Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

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The Fly II (1989)

One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.

For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.

“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.

Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.

Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.

-Brandon Ledet

Blue My Mind (2018)

How much innovation do you need from a genre movie for it to feel worthwhile? Your answer to that question is likely to determine your relationship with the Swiss coming of age body horror Blue My Mind. The embarrassment & horror of the changing body during teen pubescence being interpreted through the metaphor of creature feature transformations has been a genre trope going at least as far back as 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In more recent years, it’s become an especially common conceit for femme coming of age horror movies, with titles like Raw, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Teeth, and too many others to name establishing a clear narrative pattern for how these stories are told. A young teen girl experiencing her earliest encounters with menstruation & sexual desire finds her appetites extending beyond sex to bloodlust and her body’s changes extending beyond normal pubescent growth to a supernatural horror she finds increasingly difficult to hide or contain. Outside maybe taking the metaphor more deadly-serious than most titles listed above, Blue My Mind is fairly well-behaved in its adherence to the rigid genre structure established by its predecessors, following the exact narrative pattern you’ve been trained to expect. The only variable is discovering which type of beast, exactly, the protagonist is transforming into and how many teenage transgressions she’ll manage to commit along the way. Where it distinguishes itself, then, is in the details of its visual craft & character work, which is often the case with strict genre pictures. Luckily for me, I very much enjoy the femme coming of age transformation horror genre Blue My Mind dutifully participates in and didn’t need many novel details to fall in love with its familiar rhythms & grooves. Your own mileage may vary based on your relationship with the same tropes.

Mia is a 15-year-old wannabe badass who immediately seeks asylum with the rebellious reprobates of her new high school. Her new friends drink, smoke, cut class, shoplift, watch pornography, and flirt with the idea of shedding their virginity. Mia fakes being tough & experienced with these teenage transgressions, barely hiding her anxiety as an undeveloped outsider. This barely concealed social shame is coupled with the shame of her changing body & increasingly monstrous appetites. Coinciding with her first period, the entire lower half of her body launches into open rebellion. At the same time, she finds herself compelled to eat raw, still-live fish directly out of her family’s fish tank (or wherever she can get it). Blue My Mind might not be innovative in the metaphor of its central transformation, but it is ambitious in its comprehensive collection of femme teenage crises. Self-harm, drug experimentation, bulimia, dangerous flirtation with older men, flashes of same sex attraction, and indulgences in petty crime sprees detail the boundary-testing exploits of a teen in crisis of both mind & body. This being primarily a body horror, it’s the crisis of the body that eventually overtakes much of the film’s energy as Mia spins completely out of control, but the movie does take plenty of time to establish conflicts in her personal relationships—particularly with her mother and her best friend—before it focuses on the consequences of her transformation. There are some gruesome moments of self-surgery & festering injury that provide shocking pangs of outright horror, but the transformation at the film’s center is mostly concerned with the grief & helplessness of a rebelling body and unruly hormones forcing physiological changes that cannot be reverted or suppressed.

Following Good Manners, Blue My Mind is the second title I caught at this year’s Overlook Film Fest where revealing the exact nature of its central creature feature transformation might constitute a spoiler, since it’s patiently doled out late into the runtime. Much like how the narrative’s adherence to genre tropes telegraphs exactly where the story is going, it’s clear to the audience exactly what Mia is transforming into long before her body gets here. Again, appreciating the movie as a genre exercise requires an attention to its aesthetic & character-specific details, rather than an examination of where it falls within the larger pubescent body horror picture. The washes of cold aquatic blues, the strained relationships with parents & friends, the freewheeling dance parties set to repetitive synthpop, and the grief of letting go of the body’s original shape against your will all hit with serious emotional impact even if the genre tropes they service are overly familiar. If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Manners (2018)

A long, winding picture that’s shy to reveal its basic genre or intent to its audience, Good Manners is a strange, unexpected beast. It would be near impossible to define the film in terms of an overarching theme (outside the undercurrents of class & gender politics that flow throughout), since its two halves are clearly bifurcated in both tone & genre. It would also be reductive to frame Good Manners as a monster movie I caught at a horror film festival, as that context did little to set expectations for the patient, sincerely dramatic rhythms of a story that sprawls & shifts in mood as it explores the logical consequences of an illogical crisis. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. Minute to minute, Good Manners discovers its dramatic rewards in the emotional beats of a dark fairy tale that follows its own inherent progression instead of the command of a central metaphor. As a whole, it offers the welcome novelty of centuries-old, long-familiar stories about monstrous transformations recontextualized in a new, unpredictable package. That alone is a commendable achievement.

A financially strapped black woman takes on a position as a live-in nurse at the edge of São Paulo, Brazil. Recalling the economic power disparity in the art cinema classic Black Girl, she finds herself helplessly subordinate to her white, wealthy, pregnant employer’s whims as her nanny position expands to include cooking, cleaning, and emotional labor duties that far exceed her original job description. However, the power dynamic shifts drastically when the employer’s pregnancy brings on strange, unexplained stomach pangs and violent sleepwalking episodes. Her cravings for raw meat also push the pregnancy into menacing, supernatural territory, with only the nanny at hand to take the abnormalities seriously. This vulnerability lands the pair on more equal, even amorous footing as the dread of the approaching birth threatens to upend their little remaining stability. Eventually, the pregnancy-themed body horror of the first half reaches its inevitable, fever pitch climax. Halfway into the runtime, Good Manners outs itself as a lowkey monster movie with fairy tale rhythms to its narrative, only for the timeline to then jump seven years into the future to further explore the consequences of that disruption. The second half of the film is a sad, anxious echo of the first, with its own conflicted relationships & inevitable consequences building to a secondary, unavoidable monster movie climax.

It feels odd to tiptoe around the reveal of the central monster’s nature in the film, since it’s telegraphed to the audience long before it arrives onscreen or its name is spoken. There’s too much horror lore in the canon for the significance of the moon cycle or an ultrasound technician remarking what big eyes, mouth, and hands the unborn baby has to go unnoticed. The patience of the reveal is almost a sly joke, as the movie delivers the exact monster you expect, just in a different form than how you’re used to seeing it. Depicted through both CG & practical puppetry (when not restlessly shifting inside a pregnant belly), the monster in question is an adolescent beast—dangerous, but in need of parental care. The movie isn’t shy about delivering typical creature feature goods in later scenes set in traditional horror movie locales (like an after-hours shopping mall), but it mostly evokes a post-del Toro fairy tale take on adolescent monster narratives like The Girl with All the Gifts or Let the Right One In. It’s a film about motherhood & unconventional families first and a monster movie second, a declaration of priorities made explicitly clear by how long it takes for the monster to even appear.

Good Manners is distinctive in ways that stretch far beyond its narrative patience & temporal sprawl. Animated flashbacks, operatic musical tangents, and the visual precision of a Canadá music video push its take on the creature feature into totally unexpected territory that transcends any of its telegraphed genre tropes. On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Lover (2018)

The French erotic thriller Double Lover first hit L.A. & NYC theatres around Valentine’s Day this year, coinciding with the nationwide release of Fifty Shades Freed. As a result, many early American reviews had cheeky things to say about how this kink-splattered fuck fest made the final installment in the Fifty Shades franchise look embarrassingly tame by comparison. It’s a correlation that doesn’t make too much sense outside their parallel American release dates. Double Lover is erotically charged, sure, but its pronounced horniness is a ferocious, irrational indulgence in dream logic that leads to something much stranger & further outside the bounds of linear storytelling to be compared to a series of films so . . . vanilla in their estimation of kink cinema. That’s not to say the film supports no comparison to pre-existing art. In fact, it’s practically a work of pastiche. Double Lover starts as a cover version of David Cronenberg’s cult classic Dead Ringers, then works in notes of De Palma’s Sisters, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1982 Cat People remake, [safe], and the most shamelessly smutty gialli you can name until all its various influences meld into one barely cohesive, unholy erotic nightmare. It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.

A 25-year-old, gaunt ex-model becomes fed up with medical professionals dismissing a mysterious stomach pain she’s suffered her entire life. With few options left to search for a cure, she turns to psychiatry, interrogating her doctors’ claims that her symptoms are psychosomatic. Early therapy session are tame, with her doctor listening intently to her life’s story & list of ailments, offering an open ear more than any verbalized advice. The act of listening is eroticized in this early stretch and the pair become an unlikely couple, complete with a handsome shared apartment & a mischievous house cat. Reality melts around them from there. It turns out the psychiatrist is hiding the existence of a twin brother, who operates his own mental health practice nearby. Our troubled protagonist is both obsessed with the mystery of why her lover would lie about the existence of his twin and turned on by the erotic implications of there being a physical copy of the man she loves. She, of course, investigates the twin’s competing psychiatry practice and finds his . . . unconventional methods as alluring as they are taboo. In a traditional erotic thriller, her sexual affair with her lover’s twin brother and the mystery of the dual psychiatrists’ past would drive the plot home from there. Indeed, the violent confrontations you’d typically expect from that setup do arrive in due time, but the circumstances surrounding them are both too supernatural & too perverse to wholly predict. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness, there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety.

Aesthetically, Double Lover filters the pseudointellectual smut of the most illogical giallo pictures in existence through the color-muted, urban visual lens of Brian De Palma (who was already heavily influenced by giallo himself). De Palma’s clinically-applied split screens are abound throughout the picture, visually echoing the theme of twins & doubles just as much as its obsession with mirrors (seriously, it feels like over half of the runtime is framed through mirrored reflections). The visual provocations are blunt & unsubtle, humorously so. The film opens with an intense, medical closeup of a gynecological exam, then dissolves into a similarly-framed eye, directly referencing Georges Bataille. The protagonist picks up part-time work at an art museum, which allows for artistically framed photography of medical gore in a clinical but abstract setting, in an exhibit seemingly titled “BLOOD, FLESH, BLOOD, FLESH.” Like many gialli, the film often resembles a fashion shoot more than a horror movie, with almost any given frame practically being able to pass for a Vogue magazine cover (minus maybe the gore and the sex). Many audiences will dismiss this handsome, cold aesthetic as pretentious drivel, but there’s a dry humor to the film’s fashionable psychosexual madness. As our protagonist enters a staring contest with her cat mid-fucking, as the frame fills with a funhouse hall of mirrors at the climax, as each sinister sex dream reveals another layer of gleefully taboo desire, it’s clear the film is having fun with its over-the-top indulgences. It’s just doing so with a straight face.

I wouldn’t exactly call Double Lover an empty provocation. Its (well-founded) paranoia over men’s control & dismissal of women within the medical field is a legitimate strand of psychological terror with a rich history in the horror genre (and in real life). Its fretting over the power dynamics of a dominant (evil?) twin and their submissive (good?) twin is outdated psychobabble, but an interesting lens for viewing the power dynamics of romantic coupling in general. These themes are conspicuously present and exhaustively explored throughout, but it would be a lie to say they’re the film’s main draw. Double Lover is a blast because it shamelessly indulges in excess. Its shots of mirrored reflections persist long after the audience catches onto their significance. Its nightmare logic makes little attempt to justify its narrative trajectory outside the fun & the discomfort of its surprise. Its horror genre indulgences are entirely unconcerned with remaining highbrow, even risking its art film pedigree on a series of jump scares in the increasingly bonkers third act. Its external influences are blatantly displayed on the surface, with a reference to “steel gynecological instruments meant for torture” directly calling attention to its similarities with Dead Ringers within the opening ten minutes. Most importantly, though, its indulgences in onscreen, kinky sex are frequent, disturbing, and often genuinely erotic. Your comfort level with deliberate shock value provocation will likely steer your experience with the film overall, even though it’s far from the only factor at play.

Given Double Lover’s willingness to indulge in kink-minded titillation and its completely disinterest in subtlety, I should probably be more forgiving of its flippant comparisons to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. I have two major roadblocks preventing me form that accepting that, though. First, I’m deeply invested in the film being understood as a continued tradition within the dream logic surrealism of the horror genre, not just a throwback as an erotic thriller. More importantly, though, I want to single out Double Lover as being an exceptional example of my favorite type of filmmaking: Elevated Art Cinema™ techniques applied to trashy, genre-minded premises that typically aren’t afforded them. This movie is dumb, crass, exploitative, trope-laden, and more than a little silly. It’s also a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant indulgences as a means of crawling under their skin and rotting them from the inside. It’s so much more than a less tame Fifty Shades. Its kinks are just the surface of its bizarre sense of psychological menace, a deep well of oversexed paranoia & manicured evil. Double Lover is an over-indulgent, preposterous film and, paradoxically, a perfect one.

-Brandon Ledet

Street Trash (1987)

The eternal trade-off in horror fandom is having to put up with a lot of cruelty & trash while searching for the gems, which means getting burned repeatedly for daring to seek relief in fictional & comedic violence. Shock horrors from the 70s & 80s are an especially tricky enterprise. They were birthed in a time where the genre was at its wildest, most over the top creative summit, but they also often gleefully depict rape & intentionally offend in their politics in a way that sours the party vibe. The infamous “melt movie” Street Trash perfectly encapsulates that trade-off in the span of a single picture. Street Trash‘s opening & closing stretches of goopy, psychedelic body horror deliver everything anyone could reasonably hope for in a VHS era genre picture, but its second act doldrums are an hour-long indulgence in horror’s worst, cruelest impulses. The film is just barely recommendable for the strength of its practical effects gore & impressive camera work alone, but more than half of its runtime is a dead-in-the-water descent into heartless rape humor and plotless vilification of the poor. It’s a microcosm of the horror genre in that way: mind-boggling art buried under a mountain of cruelty & trash.

Like the Mortville setting of John Waters’s Desperate Living, Street Trash is mostly confined to a grime-slathered homeless community, just outside of Proper Society’s periphery. Unlike in Waters’s film, this horror comedy has an open distaste for its characters, who mostly populate a junkyard shanty town constructed out of old cars & stacks of tires. Everyone in the film is a drunken, psychotic asshole coated in an opaque later of grime. The film directly acknowledges their plights under addiction, police harassment, war veteran PTSD, and general mental illness, but still mostly makes them out to be cretinous trash (hence the title). All dialogue is shouted or slurred as the homeless swarm NYC streets, clawing for spare change & desperately offering to wash car windshields for tips. It’s much like the dystopic Out of Control Teens panic of Class of 1999 in that way. There’s a satirical opportunity in visualizing wealth classes’ fears of the poor (like an inverse of Brian Yuzna’s Society), but Street Trash is too light on plot to pursue it. The mechanism of its horror spectacle is a poisonous case of a fortified wine called Viper that a convenience store clerk sells to the homeless for dirt cheap. When consumed, Viper melts its victims from the inside out, reducing them to puddles of multi-color acrylic goop & exploding flesh. It’s a killer conceit and it’s undeniably fun to watch this insular community get torn apart by this villainous poison. There’s ultimately no point behind its existence, however, as it’s merely a crate of expired liquor some bozo found in a storeroom wall. With a plot about corporate boardrooms plotting to poison homeless people en masse with Viper as a way to clear city streets (in the vein of Three the Hard Way or Black Dynamite), Street Trash might have had something to actually do in its second act. As is, the lack of a plot only leaves a vacuum the film intends to fill with rape humor & open gawking at homeless cretins.

The latex special effects work in Street Trash is undeniably impressive. The film is bookended with opening & closing 20min stretches of gorgeously grotesque, for-its-own-sake gore spectacle that makes the film feel like it has potential to be one of the greatest body horrors of all time. The hour between those bookends is brutally unfunny & nihilistically pointless, however. A psychotic Vietnam vet torturing his wino underlings and a murder investigation involving the mafia & a fatal gang rape stretch the movie way past a reasonable runtime for what it accomplishes as well as past a tone that anyone who’s not a teenage boy could possibly find comedic. As little as I enjoy 60% of its runtime, however, my horror nerd appreciation of the remaining forty minutes leave the film at least passably enjoyable. At the very least, it’s impressive that a film this obviously cheap is also so visually impressive. Not only are the special effects of the rainbow-colored, Viper-melted bodies a visual art triumph; the film is just generally well-shot for VHS era schlock, making great use of low to the ground tracking shots to build majesty & menace. Synapse’s recent restorative DVD release looks especially fantastic. With a lot of the cast appearing to be crew & their friends and the only recognizable faces being people like That One Guy From GoodFellas, The Frankenhooker Dude, and The Mom From Polyester, that visual achievement can’t be overpraised, as the film is an obvious labor of love. It’s just a shame that it declined to fully explore the implications of its poisoned homeless community in-between its most impressive stretches of flesh-melting violence. Even when a stray gag in its second act doldrums does pay off (like a Benny Hill-inspired routine involving a severed dick), it feels like that time might have been better spent investigating the originating source of Viper or further exploring the homeless community’s interactions with the equally assholish upper class. Better yet, it could have cut out the second act entirely & just stuck to Viper’s physical effects, as it obviously cannot be trusted to use its idle time well when afforded it.

-Brandon Ledet

eXistenZ (1999)

As I proudly count Videodrome as one of my all-time favorite films, I have no excuse for how long I’ve put off watching its kissing cousin, eXistenZ. Like how all Cronenberg horrors are driven by unspoken, cerebral fear, maybe I was subconsciously worried about seeing one of my most loved works lessened in its cultural update from cable television moral outrage to video game paranoia. eXistenZ even opens with a murder executed through an organic firearm made of bone & teeth, which picks up right where the flesh gun assassination conclusion of Videodrome leaves off. I wasn’t at all disappointed by my experience with eXistenZ, however. The film didn’t tarnish my appreciation of earlier Cronenberg works like Videodrome, but rather enhanced them by providing better context for the director’s career at large. Not only does a Cronenberg spin on the video game paranoia explored in less-horrific titles like The Matrix & TRON have an instant appeal to it, but eXistenZ also serves as a great bridge between the cerebral body horror of the director’s early career and the cold philosophical comedies he’s been making since the mid-2000s.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a hotshot virtual reality game developer who’s workshopping her greatest work to date, eXistenZ. The focus group testing of the game is disrupted when an assassination attempt is made with the aforementioned bone gun, leaving the developer/artist vulnerably injured. A marketing nerd played by Jude Law then finds himself operating as a makeshift bodyguard, whisking the developer away to safety while a vaguely-defined They (a paranoid conspiracy theory combination of both anti-gamers & gaming corporations) chase the pair down. Reality blurs as the two new “friends” delve into multiple levels of games within games to ensure the safety of both eXistenZ and its creator. There are no TRON-like digital landscapes around to give away what is “reality” vs what is eXistenZ, so the movie mostly amounts to a colossal mind fuck of Cronenberg needling his audience into a paranoid questioning of the validity of every character & every story beat. His version of a virtual reality future is much grimier & more organic than most similarly-minded sci-fi, works that tend to vizualize their own futurescapes with crisp lines & sanitized spaces. Cronenberg’s horrific vision is not the reality presented by the gaming systems, “meta flesh game pods” that plug into players’ spines through an umbilical chord & a puckered asshole of an outlet, or “bio-port” in the movie’s parlance. The writhing game pods, which look like gigantic human ears with clitoral nobs, make technology itself to be a literal horror, which really essentializes the paranoia films like The Matrix & The 13th Floor labor to communicate.

It’s interesting that no character in eXistenZ ever once says the term “video game,” yet we know exactly what medium Cronenberg is targeting. The glowing flesh cell phones & casual acceptance of virtual reality as a commonplace technology suggest a distant future where video games are a long-obsolete artform, but not so distant that the anus-like bio-ports & umbilical chord connectors that make gaming possible are acceptable to everyone. eXistenZ gleefully taps into the sexual taboo of female on male penetration, lingering on moments when Jennifer Jason Leigh has to lube up & enter Jude Law’s bio-port for stabs of psychosexual unease. Cronenberg sets up a fictional work where ours is “the most pathetic level of reality,” but the biological technology necessary to transcend it is a source of bottomless horror. Much like with Videodrome, he uses that bodily unease to open the film to metacommentary on the value of his own art. While Videodrome explores the violent & sexual urges titillated by a shifting media landscape, eXistenZ focuses on the nature of artificial realities created in individual movies, calling into question what qualifies as “real.” Characters detach from their in-game personas to critique the quality of the dialogue they’re compelled to say & what value a scripted sex scene has on their characterization. eXistenZ feels like the beginning of 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.

From the continuation of Videodrome ideology to its dream logic sci-fi mindfuckery to the surprise of seeing a large chunk of the Last Night cast reassembled for a gross-out horror, I was always going to be predisposed to enjoy eXistenZ. It felt almost as if I were destined or scripted to watch & enjoy the film, a fate I delayed for as long as I could, but did not avoid indefinitely. As I’m wrapping up this review, I’m feeling a phantom itch where my bio-port should be, which is the exact kind of reality-questioning paranoia I hope to catch from all of my Cronenberg fare. If Jennifer Jason Leigh enters any room I’m in for the remainder of my life I’m going to let out an uncontrollable scream.

-Brandon Ledet

Are We Not Cats (2016)

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fourstar

One curious throughline that ties together a lot of body horror classics (besides the sadly dying art of grotesque practical effects) is the idea of doomed romance. Titles like The FlyPossession, Altered States, Splice, and Slither all make their inhuman, nail-splitting, mucus-gushing freakshows count for something by using a doomed romance plot as an emotional anchor. The surprise indie gem Are We Not Cats, delivered by first time director Xander Robin, flips this dynamic on its head. As grotesque as the film’s body horror imagery can be, not least of all in its moments of hair-eating & amateur surgery, its practical effects shock value always feels secondary to its central romance plot. Are We Not Cats toes the line between many genres: body horror, mental health drama, black comedy, surrealist fantasy. It’s first & foremost a doomed romance, though, one that’s infectiously celebratory despite the grotesque violence & grime of its direly tragic atmosphere.

An out of work garbage man finds an unexpected love interest in a lumber yard worker who shares a surprising amount of his peculiarities/afflictions: addiction, crippling loneliness, boredom, poverty, and (most importantly) trichophagia. Our two stray cat lovebirds suffer a rare psychological condition that urges them to compulsively eat human hair. One has a manageable condition that largely sticks to the tiny hairs of beards & arms, but the other is far more voracious. She chows down on the stuff wholesale, leaving entire scalps bare in her wake. There’s a tangible sense of impending doom in this sudden romance, as both addicts feel “weirdly sick” in a way they find difficult to express. Surely, this is somewhat attributable to their likelihood of consuming toxic amounts of jug wine & antifreeze for a cheap high instead of anything that could remotely be considered food, but eating large quantities of human hair also has its own inherent health risks. Have you ever seen a cat cough up an oversized, mucus-coated furball? This is far worse.

Are We Not Cats is a minor work in a lot of ways & features some narrative clichés you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker (an emotionally damaged male lead searching for a female love interest to “fix” him, for starters), but Robin finds a way to luxuriate in the narrative’s insignificance in a way that charms instead of deflates. His characters are society’s throwaway trash, at one point literally tossed in the garbage, so that everything they do is minor by nature anyway. More importantly, though, the film makes lyrical art out its discarded pieces. Instead of chasing the burn-out shrug of the similarly-minded psychedelic body horror Anitibirth, the film is confident that it has style to spare and instead builds its world around an intangible air of romance & desperation. 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Antibirth (2016)

twohalfstar

I don’t want to say that I’m the only fan of last year’s online-bullying slasher #horror (not only would it be a little presumptuous, I also know James enjoyed it when I made him watch it for the podcast), but I do assume I’m among a very precious few hopeless weirdos who got excited when the stars of that film, Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny, were reuniting a year later in another horror cheapie. Antibirth looked to be a repeat of the neo-psychedelia explored in their previous collaboration, a total freak-out of genre filmmaking done weird & done right. Sadly, I can’t say I was nearly as hot on Antibirth as I was in #horror. Where the Tara Subkoff film felt effortlessly strange & unnerving from beginning to end, Antibirth had to strain its resources to get itself there. The entire film feels like a pained effort to reach the unhinged intensity of its final moment, when that last minute development should have ideally been a launching point. If Antibirth were a plot for a television show it would’ve been a home run. As a standalone feature film, however, it feels like all wind-up & no pitch.

Lyonne stars as a metalhead stoner with a grimy crew of dirtbag friends, including a fellow shithead played by Sevigny. Between getting blackout drunk & chain-smoking bong rips to late night television, Lyonne’s unsuspecting, unremembering protagonist is drugged at a party & abducted for nefarious purposes. Thankfully, no onscreen sexual assault is included to spoil the mood, but Lyonne’s heavy metal wastoid does emerge from the haze of her bender to find herself pregnant. Although Antibirth does rely on pregnancy-specific modes of body horror – like the terrors of sore feet, puking, ultrasounds, and sore nipples – her struggle is conveyed as entirely supernatural. There’s a Cronenbergian element to her transformation from mind-numbed party girl to expectant mother that gets gradually, grotesquely bizarre before culminating in what’s possibly the most disgusting birth scene gore I’ve ever witnessed. The problem is that her horrific birthing trauma feels like the beginning to a story rather than an ending, which is especially disheartening considering that a lot of its lead up centered on the far less compelling antics of scumbags & dazed-out alien conspiracy theorists. If the ending of Antibirth were merely the ending of a more condensed first act, we might have something interesting here, something as bizarre as the movie seems to think it already is.

One thing Antibirth isn’t lacking is a sense of style. The film plays like a low octane reimagining of Rob Zombie taking on Death to Smoochie. Its overbearing grime, Cramps-style music cues, and knockoff Tonetta music videos (something I honestly never expected to see in a film) mixes with its Chuck E Cheese-inspired Teletubby/Sasquatch hybrids to make for a really interesting underground horror tone. There are also easily recognizable seeds of good stories in the film’s talk of extraterrestrial intuition (or “interdimensional street smarts”) and its basic idea of turning the myth that “every pregnancy is different” into its own disturbing tale of body horror. In an ideal world Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny would annually team up for a horror film just as weird & off-putting as Antibirth, maybe even a couple more with the same director (this is the debut effort of Danny Perez, who’s previously done visual collaborations with Animal Collective), but their previous outing together was far more successful. Here, I only see a few germs of good ideas without the proper follow through, emphasis heavily put on “germs”.

-Brandon Ledet

Strange Invaders (1983)

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twohalfstar

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There’s nothing misleading about the title of Strange Invaders. Much like the recently-mentioned Invaders from Mars, the 80s sci-fi cheapie attempts to profess its love for 50s alien schlock sensibilities while updating them for a modern audience, but unfortunately the results are much less successful here than they are in the Tobe Hooper film. There are plenty of interesting ideas at work in Strange Invaders & enough grotesque practical effects to fill a decent YouTube highlight reel, but getting through the painfully paced 90 min runtime is a lot less fun than it should be. This is highly dispiriting, considering that the filmed was partially penned by a young Bill Condon, who I have a certain affection for, but it still remains true.

Strange Invaders‘ plot involves a bland everyman searching for his missing ex-wife in a ghost town populated by some gross-ass aliens who can transform human beings into floating balls of energy merely by zapping them with their fingertip lightning. Oh yeah, and this town, which was, officially-speaking, “destroyed by a tornado”, is temporally trapped in the 1950s. And the government totally knows about it. And the aliens can (and do) mate with the human populace to create human-alien hybrids. And so on & so forth. You’d think that with as much of a narratively stacked deck that Strange Invaders has to play with it’d be a breezily entertaining picture, but the truth is that its sublime moments of occasional alien invasion weirdness are mere respites from a slog of a movie that more of often than not bores its audience to tears.

The most significantly enjoyable aspect of Strange Invaders is its fleeting moments of body horror. Aliens ripping off their human disguises, spewing green blood from bulletholes, and sucking the life out of human victims to add to their precious orb collection are the sole bright moments in an desperately dull film, probably all better experienced as .gifs than as complete scenes. You get a real sense here that Bill Condon has a love for dated genre films, a love best put to use in his breakout film Gods & Monsters, but that influence just makes Strange Invaders al the more frustrating. You can feel a better movie dying to be cut loose from the bland, pooly-paced orb that contains it, trapped in time decades later, still waiting to be rescued in the editing room.

-Brandon Ledet