The Killing (1956)

I’m used to thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a fully-formed artist, the meticulous craftsman behind mind-boggling technical achievements like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It now seems obvious, but it never before occurred to me that the director must’ve had many, many stepping stones to that machine-like precision in his early career. 1956’s The Killing is an excellent snapshot of what early-career, still-figuring-it-out Kubrick looks like while still exhibiting the promise of what he’d later accomplish with more experience & larger budgets. In a way, its small-scale genre film territory is much more in tune with my usual cinematic interests than Kubrick’s grander, more precise productions, so seeing it screen locally at The Prytania Theater was oddly more of an eye-opener than similar screenings of works like Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. I was already aware Kubrick was capable of large-scale technical anomalies; what I had never seen before was him paying his dues in the low-budget genre film trenches.

Purported to be Kubrick’s first professional-level production, The Killing is a straight-forward, late-period noir with all the bells & whistles that genre descriptor indicates: intense black & white cinematography, over-written voice over narration, dangerous criminals, even more dangerous dames, guns hidden in flower boxes & musical instrument cases, etc. The story concerns the planning, execution, and unraveling of a heist at a race track. It’s like a less zany precursor to Logan Lucky, except with horses instead of NASCAR. It even preempts some of Logan Lucky’s humor, especially in a drag-ready performance from Marie Windsor as the wandering, dangerously greedy wife Sherry Peatty. As a disparate group of sweaty men plan, execute, and lay low from the race track robbery that’s meant to make them millionaires, Sherry lazes in her lingerie, swills liquor, hurls insults at her husband, and fetches her on-the-side boy-toy to retrieve the stolen cash for her by any means necessary. Her plan is just as disastrous as the heist she’s attempting to usurp, but she’s consistently amusing in her cold-hearted quips in a way that transforms The Killing into The Sherry Peatty Show. There’s a humor to the way the central heist, an operation commanded by a contingent of macho brutes, is ultimately all in service of a woman who hardly ever leaves her apartment. The movie also ends on an even sillier joke where a small, rascally poodle becomes an even bigger bane to the burly men’s aim for quick, easy cash.

As humorous as The Killing can be in its more eccentric details, it still delivers the brutal violence expected of it as a noir-era crime picture. Cops, criminals, horses, and bystanders are torn apart by gunfire. Men and women who threaten the planning of the heist are treated with equal physical force, knocked unconscious by the alpha criminal’s burly fists. Infidelity, liquor, armed robbery, and police corruption define the film’s borders, establishing a crime world setting that’s so in tune with noir sensibilities it often feels like it was assembled entirely of genre tropes. Kubrick was smart to balance that macho brutality with slyly cartoonish humor and an exaggerated femme foil, a tactic he doesn’t often get enough credit for in his later works. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to films like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001 that’s often overlooked for the sake of praising their technical achievements. Kubrick is understood to be coldly calculating in tone, but his depictions of human villainy often find absurdist humor in the intensity of their brutality, the same way Daniel Day Lewis is oddly amusing in his villainous PTA performances in There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. You can feel the early stirrings of that brutal/comedic tension in The Killing, especially in the character of Sherry Peatty, who joins the ranks of humorously wicked Kubrick villains like Jack Torrance and HAL 9000. Marie Windsor deserves that recognition.

The Killing follows another pattern of Kubrick’s later, greater (in scope, at least) works: it wasn’t properly recognized in its time. It’s difficult to understand now, but when his more out-there works like The Shining & 2001 were first released, they were divisive at best. Many critics initially passed off the now-beloved director as an over-ambitious hack. The Killing experienced almost the exact opposite trajectory. Wide audiences passed on the film, which was ultimately something of a commercial flop, while professional critics raved about it long enough to keep it in the conversation for Best of the Year lists (and, eventually, repertory screenings like the one I just attended). Six decades later, The Killing still feels essential in the same way it was to critics then – showing immense promise in the stylistic & tonal ambitions of a young director who would eventually go on to accomplish big budget greatness. For genre film enthusiasts, it’s an especially precious gem, as there’s nothing better than an ambitious, talented creator imposing their personal impulses on a set-in-stone structure with its own built-in, pre-established payoffs. The Killing finds a young Kubrick playing by the rules of a strict genre template and struggling to work around the limitations of a modest budget. It’s a rare mode to see him working in and makes for one of his more distinct accomplishments as a result.

-Brandon Ledet

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Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 8/4/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Eighth Grade Teenage YouTube celebrity turned adult stand-up Bo Burnham has never been on my radar outside his small role as the most annoying man in the greenroom in last year’s The Big Sick. His debut film as a writer-director is all but guaranteed to challenge my lack of interest in his career so far. The trailers and early buzz for Eighth Grade make it look like a soul-crushing coming of age tale about teenage anxiety in the social media age. I’m looking forward to the film absolutely wrecking me just as much as I’m looking forward to seeing Burnham in a more forgiving light.

2. Blindspotting Oakland is having an incredible year on the big screen. Following the city’s conspicuous presence in both Black Panther & Sorry to Bother You and preempting the return of Ryan Coogler’s Oakland-set Creed franchise this November, this intense-looking comedic drama about police shootings & gentrification has a strong chance of continuing Oakland’s trend of being heavily featured in some of the best movies of the year. It also promises to be a star-making opportunity for Daveed Diggs, currently best known as the vocalist of clipping. and cast member of Blackish & the musical Hamilton.

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout Tom Cruise is showing no signs of ceasing to be a cultist creep in real life, but his long-running action thriller franchise is on a creative upswing. When I ran through the entire Mission: Impossible series as a latecomer a few years ago, the most recent entry, Rogue Nation, was an easy favorite. I’m excited to see if that trend continues, with or without Cruise breaking free from his wicked overlords/co-conspirators in his private life.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Sorry to Bother You This is very likely the last week to see one of the summer’s wildest surprise gems on the big screen. From Boomer’s review: “These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.”

2. Three Identical Strangers It’s been an incredible year for documentaries, both creatively & financially. Now that Won’t You Be My Neighbor is fading from local theaters, its documentary-of-the-minute slot is being replaced by something much more sinister: a bizarre tale of triplet brothers who were unaware of each other’s existence until they were in their late teens, which then develops into a continually twisty nightmare. Especially recommended for amateur conspiracy theorists & fans of true crime narratives.

3. Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again This decade-late sequel to the ABBA jukebox musical is notably better-made on a technical level than its predecessor (it shares a cinematographer with most Wes Anderson productions?), but it’s also a hell of a lot less horny & bizarre. For the most part, though, Here We Go Again delivers more of the same Mamma Mia! goodness, except this time with a little Cher as lagniappe. Britnee’s an especially big fan of this franchise and you can hear our dual review of both Mammas Mia! on the most recent episode of the podcast.

-Brandon Ledet

Filmworker (2018)

The Auteur Theory is an enticingly convenient way to talk about film, but it’s also a reductive one that dismisses the work of hundreds of collaborators on each picture discussed. Meticulous tyrants like Stanley Kubrick are often praised for the incredible depth of their genius & control in craft, but little attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes collaborators who make that genius achievable. The recent documentary Filmworker is especially illuminating when viewed in the context of The Auteur Theory’s shortcomings, with insight into Kubrick’s tyrannically selfish brand of genius in particular. The film profiles former actor Leon Vitali, who got his big break as the snotty Lord Bulingdon in Kubrick’s infamous production of Barry Lyndon, then immediately dropped everything in his life to follow the director around like a loyal, exhausted lapdog until his master died. Kubrick enthusiasts might find Filmworker of interest for its behind-the-scenes factoids about productions like Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, but they’ll also find a huge moral quandary at the center of the hero worship of that man’s unique genius. Vitali pushed the hagiography of Kubrick as the greatest artist of the 20th Century to the most bizarrely self-destructive extreme imaginable; he’s living proof of The Auteur Theory’s most glaring lie.

Upon seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a wide-eyed youth in the swinging-60s, Vitali knew he wanted to dedicate his life’s work to Kubrick’s genius. As he tells it, he decided not that he wanted to be an actor, but that he wanted to work for Kubrick, regardless of the capacity of that servitude. Landing a role in Barry Lyndon was all he meant to achieve with his acting work, despite establishing a very promising career onstage & BBC television productions to get there. Kubrick took note of his enthusiasm and made extensive use of him behind the camera as a jack-of-all-trades workhouse assistant for the rest of his career. Vitali was left just as little time for acting gigs as he had for eating, sleeping, and raising his children. Calling him a “personal assistant” is insultingly reductive, as he would switch roles form editor, casting director, acting coach, archivist, and so on as Kubrick’s whims & demands dictated. He was essentially an uncredited producer on multiple films that are widely considered to be some of the greatest achievements in cinema, yet Filmworker finds him lonely & sustained mostly by his children’s charity. It’s sad to see, but it’s also oddly sweet. Vitali seems totally content, if not immensely pleased with his life’s work of supporting a Genius Auteur who worked his mind & body into the ground with essentially no reward outside the collaborations they left behind.

As with other behind-the-scenes, low-budget documentaries like DOOMED!, Casting By, or Lost Soul, Filmworker relies heavily on the strength of the story it tells without focusing too much on the craft of telling it. The interviews are cheaply filmed through a sickly digital gauze, as if they were recorded in a supermarket staff breakroom. The editing is unfocused, drawing the story out into redundancy & exhaustion. Other shortcomings, like a lack of female interviewees & Kubrick’s own voice, could be considered reflections of the auteur’s current legacy, but they hurt the film’s entertainment value anyway. There’s a kind of poetic justice in knowing that Kubrick would have been driven insane by the film’s more glaring faults, however, a minor payback for all the stress he crushed Vitali with over decades of tyrannical demands. Regardless of the format’s merits, this is still a vital story that deserves to be heard, not only for the insight it provides into one of cinema’s great auteurs, but for its challenge to our lauding of great auteurs in the first place. Film is a collaborative medium and we can do much better by recognizing the efforts of its lesser known collaborators. No one should need to be as tireless of a martyr as Vitali to earn that recognition, but this is still as good of a place to start as any.

-Brandon Ledet

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

One of the more unexpected developments in domestic box office numbers this summer has been the success of the small-scale documentary as a medium. In a way, this makes sense for our current political environment, where titles like RBG & Won’t You Be My Neighbor? feel like vital antidotes to the Trumpian dark times of the world outside. The success of the 2018 documentary has trickled down to less overtly political works as well, however, at least enough to muddle that reductive explanation. The most convincing theory I’ve heard so far for the medium’s current popularity was from critic Paul Matwychuk on the Trash, Art, and the Movies podcast. Matwychuk supposes that Netflix’s extensive documentary programming has softened wide audiences up to the idea of paying to see docs as big screen entertainment. I’d also extend that hypothesis to the recent increased popularity of ”true crime” narratives in podcasts, literature, and—of course—Netflix programming. The true crime effect would at least help explain the popularity of the recent documentary Three Identical Strangers, which doesn’t have the same value as a leftist political antidote as the Fred Rogers or Ruth Bader Ginsberg docs. This is a movie with very little entertainment value to offer mass audiences outside the basic pleasure of hearing an incredibly twisty, sinister story told directly with little embellishment. Even though that approach is more or less timeless, it likely wouldn’t have been nearly as much of a breakout success just a few years ago, for whatever reason you want to suppose.

Revealing too much of the story told in Three Identical Strangers to the uninitiated would risk zapping the film of its power. However, its inciting events are already public knowledge because of their value as a tabloid curio. Triplet brothers, unaware of each other’s existence until the absurdly late age of 19, discovered by chance that they were not alone in this world. The first act of Three Identical Strangers walks the audience through the implausibility of this real-life farce step by step. One brother attends a community college where he’s greeted with open arms as if he’d already been a student there for years, only to discover that he was mistaken for his in-the-flesh doppelgänger. Once the two brothers met their happenstance was odd enough to make the papers, which alerted their third duplicate to the uncanny truth that the three of them, total strangers, were long-lost triplets. There is a kind of sinister quality to the discovery that a person has an exact duplicate out in the world, one that has been explored in many notable psychological thrillers, including recent titles like The One I Love, Enemy, The Double, Double Lover, etc. The joy the brothers found in discovering each other’s existence outweighed any of that initial eeriness, however. They sold their story as a kind of novelty act, leveraging it for appearances at Studio 54, on Donahue, in Desperately Seeking Susan, and on the marquee of their own triplets-themed restaurant. It wasn’t until their parents began picking at the hows & whys of their separation that the sinister aspect of their story began to reveal itself, which is where the film transforms from a farcical human interest story into a true crime, conspiracy theory narrative.

The tactics Three Identical Strangers uses to dole out the insidious details of the brothers’ separation are immediately familiar to the documentary format, especially once you consider that the film is co-produced by CNN. Talking head interviewees appear before senior-portrait backdrops so generic they feel parodic. Photographs & cheap reenactments inform their direct-to-the-camera dialogue in the exact ways you’d expect, recalling more or less all post-Thin Blue Line true crime media, especially television series like Dateline & 20/20. Where Three Identical Strangers excels is in its willingness to revisit & pick apart earlier information with each twisty revelation. The audience is walked through each reveal & self-realization as the brothers lived it, which transforms earlier, uninformed statements that appeared to be fun anecdotes in the first act into something much eerier & more sinister. As the conspiracy that separated the triplets in the first place comes into sharper focus, interviewees make some very questionable accusations for tidy, last-minute closure to their story. Each hypothesis is allowed to hang with equal weight, unchallenged in its overlapping contradiction with the next (like in the editorial-free Rodney Ascher documentaries The Nightmare & Room 237). If the story, still in development, has taught us anything to date, it’s that the facts are so heavily guarded that any clear, tidy answers are impossible at this time (and will remain so until this film’s inevitable sequel in 2066). That continued mystery not only strengthens the film’s central Nature vs. Nurture binary debate, an age-old argument that can never be fully settled because each polarity informs & influences the other; it also makes for great post-screening theater lobby discussion, which is a large part of this twisty story’s appeal.

The story told in Three Identical Strangers may be factually bizarre, but there are plenty of other recent documentaries with equally twisty, unbelievable tales of true life menace that failed to produce anywhere near its box office numbers: Tickled, Weiner, The Act of Killing, etc. While I appreciate the film for what it is and the conversation it sparks, I’m even more fascinated by the larger boon it represents for its medium, which has never been especially popular outside an occasional outlier like Fahrenheit 9/11. I’m less emotionally invested in this individual film’s success than I am in the success of the documentary at large and I would be overjoyed to see this recent trend continue. I can’t think of a better medium to counterbalance the cinematic summer’s typical offerings of large-scale fantasy blockbusters (for the record, I do enjoy a healthy dose of both), no matter what cultural primer helped get us here – Netflix, S-Town, Serial, Trump, or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

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 Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Resolution (2012) / The Endless (2018)

I’ve never written a dual movie review before, but I’ve also never reviewed a sequel quite like The Endless before. It’s possible that someone stumbling into the picture uninitiated to its 2012 predecessor, Resolution, will leave it with just as many questions as the fully prepared. A low-key sci-fi freak-out that attempts big ideas through limited means, The Endless deliberately raises questions it has no intention to answer, so all audiences are going to leave the picture perplexed. Familiarity with Resolution is still a prerequisite for the full, perplexing experience, though. Although hardly anyone saw Resolution in its original run and The Endless makes little mention of it in its promotional material, the 2018 update from writers/directors/stars Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead is very much a direct, continuity-detailed sequel that builds off the first film’s themes & conceit. Their budget for special effects spectacle may have jumped slightly in the half-decade between the two pictures, but their shared story & sci-fi world-building are entirely of a piece, to the point where they are more inseparable than even the average superhero follow-up with “2” in its title.

Resolution is an extraordinary tale of two very ordinary bros who trespass onto protected Native American property and find themselves victims of an invisible, supernatural menace. One bro is a raving lunatic who spends his days smoking crack on a dirty mattress and firing a pistol into the woods. The other is a concerned friend who handcuffs him out of arms’ reach of the aforementioned drugs & firearms in an effort to save his life by sobering him up. While waiting for the cocaine to leave the more troubled bro’s body, the pair of foul-mouthed galoots begin to experience increasing exposure to unexplainable phenomena. Because the film was cheaply made, its introduction of sci-fi elements to its small-cast drama is mostly constructed with words instead of imagery. Conspiracy theories about government coverups of space alien contact, alternate dimensions, ghosts, “UFO death cults,” and physical confrontations with Hell are peppered throughout the dialogue to prepare the audience for the supernatural menace to come. It turns out that menace is the audience itself too, as the movie gradually becomes a sci-fi take on Cabin the Woods’s examination of consumer complicity in genre film violence. As the two bros are inundated with mysterious recordings on photographs, vinyl records, strips of film, VHS cassettes, and emailed digi-videos, Resolution becomes a story about stories, where an off-screen menace (presumably including the audience) requires a violent end to their narrative to be satiated by the experience. That’s lofty thematic ground for a film that looks like it was pieced together over a few bro-buds’ weekend hangouts.

The Endless drops Resolution’s Native American abuse themes to focus on the “UFO death cults” that lurked at the first movie’s fringes. Two brothers, seemingly unconnected to the bros from the first film, foolishly decide to return to a cultist compound where they were raised to challenge what they’ve been told about their past by their state-sanctioned deprogramming therapists. There, they find unexplainable “natural” phenomena within their old terrain, anomalies they had mentally dismissed as faulty childhood memories. Most significantly, the members of the cult have not seemed to age a day in the decades since they first left, which is indicative of the cycles of time that loop on the mysterious, paranormal landscape where both films take place. The Endless drops Resolution’s fixation on the power of myth & storytelling to instead explore themes of self-destructive ruts, where patterns of unhealthy behavior repeat in perpetuity for anyone who fixates on the past. The movie directly connects with its predecessor’s narrative, first in the form of mysterious, Caché-like recordings and then in a more direct, unsubtle way that combines the two film’s themes of linear storytelling & endless time loops in an oddly satisfying cohesion, even if a perplexing one. Once again, the supposed threat of the “UFO death cult” is a narrative misdirection, much like the expected Native American curse of Resolution. The real menace at work in The Endless is more an existential, unknowable curse born of its own existence & search for a purpose. It’s trippy stuff.

In all honesty, these are two movies I respect for their ambition more than I enjoy them as entertainment. I had high hopes for this double feature after first being exposed to Benson & Moorhead in the Lovecraftian romance horror Spring, which remains their greatest achievement to date. Spring matched the duo’s obvious, admirable interest in reaching beyond the typical bounds of low-budget filmmaking for grander ideas & scope with something both Resolution & The Endless were missing: genuine heart. I like to think of this difference as being akin to the jump Shane Carruth made between his films Primer & Upstream Color, which were galaxies apart in terms of emotional impact, even if the scope of their conceptual ideas were evenly matched. In these pictures from Benson & Moorhead, there’s a macho bravado that keeps genuine emotion at a distance. Spring also had an ordinary-bro protagonist, but he was one made vulnerable by a horrific, supernatural romance beyond this control. The macho brutes who command the runtimes of this double feature are much more difficult to care about, despite the movies’ insistence that they’re relatable, everyday dudes. When we’re listening to the bros of Resolution tease each other about the hideous “hogs” they hooked up with in their more youthful days or when they “comically” deny outsiders’ assumptions that they’re a romantic couple with a grossed-out fervor, it feels as if the movie is asking us to laugh along with them instead of finding them grotesque. The brothers of The Endless (played by Benson & Moorhead themselves) don’t fare much better, showing little human vulnerability in their base desires to hook up with beautiful women and escape the clutches of an invisible, supernatural menace. Essentially, these two movies assume a certain macho POV from their audience that can be a huge turn-off when it misses the mark.

Thankfully, the high-concept sci-fi crises of Resolution & The Endless don’t require much emotional involvement to be interesting on their own. Likewise, both films are admirable as examples of small-scale filmmaking pulled off with admirable ambition in craft. Together, their shared runtime is somewhat demanding for a pair of movies with no emotional hook in their protagonists’ confrontation with the unknown. They do manage to make up for that shortcoming, though, mostly by provoking the audience to interrogate their own existence, purpose, and participation in this creation & sharing of myths. Like Spring, this is a pair of films that deserves to be seen by a larger cross-section of people than who will ever give it a chance, if not only for the reminder of how few resources you need to tackle something bigger than yourself and your craft. They’re just lacking Spring’s emotional core.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fly II (1989)

One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.

For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.

“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.

Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.

Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.

-Brandon Ledet

Track 29 (1988)

I always find myself seeking films that make me feel uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s like I’m being rebellious against my own anxiety, trying to see how far I can go before my head explodes from nervous tension. Interestingly enough, Nicolas Roeg’s 1988 film, Track 29, is an unbearable, squirmy mess of a movie that found me. I was searching for a romantic comedy on Filmstruck to watch while I cleaned my apartment this weekend, and the moment I saw the movie poster adorned with a young, punk rock Gary Oldman, I immediately pressed play. If I knew what I was in for, I may have held off on making such a quick decision.

Track 29 is a visually stunning film with a disoriented plot, heavily reminding me of past  Movie of the Month film Crimes of Passion. This is definitely one of those films that takes more than one watch to completely absorb. I’m not sure if I’m ready to hit this up a second time just yet, so my interpretation of all the film’s madness isn’t very refined.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell) is a lonely American housewife that longs for a child and affection from her doctor husband, Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), but he’s more interested in playing with his model train set. Henry also lacks a sexual attraction to his wife, which may be due to the fact that she acts like a 5 year old and refers to him as “Daddy” in a childlike voice in her attempts to turn him on. He does, however, get his rocks off by getting spanked by a nurse he’s having an affair with at his place of work. The nurse is played by Sandra Bernhard, and I can’t think of a better actress to watch spanking Christopher Lloyd. The strange thing about Linda (or at least one of them) is that she brings her childlike behavior out of the bedroom. She has full-blown tantrums when she gets upset, screaming like a baby through her braces-filled mouth, and she even has a disturbing collection of baby dolls. It’s obvious that Linda is damaged.

One day, a young British man named Martin (Gary Oldman) mysteriously appears in town, and Linda runs into him at a local burger joint. There’s an obvious connection between the two, but it’s not yet known exactly what that connection is. He continues to mysteriously appear when Linda least expects it, and it is revealed that he is her long lost son. When Linda was younger (15 years old, I think), she was raped and impregnated by a carnie and forced to give her baby up for adoption. Linda is ecstatic to find out that Martin is her son as she spent years thinking about what happened to the child she was forced to give away, but then things start to get weird. One moment, she’s caressing his face in a motherly way, and the next moment, she making out with him on the floor of her home. Martin is just as impulsive as his mother, and watching the two of them go in and out of tantrums & make-out sessions is enough to make you feel like you’re going insane. The question “Is Martin real or not?” stuck in my mind through all of this. From this point on, the film becomes stranger and stranger as the minutes roll by.

It becomes obvious that Martin is a figment of Linda’s imagination when she is sitting with him at a restaurant having quite the orgasmic conversation, and the camera flips to the perspective of the restaurant staff, revealing that Linda is alone at the table. As her relationship with non-existent Martin intensifies, the film becomes a fever dream, ending with a mysterious violent event. It’s as though Linda drove herself to insanity because she never successfully filled an empty hole that existed because her child was given away, which is absolutely ridiculous. The notion that giving up children for adoption or having an abortion causes women to become mentally ill is so dumb, and I truly hope that Track 29 was not intended to be as misogynistic as it seems.

All in all, Track 29 is a pretty dark film that pushes the envelope with all the weird incest crap, but it’s also so wacky that it’s fun to watch. The secret to enjoying this movie is to just not take it seriously at all.

-Britnee Lombas

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/28/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in the New Orleans area this week. Put that MoviePass to work before the whole thing collapses!

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Blood Diner (1987) Cult director Jackie Kong is bringing her underseen, underloved horror comedy gross-out classic to New Orleans for a free screening and Q&A at Bamboula’s on Frenchmen this Wednesday, August 1st. For a preview of Blood Diner’s gore-soaked tastelessness, here’s a transcript of the title card warning that opens the film: “While it is a sad fact that mass homicide and practitioners of Blood Cults infest our society, the producers of this film wish to express that they do not condone, nor do they want to inspire, any of the human butchery or violence portrayed in this film. If you feel you will be offended by such material, please leave the theater at once . . .” It’s great, hyperviolent fun and presumably even better experienced with a live crowd.

2. Blindspotting Oakland is having an incredible year on the big screen. Following the city’s conspicuous presence in both Black Panther & Sorry to Bother You and preempting the return of Ryan Coogler’s Oakland-set Creed franchise this November, this intense-looking comedic drama about police shootings & gentrification has a strong chance of continuing Oakland’s trend of being heavily featured in some of the best movies of the year. It also promises to be a star-making opportunity for Daveed Diggs, currently best known as the vocalist of clipping. and cast member of Blackish & the musical Hamilton.

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout Tom Cruise is showing no signs of ceasing to be a cultist creep in real life, but his long-running action thriller franchise is on a creative upswing. When I ran through the entire Mission: Impossible series as a latecomer a few years ago, the most recent entry, Rogue Nation, was an easy favorite. I’m excited to see if that trend continues, with or without Cruise breaking free from his wicked overlords/co-conspirators in his private life.

4. Three Identical Strangers – The trailer for this documentary introduces a true, tabloidish tale of triplet brothers who were kept unaware of each other’s existence until they happened to discover their unlikely kinship by chance in their college years; it also teases a sinister tale of scientific cruelty & political corruption behind that bizarre occurrence. Looks like a very strange journey with plenty of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up twists.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Sorry to Bother You The best film currently in theaters, no contest, just expanded into a single-week run at The Prytania Theatre. From Boomer’s review: “These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.”

2. Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again This decade-late sequel to the ABBA jukebox musical is notably better-made on a technical level than its predecessor (it shares a cinematographer with most Wes Anderson productions?), but it’s also a hell of a lot less horny & bizarre. For the most part, though, Here We Go Again delivers more of the same Mamma Mia! goodness, except this time with a little Cher for flavor. Britnee’s an especially big fan of this franchise and you can hear our dual review of both Mammas Mia! on the most recent episode of the podcast.

3. Unfriended 2: Dark Web As a huge sucker for technophobic genre films about the evils of the internet, I whole-heartedly believe the first Unfriended deserves to be recognized as one of the best horror films of the decade. That bottomless love for the cyber-horror genre may have set my expectations a little too high for this more tempered follow-up, which trades in the supernatural computer-ghost antics of the first film for a more toned-down, single Skype session version of Nerve. It’s still a fun watch, though, an overall solid example of a genre I should know better than to hold in as high of a regard as I do.

4. Ant-Man and the Wasp – From Boomer’s review: “Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU, there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around.”

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mammas Mia! & Burlesque (2010)

Welcome to Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-first episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the jukebox musicals that comprise the most recent two film-acting credits from the ever-fabulous Cher: Burlesque (2010) & the Mamma Mia! franchise. Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet