– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
While he’s only credited as the film’s screenwriter, it’s tempting to frame Joko Anwar as the auteurist voice behind The Queen of Black Magic, given how snugly it falls in line with his recent work. The Queen of Black Magic repeats the returning-to-a-rural-home supernatural folktale horror of Anwar’s recent creep-out Impetigore. It also repeats the reinvention of an 80s Indonesian cult classic that he experimented with in 2017’s Satan’s Slaves. Unfortunately, director Kino Stamboel can’t match the pristine visual artistry or icy tension of either of those recent Joko Anwar knockouts, which holds The Queen of Black Magic back from achieving their must-see horror nerd prestige. Still, Anwar’s storytelling & stylistic influence is blatant throughout, and the two collaborators build to a spectacularly upsetting climax together within the framework of the backseat auteur’s previous triumphs.
The Queen of Black Magic doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a premise. For most of its runtime, it’s a gory ghost story about a haunted orphanage infested with CGI centipedes. Then, it climaxes with the intrusion of the titular black magic queen, who exponentially escalates the scale of the mayhem in a deliberate attempt to create Hell on earth. Adult alumni of the rural orphanage return to their collective home with their Big City wives & children in tow as a kind of unconventional family reunion. Once home, they’re reminded of a supernatural menace that underscored their childhood memories, which they’ve since passed off as the product of their overactive imaginations. Except, the supernatural threat returns to their lives as soon as they return to the orphanage, and it’s explicitly linked to long-buried abuses against the other children there – an evil they unknowingly participated in and must be punished for. Once the supernatural avenger of these abuses shows herself in the third act and her centipede army grows by the ton, it becomes clear that no one will be spared her vengeful chaos, not even the men’s own innocent children.
Story-wise, this film is stubbornly unrushed & conventional. The backstory that provides purpose for its ghostly, centipedal gross-outs is mostly told through purely expositional flashbacks, all shot with the limited scope & unembarrassed cheese of a soap opera broadcast. Meanwhile, the dozen or so characters who’ve gathered at the haunted orphanage more or less just hang around, waiting for something spooky to happen. The atmosphere is effectively eerie, but the events it serves are oddly inert . . . until Hell is fully unleashed. The third-act payoffs to this film’s traditional haunted-house plotting are gloriously fucked up. Its skincrawl moments fearlessly go for the jugular, making it clear that no guilty party nor innocent bystander is safe from centipedal gore or possessed self-mutilation. The inciting child abuse against helpless orphans isn’t avenged with any kind of targeted fury, but rather a burn-it-all-down anger against the entire world for allowing such cruelty to happen. No one is spared; ignorance is complicity; everyone deserves Hell for living in such a callous world.
After the hideous spectacle of its Hell-on-Earth climax, The Queen of Black Magic concludes with stills of the 1981 original it’s supposedly remaking. Just from that slideshow, you can tell the original film was a lot lighter & less traumatizing, presumably with an entirely different premise than this “remake.” Between this film & Satan’s Slaves, Joko Anwar is acting as a kind of cultural ambassador for the merits of cult-classic Indonesian horrors – both reviving the titles of the films that spooked & delighted him as a kid and using them as templates to spook & delight a modern audience in kind. I can’t claim this effort is as satisfying as the previous two films that he directed himself, but it’s still effectively upsetting as a haunted-house genre film, one that’s done a great job of further piquing my curiosity in Indonesian horror classics.
Around this time in 2020, I was eagerly anticipating watching the A24 Horror creeper Saint Maud in a dark, loud movie theater. Instead, it was released an entire year later, free with a week-trial subscription to some obscure, dire streaming platform called Epix (first I’ve ever heard of it). This never-ending pandemic has been an absolute motherfucker. I suspect the full immersive, communal movie theater experience would’ve greatly amplified the small moments & eerie tension that make Saint Maud great. I can only confirm that even at home, watching from my couch, underscored by the hum of traffic outside, the movie is still a recognizably substantial work. I still naively hope to see it projected in a proper movie theater someday.
Saint Maud‘s internal struggle between hedonism & religious zealotry speaks both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic. The Catholicism angle is somewhat abstracted, though, as the title character (played by Morfydd Clark) subscribes to a unique religious doctrine of her own manic making — one adorned by spirals, beetles, and holy acetone. Maud is an at-home caretaker to a retired, famous dancer (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of lymphoma. Her internal voiceover track is a direct conversation with God, as she makes it her personal mission to save the lesbian, drunkard artist’s soul before she perishes. Bored, the dancer plays along with this religious conversion to pass the time, cheekily referring to Maud as a living saint and her “Saviour”. She doesn’t realize she’s playing with fire, but the audience is fully aware that the charade can only end disastrously once Maud catches on that she’s being mocked.
If Saint Maud were purely an intergenerational struggle between a godless artist & her religious-nut nurse, it might have been an all-timer. In its best moments, it works like a psychobiddy thriller in reverse, with a deranged younger woman threatening to destroy the vulnerable employer in her care, and it could have generated a lot more throat-hold tension if it dwelled for longer on that relationship. Instead, the film is more of a fucked-up character study of a very specific, very broken mind. The erotic intimacy of the two women’s physical therapy sessions is just a fraction of the complex sexual mania swimming around in Maud’s head, which she often mistakes for religious ecstasy & divine bodily possession. When she kneels on rice or steps on nails as repentance for her “fallen” lapses into hedonism, it reads almost as a solitary act of BDSM as much as it is religious ritual. Her brain is on fire, and the longer it’s allowed to burn the further the movie escalates into spectacular, supernatural horror.
I might’ve liked Saint Maud even more if it weren’t so immersed in its main character’s psyche, since there was so much delicious tension brewing with her potential, captive victim. I also might’ve liked it more if I were further immersed in my own head while watching it, better isolated from the distractions of the world outside. As is, it’s still a solidly effective creep-out, a portrait of a sinister modern saint taking it upon herself to execute God’s will on Earth (often as a means of self-punishment for Impure desires). Despite the circumstances, it was well worth the wait.
Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.
In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.
All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.
Naively, I hoped last year’s bizarro movie distribution vortex might make for some exciting, unconventional Oscar nominations. Instead, it seems most of this season’s frontrunners are typically-awarded Prestige Dramas that weren’t available to the wide public two months into the next calendar year. It’s impressively stubborn. Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old. If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, the aforementioned Black Panther organizer who was murdered in his sleep by the FBI (a real-life biographical detail that recalls the recent police-state execution of Breonna Taylor). Hampton’s internal life is kept at a careful distance here, as the movie is more interested in his Political Importance, especially in his ability to captivate & motivate large, diverse crowds with passionate speeches about wealth distribution & racist police-state violence. Our POV character is the undercover FBI informant who sold Hampton out to the pigs, Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. At its most enthralling, the movie focuses on Stanfield’s self-conflicted & self-loathing inability to stop the momentum of Hampton’s assassination once he’s already pushed those events in motion. He gradually realizes how insidious of a lie it is that the FBI frames the Black Panther Party to be just as hateful & anti-American as the Ku Klux Klan (a lie that I remember being taught as a kid myself), but by then his betrayal has already snowballed out of his control, which accounts for most of the film’s dramatic tension.
Judas and the Black Messiah is caught between two extremes; it achieves neither the thrilling undercover-cop genre subversion of a BlacKkKlansman nor the exquisite art-film portraiture of a If Beale Street Could Talk. In most ways it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road actors’ showcase meant to earn Awards Season buzz for its two central performers, something the movie even directly jokes about when an FBI agent muses that Stanfield’s informant “deserve(s) an Academy Award” for his deception. Kaluuya & Stanfield both deserve awards; they’re among the best working actors we’ve got. It’s just that they most often traffic in the kinds of high-concept genre films that don’t typically get recognized by the Academy (titles like Get Out, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, and Uncut Gems). This is the kind of work they have to put in to earn mainstream accolades, so the best we can do is celebrate that they’re not being used to voice mainstream rhetoric.
Judas and the Black Messiah is at least not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.
Welcome to Episode #128 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the screenplays and adapted novels of author Gillian Flynn, most famous for her breakout best-seller Gone Girl.
– The Podcast Crew
Our current Movie of the Month, Aki Kaurismäki’s low-key revenge-thriller The Match Factory Girl, is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, specifically tuned in to the absurdist indignities of modernized labor & urban living. The further you dig into Kaurismäki’s catalog, the more you realize how constant these elements are: the carefully curated visuals, the low-key absurdist humor, the fixation on the embarrassing exploitations of entry-level labor. Something else you’ll see a lot of is actor Kati Outinen, who plays the titular Match Factory Girl and appears in almost all of Kaurismäki’s most iconic works.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more collaborations between Kaurismäki & Outinen, a consistently rewarding pair.
Shadows in Paradise (1986)
In a way, this is basically the romcom version of The Match Factory Girl. All of the Polaroid-in-motion aesthetics & pitch-black urban despair are there, but the poisonous revenge is replaced with low-key romantic whimsy. It’s lovely.
A lonely garbage man (Matti Pellonpää, another Kaurismäki regular) falls in love with a jaded grocery store clerk, played by Outinen. Their would-be romance is awkwardly stilted but gradually adorable as the pair earn equal footing in each other’s esteem. The near-documentary glimpses into 1980s Finnish waste treatment plants are starkly reminiscent of the match factory footage in our Movie of the Month, but the whole thing plays much sweeter & less devastating.
The Man Without a Past (2002)
Another darkly humorous Kaurismäki drama about a poor soul crushed by the indignities of life (played by Markku Peltola). This time it’s a man who can’t remember his own past & identity after suffering brain damage from a random, vicious attack in a public park. For such a fucked up premise, it’s oddly very cute watching him rebuild his life from scratch in an abandoned shipping container – including an unlikely romance with a lonely Salvation Army worker played by Outinen.
In a way, this one is just as sweetly romantic as Shadows in Paradise, but that grim romcom riff is more of a side-plot than the main attraction. Here, Kaurismäki really drills into the absurdist embarrassments of poverty, a Kafkaesque farce about how daunting it is to make a life for yourself without a home, a name, or past. Still, it’s a great showcase for the quiet vulnerability & guarded empathy Outninen got to exhibit in The Match Factory Girl (which is somewhat missing in her steelier performance in Shadows in Paradise).
The Other Side of Hope (2017)
The most outright humorous film of the bunch is also the most recent, and the one with the saddest ending. A Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) smuggles himself into Helsinki hiding among coal cargo, then struggles to find steady work & a place to live (basically as a man without a past). He eventually settles working at a restaurant that’s under new, chaotic management, contrasting his real-life political struggle with sitcom-level hijinks.
Kaurismäki’s announced retirement film still feels a lot like the bleak, low-key comedies he made in the 80s & 90s, which is no small feat considering how flat & cheap most modern film is on this budget level. The major deviation here is that he really lets the influence that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has had on his work push to the forefront, both visually & thematically. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a lovely More of the Same exercise from an impressively consistent auteur (including a small cameo from Outinen, who essentially appears here as an auteurist calling card).
As far as Joan Crawford noirs go, it’s unlikely there are any hidden gems left to discover that are going to top the glorious heights of Mildred Pierce. Likewise, Crawford’s turn as an axe-wielding maniac in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket is untoppable as her genre-defining work in the psychobiddy canon, Baby Jane included. What the 1947 mental breakdown melodrama Possessed offers, however, is the unique experience of enjoying both of those distinctly delicious Joan Crawford flavors at once. Possessed is pretty much a trial run for Crawford’s over-the-top psychobiddy era, except that it’s dressed up in handsome, finely crafted noir clothing. By which I mean it’s great (even if it’s not the best example of either genre).
In Possessed, Crawford is a live-in nurse whose obsession with a nearby, unexceptional fuckboy drives her to a frayed, near-catatonic state. She starts the movie wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, mumbling the fuckboy’s name over & over to herself, unsure of how she got there and what crimes of passion she may have committed along the way (a stuporous intro later echoed in Ida Lupino’s teen pregnancy melodrama Not Wanted). While undergoing several layers of Freudian analysis that diagnoses her as A Frustrated Woman, she tells her story of unrequited love & violent revenge to men in lab coats who nod in feigned concern. While caring for a wealthy but suicidally depressed patient as a live-in caretaker, Crawford had fallen hopelessly, obsessively in love with her patient’s womanizing neighbor, who rejects her after an intense but brief sexual fling. Her schemes to hold onto his time & affection after their abrupt break-up escalate in increasingly mad, unhinged stabs of jealousy, ultimately resulting in her hospitalization and possible arrest for violent criminal acts.
The stark shadows, howling winds & rain, and overwritten dialogue like “I seldom hit a woman, but if you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies” all firmly land Possessed within the realm of noir. Even Crawford’s maddening obsession with her playboy neighbor is like a gender-flipped variation on the femme fatale trope, where attraction to an aloof, mysterious figure leads our anti-hero to great personal peril. It’s a perverse pleasure, then, to see Crawford act out a prototype of her late-career psychobiddy roles here as a woman on the verge. She’s an unreliable narrator to her own story, one whose hallucinations combine with the noir lighting to create a kind of J-horror ghost story effect, wherein she’s haunted by her own paranoid delusions & urges to kill as relief for her pent-up sexual frustrations. Possessed can’t offer the pitch-perfect melodrama of Mildred Pierce nor the deliciously over-the-top axe murders of Strait-Jacket, but Crawford’s crazed performance bridges the gap between those disparate ends of her career, and it’s a convergence well worth seeking out.
Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.
The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.
Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.
I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.
After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.
Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.
The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.