Day of the Animals (1977)

I can’t believe I let this happen.  I got bored enough to wrestle the Cocaine Bear.  After finding its trailers punishingly unfunny, I still checked out Elizabeth Banks’s animal attack horror comedy on the big screen, both because Boomer gave it a glowing review and because there was absolutely nothing else of interest in theaters last week.  Cocaine Bear‘s violence is sufficiently vicious, and there’s some amusement in listening to Mark Mothersbaugh run rampant on the soundtrack trying to touch on every single style of 80s pop music except the one he was making at the time.  It’s just a shame about those jokes; yeesh.  I haven’t felt that alienated by an audience’s laughter since the last time I got dragged along to see a Deadpool.  The “Can you believe how crazy this is??!!!” meme humor of Cocaine Bear might’ve spoken to me in the past, when I enjoyed similarly bad-on-purpose schlock titles like Zombeavers, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Turbo Kid, but lately I’ve cooled on the genre.  My favorite parts were the brief flashes of sincere effort (the CG rendering of a maniac bear tearing into human flesh and the sounds of Mothersbaugh needlessly working overtime on the score), and I wish they were executed in service of something genuinely over-the-top instead of an incoherent 100-minute meme – the same complaint I recently had about the similar title-first-substance-second horror comedy All Jacked Up and Full of Worms.  So, I left Cocaine Bear starving for the earnestly bonkers animal attack movie it failed to deliver, which I immediately found at home in the 1977 cult film Day of the Animals.

Day of the Animals follows the same faintly sketched-out story template of Cocaine Bear, in which a group of bland archetype hikers are terrorized by extraordinarily violent mountain animals driven mad by man’s follies.  The titular Cocaine Bear goes on its own hyperviolent crime spree when it ingests large quantities of cocaine dumped into its habitat during a botched drug run.  In Day of the Animals, the murderous beasts are crazed by a hole in the ozone layer, which the opening credits explain “COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop this damage to Nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.”  Our hikers in peril are torn to shreds by owls, buzzards, mountain lions, dogs, wolves, and bears, oh my.  Besides the wider range of killer critters and the far more preposterous motivation for their bloodlust (I’ll leave it to you to deduce which of these two titles was inspired by a real-life news item), there isn’t much difference in the stories that Cocaine Bear & Day of the Animals tell.  Still, the tactility & sincerity of the animal attacks in the 70s film go a long way in making it worthy of the ambling journey, even if only as a schlocky novelty.  Leslie Nielsen’s casting as a violent, racist bully lurking among the chummier hikers is a great example of that difference, since after Naked Gun just one decade later his presence would’ve been reduced to a cheap, self-spoofing joke.  Instead, he’s allowed to be a chest-thumping macho terror that goes just as broad & ridiculous as his career-defining mugging as Frank Drebin in the ZAZ films but heightens the film’s absurdity & menace instead of undercutting them.  None of the dozens of disparate, disconnected performers in Cocaine Bear are given the same opportunity to play the scenario straight; they’re all tasked to repeatedly remind the audience it’s all just one big dumb joke with nothing more on its mind than the novelty of its title.

Director William Girdler knows a thing or two about bear attack movies, since his Jaws rip-off Grizzly is pretty much the standard bearer of the genre.  There is indeed a real bear onscreen here, one who wrestles Nielsen’s macho brute to death once he’s exhausted all the possible ways he could be cruel to his fellow human beings (presumably because the hole in the ozone layer has also triggered his own worst animal instincts).  There’s some humor in the dated staging of this attack, which includes shots of Nielsen aggressively hugging a stunt actor in a bear costume, but there’s also just enough legitimate bear-on-human contact to make it genuinely tense.  In general, there’s something unnerving about the way Girdler’s crazed animals appear to leap out of his nature footage inserts, as if they’re crossing a forbidden barrier into reality to tear into the character actors (and, more often, their stunt doubles).  I’ve never been kept so on edge by Ed Woodian stock footage reels, since they’re usually so disconnected from the physical action of the main narrative.  So, yes, there are some laughably dated visual effects shots in Day of the Animals—most notably a moment of green screen surrealism as one archetypal character actor plummets off a cliff to her death while being pecked at by birds—but its mixed media approach includes enough frames of living, breathing animals sharing the screen with their actor & stunt double victims that the movie feels legitimately dangerous in a way that modern CGI never could.

No offense to Girdler, who between Grizzly and the blacksploitation Exorcist riff Abby has enough cult movie street cred on his own to dodge the comparison, but it’s incredible that Day of the Animals wasn’t directed by Larry Cohen.  Its mix of scrappy practical effects, dangerous on-set stunts, and a premise so gimmicky it’s near-psychedelic (especially in the early shots of menacing sunbeams piercing the ozone layer to torment the animals below) are all worthy of Cohen’s most unhinged classics, which I mean as a high compliment. All that’s missing from the Cohen formula, really, is a bizarrely inhuman performance from Michael Moriarty, a role that Nielsen fills ably.  If there’s anything that Day of the Animals might’ve benefited borrowing from Cocaine Bear, it might’ve been useful to smuggle some of its titular cocaine into the editing room. There’s an unrushed, stoney-baloney pacing to Day of the Animals that would’ve been much zanier & more streamlined just a few years later, if were made in the era when Elizabeth Banks’s film was set.  Otherwise, the superiority in quality flows in the exact opposite direction, with Day of the Animals exemplifying everything Cocaine Bear could have been at its best: brutal, bonkers, ballsy, blessed.  It is the genuine pop art novelty that Cocaine Bear attempts to reverse-engineer and, thus, is the far superior work.  Then again, I was the only member of the audience not laughing at all of Cocaine Bear‘s ironic, postmodern gags & gore, so what do I know?

-Brandon Ledet

Project Wolf Hunting (2023)

Often, when movie buffs say “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” they’re lamenting the loss of movie-star vehicles, serious dramas for adults, or mainstream movies that include any visual depiction of sex.  The “They don’t make ’em like they used to” complaint could extend to much trashier tropes & genres that have disappeared from American multiplexes in the past few decades, though, and it occurred to me while watching the Korean gore fest Project Wolf Hunting.  There is no time in history when a major American studio would have produced a film as grotesquely violent as Project Wolf Hunting for wide theatrical release, but it still plays like a nostalgic throwback to the blockbuster days of 1990s Hollywood.  Specifically, it’s a revival of the preposterous prison thrillers of that era, titles like Con Air, The Rock, Death Warrant, Ricochet, and Alien³.  Back when movies used to be led by action stars instead of IP brands, there was a wave of grimy, idiotic thrillers set in futuristic superprisons, which repentant or wrongfully convicted dirtbags played by Jean Claude Van Damme or Nicolas Cage would have to escape via brute lone-wolf strength & communal riots.  Project Wolf Hunting wistfully calls back to that era in its chaotic “story” of prisoner cargo ship mutiny, but it also triples down on the genre’s hyperviolence with tons more blood & viscera than all its previous titles combined.  Tons.  It’s an exciting change until it’s a numbing one, and by the end I would have much rather returned to the dinky charm of its Bruckheimer Era predecessors than spend another minute slipping around in its red-dyed corn syrup slop.  They just don’t make over-the-top prison thrillers like they used to, and apparently they never will again.

It appears that even the team behind Project Wolf Hunting knows that the nonstop hyperviolence of its cargo ship prison break can be numbingly monotonous, since it only plays the scenario straight for its opening hour.  The premise starts simple enough, with a ludicrous prisoner-exchange transport returning all of Korea’s cruelest, most dangerous criminals from their Philippines hiding place for trial & punishment via one lone, vulnerable cargo ship.  Of course, their criminal buddies on the outside seize the opportunity to start a jail-break riot on the ship, and most of the first hour is nonstop slaughter of cops & prison guards at the receiving end of bullets & blades.  Just as the movie’s threatening to tire itself out halfway into its runtime, the prisoners accidentally free a new flavor of violent threat they didn’t know was being transported in tandem: a Frankensteined supersoldier that has been kept “alive” via sci-fi superdrugs since Japanese experiments in World War II.  The zombie monster among them has stapled-shut eyes, a mouth full of maggots, and a bottomless appetite for “extreme & indiscriminate violence.”  He’s an impossible intrusion into what starts as a fairly pedestrian prison break thriller, so you’d think he’d change the film’s rhythms & trajectory in an exciting way.  Not really.  All the invincible Frankenmonster really does as a late addition to the party is allow the bloodbath to continue after practically all the cops have been destroyed, giving the prisoners a single target to focus their fists, knives, and bullets on, now to their own peril.  The practical gore and close-quarters combat is impressively staged throughout, with all victims & villains spraying the supercharged blood geysers familiar to vintage martial arts films like Lady Snowblood (and their modern homages like Kill Bill).  Whether they’re impressive enough to justify two consecutive hours of “extreme & indiscriminate violence” is up for debate.

The #1 thing that would’ve made me more enthusiastic about Project Wolf Hunting is if it were made when I was still a teenage gore hound.  The #2 thing is if it had a more charismatic action-hero lead.  This is the kind of large ensemble-cast action thriller where the main objective is to pack the cargo ship with as many high-pressure blood bags as possible without bothering to assign any one of them much of a distinctive personality.  The range between the most sensitive, pensive criminal on the ship and the scariest, most violent one is pretty wide, and no one really matters between those two extremes outside the brutal novelty of their individual kill scenes.  Because they’re all professional scumbags & sociopaths, they don’t even have much motivation to distinguish personalities amongst each other.  In the aggro parlance of the film, everyone is either an “asshole”, a “bastard,” a “motherfucker”, or a “piece of shit” – all unified in their collective need to “shut the fuck up.”  I always find that kind of shouted-expletive dialogue to be the telltale sign of a weak screenplay, but I also don’t know how much that matters in this particular instance.  Project Wolf Hunting‘s greatest assets are its value as a revival of the preposterous prison thriller genre and its eagerness to overwhelm the audience with bone-crunching gore.  As someone with a baseline affection for any monster movie with a high-concept gimmick premise, I’m willing to overlook a lot of its narrative shortcomings to enjoy its practical-effects violence.  It’s a pretty good movie in that context.  All it really needed to be a great one was a charismatic action star to help anchor the audience amidst the sprawling mayhem.  Unfortunately, they don’t really make those anymore.

-Brandon Ledet

Calvaire (2004)

I don’t have much affection for the wave of gruesome American horror films about torture that crowded multiplexes in the 2000s, but as soon as you slap the French language on their soundtracks I’m totally onboard.  Part of that might have to do with the assumed sophistication of European cinema vs the horror-of-the-week disposability of Hollywood schlock.  There honestly isn’t that much difference in the tone or staging of the ritualistic torture scenes of Martyrs and their Saw & Hostel equivalents.  Naive, juvenile pretensions aside, however, I do find the grim cruelty of the so-called New French Extremity more thematically thoughtful & purposeful than what I remember of American horror’s torture porn era.  A lot of our critical understanding of torture porn—mainly that it was an expression of guilt over post-9/11 War on Terror interrogation tactics—was assigned after the fact by film scholars searching for meaning in the abject, fluorescent-lit cruelty of the moment.  With the French-language New Extremity films, the political themes tend to be more up-front and recognizable in the text, which makes the excruciating ordeal of suffering through them more immediately worthwhile.  Which is why I jumped at the chance to see The Ordeal (original title: Calvaire) in its newly remastered & rereleased form on the big screen, ducking out of a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch hyperviolent torture scenes in the darkness.  It felt like I was venturing out of the house to participate in some high-minded cultural activity, like going to the ballet or the opera, when in truth I was just watching a Hostel prequel dubbed in French.

In retrospect, it’s amusing that Calvaire felt like a major New French Extremity blind spot, given that it has a muddy & muted reputation among critics and that its production was technically Belgian.  Since a few French-Canadian titles have also snuck into the loosely defined genre, I suppose that latter distinction doesn’t matter much.  As for the former, I do think Calvaire‘s quality speaks well to the superiority of Euro torture horrors over their American counterparts in the aughts, and this modern 2K remaster will likely boost its general reputation among the New Extremity’s best: Inside, Trouble Every Day, Martyrs, etc.  At the very least, I braced myself for it to be far more needlessly vicious than it was, given the wider genre’s fetish for grisly details.  Calvaire does a good job of implying instead of dwelling and, more importantly, of cutting its unbearable tension with gallows humor so it’s not all misery & pain.  Part of my amusement might have been enhanced by the two main characters being assigned names I associate with comedy: Marc Stevens (who shares a name with John Early’s grifter villain on Los Espookys) and Paul Bartel (who shares a name with one of the greatest comedic directors to ever do it).  Regardless, director Fabrice du Welz also amuses himself by framing this grim & grueling torture session as “the best Christmas ever” in its sicko villain’s mind, contrasting the hyperviolent hostage crisis the audience is watching with the delusional family reunion of his imagination in a bleakly hilarious clash of realities.  I don’t mean to imply that Calvaire‘s not also a nonstop misery parade, though.  It’s that too.

If I’m justifying my affection for Euro torture horrors by emphasizing their sense of thematic purpose, I suppose I should be discussing Calvaire as a horror of gender.  The aforementioned Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a traveling pop singer who performs kitschy love songs in a magician’s cape to the adoring women of small, rural villages.  The women throw themselves at his feet as if he were the most glamorous hunk in the world, not a struggling musician who lives in his van.  When he rejects them, they beat themselves up as “sluts” & “whores,” immediately shame-spiraling into self-laceration for being so desperate for affection.  While traveling to his next gig, Stevens’s van breaks down near an empty, isolated inn run by Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who is a little too overjoyed to have Stevens’s company for the upcoming Christmas holiday.  At first, Bartel’s instant affection for Stevens appears to be a reminder of his own glory days as a traveling performer – a hack stand-up comedian with little in common with the pop singer.  However, once you realize that Bartel’s wife has long abandoned him at the inn and he still keeps her remaining wardrobe around as an altar to her memory, that affection takes on a much more sinister tone.  Naturally, Bartel holds the younger, handsomer Stevens hostage as a replacement for his wife, swerving the film into a forced-feminization nightmare scenario that could not be eroticized by even the most desperate of fetishists in the audience.  The women in Stevens’s audience react to his rejection by punishing themselves.  Bartel reacts by violently lashing out, and it turns out he’s not the only man in his small, brutish village who’s been awaiting the “return” of “Gloria.”

Categorizing Calvaire as an example of the New French Extremity (or the New Belgian Extremity or the New Euro Extremity or whatever) is more of a useful marketing tool than it is a valid critical distinction.  There were many films being made all over the globe—including from, notably, America, Australia, and Serbia—at the time that similarly fixated on the physical torment & destruction of the human body for a wide range of varied cultural reasons.  Its place in the horror canon expands even wider from there once you set aside the era when it was made.  Du Welz stirs great tension in his audience through the pattern recognition of knowing where his story’s going as soon as you see Gloria’s abandoned wardrobe, as long as you’re familiar with the earlier grindhouse era of extreme-horror filmmaking in titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and The Hills Have Eyes.  Still, grouping Calvaire in with the New Extremity “movement” is ultimately beneficial to its cultural longevity, as it’s not well known or even well liked enough to have survived the past couple decades without some kind of contextual anchor to distinguish it in the wider horror canon.  And I do think it’s well worth preserving.  It certainly lives up to the “extremity” promised in its assigned subgenre, provoking the audience with the pained screeches of farm animals and brief images of male-on-male rape.  It doesn’t linger on that pain longer than necessary to get its point across, though, and du Welz’s dizzying camerawork as a first-time showoff director aims more to disorient than it aims to dwell.  The torture is excruciating to watch, but it’s not the only thing on the movie’s mind.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so charitable to Calvaire if it were a mainstream American film made in the same era.  Maybe I’m assigning more meaning & thoughtfulness to its nightmare pageantry of forced gender performance and its distinctly masculine violence than the movie deserves.  All I can report that is that in the pub scene where the macho-brute villagers take a break from scowling at each other to dance as make-believe romantic partners, I laughed.  When Paul Bartel declares his “family reunion” with the new “Gloria” to be “the best Christmas ever,” I laughed again.  The hallmarks of its era in Extreme Horror are incredibly effective in creating tension, so a little humor goes a long way in providing some much-needed relief, no matter how bleak.  It also helps tremendously that the film is clearly about something other than the mechanics of the torture itself, something that doesn’t need to be ascribed by academics years after the fact. 

-Brandon Ledet

A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018)

I have a huge soft spot for archival preservation of disposable internet ephemera.  Even from just running this blog, I’m constantly reminded how vulnerable online content is to digital rot, with most of our posts from over a year ago featuring dead links to nonexistent YouTube clips that used to bolster & illustrate our lukewarm film takes. Internet culture documentaries like The Road Movie (which archives Russian dashcam footage), Wrinkles the Clown (which chronicles the online hoax of real-world horror clown sightings) and We Met in Virtual Reality (which documents a community of VR enthusiasts navigating the early stages of the pandemic) aren’t widely beloved or even respected, but they are loved by me, and I believe their cultural value will only increase the further we get away from their subjects.  We spend a lot of our time online interacting with temporary, disposable imagery that will be lost to time without active, academic preservation of the user-interface hellscape we’ve trapped ourselves in. It’s a shame that most cinema is too timid to do that work, mostly out of fear of appearing cheap or dated.  This kind of serious, thoughtful archival work was especially hard to come by back in 2017, when I positively reviewed the HBO Doc Beware the Slenderman even while noting that it devolves into true crime exploitation and “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” fearmongering.  It turns out I should have just waited a year to see the definitive Slenderman documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, directed by Jane Schoenbrun before developing their breakout indie hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.  Comprised entirely of 2009-2018 YouTube clips, Schoenbrun’s document of the Slenderman creepypasta phenomenon is such a comprehensive, insightful record of its ephemeral online subject that it even includes criticism of & fallout from the exploitative HBO documentary that was released to a much wider audience & higher praise a year earlier.  It’s undeniably great that Schoenbrun has been able to graduate from D.I.Y. bedroom art to professional productions in the years since, but A Self-Induced Hallucination is not just background prep work for World’s Fair.  It’s a significant work in its own right, especially as an internet culture time capsule from one of the darkest moments in the history of memes.

YouTube is a brilliant catch-all for chronicling the full history of the Slenderman tragedy, which played out on much less cinematic (and only slightly more toxic) platforms like Something Awful, 4Chan, and Reddit before it was regurgitated as viral video content.  In the earliest stirrings of Slenderman creepypasta memery, a loose collection of juvenile “experts” explain to their small audience of YouTube subscribers exactly how & where the Slenderman legend spread online, and how you can tell that the “evidence” presented on the originating forums were fake (or real, depending on the poster’s perspective).  The meme evolves from that Slenderman 101 crash course to include Slenderman short films, Slenderman novelty raps, and Slenderman confessionals from World’s Fair-style loners desperate for online community.  There isn’t much to the tall, faceless, suited figure in either iconography or lore, which makes him the perfect blank screen for users to project meaning onto.  Of course, that memetic potency eventually proved deadly when two 12-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a friend at the supposed command of the Slenderman.  That’s when Schoenbrun’s archival work gets really interesting, pushing beyond the rundown of basic creepypasta mechanics that you’ll find in Wrinkles the Clown & Beware the Slenderman to examine how real-life tragedy is digested into entertainment #content, both online and in traditional media outlets.  On the amateur level, YouTube creators casually discuss & dissect the details of the stabbing case while playing Minecraft and 1st-person shooter games.  Meanwhile, professional media turns the Slenderman stabbing into vapid news chatter and then, worse yet, fictional fodder for the aforementioned Beware the Slenderman documentary, an official Slender Man horror film, and a legally shaky “inspired by” Lifetime movie of the week: Terror in the Woods.  We catch glimpses of these Slenderman-branded true-crime cash-ins through Fan Reaction Videos to their various trailers and through YouTuber interviews with young actors making their PR rounds.  A Self-Induced Hallucination documents the full metamorphosis cycle of amateur content to real-world tragedy to professional product back to amateur content again that the Slenderman creepypasta uniquely traveled, only commenting on the phenomenon through the sequence of its presentation.

There’s something wryly funny about Schoenbreun’s editing style here, which simulates what it would be like if the Everything is Terrible! team remade Unfriended entirely through amateur YouTube clips (the same way they “remade” Holy Mountain with pet videos in Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!). Its opening credits’ presentation as real-time screen capture of a word processor document, its full-spectrum omnibus of the embarrassing shades of YouTube Voice, and the throwback CG news recaps from TomoNews are all amusingly absurd, even if only in fits.  Mostly, though, A Self-Induced Hallucination is just deeply eerie & sad in the exact way that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair eventually proved to be.  If the heartbreaking isolation and vulnerability of the literal children posting about their personal experiences with Slenderman doesn’t hit you by the time one of those children are stabbed by their schoolmates, it’s certain to sink it during the end credits, where each featured video is listed alongside their view counts as of the film’s final edit in 2018 – typically millions of views for professional content like Sony Pictures’ Slender Man horror trailer and dozens of views for amateur users’ bedroom broadcasts into the online abyss.  As someone who regularly posts sincere diaries of my day-to-day Movie Thoughts for a near-nonexistent audience, I’m highly sensitive to that embarrassment & loneliness.  I assume Schoenbrun is too, or at least they were at the time of assembling this completionist’s archive of Slenderman lore & cultural fallout.  This is clearly the work of someone who’s submerged in online culture.  It’s both heartwarming to see that disposable culture taken seriously as its own cinematic texture and devastating to see how destructive & isolating it can be to users with no other outlet for social interaction.  There’s no doubt this earlier text deepens & enriches what Schoenbrun would later achieve in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, but in a lot of ways it’s a purer, more streamlined version of the same story, one that clearly deserves to be engaged with as substantial art regardless of its connections to its dramatic sister film.

-Brandon Ledet

Altered Docs

My happy place is the Altered Innocence logo card.  When I close my eyes, I’m often transported to that James Bidgoodian terrarium, which is just as often tacked to the front of the best films on the modern media landscape.  Not everything the high-style, queer distributor releases can be as transcendent as all-star titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, Arrebato, and Equation to an Unknown, though.  Like all small-operation film labels, they’re also in the business of releasing minor, low-budget festival acquisitions that would otherwise drift into the great distribution abyss.  And if you’ve ever been to a film festival, you know that distro model is going to include a lot of documentaries – a medium that’s cheap to produce but difficult to market.  I’ve run across a couple Altered Innocence documentaries before on both ends of that distribution path: I caught their couture culture documentary House of Cardin at New Orleans French Film Fest before it was certain to land proper distro, and I sought out the personal coming-out essay film Madame because it already had the Altered Innocence stamp of approval.  I love Altered Innocence most for its proud, consistent platforming of arthouse weirdos Yann Gonzalez & Bertrand Mandico, but I also respect that their stated mission to release “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” extends to smaller, no-name directors whose work would otherwise screen once at venues like Outfest, then fade into oblivion.  In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two recent queer-culture documentaries distributed by Altered Innocence that might not have as flashy of a premise as phantasmagorical fiction titles like After Blue: Dirty Paradise (a sci-fi acid Western in which a lesbian orgy planet cowers in fear of a demonic assassin named Kate Bush) but still deserve wide attention & distribution anyway.

The more innocuous title of this pair is 2019’s Queer Japan, a densely packed, low-budget documentary about contemporary queer culture in—you guessed it—Japan.  I’m calling it innocuous because it’s relatively soft in its political advocacy, over-explaining basic concepts that are common to most queer subcultures regardless of region.  It argues that drag is art, bisexuality is real, and lesbian spaces are too often trans-exclusionary, all while scrolling through a never-ending glossary of basic terms in onscreen text & Instagram graphics.  It’s somewhat illuminating as an update to the semi-fictional, half-century-old street interviews in Funeral Parade of Roses but, overall, the film’s queer politics are largely understated & unspecific.  Thankfully, its region-specific details are much more prominent in the “artistic edge” Altered Innocence seeks to platform.  At its best, Queer Japan is an extensive catalog of beautiful queer visual artists, ranging from avant garde drag performers to gay manga illustrators to high-fashion latex & puppy play fetishists.  It also doubles as a tourist roadmap to popular queer nightclubs & pride events in its titular country, which I suppose might be of use to travelers using the doc as a quick crash-course primer.  There’s a wide enough range of vibrant pop art footage that it’s instantly clear why director Graham Kobeins decided they had enough raw material to justify a feature length documentary here; it must’ve been daunting to edit.  If anything, though, that overabundance of subject material is almost too wide of a scope for one documentary.   I would have been a lot more enthusiastic about it as a whole if it dropped its onscreen dictionary of political terms and instead focused entirely on profiling queer Japanese artists in particular, since that’s where its heart appeared to be.

By contrast, the 2017 punk scene documentary Queer Core: How to Punk a Revolution did pull off the trick of tackling both queer art & queer politics without overextending itself.  A talking-heads nostalgia trip into the queer zine culture of punk’s hardcore & riot grrrl eras, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film in terms of form, but its revolutionary content more than makes up for it.  It has plenty furious things to say about assimilation politics that continue to resonate beyond its vintage punk scene infighting & self-mythology, loudly decrying assimilation a “death trap”.  It also has a stylistic upper hand over Queer Japan in its archival footage’s vintage zine aesthetics, cobbling together a loose art scene between such disparate artists as Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Bikini Kill (citing earlier provocateurs like Quentin Crisp, John Waters, and William S. Burroughs as their queer elders).  Somehow, though, its political advocacy comes across as much sharper & more specific than its corollary in Queer Japan.  It throws punches at supposed counterculture movements like hippies & punks for continuing the retrograde sexual politics of their Right Wing enemies, pointing out “punk”‘s origins as an explicitly queer term and pushing back against the macho hardcore scene & AIDS paranoia of the Reagan Era.  As soon as Queer Core opens with a cumshot title card, its goal to make straight-boy punks uncomfortable is loud & clear, and all of its hagiographic interviews of queercore, homocore, and riot grrrl artists are filtered through that viscus lens.  Director Yony Leyser’s only real misstep is an early narration track that’s quickly dropped to instead let the subjects speak for themselves, since they’re all loudly, politically opinionated enough to carry the movie on their own.  The art cataloged in Queer Japan is on par with the art cataloged in Queer Core, but only one movie makes great use of the political meaning behind its creation.

You don’t have to be a physical media collector to access these titles.  Queer Japan is currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy, and Queer Core is streaming for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi.  As strongly as I preferred Queer Core out of the two, they’re both worth your time if you have any interest in their respective subjects.  I’d even extend that to say that I’ve yet to see an Altered Innocence release that isn’t worth your time.  They’re the best distributor of “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” that I can name, give or take a Strand Releasing.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Delirious (1991)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the John Candy meta comedy Delirious (1991), in which a concussed soap opera writer finds himself stuck inside his own show, which he can manipulate minute-to-minute via typewriter.

00:00 Welcome

04:55 Spellbound (1945)
09:50 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
13:25 Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
17:43 The Ladykillers (2004)
21:26 Cocaine Bear (2023)
30:30 The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
36:40 Calvaire (2004)
41:55 Project Wolf Hunting (2023)
44:27 The Outwaters (2023)

51:17 Delirious (1991)

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)

“There’s always room to grow” is one of the arc phrases in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The words first appear at the end of the opening narration for the film, which is also revealed to be the closing thought of the book that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has written about his experiences; they reappear close to the end, when Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) confirms that he read the book by repeating those words back to Scott when he needs to hear them. Unfortunately, when it comes to linking this film series with the concept of growth, I fear that, in my case, I may have outgrown it. In just a few short months, it will be 8 years that I’ve been writing for Swampflix, and as I reminded everyone in my review of Ant-Man and the Wasp, the first review that I ever wrote for the site was of the first Ant-Man, lo these many moons ago. There are many things that are fitting: that my 200th review on the site should also be about an Ant-Man flick, and that the returns on this series, like its hero, keep diminishing. 

(By the way, if that 200 seems low, it’s because it doesn’t include the 66 podcasts, 75 Movies of the Month, 13 “issues” of Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., countless lists, occasional rebuttals, and various other sundry tidbits. One time I even recounted a Q&A with Richard Kelly at a screening of Southland Tales without mentioning the fact that I had to explain to a server at the Drafthouse that I wanted to order food but wanted to wait until after the lights went down because I didn’t want Kelly to see me eat. I am a neurotic, but even I have my limits about how much of myself I’ll reveal in these writings, at least until my own self-imposed statute of limitations runs out. Longtime readers are no doubt shocked and horrified to realize that my content over these past 8 years has actually been me reining it in.) 

I almost didn’t see this one in the theater. But just like fascism, MoviePass is back, and I got activated mid-month so I had a few credits left after seeing Cocaine Bear (it’s on a credits system now, it’s a whole thing); still, I thought I would go out, hit the drive-through car wash because it’s been a while, then drive over to the local art theatre, check in for something that was playing tonight and then walk up to the box office and buy a ticket for a future showing (they’re screening La règle du jeu this week!). Maybe it was the way that the flashing lights and the spinning brushes of the car wash made me think about that Scorsese quote about how Marvel movies are just theme park rides and it triggered something deep in the lizard parts of my brain; maybe the psychedelic, bubble gum-scented lather was sufficiently like the quantum realm (lol) to activate me like a sleeper agent who’s been programmed by unskippable ads. I don’t know exactly what happened, but somehow, in spite of myself, I found myself at the mainstream multiplex with a chili cheese hot dog on a stale bun and a blue high fructose corn syrup slush staring up at Paul Rudd’s face in 3-D because I didn’t realize that was happening until the cashier handed me the glasses and it was too late to turn back. 

Anyway, it’s been a minute since Scott and his partner Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, who sucks) helped save the world back in Avengers: Endgame. For all intents and purposes, Scott is a celebrity, being recognized on the street and getting free coffee, not to mention being formally awarded “Employee of the Century” at the Baskin Robbins from which he was fired in the first film when his background check flagged him as an ex-con. Hope, who is barely in this movie for someone whose nom de guerre is in the title, has retaken control of her father’s company and is using its resources to assist in post-Snap recovery efforts. Hank and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) are retired or whatever, and if you’re wondering what’s happening with Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), or Dave (T.I.), you’re just gonna have to write your own fan-fiction for that, my friend, because this movie doesn’t feature or even mention them. Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) exists solely as an offscreen presence who isn’t even mentioned by name and is referred to solely as “your mom” and “mom” by Scott and his daughter, respectively. Said daughter, Cassie, has been recast with Kathryn Newton, and she’s also been doing some offscreen work following in both her father and her presumed step-mother’s footsteps: getting into trouble with the law like Scott, and working on some quantum realm gobbledygook like Hope. With the whole Ant family gathered, Cassie turns on her thingamabob and explains that it works by sending a signal down into the quantum realm—henceforth QR—prompting Janet to freak out and tell her to turn it off, but the damage is already done, and all five of them, plus some hyperintelligent ants that Hank has been working on, get sucked into the QR for the duration of the movie. 

The first act of this movie is interminable. There’s somehow both far too little and far too much exposition, and right from the start there’s something that’s off. We all love Paul Rudd, but in the other films, he had a larger, funnier supporting cast, and the comedy didn’t rely on Rudd alone, since he frequently got to play off of his old heist crew and their various idiosyncrasies, Maggie and her new husband and the dynamic of that whole situation, and others. Here, everyone is dreadfully and deathly serious all the time: Hope and Scott are apart for so much of this movie that they barely interact, Michelle Pfeiffer is doing some real heavy lifting with a character that apparently wasn’t written to crack a smile ever, Cassie’s a teenager now and the adorable dynamic of yesteryear is morphed into something more obvious and dull, and Kang (Jonathan Majors) has such an air of unrelenting arch sovereignty that he never exchanges even one quip with Scott. There are some minor comic relief characters, including a single scene of Bill Murray as Lord Krylar, but it’s just Murray doing his post-Lost in Translation schtick, which you either love or find exhausting, and it all feels very gratuitous. William Jackson Harper is here but gets a single one-liner in the climax, and he feels wasted in a thankless role. Elsewhere in the QR, there are a gaggle of assorted oddballs and weird creatures, one of whom looks like a cross between a throwable book fair sticky alien and one of those plastic models of your intestines that are always sitting in the examination room at the doctor’s office; there’s a neat effect where there’s a rippling in its membrane where a mouth would be when it talks that impressed me, and the character itself is a thing that creates ooze that acts as a translation which is inherently funny, and they’re also very curious about what it’s like to be a living thing with orifices. It’s the most inspired thing in this movie, and even though the bit gets a little tired before the film ends, it’s worth noting that there are some attempts to carry on with the comedic tone that we’ve come to expect of the man who befriends ants. 

The middle of this movie is better in some places, and the film starts to pick up at around the halfway mark. Watching Pfeiffer’s Janet constantly ignore her family’s desperate pleas for an explanation of what’s happening around them while she just goes about her business reminded me of that scene in the Simpsons episode “Lemon of Troy” when Nelson tells the other kids that “there’s no time to explain” and then spends quite some time reiterating that statement as they make their way across town. There’s no character reason why she would have kept the truth about her time in the QR a secret from both her husband and her daughter, and then when they end up in the QR, they cross vast distances in which she would and should have had plenty of time to explain what’s happening. At one point, she does an entire charades routine to open the door to a bar, and we watch the whole thing happen while Hank and Hope beg her to explain, and we feel the same way. There’s a line between doling out information slowly to keep the audience engaged and frustrating the audience by having characters refuse to communicate with no reason to do so. It’s not even a fine line, and Quantumania spends a lot of time on the wrong side of it. Once we get the powerpoint presentation of exposition about how Kang and Janet found each other and tried to work together, then she realized he was a monster bent on domination like Thanos but again and more because there’s a multiverse now, so she sabotaged his ability to get out of the QR and thus confined his supervillainy to one place, yadda yadda yadda, the film picks up the pace. After nearly an hour of being annoyed at the transparent attempt to build drama, it’s a welcome relief when we can move on with the plot. 

Beside the lack of a chorus of characters whom the audience knows to banter with Scott, and the utter absence of anything resembling a heist, there’s something just as vital missing here: the juxtaposition of big worlds and tiny people. That’s what I love! That’s what gets the imagination going! You gotta see kids eating a giant Oreo like in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or chess pieces used as objet d’art as in The Borrowers, and we got that in both of the previous movies, whether it was a giant Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser bouncing down the highway or a cutaway from an epic (but tiny) battle to remind the viewer that the oncoming train is just a toy of Thomas the Tank Engine. The closest we get is a scene in which Hank uses Pym particles to make a pizza bigger, which is cute but doesn’t make much of an impression. One action sequence in particular, set at night and in a “desert,” is so muddy that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening, and it can’t all be blamed on the 3D conversion. The other big sequences call to mind Star Wars, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The attack on Kang’s fortress at the end is inspired by a not-particularly-inspiring speech from Cassie about not lying down and taking it anymore, but the entire tableaux (there’s an awful lot of French in this review, isn’t there?) looks like it was designed at the behest of the studio so that they could have a platformer level in the tie-in LucasArts release. It’s aping Star Wars in a not-very-interesting way but with a budget that’s sky high, so that instead of feeling like a fun, modern superhero story, it feels like a really high budget remake of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone after wandering around in Valerian-by-way-of-Annihilation for half an hour. While watching the climax, all I could think about was that horseback attack on the hull of a spacecraft from Rise of Skywalker — again, not a compliment. 

All of that being said, I was very pleased when the movie remembered that one of the other cornerstones of Ant-Man is, well, the ants. The movie won me back over a little bit when the ants who got sucked into the QR returned. They reappear in the wake of a big “the cavalry’s here” moment that doesn’t feel earned and is completely underwhelming as a result, but I can’t lie, I love those big ants. Ants! Ants! Everything else that gave these movies a different personality from the other Marvel fare may be jettisoned, but at least we got the ants making it possible to save the day, and I was helpless to that particular bizarre charm. Not enough to turn my opinion all the way around, but it bears mentioning. 

It’s been a long road, getting from there to here. It’s been a long time since I’ve really been able to muster up any interest in a Marvel release, and even though I went to this one as if in a trance, it was still because I had some interest (ants!), and I’m just not sure I have that in me anymore. But don’t worry about me, dear reader. Marvel may have gone to the well too many times, but I’m still just getting started, and you’re not rid of me yet. Now on to the next 200.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Cocaine Bear (2023)

I’m not sure how I didn’t recognize from promotional materials that Scott Seiss, best known online for his character of a retail employee who responds to F.A.C.s (that’s an acronym I just made up for “Frequent Asshole Comments”) the way that every retail employee wishes that they could, was the male paramedic in Cocaine Bear. He’s in pretty much every trailer! Further, I have no idea how I still didn’t put that together after seeing this video, in which he hypes Cocaine Bear in the same manner, noting that you don’t have to have done homework before seeing the movie and that there won’t be a dozen thinkpieces exploring the possible meanings behind the film’s ending. There’s no long-beloved intellectual property of which this is an adaptation (unless you count the actual 1985 events which very loosely inspired the plot), no secret clues about who’s going to be the villain in the next MCU feature, nothing to inspire a MatPat Film Theory video. Cocaine Bear is just a comedy-horror-thriller about a bear who does cocaine, and the people who find themselves caught in its freakout. And it’s a delight. 

Multiple story threads find themselves woven together from their disparate origins in the opening act of the film, as disparate parties are drawn together to Blood Mountain, a Georgia peak located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. After a drug drop goes south due to the delivery man bashing his skull on an airplane bulkhead while attempting to exit and parachute, a number of interested people become invested in trying to find the drugs that are missing on the mountain, as well as the law enforcement in pursuit of the traffickers. Kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his lieutenant Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to the national park to find and recover the duffel bags, and tells him to bring along Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Syd’s son who left the family business at the urging of his recently deceased wife Joanie, which the sociopathic Syd thinks means that his boy will be ready to get back into the trade. In Tennessee where the dead parachuter’s body has landed, Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire) leaves his new dog with Deputy Reba (Ayoola Smart) as he travels across state lines and out of his jurisdiction in pursuit of Syd, who he’s been chasing for years. Local middle schooler Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school so that she can paint a picture of the park’s Secret Falls, an outing she was supposed to take with her mother Sari (Keri Russell) but which has been postponed due to Sari’s boyfriend inviting the two of them to Nashville for the weekend instead. At the park itself, Ranger Liz (character actress Margo Martindale) is preparing for a park inspection by Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), on whom she has a crush. And, of course, deep in the woods, there’s a mama bear who’s developing a taste for nose candy. 

As I was leaving the auditorium after the screening, a woman behind me declared, “Well, that sucked.” My viewing companion was also less than enthused on our drive away from the theater, although he was bemused by my passionate defense of the film. I’ve seen and heard criticism of the story, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the film’s composition an elegant puzzle box, it was very fun and moved at a great pace; I was never bored, and there was never a prolonged period of time between laughs. Not every joke landed for everyone in the audience, but there were some jokes that didn’t provoke a laugh from me while others produced a laugh only from me, and that’s a good balance for a comedy to strike. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that some of the punchlines that didn’t land this time will land the next time, and I can say definitively that this is a comedy that I will watch again, which isn’t something that I say very often. I’ve long been a fan of campy, self-aware horror comedies, and long been opposed to movies that attempt to ape that specific genre and do it poorly; Cocaine Bear manages to walk that tightrope deftly, mostly by not calling attention to itself. 

I’ve lost count of how many movies and TV shows of the past decade attempted to cash in on nostalgia for the 1980s, but this film manages to capture the quintessence of movies from that era and combine it with the modern cinematic eye in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. With a 1985 setting, a lazier filmmaker would fill the soundtrack with songs from that year specifically and exclusively, but there’s greater verisimilitude in the text by including music that was recent and not just current. The film starts out with the Jefferson Starship track “Jane” (1979) and includes the 1984 track “The Warrior” by Scandal and featuring Patty Smyth, 1978’s “Too Hot ta Trot” by the Commodores, and even “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne (1982), which is plot-relevant in the scene in which it appears. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate it and the way that it evokes and inscribes its time period without worshipping it, like IT or Stranger Things. We’re not presented with an endless parade of 1980s pop culture or media—Remember Ghostbusters? Remember Nightmare on Elm Street? Remember G.I. Joe?—and, in fact, there’s very little reference to the media of the time at all. Outside of the use of actual contemporary media footage taken when Andrew Thornton landed, parachute undeployed, in an old man’s driveway and the appearance of a few of the era’s anti-drug PSAs, the only material reference to contemporary events comes in the form of the delivery of a new-and-improved Smokey the Bear stand-up to the ranger station. You’re not taken out of the reality of the moment because the period elements draw attention to themselves; you just exist there. There’s something that’s just so true about Keri Russell’s pink jumpsuit and the way that her purse strap has a big knot tied in it to shorten it; I don’t know what’s not to love. It’s grisly, fun, and campy, and I loved it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

The Broad Theater is currently screening a series of films programmed by Damien Echols, a formerly incarcerated member of the West Memphis Three (who were famously misconvicted of murder as teenagers at the tail end of the Satanic Panic era).  Echols kicked off the series with the early-aughts supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies, which he watched dozens of times while incarcerated, since it was among his wrongful prison’s severely limited media library.  It was Echols’s first time watching the film projected in a proper theater, and it was my first time watching it in any setting (besides catching out-of-context clips while flipping channels on broadcast TV).  Only one of us had a clear vision of what we were doing there.  Since his release from Death Row, Echols has pivoted into full-time promotion of ceremonial magick, a one-man religious crusade that has apparently expanded from books & blog posts to theatrical programming.  To him, The Mothman Prophecies is a spiritually significant work of populist art that uncovers some hidden truth about real-world magick, transcending the film’s more obvious commercial concerns.  In my jaded, agnostic eyes, it’s a well-made but largely unremarkable example of mainstream horror filmmaking in its era.  Seeing this anonymous PG-13 Studio Horror for the first time in such a reverent, religious context was (third) eye-opening, but less in the way it specifically reveals something about the mechanics of the universe than in the way Echols’s personal enthusiasm for it reveals the spiritual power of movies that happen to hit the right audiences at the right time.

There’s nothing specific to The Mothman Prophecies that you can’t find echoed elsewhere in mainstream cinema, so it’s tempting to discuss it entirely in terms of comparisons.  The most charitable comparison would be to call it The Sixth Sense meets The Empty Man, but given how generic it can feel from minute to minute, the more truthful one is Stir of Echoes meets The Bye Bye Man – those films’ Great Value equivalents.  Music video director Mark Pellington livens up the assembly line proceedings with some spooky excitement in the scene-to-scene transitions and titular Mothman visions, but his quick-edit visual style is so typical to 2000s studio filmmaking that his efforts just emphasize the movie’s overall anonymity.  There’s also something warmly nostalgic about its grand finale—a widespread disaster set piece in which a metal bridge collapses into the Ohio River—being staged through miniature modeling and other practical effects, since its modern equivalent would certainly be simulated in rushed-to-market CGI.  Even so, that says more about the time when it was made than it does about this movie specifically.  Every commendable detail of The Mothman Prophecies is a result of its effectiveness as an aughts era time capsule: its reliance on the star power of Hollywood hunk Richard Gere; its casual inclusion of tender sex scenes; its pre-torture porn tendencies towards subtlety, sincerity, and restraint.  The only context where the film should be cited as anything special is when padding out one of those “Christmas Movies That Aren’t Really Christmas Movies” lists that auto-populate every December to juice up the streaming numbers for Die Hard

That is, unless you’re Damien Echols, who has obviously found much deeper spiritual meaning in his record-setting repeat viewings of the film.  Echols explained that the characters’ visions of a winged “mothman” foretelling future disasters resonated with him as someone who has had similar visions of angels visiting his prison cell.  The Mothman figure is even described as an angel in his initial introduction, where illustrations of him are feverishly scribbled into a hospital patient’s bedside notebook in the exact art style you’d imagine in a mainstream horror of the era.  When Debra Messing is introduced as said hospital patient and—more significantly—Richard Gere’s wife, you instantly assume she will be fridged, because you have seen a movie before.  The Mothman Prophecies quickly obliges, freeing Gere to travel the country in search of the mythical Mothman who visited his wife in her final days.  Two years later, Gere inexplicably finds himself in small-town West Virginia while traveling elsewhere on assignment for his newspaper job, where he discovers that locals have been suffering the same Mothman phenomena that haunted Messing’s hospital room.  Even to the audience, the Mothman only appears as quick, hallucinatory visions, recalling Pellington’s music video background instead of a Roger Corman creature feature.  He’s more symbol than monster, and his appearance is merely an omen of impending natural & manmade disasters that Gere is helpless to prevent.  There’s a distinct terror in not knowing the whats, the whens, and the wheres of those disasters until it’s too late, and in having your vague Mothman-inspired warnings dismissed as lunatic rants, but that does little to compensate for how indistinct the film can feel elsewhere. 

Hearing Echols describe The Mothman Prophecies‘s accuracy to the magick of tuning in to the world beyond our material one was interesting, but I think it says more about how limited media access can add personal significance to all generic pop culture ephemera than it says about this movie in particular.  Practically every title that The Mothman Prophecies recalled to me in the moment—the supernatural visions of The Sixth Sense, the inescapable doom of Final Destination, the hallucinatory pavement lines of Lost Highway—were all released when Echols was incarcerated, making it unlikely that of all the movies in the world, those were the few he could’ve accessed in prison.  The other two selections in this ceremonial magick series at The Broad were produced after his release in 2011: the low-budget occultist horror A Dark Song and the ludicrous sci-fi novelty Lucy.  Since I’ve already seen those films, I believe my personal magick journey ends here.  In fact, I left early during Mothman‘s increasingly abstract, philosophical Q&A so I could catch the most convenient bus home.  Still, I appreciate the narrative progression that Echols has sketched out in this short program – from the initial inkling that there’s a world beyond this one in The Mothman Prophecies to the ritualistic magick practices of A Dark Song to the unlocked, all-powerful mental magick of Lucy.  In my mind, this series opener was the most unexpected, idiosyncratic choice of the three. It has endless competition that covers the same subject, so in a way it’s the most personal to the programmer behind it; there’s no other reason to single it out.  It was also just nice to see local goths out & about having a good time, as the audience appeared to be more fans of Echols’s brand of magick spiritualism than they were diehard Mothheads.  Others may have had a richer experience at that screening, but my biggest takeaway was that no one in the world is a bigger fan of The Mothman Prophecies than Damien Echols, since the circumstances of his fandom are so personally specific and the movie itself is so broadly generic.

-Brandon Ledet

The Outwaters (2023)

You’d think that after a half-decade of horror’s outer limits being defined by A24’s emphasis on atmosphere & metaphor, the genre would overcorrect by snapping back to surface-level cheap thrills, just for the sake of variety.  And I guess in some ways it has.  Recent breakout successes like M3GAN, Barbarian, Smile, and Malignant have signaled a wide audience appetite for high-concept gimmick premises with traditional jump-scare payoffs & haunted house decor.  At the same time, though, some of the buzziest horror titles in recent memory have dug their heels even further into arty atmospherics, carving out a new horror of patience & subliminals.  I’m thinking particularly of Skinamarink—which simulates childhood nightmares by applying eerie digital filters to public domain cartoons & shots of empty hallways—and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – which borrows heavily from online creepypasta lore & imagery without ever directly participating in the horror genre.  These are low-fi, low-budget works that distort the atmospheric horror aesthetic of recent years into D.I.Y. bedroom art, removing even more of the genre’s crowd-pleasing tropes & payoffs so that it feels entirely abstracted & unfamiliar.  And now the arrival of the found-footage cosmic horror The Outwaters makes that doubling-down feel like a legitimate trend.

For anyone curious to dip their toe into this (loosely defined) low-fi horror trend, The Outwaters may be the most accessible entry point.  It will test your patience just as much as its sister chiller Skinamarink, but it rewards that effort with a much more pronounced, traditional payoff.  It’s my personal favorite among these recent low-key creepouts, anyway, since I tend to prefer bloody catharsis over eerie atmospherics.  The Outwaters effectively splits the difference between horror’s current trends towards both moody abstraction & on-the-surface cheap thrills.  It starts as a low-key, mildly spooky drama about parental grief, but eventually ditches any tidy metaphorical readings for a lengthy, bloody, freewheeling freakout in the Mojave Desert.  As trippy as it can be in its Skinamarinkian disorientation, it’s anchored to a concise, recognizable premise that could neatly be categorized as The Blair Witch Project Part IV: Blair Witch Goes to Hanging Rock.  It strikes a nice balance between the slow-moving quiet of its bedroom art brethren and mainstream horror’s return to big, bold, bloody haunted house scares.  Maybe that makes it a less artistically daring film than World’s Fair or Skinamarink, but it also makes it a more overtly entertaining one.

I’m likely overselling the relative accessibility of The Outwaters here.  By design, the first 2/3rds of the runtime are kind of a monotonous bore.  The film is presented as the raw, unedited footage of three memory cards recovered in the desert, revealing the final days of four twentysomethings who went missing in 2017.  The switch between memory cards provides natural chapter breaks as the four friends leave their urban comfort zone to shoot a music video in the sun-bleached wasteland.  They reminisce about dead parents, wake up to deafening booms in the night sky, and become increasingly distracted from the art project they originally ventured to shoot.  Otherwise, though, there isn’t much in the way of horror on this road trip into the abyss – just good buds being buds.  Then we get to Card 3.  The Outwaters saves all of its go-for-broke haunted house freakouts for its final chapter, where it unleashes an axe-wielding maniac, intestinal snake monsters, genital gore, and enough cyclical time-loop mindfuckery to make Benson & Moorhead seem like timid cowards in comparison.  By the end of the third memory card, I was desperate to return to the aimless hangouts of the first hour.  The finale is a relentless, disorienting assault on the senses, and I loved every squirmy minute of it.

You can tell The Outwaters was made cheaply just by glancing at the credits, where Robbie Banfitch’s name repeats as writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and special effects artist.  The most encouraging thing about this recent crop of low-fi horror freakouts is how far & wide they’re being distributed. In decades past, they would’ve been left to rot at local film festivals & VHS swaps.  In that context, I greatly admire Banfitch’s attempts to offer his audience the same startling scare gags they’d find in much less artistically ambitious horror-of-the-week products from major studios.  The Cronenbergian flesh snakes who screech and lunge at the film’s small cast are some of the most disturbing onscreen monsters I’ve encountered in a while, regardless of budget level.  Meanwhile, Skinamarink has a more novel approach to D.I.Y. nightmare imagery, but its visual language is limited to recognizable, everyday objects: popcorn ceilings, vintage toys, cathode ray TVs, etc.  I still don’t think The Outwaters could be honestly marketed as an accessible, mainstream horror flick; most audiences will feel alienated by it.  It does reward your attention & patience a little more than its easiest comparison points, though; maybe even more so than the original Blair Witch.

-Brandon Ledet