Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Space all come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.

Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.

-Brandon Ledet

Poison (1991)

It’s a goddamn shame the world has not been treated to more Todd Haynes features. Although the director has a follow-up to his recent critical hit Carol already on its way, the near-ten year gap between Carol & its predecessor, I’m Not There., is alarming, to put it lightly. At the same time, though, it’s actually something of a miracle that Haynes has had a career at all. I’d count works like Velvet Goldmine & Safe among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime (or they at least felt that way when I first saw them in high school), but it’s shocking that the director was even able to get them made, much less turn their minor indie world successes into more mainstream-friendly dramas like Carol or Far from Heaven. How is a director widely known for making an unsanctioned Karen Carpenter biopic with an all-Barbie doll cast or a pansexual glam rock opera that implies a rumored  romantic affair between Bowie & Iggy still around & pulling funding from prestigious, Oscar-worthy dramas? I love the improbability of his career. It’s an absurd unlikelihood that dates at least as far back as his first feature film, a fractured anthology about queer anxiety that somehow pulls influence from both 1950s drive-in creature features & Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. Todd Haynes has always been a movie industry anomaly, a fact proven by that debut somehow winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the year of its release.

Poison is an interwoven tryptic of three separate narratives. One story is a documentary shot in lurid Douglas Sirk colors about a young, constantly bullied boy who “murders his father and then flies away.” Another details unspoken homosexual desire between two 1940s prisoners that grows increasingly violent the longer it’s ignored. The third, most oddly lighthearted story, is a parody of 1950s B-pictures where a scientist accidentally consumes his own “sex drive serum” and becomes a monstrous, lethal leper. These stories might feel entirely disharmonious at first glance, even ranging from black & white to dull color to full Douglas Sirk indulgences in visual richness. However, they are each tied together by an expression of queer anxiety. Childhood bullying, living closeted, unexpressed desire, and the menace of HIV/AIDS inform so much of the film’s unspoken conflict that its context as a work of pure queer anxiety cannot be ignored. It’s felt as soon as the opening quote exclaims, “The whole world is dying of panicky fright” and never lets up as its three stories concurrently barrel towards their unavoidably sour ends. What’s most bizarre is the way Haynes can play this anxiety for varied effect. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes shockingly brutal, and often trafficking in the delicate, distilled imagery of a Guy Maddin picture, Poison’s intent & effect is a scattered, but consistently fascinating mess of anxious expressions of queerness.

As with a lot of first time features, this is a film that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. It’s jarring how widely ranging Haynes allows those influences to be, though, touching on everything from John Waters & Roger Corman to Jean Genet & James Bidgood. I’m not sure you can detect the eventual greatness Haynes would eventually synthesize these influences into in titles like Velvet Goldmine, but it’s so much fun watching him clash them against each other in this fractured anthology piece. Poison is recognizably the work of a young, enthusiastic, queer man aching to unleash his weirdo sensibilities on the movie world at large. I find it both improbable & delightful that he’s been rewarded for it, even if his work has been despairingly infrequent as of late. As a film, it’s difficult to deny that Poison is rough around the edges, perhaps even by design, but as a cultural object it has a kind of punk art world shakeup quality that’s easy to find infectious. At times I wished during its runtime that I could have watched any one of its vignettes play out on its own instead of the three fighting each other for air, but they worked well together as a kind of anxious artist’s statement and initiative war cry for a rewarding career that’s only gotten more delightfully improbable as the decades have rolled on.

-Brandon Ledet

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Ray Bradbury’s Return to Tormenting Suburban Children in The Halloween Tree (1993)

There’s something instantly familiar about the spooky, vintage Midwest suburbs of the Ray Bradbury-penned feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, our current Movie of the Month. Even watching the film for the first time in my 30s, I felt as if it had already been in my life forever, despite my familiarity with Bradbury’s work typically falling solidly under sci-fi, not horror. The spooky bygone suburbs of the film felt very much akin to horror movies I had grown up with as a kid, titles like Jumanji & The Monster Squads, a setting that’s been evoked & praised in so many Ebert reviews I don’t even know where to start citing them. Apparently, it’s a setting Bradbury had mentally returned to often himself, a spacial & temporal locale he had framed many of his children-targeted short stories & novels in, despite only one being adapted to a major motion picture release. Something Wicked This Way Comes does have some Bradbury-penned company in its nature as a feature length adaptation, though, just not anything with the financial backing of a live action Walt Disney production. Instead, its closest spiritual relative in nostalgic suburb horror would be a made-for-TV animated feature, a much cheaper mode of entertainment all around.

The Halloween Tree looks like an animated recreation of Something Wicked This Way Comes’s exact tone & setting, though it feels slightly behind that work in every way. Its fantasy novel source material was written in 1972, ten years behind Something Wicked’s 1962 publication date. It was produced as a late Hanna-Barbera animation, while Something Wicked was working with Disney dollars, which go a long way. Even in its central themes, which more or less amount to a history lesson on The True Meaning of Halloween, it pales in comparison to the much more complex subject matter of its predecessor, which explores intangible subjects like fear & desire. It’s difficult, then, to think of The Halloween Tree as anything but a minor work by comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s charmless or worth excluding from the Something Wicked legacy. Bradbury himself was at least invested in the work’s value, providing a storybook-style narration for its framing device. The hand-drawn animation is much more complex than most Hanna-Barbera productions are afforded. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’d also say it was nice to see a plot structure usually reserved for The True Meaning of Christmas applied to a holiday I actually give a shit about. The Halloween Tree feels somewhat like a scrappy echo of Something Wicked (which was something of a bomb itself), but it’s got enough of its own charm & personality to justify its existence outside that superior work’s shadow.

The spooky Midwest suburb setting The Halloween Tree shares with Something Wicked really only serves as a framing device. A group of kids preparing to trick ‘r treat on Halloween night see their sick friend’s ghost running through the woods just outside their suburb. Following his specter, they bump into a creepy old ghoul (voiced by an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy) who seems to be threatening to claim the boy’s soul as he succumbs to appendicitis complications. In the process of bartering for their sick friend’s existence, the children are mocked for not understanding the meaning behind their various Halloween costumes: a mummy, a witch, a skeleton, etc. Chiding them, “All dressed up for Halloween and you don’t know why,” the old ghoul takes them on a temporal road trip through historical Halloween-type cultural traditions that relate to their costumes. Vignettes touching on Egyptian mummification, Stonehenge, witch trials, Día de Muertos, and so on provide meaning to the children’s various costume choices as they inch closer to saving their friend’s life through bleeding heart negotiation tactics. Much like with Something Wicked, the resolution to the threat of death is much more saccharine than the stakes appear during the conflict but the film could still potentially haunt an audience who catches it at a young enough age. The two movies’ real connection, though, is the way Bradbury makes a small crew of suburban scamps feel as if they’re the only kids in the world, saddling them with the responsibility of waging a metaphysical Good Vs. Evil battle.

To be honest, if I weren’t watching this film on Alli’s recommendation during our Movie of the Month conversation or I wasn’t aware of Bradbury’s involvement, I’m not sure The Halloween Tree would have immediately reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My mind likely would have gone more readily to Over the Garden Wall, a recent animated story that shares The Halloween Tree’s religious reverence for Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween costuming. The similarities shared with Something Wicked are not at all difficult to reach for, however. By the time the gang of suburban tykes reach an abandoned circus where the attractions are haunted by an evil magic, Bradbury’s wicked fingerprints are detectable all over it. The most immediately noticeable difference in this version of his aesthetic is that one of the kids is a girl, which feels out of line with Something Wicked’s distinctive boyhood POV. That detail was apparently added in its adaptation from book to screen, a smart choice that helps broaden its appeal. For anyone looking to introduce children to horror as a genre, you could probably do no better than a double feature of these two Bradbury-penned works after a long night of trick ‘r treating under suburban streetlights. He’s got a welcoming touch to his spooky children’s fare that should prove to be invitingly universal, even if the settings are so consistently specific it’s difficult to tell them apart from work to work.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

-Brandon Ledet

American Fable (2017)

Anne Hamilton’s directorial debut is a film that floats between several recognizable, marketable genres without firmly landing on any single one in particular. American Fable is an 80s-set kids-on-bikes supernatural adventure film, except without any of the overt Amblin nostalgia that made Stranger Things a hot topic last winter. It feels like a Southern Gothic supernatural thriller at its edges, but its Midwest farmland setting & fairy tale tone distance it from that genre’s hallmarks. It flirts with the fairy tale horror tones defined by filmmakers like Terry Gilliam & Guillermo del Too, but never fully commits to the darkness of either influence. This genre-defiant, difficult to pin down quality is fascinating to watch unfold, because its various destinations are left wholly unpredictable. At the same time, its loopy dream logic paths through its own fantasy space can also be frustrating, since they never decisively choose a tonal direction to command its overall aesthetic. It’s easy to leave American Fable both vaguely let down by its ultimate effect, yet gleefully enthusiastic over the power Hamilton already wields behind the camera so early in her career.

In its experiments with a wide sampling of genres & tones, American Fable‘s one consistency is in sticking with the storytelling focus indicated by its title. Parables, fairy tales, bedtime stories, and even straightforward lies shape the logic & the narrative of its farmland tale of a young girl in crisis. Early on in American Fable, our young protagonist requests a bedtime story from her father that’s scary, but ultimately has a happy ending. As her own story unfolds, it becomes increasingly unlikely that it will meet both of those requirements itself, though it certainly follows the rhythms of a bedtime story as a narrative anchor. Suffering the shitty end of Reaganomics, the girl’s family is on the verge of losing its farm, its livelihood, to mythically greedy real estate developers who have been eating up the region. This leads to a version of the parable “The Lion and the Mouse,” except reimagined as “The Farmer and the Real Estate Mogul.” Our protagonist is asked to keep the secret that a wealthy man is being imprisoned in her farm’s empty silo, knowing that he’s likely to buy the land from under them if he’s ever freed. The imprisoned man is sweet to her. He buys her time & sympathy with the currency of well-told stories, but he’s still a potential danger if she grants him freedom, due to his basic nature as a wealthy businessman. Themes of power, control, and economics, as well as the negotiation & mechanism of the wealthy man’s imprisonment, are filtered through the dream logic rhythms of films like Paperhouse or MirrorMask. American Fable crumbles under any literal interpretation of its seemingly simplistic plot, but leaves behind an impressive impact in its wake.

The most immediately impressive aspect of American Fable is the way it captures an imaginative child’s POV. The film is often shot as if it were a child peering from under a table or through a cracked door while adults passionately, but quietly discuss a world they’ve been locked out of. The film also has the sweeping, breathless pacing of an 80min montage that, while undercutting the in-the-moment emotional impact of a few potentially powerful scenes, plays directly into a child’s eccentric view of the world. This perspective allows for the film’s haunted carnival imagery & its long stares at a horned witch on horseback who guards the silo-turned-prison to feel just as natural to its farmland setting as children catching fireflies in Mason jars at dusk. In an early scene an injured baby deer’s hospice is lit with the drastic dream world colors of a giallo film; the detail feels no more or less out of place than any of its outright fantasy spaces. This is likely a film made for an adult audience (not necessarily because of any “adult” content), but because of the tones & perspective Hamilton chooses to work with I feel like I might have been much more in tune with its headspace as a young child.

American Fable is an often exciting film, even it’s not a wholly satisfying one. Much like the recent Netflix-distributed indie Dig Two Graves, it reaches for an ambitious sense of otherworldly mystery & awe that sometimes outsizes its means, but it’s consistently impressive for reaching that far at all. Anne Hamilton undeniably shows promise in the potency her imagery. I also very much respect her confident looseness in narrative & genre constriction, even if I ultimately was left scratching my head over the totality of its effect. I didn’t especially love the film, but I was constantly fascinated by it, recalling the feeling of listening to an improvised bedtime story with no clear destination, but strange enough details to entertain along the way. I’m not sure this is the kind of film that’s going to attract big studio attention on its own merits, but I’d love to see what Hamilton could do in the future with the kinds of budgets del Toro & Gilliam have been afforded in the past. I’m sure it’d be a dream.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

I don’t know if I can fully justify enjoying The Lego Batman Movie‘s tongue in cheek meta-commentary on the grim & gritty world of DC comic book adaptations while calling the same referential style of humor lazy & unfunny in Deadpool. It might just be that the jokes in Lego Batman were better written. It might be that the film’s visual craft better carried its dull stretches where the jokes weren’t landing. It might even be that DC is a target that really needs to be parodied in an irreverent, aggressively silly way (considering the gloomy hell pit it’s been mired in since Nolan & Snyder have shaped its modern image), while Deadpool‘s Marvel digs felt more inconsequential. No matter the reason, I felt like somewhat of a hypocrite laughing throughout The Lego Batman Movie for the same exact reasons I shuddered throughout Deadpool. I could try to make an argument that this animated triviality was more sincere or emotionally genuine that that accursed Ryan Reynolds vehicle, but I’ll always be saddled with the feeling of being made a hypocrite by my own sense of taste in this scenario.

One thing I can be certain of in my enjoyment of The Lego Batman Movie is that Will Arnett is brilliantly cast as the titular character; he’s probably the most inspired Batman casting since I first imagined Nic Cage in the role in my own head. Arnett’s naturally gruff speaking voice & leftover Gob Bluth hubris are perfect for the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy. The 2014 Lego Movie was an adorable, infectiously energized pop culture mashup that allowed for all kinds of recognizable characters to share a single screen: C-3PO, Abraham Lincoln, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, etc. Only Arnett’s Batman stood out enough to suggest he could justify his own spin-off, though. As a delivery on that promise, this quasi-sequel does a great job of both delivering more of the same & deepening the self-obsessed gloomy rich boy assholery that defines Arnett’s Batman as a character. He still shares the screen with an impossible array of crossover characters & finds fresh ways to take the wind out of Batman’s egomaniacal sails. We get to see much more of the loneliness, hurt, and grief that makes him such a selfish prick to begin with, however. The movie even opens that world to us without having to indulge in yet another retelling of the origin story sparked by his parent’s death (a restraint Snyder didn’t show in Dawn of Justice, unfortunately). Arnett’s Lego form is such a pure embodiment of Batman that in these reflective scenes of brooding over the past in his mansion & cave, he’s still wearing the costume & cowl. The movie makes his Bruce Wayne persona the disguise & Batman the natural default, which is both amusing & oddly insightful.

To make room for these introspective, parodic dives into Batman’s character, The Lego Batman Movie does little in the way of plot innovation. Like an episode of the 1960s Batman television series or the general ethos or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the game plan in this lego-ized version of a Batman plot is to just flood the screen with villains for the Caped Crusader to thwart. The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler, Catwoman, etc. are joined by non-Batman villains like Sauron, Gremlins, Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dracula to provide a long line of in-the-moment obstacles for Batman to clear on his path to the end credits. Outside a couple well-casted performances (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, etc.) there really isn’t much to hold onto in these external conflicts. Rather, it’s the emotional conflicts of Batman’s interpersonal relationships with friends & family (Alfred, Robin, Batgirl, himself) that drive to story. The Lego Batman Movie boasts fairly simplistic messages about learning to not be selfish & the value of asking for help that contrast with Batman’s self-absorbed rich boy nature as a vigilante who “karate chops poor people in a Halloween costume,” but that’s more than enough of a narrative structure to support the film’s true concern: self-referential goofs & gags.

The beautiful thing about this movie’s Batman nerdery is that it mostly focuses on Batman’s onscreen adaptations, as opposed to his life in comic books. There’s an inclusiveness to that kind of reference-based humor that I found constantly rewarding. From the opening heist sequence involving an “unnecessarily complicated bomb” that recalls The Dark Knight to the off-handed callback line, “You wanna get nuts?,” every inch of the script is crawling with heartfelt appreciation for Batman’s life in movies. References to less widely-loved properties like the (criminally undervalued) 1960s Batman: The Movie and even the 1940s serials are just as plentiful & thoughtful as the nods to Batman & Nolan. Much like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie does its best to capture the feeling of kids playing with toys on the living room floor, despite its nature as a corporate-sanctioned, CG-animated product deliberately designed to sell merchandise. Since I grew up a huge mark for Batman media (mostly thanks to Burton & The Animated Series), this particular version of smashing toys together actually resonated with my own memories of childhood playtime. That shared nerdery over Batman‘s cinematic past is likely a significant factor is why this indulgence in referential, tangential meta-humor worked so well for me while the same tactics in Deadpool left me absolutely cold.

The Lego Batman Movie is overlong for its paper thin plot & exhausting, gag-a-second style of post-ZAZ parody humor. It’s impressive how much of it works before that exhaustion sets in, however. I’m usually not at all a sucker for CG animation, but this Lego style has a cool, tactile stop-motion flavor to it that I really appreciate. The film’s knowledgeable assessment of Batman as a character can be impressive too, from commentary on his fear of familial love & his longterm relationships with supervillians to more shallow single-moment parodies where he literally shoots children in the face with merchandise or fights forgotten villains like Egghead & The Condiment King. The inspired casting of Arnett as Batman (and the alternate, improved universe where Channing Tatum plays Superman) is enough to carry the movie on its own, but it’s still endearing to see so much care & attention to detail poured into a property that appears to be all blatant commercialism from the surface. Maybe that intense fandom & craft is what’s missing for me in the meta sleaze of Deadpool, but, again, I’m really just grasping at straws trying to figure out why one of these movies worked for me while the other one didn’t. It’s a personal inconsistency that’s going to drive me mad until I can put a finer point on it.

-Brandon Ledet

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978)

I once made a promise to myself that I’d never watch the grotesque exploitation piece Cannibal Holocaust again, but between Slave of the Cannibal God and the much more recently-produced Bone Tomahawk, I feel as if I already have. Now, Bone Tomahawk is admittedly a much better film than either of the schlocky horrors I’m lumping it in with here, but it does traffic in some of the same “savage natives” fear-mongering in a way that’s at least worth discussing, if not admonishing. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, Bone Tomahawk does not depict the same real-life-animal-torture-as-entertainment aesthetic that make that film such a memorably unpleasant (and perhaps genuinely evil) experience. Slave of the Cannibal God very nearly does. It’s not quite as cruel or as nihilistically empty as Cannibal Holocaust, but it does position itself comfortably within the same wheelhouse while clearly displaying a level of craft that indicates its producers should’ve known better.

Released as Prisoner of the Cannibal God in the UK (where it was briefly banned as a “video nasty”) and Mountain of the Cannibal God in its native Italy, this delightful romp stars Bond girl Ursula Anders as a woman searching for her lost husband in the jungles of New Guinea and a young Stacy Keach as her reluctant guide. The guide fears, correctly, that the husband may have been abducted & tortured by an especially brutal tribe of cannibals who live on a mountain many fear to climb. They embark on an Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness-style mission to recover the doomed man anyway, an expedition that drastically dwindles their numbers along the way and inevitably results in an elaborately staged cannibal ritual. If there’s anything interesting about the way Slave of the Cannibal God structures its jungle expedition, it’s in the way the film often functions as a by-the-books slasher. A masked serial killer who had broken off from the cannibal tribe the group seeks picks them off one by one in the style of a spear-wielding Jason Voorhees. The rest of the film, however, is all reveals of ulterior motives within the expedition and shocking displays of animal cruelty & casual racism/sexism. It’s not quite as grotesque as the same vibe achieved in Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s well-shot & well-acted enough to suggest that it never should have ever come close.

The animal deaths depicted for atmosphere in Slave of the Cannibal God are largely presented as if they were pure nature footage. There’s something oddly staged-feeling about its footage of snakes eating a monkey or an owl, though, whether or not those animals were already co-habitating in the Sri Lankan filming location. Worse yet, the film includes a religious ritual centered around the gutting of a live lizard that’s stomach-turning at best. It’s not nearly as grotesque as the animal deaths in Cannibal Holocaust and it at least appears as if the lizard were promptly eaten raw, but it’s still an entirely needless act of animal cruelty. Anytime the film pauses to depict animal violence it feels as if it’s borrowing a primal energy it can’t bother to muster on its own accord. This is doubly disheartening when things like the lizard-gutting are used to make New Ginea’s “primitive peoples” (in the characters’ words) seem like grotesque monsters. Gleeful violence against women, mocking fascination with little people, and just a generally sleazy vibe that typifies 70s grindhouse aesthetic do little to lighten the mood of these for-the-sake-of-entertainment atrocities. Very early in the film, around the time I watched a snake slowly scalp a monkey for what felt like minutes, I realized that I probably should’ve known better than to watch something titled Slave of the Cannibal God in the first place. Things did not improve from there.

I did get a couple quick glimpses of the movie I would’ve wanted Slave of the Cannibal God to be, though, the movie I hoped to see instead of the one I should have known to expect. There’s a brief moment in the expedition where a gigantic crocodile puppet yanks one of the native guides from the group’s raft and tears him to shreds in the water. In a later scene, the masked killer who terrorizes the expedition chops off another guide’s head with a machete. A focus on this kind of practical effects spectacle, preferably without xenophobic othering & the detriment of all women everywhere, could’ve saved this movie from achieving its lowly status as a slightly less gross Cannibal Holocaust. More of a dedication to its unexpected slasher tropes could’ve helped distinguish it as well, as it at least would cut down on grouping all New Guinea tribes together as personality-free hoards and help establish a basic sense of novelty. I’m not convinced this inherently imperialist exploitation genre is at all worth saving, however. I guess Bone Tomahawk finds a way to skirt its worst trappings and, from what I hear, Eli Roth’s Green Inferno supposedly finds a way to shame the explorers instead of the community they invade; I’m not sure either achievement is enough to justify keeping this monstrously ugly thing alive. Films like Slave of the Cannibal God & Cannibal Holocaust would likely better serve the world by not existing at all and I honestly feel a little complicit in their continued legacy by picking this one up second-hand at the thrift store, as if it had something worthwhile to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Horror Film (1982)

One of the most exciting things about schlock cinema as an art form is the experimentation that comes with filmmakers working under financial pressure. I’m especially fascinated by old horror cheapies that attempt to incorporate footage or sets from other films produced by the same studio in order to pad out runtimes or increase production value. Sometimes, this can lead to interesting results, like with Peter Bogdanovich’s footage cannibalizing debut feature Targets. It can also lead to complete disaster, as with the set-repurposing Roger Corman production The Raven, which is, objectively speaking, an incomprehensible mess (and, oddly enough, one of the films pilfered for Targets). The Last Horror Film is a proud contribution to this frugal tradition of recycled cinema, an early 80s horror that goes above & beyond in its milking production value out of better-funded films that came before it. It even goes a step beyond the Roger Corman recycling model by including imagery from better-funded horror films’ advertising to boost its own allure. It may not be a formally slick or thematically ambitious horror pic, but the way it gets by using financial shortcuts is honestly nothing short of inspiring.

Narratively speaking, The Last Horror Film doesn’t amount to much more than Taxi Driver Goes Giallo. A Travis Bickle-type obsesses over an actress known to the world as the undisputed Queen of Horror Films. Aspiring to leave his service industry life behind & claim his true destiny as a celebrated filmmaker, the sweaty creep follows his beloved scream queen across the ocean to the Cannes Film Festival in France. He films her there in secret, both at public press junkets and in private, voyeuristic settings. Meanwhile, friends & colleagues of the actress are violently killed under extreme, giallo-type lights, with the killer’s face entirely obscured, but heavily indicated to be the weirdo taxi driver. What’s partly so great about The Last Horror Film is that it makes absolutely no attempt to hide its giallo/Scorsese genre mashup. The film namechecks both Taxi Driver & Jodie Foster in the script to clue the audience in on its sense of self-awareness. The giallo-inspired kills include multiple close-up shots of straight razors to drive that point home as well. The film has very little use for subtlety & nuance, but instead focuses on squeezing as much entertainment value as possible out of its extremely limited resources.

Besides the aforementioned inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching. It’s in those stretches where The Last Horror Film goes from surprisingly entertaining to nearly invaluable, especially when it takes notice of the film industry weirdos mixing it up with the locals at the discos surrounding the fest. The Last Horror Film set out to make a watchable horror picture armed only with an interesting location and clips from other, better funded works and it did a kind of amazing job of it, fully committing to its blatant acts of tourism and grimy modes of meta film commentary.

There’s an A Night to Dismember quality to this film, especially in its feeling of hastily edited collage, but The Last Horror Film deviates from that Doris WIshman classic in its unexpected success in building a cohesive narrative out of its loosely gathered scraps. Much like the Wishman picture, this giallo pastiche attempts to deliver the goods in terms of cheap gore-for-gore’s-sake thrills: electrocutions, decapitations, melted faces, etc. These blatant, bloody bread & circuses moments are held together by legitimately artful, almost Fellini-esque dream sequences in which our crazed cabbie desperately clutches his make-believe Oscar while his scream queen deity (Hammer horror vet Carolyn Munro) coos at him in encouragement. While it never really reaches the heights of meta-commentary in similarly-minded works like Demons, the film also makes attempts to put its film industry setting to thematic use. There’s especially noteworthy scenes in which the famed horror actress is being hunted down in public, but everyone at Cannes, including the police, brush off her terror as a tasteless publicity stunt.

While maybe not masterful filmmaking in an arthouse sense, The Last Horror Film is a triumph in schlocky alchemy. Its blatant tourism of 1981 Cannes somehow makes a film that would otherwise be a (literal) cut & paste knockoff without it into an invaluable historical document. It’s the kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated for its minor successes, even if they’re only employed for cheap horror film shocks & chills. In some ways, it’s miraculous that the film is even watchable at all.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #34 of The Swampflix Podcast: #ReelTimeJaws & The Butcher’s Wife (1991)

Welcome to Episode #34 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-fourth episode, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Demi Moore magical realism romcom The Butcher’s Wife (1991) for the first time. Also, Brandon & Britnee discuss #ReelTimeJaws, a Jaws-themed movie-watching project created by stand-up comedian & podcaster Howard Kremer. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet