Movie of the Month: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

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 Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library.  The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes.  When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two.  My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies.  Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes.  The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of.  I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade!  I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women.  Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama.  She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage.  One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it.  While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company,  Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era.  The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated.  Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them.  The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!

The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic.  The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s.  Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.  Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia.  It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie).  Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her.  The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child.  Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.

Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew.  The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.

The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected.  For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct.  Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes.  Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time.  This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.

Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget).  Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.”  The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way.  What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance.  That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way.  It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them.  I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.

So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests.  That was unexpected.  Brandon, what did you think of this development?  Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise?  Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?

Brandon:  I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor.  Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life?  The secret’s in the sauce.”  In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.

By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything.  I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café.  I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline.  It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall.  It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing?  From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous.  There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance.  Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity?  Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?

Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie.  In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book.  It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.

I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene!  I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.

Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband.  Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away!  She is a friend to bees!  She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian!  She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later.  I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.


Lagniappe

Brandon:  I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point.  There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off.  Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There.  And then the movie just kinda drops it.  The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss.  The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen.  Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate.  I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).

Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown.  Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar.  I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.

Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me).  Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline.  I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).

Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye.  It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses.  Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it.  It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.

I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance.  He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out.  The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.

I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep.  I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants.  Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is  Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row.  I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.

One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks.  That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind.  When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.”  But nope!  Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.

Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth.  This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname.  Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double.  Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself.  There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes.  The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film.  Fried Green Tomatoes lives on!  Tawanda!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)

-The Swampflix Crew

Messiah of Evil (1973)

A truly cursed relic of Lovecraftian grindhouse schlock, the mid-70s horror curio Messiah of Evil is an experience that feels at once warmly familiar & nightmarishly uncanny. It’s among a rare breed of horror classics like Carnival of Souls, Eyes Without a Face, and Val Lewton’s Cat People that are deceptively obedient to the tones, tropes, and craft of their era, but manage to achieve an unnerving, bone-deep chill once that familiarity lowers your defenses. Yet, it hasn’t yet been showered with the adoring cinephilic praise reserved for those now-canon genre relics. You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting “Shadows over Innsmouth” as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.

This film’s loose dream-logic narrative is constructed through two epistolary accounts: the narrated recollections of a young woman who’s been committed to an insane asylum and the diary of her missing father, which led her to that confinement. The father character is an artist who moved to a secluded seaside town in order to paint in peace, only to mysteriously cut off communication with his family back home while away. His daughter is met with skeptical hostility from the ghoulish, Innsmouth-like townies in the village where he disappeared, but eventually settles into his home and searches for clues to his whereabouts. Surrounded by her father’s art on sinisterly muraled walls and lost in his diary that seemingly documented a descent into madness, she follows the missing artist’s exact path and gradually loses her own grip on reality. She finds some welcome company from fellow outsiders also investigating the town’s paranormal allure, but mostly she & her new friends are dangerously outnumbered by the cannibalistic, ghoulish locals who are protecting some cosmic secret no one can seem to put into words.

In terms of conveying a clear, logical narrative, Messiah of Evil is a total mess – seemingly making shit up on the fly as it bides time between its set-piece scares. This deliberate delay of traditional horror movie payoffs is a blatantly practical tactic for the barebones production to cut financial corners, which often reduces what’s onscreen to a sight that usually tanks cheap-o horrors into total tedium: people endlessly talking in closed rooms. Whether our troubled heroine is reading her father’s journals to herself in voice-over narration or chatting up the traveling throuple of erudite snobs who prove to be her only friends in town, however, Messiah of Evil is somehow never boring. It must be that the writing itself is especially strong. Monologues about “blood moons pulling people towards Hell” and Lovecraftian accounts of hallucinatory beasts & ghouls are so intensely vivid in their imagery & delivery that you don’t have room to notice that the film is saving money by describing these horrors instead of depicting them. It weighs on you like a harrowing stage play, when it so easily could have been corners-cutting lip service.

Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t have to do all the work in unnerving the audience. Messiah of Evil occasionally ventures out of tis spooky-murals artist’s loft locale to stumble through a funhouse of assorted scares. A few sideshow attractions like a ghoulish local slitting an outsider’s throat or gnawing on a live beach rat help space out its more complexly staged set piece scares. When it really invests its time on those larger atmospheric payoffs, the movie has a way of transforming everyday locales—movie theaters, supermarkets, parking lots, etc.—into otherworldly nightmare realms. The actual flesh-eating creatures that pose a threat to all outsiders here aren’t especially distinct from the undead ghouls of Romero’s landmark horror The Night of the Living Dead from just a few years earlier. Yet, their effect on the audience & their impetus to kill are so difficult to put your finger on that calling them “zombies” would be selling them short. Zombies you can figure out & plan to defeat. By contrast, the threats here keep shifting & changing the rules based on the whims of the tone, so that trying to wrap your mind around their nature & vulnerabilities feels like training yourself to slip into a lucid dream.

The married couple who wrote, directed, and produced Messiah of Evil—Gloria Katz & Willard Huyk—later developed a professional relationship with George Lucas that culminated in their swing-for the-fences, career-ending flop in 1986’s Howard the Duck. Whether you want to take that association with Howard the Duck as confirmation that this movie is an unstructured mess, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of movie magic, or—in my rare case—further proof that Howard the Duck is vastly underappreciated is up you entirely. Personally, I believe Katz & Huyk to have an innate artistic understanding of the subliminal, dreamlike state movies put us in – logic be damned. That sensibility obviously displeased most audiences who caught their money-torching blockbuster, but it might be more widely accessible when rooted in the tradition of cheap-o moody horror. When the missing artist’s journal explains that, ”You’re about to awaken when you dream that you’re dreaming,” the potency of this film’s surreal nightmare logic became vividly clear to me – even if the structure & rhythms of the story it was telling never did. That’s not an easy effect to achieve, and many better-respected horror movies have failed in the attempt, so it’s a shame that Katz & Huyk haven’t received more audible recognition for the feat.

-Brandon Ledet

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bad Batch (2017)

It’s insane how rapidly Ana Lily Amirpour’s public estimation has plummeted since her well-received debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made her one of the top directors to keep an eye on in the indie scene. A couple awkward (to put it lightly) Q&A session and Halloween costume incidents later and Amirpour is sitting at the helm of one of the year’s least loved high profile horror releases. Her druggy, cannibalistic road drama The Bad Batch lacks the critical support its fellow artsy fartsy cannibal picture Raw has enjoyed in 2017, finding few fans to defend its ambling, highly stylized version of a modern horror. I honestly went into the film hoping to file a contrarian opinion and get some blood flowing back into Amirpour’s veins. The Bad Batch boasted the same visual slickness & feminist bent that I enjoyed in her debut, except maybe shifting its palette from Jim Jarmusch to Harmony Korine (particularly his best works to date, Gummo & Spring Breakers). On paper, it’s the exact brand of bright colors & pop music ultraviolence I love in my modernist schlock, but in execution I can’t quite convince myself to enjoy what’s on the screen. What’s even more surprising than the way Amirpour’s reputation has faltered so quickly is that a movie this visually & conceptually exciting can feel so punishingly dull.

In a not-too-distant future, Texas, Florida, and Burning Man have all combined forces to create film history’s tackiest dystopia. The titular “bad batch” are a community of criminal outcasts fenced in outside the rule of law in a Texan desertscape that’s “hotter than the Devil’s a-hole.” A culture of scavengers & cannibals emerges from this outlaw nation, where people fill their downtime with drugged-out raves & prison yard workouts. Suki Waterhouse stars as a fresh-faced newbie to this flesh-eating community, one who immediately loses two limbs to cannibalistic reprobates on her first day as a member of “the bad batch.” She eventually escapes their clutches and makes her way over to a more hospitable raver community, where she gets entangled in a glacial plot involving a missing child. Other recognizable faces in the cast are obscured by bizarre character choices & costuming: Keanu Reeves in Tony Clifton drag as King of the Raves; Jim Carrey as a mute, sunburnt hobo; (most disastrously) Jason Momoa as a Cuban family man. It’s mostly a Battle of the Ridiculous Accents from there, as most of the violence happens quickly & early and the two hour runtime pulls a Terry Gilliam-esque feat of feeling three times its length. For a movie so sure of itself visually & aesthetically, The Bad Batch feels oddly short on ideas to occupy its time.

The most frustrating aspect of The Bad Batch is that it has the building blocks of a much more fun, rewarding movie already in its arsenal. I have no doubt that what Amirpour filmed for the project could be re-edited into a crowd pleasing spectacle of pop horror mayhem. The bubbly soundtrack (which includes needle drops from Ace of Base, Die Antwoord, and Culture Club), Speedos & watermelon-print jorts costuming, and beached jetskis & neon lights set design all suggest a movie far more fun than The Bad Batch ever dares to be. With more energy and a shorter runtime, the film could’ve been a blast as a live action sugar rush, but as a slow-moving art film it just lays there, rotting in the sun. The best parts of the film are dialogue-free indulgences in high fructose imagery (much like A Girl Walks Home, the film’s best scene simply watches a woman enjoy solitude in her bedroom). Any instances of plot or dialogue digging for meaning beyond these surface pleasures are either cringe-worthy, blunt statements of unearned themes or laughable moments like an embarrassingly edited, never-ending acid trip or the Richard Kelly-ish line, “What if all the things that happened to us happened to us so the next things that are going to happen to us can happen to us?”. That’d be fine if the movie were about half as long & twice as fun or violent, but as is its minor pleasures are buried under a massive bore.

I’m not quite ready to give up on Ana Lily Amirpour. I doubt the movie-world at large is either. Her imagery and bloodthirsty Millennial sensibilities are too immediately interesting to abandon just yet, but I’d be a liar if I said The Bad Batch in particular is worth anyone’s time. Until I hear that the film has been trimmed down or punched up into the wild ride horror comedy free-for-all it should’ve been in the first place, this is one Texan dystopia (among many) that I plan to leave forever in the rearview. Let’s just be hopeful and chalk it up as a standard sophomore slump.

-Brandon Ledet

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978)

I once made a promise to myself that I’d never watch the grotesque exploitation piece Cannibal Holocaust again, but between Slave of the Cannibal God and the much more recently-produced Bone Tomahawk, I feel as if I already have. Now, Bone Tomahawk is admittedly a much better film than either of the schlocky horrors I’m lumping it in with here, but it does traffic in some of the same “savage natives” fear-mongering in a way that’s at least worth discussing, if not admonishing. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, Bone Tomahawk does not depict the same real-life-animal-torture-as-entertainment aesthetic that make that film such a memorably unpleasant (and perhaps genuinely evil) experience. Slave of the Cannibal God very nearly does. It’s not quite as cruel or as nihilistically empty as Cannibal Holocaust, but it does position itself comfortably within the same wheelhouse while clearly displaying a level of craft that indicates its producers should’ve known better.

Released as Prisoner of the Cannibal God in the UK (where it was briefly banned as a “video nasty”) and Mountain of the Cannibal God in its native Italy, this delightful romp stars Bond girl Ursula Anders as a woman searching for her lost husband in the jungles of New Guinea and a young Stacy Keach as her reluctant guide. The guide fears, correctly, that the husband may have been abducted & tortured by an especially brutal tribe of cannibals who live on a mountain many fear to climb. They embark on an Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness-style mission to recover the doomed man anyway, an expedition that drastically dwindles their numbers along the way and inevitably results in an elaborately staged cannibal ritual. If there’s anything interesting about the way Slave of the Cannibal God structures its jungle expedition, it’s in the way the film often functions as a by-the-books slasher. A masked serial killer who had broken off from the cannibal tribe the group seeks picks them off one by one in the style of a spear-wielding Jason Voorhees. The rest of the film, however, is all reveals of ulterior motives within the expedition and shocking displays of animal cruelty & casual racism/sexism. It’s not quite as grotesque as the same vibe achieved in Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s well-shot & well-acted enough to suggest that it never should have ever come close.

The animal deaths depicted for atmosphere in Slave of the Cannibal God are largely presented as if they were pure nature footage. There’s something oddly staged-feeling about its footage of snakes eating a monkey or an owl, though, whether or not those animals were already co-habitating in the Sri Lankan filming location. Worse yet, the film includes a religious ritual centered around the gutting of a live lizard that’s stomach-turning at best. It’s not nearly as grotesque as the animal deaths in Cannibal Holocaust and it at least appears as if the lizard were promptly eaten raw, but it’s still an entirely needless act of animal cruelty. Anytime the film pauses to depict animal violence it feels as if it’s borrowing a primal energy it can’t bother to muster on its own accord. This is doubly disheartening when things like the lizard-gutting are used to make New Ginea’s “primitive peoples” (in the characters’ words) seem like grotesque monsters. Gleeful violence against women, mocking fascination with little people, and just a generally sleazy vibe that typifies 70s grindhouse aesthetic do little to lighten the mood of these for-the-sake-of-entertainment atrocities. Very early in the film, around the time I watched a snake slowly scalp a monkey for what felt like minutes, I realized that I probably should’ve known better than to watch something titled Slave of the Cannibal God in the first place. Things did not improve from there.

I did get a couple quick glimpses of the movie I would’ve wanted Slave of the Cannibal God to be, though, the movie I hoped to see instead of the one I should have known to expect. There’s a brief moment in the expedition where a gigantic crocodile puppet yanks one of the native guides from the group’s raft and tears him to shreds in the water. In a later scene, the masked killer who terrorizes the expedition chops off another guide’s head with a machete. A focus on this kind of practical effects spectacle, preferably without xenophobic othering & the detriment of all women everywhere, could’ve saved this movie from achieving its lowly status as a slightly less gross Cannibal Holocaust. More of a dedication to its unexpected slasher tropes could’ve helped distinguish it as well, as it at least would cut down on grouping all New Guinea tribes together as personality-free hoards and help establish a basic sense of novelty. I’m not convinced this inherently imperialist exploitation genre is at all worth saving, however. I guess Bone Tomahawk finds a way to skirt its worst trappings and, from what I hear, Eli Roth’s Green Inferno supposedly finds a way to shame the explorers instead of the community they invade; I’m not sure either achievement is enough to justify keeping this monstrously ugly thing alive. Films like Slave of the Cannibal God & Cannibal Holocaust would likely better serve the world by not existing at all and I honestly feel a little complicit in their continued legacy by picking this one up second-hand at the thrift store, as if it had something worthwhile to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

Raw (2017)

2017 is turning out to be a banner year for horror. After the absolutely stunning Get Out, which was so richly steeped in both metaphor and lived experience, Julia Ducournau’s beautiful and haunting Raw has just hit American audiences like a ton of bricks, or buckets of grue dropped from a great height. It’s a well-worn topic of discussion within the intersection of horror fandom and social criticism that the monsters that we create are reflective of our political climate: zombie movies are more popular during republican presidencies, while vampire films abound during democratic ones. The conclusions drawn from this generally tend to focus on how zombies (rampantly consumerist, at least in Romero’s films; horde-like; unthinking in their consumption; mindless and easily led) represent progressive view of conservatives, while vampires (often foreign, sexually deviant, parasitic) represent the conservative view of progressives. It annoys me that Raw is already identified as a “cannibal movie” in much of the press since that spoils so much of the surprise, but the cat’s out of the bag now; on this political spectrum, I’m not sure where films about cannibalism lie, especially when we’re seeing great zombie flicks coming out of Asia (like Train to Busan) and Raw itself is a Belgian/French co-production.

Raw follows the arrival of new vet student Justine (Garance Marillier) at her parents’ alma mater, where her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already an upperclassman. Awoken on her first night by gay roommate Adrien (Raba Nait Oufella), Justine is taken through the first in a series of hazing rituals, which ends with the lifelong vegetarian being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Unexpectedly, this awakens a ravenous hunger in her for meat, of increasingly exotic kinds. This is all paired with the other things that young women often go through: sexual lusts, falling for a gay best friend, and finding out more about yourself than you ever really wanted.

To say more would give away too much of what makes this film such a delightful (if stomach-churning) experience, but I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called the film “Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,” which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.

I’m not usually averse to spoiling the films that I review, but I’ll say no more about Raw, because this film demands to be seen, especially on the big screen. If you’re fortunate enough to have a screening near you, waste not a minute more: go see this movie tonight before someone spoils it for you. In my review of my favorite films of 2016, I mentioned that I was left unsatisfied by The Neon Demon; this is the film I wanted The Neon Demon to be. Go see it. Go now!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Blood Diner (1987)

see no evil

fourstar

campstamp

“While it is a sad fact that mass homicide and practitioners of Blood Cults infest our society, the producers of this film wish to express that they do not condone, nor do they want to inspire, any of the human butchery or violence portrayed in this film. If you feel you will be offended by such material, please leave the theater at once . . .”

Opening with that grave, overly serious warning, you might expect Blood Diner to have the gritty grindhouse exploitation vibe of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (an obvious point of reference for that tongue-in-cheek disclaimer). However, the truth is that Blood Diner is much more in line with the energetically violent slapstick comedy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, except that its humor is a lot less shrill and the movie does a much better job of distancing itself from its own predecessor. A supposed sequel to the grindhouse “classic” Blood Feast (a film I have zero affection for), Blood Diner is pure 80s splatter comedy mayhem. It boasts all of the shock value violence & misogynistic cruelty of its predecessor (this time at the hands of a female director, Jackie Kong), but has a lot more in common with ZAZ spoofs or Looney Tunes than it does with its grindhouse pedigree. Everything in Blood Diner is treated with Reagan-era irreverence to the point where this pointlessly stupid horror comedy starts to feel like inane poetry. It shocks; it offends. Yet, Blood Diner is so consistently, absurdly mindless that all you can do is laugh at its asinine audacity in its cheap midnight movie thrills.

Two young children play in a Pee-wee’s Playhouse version of the 1960s, complete with kitsch toys, Cadillacs, and a radio broadcast of doo-wop singers maniacally crooning “Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy” on a seemingly endless loop. This nostalgic reverie is disrupted when their serial killer uncle, announced on the radio to be responsible for the “Happy Times All Girls Glee Club Slaying” & “armed with a meat cleaver in one hand and his genitals in another” bursts through the door like Leatherface to say his final goodbyes before the police gun him down. In this final exchange, he takes the time to make sure that his ancient blood ritual religion has stuck with the children. Boy, did it ever. The brothers grow up to be screwball sociopaths, casual serial murderers who think nothing of ending a life for the sake of a punchline. They resurrect their uncle after a 20 year delay by grave-robbing his somehow still-intact brain & eyes and storing them in a mason jar in their hip vegetarian restaurant. Their uncle’s brain continues to brainwash them (ugh) from the comfort of its jar, pressuring them to collect female body parts from fresh victims to resurrect the ancient goddess they worship for an all-important “blood buffet” that’s ultimately staged at the city’s slimiest rock club. Their mission is, for the most part, a success.

Essentially, none of this matters. Minus the part where the brothers serve human meat to their vegetarian restaurant’s loyal patrons, the plot of Blood Diner falls somewhere between the female body reassembly of Frankenhooker and a version of Weekend at Bernie’s where every character is a potential corpse to play with. It’s somehow treated with less reverence than either of those titles. This is a film that survives entirely on a diet of small moments & constant sight gags. A mannequin is treated like a normal human character, his nature as an inanimate object never being mentioned. A shovel to the back of the head pops out a victim’s eyeballs with ease. One of the chef-brothers gets to live out his dream of becoming a pro wrestler and takes on a heel named Jimmy Hitler in the ring. A shitty new wave concert erupts into a nonstop orgy of metaphysical violence. This kind of irreverent mayhem can often feel grotesquely misogynistic, like when a nude aerobics class is gunned down by a killer in a Ronald Reagan mask. Even that line of gore comedy can be deliciously amusing, though, like when a female victim’s head is deep fried and emerges looking like a gigantic hush puppy. Taking a ZAZ-style approach to its live action cartoon cruelty, Blood Diner throws so many stupid jokes at the wall that eventually you’ll let your guard down enough for a fair number of them to stick and you’ll earn a hearty laugh.

It’s possible that because Blood Diner is so cheaply made and so blatantly stupid that I’m giving it more credit than it deserves, overlooking some of its more glaring, misanthropic faults. I’m definitely the kind of audience that’s willing to forgive the mistakes made by a scrappy production written around a terrible “blood donor” pun just so I can indulge in some aggressively juvenile humor about unwitting cannibalism and nudist Kung Fu. Blood Diner feels like a genuine version of The Greasy Strangler that was discovered in the wild instead of designed in a lab. It’s the experience I expected to have with Tobe Hooper self-parody in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II instead of the the disappointing one I got, a rare schlock cinema balance where the grotesque humor is exhaustingly inane, but still impressive in its success rate. I’m curious to see what other atrocities Jackie Kong unleashed upon the world in her heyday, because she seems to have a strong comedic mind for someone who only managed to get a handful of projects off the ground. Even if Blood Diner is her only success, though, it’d still be a career worth being proud of, thanks to a grotesque cinematic prank that’s an outright miracle in the way it tests patience, outwears its welcome, and spits in the viewer’s face, while still feeling oddly endearing in its own dinky way.

-Brandon Ledet