Lily C.A.T. (1987)

There were countless Alien knockoffs that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s genre-shifting 1979 classic. Roger Corman alone produced three I can name offhand (Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids from the Deep, and Battle Beyond the Stars) and even that notorious schlockteur’s takes on the Alien template weren’t the cheapest or most derivative of the bunch. Within that crowded field, the straight-to-video cheapie Lily C.A.T. had very little chance of standing out as something especially unique or worthwhile. Yet, as it escalated to its own grotesque, cosmically horrific creature-feature crescendo, I found myself gradually convinced that I was watching something truly special, something that reaches beyond the confined-space creature feature dread of its obvious inspiration source to achieve its own rewarding, unnerving effect. If you’re going to be an Alien knockoff, you might as well strive to be the best Alien knockoff, or at least the most distinct.

Part of what saves Lily C.A.T. from devolving into sub-Alien tedium is that it’s more of a mutation of that seminal work than it is a Xerox copy. The film is immediately distinct from its fellow Alien riffs in its distinction as a mid-80s anime, converting the cheap sets & limited practical effects resources of this genre template into a freeing, visually impressive handdrawn animation style. It’s also, smartly, only an hour-long – firing off its checklist of genre requirements with rapid-fire efficiency where most cheap-o Alien riffs risk drifting into boredom in their half-hearted attempts to stir up atmospheric dread. Early in the film a character even asks aloud, “Hey captain, when are we getting to work? This is getting boring,” as if to signal to the audience that no time will be wasted in getting to the goods. Lily C.A.T. also mutates the Alien template by crossbreeding it with other creature feature influences: Cronenberg, The Thing, and any number of post-Lovecraft cosmic horrors you can conjure. It’s a quick, nasty little monster movie rendered in intricately handdrawn animation – the perfect genre nerd cocktail.

The story told here is so familiar it almost doesn’t require repeating for anyone who’s ever seen a spaceship-bound horror film. A motley crew of wisecracking Corporate employees are distracted from their stated mission by a distress call & a subsequent onboard alien invasion. They’re only broadly defined as “time-jumper” types: mercenaries who use the decades of hibernated sleep associated with deep-space travel to avoid personal troubles left back on Earth. Their individual archetypes are only developed from there in the way they’re drawn (uncomfortably so in the only black character’s exaggerated facial features) and their motivations for jumping time on their home planet (uncomfortably so in the main woman’s petty revenge on a romantic rival by returning twenty years younger than her). Their personalities matter less & less as they’re picked off by the invading alien creature, of course, although the film does generate suspense in an early reveal that there are dangerous intruders hiding among them under false credentials.

The threat of an intruder lurking among the crew is only an introduction to a larger theme of imposterism, which plays out in a much more grandiose fashion with a non-human member of the crew: the titular cat. Lily C.A.T. seems to be fascinated with the implications of traveling through the far reaches of outer space with a common housecat, and expands that detail from the original Alien film to generate the majority of its creature feature chills & thrills. While the crew assumes that it only has one cat onboard, that feline is actually copied by two of its own uncanny imposters. One cat is a robotic spy that secretly answers to Corporate back home behind their backs. In fact, it’s not a cat at all, but rather a C.A.T. (a Computerized Animal-shamed Technological Robot). The other imposter cat is a shapeshifting alien creature that fills its victims’ lungs with deadly body-morphing bacteria and gradually transforms into a grotesque Lovecraftian tentacle monster that absorbs the features of its growing list of victims in an exponential creepout. The original cat, unfortunately, does not make it too long into the film’s runtime, and we’re treated to a grisly confirmation of its . . . organic nature when its time onboard is up.

Weirdly, I’m not sure if Alien superfans would be the first audience I would recommend Lily C.A.T. to, unless their favorite detail from the original film happens to be Ripley’s relationship with her cat. This cheap DTV animation never had a chance to stack up to the original in a direct comparison, nor does it really attempt to. This film’s built-in audience is more likely nerds who salivate at the idea of any horror-themed anime or, more to my own alignment, weirdo genre enthusiasts who salivate over ludicrous killer-cat creature features like Cat People ’82, Sleepwalkers, and Night of a Thousand Cats. Surely, there’s some significant overlap between those two camps who will find Lily CA.T.’s shapeshifting-feline-tentacle-monster genre thrills exactly to their tastes. If nothing else, it’s a very specific niche that strikes a tone no other Alien knockoff ever could—animated or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Spookies (1986)

At their best, horror anthologies revive the undead spirit of EC Comics and short-fiction collections like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: curated omnibuses of various ghouls & creepies that run the full creature-feature spectrum in one concise volume. The 1986 horror cheapie Spookies accomplishes that same effect in a roundabout way, even though it’s not technically an anthology picture. Its own tasting-menu collection of spooky monsters was not arranged as a deliberate series of vignettes, but rather hastily slapped together in post-production to save itself from being scrapped entirely. Originally conceived & shot as a haunted house picture titled Twisted Souls, the film was stripped from the hands of its original creators in a bitter post-production brawl with the studio. After-the-fact co-director & editor Eugenie Joseph was then hired to shoot additional footage set in the same haunted house locale to Frankenstein together a “cohesive” cut of the film without the input of the original crew. Joseph received top-bill over the original directors (Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner), as her revision of & addition to the Twisted Souls footage was molded into the delightful, creepy-crawly mess that is Spookies. Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, Spookies is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.

It’s crystal clear why Joseph had to shoot additional footage to craft a cohesive “story” out of Twisted Souls’s leftovers. The original storyline, as presented in the finished product, involves a cast of drunken hooligans looking to party in a haunted house only to be tormented by the spooky creatures therein. There’s no goal, payoff, or overarching theme to this haunted house experience – just a Scooby-Doo style investigation: systematically opening very door in an old Gothic house to reveal the next consecutive jumpscare. Joseph’s first major addition is the semblance of a plot. She shot a series of ghoulish pontifications from a Vincent Price-type eccentric villain who seemingly dispatches the titular spookies on the housecrashers from a far-off parlor. He never shares the screen with the spookies for obvious reasons, but he at least affords them a purpose & an origin. Other additions were obviously a play to pad out the slim runtime of Twisted Souls’s leftovers, especially a B-story where a young boy unconnected to the housecrashers is chased through a graveyard by the ghoulish eccentric’s werecat servant. I also get the sense that Joseph made some of her more obnoxious additions to Spookies merely to amuse herself in the editing room –namely adding fart noises to a scene where characters are tormented by subterranean monsters that I suppose she interpreted to be septic. Whether the fart noises were something she genuinely believed improved the atmosphere of that scene or she added them solely to troll the financiers who put her in the position of cleaning up someone else’s mess in the editing room is anyone’s guess. Either way, it’s a hilariously juvenile gag that helps remind the audience to not take anything onscreen too seriously, lest we start getting annoyed at Spookies’s total disregard for purpose or continuity.

As interesting as Spookies is for its AIP-reminiscent production history (think The Terror or Blood Bath), the film’s only true merit as entertainment is how many spookies it can manage to deliver in its brisk 80min runtime. It does an admirable job in that respect, flooding the screen with as many “spookies” as it can think to conjure: demons, witches, zombies, werecats, spiderwomen, killer toys, Ouija boards, basement-dwelling fart monsters, and so on. Its disinterest in plot, its overflow of spooky creatures, and its classic haunted house & graveyard sets all make it perfect background fodder for your next cheap-beer Halloween gathering with spookies-loving friends. Horror anthologies are always an excellent choice for those short attention span scenarios, apparently including ones that become anthologies by accident in post. I even got a déjà vu sensation midway through the film that I had seen it before somewhere, so maybe I’ve even been to a party where Spookies was playing in the background – exactly where it belongs.

-Brandon Ledet

Phantasm (1979)

Because we’re living in an absurdly spoiled golden age of physical media production & cult horror reappraisal, there’s a new, crisp digital 4K restoration the 1970s regional cheapie Phantasm currently making the rounds. It wasn’t until I saw that restoration listed in the BYOB Midnight Movie slot at the Prytania this summer that I realized I had never actually seen it before. I’m familiar with the film’s Tall Man villain (played by the recently deceased Angus Scrimm) and his armory of flying, bloodletting orbs from catching a sequel or two out of sequence over the years, but the original film has always eluded me. In retrospect, it’s incredible that it ever registered on my radar at all. Crowdfunded by director Don Coscarelli’s Long Beach, CA community (including major financial & production contributions from his own parents) and crewed mostly by locals, Phantasm likely should be relegated to the cult curio popularity level of other regional cheapies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, The Gate, and The Pit. Instead, it’s somehow earned horror-legend status for its Tall Man villain among the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, as well as four better-budgeted sequels in the decades since, most recently Phantasm: Ravager in 2016. After dragging my old-man bones to the Prytania’s midnight screening of this regional-cheapie-turned-cult-classic, the reason for that success became abundantly clear: Phantasm fuckin’ rules.

Like The Gate & The Pit, the film is framed through the POV of a young boy whose anxiety over his shifting family dynamic & his own coming of age discomforts is reflected in the increasingly nightmarish world around him. The protagonist here is slightly older than our usual nervous-child-with-bad-dreams tykes from this genre template, so his tween interest in the adult activities just beyond his reach get a little squicky in their prurience — especially when he trails his older brother to a graveyard to watch him have sex with a stranger. Mostly, though, it’s a familiar story in which the boy has trouble handling a recent death in the family, so that no one believes him when he reports that the evil ghouls he’s been spotting around town aren’t just an extension of his grief-stricken nightmares. Phantasm puts most of its emotional heft into exploring the feeling of abandonment & helplessness when family members die or move away while you’re still at a formative age. In that respect, its most distinct early scenes involve the teen boy’s fascination with the funeral business, both compelled and scarred by watching a member of his family going through process of being prepared for burial then hidden away forever. Angus Scrimm’s performance as The Tall Man starts off as a part of that morbid funeral business fascination, standing in as a Lurch-like funeral home mortician (and by extension, Death) in his earliest scenes before his role becomes something much, much stranger.

Of course, it’s not the Horror 101 themes of familial grief & childhood anxiety that make Phantasm stand out as a gem in its genre. The film is most remarkable for its constantly shifting, disorienting nightmare logic. It plays like a bad drug trip or a half-lucid dream, wherein its unprepared teenage victims struggle to establish their footing in a world that’s rules are completely governed by the moment-to-moment whims of a lanky ghoul. The Tall Man is a scary enough figure just in his enormous stature & funeral parlor costuming, but what really fucks with your head is his ever-evolving arsenal of creepy crawlies & sci-fi gadgets that he unloads on his victims. He commands an army of Druid-costumed dwarves from an alien planet; he disguises himself as a smokin’ hot Blonde Babe to lure men in with his feminine wiles; he appears in your actual dreams to expend his powers to a Freddy Krueger level command on the metaphysical world around him. And then there’s the Tall Man’s signature weapon: a flying metallic orb that latches onto victims’ skulls with a retractable blade to drain the blood from their bodies in a geyser of gore. This grab bag of surrealistic horrors all arrive to the same repetitive prog organ theme music, making the film play like a low-budget D.I.Y. version of an American giallo. It’s a beautiful, confusing, creepy, deliberately goofy film that surprises at every turn because it follows the cyclical, non-linear rhythms of a nightmare instead of the typical slasher template it teases in its first act.

This “Let’s put on a show!” communal enthusiasm & D.I.Y. approximation of nightmare-logic surrealism is the exact kind of thing I’m always looking for in low-budget genre films. Phantasm’s trajectory of starting with familiar regional slasher locations like suburban cul-de-sacs, dive bars, and graveyards before launching into a fully immersive nightmare realm of its own design is a perfect encapsulation of how it somehow turned low-budget scraps into cult classic gold in the real world as well. By the time the sparsely decorated mausoleum set starts to resemble a de Chirico painting (or a precursor to The Black Lodge) that opens a gateway to an alien planet, the film is bewilderingly impressive as an act of low-budget alchemy. And it only gets more surprising & impressive from there. I now get why Phantasm has earned so many sequels over the decades; I’m dying to see them myself, even if I doubt this is the kind of low-budget movie magic that could ever be duplicated. Any chance to continue poking around in the makeshift dreamworld Coscarelli created could only be a gift.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week: 10/3/19 – 10/9/19

Here are the few movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week and are presumably much, much worthier of your time & money than participating in the goddamn Joker fiasco.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Memory: The Origins of Alien A festival-darling documentary that researches the origins behind Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic Alien. Especially recommended for H.R. Giger fanatics who are curious about what inspired the subliminal horror of his artwork that warped the film into such an unforgettable nightmare. Screening only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Mister America A Tim Heidecker bit from On Cinema at the Cinema that somehow spiraled out of control into a feature-length film. Spoofs the Neil Breen & Tommy Wiseau end of self-aggrandizing, no-budget cinema in order to reflect the deeply ugly stupidity of modern American politics. Screening one-night-only at The Broad, Wednesday 10/9.

New Orleans Uncensored (1955) – A cheap-o noir set in the French Quarter in the 1950s, directed by the gimmick-loving schlockteur William Castle to look like a gritty docu-drama instead of the sleazy crime picture it truly was. Screening at The Prytania Theatre on Sunday 10/6 and Wednesday 10/9 as part of their ongoing Classic Movies series.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Poltergeist (1982) – Tobe Hooper’s storied collaboration with Steven Spielberg ranks highly among the scariest films to ever land a PG rating. Its foundational haunted house premise freed Hooper & crew to reach for as many varied over-the-top scares as their overactive imaginations could conjure: violent tree branches, killer jack-in-the-box clowns, TV-static ghosts, house-swallowing portals to Hell, etc. Screening at The Prytania on Friday 10/4 and Saturday 10/9.

Hustlers Boomer highly recommends this surprise critical-hit thriller about a crew of strippers who embezzle money from the Wall Street bozos who frequent their club. Features an absolute stunner of a performance from Jennifer Lopez in particular, who just wants to know one thing from her audience: “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Of course it does. Playing wide.

Downton Abbey Plays like a two-episode arc of the television show with occasional flashes of melodrama & political intrigue, but first & foremost it’s a fan-pleasing Comedy (in which Violet & Molesley earned the biggest laughs, naturally). The real joy here is watching a soap that’s always been riotously funny in its own quiet, slyly written way land with proper guffaws in an appreciative crowd instead of alone on the couch. It’s also the subject of our latest podcast episode! Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon & Britnee watch Who Can Kill a Child? (1976).

Boomer: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) tells the story of British tourist Tom and his wife Evelyn, who is six months pregnant. The couple have left behind their two slightly older children in order to take a final holiday to the Spanish island of Almanzora before the new baby comes. Tom has visited the island before, and we first meet the two when they arrive at their first stop in the coastal town Benavis, enjoying the city’s festival while blissfully unaware that two mutilated corpses have washed up on the beach. The two rent a boat and make their way to Almanzora, only to discover a village devoid of adults, and the children they encounter have a vague air of menace. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the two Brits, they encounter a couple of holdouts and learn what has happened on this seemingly peaceful island.

There are a lot of beautifully composed shots in this film, with a couple of standouts: the pan to Evelyn in the village watering hole, revealing a shadowy and imposing figure behind a beaded curtain, who turns out to be a seemingly innocent girl; likewise, the reverse shot revealing the swarm of children coming over the hill near the fisherman’s house is also wonderfully done. Overall, however, the cinematography and direction avoid being too expressionistic or cinematic, instead relying on a more documentarian style of filmmaking to evoke the feeling that the situation in which the couple find themselves could happen to anyone; this was an intentional choice on the part of the late director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (who also directed The House that Screamed, which I’ve been trying to find for years) and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who is probably better known for his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, including Volver, La mala educación, and La piel que habito). Despite the realism of the visuals, the narrative itself is straightforwardly literary in its use of dramatic irony. I particularly like that Tom identifies the flower which he and Evelyn encounter en route to Almanzora as having come from the island, noting that the currents often carry objects from the island to the coast, both of them fully ignorant of the corpses they missed by that much: first when the bus on which they arrive passes the ambulance carrying the first body away from the beach, and again when both ignore the commotion at the Benavis shorefront out of a heat-induced apathy.

On my second watch, I also noticed that the couple are as damned by Tom’s self-importance as they are by whatever event is happening on the island. Evelyn first wants to stay in Benavis (which would have saved them from the fate that befell them on the island, at least for a time) but is convinced to proceed to Almanzora. Tom claims to know a great deal about the island, having been there eleven years prior, but despite his previous knowledge has to be corrected about the correct pronunciation of its name, foreshadowing that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does and telegraphing that the coming time when the duo will briefly think that their situation has improved will prove to be a false hope. Also, who the hell brings up the child murder-suicide subplot of La dolce vita on a quasi-romantic holiday?

When Brandon reached out to me to let me know that he and Britnee had loved the movie, he also noted that the opening sequence, which featured 7.5 minutes of archival footage of real life atrocities, mostly featuring images of crying children, was “A Lot.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, since the screening that I attended last summer as part of the Un-Hitched film series (which also featured Body Double and Special Effects), until I recalled that that screening’s presenter did mention at the time that other versions of the film contained an opening that we “[didn’t] need to see.” It appears that the longer, more questionable version is the only one available to the general viewing public, as it appeared on both the Blu-ray that Brandon acquired and the DVD version I rented from Austin’s Vulcan Video. I’m not certain from where the 16mm version I saw first came or for what region it was edited, but moving forward I would recommend skipping straight to the second “chapter.” It’s not just that the real-life material is slapped onto the film haphazardly (and tastelessly, although with good intentions; one of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the director, who admits regret at having started the film this way … because he feels he should have put it at the end), but also that the overlong introduction throws off the film’s flow. Now, the first encounter with the silent child at the pier at Almanzora comes at the 28th minute, not the 21st. We see the first dead body on the island at 40 minutes, not 32.5. A few modern reviews of the film littered about the internet bemoan the film’s “slow” pace, and it may merely be that the film’s timing feels off because it’s frontloaded.

Britnee, having seen the film with the brutal and unnecessary prologue, do you think that the film would benefit from having that footage moved to the end? How would that color the film experience? I’m assuming that removing it altogether rather than abbreviating it or relocating it is the best solution, but maybe you disagree. Is it really necessary in order to understand the film’s thesis, or does it muddle the water? Is the film even a good demonstration of that thesis?

Britnee: Watching those 8 horrid minutes of children suffering (mostly dying) from war and poverty had my stomach in knots. It was also insane seeing the real-life footage in high-quality as Brandon’s Blu-Ray copy had a wonderful restoration of the movie. My experience with the film’s intro may be a bit different than most since I don’t really have any close relationships with children. I find children to be more annoying than adorable, and I try to avoid them for the most part. Had I not watched the grisly intro, my emotions during the film would have been a bit more stagnant. I would have maintained a “Just kill the damn kids!” attitude from beginning to end. Once the 8 minutes were finally over, my heart was broken from the pain and suffering children have to go through for things that are out of their control. So when the kids on the island of Almanzora began to start their evil shit, I had some empathy for them and saw their evil behavior as them evolving into powerful beings to take revenge on the adults that they depended on for protection. However, any bit of sympathy I had for these island kids went down the drain after they used an elderly man as a human piñata. After that bit, my reaction to everything was, “Dammit, kill that kid!”

The thought of having the intro at the end of the film did cross my mind, and I honestly think that would’ve been so much better. I do think that footage is necessary to understand the evolution that is occurring in the children, causing them to kill the adults, and having it at the end of the film would still make that point clear. The lengthy intro can be a turn off for someone coming into this movie for the first time. If this version would have played at the screening Boomer attended, I could imagine there being a few walk-outs. Not only is the footage’s placement in the film an issue, but the length is totally unnecessary. A brief 1 minute montage would be enough for the audience to understand what the film is trying to say.

Who Can Kill a Child? is most certainly a film that isn’t afraid of crossing boundaries. One particular scene that I found to be surprising was when a smiling toddler got shot in the head and his dead body was pushed off a window sill. I mean, he was trying to kill the film’s main couple, but I was still shocked to see his bloody corpse after the act. Brandon, were you surprised by the film’s treatment of dead children? Were there any particular scenes that surprised you?

Brandon: If I was surprised by the matter-of-fact depictions of ficitional children’s lifeless bodies, it’s because it was initially unclear how willing the film was to Go There. After the (deliberately) excruciating montage of real-life war atrocity footage that opens the film, onscreen depictions of violence suddenly decide to play coy for reasons unknown. Because this is a genre film from the amoral grindhouse days of the 1970s, it’s immediately clear that this island of tykes are up to no good, but their creepiness begins with a quiet, eerie menace instead of a non-stop violent assault. Their first kill after the British couple arrives on their shore is of a local old geezer whom they bash over the head with his own cane offscreen. The film is willing to show the giallo-flavored red acrylic stage blood pouring from his head wound, but the actual blows that do him in are obscured as sounds, not images. What makes the movie remarkable is how its violence escalates from there into shocking explosions of brutality. The old man’s body is strung up like a piñata and swiped at with a scythe. The children responsible are ultimately mowed down with an automatic assault rifle, execution-style, when they block the road back to the shore. They’re beaten back with a boat oar in desperation as they swarm our child-killing “hero” like a zombie hoard.

In retrospect, it’s even creepier the violence is gradually escalated in this way. It’s clear that the children were always going to kill the adult-tourist invaders who disrupt their community; they just take their time to savor the hunt by turning it into a schoolyard game. It’s kind of a shame, then, that the documentary footage intro tips the film’s hand in prematurely exposing its willingness to Go There, since it takes a while for the violence to re-escalate back to that horrific starting point.

Because of that gradual escalation of violence, it’s difficult for any standout scene or set piece to top the climactic struggle Britnee already mentioned, where our hero shoots a child dead, point blank, in the face. Hounded into a cramped, locked cell with nowhere left to go, the tourist couple have no choice but to finally fight back instead of merely avoiding death. So, they find themselves firing a gun at the cutest, most cherubic cartoon of a child. It initially plays as if that transgression had taught the other kids a lesson (or at least a boundary) and they back off from the adults’ holding cell in apparent defeat. Except, they’ve been playing the long game! They’ve recruited and undercover soldier on the inside who can attack the pregnant tourist from within her own belly in an exceptionally gruesome moment of body horror. It feels as if the entire film is leading up to the crisis of that holding cell, a bottled-up stage play of grief, pain, and torment that really caught me off guard in its willingness to Go There psychologically on top of its willingness to depict brutal acts of violence against children & adults alike.

But what, exactly, do we make of this war between adults & children? What grievances inspired this climactic showdown? At one point, a single-scene character floats the idea that the children are striking back because in outbreaks of war & famine due to adults follies “It’s the children who suffer the most.” You could read that grievance as lip service to justify the war-atrocity prologue, but I do like the idea that these kids collectively have a cosmic vendetta against adults for bringing them into a cruel world where they have no protections or control in times of crisis, even though those crises are always adults’ fault. Then again, the film seemingly has more interest in its titular question of how far you’d have to be pushed to willingly kill a child than it does in exploring the source of this cosmic vendetta, which is why so much emphasis is put on that climactic showdown where our hero pulls the trigger on a gun aimed at an angelic tyke’s face. Boomer, what point do you think this film was trying to make in drawing its battle lines between adults & children, and just how invested do you think it is in exploring those themes vs. merely playing up the moral conundrum posed by the title?

Boomer: Metatextually, having watched the interview with the director, I can say that he was heavily invested in making the film about the damage done to children by adult violence. Most sources online note that the film was based on film was based on a novel by Juan José Plans’s, El juego de los niños (The Children’s Game), but in the interview Serrador noted that the film and the novel were created at the same time, and that the film was actually released prior to the novel’s publication, although I haven’t found any other evidence to support that claim. He noted that the novel provides more of an explanation as to why the children behave the way that they do, citing a yellow dust of possibly extraterrestrial origin settling over the (in the novel) landlocked town and causing the erratic and violent behavior of the children. I also can’t corroborate this, as the novel has never been translated into english, but he noted that he found the explanation unsatisfactory as it focused more on the moral quandary and removed adult violence from the equation. So we know that, from authorial intent, he was less concerned with making an exploitation film that featured characters struggling with the moral quandary of attacking children than he was with making a film that tackled the evils of war and the aftereffects that such struggles have on those least able to understand and withstand them.

But if Barthes is right and the author is dead, then I have to say that, purely within the text, I feel that the film is less concerned with that track. As noted before, my initial viewing did not contain the prologue of real world violence; even with that, the only real attention paid to the motivation of the children comes in the shop where the English couple purchase film, when the clerk notes that children suffer the most from war, poverty, and general big evils. It feels more like lip service to me, a prevarication to excuse creating a film that explores how far one would have to be pushed before they would commit to so evil a plan as murdering kids. That having been said, I don’t feel like the film revels in its violence, either; we’re certainly not supposed to feel a sense of relief, justice, or triumph when Tom is finally forced to mow down a line of children with an automatic weapon, nor should we rejoice when he kills the child in the window. I think it’s certainly not a coincidence that the couple we follow is English, hailing from the power that arguably did the most damage to the world in their colonial conquerings (although Spain was, um, certainly not innocent in their expansions either, so there’s possibly a little intracolonial hypocrisy going on there). When viewed through that lens, however, one can argue that the film is a mea culpa for a colonial power, which would lend credence to the director’s professed values, even if they are not clear on screen.

When I saw the film as part of the Un-Hitched series, it was described as “What if The Birds, but with kids?” And that’s certainly present, but the director also cited Night of the Living Dead as an inspiration as well, which is most clearly apparent in the final scene, where our “hero” (although Tom is not nearly as much of a hero as Dead‘s Ben is) is killed by the authorities. Britnee, what other films do you see as having inspired or being inspired by Who Can Kill a Child?

Britnee: I got heavy The Wicker Man vibes from Who Can Kill a Child?, and being that The Wicker Man was released just 3 years prior, it isn’t outlandish for me to suggest that film had some influence on Who Can Kill a Child?. Both films involve outsiders stuck on an island full of deceitful human predators, carefully keeping track of their every move as part of some sick and twisted game. I was quick to categorize Who Can Kill a Child? as a killer kid movie, which it totally is, but it’s just as much of an island horror as well. Something about being stuck on an island where everyone is out to get you is deeply unsettling. The film taking place on such an isolated island scared me just as much as the bloodthirsty children. I also want to mention that the timing of the couple’s arrival to Almanzora really amped up the island horror levels. The massacre on the island began as quickly as it ended, which was made apparent by the unattended cart of melted ice cream and almost completely burnt rotisserie chickens.

When Brandon and I watched the movie, he said something along to lines of, “That’s their Malachi,” when the eerily silent boy rubs Evelyn’s pregnant belly. That’s when I started to make influential connections between Who Can Kill a Child? and Children of the Corn. The children of Almanzora were not as loud and rowdy as the youth of Gatlin, Nebraska, but they were very organized and had the same determination to take down all adults. Come to think of it, the only time we hear the children make any noise is when they fake cry or give Birthday party cheers while wacking at a human piñata. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Children of the Corn, but I can imagine that there are even more similarities that can be picked out. Now that we’re getting closer to Halloween, it may be a good time for me to pay those Corn Kids a visit and binge the series.

At least with Children of the Corn, the adults make it out alive, which I totally thought was going to happen with Evelyn and Tom. Brandon, would you have preferred an ending where the couple made it off the island after blowing it up (or something along those lines)? Or were you satisfied with the film’s actual ending?

Brandon: The big-budget Hollywood ending to this nasty Euro-grindhouse provocation would be for the heroes to prevail & neutralize the threat while clearing a path back to safety. There is something perversely funny about the idea of that traditional victory involving the detonated explosion of an island full of children since, as the titular moral conflict suggests, that act is typically crueler than it is heroic. As amused as I might have been by that massacre being framed as a Happy Ending, I do think the way the film concludes is already perfect. It gifts us with the fantastic children-as-zombies visual homage to the Romero template in one of the film’s strongest set pieces. It’s an admirably honest participation in the inherent nihilism of the horror genre at large. And, most importantly, it emphasizes that the British couple were doomed from the moment they arrived, and the delay of their demise was just a sick schoolyard game. I can’t imagine an alternate ending that could be equally satisfying, which is more than I can say about the way the film begins.

Lagniappe

Boomer: An interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit: the cinematographer was the son of a film developer who handled the processing of rolls of film shot by the director’s father, leading the cinematographer to joke in his interview that he had been developing the director’s prints since they were children.

Britnee: Tom reminds me so much of this douchey guy that was in a tour group with me in Rome. He was constantly bragging about the 2 months he spent in Rome during his college days while being dismissive of everyone’s opinions because he was such a Rome “expert.” Tom was being a little bit of a show-off in Almanzora just because he spent a short amount of time there many moons ago, and I think that’s what really led to the couple’s demise. He should’ve just listened to his wife.

Brandon: I love how sweaty & gross the two leads are allowed to become over the course of this picture. This is Daylight Horror in the most literal sense, as the heat & sunshine are almost as much of a menace as the killer children. To that point, I initially made fun of Evelyn’s unfathomably tragic bangs in the early scenes, but once they were pasted to her forehead with sweat in the island heat, I appreciated how disheveled & panicked they made her look. By the time she has her Big Scene in the holding cell she looks demonically possessed, which fits the heightened tone of the moment beautifully, and I’m not sure it would’ve played that way without those shitty, godawful bangs setting the stage.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

Halloween Report 2019: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

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

Art House Horror

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

La Belle et la Bête (1946) – “I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a deliriously horny Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.”

Midsommar (2019) – “The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor, Hereditary, instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”

The Reflecting Skin (1990) – “The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.”

Inferno (1980) – “Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special.”

 

The Horrors of Fashion

Of Montreal aren’t the only damned souls who suffer for fashion; check out these violent dispatches from the Hell of haute couture.

In Fabric (2019) – “Wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.”

The Neon Demon (2016) – “In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ‘Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.’ Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.”

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) – “Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace.”

 

Femme Nightmare Realms

Sink into the insular, hyper-feminine sensory pleasures of these Girls’ Club fantasy realms, but beware the nightmares that lurk just under their candy-coated surfaces.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) – “Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Peter Jackson shoots these girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extremely particular young women.”

Braid (2019) – “The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs and detours into torture porn, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.”

Paradise Hills (2019) – “This is far from the first fairy tale to lure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.”

Cam (2018) – “As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation.

 

 Sexual Mania

Cronenberg may be the godfather of the “horniness made me violently crazy” subgenre of body horror, but there are plenty of dangerously turned-on descendents beneath him willing to take up that prurient mantle.

The Wild Boys (2018) – “Feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.”

Knife+Heart (2019) – “A neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus.”

Climax (2019) – “Your personal response to this pretentious, obnoxious, ‘French and fucking proud of it’ smut will vary wildly depending on how much interest you tend to have in the type of edgy, over-the-top art-schlock Gaspar Noé usually traffics in. If it’s something you have absolutely zero patience for, the movie will alienate you early & often – leaving you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen. If, like me, you’re always curious about what Noé’s up to but never fully connect with the fucked-up party therein, you might just find yourself succumbing to the prurient displeasures of DJ Daddy and the killer sangria.”

Body Double (1984) – “It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.”

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) – “Josephine Decker’s version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.”

 

Sci-Fi Horror

Horror often depends on the uncanny & the supernatural invading the hard-facts logic of the real world to unnerve its audience, but sometimes the best key to unlocking that disruption of reality is the factual speculation of science fiction.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) – “I had remembered Beyond the Black Rainbow as being less plotty and less emotional than Mandy, but after this revisit I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. Between Barry’s resentful anger & Elena’s silent anguish, Beyond the Black Rainbow traffics in plenty of extreme emotional expression; it’s just not the aspect of the film that stuck with me most on first watch.”

Phase IV (1974) – “It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist ‘looks into the Eye of God.’ It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind.”

Pig Film (2018) – “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

Elizabeth Harvest (2018) –Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.”

Child’s Play (2019) – “While a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. It’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place.”

 

Mainstream Horror

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

Us (2019) – “The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.”

Ma (2019) – “It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.”

Orphan (2009) – “As much as I’ve come to respect Jaume Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.”

Venom (2018) – “Tom Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.”

Glass (2019) – “A strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the ‘bad guy’ mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide.”

 

Slashers

One crazed killer stacking up an exponential body count while a Final Girl archetype builds up the courage to best them in a climactic showdown; a simple, but evergreen formula.

Black Christmas (1974) – “The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort.”

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989) – “In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions.”

Halloween (2018) – “When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.”

 

Softcore Torture Porn

Maybe there’s no such thing as Great Torture Porn (since the term itself is something of an insult) but there are some great movies that use torture as an effective device for building tension, dread, and disgust.

Pledge (2019) – “Not only does the film sidestep the torture porn genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking.”

Apostle (2018) – “Visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a ‘cult’ classic.”

Escape Room (2019) – “The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.”

 

Creature Features

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

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) – “From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.”

The Pit (1981) – “In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, ‘This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

The Gate (1987) – “Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control.”

Overlord (2018) – “Real-life Nazis are gross & worthy enough of destruction without the help of schlocky exaggeration, but just in case you’re not fully convinced (as seems to be the case with young Alt-Right recruits online) Overlord takes giddy pleasure in spelling it out for you.”

 

Horror Comedies

Here’s some recommendations in case you’re looking to have some yucks along with your scares.

One Cut of the Dead (2019) – “So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.”

Come to Daddy (2019) – “As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.”

Chained for Life (2019) – “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

 

Campy Spectacles

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

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) – “Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format.”

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991) – “There’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own.”

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – “Effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes.”

Gooby (2009) –Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at.”

And as if that weren’t enough already, we also have podcast episodes on Crawl, Ready or Not, Knife+Heart, Border, Ma, Pledge, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, The 6th Sense, Little Otik, The Witches of Eastwick, Darkman, and Blade, all horror gems we’d heartily recommend.

-The Swampflix Crew

Meeting Nash The Slash at the Vampire-Infested Donut Shop

One of the most immediately fascinating aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, is its “Music By” credit for a musician known simply as Nash the Slash. It’s taken us years of patient scouring to finally access this forgotten low-energy horror gem on a legitimate streaming platform, which has afforded it an allure as an esoteric cult curio. Given its sub-professional budget, its dodgy distribution, and its bit role participation from Canadian horror legend David Cronenberg, the film flirts with the same regional cinema Canuxploitation territory as gems like The Pit, The Gate, and Cathy’s Curse. It makes sense, then, that it would be scored by local weirdo musician known almost exclusively to Torontonians – the enigmatic Nash the Slash. His work on the film is a drowsy, industrial guitar-driven post-rock soundtrack that matches its weirdly melancholic mood, but there was still something about his name that suggested he’d be more exciting as a persona than what those atmospheric sounds were letting on. Nash the Slash did not disappoint.

Maybe he wasn’t playing guitar at all? Jeff “Nash the Slash” Plewman was a versatile musician who was best known for playing electric violin, electric mandolin, and various percussive instruments he would mysteriously describe as “devices” in his liner notes. After abandoning a non-starter of a rockstar career fronting the prog band FM, he turned his interest in music into a kind of performance art. Appearing onstage exclusively in mummy-like bandages (often accessorized with a top hat & steam punk goggles), Nash the Slash used the mystery of his identity & the Silent Era horror looks of his costuming to drum up press coverage of his atmospheric New Wave compositions (press that struggled to reach past the confines of Toronto). He developed an interest in scoring films after performing live accompaniment to Silent Era horror classics like Nosferatu & Un chien andelou, which eventually led to a few notable modern horror gigs like Blood & Donuts & Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood on top of his regular pop music output.

Given his penchant for trolling local Toronto press, the strong iconography of his stage gear, and the esoteric allure of his performance art compositions, it’s incredible that Nash the Slash hadn’t broken through to a wider audience, at least to music nerds outside Canada. If for nothing else, I’m super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo, whose contributions to the film are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that really helps solidify its sleepy, melancholic tone. It was frustrating to me as a curious potential fan that he had never received the weirdo-musician documentary treatment afforded to similar artists like Frank Sidebottom & Daniel Johnston, but it turns out that won’t be the case for long. A successful Indiegogo campaign has crowd-funded a Nash the Slash doc titled And You Thought You Were Normal, due sometime in early 2020. I look forward to learning more about this masked enigma then, but for now it’s just been fun digging through the music video scraps of his visual art I can find on YouTube, a rabbit hole I strongly advise falling into:

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its unlikely symmetry with Tangerine (2015), and last week’s discovery of its campy horror-comedy equivalent Attack of the Killer Donuts (2016).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast: Downton Abbey (2019) & Movie Sequels to TV Shows

Welcome to Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-second episode, Britnee & Brandon are joined by special celebrity guest star Boomer to discuss feature-length movie sequels to television shows, with a particular focus on Downton Abbey (2019), Da Kath and Kim Code (2005), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Cabaret (1972)

It’s incredible how effective Bob Fosse’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway stage musical Cabaret still felt to me on a delayed introductory viewing after years of feeling over-exposed to its basic elements. The lush sets & performative androgyny of its stage performances are a tamer, Hollywood-flavored version of the same acts I’ve seen play out at New Orleans cabarets like One Eyed Jacks & The AllWays Lounge for years. Liza Minnelli’s central performance as the lovable Manic Pixie Dream Bawd extraordinaire Sally Bowles might, unfathomably, be the first time I’ve ever seen her in a proper film, but I’ve already spent plenty of time with her persona in television clips, audio recordings, and local drag impersonations. Most notably, I had seen the 1993 filmed-for-television, Sam Mendes-directed adaptation of the same stage play several times before, as it had been singled out to me as the ultimate version of the source material available (mostly thanks to Alan Cumming’s definitive performance as the menacingly horny emcee). All this pre-exposure to Cabaret’s general milieu had prepared me to feel jaded & underwhelmed by Fosse’s Oscars-sweeping, Hollywoodized take on the material, but that wasn’t my experience at all. In the earliest sequences of the picture I was totally drunk on the pansexual bacchanal on display, and by the end I genuinely felt sick to my stomach, which I mean as a huge compliment. Fosse did not clean this property up for mass appeal. If anything, he found a way to make an already powerful substance even more dangerously potent by emphasizing the tools & tones of cinema to justify the act of adapting it in the first place. This is a great film in its own right, regardless of the virtues of any other form its story has taken since it was first published in the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, the Broadway play included.

Fosse’s fame as a dancer & a stage choreographer had me expecting a version of Cabaret somewhat close to the Mendes broadcast. Wide, static shots that value choreographed dance over camera movement & editing trickery are the norm for this kind of adaptation; at least, they were in an earlier era when Old Hollywood would regularly churn out big-budget crowd-pleasing musicals in an almost vaudevillian tradition. The 1972 Cabaret is much more aggressively cinematic than what that tradition prepares you for. Quick cuts of intricately arranged bodies captured in sweaty, leering closeups immediately excite the audience in the film’s earliest stage performances, completely blowing open the possibilities of what a stage musical can look like with the camera roaming around, under, and behind the dancers who’d normally only be viewed from a safe, fixed distance. Fosse directs the hell out of these performances, using harsh backlighting & grotesque closeups of audience reactions to completely disorient the audience into a shared drunkenness with the Berliners frequenting its central club. Gradually, though, the party sours and the cabaret performances become less energetic & less frequent as the lives of the performers and the politics of the world outside the club sink into fascism & despair. As much as this is the personal story of Sally Bowles and her latest drama-filled love affair, it’s in a larger sense the story of a sexually, morally liberal Berlin that’s lost over the course of the movie. It isn’t until we fully return to the immersive, camera-on-the-stage performances of the Kit Kat Klub in the film’s final moments that we realize just how much has changed over the course of the film and just how devastating that loss is. It’s a harsh blow to the gut, especially in how reminiscent that quiet decline into fascism is to the world outside our own pleasure-dome bubbles in the 2010s.

Cabaret builds much of its in-the-moment drama around two central romantic affairs – one in which Sally Bowles finds herself navigating a bisexual love triangle with her roommate & a financial benefactor who’s quietly bedding them both, and one in which a young Jewish couple perilously navigate the heavily policed class lines that divide them. There is some genuinely upsetting, heartfelt melodrama shared between these four friends, particularly in Bowles’s existential crisis as a freewheeling cabaret artist whose career is going nowhere. If nothing else, her self-lacerating breakdown in the line, “Maybe I’m not worth caring about, maybe I’m nothing,” is pure heartbreak. Still, the real substance of the movie is in how a larger, political drama plays out in the background, largely unnoticed by these self-absorbed libertine artists & intellectuals. Set in a 1930s Berlin, the film quietly tracks the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. At first, its members are treated as fringe lunatic bullies who aren’t welcome in the Kit Kat or any other club around Berlin, ostracized for their hateful hooliganism. By the end, the lewd, amoral performers of the Kit Kat are performing for an audience comprised entirely of Nazi scum. The war for who defines the spirit of Berlin was lost just under their noses as they minimized the Nazi threat as an ugly fad and continued about their personal dramas, unaware of the seriousness of the party’s rise to power. There’s a quiet menace to the way Swastikas become incrementally more ubiquitous as the film goes on, a gradual temperature change that Fosse expertly handles to the point where it doesn’t really hit you until you’re already boiling alive. Even being familiar with Mendes’s version of the play and knowing exactly where the movie was going, I still felt physically ill by the film’s final scenes. It’s effectively handled on a technical level but also just feels true to how Nazi ideology is currently on the rise in American politics as well. We may already be past the point where they’re just fringe hooligans who can be ignored as we go about our daily business, deliberately unaware.

This direct correlation with current events is not some unintended happenstance either. As much as the film carries a spiritual reverence for the sexual hedonism & defiant artistry of pre-War Berlin, it’s also very much a product of its own time. A few 70s-specific blouses & mirrored “disco” balls (which, admittedly, had been nightclub fixtures for decades) loudly barge their way into the production design, drawing attention to the way hippie counterculture had already been pulling aesthetic influence from the pre-War era. If the Kit Kat Klub performances were just a tad grimier (and far less artfully documented) you could almost pass them off as footage of San Francisco bohemian weirdos like The Cockettes or contemporary proto-punk glam acts like The New York Dolls or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sickening feeling I caught from Cabaret was likely just as potent in the early 70s, which had its own gradual rise in Conservative fascism to combat in the era’s anti-War, Free Love protests. In a best-case-scenario where our current bout with Nazi ideology is stomped out before it gains any more momentum, there will still likely be a quiet fascist contingent to keep at bay as the most vulnerable among us simply try to live fulfilling lives without having to constantly fight off oppressive bullies. In that way, the themes of this film are just as evergreen as the excitement of its stage musical cinematography, the drunkenness of its rapid-fire editing, and the sartorial pleasures of its sparkle-crotch tap costumes. That might not be good news for the world at large, but it speaks well to Cabaret’s value as a feature film adaptation, a work that’s apparently remarkably effective no matter how familiar you are with its source material or its real-world thematic substance.

-Brandon Ledet