Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

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 CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

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Episode #60 of The Swampflix Podcast – Icaros: A Vision (2017) & A Mid-Year Return to the Best of 2017

Welcome to Episode #60 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixtieth episode, CC joins James & Brandon to discuss the most noteworthy movies from last year theyve seen in the six months since they made their respective Top Films of 2017 lists.  Also, Brandon makes James watch the meditative ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision (2017) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet, James Cohn, and CC Chapman

Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast: New Orleans French & Overlook Film Fests 2018

Welcome to Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-sixth episode, James & Brandon take care of some film festival-related Spring cleaning before the city hits its summer slump. They discuss the horror-themed Overlook Film Fest, which came through New Orleans for the first time this year, and then are joined by CC to discuss this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest (including in-depth discussions of the Agnès Varda oeuvre & last year’s arthouse thriller Nocturama). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2018

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:

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Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Ken Russell’s Streamlined Modernization & Perversion of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell’s 1988 film adaptation of the 1911 Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm is often criticized for being an adaptation in name only. Critical consensus is that Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm maintains only minor details of Stoker’s original premise and the most the two works share is a common title. It’s true that Russell’s adaptation strays much further from its source material than 1922’s Nosferatu does in its faithful, but copyright-infringing bastardization of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The film The Lair of the White Worm is not a blasphemous, in-name-only adulteration of a sacred text, however. Bram Stoker’s White Worm novel is incoherent pulp. It’s a tawdry mess of a work written late in the author’s life, long past when his mental facilities were at their sharpest. Russell modernized and drastically altered basic components of the late author’s work, but he was much more faithful to the source material than what’s typically acknowledged. There’s even a prideful title card that proclaims, “Screenplay by Ken Russell from the Bram Stoker novel” to boastfully acknowledge their posthumous collaboration. Russell did not disrespectfully diminish a well-loved literary work. The filmmaker streamlined and enhanced an imperfect, misshapen novel that had been largely (and perhaps rightfully) forgotten by time by accentuating its most worthwhile aspects. He transformed a painfully slow read into a wildly fun horror film.

Although Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is a mid-length novella, it reads like a rambling epic that drones on for thousands of pages. Its story is essentially a simplistic rehashing of Dracula, in which a naïve outsider intrudes on a world of supernatural menace while conducting entirely unrelated, mundane business. Instead of providing legal service for suspiciously inhuman royalty like the solicitor Jonathan Harker in Dracula, The Lair of the White Worm’s naïve outsider, Adam Salton, is thrust into contact with similarly inhuman gentry by neighborly proximity. During a routine getting to know the attractive neighbors visit, Salton finds two wicked figures tormenting the innocent women of the house. One of these figures, Sir Caswall, is a weak carbon copy of Count Dracula. Although his apparent vampirism is never made explicit he physically resembles Bram Stoker’s most infamous creation and shares Dracula’s passion for hypnotizing women, this time under the guise of practicing “mesmerism.” The second tormentor, Lady Arabella, is more of a creation original to this novel. Lady Arabella is gradually revealed to be a shape-shifting “worm” (skewing closer to a giant snake or a dragon than an earthworm) known to feed on locals who dare encroach on its territory. While Dracula touches on the danger of female sexuality, Lair explicitly refers to our villainess, Lady Arabella, as a “cocotte”, French for prostitute. Despite her Anglo-Saxon good looks, a dangerous fiend like Lady Arabella could “infect” respectable English women with her serpentine (and independent) ways and seduce men to their ruin.

Furthering the Dracula parallels, a Van Helsing-type (Sir Nathaniel) helps Adam concoct a plan to destroy the worm’s pit below Diana’s Grove, but instead of confronting the villainous Arabella and Caswall on their adjacent ancestral lands, Adam and his wife Mimi bafflingly run around the countryside in an effort to avoid the villains. Lady Arabella is responsible for her own destruction by running a wire directly from the kite to her own well in hopes of lurig Caswall into her clutches. The villains’ fate is sealed by a random lightning strike that ignites dynamite meant to destroy the pit below Arabella’s property, where the worm is known to feed. It’s as if the lightning were a direct punishment from God or, more likely, Stoker had no idea how to wrap up a mess of a plot he had dug for himself.

Russell’s screenplay adaptation cleans up the mess Stoker made by combining and excising characters to essentialize what makes it distinct from being yet another Dracula. One major change was combining the Dracula and Van Helsing archetypes of Sir Caswall and Sir Nathaniel into a single character. Portrayed by a young Hugh Grant, Lord James D’Ampton is a destined hero ordained by heritage to destroy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Lady Arabella in the Stoker version) once she’s revealed to be a shapeshifting, killer “worm.” D’Ampton remains a “mesmerism” enthusiast, but in the way of a snake-charmer, a skill willed to him through family to aid in his task of hypnotizing and slaying the titular worm beast. Two major villains tormenting Derbyshire, England is one too many for a work this simple; Russell was smart to remove the most Dracula-reminiscent one of the pair. His other character changes are basic modernizations meant to update Stoker’s outdated material to a 1980s setting. For instance, the naïve Adam Salton character (now named Angus Flint and portrayed by Peter Capaldi) is an archeologist, not newly-landed gentry. This style of modernization did require some major changes in terms of character traits, however. Russell removed the bizarre racial fixations Stoker focused on in his novel. In particular, Stoker exhaustingly others an African immigrant servant to Sir Caswall and a biracial female love interest for their cultural and (worse yet) supposed biological differences. Oolanga is framed as an obviously evil character. He writes, “But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”  Meanwhile, Mimi Watford is compared favorably to her white, but passive & tragically doomed cousin as an exotic, fiery beauty: “Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock she is sprung from; Mimi almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset.” Russell excises this aspect of the work entirely by casting white actors in their roles and diminishing the parts they play in the central story. There is both a shrewdness and a cowardice to Russell’s avoidance of the uncomfortable racial issues at the heart of his Bram Stoker source material, but it’s ultimately an improvement that helps declutter the work just as much as removing the redundant, Dracula-reminiscent villain.

Russell had to polish and streamline Stoker’s original vision to craft a fun, watchable horror movie out of the rubble, but the novel plays directly into the auteur’s pet obsessions. At the heart of Stoker’s novella is a deep-seated fear of female sexual autonomy, detectable in the sexual imagery of Lady Arabella’s phallic “worm” form and the vaginal cave where that monster feeds. Russell was well established as a sexual provocateur by the time he adapted Lair of the White Worm in 1988. Transgressive works like Crimes of Passion and The Devils had already allowed the director to indulge in blatant depictions of the perceived horrors of autonomous female sexuality in a way Stoker’s much earlier novel could only subtly imply. Streamlining The Lair of the White Worm’s most exciting components allowed Russell more time to exploit the Cronenbergian sexual menace inherent to the character of Lady Arabella (Lady Sylvia). He wastes no time revealing that she is a shapeshifting, humanoid snake, unlike Stoker who saved her mysterious villainy for much later in his novella. Before actress Amanda Donahue is even depicted spitting venom or baring comically oversized fangs, she is costumed wearing cowls and headscarves that accentuate her reptilian nature, affording her the silhouette of a bipedal cobra. This allows more time for Russell, who was never one for subtlety, to indulge in the character’s over-the-top sexual villainy. Her consumption of young, innocent locals is made explicitly analogous to sexual desire and is even tied to an elaborate sex ritual that involves a giant, sharpened phallus (a favored instrument of death for Russell, as indicated by its inclusion here and in Crimes of Passion). The director’s screenplay may play loose with the details of its source material, but there’s enough of Bram Stoker’s influence detectable to see why he was drawn to it. Russell maintained the mesmerism hypnosis of the novella, but made it a psychedelic side effect of Lady Sylvia’s venom (in imagery directly pulled from his previous works Altered States and The Devils). Russell latched onto Stoker’s subliminal sexual anxiety, but elevated it from subtext to the forefront. He even held onto the Dracula-reverberating aspects of the novel by accentuating the comically oversized, vampire-like marks Lady Sylvia’s snake bites leave on her victim’s necks. Russell made major changes to the novella, but in a way that was more of a personalized distillation than a disrespectful dilution.

Besides cleaning up its loose ends and blatant character-based redundancies, Ken Russell improved The Lair of the White Worm by making it fun, memorable, and genuinely unnerving. Many movie adaptations of literary works are derided as lesser echoes of superior source material. Russell, by contrast, altered a near-forgotten work for the better. As Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm was never considered to be an especially well-written or even well-conceived literary work, the decades-late, culturally updated revision had to come from a genuinely enthusiastic place as a reader. Ken Russell was himself no stranger to critical consensus that his work was over the top, messy pulp and saw some of his own perverse passions in Stoker’s little-loved final novel. His adaptation may have been more dedicated to bringing out those auteurist similarities between their two minds than it was to faithfully mimicking Stoker’s work, but given the lowly place where the novel started that’s something of an honor.

-CC Chapman

The Horrors of Adolescent Female Bodies & Bonding in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

At first glance, the 2009 horror film Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fully display the feminist credentials that would be expected from a film of its pedigree.  After the critical and commercial success of Juno, Academy Award Winner for Best Screenplay, it may have been a surprising career move for in-demand screenwriter Diablo Cody to follow up her modest independent debut with a 20th Century Fox-distributed horror film starring famed sex symbol and Michael Bay muse Megan Fox.  Karyn Kusama could also have been accused of slumming it as the film’s director, given the prestige of her own debut film Girlfight, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.  As collaborators on the picture, however, Cody and Kusama were able to covertly deliver a subversive feminist horror film in Jennifer’s Body, despite the oversight of the male-dominated business of major studio filmmaking that backed the project.  Jennifer’s Body has the look and feel of countless other slickly-produced major studio horrors from the mid to late 2000s.  Its mixed reviews and underwhelming box office returns posit it as a misfire for 20th Century Fox, one with no more vital feminist or cultural subtext than any other 2009 horror mediocrities, like Saw VI or the Friday the 13th remake.  Jennifer’s Body’s expensive production values, studio-driven marketing, and employment of Megan Fox in its titular role distract from the feminist subtext of the story it tells, but it’s still a work driven by two behind-the-camera female artists who are directly exploring subjects specific to the modern female experience.  Specifically, Jennifer’s Body utilizes the destructive power of pubescent female bodies and the intensity of adolescent female friendships as direct sources for its horror, something that may not be immediately apparent on the surface.

One of the ways Jennifer’s Body subverts audience expectations of a major studio horror film starring the often-objectified Megan Fox is by incorporating the actor’s objectification into its text.  As suggested in the title, the film is specifically about her body, not her soul or unique personality, which was pointed out by A.O. Scott in his review for the New York Times.  This focus on Megan Fox’s physique was attractive to 20th Century Fox’s marketing machine, who completely misunderstood the intention of Cody and Kusama’s work.  Shockingly, the studio suggested that Fox promote Jennifer’s Body by participating in online chat rooms through popular pornographic websites to appeal directly to the men who might be pruriently compelled to see her onscree.  The idea was shot down before it was ever suggested to Fox in sincerity, but it does exemplify the types of marketing schemes she was asked to participate in after becoming an object of desire in Michael Bay’s Transformers series.  Jennifer’s Body does not ignore the celebrity baggage that comes with casting Fox in its titular role, but rather incorporates it into its basic composition.  In the film, a bumbling nerd played by Amanda Seyfried ogles Jennifer’s body just as much as the heterosexual teen boys in their high school class, even though she is Jennifer’s best friend and not just a casual admirer.  The friendship between the two central characters, Jennifer (Fox) and the playfully-named “Needy” (Seyfried), is depicted to be just as horrifyingly intense as the film’s explicit acts of supernatural violence, but there is also clearly a sexual attraction component built into their dynamic.  Jennifer is universally desired by her peers the way Fox was presented as an object of desire in the real-world media at large (including among this film’s own marketing team) and that intense allure instigates most of the film’s horrific dangers.

Being widely sexually desired is only the start of the terror lurking in Jennifer’s body.  Like with many coming of age horror films set in teenage environments, the film relies heavily on the real-world body horrors associated with puberty and the developing body.  Unlike the film Ginger Snaps, which uses the traditionally masculine metaphor of werewolf transformations to represent its own female puberty body horror crisis, Jennifer’s Body notably adopts the myth of the succubus, which is historically coded as feminine.  Both films apply the tropes of curse and possession not only to the horrors of werewolves and succubi, but to the specifically female condition and the burgeoning sexuality of their protagonists. Ginger’s monstrous form just happens to be a werewolf, which less specifically coded to be female than the succubus.  In most folklore, the succubus is a female demon that drives men insane and into poor health through coerced and repetitive sexual intercourse, essentially functioning as a deadly seductress.  Jennifer’s transformation into a succubus is presented in Jennifer’s Body as involuntary, much like the body horror ritual of puberty. After pursuing a traveling rock band as a hopeful groupie, Jennifer is forced into the role of a live sacrifice for the band’s Satanic ritual, which is botched when they discover she is not a virgin.  A lesser film might have focused more heavily on the grotesqueness of the band’s attitudes towards female sexuality in this moment and spent much more time gleefully depicting their comeuppance, but Jennifer’s Body is mainly concerned with the fallout of Jennifer’s subsequent monster transformation than any kind of traditional revenge narrative.  Becoming a succubus is a side effect of the band’s failed ritual and the symptoms of this transformation show largely in the ways puberty normally manifests in teenage, cisgender female bodies.  The typically ebullient Jennifer is drained of energy, thin-haired, oily-skinned, and just generally not her meticulously perfect Megan Fox self after her transformation into a succubus.  As a metaphor for pubescent transformation, her newfound life as a succubus has robbed her of the power she once enjoyed as the most attractive girl in her high school class.  She does find new, dangerous power in the demonic sexual energy the transformation affords her, however.  Picking on the “nice guy” social outcasts who treat her like an unobtainable sex symbol from afar, Jennifer discovers that she can regain her power and her gorgeous looks by seducing and literally feeding off male victims, which magically restores her vitality and sex appeal. Jennifer may have “preyed” on men prior to her transformation, but her curse creates an extreme situation where her behavior is more horrific and she becomes even more physically attractive (both to the audience and to her subsequent victims).  As with many horror films, Jennifer’s Body leans heavily on the transgression of teenage sexuality as an instigator and justification for its onscreen violence.  The film subverts this trope significantly by having this newfound, dangerous sexuality tragically forced upon its titular killer by the men around her as opposed to something she chose for fun or to satisfy curiosity.  Her newfound sexual potency is no more of a choice or a boon than the horrors of puberty and the male gaze, whether it makes her more powerful or not.

Since pubescent body horror is often explored through monster movie metaphors in high school-set horror films, Jennifer’s Body is much more unique as a feminist horror work in the way it explores the terrifying intensity of adolescent female friendships.  As the protagonist, Needy describes her relationship with Jennifer as long-term “sand box love,” meaning they have been best friends since they were young enough to play in sand boxes together.  The introduction of pubescent hormones and sexual relationships with boys drives the usual wedges between them you’d expect from a coming of age teen girl narrative, but Cody and Kusama focus more on the intensity of Needy and Jennifer’s relationship itself than what would typically be explored in a male artist’s version of the same narrative.  Jennifer and Needy are overly sensitive to each other’s actions and opinions.  Skepticism and disgust over each other’s chosen sexual partners drives most of their verbal conflicts, but mainly because they are unhealthily possessive of each other’s bodies.  They emotionally bully and abuse each other in subtle, long-term ways that feel more appropriate of a decades-old bad marriage than a friendship between teenagers.  This only gets worse once Jennifer’s murderous impulses as a succubus seem to specifically target male partners Needy has expressed romantic interest in, either verbally or through body language.  This tendency is more than just a petty tactic to display the dominance Jennifer’s traditional beauty affords her over Needy; it’s also designed to provoke a detectable reaction out of her, the way an emotional abuser looks for satisfaction in visible proof that they hold power over their victim.  In turn, Needy attempts to claim power over Jennifer’s body by offering to “cure” her of the succubus “curse,” at least in the original screenplay.  In a deleted scene, Needy appeals to Jennifer’s sense of morality by pointing out that her newfound powers come with an unfair cost: a sizable body count.  Jennifer retorts that she’s not killing people, just boys, whom she does not value as anything but playthings and sources of power.  Although casual sex is substituted with murder in this scenario, the exchange is clearly coded as Needy trying to exert control over Jennifer’s choices in how she relates to sexual partners and uses her own body, which is essentially none of Needy’s business. Jennifer and Needy are unhealthily obsessed with one another, which is an aspect of adolescent female friendships that isn’t often explored in any mass media, much less major studio horror films.

The most glaring wrinkle in the subtle, nuanced ways Jennifer’s Body explores the horrific intensity of female adolescent friendships is in how the film depicts queer desire.  Needy’s awe of Jennifer is apparent as soon as the first scene of the film and she often leers at her friend’s physical beauty from the same distant admirer vantage point as the heterosexual boys in their high school class.  It’s only natural, then, that her queer romantic desire of Jennifer would be explicitly addressed onscreen at some point in the film.  It’s not at all an extraneous or tongue-in-cheek intrusion on the story.  Cody and Kusama play much of the central characters’ relationship as sincere melodrama, which Kusama describes on a recent episode of Switchblade Sisters as “the nightmare of obsessive relationships between girls [that] can make or break you,” a genuine conflict that’s meant to be taken even more seriously than the film’s often humorous demonic kills.  That’s why it’s so bizarre that the same-sex kiss shared between Needy and Jennifer feels so passionless and seeped in the male gaze.  Shot with the over-the-top production values of a music video, their single kiss as a pairing is treated as a moment worthy of pornographic leering from the audience instead of a genuine dramatic beat within the context of the story.  It’s as if the salacious businessmen of the film’s marketing team had stepped into the director’s chair for a single shot, drowning out Cody and Kusama’s voices with a heap of studio notes on how best to sell the romantic exchange as a sexual commodity.  What’s even more alarming is the way Needy and Jennifer’s kiss is immediately followed by a moment of what’s often described as “gay panic.”  It’s possible to read Needy’s freaked-out reaction to her out of nowhere sexual encounter with Jennifer as an extension of her general horror with the changes brought on by her best friend’s body (and its corresponding body count), but by recoiling in fear from the brief exchange she pushes the film into participating in a harmful homophobic trope that persists in media at large.  The real shame of that stumbling block is that the queer desire shared between Needy and Jennifer is a legitimate facet of the script that does deserve onscreen exploration.  In the film Heavenly Creatures, the two young female protagonists’ budding sexual obsession with one another, which is notably not played for titillation, is also a means of exploring class issues and socio-economic envy.  By contrast, the homoerotic scene in Jennifer’s Body is played for pure audience arousal, with none of the thematic weight it easily could have carried.  It’s embarrassingly mishandled in a way that exemplifies the studio tinkering that muddled the film’s feminist themes in a myriad of ways, from conception to post-production marketing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer’s Body manages to subvert the expectation of major studio horror filmmaking with meaningful feminist themes.  Not only does a collaboration between Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama already suggest the likelihood of that accomplishment, but the film also telegraphs its intent by borrowing its name from a Hole song and opening with the line, “Hell is a teenage girl.”  Still, it’s a miracle that a film this heavily subjected to major studio influence could extend its feminist worldview beyond the surface level power of a female monster violently destroying the men who ogle her.  The expected tropes of coming of age body horror, punishment for transgressive sexuality, and revenge for unwanted sexual advances are all incorporated into Cody’s screenplay, but the film still carves out its own thematic space in the horror landscape by focusing on the intense female friendship between its two leads.  As many boys as Jennifer kills in her quest to restore her energy and make her hair shiny again, none are ever as significant to the dramatic plot as her relationship with Needy, a long-term obsession that extends beyond romance into an entirely different, terrifying realm.  The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty.  That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of Jennifer’s Body; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position.  It’s what makes the film unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.

-CC Chapman

Episode #45 of The Swampflix Podcast: NOFF 2017 & Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Welcome to Episode #45 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-fifth episode, we dive back into the risky, exciting world of Skype recordings & guest hosts. Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, from the Oscar hopefuls to the never-to-be-properly-distributed rarities. Also, Brandon makes Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast watch the classic Tim Burton debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Episode #26 of The Swampflix Podcast: Archie at the Movies & Hitman Hart – Wrestling With Shadows (1999)

Welcome to Episode #26 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-sixth episode, Brandon makes CC watch the pro wrestling documentary classic Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (1999) for the first time to help get hyped for WrestleMania. Also, CC & Brandon discuss three less-than-prestigious feature films set in the Archie Comics universe. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Krewe Divine’s Maiden Voyage

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There comes a time in your adult life when maturity & experience leads you to making tough decisions and strengthened dedication to the things that matter most. That’s why a few of us here at Swampflix have decided that it’s time to get serious about Mardi Gras. Every Carnival season there’s always some kind of personal crisis about what to wear or what themes to play off of while costuming in the Quarter, but that’s something that never seems to be a problem for krewes that stick with a consistent theme in their annual masquerading. Those revelers always seem to have their shit together. Since Swampflix was launched two years ago, we’ve tried our best to find the ways cinema is represented in Mardi Gras festivities, whether by covering the Star Wars celebrations of Chewbacchus or by costuming as the titular plague from the Vincent Price classic The Masque of the Red Death. It never quite feels like enough, though. As it’s time to get serious about how we can contribute to cinema’s presence in Mardi Gras festivities, we’ve decided to find our own sense of dedication & consistency in forming a new costuming krewe that celebrates one of our all-time favorite onscreen performers: Divine.

Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse if 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. We hope to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked up glory by forming a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to meet in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday from here to eternity. Our initial krewe is a small group all made of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and former podcast guest Virginia Ruth. 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 2017 maiden voyage as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #24 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Elephant Man (1980) & Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor Melodramas

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Welcome to Episode #24 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-fourth episode, CC makes Brandon watch David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) for the first time in light of John Hurt’s recent passing. Also, CC & Brandon discuss Douglas Sirk’s infamous run of Technicolor melodramas produced by Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. Enjoy!

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet