Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.

You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.

A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt (1999)

Albert Pyun is one of those under-the-radar schlockteurs of the direct-to-VHS and early-VOD eras who churns out dozens & dozens of low-profile genre pics at an alarming rate without drawing too much attention to himself. Chances are that if you’ve seen an Albert Pyun film it wasn’t on purpose, but rather a statistical inevitability since he’s made so many sci-fi & crime film cheapies that you were bound to stumble into one of them eventually. For instance, I recently picked up a $1 used DVD copy of Pyun’s “urban” crime film Corrupt because it featured New Orleans rapper Silkk the Shocker on the cover, who I couldn’t recall ever having seen in a proper feature film before. I still haven’t. Part of Albert Pyun’s “Urban Trilogy” (alongside the Snoop Dogg vehicles Urban Menace & The Wrecking Crew), Corrupt is indeed Silkk the Shocker’s feature film debut as an actor, but only on a technicality. Shot in early-digital’s cheapo days (and trying to pass off the Czech Republic as New York City), this film is a very slight 69min that just barely holds itself together long enough to qualify as a movie. Silkk The Shocker also fades into the background for long stretches so that his costar, Ice-T, winds up claiming the most screentime (despite being the antagonist). This is an Ice-T movie that Silkk The Shocker just happens to pass through from time to time, but my purchase of the film under a mistaken pretense of what I was getting into is fairly typical to the quantity-over-quality M.O. for Pyun in general, so I was amused by the bait and switch.

While the title might signal that this is a thriller about crooked cops, it turns out Corrupt is the name of Ice-T’s character, not a descriptor of his persona. The controversial-rapper-turned-network-television-star appears here as the exact kind of criminal dirtbag he now pursues weekly as a fictional police detective on Law & Order: SVU. A drug kingpin with a hot temper, Corrupt threatens to implode an ongoing truce between NYC gangs because he cannot leave one particular brother-sister duo in his neighborhood alone – the brother (Silkk the Shocker) because he suspects him of stealing his drugs and the sister (Eva La Dare) because he wants to use his powerful street status to coerce her into bed. Silkk the Shocker occasionally runs across the screen to fire a gun in Ice-T’s general direction but most of Corrupt is concerned with that latter conflict with the sister. This is a shockingly dialogue-heavy picture about sexual coercion & rape in organized street crime, amounting to more of a melodrama than a crime thriller. A few disorienting smash-cut establishing-shot montages attempt to convince the audience that we’re watching a New York story, but most of the film is confined to single-location indoor scenes in the warehouses & diners of Bratislava, so that the film feels like a morbid stage play wherein a gangster abuses his power to manipulate a woman who does not want to sleep with him into bed. It’s a much more somber, wordy picture than you’d expect given its early-digi crime cheapie pedigree, which is the exact kind of expectation vs. reality dissonance that typifies Albert Pyun’s career.

Since the novelty of a Silkk the Shocker movie is minimalized along with the local rapper’s screentime, there are exactly two reasons why anyone should ever seek out Corrupt on purpose. The first is that its DVD (as well as the only version of the film uploaded to YouTube, appropriately) includes an amazingly disrespectful commentary track from Ice-T. Bored in the recording booth, Ice-T mercilessly riffs on the film in an MST3k tradition as if under the (understandable) assumption that no one would ever possibly be listening. He makes fun of the cheapness of Albert Pyun’s catalog in general, and jokes about how he only did a Pyun film because he’s been “blackballed from real movies” (this was before his TV career took off). He even makes fun of the audience for having purchased the DVD in the first place, much less played his commentary track, reasoning “You’re a loser with too much time on your hands.” (Fair point, no lies detected.) On the off chance that you’re actually interested in the production details for Corrupt, he does ease off these self-deprecating bon mots for insights like his complaint that “There was no place to shit” on set, so the crew would have to “hold it in the whole day.” It’s amazing. The second reason the film is potentially worth seeking out is that it features a scene in which Ice-T self-emulates with impossibly cheap CG-fire effects in order to dispose of his enemies (his mechanism for surviving the burns himself being too convoluted to be worth explaining). The image is so cheaply done that it approaches an art-film surreality that gives me hope there are other sublimely absurdist moments awaiting me the next time I accidentally stumble into an Albert Pyun film. It’s still a moment I’d recommend enhancing with Ice-T’s commentary track for peak effectiveness, though.

Since purchasing this film, one of my favorite modern critics (Justin Decloux of Film Trap and the Important Cinema Club podcast) has published an entire book of critical essays exploring the appeal of Albert Pyun as a filmmaker, titled Radioactive Dreams. Maybe after reading that collection I’ll be better equipped in purposefully seeking out Pyun films for pleasure instead of stumbling across them in confusion. One thing will not change though: Corrupt will still hold less value as a Silkk the Shocker vehicle (despite him being featured prominently on the poster) than it does as a showcase for Ice-T – as an actor as well as a raconteur (in his no-fucks-given commentary track) and a rapper (Ice-T songs play almost continually throughout the film with his vocals alarmingly high in the mix). I guess I’m going to have to seek out my Silkk the Shocker fix in his next film credit after Corrupt, Hot Boyz, which was apparently produced & directed by his brother Master P.

-Brandon Ledet

Masked Mutilator (2019)

Masked Mutilator checks off a suspiciously high number of my personal-interest boxes for a project that seemingly materialized out of thin air. A no-budget backyard slasher cheapie about mid-90s pro wrestlers and late-2010s podcasting? I’m not sure I didn’t conjure this movie into existence in the middle of a powerful dream, since it’s essentially a jumbled collection of nouns that rattle around in my brain all day anyway. All that’s really missing is a few drag queens & a Xiu Xiu soundtrack. The truth is, though, that the film has been gestating for 25 long years before finally being completed in 2019, so its out-of-thin-air mystique is a total illusion. Initially filmed on 16mm in the mid-90s and eventually bookended with a digital-age frame story in the 2010s (thanks to crowdfunding via IndieGoGo), Masked Mutilator is a fairly typical backyard horror cheapie that’s only made worth discussion because it’s been dislodged from its place in time. There’s almost no way the movie would be half as fascinating if it weren’t for its bizarre multi-decade production “schedule,” and even then it’s not all that remarkable. This is basically Shirkers for Idiots (like me). There’s no denying it has a great hook in its premise and an interesting context as a recovered object, but it’s terminally inessential.

The modern digi-grade frame story involves, as all masterpieces of Le Cinéma do, a podcast recording. Survivors of a fictional 1990s tragedy guest on a true-crime podcast about “Group Home Killings,” recalling the hyper-specific talk radio program “Why Do Boys Kill Their Mothers?” in Psycho IV. This setup is a convenient contextualization of the 16mm footage to follow, which makes up a bulk of the slight 76min runtime. While the podcast conversation stokes gravely serious topics surrounding the abuse of vulnerable teens in group homes, it comes to little surprise that the no-budget slasher plot it’s setting up in flashbacks doesn’t explore these times with any genuine concern or curiosity. An ex-luchador who was blacklisted from his industry for killing an opponent in the ring resurfaces as an unlikely counselor in a group home for teens. His violent past makes him the prime suspect when the teens under his care are picked off one by one at the hands of a muscly killer who wears his old wrestling gear, with his luchador mask now functioning as an executioner’s hood. The mutilated teens are too generic to especially care about (defined by such personality traits as Heavy Metal, Nunchucks, and Horny). The gore is too cheap to be gruesome and too restrained to be fun (despite the film being an early credit for SFX television personality Glenn Hedrick). The identity of the true killer is embarrassingly obvious long before its reveal. The only remarkable aspect of the picture, then, is that it exists – which truly is a feat for any film, to be fair. Movies are hard to make, especially when you’re just hanging around the living room with your friends (as appears to be the case in this instance).

I likely would have been able to overlook the low-energy aimlessness of this doomed project if I had been familiar with the pro wrestlers involved in its production. Brick Bronksy, Jim “The Tank” Dorsey, and Doug Yasinsky weren’t anywhere near my radar despite their involvement with massive promotions like WWF in their heyday. Even so, I was still amused to see these gigantic muscly men crammed into the tiny kitchens & living rooms of this group home location. I also appreciated that the kills were somewhat wrestling-specific, as the luchador executioner character crushes & punches his teen victims to death with brute force (before chopping them up for the incinerator in the film’s sparse moments of genuine gore). With some recognizable pro wrestling personalities, some Matt Farley-level joke writing, and slightly more grotesque violence, this might have been an abandoned relic turned cult classic. Instead, it’s only recommendable for the more hopeless fans of pro wrestling & no-budget slashers, total goners (like myself) who’d have no self-control to avoid it based on the luchador-horror premise – if not going as far as having donated to its crowdfunding campaign to complete it in the fist place. I was never especially thrilled by this recovered artifact from minute to minute, but I still maintained a “Good for them!” attitude towards the filmmakers throughout for having finally completed it, especially since their niche interests apparently overlap so extensively with my own.

-Brandon Ledet

Eraser (1996)

One of my all-time favorite movie subgenres is the The Internet is Trying to Kill Us thriller, in which mundane online user-interface tech is transformed into a horrific menace that’s aiming to destroy us all. The genre was still in its infancy in the mid-90s at a time when The Internet was just starting to invade our homes, which gave early specimens like The Net a growing-pains conundrum on how to translate online imagery & lingo into traditional studio thriller beats. As a result, that film spends a lot of time following Sandra Bullock around irl as baddies erase her identity online – a compromise between the cyberthriller and the traditional action film (as opposed to more recent, fully-immersed Internet Thrillers like Unfriended). Looking back on the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser now, over two decades after its release, it’s a film that feels equally paranoid about the advancement of 90s computer tech and the flimsiness of personal identity in the Information Age as The Net, but it makes even less of an effort to translate that Luddite unease into new cinematic language. Eraser turns the fears surrounding computer tech’s intrusion into American homes into a villainous threat by manifesting it as a big scary future-gun. It’s the most direct, literal approach to the topic possible, and it’s charmingly boneheaded as a result.

The future-gun in Eraser doesn’t shoot bullets, but rather electromagnetic impulses. Its viewfinder display is designed like the sickly green MS DOS grids that decorated far too many cyberthrillers in the 90s, most notably The Matrix. Instead of merely offering the gun operator night vision, this feature allows them to see through walls & bodies like a digital X-ray machine. The gun is designed for military use (and, naturally, falls into the hands of international terrorists), but it’s almost exclusively deployed in domestic settings throughout the film. Characters who threaten to expose the government’s mishandling of the gun’s development and sale are shot at with “electromagnetic impulses” through the walls of their own homes in the Washington D.C. suburbs, so that computerized technology is literally invading their domestic spaces to destroy therm. Vanessa Williams stars as a military-weapons detractor who steals the designs for this future-gun on a miniature CDR, so she is pursued for the disc in the exact way Bullock is pursued for her own forbidden floppy disc in The Net. The only difference here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is heroic for erasing her identity online as a way of protecting her as a witness. The tagline even boasts, “He will erase your past to protect your future.” Sill, the flimsiness of identity in the digital age is a premise the film banks on to hook the audience, and the film shares a lot of thematic & aesthetic preoccupations with The Net even if it replaces the ethereal qualities of The Internet with a physical “electromagnetic” gun.

Eraser only has one foot in the future of Internet Age techno thrillers. Everything about the film besides the future-gun and the erasure of online identity records is very much rooted in the familiar tropes & imagery of the Schwarzenegger action canon. The film opens with a suiting-up montage (one of many) where Arnold loads down his muscly body with superfluous weaponry. He dresses in almost the exact leather jacket outfits he already self-parodied himself for in The Last Action Hero four years prior. Every time he enters the frame he’s accompanied by guitar-solo theme music announcing his heroism. Most dialogue consists of 90s-era action movie one-liners as Schwarzenegger goes about the business of saving the world from terrorists & cyberguns, including the title-riffing quip “Smile. You’ve just been erased.” Within this familiar framework, Eraser can only stand out on the strength of its individual set pieces, of which ether are two absolute stunners: one where Arnie jumps out of an airplane without a parachute and one where he kills a room full of baddies by releasing CG alligators at the zoo. The gators sequence stuck with me in particular as a kid, being the only detail I vividly remembered about the film besides the cybergun. I was glad to confirm on revisit that the gator stunt is extensive, featuring far more CG chomping action than necessary to get its point across. If only they could’ve found a way to arm the gators with their own cyberguns to tie the sequence into the film’s larger themes of technophobia . . .

I wouldn’t vouch for Eraser’s excellence as an especially exceptional example of Arnold Schwarzenegger action cinema, nor as a clear early entry in the Evil Internet canon. The evil-clone movie The Sixth Day might even be a more calcified example of an Arnie film that directly engages with the technophobia of the early Internet Era. Still, there’s a kind of distinctly 90s anxiety about computerized technology invading suburban homes in Eraser that makes it just as fun of a dated watch as more explicitly Internet-dreading thrillers like The Net. Besides, it really does have some of the best gator-flavored mayhem you’re likely to see in a big budget action movie of its ilk, a novelty that cannot be undervalued.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Granny (2019)

Between the releases of Greta & Ma in recent months, it seems as if the psychobiddy genre might be making a quiet comeback in American movie theaters. It’s arguable, though, that the genre has been alive & well on our television sets for decades even without this theatrical-release revival, thanks to the melodramatic schlock regularly churned out on the Lifetime network. While the trope of once-respectable grande dames losing their minds & becoming crazed killers used to function as late-career revivals for aging stars as high on the food chain as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland, it’s since trickled down into made-for-cable schlock on Lifetime for sorta half-famous stars from long-forgotten soap operas & B-pictures. Few Lifetime Original Movies are as blatant about their participation in this hagsploitation tradition as Psycho Granny, which sidesteps the usual Lifetime method of hiding its exploitation cinema intentions behind titles like Wife, Mother, Murderer, by essentially just naming itself after the top Google result for “psycho biddy synonym.” Originally pitched under alternate titles like Lineage of Lies & Granny’s Home, Psycho Granny’s shamelessly honest moniker is a decisive affirmation that Lifetime has been keeping this sleazy tradition alive even in the decades when major studios have been slacking. And, just to drive the point home, it was aired as a double feature with another Lifetime Original titled Killer Grandma.

Just because Lifetime makes psychobiddy cheapies the most often doesn’t mean they make them best, though. At least, I don’t think you’ll find anything in Psycho Granny that wasn’t done to greater delight in Greta or Ma. Instead of world-class acting giants like Isabelle Huppert & Octavia Spencer slumming it in delirious genre trash unworthy of their talents, we’re treated to a typifying performance from Robin Riker, most “famous” for starring in the (badass, but underseen) creature feature relic Alligator nearly 40 year ago. Psycho Granny opens with its best scene, a camp tableau in which Riker toasts/berates the dead bodies of her “family” members arranged about the dining room table, all recently poisoned by her traditional, grandmotherly turkey dinner. The rest of the picture is standard Lifetime Movie fare: a trashy, low-energy thriller in which Riker’s delusional “grandmother” character elbows her way into a young, pregnant couple’s lives – convincing them that she’s actually family and not a sociopathic killer. Like in Ma, she scrapbooks relics from her crimes in a menacing tone. Like in Greta, the humor and the horror of the scenario derive from the moments when she drops her helpless-old-woman facade to reveal the monster underneath – usually in Gollum/Sméagol-style arguments with herself in the rearview mirror of her car. The effect of these common touches just comes across a little dulled here, as if they were business as usual for the Lifetime Original Movie format, not wild, delirious transgressions from actors who should know better.

Psycho Granny is mildly fun & incredibly sleazy in the way all Lifetime movies are. There are some delightfully absurdist details in Riker’s behavior (including a weird fixation on her newest granddaughter-victim’s toilet flushing habits) and an occasional line like “I would kill for a glass of Pinot right now!” that stand out as primo Lifetime fodder. The move also hits its most ideal strides once Riker starts killing again in the third act – disposing of her victims in specifically grandmotherly ways: strangling busybodies with the hanging tennis ball chord in the garage and bashing skulls in with whistling teapots. Where the movie really shines, though, is in having Riker’s “No more wire hangers!” trigger be Millennials sending too much time on their phones. The film is obsessed with young husbands & mothers being distracted from quality family time by “burying their faces in their phones,” so that when Riker chastises their smartphone addictions, she’s playing directly into the generational resentments of Lifetime’s aging, judgmental audience. It’s a detail that recalls not only the wire-hangers trigger from Mommie Dearest, but also the wearing-white-after-Labor-Day kill from Serial Mom and the chicken-beheading mania of (possibly the greatest psychobiddy of all time) Strait-Jacket, which I mean as the highest compliment. The film never threatens to match the heightened fever-pitch camp of those pinnacles of the genre, but it does help connect the dots between traditional psychobiddy tropes and the usual goings-on of the Lifetime network.

The only inkling I had that Psycho Granny may have achieved more than the usual Lifetime standard is that it was directed by Rebekah McKendry, co-host of the excellent Blumhouse horror podcast Shock Waves. McKendry promoted the film as a “darkly comedic thriller” on her own social media, and the opening turkey dinner tableau hints at that subversive impulse. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly standard Lifetime movie about an aging, smartphone-hating woman who’s gone headfirst off the deep end. Which is to say that it’s a three-star campy pleasure in the age-old psychobiddy tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Child’s Play (2019)

I honestly have no idea why Orion Pictures bothered slapping the Child’s Play brand name on this evil-doll horror comedy, beyond the easy box office returns of its name recognition and the fact that its parent company, MGM, owned the rights. With a quick redesign of the killer Chucky doll and a few nodding references to the original franchise removed, Child’s Play (2019) could easily transform from a deviant remake of a beloved genre relic into an entirely new evil-doll franchise of its own design. Protective, enthusiastic fans of the original Don Mancini series have been cautions to support this corporate retooling of the director’s work, since he’s built a long-running series of passionate, campy, queer horror novelties out of the bizarro slasher premise for decades (with Brad Dourif in tow as the voice of the killer doll for the entire run). I can see how outside voices dialing the Chucky brand back to its origins for a franchise-resetting remake could feel like a betrayal to longtime superfans (especially since series steward Mancini is still making films & television shows featuring Dourif’s version of Chucky to this day). For casual fans like me, however, this MGM-sponsored blasphemy is an exciting development in Chucky lore. This is the exact right way to pull off a worthwhile remake: return to the original germ of an idea, strip away everything else, and then build something so new around it that it’s hardly recognizable. The 2019 Child’s Play remake would have been much more upsetting to me if it were a mindless, risk-adverse retread of what Mancini had already accomplished. Thankfully, it’s instead entirely its own thing separate from Mancini’s work, the ideal template for a decades-later revision.

While the 2019 Child’s Play is a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. In addition to borrowing the Child’s Play brand name, this film also makes direct references to other titles in that exact inappropriate-kids’-horror-canon: The Texas Chain Massacre II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, RoboCop, etc. In that way, it reminds me more of what Charles Band accomplished with Full Moon Entertainment (which is overflowing with straight-to-VHS titles about killer dolls) than it does Mancini’s work under the Chucky brand. Like most of the Full Moon catalog, Child’s Play ’19 is a violent, R-Rated horror film that perversely feels like it was intended for an audience of children, which will have to sneak their way into a movie theater (or access to unsupervised late-night streaming) to enjoy it. That’s why I was bummed to see so few pro critics & Letterboxd mutuals have a good time with this over-the-top shlock. It’s so blatant about its efforts to tap back into the goofy, childlike imagination of the straight-to-VHS nasties of yesteryear that it even makes fun of the inane “That would never happen!” complaint that’s frequently lobbed at these things in the 2010s (during a slumber party screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II). I was saddened, then, to see real-life movie nerds critique the film for being silly & illogical as if those weren’t its selling points. As a collective audience, we could all benefit from lightening up & going with the flow instead of straining to “outsmart” the exact kind of genre candy we used to enjoy back when we had an imagination. It’s fucked up to say so, but I hope the right kids find this film at an inappropriate age, just like how I found titles like The Dentist & The Lady in White too young in my own day.

Mark Hamill takes over the vocal booth duties from Bard Dourif in this iteration, performing Chucky as a more of a Teddy Ruxpin cutie gone haywire than a misogynist murderer on bender. That’s because the remake drops the original film’s premise of a serial killer installing their own damned soul into a doll’s body via a mysterious Voodoo ritual in favor of something more “modern”: my beloved The Internet Is Trying To Kill Us horror subgenre. Newcomer director Lars Klevberg updates Chucky to the 2010s by giving him a Luddutian makeover as a malfunctioning piece of future-tech. The killer doll isn’t Evil, necessarily. Rather, he’s a symptom of what goes wrong when we automate too much of our daily lives, submitting our autonomy to computers in exchange for comfort. The Buddi doll is now a home appliance connected to every other automated tech in your house: lights, thermostats, self-driving cab services, home-use surveillance drones, The Cloud etc. When one of these dolls inevitably goes haywire through faulty programming, these conveniences now become an arsenal to dispose of humans who dare get in the way of his friendship with this “best buddy” (the child who owns him). Chucky himself has become a real-life horror of technology as well, as the animatronic puppet used in the film has been smoothed out into a distinct Uncanny Valley look that’s frequently bolstered with cheap CGI – meaning he’s often creepy though the limitations of his animation as much as anything else. It’s up to a ragtag group of neighborhood tykes to stop the doll before he causes too much havoc with all this future-tech, as the adults in their lives don’t believe something so innocent-looking & benign as a Buddi doll could possibly be responsible for the community’s murders. Similarly, it’s up to the kids in the audience (who really shouldn’t be there, the scamps) to preserve this deeply silly film’s legacy, since adults’ lack of imagination is failing them in real life too.

It would be easy to confuse the new Child’s Play for one of those standard modern-era remakes of 80s horror classics that mistake an origin story for the killer and a more generally self-serious, muted tone as an “improvement” in revision. This is a major studio production after all, one with recognizable faces like Aubrey Plaza & Brian Tyree Henry lurking in the cast. I was delighted to discover, then, that it’s something much stranger & more unapologetically goofy than that: a film that’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place. There may be some 2010s-specific updates to the material in the technophobia of Chucky’s design and the Adult Swim-type glitch edits & meme humor that accompanies it, but otherwise this feels like a perfect 80s horror throwback. It recalls the over-the-top delirium of basic cable & VHS horror from the era, while also exceeding as an entirely new, silly thing of its own design. It’s damn fun, an it’s a damn shame how few people have remembered how to have fun with ludicrous genre films of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives & Skin (2019)

Is there such a thing as low-key camp or subtly played melodrama? Are those descriptors too oxymoronic to effectively describe anything? I’m picturing the “silent runners” window blinds subplot of Twin Peaks, Laura Dern’s monologue about the robins in Blue Velvet, the thin barrier between humor & heartbreak in The Elephant Man. Basically, anytime a David Lynch movie makes you laugh but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The D.I.Y. teen mystery Knives & Skin operates entirely within this difficult-to-define subtle melodrama paradigm, somehow sustaining the quiet, off-putting humor of the silent runners gag for its entire runtime. It filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.

Much like Twin Peaks, the premise of Knives & Skin concerns the disappearance and possible murder of small-town teen Carolyn Harper, whose sudden absence shakes the foundations of her community. Unlike Twin Peaks, the film has very little interest in building mystery or menace around that disappearance. We all know exactly what happened to Carolyn Danvers & who was involved. The only mystique at play is in puzzling our way through other characters’ erratic expressions of grief in the weeks following the incident. If your favorite touches to Twin Peaks were the silent runners or the creamed corn or the fish in the percolator or Leland singing “Mairzy Doats,” you’re likely to be tickled by the quietly absurdist character quirks that run throughout Knives & Skin. Mothers dress in their daughters’ clothes and wander around wielding giant bread knives in a total daze; birthday clowns attentively perform cunnilingus full make-up; high school Beaver mascots trade mixtapes to cheerleaders in exchange for alcohol-soaked tampons. It’s a deceptively wild, over-the-top film, considering how much of it is communicated in hushed, sleepy tones.

Since it isn’t especially invested in its own central mystery and filters everything though a lethargic camp remove, this is a film that lives & dies by its aesthetic. There were some audible grumblings from the more macho end of our Overlook Film Festival audience about how it was the worst film they’ve ever seen at the fest, but I also heard other people say it was their favorite feature they saw all weekend. That harsh divide makes total sense. This is not crafted to satisfy your traditional Horror Bro. It feels like a murder mystery novel that was scribbled into a bejeweled Trapper Keeper with scented gel pens. Every single frame is bathed in bisexual crosslighting. The few possessions Carolyn Danvers leaves behind magically glow like fluorescent highlighters. Her classmates often breaks into acapella choir arrangements of 80s pop songs like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Blue Monday.” It’s a gloomy, but aggressively femme teen aesthetic, as if Lost River were made by Ryan Gosling’s adoring superfans instead of the heartthrob himself.

I’m not exactly sure what Knives & Skin is trying to accomplish. In brief flashes it discusses parental grief, sex work, mental illness, enthusiastic consent, and how talented clowns are at giving head, but never with anything clear or nuanced to say. I still very much appreciated it as a beautiful, delirious slow-drift though a Teen Lynch aesthetic, though, especially once I realized how much it was antagonizing the more macho end of the room. I’m still not confident in saying there is such a thing as low-key camp or subtle melodrama, but if they do exist this movie is steeped in them – like so many alcohol-soaked tampons.

-Brandon Ledet