Army of the Dead (2021)

Thanks to the post-production remodeling of the mythical “director’s cut” of Justice League for HBO Max, there has been a ton of online critical reclamation of Zack Snyder’s artistry this year.  The “It’s pretty good, actually!” consensus on The Snyder Cut has earned him the same “vulgar auteur” status previously bestowed upon filmmakers like Tony Scott, Paul WS Anderson, and Michael Bay – real meathead types.  Personally, I’m not seeing the vulgar genius of Snyder’s work, at least not in relation to his absurdly expensive Justice League revision.  That 4hr superhero epic registered with me as the pinnacle of plot obsession in contemporary cinema, getting so mired in the connective tissue between action sequences that it transcends the medium altogether by becoming Television.  The Snyder Cut couldn’t be faulted for being erratic or messy like the previous edit of Justice League, but in smoothing out all rough edges on that compromised vision, Snyder created a pure-plot experience completely devoid of recognizable humanity or imagination. I almost admire The Snyder Cut for pushing the modern superhero picture to its obvious endgame (a $400mil TV miniseries), but I might just be telling myself that so that I feel like I got something out of the time investment.  Either way, it’s interesting as a cultural curio but aggressively mediocre as entertainment media, so that the director is only worth engaging with for the hype he inexplicably generates.  It’s less that the emperor wears no clothes; it’s that I don’t understand why everyone’s so ecstatically complimenting the emperor’s Ed Hardy t-shirt.

Even with my Snyder Cut skepticism still festering as an open wound, I can at least admit that 2021 has been a career-restorative year for the director in other ways.  His new straight-to-Netflix zombie epic (everything he makes is a dialed-to-11 epic) isn’t exactly a whiplash-inducing return to form after the exhaustion of Snyder Cut discourse, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, mildly entertaining follow-up.  I’ll take it.  Army of the Dead is easily Zack Snyder’s most enjoyable movie since his Romero-homage debut Dawn of the Dead (penned by James Gunn, who turned out to be the more talented voice in the room), by which I mean it’s Passably Okay.  It appears that the zombie flick is the only appropriate fit for Snyder’s obnoxious blatancy, from his boneheadedly literal soundtrack cues to his exhausting emphasis on every single scene as the most Epic, all-important moment ever.  Army of the Dead surely would’ve landed with more impact and novelty in the nu-metal aughts, when Snyder’s previous action-horror felt like a breath of fresh air.  It’s starting to become adorable that he’s somehow still stuck in that long-putrid era, though.  He’s been hacking away at the same dirtbag Godsmack aesthetic for so long that it’s pushed past tacky to become full-on kitsch.  I understand the temptation to reclaim him as a misunderstood genius in that context, if not only because it’s a funny gag.  In practice, though, his movies are way too draining to be worth the small flashes of enjoyment you can glean from them, even when they’re Passably Okay overall.

Dave Bautista stars as a superhuman burgerflipper who has survived the zombie apocalypse by laying low working the grill at a greasy diner.  He’s approached by a shady casino owner who hires him to break into the quarantined city of Las Vegas and recover an abandoned vault full of untraceable cash, guarded only by hordes of cannibal corpses roaming the otherwise empty streets & gambling halls.  From there the movie is a blend of militant zombie-shooting action horror and a self-amused heist film.  As those two genres run in tandem, there’s all the assembling-the-team montages, first-person video game gore, disastrous getaways, and witty interpersonal banter (mostly notably delivered by Tig Notaro as the resident wiseass) fans of either side of the divide could hope for.  And then there’s more.  And then more.  And more.  Army of the Dead‘s 148min runtime is an outright war crime, dulling all its genre-blending, Vegas setting fun with at least an hour’s worth of superfluous material that should have been lopped off in the editing room.  Like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, the film peaks during its opening credits, which squeezes in an entire zombie movie’s worth of exposition into a concise, bite-sized morsel of a montage (set to a Richard Cheese song, another Dawn of the Dead callback).  It’s the only part of the movie that could be considered concise, considering how unnecessarily weighed down and laborious everything that follows feels.  There’s a fun 90min movie buried somewhere in this macho, self-important excess, but Zack Snyder does not make those kinds of movies.  Pity.

If we can have a years-later Snyder Cut revision of Justice League, I think we also deserve an Un-Snydered cut of Army of the Dead.  I’m not saying we need to toss out all his unashamed meathead tendencies, where the initial zombie breakout is caused by roadhead and the years-later evolved zombies are referred to as “Alphas.”  Keep all the Gym Bro action horror you want, just make the damned thing zippier.  There’s a stripped down, streamlined, self-contained movie in here that absolutely rules, but you have to squint real hard through the Hoobastank fog to see it.  Snyder needs someone to push back on his All-Out Epic tendencies, especially when it comes to explaining each and every baby step in the plot.  Instead, like with The Snyder Cut, he’s allowed to turn the modern zombie movie into modern zombie television, something we’re all sick of after 29 seasons of The Walking DeadArmy of the Dead is already greenlit to spin off multiple prequels and animated side plot series on Netflix, the same way The Snyder Cut reconfigured Justice League into a 4-hour made-for-TV miniseries.  That mode of literal-minded, plot-obsessed Epic filmmaking is not some vulgar stroke of auteurist genius in the modern media landscape.  It’s just how big-budget “movies” are made now in a post-MCU world.  At least this one has its moments.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast: Devil Master Diary

Welcome to Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon discuss notorious schlockteur Donald G. Jackson’s directorial debut, 1977’s The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master) and its buzzkill behind-the-scenes documentary Demon Lover Diary (1980).

00:00 Welcome

03:50 Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
08:40 The Woman in the Window (2021)
15:17 Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
22:12 Out of the Dark (1988)

27:20 The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master, 1977)
38:40 Demon Lover Diary (1980)

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

– Britnee Lombas and Brandon Ledet

Fried Barry (2021)

Last year, I praised the lost-in-time horror whatsit The Berlin Bride for feeling like it “travelled here from a previous era when movies could just be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something.”  The new straight-to-Shudder curio Fried Barry made me eat those words just a few months later; I regret everything.  An episodic, self-amused tale of drug abuse and alien abduction, Fried Barry desperately wants to be an instant-cult-classic geek show but lacks any of the propulsion or command over atmosphere that would make that distinction possible.  It’s all hacky, edgelord comedy stunts and no attention to tone or purpose.  Equally obscene and tedious, it’s essentially a half-speed horror version of Crank – with all the “insensitive” political jabs and mouthbreathing misogyny that descriptor implies.  It’s a movie that deliberately strives to be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something, exactly what I asked for.  I can’t say exactly why that for-its-own-sake exercise was mesmerizing to me in The Berlin Bride but punishingly boring for me here.  I can only shrug Fried Barry off as A Bad Movie that only gets worse the longer it hangs around.

If Fried Barry has any of the potential cult-status value it’s clearly desperate to earn, it’s as a kind of “dare” film for teenagers who are technically too young to watch it.  The film opens with a cheeky warning that it’s strictly for an 18+ audience, which reads as a wink that you need to be 15 or younger to be excited by its meaningless transgressions.  The titular Barry, described by his loving wife as a “useless piece of shit”, is immediately shown shooting heroin into his arm in a hideous series of post-Tony Scott rapdifire montages, emphasizing just how Edgy and Fucked Up the next 100 minutes are going to be.  While high, Barry is abducted by aliens, who probe both his anus and urethra for good measure, then commandeer his body for a joyride on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa.  From there, the aliens take a nightlife tour of the city, periodically stopping for improv-heavy bits of cringe humor among the “useless piece of shit” locals.  The film is caught halfway between a PSA about how overwhelming it is to trip balls in public and a PSA about how obnoxious it is to simply go nightclubbing.  In either instance, you’re going run into the worst people, and they’re going to spoil the mood.

For the most part, the movie rests on the decision to cast Gary Green as Barry, as he does have the kind of arrestingly odd bone structure that David Lynch could build an entire movie around.  It probably goes without saying that first-time director Ryan Kruger is no David Lynch, at least not yet.  Whether it’s because of the heroin or the alien body possession, Green isn’t asked to do much here besides stand around as a human prop.  His episodic adventures mostly focus on the much less fascinating bit-part actors who bounce their own inane performances off him, pausing occasionally for gross-out eruptions of gore.  If this dynamic has any chance of working, it’s in the first half of the film when seemingly everyone is uncontrollably attracted to Alien Barry and impulsively propositions him for sex.  If the film had committed to the all-out sexual bacchanal of that premise, it might’ve at least had a unifying theme or purpose to its grotesque pageantry.  Instead, it’s an excuse to sneak in some on-screen titties for the under-15 crowd and for a blatantly homophobic gag where Barry murders his one potential male partner.  And then the sex stops all together mid-film at the tongue-in-cheek “Intermission” title card, abandoning the one thread of continuity that tied all this meaningless bullshit together.  Pity.

A movie this obscene has no business being this boring.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where an alien invader inspires human locals to break all their previously held sexual taboos on-sight might’ve been something worthwhile.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry that was more heavily scripted instead of relying on Improv 101 edgelord humor would’ve been less irritating.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where women were allowed to be more than just victims, whores, and nags might not have sat on my stomach so queasily.  Can’t say.  All I know is that this version feels pointlessly obnoxious, and not in the fun way.

-Brandon Ledet

Oxygen (2021)

It’s not unusual for a high-concept, single-location sci-fi thriller to quietly emerge on Netflix to little fanfare.  That’s a regular routine for the streaming behemoth, which is wholeheartedly committed to a quantity-over-quality ethos (give or take the few high-profile projects a year it desperately promotes for Oscars attention).  It is unusual, however, to immediately recognize the director & star of said sci-fi streaming schlock.  I was under the impression that the bulk of Netflix’s disposable sci-fi was entirely generated by algorithm, the same as Hallmark Christmas movies and SyFy Channel mockbusters.  I was shocked, then, to stumble onto Oxygen, the latest film from Crawl and High Tension director Alexandre Aja.  Oxygen is visually and effectively indistinguishable from any generic sci-fi cheapie that magically populates on the Netflix homescreen from week to week, despite Aja’s usual command over in-the-moment tension and the obvious talents of his main collaborator, Inglorious Basterds star Melanie Laurent.  I also can’t fault Aja for collecting a pandemic paycheck where he could; after all, someone’s gotta point the camera in the right direction before the algorithm autofills the rest of the details.

I will admit that for the first fifteen minutes or so of Oxygen, Aja does feel alive and actively engaged with the material.  The film opens with a kind of humanoid egg hatching, with Laurent emerging from a synthetic skin sack inside what appears to be an Apple-store purchased iCoffin.  Confused about who she is or how she got there, she fights against the restraints that keep her in place inside the locked sleeping pod to no avail.  The flashing emergency lights, warnings of drained oxygen levels, and emerging hallucinations & memories that introduce us to this far-fetched, high concept scenario are effectively nerve-racking . . . for a while.  Then, Oxygen stops being a shock-a-second thriller and settles into mystery-box sci-fi at its emptiest.  Laurent’s distraught future-prisoner solves the mystery of her own past and her current predicament by effectively Googling herself for the rest of the runtime, with the aid of a voice-command Internet surrogate.  If you strip away a couple jump scares and CG-aided camera twirls, the film is basically just someone talking to an iTunes visualizer for two hours.  That set-up is no more thrilling now than it was when your buddy Kevin tripped too hard on mushrooms and debated a laptop screen in your 2007 dorm room.

It’s not impossible to sustain feature-length tension with just one on-screen character and a series of phone calls and Google searches.  It’s wild how much more tension I felt in Locke, for instance, where there’s pretty much no visual flavor and the movie’s basically about listening to concrete dry.  And, hell, if there was ever going to be a time to release a film about someone being isolated in a small, locked space with only a series of talking screens to connect them to the outside world, this might be it.  Still, there’s nothing about Oxygen that stands out from the week-to-week sci-fi sludge that oozes up from the streaming service sewer grates on Netflix, despite the pedigree of the names behind it.  I was basically pleading out loud at my television for more boobytraps and fewer Google searches by the end of the film, which I doubt is the kind of squirming-in-your seat anguish Aja was aiming for.  If I was that desperate for a new sci-fi release where a trapped woman makes a series of desperate phone calls, I should have just rewatched the bizarro action-horror Shadow in the Cloud.  At least that one has some personality to it, albeit a goofy one.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Joe (2019)

There haven’t been many movies about the COVID-19 pandemic that have earned ecstatic praise from pro critics or general audiences (Host is maybe the one exception I can immediately recall).  However, there have been plenty of movies praised for capturing the eerie, isolating mood of the past year despite being conceived & produced before lockdowns started in earnest.  While people don’t seem to have much of an appetite for COVID-specific films while we’re still collectively suffering through this global crisis, there is a detectable interest in films like Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, and Vivarium that stumbled into resonating with “these unprecedented times” entirely by happenstance.  It’s possible, then, that the little-seen Cannes darling Little Joe would’ve generated a lot more discussion if it had arrived just a few months later than its streaming premiere date in December 2019.  It’s a quiet little sci-fi chiller that never stood much of a chance of wowing general audiences, but its accidental parallels to the never-ending COVID pandemic might’ve been enough of a hook to at least lure more esoteric film nerds to the screen.

I want to call Little Joe a twee update to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s much icier and more emotionally detached than that would imply.  The gorgeously manicured costumes & sets echo a fussy dollhouse aesthetic that’s familiar to twee filmmaking.  However, like the similarly confectionary Swallow, it’s too emotionally reserved to be pigeonholed as twee despite its prim, femme decor.  In the film, a plant breeder at a high-security laboratory brings home a new developmental species to cheer up her lonely teenage son.  The plant was scientifically engineered to make its owner happy through the release of “natural” toxins, like a pseudo-organic alternative to Prozac.  Gradually, her son and her coworkers more directly exposed to the plant stop behaving like their authentic selves.  They’re noticeably happier, but they’re also emotionally numb to anything that isn’t the care, protection, and reproduction of the experimental house plant.  They’re obsessed with it.  It’s a subtle Body Snatchers riff with no visual signifiers of traditional horror, only characters losing any edge or dynamism to their baseline personalities.

There are a few surface details to the film’s laboratory setting and health pandemic themes that can’t help but recall current cultural moods surrounding COVID: face masks, hand sanitizer stations, corporate indifference to working class vulnerability, etc.  What really resonated with me, though, is Little Joe‘s parallels to our current house plant craze – the sudden boom of people filling their homes with living things to combat the emotional isolation of a year we’ve mostly spent apart.  In Little Joe, that choice is presented as a metaphor for a failed work-homelife balance, wherein a work-obsessed mother completely ignores her lonely teenager son.  She doesn’t initially notice that his personality has been zapped away by her house plant surrogate, because she’s too distracted with spending as much time in the lab as possible.  I don’t believe the film is overtly moralizing about working mothers’ ignored domestic responsibilities, but rather exaggerating how hard it is to admit when you do care more about your own life and career than you do your child because others would wag a finger at you for it.

Little Joe does a great job of making its genetically engineered houseplants ~spooky~ in the subtle bug-skitter sounds of them unfurling in slow-motion puppetry.  It’s also frustratingly inert, though, seemingly on purpose.  The camera moves in slow, clinical pans and zooms that de-emphasize the importance of the characters talking in-frame, as if it’s as disinterested in them as they are to anything that’s not the plant.  Meanwhile, the big deadline that’s driving the tension and escalation of the plant’s production is referred to only as the upcoming Flower Fair, which is a pretty hilarious conflict for what’s ostensibly a horror film.  Little Joe is quietly funny, stubbornly anti-action, and just eerie enough to string you along if you’re not expecting anything especially flashy out of it.  It jerks the audience around on a leash as it strolls to the inevitable conclusions of its Body Snatchers plotting, but it does so gently, as if it doesn’t really care if you follow along.  I’d recommend it most to people who’ve been spending way more emotionally charged alone time with their house plants than they have with friends or family in the past year, which should cover just about everyone.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar.  No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic.  In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible.  There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration.  It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.

During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium:  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover.  I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines.  Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018.  It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly.  The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.

It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases.  Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all.  On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible.  That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly.  The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.

While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform.  The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate.  I enjoyed being ribbed like that.  I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style.  My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though.  This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt.  Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate.  It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.

My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”???  Seems like an oversight.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Castle Freak (1995)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the Full Moon creature feature gross-out Castle Freak (1995), directed by Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon.

00:00 Welcome

02:00 The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
03:23 Mr. Arkadin (1955)
04:05 The Queen of Black Magic (1981)
07:00 My Octopus Teacher (2020)
07:55 Death of Me (2020)
10:28 We Summon the Darkness (2020)
11:34 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
13:20 Speed Cubers (2020)
16:25 Save Yourselves! (2020)
17:33 Dating Amber (2020)
19:55 Christine (2016)
23:42 Madame (2021)
27:47 Beast Beast (2021)

32:15 Castle Freak (1995)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Teeth (2007)

I was a little apprehensive about returning to the coming-of-age horror comedy Teeth, even though I’ve been holding onto my DVD copy of the film for well over a decade.  The appeal of a gory, supernatural rape revenge thriller about a teenage girl with teeth in her vagina just had an entirely different appeal to me in my early 20s than it does now, long after I’ve lost my taste for edgelord shock humor.  The biggest shock of returning to the film, then, is that it actually holds up incredibly well – especially considering what you’d expect from a mid-00s Dimension Extreme title with that premise.  That’s because the film pushes itself way past the single-joke gimmick most over-the-top, on-purpose schlock would settle for (think Aquaslash, WolfCop, Zombeavers,etc).  It’s a wonderfully thoughtful, surprisingly sweet satire about the horrors of puritanical sex education in American high schools.  Who knew?  Or rather, who remembered?

Jess Weixler stars as Dawn, a naïve high school student whose growing attraction to her own sexuality is directly at odds with her Christian Evangelical abstinence training.  While I remembered the film’s more over-the-top gore gags & the discomfort of the violence, I had completely forgotten how much of it is a Saved! style satire about regressive Evangelical sex “education”.  While she’s encouraged to publicly promise to remain a virgin until marriage (going as far as to spread the good word about Promise Rings to her fellow schoolmates at class assemblies), she privately indulges in exploring her own body and yearns for physical contact with boys for the first time.  Like with every puberty experience, her body violently betrays her in those early sexual awakenings, although admittedly on a larger, more absurdist scale than what most of us suffer.  When she dares to explore her genitals, they bite back in warning.  When boys impatiently force themselves onto her the results are even more horrific.  The film itself is notably not sex-negative, though.  If anything, it openly mocks the cultural sex negativity of high school textbooks censoring illustrations of human vulvas or Christian pop songs spreading harmful messages like “Love is worth waiting for”.  Her vaginal mutation is just presented as a newfound superpower that has to be handled responsibly, which is a pretty decent metaphor for teenagers who are just learning about the pleasures & pitfalls of sexual activity – especially in a world with so many Conservative roadblocks deliberately preventing them from learning how to do things the right way.

I shouldn’t downplay how much of Teeth indulges in the edgelord button-pushing promised in its premise.  Dawn does leave behind a bloody trail of severed fingers & penises that enter her boobytrapped vagina without her consent, an unavoidable aspect of the film that lands it firmly in the queasy subgenre of Rape Revenge Comedy.  I just think it’s selling the movie short to remember it as a feature-length punchline where an abusive OBGYN nurses his fingerless hand while screaming “Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!” purely for the audience’s amusement.  There are plenty of gross-out gore gags and self-amused punchlines of that ilk in the movie (including a lot of onscreen peen for an R-rated American film), but there’s also thoughtful critique to be found elsewhere about the real-world evil of Abstinence Only sex education and young men’s dangerous obliviousness to the importance of active, enthusiastic consent.  The vaginal teeth Dawn discovers in herself are presented as a kind of evolutionary growth that’s advantageous for her survival, both against obvious villains who consciously aim to assault her and against “Nice Guys” who are selfishly clueless & harmful in their societally reinforced relationship with their own macho sexuality.  Finding humor in that abuse will likely, rightfully be an automatic turnoff for a lot of audiences, but it’s at least taking direct aim at the right satirical targets—both institutional and individual—not invoking easy moral panic over teen-girl sexuality.

If you can get past your discomfort with its depictions of onscreen sexual assault, Teeth is a shockingly invigorating entry in the Teen Girl Horror canon.  It reminds me a lot of more frequently lauded films like Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Jennifer’s Body, wherein a teen girl’s transformative experience with puberty unlocks both a supernatural horror and a supernatural power.  In this case, the political points made in that long-running metaphor are a little crasser and more on the surface than in its cohorts, but it’s at least taking aim at a specific satirical target: America’s puritanical, actively harmful approach to teen sex education.  I was tempted to dismiss it as a shock-comedy relic from my embarrassing edgelord past, but it very much deserves to be revisited and reevaluated as potential cult classic from that mostly disposable era.  And hey, if it’s too genuinely icky to earn that kind of widespread appreciation, there’s always the more wholesome version of it lurking in Saved!.

-Brandon Ledet

The Power (2021)

Here we have a low-budget British body-possession horror about a religious zealot nurse with a mysterious past and a deeply damaged relationship with human sexuality.  It’s the stylish debut feature from a young woman filmmaker, and it clocks in under 90min.  And somehow I’m not describing Saint Maud???  The Power actually might work especially well for people who wish Saint Maud was more of a straightforward horror film.  For me, they’re about equally great, but The Power‘s definitely a lot more immediately satisfying in delivering the genre goods and a thematic sense of purpose.  The beauty of genre filmmaking is that both can be appreciated for their variations & idiosyncrasies without stepping on each other’s toes.

If nothing else, you can’t fault The Power for not having a knack for spooky atmosphere.  Set during a series of planned power blackouts amidst labor disputes in 1970s London, the film is mostly staged in total darkness – save a few candles, cigarettes, and the red glow of generator lights. Even spookier, it’s entirely contained in a pitch-black hospital, during what the nurses on staff have deemed “The Dark Shift.”  Our protagonist is an adorable, sweet humanitarian who’s immediately tossed into the spooky abyss of The Dark Shift her first day on staff.  Her determination to Do Good and speak her mind in the face of a rigid, long-established bureaucracy immediately puts her in danger as soon as she enters the hospital – especially since her morally righteous prodding uncovers systemic sexual abuses committed by her higher-ups that have long gone unchecked & undisciplined.  The ghostly happenings that result from that shakeup are both a supernatural repetition of that abuse and a means of revenge against it – a tactic foreshadowed by a fellow staffer reading Steven King’s Carrie in her downtime before the mayhem is unleashed.

I was a little worried in its first half that The Power would become a tedious exercise in atmosphere & metaphor.  Once its more traditional haunted hospital scares emerge from the darkness, however, my patience was greatly rewarded.  Its horror genre processing of childhood sexual abuse is just as righteously angry and viscerally upsetting as anything you’ll see in this year’s erratic gross-out The Queen of Black Magic; it’s just a little more careful to establish a main character the audience actually connects with before Going There, so we’re even more affected by her downfall.  Looking beyond the surface details of their parallel thinking & timing, there isn’t much thematic or iconographic overlap between The Power & Saint Maud to make their dual existence redundant.  Both films share a kind of 1970s auteur-horror worship that’s rampant these days but repurpose those same building blocks for entirely different ends.  I’d mostly recommend Saint Maud if you’re looking for a deeply strange, off-putting characters study.  The Power, by contrast, is for when you want an effectively chilling, old-fashioned ghost story.

-Brandon Ledet

Beast Beast (2021)

Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.

Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence.  Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant.  The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus.  The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured.  You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement.  This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.

The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram.  As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world.  One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending.  What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs.  Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.

Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me.  Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic.  Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform.  Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel.  If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it.  Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.

-Brandon Ledet