Movie of the Month: Wings of Fame (1990)

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 BritneeAlli, and Brandon watch Wings of Fame (1990).

Boomer: Wings of Fame is an odd little film that at first appears to be about the nature of life and death, or perhaps celebrity or love, but makes no real statements about any of these big concepts. Instead, it is itself a “high concept” film with a singular conceit: the afterlife of the famous is different from that which awaits you or me (if anything other than floating for eternity on a foggy and dismal sea awaits us), and their accommodations are equivalent to the fame that they retain in the waking world. When a famous actor (Peter O’Toole) is assassinated in Europe, his accidentally-killed murderer (Colin Firth) immediately follows him into this strange new world beyond the veil of mortality, having gained notoriety equivalent to the actor’s as a result of having dealt his death blow.

Within this world, Cesar Valentin (O’Toole) struggles to discern what drove Brian Smith (Firth) to want to see him dead, as the two rub undead elbows with a roller-skating Einstein and scientists, politicians, and artists of various disciplines. Other than Einstein, none of them actually exist (there is a Rose Frisch who was a scientist, but she died 25 years after the film was released, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to be in this world), but you wouldn’t know that from the film itself. Cleverly, Wings shows you people that you believe existed, even though they didn’t, like Bianca the sad pop star and Zlatogorski the Soviet poet, who actually ascends from the basement back to a stateroom as his work gains popularity in the living world as the political situation changes.

Brandon, what do you think about this conception of the world that is to come? Do you think that it was a smart choice to generate unreal celebrities to populate this surreal world? How does this contribute to that air of surrealism?

Brandon: I’m honestly conflicted over the introduction of fictional celebrities to this dreamworld scenario. Not only are they a little distracting (I initially felt like a dolt for only recognizing names like Einstein, Hemingway, and Lassie before realizing many of these characters never really existed); they also partially drain the premise of some of its potential surrealism instead of adding to it. Titles like The Congress, Celebrity Death Match, Clone High, and Mr. Lonely have similarly generated absurdist humor out of juxtaposing celebrities we’re not used to seeing interact in a shared, impossible realm, but are each more fully committed to evoking a surrealist effect out of that Famous Person overlap. Wings of Fame is something of a pioneer within this post-modern enclave, however, predating many of those titles by a decade or two. The only example of absurdist gathering-famous-people-throughout-time-in-a-single-space media I can think of that predates it is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure from just a year earlier and that film spends its entire runtime going out of its way to make that juxtaposition possible. I think Wings of Fame would’ve been a much more jarringly surreal work if it had populated its eerily sparse stage play sets with more recognizable historical figures, at least as background characters. (There’s a moment featuring a generic “rocker” in particular that easily could’ve been punched up with a Hendrix-type). I’m also not convinced that the film was ever intended to be an aggressively surreal picture in the first place, unlike the similar works that followed. A lot of its charm rests in its subtle, underplayed execution of an over-the-top premise and the creation of fictional celebrities is an essential part of that approach.

As Wings of Fame is the sole feature credit for Dutch filmmaker Otakar Votocek as a writer-director, it’s difficult to get a full estimation of what sensibility he was attempting to convey here. I do get the sense, though, that he was more interested in the mechanics of how this Celebrity Limbo works rather than how his characters’ inner lives are affected by their artificial environment. Wings of Fame is mostly a philosophical piece about how legacy translates to currency in this afterlife of luxury, setting up a kind of class war between tiers of celebrities who enjoy different levels of fame, and how our only chance of (temporarily) avoiding fading into oblivion is to leave a lasting impact on pop culture or history while we’re still breathing. It makes total sense for the film to use archetype placeholders instead of real life historical figures in that way, but the characters’ absence of pre-loaded personalities does cause the central story to stumble a bit when it switches its interests from philosophy to psychology. The mystery of why Firth’s assassin takes out O’Toole’s pompous actor in the opening sequence is never as interesting to me as the details of the space where that decision lands them. Similarly, the contentious love triangle they form with the gloomy pop singer Bianca feels more like a necessary evil plot structure than a dynamic the film is genuinely interested in (although I am often tickled by the way Bianca continually shrugs off their confessions of deep, unending love for her, since she presumably hears those kinds of things all the time). Part of the reason those conflicts feel a little empty to me is because I don’t know the characters well enough as people to recognize what they’re going through (as opposed to their much more fascinating, heavily detailed surroundings). Using real celebrities whose personas we’re already familiar with might have fixed that.

Britnee, what do you make of the film’s balance between telling a compelling story and establishing the rules of its supernatural, fame-obsessed afterworld? Did the mystery of Firth’s murder motivation or the outcome of the Bianca-centered love triangle mean as much to you as the mechanics of the Celebrity Limbo premise?

Britnee: I had a difficult time focusing on any of film’s central plots because I was more interested in figuring out how the Celebrity Limbo works. The idea of a hotel for dead celebrities is fascinating, so of course, that’s what I focused on. The idea of celebrities getting downgraded to shittier rooms as they become forgotten in the living world was so smart and hilarious. It’s hard not to think about recent dead celebrities in that scenario. For instance, when Bill Paxton passed away earlier this year, there was an influx of people watching Twister and Big Love, so there’s not doubt that he initially would move into a luxurious suite. As time moves on, this will begin to decline, so up to the attic he goes. It really made me think about the craze that occurs after famous musicians and actors die, but how it all starts to dwindle as time goes by. They’re never really “forgotten;” they just aren’t topping the charts anymore.

Also, the film sort of forced me to feel that way because it doesn’t really do much as far as storytelling goes. Caesar has a short-lived confrontation with Brian, but it’s not very aggressive or emotional. The love story between Bianca and Brian is very bland, and there’s not much passion between the two of them. Yes, they make love and she cries in his arms from time to time, but there’s no real connection. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all (I actually enjoyed it very much), but it drove me to really not care too much about any of the film’s main plots.

What really struck my interest was the lottery system that allows Brian and Caesar to be released back into the real world. I wish the film would have spent more time following the two on their journey back into the world of the living.

Alli, would you have liked the film to be half about Brian and Caesar’s journey in limbo and half about their return to the real world? Why or why not?

Alli: I think it would have been nice to see slightly more of Mr. Valentin’s journey in a world where he’s been dead and gone. Would he have ended up being an impersonator of himself or would older people and movie lovers on the street just make comments about how much he looks like himself? Obviously, Caesar is used to a certain standard of living and now he’s suddenly penniless on the streets, so I think it could have been a depressing peek into the world of washed-up celebrities. There’s always a place for him in community theater, though, so maybe he’d end up in the acting world again. I’m a big Peter O’Toole fan. He’s always great. I think his chemistry with Firth wasn’t the best, but he’s enough of a character to carry it along. It would have been fun to watch them navigate the world and team up. After all, Brian is the only person Caesar has that understands what he’s been through and wouldn’t think he’s crazy for telling his story. Basically, I want more O’Toole screen time in general.

I didn’t really understand exactly why Brian chose Caesar in the climactic lottery. He was Caesar’s murderer, so maybe felt indebted that way, especially watching the death authorities usher him onto a transport into the mists. But while we know that the logic of this world is obviously nonexistent, there could have been a resurgence of interest in Valentin’s work. That’s the thing about being famous: you’re constantly shifting from being in an out of the public consciousness. I’d like to have seen a point about that made with the tide rolling in with some of the left-for-obscurity celebrities walking back ashore.

Boomer, do you think the movie would have benefited from people being able to check back in once their fame resurged? Or just more logic to the way the hotel works in general?

Boomer: I’m not really sure. I like that there’s a bit of dream logic to the way that this afterlife works, although I admit that I often go back and forth on my feelings about the concreteness of the “magic” (for lack of a better term) in the films that I watch. I will say that my personal favorite subplot in the film is the story of the fall and rise of Zlatogorski: he finds himself in the bowels of the hotel as a semi-forgotten Russian poet, but his poetry finds a new life in the hearts and minds of a nascent group of Soviets, leading the attendants of the hotel to force him against his will to ascend back to a stateroom in accordance with his fame in the world of the living. He rejects this elevation (as one would expect of a person whose works touch the hearts of hopeful communists, he is not a fan of this social striation) and ultimately tries to return to the sea of obscurity on whose shore the hotel sounds, but is unable to slip blissfully into the anonymity (and post-death rest) that he so desires. It’s a fascinating character study in miniature, both of an individual character and, in its own way, of a nation, but it also gives us the most revelatory information we have about the “rules” of this afterlife: we know that your accommodations are determined by your notoriety among the living, but you also cannot end this cycle even if you want to fade away into the night.

So what happens if someone becomes so insignificant that they are rejected from the hotel, but there is a resurgence in public interest in them? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but one which I’m not sure can be adequately satisfied. Perhaps they are spat back up on shore just as Zlatogorski was when he tried to leave, half-drowned and soaked to the bone, as you suggested. Maybe there’s no resurgence, just the echoes of their memory in the minds of man. One could even argue that those people who experience this complete absence from cultural relevance only to be remembered are those despairing faces we see floating in the open water amid the mists, begging to be saved. Or maybe that’s what really happens to the people who win the “lottery” and get to return to life for a second chance, and the lottery itself is all a sham. After all, it’s not as if Valentin has been completely forgotten by the world at large, as his film work seems to be experiencing (an admittedly minuscule) revival. Maybe it’s really Brian who is along for the ride and not the other way around, like how no one ever thinks about William Alexander or Richard Burbage until the next wave of “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?” madness comes along.

Every element of this world could be nothing more than a facade, but I don’t think that making the mechanics of this afterlife more specific and transparent would better serve the film. Its strengths lie in being a work that evokes this kind of discussion, and making the rules more explicit would undoubtedly take away some of the magic, for me at least. Part of what makes the narrative so strong for me is that we often think of that which lies beyond the veil in terms of absolutes or absences: heaven or hell, or perhaps nothing. Instead, Wings of Fame posits a place that is both heaven (for many) and hell (for people like Zlatogorski) and is thus neither. If death takes us to a heaven, a hell, or merely oblivion, the one thing that all these conceptions shares is an understanding that there is a finality, in either a just reward or quiet nothingness. The hotel is all and none of these things, but most significantly it is a place that is just like the world we live in now, full of anxiety, a desire for more, and a place in society that is largely determined by the opinions of others, over which we have little, if any control.

Brandon, how did you feel about the escape clause/lottery that results in Brian and Valentin being returned to life? How do you interpret that event in relation to the film’s themes? What do you make of the fact that they re-emerge as adult men, not reborn (although there are very few narratives like this one in film, I feel like the end of What Dreams May Come, in which the protagonist’s wife escapes her personally created hell to be reincarnated anew as an infant, is the standard finale of the few narratives that explore death and what follows it in this way)?

Brandon: The lottery system conclusion of the film was more confusing than satisfying for me, mostly because it was a previously unmentioned idea that completely upends the afterlife’s core dynamics at the very last second. The lottery’s not exactly a deus ex machina, since it merely shifts the goal posts for victory instead of saving the day, but it does leave the movie with the feeling of a hastily-written comedy sketch without an ending that goes out on the weirdest note possible out of desperation. I do appreciate that the mystery & the melancholy of the film is carried through the conclusion as Brian and Valentin return to Earth as the literal undead, but I’m not sure that the denouement has any thematic significance to how the afterlife works or how fame can make a person relatively immortal. The worst possible ending would have seen the two men come to in a hospital room after the opening assassination attempt in an “It was all a dream” reveal, but I’m not sure this version wasn’t at least a slightly similar disappointment. To be honest, a reincarnation-as-babies ending might have even been preferable, since this one felt so thematically disconnected & hazy.

I don’t think the ending does much to lessen the impact of the philosophically stimulating reflections on fame that come before it, however. Like I said before, the layout & the mechanics of the fame-economy afterlife Wings of Fame envisions is much more interesting than the interpersonal character dramas it contains, since the characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out or detailed as the (after)world they inhabit. I’m less interested in the lottery system escape that releases the characters from this realm than I am in the question of whether the realm itself is hellish or heavenly. The idea of history’s most infamous personalities coexisting in a kind of eternal artists’ salon is initially far more appetizing than the fading-into-oblivion alternative, but Wings of Fame does a good job of complicating its allure. Described as a limbo ruled by “jealousy, fantasy, and boredom,” there’s a kind of psychological torture inherent to an eternity spent in a mansion with mismatched, egotistical celebrities that might be . . . less than ideal.

Britnee, do you think the hellish or heavenly aspects of Celebrity Limbo ever outweigh each other or did this movie’s version of the afterlife register as entirely neutral to you? Is “living” in this post-mortem mansion a prize for a life well-lived, the punishing price of fame, or ultimately neither?

Britnee: I found Celebrity Limbo to be a very hellish place. The idea of being confined to living in a bland hotel until the lottery system works in your favor makes me want to cry. All the silence, dull colors, and obnoxious dead celebrities would drive me insane!  It’s possible I would feel differently if the hotel wasn’t so boring. Perhaps being trapped in a hotel that was similar to a Disney resort wouldn’t be so bad. All those huge pools, funky colored walls, and bowls of free ice cream don’t seem like a bad deal to me. There’s just something about the hotel in this movie that makes me really uncomfortable. Also, the idea of being downgraded to a crappy room or upgraded to a fancy room based on something completely out of your control is absolutely nerve-racking. I can’t help but imagine myself getting comfortable in a decent room and then being forced to move to one of those dirty rooms on the upper floor where I would spend my time anxiously waiting for a change in my popularity. Because of the hellish vibes that I get from Celebrity Limbo, I would have to say that it’s more of a place of punishment than a reward for fame. The rich and famous are known for always doing what they want and getting what they want, and that’s not a possibility in this realm. Their money and power means nothing in limbo, and they rely on the world of the living to keep their memory alive. Honestly, I kind of like the idea of celebrities getting a taste of the reality they avoided in the living world once they enter the afterlife.

Alli, if Wings of Fame was a current film, what do you think Celebrity Limbo would be like?

Alli: I think a current day Wings of Fame would include a lot of self-created celebrities, along with more pop stars, mentions of drugs, and probably an overwhelming soundtrack. So basically even more hellish.

Although, I think it would be a completely different sort of strange. The current era certainly has had more time to reflect on the nature of celebrity, and we even have a whole different idea of what a celebrity is. You can be a YouTube star, a “reality” TV star, have a sex tape scandal, or just run a popular blog, and that’s extremely weird. (It’s especially strange considering that so many of these self-created celebrities are teenagers.) The way you can go from a regular person on the internet to instant fame with a single viral video is really disorienting to think about. It also means that just as quickly as you rose you can fall back into obscurity once another person gets the spotlight. In the era of internet fame and noise, there would be so much changing of rooms that I don’t think the staff would be able to keep up. I do like to think about the amount of internet-famous cats would be there, though. Colonel Meow is not forgotten amongst the legions of cat ladies.

All those teenagers, self-absorbed adults, and bursts of general chaos would probably devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type scenario: tribes of kids just looking for some validation and ways to fit in, claiming the entire ball room or hedge maze. It would be interesting, but definitely lack the slow-paced meditation that Wings of Fame accomplished. I think a lot of the themes of the film would suffer because of our current era’s transparently shallow celebrities. I think we as a culture have embraced the meaninglessness of fame way too much for a contemporary film to be anything but fake-deep and maybe even edgy.

Lagniappe

Alli: Part of the way Wings of Fame avoids coming across as trying too hard is the surrealist and absurdist humor. I know we’ve talked about the lottery scene being sort of an out of nowhere type thing, but I just loved the oblivion S.W.A.T. team swarming in and the juxtaposition of the game show atmosphere.

I had also a lot of moments during this movie thinking of the French New Wave classic Last Year at Marienbad, which takes place at a mysterious hotel filled with ghostlike guests who seem to lack direction. It’s almost the serious, Peter O’Toole-less version. It doesn’t have any thoughts on the ideas of fame, but it certainly has a similar surrealist feel.

Britnee: I felt like I was watching a episode of a televisions series, not a full blown movie, when viewing Wings of Fame. The film didn’t feel like it was complete once it finished. I really think the movie would have benefited from spending a little more time focusing on “life” after the lottery win.

Brandon: As much as I was fascinated by Wings of Fame‘s world-building, I really do believe that it was a mistake to not indulge in filling the characters’ ranks with real life historical figures & pop culture celebrities. The biggest missed opportunity in that dynamic might have been to take Peter O’Toole’s snobbish Shakespearean actor down a peg by having the actual William Shakespeare either insult his talents or offend his posh sensibilities with some Al Bundy-style slobbery. O’Toole doesn’t get much in the way of comeuppance by the movie’s conclusion and it could have been amusing to see him briefly have his balloon deflated by a (dead) celebrity he admires.

Boomer: Thanks for indulging me in this one. I know that I normally recommend movies that are bizarre in a different way, with style but little artistic depth (Class of 1999), flicks that are very genre but with an unusual twist (Head Over Heels), or dark comedies that maybe take it too far (Citizen Ruth), so it was nice to share this one with all of you.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

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What We’d Most Like to See from the Sequel to Unfriended (2015)

It takes a few months of vetting & email exchanges to pull off our regular Movie of the Month discussions, so our individual selections for the feature are typically scheduled long before they’re published on the site. Even with that publishing delay, though, our selections often stumble into serendipitous timing. For instance, it turns out this October was an especially good time for us to return to the found footage social media horror Unfriended for a Movie of the Month round-table. Not only did the conversation happen to coincide with the American release of Unfriended‘s German knockoff, Friend Request, but it was also just announced that a sequel to the laptop-framed sleeper hit has already been filmed and is looking for a near-future release date. So, with this already-completed sequel lurking on the digital horizon and its gimmicky supernatural horror predecessor fresh on our minds, we thought it’d be a good time to weigh in as a crew on what we’d most like to see from Unfriended 2.

Britnee: What I most want to see in Unfriended 2 would be for the victims to actually leave their homes in order to get to the bottom of a cyber mystery. Confining the entire crew of teens to their bedrooms for most of the first Unfriended got to be a little boring. Each teen could be on FaceTime together (I think more than two people can be on it at once?). They’d all be tasked with figuring out the true reason Laura Barns died by visiting her grave, the place where she shot herself, etc. The idea of using smartphones to communicate with each other instead of laptops seems to be more modern, so I’m assuming the film will go in that direction.

Also, what if Laura had a brother or sister that wanted to avenge her death? A Barns sibling could act as a lure to get shitty teens to visit Laura’s haunted cyber world where they’d meet super crazy/brutal deaths. Laura can kill a couple of teens and her sibling can try their hand at murder too.

Brandon: My initial impulse would also be to switch up Unfriended‘s technology gimmick to a new device or platform from the laptop-framed Skype chat POV of the original. The mental roadblock I’m running into there, though, is that a lot of the better options have already been taken.  Sickhouse already delivered a Snapchat Story version of The Blair Witch Project, so smartphones have been done. Afflicted already supposed what a supernatural horror would look like filmed entirely through GoPros. Neither work is perfect, but by repeating either gimmick, Unfriended 2 risks becoming a kind of redundancy. Its only technological refuge from there might be framing its story from the POV of an Apple Watch, and I’m not even sure I would want to watch that.

With little choice but to repeat the laptop-framed Skype conversation format from the first film, I think Unfriended 2‘s best chance for satisfying audiences is the usual route taken by slasher sequels: going broader with the humor and gorier with the kills. There’s an endless sea of electronic appliances out there that the next wave of online teen bullies could be forced to kill themselves with by Laura Barns’s ghost. Salsa blenders & hair straighteners have already been employed, but there’s still clothing irons, trash compactors, egg beaters, dishwashers, light sockets, and all kinds of other household electronics that could be used to dispose of Unfriended 2‘s teenage trash. Just look to the bonkers Stephen King trash fire Maximum Overdrive for more inspiration there. The sequel could even forgo the verisimilitude of the online experience in the first film and go full-on live action cartoon in its sense of gimmick-dependent novelty. Why not fully commit and kill the new batch of kids with lethal pop up ads or literal computer viruses?

Basically, like with most slashers, I don’t expect Unfriended 2 to be anywhere near as good as the original film, so I think its best chance for memorability is to be as violent and as silly as possible.

Alli: I know you think smartphones and Snapchat wouldn’t be original enough, but I haven’t seen a movie that utilizes those in this context. I really would like a ridiculous Unfriended-style murder with the dog Snapchat filter flipped on. Or maybe a horrific face swap.

Also, the ending is a little ambiguous. Maybe Blaire lived to tell the tale. Maybe Laura messed her up just enough that she’s going to be babbling about ghosts for the rest of her life, which could lead to the cliché, but inevitable horror movie mental institution scene.

There could even be an element of The Ring involved, where the YouTube video of Laura’s suicide is now cursed. A group of kids from the same high school could have watched it and now face the same fate as the original teens.

I know all of this sounds very derivative, but the idea of a sequel to a movie that was this tightly wrapped up seems like a cash grab.

It could also be interesting if Unfriended 2 went straight to a streaming service and worked that in somehow. An “Are you still watching?” prompt after a violent death scene would be a delightfully goofy moment.

Boomer: I’d like to once again note my surprise at the fact that not only was Unfriended decent, but actually pretty good. With that in mind, I don’t have much hope for the sequel. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie, but the need for a sequel gave us the underwhelming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I think actually works on some levels as a creepy film about people losing time and being possessed in the woods, but is terrible as a continuation of the original story for various reasons, not the least of which is a rejection of the first film’s found footage roots in favor of a more traditional cinematic style). Alternatively, we could end up with something like Scream 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that is competent and almost as good as the original, if not of equal quality.

My biggest complaint about Unfriended was that it set Blaire up as a traditional Final Girl and then cut her to shreds. I remain unconvinced that she was deserving of the retribution that she received; I was never fully convinced that she participated in the creation of sock puppet accounts to encourage Laura to kill herself, and the fact that she (in her own drunkenness) filmed Laura in her inebriated, passed out state (but didn’t, at least in my reading of the text, share the video) is casually unthinking but not outright cruel. If anything, I’m hoping that the sequel will clarify this and show whether or not Blaire was, in fact, deserving of the vitriol heaped on her. Maybe we’ll see her as the new internet poltergeist, doling out unbalanced revenge on those who commented on her own Facebook, or she’ll be like Alice from the first two Friday the 13th films, surviving to the end only to be killed off in the first scene of the follow-up. Only time will tell.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017).

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

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 Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: 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.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Halloween Report 2017: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means a lot of 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 films 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.

The Psychic (1977): “Unlike a great deal of Lucio Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen.”

Raw (2017): “I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called Raw Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,’ which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.”

We Are the Flesh (2017):  “I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome).”

It Comes at Night (2017): “What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to.”

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017): “Oz Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.”

The Skin I Live In (2011): “At turns provocative and disquieting, The Skin I Live In is relentless in the way that its unfolding narrative forces the viewer to re-evaluate every previous scene with each new revelation. Do our sympathies for Roberto outweigh the fact that the well of his monstrosity is deeper and darker? His ultimate fate is a consequence of his inability to accept the reality of his life (which is related to his being a plastic surgeon, which is conventionally considered a position that exists solely due to society’s vanity) and let go of that which has been lost (which is more reflective of his well-intentioned scientific drive to build a better human skin through unethical experimentation, as well as his activities as a reconstructive, restorative plastic surgeon). It’s a film that rewards close attention and empathy; as each fleshy layer is peeled away, the viewer finds him- or herself challenged, but the experience is ultimately fruitful.”

Mainstream & 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.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983): “Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids on Earth, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): “One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Howard Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Jonathan Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.”

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): “The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.”

Get Out (2017): “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, Jordan 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.”

Split (2017): “Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. M. Night Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game.”

IT (2017): “IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of ‘elevated’ horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.”

XX (2017): “As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.”

Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016): “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Tim Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny.”

Weirdo Outliers

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 completely unexpected ways.

The Lure (2017): “The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.”

Society (1992): “Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way. This is especially true of these earliest days in a Donald Trump presidency, where poking fun at the inhuman cruelty of the wealthy oligarchy feels almost necessary for survival, even if their status as the ruling class hasn’t at all changed since this film’s initial release.”

Spider Baby (1964): “Spider Baby focuses on the Merrye family, which is so inbred that they suffer from a terrible condition which causes individual members to mentally regress as they age until they become savages. The Merrye clan lives in seclusion, and once a member of the family has fully regressed they get isolated further until they become such a threat to everyone that they get moved to their own section of the basement. Virginia and Elizabeth are two of the three remaining family members of their dying line, not yet old enough to be shoved into the basement. Being isolated from society gives them a dark, sprite-like quality. Due to their regression they have no knowledge of circumstances for their actions. Together they wantonly romp about the house, taking in pet spiders, eating bugs and suspicious fungi from their yard, and bickering almost constantly. Elizabeth is as volatile as a three year old on a bad day. Virginia regularly ‘plays spider,’ which is a handy euphemism for murder. In their isolation, they act outside of society, with unkempt hair and make-believe games gone too far.”

Paperhouse (1988): “After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer.”

eXistenZ (1999): “eXistenZ feels like the beginning of David Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.”

Pet (2016): “The cheapness of the film is apparent in several sequences that are genuinely cinematic in their framing but appear to be shot on low-end digital video; on the other hand, that same sparsity of funding also means that the film has room to breathe as a character piece, regardless of whether any of the character growth that we see is genuine. If Don’t Breathe is is a schlocky thriller with slick artistic design that disguises its crassness, Pet is a low-rent version of the same, with sufficient style but none to spare.”

Are We Not Cats (2016): “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

80’s Slashers

Sometimes all you need to scratch your horror itch is watching a bunch of hot, young idiots get stabbed to death for their moral transgressions by an inhumanly persistent killer.

A Night to Dismember (1983): “A Night to Dismember is a Doris Wishman slasher, purely so. It finds the director shooting gloom & gore the way she usually shoots scantily clad women, following a very strict Halloween/Friday the 13th-style narrative structure to deliver its jarringly violent genre thrills. What makes it notably bizarre beyond Wishman stepping outside her usual genre box is that the film makes no attempt to tell a clearly intelligible story besides mimicking the general feel of a slasher. So sloppy it’s avant garde, A Night to Dismember adheres to a strict ‘Axe murders for all, coherent plot for none’ political platform. Almost unwatchable, yet undeniably entertaining, Wishman’s sole slasher is chaotic outsider art, a watch that’s just as challenging as it is inane.”

The Funhouse (1981): “The Funhouse comes across as a run-of-the-mill B-movie because it follows the generic B-horror movie storyline; a group of teens get high and decide to get crazy & spend the night in their local carnival’s funhouse. It really doesn’t get cheesier than that, but somehow The Funhouse manages to be seriously scary. […] The gruesome murders that take place in the funhouse filled with horrifying animatronic clowns and evil dolls will haunt your dreams forever, or at least for a day or two.”

The Last Horror Film (1983): “Besides the inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching.”

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982): “Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.”

Creature Features

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

Shin Godzilla (2016): “It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.”

Train to Busan (2016): “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces , and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films).”

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016): “After a brief, forgivable trek through Search for a Cure zombie film tedium, The Girl with All the Gifts sinks into a fascinating exploration of the ways Nature reclaims human structures when given enough time and how human bodies are a part of that reclamation. Fighting against Nature’s course is proposed to be potentially futile, which is a pretty hefty lesson to stomach within a genre that’s often reduced to cheap jump scares and Michael Jackson dance routines.”

Slugs (1988): “While the basic premise of Slugs is both silly & clichéd due to the size & nature of its titular threat, the violence & technical skills of its various kills elevate the material to the exact kind of goofy brutality people are looking for in cult classic drive-in fare. These giant, juicy black slugs not only carpet the ground and invade homes from the drains of sinks & toilets; they also bite with sharpened fangs and burrow into unsuspecting victims’ skin. In lesser natural horrors, the slugs’ dirty work would be depicted through a discovered, picked clean skeleton. Here, the little bastards turn their victims into exploding, bloodied meat, covering the sets and nearly the camera in untold excess of blood & gore.”

Drive-In Era Relics

Here’s a few vintage horror relics that only could have been birthed from the drive-in & grindhouse eras of the genre’s now-distant past.

The Colossus of New York (1958): “Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.”

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960): “Cynically made as a cash grab in the wake of Christopher Lee’s Dracula finding popularity in Italy, this is a deliberately over-sexed work that anyone under the age of 16 was banned from watching at the theater. You can feel those trashy origins in every frame of The Vampire and the Ballerina, but the film still manages to be a surprisingly artful experience for me. Anyone who regularly enjoys a slice of cheap black & white schlock should get a kick out of the film’s creature designs & shameless, theremin-scored burlesque. What’ll really stick with you if you’re on that wavelength, though, is the strange relationship dynamics between its vampiric killers & the artfully odd images the film manages to pull out of a seemingly nonexistent budget.”

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964): “The alien threat of The Earth Dies Screaming is one thing after another, a continually shifting obstacle course that pummels its audience and its victims with just the right rhythm to remain surprising & just the right runtime to never outwear its welcome.”

Abby (1974): “For all that Warner Brothers did to bury Abby, they certainly had no issue taking some elements from it when drafting a script for The Exorcist 2, including the connection to ancient African myths and legends. That aside, Abby is marvelous, aside from a little bit of drag in Act III. Speed’s performance as Abby is heart-wrenching, as she struggles to make sense of the actions taken while possessed during her moments of clarity.”

Horror Comedies

Basket Case (1982): “In the annals of delightfully bad horror films, few can hold a candle to Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 freshman film Basket Case. Following the bloodthirsty trail of revenge left by a monstrous flesh sack and the (formerly conjoined) twin brother from whom he was untimely ripped, the film is weirdly disjointed but utterly charming, minus a tonally bizarre sexual assault that happens in the final moments.”

Brain Damage (1988): “Six years after the release of Basket Case, Frank Henenlotter unleashed a new ‘boy and his monster’ movie onto the world with Brain Damage, a film with a similar conceit to his first work but with even more disgusting special effects, a slicker production style, a new villainous creature, strong metaphorical subtext, and homoeroticism to spare. Though less well remembered than the cult classic that preceded it, Brain Damage is nonetheless a lot of fun, and may be objectively better than its predecessor.”

Multiple Maniacs (1970): “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

Office Killer (1997): “Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide ‘additional dialogue’ to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror.”

I Married a Witch (1942): “It’s very cliché to say that a film is “ahead of its time,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!”

The Love Witch (2016): “The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally ‘bad’ movie about witchcraft & strippers.”

Blood Diner (1987): “A supposed sequel to the grindhouse ‘classic’ Blood Feast (a film I have zero affection for), Blood Diner is pure 80s splatter comedy mayhem. It boasts all of the shock value violence & misogynistic cruelty of its predecessor (this time at the hands of a female director, Jackie Kong), but has a lot more in common with ZAZ spoofs or Looney Tunes than it does with its grindhouse pedigree. Everything in Blood Diner is treated with Reagan-era irreverence to the point where this pointlessly stupid horror comedy starts to feel like inane poetry. It shocks; it offends. Yet, Blood Diner is so consistently, absurdly mindless that all you can do is laugh at its asinine audacity in its cheap midnight movie thrills.”

The Greasy Strangler (2016): “I found The Greasy Strangler to be an amusingly perverse provocation, one that works fairly well as a deconstruction of the Sundance-minded indie romance. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.”

Campy Spectacles

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972): “Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment. You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle.”

Mark of the Witch (1970): “Mark of the Witch is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.”

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): “One of the ways Extinction shakes off its stylistic rut is by hitting the reset button, opening with the exact same scenario as the first Resident Evil film. Milla Jovovich’s zombie-slaying protagonist wakes confused & unremembering in the shower, finding her iconic red dress from the franchise’s debut laid out carefully on her bed. As she tries to fight her way out of a military takeover of her home, she’s killed, the scenario is revealed to be a simulation, and her body is dumped on a pile of similarly-dressed clones in a chilling image that recalls the excellent existential horror Triangle. While The Umbrella Corporation’s main stooge (Game of Thrones’s Iian Glen) is literally trying to clone past successes of the franchise with villainous intent, Extinction then blows its derivative, campy treats wide open by shifting from Matrix knockoff to Mad Max knockoff, taking the zombie-infested shit show on the dusty, dusty road.”

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012): “The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.”

Beyond the Gates (2016): “It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.”

-The Swampflix Crew

 

Movie of the Month: Schizopolis (1996)

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 Alli made BritneeBrandon, and Boomer watch Schizopolis (1996).

Alli: I spent my teenage years moping away in Baton Rouge. I lived in the thick of the suburban sprawl, I dealt with LSU Tigermania, and I struggled with the boredom of living in a place where the main source of entertainment was trying to learn to be into football or embracing the wacky nature of not really belonging. I didn’t watch Schizopolis until after I had moved to New Orleans, but it just stuck with me how the film doesn’t explicitly say it’s set in Baton Rouge anywhere, yet Baton Rouge is everywhere. All of the city’s most iconic landmarks are onscreen: Louie’s Cafe, the local new age emporium Coyote Moon, Highland Park (which I wonder if they even got permission for the obscene moments they filmed there), and the strip mall where Little Wars, the game store and nerd refuge, is located. Basically, Baton Rouge is integral to me as far as Schizopolis is concerned. Outside of the disjointed narrative and surrealist moments of invented language, it’s basically a movie about how the typical American suburban life with a cubicle office job drives you a little crazy.

The main character played by director Steven Soderbergh, Fletcher Munson, works a boring office job for a self help guru/cult leader reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard, T. Asimuth Schwitters. (There’s a strong Scientology presence in Baton Rouge in real life.) He wastes his time at work throwing paper balls into a waste basket and literally jerking off. He has a regular wife with a regular daughter. A generic life full of “generic greetings.” His wife is bored and tired of his inattentiveness, so she starts cheating on him with his doppelgänger: Dr. Korchek, a dentist and philanderer. There are many other wild characters who jump in the narrative along the way: Elmo Oxygen, Nameless Numberhead Man, and Attractive Woman #2.  It’s a jumble of varying perspectives, nonlinear storytelling, and basically just nonsense.

Steven Soderbergh filmed Schizopolis in nine months, working whenever he felt like it. It’s a total self-indulgent vanity project. He starred, directed, wrote it (or rather mainly improvised it), was the cinematographer, and even worked in the sound department. But Schizopolis is a very aware kind of self-indulgent. Before the actual movie begins, there’s a prologue that really serves to set the mood, where Soderbergh is in front of a microphone in an empty theater introducing the film. It’s almost a Monty Python-esque sort of dry humor, right down to the intertitle that assures you that no fish were harmed.

In general, I think the writing is extremely funny, especially for having been improvised. The love letter written to Attractive Woman #2 is a really great example: “I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I’m standing near an air conditioner.” Brandon, what did you think of the use of humor in a non linear narrative like this? Do you have any favorite lines?

Brandon: Monty Python is actually a perfect point of reference, since the disjointed nature of Schizopolis reminded me a lot of a genre I love that rarely goes over well with most audiences: the sketch comedy film. Gags in this comedic mosaic often feel like isolated vignettes before they connect to the larger themes Soderbergh is playing with, namely suburban boredom & romantic miscommunication. Because of the cheap, handheld 90s cinematography that feels so firmly nestled in the era’s indie cinema boom, I suppose sketch comedy troupes like The Kids in the Hall or Upright Citizens Brigade would better fit the vibe Schizopolis traffics in than Monty Python or (for a more esoteric example) The Groove Tube, especially since their televised series would often work individual sketches into a larger episodic narrative. There’s a Gen-X slacker quality to Schizopolis that I really appreciated as a contrast to its heady explorations of the flawed nature of language or the faux-spiritualism of its Scientology stand-in, Eventualism. It’s basically the movie equivalent of a late-period Picasso or a 90s low-fi indie rock act like Half Japanese or Daniel Johnston, getting across genuinely intellectual ideas through a formally sloppy mode of expression. Looking at the film from an intellectual distance, many might think that anyone could’ve made it, that there isn’t much craft to its prankish amateurism. I don’t believe that’s true. There are plenty of other low-fi experiments filmed on microbudgets in Nowhere, America that aren’t nearly as watchable or as cerebrally stimulating as this film. Just look to the documentary American Movie to get a taste of what I’m talking about.

For a film about language, however, there aren’t many individual lines of dialogue I can single out as favorites. A lot of Soderbergh’s technique in Schizopolis is dependent on generic placeholders substituting genuine dialogue. The scenes where Fletcher Munson & Mrs. Munson hold entire conversations with phrases like “Obligation” and “Location of offspring” or where the exterminator, Elmo Oxygen, hits on his female clientele with nonsensical gibberish are fascinating improv language exercises, especially when they’re turned back in on themselves from a different character’s POV in the third act. They’re not exactly quotable, though. A lot of my favorite gags were purely visual, like when an entire scene is substituted with a sign that reads “IDEA MISSING” or when the title card is presented as screenprinted text on a man’s t-shirt, only for the man to be revealed wearing only the t-shirt. The stand-out centerpiece of the film might even be the unbroken shot of Soderbergh (as Munson) making goofy Jim Carrey faces in the bathroom mirror immediately after masturbating at work, just because. As big as Schizopolis‘s ideas can be in a larger scope, its scene to scene rhythms function as a series of half-assed pranks, like a highbrow version of Jackass.

Like Alli, I was also thrown off by these highbrow pranks being staged in Baton Rouge, a severely mediocre city I regret living in for as long as I did in the mid 00s. Every now and then a K&B sign or an eerily familiar LSU auditorium would snap me back into awareness of setting in a dissociative way that was just as surreal as any of the film’s play with language or spiritualism. It’s so odd to me that after the massive success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which was also set in Baton Rouge) Soderbergh would stave off the major studio career he would later succumb to (in titles like Erin BrockovichMagic Mike, and the Oceans series) by relying on his father’s resources as LSU’s Dean of Education to film the most bizarre, dirt cheap, and, in my opinion, best movie of his career in a place as drab as Baton Rouge. Boomer, you also have a personal connection to the city Alli & I are eager to throw under the bus here. Did Schizopolis’s Baton Rouge setting contribute to its surreality in your viewing? What effect do you think the city had on this picture’s overall vibe?

Boomer: Seeing the city that I knew so well (and have much fonder feelings for than my fellows here, although all their criticisms are 100% accurate) certainly added a layer of surreality to the film that I was not expecting. I know Soderbergh was a longtime BR resident–a friend of mine from college used to live in the Sex, Lies, and Videotape house on Bedford–but I was still taken aback when the intro sequence of Act 1 featured (the old location of) Louie’s, which was never more than a five minute walk from any apartment I occupied in the eight years I lived in Baton Rouge. For me, growing up in the beyond-rural reaches of the 5.5 square mile municipality of Slaughter (now a town as of 2002!), Baton Rouge wasn’t just a city, it was the city. To put this in perspective, my parents still can’t get cable where they live, and a recent AT&T service issue left them without phone or internet for three weeks. As such, even the tiny town of Natchitoches seemed like a thriving metropolis when I lived there for a couple of years for school. Looking back, there’s a certain kind of nostalgic energy that I’ve had difficulty articulating in the past: I have very specific remembrances of passing through parts of BR I had not seen before as a child and recognizing the business signs, like the one for Kelleher in the aforementioned Jefferson Highway shopping center that now contains Little Wars, and getting a thrill that something from TV appeared in my real life. Part of this may have been born out of being fortunate enough to see the travelling Sesame Street show at the old Bon Marché mall as a very young child. When you grow up in a trailer in the woods with no connection to the cultural world other than three TV networks (four and a half on a clear day) and the “local” public library two towns over, there’s no clear distinction between national and regional broadcasts, so seeing a business in the real world that had been advertised in a local commercial was just as magical to tiny Boomer as hypothetically seeing Big Bird wandering the streets or stumbling upon Murphy Brown in a cafe.

Years of living in Baton Rouge killed that magic, although I will readily admit that there were other mitigating factors that led to me disenchantment, most of them concerned with growing up and being forced to participate in the economy, which aren’t BR-specific. On the other hand, I was fortunate enough to live on or near East State for the better part of a decade during the time when it was one of the last bastions of artists and other weirdos left in the city’s culture war against gentrification (which it lost, in case you were wondering), and being a part of KLSU gave me insight into a different, more culturally relevant side of the city. That having been said, seeing The Baton Rouge That Was, the city of my childhood, brought back feelings in me that I wasn’t prepared for, and cast a veil of intimacy over Schizopolis that was both surreal and distracting. I kept thinking of being a kid, and making connections between the on-screen presentation that were probably never intended to mean anything to a larger audience (“The lady on Channel 9 with the big teeth–they’re talking about Donna Britt!”). The part of my brain that still retains its childhood awe of the Baton Rouge of yore was a bit overwhelmed by the input, and by the time that Mrs. Munson meets her French lover in a coffee shop where I used to work, I was close to short-circuiting.

When my brain was working, I kept thinking about Jacques Derrida and his work in Of Grammatology, wherein he espouses a theory of language that prioritizes a kind of Logocentrism that revolves around the conceit that writing is a removed (and thus less pure) form of speech, and that speech is a removed (and, again, less pure) form of thought. In the scene where Elmo Oxygen finally breaks down what he really wants (to have sex with a certain P.A.), he makes the statement that “Language does not always require speech,” which on the surface appears to be the opposite of his personal ideology. Elmo’s speech seems to instead require no language, communicating emphasis and meaning through a form of comically exaggerated aphasia in which words have no objective meaning. I have to ask, Britnee, do you think that this is an intentional inversion, or is there a meaning to his statement that I’m overlooking?

Britnee: Elmo is by far my favorite character in Schizopolis. The moment that funky beat of his theme music starts to play, you can be sure that Elmo and his bug-eye goggles are about to grace the screen. He’s the generic sexy neighborhood “pool boy,” except he’s a lanky, middle aged bug exterminator that doesn’t need to try too hard to seduce lonely housewives. Elmo’s character doesn’t make much sense, but I don’t think he’s supposed to. That’s what makes him so funny. While his bizarre manner of speaking seems to be another one of the film’s hilarious improvisations, the strange language eventually starts to make sense. Elmo’s nonsense words are repeated in multiple scenes (“nomenclature,” “jigsaw,” “beef diaper”), and they actually start to develop meaning. For example, when “jigsaw” is stated, it means something along the lines of a sexy “Alright.” When he does state, “Language does not always require speech,” I thought it was just another comical element to his character and nothing more. It’s interesting that Boomer mentioned this theory of language from Jacques Derrida. I have no idea who Derrida is and I am not familiar with his work. However, it made me look at Elmo’s statement in a different light. It’s quite possible that the statement was a nod towards the art of improvisation, but I’m leaning towards it just being a goofy line for his nonsensical character.

Other than Elmo, one of the more fascinating parts of the film was the relationship between Fletcher Munson and his wife. I love how we are able to see the same scenario repeated through the eyes of each character. When we see Fletcher’s version, everything is very matter-of-fact. When he comes home to his wife and child at the end of the work day, it becomes quite obvious that the two have a lack of communication. Fletcher greets his wife by saying, “Generic greeting,” and she responds with “Generic greeting returned.” It’s actually really sad to see the lack of connection and emotion between the two while they put on fake smiles and pretend to give a shit. Fletcher’s wife’s version of events is a little different. When she hears Fletcher and his doppelgänger, Dr. Korchek, speak, the two speak in Japanese and Italian, further representing the inability for Mrs. Munson and the men in her life to communicate with each other.

I felt so bad for Fletcher’s wife. She gets shut out by both versions of her husband, and she doesn’t even get a name! She’s simply known as Mrs. Munson. Alli, what are your thoughts on Mrs. Munson’s character? Is she supposed to represent the invisible suburban housewife?

Alli: Mrs. Munson does seem to represent the average bored and lonely housewife, jaded and treated horribly by a culture of men who are bored, neglectful spark-chasers. However, much like how Munson has his doppelgänger, she has her own in Attractive Woman #2; still a character without a name, but a character with much more agency. On one hand, we have this maternal and pragmatic woman fed up with her husband and his lack of attention, but then there’s also this woman who just wants a dang dentist and takes a man to court for being a creep. She’s a mother trying to figure out where her life is headed next and an unattainable love interest who has the upper hand, which is slightly more than the Soderbergh character gets, even if it involves less screen time and no first name.

It’s this duality that really creates the central conflict of the film. There’s a dichotomy between the settled American family life, represented by Mrs. Munson and her husband, and the single life, represented by Dr. Korchek and Attractive Woman #2. The question being posed and answered in that dynamic amounts to, “Is the grass greener on the other side?”  And of course, going a little deeper than shallow inspection (Munson peering into Korchek’s windows) and beyond infatuation, the answer is resoundingly “No.” If you’re a normie suburban type, you might as well just embrace it.

The female characters in general do seem to be given a level of inconsideration, however. Like we’ve already mentioned, none of them are given first names. None of them have any obvious occupations. They’re stuck in the stereotypical world of women, gossiping with friends and taking care of children. The men aren’t exactly portrayed favorably, but it doesn’t feel balanced given their female counterparts’ lack of screen time, lines, and story beats. It’s the same sort of attitude that I feel like the film is trying to lampoon, ironically enough, by making all the men boneheads. I don’t want to be too harsh though, because, unlike in real life, being creepy and sexist has noticeable consequences here. Dr. Korchek gets his words thrown back at him by three unamused lawyers, and even gets shot. Munson is unknowingly ignoring his wife into leaving him. All of the men get their due, even Nameless Numberhead Man, who’s constantly and disgustingly shaming his wife for being too thin. He’s made to look like a ridiculous ass, and much like Mrs. Munson with Dr. K, his wife is cheating on him with Elmo the exterminator, who is a weirdo but not a creep. Everything between Elmo and women is consensual.

Elmo is a somewhat main character who isn’t given a double; what you see is what you get with him, although he’s given an alternate life or two. He’s an exterminator, he’s a sexy neighborhood “pool boy” like Britnee mentioned, and eventually he’s sort of a reality TV star. “Meta” is an overused word, but between Elmo’s video life, the intro, and the interview with the guy in the park, there’s this sort of self-aware thread running through Schizopolis. Brandon, how do you feel about that kind of post-modern “This is a movie you’re watching” thing? And what do you think of Elmo’s involvement in it?

Brandon: While it’s true that Elmo Oxygen doesn’t have an exact doppelgänger (at least not in the form of a separate character also played by actor David Jensen), he does have a sort of counterbalance in the cult leader guru T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), author of How To Control Your Own Mind & the engineer of Eventualism. The film contrasts Elmo’s aggressively informal demeanor & working class lifestyle distributing Elmo’s Bug Juice throughout Baton Rouge suburbia with Schwitters’s stuffier, self-agrandizing nature as an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in. The way they function within the plot as a unit suggests they might have originally been intended to be cast as a single actor, like Fletcher Munson & the dentist or Mrs. Munson & Attractive Woman #2. Schwitters’s Eventualism lectures have a decidedly more academic air to them than the hypnotic gibberish Elmo employs to seduce the bored housewives of Baton Rouge, but the philosophical sentiment of those monologues mean just about as much as Elmo’s “jigsaw nomenclature” ramblings; i.e. they mean nothing at all.

The dual function of these two characters also operates mostly outside the domestic drama of the doppelgängers, which is more of the film’s A-plot. Elmo & Scwitters are allowed to address the audience directly and reveal the barely hidden mechanics of Making a Movie in a way that points to the self-aware, “meta” nature of Schizopolis Alli was referring to. Elmo’s role in that dynamic seems to be to represent the film’s function as a sophomoric prank with Looney Tunes sound effects, while Schwitters represents its more heady, philosophical aspirations. Both are played for equal, self-effacing humor and anchor other meta elements like the interviews in the park, the diagetic chapter breaks, and Soderbergh’s introductory address to the audience to something more thematically substantial. Usually when movies are this self-aware they fall firmly in the Dumb Comedy genre, where breaking the fourth wall or directly pointing to the artificiality of their own existence is a more widely employed trope. Elmo managed to make a more significant impact than Schwitters in this way, as his prankish existence is much more in line with the cartoonish weirdos you’d likely see in a wacky comedy from the Farrelly Brothers, ZAZ, The Lonely Island, etc., but I found them both about equally fascinating as two sides of the same meta coin.

As fun as the film’s self-aware meta humor is on a scene to scene basis, Schizopolis‘s main concern seems to be the romantic affairs between the various doppelgängers played by Soderbergh & Betsy Brantley. This dynamic, in which spouses cheat on each other with characters who look exactly the same as the people they’re already with, opens the film up to many thematic provocations we’ve already covered: the breakdown of communication, the mundanity of suburban life, the dwindling passion inherent to romantic partnership & domesticity, etc. What I’d like to hear from Boomer is how he thinks that dynamic compares to the similar themes of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, in which attraction to a new acquaintance makes them appear different from the rest of the world only until time eventually renders them to be the exact same as everyone else: just another body within the dull hegemony. Does that more conspicuously bitter stop-motion drama traffic in the same waters as Schizopolis‘s “Love the One You’re With” domestic strife for you or are they doing entirely different things?

Boomer: What a great question! For me, I see the two as being complementary and compatible, but not really aligned with one another. Within Anomalisa, Michael’s issues appear to stem from a pretty severe mental illness which causes him to see all people as variations on the same archetype of a person; for him, the whole of humanity is a vast sea of individual bodies bearing identical faces and voices, “proving” to him that he is the only unique (and perhaps only real) person in the world. Michael is adrift in a sea of non-persons, circumscribed by his own existence and unable to find value in others, trapped. When he meets Lisa, he perceives that he is like him, an individual, and creates a facade of her with which he falls in love. When the real Lisa does not live up to this false expectation (because no one can), she begins to assume the same face and voice as the rest of the human horde, until Michael can no longer see what attracted him to her in the first place. My reading of the text of Anomalisa is different from my reading of SchizopolisAnomalisa is very much a work about the failures of human interaction, yes, but I interpret its thesis to be a statement about men’s needs to create an artifice of a woman in place of a real person, as this is less complicated than recognizing a person’s individuality, and how that mental circumlocution is supported by predominant social narratives about the gender but is ultimately doomed to failure because it fails to accept that gender is socially created and performative, not a fact of biology. On another level, Anomalisa is about Michael’s particular and idiosyncratic sociopathy when it comes to his lack of recognition of the humanity of others.

My reading of Schizopolis, on the other hand, is more about the relationships between individuals. It is still a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people. As noted above, his conversation with his wife is like an exchange of placeholder dialogue despite their physical proximity to each other on screen and the intimacy which we would expect based on the fact that they are married; alternatively, his shouted comments to his neighbor, who is placed across the street to imply that the distance between them is personal as well as physical, are too familiar, talking about the man’s wife in intimate (and derogatory) terms.

The biggest difference between the two films, however, is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. We see Lisa’s true face at the end, but only briefly and out of Michael’s sight. Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person. I wouldn’t say that makes Soderbergh’s the richer film (it’s too tongue-in-cheek to have the same haunting effect as Charlie Kaufman’s unique brand of melancholy), but it does make it one with more rewatch value.

Britnee, what did you think of the role of (dis)organized religion in this film? Do you think that the director’s choice to mock Scientology over other, more popular and stable religions was designed to prevent offense? What does the film say about cult thinking?

Britnee: Eventualism is always looming in the background of Schizopolis. These sad, lifeless characters (minus Elmo) are products of Eventualism. Much like Scientology, Eventualism dangles the cheese in front of its members, giving them the promise of reaching their full potential, but in all actuality, destroying their lives. Part of me wonders if Fletcher and his wife’s doppelgängers are what they would actually be if they weren’t part of Eventualism. Lately, I’ve become fascinated with Scientology. No, I’m definitely not becoming a member, but the more I learn about the religion the more blown away I am that it exists. On a recent trip to Quebec City, I stumbled upon Eglise de Scientologie on accident (I thought it was a bookstore), and it was quite the experience. Lifeless, robotic individuals were walking up to me and my mother, offering us the “secret to happiness” by trying to lure us into taking personality tests. I couldn’t help but think of these folks when watching Schizopolis. Like Fletcher and his wife, they really aren’t horrible people; they’re just in a horrible situation. Like with many cults, if the members aren’t 100% brainwashed, they’re trapped. Their families are members and it’s become the only life they know, so it’s not easy to leave. Take Fletcher, for instance: he works for the leader Schwitters and his family belongs to the faith, but he’s absolutely miserable. He’s forever doomed and he knows it.

I don’t think that Soderbergh targeted Scientology over other popular religions to prevent offense, as he doesn’t strike me as the type to play it safe. It seems like he chose Scientology because it’s more interesting than boring old Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. Scientology is a little more on the flashy side, as it’s practiced by many celebrities and even advertised on television!

Lagniappe

Alli: As boring and ill-fitting as suburban, domestic life is presented here, ultimately there’s some sort of resolution and acceptance. Fletcher meets with his wife in the end at coffee shop to patch things up. It seems like they’ve had a taste of the other, more adventurous side of life and it fits even less. Hopefully they resolve their communication issues, but overall it’s an ending that says maybe the average American life isn’t so bad. Some people are just born normies, and that’s okay.

Boomer: As for another artistic view on Baton Rouge that is more in line with Brandon and Alli’s feelings about the city, I recommend “Polio Addict” by BR band The Melters. As for other Baton Rouge-iana that permeates the film, I thought that perhaps Soderbergh’s mention of “foot long veggie on wheat” was a reference to Inga’s Subs and Salads, but wanted to make sure that this was possible, timeline-wise. As it turns out, yes! Inga retired a couple of years ago, but her shop is still in existence on West Chimes Street, and I recommend it.

Britnee: I can count the number of times I’ve been to Baton Rouge on one hand, so I didn’t have any nostalgic feelings like the rest of the crew. I will definitely check out some of the Schizopolis landmarks on future trips!

Brandon: Schizopolis was the most important motion picture I ever rented. It is my firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full streaming price, not some cut-rate deal. I found certain sequences & events confusing, but it was my fault, not filmmakers’. I will need to see the picture again and again until I understand everything.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: The Psychic (1977)

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 BritneeBrandon, and Alli watch The Psychic (1977).

Boomer:  Sette note in nero (literally Seven Notes in Black), marketed as The Psychic in the United States (among other missteps in the American marketing, including essentially spoiling the film with the English tag line) is a Lucio Fulci film about a woman who has a psychic vision. Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, a woman who has recently married a rich Italian (Francesco, played by Gianni Garko). When he leaves to go on a business trip, she decides to visit one of his unoccupied properties, intending to renovate. On her way to this farmhouse, she experiences a psychic vision detailing a red room, a tipped-over bust, a point of view of a wall being constructed “A Cask of Amontillado” style, and various other blinking lights and and images. Recognizing one of the rooms in the farmhouse from her vision, she tears down a section of the wall and discovers that there is a dead body behind it. Her husband is, naturally, arrested, but Virginia seeks to clear her husband’s name with the help of her sister-in-law Gloria (Ida Galli) and her parapsychologist friend, Luca (Marc Porel).

Unlike a great deal of Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen. There are a lot of beautiful shots, like the overhead crane shot of our protagonist and her husband riding horses, the blinking red light of a taxicab’s radio, and various shots of the Italian countryside. All of this contributes to a film that is a very different animal from most of Fulci’s work, but is nonetheless my favorite of his films.

Brandon, one of my favorite things about The Psychic it is its score. Unlike the heavily synthesized scores of Argento’s work or the tense scores of other giallo films, this film features a simple seven note leit motif (the titular seven notes in black, or, as in my preferred translation, seven notes in the dark) that is not only haunting, but integral to the narrative as well. How did you feel about this musical arrangement? Do you think that the film would work as well if the score was not so innately tied to the plot?

Brandon: The most immediately noticeable aspect of the music in The Psychic is that it often isn’t noticeable at all. The central seven note theme that intrudes whenever Virginia picks apart the crime scene from her visions is certainly memorable and helps to shape the film’s tone. Otherwise, like Boomer says, the score is not nearly as conspicuous as the aggressively proggy sounds we’re used to hearing in our giallo fare, especially in Argento’s work. Instead, there’s a softness to The Psychic‘s music that often allows it to fade into the background until the central motif, the titular seven notes, presents itself again. This softness reminds me of the swanky opening credits sequence for the last giallo picture we covered as a Movie of the Month selection, Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. This isn’t necessarily because they sound at all similar, but because they’re more tonally at odds with a traditional horror aesthetic than, say, Goblin’s infamous (an oddly spoiler-filled) score for SuspiriaThe Psychic’s score is distinctly feminine to me in a way that matches the film’s overriding Agatha Christie soap opera tone. Blood & Black Lace deviates from giallo’s usual rock n’ roll psychedelia sounds to mirror the high class cocktail party soirees of its fashion world setting; the feminine energy of The Psychic‘s score is closely tied to Virginia’s inner life in a similar way as she mentally unravels the mystery of her visions. It presents a headspace that gets distinctly more haunting in its central motif whenever her mind returns to the details of the room where she discovers the body. It’s difficult to imagine bursts of synthy prog disrupting that insular tone in any way that wouldn’t be annoying, despite that being the traditional mode of the genre.

Speaking of giallo as a genre, it’s something we usually discuss in terms of stylized horror filmmaking, despite it earning its name from pulpy mystery novels. More often than not, the extreme violence & flashy style-over-substance filmmaking craft of giallo pictures outshine any narrative concerns with their central murder mysteries. I didn’t find that to be the case with The Psychic. Instead of flooding the screen with constant murders & psychedelic montages, The Psychic spills all of its (red acrylic) blood & incomprehensible imagery upfront in the form of Virginia’s visions. It then spends the rest of the runtime piecing them out one by one: a magazine, a lamp, a lit cigarette, a mirror, etc. This makes for a much more interesting mystery than a typical whodunnit for me, because it doesn’t only ask the identity of the killer. It also asks who is the victim, whether the crime has even happened yet, and whether it will happen at all. In a broad sense, The Psychic follows a very common horror trope of a woman sensing evil in the world and being told she’s crazy or irrational by the men around her. The structure Fulci uses to tell that story is anything but conventional, however, and I very much appreciated his patience in parsing out the details of how all the individual puzzle pieces fit snuggly together and in what order they did or will arrive.

Britnee, did you also appreciate that the psychedelic flashes of imagery slowed down after Virginia’s initial visions or would you rather that the whole movie had stuck to that exciting style-over-substance energy? Did the film’s unconventional structure & psychic visions conceit make you care about the answers to its central mystery more than you typically would with other giallo films?

Britnee: I haven’t seen many psychic movies, and I’m not even sure that there are many out there, but of those I’ve have watched (mainly The Gift), there’s usually a buttload of psychic visions from beginning to end. By keeping the psychic visions at a minimum, The Psychic really allows viewers to focus on every little detail in Virginia’s few visions. As Brandon stated earlier, the majority of the film is spent examining all these little details from Virginia’s visions and showing their connection to the murder that has yet to happen. I have a pretty short attention span, so being able to see the same visions over and over again without any change helped me really enjoy this movie, because I could keep up with piecing all the clues together. I was able to play detective, even though I completely sucked at it. I thought that her husband was a sex trafficker that would kill young women and hide them in the walls of his huge abandoned mansion. Little did I know the mystery was centered around a stolen painting. So yes, I definitely cared about piecing the puzzle together more than most other giallo films I’ve seen. Giallo films mostly deal with straight up murders, so it’s obvious that the killer will eventually surface, but with The Psychic, not only was I trying to figure out who the killer was, but I was also trying to figure out where the murder took place, if it really took place, and most importantly, what all that sludgy goo in the darkness was (it ended up being cement and bricks).

There’s no doubt that this film is a giallo, but there’s not a whole lot of bloody, slashed-up bodies like in most giallo films. Interestingly enough, the film starts out with a very violent and disturbing scene. Virginia is a schoolgirl and she has a vision of her mother committing suicide by jumping off a cliff; and when I say violent, I mean violent. Usually when someone jumps off a cliff in a movie, it’s understood that that person will die. Sometimes there’s even a shot of the body all smashed up at the bottom. The jumping-off-a-cliff scene in The Psychic was definitely one of a kind. The camera follows her mother’s body as her face chips away against the cliff’s rough, rocky edges. There’s even a fun little crunchy sound that’s made after each hit. For such an intense opening, I thought this was going to be one sick and bloody flick. To my surprise, there would only be a few other bloody scenes (the murder in the vision and the fall in the church).

While I truly enjoyed this film and can’t wait to watch it again, the ending really got under my skin. I usually like movie endings that leave unanswered questions, but I really wanted to know if Virginia would make it out of the wall alive. One would assume that her body would be found since the music of her watch could be heard, but as to whether or not she’ll be found alive or dead is really unclear.

Alli, were you disappointed with the way the movie ended? Would you have liked to see Virginia survive? Or would you rather see Virginia fulfill the prophecy in her visions?

Alli: I really liked the gradual, grim realization that she was the intended victim and watching her slow acceptance of the truth. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed when the movie ended, but I was certainly taken aback. I expected them to dig her out or for Francesco to fight his way through Luca and the ineffectual cops. I guess I was just expecting the typical giallo bloodbath to occur right there at the end, while the rest of the police force and detectives are racing to get out to the palazzo. Ending it right there was a refreshing level of restraint. Boomer already mentioned “A Cask of Amontillado”, but the end had a very “The Tell-Tale Heart” feel with the soft chimes ringing out Francesco’s guilt through the wall. Personally, I’m pro her being found too late. It adds a sense of symmetry, ending the film where it began.

That being said, for once in a giallo movie, except for Phenomena (big soft spot for Jennifer Connelly) or Suspiria, I actually really liked the main character. I feel like she wasn’t the typical blank slate female or wannabe detective male. Yes, she still turns into a bit of a damsel at the end, but she doesn’t let the other people’s skepticism invalidate her hunches. She knocks through a wall. She’s not just out to prove her husband’s innocence; she’s searching for answers. I feel like The Psychic gave its female characters more agency than other movies in this genre do in general. For instance, Bruna, Luca’s secretary, is a research beast, not Luca’s love interest. She is never put through the typical trials giallo movies throw at independent women, nor is she stalked down and killed. She gets respect and credit for her clever work and skills, and has a big part in the investigation.

Boomer, what did you think of the female characters in this movie? Would you agree that they don’t get the usual vaguely/overtly misogynistic treatment giallo movies inflict on them?

Boomer: I’m so glad you mentioned Bruna, who is a delight in this movie. She reminded me a great deal of Gianna, Daria Nicolodi’s character in Profundo Rosso. They have the same bubbly effusiveness, same insightful and inquisitive personality, and even the same haircut and fashion sense. That film is notable in Argento’s canon in that it, too, is more progressive than the usual giallo crop: one scene shows the male protagonist declaring to Gianna that men are more intelligent than women, only for her to correctly point out that she had put together the same conclusion that he had from available clues, and faster; he retorts that men are at least physically stronger. Later in the film, he is knocked unconscious and left in a burning house, only to be rescued and dragged to safety by the diminutive Gianna, showing that she possesses more strength than he credited her as well. Bruna is usually two steps ahead of Luca, who’s surprisingly disinterested in Virginia’s visions until she’s in demonstrable danger, and she has intuitive thought processes (like when she independently researched the history of radio taxis in the area) without which the plot would grind to a halt. Unlike Gianna, Bruna isn’t belittled by her male counterpart.

This unusual-for-the-genre feminism (understated and mild though it may be) is definitely one of the things that most impressed me when I first saw this film. My love for Argento is, I am sure, common knowledge to regular readers of our site; when I think of giallo, Argento’s is the work that first comes to mind. It’s interesting that you and I both went for references to Edgar Allan Poe and to Argento with our analysis of this film, as Poe was widely known influence on Argento and his work, as evidenced by his segment of Two Evil Eyes (you even mentioned Phenomena, my personal favorite!). There’s a connection there that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with regards to certain misogynistic myths and devices that we see over over again both in Poe’s work and Argento’s work, and the larger society-enshrining machine that we call narrative, like the Madonna/Whore Complex, the sexualization of violence against women, and the infantilization of female intelligence.

Virginia’s role is unusual in that we rarely see women getting to play the everyman role in this genre, either. Genre fiction is overflowing with Neos and Harry Potters and Luke Skywalker: neutral masks unto whom the (presumed male by default) audience can project themselves with no difficulty. We usually only get to see this type of characterization for women in romance novels and rom-coms, usually to the point of insult. In horror, female protagonists are usually unique in characterization, like your Ellen Ripleys, Sidney Prescotts, and Nancy Thompsons. When the two ideals intersect, you usually end up with a Bella Swann. The Psychic is different: despite her fabulous sense of personal dress, Virginia is a bit of a blank slate. She’s recently married to a man she doesn’t know very well, meaning that all of her relationships (save her friendship with Luca) are new and thus still forming; she has no family to speak of. She’s adventurous and engaging, but she’s also generic enough that the viewer slips into the mental space of her character with great ease. It’s definitely not a standard giallo.

Also redefining what it means to be a woman in giallo is Ida Galli’s Gloria, Virginia’s sister in law. Gloria is idly rich, but her haughtiness is more detached than indifferent, and she drops her cold facade when the severity of the danger to her brother’s future becomes clear. She also genuinely cares about Virginia, and is taken aback when Virginia snaps at her and calls her a brat; I almost get the feeling that she was trying to treat this newest member of the family like one of her girlfriends, and Virginia’s interpretation was informed by some culture clash. I also appreciate the fact that Gloria’s promiscuouness is present but never commented upon; she has a lot of “friends” who give her expensive gifts, but she’s never demonized for or endangered by her lifestyle. In a way, she serves to be a mirror of Virginia. So often, when we seek a definition of what makes a Strong Female Character, we find a great deal of discussion about characterization and motivation, with the end goal being to make women on the page as well-defined as their male counterparts; rarely do we see the also important need for ladies as Tabula Rasa, embodied in Virginia here. Gloria is her opposite, a woman with clearly defined attributes and character traits, to balance Virginia onscreen.

In the same vein of unexpected progressivism, something occurred to me on this watch that hadn’t before. I was always struck by how casually Gloria mentions Luca to Francesco. Francesco himself harbors no jealousy for Luca, as if having his wife spend time with her (devilishly handsome) friend is no cause for alarm. Although he should have no compulsions about Virginia’s platonic relationship with Luca, it would be more aligned with his character as betrayed, unless he had reason to assume that Luca is completely harmless. What I’m getting at is that Luca can be read as homosexual, despite their being no confirmation of that textually. Do you think I’m grasping at straws here, Brandon, or did you get that feeling as well? Do you have any of your own extratextual character interpretations you’d like to share?

Brandon: To be honest, that reading of Luca’s sexuality never occurred to me on the first watch, but that might just have been another result of the film’s notably progressive, empathetic character work. I am so used to men who are coded as gay in giallo films (among other vintage exploitation genres) to be such over the top, cartoonish caricatures that their sexual orientation is unignorable, often to the point of being a homophobic joke. Speaking of Argento, I remember Four Flies on Grey Velvet being especially egregious on thaat front. I had interpreted Francesco’s conspicuous disinterest in Luca as an extension of his general self-absorption. This might count as an extratextual character interpretation on my part, but to me Francesco doesn’t seem at all that interested in anything his wife is up to, her friends included. That only changes when her snooping leads to him being suspected for murder. I totally buy that interpretation of Luca as a legitimate possibility, though. It would at the very least fit in with the film’s overall egalitarian, empathetic approach to characters like Gloria & Virginia. It’ll certainly be something I keep in mind in future revisits of The Psychic, as it would be a welcome variation on typical giallo homophobia, but I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to Luca as a character on the first run through. Women like the clairvoyant Virginia & the Cruella de Ville-ish Gloria were much stronger standouts than any of the men in the film, including the one who ended up being the killer.

Besides its refreshing shift away from giallo’s typically macho genre trappings, The Psychic is also notable for the way it plays with time. Virginia’s visions have an A Christmas Carol way of touching on all three sectors of time: past, present, and future. Virginia’s vision of her mother’s suicide as a child was a clairvoyant glimpse of the present (besides being an absurdly grotesque opening to a fairly muted murder mystery). Her visions of the objects in the Murder Room end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy of a future crime that hasn’t even unfolded. At the same time, the curiosity her vision sparks uncovers a victim from a past murder that had somehow gone by uninvestigated. This temporal experimentation follows a much less conventional narrative structure than what I’m used to seeing in most giallo films, which typically function as proto-slasher, body count-focused exploitation pieces, as beautiful as they are to the eye.

Britnee, how did the relationship between Time & Virginia’s visions affect your own experience with The Psychic? What do the inclusion of the opening present-tense suicide & the discovery of the past murder victim add to Virginia’s visions of her future fate?

Britnee: The way Virginia’s visions relate to the past, present, and future caused me to go a little cross-eyed from having my mind blown. Her visions initially leading her to the skeleton in the mansion walls tricked me into truly believing that those violent visions were clues that would lead to solving that poor woman’s murder. Once realizing that the visions were actually intended for Virginia’s own future demise, I began to think of what was the point of having a young woman’s skeleton stuck in wall and how it contributed to completing the puzzle. My light bulb moment in the midst of all this mystery went off at this point; Virginia was intended to find the body because it helped her come to the realization that her visions were of the future and not the past. Her fixation on determining the reason for this young woman’s brutal death led her to one of the most riveting moments in the movie: the discovery of the true date on the magazine that contained a cover photo of the woman in the wall. Poor Virginia was teased by her own visions, thinking she was solving a crime of the past, only to find herself being buried alive in the wall in the end. Having that initial vision of seeing her mother committing suicide at the film’s beginning really leads the audience to assume what Virginia sees is happening in the moment, but I guess that’s not how psychic visions work. Although I have an interest in supernatural phenomena, I don’t know much about psychic visions. How do those with psychic abilities know if they are seeing the past, present, or future? Perhaps if Virginia sought out training for her ability, she would have been able to be more in tune with her gift.

When it comes to figuring out how her vision of her mother’s suicide contributes to her visions of her own death, I’m not exactly sure how that vision contributes to her fate, but it does contribute to the fact that all her visions deal with death. There’s never any indication that she’s had a vision that led to something more positive, like a marriage, birth, etc. Maybe her gift only allowed her to see visions of deaths for those in her bloodline? I think knowing a little more about her mother’s background would have added more to the story. We’re sort of just hit with this intense death/psychic vision with little explanation right at the beginning. Just a little dialogue from the mother as she drove to the cliff would have been great.

Other than the film’s unforgettable plot, I really enjoyed all its artistic aspects, especially the psychedelic close ups of Virginia’s eyes before she has a vision. It’s almost cartoonish, but in the most tasteful way possible. Alli, what are some visuals in the film that you particularly enjoyed?

Alli: I, too, really liked the scenes where she’s about to have a vision. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is in the very beginning when she’s going through the tunnel. There’s all these quick cuts and flashes of light. It builds so much tension. After the gruesome opening suicide, it lured me into thinking her husbands plane was about to crash and that she was going to see visions of that. It wasn’t a let down for there to be an unsolved murder, though. The quick moments when the murder cryptically unfolds are really effective: the blinking red light, the mortar oozing out of the bricks, the dead woman, and the overturned bust.’

In the tunnel, she’s just plunged into darkness with a little spot of glaring light on the other side. There’s also the scene where they’re unveiling the palazzo where everything is dark until the blinding light as the shades are being lifted. The use of that contrast is really great, and maybe a not too subtle metaphor about the world being illuminated and the truth coming to light. Both sort of feel like they’re gradually revealing a new world to her, the tunnel being one where she’s seen a dark secret and the palazzo where she’s introduced to the crime scene.

One of my favorite things about any giallo is the iconic use of red. It’s a standard across the genre, but I love it every time; be it used as a warning symbol, to make it seem like the set is tinted with blood, or just because. I’m just into it. This movie is definitely no exception, and uses it in conjunction with the clues in both rooms where murders happen. The first glimpse of this all red room was gorgeous. The wall paper and chairs and drapery are just spooky and eerie enough for a dead body to fit in there, but there’s also a sense of class. I disagree with Virginia when she says, “Only an old person would live in a room like that.” There’s also the red lamp in the palazzo ex-bedroom. It casts a bit of half light on her face, and I thought that was a great shot.

Lagniappe

Boomer: For what it’s worth, I’ve always read the final scene as ambiguous, but leaned on the side of Virginia being rescued from the wall. Admittedly, I never considered the possibility that she might be discovered too late . . .

Brandon: It makes me somewhat of an asshole, but I have to admit I got a little bit of a laugh out of this film’s opening suicide. It can’t be understated how bizarre of an introduction it is to see that mannequin-esque body double Superman its way down the side of the cliff and smash its bloody face against every rock on the way down. I don’t think I was necessarily laughing at The Psychic for beginning that way, but it was such a bold, unexpected opener that my first reaction was to guffaw at its audacity. Whether or not any humor was intended in that moment, it was certainly an effective way to grab my attention as an audience. I had no idea what was coming next, but that mannequin’s bloodied face promised it would be something memorable.

If I may also briefly weigh in on Virginia’s ultimate fate at the opposite end of the film, I believed her to clearly be dead by the credits, an assumption the tagline on the film’s absurdly spoilery poster seems to support. I do love that its ambiguity has left enough room for that conclusion to be debatable, though.

Alli: I love this movie’s attention to detail. There’s just such a consistency and nothing feels ignored. Like any good murder movie or show, we the audience are expected to pick up on the clues to put things together: the red room, the broken mirror, the changed furniture, the same kind of bricks that were used in the walling, the magazine, the cigarettes, and last but not least the alarm on the watch. Those twelve revealing notes.

Britnee: Almost each time Virginia’s name was stated throughout The Psychic, that horrible yet extremely catchy radio hit, “Meet Virginia” by Train would play in my head. I think it would be so cool if one of those fake music videos on YouTube was made for that song using scenes from this film. Imagine those bloody visions flashing on the screen when the chorus hits. I completely suck at doing anything that tech-heavy, so I’m just putting the request out there hoping that someone has enough free time and talent to make this a reality.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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 BoomerBrandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch MountainReturn to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.

There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?

Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.

What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.

What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?

Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.

Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.

To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?

Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.)  In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.

This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them.  The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets.  I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.

What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?

Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.

The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.

A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character? 

Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy BrownFriday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.)  It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.

If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.

Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?

Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.

Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?

Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.

The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.

Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.

Lagniappe

Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.

Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.

Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.

Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).

Britnee:  I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Wonder Woman (2017)

I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me. I have not seen any other entries in the DC Universe other than the first two Christopher Nolan reboots of Batman. I’m not at all part of the superhero movie loving crowd, but in a world where the Dark Knight has at least twelve cinematic appearances, Superman has at least ten, and the Marvel Universe is dominated by male superheroes and small female roles in ensemble casts, it was about damn time we had a movie wholly dedicated to a female superhero. Also, in a world dominated by male directors, it was long overdue for a woman to helm a superhero film. It’s 2017 and Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. Ever! It’s only fitting for that title to be Wonder Woman: an icon for women and young girls; a tough, no nonsense Amazon princess warrior; and arguably one of the best superheroes of all time. All this alone makes it a movie worth seeing and supporting; and it’s also fun, even for a superhero curmudgeon such as myself.

Wonder Woman starts with Diana’s childhood on the secret Island of the Amazons, Themyscira. Here we get a view of the culture of these women, why they exist, and how their island is eternally preserved and hidden by a veil of storm and fog. The training montages here are pretty cool, but a lot of what happens on the island (repetitive speeches about the gods and reiterations of what Diana is and is not allowed to do) just seems to drag. It’s cool to get a peak into the Amazon lifestyle, but only after so much of that do we finally get the inciting incident. A WWI era British Intelligence spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) manages to crash through the protective field around the island, followed by German troups. After a huge fight on the beach where we get some commentary about the destructive killing power of guns, Diana decides to leave with Trevor and save the world from war. After lots of fish out of water humor and wacky, “Oh my god, you can’t just carry a sword through turn of the century London!” hijinks, they assemble a team of misfits and go straight to the front lines.

For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

There’s been a lot of talk about the gender politics of Wonder Woman and what it means to finally have a female director on board for a blockbuster this big. The idea of Diana not being a piece of meat and eye candy has been floated around (oh, how our standards are so low). Other ideas I’ve seen have mentioned the design of the Amazonian armor and how it’s not run of the mill female boob armor. Both of those I have to sadly disagree with. Sure the armor isn’t Linda Carter bustier stuff, but there’s still the defined breast shapes, which has been discussed time and time again to be realistically useless except for the purpose of showing off boobs. You would think that an ancient race of warrior women would have figured that out. Also, there were many examples of Diana being presented to the audience as eye candy. In one particular scene she shows up to a gala in a stunning blue dress as Steve Trevor looks on with his jaw dropped. The real triumph as far as gender goes is that she’s allowed to be more than just eye candy. Not only is she presented as a desirable woman, she’s also given a story line with actual character development. The other refreshing thing about the way the film is written is that there’s no competition between women. She’s never given any lines implying how she’s not like the other girls or how the women outside her world are very weak, which was refreshing. Even on Themyscira, there’s a sense of camaraderie rather than oneupmanship. The other interesting catering-to-the-women-in-the-audience bit (though it’s debatable whether or not this is a win at all) is the reversal of the male gaze. Chris Pine is just there to be a handsome face and love interest, and there’s even a nude scene, albeit mostly implied, with a lot of double entendre. His character is not completely a cardboard cut-out, but compared to Diana it’s pretty darn close.

Wonder Woman is still guilty of the same sins as other superhero movies: cliché speeches about justice with nonsensical taglines (“It’s not about ‘deserve’; it’s about what you believe”), excessive slow motion (especially in the form of hair flips), and a cheesy fight sequence soundtrack. For true fans of the genre those aren’t necessarily problems, but more like charming quirks.  It manages to blend the darkness of war with the fun, superhero tone. A woman’s touch isn’t as immediately obvious to me as a lot of people believe, but where I see it I think it’s great. I’m glad the world finally has a female superhero movie, and that it’s living up to the hype and expectations.

-Alli Hobbs

Movie of the Month: Cool As Ice (1991)

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 Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Alli watch Cool as Ice (1991).

Brandon:  “I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of their time. And I think the main reason is they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to the static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is that they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I do believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Frederico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

I return to that Corman quote more often than any other summation of what cinema signifies & achieves as an artform. It’s even more insightful to me than Roger Ebert’s often-quoted pearl of wisdom about how the movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” because it better takes in the full spectrum of film as both a force for good and a force for commerce. Something that’s especially interesting to me about cinema’s nature as a “compromised” art form is that it’s more or less required to mask the fact that it’s partially a business, hiding its desperate need for profit from its potential customers. As Corman points out, not every filmmaker is a Bergman or a Fellini, so the main goal of most films produced in the annual cinematic cycle is to make enough money so that producers can, in turn, make more movies the next go-round. They’re not supposed to show their hand while doing so, however, and most audiences prefer to maintain the illusion that their entertainment was produced solely to tell a good story or provide a good time or achieve some kind of transcendent artistic ambition, not to make a quick buck. What’s always fascinating to me is when that illusion completely breaks down and the “art” of cinema is nakedly exposed as a simultaneously commercial enterprise. Titles like Space Jam (where the cash-in conscious brand mashup of Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan™ are injected with a wealth of unwarranted, but marketable 90s Attitude) and Mac & Me (where E.T. was shamelessly ripped off to promote a wide range of Coca-Cola & McDonalds products) make for an absurdist, deliriously silly confession of guilt where filmmaking is exposed as the compromised art form that it truly is. The Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, produced at the heights of the white boy rapper’s marketability as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, is one such film, a nakedly honest admission to its own nature as a cynical cash grab. What’s most surprising about Cool as Ice and what makes it a memorable watch, though, is how well it fulfills cinema’s other defining function: art.

Structured as a “rap-oriented” remake of the early Marlon Brando classic The Wild OneCool as Ice finds its titular star and “Ice Ice Baby” singer stranded in a small town in Everywhere, America. His big city looks (including a leather jacket that exclaims things like “SEX!” & “YEP!” in gigantic block letters and the loudest pairs of pants this side of MC Hammer), flashy motorcycle antics, and massive overdose of hip hop flavor make him & his crew (a conspicuously black entourage that provides him visual street cred among an endless sea of white faces) out to be a target for wild accusations in the small town they unintentionally invade. While waiting for one of his buddies’ motorcycles to be repaired at a Pee-wee’s Playhouse style garage described by the soundtrack to be a literal Limbo, Ice’s protagonist, Johnny, strikes up a budding romance with the Girl Next Door and gets blamed for a string of local crimes he had nothing to do with based solely on his outlandish appearance. Unlike a young Marlon Brando, Vanilla Ice is not exactly oozing with potent sexuality & onscreen charisma. When asked to deliver raw machismo in lines like, “Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero,” he mumbles his way through the readings as if he were rehearsing them for the first time. He is, however, in his own strange way, a beautiful specimen, an object that can be easily commodified. Like a wind-up toy idly waiting on the shelf for its opportunity to entertain, Vanilla Ice mostly exists as a fascinating image, a collection of 90s fashion quirks & excellent bone structure that only comes alive when he’s prompted to do the one thing he was built for: sing & dance. He’s a talent in both regards, even if his skill set is a time capsule of a bygone era, and the movie doesn’t ask much more from him than to wait his turn until it’s time to pull his string to perform another song. Cool as Ice boils down its titular star to his most basic essence: a product.

Just because Cool as Ice is a cheap cash-in doesn’t mean it’s a lazy cash-in. Artfully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kazinski, who has since made a name for himself as a longtime collaborator with Stephen Spielberg, Cool as Ice often plays like an alternate dimension where Terrence Malick directs feature-length breakfast cereal commercials. Although a cartoonishly inane crime thriller, love story melodrama, and half-assed comedy about a doomed romance between a bad boy rapper and a spoiled Daddy’s girl, Cool as Ice is just absolutely gorgeous to behold. Gay 90s club music (not unlike the soundtrack to recent Movie of the Month Head Over Heels) pulsates while luscious camera work and over the top set design flood the screen with a meticulous craft in imagery the movie doesn’t deserve, given its pedigree: Malickian breeze blowing through tall grass, lightbulb microphones lifted from the “In Dreams” sequence of Blue Velvet, long lines of glowing globes spinning in the moonlight. In one especially stunning sequence, Vanilla Ice takes his Girl Next Door love interest (sporting a downright iconic sunflower sundress) on a daylong bike ride through the desert sands & a nearby construction site in what I’d genuinely consider one of the most visually pleasing and oddly sensual two minute stretches of pure cinema bliss I’ve ever witnessed. Given that director David Kellogg’s resume mostly consisted of “video documentaries” for Playboy until that point, I’m willing to attribute that beauty & awe entirely to Kazinski’s eye (speaking of the intersection of art & commerce). Still, it’s interesting that so much careful attention to visual craft would sneak its way into a movie that mainly exists to strike while the iron’s hot on a one hit wonder pop star. And since the movie failed as a business decision, only making a sixth of its budget back at the box office, all that’s really left to chew on at this point is its novelty as a pop culture time capsule and the artful flourishes Kazinski was able to sneak onscreen. I’d say both of these elements hold up in a 2010s context and together do a fairly decent job of being honest about the movie industry’s compromised existence as both an art and a business.

Britnee, how hyperbolic am I being in praise of Cool as Ice as an art object? Do the visuals of its summertime bike ride sequence and Limbo Garage production design actually achieve an artful aesthetic or is the film solely enjoyable for its “so bad it’s good” charms as an expensive, feature-length advertisement for Vanilla Ice, like an extended music video relic? I’m curious to know your thoughts on how the film balances art & commerce.

Britnee: I do agree that Cool as Ice is a beautiful work of art, as completely bonkers as it may sound. The fun house style camera angles, the vibrant neon colors (clothing, background, motorcycles, etc.), the fast-forward sequences that incorporate 90s hip-hop beats are just a few things that make Cool as Ice a visual treat. As Brandon mentioned, the bike ride and Limbo Garage are some of the most artistic elements in the movie, especially the Limbo Garage. Every scene that took place in the Limbo Garage was almost like stepping into another world, maybe even another movie? The garage owners, Roscoe and Mae (Blanche from Grease), act like they’re aliens disguised as humans, and that somehow really adds to the artistic flair of the garage. Their blank stares and eccentric attitudes were sort of chilling, and their ultra funky home seemed so out of place in such a white-bread town. Also, let’s not forget about the insane sandwiches the bike gang members made while in the house. Was it their personal choice to put sardines and peanut butter on a sandwich or were they under some sort of extraterrestrial spell? It’s all just so mysterious, and I love it.

As for the bike ride/construction zone love sequence, it was visually stunning, but it leaned more toward being “so bad it’s good.” Vanilla Ice popping out of unfinished walls with a childlike smile was way over the top. However, I did love the shots of the two lovebirds riding through the desert on his sweet bike while the sun was setting in the background. It was all very Purple Rain. This was the moment in the film where we should have been able to get a better glimpse into Johnny’s life. Kathy began to ask him personal questions before they started hopping over pieces of wood, but he never gave her any answers, only his signature “Yep, yep.” This scene, much like the rest of the movie, was more about the visuals instead of the story itself, and that’s not really a bad thing.

Cool as Ice was ultimately a film made to capitalize off one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice, but in all honesty, I did not feel like the movie was trying to sell me Vanilla Ice. The incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s musical talent in real-life scenarios was surprisingly tastefully done. Yes, it’s terrible early 90s white boy rap, but his flow is pretty amazing. The film opens up with a club scene which is basically a Vanilla Ice video that incorporates Naomi Campbell’s lip syncing (I think?), but the rest of the movie, thankfully, strays away from that music video style. The next time Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Johnny, gets a chance to show off his mad rhymes is at a teen hangout called The Sugar Shack. The performance was pretty great and sort of romantic, even though Johnny basically dry humps Kathy on The Sugar Shack’s floor. It’s so terrible, but it truly seemed like the two had a strong connection after that moment. Kathy, much like myself, was officially “Iced.”

I really enjoyed Vanilla Ice’s performance as Johnny. His acting reminded me of the kind of stuff you would find in an art house film. The way he recites his lines is so poetic and he exudes confidence. Personally, I would love to see him in another lead role because he knows how to own the screen.

Alli, were you at all impressed with Vanilla Ice’s acting skills? What other genre of movie would you like to see him act in?

Alli: More than anything else, I was actually really blown away by his dance moves, which I wasn’t aware he had somehow. I guess that one sequence in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 didn’t prepare me. Acting wise, I wasn’t really impressed with anyone in this movie. However, in this cast, he was a gem.  He carried the role of the star very strongly, even stealing away attention from the ridiculous production design. His absurd balance of white boy rapper swagger and romance movie heroics somehow works. There’s no real explaining why, other than I think he’s given a lot of good (or bad, depending on how much of a grouch you are) material to work with. “If you ain’t true to yourself then you ain’t true to nobody. Live your life for someone else, you ain’t living,” is a real stand out line for instance. The showmanship of it all just comes so easily and naturally to him, which probably explains how he was even popular in the first place.

If I had to see him in a different genre of movie, I guess I would have to go with a road trip buddy movie. I’m thinking Crossroads, except replace Britney Spears with Vanilla Ice.  He’s got that hip, laid back style, but can play the troubled bad boy as well. Just find a couple of equally nuanced and ridiculous 90’s dudes and you’ve got a hit on your hands. They could teach each other life lessons and dance moves, as they try to find themselves and the American Dream. Pun totally intended here, I think something like that would have been the perfect vehicle for him.

The Wild One was also prime for him, though. Of course Brando and V-Ice play the troubled, bad boy Johnny in different ways and Cool as Ice‘s plot quickly jumps off the rails, but I think it was a good fit. Both movies and actors play up teen crazes and parental anxieties. The Wild One, with its leather jackets, hip jazz music, and wild hats, is a movie all about style, which is something I know Vanilla Ice to also be about.

Boomer, what did you think of Vanilla Ice and his crew’s fashion? Was it a beautiful early 90’s/late 80’s hip hop time capsule or a horrifying mess that you can’t believe you watched an hour and a half of?

Boomer: The fashion was certainly atrocious at points, but it worked for me in the context of this movie. Cool as Ice is even more of a cartoon than the similarly named Cool World which followed a year later. In fact, the moment that solidified my surrender to the absurdity of the film was when the two hapless goons stopped in the middle of a sandy waste to review their map, and the sound that accompanies the taller of the two pulling his gun from his waistband is the basic cork/rubber popping sound that you can hear in animated stuff going back to Looney Tunes. It was essentially the same experience I had when I saw God Help the Girl for the first time and just absolutely hated it, until I surrendered to that film’s tweeness and accepted it for what it was, then ended up falling in love.

I’m not saying I fell in love with Cool as Ice, but I was certainly willing to overlook a good many of its flaws the more I allowed myself to be carried away by its unwavering devotion to being as aesthetically and narratively discomfiting as possible. From the way that the featureless scenery of the unnamed small town and its surrounding areas are treated like beautiful vistas by the cinematic eye, to the stylistically indulgent music video-esque speed-ups and musical accompaniment when Kat’s family is preparing dinner, there’s a distinctly tongue-in-cheek animated quality to Cool as Ice that caused me, against my better judgment, to make allowances for the portraits in sartorial horror that float through the film. Perhaps that innate zaniness is why the director’s only other feature, the awful Matthew Broderick Inspector Gadget, was (slightly) better received.

That having been said, that doesn’t mean that the, erm, fashion in the film gets a complete pass. It’s mind-boggling to me that not only does Johnny own not only one, but two pairs of short overalls; one of them is black with white stripes and one is black with blue stripes, and both are worn with the bib down and the straps hanging on his sides. Worse still, both pairs have the word “ice” stitched into the bib, meaning that they are (a) intended to be worn this way, since the word is printed to be read by others, and (b) these are presumably part of Vanilla Ice’s personal wardrobe, not just Johnny’s, since “ice” is only part of his catchphrase in the film, not his name. On the other hand, the times when he is wearing this less eye-catching apparel are not as bothersome as some of his other outfits. I absolutely hated the eye-searing harlequin pants in the first scene, but when they made their reappearance in the final musical sequence, it was a welcome relief after the film’s most heinous vestiary crime: that awful skull cap that Johnny wore at the very top of his head like Parappa the Rapper. I was willing to forgive a multitude of sins based on how bizarre this movie was, but not that hat. All of that having been said, aside from Kat’s timelessly simply dresses, all of the outfits in this movie are ridiculous, so it’s not just Ice’s personal flair that we’re seeing take the wheel here.

Of all the things that can be easily mocked about Cool as Ice, Kristin Minter’s performance is not among them. Most of the cast seems to be made up of amateur actors (not counting Michael Gross, last seen hereabouts in previous Movie of the Month Big Business, and he seems to be sleepwalking through this film), but Minter turns in a pretty solid performance, with surprising pathos. It’s a shame to think that her career hinged on the critical and financial success of this film, which never materialized. What do you think, Brandon? If Minter managed to sell her performance in this movie, why hasn’t she managed to have a more successful career?

Brandon: I totally back the praise for Kristin Minter’s performance as Kathy. Minter’s tasked with a fairly thankless, almost impossible dual duty of both existing as a blank slate so that teen girls in the audience can daydream of being in her place next to the supposedly hunky Johnny and making Johnny appear hunky in the first place. She is the literal Girl Next Door in the film, with her only defining characteristics being that she’s college bound & rides horses. In a hilarious touch of production design, the film even emphasizes this personality void by prominently hanging a framed blank sheet of white paper over her bed. Minter’s physicality and genuine mix of intelligence & sweetness makes Kathy feel like a real human being against these odds, however, which even better served her role as an audience surrogate. The actor has continually worked since the 90s, but besides a role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, it seems she mostly appears in single episode runs on various television series. Cool as Ice was clearly her time to break out & grab attention and I’d agree she did so admirably. My best guess as to why that didn’t lead to wider success is timing. Minter bears a striking resemblance to early 90s Lara Flynn Boyle in Cool as Ice, which was released concurrently with Boyle’s run as Donna on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series. If anyone was specifically looking to cast Minter’s type at the time, I suppose they’d be more likely to look to the actor who worked with Lynch instead of the one who worked with Vanilla Ice. That’s all speculation, of course, but when I gaze at the glory of the Cool as Ice poster (as I often do, thanks to the hilariously puzzling tagline “When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add ice.”) all I see is Donna Hayward waiting to straddle the back of a white rapper’s motorcycle (which is somehow still a step up from James’s motorcycle).

Part of what’s so refreshing about Minter’s presence in the film is that she’s surrounded by so many mediocre, bitter men. Kathy’s father, the sleepwalking Michael Gross, allows his dark past to interfere with his daughter’s summertime fun & romance. The boyfriend Kathy leaves for Johnny is an alpha male shithead who slut-shames her in public for dancing with another man and obnoxiously threatens her life with drunk driving recklessness. Just about the only male character who isn’t a total monster in some way is Kathy’s kid brother, who serves as an audience surrogate for the demographic of potential Vanilla Ice fans who aren’t horny teenage girls: young children who look up to the rapper for being so cool. It’s entirely up to Minter (and Ice’s wardrobe) to sell that cool factor on Ice’s behalf, since a lot of Johnny’s actions read as bullheaded machismo. In the couple’s initial meet cute, Johnny shows off by jumping his motorcycle over a fence, scaring Kathy off the back of her horse in what could have been a paralyzing or even life-threatening fall. As payback, she kicks him in the balls. Johnny also steals Kathy’s personal property so that she’ll be obligated to talk to him again, shamelessly flirts with her in front of her boyfriend despite her obvious disinterest, and frequently sneaks into her bedroom window, uninvited, while she’s either asleep or not at home. In the film’s strangest moment (which is no small distinction) Johnny climbs into Kathy’s bed while she is sleeping and wakes her up by seductively sliding an ice cube between her lips. The frost on her breath is filmed beautifully as it rises in the early morning sunshine and the audience is left to stew in the creepiness of the moment for what feels like an eternity. Thankfully, Kathy is more turned on than creeped out and that scene leads directly to the construction site sequence I love so much. Vanilla Ice’s sex appeal can only be conveyed through so much wardrobe, dancing, and sunlit shirtlessness, so we rely on Kathy’s screen presence to sell us on its potency. She really does save the movie from just being a miserable parade of overly macho scoundrels.

Speaking of motorcycle straddling and ice cube sucking, teen horniness plays an alarmingly large role in this PG film about a white rapper and a small town kidnapping plot. It’s even been reported that a young Gwyneth Paltrow was offered the role as Kathy, but her parents made her turn it down because of the sexualized content. Britnee, you already mentioned Johnny dry humping Kathy on the Sugar Shack dancefloor. What are your thoughts on the way teenage sex & romance are handled in the film overall?

Britnee: I had no idea that this was a PG rated film. The ice cube bedroom scene alone is enough to get this film at least a PG-13 rating. Cool as Ice somehow manages to incorporate teen sexuality without making it too over-the-top. Kathy has a slight sexual awakening on the Sugar Shack dance floor, but nothing is really that hot and heavy after that. The film is trying to be sexy enough to attract horny teens to theaters, but at the same time, it’s trying to keep the main focus on Vanilla Ice’s dancing and rapping. For instance, the infamous ice cube scene could have gone much further than it actually did. Vanilla Ice is fully clothed in her bed (shoes and all) when lying beside her, while she’s fully clothed as well. This was definitely an opportunity for a sex scene, but it seems like it was intentionally avoided. Her little brother walks in on the two and asks if they were having sex, so it seems like that was done to keep the film’s sexiness on the quirky side to keep that PG rating.

Other than the surprising lack of sex scenes in Cool as Ice, I was very surprised to find that Vanilla Ice only had a few musical moments. He only raps about 3 or 4 times, and it just didn’t feel like it was enough for a film that’s supposed to be a hip-hop musical. I wanted to hear more of Vanilla Ice’s sick rhymes, so maybe this is just me being selfish. There were a couple of funky 90’s club songs thrown in here and there, and they took away opportunities for us to have more Ice.

Alli, did you find the relative lack of actual Vanilla Ice music to be strange? Do you think a love scene between Ice and Kathy that involves a rap serenade would have done well in this movie?

Alli: I did find that for something that seems so much like a vanity project there was a distinct lack of self promotion as far as music goes, but I’m glad he didn’t cram this movie with as much “Ice Ice Baby” as possible. I think that’s part of the reason why it transcends from weird vanity project to cult film art. While I’m glad his performance/seduction on the dance floor didn’t feel too, too forced, I actually would have really liked a delicate, free style serenade in the middle of that McMansion construction project (maybe a premonition of his current work on the DIY channel as a house remodeling wise guy). When they were just romping around in the emptiness would have been the perfect time to try to sell him more as a tender, troubled hunk, a role I just wasn’t buying. Overall though, yeah, I would have liked some more of his jams. I think the lack of Ice-related tunes just called more attention to everyone’s acting, and the bizarre muddled mess of a plot.

I didn’t really understand the whole crooked cop thing. Is this supposed to be a movie full of crime and intrigue or is it a teenage love story? I don’t even think anybody working on it knew for sure. I know we’ve talked about some of the similarities between Head Over Heels and Cool As Ice as far as the 90’s club jams, but I think they also have this crime narrative that happens somewhat out of nowhere that kind of hijacks the movie.

Boomer, do you think the father’s side plot took away too much attention from the love story?

Boomer: The side plot with the father’s past coming back to haunt him certainly seems to come out of nowhere, and is easily one of the least sensible elements in a film that’s already treads very close to nonsense, especially given that it’s instigated by his own foolishness. I mean, seriously, if you’re in witness protection, why on earth would you allow yourself to be filmed for a sound bite, even if it’s supposedly local? That aside, it does introduce the only real conflict in the film other than the fighting between Johnny and Katherine’s (ex)boyfriend, which is pretty tension-free after we see that Johnny alone is capable of fighting off a bunch of cornfed country boys single-handedly. Given that there’s not much other action taking place, there’s no real other way for Johnny to prove himself to Katherine’s family other than saving her little brother, but it still seems like a job that should have been left for the FBI (or whomever is in charge of the witness protection program in this bizarre universe), rather than a random rapping hottie with as much personality as an album cover.

Overall, the crime plot is the only element of the film that elevates it out of what would otherwise have been only nominally a plot. Without it, there’s not much in the way of conflict, nonsensical though it may be. It also gives the sleepwalking Gross something to do in the film, given that he’s the only real star here. I also liked the way that the two revenge-seekers were both somewhat bumbling and also credibly threatening. To go back to the above mention of Minter’s role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, they reminded me of the Wet Bandits from that film, in that they’re comically inept but still utterly capable of violence, as indicated when they kidnap Katherine’s younger brother. Her boyfriend is undoubtedly a “zero,” but without something to do other than stand majestically on his motorcycle in a romper, Johnny’s not much of a “hero” until the (ridiculous) rescue that serves as the meager climax of the movie. This centerpiece and the plot snags that lead up to it may seem tacked on, but without it, there’s even less of a film that what we end up with.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It seems that Vanilla Ice’s entire career has been defined by overcoming his early status as a one-hit-wonder. Ever since “Ice Ice Baby” made him a star, Ice has been struggling to reinvent himself. When gangsta rap changed the industry, he released the single “Roll Em Up,” refashioning ​himself as a hard-as-fuck street tough. When Limp Bizkit popularized rap metal, he reimagined his sole hit single as the would-be nu metal anthem “Too Cold.” In more recent years, he’s found his most appropriate home yet on reality television, where being a flash in the pan novelty act is a godsend, not a handicap. Cool as Ice is an obvious choice to me as the best of Vanilla Ice’s cynical cash grabs since his star prematurely rose and fell with his first album. It turned his blatant commercialism into pure artistic expression and an exaggerated cultural time capsule that only gets better as the years roll on, like so many motorcycles riding until dawn. That virtue entirely rests on cinema’s unique crossroads of art & commerce. If the movie has one major fault it’s that it didn’t lean into its obvious status as a commercially-minded novelty even further to conclude with a performance of “Ice Ice Baby,” which is nowhere to be found on its soundtrack. That would’ve been the icing on the cake.

Alli: I really, really would have liked more info about that Pee Wee’s Playhouse garage. It’s out of nowhere. I know Roscoe and Mae are eccentric, yet awkward geniuses, but as said above even for this universe they’re strange. Also, this house and garage are supposed to be a literal Limbo, but between what? Is the world Johnny and his friends came from in some sort of chaos? What did they go through before happening upon this innocent town?

Boomer: I also love the art design of this movie. When mentioning to a friend that I had just watched Cool As Ice, he asked if he was misremembering the film in that he remembered one location as consisting of nothing but colors and shapes, which I was happy to point out was an actual set on this film. My favorite bits were the globes and doors out front, as well as the ludicrously sized salt shakers that at first seem like a perspective trick but ended up being a gag. So fun.

Britnee: I wish Naomi Campbell had a bigger part in this movie that just a small lip sync scene in the film’s opening. She should’ve been part of the motorcycle crew! Even though I know that wish will never come true, I love the hell out of this movie.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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 Alli made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Alli: Organized crime has a long history in film. The oldest surviving gangster film is from 1906. When most people think about mob movies, they probably think to films packed with explicit violence, or they think Coppola or Scorsese, whose films feature huge ensemble casts and wholly explored backstories and plots. Many of these films intricately lay out the inner workings of crime families, often with socioeconomic criticism about the treatment of immigrants in America.  But Mikey and Nicky doesn’t really do any of that. The violence is implied. The cast consists of just 20 people. It’s just a peek into a very specific event and more about betrayal than any political critique. Given that The Godfather came only 4 years before, it’s probably a better approach to break the mold entirely than covering all the same ground again.

Having two characters make a manic dash around New York is still a bold move. There’s so much potential to have it all go wrong, but I can’t think of two people better cast opposite one another.  The movie depends on their interactions. Luckily, they’re both masters. Peter Falk has his matter of fact, levelheaded manner and John Cassavetes plays a frenetic jerk. They’re just fun to watch together. Elaine May knew this. Most of the movie was improvised. She captured hours and hours of footage of just Peter Falk and John Cassavetes talking. There was 1.4 million feet of film by the end, which is nearly 3 times as much as Gone with the Wind! The result is a really great movie with an amazingly natural flow, but it took more than two years to edit, which was way over the deadline. After it was reluctantly released, she didn’t work behind the camera for over a decade. Having also had similar problems with A New Leaf, I wonder if her misunderstood genius would have fared better now in the era of digital.

May’s writing is so smart and wonderful. It’s important that dialogue in a movie like this really flows. It’s tense and fast, but also has such moments of tragic humor. Rather than solely focus on the chase and Nicky’s ploys to outsmart pursuers, the relationship between him and Mikey is really developed. I know it’s hard to like or even have empathy for an asshole like Nicky, but in a way, I was still rooting for him. Brandon, did you have sympathy for Nicky?

Brandon: The way we’re introduced to Peter Falk & John Cassavetes’s titular gangsters is unconventional for any movie, let alone a mafia piece, and completely disoriented my sympathies as an audience. The film opens with Nicky strung out & paranoid in a motel room, dying of a stomach ulcer he’s drank himself into. Mikey comes to his rescue, feeding him pills and half & half to alleviate the ulcer, doing his best to calm down what is eventually revealed to be his life long friend by assuring him that, contrary to his paranoia, there is no one out to kill him. Our relationship with Nicky is shaky at that point. Cassavetes plays Nicky with the wild-eyed abandon of a man in the middle of a days-long bender, so it’s easy to keep an emotional distance from the character while aligning sympathies with Mikey instead, a calming presence who sings lullabies, spoon-feeds medicine, and bumbles through life with Falk’s trademark feigning of adorable, cross-eyed befuddlement. Once Nicky’s paranoia of being hunted by the mob is confirmed as legitimate, however, and it’s revealed that Mikey’s helping the mafia arrange his supposed friend’s execution, our sympathies swap and we turn on Mikey for the betrayal.

Sympathy with Nicky doesn’t last long, though. He quickly turns out to be a racist, misogynist asshole who beats women & starts bar fights just to inflate his ego & stave off his boredom. By the third act, when Mikey & Nicky reach their lowpoint fighting over a broken wrist watch in the middle of a city street, I had lost any concern over either of their lives. Over the course of a single night, both characters manage to expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone in either of their bodies, which is a wild ride considering where the whole mess started. I’ll even admit that Britnee & I were openly, verbally cheering for Nicky’s death by the time their story came to a close.

I’m fascinated by Elaine May’s storytelling process here, especially after hearing Alli say the film was put together in the editing room. The dialogue has such a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage, so it’s mind-blowing to learn that this was constructed after-the-fact like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Besides the storytelling style, I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in our third year of organizing these Movie of the Month conversations, Elaine May is the first female director we’ve covered here. With a couple dozen titles from plenty of dudes behind us, that’s more than a little pathetic, but I do appreciate that we got the ball rolling for a corrective with someone who obviously has such a distinct, blunt filmmaking & storytelling style. Britnee, is May’s directorial work something you took particular notice of while watching Mikey and Nicky or did the two dialogue-intensive performances from Falk & Cassavetes fully distract you from what she was doing behind the camera?

Britnee: Mikey and Nicky, which I still accidentally call Mikey and Ikey or Micky and Nicky, is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me more of an intimate play (I got some Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead vibes), so I’m not surprised to find out that improv played a huge part with our two main characters. As Alli stated earlier, the flow of Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue was so natural. Watching the two characters interact with each other was mesmerizing. At first, I thought that Nicky was hallucinating and Mikey was his lover just playing along with his “episode.” In no way did I expect this film to be a gangster flick. What a surprise! Nicky wasn’t losing his mind, he was just an complete asshole that was scared of being murdered by his mob boss.

Something that really did stick out for me was the film’s directorial style. The hazy, voyeuristic shots of Mikey and Nicky walking the dark streets of New York are so damn beautiful, but it’s the way that May captures the good, bad, and ugly of her two main characters. Mikey’s heavy heart due to betraying his life long friend and Nicky’s abrasive behavior that seems to grow with his fear of being whacked are two major elements that are highlighted by May’s directing. The audience can’t help but feel sympathy for both characters at some point, but ultimately, both are horrible people. Creating that sort of love/hate relationship with characters like Mikey and Nicky seems almost impossible, but with May’s smart directing style, she really gets the job done.

A film focused mainly on the relationship between two male friends over the course of a single night doesn’t initially sound like a recipe for success, but this is one of Mikey and Nicky‘s biggest strengths. There aren’t many distractions, except for the décor in Nellie’s fabulous apartment, so we’re able to focus on what is the most important: Mikey and Nicky’s very confusing friendship. Boomer, did you enjoy the film’s simplicity or did you find it to be boring?

Boomer: I’ve always been a big fan of “small” films, by which I mean movies that focus on the relationship between a minimal group of characters and which play out more like a stage play than big sweeping epics (although I love those too). Part of this could be borne out of my theatre background, but it more likely comes from having watched so many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my youth; in those early days of television, newly minted screenwriters seemed to still be stuck in a very “stage” mindset, usually writing scripts for no more than three major characters and confining the action to one set. Serendipitously, just a few nights before watching Mikey and Nicky, my roommate (coincidentally also named Nicky) and I watched a 1961 episode of AHP, “Gratitude,” starring a thirty-four-year-old Peter Falk as a gangster who is terrified of being killed by his rivals for potentially exposing their casino ring to wider police scrutiny. I’ve never really thought of Falk as typecast, but it sure is a fascinating alignment of coincidence that he played the Nicky role therein.

As such, I really did enjoy the intimate focus on these two men and their deteriorating relationship as May traced their dialogue-heavy path across the New York that exists only at night and only in the past. The film is essentially a play in motion, tracking Mikey and Nicky from one set piece to the next but not being predicated on the need for that movement; I could easily see this being adapted for the stage, with most of the discussion and conversation playing out in the relative safety of Nicky’s hotel room. The film draws you into the intimacy of the title characters’ relationship long before the rug is pulled out from beneath you with the revelation of Mikey’s true motivations, and most narratives (especially those on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be satisfied to reveal this twist and skip right to the violent ending, but Elaine May lets us continue on with this knowledge as the film tracks towards its sorrowful, if inevitable, conclusion.

Brandon mentioned Tangerine as a companion piece above, but this felt to me more like an inverted Girl Walk//All Day, in the sense that the latter film is a casual, daylit, dialogue-free feel-gooder that expresses itself through fluid and expressive motion and color, the opposite of Mikey and Nicky‘s languid (and stumbling) trek through the dark, in which the plot is driven largely by conversation, reminiscence, and old grudges. Both even have revelatory scenes in graveyards! This flick’s your pick, Alli, and we covered GW//AD before we were fortunate enough to have you join us. If you have seen that film, do you agree that it would serve as a decent counterpoint to M&N? What other films do you think would serve as thematically or narratively companions to this one, if you were to program such an all-night double feature?

Alli: I just watched Girl Walk//All Day, and I think it’s definitely got a lot of similarities, like you said with the graveyard, and it shows a lot of New York, but the New New York. It’s not the hazy grimy 70’s New York. It’s the glowing Times Square, people coming and going New York. If you were to take The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep and transport them to 70’s New York, especially the New York of Mikey and Nicky, they’d stick out like a sore thumb and probably get mugged. Another companion piece with a similar tone as GW//AD–I know this isn’t a film, but there’s an episode of Broad City where Abbi looses her phone, and she has to run around New York in search of it. It’s got the chase aspect, but it’s more about friendship than betrayal. It also has the added bonus of two lead actors with amazing chemistry together.

As far as actual movies go, I think Wings of Desire would be a good double feature with thisand not just because Peter Faulk is also in it. It’s something about the wandering through Berlin as these two angels try and figure it all out. West Berlin looks as decaying as New York City in the 70’s. It’s also a movie that was shot with a minimalist script and a lot of improvisation. Of course, Wings of Desire was heavily praised and award-winning, while Mikey and Nicky fell into obscurity.

I know part of why it fell into obscurity was due to legal battles and distribution issues, but it still puzzles me. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s also just as much ahead of its time as it is a time capsule of a dark and gritty era of New York history. On top of all of that, it’s really quotable. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is, “You make us sound like a couple of cemetery freaks.”  I think it should stand out more. And I hate to say that it might be due to having a woman director, especially when I know about all the release problems, but I think it’s definitely a contributing factor. After all, Apocalypse Now suffered similar production problems with a much, much higher budget, and is now regarded one of the best films ever.

Brandon, do you think gender bias had an affect or is this just a case of a small movie not finding its audience? Like you said before, this is the first film by a female director for Movie of the Month. I think that’s pretty representative of the state of gender in filmmaking.

Brandon: That’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Gender bias is an issue that gets its nasty little fingerprints on everything, so it obviously has a huge effect on what films are being made, seen, and properly canonized, just like it effects nearly every other aspect of life. On the one hand, I remain thoroughly embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to highlighting female-directed films through the tiny critical platform we have here in these Movie of the Month discussions. On the other hand, the source of that problem is deeply rooted in the film industry as a system & an institution. According to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.” 7 percent. I can’t imagine the numbers were any better when May was working back in the macho days of the 1970s or any other time in cinema history (2016 actually saw a significant dip from 2015’s barely-better 9 percent; thing’s aren’t consistently “getting better”) and that long-standing under-representation behind the camera is a huge blow to the kinds of voices we get exposed to as an audience.

Hollywood is simply not giving enough women (or anyone who’s not a white dude, more broadly) the opportunity to produce well-funded, well-distributed, well-promoted media, which means that when we’re making selections for conversations like these it’s important to pay attention to who we’re representing. That can mean taking extreme measures like critic Mayra E. Gates’s recent A Year With Women project, where she decided to only watch female-directed films for an entire year. It can also mean taking less drastic actions like the 52 Films by Women pledge, which only asks that you watch one film a week directed by a woman over the course of a year. I decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge myself this year after embarrassingly realizing I watched less than 40 female-directed films in 2016, a pathetically low number considering the rate of my pop culture intake. The point of the pledge is to pay attention to who’s making the media you’re consuming and to go out of your way to seek out the filmmakers Hollywood is systemically underserving.

The question is how to reconcile that context with Elaine May’s reputation as a director. Based on Mikey and Nicky alone, May is a bold stylist who’s grimy vision of New York City rivals the likes of Scorsese, Ferrara, De Palma, and Friedkin in its palpable sense of danger & fearless desperation. Yet, her name is rarely championed among those contemporary New Hollywood rebels. May’s roots are as a comedy writer/performer alongside longtime creative partner Mike Nichols, yet Nichols managed to direct twenty feature films while May only completed four (despite enjoying a long life as a screenwriter, often uncredited). According to common wisdom, this is because May was difficult to work with and ineffective in keeping films on budget & efficiently produced. Of her four feature films, only one was a certifiable, profitable hit. The other three, Mikey and Nicky included, were all two-times over budget, delayed for endless months in the editing room, and dead on arrival at the box office. All three.

In his My World of Flops piece on the Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, May’s most infamous and most expensive flop, critic Nathan Rabin writes, “Comic genius Elaine may has led a schizophrenic existence as both an in demand script doctor and a ferociously independent, obsessive überauteur who would rather feed her children to wolves than to let a script doctor (or studio head) tinker with her vision. […] May embodied ‘box office poison.’ She should have been unemployable as a director. She was letigious. She was expensive. She was difficult. She viewed studios as enemies rather than collaborators or benefactors. From a commercial perspective, investing in an Elaine May film made only slightly more sense than purchasing magic beans or building a bonfire out of one-hundred dollar bills.”

I honestly don’t know how to negotiate those two sides of Elaine May’s financial and critical downfall. Many male directors have been given 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to deliver a winning picture after falling on their face, so I’m willing to chalk up at least some of her professional missteps to having to be combative with movie studios who never really had her back. Her reputation as a “control freak” and a perfectionist sounds a little ridiculous when you consider the opportunity and patience afforded people like James Cameron and David O’Russell, who also often push the limits of reasonable on-set behavior. I can’t say for sure if her films weren’t hits because they weren’t properly promoted after her less than harmonious relationships with movie studio execs soured their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt, or if those execs (and audiences) never gave her a proper chance from day one. The truth, of course, is probably a combination of all of these factors, including both May’s personal failings as a businesswoman and the culture’s failings of women in general. It’s a depressing mess of missed opportunities and unprofessional behavior in which gender bias certainly played some sort of a role, if not a large one.

The one aspect of Elaine May’s professional downfall that really fascinates me is the idea that she would shoot way too much footage and then, as they say, slowly “find the film in the editing room,” post-production. This filmmaking style is so much more common now in the digital era, due to the lowered production cost of not shooting on physical film, and I’m wondering if her approach to the craft was just a few decades ahead of her time. Britnee, based on Mikey and Nicky & May’s reputation, is there a type or genre of film you would’ve liked to see Elaine May direct in this style, if she were afforded an unlimited budget and no restrictions on the amount of film she could shoot? Would you want to see her to go big in a large-scale production or does the small-scale nature of Mikey and Nicky seem like the perfect fit for her talents?

Britnee: I would love to see May direct a horror film. Mikey and Nicky was a pretty dark movie, but the story alone isn’t what made the film so disturbing; it’s May’s style of directing. It’s so haunting.  The uncomfortable silence, the tense yet mysterious relationship between the two main characters, and all the creepy distant camera shots from Mikey and Nicky makes me feel as though May would do an amazing job directing a horror movie that’s told through the eyes of a serial killer. She has the ability to make the audience feel like they’re lurking, so she is more than capable of creating a movie that would basically force viewers to be in the mind of a killer. Big budget movies don’t suite her style, but she would definitely be a badass low-budget horror film queen. I can’t help but imagine her directing a movie called something like Through the Eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror was definitely something she should have dabbled into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve ever had the chance because of all the shitheads in Hollywood.

Speaking of horror and death, I’ve been thinking a bit about Mikey’s assistance in Nicky’s death. He knew that Nicky was ultimately going to be “sleeping with the fishes,” so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why he put himself through the pain of spending the night with him while helping the mob hunt him down. Mikey was so concerned with Nicky’s stomach ulcer and keeping him alive in the beginning of the film, but I’m not 100% sure what his intentions were.

Boomer, do you think Mikey kept Nicky alive to please the mob and save his own ass? Did he not let the stomach ulcer kill him because he couldn’t physically watch his friend die?

Boomer:  I think that his lifelong friendship with Nicky probably has a lot to do with Mikey’s attitude. One of the elements that really stood out to me was the early scene in the coffee shop, especially in retrospect. Before we learn the true nature of Mikey’s investment in getting Nicky out of the hotel (in a great reveal, by the way; I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally sucker-punched as I was in that scene where the phone starts ringing in the bar and the audience connects that Mikey and Ned Beatty’s assassin Kinney are in cahoots), the scene feels like a strong demonstration of Mikey’s friendship, showing that he will act outside of his pleasant and avuncular demeanor in order to take care of his dear friend. When we find out that he really wants to “take care” of him, this violent outburst becomes much more disturbing in retrospect, as it shows the menace lurking beneath the kindly façade, ready to burst forth at any time. It’s startlingly effective on both the first watch and the second, but for different reasons.

There’s an old folk story that I heard in my youth about a man who, for whatever reason, was forced to cut the tail off of his pet monkey. Rationalizing that cutting off the whole tail all at once would be too cruel, the man decides to slice off a mere inch at a time, ending up causing the monkey far more injury than if he had simply cut the whole tail off at once. In the end, Mikey is that man, as he acts as the Judas to Nicky’s shitty Christ figure, hurting him more in the long run than if he had simply taken care of business himself.

There is certainly something to be said for the ties that bind adults who were friends(?) in childhood. Although his behavior towards Mikey and everyone who crosses their path is reprehensible, Nicky is fundamentally sympathetic in that we as an audience feel empathy toward him with regards to his very real anxiety. Further, the way that Mikey trails him across the city with ulterior motives speaks to a deeply human paranoia that the people that we care for and who seem to care about us could be hiding their true feelings and intentions. On the other hand, the bullied child in all of us can recognize the complexity of sentiment one must have for a lifelong companion who is both friend and tormentor, and though we can detest Mikey for his involvement in Nicky’s ultimate fate, our sympathies lie with him also. As such, I don’t think Mikey was keeping Nicky alive to please the mob, but he might have been doing so in order to attempt to save himself on a emotional or spiritual level. Killing wiseguys is just part of the business, and he doesn’t have much of a choice in his participation in the Passion of Nicky, but he feels that if he can lessen that suffering, even a little, it will help calm the disquiet in his soul. He can’t escape it, however, as is made manifest in the film’s final moments, when his sins literally follow him all the way home.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like all the different backgrounds and settings in this movie. They all have such a unique vibe and atmosphere. The bare bones diner feels like it’s a whole world apart from Nellie’s beautiful apartment, and even more so the cemetery. It’s almost like we’re watching Nicky’s​ life flash before his eyes, each place being a separate chapter.

Britnee: I thought it was strange how calm Mikey’s wife, Annie, was throughout the film. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is in no way the typical mob wife (I can’t help but think of my girl Big Ang). She’s so calm and collected while obviously knowing what her husband is up to. Props to her.

Boomer: There’s something deeply sad in Falk’s performance that just would not have been present in another performer. He’s not as attractive as Cassavetes, and his humble looks and charm are in great form here against the other man’s performative hedonism. Unlike the gadabout Nicky, who has a wife but can’t keep her because of his personal flaws, Mikey’s wife seems to genuinely love him, and Mikey’s darkest moment in the film comes when he tries to be Nicky and sleep with another woman. The film’s saddest moment comes when Mikey feels inferior to Nicky, plaintively and furtively seeking the approval of his bosses while reflecting on Nicky’s statements about how they really feel about him. There’s a great parallelism going on there, with Nicky telling Mikey about another party’s ulterior motives while Mikey hides his own secrets from Nicky.

Brandon: I’d like to again encourage people to consider taking the 52 Films by Women pledge. It’s not at all a difficult quota to fulfill once you actually pay attention to what you’re watching. I’ve had a lot of fun taking the pledge myself so far this year, a journey I’ve been documenting in this Letterboxd list if you’re looking for a few titles to get your own pledge started. Secondly, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of Nathan Rabin’s My World of Flops book (or borrow one from the library), which includes a much more expansive piece on Ishtar than the one I linked above (and it’s the version I was actually quoting). It’s not only worth it for the Elaine May musings. Rabin’s my favorite living critic and the entire book is a shining example of the kind of open-minded, empathetic criticism I try to emulate on this site. (He liked Ishtar a lot more than that isolated pull-quote may have implied.)

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew