Episode #150 of The Swampflix Podcast: La Cabina (1972) & Short Films

Welcome to Episode #150 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss the often-ignored art of the short film, starting with the existential nightmare La Cabina (1972).

00:00 Welcome
01:55 West Side Story (1961)
04:05 Benedetta (2021)
07:47 Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)
10:52 Nic Cage’s 2021 Report Card

17:54 La Cabina (1972)

26:45 A Trip to the Moon (1902)
36:16 The Dancing Pig (1907)
41:00 Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
52:00 The Red Balloon (1956)
1:08:08 The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011)
1:22:22 Money + Love (2018)
1:38:55 Opal (2020)

1:58:25 Best of 2021 Homework

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

All Light, Everywhere (2021)

It’s been a popular meme among online movie-nerds in recent years to declare “All movies are bad” in self-deprecating irony.  The latest experimental essay from Theo “Rat Film” Anthony actually makes a sincere case for that exact sentiment, damning its own medium as a tool of police & military violence since the moment of its invention.  All Light, Everywhere broadly details the weaponization of motion picture recordings in our racist surveillance state, but it extends that critique to the very first examples of motion pictures, underlining that “All movies are bad” – at least on a moral, political level.  It’s one of those philosophical nightmares that makes you bitter about being born on this miserable hell planet (or at least makes the cinephile in you want to find a new hobby).  It’s also a great movie, even if it is anti-movie.

It doesn’t take much effort for All Light, Everywhere to make a modern audience feel sickened & infuriated by police bodycam tech.  The breezy, self-protective training that cops receive when equipped with bodycams and the smug self-satisfaction of the tech’s biggest manufacturer Axios advertising their wares is difficult to stomach.  Memories of Black citizens murdered by the police state without consequence for the cops who pulled the trigger—thanks to the intentional limitations & biases of surveillance tech—lurk just outside the frame, souring every chipper onscreen boast about its profitability and illusion of accountability.  Anthony even threads those memories into his larger thematic preoccupations with his home city of Baltimore by citing the murder of Freddie Gray as a specific example of bodycams protecting cops instead of citizens.  It’s all emotionally raw, morally corrupt, and worthy of documentation.

Where All Light, Everywhere excels is in connecting that modern weaponization of the motion picture camera back to its earliest uses & abuses.  Early movie cameras were typified by designs like “the photographic rifle” and “the photographic revolver,” leaving behind a language where cameras still “shoot” their subjects.  There’s a hypothetical version of this movie to be made where each new development in motion picture tech was used to further the art & distribution of pornography, but instead Anthony focuses on how they were used to afford the illusion of unbiased automation to morally bankrupt police & military systems.  Police body cameras are just the next logical evolution in a long history of supposedly “objective” motion picture recordings reinforcing the biases of the inherently violent political institutions behind them.

If you’ve seen Rat Film, you know that Anthony does not lay out this political history of the weaponized movie camera in a linear, easily digestible argument.  Instead, scientific explanations of the camera’s “blind spots”, the philosophy of its place in modern culture, its effect on human perception of the world, and the racial politics of Baltimore as a microcosm of the US at large are all loosely mixed in an open-ended visual essay that’s heavier on atmospheric dread than it is on declarative statements.  Still, the movie leaves you disgusted with the motion picture as a medium, no matter how open its arguments are left for interpretation or how much Anthony strives to leave on a moment of hope in the epilogue.  It turns out all movies really are bad.  Bummer.

-Brandon Ledet

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

There’s a brilliant sequence in RoboCop 2 where a boardroom full of market testers discuss what a new & improved RobCop should look & act like. Their conflicting input confuses his already perfected programming & design, rendering the rebooted RoboCop 2.0 entirely useless.  It’s a hilarious example of a movie sequel arguing against its own existence, mocking the concept of diluting a pure, original concept with a profit-obsessed aim for mass appeal.  Given RoboCop 2‘s general reputation as an empty-headed misfire, I’m not surprised that The Matrix Resurrections is proving to be a divisive work among general audiences, since it expands that exact brand of self-loathing meta-humor into a feature-length screed against corporate franchise filmmaking at large.  The Wachowskis reportedly did not want another Matrix film to happen, but Warner Brothers was going to reboot their iconic cyberpunk series with or without their input.  Lana stepped in on her own to save their work from falling into the wrong creative hands, then used the opportunity to condemn the very idea of making a nostalgia-bait Matrix sequel in the first place.  Using Neo as an avatar, she practically stares directly into the camera to declare, “This movie should not exist,” in open defiance of the IP-addicted movie industry that forced her hand.  It’s as hilarious now as it was in RoboCop 2, and in this case the critique is drawn out to feature length.

The opening fifteen minutes of Resurrections plays like a worst-nightmare scenario of what a 2020s Matrix sequel could be.  New, hip, young characters revisit and replay exact scenes from the original 1999 movie, trading quips about how totally awesome Neo & Trinity were in their time.  It’s an escalation of the callbacks & Easter eggs that superhero nerds crave in each new big-budget fan-pleaser, turning those cheap nostalgia pops into full-on cosplay & highlight reels.  Not only is that obsession with past triumphs a disappointing turn for a series that felt genuinely revolutionary when it premiered, but it’s also self-defeating in the way it draws comparisons between the original film’s exquisite fight choreography & cinematography and the blurry, incoherent mess of Resurrections’s own action sequences.  Then, that disastrous opening sequence is revealed to be a video game simulation designed by a still-alive Neo himself (rotting at another miserable desk job in-Matrix under his deadname, Thomas Anderson), and Resurrections starts editorializing about those modern industry-standard shortcomings in soulless, movie-by-committee sequels.  It turns out the film is not the worst-nightmare version of The Matrix 4; it’s Lana Wachowski’s New Nightmare: a platform for her to reflect on the core philosophy of her most iconic work while lashing out at a movie industry that seeks to dilute & pervert it for an easy cash-in.  It’s an A+ prank, both on the audience and on the higher-ups at Warner Brothers.

It may be a stretch to assume that Resurrections‘ unwieldy 148min runtime was also a metatextual joke about the cumbersome length of modern Hollywood action franchises (or maybe not, considering that it taunts the audience with an ironic post-credits punchline after a 15-minute scroll).  Either way, I appreciate that Wachowski never drops her searing industry commentary once she gets into the thick of the film’s actual plot.  She approaches the ongoing philosophic & romantic conflicts of The Matrix‘s core players—Neo & Trinity—with full, open-hearted sincerity.  She just frames the doomed revolutionary couple’s strive for a happy ending as a heist plot, where she (again, through Neo) has to infiltrate her movie studio’s evil lair to rescue their fairy-tale romance before it’s killed forever.  Along the way, she continually cracks meme-culture jokes about bots, MILFs, Handsome Chads, “binary” code, and Arthur Read’s clenched fist – never letting up on her meta-commentary on the way movies and the Internet have changed in the two decades since Neo chose the red pill.  Wachowski may open Resurrections arguing “This movie should not exist,” but she follows it up with a “But while we’re here . . .” addendum that allows her to sincerely grapple with the lives & loves of characters she’s obviously still emotionally & creatively invested in.  It’s a volatile mix of sincere sentimentality and ironic shitposting, one that’s sure to alienate plenty of uptight nerds in one or both directions.

I was not this enthusiastic about The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions when James & I revisited them for the podcast last year.  I really wanted to join the freaks on Film Twitter in reclaiming those back-to-back sequels as something that was wrongly dismissed in their time, but they really are exhaustingly dull – especially considering how vibrant the original film still feels.  Some of the action in the earlier sequels is delightfully over-the-top, but for the most part they turn what started as a very simple, tactile sci-fi allegory into trivial superhero fluff.  The Matrix Resurrections is their functional opposite.  This time around, the action is underwhelming, but the ideas are explosively combative in a way that totally makes up for it.  Fans who’ve swooned for every entry in this series are going to be over-the-moon for its epic Neo-Trinity romance plot no matter how they feel about the film’s self-critical meta-commentary.  I’m here to report as a Matrix-sequel heretic that the film is a triumph no matter how invested you are in that emotional core; it’s the most I’ve appreciated a Wachowski movie since The Matrix ’99, entirely because of its cynicism over how the world (and the movie industry in particular) has gotten worse since 1999.

-Brandon Ledet

Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

Jumbo (2021)

It’s that frivolous, needlessly contentious time of year when every movie I watch is being filtered through our annual listmaking process, prompting me to ask idiotic questions like “Sure, this movie is really good, but is it Best of the Year good?”  I’m especially guilty of Listmaking Brain this year, since there were only five films released in 2021 that I rated above 4 stars, leaving the rest of my usual Top 20 list open to dozens of titles that I really liked but wouldn’t exactly call personal favs.  Discerning which 4-star film is worthier of a slot on my Best of the Year list than another feels more arbitrary & meaningless than ever before, something that is not helped at all by my full knowledge that no one alive gives a shit about the final results except me.  I love listmaking season as a diary recap of the year and as a movie recommendation machine, but I am fully aware that the “catching up” cram session portion of it is unfair to the (mostly) great movies I’m watching when there’s already no room left on the lifeboat.  By this time of year, I’ve completely lost track of what qualifies a movie as “list-worthy”, and I’m mostly just looking forward to the genre-trash relief that January dumping season brings when it’s all over.  That is when I shine.

While Jumbo is a very good movie on its own terms, I’m embarrassed to admit that I most appreciated the way it helped clear up some of grey areas in that listmaking struggle.  It’s one of two French-language movies I’ve seen this year where an emotionally stunted young woman has sex with a machine, the other of which is currently my favorite new release I’ve seen all year.  Julia DuCorneau’s Titane is often referred to as a kind of novelty film where “a woman has sex with a car”, which feels insultingly reductive considering how much else is going on in that sprawling mind-fuck genre meltdown.  Meanwhile, if you referred to Jumbo as “the film where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride,” I feel like that comfortably sums up everything that’s going on with it.  It’s a very good movie where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride, drawing an oddly touching & genuine story out of a novelty premise that’s loosely “inspired by a true story.”  Still, I found it most useful as an illustration of why Titane was smart to have more going on than a simple sex-machine premise.  It’s pretty limiting at feature length, even when the emotions of that scenario are treated with full sincerity, which is why Jumbo is not the one that’s surviving the arbitrary cruelty of the listmaking process.

For some reason I assumed Jumbo was about a woman romantically falling for a Gravitron (totally understandable), but instead she falls for a Move It (an inferior ride, but to each their own).  Noémie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Merlant stars as a sheltered mommy’s girl whose total lack of self-confidence prevents her from being properly socialized among adults outside her house.  The amusement park rides she services as a seasonal job don’t seem to mind her awkward social tics, though, which allows her to vulnerably open up to the first gigantic inanimate object that makes a move on her.  Jumbo makes no jokes at its lovestruck amusement park brat’s expense.  It takes her first-crush romantic feelings as seriously as it can, reserving its judgement for the people in her life who make her feel like a freak for the transgression instead of just letting her be.  Beyond the ups & downs of her amusement park romance, the dramatic core of the film is in begging her community to just let her have this one thing that makes her happy, whether or not it’s “real.”  Life is lonely & cruel enough without the people closest to you shaming you for whatever small comforts get you through it – even if that small comfort happens to be fucking a Move It.

Jumbo delivers everything you’d want out of a great romance: a convincingly emotional performance from its star, some charming personality quirks from the object of her affection, a close-minded community who fails to keep them apart, etc.  It even achieves some surprisingly striking visuals for an indie comedy on its budget level, especially in the glowing lights & otherworldly voids of its star’s ecstatic trysts with her gigantic fetish object.  It just also limits itself to a relatively small, contained premise, which doesn’t really push through its initial novelty to explore anything bigger or unexpected.  Had I discovered it during its film festival run instead of during Best of the Year catch-up season, that smallness in concept likely would not have bothered me, but here we are.  This is when I’m on my worst behavior, shrugging off 4-star films for not being “good enough” because of some self-imposed bullshit metric that does not matter in the slightest.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Lifeforce (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1985’s Lifeforce, finds screenwriter Dan O’Bannon returning to the retro sci-fi horror he revived to great success in Ridley Scott’s Alien (and, less famously, in John Carpenter’s Dark Star).  Just like in Alien, Lifeforce follows an unprepared crew of astronauts who are lured by a mysterious distress signal to a hostile alien landscape (in this case, on the surface of Halley’s Comet), where they’re hunted by the horrific creatures who inhabit it (in this case, soul-sucking nudist vampires).  By the time those creatures become stowaways on the space crew’s return to Earth, it’s clear that O’Bannon was recalling a very specific subgenre of Atomic Age sci-fi from his youth in both films; what’s unclear is what exact retro sci-fi titles he was referencing.

After revisiting Alien and watching Lifeforce for the first time this year, I did find myself curious about what Atomic Age sci-fi cheapies had influenced their shared tropes.  What I found was a group of cheap, quaint space travel pictures with a remarkable narrative overlap in O’Bannon’s screenplays.  Alien & Lifeforce are both updated to the modern horror tastes of their times, but there were plenty of retro space travel cheapies that mapped out the future details of their shared plot structure.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see the vintage prototypes for its distinctly 1980s mayhem.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

You can’t ask for a much more straightforward, no-frills prototype for O’Bannon’s stowaway space alien invasions than It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  Even though the film’s rubber-masked pig-man is more adorable than scary, the way it hides in the rafters & crawl spaces of its Earthling victims’ spaceship is pure Alien.  It’s the kind of 1950s space travel thriller where the poster declares “$50,000 guaranteed by a renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove It is not on Mars now!” (despite the fact that It spends most of the runtime on a spaceship, not its Martian home planet).  It also laid out a roadmap to the kinds of stowaway alien invasion movies that O’Bannon would later emulate in his two biggest productions.

It!  The Terror Beyond Space even introduces its Earthling spaceship crew chatting around the dinner table, which is how audiences got familiar with the crew of Nostromo in Alien.  The stark difference here is that the women onboard the ship are mostly around to serve the men coffee at that table, and to tend to their wounds after the Martian creature attacks.  O’Bannon originally wrote Eleanor Ripley as a man, and his domineering nudist vampire villain in Lifeforce isn’t exactly the personification of Feminism, but you still have to credit him for giving his women characters something more to do than hang around as waitresses & cheerleaders.

Queen of Blood (1966)

In a lot of ways Queen of Blood is the least substantial of these Alien prototypes, if not only because it’s one of those AIP/Corman cheapies that were built out of Americanized scraps of better-funded, more imaginative Soviet sci-fi films — lurking among throwaway titles like Battle Beyond the Sun & Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.  It’s the one that most closely resembles the plot of Lifeforce, though, in that its stowaway alien invader is a wordless, beautiful woman who feeds on the blood of men like a vampire.  You’d think that of all the retro sci-fi films of this ilk this would be the one titled Planet of the Vampires—since Mario Bava’s own eerie Alien prototype doesn’t feature any actual vampires—but the title Queen of Blood is just as badass, so we’ll have to let that slide.

It’s hard to know exactly what to praise in Queen of Blood, since so much of its sci-fi spectacle is borrowed wholesale from the Soviet film Mechte Navstrechu, but its titular, green-skinned vampire queen is fabulous; she’s got a whole Juno Birch thing going on and it’s wonderful.  Not for nothing, but the film’s space crew also include prominent female scientists who actively save the day as the horndog men around them fall victim to the vampire, which is more than you can say for either Lifeforce or It!  The Terror Beyond Space.

The Green Slime (1968)

If you want to see the retro Alien prototype at its goofiest, you likely won’t do any better than 1968’s The Green Slime, a sci-fi creature feature collaboration between MGM and the Japanese studio Toei.  From its funky psych-rock theme song to its adorable X from Outer Space-style miniatures, to its slimy rubber monster, The Green Slime is pure kitsch.  Many of its plot details overlap with the specifics of Alien, though, despite that goofiness: its stowaway creatures’ lethally corrosive blood, its menacing stockpile of alien eggs, its doomed crew members’ refusal to adhere to proper quarantine protocol, etc.  You can practically picture little baby O’Bannon propped in front of his cathode-ray TV scribbling notes on how to tell an alien invasion story.

The Green Slime was mocked on the pilot episode for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and it’s easy to see why they thought it left enough dead air for the show’s riffing to fill.  Its adorable old-school special effects work compensates for its lethargic pacing issues, though, and it’s the only film on this list that even vaguely resembles the batshit goofballery that O’Bannon would later indulge in Lifeforce.  It’s a shame that Lifeforce didn’t have its own titular theme song, though, since the one for The Green Slime is such a delight:

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Visitor (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discusthe psychedelic sci-fi horror The Visitor (1979), a chaotic mix of psychic space aliens, killer birds, and Satanic blood cults.

00:00 Welcome

01:11 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
03:24 Don’t Hang Up (2016)
05:22 In the Earth (2021)
09:27 Gaia (2021)
10:50 A Nasty Piece of Work (2019)
12:55 A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
18:33 The Innocents (1961)
23:23 Streets of Fire (1984)
27:00 The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

30:03 The Visitor (1979)
50:50 Deadly Games (1989)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

The Turn of the Scrooge

I’m becoming increasingly bitter towards the Christmas holiday season in my adult years, which is making traditional Christmas Movies borderline intolerable.  In an effort to make this mandatory-cheer Hell Month something to look forward to instead of something to dread, my household has shifted into celebrating Yule as a seasonal alternative.  So far, this change has mostly amounted to exchanging gifts & eating festive meals around a small, contained fire, but it has drastically shifted what I think of as seasonally appropriate holiday #content.  December is all about ghost stories for me now, a Yuletide tradition most popularly reflected in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and made-for-British-TV horrors that rarely get exported to the US).  I have no appetite whatsoever for the hundreds of disposable Christmas-schmaltz romances that auto-populate on Hallmark & Lifetime every year.  I’ll always have room in my belly for more spooky ghost stories, though, which is my way of saying I wish it could be Halloween year-round.

To that end, this Yule season felt like as good of a time as any to catch up with one of my biggest ghost-story blind spots: the most beloved movie adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  It’s no surprise that 1961’s The Innocents is the exact impeccable classic that it’s lovingly remembered as.  I was initially unsure that I’d be able to fully sink into it, since i was initially comparing it to a recent first-time viewing of the similarly styled The Haunting, but the camera trickery & psychosexual discomforts were distinctly their own thing despite the parallels.  The Innocents is cold, eerie, beautiful, brutal.  After a half-century of cultural familiarity & exultation, it still cuts sharp against the throat, weaponizing a kind of narrative ambiguity that’s been slowly bled out of modern mainstream horror.  The only other film I can recall that perverts the traditional atmospheric scares of Gothic horror with such overt sexual menace is Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, and even that particular erotic nightmare didn’t dare include young children in its main cast.

The easiest way to highlight The Innocents‘s bravely alienating mood is to contrast it against lesser-loved adaptations of its source material, of which there are dozens to choose from.  Take 2020’s The Turning, for instance, which ages up the little-boy protagonist of the story into a teenage Finn Wolfhard and takes a definitive side in the story’s internal debate over whether its ghosts are “real.”  There’s something incredibly creepy about a pre-pubescent child hitting on his governess with the sexual drive of a sadistic adult man (possibly due to being possessed by that man’s ghost), hiding behind fake-polite apologies like “What a wicked boy I’ve been.”  A teenager hitting on an adult authority figure is also gross & uncomfortable, but it feels more matter-of-course than supernatural.  Wolfhard’s casting feels like a deliberate choice to make James’s story more accommodating for today’s simple-morals audience.  It also backs The Turning into a corner where it has to make the ghost-possession half of its story more explicit to compensate, saving the question of whether it’s all in the governess’s head for a cheap, last-second twist.  Meanwhile, Truman Capote was hired for a script re-write of The Innocents to make its ghost vs. insanity balance even more ambiguous & difficult to pin down.

In all honesty, The Turning isn’t too bad for a modern PG-13 horrorbuster.  It just has the misfortune of being contrasted against one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time.  It’s also self-sabotaged by one of the sloppiest, most insulting twist endings the genre has seen in a long while (or at least since 2016’s Lights Out).  The hilarious thing is that the DVD I borrowed from the library prominently features a fix-it Alternate Ending option on its main menu, and that ending is somehow just as bad as the original.  The even more hilarious thing is that the best shot in the entire movie is buried under the end credits, after the gotcha twist has already pissed off everyone in the audience, presumably playing to an empty theater.  That shot is of the governess’s hand tracing the illustrative details of the haunted house’s antique wallpaper, set to a heavy industrial drumbeat.  It’s the exact kind of eerie, pure-image artistry that The Innocents indulges in feature length.  It would be much easier to settle for The Turning‘s cheap-shot jump scares & carefully posed creepy mannequins if I hadn’t already seen The Innocents conveying (a more daringly ambiguous version of) the same story in gorgeous art-photography experiments with double-exposure layering & deep black voids.  It’s a shame that the one time The Turning attempts to translate that visual artistry for the 21st Century is in the minutes after it’s already shat the bed.

I’m not covering any new ground here by declaring The Innocents great and The Turning disappointing.  These are widely accepted truths.  All I can really do here is advocate for more people to think of The Innocents and similar haunted-house stories as Christmas Classics.  I’d love to see a cultural shift on this side of the pond where we watch spooky possession stories like this every December instead of stuff like A Christmas Prince VII: Still Princin’.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

Brandon:  Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper and adapted from the sci-fi pulp novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien.  It is an absurdly lavish production for a Cannon Group film—or really for any film with this chaotic of an imagination—especially considering the scrappier genre pictures its creators usually helm. 

It starts as an Alien-style sci-fi pulp throwback where dormant “space vampires” are discovered in both bat & humanoid form on an abandoned spaceship parked on Haley’s Comet, then brought back to London for scientific examination.  Once the lead vampire awakes on the autopsy table and sucks the electrified “lifeforce” out of the first nearby victim, the boundaries of the film’s genre classification explode into every possible direction.  This is at times an alien invasion film, a body-possession story, a sci-fi spin on vampire lore, a post-Romero zombie apocalypse picture, and an all-around genre meltdown whatsit that keeps piling new, upsetting ideas onto each subsequent sequence until you’re crushed by the enormity of its imagination.  With Lifeforce, Hooper & O’Bannon found the rare freedom to stage a gross-out B-picture on a proper Hollywood blockbuster budget, and they indulged every bizarre idea they could conjure in the process – complete with extravagant practical effects and a swashbuckling action-hero score performed by The London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been meaning to make time for Lifeforce since as far back as our buddies at the We Love to Watch podcast covered it five years ago.  I am not surprised that I loved it, but I was delighted to discover how much its space-vampire mayhem is a supernatural form of erotic menace, which is my #1 horror sweet spot.  It would have been more than enough for the soul-sucking space-vampires to turn Earthlings into exploding dust-zombies & leaky bloodsacks, but what really made me fall in love is how they start the process by hypnotizing their victims with intense horniness. 

Like with Alien, Dan O’Bannon is playing with the psychosexual terror lurking just below the surface of retro sci-fi relics like Queen of Blood & The Astounding She-Monster, but the approach to modernizing that erotic menace is much more heteronormative here than with the male-pregnancy & penetrative fears of H.R. Giger’s iconic alien designs.  Lifeforce portrays modern-day London as a city of sexually repressed Conservative men whose greatest fear is a confident, nude woman.  The lead nudist vampire is not only too sexy & self-assured for the terminally British subs who fall under her spell, she also terrorizes them by linking that intense erotic attraction to the blurred gender boundaries of their own psyches.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when her victims describe her as “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence [they’ve] ever encountered” or when she confesses that her physical form is just a projection of the femininity trapped inside their own minds.  By the time a silhouette of her breasts is framed as if it were Nosferatu‘s creeping shadow, I was fully in love with the way this film attacks its uptight macho victims through the vulnerability of their erotic imaginations.  I love a good wet nightmare, and it was endlessly fun to watch them squirm.

Hanna, what do you make of this film’s sexual & gender politics?  Does its erotic terror add anything substantial to the more traditional zombie & vampire scares that throw London into chaos, or does it just feel like an exploitative excuse to cram some straight-boy-marketed nudity onto the screen?

Hanna: Boy howdy!  Lifeforce was one of the exponentially wildest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  Brandon, I think you mentioned The Wicker Man during our screening, which is the exact vein of horny fear I found in this movie; the ill-fated, repressed sexualities of Anglo-Saxon men never cease to delight me.  I was completely on board with a beautiful naked woman walking her way—unbelievably slowly—through quivering throngs of Brits.

Overall, Lifeforce is a fantastic addition to the vampire canon, which has always had lots to say about the terror of sex and sexuality.  Most of the vampire movies I’ve seen feature naturally hot, youthful vamps, lounging around in sensuous mansions.  I’ll never turn down a coven of hot Draculas, but I loved that these vampires of Lifeforce were truly horrifying space hell beasts using the fantasies of their hosts to craft their appearances (I like to imagine the other aliens that these vampires have sucked dry throughout the galaxy – imagine the hottest tentacled space glob in the universe).  Human sexuality is so specific to particular events and images at different moments of a person’s life that I think lots of people don’t understand where their kinks and preferences come from.  I loved that moment Brandon mentioned when the lead space vampire (named “Space Girl” in the credits, which tickles me) tells Col. Carlsen that she’s the manifestation of his femininity; he’s totally locked that aspect of his sexuality away from himself, but it’s plainly obvious and extremely easy to exploit.  What would Space Girl find in my mind?  I kind of want to know, but I kind of don’t!

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed by the exclusive focus on heteronormative sexuality.  On one hand, part of the humor of this movie is that Space Girl exerts minimal effort while successfully throwing London into unchecked chaos with her cadre of androgynous space vampire hunks, due in large part to the desperately horny male leaders of foundational institutions.  Clearly, this was the correct tack to take from a strategic standpoint.  It’s just that for a super sexy movie that featuring exploding dust zombies, shapeshifting space vampires, and a floating, coagulated blob comprised of torrents of Sir Patrick Stewart’s blood, couldn’t we have gotten just a little touch of queer flirtation?  (I guess she sucks the life force out of a woman in the park, but we don’t actually see it happen, so I’m not counting it!) We get a little touch of that in the femininity scene, but I wish the movie would have delved into even kinkier territory.

Boomer, I thought these space vampires were a great direction for film’s hall of vampires.  What did you think?  How do these monsters compare to their terrestrial blueprints? 

Boomer: I was also hung up on the vampires’ heteronormativity.  We spend so much full-frontal time with Space Girl that I could draw her labia from memory right now, weeks after seeing the movie, but we (of course) had plentiful and abundant convenient censorship of our hot space twunks’ docking equipment. I suppose it’s logical that a film that exists solely because of the male gaze and which requires the ubiquity of the male gaze to make narrative sense should also cater solely to it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t complain about it. 

Unusually for me, I prefer my vampire fiction mystical rather than scientific.  It’s not just because most sci-fi vampire films are pretty bad (Daybreakers immediately comes to mind, followed by Bloodsuckers and Ultraviolet); there are plenty of terrible supernatural vampire movies. Still, when measuring good against bad, the ratio of good sci-fi vampires to bad ones skews much more negatively than their magical brethren. As much as I liked Lifeforce, that this (blessed) mess counts as one of the good ones kind of tells you everything that you need to know, right? I just like it when vampires have to glamour people or have to be invited in; I think it makes for more interesting storytelling than vampirism-as-a-virus or, as is the case here, vampires are extraterrestrial beings that suck out life force.  When it comes to twists on the lore, however, there was one thing that I really did like: the reanimation of victims who must likewise consume life energy, and which turn to dust if unable to do so.  The effects in these scenes were nothing short of spectacular, and they were the best part of the film.  I know that they must have been remastered at some point, but those puppets were really something fascinating to behold. 

One of the things that I did have some trouble with was the pacing, especially with regards to character introductions.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s like watching 2001 (or Star Trek: The Motion Picture) on fast-forward as spectacular vistas and space structures are explored, before we’re suddenly in a very boring office space, and we’re figuratively and literally down to earth for the rest of the movie.  There’s not that much interesting about any of the spaces we explore (other than that one lady’s apartment with the Liza Minnelli poster), and it felt like every 20 minutes a new guy just sort of walked into the view of the camera and the film became about him for a while.  I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be our protagonist, which left me spinning.  That our leads were all largely indistinguishable white dudes also contributed to this for me; when Steve Railsback reappeared after not having been seen since the ship exploration sequence, I thought he was the same character as the guy who had exploded into dust in the scene immediately prior.  Was this also an issue for you, Britnee?  Did the pacing work for you? 

Britnee: When looking back on the scenery in Lifeforce, all I can recall is the color brown. All of those wood paneled walls and dull office spaces made the sets feel a little musty. The one major exception is when the space crew explores the mysterious 150-mile-long spacecraft (a scale I still can’t wrap my head around). I loved the uncomfortable rectum-looking entrance that leads them to the collection of dried-up bat creatures and the hive of nude “humans” in glass containers. I wasn’t ready to leave that funky space place so quickly. I wanted to see more compartments of the craft explored. There was 150 miles of it after all, and they only went through what seemed to be less than a mile. I know poking around the craft would cost money, but with the massive budget for this film, the money was obviously there. It just should have been spent better. 

As for the pacing, I was so focused on all of the space vampire mayhem that I didn’t pay much attention to all of the boring white guys who were main characters . . . unless they were getting their life sucked out of them and exploding into dust. It was pretty difficult to keep up with who was who and how they plugged into all of the insanity, but it didn’t really bother me because just about everything else in the movie was so much fun. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Lifeforce would do so well as an animated series. I saw that there was talk about a potential remake, but it seems like animation would be the way to go. That way, there would be fewer financial limitations, so all the freaky stuff could be even freakier. 

Boomer: That both of our male leads (at least I think they’re our leads) had hard-C alliterative names (Colonel Carlsen and Colonel Colin Caine) was a real detriment.  But once Kat pointed out that Carlsen was Steve Railsback, aka Duane Barry, I could at least keep track of him. 

Brandon: I was initially disappointed by the lack of onscreen peen myself, but the more I think about how much this movie is about straight men’s psychosexual discomforts the more I’m okay with it.  If you’re going to frame your lusty B-movie this strictly through male gaze, you need to at least interrogate the limitations & vulnerabilities of that gaze, and I think Lifeforce does that well.  Rather than a remake, I think there’s an angle for a spinoff sequel that follows the two Nude Dudes around the entire night instead of Space Girl, since most of their adventures were off-screen.  Coming to Hulu as soon as Disney buys up the Cannon Group catalog, after they’ve gobbled up the rest of the pop media landscape.

Hanna: Speaking of constant female nudity, my favorite tidbit of trivia about Lifeforce is that it was extremely difficult to find a female lead willing to be naked for the entire movie. Hooper had to resort to chartering a plane of German actresses to London after failing to find an English actress; by the time the actresses got to London, they had collectively agreed not to audition for the part. Thank God for Mathilda May! Maybe it would have been too much trouble to get some peen in the picture; I’m glad we got at least a little ethereal, vampiric nakedness.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #149 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pain and Glory (2019) & Autofiction

Welcome to Episode #149 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four semi-autobiographical films based on their directors’ own lives, starting with Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (2019).

00:00 Welcome

02:10 Dune (2021)
12:30 Love Hard (2021)
16:30 Old (2021)

24:05 Pain and Glory (2019)
46:00 The 400 Blows (1959)
1:03:16 Cinema Paradiso (1988)
1:25:10 I Blame Society (2021)

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– The Podcast Crew