Freaked (1993)

When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.

Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.

Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. 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. 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, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. 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, it 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.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

I suscribe to the belief that British director Ken Russell was one of the most underappreciated madmen in all of trash cinema. Titles like The Devils, Crimes of Passion, and Altered States stand as immaculate works of over-the-top shock value provocation. Russell filtered the seedier sex & violence of schlocky genre films through the meticulous aesthetic of art house cinema. He operated as a kind of bad taste prankster who knew deep in his bones how to appeal to a more refined audience, but gleefully indulged in cartoonish violence & sexual humor instead. It’s difficult to say exactly which Ken Russell film would be the perfect introduction to his hyper-violent, oversexed, art house pranksterism (Crimes of Passion is a personal favorite of mine, at least), but his 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm is as good of a place to start as any. The film operates as a kind of crash course in his pet obsessions as a crude auteur: hallucination, transgressive sex, religious blasphemy, lethal women, etc. It’s by no means his classiest or his most formally precise feature, but it covers a lot of ground on exposing audiences to what makes his work exciting & worthy of reappraisal, while still making no excuses for how cheap & ludicrously ill-considered his personal brand of provocative trash-art cinema could be.

Russell admittedly plays loose with the plot details of Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm novel, reducing its atmospheric (and by all accounts incoherent) horrors into an erotic farce about reptilian vampires. He still shows more respect than that pulpy source material likely deserves, however, as it was written late in Stoker’s life when his mental facilities were fading and included many strange bouts of Dracula-rehashing & racial philosophizing Russell smartly excised. One major difference between the book & the movie is the choice of when to reveal the true nature of the villain. Stoker saves the revelation that the conniving female royal of his novel is actually a shapeshifting snake (“worm” is kind of a misnomer) until very late into the proceeding. Russell, however, wastes no time. Actor Amanda Donohoe’s shapeshifting reptile villain is costumed to look like a bipedal cobra in the film; she wears hoods, scarves, and cowls that immediately make her appear snakelike in her cold, ultra-modernist rural England mansion. She makes no real attempt to hide her reptilian nature from potential victims either: she steals a giant dragon-like snake skull discovered in the first scene for an occultist ritual; she invites visitors to her home to play a Snakes & Ladders board game; she boasts of going “snake watching” in the woods. Long before she reveals her comically oversized vampire fangs & spits hallucination-inducing venom, the audience is well aware that she’s some kind of humanoid “worm.” Russell spends no more time covering up that his villain is a monster than Todd Browning did in his Dracula adaptation. As soon as you see her, you know. The mystery, then, is what sexual, sacrilegious terrors she’s planning to exact on her villains.

Hugh Grant appears as a kind of Van Helsing archetype destined to defeat this reptilian sex villain as part of his family heritage. Peter Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg, and Sammi Davis round out the cast, partly to maintain Stoker’s original story structure and partly to diversify Donohoe’s victims. Donohoe slithers around in high class dominatrix gear, sexually teasing & occasionally draining the blood of the entire crew and any horny teen boys who happen to wander into her lair. She flicks her tongue before lunging in for a kiss, like a snake surveying its prey. She spits a hallucinatory venom that triggers trippy, sacrilegious imagery pulled directly from previous works Altered States & The Devils. She occasionally transforms into a giant, Falkor-like snake puppet that recalls an especially demonic creation from Sid & Marty Croft. All of this torment & mayhem culminates in a demonic sex ritual that involves a deadly strap-on phallus and a bottomless pit where Donohoe feeds her almighty worm beast. The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).

Loving Ken Russell means disregarding any & all personal desire for subtlety. Very early on in The Lair of the White Worm Donohoe sensually sucks snake venom out of a hobbled cop’s leg while a cheese-coated saxophone wails on the soundtrack, matching the already porn-level acting of the film’s brayed line readings. In that moment, we know the nature & intent of the villain, the film’s disregard for coming across as erotica, and the exact tone of absurdist humor & violence Russell intends to amuse himself with. All three of those elements are only heightened & dragged further away from subtlety from there. The Lair of the White Worm may not be the director’s most carefully constructed or well-considered work, but it’s pure Ken Russell, something to be cherished by trash-gobblers & cinephiles alike.

-Brandon Ledet

Rat Film (2017)

I can’t think of many corners of cinema as alive with innovation & experimentation right now as the documentary & the essay film. Weirdo 2017 titles like Swagger, I Am Not Your Negro, Beware the Slenderman, Casting JonBenet, Love and Saucers, and The World is Mine were some of the most formally & tonally surprising experiences I had with movies all last year. Despite the obvious constraints of working with non-fiction subjects, the digital age post-Herzog documentary is proving to be one of the most vibrantly creative cinematic art forms we have at our disposal. Enter Rat Film, another small scale weirdo doc that’s been garnering buzz for well over a year before finally being released on VOD in recent months. In an elevator pitch, Rat Film can be described as an essay film on the lives & deaths of the rat population in Baltimore and the unlikely ways the comings & goings of those rodents relate to systemic racism in that city’s history. The details of how that essay is laid out are fascinating, however, as Rat Film explores a near-psychedelic multimedia approach to documentary as a craft, to the point where its form is just as significant as its subject. That dynamic honestly feels par for the course for a modern doc, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.” So says an affable city worker interviewed here whose entire job is to locate & poison rats. Rat Film profiles a wide range of personalities on the rat-obsession spectrum: pet owners, pest control city workers, amateur rat catchers, musicians who experiment with rat-operated theremins* (Dan Deacon, specifically), etc. These small voices in the larger conversation on Baltimore’s rat overpopulation are interwoven with a history lesson on the political & scientific evils perpetuated by a Dr. Richter, who used rat populations to justify social engineering in bizarre treatises like “Rats, Man, and the Welfare State.” A long history of racial segregation & social experimentation emerges among the film’s kaleidoscopic images of crude computer simulations, Google satellite photos, fireworks, drag racing, snakes, and of course, rats. Lots of rats, from the pink jelly bean infants to the massive, dog-scale behemoths. Instead of neatly explaining how all these disparate elements tie together into a cohesive whole, the movie instead ends on an ambiguous note of science fiction absurdity, leaving its audience to stew in the discomfort.

Admittedly, Rat Film is much drier and not nearly as kinetic as what’s advertised in its trailers. The house cat documentary Kedi is much more impressive in finding ways to document the secret lives of impossibly uncooperative animal subjects; Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog was much bolder in experimenting with the weird tone that can be struck with emotionally-distant, National Geographic-style narration in lines like “Does a blind rat dream?” Rat Film can also frustrate in its stubbornness to justify its own indulgences, such as what a heavily-featured drag racing speedway has to do with Baltimore’s “rat problem” at all. Even with those weak spots in consideration, Rat Film is still one of the stranger reflections on systemic racism, animal behavior, and the emptiness of modern life you’re ever likely to see onscreen, much less all at once. With an ambient Dan Deacon score that jarringly alternates between unexpected images to the cue of static pops, it’s a film that’s held together mostly in its commitment to deconstruction & looseness. There’s enough material here that would be worthy of a no-frills, straightforward documentary, but the experimental cinema approach of Rat Film is much more likely to draw (and maintain) attention than a more traditional work could. It’s also just one piece in a much larger gestalt that suggests there’s even more surprise & experimentation to come in the essay film medium, which is what excites me most.

*In college, I was in a band that used to play shows with a local punk group that featured a rat-operated theremin as a main player, which is a memory I was happy to have this film loosen. I do remember that particular rat meeting an unfortunate end, however. The volume of an average punk show was probably super bad for him (see Rock ‘n’ Roll High School for details there) and I think the heat of their tour van is eventually what did him in. R.I.P., little buddy.

-Brandon Ledet

Staying Vertical (2017)

Every now & then you’ll encounter a strange picture about writer’s block written by someone who’s obviously suffering writer’s block. These movies are usually penned by Charlie Kauffman, but in this case it’s Stranger By the Lake’s Alain Guiraudi who’s driven mad by the blank page into making something deeply, surreally frustrated. Staying Vertical is an abstract nightmare of mistakes & obligations haunting a frustrated writer as he avoids his professional responsibilities at the expense of everything he holds dear in life. Our creatively stumped protagonist starts his journey with a nice job & total freedom. His biggest worries are being rejected while cruising for sex or becoming consumed with boredom. By the conclusion, just a year later, he’s homeless, destitute, a public pariah, an estranged father, and literally surrounded by wolves. The events that lead him down that path can be logically explained in a linear progression, but that logic falls apart once you apply them to a larger metaphorical meaning. It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudi needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.

I have no problem admitting that some of Stranger by the Lake’s immediate appeal was its explicit depiction of casual gay sex, a kind of shock value transgression that paired wonderfully with its emotional thriller beats and thematic explorations of dangerous intimacy & loneliness. Staying Vertical boasts a lot of the same in-your-face vulgarity, including hardcore intergenerational sex, close-up shots of genitalia & human birth, and bizarre dialogue like, “Even if I wanted to, I can’t sleep with my son’s grandpa.” It’s far from a nonstop bacchanal of Kuso-esque perversions, though. Mostly we watch our writer’s block-afflicted protagonist drift through the French countryside, a major city, and a village in-between, racking up a mounting weight of responsibilities & obligations as he avoids the one thing he should be doing at the outset. In his aimless wandering through an unfulfilling life he establishes an absurd scenario where there’s essentially five people in all of France and they all want something from him that he’s unprepared to deliver. His obligations surround him like a pack of wolves, a point that’s driven home when he’s literally surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Of course, this kind of purposeless, for-its-own-sake shock value & absurdity is going to strike many people as incoherent nonsense. The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy. I can’t say I wouldn’t have rather have Guiraudi’s fearless, straightforward story about wolves, sheepherding, and the state of farm life in the face of modernized industry, but the extreme, absurdist self-reflection he delivers in Staying Vertical instead is fascinating, occasionally haunting stuff. I just hope he’s okay.

-Brandon Ledet

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

I’m struggling fully getting on board with the macho genre throwbacks of S. Craig Zahler. I did enjoy his instantly infamous cannibal gross-out Bone Tomahawk, despite my general distaste for Westerns and the feeling that its participation in “Native savage” tropes is a little too easily excused. I guess on some level I also enjoyed his follow-up to that attention-grabbing debut, the violent prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99. The overdose of testosterone running through Zahler’s films is wearing me down, though, a feeling that’s only compounded by his work’s slow-to-act, self-serious tone that “elevates” schlocky concepts with extended runtimes & deliberately over-written dialogue. Zahler is very good at what he does: revitalizing long-dormant “trash” genres with a fresh sense of meticulous craft & feel-it-in-your-bones brutality. There’s just a large part of me that misses the versions of these pictures that were quick, goofy, and less steeped in unexamined machismo.

I’m usually not a fan of his “lovable asshole”/Tough Guy with a Heart of Coal routine, but Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast here as a broken macho man on the wrong side of the law (and economic hardship). Recently laid off and facing the early signs of a crumbling marriage, his overly muscled protagonist becomes a reluctant drug-runner for some sneering, racial & homophobic slur-slinging Bad Guys, a career path that obviously lands him in jail. Once inside the pen, eternally typecast creep Udo Kier threatens the safety of his pregnant wife unless he assassinates a man held at the Maximum Security population of Cell Block 99, a prison within the prison. Motivated by this wicked act of blackmail, our anti-hero descends into the lower levels of the prison, as if clearing obstacles in a video game, by violently attacking/physically dismantling the guards & fellow prisoners. He eventually finds his target, but also engineers a spectacular act of revenge on his blackmailers in the process, leaving many destroyed bodies of (literally & figuratively) faceless baddies in his wake.

This plot feels just as akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris cheapie from the 1980s (especially the part about the wife being held ransom as blackmail) as it does to the grindhouse prison movies Brawl in Cell Block 99 lovingly pays tribute to. The setup to the violent spectacle of the payoff takes much longer to develop, however, attempting to build a genuine emotional response out of its narrative those films never achieved. I’m not convinced Zahler achieved it either. I was on board for the film’s scraped-against-concrete, Saw-level torture device violence. However, outside being impressed by a stray turn of phrase, I was left completely cold by the emotional core of the story it told. This detachment was only made worse by its ugly, high-contrast digital photography and even uglier commitment to brute force masculinity. It’s not like the movie isn’t critical of Vaughn’s brutal machismo either. Early on, unchecked masculine rage is made to be monstrously grotesque, especially as he dismantles an entire car by hand out of romantic anger and benevolently lords over his tiny, shrinking domain. It only gets worse as he applies that same destructive masculine anger to human bodies, something the movie is well aware of. I just found the experience of dwelling in that headspace for over two hours to be exhausting & ultimately alienating, a similar feeling I had with Zahler’s previous film. Not everyone will have that experience, of course. Much like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a technically well-made picture and your patience for diving into the depths of destructive masculinity will determine much of your experience with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation, has quickly earned the reputation of being a huge improvement on the film that came before it, to the point where its predecessor is entirely skippable so that you can get to the good stuff. 2014’s Annabelle was indeed a huge letdown even for the most dedicated of evil doll horror films, essentially burying what’s an incredibly powerful villain design under a hopelessly generic Rosemary’s Baby riff nobody asked for. That setup made it near effortless for its prequel, Annabelle: Creation, to exceed expectations, something Lights Out director David F. Samberg does with ease. Samberg’s slick production design & impressive control over jump scares & haunted house atmosphere makes for a surprisingly decent Annabelle corrective, delivering an evil doll-themed major studio horror similar to the machine-like precision of last year’s financially beastly adaptation of IT. As someone who’s always a sucker for evil doll horror as a genre, however, I have to admit I still don’t believe the Annabelle franchise is living up to its full potential. Creation is a well-made major studio horror movie, but it’s one that largely ignores the brilliant design of the evil doll at its center; it’s hardly an evil doll movie at all.

A 1940s doll maker & his religiously faithful wife lose their young daughter (named Annabelle, duh) in a freak accident, sending their lives into a depressive tailspin. Over a decade later, they open their home as a makeshift orphanage out of religious duty, bringing a fresh crop of young girls & their corresponding caretaker nun into the now-haunted house. Enter the titular doll Annabelle, whom the dead daughter’s spirit has taken residence in and uses to scare & maim her soul-weary parents’ new boarders. Unfortunately, the doll itself is used more as set dressing and a talisman than a direct threat in the film’s various scares & kills. Samberg has a sharp mind for tapping into the nightmare logic of a scared child: lights go out without explanation, hallways stretch into infinity, traditional sources of terror like a ghost under a sheet or the crack between a bed & wall are reinforced with a genuine sense of dread. This collection of haunted house scares feels entirely separate from Annabelle herself, however. Instead of directly using her in the film’s kills, Creation brings in other threats in the form of creepy nuns & demons made of black smoke, unsure how to deliver on the basic pleasures of a creepy doll horror flick.

As with a lot of films in the post-MCU mode of franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation feels like it’s torn in too many directions trying to satisfy its position in a larger, franchised story. The movie concludes with a lengthy, unnecessary epilogue connecting it to the opening minutes of the first Annabelle feature, establishing above-and-beyond continuity for a film practically no one remembers or values. It’s also tasked with teasing an upcoming horror film about demonic nuns to be set in The Conjureverse, plainlly titled The Nun. What really bothered me, though, is that Creation finds its scares in the dollmaker’s haunted home, not the evil doll he created, which connects the film to the haunted house themes of the original The Conjuring movie at the expense of a super creepy doll that’s used as a prop instead of an active player. I can totally back Annabelle: Creation as a well-made major studio horror film and an improvement on the previous Annabelle entry. Hell, I’d even cite it as an improvement on Samberg’s work in Lights Out, a film I found to be a thematically repugnant carbon copy of The Babadook. It’s still not as great as a proper Annabelle film could be, though, which won’t arrive until this franchise involves its killer-looking doll in its onscreen kills, something that should’ve been a given from the start.

-Brandon Ledet

Lady Macbeth (2017)

I’ve always thought of myself as enough of a costume drama nerd to always be on the hook for a period piece with enough pretty dresses & careful attention to set design. Lady Macbeth proved me wrong. Adapted from the 19th Century bodice-ripper
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and stripped to only the barest of narrative details, the film is both slight & driven by prurience. That exact formula didn’t stop me in the past from enjoying the Russ Meyer schlock Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure, though, so the things that bothered me about Lady Macbeth have been much more difficult to pinpoint. My problems with the film have been much more tied to how its narrative structure obscures its themes & intent until the very last minute, so that the film’s thesis plays like a gotcha! twist instead of a fully explored idea. Lady Macbeth is a harsh film packed with cruel, confusing behavior from characters we don’t know and we don’t get to know. Withholding the purpose of their vicious selfishness until the last minute leaves the film leading up to the reveal feeling pointlessly ugly on a spiritual level, something even a (very) pretty dress can’t quite cover up.

Florence Pugh stars as the murderous protagonist referenced in the title, a young woman recently married off as part of a land deal to an older man who has zero sexual interest in her. Alone in a rural England home with her husband, his ornery father, and a mostly black staff of servants & farm hands, she finds herself emotionally isolated & hopelessly bored. She acts out under this pressure in dangerous ways, “failing miserably in every one of [her] marital duties,” which, since her husband will not sexually interact with her, mostly includes listening to the clock tick while wearing a beautiful blue dress. Her protest of this unwanted life mostly entails starting a dangerous, adulterous affair with one of her PoC farm hands, a transgression she makes little, if any effort to hide. As the Shakespeare allusion in the title suggests, it’s a transgression that comes with a body count. She and her lover have to commit an exponentially depraved set of crimes to keep their affair alive, a path of atrocities she pressures the man into until his conscience can no longer take it. There’s a tonal shift from sympathy to shame as her transgressions progress this way, but by the time the film attempts to make a coherent point about the damage she’s causing the runtime comes to halt.

Lady Macbeth is a 90 minute adaptation of a (trashy) novel, stripping almost all story & character development that might provide helpful context for its flawed-by-design protagonist’s actions. There’s a Marie Antoinette-style critique built into the story that faults the title character for her flagrant misbehavior risking other people’s lives as she carelessly has her fun. That subversion of typical costume drama sympathies for women who are sold as wives/property against their will into a story about mishandled, deadly white privilege is certainly interesting, but there’s something infuriating about how Lady Macbeth saves that theme’s development as a last second twist. In the meantime, character motivations are baffling & left to be interpreted as pointlessly cruel. Two early, violent sex acts are depicted so coldly and without context that the question of consent is left entirely obscured, leaving them to feel like un-critical participation in the rape fantasies common to ancient romance novels. It takes an incredible amount of time for the protagonist to start laying the blame for her crimes on her PoC servants, who stand to lose much more than her for the transgressions, leaving no room for reflection on what that dynamic means after the film has concluded. In the meantime, what’s left onscreen feels far beneath the film’s visual quality as a period piece, yet not nearly fun or exciting enough to justify its pulpy tone. Then eventual theme is worthy of exploration it never receives, the characters on both sides of the crimes are never developed enough to elicit a genuine emotional reaction, and everything in-between feels like wasted time, save Pugh’s performance & costuming. Depending on your patience with its thematic reluctance, it might test the period drama devotee in you as well, if not make you question that inclination entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for the entirety of a year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in 2017, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciated about the experience is the way it consistently reminded me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 64 films directed by women in 2017. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list, which includes all the short films & re-watches of the batch. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only list the feature-length movies I saw for the first time last year, which serendipitously totaled a clean 52. Each film is ranked & linked to a corresponding review, since I was using the challenge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2018. It’s an experience I highly recommend, as I got so much out of it myself that I’ve already started a new Letterboxd list for my second year of participation.

5 Star Reviews

The Lure, dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska (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.”

Orlando, dir. Sally Potter (1992)

Born in Flames, dir. Lizzie Borden (1987)

Mikey and Nicky, dir. Elaine May (1976) 4.5

4.5 Star Reviews

Office Killer, dir. Cindy Sherman (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.”

Blood Bath, dir. Stephanie Rothman (1966)

Raw, dir. Julia Ducournau (2017)

4 Star Reviews

Blood Diner, dir. Jackie Kong (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.”

Icaros: A Vision, dir. Leonor Caraballo (2017)

Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig (2017)

A Night to Dismember, dir. Doris Wishman (1983)

Band Aid, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones (2017)

The Beguiled, dir. Sofia Coppola (2017)

Lemon, dir. Janicza Bravo (2017)

XX, dir. Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic (2017)

The World is Mine, dir. Ann Oren (2017)

Maggie’s Plan, dir. Rebecca Miller (2016)

Casting JonBenet, dir. Kitty Green (2017)

3.5 Star Reviews

Viva, dir. Anna Biller (2007) – “There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.”

The Watermelon Woman, dir. Cheryl Dunye (1996)

Landline, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2017)

Loving Vincent, dir. Dorota Kobiela (2017)

Wonder Woman, dir. Patty Jenkins (2017)

The Kid Stays in the Picture, dir. Nanette Burstein (2002)

Mudbound, dir. Dee Rees (2017)

Prevenge, dir. Alice Lowe (2017)

Kedi, dir. Ceyda Torun (2017)

Isthar, dir. Elaine May (1987)

American Fable, dir. Anne Hamilton (2017)

Beware the Slenderman, dir. Irene Taylor Brodsky (2017)

Beach Rats, dir. Eliza Hittman (2017)

Speed Racer, dir. Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski (2008)

Snowy Bing-Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone, dir. Rachel Wolther (2017)

Nude on the Moon, dir. Doris Wishman (1961)

Deadly Weapons, dir. Doris Wishman (1974)

B.C. Butcher, dir. Kansas Bowling (2016)

Sickhouse, dir. Hannah Macpherson (2016)

3 Star Reviews

The Velvet Vampire, dir. Stephanie Rothman (1971) – “The frustrating thing about The Velvet Vampire is that it’s almost something truly great. The dreamscape seduction scenes have a surreal Altered States quality to them that makes them immensely exciting and there’s a few stray moments of cinematic beauty elsewhere in shots of the titular vampire eating raw liver in her lingerie or lying naked in her husband’s coffin. The film’s also slightly transgressive in its third act shift toward lesbian seduction once the husband is no longer interesting as a plaything, especially in the vampire’s monologue about men’s envy over the power of female sexual pleasure. The film doesn’t follow through on any of its genuine art film impulses, though, so it’s much easier to take delight in its campier touches like its rubber bats, loosely defined vampire rules (sunlight’s apparently not a problem), and inane dialogue (listening to a man scream in pain, the dolt husband shrugs it off with, “It’s probably just a coyote.”). Because The Velvet Vampire is so beholden to the slow & stoned hippie energy of its era (as opposed to the much more alive go-go erotica of The Vampire and the Ballerina), though, it’s difficult to get too excited about the film’s occasional pleasures that languidly float by onscreen.”

Things to Come, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve (2016)

Another Day, Another Man, dir. Doris Wishman (1966)

Rough Night, dir. Lucia Aniello (2017)

Most Beautiful Island, dir. Ana Asensio (2017)

Bridget Jones’s Baby, dir. Sharon Maguire (2016)

Wexford Plaza, dir. Joyce Wong (2017)

Cold Steel, dir. Dorothy Ann Puzo (1987)

 Bound by Flesh, dir. Leslie Zemeckis (2012)

The Being, dir. Jackie Kong (1983)

Kiki, dir. Sara Jordenö (2016)

Mirror Mirror, dir. Marina Rae Sargenti (1990)

Would Not Reccomend

Play the Devil, dir. Maria Govan (2017)

The Bad Batch, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2017)

Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, dir. Beeban Kidron (2004)

-Brandon Ledet