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, novelty, or excellence in its own version of The Joan Crawford Noir. It’s a great crime thriller on its own terms, but as an entry in the genre it’s the one that relies on the Joaniest Joan, noiriest noir payoffs & tropes.

In the Damned Don’t Cry, Crawford plays a ruthless social climber whose ambition gets the best of her when she finds herself caught between two rival mobster boyfriends. It’s basically the noir version of Baby Face, except she’s sleeping her way up a nation-wide mafia network instead of a single office building (and without the pre-Code vulgarity, of course). Like all of the Crawford noirs, these events are recounted in lengthy flashbacks, with our distressed femme fatale at her lowest point looking back on the road that got her there. She’s worked her way up from abject poverty to low-level grifts & sex work to an all-powerful mafiosa – only for it all to come crumbling down with a single gunshot. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t go as far as to condemn her for her violent, sexually charged ambition either. When looking back to her poverty-stricken beginnings after following her tawdry ascent to wealth & power, the movie basically shrugs and asks “Who could blame her? Wouldn’t you do the same if you could?”

While this does share some delicious melodrama with the much more refined, accomplished Mildred Pierce, it can only best that film in terms of its adherence to noir payoffs & tropes. The Damned Don’t Cry is soaked in the window-blinds lighting, amoral criminals, and sultry sexuality typical to noir. Most importantly, it affords Crawford plenty opportunities to indulge in the over-stylized, rapidfire dialogue of the genre, delivering one-liners like “I was about to say it was a pleasure meeting with a gentlemen, but I was wrong on both counts” and “Self-respect is something you tell yourself you’ve got when you’ve got nothing else.” Mildred Pierce is undeniably the best Crawford noir, but The Damned Don’t Cry is the noiriest Crawford noir, which is a fabulous distinction in itself.

-Brandon Ledet

Manhunter (1986)

I recently filled in a pretty big blind spot in my mental library of the film canon: I had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, despite it being one of the biggest films of the nineties and occupying a massive place in the American pop culture landscape of the past thirty years. Every single part of the film has been parodied, homaged, recreated, dissected, and interpreted musically; its influence loomed huge, and looms still to this day. I’ve also seen virtually everything else in the Thomas Harris adaptation canon, as I was a fan of the Hannibal TV series and I’ve seen all of the other film adaptations of the Lector works other than Lambs. I was inspired to finally seek it out and watch it after recently seeing two works that referenced it: I’m finally getting around to watching The X-Files, and early Dana Scully is very clearly based on Clarice Starling (even the X-Files wiki has a page about this), as well as the introductory scene of Betty Cooper in the first posts-timeskip episode of this season of Riverdale, in which Betty runs the Quantico course that Clarice does at the beginning of Lambs. All this hype is well-deserved; that Jodie Foster has delivered a lifetime’s worth of fantastic performances makes her portrayal of Starling no less fantastic, Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal is delightfully creepy, the mystery elements of the plot are perfectly constructed, and it’s a movie that earned its place in pop culture. My biggest complaint, really, is in regards to the workmanlike quality of Jonathan Demme’s directorial work.

To put it simply, Lambs just isn’t very stylish, and a lot of the storytelling is in the (admittedly great) performances. That’s typical of how I feel about Demme’s work; a few years back, one of the weekly summer specialties that the Alamo Drafthouse ran was called “Un-Hitched,” featuring films inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. I saw all four features that ran as part of the specialty program and wrote about three of them: Body Double, Special Effects, and (as a submission for Movie of the Month) Who Can Kill a Child? Even though I disliked Special Effects, I still had something to say about it, but Demme’s Un-Hitched contribution, The Last Embrace, left me completely apathetic. His productions are substantial but lack a quintessential auteurism, and that shows though in Lambs, despite it having a fairly long-lasting legacy. There are a few moments that stand out: the nightvision stalking of Clarice in Jamie Gumb’s basement is inspired, and the shooting of Clarice’s initial interviews of Lector place him behind glass while the camera (and the viewer) stays outside of his cell, then having her final scene with him in Memphis show with the camera in his cell while Clarice paces on the other side of the bars is a great depiction of the inversion of their power dynamic. Overall, however, what Lambs made me want to do was revisit my favorite Harris adaptation, the oft-overlooked Michael Mann flick Manhunter, which was released in 1986, just five short years after the publication of its source material, Red Dragon.

When it comes to the general public’s interest in the Hannibal Lector character, the story with the greatest staying power and most mainstream recognition is Silence of the Lambs, but to my mind, the plot of Red Dragon is the Hannibal Lector story. It’s certainly had the most adaptations, with Manhunter coming first in the eighties, then getting a second adaptation under its original Red Dragon title as a Lambs prequel in 2001 and starring Edward Norton as Will Graham, before finally being adapted as part of the third season of NBC’s Hannibal TV series helmed by Bryan Fuller. Although the last of these was a Tumblr darling and had a devoted following which praised the show’s visual flair, Manhunter is also no slouch in the visuals department. When I think of the quintessential eighties neo-noir (neon-noir?), Manhunter is the film that I think of.

Surprisingly, the Red Dragon plot outline is pretty consistent across all three adaptations: some time prior to the “current” events, FBI profiler Will Graham was investigating a series of serial killings by a man named Garret Jacob Hobbs. During the course of that investigation, Graham partnered and coordinated with well-regarded psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hannibal Lector. Graham shot and killed Hobbs in self defense, and Graham was himself grievously injured by Lector while attempting to escape the doctor upon the realization that Lector was also a serial killer and cannibal. While recovering, Graham’s injuries are photographed and published by sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, and although he heals physically, his mind takes longer to recover. The very thing that allows Graham such great insight into the mind of the killer, his empathy, also makes him susceptible to the same pathological tendencies of the killers he pursues. Now, with the emergence of a new prolific serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy,” Will comes out of retirement to consult with Lector once more in order to catch him. The Tooth Fairy is in fact one Francis Dolarhyde, a bodybuilding film development specialist with a slight facial deformity about which he is extremely neurotic.

Dolarhyde has an obsession with the William Blake Revelatory poems/paintings about the Red Dragon, and he believes that he is transforming his victims in his murders of them, as they “bear witness” to a transformation that he calls “The Great Becoming.” Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde into a trap by leaking false, inflammatory information about the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon to Lounds, but an enraged Dolarhyde captures and kills Lounds instead of Graham. It is discovered that Lector and Dolarhyde have managed to send each other messages via personal ads in Lounds’s newspaper, and Lector provides Dolarhyde with information that endangers Graham’s wife and stepson. The Red Dragon aspect of Dolarhyde’s personality is temporarily pacified when he strikes up a relationship with his blind co-worker, Reba McClane, but his jealousy regarding an innocent interaction with another co-worker leads the Dragon to reassert itself. The only major narrative deviation from the source material and the other adaptations here is that, in Manhunter, Graham attacks and kills Dolarhyde in his home to save Reba; in the Red Dragon and Hannibal TV series adaptations, as well as the original novel, Dolarhyde stages his death so that he can pursue Graham’s family in vengeance without interference, only to be killed by Graham’s wife Molly when invading their home.

Manhunter is a great movie, one of the best neo-noirs ever made. Not to throw a fantastic movie like Silence of the Lambs under the metaphorical bus, but Lambs has nothing on Mann’s sense of style and his cinematic eye. Every frame of Manhunter is gorgeous, even when it’s shocking, disturbing, or creepy; at this point, audiences have seen three different versions of Francis Dolarhyde take three different versions of Reba to pet three different sedated tigers, and although neither Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde nor Joan Allen’s Reba are the best or most interesting versions of those characters, this is still the most visually striking interpretation of that scene (for the record, Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon is the best Dolarhyde, and Hannibal’s Rutina Wesley is the best Reba). Manhunter’s various tableaux run the gamut from oppressive institutional white spaces to vibrant, almost violently purple sunrises, to stunning salmon sunsets, neon blue night scenes in Graham’s beachside Florida home, and moody shots of Graham inspecting his reflection in various darkened windows. This is used to great effect; when we first meet Brian Cox as Dr. Lecktor (as it is spelled in this film), he’s clothed entirely in white and housed in an all-white cell. When we see reverse shots of Graham from Lecktor’s point of view, the white lines of the cell bars blend into the background of the walls, there’s an impression of Graham, metaphorically fractured into pieces in a white void. That same whiteness is mirrored in the home of the family that was most recently slain by Dolarhyde, which shares that same ascetic aesthetic, other than the Pollock-esque splatters of arterial spray. In an early scene, Graham’s wife Molly (Kim Greist) sits with FBI behaviorist Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) in a lovely silhouette against the sunset over the ocean, and you think to yourself, “God, this is a gorgeous shot,” and then that shot is succeeded by another beautiful diorama, and another, until the film ends.

Cutting the final Graham home invasion scene and killing Dolarhyde early is a strong choice, but I think it works well here, giving the film a cleaner (and more expedient) resolution. Like most Harris adaptations, this one clocks in at a pretty significant length—120 minutes, alongside Lambs’ 118, Red Dragon’s 124, and Hannibal (2001)’s 132—and omitting the final scene allows for earlier sequences to “marinate” a bit more, last a little longer, and have a greater impact. If there’s anything that it stumbles with, it’s Dolarhyde. Both Red Dragon and the TV version of Hannibal weave the Dolarhyde point of view into their texture a bit more evenly, while Manhunter takes perhaps a little too much time before getting to him. As a result, the back half of the film contains long periods of screentime with the focus shifted to Dolarhyde and Rita with very little Graham, which makes for a slightly uneven, but still very rewarding, viewing experience.

There’s so much to love and praise here: the occasional giallo-esque score, the dream sequences, the lingering shots of stillness that create tension, the palate, the acting choices, but it really needs to be seen to be enjoyed. Although Manhunter is older than I am, it’s not streaming for free anywhere, but I guarantee it’s worth the rental price.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Getting Go: The Go Doc Project (2013)

The third film in my recent exploration of Tubi’s LGBTQIA+ section (following Is It Just Me? and Go Go Crazy) Getting Go, the Go Doc Project also features go-go dancing as a key part of its narrative makeup. It shares more than a few other similarities with Is It Just Me? as well, although it’s a much better film.

Our primary lead, known only as “Doc” (Tanner Cohen) is a country mouse close to finishing up his college education in New York. He has a vlog in which he talks about his life and, oddly, masturbates for the pleasure of his followers; he’s not a camboy and doesn’t seem to get any real pleasure from his exhibitionism, but as long as he’s laying his life bare for his 35ish viewers, he might as well go all the way. He’s looking for love but mostly experiencing infatuation, and the latest object of his affection is a popular go-go dancer identified only as “Go” (Matthew Camp). While drunk one night, Doc emails Go and tells him that he’s working on his final project before graduation, a documentary, and Doc wants to make it about him. Although he’s embarrassed when he recovers from his blackout and checks his outbox, Doc is pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Go, who agrees to the arrangement after very little convincing (and a promise of a 5% cut of any profits). Doc borrows a camera from a friend and starts shooting almost immediately, capturing an intimate slice of life that grows into something more as the two men start to fall for each other.

If Matthew Camp’s name sounds familiar to you, there are multiple reasons why this might be the case. It could be because you like porn (and no shame here), or because you’re familiar with his fashion brand, Daddy Couture, or from the British reality show Slag Wars. Or perhaps you heard about the recent arson of his Poughkeepsie home just a couple of months ago. Among gay porn performers, his penetration of the mainstream is possibly the deepest since Jeff Stryker appeared in Zombie 4: After Death, or that time Colby Keller showed up on EastSiders and High Maintenance. As the co-host of podcast Happie Campers, Camp shows that he’s more than just a pretty face and a hardbody, as the show aims to destigmatize sex work alongside recapitulating stories about “whirlwind[s] of lube, strip teases, and lots of nipple play” as well as “intellectual conversations about owning your sexuality.”

The last of these is an important element in Getting Go in more ways than one. Doc, for all of his book learning, is old fashioned and often ignorant. When Go asks him what his thesis for his documentary is, Doc declares that he intends to demonstrate that the ultimate goal of queer liberation must be assimilation, an idea to which Doc immediately (and rightfully) objects. Like Blaine in Is It Just Me?, what Doc wants is safe, solid monogamy, and there’s no shame in wanting that for oneself (like I said before, I do), but that doesn’t mean that any one person gets to decide that for anyone else. I was surprised to hear Go actually call Doc’s point of view “colonial,” given that films in this genre (and, as previously stated, on Tubi of all places) rarely exist in an intersectional space that even alludes to oppression as systemic and institutional. Go tells Doc that his way of thinking, that envisions a future of Polo-and-khakis normies as the end goal of the Gay Agenda, “castrates queer culture and humanity at large.”

This is foreshadowed early on, even before the two meet, when Doc finds a photo of Go online and edits it; in time lapse, he not only removes Go’s jock strap and photoshops a dick onto him, but he also airbrushes out all of the little “imperfections,” like moles and scars. For Doc, Go is nothing more than an image for his spank bank, at least at first. As the two get to know each other better and grow closer, Go challenges Doc’s preconceptions about what “love” has to look like, what it has to call itself and how it declares its presence, or what forms it can take. It’s hard for Doc to expand his internal schemas, but Go breaks through his barriers and Doc has his first time going all the wayon camera, no lessand it’s tender and sweet. Once this milestone passes, one half-expects the standard rom com plot to kick in: Go finds out that Doc has been lying this whole time, there’s an emotional confrontation, they break up, they spend some time apart, and then they get back together to live ambiguously ever after. That’s not what happens here. Instead, Doc walks in on Go with a trick, and the two argue about Go’s work, which Doc has largely ignored is sex work. Go comforts him and admits he always knew Doc’s true intentions but that he actually liked Doc from the start, so he went along with the documentary lie to spend time with him. This argument results in the two of them not seeing each other for a while, but they reunite before Doc moves out to Iowa to follow the next step on his academic journey, amicable ever after.

It’s shocking how much better this film is than either of the other two hosted-by-Tubi flicks I recently saw. It’s not a masterpiece, but like Go himself, it’s happy to be a different animal altogether, surprisingly thoughtful and ahead of its time. It doesn’t use the conventional trappings that one would expect for what is, at its core, a romance, and the choice to do it both in handheld and as a documentary not only makes sense financially but allows a clean break from the tired tropes of that genre. That documentary style also allows for the lines between fiction and reality to blur. In one scene, Go explains the meanings of several parts of his sleeve tattoo (which are of course Camp’s actual tattoos) so as he elaborates on what they represent to him, it’s almost if we’re seeing Camp here, not Go. I’d also wager that Go’s apartment is also Camp’s real place; there’s a messy verisimilitude to it, and given that Camp’s recently burned house was once the home and gathering place of Church of Satan member Joe “Netherworld” Mendillo, you know he’s into some spooky stuff, which would explain the amount of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise scattered around. Neither Camp nor Cohen had ever played the lead in anything before or since Getting Go, and they both give mixed-to-good performances that are very strong in places and for large sections but occasionally slightly off-center; luckily, the faux documentary format covers these small sins.

The soundtrack is fantastic; that’s good news as this is a montage-heavy movie, which is its largest detraction. There are a bunch of great, frenetic electronic tracks from 3 Teens Kill 4 and s/he, as well as multiple songs from both Big Boys and The Irrepressibles, and that energy helps propel you through a lot of Go dancing and the two leads walking aimlessly around New York. If you have a tendency to space out, you’re going to have a hard time staying focused. As an example, towards the end of the movie, Patrick Wolf’s “Overture” (which clocks in at 4:43) plays in its entirety over a montage of Doc and Go making out in various places around NYC. So if this sounds like your kind of movie and you like music videos in the middle of your sex-positive lately-coming-of-age romance, you’re in for a treat.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Go Go Crazy (2011)

In my Is It Just Me? review, I talked about TLA, Breaking Glass, and their domination of the 2005ish-2016ish era of gay cinema. TLA Releasing, at least, managed to put out the occasional queer prestige piece (like Mysterious Skin and, to a lesser extent, Latter Days, both of which came out in 2004 and helped pave the way for TLA to reach a larger audience), but Breaking Glass can’t make the same claim. If you go to the IMDb list of their films, no matter how you organize it—user ratings, popularity, number of votes, box officeyou’ll be hard pressed to find a single release on the first page that you recognize, with the possible exceptions of Breaking Through and Cropsey (which isn’t even gay), and even then, I doubt it. As such, it should come as no surprise if you’ve never heard of Go Go Crazy, a mockumentary about five Pittsburgh go-go dancers who are competing for the top slot and a $1000 prize.

We’ve got Vinnie T (Nick Kenkel), who dreams of one day becoming a professional karaoke star and who has styled himself after the participants of Jersey Shore, which, as all of us in 2021 know, is a reference that has withstood the test of time. We’ve also got ex-Amish pretty boy Chase (Paul Cereghino), a fatphobic, unabashedly racist dillweed with a Travolta-in-Grease pomp; there’s Connor (Ryan Windish), a Speedo-stuffing straight bartender at the Trocadero, the bar where the competition is being held; Kiernon (Michael Cusumano), an Eastern European ballet dancer who dreams of creating a dance production out of a traumatic bear attack that he suffered; and finally there’s Broadway hopeful Ken (Eric Spear), who plays the Pollyanna of the group and has no other personality traits. Judging the competition are Weinsteinian bar owner Hank (Rick Crom), Celine Dion impersonator “embodier” Tina Perkins (Christina Bianco), and the previous year’s winner Blake Goldenrod (actual gay porn star Jake Steel); the event is hosted by green-wigged drag queen Hedda Lettuce (billed as herself), and rounding out the cast is stagehand Simon (Derek St. Pierre), who is “dating” (read: being taken advantage of by) Chase.

A go-go mockumentary isn’t a bad idea, especially given the time of the movie’s release. By 2011, The Office was in its sixth season and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family were in their second or third; the format was reaching heights of popularity that were previously undreamt of. What the film is most clearly attempting (and failing) to imitate, however, is 2000’s Best in Show, or perhaps a lighter, softer version of 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, as indicated by the outlandishness of the character types present in the former and the local competition setting of the latter. Both films were cult touchstones for young queer cinephiles, and their legacy (if not their quality) is on full display here. The problem is that there are no characters who are engaging. Sure, Kirstie Alley’s overzealous stage mom character in Gorgeous isn’t “likable” in the traditional sense, and there are a lot of bitchy queens popping off all over Show, but they’re fun. The characters in Go Go Crazy are neither. The LGBTQIA+ community has long been one that embraces wit and witticisms as a core part of the social space, but it’s also well-known that there are those for whom simply being mean is treated as a replacement for having a personality, especially among those who equate camp bitchiness with comedy but don’t really understand the artistry behind a well-crafted and delivered bon mot, as opposed to face value racism and unclever pettiness.

It’s a kind of mean streak without cleverness that is a throughline in Go Go Crazy. We’re clearly supposed to love to hate Chase, but in reality, we just hate him. That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional joke that not only lands but works, but they are few and far between. The comedy of an American who doesn’t understand the difference between the state of Georgia and the nation of the same name (or who has never heard of the latter), from which Kiernon hails, is always good for a wry smile if nothing else. Too often, though, the film’s attempts to squeeze comedy out of the kind of pranks that were cliché in the 1980s, like putting itching powder in a competitor’s jock strap* or greasing up the pole before a rival’s dance to prevent them from finishing their routine, fall flat on their face. This is a relic of a film, a pseudo-raunchy sex comedy that’s actually fairly tame outside of its references to Hank’s sexual-predation-as-business-practice, which is itself treated glibly by the narrative in a way that is wouldn’t be now (and shouldn’t have been then). Go Go Crazy gets by solely on the physiques of its cast, which was already a weak draw in 2011 and is even less so now, when pornography has become widespread and available to just about everyone on a device that they keep in their pockets. Worse still, the version on Tubi has some really notable technical issues, including multiple instances of audio errors where it’s clear that the actor had micing problems, and where ADR should have been used if they weren’t going to do another take. I’m not sure if this is a Tubi problem or if it’s present in other releases (like the DVD), but it’s very noticeable and lends the production an amateurish feeling, which is shocking given that late director Fred M. Caruso’s previous film, The Big Gay Musical, had better, more professional production value.

Even as a piece of queer cinema history, it’s not that valuable. Like a TLA release, the eye-candy cast of this one is, unsurprisingly, made up of cast members that lack a headshot on IMDb. Even if you feel like taking a trip back through time, this is one to avoid.

*Bizarrely, this was also a plot point in Is It Just Me?, as a petty revenge ploy by Blaine against Cameron when he thought Cameron had hooked up with Xander, just in case you forgot that Blaine is a terrible person.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Is It Just Me? (2010)

When I went on my writing retreat a few months back, I didn’t come straight home after my internet-free cabin sojourn. For what was supposed to be two nights but ended up being only one, I made my way to the outlying areas near San Marcos to a separate isolated location, and that place did have internet, and a Roku TV, which I had never encountered before. I found my way to the Tubi app and was shocked by the width and breadth of its LGBTQIA content, although while scrolling through the trailers that the app featured, I realized why: 70% of them were releases from either TLA Releasing or Breaking Glass*, which both had major runs in the post-Brokeback pre-Trump era of independent filmmaking, churning out gay flicks at a rate faster than Blumhouse can pump out installments of Into the Dark. Most of them … are bad. I imagine they’re also very cheap to license, especially if you’re looking to fill out a free streaming service. Releases from these distributors are rarely just bad movies, they’re bad art not in the sense that they’re bad at being art, but in the sense that it’s a true, pure, intense look into the soul of the writers and directors (in this genre/time period, they are often one and the same), poorly made. These films are inscribed by limitations on their quality in every way, from material to performance to equipment. Most YouTubers now have better hardware than a lot of TLA releases from that time, and it shows. Sometimes, however, they manage to break through and somehow manage to be better than the sum of their parts.

I didn’t end up watching any of those movies in the hills outside of San Marcos. I happened to be driving through (and having to kill time while also following strict COVID protocol) on the day when Texas State was having their graduation. I had hoped to set up somewhere on or along the riverwalk to get some more writing done or finish reading Alias Grace, but all of the picnic tables were covered in plastic wrap to discourage congregation. After walking around the park for a while, I drove around aimlessly, seeing lots of young graduates and their families (following less strict COVID protocols) and ending up on-campus accidentally, where people who now seem impossibly young to me were leaving their dorms and loading up their cars to go home for Christmas. In that cabin just a few short hours later, I couldn’t bring myself to watch dated, ugly movies from the time when I was that same age, a time that was such a short season ago but which was nonetheless a completely different world, one without marriage equality or queer intersectionality or that extra decade of distance from the AIDS crisis. But knowing that they were out there meant that, eventually, I would be drawn back to them, moth to flame.

I recently watched three such films chosen at random. As luck would have it, the first one was a Breaking Glass film and the second was a TLA release, with the third actually coming from Wolfe Releasing, which is cut from the same cloth but seems to have a … let’s say “classier” output. All three also contained go-go dancing/dancers prominently and extensively, which was not something I sought out as a thematic throughline, but that encapsulates this era in gay cinema better than the previous two paragraphs did, doesn’t it? (Not better than the footnote, though.) The first of these, from Breaking Glass, captures what I think of when I think about their other distributions: a lead actor aiming for deadpan and missing, landing in the realm of dull surprise; a gay twist on one of the nine basic well-worn romcom templates (in this case Cyrano de Bergerac); a cast consisting mostly of actors with only two other credits and no headshot on IMDb; and one older gay delivering withering barbs and alluding to youthfully sleeping with Tennessee Williams. You know, a tale as old as time.

Is it Just Me? opens with our hero protagonist waxing fauxlosophical in his Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle article/voice over about wanting more out of life than sexual liberation, although he doesn’t phrase it that way. Meet Blaine (Nicholas Downs), who writes pseudonymously as the “Invisible Man” for USA ToGay, his pen name reflecting how he feels in the gay community of L.A. Part of what makes him feel invisible is that he shares his living space with super hunky Cameron (Adam Huss), a go-go dancer who’s forever hooking up with someone, and against whom Blaine compares himself and falls short. “Is it just me,” Blaine asks his readers, “or am I the only one in this town who’s interested in more than what’s behind a man’s zipper?” Blaine has a meet cute with handsome, guitar-playing Texan Xander (David Loren) at a local cafe, and the two coincidentally start chatting online shortly thereafter, then graduate to spending hours talking on the phone. Xander reveals that, improbably, he actually reads Blaine’s column and, even more impossibly, he likes it. When Xander shares his photo after the two get to know each other better virtually, Blaine is delighted by the serendipity of the situation, until he realizes that Cameron had left himself logged into the dating site when Blaine got online, so Xander thinks Blaine is Cameron. Whoops.

This is actually a cute premise, and I wish that I could say that the movie pulls it off, but it doesn’t quite pass muster. Downs’s credits list a lot of lead performances in short films and web series and bit roles in well-known properties (I feel like, if you’re reading this site, you know exactly what I mean when I say that he’s has the credit “Bellman” on NCIS: Los Angeles and a lot of credits in the exact same vein; you know what I’m talking about). The one that stood out to me most was a short entitled Orion Slave Girls Must Die!!!, obviously about Star Trek; I watched the trailer for that and he’s not giving the same flat performance in those clips as he is in Is it Just Me? In this, he delivers every line in an inflectionless monotone, and it seems to be a deliberate character choice, but—no disrespect to the actor—it doesn’t work. When a man in a bar flirtatiously asks Blaine what his sign is and he replies “Exit” and leaves, he doesn’t seem witty or sharp; he seems like a dick. Contributing to this is Blaine’s actions and attitudes regarding his desire for a monogamous, traditional relationship; that’s a perfectly fine goal and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that (I certainly do), but Blaine expresses his frustration with his lack of a solid relationship through slut-shaming his roommate and other queer folks who are still sowing their wild oats. Consider this exchange:

Antonio: “I totally wanna write for USA ToGay. I’m working on this sample column called ‘Circuit News.’ It’s important news for, you know, circuit people in the crowd.”
Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine. Dude. Just keep that shit to yourself.

Gay romances of this era always have a lady best friend for the lead, and this one is no different. I honestly can’t tell if Michelle (Michelle Laurent) is intentionally comically toxic or just utterly superfluous. Her only role in the film is to give Blaine bad advice while they’re jogging. If it’s intentionally bad because she likes drama, that’s actually pretty funny, but if the script is simply defaulting to having her give bad advice because she’s not actually allowed to affect the course of the plot, that’s less funny. Her role as Blaine’s friend and confidant is duplicated in Cameron, who’s surprisingly helpful, thoughtful, and generously patient with Blaine’s nonsense, especially given that Blaine’s internal monologue regarding Cameron is dismissive and, frankly, mean. At one point, Michelle tells Blaine explicitly that “Cameron is [his] roommate; he’s not [his] friend,” but Cameron is a better friend to Blaine than (a) Michelle is or (b) Blaine deserves.

Blaine drafts a reluctant Cameron into pretending to be him, and vice versa, in order to meet Xander IRL for the first time. Cameron warns Blaine that this is doomed to failure, but Blaine is for some reason convinced that wacky sitcom hijinx will have a better outcome than just being honest about the mix-up, because this is a romcom and there wouldn’t be a plot if there wasn’t unnecessary farce. Cameron-as-Blaine does his level best to be friendly with Xander while gently pushing him towards Blaine-as-Cameron, but the miscommunication takes another twist when Blaine overhears Cameron-as-Blaine helping a vomiting-drunk Xander navigate their apartment’s bathroom in ambiguous, offscreen dialogue that mirrors the noises Cameron makes when he’s fucking. Now Blaine thinks that Cameron broke his trust too, and when Michelle hears about it she eats that shit up with a spoon because she’s messy.

Xander has his own sounding board in Ernie (single serving sci-fi vet Bruce Gray from Cube 2: Hypercube), an elderly gay man, long-widowed but scared to re-enter the dating scene. Ernie has a popcorn machine in his movie den and I covet it. He generally wanders into a scene to cut the dramatic tension, and every time he exits the screen it’s accompanied by a line about his dog shitting in the house. He delivers little nuggets of wisdom like “Listen: writers [like Blaine] when they’re alone, they’re prophetic; when they’re with people, they’re pathetic. They’re just too in their heads.” He’s really as superfluous as Michelle, but if we didn’t cut to them from time to time, the threadbare nature of this plot would be even more exposed.

Obviously, Xander eventually realizes that he’s been lied to (from the credits of a slasher movie in which Cameron played a camp counselor, no less) and confronts Blaine, feeling betrayed and angry. But then he decides to give it a chance anyway and writes a song for Blaine, Blaine (and I cannot stress this enough impossibly) gets a job offer from the L.A. Times as a columnist, and Ernie gains the courage to start dating again. Everyone lives happily ever after, I guess.

There are cute moments scattered throughout this film, but on the whole it’s desperately lacking in critical areas. Not every narrative needs to have a main character that we empathize with or even understand, as long as we can form some kind of emotional attachment with them, but Blaine is a character that defies any attempts at empathy by virtue of being a complete dick. I don’t want to blame Downs as an actor without seeing more of his work, but although Blaine’s bon mots seem like they would work really well on the page, as delivered here, it just doesn’t work. Loren’s Texan accent is inconsistent and distracting, but Xander is so likable (if naïve) in comparison to Blaine’s bitter, jaded little pill that it’s a relief when he’s on screen. The MVP here, however, is Huss, who not only never skips chest day, he turns up the charm to distract you from some of the film’s larger, more glaring issues.

Although this happened to be the first of this loose non-trilogy that I saw and thus in a very literal sense it was my first choice, in a larger sense, this wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a prime example of the TLA brand when it comes to its politics, style, and structure, but with the least effective love story of the lot. Even when Blaine is supposed to be hitting it off with Xander (like discovering that they like the same obscure band), he feels more like a gatekeeper than a keeper because of his monotone delivery. I’ve seen worsea lot worsebut I still can’t recommend it.

*No one ever seems to talk about this, probably because no one cares but me, but these two completely eclipsed Ariztical Entertainment, didn’t they? Ariztical’s bread and butter were a sex comedy franchise that had pretty severe sequelitis and vanity projects like Ben and Arthur (edited, produced, written, directed, scored by, and starring Sam Mraovich), but I can’t remember the last time I saw that logo in front of anything. Their website still has a New Releases section that lists a movie that came out in January, but their homepage is also full of broken Quicktime plug-ins, so take from that what you will. The catalog page for Eating Out 3 has still-visible deadlinks to the film’s Blogger, Facebook, and MySpace pages, as well as a suspended Twitter account. A lot of their films are unsearchable on JustWatch, and as much as I’m interested in seeing their adaptation of Other Voices, Other Rooms, I can’t justify paying $18 for it, especially since it could end up being in a file format that won’t play on anything I own. All TLA had to do was release their own so-so sex comedy and Ariztical basically disappeared from the marketplace. At least Eating Out will always have longevity and legacy over Another Gay Movie with regards to sequels (Another Gay Sequel featured Perez Hilton as himself and was DOA). At least we’ll always have The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #130 of The Swampflix Podcast: Madhouse (1981) & Evil Twins

Welcome to Episode #130 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss over-the-top exploitation thrillers about Evil Twins, starting with the 1981 Italo whatsit Madhouse.

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

– The Podcast Crew

What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Full disclosure, I was waiting to write this until I got copy done on Elizabeth Harvest so that I could link both that film and this one as having a connection to the Bluebeard fairytale (uh, spoiler alert, and also spoilers throughout), but as it turns out, Britnee already did a very positive write-up of that film a couple of years back, so I don’t have to! We are in agreement: Elizabeth Harvest is great! 

Also great is the modernized, queer update What Keeps You Alive! Hannah Emily Anderson stars as Jackie, opposite Brittany Allen as Jules. The film follows the two of them to a remote lake house for a retreat for the couple’s one year wedding anniversary. Things feel a little “off” right from the outset, but no more so than you would expect from any film that follows a couple going to a “home” that looms large in the childhood of only one of them. Their diametric idiosyncrasies (including Jules’s fondness for metal music, which her wife hates) also contribute to the willingness to dismiss any awkwardness as simply a matter of character. This pervasive strangeness continues when across-the-lake neighbor Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) visits the rarely-occupied property out of neighborly concern and recognizes one of the women, calling her by a different name than the one by which we the audience know her. This prompts a tearful story about a childhood accident the following day, which is immediately followed by an attempted murder-via-cliff-push. The killer, assuming victory, practices a tearful phone call to the police while walking back to the lake house, revealing a deep and abiding sociopathy; elsewhere, her victim, who has miraculously survived, tries to escape. 

I’ll just call them “Bluebeard” and “Survivor” from here on out to keep this straight and to avoid spoiling which of the leads is the killer. I almost went with “Bluebeard” and “Victim,” but make no mistake: Survivor is not a victim. A very tense cat and mouse plays out following this first attempted murder, including some fun swerves that you won’t see coming. For a film that exists almost entirely in a limited locationthe house, the lake, the woodsthe film finds a way to steer into some unexpected stylistic choices. Of particular note is a blacklight murder scene cleanup scored to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, aka the Moonlight Sonata, and a half-dreamt reunion with a bloodthirsty bear. For a time, Survivor is recaptured by Bluebeard and kept alive for reasons that are justified internally, but really for the sole purpose of giving Bluebeard an actor’s showcase to show off just how quickly she can pivot from character to character, which is great both in concept and execution.

The film has had a pretty mixed reception. It flew under Swampflix’s radar, and we are a bunch with a fairly wide net of niche interests; there are a few of us I would have expected to have caught this film before now, so I’m surprised that it’s managed to get so many negative reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is an imperfect barometer even at the best of times, but this is one of those movies with a really rough critic/audience ratio (82%, 42%), and the number of 1-star ratings on the Google landing page for the film outnumber the 2-5 star ratings combined. The only negative review included in the body of the movie’s Wikipedia page, by Roger Moore of Movie Nation, takes umbrage with the Survivor’s Act III choices. I do understand this criticism; there’s a real bad case of Re-entering the Lion’s Den that functions as a narrative necessity to get Bluebeard and Survivor into the places where they need for the “checkmate” to occur, but which makes no sense as character choices. Ignoring that, however, there’s a really solid, unique action thriller at the core of this one that makes it worth seeking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond