Welcome to Episode #73 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-third episode, the podcast crew assembles to discuss their favorite films of 2018. Enjoy!
-James Cohn, Britnee Lombas, and Brandon Ledet
Welcome to Episode #73 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-third episode, the podcast crew assembles to discuss their favorite films of 2018. Enjoy!
-James Cohn, Britnee Lombas, and Brandon Ledet
Britnee: Even as a grown woman, I find that I still watch a lot of children’s films, which is obvious from some of my past Movie of the Month choices (e.g., Magic in the Mirror, Something Wicked This Way Comes). The reason I get so much joy from indulging in films created for kids is that watching them whisks me away from my boring life of being a lame adult. Children’s films are full of imagination, creativity, and nostalgia – all things that I love. And so my selection for December’s Movie of the Month is yet another imaginative, nostalgic children’s film: Richard Franklin’s 1984 children’s adventure classic, Cloak & Dagger.
Cloak & Dagger is different from the average children’s movie, though, because it is extremely violent, making it super fun to watch as an adult. The film is about a dorky kid named Davey (Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) that spends most of his time going on adventures with his imaginary friend, Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). Jack is the main character of Cloak & Dagger, a spy-adventure Atari game that Davey is obsessed with. After Davey is handed a Cloak & Dagger cartridge by a dying man in a stairwell, his life becomes Cloak & Dagger for real instead of for pretend. The cartridge contains top-secret government plans, and he must protect it at all costs. Things get crazy when a mysterious group of men hunt Davey down, intent to get their hands on the game (and to murder Davey in cold blood).
Brandon, were you surprised by the amount of violent action in Cloak & Dagger? What kind of reception do you think this film would receive if it was released in theaters today?
Brandon: I was definitely taken aback by the violence of Cloak & Dagger. Shocked, even. The film’s Video Game: The Movie gimmickry and casting of Dabney Coleman (in a dual role as both father & imaginary friend) promises a fun, goofy knockoff of WarGames about a young boy’s spy-mission fantasy antics. Instead, Cloak & Dagger mostly plays like a terrifying thriller about an international network of ruthless child murderers, only wearing its PG kids’ adventure movie pedigree as a disguise. The gleeful brutality of the child-hunting terrorists in Cloak & Dagger extends far beyond the normal Bad Guy goons just doing their jobs that typically fill the villain roles in these kinds of movies; they’re really looking forward to destroying their pint-sized tagrets (E.T.‘s Henry Thomas is paired up with a precocious Drew Barrymore-type for a sidekick, go figure), even more so than recovering their top-secret video game cartridge. The children of Cloak & Dagger are throttled, shot at, nearly stabbed, delivered bombs and, most cruelly, locked in car trunks with the corpses of their dead friends. Burly men burst into their homes, growling threats of how they’re going to blow up the entire neighborhood or shoot out the kids’ kneecaps before actually killing them, just to watch them bleed. All of this violence is supposedly in service of teaching Davey a lesson about how the adventurism he craves is no match for the stability of the loving home his father provides, but it is pushed to a traumatic extreme that definitely feels distinct for the genre.
As extreme as the brutality of Cloak & Dagger feels in retrospect, the film is clearly a product of its time. Sneaking into theaters just before the advent of the PG-13 rating, it got away with a lot of its violence because of the amoral grey area of not-quite-children’s-media that arose & died in its era. Along with Spielberg productions like Gremlins & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Cloak & Dagger presented a confounding trend for the uptight pearl-clutchers at the MPAA: films that weren’t sexually crass enough to earn an R-rating, but were far too violent to be rated PG, requiring the invention of an entirely new rating. If released even months later, Cloak & Dagger would have been saddled with a PG-13 rating, which likely would have preempted it from becoming a modest hit. Cutting out that much of its potential customer base (by making a children’s movie only teenagers could see without a guardian in tow) would likely mean that a modern release of Cloak & Dagger either wouldn’t be greenlit in the first place, or would be sanitized of the violence that makes it distinct. Modern audiences struggle with embracing violent children-in-danger narratives in general, and the few that sneak through (Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Tomorrowland, to name a recent few) are often commercially shrugged off until they effectively disappear. The PG-rated brutality of Cloak & Dagger is just as 1980s-specific as the kids in the film being given free reign to ride the city bus wherever they like without chaperones and waving around black plastic toy guns in office buildings; it simply wouldn’t be permissed in modern day.
Of course, Cloak & Dagger is also adorably dated to the 1980s in its treatment of video game culture as an opportunity for a cash-grab, a flash-in-the-pan fad. One of the first instances of corporate synergy in the cinematic video game tie-in market (via a real-life Cloak & Dagger game simultaneously released to arcades by Atari) this film could have just as easily been titled Video Game: The Movie. Yet, it doesn’t seem to understand video games at all, likening all types of gaming (role play, cards, board games, arcades) as if they were all of the same cloth and not separate forms of amusement. CC, what do you make of Cloak & Dagger‘s adorably antiquated understanding of video game culture and how that tone clashes with the severity of its children-in-danger brutality? Does that juxtaposition date the film in a delightfully entertaining way or is it prohibitively distracting?
CC: I wasn’t there to experience it, so I could be wrong, but I feel like leisure activities have dramatically evolved in the past 50 years. When Cloak & Dagger came out, I’m not 100% sure that video games were seen by the wider culture as any different from table-top RPGs, card games, board games, or the games of skill seen in arcade halls. The types of amusements depicted in Cloak & Dagger were once considered the amusements of children – and children only. The only adult who plays video games in the movie was portrayed as a socially awkward nerd who is coded as existing in a state of arrested development. Now that video games are mainstream and firmly established as their own multi-billion-dollar industry, separate from all other types of gaming, I feel like the distance between these types of amusement has expanded. Further, the desire of the children of the 1980s to continue playing video games as they got older pushed it into the mainstream and increased the age of the average player. Today, I feel like table-top RPGs and campaign board games are more of a late-teen to adult amusement. Or perhaps I’m overestimating the level of perceived difference in types of gaming among actual gamers and the jumbling of elements has more to do with the writers’ cluelessness?
I never really felt that the clash between the gaming sensibilities and the violence were what was jarring. It was simply the protagonist’s young age that made the level of violence seem discordant. Personally, I liked the level of violence in this because it drove home the point that the Cold War Era table-top RPGs our protagonist was obsessed with included a huge amount of senseless violence. It’s only when you see that gore portrayed onscreen that you understand the intensity of the violence in the fantasy world he was already immersed in. On the page it’s fun and games, but in real life it’s terrifying.
Boomer, during our October Movie of the Month discussion for The Pit we talked a little bit about the mental health of Jamie, the sociopathic (but previously written as autistic or at least on the spectrum) lead. I feel like this film also walks a fine line between portraying its protagonist, Davey, as an obsessed child who gets carried away with his games to the point of hallucinating his hero Jack Flack – and a normal, but imaginative child who is truly trapped in a dangerous situation. How do you think this film handled Davey’s mental state? Did you feel that the level of judgement towards Davey’s game-playing was warranted?
Boomer: There’s certainly a level of “the newest form of entertainment is evil” panic present in the film, at least as far as Davey’s father is concerned. Some of this could simply be a filmmaker’s panic about video games; after all, history is filled with (externally moralized) panic about television replacing film, phonographs replacing people’s desire to learn how to play a musical instrument, and the printing press being an invention of the devil. With the advent of home gaming in the early 80s, there were many attempts to demonize that there newfangled video console. (Given that the video game industry is making money hand over fist and pulling in more revenue than movies, perhaps their concerns were justified.) Within the context of the film itself, Davey’s father’s concerns are justified: while he’s at work, his son gets so into his fantasy world that he’s wandering around downtown San Antonio and flashing very realistic toy guns in front of office lobby security. The security guard who sees a kid with what could easily be a real gun and doesn’t do anything about it is really bad at his job. While it would have been pretty bad for the elderly spies to escape with the secret stealth bomber plans hidden on the cartridge, this plot should never have happened, because Davey should have been asked where his parents were and his dad should have been called at work as soon as he flashed his piece in a crowded building. I live in Texas and the open carry laws are pretty lenient, but even in the 80s this wouldn’t have flown. The film sets up Mr. Osborne to be, within the context of this narrative, rightfully concerned that Davey is experiencing some degree of difficulty separating reality from fantasy, and so the lesson for children does seem to be that video games (and by association tabletop RPGs, etc.) are not to be trusted. Alternatively, a reasonable kid could also take away the lesson that, should you happen to witness a murder or something else you can’t immediately prove, maybe you should explain it to your parents in a realistic way and not talk about your imaginary friend in the process; that ups your credibility. Further, as with most stories in which new media are denigrated, most kids will recognize that the people making it have no idea how any of it works, which is in full evidence here in the way that no one making the movie understands how video games work or how figurines could play into it.
Brandon noted that this is part of that 80s zeitgeist of movies in which kids are doing pretty spectacular things, and they either fool their parents (who are useless), or their parents don’t believe them (again, useless), until at the end of the film Mom or Dad (never both in the 80s: Dad’s either left the family or Mom’s dead) demonstrate that they really do love Child Protagonist in a way that could be dangerous to them, but it all works out in the end. One of the things that this film didn’t do was have the two single parents of the kids have that moment at the end when everyone’s safe and they look at each other with a “maybe romance?” twinkle in their respective eyes. In fact, given the overall level of violence (it hasn’t been mentioned yet, but our Child Protagonist kills a man) and a pretty winding plot, there are probably more “rules” of kids movies from this era that are being broken that I’m overlooking. Britnee, as the expert on this genre and the person who’s seen Cloak & Dagger more than once, what are some of the other subversions and broken rules at play here?
Britnee: Piggybacking off your statements about the role of parents in 1980s kids’ movies, often when the child has a deceased parent there’s at least one or two scenes where they have an “I wish Mom/Dad was here” moment, or something is done to honor their parent’s memory. A memorable example would be when Bastian from The NeverEnding Story calls the Childlike Empress “Moonchild,” which is believed to be the name of his late mother. This trope even persists in animated children films of the 1980s. In The Land Before Time (which I still truly cannot watch without crying like a baby until this day), the spirit of Littlefoot’s deceased mother guides him on his journey to The Great Valley. The only mention of Davey’s deceased mother in Cloak & Dagger is from his father. Davey never talks about her or references her, and she never shows up to give him any sort of spiritual guidance. Perhaps having the memory of his mother more present in his decision-making would have softened up the film a bit?
What really stood out to me after watching Cloak & Dagger recently is how Davey was so willing to go with the elderly couple who end up being total creeps. For some reason, in both film and in real life, the older a person is, the safer they seem to be. The sweetly helpful elderly couple is all too common of a trope in children’s movies, so the twist that they are villains here is shocking. Trusting the old couple was the biggest mistake that Davey made because they were just as evil as the pack of child-killers chasing him. The most important lesson that can be learned from Cloak & Dagger is that Stranger Danger has no age limit.
Cloak & Dagger also strays away from the average 1980s kids’ movie because there’s really nothing magical or whimsical in it. There are no buried treasures or mythical creatures. The villains are grown men with guns; it takes place in San Antonio, Texas; and all that’s at stake are some lame secret government plans. Even though Jack is an imaginary friend, he doesn’t have any superpowers or magical abilities, which are typical imaginary friend qualities. The only thing in the film that was a little outside-of-the-box is the giant multi-sided dice in the opening scene. The more that I think about it, Cloak & Dagger is essentially a kids’ movie made for old men.
Brandon, do you think the film would have been better if Jack had superpowers? Like making weapons appear out of thin air for Davey to use against the bad guys?
Brandon: I was delighted by the jarring, Top Secret!-style spy-movie spoof that opens Cloak & Dagger, but I’m also glad the fantasy stopped there. That run-in with the giant dice is a concise, disorienting taste of Davey’s inner-fantasy life before the film moves on to contrast that escapism with the harsh, violent realities of the real world. Giving Jack Flack real-world superpowers might have made for a different kind of fun kids’ movie, but it would have ruined the dynamic that makes this one so special: the disconnect between Davey’s swashbuckling boys’ adventurism and the real-life implications of the violence that often defines those adventures. That dynamic is not only fascinating because of the horrific levels of 80s action movie violence leveled on children in a PG context, but also because of how it affects Davey’s relationship with his overworked father.
As Boomer already touched on, Cloak & Dagger stands out as the rare children’s film where both the kid & the parent actually have a point in their central conflict. Yes, Daddy-Dabney Coleman faces the same resentments about valuing career over family that plague most single parents in kids’ media. However, his explanation to Davey that “real heroes do boring things” like provide stability & shelter for their loved ones (instead of saving the world in grand, bullet-riddled adventures) is more justification than most single-parent archetypes get in this context. At the same time, Davey’s insistence that his dad play along with his interest in gaming so that they can spend intimate, quality time together is also justified by the danger that envelops him when he’s left to his own devices (namely, an Atari & a bus pass). Giving Imaginary Dabney Coleman real-life superpowers might have tipped the scales of justification further in Davey’s direction, which would be a shame since it’s rare to see such an evenly weighted parental conflict in a kids’ movie.
Cloak & Dagger was originally adapted from a short story (presumably written solely to pitch the movie) titled “The Boy Who Cried Murder,” so there’s plenty of implication that the film was meant to serve as a cautionary tale about getting lost in the fantasy of gaming – the same alarmist territory covered in the Tom Hanks Dungeons & Dragons cautionary tale Mazes & Monsters. At the same time, the film really wants you to invest in the struggling Atari console, so much so that it’s directly marketing a tie-in Cloak & Dagger video game by incorporating its cartridge & gameplay as a central part of the plot. Daddy-Dabney Coleman is also taught a lesson that parents should not blindly dismiss their kids’ interest in gaming, encouraging them to play along so they can be involved in their kids’ inner lives. CC, what do you make of this self-contradictory moralizing about the dangers of gaming and encouragement for parents to play Atari with their kids? Does Cloak & Dagger attempt “to have its cake & eat it too” or does it make a clear, substantive statement about whether gaming is a danger or if it’s harmless fun?
CC: It’s difficult to parse out the filmmakers’ intent, but there is definitely an internal struggle between the idea that games are a dangerous mind-suck and the reaction that golly-gee, that new Atari game sure looks swell. Even when they’re trying to sell you a new video game, they make it very clear that, unless you’re a well-adjusted parent trying to forge a stronger bond with your child, the only adults that play games are socially awkward nerds. They certainly spend more of the film’s runtime emphasizing the dark sides of gaming (obsession, fantastic delusion, misplaced trust in the elderly) that any pro-gaming messages seem like an afterthought, or were perhaps shoehorned in after Atari’s team watched the rough cut.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the intent was. Due to the video game crash of 1983, Atari halted production on the home console version of Cloak & Dagger (and the company went bankrupt shortly after). All of the screenshots in the film were pulled from the arcade version and the cartridges were fakes. Perhaps the conflicted tone of the movie gives us some insights into the turmoil of Atari’s marketing department. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Mark, imagine you were the right age when Cloak & Dagger came out (and Atari had released the home console version). Would you have wanted to purchase your own copy after seeing this movie?
Boomer: You know, I don’t think that I would have been that into it, but I’m not sure. I like video games and always have, but I’ve never really been much of a “gamer” (especially as, almost from its inception, online gaming has been a cesspool of homophobic and racist language used by children without oversight or parental guidance), and I’m old enough to remember when the gatekeepers of that fandom looked down on me for my unending love of Halo (then derogatorily referred to as a “Doom clone” before we came to call those games by the more appropriate term “first person shooter”). But as a kid growing up in economically depressed Southeastern Louisiana, we were always behind the times technologically, although I still clearly remember getting the original Game Boy for Christmas in 1995, six years after its release, and I’ve been lagging behind ever since; I bought my Xbox 360 in 2008, three years after it hit the shelves and even then only because my tax return that year was pretty good, and ten years later it’s still the most sophisticated thing that I own. That having been said, the depictions of video games in movies rarely piques my interest, and I don’t think that this would have been any different had I been the appropriate age for this film when it was released. It makes an interesting companion piece to The Wizard, which came out 5 years later and which I do remember from its television airings when I was younger; I remember being fond of that movie, but that might simply be the fact that even as a child I knew that I would follow Jenny Lewis to the ends of the earth. The first video game I can remember playing in the home (the local seafood po-boy place at the corner of Plank and Hwy 64 had both Pole Position and Ms. Pac-Man, both over ten years old by that point) was the bizarre Bouncing Babies, which came with our monochromatic MS-DOS HP that was inherited from a friend of the family in 1996 (again, 12 years after that game was originally released) and which I loved.
The actual gameplay of the Cloak & Dagger video game that we see doesn’t look like much fun, to be honest, and I don’t think even child-Boomer would have been impressed or interested. The graphics are bad, even for that time; compare the onscreen presentation to something like Frogger, Donkey Kong, and especially Dragon’s Lair, all of which predated or were contemporaries of C&D, and there’s really no contest. Cloak & Dagger looks muddied, clipped, and just plain ugly. Of course, that may just be the way that the refresh rate on the monitors that characters are using in the movie interacted with film, since actual screengrabs from the game look amazing in comparison. Still, as a kid, I don’t think that I would have been that interested, especially since even for a patient kid like me, this movie was long, and the gameplay was the least captivating thing about it. I would have been much more interested in the real-world make-believe play-acting that the kids in this movie did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I used to desperately want a pair of amazing walkie-talkies that I could use to talk to my best friend from a long way away more than I wanted anything else as a kid, a desire that was fanned by other movies with similarly unrealistic performance ranges (I’m looking at you, Three Ninjas).
The other thing that would have really stood out to me as a kid, even more than its video game subplot, were the villains. The elderly couple make for pretty memorable antagonists. I told a friend that I had watched this movie the day before, and he said that this was on the movies that his elementary school had on VHS to be pulled out on rainy days (which . . . yikes). When asking questions to make sure he was remembering the right movie, he didn’t mention any Atari cartridges or an imaginary friend: his strongest memory was of the evil elderly spies. Take from that what you will.
Boomer: So this movie is pretty blatantly propaganda for San Antonio’s public transportation system, right? That and the River Walk.
Britnee: Dabney Coleman looks like he smells like a mix of chewing tobacco and fabric softener. This applies to his role as Davey’s father and as Jack Flack.
Brandon: It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor with gaming so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the video game industry crash of 1983 – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch revitalization efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. As confirmed in the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over, thousands of copies of the E.T. game were buried in a New Mexico landfill to clear the unsold stock, each with Henry Thomas’s face on the cartridge. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie about a video game fantasy adventure.
CC: As much as I like kids in danger, I dunno, this one doesn’t do it for me. I think Britnee got it right when she said it was a kids film for old men. Plus the opening scene reminded me of Top Secret! & The Naked Gun and I hate ZAZ/Leslie Nielsen films.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2018
-The Swampflix Crew
Welcome to Episode #69 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-ninth episode (nice!), Brandon & Britnee discuss everyone’s favorite aspect of sex: pregnancy & giving birth. They review a trio of comedies from the 70s & 90s about pregnant men; also Britnee makes Brandon watch the surreal Czech fairy tale horror Little Otik (2000), about a couple who “gives birth” to a flesh-eating tree root. Enjoy!
– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet
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 Boomer, Britnee, and CC watch Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).
Brandon: Full disclosure: for a long time, I had planned for my final Movie of the Month selection for the year to be Mario Bava’s space exploration creep-out Planet of the Vampires, but I decided at the last minute to swap it out for another highly stylized sci-fi horror instead. When recently watching Panos Cosmatos’s grueling, psychedelic descent into human misery Mandy in the theater, I felt compelled to switch tracks and bring the Swampflix crew back to the director’s 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Mandy has been a highly divisive film, splitting audiences between finding its slow-motion, style-over-substance psychedelia frustratingly stubborn and being wholly won over by the pure sensory pleasures therein. I personally found Mandy’s religious worship of 80s genre cinema’s neon & synths aesthetic to be wonderfully stupefying, a technical & emotional knockout that had me stumbling from the theater in a daze. Oddly, I’ve also been obsessively reading fiercely negative takes on the film in the weeks since, browsing complaints as varied as it being too macho, too nostalgic in its retro genre pastiche, and too arbitrarily Weird as a for-its-own-sake indulgence. This happens often when I latch on to a new highly-divisive, highly-stylized genre film: it’s all I want to think or talk about for weeks, but I only want to read the most bitterly negative takes on its merits available, almost as if to challenge my own admiration. It’s happened recently with titles like The Neon Demon, Tale of Tales, We Are the Flesh, Double Lover, and mother!, but more importantly it also happened in the early days of Swampflix when I first discovered Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos’s debut (and one of our very first five-star reviews). As I’ve been obsessing over both the immense sensory pleasures & fiercely negative critical takes of Cosmatos’s latest work, it feels like I’m re-entering a cycle I already lived through with his previous feature, making an intensive re-examination of Beyond the Black Rainbow practically mandatory.
Like Mandy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in an alternate-dimension 1983 overrun with evil LSD cults and heavy metal mysticism. This particular neon-lit nightmare is mostly contained in the (literally) underground Arboria Institute, a medical research facility dedicated to the Scientology-reminiscent goal of achieving happiness & inner peace through a melding of science & theology. This pseudoscience approach to achieving “serenity through technology” is vaguely defined at best, but mostly appears to be hinged on two key experiments: a 1960s LSD ritual explained in horrific flashbacks to open participants to Lovecraftian knowledge of the Infinite and current, ongoing research of a young woman with telepathic abilities who mysteriously seems to have been born of these earlier acid rituals. Most of the narrative (what little there is) focuses on the young woman, Elena, who is held captive at the Arboria Institute via a glowing pyramid-shaped contraption that limits her telepathic abilities when activated. Although the institute’s mission is to find happiness through science, this captivity has only served to make both the captive Elena and her menacing captors (especially the menacing brute Dr. Barry Nyle) the most miserable beings on the planet. Elena silently weeps in a depressed haze under the pyramid’s invisible oppression for most of the runtime, until she manages a slow-moving escape from the facility in the final act. The concluding minutes of Beyond the Black Rainbow make for a jarring tonal shift, as Elena & Barry’s violent clash with unsuspecting, beer-swilling metal heads in the real world feels like it’s from a cheap VHS-era slasher, whereas all the pseudoscience LSD mysticism that precedes it feels like it’s from another planet. There’s flashes of kitschy humor in the film’s earlier indulgences in 1980s genre imagery, but so much of the film is so stubbornly slow & relentlessly dour that the audience is not at all prepared for the more conventional horror payoffs of the concluding bloodshed.
It almost feels beside the point to discuss Beyond the Black Rainbow in terms of plot choices, but I feel like that final-minutes shift from ethereal mysticism to humorously familiar genre tropes is where this film loses even potential fans who are okay with its stubbornly quiet build-up. After so much careful attention is paid to the sensory delights & horrors of the first section’s reaches beyond perceived reality, that intentionally comedic return to pedestrian knuckleheads sharing cheap beer on Planet Earth has turned some audiences off for making the film play like a feature-length prank, whether or not they found any humor in the earlier stretch. Boomer, what do you think of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s balance between genuine filmmaking beauty and prankish 80s pastiche humor? Was your overall opinion of the film challenged or reinforced by its concluding minutes of genre-traditional bloodshed?
Boomer: It is interesting that, for the second month in a row, we’ve watched a horror movie that starts out as a psychological thriller, albeit one with pseudoscientific elements (the cryptozoological tra-la-logs in The Pit and the bizarre fringe parascience of Black Rainbow) that turns into a more conventional genre film toward the conclusion. Whereas that was something that I didn’t care for in The Pit, I found it less intrusive here in Black Rainbow, if for no other reason than that the latter seems to be entirely predicated upon both being extremely conventional in its subject matter while defying convention at the same time. Nostalgia for the horror of the late-1970s-bleeding-into-the-1980s is pretty much my jam, and although it’s certainly reaching a saturation point in the wake of Stranger Things, I had to keep reminding myself throughout the entirety of Black Rainbow that it predates Things by a the better part of a decade—beating some of the more triumphant examples of this subgenre, like 2014’s superb The Guest (which is the perfect distillation of this concept into a modern environment), 2015’s It Follows (which helped popularize the style in the mainstream, paving the way for Stranger Things, IT, and many others), and M83’s 2011 “Midnight City“-“Reunion“-“Wait” video cycle (which, for my money, is probably the purest and most beautiful example). So while Black Rainbow was ahead of the curve, riding the wave before the tide came in, its reversion to a more typical kind of 80s horror in its final minutes isn’t surprising or, to my mind, detrimental. Like the film overall, its magic (and madness) lies in invoking the rhetorical space of one concept and juxtaposing it with a dissonant one. For me, the best example of this is when the film forsakes its hypnotic droning during the emergence of the Sentionaut for a more evocative, almost peppy motif. It’s not just an auditory break in the—for lack of a better term—monotony, but its visuals as well, with the emergence of a Daft-Punk-by-way-of-Dave-Bowman entity into the Kubrickian ascetic aesthetic that permeates the film.
My roommate and I joked that the script for Black Rainbow was probably about 15 pages long, full of directions like “[droning]“, “[higher pitched droning]“, and “[buzzing]“. We got a kick out of the film, despite his general objection to films like this that he considers “self-indulgent.” Here’s a direct quote: “I”m really liking this movie, despite its best attempts to make me hate it.” Also: “See, this is what I thought Raw was going to be, which is why I resisted it for so long. Is this what Neon Demon was like?” And one from me, from the scene in which Elena (slooooowly) telekinetically crushes the head of Margo, the cruel nurse: “Man, they should have called this movie Scannerzzzzzzz.” It’s strange, because I often find myself drawn to movies that I would consider to be feature-length music videos and completely immerse myself in their worlds (Oblivion is a film I would consider to be part of this list, although it has a lot more going on narratively than most examples, even if said plot is fairly run-of-the-mill), but he and I both found Black Rainbow entrancing and sometimes it pushes you right out of the moment. What he calls “self-indulgent” I would consider to be more bathetic: many of the moments of Dr. Nyle staring into the middle distance hold on a frame (or thirty) too long, effectively losing the tension instead of sustaining it. Granted, this is a matter of interpretation, and likely has more to do with environment and frame of mind than the filmmaker’s intention. It’s all intentional and demonstrates a masterful ability of filmcrafting, not to mention a fearlessness when it comes to creating a piece of art that will not only be “niche,” but actively and viscerally rejected by the majority of the filmgoing audience. Black Rainbow is exactly the kind of sententious film that I imagine making, all maximal style and minimally substantive, hearkening back to the visual and visceral horror (that which was viewed and that which was imagined) of my youth, more imitative and moody than necessary. I would make a much worse movie, however.
One of the things that caught my attention in reading about the film after screening it was that director Cosmatos would often walk the horror aisle of the video rental shop and have to imagine what the film was like based on the cover and the title alone, as renting them was forbidden. This, too, I did as a child, and I vividly remember the giant cardboard standee of Silence of the Lambs and the cover art for Chopping Mall and So I Married an Axe Murderer (my imagined version of this was neither better nor worse than the real thing, but it was certainly gorier). Black Rainbow owes a lot of its plot (such as it is) to re-imagined bits and pieces of various 70s and 80s media, most notably taking visual inspiration from 2001 and borrowing most of the plot from a mishmash of Altered States (notably the mutation from psychedelic and hallucinatory experimentation), Akira, Firestarter, The Fury, and even a little bit of D.A.R.Y.L. with visual flair from Poltergeist for good measure. CC, do you think that this borrowing of visuals and ideas from other films strengthens or weakens Rainbow? What are some of the visuals that came from elsewhere that I’ve overlooked? (For instance, I know I’ve seen that mutant before, and the glowing pyramid, but I can’t figure out their origin.) Would the film have benefited from using more original concepts and ideas, or would that have missed the point?
CC: As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I really love the current trend of atmospheric horror filtered through half-remembered nightmares and analog equipment [see: The Void (2016), Berbarian Sound Studio (2012), We Are the Flesh (2016), High-Rise (2015), The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), and Too Many Cooks (2014)]. Beyond the Black Rainbow predated these films by at least a couple years and really set the stage for things to come. I think that for a film so sparing with dialogue and narrative explanations, having those familiar visual and auditory clues gave viewers something to grasp onto. In my case, I really latched onto Beyond the Black Rainbow‘s use of the popular 80s trope of children either in danger or the source of danger (which I have already mentioned in the last MotM as one of my favorite tropes). (Also, thank you Mark for sending us those M83 videos! They had completely escaped my radar.)
I think we’ve all done a good job so far of identifying the specific cinematic influences and tropes in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so I’ll address the weirder influences I noticed. Looking back at my notes on the Sentionauts (terrifying helmeted golems of red leather and black plastic), I wrote down Garth Nix’s book Shade’s Children, a 1997 YA novel where it is revealed that the gigantic humanoid soldiers (myrmidons) engineered by the bad guys are actually captured human children who are sterilized by excessive steroid use and put inside mind controlling mechsuits, which is a pretty good description of those things in the red suits. And, Mark, as for the zombie mutant she encounters, I keep trying to figure out what it looks most like and it’s a three-way tie between Dr. Pretorious in From Beyond, Bib Fortuna from Star Wars, and a neomorph.
I’ve never had an issue with a film borrowing the style or ideas from another movie, unless it constantly tells you it’s doing it [see: Deadpool]. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven and Wes Craven’s Scream are both examples of loving tributes to their source material and exemplary works in their own right. I feel like the endless rebooting, remaking, and remixing we’re seeing in popular cinema today is a natural outgrowth of post-Modernism and a defining characteristic of our cultural landscape; it’s not necessarily good or bad on principle (even though the films produced may certainly be judged on their own merits). We have access to so many sources of inspiration nowadays that a person can be influenced by the non-Euclidian angles of German Expressionist cinema and the garbage bin unsavoryness of 1980s video nasties. Pastiche is a way for filmmakers to explore the ideas that they’re most interested in through the visual language they were influenced by. In writing, pastiche is often used to better hone your own voice because using an exaggerated version of another author or genre’s style can help you figure out what’s unique about your work. It’s a useful tool.
Britnee, we keep looping back to all the ways Beyond the Black Rainbow pulls from other sources, but never really talk about what makes it original. Even though it is in constant dialogue with its influences, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. But maybe I’m wrong? In your opinion, what are, if any, the unique elements of this film?
Britnee: I don’t know if there’s something seriously wrong with me, but when I reflect on everything that happened in Beyond the Black Rainbow, my brain immediately goes to the scene where Barry’s wife, Rosemary, is caught sleeping/meditating (don’t ever let Barry catch you sleeping!), and she comes out of her trance to say, “If you’re hungry, there’s some brown rice and steamed asparagus in the refrigerator.” A leftover meal of brown rice and steamed asparagus is just as bland as the relationship between Barry and Rosemary, which is one of the more unique elements of the film. Sure, a miserable marriage in cinema is nothing out of the ordinary, but the way in which Barry and Rosemary communicate with each other is unlike anything I’ve really seen before. Rosemary makes only a few small appearances, but in each one, it’s obvious that she is terrified of Barry. After all, he is the living definition of a creep. Her fear of Barry is present in the way she speaks, her body language, and her mental state when she is in his presence. It’s not the type of fear that would lead one to believe he’s an abusive husband, but it’s more of a fear that he’s some sort of creature, keeping her captive in a remote house in the woods. Rosemary plays such a minor role in the film, and I’m amazed at how much of her character impacted me.
Another element that is unique to Beyond the Black Rainbow is the transitions between scenes. It reminds me a lot of the nuclear shadows caused by the bombing at Hiroshima. The slow transitions burned images from one scene into the next, and it was difficult to tell when they disappeared completely. I was hypnotized as I kept my focus on Elena’s face and it turned into a mere shadow in the bright, neon red screen before shifting to Barry lingering around the Aboria Institute. The way these scene transitions slowed my breathing and relaxed my muscles was super weird, but I was really into it.
Barry’s obsession with Elena has been sitting in the back of my mind for a while. He seems to get some sort of erotic pleasure from her, but I can’t figure out if it’s because he loved her mother or if he’s a sadist that gets off on her pain. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Barry’s fascination with Elena? Is she merely an experiment he’s highly interested in or is there something else going on?
Brandon: It’s difficult to say what any character in Beyond the Black Rainbow is thinking or feeling, since the film’s basic narrative is so opaque & stubbornly vague. The most emotion I sensed from Barry throughout the film was a seething resentment for everyone around him, almost in a macho midlife crisis reaction to the monotony his life had devolved into. The three women in Barry’s life (his captive Elena, his eternally sleepy housewife Rosemary, and his bumbling coworker/subordinate Margo) all receive the same hushed, barely-restrained anger from him, so it’s difficult to say if his resentment of & fixation on Elena is any different in tone than the mood he projects elsewhere in his miniscule social circle. The only insight we get into why he’s so corrosively resentful is in the flashback to the mysterious LSD ritual that transformed him (Altered States-style) into a new, inhuman beast. In a literal sense, Elena is a prisoner to the Arboria Institute’s experiments, as she’s physically held captive under Barry’s “care” (via the glowing pyramid contraption). To an extent, Barry himself is a figurative prisoner of the same experiment. He’s continuing the work of the decrepit, senile Dr. Arboria long after the research meant to achieve “serenity through technology” had demonstrably, disastrously failed. Elena personifies to Barry a failed experiment that he must see to the daily monotony of continuing out of habit & lack of other options. He’s technically freer than Elena to roam wherever he likes, but they’re both stuck on either side of the same observation glass, prisoners to the same never-ending, increasingly pointless research. That must be a difficult daily monotony to subscribe to after “looking into the Eye of God” in the earlier LSD experiment where he was the subject, a frustration he nastily takes out on everyone around him.
What I find most interesting about Barry’s seething, resentful anger is how it contrasts with the deep, unending despair suffered on Elena’s side of the glass. Elena is not afforded nearly as much backstory as Barry (read: any), yet Eva Bourne’s physical performance of total emotional devastation in the role conveys the full severity of what she’s feeling. I had remembered Beyond the Black Rainbow as being less plotty and less emotional than Mandy, but after this revisit I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. Between Barry’s resentful anger & Elena’s silent anguish, Beyond the Black Rainbow traffics in plenty of extreme emotional expression; it’s just not the aspect of the film that stuck with me most on first watch. Boomer, did any of the emotional havoc wrought by the Arboria Institute’s experiments on this small, quiet cast of characters resonate with you on your own initial viewing or was all of that effect overwhelmed by the film’s sensory pleasures and nostalgic genre throwbacks?
Boomer: Although I share Britnee’s enthusiasm for Rosemary (largely because the actor looked so familiar and I just could not place her until I looked her up; she was one of the representatives on the Quorum in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica!), the person I most connected to was Margo. It’s not that I was fond of her at all—she was cruel, almost needlessly so. In fact, the general emptiness of the institute and her presence in it was telling. Maybe “vacancy” is a better word than “emptiness,” since it’s not just the largeness of the space that’s so effective, it’s the extent to which it’s obvious to the audience that this space was designed for many more people than just Barry, his captive, and his single employee—break rooms, cafeterias, etc. The other staff is long gone, hopefully having moved on to other opportunities and not turned into mutants, but either way, Margo sticking it out for the long haul after all of her colleagues departed or were destroyed is troubling. Even the discovery of Barry’s incomprehensible journals (the only part of which that stays on screen long enough to have an impact is the word “spermy,” which is nauseating), although it freaks her out for a moment, has no lasting power, as she’s back to doing her nefarious master’s bizarre bidding almost immediately.
It’s in that following scene that Margo becomes so much more menacing than Barry, albeit more subtly. She turns on the charm with Elena, becoming warm and almost maternal. In an uncanny approximation of playfulness, she asks Elena to show her what she has in her hands. Elena hides the supposed photo of her mother, refusing to give it up. I’ve seen this scene many times, in which a warm authority figure tries to draw out a withdrawn child; notably, the TV show Fringe (which can be reductively but not-inaccurately described as “the post-9/11 X-Files by way of Altered States) uses this a few times, when victim-of-childhood-experimentation-turned-FBI-agent Olivia Dunham interacts with pretty much any kid on the show. In this scene, however, you’re almost tricked into thinking Margo might be sincere, before she rips the photo from Elena’s hands and destroys it, leading to her own undoing. She’s the evil stepmother of this particular neon-drenched 80s fairy tale, and her immediate comeuppance is a mirror of her destructiveness. It’s really effective, and I think it’s actually the best acting we see in the film. Elena’s anguish is palpable; Barry’s fury is understated. Margo’s convictions and desires are still completely opaque, and this small moment of misdirection and cruelty is far more intriguing than the, as noted above, kind of obvious “killer chases the final girl through the woods” conclusion. Maybe it’s that this scene, like the Sentionauts scene, is an island of something different happening amidst the (intentional) monotony; after scene upon scene in which the only audio is a persistent and constant drone, the Sentionaut appears, accompanied by a gothy synth organ that calls to mind Claudio Simonetti or Ennio Morricone, Likewise, the scene with Margo is a rare event of explicitly human emotion happening amidst all of the inhuman ones.
CC, what did you think of Margo, who is arguably the most dynamic character in the film? Did her scenes speak to you the way they did to me, or am I latching onto something that’s not really there? What do you think her motivation was to keep working at this facility long after she had any reason to? Was it fear? Inertia? Something else?
CC: As a character, Margo did appear to be the only being within the film capable of acting and lying (or at least lying convincingly) and generally showed a wider range of emotions than Elena (blank and despondent), Barry (cold and furious), and Rosemary (sleepy and confused). To be honest, I never really thought about Margo after her (deserved) demise. Perhaps I dismissed her as a Nurse Ratched-type, a sadistic nurse who gets off on torturing their patients? When I look back at her scenes I find her so disgusted and pissed at Elena (and to be fair, Elena does give Margo a nosebleed with her telekinesis) that perhaps her later sadism towards Elena is not because she is evil or a sadist, but just because she’s an exhausted, put-upon woman who works for a psychopath and is the caretaker of a child that would love to blow her head off. Perhaps any of us would resort to crumpling a child’s only photo of her mom, if said child gave us nosebleeds every time we walked them back to their cell or if we were in charge of keeping a child in a cell so that a monster could conduct “experiments” that judging from his “notes” were mostly about reproductive organs, snippets of text like, “after she was drugged, she slept for 2 days”, and drawings of the third eye. But why stick with a job that turns you into a monster in the first place? You never get the sense that Margo wants to be there or that she’s contributing to the “vision” of the Arboria Institute. Barry, with his “appliances” and sexual obsession with Elena, is an obvious villain, but maybe the real evil in Panos Cosmatos’s film is the banal sadism of a person who doesn’t even know why they are participating in what is an obviously terrible situation.
Britnee, speaking of obsessive relationships, let’s talk about Panos Cosmatos’s obsession with films-within-films. He’s only made two movies so far, but both have featured fully realized short films (an infomercial for the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow and a mind-melting commercial for boxed pasta in Mandy). Do you ever get too into the fake films? In Hamlet 2 and Hunky Dory, both films about putting on a theatrical production, I always really want to watch the play instead of snippets of rehearsals between scenes of the actual film. Do you ever wish there were full-length versions of all these little things Cosmatos has obviously put so much work into?
Britnee: Speaking of the Arboria Institute infomercial, it reminded me of the “Behold the Coagula” infomercial in Get Out. Both give a quick background of each horrific institution and are significant pieces in their respective films. As for the question at hand, I could see the Arboria Institute infomercial as a sci-fi short film, but I think it would be kind of boring. Dr. Aboria’s voice sounds like a lame high school teacher, so having to listen to that for more than the three minutes in isolation would be a nightmare.
The Cheddar Goblin commercial in Mandy is a totally different story. With less than a minute of screen time, the Cheddar Goblin is the breakout star of the year. That cheesy little monster managed to sneak his way into our hearts, and he is practically an American icon at this point. I would love to see a feature length film about the Cheddar Goblin, presumably as would anyone else who has seen Mandy. Where did he come from and why does he want to eat macaroni & cheese only to immediately puke it up? We deserve to have these questions answered.
Brandon: This years-delayed reassessment of Cosmatos’s debut felt more or less mandatory in light of his recent follow-up, so I was both immensely pleased by how well it holds up and relieved that everyone on the crew reacted positively to its sparse, beguiling charms. Just like Mandy, this is a beautiful, amusingly absurd bummer that I couldn’t fault anyone for dismissing as self-indulgent fluff even though I love it dearly. After the refresher, I’m not even sure I could pick a favorite between Cosmatos’s two features; I mostly just feel spoiled that we get to have them both.
Britnee: I seriously thought that Christian Bale was Barry Nyle until I looked up the movie on IMDb three days or so after initially watching it. I even had a conversation with my coworker that went something along the lines of “Hey, I watched this weird Christian Bale movie the other night called Beyond the Black Rainbow. You should check it out!” Perhaps I need some of the Aboria Institute’s services.
Boomer: I know I mentioned a lot of different pieces of media with regards to what this reminded me of, but I’ve finally got my roommate watching Fringe, and I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re pressed for time, you can use Den of Geek’s roadmap for the series so you don’t have to watch every episode, as long as you go back and watch all the way through someday.
CC: Mark, I have a potential glowing pyramid visual reference, but this one is pretty niche. Do any of y’all remember the 1987-1991 NBC sci-fi sitcom Out of this World? No? I certainly do! The conceit is that our protagonist Evie Ethel Garland suddenly gains magical powers on her 13th birthday (Teen Witch much?) that cause all kinds of wacky mischief. She finds out that powers are inherited from her space alien father, voiced by Burt Reynolds, who was called back to his home planet when she was a baby. They really like to stress he is NOT a deadbeat dad; he reluctantly returned to fight in an intergalactic war. To communicate with his daughter while she learns about her powers, he gives her a glowing prism that is essentially a walkie-talkie. I should note that it does look more like a stack of clear cubes in a vaguely octahedron shape, BUT there are a bunch of glowing alien pyramids in the insane theme sequence:
Also, weird/fun MoTM tie-in, Evie’s best friend on Out of this World is played by actress Christina Nigra, who co-stars in next month’s MotM Cloak & Dagger!
Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018
-The Swampflix Crew
In the age-old folktale of Bluebeard, a well-to-do monster of a man gets into the habit of marrying women only to murder them once they disobey his one rule: do not look behind the forbidden door in his castle. Once his current wife gives into her curiosity and opens the door, she finds that what lies behind it is the corpses of his former wives. Sebastian Gutierrez’s most recent film, Elizabeth Harvest, is essentially the Bluebeard fairytale, but instead of the corpses if multiple dead wives, the room is filled with clones of one wife. It’s just as crazy as it sounds.
Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a seemingly innocent scientist, brings his new bride, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), to his huge, mysterious, and obnoxiously clean home in the middle of the woods. The house is a mix of the glass house in the movie The Glass House and the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so it was both fascinating and terrifying. There are two caretakers in the home: Claire (Carla Gugino), a mysterious, quiet woman with an obvious connection to Henry, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a young, blind man that mostly keeps to himself. The two add to the unwelcome feeling of the already spooky setting. As in the Bluebeard tale, Henry gives Elizabeth free reign of the home and all the luxuries that comes with it, but she is forbidden from entering one room. While Henry is away, Elizabeth enters the forbidden room only to find pods with clones of herself. Once Henry discovers what Elizabeth has done, the film shifts away from Bluebeard and becomes something entirely different.
Gutierrez throws in some impressive visual effects at all the right moments. There are a couple of scenes with split screens that focus on what different characters are doing in different parts of the home during highly intense moments, which I absolutely loved. There’s also lots of bold color and high fashion throughout the film, especially with Elizabeth. She has vibrant red hair, piercing blue eyes, and wears lots of haute couture. Watching her walk through different rooms in the home was like flipping through the pages of Vogue for a “Sci-Fi Meets High Fashion” issue. The film comes very close to being one of those style over substance works, but the uniqueness and intensity of the plot keeps it balanced.
Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.
Netflix has been cranking out phenomenal original horror series and movies this year, most notably The Ritual, which is easily one of the greatest horror films to come out in 2018. Just this past Friday, Netflix also released the period horror film Apostle just in time for Halloween, and it did not disappoint. The first half of Apostle is very tame and mysterious, and the latter half spirals into blood-soaked insanity. I absolutely loved it.
It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), is on a mission to save his sister from a pagan cult that kidnapped her for ransom. He travels to a remote island populated only by cult members and goes incognito as a follower. The cult elements in Apostle are a slight nod to The Wicker Man, as the cult members are seemingly average folk inhabiting an isolated island, but the cult in question is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a horror movie. They worship a Goddess that inhabits the island, and they essentially keep her prisoner and feed her human blood to give her enough energy to produce crops from the islands tainted soil. The cult leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), discovered her and claims to be her prophet, and just like any narcissistic douchebag that gets a taste of power, he starts to lose his grip on reality. Everything essentially goes to hell in a handbasket when Prophet Malcolm is overthrown by a psychotic cult member, and Thomas is caught up in the brutal carnage while trying to get his sister off of the crazy cult island.
What I loved most about Apostle, other than the badass bloodthirsty Goddess, is that there is a tragic Romeo and Juliet type love story between two young cult members in the midst of all the madness. Honestly, Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to what happens to these two. There’s just something about forbidden love within a cult that really holds my attention.
Apostle is visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a “cult” classic.
Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!
– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas
Nothing gets me more hyped up than when a “based on true events” title card appears at the start of a horror movie, so when those words graced the screen at the beginning of The Haunting in Connecticut, I had a slight adrenaline rush. I watched the film for the first time this past weekend during a horror movie marathon with friends, and it was the first title on our watch list. I would later learn that it was wise to watch this one first since it was surprisingly boring for a horror movie “based on true events.”
In the film, the Campbell family moves into a home to be closer to the hospital where their teenage son, Matthew (Kyle Gallner), is receiving cancer treatment in the form of a clinical trial. They soon discover that the home was once a funeral home, so surprise, surprise, the house is totally haunted. Matthew is the first member of the family to witness supernatural occurrences in the home, but his family thinks it’s a side effect of the clinical trial. They are all eventually forced to face the reality that Matthew is in his right mind.
The Haunting in Connecticut is based on the Snedeker family’s supernatural experiences in home in Southington, Connecticut. The Snedekers really did move into a house that was previously a funeral home run by morticians who were, supposedly, also necromancers. Necromancers in Connecticut, imagine that! The idea of necromancy occurring in a small, all-American town is absolutely terrifying, but the film doesn’t really get into the necromancy aspect of the story all that much, which is completely bonkers to me. This is what makes the story so unique! Now don’t get me wrong, there are some creepy moments that are necromancy related (e.g., box of human eyelids is discovered under an attic floorboard), but there’s just not enough to make the film worthwhile. Instead, it follows the basic haunted house story line: family moves into house with a dark past, one of the family members starts to see ghosts while the rest of the family thinks they’re crazy, the haunting gets more intense as time goes by, and it all comes to a close in a fast-paced, extravagant ending.
There’s really nothing that special about The Haunting in Connecticut. It’s doomed to be lost in the realm of average, not-so-great haunted house movies like The Conjuring and An American Haunting.
CC: When I was first asked to join Swampflix I was both excited and apprehensive because I knew that I would soon have to select a Movie of the Month. How could I possibly choose something that I’ve seen but none of the experts at Swampflix have? I was doubly intimidated when I was informed that my first selection would be the October Movie of the Month, which has traditionally been a horror film. Thank goodness for my years of idly watching whatever garbage played during daytime television in my cable-free, pre-internet childhood. I saw The Pit around the same time I saw the 1979 film Prophecy, a sci-fi horror featuring a truly disturbing mutated, skinless bear. As a result, I kinda mixed some parts of the two in my mind. Mainly, the disturbing gore.
The Pit is a 1981 Canuxploitation (Canadian schlock) horror film that was for some strange reason filmed in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. It follows the story of socially inept and lustful 12-year-old Jamie, who discovers a pit full of monsters he calls “Tra-la-logs” (instead of troglodytes) in the woods behind his house. He quickly discovers the monsters will eat any meat he supplies them, even . . . HUMAN FLESH! When Jamie’s not pushing his enemies into a pit of monsters, he’s blackmailing librarians for sexy nudes and stalking his babysitter. Oh yeah, and he talks to a teddy bear who may or may not be demonically possessed. In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, “This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”
Boomer, what did you think of The Pit? Were there too many plot elements and horror tropes or was it delightfully overstuffed?
Boomer: I loved this movie. It definitely felt a little sporadically organized, given that there are at least three different kinds of horror going on here (psychological/psychosexual, supernatural [arguably?], and cryptozoological), and that means that the film is being pulled in multiple directions at once, but while that certainly means that it runs the risk of being muddled (and it shows its seams at times), it hangs together pretty well on the whole, minus a few things that I would consider to be poor choices. I really like that, for the most part, the film acts as an insight into the mind of a repressed little boy who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s stuck in a state of arrested development and lives almost entirely in his own imagination, and his parents are so unprepared to deal with his specialized needs (or as Sandy says, “exceptional children”) that they treat their son like an alien being. At first, the things that we learn about Jamie—like that he was wearing a superman cape (presumably as a loincloth) and swinging around in trees pretending to be Tarzan—are unusual, but not bizarre, antisocial, or dangerous enough to warrant the kind of response that his family and community provide: old ladies talking about his maladaptive behavior when he is within earshot; getting punched in the face by a bully with no apparent repercussions for the larger, more aggressive boy; the cruel taunts and pranks from Abergail [sic]; and arguably the worst, Marg Livingstone, who treats Jamie as if he were an aggressive adult sex offender released on parole, rather than an odd little boy who needs a good talking to. If a child develops a crush and acts on it inappropriately, you would think an adult would first scold the kid and then get the parents involved if it happened again, but Marg just hides behind bookshelves like a creep instead of tackling the problem head-on like a grown-up (not that this excuses what Jamie does to her later). He builds, of course, to violence and sexual harassment (his extortion of Marg under threat of violence to her niece is when he really crosses the line), but his community already despises and ostracizes him at a time when the audience can’t help but sympathize with him.
There’s a lot that happens in implication here, much more than in other horror movies of the era, area, or budget. Jamie’s father looks to be at least a decade older than his mother, if not two, so the audience is left to assume that there’s a bizarre sexual energy in the house even before the parents abandon the boy in the hands of a local college student they barely know. On top of that, we get Jamie’s monologue in the bath about how his mother often washes him and washes him, even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, implying that Mrs. Benjamin goes a little “Piper Laurie as Margaret White” whenever Jamie acts out. Honestly, the amount of sexual repression and psychological damage, combined with the “child with a secret” trope and the northeastern US backdrop, give the whole thing a Stephen King vibe all the way through. When we hear Teddy speaking, he does so with Jamie’s voice, much like little Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend that helps him interpret the world around him when adults fail to provide even the most scant or answers (or sympathy). The titular pit is almost the least interesting aspect of the entire film, except as an objective correlative metaphor about the giant hole in Jamie’s understanding of the world that leads him to do some pretty fucked up things. For me, the only real problem is when the “tra-la-logs” in the hole are revealed to be literal and real and not just aspects of Jamie’s psyche. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does irrevocably change the tone when the psychological inspection of Jamie is interrupted for 20+ minutes by characters we’ve never seen before: a toothless and typical “monsters eat skinny-dipping teenagers” scene, an abbreviated police procedural about finding the missing persons, and a bunch of camo-hatted hunters pursuing the troglodytes back to their pit and shooting them all.
Reading up on the film, apparently the original script was more explicit in the fact that the action of the film was all in Jamie’s mind, with no escaped troglodytes and nothing supernatural about Teddy. To me, the influence of that first script is most apparent in the scene where Jamie forces Marg to strip, as we see Teddy’s (read: Jamie’s) voice coming from a recording on the other end of the phone line instead of, for instance, coming from the bear himself. On the other hand, there’s also the scene where poor Sandy finds Jamie’s nudie mags and then puts them back where they were, while Teddy’s head turns to the door after she leaves, clearly indicating that there is something not-of-this-earth about the bear. There was clearly a lot of studio interference going on here, and I wish we could see the film as it was originally intended, but nonetheless I’m delighted that I’ve finally seen it.
I’ve been hard on all of the adults in this film with the exception of Sandy (who certainly has moments where she could be a better influence on Jamie and help guide him into being less antisocial, but overall is fairly balanced in her treatment of him and only freaks out when he really crosses the line, like when he sneaks into the bathroom while she’s showering), but the one I feel most perplexed about is Marg. The film acts as if we’re supposed to have more empathy for Jamie, and reasonably so (at least at first), while Marg in general reacts very poorly to Jamie’s affections, crude though they may be. Again, why would you not address a twelve year old boy about how inappropriate it is for him to put your picture on a nude? By acting as if it never happened, you’re doing nothing to alter or change this behavior, which is irresponsible and bizarre, especially when you are an authority figure in his life. Brandon, am I being too hard on Marg?
Brandon: I think the issue is that you’re being too soft on Jamie, which is making you overly judgemental of Marg by extension. Jamie’s prurient interests in adult women goes far beyond the typical crushes of boys his age and instead weighs on the community around him as a genuine sexual menace. The creepiest thing about it is that he knows his predatory, privacy-violating behavior will be excused by the adults around him because of his apparent juvenile innocence. He’s like a horned-up version of Rhoda Penmark (of The Bad Seed) in that way, playing the part of a curious child who loves his teddy bear whenever anyone’s looking, but privately operating as a sexual sociopath with complex schemes on how to exploit the older women around him for cheap thrills. I don’t get the sense that we’re meant to sympathize with Jamie, but rather are supposed to be creeped out by his premature sexuality & his overreaction to bullies (both actual & perceived). His juvenile horniness feels like a threat that’s terrorized his community long before the film’s narrative starts, as indicated by his parents’ deliberate absence, his long back-history of traumatized babysitters, and Marg’s already-established paranoia in his presence. I’m totally on Marg’s side in suspicion & fear of that horny little devil, which is why it’s so satisfying when he ultimately meets his demise at the hands of his own Rhoda Penmark-type equal (in a conclusion that makes no logical storytelling sense, but strikes a perfect note of poetic justice anyway).
Jamie’s terrifying, predatory sexuality is a large reason why I fell in love with The Pit, because it’s a genuinely horrific threat that effectively creeped me out even though the film at large is campy & over-the-top. As already suggested, this is a film that’s delightfully overstuffed with non-traditional monsters: flesh-eating troglodytes, a telepathic teddy bear, and a horny pubescent boy. Because of the cheapness of the troglodytes’ Roger Corman-level costuming & the bear’s cartoonish vocal dubbing, it’s easy enough to laugh those threats off as being too goofy to take seriously. Jamie’s predatory sexuality is much more difficult to dismiss, recalling other unconventionally eerie films of the era like Pin, The Baby, Sleepaway Camp, and Flowers in the Attic that transcend their limited means by tapping into adolescent sexual discomfort. Britnee, did you similarly find Jamie’s sexuality to be the creepiest threat in The Pit? Were the tra-la-logs or the telepathic teddy bear at all scary to you or did they play like campy jokes in comparison to the horny little boy who considers them friends?
Britnee: When I think of what scares me the most in general, it’s children like Jamie. Creepy, sleazy little perverts who think they’re untouchable. I wanted to jump through the screen and light that teddy bear on fire just to punish Jamie for being a gross creep. Also, it seemed like the teddy bear had part of his soul, so burning it would possibly destroy Jamie (like Voldemort’s horcruxes!). Even if the tra-la-logs were more realistic and genuinely terrifying or if the teddy bear was possessed by a demonic spirit and using a child to do its dirty work, nothing even comes close to how terrifying Jamie is. He’s also at the age where kids are the most annoying: not quite a teenager, yet older than an elementary school student. All of these horrible things combined made it really difficult for me to have any sort of sympathy or understanding for Jamie, and this is why I don’t have children or work with children.
What I love most about The Pit, other than the fact that it contains my worst fear (creepy kids), is that it’s so unpredictable and goes in a ton of different directions. I just didn’t know what to focus on. Should I have been concerned about the tra-la-logs climbing out of the pit and wreaking havoc on the innocent folk of this small town? Or should I be more worried about the possessed teddy bear guiding a perverted kid in the wrong direction? I didn’t really know, but I also didn’t really care because all of the distracting little subplots made the ending of the film all the more shocking for me. There’s nothing quite like a film that ends with a twist, and oh boy, was this ending twist so satisfying. I went home and slept like a baby after the movie ended.
CC, you mentioned watching this as a young kid. How was watching it again as an adult? Is there anything that you were more scared of in the film back then that didn’t scare you in the recent viewing? Or vice versa?
CC: As mentioned previously, I had somewhat blended the plots to both The Pit and Prophecy in my 6-9 year-old brain and as a result, didn’t really remember much of The Pit beyond the glowing eyes of the tra-la-logs. It’s a strange detail to fixate on too, since the tra-la-logs themselves get so little screen time. I’m surprised that Jamie’s extremely disturbing Teddy did not leave more of a lasting impression. Mind you, I was terrified of clowns, the dark, some dolls (especially Chucky or Chucky-adjacent ones), Troll II, Freddy Kruger, walking up staircases or down hallways, and cars so I probably was just trying to make sure that at least teddy bears could stay on my “safe” list. It should also be noted that none of the weird sexual stuff stayed with me, but that might again be my baby brain trying to protect me from the world.
Perhaps one of the reasons this film did stick in my mind is that it’s not particularly scary. A psycho-sexual thriller starring a 12-year-old and lacking in significant jump scares is more creepy and off-putting than most horror I had been exposed to at this age. Boomer, what’s your take? Is The Pit a scary movie? Does it even count as horror?
Boomer: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this film to be “scary” per se, and not just because it turns into a bargain basement Don Dohler (redundant, I know) movie in the third act. I’m in agreement with Brandon and Britnee in that the scariest thing about this film is its function as a disturbing exploration of the psyche of an oversexed pubescent boy, and Jamie is, as Brandon notes, a genuine sexual menace. I just find myself having more sympathy for Jamie (initially; he falls off the slippery slope very quickly). I think that may have more to do with how old/mature we interpret Jamie to be and whether or not he has some kind of social disorder or is on the autism spectrum, and I’m quick to admit that this is likely due to my reading of the film being rooted in my own horizon of limited experience.
When I was in the fifth grade at a repressive Christian school, the students in my class were on a rotating schedule of who was to deliver the lunch orders for the entire class to the cafeteria in the mornings. I remember clearly that this happened on a Thursday, because the lunch room was in back of auditorium that was used for assemblies and in which the middle and high school students had “chapel” assemblies every week. The previous night, the son of the pastor who headed the megachurch of which the school was part had been caught in flagrante delicto with the school secretary’s daughter in his car during the Wednesday night service. Every student in grades 6-12 had been gathered in the auditorium to watch an “educational” video in which one of the talking heads (not those) stated clearly that “We [adults] always know when teenagers are having sex, because the boy is always angry, and the girl is always crying.” Leaving aside the more subtle nastiness in that statement (the heteronormativity, the prurience of adults with regards to teenage sexual behavior, etc.) and focusing on the extreme inappropriateness of the ideas presented in it, this is deeply fucked up. That’s not even getting into the fact that the girl in question was expelled and the pastor’s son was allowed to continue to attend school, and the undeniable sexism of that, not to mention the implicitness of the fact that this decision should not be questioned; after all, wasn’t the pastor ordained by God and thus above having his decisions questioned?
This was just one piece of a 5000+ component puzzle of my understanding of sexuality in an extremely religious and oppressed household and community. For years, if there was a girl who was crying at school, the only logical conclusion was that she was a slut (she couldn’t possibly have been simply frustrated at the overall sexism and degradation she experienced at this school, or in a home headed by a patriarch who considered this a sufficiently healthy learning environment . . . right?). There was nothing healthy about my own understanding of sex and sexuality until I was in my late teens at best, and even then, I was still possessed of toxic ideologies and regressive attitudes that have taken years to unlearn, and which I still find myself noticing and confronting in my life on a daily basis. I could recount dozens upon dozens of stories just like this one that illustrate how my own mind and that of many others I knew were warped by an abusive home, school, and church life that created one Jamie after another. I’m certainly not saying that I think Jamie shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions; he definitely should. Leaving aside the extent to which Jamie is mentally capable of understanding what he’s doing (more on that in a moment), I just see his home life and the repressed reactions of his parents and community as being contributing factors to his personality problems: he explicitly says that his mother enjoys bathing him despite the fact that he is at an age where he should be able to bathe himself (hinting at potential molestation); he says that his mother often bathes him even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, which immediately makes me think of poor Carrie White getting locked in her closet by her mother for her “uncleanness”; when he acts inappropriately, his father snatches him up, threatens violence, and doesn’t even consider having a conversation about consent, privacy, or the inappropriateness of voyeurism; and ultimately, his parents completely abdicate their responsibility to raise their child and leave him in the care of a stranger with, at most, a day or two’s warning.
At least one source I’ve found indicates that screenwriter Ian Stuart’s original script was explicit in its demonstration that Jamie had a developmental disorder, that The Pit was intended to be “an earnest exploration of the inner life of an autistic child” and that “[the] tra-la-logs and the talking bear were all products of Jaime’s mind, and his perversions were mostly interior.” Although no one in the film talks about neurological atypicality vis-a-vis their relationship to socialization issues (other than Sandy’s oblique references to working with “exceptional children”), after having worked in education, the signs that Jamie is on the spectrum were apparent to me in my reading of the film. With this in mind, he clearly has parents who are completely unprepared, ill-equipped, and unwilling to do the hard work of raising a special needs child. It doesn’t make his actions forgivable (in particular, the peeping at poor Marg under the threat of proxy violence is completely inexcusable and the most nauseating thing in the whole film), but I see the reactions of the adults in his life to his actions as making them complicit in the escalation of his behavior. To loop back around to CC’s question, I wouldn’t say that the film is “horror” per se, but it does effectively demonstrate the disturbing way that children with disabilities are often abused and neglected. The Arc, an organization that was originally created to assist people neurologically atypical individuals in finding legal recourse against institutions that denied services to them, reports that one in three children with autism or some other kind of mental impairment will experience abuse in their lifetimes (although they indicate that there’s insufficient study data to confirm all of their findings, and they do not differentiate between abuse by parents and other entities like caregivers or teachers).
Any properly socially aware person can see that the sexist, unequal treatment of male and female children and the cultivation of a “boys will be boys” mentality that denigrates the lived experience of women contribute to a society in which someone like Brett Kavanaugh can come within spitting distance of a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land while his accusers are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence. The difference is that at the time of his (“alleged”) infractions, the older and neurotypical Kavanaugh was mentally competent to take responsibility for his actions, while Jamie is (arguably) an autistic child whose need for specialized care is neglected by his parents and who is ostracized and isolated by his community. His curiosity about sexuality combined with his punishment for having said curiosity, devoid of any kind of education about why his actions are inappropriate and reprehensible and how they can be expressed more healthily, turns him into a ticking time bomb of perversion (and worse). To me, this is a movie about the horrors of abuse, neglect, complicity, and the failure of communities (on the familial and societal level) to take responsibility to teach young men about consent, assault, bodily autonomy, boundaries, and respect. The true horror of The Pit is that it acts as a mirror of society and shows us how rape culture can be perpetuated: “This is how you get Jamies. This is how you get Kavanaughs. This is how you get Brock Turners.” The only difference is that Jamie (again, arguably, given that nothing is ever made explicit about his neurological state) lacks the mental faculties to meditate on his toxic ideologies and change them without some kind of guidance, which he is denied at every turn.
Brandon, bearing in mind that the screenwriter originally intended to make Jamie’s autism explicit, and that this was one of the many changes made by the studio between conception and release, do you see any of that implied on screen, or am I giving the film too much credit? Does it affect your feelings about Jamie? Is the “Hollywoodifying” of the script (like making the bear’s possession and the existence of the tra-la-logs explicitly real on top of dropping Jamie’s disorder) something that you observe as a continuing problem in the film industry (i.e., are there any recent films in which the “seams” between the original intent and the finished product are so obvious)?
Brandon: The thoughtful child-psychology drama you’re describing is clearly detectable early in The Pit, but it’s something that gets muddled the more the film indulges in the schlocky horrors offered by the tra-la-logs, the telepathic teddy bear, and Jamie’s weaponized libido. To note a particular way that dynamic changes, consider the shifting implications of how Jamie’s relationship with his parents tracks from beginning to end. When Jamie’s just a sexually confused, mentally disturbed young boy who can’t differentiate between reality & fantasy, his parents come across as abusive brutes, ill-quipped to properly raise a child with special needs (or any child at all, really). Later, when the horrors of the film are made explicitly real and Jamie is demonstrated to be a cold-hearted, perverted killer who takes orders from a demonic toy and feeds (mostly undeserving) victims to his pet troglodytes, that parent-child dynamic shifts dramatically. The threats of physical violence, reports of inappropriate bath time scrubbing, and eagerness to delegate responsibility for the little creep to unsuspecting babysitters are still disturbing on their own merit, but they can easily be read as desperate, last-ditch efforts from parents frustrated by & fearful of a murderous, horned-up monster child. Any credibility The Pit might have had as a sincere inner-life portrait of a troubled child on the spectrum is lost as soon as magic is shown to be real & Jamie starts deploying it against his enemies . . . but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing.
On some level, I recognize that an intellectual, measured approach to Jamie’s dysfunctional psychology would likely be the more ethical path for The Pit to take, but as an appreciator of shameless, bonkers genre films, I’m honestly deeply appreciative that the original script underwent the “Hollywoodization” process instead. I’ve seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to thoughtfully capture the imagination & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a teddy bear. It was 2009’s unintentionally terrifying curio Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended what-the-fuck factor (thanks largely to being covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast) – the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous treats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s-good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. The Hollywoodization of The Pit is partially what saves it from being an embarrassment. As an audience, we’ve practically been trained to expect the restrained “It was all in Jamie’s head” reveal from the original script, which is what makes touches like the teddy bear’s unexplained anthropomorphism or the tra-la-logs’ third act escape from the titular pit such mind-blowing developments. The producers may have pushed for an intellectually hollower effect with those changes, but it feels like they’re breaking unspoken storytelling rules as a result, and the film feels like something much wilder than the Gooby precursor it easily could have been (considering its production value & quality of dialogue).
Because of the types of films I’m most typically drawn to (“messy,” over-the-top, “style over substance” genre fare), I more often run into unintentionally implied messages & themes rather than ones that have been erased or diluted in production. Sometimes, these unintended messages can be delightfully absurd, such as how Juame Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror film Orphan makes adopting a child appear to be a dangerous terror or how the 1989 fantasy comedy Teen Witch encourages young women to ditch their loyal best friends for easy popularity without there being fallout or consequence. Sometimes, the result is shockingly offensive, such as how the 2016 horror Lights Out encourages parents with depression to heroically commit suicide to spare their children of the burden or how this year’s G-rated talking-animal comedy Show Dogs groomed children to be accepting of sexual molestation (before appropriate outrage had that underlying theme removed from the film while it was still in theaters). Whether delightful or abhorrent, I always find this kind of unintentional messaging in cheapo cinema to be fascinating, even more so than tracking the ways a screenwriter’s original intent was diluted on its way to the screen. As such, I find myself scratching my head over what the completed, explicitly supernatural version of The Pit is saying about Jamie & childhood psychology more than I am fretting over what may have been lost from its first draft on the page. The final version of the story isn’t saying much (if anything) substantial about children on the spectrum, but it’s loudly ranting about something, however incoherent.
Britnee, what moral or message are you getting from The Pit as a completed work, if any? What is the film ultimately saying about Jamie & childhood psychology?
Britnee: If there is any moral message that I got from The Pit, it’s “You can’t be a little shit without being punished.” I saw Jamie as a terror of a child who ran around terrorizing people for sheer pleasure and killing people who got in his way or did him “wrong.” The more harassing and killing he did, the more I hoped that he would be punished for his actions in some way, which in the end, he did. Not once did I think about what was causing him to be so horrible. I just assumed he was pure evil. Now that it’s been a while since I initially watched the film and I’ve read Boomer’s take on Jamie’s character, I definitely see how Jamie was a victim of abuse and neglect. For instance, when I watched the bathtub scene, I thought he was acting like a perv and manipulating Sandy into the bathing him for sexual pleasure. My dislike for his character made me disregard his cries for help when he told her about how his mom bathed him hardcore even when he’s not dirty. While Sandy seemed concerned after hearing this, she did nothing. Sandy was really the only person he seemed to trust (he even told her the tra-la-log secret!) and she failed him. So between Sandy and his neglectful parents, he really didn’t have anyone to guide him in the right direction and get him the help he desperately needed.
In regards to childhood psychology, the film may be trying to say, “Hey, if you have a disturbed kid like Jamie, pay attention to their abnormal behavior and get them help before they do some serious damage.” It’s possible that Jamie would’ve had a chance if his parents would have brought him to a therapist or psychiatrist instead of ignoring him, hoping the problem would just go away on its own. All that being said, I still really hate him, but I sort of understand why he’s such a terrible human being.
Britnee: I usually don’t do any prior research for Movie of the Month choices before watching the films, but I did a quick Google Image search for The Pit because it sounded like a movie I watched as a teenager. The movie I was thinking of was 1987’s The Gate, which is about a group of kids that unleash demons from a hole in their backyard. I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.
Brandon: The Canuxploitation factor of The Pit, combined with its Wisconsin shooting locale, is undeniably part of its value as a curiosity. There’s a whole outsider-artist industry of regional genre cinema out there that rarely reaches wide distribution or acclaim, but can be fascinating in its creative dissonance with routine Hollywood filmmaking. To that point, I accidentally spoiled myself on some of the film’s stranger touches when I recently watched Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel for an unrelated viewing project. Farley himself is an outsider, regional artist who makes backyard movies with friends & family in New England, far from The Pit’s Wisconsin locales. He must see a kindred spirit in The Pit’s aggressively local aesthetic, though, as Sammy is – unbelievably – a feature-length homage/spoof of this little seen cult classic, set in Farley’s Massachusetts haunts.
As strange & highly specific as The Pit can be, there’s an entire world of regional cinema weirdos out there producing curios just like it for barely existent audiences (and in the case of Sammy, I mean just like it). As an amateur, localized film critic with a deliberately D.I.Y. blogging aesthetic, I find that pocket of outsider filmmaking to be inspiring, if not outright heroic.
CC: I’m a big fan of films where children are put in danger (like The Goonies, The Monster Squad, or even The Nice Guys) so a film where children are both in danger and the source of the danger are really enjoyable for me. I’m glad my co-writers were also able to have fun with this weird gem.
Boomer: Super grateful that CC brought this gem to the table. I’d like to apologize for any lack of clarity on my part with regards to Jamie’s monstrosity and if it appeared I was trying to completely deflect responsibility for his behavior onto the myriad of (mostly bad) adult caretakers and gatekeepers in his life. I’d also like to forewarn any interested parties that, should you find this film on YouTube, although it will at first appear that it’s been mangled in some way and starting in the middle, but no, that’s just the way that it is.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Brandon presents Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018
-The Swampflix Crew
Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means many cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (and the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!
Art House Horror
If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.
Hereditary (2018) – “I wasn’t in ‘critical film theory’ mode while watching Hereditary. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension; I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.”
Mandy (2018) – “Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.”
Double Lover (2018) – “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.”
Annihilation (2018) – “As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). That’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth, Garland changes the theme of the novel from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level.”
Good Manners (2018) – “On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.”
Shock Corridor (1963) – “Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.”
The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. Here are some above-average horror films that have shrewdly exploited that modern world mystique for eerie scares.
Suicide Club (2002) – “Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the Internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell.”
Perfect Blue (1997) – “Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.”
Unfriended (2015) – “I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.”
Assassination Nation (2018) – “Besides maybe Revenge, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film match the extremity of its gender politics exploration this year, something that feels just as necessary & cathartic as it is unsettling. It’s a topic that’s now inextricable from the tones & tactics of modern life online, something the film was smart to recognize & tackle head-on. Its overall spirit is prankish & prone to bleak humor, but Assassination Nation is less of a comedy than it is a violent uprooting of cultural misogyny & sexual repression in the Internet Age.”
Truth or Dare? (2018) – “As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer ‘Truth or dare?’ their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, ‘It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.'”
A literary-minded horror subgenre that’s sadly grown out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but still one with a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit “alive.”
Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) – “Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name.”
Beast (2018) – “There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core (sold wonderfully by actors Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn) and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make the films feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake.”
Marrowbone (2018) – “Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped.”
Mainstream and Traditional Horror
It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.
The First Purge (2018) – “There’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times.”
The Strangers (2008) – When asked, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ the masked assailants only answer, ‘Because you were home,’ a response so succinctly chilling it was eventually marketed as a tagline. That just-because ethos is a powerful source of terror that largely substitutes any need for a fully-developed plot. Likewise, the look of the killers’ masks is distinctly memorable enough on its own to fill in any void left by their oppressively sparse dialogue. The Strangers dwells in the terror of negative space and the absence of intent, a much more satisfactory source of scares than what’s usually achieved with the home invasion template.”
Jennifer’s Body (2009) – “The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty. That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of the film; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position. It’s what makes Jennifer’s Body unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.”
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – “As an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd.”
A Quiet Place (2018) – “Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.”
Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies categorization. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in entirely unexpected ways.
Lair of the White Worm (1988) – “The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).”
Upgrade (2018) – “Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.
Unsane (2018) – “Like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position.”
The Children (2008) – “Kids can be cute, but they’re also a nuisance & a terror to anyone who’s looking to have a quiet moment of relief from familial stress. The 2008 British horror cheapie The Children understands that terror deep in its bones and builds its entire story around the evil & the chaos screaming children bring into the already stressful environment of a holiday get-together. It’s not one of the most tastefully considered or slickly produced Christmas-set horror films I’ve ever seen, but it does capture that exact kind of domestic, familial terror better than almost any film I can name, save maybe for The Babadook.”
Ghost Stories (2018) – “Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.”
Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.
The Fly II (1989) – “Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors.”
The Shape of Water (2017) – “Although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the ‘other’: a ‘commie,’ a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.”
The Untamed (2017) – “The Untamed adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to ‘elevated horrors’ of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually penetrates human beings with its tentacles. The film alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) – “The story is familiar, but flows incredibly naturally from scene to scene with an editing room finesse atypical of this genre territory. The special effects also feel above par for the material, from the head-to-toe detail of the rubber monster suits to the distorted faces of the lighting strikes to the weaponized fog the creatures deploy when abducting their victims. All the surface level narrative details of I Married a Monster from Outer Space are exactly what you’d expect from its title; the attention to detail in its craft just happens to be a cut above.”
Blue My Mind (2018) – “If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.”
The Giant Claw (1957) – “The Giant Claw is a perfect little B-movie gem, an efficient reminder of why throwaway genre trash from half a century ago is still worth digging through. Its creature design is hideous, its dialogue is inane, and its lofty sci-fi ideas aren’t worth even the paper they’re scribbled on, but The Giant Claw is the rare discarded horror schlock that achieves a kind of sublime stupidity that can’t easily be found in its peers.”
Matt Farley’s Backyard Horrors
A microbudget filmmaker who’s been making Roger Corman-style rubber-suit monster movies with friends in New England for decades to little fanfare, despite churning out consistently endearing horror comedies.
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) – “The real centerpiece of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is not any of its monster attacks in the woods, but rather a lengthy wedding sequence staged in a backyard that starts with a petty argument over potato casserole and ends in a minutes-long dance party. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is at its core a hangout film, in that it’s a document of friends hanging out & staging gags around the non-existent legend of a non-existent monster & the public triumph of the one man who believed it to be real. It’s the story of Matt Farley’s miniature media kingdom in a microcosm, as it’s the story of a man possessed by a singular obsession finding himself at odds with a world that could not care less.”
Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2010) – “The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Matt Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about ‘good natured, harmless pranks’ guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with ‘teen’ romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand.”
Druid Gladiator Clone (2002) – “A series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed ‘cloaks’ (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.”
If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, often intentionally. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.
Death Spa (1989) – “The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.”
Serial Mom (1994) – “There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in Serial Mom (that ‘pussywillow’ scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.”
Blood Bath (1966) – “You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.”
All About Evil (2010) – “All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of director Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.”
She’s Allergic to Cats (2017) – “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”
Mom and Dad (2018) – “Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey;’ stay for the pitch-black humor about ‘successful’ adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.”
Every link listed above is for a review we’ve posted on the site. If you’re looking for lists or articles from our horror tag instead, check out our Boomer’s Favorite Horrors by Decade lists, Brandon’s attempt to define the term “A24 horror,” and CC’s comparison of Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm adaptation to its Bram Stoker source material.
-The Swampflix Crew