Bonus Features: Tatie Danielle (1990)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1990’s Tatie Danielle, is a dark comedy about a cruel old biddy whose sole purpose in life is making everyone else as miserable as she is.  It plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks.  The main difference (besides their anti-heroes’ disparate ages) is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless repeats of “Bad to the Bone”, while Tatie Danielle is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication.  Both are great.

It’s rare that elderly characters are allowed to be complicated, difficult people onscreen.  They’re usually dazed wallflowers who are only good for an occasional comedic one-liner or a pang of audience sympathy.  The titular Auntie Danielle might be an ornery bully, but she’s at least interesting & complicated enough to carry an entire character study all by her lonesome – something you can’t say about many elderly characters on the big screen.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more films about wonderfully terrible old people whose geriatric misanthropy makes them oddly adorable.

Grumpy Old Men (1993)

If you want to see a version of Tatie Danielle with all the dramatic sophistication surgically removed to make room for broad Problem Child-style comedy, Grumpy Old Men is basically its dumbed-down American remake.  The core emotional drama of Tatie Danielle is in watching its miserable old biddy find an unlikely kindred spirit in her younger, even meaner nurse – a complicated relationship that evolves from borderline elder abuse to Thelma & Louise feminist heroics.  Grumpy Old Men takes a much simpler, lazier route by pairing Jack Lemon & Walter Matthau up as two miserable old men who find good company in each other’s equal-footing sourness.  They’re essentially playing two photocopies of the same ornery-old-man archetype—next-door neighbors & lifelong rivals—so there’s nothing nuanced or surprising about their I-love-to-hate-you dynamic.  Still, I got choked up by a scene where Matthau drags Lemon to the ER post-heart-attack and struggles to answer a nurse who asks whether he’s “friend or family.”  The thing about simplified Hollywood schmaltz is that it works, often to an embarrassing degree.

What’s brilliant about Grumpy Old Men‘s archetypal frenemy dynamic is that it allows the film to immediately launch into Matthau & Lemon’s hate-love dynamic.  It plays like a “The Movie” version of a decades-running sitcom in that way, or maybe a legacy sequel to the comedians’ previous team-up in The Odd Couple.  That frees up a lot of space for geriatric Problem Child pranks, which are of course much broader & cuter here than in Tatie Danielle.  These geezers might spitefully refer to each other by pet names like “moron” and “dickhead,” but they’re not really as misanthropic or cruel as Auntie Danielle, and a lot of the film’s fun is in watching them unwittingly bond as friends as they ruin each other’s daily lives with slapstick pranks.  Go to the French film for nuance; go to the American one for a Benny Hill set piece involving a runaway fishing hut.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

I suppose referring to Grumpy Old Men as the “dumbed-down American version” of Tatie Danielle doesn’t leave much room for discussion of Bad Grandpa – a geriatric prank movie from the professional dummies at Jackass, the most dumbed-down game in town.  In this spinoff from the official Jackass canon, Johnny Knoxville appears in old-age makeup as a horny old grump who briefly celebrates the freedom of his wife’s death, only to be saddled with custody of his grandson for the length of a disastrous road trip.  It perversely mixes candid-camera pranks with a Little Miss Sunshine-style feel-good comedy plot, even concluding with a real-life recreation of Little Miss Sunshine‘s climactic dance number (this time a drag/strip routine set to Warrant’s hair metal classic “Cherry Pie”).  Knoxville is obnoxious, cruel, selfish, uncomfortably horny, and often casually racist throughout the road trip, and the film scores a lot of easy laughs in observing people’s horrified reactions to a frail old man’s misanthropic misbehavior – the same transgressive thrill as Tatie Danielle

There’s been a lot of serious academic reconsideration of Jackass‘s artistic value as a documentary series lately, and I honestly believe there’s an argument to be made that Bad Grandpa is one of the more innovative, nuanced examples of mean-geezer cinema.  The love for last year’s Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip seemed to suggest that the narrative-hybrid approach is the future of the candid prank film, so it’s a little odd this one is poorly remembered.  It’s not quite as funny as a legitimate Jackass film, but it is funny, and it’s an interesting evolution of the form.  If nothing else, every prank feels narratively purposeful in a way neither Bad Trip nor the Borat movies bother to attempt.  It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup, which might very well be one of the first legitimizing accolades a Jackass film got as an achievement in cinematic craft.  You have to wonder whether if the series were filmed in France instead of the US, it might’ve been legitimized as “documentary art” & “a joyous vision of resilience in the face of trauma” a lot sooner.

Rabid Grannies (1988)

Given that the comedic legacy of Grumpy Old Men & Bad Grandpa has an immediate successor in the Robert DeNiro comedy Dirty Grandpa, it’s tempting to offer that much maligned (but surprisingly funny) gross-out comedy as the third compliment to Tatie Danielle.  I don’t want to lean too hard into the dirty-old-man side of the geriatric gender divide, though, since part of the novelty of Auntie Danielle’s misbehavior is the novelty of seeing an old woman shine as a sour misanthrope.  I can think of plenty examples of elderly men causing an age-inappropriate ruckus in slapstick comedies, but misbehaving biddies are a lot more difficult to come by.  In fact, I had to deviate to splatstick horror comedies to find the perfect pairing with Tatie Danielle‘s evil-old-woman humor, landing on the 1988 Belgian gore fest Rabid Grannies.  It might seem like the furthest outlier recommendation listed here, but it’s both the only one of these pairings that, like Tatie Danielle, centers on misanthropic old women and features a French-speaking cast.

Well, they normally speak French anyway.  One-time director Emmanuel Kervyn instructed his cast to speak phonetic English so the film would be internationally marketable.  For his effort, he sold the film to Troma, who has since bungled its release for over thirty years in both the quality of its prints and the censorship of its gore gags – a shitty trade-off for having to listen to characters talk-shout in a language they barely understand.  As a farce, Rabid Grannies is painfully unfunny, if not outright shrill.  As a special effects showcase, however, it’s a hoot, approximating what it would be like if the creepy biddies from Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches actually tore into some flesh instead of just threatening to.  What it lacks in belly laughs it more than makes up for in its flashes of Dead Alive-level splatstick gore.

At the start of the film, the titular killer “grannies” (referred to as “The Aunts” by their ungrateful relatives) are stereotypically sweet old ladies.  They freely give money to homeless people but are tight-pursed when it comes to their relatives, who are nastily competing for the women’s soon-to-be-distributed inheritance.  No matter how sweet they appear, The Aunts are sinisterly Conservative in their old age, pressuring their children to hide lesbian relationships & second marriages out of distaste for the impropriety.  It’s a moral fascism that’s amplified when The Aunts are cursed by the black sheep of the family, who infects them with a witchcraft spell that transforms them into flesh-eating demons.  In their first act of violence, the evil old women bite off a family member’s head.  In their climactic showstopper, they eat another family member’s ass – literally.  It’s all very gloopy & over-the-top, but it’s rooted in the same generational warfare that runs throughout all these misanthropic comedies. 

If you squint at it the right way, Tatie Danielle is a kind of horror film about an evil grandmother the same way that The Stepfather is a horror film about an evil stepfather, or The Dentist is a horror film about an evil dentist.  Rabid Grannies follows through on the novelty of that premise in the most extreme, tasteless way, transforming its bitter-old-lady villains into grotesque monsters.  The funny thing is that even in that creature-feature context, they take delight in their family-destroying mayhem as if they were just playing juvenile pranks on their victims (or, more accurately, just playing with their food).  It’s an approach that makes the broad caricatures of Tatie Danielle look restrained & sophisticated by comparison, which I suppose you could also say about Grumpy Old Men, Bad Grandpa, and the like.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Starstruck (1982)

Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom & Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual.  Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos.  It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut.  There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.

I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time.  Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.  To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.

Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show).  You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson).  The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.

Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway.  It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school.  The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible.  There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc.  None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though.  For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical.  It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.

The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship.  That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types.  Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band.  Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff.  Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot.  Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space.  It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play.  It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all.  Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out.  Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide.  The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.

The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition.  Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released.  That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision.  That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye.  It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.

-Brandon Ledet