Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Horror Film (1982)

One of the most exciting things about schlock cinema as an art form is the experimentation that comes with filmmakers working under financial pressure. I’m especially fascinated by old horror cheapies that attempt to incorporate footage or sets from other films produced by the same studio in order to pad out runtimes or increase production value. Sometimes, this can lead to interesting results, like with Peter Bogdanovich’s footage cannibalizing debut feature Targets. It can also lead to complete disaster, as with the set-repurposing Roger Corman production The Raven, which is, objectively speaking, an incomprehensible mess (and, oddly enough, one of the films pilfered for Targets). The Last Horror Film is a proud contribution to this frugal tradition of recycled cinema, an early 80s horror that goes above & beyond in its milking production value out of better-funded films that came before it. It even goes a step beyond the Roger Corman recycling model by including imagery from better-funded horror films’ advertising to boost its own allure. It may not be a formally slick or thematically ambitious horror pic, but the way it gets by using financial shortcuts is honestly nothing short of inspiring.

Narratively speaking, The Last Horror Film doesn’t amount to much more than Taxi Driver Goes Giallo. A Travis Bickle-type obsesses over an actress known to the world as the undisputed Queen of Horror Films. Aspiring to leave his service industry life behind & claim his true destiny as a celebrated filmmaker, the sweaty creep follows his beloved scream queen across the ocean to the Cannes Film Festival in France. He films her there in secret, both at public press junkets and in private, voyeuristic settings. Meanwhile, friends & colleagues of the actress are violently killed under extreme, giallo-type lights, with the killer’s face entirely obscured, but heavily indicated to be the weirdo taxi driver. What’s partly so great about The Last Horror Film is that it makes absolutely no attempt to hide its giallo/Scorsese genre mashup. The film namechecks both Taxi Driver & Jodie Foster in the script to clue the audience in on its sense of self-awareness. The giallo-inspired kills include multiple close-up shots of straight razors to drive that point home as well. The film has very little use for subtlety & nuance, but instead focuses on squeezing as much entertainment value as possible out of its extremely limited resources.

Besides the aforementioned inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching. It’s in those stretches where The Last Horror Film goes from surprisingly entertaining to nearly invaluable, especially when it takes notice of the film industry weirdos mixing it up with the locals at the discos surrounding the fest. The Last Horror Film set out to make a watchable horror picture armed only with an interesting location and clips from other, better funded works and it did a kind of amazing job of it, fully committing to its blatant acts of tourism and grimy modes of meta film commentary.

There’s an A Night to Dismember quality to this film, especially in its feeling of hastily edited collage, but The Last Horror Film deviates from that Doris WIshman classic in its unexpected success in building a cohesive narrative out of its loosely gathered scraps. Much like the Wishman picture, this giallo pastiche attempts to deliver the goods in terms of cheap gore-for-gore’s-sake thrills: electrocutions, decapitations, melted faces, etc. These blatant, bloody bread & circuses moments are held together by legitimately artful, almost Fellini-esque dream sequences in which our crazed cabbie desperately clutches his make-believe Oscar while his scream queen deity (Hammer horror vet Carolyn Munro) coos at him in encouragement. While it never really reaches the heights of meta-commentary in similarly-minded works like Demons, the film also makes attempts to put its film industry setting to thematic use. There’s especially noteworthy scenes in which the famed horror actress is being hunted down in public, but everyone at Cannes, including the police, brush off her terror as a tasteless publicity stunt.

While maybe not masterful filmmaking in an arthouse sense, The Last Horror Film is a triumph in schlocky alchemy. Its blatant tourism of 1981 Cannes somehow makes a film that would otherwise be a (literal) cut & paste knockoff without it into an invaluable historical document. It’s the kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated for its minor successes, even if they’re only employed for cheap horror film shocks & chills. In some ways, it’s miraculous that the film is even watchable at all.

-Brandon Ledet