– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
Back in 2018, Brandon reviewed A Touch of Zen, a wuxia epic about a warrior noble woman on the run from a corrupt government in Ming Dynasty China. In the review, he appreciates the badass female character and the goofy fun, but laments the film’s epic length and wonders whether all of the nature photography and expository sequences make the payoff of the battles worth it.
Unlike Brandon, I love a good epic. It’s not that I necessarily have the focus and attention span for them, and the fact that so many don’t have an intermission is ridiculous. (When viewing at home, I usually force one in.) But I love the way a long runtime gives the plot room to breathe and lets the audience get a peek at the world building. Movies like Seven Samurai and Solaris are masterpieces to me. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my cinematic comfort food. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, fast paced film. I am all about trash. (I do occasionally write for Swampflix after all.) It’s like comparing a 90 page novella with a 1000 page novel. If you like reading, they both have their time and place. A Touch of Zen is an epic and a masterpiece. Without the long run time, we’d never get to see the lush world of the film, which is something I really loved about it.
The atmosphere of A Touch of Zen is critical to the movie. It’s eye candy definitely—almost a travel brochure for China of the early 70’s—but it’s also part of the spirit and the plot of the film. This film isn’t just about a woman on the run finding zen; King Hu set out to translate the feel of zen within the film. He carefully controlled all the details, going so far as to build enormous and elaborate sets. At the beginning, the film takes place in the hometown of the main character Gu Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun). The town is small and sparsely populated, a remote place with an abandoned, rumored to be haunted, military barracks in the middle. This setting is misty and dark and unclear, which is to the advantage of the characters later on. It rains frequently. This early setting is the pre-zen world for our heroine, Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng). It lacks clarity. It’s literally bogged down. The abandoned and derelict surroundings are shrouded by weeds and overgrown grasses, littered with the remains of people long gone.
The area around the Buddhist monastery, however, is bright and stark. It’s smooth rocks, and clear water. Things are clear and visible and the light is blinding. This is where Yang finds her zen. This is where the audience sees other characters grapple with looking at zen straight in the eye, when the head of the Monastery stands tall about a villain and is lit brightly, mystifyingly from behind. Nothing about this space is cluttered with evidence of worldly affairs. It’s beautiful but uncomfortably bare. There’s no place to hide, but there’s a maze of large boulders eroded into curving surfaces with corners to duck behind. It’s a space of contradictions, which is a lot like zen philosophy itself.
Without the time to have a look around at these areas, would there even be a touch of zen in A Touch of Zen? I think if you look at it solely from a plot of the leading lady cloistering herself off from a world where she only has a future as a mother or a fugitive, then yes, but I’m going to say that that would be more of a slight brush against zen.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and returning contributor Alli discuss the Australian New Wave whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which happens to be set on Valentine’s Day.
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia and pro-American propaganda, visually stunning and chilling. It was talked about a lot these past four years, since during the Trump presidency people were experiencing increased Russophobia and witnessing Eastern European scandals and intrigue. However, given the film’s message about patriotism and military force, I don’t think it’s the safest comparison to modern events. Centering around the struggles of two soldiers, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) after being kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, the film mainly concerns the American military and political handling of The Red Scare, taking an inherently critically flawed and culturally problematic viewpoint. That being said, it has an amazing handle on the psychological power of editing and features wonderful performances by everyone involved.
The film opens with the company of Marco and Shaw at the Chinese/Korean border during the Korean War. They are a gang of rough and tough men, the typical everymen of the 1960s, cutting loose during wartime: drinking, gambling, and objectifying and exotifying the local women. However, their leader, Shaw, is a wet blanket. He is a cold and prim rich boy who thinks they’re all lowly trash. Of course, his fellow soldiers find him intolerable. During a mission they are deceived and captured by a group of sinister Communist scientists who intensely brainwash them. Without revealing too much of the plot’s twist and turns, I’ll say that they are returned home suddenly with warm feelings for Raymond Shaw. Marco gains a high-up position in the military and Shaw works for a newspaper relishing in writing smear pieces against his simpleton presidential-hopeful Conservative stepfather (James Gregory), who is merely a pawn for the domineering Mrs. Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury). Marco is tasked with deprogramming Shaw, who lives a sad and lonely life haunted by his mother’s overbearing shadow. Eventually, we realize that his mommy issues are the key.
One of the most effective scenes in the film is the demonstration of brainwashing by the Communist scientist. It cuts back and forth from what the soldiers see (a boring talk from a ladies’ garden club) to the panel of red leaders from all of the world in an amphitheater decorated with huge portraits of Stalin and Moa in the background, in case you forgot what side this sinister cabal was on. There’s a jarring effect created by the juxtaposition of the mundane droning on of the women’s club and the scientific enthusiasm and twisted plotting. The clash of the mundane and “the evil” is a chilling way to set us up for constant doubt and paranoia for the rest of the film.
Now, let me get to my real issue with this movie: it reeks of misogyny. The mother is set up to be the ultimate villain. The idea that an ambitious woman is more dangerous than world powers that have extreme scientific advances in the realm of psychology is, quite frankly, sickening. I have no sympathy for Mrs. Iselin. Angela Lansbury delivers a performance that renders the character utterly reprehensible and unforgivable. That said, the whole idea of a mother’s failures being the downfall of the country is a special kind of good old fashioned American woman-hating. It’s really drilled home with the idea that the only way any of this is uncovered is through a team of highly trained military personnel. It just feels a little overkill. But there is only one thing that pro-military rhetoric in the USA wants to kill, torture, and demean more than a Communist: a powerful woman Communist. There’s enough analysis of the treatment of women during these wars and missions “to spread democracy” to inspire entire dissertations so I’ll leave that to more skilled folks than I. Suffice to say, there are serious consequences to this line of thinking. The only sympathetic women in the film are those who stay on the sidelines being supportive and nurturing. This includes one whom gets killed off, in an example of an ambitious woman trampling a traditional, attractive feminine figure. A true 1960s man’s nightmare and the nightmare of many contemporary men as well.
In a political vacuum, I’d say that this is a spectacularly made film, a real classic. It is technically wonderful, with extremely talented performances. But we are not in a vacuum. As a country, if this is the narrative we turn to again and again, we will probably never get over gender disparity. The Manchurian Candidate is a chilling piece of paranoid propaganda. It upholds the rhetoric of the status quo: xenophobia, misogyny, and a hyperbolic love and trust of the troops. It’s an entertaining and effective film, but culturally we need better narrative touchstones.
Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means many cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (and the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!
Art House Horror
If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.
Hereditary (2018) – “I wasn’t in ‘critical film theory’ mode while watching Hereditary. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension; I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.”
Mandy (2018) – “Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.”
Double Lover (2018) – “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.”
Annihilation (2018) – “As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). That’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth, Garland changes the theme of the novel from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level.”
Good Manners (2018) – “On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.”
Shock Corridor (1963) – “Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.”
The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. Here are some above-average horror films that have shrewdly exploited that modern world mystique for eerie scares.
Suicide Club (2002) – “Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the Internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell.”
Perfect Blue (1997) – “Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.”
Unfriended (2015) – “I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.”
Assassination Nation (2018) – “Besides maybe Revenge, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film match the extremity of its gender politics exploration this year, something that feels just as necessary & cathartic as it is unsettling. It’s a topic that’s now inextricable from the tones & tactics of modern life online, something the film was smart to recognize & tackle head-on. Its overall spirit is prankish & prone to bleak humor, but Assassination Nation is less of a comedy than it is a violent uprooting of cultural misogyny & sexual repression in the Internet Age.”
Truth or Dare? (2018) – “As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer ‘Truth or dare?’ their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, ‘It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.'”
A literary-minded horror subgenre that’s sadly grown out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but still one with a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit “alive.”
Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) – “Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name.”
Beast (2018) – “There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core (sold wonderfully by actors Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn) and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make the films feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake.”
Marrowbone (2018) – “Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped.”
Mainstream and Traditional Horror
It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.
The First Purge (2018) – “There’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times.”
The Strangers (2008) – When asked, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ the masked assailants only answer, ‘Because you were home,’ a response so succinctly chilling it was eventually marketed as a tagline. That just-because ethos is a powerful source of terror that largely substitutes any need for a fully-developed plot. Likewise, the look of the killers’ masks is distinctly memorable enough on its own to fill in any void left by their oppressively sparse dialogue. The Strangers dwells in the terror of negative space and the absence of intent, a much more satisfactory source of scares than what’s usually achieved with the home invasion template.”
Jennifer’s Body (2009) – “The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty. That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of the film; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position. It’s what makes Jennifer’s Body unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.”
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – “As an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd.”
A Quiet Place (2018) – “Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.”
Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies categorization. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in entirely unexpected ways.
Lair of the White Worm (1988) – “The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).”
Upgrade (2018) – “Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.
Unsane (2018) – “Like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position.”
The Children (2008) – “Kids can be cute, but they’re also a nuisance & a terror to anyone who’s looking to have a quiet moment of relief from familial stress. The 2008 British horror cheapie The Children understands that terror deep in its bones and builds its entire story around the evil & the chaos screaming children bring into the already stressful environment of a holiday get-together. It’s not one of the most tastefully considered or slickly produced Christmas-set horror films I’ve ever seen, but it does capture that exact kind of domestic, familial terror better than almost any film I can name, save maybe for The Babadook.”
Ghost Stories (2018) – “Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.”
Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.
The Fly II (1989) – “Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors.”
The Shape of Water (2017) – “Although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the ‘other’: a ‘commie,’ a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.”
The Untamed (2017) – “The Untamed adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to ‘elevated horrors’ of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually penetrates human beings with its tentacles. The film alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) – “The story is familiar, but flows incredibly naturally from scene to scene with an editing room finesse atypical of this genre territory. The special effects also feel above par for the material, from the head-to-toe detail of the rubber monster suits to the distorted faces of the lighting strikes to the weaponized fog the creatures deploy when abducting their victims. All the surface level narrative details of I Married a Monster from Outer Space are exactly what you’d expect from its title; the attention to detail in its craft just happens to be a cut above.”
Blue My Mind (2018) – “If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.”
The Giant Claw (1957) – “The Giant Claw is a perfect little B-movie gem, an efficient reminder of why throwaway genre trash from half a century ago is still worth digging through. Its creature design is hideous, its dialogue is inane, and its lofty sci-fi ideas aren’t worth even the paper they’re scribbled on, but The Giant Claw is the rare discarded horror schlock that achieves a kind of sublime stupidity that can’t easily be found in its peers.”
Matt Farley’s Backyard Horrors
A microbudget filmmaker who’s been making Roger Corman-style rubber-suit monster movies with friends in New England for decades to little fanfare, despite churning out consistently endearing horror comedies.
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) – “The real centerpiece of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is not any of its monster attacks in the woods, but rather a lengthy wedding sequence staged in a backyard that starts with a petty argument over potato casserole and ends in a minutes-long dance party. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is at its core a hangout film, in that it’s a document of friends hanging out & staging gags around the non-existent legend of a non-existent monster & the public triumph of the one man who believed it to be real. It’s the story of Matt Farley’s miniature media kingdom in a microcosm, as it’s the story of a man possessed by a singular obsession finding himself at odds with a world that could not care less.”
Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2010) – “The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Matt Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about ‘good natured, harmless pranks’ guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with ‘teen’ romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand.”
Druid Gladiator Clone (2002) – “A series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed ‘cloaks’ (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.”
If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, often intentionally. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.
Death Spa (1989) – “The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.”
Serial Mom (1994) – “There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in Serial Mom (that ‘pussywillow’ scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.”
Blood Bath (1966) – “You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.”
All About Evil (2010) – “All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of director Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.”
She’s Allergic to Cats (2017) – “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”
Mom and Dad (2018) – “Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey;’ stay for the pitch-black humor about ‘successful’ adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.”
Every link listed above is for a review we’ve posted on the site. If you’re looking for lists or articles from our horror tag instead, check out our Boomer’s Favorite Horrors by Decade lists, Brandon’s attempt to define the term “A24 horror,” and CC’s comparison of Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm adaptation to its Bram Stoker source material.
-The Swampflix Crew
Alli: Told in a series of interviews, Gates of Heaven is about pet cemeteries. Two feuding parties fight ideologically and legally for control over the final resting place of people’s beloved animals. Originally, Floyd McClure, a bleeding heart dog lover, is dead set on his belief that pets deserve better than to just be taken to a rendering facility after he was traumatized living near one in his childhood. He is not a business man. Out of the goodness of his heart, he buys a plot of land with the help of investors, and begins to assist in comforting people as they shepherd their pets onto the next life. Of course, not being a business man, and being totally dedicated to the idea of helping people in their grief, his cemetery goes out of business. All the animals get exhumed in a dramatic spectacle, and are moved to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, upsetting many of the pet owners. Bubbling Well is run by the Harberts. The Harberts are intolerable rich people solely in the business for the money, with two down-on-their-luck, basically loser sons who flock back to the nest to get jobs at the cemetery.
The contrast between these two groups results in a documentary not just about pet death and grief, but about human nature. There are those who are earnestly out to help people, and those who don’t believe in the cause. There’s the genuine and the facade, and the poor grieving people stuck in between.
Gates of Heaven is the first documentary I truly fell in love with. It was the first time I watched people being interviewed on screen, and thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I went to film school, probably because of it. It taught me that you don’t need a big budget, fancy equipment, or A-list stars to make a movie about anything. All you need is some chairs, a few eccentrics, and the time to let them talk. I obviously haven’t done much filmmaking or interviewing of eccentrics (YET!) but my strong love of the documentary format lives on.
Werner Herzog famously dared Errol Morris that he couldn’t make a whole documentary about this “unlikely” subject matter, and that if he did, Herzog would eat his shoe. He lost that bet, and the shoe eating is documented in a short shot by Les Blank. To me, since truth is very often stranger than fiction, this doesn’t seem like that wild of a subject to make a feature-length documentary about. I may be viewing this through the lens of the present where there’s a very great documentary, Helvetica, about the history of a font, but to me, the topic of death as a commercial industry in general is full of possibilities. Britnee, were you impressed that there’s a whole documentary about the conflict between two pet cemeteries? Or do you, like me, believe in the power of film to bring out the weird in the mundane?
Britnee: Other than the spooky Stephen King film, there’s not much out there in the film world about pet cemeteries, at least not that I’m aware of. Gates of Heaven provides a unique view into the world of pet cemeteries while stirring up loads of thought-provoking questions (“Do dogs really go to heaven?,” “Why are there so many assholes in this world?”). It reminded me of Grey Gardens a bit. Not only were the two films from the same time period, but they both focus on eccentric folks disguised as white-bread Americans. Between the middle-aged woman showing off her chubby, black chihuahua’s talking skills and the twenty-something year old playing his guitar outside with the pet cemetery as a backdrop, there’s never a dull moment. It’s sort of like a Wes Anderson film except nothing is scripted. These are real people talking about real things. I love it all so much! Needless to say, I was very impressed with Gates of Heaven, and it is definitely one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
Gates of Heaven changed my perspective of what the average American pet owner was like in the late 1970s. When my family members and friends that grew up during the 1960s/1970s share those back-in-the-day stories, I never once heard of a pet being like a member of the family. Pets were never allowed inside of the house, much less given kisses and snuggles. They were referred to as “animals,” and they were so far below the level of the superior human being. When they died, they were never given a proper burial. The image of a dog on a chain in the backyard with a little wooden doghouse and a cat sleeping under the carport is how I imagined most pets during that era. It was heartwarming to see that there were people who looked to their pets as equals and loved them unconditionally.
Brandon, this documentary was made almost 40 years ago. What do you think today’s version of Gates of Heaven would be like?
Brandon: Besides the insight into historical attitudes towards pets, the most distinctly 1970s thing about this film is the way it avoids contextual narration or exposition. The story is linear and not exactly in medias res, but the most editorializing Morris imposes on the film is in the meticulous composition of individual shots (Britnee’s Wes Anderson comparison is dead-on) and whatever footage he chose to excise in editing. Otherwise, the story is told entirely by its subjects, who speak plainly in oral history-style interviews. This feels true to the matter-of-fact documentary style of the era, considering contemporary works like (to call back to already-cited documentarians) the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens or Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure. If Gates of Heaven were made decades later by a different director, I believe the impulse would have been for the filmmaker to impose their own personality & worldview on the interviews in the name of being ”honest” about how their perspective shapes what’s supposedly documented reality. Think of the way modern Werner Herzog “documentaries” are essentially essay films about how Herzog himself sees the world, more than they are a presentation of unaltered facts. I think keeping a personal distance from editorializing about its subjects was a smart move in this case, as it allows Morris to profile these strange, real-world characters with a clear fascination for their quirks without ever quite leaning into his (possibly ironic) amusement with them. His style was later borrowed for outright comedy by mockumentary goof-em-ups like Best in Show (and every other Christopher Guest joint, really) & Documentary Now, but the tone is much more delicate & distant here, avoiding pure “Getta load of this freak show” cruelty. I suspect a more modern, Herzogian approach with Morris’s authorial voice framing the interviews might have tipped it in the wrong direction.
The question isn’t what Gates of Heaven would be like if Herzog made it in 2005 as a follow-up to Grizzly Man, though; the question is what it would be like if it were made today. I think modern filmmakers have learned a lot form Herzog’s embrace of documentaries’ inherent subjectivity (as opposed to earlier films’ embarrassed denial of it), but they’ve taken the art form in an entirely new direction from his This Is Really About Me philosophy pieces. The most exciting modern examples of the medium, the ones that avoid Wikipedia-in-motion tedium, are the ones that mix performed fictions, found footage abstractions ,and multimedia collage structures to guide their tone. Weirdo art projects like Heart of a Dog, Rat Film, Flames, The World is Mine, Swagger, The Nightmare, and Faces Places blur the line that divides the documentary and the essay film as separate mediums. They’re as heavy on first-person editorializing as a typical Herzog doc, but also include blatantly artificial performance & other forms of stylized artistic expression with their “real life” documentation to the point where what’s real and what’s fiction would be totally up for debate. Gates of Heaven was radical in its time for affording an oddball subject a dry, matter-of-fact academic treatment. If it were to be equally radical in 2018, it’d probably include sock puppet reenactments of interviewees’ anecdotes or Morris himself purchasing a plot for his own dead pet or a lengthy visual essay about the process of physical decay for a small animal body and how that relates to some economic us-vs.-them political philosophy. There’s no telling if it would be nearly as good of a film if it were made with a 2010s sensibility, but I can guarantee it wouldn’t be as dry or editorially distanced. Even Errol Morris’s own recent work on the experimental, LSD-influenced documentary Wormwood hints at that cultural shift.
Boomer, Morris’s style here obviously depends on his interview subjects to tell a compelling story (or at least tell a mundane story in a compelling way), but I found it curious which subjects he chose to afford the most attention. Most of my favorite interviewees in the film were the pet owners who employed the services of the cemetery, but it seems Morris was more personally invested in the conflict between the people who maintained its daily operation (for love or for profit). Do you think the movie could have used more (dead) pet owner profiles or would that have risked tipping it too far in the direction of Christopher Guest quirk humor?
Boomer: I actually feel like there was just enough balance between the proprietors and the patrons of the two pet cemeteries to prevent the film from becoming either too maudlin or too tongue-in-cheek. In general, there was a distinct tendency toward sentiment among the (for lack of a better word) mourners, which is sensible but not exactly what I expected. To me, the very idea of an organized pet cemetery seems incredibly bourgeois, although it makes sense in the context of a more urbanized area than the one in which I grew up. When our beloved eighteen-year-old cat Tabitha died in 2003, we were able to bury her in the back field between two trees next to the pond, but those living in an apartment building like I do now, or in suburban areas with overzealous and overreaching HOAs, don’t have that luxury. And while I would consider the more sensible thing to do would be having a memorial in the home (with or without your furbaby’s cremains), I understand the desire for something more traditional.
The couples who were interviewed were interesting, but the MVPs of those who were on the mourning end are those who were interviewed alone. First is Florence Rasmussen, with her long-winded, meandering, unbroken speech about her son (really her grandson) and his car, which she bought for him (really gave him $400 for, or the equivalent of $1,597.15 in 2018), and her desire to get out and do more (even though she also says that she “gets around pretty well”). Hers is a ramble that is mired in contradiction and a narrative of self-promotion and self-interest that effectively demonstrates the depth of her neuroses (and probably dementia). I also loved the feud between Zella Graham (she of the howling chihuahua) and Lucille Billingsley (her nemesis). The differences between how the two are framed, with Graham and her living pet in a welcoming-if-kitschy dining area in her home against Billingsley in her baroque wingback chair beneath a framed portrait of her departed darling, says a lot about each woman, which is only reinforced by the issues that each takes with the other: Billingsley speaks about larger concerns and barely thinks of Graham at all, while Graham’s diatribe is all about Billingsley’s apparent pretentiousness and flaunting of her wealth, like showing up at the graveyard in her luxury car and adorned with furs (a telling detail in how Billingsley sees the “hierarchy” of animals) to complain about the disinterment at McClure’s failed cemetery. Their pettiness lends the whole affair a surreality that elevates the documentary from simple investigation into something more. The interviews with couples may add to this feeling, especially with regards to the woman who appears on the poster and gives a speech about her idiosyncratic conception of the cosmos and the place of humans and animals within it; unlike a Guest film, however, where the two people on screen would be characters and not real people and thus would be intentionally written more comedically to play off of each other, these scenes are more about two people in parallel than in counterpoint.
Overall, I found the Harberts clan and Floyd McClure more compelling than their customers. Forgive me for not using names as much as I would like to under normal circumstances; the lack of identifying information about who all of these people were was a source of frustration for me over the course of the documentary (not that I didn’t love it overall). Among McClure’s friends and contemporaries, I was never quite certain who was who, or if the minister with whom McClure had a handshake deal that from what I could discern was the root cause of his cemetery’s demise was one of those interviewed or not. Even though my sympathies lie with McClure, as his devotion to his collie led him to spend his life trying to create a space in which pets could be mourned, my investment in both parties was split pretty evenly, although for different reasons. I felt like we got very little information about McClure in comparison the Harbertses, despite him being more open about his feelings, as we saw more of their candid lives. The dichotomy between rich and . . . well, not poor, but middle class was an element of the feud between Billingsley and Graham, and we see that writ large in the difference between McClure and the Harbertses. McClure is a man whose interview occurs in a small home with little decoration, while the youngest Harberts son tells the camera that when he wasn’t sure where his life was going, he knew he could come home and have his own house, even if it is the one by the chicken coop. The elder son’s discussion of his previous work as a motivational speaker is largely done from behind a desk full of trophies and in front of a wall of awards as he talks about how he used to use those same trophies and awards to create a rhetorical space with potential clients, droning on almost hypnotically while demonstrating why he was such a success in that arena, apparently with no intentionality informing his “performance.” There’s so much that’s being communicated in these frames: the banality of wealth, the sumptuousness and self-aggrandizement of his office in comparison to his father’s (which is less ornate on the whole but has that ridiculous name plate done up in Old London Gothic typeface that almost seems to dominate the frame despite taking up so little of it), the look of quiet resignation and resentment on his face when relating that he understand and accepts that he is the “third” (read: last) person in the chain of command at the cemetery.
That is true filmic storytelling, which is notable given that documentaries generally attempt to tell the truth from an unbiased perspective (give or take your Michael Moores and your Dinesh D’Souzas). I found myself truly fascinated by the surroundings of the interviewees, none more so than when McClure was speaking from what appeared to be his den. He never mentions a wife or child at all when relating the oral history of his failed endeavor, which makes the pair of bronzed baby booties behind him a total curiosity to me. The same can be said of the yellow document hanging from the doorknob in Graham’s kitchen and the bizarre red fake flower(?) that foreground the interviews with Mrs. Harberts. For me, these were just as intriguing as the stories themselves. Given that Morris’s intention was to present an unbiased account (to the extent that such a thing is possible), I’m not sure how much directorial input was given with regards to placement when giving these interviews, but some of the locations seem too perfect to be anything other than staged. For instance, both of the Harberts men we see in their offices speak directly from behind the desk as if we are meeting with them, while our “meeting” with the manager of the tallow rendering plant frames the plant itself behind him through his window, giving those speeches a more casual vibe. Alli, as you’ve seen this film more than the rest of us have, what insights do you have into this particular rhetoric in this film: the composition of the mise en scène as it applies to homes and offices as meant to evoke a particular response? What speaks to you, and what doesn’t?
Alli: As far as filmmaking goes, I always assume that everything in front of the camera is intentional or an intentionally included accident. Even a more matter-of-fact documentary is still a controlled and directed piece of art, and some of those backgrounds were a little too composed to be just there. They’re made to be an extension of the interviewee’s character. The rendering plant manager is shown with his life’s work, grotesque as it is. There’s no way for him to put on self important airs with the plant in the background. He’s a link to the reality of the world as opposed to McClure’s idealism and the Harbert’s affected manner. If I had to guess about the baby boots behind McClure, they were a subtle hint at his innocence and maybe even infantilizing this naive man. The fake flower behind Mrs. Harberts is a bit on the nose in this reading.
Despite the matter of fact feel, the whole composition and placement of shots show some editorial bias. There’s a shot of a man that’s from uncomfortably crotch height that feels like it’s highlighting his man of the 70’s masculinity. There’s the scene with the younger Harberts son where you can see his pot plants in the background where you know exactly what kind of lifestyle he leads. So much of Morris’s views are hidden in what’s with the subject in the frame and how they’re placed. Even if there’s no voice-over or direct explanations, he’s manipulating you into drawing conclusions about these people. He doesn’t blatantly try to villainize or place judgement on his subjects, but there are subtle hints at how he feels about them. As far as what affected me most this particular viewing, I got to re-experience my negative feelings for the older Harberts son, but his backgrounds seem the most incidental to me, as if Morris let him call the shots a little bit, because of course this man wants to be seen with the backdrop of his achievements and his swimming pool. And it makes the irony of his unexplained failure in the motivational speaker arena all the more delicious.
Britnee, did you have a favorite or least favorite interview subject?
Britnee: Of all the fabulous interviewees in Gates of Heaven, I would have to say my favorite interview subject was Floyd McClure. He brought so much heart and innocence to the screen. It was endearing to see that he was in the pet cemetery business for all the right reasons. I became so invested in his cause just within the few minutes of him speaking, so my heart was completely broken when it was revealed that he lost his business. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was put on this earth to help bring comfort for those who lose their beloved pets, but the greedy world we live in prevented him from fulfilling his purpose. I hope that when it’s time for me to bury/cremate my pets that there will be someone like McClure to assist me with such a difficult process.
Even though McClure was my favorite interview subject, I can’t help but feel as though I would have the best time hanging out with the pet owners. I can talk about my cat and dog for hours, and sometimes people will give me the “Please shut up” look. Thankfully, New Orleans is a city filled with dog lovers, so more often than not, the stranger I’m talking with will share my enthusiasm. The singing dog lady reminds me of the eccentric folks that I always run into at the dog park and feed stores. Singing Dog Lady would understand me, and I would totally schedule some puppy play dates with her and her dog.
Brandon, you mentioned earlier that you enjoyed the pet owners in the documentary. As a pet owner yourself, did you recognize an similarities between yourself and the pet owners being interviewed?
Brandon: If there’s one major commonality I see in myself it’s sentimentality. I never had pets outside a fish tank growing up and my first pet as an adult, a large black cat, simply disappeared when he died (presumably hit by a car). As a result, I’ve never had to truly deal with the physical remains of a beloved animal that couldn’t be swept away with the flush of a toilet and I can only presume I won’t handle that grief especially well when my dog (who is getting relatively old . . .) inevitably dies. Interviewees singing to their animals or treating them with the same respect they’d extend to a human member of their family is relatable in a broad sense, but what’s more idiosyncratically captured here is the sentimentality pets inspire in their owners. I don’t think I would ever pay for my dog to be buried in a proper cemetery, but I could easily see keeping her skull or ashes or taxidermy model around the house as a visual reminder of her. The result is essentially the same: sentimental clutter. I empathize deeply with the sentimentality that could lead an animal lover to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have their pets buried properly, as opposed to the posthumous disrespect of having their remains hauled off to the dump with the rest of our pedestrian trash. The truth is, though, that I don’t think that impulse is a necessarily healthy one, which is partly why it’s so grotesque that there are people on hand so willing to exploit it. To me, the capitalist villains of Gates of Heaven are the ones profiting off the sentimentality of their customers while pretending to share their emotional investment in the pet cemetery business as a sign of respect for the dead, when it’s really just like any another racket to them.
As such, I find the racket chosen by the rendering plant operator to be less blatantly evil than the one of the wealthy couple who usurp Mr. McClure’s business. You’d think that as a pet owner I’d be offended by the business model of selling off animal corpses as raw biproduct materials, but that honestly sounds more useful & practical to me than allowing the emotional clutter of animals (that are never coming back, nor care about how well you treat their remains) to fill up otherwise useful land. Since Gates of Heaven consciously avoids editorializing, it’s difficult to tell where the movie’s POV falls on this secondary dead animals racket, which is just as shrewdly capitalistic as the pet cemetery business, just with cruder honesty. Boomer, where do you think the rendering plant business lands on Gates of Heaven’s moral compass? Does the movie express an opinion on it either way or does it leave that philosophical quandary entirely to its audience?
Boomer: The biggest parallel that I see between participants in this film is between the rendering plant manager and the elder Harberts brother. Both are professional men in that late-thirties/early-forties stage of life, both with an air of authority despite the area of their respective expertises being either physically gross (rendering animals into tallow) or emotionally manipulative (as Alli notes, capitalizing on people’s grief). The difference is that Harberts has the decency to be embarrassed about his station in life, even if his hand-wringing is about the fact that he now reports to his stoner younger brother. Mr. Rendering Plant, on the other hand, grins like Patrick Bateman while describing how people react when they find out about his line of work, going so far as to recall, with great mirth, how a woman who, despite being unable to see the actual process of rendering from anywhere in their office building, was so “bothered in her mind” by what they were doing that she could not tolerate working there. Perhaps this is a rhetorical cheat as we see him counterposed against Floyd McClure, whose greatest sin in life was loving animals too much and being too trusting in people’s good nature; however, there is something truly unsettling about how defensive the rendering plant manager is when discussing his business and his complete and utter inability to understand how someone could be shocked or disgusted by the fact that he boils people’s dogs and horses until they can be used for glue or candles. I’m not a big fan of people who laugh while reminiscing about lying to the public about what became of the local elephant.
Britnee: I had no idea what a rendering plant was until watching Gates of Heaven, and I cannot believe that pet owners were bringing their dead pets to such a terrible place to have them disposed of like garbage. What part or parts of a household animals is being rendered and what is it used for? It’s just so sad and disturbing. By the way it was talked about in the documentary, it seems like taking dead pets to rendering plants was the norm, and I really hope this isn’t a thing anymore.
Alli: I’m a big critic of the death industry as a whole and Americans’ lack of acceptance of death as a personal expererience. People in this country pay exorbitant amounts of money for strangers to handle and dress their dead, such an intimate process. This isn’t as common in other parts of the world as it is here. I love my cats like they’re my children, so I would never leave their burying and handling to people who run what basically feels like a satire of an actual cemetery. It just goes to show that the predatory nature of the funeral industry, much like death, knows no bounds. No matter what your species, people will try to take advantage of your family’s desire to distance themselves from the grief. One thing that’s always struck me about this documentary is the subtle way it examines the psychology of all of this. Premium spots are glorified over different, cheaper areas of the cemetery, subconsciously telling people, “If you really loved your pet, you’d pay for us to do this.” Basically, the commodification of grief is an extremely, grossly American phenomenon and it’s interesting to see it laid out so transparently in the form of pet grief.
Boomer: The thing that I found most fascinating about the interviewees is that even the most out-of-it like Florence and a sweet/simple country bumpkin like Floyd had such a delightfully flexible and voluminous vocabulary. When Florence states that her pet corpses were moved to “that place that commences with a ‘B’,” I was surprised. It’s amazing how even people that could be considered simple-minded, senile, or even stupid engaged in a level of discourse that’s so much higher than the one in which we live now.
Brandon: Before viewing this film, the Errol Morris documentary I was most familiar with was Thin Blue Line, which absolutely bowled me over with its intense Philip Glass score. It’s appropriate, then, that one of the most memorable moments of Gates of Heaven for me was a musical one. When the cemetery owners’ loser son plays arena rock guitar at the edge of the cliff on his family’s shitty, animal corpse-laden property, the gap between the image in his head and the one we’re seeing onscreen is remarkably vast. It’s a perfect microcosm of the movie’s delicately comical, oddly tragic tone at large, an image that’s stuck with me for much longer than I expected it to when I first met it with a light chuckle.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
-The Swampflix Crew
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon , Alli, and Britnee watch Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010).
Boomer: Cards on the table: Under the Red Hood is my favorite Batman movie. Obviously I prefer it over Zack Snyder’s take on the character, but I also find it superior to both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s respective series, although there are elements of both that work well and that I quite enjoy. This may not be my favorite version of Batman (that honor always has been and presumably forever shall be the Bats of Batman: The Animated Series), but it’s the best self-contained feature that both feels like a true standalone while also addressing the character’s long history. There’s no origin story, no belabored backstory showing how and why Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman, no attempts to make the character feel like he fits in a modern context or make the gadgets and gizmos seem “realistic,” and no damned pearls in an alley (note, even Batman v Superman did this, two years after the linked video pointed out that it was a cliche). I said it two years ago and I’ll say it again: Batman has the second most famous origin story in the world, surpassed only by the birth of Christ; we don’t need to see it on screen ever again. Instead, this film jumps in at a point in time pretty far into the detective’s career.
Under the Red Hood opens in Sarajevo, where The Joker (John DiMaggio playing against type) has savagely beaten Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), the second of Batman’s sidekicks/apprentices to bear the codename “Robin,” nearly to death with a crowbar. Batman (Bruce Greenwood) races to the scene, but arrives too late, as a bomb destroys the warehouse in which Jason was left behind. Years later, The Joker is safely locked away and the majority of Gotham City’s criminal element reports to the Black Mask (Wade Wilson), but the leaders of various crime families are confronted by a new player: The Red Hood. The Hood has knocked off several of the families’ top players to demonstrate his prowess, and his hijacking of a major weapon brings him to the attention of Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the first Robin. Batman realizes early on that The Red Hood knows his true identity and is haunted by his past mistakes and failures, the worst of which was his inability to save Jason. The crime war between Red Hood and Black Mask escalates to the point that the Mask is so desperate he breaks The Joker out to take down his rival, leading to a confrontation that forces Batman to confront his mistakes, morality, and the nature of his war on crime.
This is a grim story, with a bleak ending that gives me chills every time. I’ll not bother with the spoiler alert as this movie is over ten years old and the comic on which it was based was published five years before that, and the film itself does little to disguise the reveal that The Red Hood is, in fact, Jason. This is a departure from the comic, which preserved this mystery for as long as possible, which makes for a richer story as it allows for a deeper rumination on the ways that devotion to an absolute moral code can have unforeseen consequences, and how a bad seed can take root in the soul despite the best attempts to provide a moral compass. As Bruce says in one of his introspective moments, the responsibility for the life and death of Jason Todd falls on his shoulders: “My partner. My soldier. My fault.” How Jason came to be The Red Hood and his motivations are instead the crux of the film’s mystery, and it’s all the more poignant for it. I find myself thinking about the emotional gut punch of the final scene fairly frequently: after the apparent death of Jason (again), violently and pointlessly, we return to the cave and a memory of Jason’s first day as Robin, as he excitedly dashes around with the kind of effortless exuberance that only a child can have, before declaring that it’s the “best day of [his] life.” And we fade out on that image of the hopeful, blindingly optimistic beginning of a journey that we as the audience have just seen come to a brutal, bitterly violent end; it’s a closed, nihilistic loop that gets me every single time.
Comparisons to Winter Soldier were common thirteen years ago when Judd Winick was writing the comic on which the film was based, titled simply Under the Hood. It was a common joke for decades that “no one in comics [stayed] dead except for Bucky (killed in action in 1945, as revealed in Avengers #4 in 1964), Jason Todd (killed in 1988’s Death in the Family storyline by Jim Starlin), and Uncle Ben (killed in the first appearance of Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962).” Winick started building his mystery in late 2004; in early 2005, Ed Brubaker was helming the fifth volume of Captain America, and he, like Winick, introduced a new enemy who proved to be a long-dead supporting character brought back to life. Both have since been adapted, although 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier obviously has the higher profile, being a part of the MCU. In that film, however, directors Anthony and Joe Russo preserved the revelation that The Winter Soldier was Bucky until the end of the second act, although given the fact that Sebastian Stan has a memorable face and comic book fans already knew the identity of The Winter Soldier, your mileage may vary based as to how successful that reveal is. Brandon, given that you’ve seen both films and aren’t really a devotee of superhero comics, which approach do you think works better? My money is on Under the Red Hood, but I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to be a first time viewer of either film without the knowledge that comes from the source material. Is it better to not attempt to preserve the mystery? Do you think that one approach or the other is geared towards a different kind of fan?
Brandon: One of my very favorite aspects of Under the Red Hood was, indeed, that the reveal of Jason’s vigilante resurrection as The Red Hood was not saved for a last-minute shock. In my mind, there wasn’t anyone the Red Hood could have been but Jason that would have been satisfying, considering that the movie opens with a lengthy depiction of his murder at the hands of The Joker. Ebert even coined a name for that scenario in his Glossary of Movie Terms. He describes it as “The Law of Economy of Characters”, writing, “Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story— even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot. This ‘mystery’ person is always the only character in the move who seems to be otherwise extraneous.” As a direct-to-video, animated feature, Under the Red Hood may have had more freedom to play around with extraneous characters than a megacorporate, every-minute-wasted-is-money-lost production like The Winter Soldier, but it would still be odd to waste so much screentime on Jason’s demise at the top of the film if it weren’t going to become significant to The Red Hood’s identity later.
I’d be lying if I said I could exactly remember how that relates to my reaction to the very similar Bucky reveal in The Winter Soldier, since we reviewed that film over two years and nine MCU entries ago. In our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. piece, I only mentioned Bucky once, saying that I had spoiled the mystery of his identity for myself by watching the MCU films late & out of order before we had started the project. I can say, though, that on principle I believe revealing the twist early was the smarter move, to Under the Red Hood’s credit. Ebert’s being a little snobbish when he says “sophisticated” viewers will be the ones to see through this kind of mystery before the reveal; I’d be more likely to use the word “seasoned.” I can’t speak for how shocking the Bucky or Red Hood reveals were in the comics, since those characters had ostensibly been dead for decades in the canon. However, anyone who’s seen more than a few movies, which require a much stricter storytelling economy, should see through the “mystery” almost right away. In a cinematic context, I’d say the Winter Soldier approach of withholding the character’s true identity until as late as possible will likely work best for younger fans who haven’t already puzzled their way through similar mystery plots in other works. By contrast, Under the Red Hood benefits seasoned vets who’ve been there too many times before and are eager to move onto the next story beat.
Part of what’s so wonderful about the early reveal of The Red Hood’s past life as Robin the Boy Wonder 2.0 is that it raises questions instead of answering one. Jason’s death at the start of the film is brutal, with a distinct finality to it. The Joker mercilessly beats the poor boy with a crowbar, splattering PG-13 blood & gore around the room. Jason is then subjected to a close-range bomb explosion, with Batman personally carrying his charred body from the rubble. The movie does a decent job of justifying his choice to reemerge as the Red Hood persona, which is explained to be a communal, anonymous part played by many villains in the past, including The Joker himself. It also uses The Red Hood’s predilection for gun violence (he’s essentially a less “Ain’t I a stinker?” version of Deadpool in tactics & design) to establish the classic vigilante conundrum that plagues most superheroes: How far is too far to keep citizens safe? What really separates these masked fighters from their violent opposition.? The questions that remain, then, are not why Robin 2.0 reemerged as The Red Hood, but how. He was established to be very, very dead— a mystery that confounded Batman himself, one of fiction’s great detectives, to the point that he excavates the unfortunate child’s grave for clues. Answering that question is much more complicated & dramatically fruitful than merely waiting for his hood to be pulled off in a climactic confrontation to reveal a character that other movies have trained us to expect.
In general, I agree with Boomer that more live-action adaptations of the Batman comics could learn from Under the Red Hood’s avoidance of an origin-story narrative in favor of a just-another-episode approach. Still, dropping into this particular scenario in medias res was especially jarring to me. There are not only a near-century of Batman comics I’m unfamiliar with, but now also decades of animated DC movies this entry could have been a part of in series that I would have been completely blind to. The Joker beating Robin to death at the top of the film felt like a “Previously on. . .” catch-up reel. Learning later that the dead Robin was actually the second Boy Wonder in a continued lineage was also news to me, since it has yet to come up in the live-action adaptations despite being what I assume is common knowledge to well-read comic book folks. In one way, constantly resetting the rotary dial back to Batman’s origin story is preventing the character’s live-action movies form moving onto fresh, lesser known storylines like Under the Red Hood’s. At the same time, though, the endless soap opera quality of comic book storytelling risks leaving the uninitiated behind by requiring too much knowledge of decades of backstory to get all viewers on the same page. Britnee, how do you feel about the balance Under the Red Hood strikes in giving comic book fans an opportunity to see something other than Batman’s origin story for a change and catching outsiders up on the info they need to understand its basic plot? Were you more baffled or delighted by being dropped midway into a Batman storyline you were wholly unfamiliar with?
Britnee: I don’t really watch many superhero movies or read many superhero comics (I stay within the Elf Quest realm for the most part), so I’m generally unfamiliar with the storylines of Batman, Superman, Captain America, etc. Straight-to-video animated superhero films like Under the Red Hood have always intimidated me a little, as it seems like they are made strictly for the super-fans. There are no big name actors or any substantial marketing behind them like with the live-action superhero films, so there’s really nothing to drive the non-superhero fans to grab a copy.
Under the Red Hood has disproved my assumptions of animated straight-to-video superhero films. It was fantastic! Initially, I felt like I was a little late to the party as the beginning of the film was so fast paced, but it turns out that I wasn’t. I got caught up in trying to figure everything out within the first 5 minutes because I assumed that this was specifically made for those with intense Batman knowledge, but it turns out that the beginning of the film would eventually be thoroughly explained later on. All I needed was a little patience. The film didn’t feel like a dumbed-down version of a Batman story either, as it wasn’t really focused on Batman all that much. This movie was about the origin of Red Hood, so it does offer something exciting to even the biggest Batman fans. It mustn’t have been easy to “get the balance right” *wink to Depeche Mode fans*, so I truly appreciate the thought and work that went into this story.
I love that Red Hood is an antivillain, so his story is much more complex than one of a hero or villain. It’s never obvious which side he’s on or if his next move will be good or bad. The mystery of it all is just so thrilling. Alli, I’m not sure if you’re a Batman fan or not, but do you consider Red Hood to be an antivillain, antihero, villain, or hero? And why?
Alli: I know just enough about Batman to know that I’m not a fan of his persona. I’ll get to that later.
I think of The Red Hood as a hero. I was rooting for him from the very beginning when he commanded that The Black Mask not sell drugs to children. He knew how to better the city of Gotham. He knew how to turn the true criminals against each other and how to control them in general. His plan to save the city was sophisticated, strategic, and effective. In a single crime spree, he totally changed the power structure of Gotham’s criminal element, got major drug lords off the street, and nearly killed The Joker. That’s more than Batman has ever done is his long, long life of “fighting crime.” Jason was a street kid with street-smarts saving his own streets, and he was doing a damn good job of it. The only thing that got in the way was his sentimental, burgeoning on codependent need for his father figure Bruce Wayne to accept his philosophy. Had The Red Hood kept going, crime would be down and there’d be an actual sense of community in this city plagued by extreme class disparity and fear.
On that note, let’s get right down to my dislike of Bruce Wayne. This is a rich, rich guy, rich enough to afford endless gadgets, cars, helicopters, and a literal man cave. Instead of using his money (inherited and presumably acquired through exploitation of underpaid workers) to help end poverty on a mass scale, he just finds an orphaned little boy here and there that just happens to remind him of his younger self, puts the kid in a costume, and trains him to fight crime too. Batman is the neoliberal of superheroes. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of these crooks who have chosen a life of crime are working class folks underpaid by one of Wayne Enterprise’s many ventures. He’s a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one. He approaches crime fighting like a man drunk with power playing god, which is probably exactly how the heads of his family before him conducted business. He may refuse to kill people or wield a gun, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also just constantly feeding into the cycle of crime. It’s no shocker to me that this capitalistic, neoliberal masked crusader is squared up against a foe of his own making under the moniker “The Red Hood,” a name that brings to mind “The Red Scare.”
Boomer, I’m going to admit upfront that I only have peripheral knowledge of Batman coming from a childhood of weekend cartoons and an adulthood being friends with comic book nerds. Is my characterization of Batman unfair? Do you think The Red Hood’s plan would have worked?
Boomer: I love this question! Your description pretty perfectly encapsulates my mixed feelings both about Batman as a character and as a cultural icon. It’s interesting to me, however, that you mention weekend cartoons; in my opinion at least, Batman: The Animated Series is the default Batman that I think of and is the best version of the character, even more than in the original comic texts. This is a Batman who was born of a perfect confluence of events: the popularity of a darker, more metatextually introspective Batman of the 1980s embodied by (for better or worse) Frank Miller’s 1986 opus The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman theatrical release; the rise of merchandise-driven children’s television programming in the 1980s (think Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Rainbow Brite) after Reagan and his raging hard-on for so-called free-market capitalism abolished the regulations from the 1960s that were intended to decrease commercial interest and increase educational content in children’s programming; and the backlash against this deregulation. In 1990, Congress approved legislation to give TV industry officials an antitrust exemption to permit joint meetings to delineate guidelines on TV violence, confirmed in 1992 (the year that Batman TAS premiered). Violence must be “relevant to the development of character, or the advancement of theme or plot”, while it must not be glamorized, excessive, easily imitated by children, or used merely for shock value. As a result, we ended up with a perfect Batman adaptation, one in which the villains were psychologically complex and they were rarely defeated through violence. Instead, more often than not, Bats dealt with his nemeses through the revolutionary idea of talking to them, understanding their reasons for doing what they do (think of the Mad Hatter or Baby Doll) and talking them down from their activities before ensuring that they got the help they needed, not just breaking mentally ill people’s bones and then sticking them into the prison system.
Contrast this to my least favorite Batman adaptation: The Dark Knight Rises. I despise this movie, although not for the reasons that most people do. I think Batman Begins is good, and The Dark Knight is pretty great, but Rises feels like a personal affront. It came out at the height of the Occupy movement, and the first trailer made it seem like the film was poised to directly address the problem of Bruce’s millions, with Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle giving a pretty great little speech: “You think this [abundance] can last… there’s a storm coming, and you and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” I was pumped for this kind of deconstruction, because this was following a few years after my own realization that, as a character, Batman was kind of the worst. You are absolutely correct that there is something not-quite-right about idolizing a man who is the “World’s Greatest Detective” but also has a child’s understanding of crime and criminality. The question of why so much low-level crime exists (that is to say, economic inequality and the often insurmountable barriers to any kind of upward mobility) is rarely addressed in any kind of media, but Batman became a particularly problematic fave as I got older and became more socially aware. His adventures are, after all, those of a wealthy-beyond-measure man who takes to the streets and beats up poor people instead of, as Alli notes, investing in infrastructure or addressing the ways that intense stratification of wealth and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the elite are the primary factors in creating the inequality that breeds crime in the first place. And I really thought that Rises was going to tackle that conversation head on! How fucking naive of me.
Instead, Rises is a movie that not only treats the people associated with Occupy as simpletons who would willingly (and in fact gleefully) submit to the will of a terrorist because he gave them what they want, or rather what screenwriter David S. Goyer thought they wanted. Selina’s little friend is perfectly happy nearly starving in what is essentially post-apocalyptic Gotham in that film, content with having nothing, because no one has anything. No doubt Goyer is completely blind to the irony of the fact that, like Batman and his immature understanding of criminality, he outed himself as someone who not only had no clue what Occupy’s purpose and desire was and is while making himself come off as a smug jerk (his net worth is $12M, by the way). He’s not just an asshole, he’s a stupid asshole whose ego is so bloated he has no desire to entertain the possibility that those who disagree with him politically may have valid points; he’d rather just paint them as terrorist collaborators. This not only makes Rises a bad movie, but also morally reprehensible and socially dangerous.
So we have our great Batmen and our terrible Batmen, with decades of storytelling lying in between, with various men (and too few women) articulating a variety of worldviews using the dark knight as their mouthpiece. Sometimes there is a self-awareness of the problematic nature of the character and we end up with something like Batman TAS or even The Brave and the Bold (which is a delight), and sometimes you have an actual monster at the helm and end up with a blindingly ironic situation. Most of the stories fall somewhere in between, and some writers have actually addressed this directly (on more than one occasion, Bats deprived an enemy of his henchmen by referring all of them to Wayne Industries and promising them jobs), but Alli’s point of view is completely valid. I think that part of the appeal of Under the Red Hood for me, and I’m only just realizing this as I write it, is that Jason Todd represents my own personal journey as a Batfan. As I grew up I bucked more and more against his worldview, until part of me wanted nothing more to do with him, but he was still one of my first heroes and thus too important for me to let go of completely. And when I look back at the youngest version of myself, watching Batman TAS every day after school starting from kindergarten and going forward, I see that optimistic little Robin, ready for his first mission, with so, so far to fall ahead of him.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Red Hood’s plan would have done much to make Gotham a better place; by wiping out entire crime families and eliminating drug cartels, all that would be left would be a bunch of desperate people and a massive power vacuum. The first few days, when addicts wouldn’t be able to get their fix, would be madness as violence erupted across the city. On The Wire, there’s mention that one corner could pull in $5000 a day, and those slingers are selling heroin at $10 a pop, so that’s 100 people a neighborhood; conservatively, if there’s 500 junkies in just a few of Gotham’s neighborhoods all going through withdrawal at the same time, that’s going to be a disaster. Someone is going to swoop in and take advantage of that to build their own criminal empire. It might seem like a good plan in the short term, but the only real long-term solution is what you previously mentioned: infrastructure improvement. I cou moral quandry he presents feels so at hould be wrong, though.
Brandon, how do you feel that this film’s thesis holds up, especially in comparison to other Batman films, which are much less self-aware and critical of the hero? I’m pretty critical of The Dark Knight Rises, but are there other Batflicks that you’ve seen that you would argue have worse moral or ethical problems?
Brandon: I honestly didn’t dwell for too long on the political ethics at the heart of Under the Red Hood, because they didn’t stick out to me as especially unique within the superhero genre. Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals. The Red Hood is an interesting foil because his Bad Guy status is a grey area, but the “What if Batman, but too much?” moral quandary he presents feels so at home in a superhero storytelling context it would be safe to call it a cliche. As for Batman’s own ethics, it was initially jarring to hear Alli describe him as a neoliberal fantasy figure, since I’m so used to his politics being criticized for their undertones of right-wing fascism. That subtext is likely a stain left on the Batman brand by the Christopher Nolan trilogy (which, as Boomer points out, really went out on a wet fart with The Dark Knight Rises). As perversely fun as Heath Leger’s performance as The Joker can be and as welcome as it was to see Anne Hathaway challenge her usual typecasting as Catwoman, that trilogy has left a sour taste in its wake, especially in the way its been adopted as gospel by the more Conservative, Reddit-flavored corners of the internet. I don’t think the political stance Batman takes in Under the Red Hood is nearly that well-defined and the movie’s moral dilemma is more about the opposing virtues between extremism & moderation than it is about arguing any specific ideology.
I personally don’t need a specific, clearly defined political ideology to enjoy my Batman media, though. My favorite interpretations of the character are when he’s defined mostly as the ringmaster werido at the center of a fetishistic freakshow. Tim Burton & Michael Keaton’s collaborations are the pinnacle of that horned-up werido-pervert version of Batman (which is why Batman Returns has long been my favorite episode in Caped Crusader cinema), but it’s something you can see echoed in plenty kinky Batman interpretations (and real life kink play) elsewhere. I suspect it’s partly why I enjoy the over-the-top Joel Schumacher monstrosity Batman & Robin so much, since it shifts that kinkiness closer to a queer spectrum (while also subversively doubling down on the Saturday morning cartoon kids’ fluff aspects of the material). I didn’t think much about the political quandary at the center of Under the Red Hood, since my own experience with Batman is more as a kinky psychosexual id. As such, I found myself instead fixating on the two former Robins’ relationships with Batman and how they resembled spurned romantic exes. It’s probably best to ignore the usual insinuations about Batman & Robin’s power dynamics as master & ward (though I will say that scenes of a teen Robin running around in little green panties did make me very uncomfortable), but the way the two Robins shed their former identities to don wholly new personas, Nightwing & The Red Hood respectively, felt like watching someone experiment with a drastic haircut or a cross-country move to shake themselves out of the emotional fallout of a nasty breakup. They both still desperately need Batman’s attention & approval, too, despite trying to appear aloof in his presence. There’s always an undercurrent of romantic & sexual power dynamics lurking under Batman’s interactions with other masked weridos, whether friend or foe, and I found his relationships with his ex-Robins here to be a more complex expression of that than most. The movie intends for their relationships to play as entirely paternal, but my growing up with Batman as a horned-up kinkster makes it impossible not to see it through that lens.
Britnee, feel free to ignore my fixation on Batman’s function as a romantic kink icon, but I am curious what you thought of the character’s relationships with his ex-Robins here. Is there anything especially unique about the Batman & Robin dynamic in Under the Red Hood, besides there being more Robins than usual? What do you make of Nightwing & Red Hood’s compulsion to continue to be around a crime-fighting loner weirdo who doesn’t seem to share that enthusiasm?
Britnee: I love that we were introduced to two Robins in this movie. Bringing in Nightwing added so much more to this short, action-packed animated flick. Even though Nightwing has a bigger personality than Batman, their crime fighting guidelines are quite similar. Catch the bad guy without killing him, and let the incompetent justice system take over at that point. Red Hood is the rebel in this unusual family. Sick and tired of the endless cycle of catching a bad guy only to have him escape his confinements, Red Hood kicks it up a notch when it comes to crime fighting. Nightwing and Red Hood have a relationship similar to siblings that are close in age. One always seems to be the goody two-shoes while the other is angsty and misunderstood.
Batman is meant to be seen as their paternal figure, but he comes off more as a “daddy” than an actual father. What I found interesting about Under the Red Hood‘s unconventional family dynamic was Nightwing’s and Red Hood’s need for Batman’s approval. Both were just waiting for a pat on the back or an “I’m proud of you” to come from Batman, but of course, that never happened. I’m not sure if this is a result of great mentorship or abuse. Speaking of abuse, I have to admit that I too was very disturbed by pre-teen/teen Robin running around in green panties in front of Batman, who does have a bit of a leather daddy vibe. Thankfully, Robin eventually earns a pair of tights to cover up his bare legs, but I’m not sure exactly what he had to do to earn them. This may all be innocent, but if we flip Robin’s gender for a minute, a young girl running around in the bat cave with green panties would 100% make Batman look like a pedophile. I know that this is just a cartoon, but I really disliked those young Robin scenes. This also makes me wonder why he gets a new Robin when one leaves the nest (or the cave). What’s preventing him from keeping a Robin around to assist him with fighting crime? It could be that Batman wants to work alone once his Robins are ready to fight crime on their own, which is ridiculous because two crime fighters working together is always better than one, or it could be that Batman wants to have a younger partner at his side.
Alli, why is it that Batman just can’t hold on to his Robins? Would you prefer a duo with Batman and one Robin until the end of time? Or do you enjoy the process of Robins becoming their own superheros and new Robins filling in their place?
Alli: Gosh, here we get into more of my dislike of Batman, but this time it’s his personality. (And I know the personal is political, but I’ll try to stay on-topic.)
Batman has got to be hard to live with. He broods all day in his batcave. He holds onto a decades-old trauma to the point of exacting revenge on criminals who weren’t responsible for it. He’s incapable of forming any personal bonds out of emotion or affection. And as you said, nothing is ever good enough to warrant praise from him. Of course, as a young sidekick gets older they’re going to figure out how messed up all of this is and, while it’s permanently changed their life, leave to be on their own.
I think this is a lot like the standard idea of parenthood in general. Batman may be a freak in a leather suit with a broody man cave, but by God, he’ll be portrayed as going through at least one of the normal processes of parenthood by having the kids move out. It seems to be a lesson to the audience, of children, that one day they too will have to move out, even if their parents have a massive mansion with more than enough room to accommodate their need for privacy.
Seeking out new Robbins seems like an another aspect of Batman dealing with his trauma. It’s what psychologists call “trauma compulsion,” which is when you repeat the traumatic circumstances over and over again. He relives secondhand the act of losing his parents through these kids over and over again, which explains his actions pushing them away once they become adults as well. He’s stuck in this stage, permanently stunted. Instead of growing and fixing himself, he just gets new boy toy after new boy toy, replaying his fears over and over again. That’s pretty messed up.
So yeah, I like the idea of all the various Robins going out on their own. I think they need to find a new path and learn to appreciate themselves & their own strengths unlike their surrogate father figure. Until Batman grows up, I don’t think he can properly work with anyone who is an independent adult. Two heroes are better than one, but no Batman is also better than one.
Alli: I was super impressed with the quality of animation and how well this film was made! Usually your expectations of a cartoon Batman movie don’t include well-animated smoke plumes and amazing sound design. I was really blown away by that. This was a technically amazing piece of animation, and it bears being said since we didn’t get to it.
Britnee: Under the Red Hood has sparked my interest in animated superhero films and television series. In an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, Batman and The Joker are present for whatever reason, and there’s a scene where the Joker is hitchhiking and shows a little leg. That image is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Batman, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. If that was just one scene from one episode, imagine all the other funky stuff that is just waiting for my discovery.
Boomer: I’m always curious how other people interpret the Batman/Robin relationship, especially with regards to the appropriateness (or not) of the Robin costume in general. In general, the Robins are young, generally getting started at the cusp of adolescence. For me, though, my first and still-primary image of Robin is of the character as played by Burt Ward in the classic, campy 1960s Adam West era. That costume was the classic, hot pants version, although Ward was given a pair of nude hose to wear, and it was an awakening for young Boomer. (It’s worth noting that Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl outfit was far slinkier and more intentionally titillating despite covering the entirety of her body.) The next Robin to come along was in Batman Forever, when I was eight years old, and that one also leaned hard into the “sexy Robin” template, and that was only more of an eye-opener. Robin was rarely present in the animated series when I watched it as a kid, and even his first appearance, in the episode “Fear of Victory” (aired 09/29/92), firmly established him as being a college student. Given that Ward was 21 in 1966 when he donned that cape and those ridiculous elf boots and that Chris O’Donnell was 25 in Forever, I never conceived of Robin as being all that young until I got older and started reading comics, at which point Dick Grayson was already active as Nightwing, Jason Todd was dead, and even Tim Drake was presented as being in his late teens; it wasn’t until Damian Wayne was retconned in that there was ever a child Robin in anything that I read. As such, I never read his costume (or relationship with Batman) as being exploitative until later in life, when thinkpieces about the inappropriateness of Robin went through a period of fad intensity. As someone trapped within the horizon of his experiences with the text, I have to admit that I can see how others would read the mentor/ward hero/sidekick relationship as inappropriate or exploitative, I prefer to reject that interpretation, although I admit that part of that is just to keep my Robin crush, developed in childhood toward older actors, intact— without it getting creepy or weird. On the other hand, if finding the subversiveness in everything is your cup of tea, the Venture Brothers episode “Handsome Ransom” inspects that issue with the creators’ trademark acerbic iconcolasm, with Batman TAS voice actor Kevin Conroy (my Batman) in the role of Captain Sunshine, a Superman expy with… questionable predilections.
Brandon: Alli’s criticism of Batman as “a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one.” immediately reminded me of a recent SNL sketch about Bruce Wayne being confronted by the community he supposedly protects. The sketch, titled “Wayne Thanksgiving,” is a quick, hilarious watch that feeds directly into the questions of Batman’s political ethics discussed in the conversation above. I highly recommend giving it a look:
Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents Blood and Donuts (1995)
-The Swampflix Crew
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon , Alli, and Boomer watch Magic in the Mirror (1996).
Britnee: Moonbeam Entertainment, the sub-brand of Charles Band’s Full Moon Features, produced some of my favorite children’s fantasy and sci-fi films during the early 1990s. VHS copies of Prehysteria!, Dragonworld, and Pet Shop always lingered around my family’s television, but the one Moonbeam film that I just couldn’t get enough of was Magic in the Mirror. There’s just something about the film’s wackadoodle story and low-budget quality that is both memorable and charming. Magic in the Mirror may very well be the root cause of my garbage taste in movies because, until recently reading through the overwhelming amount of negative reviews, I had no idea that anyone could dislike it.
Magic in the Mirror is a modern-day fairy tale. Mary Margaret Dennis is a young girl with an active imagination, but her botanist father and physicist mother fail to give her the attention and encouragement that she desperately needs. She spends most of her time with her imaginary friends, Bella and Donna, and doesn’t have much human interaction. After discovering a bag of magical golden berries and inheriting an antique mirror from her late great-grandmother, she crosses to the other side of the mirror. What awaits her there is a surreal world ruled by human-like mallards that have a passion for tea made of people, which is steeped for a mere 60 seconds (I usually let my Earl Grey steep for 3 minutes).
Brandon, there’s an interesting mix of science and fantasy in Magic in the Mirror. Most of the scenes with Mary Margaret’s mother involve her working on an invention (a laser beam that defies space and time) while Mary Margaret is trekking through a mallard-filled fantasyland. Is there a message being made about science versus fantasy in Magic in the Mirror? Or is it just two cool concepts combined to make one hell of a movie?
Brandon: If we’re going to single out Magic in the Mirror as “one hell of a movie,” I think we have to place the emphasis on the word “Hell.” Most of my appreciation of the film stems from the way it plays like a child’s half-remembered nightmare, so it’s funny to see it described here as “memorable and charming.” Before reading that introduction, I presumed it would be film’s nightmare quality that buried its imagery in the subconscious of 90s Kids™ who saw it young enough for it to torment them permanently, preventing it from being forgotten the way most Moonbeam Entertainment pictures have. Productions from Charles Band’s prime distribution label Full Moon (typified by franchises like Dollman, Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Demonic Toys) have always felt a little like kids’ movies that happened to feature R-rated monsters & gore. It’s only natural, then, that its (supposedly) child-friendly sub-brand would come across as an unintentional horror show. Magic in the Mirror was a production recycled from unused material for a canceled Full Moon fantasy film titled Mirrorworld (militant frugality is another one of Charles Band’s calling cards), so for all we know its magical kingdom of malicious mallards was originally designed to terrify adults, like the off-putting humanoid amphibians of Hell Comes to Frogtown. As an exercise in filmmaking craft, Magic in the Mirror possesses all of the cinematic artistry of a Wishbone episode. However, its villainous threat of humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes has a potency that far outweighs the limited means of its production values. In fact, the film’s aggressive cheapness somehow makes it feel even more sinister, as if we were an audience of children invited over to a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement. By shifting the focus away from intentional monster-based scares to a children’s fantasy context, Full Moon had somehow delivered one of the most genuinely creepy films in its catalog. Until I can forget the sounds of these cursed duck beings greedily slurping their murder-tea, I’m going to be losing a lot of much-needed sleep. I can only imagine that effect would be even worse if I had caught this movie in its early VHS days (although, like Britnee, I had a strong childhood fondness for Prehysteria!, so who knows).
While I’ll concur that the film’s mixture of science fiction & fantasy as if they were two sides of the same coin was interesting, I’m not convinced the movie thought through the significance of their convergence to any great extent (unlike the recent animated gem Mary and the Witch’s Flower). The mother’s invention of an antimatter raygun almost doesn’t qualify as sci-fi at all, since its childlike logic is so far outside the bounds of reality. The divisions between those two genres seem to be present only to mirror the divisions between Mary Margaret and her mother. Mary Margaret is a fantasy-minded child with an overactive imagination. The too-serious adults in her life (especially her mother) refuse to pay her any attention because they only care about boring, rigid adult stuff like science, careers, and facts. In a way, it’s totally appropriate that the sci-fi aspect of the mother’s antimatter raygun (along with the botanist father’s cataloging of magic berries) only make sense in a fantasy context, since the film is told from Mary Margaret’s detached-from-reality perspective. Magic in the Mirror is by no means singular in its premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world through a nightmarish adventure in a fantasy land; a short list of similar (but more substantial) works might include MirrorMask, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Labyrinth, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, His Dark Materials, and former Movie of the Month Paperhouse. The way it captures a young child’s isolation among adults who don’t have the time of day for their imaginative whimsy has its own merits, though, especially as Mary Margaret & her mother attempt to breach the invisible barrier of the mirror to reconnect with each other, each with their own tools (the magic berries & the raygun, respectively). This belittling feeling of being ignored by the too-serious, fact-minded adults around you is very relatable for kids and it’s one I can only remember being addressed this extensively in the much classier Val Lewton picture Curse of the Cat People.
Boomer, we seem to be painting two portraits of Magic in the Mirror here. One is a thoughtful expression of childhood frustration with being ignored by the adults who lord over you. The other is a subliminal nightmare that lingers only as a fear of cheaply costumed duck-people who boil children alive for the pleasure of the taste. Did either of these qualities overpower the other in your viewing of the film or did they work perfectly in tandem, like two realms on opposite sides of the same magic mirror?
Boomer: Unlike you, Brandon, I didn’t find the ducks–excuse me, Drakes–all that scary. Maybe if I were a child the first time I saw it, I would have had a different experience, but as it is, the flappy mouths and glug-glug-glug drinking sounds were too similar to the intentionally comical appearance of the eagle-headed colonel from Danger 5 to elicit anything other than laughter from me (which it did, every time). If anything, their sped-up waddling and the terrible flying effects render them adorably pathetic in spite of their menacing tea habits. Had I been a child during my first viewing, I would have found the Mirror Minders the far creepier creatures, as the thought of an oversized manchild in drab motley watching me from the other side of my mirror is a much more disturbing thought in its abstract than being boiled alive for a mere sixty seconds. I know that they’re supposed to be charming in a Mr. Tumnus way, but their high pitched voices and the “I used to be a birthday clown but now I live in the woods” color palette aren’t exactly virtues to me. I, too, am a longtime fan of Full Moon Entertainment, and frequently find myself extolling its virtues, like the fact that it was one of the first studios to have an interconnected film universe, with the eponymous main characters from their respective films coming to blows in the crossover Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys (which also featured a shrunken nurse from one of my personal favorites, Bad Channels, as Dollman’s love interest). That doesn’t mean I’m going to give a pass to just anything that Band put his hands on (I submit my review of Dungeonmaster as evidence), but I found this film more charming than alarming, despite the Mirror Minders. There is a bit of a creep factor, but it does, as you say, work in tandem with its more traditional fantasy fare.
The way that the film steals (or “pays homage to,” if you’re feeling generous) images from other dark children’s films of the 80s and early 90s really contributes to its overall charm. The influences of Lewis Carroll’s Alice duology are obvious (and explicitly pointed out in the film’s trailer), but Magic in the Mirror carves out a place in that same rhetorical space as 80s kid flicks with a dark undertones and anchors itself there. The visual of Mary Margaret approaching her great-grandmother’s herbiary could be from any number of films, but there’s a definite NeverEnding Story vibe as the framing calls to mind the moment that Bastian finds the book with the Auryn on the cover in Mr. Coriander’s book shop. Further, although Return to Oz hews closer L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels than the 1932 musical to which it is supposedly a sequel, it carries over the same “Oz is a hallucination/dream” conceit as the Judy Garland film. Once our heroine crosses back over into Oz, she meets the witch Mombi, who is played by the same actress as the cruel woman who runs the sanitarium in Kansas; her imagined mechanical man Tik-tok is influenced by the “face” in the machine that the woman intends to use to electrocute poor little Dorothy’s brain. This wasn’t a new idea even at the time (for instance, Captain Hook is traditionally played on stage by the same actor who portrays Mr. Darling, dating back to the earliest theatrical presentations of Peter Pan), but the similar dark tone to Return works to give Magic in the Mirror perhaps more gravitas than it rightly deserves. Dragora is played by the same actress as Mary Margaret’s principal, her vizier is the same actor as her mother’s douchey assistant, and all of the characters on the other side of the mirror have names that are similar to the scientific nomenclature in the herbiary. There’s no implication that the mirror world is a fantasy in the psychological sense (especially once Dr. Dennis crosses over and meets her royal doppelganger), but if the director were to claim he’d never seen Return to Oz, his pants would likely burst into flame.
Perhaps the most important commonalities in all of these works are the dual themes of grappling with and overcoming parental alienation coupled with a desire for the retention of the comforts of childhood, which bears some inspection. Dorothy Gale is an orphan being raised by her elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t understand her worldview or imagination. Bastian Balthazar Bux is the son of a widower father who keeps his child at arm’s length due to his grief over the loss of his wife. Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth feels overlooked by her family in lieu of the attention lavished upon new baby Tobey, and isn’t ready to forsake her LARPing to fall into the role of caregiver for her little brother. Alice’s parents are never mentioned, but readers can infer her relationship with her sister to be one of guardianship, and much academic ink has been spilled over this interpretation. In every instance the fantasy otherworld seems to be an escape but ultimately proves to be a crucible that causes each character to grow and have a better understanding of both themselves and their parents, and return home to find that, in their absence, the parental figures have learned to be more accepting of the child character as well. Dorothy realizes that there’s no place like home, and is moved by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s concern for her. Bastian learns that he can’t live entirely in his fantasies, and Mr. Bux sweeps his son into a long overdue hug after realizing that his blind grief over his wife nearly cost him his son as well. Sarah returns home with a newfound love for her brother and realizes that her fantasy world will always be there if she needs it, but shouldn’t consume her entirely; she has a pleasant interaction with her step-mother and realizes that being a big sister is an adventure all its own. The narrative of Mary Margaret and her parents follow this model so slavishly it’s almost paint-by-numbers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that these stories continue to be created and continue to be popular speaks to a near-universality of this metaphorical journey, and likely will as long as there are children whose budding maturity arouses confusing feelings of the dual but opposed desires for independence and attention, for individuality and community (so . . . forever).
My roommate has, of late, developed a fascination with soap operas. One of the reasons for this is that he loves anything that he feels like he, an amateur, could make himself. The Bold and the Beautiful so cheaply and poorly made that it captivates him, and I understand that, because that’s often how I feel about Full Moon (and Moonbeam) flicks. Other than the generally well-made puppets, there’s a pall of cheapness permeated with earnestness that lends these endeavors a charm that isn’t fully earned. As an example, I’d like to point to the scene where Mary Margaret finally meets the queen after escaping from the Drakes; you as the viewer should feel an air of majesty and magic around her, but that intended effect is completely undercut by the drabness of the dead grass all around her throne. Like, you couldn’t have sent someone out there the day before to spray paint the grass to make it uniformly, magically green? But no: this scene plays out in a field that is perfectly manicured but very, very brown. Alli, were there other parts of the film where it was obvious to you that the filmmaker’s reach exceeded their grasp? Did you find that endearing like I do, or no? What worked and what didn’t for you?
Alli: I’m going to be sadly honest here and say that this one just didn’t click for me as far as being amateurishly charming. I just thought it was bad. That being said, this discussion has given me a new angle to explore this.
Initially my reaction was that it felt like the children’s film version of Troll 2, but less fun because things that are obviously meant to appeal to children often just come across as obnoxious to me. The Mirror Minders, for instance, got on my nerves in a way that very few things can. (To get personal for a second, I think it’s something to do with the fact that Tansy reminded me of my ex.) I thought that the fact that the duck suits, while aesthetically great, were made in such a way that the actors literally couldn’t walk in them was so haphazard and ill-conceived. The whole plot felt taped together from bits and pieces that the writers found from previously scrapped ideas, resulting in an overall incoherence.
However, now I want to view it as if the purpose was to convey the feeling of a child’s point of view and how a child would approach filmmaking. I have a nephew who comes up with bizarre, horrifying ideas and plot lines that zig and zag in wild directions. If he were to write a movie, it would feel a little like this. Of course it’s a cheap aesthetic. Kids have a way of taking a book of unprotected pressed leaves and making it into a grimoire. In that way, I feel like the filmmakers here really hit the mark. It felt like they put a lot of time and energy into the ideas that really caught them and let everything else slide. For instance, the Mirror Minding chamber is a well-designed set that perfectly contrasts between the two worlds. The costumes for the queen and the Drakes are quite nice for a shoestring budget, even if waddling and running in those duck costumes seems like it was a dangerous endeavor. I feel like all of this put together would really appeal to children who hyperfocus on the ideas that they’re really in love with. And in that way, the movie works. Just not for me.
One of the things that seemed extremely undeveloped for me was Mary Margaret’s parents’ marital problems, which result in both of them trying to control their daughter’s interests and behavior whenever they happen to be paying attention to her. We see that her dad is a little bit of a depressed layabout and that her mom is a career focused scientist with her eyes on the prize, but everything else is given to us in hints. For instance, Lazlo seems to be constantly flirting with her, and the dinner scene seemed like a wildly inappropriate staging for a swinger’s party that a child was just dragged into.
Britnee, what do you think of that dinner party scene? Am I reading too deeply into this?
Britnee: The dinner party scene always seemed a little odd to me. And for a weird ass movie like Magic in the Mirror, that’s saying a lot. Mary Margaret is so out of place at that dinner. I know that’s what was intended, as parts of the film that take place in the “real world” spend a lot of time showing us how Mary Margaret doesn’t belong, but that scene just doesn’t feel right. No one recognizes that she’s a child, and she’s treated as a fellow grown up during the dinner. The dinner guests (Lazlo and his wife) do not like Mary Margaret one bit, and it’s more of a dislike of her being at the dinner rather than a dislike of her personally. The possibility of the two wanting to get it on after dinner with Mary Margaret’s parents would be a fantastic reasoning behind their strange behavior.
I wouldn’t put it past a Moonbeam feature to have some sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the film, even though this is 100% for children. Moonbeam movies are pretty trashy for being family features, which is probably why I’m drawn to them so much. I have this image of the film crew throwing back a few beers while saying something along the lines of, “Dude, wouldn’t it be funny if, like, Mary Margret’s parents wanted to get it on with Lazlo and his wife? That would be totally sick! Let’s make it happen!” So Alli, I definitely do not think that you’re reading too deeply into the weird dinner party scene and the marital problems of the parents. If anything, you’ve pointed out the obvious.
While on the topic of the parents, I found their characters to have some gender-swapped traits, as far as most parents in 90s movies go. The dad is a very soft-spoken, artsy fellow that is a little more understanding of Mary Margaret’s creativity, but the mother is a career-minded scientist that doesn’t seem to understand her daughter at all. Most children’s films of this era have a mother who is supportive of their child’s wild imagination, while the father has a very no-nonsense type of personality. I’m not sure if a statement was trying to be made here, but if there was, it’s not a very positive one. The myth of career women not being able to be maternal seems to be purposefully implied with the mother’s character.
Brandon, what are your thoughts of gender roles of Mary Margaret’s mother and father? Do you think that Mary Margaret’s mother is villainized for being a career-minded mother?
Brandon: It’s certainly valid to read that icy mother-daughter dynamic as an indictment of women who chase career opportunities at the supposed expense of their domestic responsibilities. There’s plenty of other examples of that shrewish, disciplinarian mother trope in 80s & 90s family-friendly cinema that makes Magic in the Mirror appear to be a thoughtless participation in a sexist cultural ideology (Sally Fields in Mrs. Doubtfire immediately comes to mind, if nothing else). I’m just not convinced that the mother is villainized, exactly. She’s more in desperate need of being reminded of the value of childhood play & open-ended imagination. As potentially (and wrongfully) critical it may be of the way the mother balances home life with professional ambitions, the dynamic she has with her less . . . intense husband does recall a common, unfair expectation of women to be the daily disciplinarians of children while fathers get to enjoy the benefits of filling a kind of goofball best friend role. It’s a dynamic that’s been more purposefully explored elsewhere (Lady Bird being an excellent recent example), but I do think it has a real life significance.
What I’m struggling to interpret in retrospect, though, is how the mother’s real life relationship with Mary Margaret correlates with her mirrorworld avatar. In more classic films like The Wizard of Oz & MirrorMask, real life characters’ fantasy realm counterparts are typically amplifications of whatever anxieties they inspire in the young protagonist. In Magic in the Mirror, actor Saxon Trainor is the most significant player to pull double duty as a character in both realms: she plays the uptight scientist mother in the “real” world and the floral, despotic queen of the mirrorworld whose rule of the land is being challenged by the Drakes. Boomer, can you help me make sense of what these two characters have to say about each other in tandem? The usurping drake queen is portrayed by the same actor (Eileen T’Kaye) who appears as Mary Margaret’s schoolteacher, Mrs. Mallard, so the avatars might be saying something about the role of authority figures in Mary Margaret’s life, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what. The easy answer is that the dual casting was solely a Charles Band-brand, money-saving manuever, but I don’t fully buy that.
Boomer: I’ll try! In the classic ’32 Oz, Margaret Hamilton is both the horrible Elmira Gulch, a shitty neighbor who taunts Toto into attacking her in order to have an excuse to have the dog put down, and then in the fantasy world (again, I feel the need to stress the idea that Oz is a child’s fantasy as being a film-only conceit) she is the Wicked Witch of the West who is Gulch’s reflection as a figure of evil and terror, right down to threatening Dorothy’s dog. In Return, the asylum attendants who move patient beds from place to place on squeaky wheels are reimagined in Oz as the creepy Wheelers, again played by the same actors. It’s a recurring trope of fantasy, as the majority of these films present the idea that a child’s fantasy world is a rhetorical space for that child to inspect, explore, and perhaps expunge their conflicting emotions about the world as seen through their eyes. As a society, we’ve progressed far beyond the relatively shallow understanding of human psychology that characterizes the work of Sigmund Freud, but there are still elements of his theories that hold true; he was of the opinion that, until they reach a certain level of maturity, children have a very black and white view of morality, and they cannot rationalize “good” and “evil” as being constituted within the same person. This was further explored by Bruno Bettelheim (admittedly also a problematic source) in his book The Uses of Enchantment: “all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects.” Essentially, most of these films are modern interpretations, adaptations, or reinventions of the fairy tale, and as such they textually examine the dichotomy of the “true” parent and the “pretender” parent. We see this most often in the way that fairy tales often feature an evil stepmother, which is a sanitization of older stories in which the biological mother was the cruel one. The switch to the use of the stepmother was an invention on the part of the Grimm Brothers (check out the chapter on the absent mother in Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde for more info about this phenomena). To further quote Bettelheim: “the typical splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and evil stepmother […] is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits the anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother” and it also preventing the associated guilt “about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her.”
Mary Margaret’s relationship with her mother is a textbook example of this dichotomy: her real mother, though loving, seems to have no idea how to interact with a child or even how children conceptualize the world; she even admits as much in her laboratory. As a result, Mary Margaret has a mother who cannot connect with her in the way that her father does, who has no room for flights of fancy or imagination. As Britnee noted above, Mary Margaret is essentially treated as a small adult and not a child. In contrast to her relationship with her father, who seems to work from home, have a job that even a child could understand, and have endless free time, her mother has a lab, has a job that is incomprehensible to a child (and me, really, because this anti-matter laser is fucking nonsense), has rules and boundaries that are enforced but neither explained nor understood, and is distant emotionally and often absent. With this as a source of unidentifiable (to a child) anxiety, it makes complete sense that Mary Margaret casts Sylvia as Queen Hysop in her fantasy world; the queen is an absolute authority who is likewise cold and distant, rules her kingdom with a set of seemingly arbitrary rules that are not explained, and exacts punishment without explanation. As a method of discipline, being “planted” is simply a fantasy version of being told to stand in a corner; as a worldview, a queen’s “I don’t have to listen to anything; I’m the queen” is not dissimilar from a mother’s “Because I said so.” It makes perfect sense that Mary Margaret would cast her mother in this role in her fantasy world.
Except! This isn’t Mary Margaret’s fantasy. The world on the other side of the mirror is completely real, and although Sylvia/Hysop are not the only doppelgangers/analogues on both sides, most of the characters aren’t. There’s no equivalent to Mr. Dennis on the other side, nor do Tansy or Bloom have mirror images on “our” side. Magic in the Mirror is trying to have it both ways, treating the fantasy world as a real place (like in the Oz books) while incorporating the conceits and rhetorical strategies of those works which treat fantasy worlds as literally fantasy and entirely in the mind of the protagonist (like in the Oz films). As a result, there’s a separation in the metaphorical batter that I think is causing your confusion. Alli, you mentioned that this film doesn’t work for you; I doubt that its internal inconsistency as to whether this is a fantasy film or a fantasy film is likely not the reason, but would you have preferred one or the other? Do you feel like you could have gotten more out of it if the filmmakers had chosen one tack and stuck with it?
Alli: The lack of internal consistency is definitely not what didn’t work here. I guess I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for cheaply made kids’ movies that I have for ones geared towards adults. I don’t think I can handle the unironic, saccharine acting or the film school aesthetic. There was a time and place for that in my life, and it’s sadly over.
However, if I have to choose, I think I would have preferred this movie to stick to the fantasy. I have a big soft spot for everything fantasy, and there’s really not enough fantasy films out there, which is probably why I’m such a big Del Toro fan. It’s a shame the vast majority of fantasy film is low budget and aimed at children, but I think children need fantasy and escape in their lives, however low budget it is. The idea of getting away to a mysterious land and being a hero is empowering, even in something as ridiculous as this. Whereas, a fantasy film would still be empowering, but those always have a bigger dose of the horror of self exploration. Alice learns that a dream world with a lack of focus isn’t all fun and games. Coraline learns to forgive her parents for being busy after finding out that an overbearing mom, albeit exaggerated, is terrifying. Mary Margaret never learns anything about her own behavior. She just escapes. And I like her all the better for not having changed and being the same creative, stubborn child at the end. That’s the beauty of true fantasy for children; kids find out that they were and are strong.
It would have been neat for the movie to retain both the internal fantasy elements and the fantasy/scifi elements like A Wrinkle in Time does. I know that’s a bit more elegant for fare of this kind, but I think it could have been done with a little less focus on the lives of the parents. The whole parental plot in general just felt like a placeholder for something else. Probably, more adventures and obstacles in this mirrorworld that they didn’t have the budget for or the inclination to write.
Alli: I like that there’s no clear-cut good side in this story. Obviously, massive ducks bent on making tea out of other life forms is definitely bad, but who are the good people here? The queen literally plants her subjects after no trial or due process. I don’t see how that’s preferable to Queen Dragora. I guess the good side is the Mirror Minders? I don’t know, but I appreciate the subtlety.
Boomer: The fact that the main character’s name was Mary Margaret is terribly distracting. It took me a minute to realize why it was so familiar, until I remembered that this was the name of Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in the “real world” on Once Upon a Time, another piece of contemporary enjoyable-in-an-unintended-way-but-also-terrible fairy tale media that I happened to stick with for longer than I should have for reasons of my own (#swanqueen). Also, as far as a final question, what was up with the use of that county courthouse as the “castle” of Dragora and her comically sped-up waddling henchmen?
Brandon: While I might be the only member of the crew to be genuinely terrified by the look of them, I do believe the Drakes are the main reason to seek out Magic in the Mirror. Not only do they offer bizarre insights like an answer to the eternal question “What would Howard the Duck look like in lipstick?,” they they also include the laziest, most nonsensical “wordplay” you’re ever likely to hear in a finished screenplay. It’s unclear what failed puns were intended when Drakes refer to their mallardian queen as “your Quackiness” or “your Quacktitude,” but they’re laughably half-assed in the attempt. I should warn you, though: do not be fooled into watching the sequel Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play. Despite what may be promised in its title & cover art, there isn’t necessarily any more Drakes content in that picture than there was in the first one. Also, the whole thing appears to have been filmed in a crewmember’s living room while the sets of the first film were being hurriedly broken down, which might as well be the case since both films managed to secure a 1996 release. Full Moon truly is a wonder. If, as Boomer suggests, the charm of Magic in the Mirror is partly that you, an amateur, could have made it yourself, the charm of Fowl Play is that it looks like it could’ve been made by your kids. And not even the more talented ones.
Britnee: When the mallards make their infamous people tea, the people are steeped for 60 seconds. I don’t think that a human would necessarily die from being boiled alive for a mere minute (I refuse to Google this in fear of the results), but they would be severely injured once they are pulled out of the giant duck teapot. It would be interesting to know what happens to the people after the steeping. Are they given medical attention and returned to the other side of the mirror? Are they thrown in some sort of mass grave where they will eventually succumb to their injuries? I haven’t watched Fowl Play, but I’m almost positive this isn’t explored in the film. It would just be nice to know the full story, but maybe some things are better left unanswered.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
-The Swampflix Crew
There are 44 feature films nominated for the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & the genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though. In fact, this year’s nominations include three titles from our own Top Films of 2017 list, which is an incredibly rare occurrence, given the Academy’s historic distaste for the weirdo genre films we passionately seek out. In fact, two horror films from our Top 5 for the year are nominated for the highly prestigious categories of Best Picture & Best Director, a phenomenon I doubt we’ll ever see again (not that I wouldn’t love to be proven wrong). The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners (Moonlight’s surprise victory last year was a heartwarming exception to the rule), but as a list this selection isn’t half-bad in terms of representing the cultural landscape of 2017 cinema.
Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2017 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings and where they placed on our own Top Films of 2017 list. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.
1. Get Out, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Original Screenplay
“Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.”
2. The Shape of Water, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Hawkins), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Richard Jenkins), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
“Although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the ‘other’: a ‘commie,’ a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.”
3. Logan, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
“The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.”
4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, nominated for Best Visual Effects
“There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character.”
5. The Florida Project, nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Willem Dafoe)
“The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.”
6. Call Me By Your Name, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Timothée Chalamet), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song (“Mystery of Love”)
“This is the first Guadagnino film I’ve seen, and I am immensely impressed by his ability to create an atmosphere that is so appealing to all the senses. I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of music in the film was phenomenal. From the memorable sequence of Oliver dancing in his high socks and Converse shoes to The Psychedelic Furs hit, ‘Love My Way’ to Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Mystery of Love’ (nominated for Best Original Song) during Elio’s heartfelt moment of self-reflection, all of the film’s musical components add emphasis to these little moments.”
7. Faces Places, nominated for Best Documentary Feature
“Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered).”
8. Lady Bird, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Saoirse Ronan), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Laurie Metcalf), Best Original Screenplay
“It’s by no means one of the flashier filmmaking feats of the year, but there’s a pretty solid chance that something (if not everything) in Lady Bird will resonate with you on a personal level. Although a massive number of people respond to the picture by insisting Gerwig made it specifically for them, they can’t all be wrong. She’s speaking to her audience on a distinctively personal level, especially on issues of teen identity exploration and familial struggles with selfishness & class. The rapid fire editing and believably genuine performances from Ronan & Metcalf only serve to drive that vision home and make room for a memorable, personalized emotional response.”
9. Phantom Thread, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lesley Manville), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
“If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score, the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized ‘polite’ exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as ‘a little naughty.'”
10. Dunkirk, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
“I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.”
11. Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
“Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer ‘figure out’ the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one.”
12. Blade Runner 2049, nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
“Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.”
13. Mudbound, nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mary J. Blige), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song (“Mighty River”)
“Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”
14. The Big Sick, nominated for Best Original Screenplay
“Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute.”
15. Loving Vincent, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film
“Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed.”
16. The Breadwinner, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film
“The movie would have been vastly improved if its most striking animation style wasn’t restrained to the piecemealed story-within-a-story fantasy sequences in favor of the more flat, typical CG look that guides most of the runtime. It’s more or less on par with Loving Vincent as the strongest contenders in this year’s anemic Best Animated Feature race, though. Even with my nagging frustrations, that nomination was well-deserved.”
17. The Greatest Showman, nominated for Best Original Song (“This Is Me”)
“I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re ‘Not scared to be seen’ in the Oscar-nominated tune ‘This is Me.’ The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of P.T. Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film, but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.”
18. War for the Planet of the Apes, nominated for Best Visual Effects
“If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that.”
19. The Disaster Artist, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
“Without a strong thematic foundation or point of view, The Disaster Artist plays a little like its worst possible self: an excuse for famous people to play dress-up as a funny looking weirdo who made an infamously bad movie. The good news is that if anyone deserves to be mocked by famous people for their moral & artistic shortcomings, it’s Tommy Wiseau. James Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau may be more fitting of a Celebrity Family Feud sketch on SNL than a feature with Oscar-contender ambitions, but he does (occasionally) make a point to highlight his subject’s dark, abusive streak.”
20. Kong: Skull Island, nominated for Best Visual Effects
“Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in Kong: Skull Island worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.”
21. Coco, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Song (“Remember Me”)
“I’d be a liar if I said individual family-dynamic moments didn’t pull my heartstrings by the film’s ending, but I was still largely negative on Coco as an overall messaging piece. As soon as Miguel’s first guitar was smashed in front of his crying face, he should have boarded on a bus out of town to find a new, less cruel community elsewhere. The clear dichotomy the movie establishes between either a) the virtue of staying with your family no matter how shitty they are to you or b) ‘selfishly’ branching out on your own to find a more hospitable environment sat with me in the wrong way. It was a thematic hurdle that all the pretty colors, goofy skeletons, and super cute canine sidekicks in the world couldn’t help me clear.”
22. Beauty and the Beast, nominated for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design
“Beauty and the Beast shines brightest when it comes to the musical numbers executed by real people. In the opening sequence the choreography is fun and mesmerizing. Belle’s iconic opening number is full of wonderfully synchronized moves. It’s fun, until it gets to the castle. It’s fun until you have to witness a bunch of 3D animated flatware execute a Busby-Berkeley style number in a movie that’s supposed to be a live action remake. It just feels like such great irony.”
23. Baby Driver, nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
“I just felt let down that Edgar Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive.”
24. I, Tonya, nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Margot Robbie), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Allison Janney), Best Film Editing
“The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”
25. Three Billboard outside Ebbing Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Frances McDormand), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
“Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read its ‘non-PC’ demeanor to be bravely truthful about ‘how things really are’ in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on ‘triggering snowflakes’ in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.”
-The Swampflix Crew
Brandon: One of the most promising trends in modern cinephile culture is the gradual return of the video rental store. We don’t yet have an equivalent here in New Orleans (outside maybe our surprisingly well-stocked library system), but where Alli & Boomer currently reside in Portland & Austin, it’s still possible to pop into a locally-owned video store and browse physical media copies of obscure & eccentric films. This was an essential part of my genre film self-education in high school & college, when film discourse online was a lot sparser & more isolated. There are plenty life-changing titles I could cite that we plucked from the Cult Movies section at Major Video or from Blockbuster’s 4 for $20 liquidation sales, but none have stuck with me quite like Sion Sono’s 2002 technophobic nightmare Suicide Club. We rented a bootleg, “unrated” copy of the film from the local Black Lodge Video store in Memphis in the early 2000s, when it was supposedly commercially unavailable in the US. There was something dangerous-feeling about renting a mysterious Japanese horror film that had been censored for extreme violence in its R-rated American cut, a kind of transgression that’s invaluable to high schoolers looking for a safe, affordable thrill that could be had through a VCR. Well over a decade later, the “unrated” cut of Suicide Club is cheaply, widely available for rent on Amazon’s streaming service. Its grimy SD quality on that platform (and on the DVD transfer available at our local library) feels much more like a disservice now than it did on a bootleg VHS, when it was appropriate to the film’s nature as mysterious contraband. That shift in context has somewhat softened some of the film’s allure as a dangerous, transgressive viewing experience, but not by much. Even without the magic of being a blind video store discovery, Suicide Club still feels like a haunting transmission from an alternate reality.
I wish I had the voracity necessary to keep up with Sion Sono’s output as a filmmaker. As formative as Suicide Club was for me as a blossoming genre film fan in the early 2000s, his 50+ credits as a filmmaker are almost too intimidating to tackle. I mostly just catch a stray movie like Tokyo Tribe or Why Don’t You Play in Hell? whenever they become conveniently available. In some ways, though, Suicide Club feels like the only film I’ll ever need from anyone. Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell. Its story opens with 54 high school girls committing mass suicide on the tracks of a speeding commuter train, as chipper as can be. As police investigate this phenomenon, more suicides seemingly connected to the event spread, suggesting that the epidemic is the doing of a cult or a fad or a form of mass hysteria. Older, male detectives are in over their heads as they attempt to detangle this largely feminine, youthful mystery and how it relates to factors as disparate as flash art tattoos, Bowie-obsessed copycats, menacing websites of blinking dots, spirals of stitched-together strips of human skin, and the omnipresent J-Pop group Dessart. The ultimate “answer” to this mystery is that the perpetrators of the suicide mania are not a group of people at all, but rather a series of questions: “Are you connected to yourself? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? What’s your connection to you?” As Dessart puts in in their concluding concert, Suicide Club is “scary, it’s true, but loads of fun too,” and I’m not sure either one of those descriptors ever outweighs the other. This movie’s a little thematically messy, but it both terrifies & delights me every viewing.
Britnee, it didn’t occur to me until we were watching the film together that it shares a certain technophobic sensibility with my last Movie of the Month selection, Unfriended. While Unfriended presents the found footage nightmare of a haunted Skype & Facebook session in the 2010s, Suicide Club loosely captures the digital zeitgeist of the early 2000s: ringtones, emails, message boards, music videos, fax machines, amateur “hackers” with ridiculous usernames like The Bat, etc. It’s a much more abstract, atmospheric exploitation of the terrors of technology than Unfriended’s, which attempts to simulate exactly what it feels like to communicate online (with a vengeful ghost) in real time. I’m obviously a huge sucker for technophobic horror as a medium in general, so both approaches had their benefits to me, but I’m curious: Which version of online, digital age horror did you find scarier? Did the distance in time from the technology of the early 2000s affect that at all, as opposed to the more current depiction of online communication in Unfriended?
Britnee: The digital horror in Suicide Club was, hands-down, 100% scarier than anything in Unfriended. All the spooky digital stuff in Unfriended was mostly contained on one device (a laptop) while Suicide Club involved fax machines, cell phones, emails, DOS computer programs, etc. Since multiple devices were taken over by a mysterious evil force, I felt overwhelmed with fear because the terror was truly inescapable. Since I’ve become less familiar with the technology in Suicide Club over time, my lack of understanding only fueled the mystery of the devices. The possessed fax machine is the device that stands out the most in my mind. I can’t remember the last time I faxed anything, so my lack of understanding somehow blends with my lack of knowing what’s controlling the ultra-bulky machine, ultimately creating a major case of the willies. The one film that actually came to my mind while watching Suicide Club was actually my favorite Stephen King film, Maximum Overdrive. The devices definitely weren’t as aggressive as the ones in Maximum Overdrive (no killer soda machines), but they similarly seemed to be controlled by an inhuman force. While I’m still a little on the fence about who was in charge of the Suicide Club and making all of these phones and machines go off, I don’t think it was a human being. I’m leaning more to the culprit being a demonic ancient spirit, and that scares the pants off me.
The strangest thing about this film isn’t the roll of human flesh, mass suicides, or blood-soaked train tracks; it’s Genesis and his squad of cartoonish delinquents. The crew just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the terror that they brought onto the screen (minus the rape scene and brutal dog killing), but the scenes set in their demented bowling alley seem like they’re from a different film altogether.
Boomer, did you feel the same way about Genesis? Was his appearance and musical number fitting for one of the bloodiest films in cinematic history?
Boomer: It’s difficult for me to say whether or not anything “fits” in this movie. Oddly enough, this movie was recommended to my roommate nearly two years ago by a friend with whom he and I have many similar interests; in fact, she thrust the DVD onto Nicky, who stuck it in the drawer under the TV, where it remained unwatched until this viewing. When it was suggested, I thought, “Oh, hey, this is like one of those nice little coincidences, like when we watched The Box the same month that Richard Kelly was hosting a viewing of Southland Tales.” I’m not sure that, if I had been watching this of my own volition, I would have been able to force myself to finish it. Not because the movie is particularly gruesome (I found the violence comedically over-the-top, with only a few moments that were truly disturbing), but because it’s tonally inconsistent in a manner for which I was unprepared. I’m no stranger to this kind of largely non-narrative storytelling that has huge shifts in concept and tone, but the thing that most took me by surprise was the fact that the film, to my sensibilities at least, plays out as a comedy for the first ten minutes or so before becoming something different. The scene at the train station is hilarious, as the overly perky music plays and 54 students step across that yellow line into danger, then leap in front of the train and everyone explodes comically. Everyone in this movie bursts like a balloon filled with blood, or like a True Blood vampire, when they die; it’s impossible to take seriously.
I have to admit that this one didn’t appeal to me personally. It had a lot of elements of other things that I like: there’s a “joyfulness of the macabre” to it that, when combined with the fact that the majority of the plot revolves around teen female students, has elements of Hausu (English title House). A growing cultural madness and the Japanese national police’s inability to predict or prevent psychotic outbursts seems to be lifted almost directly from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure while the narrative of a police officer being the only tentative connection between different viewpoints on a philosophical subject is reminiscent of the same director’s Karisuma (English title Charisma). There are also elements taken from films from the West as well: Josie and the Pussycats came out the same year this movie premiered in Japan and, although very different tonally, tackles a similar theme about susceptibility and subliminal advertising through manufactured pop music acts; further, there are several sections of the film that are scored with a strange, synth-y leitmotif that sounds almost identical to the first 5-10 seconds of the “Strip Croquet” section of the Heathers soundtrack. Even the aforementioned rape and murder in Genesis’s hideout blatantly steals one of the most iconic images from Tenebrae. It’s a mishmash of other ideas, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but simply doesn’t work for me. Which isn’t to say that there are no scenes herein that are truly inventive and haunting: the image of the students lining up on the rooftop is iconic and unsettling, and I’ve seen scenes that must have been inspired by it in both Fringe and Doctor Who. It’s particularly unnerving given the quick transition from standard teen banter to something much darker. Likewise, the hospital scene also has a lot of atmosphere. Those two scenes are almost enough to win me over, but not quite.
To circle back to your original question, the appearance of Genesis and his droogs neither fits nor doesn’t fit into this movie for me. I really like the idea of a movement that doesn’t actually exist in any kind of organized form making the general public and the police believe in a fake figurehead, then letting that figurehead be killed to create a false impression of safety. That’s one of those things that I really appreciate: a circuitous and complex plan that’s actually elegant in its simplicity once the dominoes start to fall. But here, we as members of the audience are never given enough information for that to feel right. It makes me think about the phrase “in concert”: the idea that disparate sounds, noises, ideas, and even compositions and tempos come together to create one great symphony that’s acting to achieve a single effect. This movie isn’t a symphony; it’s a box of odds and ends—a gold krugerrand, a bolo tie, a belt buckle, a preserved starfish, a guitar pick, a frayed phone charger, and a signed photo of Marina Sirtis. Does a singing birthday card fit into this eclectic collection? Yes. And no. I go back and forth on this myself a lot: how much do you really need to tell your audience for something to be narratively satisfying? For me, the only answer I can give is “more than this.” In the allegory above, if it were made clear that these were all small gifts that someone received for their birthday, then we could say, “Yes, of course a birthday card fits into this assortment.” But without that knowledge, it’s just a bunch of trinkets with no unifying rhyme or reason. That’s how this movie feels to me: there are movies that run on dream logic, and movies that run on nightmare logic, and then movies that have virtually no logic at all. That’s something that I actually really enjoy when you know from the first moment that you’re about to make a nonsensical film (the aforementioned Hausu does this, for instance), but I found myself frustrated by this movie at almost every turn.
Alli, did you find this movie scary, or funny? Was it comical or horrifying to you? Or both?
Alli: I know I’m just preaching to the choir by saying this, but horror is an interesting and complex genre with a wildly diverse variety of themes and subgenres. There’s things like Evil Dead, but there’s also Halloween. There’s slowburners like It Comes at Night or The Witch and creature flicks like The Thing. I’m saying this as someone who realized only two years ago that I even enjoy the genre and have all along, because I used to have a narrow view of what it is. I know the question wasn’t whether or not Suicide Club belongs in the horror genre category, but I want to affirm that, given how broad and varied the genre is, that this very much is a horror movie. It didn’t frighten me, but it was very unnerving. There was the gore and the body horror, and the creeping dread of all the scenes at the “hospital.” (I never quite figured out what the deal was with that building. Where were the doctors? The patients?) There was also a sense of the ridiculous that I definitely appreciated and found really funny.
I was equal parts disturbed and amused, which is what I’ve come to expect from Japanese horror after watching things like Happiness of the Katakuris and Hausu (one of my favorite movies of all time, by the way). Japanese horror just seems to be that way. The closest work I can think of to compare this to is the horror manga Uzumaki by Junji Ito. It’s all about a town plagued by spiral shapes, which, yes, sounds (and is) totally ridiculous, but it’s also so discomforting. Tonally, it blends dark, grotesque body horror with surrealist humor. I know that they’re totally different mediums, but as soon as the disgusting skin spiral is taken out of the gym bag, it immediately popped into my head. It is also told in little one-off segments that build up and up until the ending coalesces into this nihilist freak-fest. Basically, if you enjoyed Suicide Club, please go check it out and read it. It’s a masterpiece and, since Uzumaki arrived before Suicide Club, Sono’s film is a great homage.
Brandon, what did you think of the nihilist philosophy the movie ultimately ends on? I know Suicide Club tries to tie all the segments together with it, while criticizing a lot of Japanese societal values. Did you think it added a sense of unity to the picture?
Brandon: I’m not convinced Japanese societal values are what’s being questioned here. I believe the film’s ultimate target is more the disconnect of living in the modern, digital world. As Boomer describes, individual elements of the movie seem to function independently from each other without ever working “in concert” (though, I do contend that the climactic backstage pass to the Dessart concert ultimately does a satisfying job of tying everything together), which I believe was intentional, even if not wholly successful. Suicide Club has a dissociative effect for me. Even questions of what’s supposed to be funny & what’s supposed to be terrifying are disorienting in a way that catches me off-guard more than traditional horror films tend to, a sensation that turns my stomach. This feeling of disconnect is directly dealt with in the text with the suicide-inspiring line of questioning about how we are “connected” to our “selves,” which is a much stranger philosophical exploration than typical horror genre nihilism. Suicide Club isn’t necessarily positing that life is meaningless, but more that modern culture has severed all our substantial connections with life’s meaning through various artificial removes: online communication, false pop star idols, social fads, cults, etc. The unifying theory that commands the movie is that we’ve all become disconnected & disunified by the digitized modern world, which is an ambitious thought to attempt to communicate in a cheaply-produced horror film.
As deeply unpleasant as the (thankfully brief, obscured) depictions of animal & sexual abuse in the glam rock bowling alley sequence are, I do have to admit I appreciate Genesis’s jarring intrusion on the film. Genesis offers a quick glimpse at a more traditional horror film version of Suicide Club where there’s a central villain that can be blamed for the suicide epidemic, instead of the more ethereal threat of the question “Are you connected to yourself?” Like the intangible technological threat of Videodrome being described as “dangerous” precisely because “it has a philosophy,” the threat of modern digital life dissociating us from a meaningful existence is a seemingly unstoppable terror because it’s a philosophy that cannot be embodied by a physical, conquerable killer—not even Dessart. As despicable as he is as a fame-seeking media whore, I always get a big laugh out of Genesis when he declares, “I’m Charles Manson of the Information Age!” during his arrest. It’s such an empty, meaningless statement when stacked next to the existential self-connection philosophy that drives the film’s terror that it makes him look so puny & harmless, even though we’ve just witnessed him commit horrific atrocities. Genesis & his cronies can only cause so much damage; a killer philosophy has much more widespread implications.
While there’s no one physical manifestation of the killer philosophy that drives Suicide Club, the movie does often deliver that philosophy through a familiar horror movie vessel: creepy children. Spooky kids have been an easy horror movie tool dating back to classics like The Bad Seed, The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Village of the Damned and the list goes on. In the 2010s they’ve even come to be something of a cliché, with most major studio horrors at the very least featuring a creepy child singing a spooky cover of a pop song in their advertising. Excepting the throat-clearing child who taunts police detectives by telephone, though, the creepy children of Suicide Club seem to break from tradition in that they’re sugary & chipper, even cute. From the adorable members of Dessart to the toddlers who hang around backstage to the infected suicide jumpers cheerfully declaring, “Hey, let’s all kill ourselves!” in their prim school uniforms, the children of Suicide Club seem distinctly different in demeanor from the creepy-children trope that’s been woven into the horror cinema fabric for decades. Britnee, do you think that youthful cheerfulness distinguishes the kids in Suicide Club enough from horror’s creepy-children cliché or do they feel unexceptional within larger tradition? What was more effective to you within the film: the traditionally creepy, throat-clearing kid who makes menacing phone calls or the smiling toddlers backstage at the Dessart concert?
Britnee: The spooky children of Suicide Club are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in horror films that involve evil kids. Their gleeful attitude towards suicide is much creepier than if they had demonic voices and evil eyes. The toddler audience at the Dessart show is the one scene of the film that continues to haunt me. Those little babies are scarier than Dessart, an all-girl pop group in charge of a suicide cult. I’m so glad that the throat-clearing phone call kid was brought up, because I just couldn’t figure out what the deal was with them. Why were they clearing their throat? Were they dying from some sort of disease or was it a demonic possession? I hate not knowing what their deal was, but that mix of innocence and evil just makes my skin crawl. The reasoning behind the coughing could be some sort of representation of the lack of understanding between adults and children, but I’m sure it’s not that deep. Coughing kids just sound spookier than non-coughing kids. The kawaii style of horror that Suicide Club brings to the table is definitely different from what you’ll find in most horror films, and I’m hoping to discover more films that follow in its footsteps.
There are many unanswered questions that I have from Suicide Club, and I know that was what the creators of the film purposefully intended. Mostly, I would love to understand what the purpose of Dessart’s “suicide club” was. Boomer, do you have any ideas as to why Dessart brainwashed kids to kill themselves? Do you think the film should have provided more background for Dessart’s role in the suicides?
Boomer: I think that the intended effect of having their role be unclear is at play. If anything, whether or not they are even aware of their role in the rash of suicides is part of the film’s mystique. Maybe I’m just (again) projecting elements of Josie and the Pussycats onto this movie, as the title characters of that film were unaware that their music was being used to subliminally affect the audience. To be honest, I think the scene in which our detective pores over their promotional shot and determines that their raised fingers are meant to spell out “suicide” using T9 text codes may be intended as yet one more piece of the farce. He’s not the brave protagonist of a conspiracy thriller tying together various ephemeral pieces of evidence into a larger whole; he’s a desperate man looking for meaning where there is none, linking unrelated events and images into an absurd (and absurdist) interpretation. This isn’t Ethan Hunt flashing back over a series of clues and realizing that he was being played all along; this is Charlie standing in front of a Wall of Crazy™ shouting “Carol! Carol!” I read the fact that the throat-clearing kid (who was my favorite part of the movie, by the way—the constancy of this interrupting noise gives his speech an unusual, discomfiting cadence, bringing to mind the unsettling nature of the Frank Booth scene in Blue Velvet) was backstage at the Dessart concert as merely one more contrived coincidence on top of all the others in the film. He’s there because he’s there, not because he’s actually connected, or because he’s pulling the strings. He’s no more the leader or instigator of the events than Genesis was; he’s just caught in the wake of the great unknowable, and perhaps nonexistent, catalyst. To me, the girls of Dessart are connected only in the sense that someone looking for meaning in randomness will find it despite the lack of any actual connections between events, the way that the human mind finds people’s faces in the knots and whorls of a piece of wood, or the way you have that one friend that believes in conspiracies even though it requires leaps in logic that are completely absurd (why would the planners of 9/11 even hide clues in old episodes of The Simpsons in the first place?).
As the earliest scenes—particularly at the hospital and the high school—were my favorites, perhaps the thing that most annoyed me were the feints toward tying things in a bow at the end. There’s no connection between the girls at the train station, the nurses at the hospital, the jumpers at the high school, or the boyfriend who leaps from a rooftop only to land directly in front of his girlfriend. Even the justification that the latter three parties heard about the first incident doesn’t hold water, as the first nurse leaps from the window before the security guard can tell her about the news report he’s just heard. With the introduction of the investigative element, the film flirts with the idea of tying all the loose ends together before we see that they are completely ineffective in their attempts to get to the heart of the matter, and the other shoe drops and we learn that it was all meaningless anyway. That’s what frustrates me: the pretense of connectivity emerging from chaos and then disappearing into nonsensical madness. Alli, do you think the film could have been improved if it had continued to shift between different scenes of seemingly-unconnected suicides without trying to have a narrative through line?
Alli: I do tend to like movies that are just short, vaguely connected vignettes like the Jarmusch works Coffee and Cigarettes and Mystery Train, so I could see Suicide Club being connected only through the suicides and Dessart. Up until the creepy child calls, I pictured it being just that. Then, with the mysterious gym bag being slid into rooms, I thought it was going to be more about a tormenting or possessing spirit. Then, it wasn’t either of those things but an ideology, which at first I thought was a weak tie-in. And I still feel like the killer line of questioning isn’t enough to make one want to die. The bizarre ending, though, really got me. There’s just something about an audience full of small children interrogating a grown woman onstage that I don’t think individual vignettes could ever do for me.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a weird forced connection thing going on, but it feels very self-aware at the end. It tries to put the audience on trial as the children break the fourth wall with their pressing questions being delivered straight at the camera. No one in the movie knows why these people killed themselves, so the movie prompts us to fill in the blanks a little with some prompts. Are we connected to ourselves in the information age? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? Or can you merely say to someone “Mail Me?” What’s your connection to you in a world of television, cell phones, and the internet? Like I said before, it’s a line of questioning that’s not particularly chilling to me, but I could see a late night audience being a little shaken as they’re being spoken to.
Boomer: This one was a hard one for me to get through. Not that it exceeded my threshold for gore or viscera (I have yet to find a film that shows me I have an upper limit on that), but I found it very hard to stay awake as it hit my ceiling of tedium. As always, your mileage may vary, but I had very little to take away from this one, other than the fact that the coil of skin means the next time I eat a cinnamon roll is going to be an interesting experience.
Alli: I feel weird putting this thought out there, but that first suicide scene is now one of my favorite cinematic moments. It’s just so gross and over the top. I enjoyed every second of it.
Britnee: “Mail me. Hurry and hit the send key. Can’t you see? I’ve waited patiently.” The Dessart hit “Mail Me” has easily become one of my all-time favorite movie songs. I need to find that amazing 8-bit ringtone of “Mail Me” that went off on Mitsuko’s phone. It may have actually been her dead boyfriend’s phone (I can’t remember), but regardless of who’s phone it was, it probably made me laugh more than any other detail in this movie.
Brandon: Britnee, you mentioned that the menacing technology that haunted you most in the movie was the hospital’s fax machine, so I’d like to draw your attention to the film’s trailer. Suicide Club arrived in a very specific time for Japanese horror where the wild success of Ringu inspired a whole wave of technology-obsessed supernatural thrillers (obviously including its American remake, The Ring). As a result, the advertising for Suicide Club leans heavily into the film’s vague thematic similarities with Ringu by recreating its infamous scene of a wet-haired, ghoulish girl emerging from a VHS recording on a television through the hospital’s now-bloodied, hair-growing fax machine. If it’s a visual that was originally intended to be included in the film, I’m glad it was cut, since its similarity to the more popular (and, in my opinion, less imaginative) Ringu would’ve raised unnecessary scrutiny. As a standalone advertisement and, effectively, a short film, though, I think it’s well worth a watch.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Magic in the Mirror (1996)
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
-The Swampflix Crew