– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
Old Hollywood icon & sexual anarchist Marlene Dietrich first earned her legendary status through a run of collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, to the point where their names are near inseparable. The actor-director pair churned out seven feature films together in the 1930s — a catalog of sexually daring pictures set in exotic locales, each featuring Dietrich as a classic femme fatale. The Devil is a Woman is far from the most prestigious or technically accomplished of those collaborations. It doesn’t approach the controversial seduction & glamor of better-respected pictures like The Blue Angel, Morocco, or Shanghai Express. Despite the severe, sensational misogyny of its title, it’s a surprisingly goofy film, one that cannot be taken nearly as seriously as the more sublime achievements of the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon. It’s also one that distinguishes itself through the jubilant novelty of its setting: turn-of-the-century Spanish Carnival.
Marlene Dietrich stars as a Marlene Dietrich type: a seductive woman who bleeds men dry for her own amusement while modeling outrageous outfits and enjoying the lawless free-for-all of Spanish Carnival. An older, disgraced military officer warns his young friend about the dangerous seductive powers of all women, then of Dietrich’s soul-draining (and money-draining) villainy in particular. It’s a cinematic trope that dates at least as far back as Theda Bara’s iconic role as The Vamp in 1915’s A Fool There Was, equally as misogynistic as it is aspirationally cool-as-fuck. Dietrich oddly doesn’t approach the role with any of her usual laid-back cool, however. She’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but plays it more like a proto-Lucille Ball sitcom scamp. She empties men’s pockets and manipulates them to fight for her affections (and amusement), sure, but she does so with a dialed-to-11 temper tantrum humor that I’m not used to seeing from her. Her casting as a Spanish seductress is pretty absurd on its face, but I also grew up in a time when Schwarzenegger routinely played an American everyman, so whatever. The real absurdity is in her broadly comedic interpretation of the role.
Of course, the “exotic” (to Hollywood) Spanish setting is mostly interesting for the visual feast of its Carnival celebrations, and the movie starts with a doozy — drunken revelers storming the studio set with giant paper-mâché heads and multi-colored streamers. The masquerade provides an excuse for costumed lushes & outright criminals to run wild circles around the sordid “love” triangle at the film’s center, and that revelry never loses its novelty. It’s also an excuse for Dietrich to model over-the-top Spanish gowns, starting with a show-stopper piece made of cascading black pompoms. It’s a beaut. I would more readily recommend the film for the novelty of that setting than I would for its significance in the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon, but that’s not to say it’s entirely frivolous. If anything, there’s something oddly subversive about how playful & lighthearted Dietrich plays the supposed femme fatale, a point that’s driven home when she admonishes one of her frustrated beaus, “You mistake your vanity for love.” It’s not her fault that men keep throwing all of their money & attentions at her feet, so why shouldn’t she get to enjoy the rewards during the year’s biggest party? Someone’s gotta pay for those gowns.
I knew when I was watching Jacques Tati play a romantic ghost in Sylvie and the Phantom that I wasn’t getting an especially arcuate representation of the comedian’s usual work. That’s why it was such an unmissable event for me when The Prytania Theatre was screening Tati’s directorial debut feature Jour de Fête in a proper theatrical environment, even if the lousy six-person attendance number indicated that it wasn’t much of a priority for the rest of the city. As Tati is best known for playing the recurring slapstick caricature Monsieur Hulot in his later works, Jour de Fête might have itself been an unconventional entry point for understanding the general shape of his oeuvre. Still, its deeply silly, anarchic physical humor seems much more typical to Tati’s reputation as a high-brow slapstick artist than Sylvie & The Phantom’s casting of him as the undead spirit of an ancient dreamboat (dutifully accompanied by his loyal puppy ghost, who gets most of the laughs). Tati may have been a rookie director when he made Jour de Fête, but he arrived on the scene with a distinct, fully developed comedic voice—one that can apparently still earn belly laughs 70 years later in a near-empty theater.
Tati stars in the film as a bumbling mailman in a small Central France village. The supposed conflict of the premise is that the mailman is overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that arrives with a traveling carnival that passes through his tiny village. Truthfully, it’s not only the carnival that overwhelms the mailman, but also the bored whims of his own community. Jour de Fête is a drunken slapstick comedy about a rural village that bands together to troll their own mailman for being a nerd who strives to be good at his job while everyone else is partying. The carnival aspect is only festive background decoration for the relentless pranks villagers & carnival folk alike torment the mailman with for their own amusement. We’re introduced to the townsfolk & the carnies well before the mailman arrives, painting a false picture of a simple people who take wholesome pleasure out of a calm farm-life. As soon as Tati starts biking his delivery route that perception fades as everyone around him takes turns trolling him for taking his job seriously in any way they can manage: tricking him into doing their work, tricking him into getting blackout drunk, encouraging goats to eat his mail, and often just laughing directly in his face. It would be unbearably cruel if it weren’t so damn funny.
There is one truly inspired gag that elevates Jour de Fête as a standout among its ilk. One of the carnival’s main attractions is a makeshift cinema tent they place in town square, where the mailman watches an industrial “documentary” on American post offices that falsely portray U.S. delivery men as daredevil bodybuilders who disperse mail in sexy, death-defying feats of strength at incredible speeds. Not to be outdone, this French mailman spends the rest of the film haphazardly dispersing packages at a needlessly hyperactive speed, shouting “American style!” at any villager inconvenienced by his newfound gusto. The villagers themselves also make for some excellent people-watching, as Jour de Fête was shot on location in the small commune village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre and cast many of the locals as extras & bit roles. Much of the film is a standard slapstick farce otherwise, one so conventional it includes a genuine rake gag. Tati is a little taller & ganglier than the Stooges, Keatons, and Marx Brothers before him and, as a director, affords the proceedings some welcome visual & narrative symmetry. In almost every other way, though, Jour de Fête is a traditional, even vaudevillian slapstick comedy – one that may have even been considered old-fashioned for its time. It’s also timeless in that’s still incredibly funny, proof that the old standards still work when they’re well executed. My only regret in seeking it out as an introductory Tati picture is that I couldn’t have seen it with a bigger crowd to amplify the laugher.
Last year, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.
Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. This year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2018 excursion, our second year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:
❤ Krewe Divine ❤
A lot of the best documentaries we have on difficult subjects “luck” into capturing an important moment by happening to film something seemingly innocuous just when tragedy or an unexpected shift occurs. I’m not sure Serenade for Haiti qualifies as that exact type of happenstance, since the Haitian capital it was documenting, Port-au-Prince, is constantly undergoing some kind of fundamental change, whether political or Natural. The film does find a very specific lens to view the city’s biggest upheaval of the past decade through, however, by watching it unfold through the profile of Saint Trinité Music School, a very insular community in the larger picture of Haitian culture. By following staff & students of the music school in the years preceding & following the city-destroying earthquakes of 2010, the film finds a hyper specific frame for capturing the way Haiti has dealt with the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.
Founded in the 1950s, Saint Trinité Music School was founded as a charitable Catholic institution specifically meant to improve the lives of Port-au-Prince children who live below the poverty line. Early conversations with the students before the earthquake reveal lines like, “We want to show that people from our class can achieve wonderful things” and “Music is our refuge,” establishing just how important the school is to the community. Its results are easily detectable too, as Serenade for Haiti contrasts the angelic sounds of its longterm students with the unsure needling of its younger hopefuls. The school takes on an entirely different meaning after the 2010 disaster, with music becoming an act of therapy for students struggling with post-disaster PTSD. Their refusal to directly discuss the horrors of the earthquake that destroyed their school, city, country, and families is very much reminiscent of the way New Orleans (a city with strong Haitian roots) gradually recovered after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, especially once the healing sounds of music & Carnival culture creep back in through the rubble & the silence. The physical school of Saint Trinité is destroyed halfway into this film, but the school itself somehow continues to thrive.
The visual craft of Serenade for Haiti makes little effort to match the angelic sounds of its music, outside a few glimpses of Carnival celebrations or vibrantly-painted historic murals. The most the film has to offer as cinema is an intimate look at a tragedy most people are used to examining from a much greater remove. There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process. More importantly, though, they also happened to capture the cultural perseverance that emerged in its aftermath, documenting through music a culture that’s unfortunately grown accustomed to massive violent upheavals as a routine of daily life.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch Mountain, Return to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.
There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?
Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.
What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.
What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?
Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.
Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.
To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?
Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.) In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.
This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them. The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets. I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.
What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?
Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.
The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.
A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character?
Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.) It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.
If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.
Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?
Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.
Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?
Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.
The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.
Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.
Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.
Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.
Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).
Britnee: I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
-The Swampflix Crew
The DNA of the slasher can mostly be traced back to the giallo murder mysteries of the 1960s & 70s where the gloved, off-screen killers of titles like Deep Red and Blood & Black Lace ran through disturbingly high body counts (of mostly young, beautiful women) in a distinct style-over-substance fashion. Filter the giallo genre through non-Italian titles like Psycho & Peeping Tom and direct its mayhem at the rebellious spirit of the American teenager and that’s more or less how you wind up with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers or what have you. Not all slashers fit that mold, however, and a lot of the genre’s stranger outliers seem to point back to an entirely different source of inspiration: Tobe Hooper. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a level of grime & idiosyncrasy to the early stirrings of slasher horrors that was almost unimaginable in 1974. Cautious not to repeat himself, he entirely shifted focus for his 1986 sequel to that iconic work, turning it into an absurd horror comedy (not unlike the curious shift in the MTV-themed cartoon Slumber Party Massacre 2). When Hooper first returned to the straightforward slasher in 1981’s The Funhouse, however, he brought back the same isolated weirdos vs. disrespectful teen brats dynamic of the first Chainsaw along with that film’s unmistakable grime, but shifted the details drastically with the specificity of a travelling carnival setting. By then, Hooper’s work had already influenced an entire crop of weirdo slasher outliers, though, and The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out as a radical work the same way 1974’s Chainsaw did.
The best example I can think of that adapts Hooper’s slasher deviations into a weird genre outlier is a film Britnee recommended during our evil doll movies conversation on the podcast. Her description of the 1979 horror oddity Tourist Trap sounded eerily similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with just enough quirk to distinguish itself from being a mere knockoff. In both films a group of suburban teens are slaughtered by an isolated family of outsider weirdos in the no-man’s-land of rural America. The major deviation in Tourist Trap is that the main killer’s backwoods family is made entirely of mannequins. Our terrifying hick killer commands telepathic abilities that allows him to animate his mannequin family so that they can physically attack his victims while singing in angelic voices or laughing maniacally. The supernatural element of these kills is largely different from Hooper’s style in his own slasher films (although not at all out of line with his titles like Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars). There’s an unmistakable, disturbing quality to the tone in Tourist Trap that points directly to the blueprint of a Hooper slasher, however. By the time the killer is wearing a doll mask & trying to make mannequins out of his teen victims Dead Silence-style, it’s all too easy to trace his origins back to Leatherface, who liked to uphold curious familial bonds of his own. Tourist Trap also has a weird crossdressing element that recalls the common slasher point of reference Norman Bates and as a whole is certainly unique enough to stand out on its own as an original work, but it owes a lot of its outlier status in the slasher genre to the strange space Hooper carved out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Released just two years after Tourist Trap, Hooper’s The Funhouse is in good company with the strange little supernatural horror. The Funhouse keeps its terror anchored in the real world in a way Tourist Trap’s telepathy doesn’t, but the grime & specificity of its carnival setting matches the eeriness of that film’s disturbing mannequin-covered roadside attraction. Also, although the dolls of The Funhouse don’t move on their own via magic, there are animatronic dolls in the film that add to a menacing atmosphere shared by Tourist Trap as soon as the opening credits. Adding a supernatural element to The Funhouse’s carnival-set genre thrills made for a laughably goofy experience in Ghoulies II, but Tourist Trap is too much of a nightmare to laugh off in that way. The way its killer (much like Gunther in The Funhouse) continually searches for love & validation despite his own brutality makes for too disturbing of a watch for the film to be brushed off as mere camp. Its laughing, singing, murdering mannequins have a sort of humor to them, but only in a cruel, twisted way that’s far more reminiscent of Hooper’s work than it is of Charles Band’s, despite that schlockmeister’s career-long obsession with killer dolls (and Tourist Trap director David Schmoeller later working on the Band-produced series The Puppet Master).
When we first discussed The Funhouse in our Movie of the Month round table we asked why it didn’t quite have the cultural staying power it deserved. The answer might be that because Hooper already opened the door for weirdo slashers like Tourist Trap years earlier, The Funhouse had too much company to stand out as its own strange work of nasty mayhem. Hooper had already changed the game in an earlier work & The Funhouse was mostly just a nightmarish continuation of that initial deviation. It found some really strange company in similar continuations, though, not least of all in this strange killer mannequins slasher.
For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988).
When we were discussing our current Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy slasher The Funhouse, I asked Alli if she thought the film’s carnival funhouse setting could’ve maybe opened it up to some supernatural play with the laws of reality. In my mind, I guess I was conjuring the climax of the Adam Wingard film The Guest, where the titular killer seemingly becomes a supernatural force in the smoke & mirrors setting of a hand built funhouse in a high school gym. Alli bucked against the virtue of that idea, positing that The Funhouse was more terrifying as is, because “The real world grounds the movie in a way that makes it believable.” She explained, “I’m not trying to rule out the idea of demon-possessed funhouse completely, but anytime the supernatural is involved a movie really starts pushing it towards cheesy.” I can’t disagree. Even part of what makes the conclusion of The Guest so memorably enjoyable is its somewhat cheesy nod to the film’s sly, genre-based sense of humor. Tobe Hooper’s film is much more fully committed to its straightforward slasher grittiness, one that likely needs to stick to its real world limitations to remain convincing. What I couldn’t shake from my mind when Alli mentioned the potential cheese factor there, however, was that I had already seen a demon-possessed funhouse horror film and it indeed was a thoroughly cheesy affair.
Charles Band’s production company Full Moon Features isn’t exactly known for a high mark in quality. Full Moon is at best a well-oiled schlock machine, one that churns out such distinguished titles as Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys & Puppet Master 12: The Littlest Reich at a blinding rate of release. The Ghoulies franchise, in particular, is a shameless Gremlins knockoff best known for featuring a tiny evil demon (a “ghoulie,” if you will) lurking in a toilet, waiting to strike. If you’re an adult, that image isn’t likely to affect you much outside maybe a chuckle, but I’m told experiencing it as a child will inspire bathroom anxieties for at least a week. Ghoulies expanded from its Gremlins-riffing origins only slightly, mixing it up by shipping its cute little devils to exotic locations. The series might have reached peak ridiculousness with its third installment, Ghoulies Go to College, but for my money the most enjoyable film in the franchise is the carnival-set second entry. Directed by Charles Band’s father Albert Band, Ghoulies II is in many ways the exact film Alli was describing in her response to my question. Cheesy to the point of ostensibly being a gory children’s film, Ghoulies II trades in the seedy real world horrors of The Funhouse for cheap supernatural genre thrills in which rambunctious, doll-size demons overrun a carnival’s funhouse attraction and dispense with dumb teens in increasingly goofy ways. They’re both slasher films set in carnival funhouses, but the supernatural element of Ghoulies II significantly cheapens & trivializes its setting (to the point of cartoonish hilarity) while the real life grime of The Funhouse affords it a genuine, near-believable terror.
Ghoulies II actually follows a fairly similar narrative approach to the concept of a carnival funhouse horror, except with a shifted perspective. While The Funhouse follows a group of unsuspecting teens as they discover the nastily violent personalities of the travelling carnies, Ghoulies II makes the carnies the sympathetic viewpoint as they struggle to put on a show for today’s jaded, uncaring youth and avoid getting shutdown by the greedy Reagan-era businessmen who haunt nearly every late-80s picture. In this way, the titular ghoulies who invade the film’s funhouse, quaintly titled Satan’s Den, to murder snot nosed teens & terrorize evil accountants are at once hero & villain. Sure, they get out of hand & threaten the lives of the innocent, but because they’re mistaken for animatronic funhouse attractions they also save the day by driving Satan’s Den ticket sales through the roof. When a ghoulie pukes hideous green goo onto two disrespectful teens making out in the funhouse, you’re supposed to cheer for their victory over the punk brats. Even the alcoholism of The Funhouse is softened in this film. Instead of making the carnies mean & scary, liquor makes the owner of Satan’s Den pathetically vulnerable. He & his nephew are far from the barker & the monstrous Gunther from The Funhouse. They’re kinder, more relatable, and a hell of a lot less real.
It’s fair to say applying a little supernatural Ghoulies cheese to the grimy slasher vibe of The Funhouse might’ve been a tonal disaster. I do believe Ghoulies II is an interesting counterpoint to Hooper’s film, however, especially in the way it plays a lot of the same carnival-specific horror elements for cheap humor instead of nightmarish dread. It’s a film I’ve watched way more times than I probably should have, one that’s remarkably accomplished for what it sets out to do. Like with most Full Moon features, Ghoulies II occupies a strange space between kids’ comedy & gory creature feature, but it stands above a lot of other films in the production company’s staggeringly extensive catalog. The stop motion effects, dumb teens bemoaning the loss of their “tunes” (boombox), little person character actor Phil Fondacaro doing his best Vincent Price, and carnival specific kills, including a nasty round of bumper cars, all combine to make for a memorably silly B-Picture. There’s even a go-for-broke kaiju finish & a loving homage to the The Pit & The Pendulum murders of the Corman-Poe Cycle. In the end, Alli is probably right that The Funhouse benefited from sticking to a real world scenario with no supernatural trickery in the details of its funhouse setting, but I’m glad Ghoulies II exists to explore the exact opposite extreme of the same teens-slain-at-a-carnival scenario. They’re two sides of a highly specific, easily cherished coin.
I’ll admit up front that I’m a little more positive on Tim Burton’s post-Sleepy Hollow career than most, finding at least one enjoyable film from the director’s late-career releases (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Big Eyes, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie) for every insufferable, uninspired one (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes). Burton was on an incredible hot streak in his 80s & 90s run, delivering one incredible work after another, so there’s a lot of pressure on his 00s & 2010s output that makes it suffer under scrutiny. However, divorced from the context of his earlier work, this second phase of his career is at least at a 50/50 average for me, which isn’t so bad considering the careers of other big budget Hollywood directors on his name recognition level. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny. The expectations resonating from Burton’s early work simply have way too much impact on the reception of his more current releases.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & its YA source material are, essentially, goth X-Men for kids. Instead of mutant abilities, the kids have “peculiarities,” also contained in their genes, which more or less give them . . . mutant abilities. I guess the main difference there is that their peculiarities all have a sort of horrific sideshow quality to them: reanimating corpses, hidden jaws packed with sharp teeth, bodies full of bees, etc. It’s easy to see how Burton could want to merely luxuriate in this mansion full of little weirdos instead of chasing a plot, but Peculiar Children actually has a lot going on in its story structure. Cyclical time travel, intergenerational romance, mental disorder, alternative Holocaust narratives, and secret societies of shapeshifting demons who want to eat peculiar children’s eyeballs all swirl together to create one overwhelming kids-against-the-world conflict that admittedly trades in emotional resonance for large, complex ideas & haunted house imagery. Like with last year’s Crimson Peak, however, I was more than okay with swapping out emotional deft for visual craft here, especially since the visuals were so distinctly . . . peculiar. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain looks like a hybrid version of Don King & Nosferatu. A pair of masked twins recall antique photographs of 1900s Halloween costumes. A Harryhausen skeleton army wreaks havoc on a dayglow carnival funhouse. Stop motion monsters cobbled together out of babydoll parts & preserved animal corpses engage in a tabletop knife fight. A coven of dapper adults & long-limbed reptilian monsters devour piles upon piles of children’s eyeballs. Tim Burton may not be interested in self-reinvention with the imagery he delivers in Peculiar Children; he still delights in clashing a clean cut, sunlit suburbia with haunted house goth monstrosities. However, this film proves he’s still got the goods in terms of the strength & potency of the imagery he can deliver and any other shortcomings there might be in Peculiar Children comfortably rest on those laurels.
The more the scope of Tim Burton’s career becomes clear to me the more apparent it is that he’s almost exclusively a children’s filmmaker. Titles like Ed Wood & Sleepy Hollow are the outliers. Peculiar Children fits right in with Burton’s typical, imaginative creepshow for children aesthetic and I could very easily see a child growing up loving this movie the way I grew up loving Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Kids have an easy time mentally luxuriating in fantasy spaces in a way adults don’t. Returning to Beetlejuice as an adult, the pace feels a lot more rapid than it did to me in the 90s and the movie flies by in a whir, whereas in my childhood it felt like an eternity. Peculiar Children will likely have the same effect on younger viewers. It delivers enough striking imagery & memorable set design that kids could mentally return to & stretch out its individual scenes in a way its two hour runtime couldn’t afford. A better, more deliberately paced version of this story might have stretched out over a franchise or a television series, but limiting it to a single film was a smart choice, one that will have implications on how children interact with it both onscreen & in their imaginations in the years to come. Even in its limited time span and overstuffed plot, Burton still finds the time to work in the doomed wartime narrative of The Devil’s Backbone and the places-as-ghosts concepts of a Toni Morrison novel, all while somehow maintaining the film’s firm footing as children’s media. If any other director had delivered Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s likely it’d be held in a much higher regard as an ambitious work of high-concept time travel sci-fi horror for children. However, only Burton could balance all of that overreaching narrative with such specific, effective imagery & maintain its for-kids tone. This film stands as yet another reminder that its director may not be delivering at 100% at this point in his career, but he’s still capable of making some truly great films in-between the duds.
This past Saturday was the annual turning point for me when Mardi Gras stops being a vague concept I hear about on the radio & Facebook feeds and becomes an experience I’m living. Although the Phunny Phorty Phellows’ annual streetcar ride on Twelfth Night is the official start to Carnival season, it’s one I typically miss. Mardi Gras never feels real until I’m finally misbehaving in the thick of it & Krewe du Vieux is my usual starting point for the revelry, but I missed that parade this year as well. 2015’s Chewbacchus celebration was that magical moment when everything clicked and I thought “This is it. This is Mardi Gras.”
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is a relatively young parade that rolls hand-made, people-powered contraptions through the French Quarter & Marigny while the larger, gas-powered floats roll elsewhere across town. Although their nerdy umbrella has expanded to include all kinds of sci-fi goofiness, they’re the only parade I can think of that’s specifically designed to celebrate a movie franchise: Star Wars. Despite the inclusion of other sci-fi properties like Doctor Who, Star Trek, E.T. and (most recently) Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s still a mostly Star Wars-themed affair, one that lauds the “drunken Wookie” Chewbacca as its monarch. Real-life Chewbacca Peter Mayhew himself has even lorded over the parade the past couple of years, revelers treating him like nerdy royalty. The parade’s haphazard, DIY aesthetic perfectly matches the DIY practical effects of the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars’ endless parade of odd-looking weirdos and handmade sets & costumes serves as a fitting platform for New Orleans’ own endless parade of odd-looking weirdos & their personal creations, even if they’ve come to incorporate other fandoms as the years march on.
Wasting away a drunken afternoon in the Quarter and then capping off the night with Chewbacchus’ Imperial Stormtroopers & Jedi Knights was my personal introduction to the 2015 Carnival season. It was a great feeling to ring in my favorite time of the year while celebrating one of my other favorite activities: watching movies. Here are a few pics to help solidify the memory.
Have a great, safe Mardi Gras, y’all! And may the Force be etc, etc.