Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ma (2019) & Classic Psychobiddies

Welcome to Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-fourth episode, Brandon & Britnee compare the latest entry into the psychobiddy canon, Ma (2019), to a couple towering classics in the genre: Strait-Jacket (1964) & The Nanny (1965). Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I feel like what I’m looking for in any Bette Davis movie is for the actor to let loose & open fire on her costars. I’m not sure if this is retroactively a result of her late career comeback in the famously combative (onscreen & off) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or if it’s just a natural extension of a deliberately non-demure persona she carried throughout her career. I didn’t think to expect that loose cannon antagonism in the 1939 Technicolor costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but Davis’s lead performance as Queen Elizabeth I delivered it by the truckload. Although it has the pedigree of an expensive Major Studio period piece, the film is essentially just Bette Davis wearing beautiful costumes, gobbling snacks, and hurling vicious insults for two solid hours. In other words, it’s fabulous.

Many actors have interpreted Elizabeth I onscreen over the decades, ranging as wide as Cate Blanchett & Quentin Crisp, but Bette Davis’s depiction feels entirely singular in its vicious, feral energy. Like with many pictures over her career, it’s rumored that she was not at all happy with her coworkers or the demands of the production. She was especially miffed that Elizabeth’s remarkably high hairline required her to shave her head, which put her in a persistently ornery mood. This made the film a chore to shoot, especially since Davis would act out in juvenile ways like slapping the piss out of her romantic co-lead, Errol Flynn, with all of her might instead of just making sure the scripted hit looked good for the camera. That anger translated well to the role, though, making Davis’s Elizabeth come across as a kind of furious demon in beautiful costumes. She’s visibly uncomfortable, constantly reaching for grapes or wine or invisible stress balls to calm her nerves as she inhales between each insult. The effect on the film is glorious, though, transporting Davis’s slack, unceremonious, Baby Jane Hudson-mode energy into a stuffy Studio Era drama where it doesn’t belong.

A 16th Century tale of real life war & romance endowed with the same Major Studio bloat of the 1960s Camelot musical, there isn’t much to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in a formal sense. As Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Errol Flynn is propped up as a kind of love/hate romantic sparring partner meant to periodically threaten Davis’s power as the Queen of England. She steamrolls him with ease. Essex & Elizabeth both can’t get enough of each other in their lustful bouts of loneliness and can’t possibly share the same space & time, due to their individual thirsts for power & the throne. This sometimes leads to the Queen sending Essex off to war in the Irish Moors (which look an awful lot like a studio lot) without proper supplies to succeed, just to be temporarily rid of him. It also leads to literal, direct rebellion within the palace where the two square off head to head with their respective guards. Flynn’s Essex is never given a chance to really stand up to the Queen, however. Outside occasionally riding a horse, the athletic leading man isn’t even afforded a chance to do any of his signature swashbuckling. Elizabeth’s other foils, a dangerously horny Olivia de Havilland and a foppish knight played by a baby faced Vincent Price, don’t fare much better. As much as this film’s dialogue frets over Elizabeth’s duties as a Queen being hindered by her desires as a woman, there’s no question who’s in charge and who’s going to make it out on top. I’m not saying that because of the inevitability if its Wikipedia-verifiable history lesson, either. Davis’s fierceness demands her victory, with obligatory demise for each of her opponents, whether or not she wants to fuck them.

I’d be a liar if I said I cared at all about the plot of this film. Formally, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is remarkable less for its narrative than it is for its gorgeous production & costume design. One Orry-Kelly-designed dress in particular, with shimmering green mermaid scales, a pale pink Elizabethan collar (naturally), and a neon green feathered hand fan had me gasping for air. Those luxurious design flourishes only serve to contrast Elizabeth’s demonic furor, however, as she complains about her old age, smashes mirrors, claws at a pile of snacks, and fires off long strands of insults: “lying villain,” “wicked devil,” “slimy toad,” “stupid cattle,” “snakes & rats,” etc. If, like me, your favorite Bette Davis performances find the actor in vicious attack mode, the formal mediocrity of this Studio Era period piece won’t matter to you one bit. The film is downright delicious for Davis’s inhuman bursts of Technicolor furor, especially considering the restrained pomp & propriety of the setting that contrasts it.

-Brandon Ledet

When Disney Got Cold Feet Over Getting Spooky: The Watcher in the Woods (1980) & Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

July’s Movie of the Month is a jarring entry in the Walt Disney canon, something much spookier, much more adult, and much less financial successful than what the company usually produces. 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a Ray Bradbury-penned horror film packed with enough ghostly carnival attractions, Pam Grier witchcraft, and children-in-danger stakes to distract you from the fact that it’s a Disney movie to begin with. Still, it’s easy to get the sense while watching Something Wicked that Disney wasn’t fully committed to the adult horror waters it was testing at the time. Casting debates, re-shoots, and studio notes softened director Jack Clayton’s nightmarish vision at every turn. Alhough the film still stands out from Disney’s usual saccharine tone, it could have gone much, much further. This kind of post-production backpeddling was a constant theme during Disney’s brief adult horror period too. Much like with Something Wicked, the studio’s tinkering revisions softened & distorted the original vision of its first outright horror picture, 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods. Both films survived their troubled production histories as cult classic favorites, not financial successes, but both also could have been much more memorably strange & terrifying than Disney ultimately allowed them to be.

Before The Watcher in the Woods, Disney toyed with the idea of an outright horror tone with films like Black Hole or the Witch Mountain series, but it kept those urges confined to the bounds of a science fiction aesthetic, focusing on topics like space travel & telekinesis. The advertising for The Watcher in the Woods promised an entirely new, fully committed shift in trajectory. The trailers boasted, “Walt Disney ushers in a new decade of motion picture entertainment with the following invitation to spend 90min on the edge of your seat.” The problem is that the company wasn’t sure it wanted to accept its own invitation to do so. Director John Hough was hired with the intention of producing Disney’s The Exorcist, but the constant barrage of studio notes that tempered its production consistently diminished the wind in its sails. This behind-the-camera tinkering came to a head when the studio insisted that Hough rush its ending to completion so it could screen coinciding with a commemoration of star Bette Davis’s 50 years in the acting profession. The original ending, which includes a monstrous alien puppet that does not appear in the theatrical cut, was left incomprehensible due to the time constraint. It then had to be re-shot into a much more easily digestible conclusion after hundreds of stop & start rewrites. If pulled off well, it could have been a mind-blowing, impressively dark ending to an otherwise mildly spooky picture. In its compromised form, it’s more of an all-too-easy release of futilely built tension.

As much as you can feel the studio notes shenanigans muddling its ending & ultimate severity, The Watcher in the Woods is still an impressively spooky Disney picture & an important precursor to what the studio would soon accomplish in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange lights flashing in the woods, blindfolded ghosts appearing in cracked mirrors, haunted English mansions & carnival attractions: The Watcher establishes early glimpses of the same children vs. immense Evil horror that makes Something Wicked such a classic. Bette Davis appears in the full evil old biddy capacity she was frequently typecast in following the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, except with a distinctly tragic vulnerability that had been missing since that role reinvigorated her career. Her instantly spooky presence is admittedly sparse, but suggests much of the film’s horrific tone to come as the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance unfolds. Occultist rituals, alternate dimensions, and, of course, the eeriness of the woods set the stage for a grand supernatural finale that not only was supposed to settle its overarching mystery, but also give physical form to a literal “watcher” in the woods (who appears to be some kind of evil crawfish in the original ending). It’s a shame Disney didn’t afford Hough the patience to see the original conclusion through in all of its spooky glory, but it’s still kind of incredible that they ever toyed with the idea of making a genuine horror film at all, so I guess I should be content with what’s left to be enjoyed onscreen.

Neither The Watcher in the Woods nor Something Wicked This Way Comes are the scariest live-action Disney films of all time. For my money, I’d assume that honor goes to the deeply traumatizing Return to Oz, which was soon to follow. However, as a pair they do make clear that at one point Disney’s plan to revitalize its brand (which was struggling by the 80s, believe it or not) was to experiment with legitimate horror film aesthetics. You can feel that decision lurking in Something Wicked‘s haunted carnival nightmare and, honestly, I do believe it’s the better film of the two. The Watcher in the Woods is a much more naked, deliberate push in the horror direction, though. Besides Bette Davis’s evil old biddy presence, the film echoes plenty of already established horror tropes: The Exorcist’s seances, The Shining‘s backwards mirror writing, the camera’s POV chases through the woods that recall both Jaws & the era’s more typical slashers. It would have been fascinating to see if Disney might have been more committed to this dark path if the success of The Little Mermaid hadn’t ushered in their animated division’s 90s renaissance. Maybe they would have eventually loosened the reins on their hired guns’ dark visions and allowed their live action horrors to run free. It’s literally too good to be true, though, so all we can really do is marvel at the fact that they ever got as close as they did to the horror film deep end before they inevitably got cold feet.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Burnt Offerings (1976)

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Dan Curtis is most well remembered as the creator of gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (poorly remade as an irreverent fish-out-of-water comedy starring Johnny Depp in 2012), but  remembrance of his legacy should also include his direction of 1976’s horror film Burnt Offerings. A kind of haunted house flick, the story concerns a run-down neoclassical manor home and the spell that it casts over a hapless family in order to rejuvenate itself.

The owners of the mansion are the wheelchair-bound Arnold Allardyce and his sister Roz (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, prominently featured in the film’s trailer but in what amount to extended cameos). They are delighted when the Rolf family, consisting of father Ben (Oliver Reed), mother Marian (Karen Black, whom Curtis directed the previous year in Trilogy of Terror), and twelve-year-old son Davey (Lee Montgomery, future heartthrob of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), express interest in renting the house. Of course, for the low rental price of $900 for the whole summer, there is one caveat; the family must care for the ancient Mrs. Allardyce, a recluse who requires only that meals be left outside her door thrice daily. Ben is resistant at first, but Marian, already affected by the house, insists, and the trio, along with Ben’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), arrive at the mansion the following week.

Things seem to go well for a while. Davis is a particular treasure as the wisecracking Aunt Liz, and although Marian becomes more withdrawn (becoming obsessed with Mrs. Allardyce’s collection of photographs and listening to a music box for hours on end), the rest of the family bonds on their vacation. Things begin to take a turn for the worse as Ben starts to have nightmares about a creepy, grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) he encountered at his mother’s funeral as a child, and his roughhousing with Davey in the pool takes on a dark turn as he feels compelled to drown the boy. Soon, the lively Aunt Elizabeth grows ill and dies while the house continues to become less decrepit. Ben ultimately tries to flee the grounds with Davey, but forces conspire to block his way, as his hallucinations of the evil chauffeur begin to appear even in his waking states. When the pool once again tries to drown Davey, Marian’s spell is briefly broken and she agrees to flee with the rest of the family, but the house will not let them go so easily.

A forgotten treasure, Burnt Offerings shares more than just its genre with Poltergeist: they also both share a PG rating. Although it’s still a bit of a shock to think about Spielberg’s haunted house movie being given such an age-inappropriate rating, it’s easier to see how the creepiness of Burnt Offerings slipped under the radar. There are no ghosts in the Allardyce house; the house itself seeks to feed upon the life force of its inhabitants, and very little explanation is given as to how or why the house came to be this way. In a more modern movie, the audience would likely be forced to deal with an unsatisfying origin story for the house’s hunger, but the lack of context actually adds to the horror factor; unanswered questions often leave a stronger impact than unfulfilling answers, and Offerings is a movie that understands that. The only thing that could conceivably be called a specter is the grinning chauffeur, who is effectively unsettling despite never performing any malicious actions. Who is he? Nobody, really, just a creepy guy that Ben encountered as a child and who left an impact on him, which is a nice touch. He’s not affiliated with the house except in the way that he relates to Ben’s unspooling sanity, and he actually stands out as one of the creepier boogeymen that have haunted horror films of the past, calling to mind the Thin Man from the Phantasm series.

Further, the way that the house uses its occupants to act out violence against each other is also quite scary. The tension builds slowly in this film, starting first with images of life and renewal (a dead potted plant suddenly has a green leaf, a burned-out light bulb begins to work) before more outrageous elements occur (gas leaks in locked rooms, dilapidated siding and roof tiles flying off of the house and being replaced by fresh fixtures). If the film had spent less time establishing the Rolfs as a happy family before tearing them apart, the escalation of terror wouldn’t work half as well as it does, and I can’t believe such a great film has faded into relative obscurity. It’s definitely worth tracking down and enjoying.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond