Lagniappe Podcast: Castle Freak (1995)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the Full Moon creature feature gross-out Castle Freak (1995), directed by Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon.

00:00 Welcome

02:00 The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
03:23 Mr. Arkadin (1955)
04:05 The Queen of Black Magic (1981)
07:00 My Octopus Teacher (2020)
07:55 Death of Me (2020)
10:28 We Summon the Darkness (2020)
11:34 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
13:20 Speed Cubers (2020)
16:25 Save Yourselves! (2020)
17:33 Dating Amber (2020)
19:55 Christine (2016)
23:42 Madame (2021)
27:47 Beast Beast (2021)

32:15 Castle Freak (1995)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

The last time WrestleMania came through New Orleans, I indulged in a few of the smaller satellite shows that popped up around the city, including one put on by an extremely nerdy promotion out of NYC called Kaiju Big Battel.  Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium after midnight, watching a kaiju-themed wrestling show with a shockingly sober, wholesome crowd, was a one-of-a-kind delight — an experience I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully replicate.  The wrestlers were mostly costumed in giant plush outfits—dressed as hamburgers, 1950s robots, literal dust bunnies, and cans of soup—smashing each other into the cardboard cities that decorated the ring they used as a goofball playground.  I guess it’s possible to take an unfavorable view of an American company boiling down the kaiju genre to such broadly silly terms, considering its heartbreaking origins as an expression of post-nuclear Japanese national grief in the original Godzilla.  However, the further I dig into the Godzilla canon in recent months, the more I’m starting to realize just how faithful the Kaiju Big Battel brand of novelty wrestling is to its Godzilla roots; it’s just calling back to a later, decidedly kid-friendly era of Godzilla filmmaking detached from the giant lizard’s grim-as-fuck origins.

If there’s any one Godzilla movie that could be blamed for cheapening the monster’s brand with broadly silly slapstick comedy, it’s likely Godzilla vs Megalon.  Thanks to an ugly pan-and-scan transfer with an English dub that was allowed to temporarily slip into the public domain, it’s the Shōwa era Godzilla film that was most widely available to the American public for decades — lurking in creature-of-the-week television broadcasts, gas station DVD bargain bins, and MST3k target practice.  Godzilla vs Megalon appears to have a dire reputation as a result, diluting the larger Godzilla brand with misconceptions that the series was always dirt-cheap and aimed at little kids’ sensibilities.  I can’t personally attest to the quality of that much-seen pan-and-scan edit of Godzilla vs Megalon, but the Criterion restoration that’s currently steaming online is both beautifully colorful and wonderfully goofy. It was obviously a rushed, cheap production, but the kaiju battles have a distinct pro wrestling charm to them that makes for great late-night viewing, transporting me back to that Kaiju Big Battel show in the best way possible.  I can’t say the movie doesn’t deserve its reputation as the bottom of the kaiju media barrel, but now that the more important, prestigious Godzilla films are widely available in their original form, I think there’s a lot more room for audiences to appreciate the film’s delirious, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness for what it is.

The humans-on-the-ground plot of Godzilla vs Megalon feels like repurposed scenes from a 1970s live-action Disney espionage comedy, by which I mean they’re not very memorable or worthy of discussion.  What’s really worth paying attention to here is the pro wrestling booking of the monster fights.  The film is a tag team match.  In one corner, we have the debut (and final) match of Megalon, a profoundly idiotic beetle worshiped by the underwater occultists of Seatopia.  In the other corner, we have the movie’s face: Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman rip-off robot with an insanely wide grin — also appearing in his debut (and final) match.  Neither contender is enough of a draw to carry the movie on their own, so they’re paired with charismatic tag team partners to help get them over with the crowd.  Megalon is paired with Gigan, a much lesser robo-Godzilla derivative than Mechagodzilla, whose non-presence essentially turns this into a squash match.  Jet Jaguar, of course, is paired with Godzilla, a legitimizing tag team partner whose popularity should have been able to forever endear his new robo-friend to children everywhere.  That proved to be an unsuccessful gamble in the long run (Jet Jaguar was never seen or heard from again), but Godzilla appears to have fun trying.  He performs here with the broadly expressive physical language of a wrestler playing to the backseats in a packed auditorium, aiming for big laughs and even bigger wrestling maneuvers that any kid should be delighted cheer on from the crowd.

To its credit, Godzilla vs Megalon does vaguely motion towards the eco-conscious concerns of larger Godzilla lore in its early goings, pitting both the kaiju and the underwater sea cult against us surface humans after our nuclear tests pollute the atmosphere.  The film isn’t earnestly about those themes, though, no more than it’s earnestly about Godzilla or Megalon.  This is Jet Jaguar’s show through & through, as evidenced by the grinning robot closing out the show with his own badass theme song — the same way pro wrestlers replay their entrance music while they lift newly-won championship belts in victory.  Jet Jaguar was created specifically for the film as contest entry from a small child (explaining the not-so-vague resemblance to Ultraman), which is a pretty blatant excuse to sell new kaiju toys & merch.  Because the production was rushed, underfunded, and marketed specifically at little kids’ sensibilities, there isn’t much destruction of towns or cities (outside some crudely inserted stock footage from better-funded Godzilla films), so most of the monster action is staged in an open field, away from the necessity of expensive miniatures.  The result is basically the movie version of Kaiju Big Battel: dudes in goofy costumes body slamming each other in fits of broad, slapstick humor.  It sucks that the kaiju genre was once only associated with that kind of silly novelty entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, especially now that the more serious end of the genre is more widely respected and readily accessible.

-Brandon Ledet

Ape vs Monster (2021)

Between the Shōwa era Godzilla films becoming widely available for home streaming via The Criterion Channel & HBO Max and Adam Wingard finally delivering a decent MonsterVerse film in Godzilla vs Kong, I’ve caught a touch of kaiju fever this year.  Whenever I’m soul-tired and not sure what to watch, I find myself throwing on a giant monster movie to blankly stare at, the same way a lot of pandemic-fatigued audiences have been looping old episodes of The Office & Friends ad infinitum.  It’s hasn’t exactly been a bad or unhealthy coping mechanism as far as I can tell, but I will say I hit a new low in the indulgence recently when I watched the generically titled Ape vs Monster.  A rushed, made-for-TV cash-in on the Godzilla vs Kong box office success, Ape vs Monster has absolutely no redeeming qualities worthy of discussion besides the temporary novelty of watching two more CG creatures fight for my half-interested “amusement”.  I wish I could say I didn’t enjoy the experience.

A chimpanzee launched into space as a failed Cold War science experiment crash-lands back to Earth decades later, covered in a glowing green ooze that exponentially mutates it to kaiju-size.  A nearby Gila monster drinks the same ooze (intercut with the same insert shots of the moon looking spooky over their shared desertscape setting) and grows to the same towering scale.  They fight.  Meanwhile, lady scientists and macho military men bicker at the creatures’ feet about the ethics of euthanizing them before the fight changes venue to a nearby city.  One of the scientists also reconnects with her estranged father for a vague motion towards pathos, but who in the audience could possibly care?

Ape vs Monster is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a made-for-TV Asylum mockbuster “starring” Eric Roberts, at least in terms of its unenthused tone, awkwardly performed dialogue, and lingering shots of nothing that long outstay their welcome to stretch out the runtime.  Still, there is something special about its slapdash kaiju creature effects.  The studio’s cheap-o CGI has an absurdist cut & paste aesthetic to it that’s difficult to look at directly without your brain leaking out of your nose.  The Gila monster looks like a discarded video game prototype adapted from the American Godzilla film from 1998.  Meanwhile, the ape monster doesn’t look like anything in particular, and the longer you stare at its awkward magnificence the less its primatial design makes any sense.  Watching the two computerized abominations struggle to make tactile, physical contact is like trying to explain the finer details of a half-remembered dream; the audience doesn’t actually care, but that doesn’t make it any less surreal.

If anything has become clear to me as I’ve been indulging in disposable kaiju novelties in recent months, it’s that I don’t need much out of a movie to enjoy myself beyond a goofy-looking onscreen monster.  That’s clearly the only saving grace of Ape vs Monster, which delivers two fascinating-looking goofballs and not much else.  The movie does have the gall to tease a queer-bait romance shared between lady scientists on opposite sides of an ongoing Cold War, but it’s frustratingly uninterested in following through with that impulse.  I even thought I was mistaking the Russian character’s sultry accent for queer tension at first, until one of the would-be couple’s macho military-man adversaries complains “Those two seem . . . unusually chummy.”  If it had committed to staging a lesbian romance at the feet of its disgraceful CG kaiju creatures, it might have had something special on its hands.  As is, it’s thoroughly unremarkable beyond the accidental surrealism of its monster designs, which is only to be enjoyed by the easily amused — i.e. me.

-Brandon Ledet

Shadow in the Cloud (2021)

One of my favorite films of all time is Richard Kelly’s The Box, a much-mocked sci-fi thriller that starts as a faithful adaptation of a Twilight Zone plot (Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” to be specific), then spirals out to become its own over-the-top art object once that story runs its course.  I was delighted to see that template repeated in Shadow in the Cloud, then, which starts as a copyright-infringing adaptation of the Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet”, then mutates into its own monstrous beast separate from its obvious source of inspiration.  The difference is that The Box expands on its core Twilight Zone story with a flood of increasingly outlandish, convoluted Ideas that explode the initial premise into scattered, irretrievable shrapnel.  By contrast, Shadow in the Cloud reduces the initially bizarre outline of “Terror at 20,000 Feet” to the most basic, straightforward hand-to-hand combat action fluff imaginable.  It just does so with a full-on Richard Kelly level commitment to the bit, creating something truly spectacular purely out of brute force.

When Shadow in the Cloud is still limited to its “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” beginnings, it does a decent enough job at finding new sources of tension & purpose in that dusty genre template.  Chloë Grace Moretz stars as a WWII fighter pilot who’s at the mercy of an overly suspicious, grotesquely macho cargo-run crew who don’t trust her presence on their plane.  To neutralize her potential threat to their mission, the men confine her to a gun turret below the plane’s belly, where she’s isolated—and lethally armed—in a free-floating bubble.  The combination of that confined space, the radio chatter from the misogynist assholes above (who keep referring to her as a “dame” and a “broad” instead of a fellow soldier), and the eventual emergence of the Twilight Zone version of a gremlin on the plane’s wings is a wonderful tension-builder that makes full, glorious use of its seemingly limited, familiar premise.  It’s the lengthy, over-the-top release of that tension in the film’s third act that really achieves something special, though.

After listening to the men on the plane delegitimize and sexualize her for the entire ride—while also ignoring her warnings of the gremlin on the wings and enemy fighters in the clouds—Moretz explodes into action.  Once she emerges from her gun-turret prison cell, her deathmatch with the gremlin is nonstop carnage and catharsis, indulging in a Looney Tunes sense of physics & decorum that’s wildly divergent from the film’s confined-space beginnings. The 1940s setting is harshly contrasted with an 80s-synth John Carpenter score as Moretz proves herself to be the toughest solider on-board, effectively tearing the gremlin to shreds with her own bare hands as her fellow soldiers fall to their peril.  It’s the same grounded-war-narrative-to-outrageous-horror-schlock trajectory played with in 2018’s Overlord, except in this case the grotesquely monstrous enemy is American misogynists rather than Nazi combatants.

It may not be as gloriously inane as The Box (few films are), but Shadow in the Cloud is a total blast.  It’s 80 minutes of delicious, delirious pulp, settling halfway between a dumb-fun creature feature and a sincerely performed radio play.  Not for nothing, it’s also the first time I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed a Chloë Grace Moretz performance, as I spent the final half hour of the film cheering her on as if she were a pro wrestler taking down the ultimate heel.  I would love to live in a world where every classic Twilight Zone episode were exploited as a jumping-off point for an over-the-top sci-fi thriller that reaches beyond the outer limits of a 20min premise – especially if they all could manage to be this wonderfully absurd.

-Brandon Ledet

The Alien Movies Rated and Ranked

Alien (1979)

An exquisitely fucked up mutation of the Roger Corman creature feature.  So many dirt-cheap horrors in its wake have aimed for its exact quietly eerie mood and inspired only frustrated boredom in the attempt.  Here, every scare is a sharp knife to the brain no matter how familiar you are with what’s coming.  I still can’t look directly at Giger’s goopy sex monster without shivering in pure disgust all these sequels & knockoffs later.  Like the original Terminator, it’s got a reputation of having been surpassed by its louder, better-funded spawn, but I don’t believe that’s true for a second.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Far from the scariest entry in the franchise, but easily the most fun.  The whole thing plays like a live-action cartoon, and its blasphemous disinterest in series lore is a refreshing blast of fresh air after watching Fincher take everything so relentlessly serious in its predecessor.  Great creature gags, some endearingly goofy character work, and a wonderfully imaginative eye from Jeunet, as always.  Big fan.

Prometheus (2012)

Fantastic mix of ludicrous retro sci-fi pulp & elegant visual artistry.  I am forever in love with the idea of humans asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response.  Still kicking myself for allowing the negative word-of-mouth to talk me out of seeing it in 3D on the big screen when I had the chance.

Aliens (1986)

I’ll always have some philosophical hang-ups with the way Cameron simplifies & normalizes the subliminal nightmare fuel of the first Alien movie for much more familiar blockbuster entertainment.  It’s still great as a standalone action movie though!  Stan Winston’s wizardly creature effects are especially praiseworthy, affording the xenomorphs an exciting feeling of agility that matches the increased momentum of the shoot-em-up action sequences.  I’ll never buy into the myth that this & T2 are somehow superior to their predecessors just because of their slicker production values, and the Director’s Cut’s sprawling 154min runtime is a crime against all reason & good taste.  And yet pushing back against its hyperbolic reputation comes across as contrarian blasphemy, when the truth is it’s just a solidly entertaining popcorn movie and that’s a pleasure in itself.

AvP: Requiem (2007)

This is widely understood to be the worst Alien film, but I thoroughly enjoy it as dumb-fun teen horror. If nothing else, it’s impressively efficient and Mean. The gore gags are plentiful & cruel, maintaining a consistently entertaining rhythm of nasty, amoral kills. It’s like a modern throwback to the Roger Corman creature feature, with a suburban-invasion angle that brings some much-needed novelty to two once-great franchises that were running out of steam. I honestly believe that if it featured warring alien creatures that weren’t associated with pre-existing series, it wouldn’t be nearly as reviled. It probably wouldn’t be remembered at all, though, so maybe it’s for the best that it ruffled horror-nerd feathers.

Alien Covenant (2017)

Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes back down to the level of a body-count slasher.  This prequel/sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise.  Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), this easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has maintained a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand has eight films into its catalog.

Alien³ (1992)

Really pushes the limits of the dictum “There’s no such thing as a bad Alien movie.”  Even the revised Assembly Cut is an excessively dour bore, and the only thing that breathes any life into the damned thing is the continued instinctive terror of Giger’s creature designs (though the green sheen of the early-90s CGI isn’t doing that aesthetic any favors).  Its only illuminating accomplishment is helping make sense why Jeunet was hired for the next entry in the series, as it often looks & feels like one of his steampunk grotesqueries with all of the Fun & Whimsy surgically removed. Otherwise, it just coasts on the series’ former glories.

AvP: Alien vs Predator (2004)

Maybe the most frustrating movie in the Alienverse for being deliriously stupid fun for its final 20 minutes or so, but not worth the effort it takes to get there.  The restorative praise for it in Horror Noire had me hoping for a different reaction than I had in the theater, but this viewing was mostly a repeat: bored out of my skull for the first hour and then cheering on its climactic team-up sequence as if I were watching the creature-feature Super Bowl.  Appropriately, that’s also a pretty accurate summation of Paul WS Anderson’s entire career; there’s just enough unhinged, goofball fun to keep your rooting for him even though he fumbles the ball every single game.

-Brandon Ledet

Mothra vs Godzilla vs Godzilla vs Mothra

Keeping track of which titles are available to stream on what platform when is a constant struggle for sub-professional movie nerds.  This has been doubly true in the past year, where the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred & warped the traditional theatrical window into near oblivion.  That might explain how I showed up to HBO Max intending to watch the new Godzilla vs Kong film a week early, confusing the date of its Chinese market theatrical debut for the date it was supposed to start streaming on HBO Max in America.  Getting jazzed to watch a big-budget kaiju spectacle only to discover I’d have to keep that excitement on ice for an entire week was a letdown, and I was determined to do something with my giant-monster energy in that moment of panic so as not to waste it.  I needed to watch Godzilla fight a formidable foe that night, so I scrambled to come up with which opponent would be a worthy replacement for the mighty Kong.  The answer was immediately obvious, as the last time I saw Godzilla breathe atomic fire in 2019’s King of the Monsters re-sparked my interest in the mystical femme kaiju Mothra, who I’ve seen in too few of her own onscreen epic battles.

Choosing to watch Godzilla battle Mothra might’ve been a quick, easy decision, but it immediately led to another, trickier what-to-stream crisis.  Having appeared in 15 feature films to date, Mothra is second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen battles in the sprawling Zillaverse.  Whittling down the list of options from there was a complicated process.  I removed titles where Mothra appeared on her lonesome, terrorizing only the puny, Earth-polluting humans in her path.  I was looking for a fair fight.  I then discarded titles like Destroy All Monsters & Giant Monsters: All Out Attack where Mothra had to share the screen with the dozens of other kaiju baddies who have beef with the King of the Monsters.  That left me with two clear contenders for the perfect Godzilla vs Mothra match-up, which should’ve been obvious by their titles alone: 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Choosing between the two of them was essentially a coin-toss—given their near-identical titles—so I did the only sensible thing: I watched both.  And they were both great.  All I can really do here is attempt to distinguish them from one another in case someone else finds themselves in that hyper-specific scenario – wanting to watch Godzilla fight Mothra and having to make a snap decision on where to satisfy their kaiju craving.

The 1964 film Mothra vs Godzilla is the platonic ideal of what you’d want out of a retro kaiju battle film.  A beloved classic from Godzilla’s Shōwa era, it’s earned both populist praise as a fun action romp featuring two of the greatest movie monsters of all time and the recent stamp of approval from The Criterion Collection as a culturally significant work of Art.  In the movie, Godzilla is a monstrous personification of nuclear waste & coastal erosion who can only be vanquished by the righteous Earth-protector Mothra.  Only, the corporate greed of the smiling chumps at Happy Enterprises make Mothra question whether humanity is worth saving at all.  The foot-tall fairy women from Infant Island who represent Mothra’s wishes (as Happy Enterprises jokingly declare have “the power of attorney” over the beast)—and can summon her in song—eventually broker a deal for Mothra (and her freshly-hatched larvae) to fight Godzilla to protect humanity for destruction.  In the ensuing battle, she flaps up punishing winds with her wings, puffs out a poisonous pollen, and drags Godzilla around by his tail until he retreats back into the ocean.  It’s wonderful.  The entire movie is a pure, kitschy delight, registering as the Godzilla equivalent of The Bride of Frankenstein in its balance between cutesy humor and retro terror.

1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra (marketed in America as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) is a little clunkier in its build-up to its titular monster battle, even though it repeats most of the 1964 film’s broader details.  The Infant Island fairy women (originally played by The Peanuts) may have been replaced by a new generation of foot-tall mystic beauties called The Cosmos and the easy-target villain Happy Enterprises may have been replaced by the hubris & pollution of Humanity as a species, but story-wise Godzilla vs Mothra is near-identical to Mothra vs Godzilla, just as it is in title.  Only, it delays that traditional story with some hokey Indiana Jones-style adventurism and the crash of a CGI asteroid in its early goings, needlessly inflating its runtime.  That unnecessary delay may mean that Mothra vs. Godzilla ’64 is the better film overall, but once it fully unleashes its monster mayhem Godzilla vs. Mothra ’92 has much more exciting kaiju fights, which is a pretty major qualifier.  Mothra fully emerges into battle about an hour into the film in a cloud of poisonous, glittering pollen, and attacks Godzilla with sparks, lasers, and underwater brawling in a huge step up from her original move set.  She’s also teamed up with a goth frenemy named Battra (decorated with Guy Fieri flame decals on its wings) who adds an entire new dynamic to the titular fight.  Together, they shock Godzilla into submission, smash a Ferris wheel into him, and ultimately, as the kids would say, “throw the entire man away” as a team.

I’m not enough of an expert in the kaiju battle genre to declare a clear victor here.  All I can report is that the two Godzilla vs. Mothra films have their own distinct flavors despite the ways they overlap in narrative and lore.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is a perfectly calibrated rubber-monster creature feature from start to end, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise in what you’d expect from a Shōwa era kaiju picture starring these particular two monsters.  By contrast, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) is a much more uneven picture that spends a little too much time building up to its creature-feature payoffs.  However, its actual kaiju battle scenes are much more exciting than its predecessor’s, staging absolutely gorgeous rubber-monster battles within the hyper-femme color palette of a teen girl’s bedroom.  Choosing between the two movies is no easier now that I’ve watched them both, so my selection process would have to revert to the kinds of arbitrary filters that narrowed down my field of options in the first place.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64) is ten minutes shorter, currently streaming in HD, and carries the art-film prestige of Criterion Collection canonization.  It wins by default, but Godzilla vs. Mothra (’92) put up a hell of a fight.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond