Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mammas Mia! & Burlesque (2010)

Welcome to Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-first episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the jukebox musicals that comprise the most recent two film-acting credits from the ever-fabulous Cher: Burlesque (2010) & the Mamma Mia! franchise. Enjoy!

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– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Deadly Weapons (1974)

threehalfstar

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The soundtrack may have gotten a little more psychedelic, the blood may have gotten a little more colorful, and the breasts may have gotten much, much larger, but not much else seemed to have changed for producer/director Doris Wishman in the decade between her by the books roughie Another Day, Another Man and her “erotic” crime thriller Deadly Weapons. Doris Wishman’s weirdly casual approach to sex & violence in her exploitation work remained entirely lateral in terms of filmmaking quality and it’s pretty impressive in its own way that a filmmaker two decades into her career managed to make something as genuinely amateurish and, frankly, as punk as Deadly Weapons. A crime thriller in which famed burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan (billed in-film as Zsa Zsa) assassinates mafia types by smothering them with her gigantic breasts, Deadly Weapons certainly pulls more weight as an odd curiosity than Wishman’s era-appropriate 1960s roughies. It’s no different than these films in terms of craft or tone, though, except that it readily provides the naked breasts her roughies would only tease (unlike her early nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon). In fact, like a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a single sitting, Deadly Weapons confronts the audience with so many shots of large, naked breasts it often feels as if you’re about to choke on them & die, like so many dirtbag mobster goons.

Chesty Morgan stars as a successful advertising executive (or so we’re told) who is dragged into a life of crime when her boyfriend runs afoul of some mafia types. Stupidly blackmailing the mob with a stolen hit list, the boyfriend is promptly murdered in his own apartment (which looks suspiciously like the apartment from Another Day, Another Man) while the buxom ad exec listens in horror on the other end of the phone. Luckily for her, the gangsters hang out long enough after the hit to loudly & clearly discuss what hotel they’ll be hiding out in until the police investigation of the murder cools off. Armed with all the information she needs to track them down, the ad exec poses undercover as a burlesque dancer (go figure) at a nightclub near the Las Vegas hotel where her boyfriends’ killers will be staying. Easily seducing the men individually, she ceremonially slips knock-out pills into their wine glasses (after making a big show of it for the camera) and, once they’re dazed, smothers them to death with her cartoonishly large breasts. After fully enacting her revenge for her lover’s murder, she returns home from Vegas to encounter a Shyamalan-level plot twist on who was truly responsible for the initial crime. This revelation drives the story home to an ending befitting of a Shakespearean tragedy: bodies strewn about the stage, laying in pools of their own blood & the stench of betrayed trust. It’s all very silly.

Although Deadly Weapons is obviously remarkable for the novelty of its breasts-as-weapons premise, it’s worth noting that those kills don’t occur until over 50 minutes into the film’s 70min runtime. Worse yet, our killer burlesque dancer only dispenses of two mobsters this way – one per boob. Those two kills are highly entertaining as oddities, though, especially in the soundtrack that accompanies them. As the gangster meanies suffocate on Chesty Morgan’s plentiful tit flesh, a nightmarish cacophony of wailing guitars, animal roars, and grotesque, masculine grunts overpower the film’s audio. Meanwhile, Chesty Morgan herself looks nearly orgasmic in these moments, giving off the embarrassing cross-eyed, empty stare people usually save for sexual congress. What saves the film from tedium before these third act kills, however, is the fact that Morgan’s superhuman rack is a sight to behold even when it’s not being employed as a murder weapon. There’s nothing especially erotic about watching Morgan take a bubble bath or somehow squeeze herself into a t-shirt, but those simple tasks are oddly compelling as an audience due to her . . . unique proportions. Even in a scene when she’s just wistfully staring out a window, admiring a ring her boyfriend gifted her, her breasts fill almost the entire frame, suffocating any potential focus on anything else onscreen.

Psychedelia + Giant Breasts is certainly a formula that’s been exploited onscreen before; just think to Roger Ebert & Russ Meyer’s collaborative trashterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Deadly Weapons boasts neither the manic energy nor the absurdist dialogue of Dolls, though, and its own appeal as a vintage curiosity is based in something much more laidback & misshapen. Wishman’s erotica is never exactly erotic; her violence is never truly shocking. Her fetishistic focus on unerotic details like ashtrays, dime store pantyhose, plastic-covered couches, and pills hidden in cleavage are the visual equivalent of a cold shower for anyone potentially turned on by Chesty Morgan’s physique. The film’s bloodiest fit of violence, a multiple stab wound incident in a stairwell, is similarly undercut by a disorienting trip down multiple, identical flights of stairs and the fakest-looking (but apparently very real) mustache I’ve ever seen, sported by hardcore porn performer Harry Reems. It’d be easy to pick on Deadly Weapons for its blatant use of stock footage, its continuity errors during a poorly staged strangling, its awkward moments when cameramen are bumped into or set lights are mistakenly exposed, the nausea-inducing green & purple tints of its impressively shitty film transfers, etc. However, that kind of nitpicking entirely misses the basic appeal of the novelty of this Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a combo that would later reunite for Double Agent 73).

There’s a candid, proto-punk amateurism to Deadly Weapons that tops even its killer-tits premise in terms of basic ridiculousness. It’s rare that this grade of schlock is so inherently fascinating just in its basic existence, although plenty of films have certainly tried to pull off that very trick. Wishman is undeniably a filmmaker all of her own, a distinction that can either annoy or delight you depending on things like how interested you’d be to watch a film about a pair of killer breasts & how willing you’d be to settle for one kill per tit.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

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I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Mondo Topless (1966)

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fourstar

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With his first six films, Russ Meyer pioneered & eventually mastered what is now known as “the nudie cutie”, an antiquated genre that is exactly what it sounds like: a cutesy comedy featuring nude models. His first feature, The Immoral Mr. Teas, is cited as the very first example of the “nudie cutie” and, following a few Teas-imitating stinkers, his final film in the genre, Heavenly Bodies!, proved to be a finely-tuned, navel-gazing example of the limits of what the format could accomplish. The next phase of his career was a series of black & white “roughies”, a collection of crudely violent crime pictures that were about as far from the word “cutie” that the director could possibly get. Again, that phase saw some highs & lows for the director, including the irredeemably vile Motorpsycho! & the indisputable crown jewel of the “roughie” genre, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. For his followup to Faster, Pussycat!, Meyer deviously combined the “nudie cutie” & “roughie” aesthetics into a single, incomprehensible picture, Mondo Topless. Mondo Topless is the cinematic equivalent of a child being forced to smoke an entire pack after failing to sneak a single cigarette. Meyer effectively asks his audience, “You want breasts? Here’s more than you could possibly handle. Choke on them.” The resulting film is an overwhelming assault on the senses, featuring an ungodly chaotic jumble of topless go-go dancing & non sequitur narration. If it were any longer than an hour, it’d be unwatchable. As is, it’s a oddly engaging spectacle of pure madness, one that summarized the full extent of what Meyer had accomplished at that time in his career.

One consistent feature of Meyer’s nudie cutie work is the non sequitur ramblings of an offscreen narrator, often delivered with the blank expression of an industrial film. Like with everything else it delivers, Mondo Topless adds a barely digestible layer of aggression to this Meyer trope. The narrator, John Furlong (who worked on several Meyer features, including Mudhoney & Common Law Cabin), delivers his relentless monologues in a near shout, backing the audience into a corner as the screen is overloaded with go-go dancers doing their thing. He starts by describing an especially salacious view of San Francisco, a city that reportedly “thrusts itself into the bosom of the Pacific” with the “bulging peaks & deep canyons” of its landscape, its trollies “digesting & disgorging humanity at will”, and structures that “thrust their bulk majestically toward the sky.” The rapidfire montage of this opening segment features a nude woman maniacally driving through the Bay Area intercut with images of the skyscrapers, ads, automobiles, and dancing naked women that make up Russ Meyer’s America. In a fit of shameless self-promotion our aggressive narrator promises an expose on the artform of “the topless”, “the phrase & the craze that is changing the mood & the morays of people everywhere […] Here, go-go girls in & out of their environment will be revealed to you in scenes that can only be summarized as a swinging tribute to unrestrained female anatomy. Mondo Topless is believably real in Eastman color. But ‘unbelievable’ just barely describes all of Russ Meyer’s discotheque discoveries: fantastic women, fantastic dances, featuring the world’s loveliest buxotics. You only dreamed there were women like these until now. But they’re real! Unbelievably real!” It’s an onslaught that makes you so dizzy you could puke.

The rest of the film’s dialogue is provided by the dancers themselves. As they answer interview questions that were not included to provide context, performers with names like Donna X & Babette Bardot dance frenetically while making strangely disconnected statements like “I used to play cello in a symphony orchestra when I was 13,” & “All you’re doing is a dance, it has no meaning whatsoever.” The range of topics covered in these “interviews” are as disparate as women’s sexual autonomy to the freedom of not wearing a bra to bed. The narrator only occasionally interjects to literally dare you to focus on what the dancers have to say as they’re violently shaking their bodies for your visual pleasure/motion sickness. When he shouts at you to “sit back!”, “relax!”, or “enjoy!” what the women have to offer it takes immense emotional fortitude to not shout back “Okay! I’ll try! Stop yelling at me!” There’s a very small amount of variety to be found within the film, mainly in the different styles of the featured dancers & the locations where they’re filmed (a rocky beach, near a passing train, underwater, in a mud puddle, etc.), but otherwise Mondo Topless is aggressively one-note: gorgeous women dance topless to portable radios & tape players at a maddening pace that never once pumps the brakes so the audience can catch its breath.

There’s a little bit of cultural context that makes Mondo Topless significant as a historical document, but there’s no way that it can be mistaken for a documentary. It only makes the slightest differentiations between “the erotic” dances of the past & “the topless” dancing (aka go-go dancing) that reportedly started in San Francisco. Erotic dances are supposedly built on the tease of the reveal & use of obscuring objects like pasties, where as topless go-go dancing is an all-out “burst of inhibited frenzy.” Mondo Topless does its best to recreate this feeling of frenzy in its relentless pace, intentionally distancing itself from Meyer’s burlesque nudie cutie past despite re-purposing the exact footage of what seemed to be every single dance from Europe in the Raw in its short runtime. Meyer also takes multiple breaks to pat himself on the back for his own accomplishments, like in an interview with Lorna Maitland, star of his film (duh) Lorna. The narrator brags, “Without artistic surrender, without compromise, without question or apology, an important motion picture was produced: Lorna: A Woman Too Much for One Man.” Maitland then goes on to speculate about her boundless future as an actress, tellingly only describing & showing footage only from the exact two scenes of the film I found worthwhile in my initial review.

Otherwise, Mondo Topless makes no attempt to pretend to be anything more than it is: an overwhelmingly aggressive hour of frenzied go-go dancing, Meyer’s bizarre editing style (that would later reach its apex in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and disorienting, besides the point dialogue that only added confusion & obscurity to the proceedings. But, why should I attempt to describe the overall effect of the Mondo Topless to you when the film was content to review itself in its final monologue? It concludes, “Well, Mondo Topless measures up. The unmistakable Russ Meyer touch makes this more than a gang of great gals. It makes it move. We sincerely hope you enjoyed the flick.” Indeed.

-Brandon Ledet