Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Director Michael Dougherty has gradually made a name for himself in genre nerd circles over the past decade with just three feature films. I can say without a doubt that his biggest budget, highest profile release is the worst of the bunch so far. Lacking the perversely dark humor of his cult classic horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat and the delirious camp of his Christmastime fairy tale Krampus, Godzilla: King of the Monsters displays none of the personality or wit that has earned him goodwill among horror aficionados over the years. Even as Dougherty’s least interesting release to date, however, I still found King of the Monsters to be entraining enough as a big-budget monster flick on its own terms. In fact, I’d even argue that it’s the best entry in its kaiju-revival franchise’s recent run, which began with Gareth Edwards’s “post-human” blockbuster Godzilla in 2014 and continued with the Vietnam War Movie parody Kong: Skull Island in 2016. Whereas Edwards’s Godzilla was punishingly dour & sidelined its own titular monster until the last minute and Skull Island indulged in frequent but short bursts of monster action with no dramatic heft to them at all, Dougherty’s follow-up finds a nice balance between the two approaches. He may have only stumbled into a decent-enough monster movie through the Goldilocks method of finding the perfect temperature for porridge that was already made before he arrived, but hopefully that accidental success will help fund more interesting projects from him in the future – like a Trick ‘r Treat 2.

The standard complaint for all modern Godzilla moves is that they don’t feature nearly enough screentime for Godzilla. It’s as if people are misremembering early entries in the franchise as being all-out monster action from start to end (which they never were). There is plenty else to complain about in King of the Monsters, but I feel like balancing screentime between monster action and human drama is the one thing the film happened to get right. It’s a pretty major detail to nail, at least, and a significant factor in why the film is not a total waste. Dougherty & company take a Pokémon-type approach here in collecting all our favorite skyscraper-scale yokai for lengthy onscreen battles that are only occasionally interrupted by the tedious humans who witness them. Relying on Skull Island & the 2014 Godzilla to justify the indulgence, the film operates in a world where there are seventeen (and counting) kaiju positioned all over the globe, hibernating until it is their turn to battle for our entertainment. Mothra gets an armored makeover, but is still allowed to be a majestic beauty; Rodan looks like a flaming update to the goofball vulture from The Giant Claw; Ghidorah is bathed in a metal-as-fuck swirl of dark clouds & lighting, so that every frame where he’s featured could pass as an 80s-thrash album cover. It almost doesn’t matter how often Godzilla himself appears on the screen, since he has plenty company amongst his loyal (and disloyal) monster subjects. The bare minimum a Godzilla movie must achieve to be worthwhile is striking a proper balance between its human and giant-monster characters. King of the of the Monsters excels only at that singular metric, but the accomplishment is enough to allow it to skate by elsewhere.

I have nothing especially urgent to say about the film’s human characters or its themes of nuclear pollution, since every detail outside the monster action is so thin & half-hearted that it immediately slips through your fingers. From a movie industry standpoint, I suppose it’s interesting that any film with a cast this saturated with familiar faces would’ve been an automatic box office smash in the 90s blockbuster days of megaproducers like Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay. If nothing else, central actors from two of the most widely obsessed-over television shows of the decade (Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things & Charles Dance from Game of Thrones) star in substantial roles and were featured heavily in the film’s advertisement but failed to draw in wide audiences in droves. I suppose you could use that failing as evidence that star power no longer means anything in Hollywood filmmaking, but the truth is that it’s never meant anything in Godzilla films in particular. This franchise lives & dies by the quality & frequency of its monster action, and King of the Monsters tests the limits of that dictum by wasting zero effort on anything else besides collecting various kaiju & parading them around for our entertainment. I had the same reaction gazing at these gigantic, destructive creatures as I did watching the parade of pint-sized cuties in Detective Pikachu – mild, adequate amusement. The only difference is that I’d describe the monsters here as “badass” instead of “adorable,” give or take a Rodan. It’s understandable to want something more from Michael Dougherty after the precedent he set with his two previous, superior films, but I also don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to calculate the exact right amount of kaiju action to include in your kaiju film. No matter what, people will always complain that there wasn’t enough, but I do think King of the Monsters got it right.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #80 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Best of Matt Farley & Not of this Earth (1988)

Welcome to Episode #80 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eightieth episode, Brandon & Britnee review the holy trinity of Matt Farley’s backyard movies under the Motern Media brand: Local Legends (2013), Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012), and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009).  Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch Traci Lords’s mainstream debut, the 1988 Jim Wynorski remake of Roger Corman’s Not of this Earth. Enjoy!

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

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Cold Skin (2018)

2017 was a great year for fish-fucking movies, considering the American distribution of the horned-up Polish mermaid musical The Lure and the surprise Best Picture Oscar win for del Toro’s Creature from the Black Lagoon slashfic The Shape of Water. It was during this fish-people pornography frenzy that I first heard of the Xavier Gans creature feature Cold Skin, so I’ve been anticipating its arrival here for a solid year, hoping our new national fetish could continue into pervy perpetuity. Given its French Horror pedigree & its provocative title, I expected Cold Skin to be the most extreme of the 2017 fish-fucking titles – especially considering the grotesque sexual menace of recent French titles like Raw, We Are the Flesh, and The Untamed (which does feature some alien space-squid fucking, which, close enough). I felt a little letdown, then, that Cold Skin is merely a serviceable creature feature that keeps most of its human-fish sexual behavior muted, off-screen, and de-eroticized. It’s like the movie’s scared to fully commit to the implications of its fish-people fucking, which is a huge hindrance in a year where more head-on explicit engagements with the same topic are out there winning Oscars.

In 1914, a depressive academic eagerly takes a year-long gig studying Antarctica weather patterns in solitary isolation. With his only assigned task being to measure the strength & direction of Antarctic winds and his only company being a stack of literary texts, he looks forward to being left alone with his brooding thoughts in a frozen wilderness. Of course, this plan of “seeking peace through nothingness” doesn’t last long and our protagonist soon finds himself living in “a monster-plagued inferno” (his love for Great Works of Literature often inspires him to describe his plight in verbose prose). Instead of living in total isolation as planned, he finds himself contending with two unexpected threats: a species of nocturnal fish-beasts that attack his cabin nightly and a near-feral man who’s made a life out of fighting these creatures off with a gun from the vantage point of his nearby lighthouse. The bearded brute has also taken in one of the anthropomorphic fish monsters as a house pet & sex slave, which bothers the bookish weather observer at first on the grounds of human decency, then later romantic jealousy. This unlikely trio—the brute, the scholar, and the fish slave—form a bizarre domestic routine in the Antarctic wilderness, fighting off encroaching monsters nightly and struggling to make eye contact during the day.

As a horror genre indictment of colonialism, in which two white men have the audacity to wage war on native creatures protecting their own territory, Cold Skin is a passably okay creature feature. Its cold digital photography & fanged-Delgo creature designs amount to an interesting enough visual aesthetic, and there’s plenty of monster-attack action to fill the time. The movie’s major flaw is that it’s deluded in thinking those nightly creature attacks are somehow more interesting than its implied fish-fucking – which it’s very wary about exploring in any direct way. It almost uses the colonialist rape & sexual subjugation of the fish-people as an excuse to avert its eyes when it comes to the more legitimate interspecies sparks of romance that later arise. The fish sex that does occur is nothing you’d want to see. I don’t know that explicit fish-person eroticism is a healthy desire for what I want depicted in modern cinema or if my brain has just been thoroughly wrecked by the cultural zeitgeist’s entertainment of that impulse in the last year. I do know that enough movies have more fully committed to engaging with that topic in recent memory that Cold Skin’s sexuality feels downright bashful in comparison – so that all that’s left are its minor creature feature payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

The Time(s) When Matt Farley Fell in The Pit

Our Movie of the Month ritual involves everyone in the crew taking turns introducing a film that no one else has seen yet. It’s an experience we try our best to enter blind, without any preemptive research. I failed that stipulation by just a week’s time this October by watching a stealth remake of CC’s first Movie of the Month selection, the 1981 Canuxploitation classic The Pit, without knowing what I was getting into. While I had never seen The Pit before, stray details of its cult-circuit reputation were still potent enough in the ether that I recognized I was spoiling the movie for myself by watching a parody of it a week early. The question is, how could I have possibly suspected that a parody of The Pit even existed until I was already watching it? What kind of deranged madman would even think to make a feature-length parody of that little-seen Canadian horror curio, much less actually follow through? The only possible answer, of course, is Matt Farley – but it’s a discovery that only leads to more questions as you track the ripple effects of Farley’s fixation on The Pit in the larger picture of his entire Motern Media catalog.

Once you’ve seen the original work, Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel is unmistakable as a feature-length homage to The Pit. I suspected as much when I originally watched Sammy (in my summer-long determination to watch all of Matt Farley’s available filmography), but what I didn’t realize was exactly how deep that influence seeped. In Sammy, Matt Farley changes his name to Jamie to match the protagonist of The Pit, even mentally de-aging his own character with a head injury to match the original Jamie’s emotional & sexual maturity. He carries an oversized, telepathic teddy bear that encourages him to violate the sexual privacy of his babysitter (including exact recreations of two key bathroom scenes from The Pit). He gets banned from the library for staging disruptive pranks. He wages war on a bratty neighbor named Abergail, who believes the phrase “funny person” to be the ultimate insult. He lures his perceived enemies to a woodland setting, where they’re eaten by a captive prehistoric monster that eventually breaks free to cause widespread havoc. Sammy is not a loose homage to The Pit; it’s basically a cinematic cover song, a low-key remake.

However, watching Sammy and watching The Pit are too wildly different experiences, mostly because of their respective, outright opposed tones. Part of what distinguishes Matt Farley from most microbudget, backyard horror auteurs is that his work is aggressively wholesome. I get the sense that he (along with frequent collaborator Charles Roxburgh) was raised on VHS-era horror oddities like The Pit, but doesn’t have the heart to recreate their cruelty. My favorite aspect of The Pit, beyond the volume & variety of its monstrous threats, was how uncomfortable & grotesque its depictions of pubescent sexuality could be. In The Pit, Jamie is a menacing pervert who squicks out his entire community with his weaponized libido, which he barely disguises with a Rhoda Penmark-style performance of innocence. In Sammy, by contrast, Jamie is an adult man conveying that exact childish sexuality, right down to the very same acts of bathtime inappropriateness, but somehow Farley makes its impact far less creepy. His favorite aspects of The Pit were obviously the more innocuous, absurd touches like the name Abergail, the “talking” teddy bear, repetitions of the phrase “funny person,” etc. When it comes to being genuinely creepy & sexually uncomfortable, he doesn’t seem to have the heart; it’s a wholesome monster movie aesthetic that makes his already hyper-specific regional cinema ethos all the more distinct.

When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to revisit Sammy in light of having recently seen The Pit (he is extremely, radically approachable), he “joked” that I must rewatch all of his movies in that context, as they were all influenced by that formative relic. I immediately saw his point. Besides Farley’s aggressively localized, microbudget version of horror-comedy worshiping the regional cinema ethos of The Pit as if it were a religious doctrine, his own movies follow its exact narrative pattern over & over again. In most contexts, The Pit’s structure of functioning as a psychological drama & a hangout comedy until rapidly mutating into a full-on creature feature in its final minutes would seem erratic & illogical. In the context of Matt Farley’s pictures, it’s a rigid blueprint. In most Matt Farley movies there’s a Riverbeast, a “Gospercap,” a cult of modern “druids,” or a shameless peeping Tom lurking in the woods just outside of the action for most of the runtime, then rushing in to cause havoc just minutes before the end credits. Watching Sammy, I was amazed that someone had committed to remaking a minor curio as underseen as The Pit (way back in 2002, long before every movie of its ilk got the 4k Blu-Ray restoration treatment). Since Matt Farley tweeted back at me, my amazement has only deepened, as I’ve since realized he’s been remaking The Pit over & over again his entire career as a filmmaker. It’s as impressively committed as it is baffling.

As interesting of a pairing as Sammy makes with The Pit, it’s not the first Matt Farley title I’d recommend to fans of that classic. His holy trinity of greatest accomplishments – Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Murder, and Marriage in Manchvegas – all convey the taste of The Pit’s influence on the Motern Media catalog you’d need to get the full picture, and they’re each much more satisfying as isolated works. (In true Matt Farley fashion, Sammy is part of a complex mythology of interconnected “druid” films, even though it doesn’t contain druids itself.) As a stunt & an act of stubborn follow-through, however, it’s astounding that Farley & crew completed a feature-length homage to that Canuxploitation gem in the first place, one made mind-bogglingly wholesome through revision & fixation. It’s worth seeing just for that commitment & audacity alone.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987), and last week’s examination of how it could have easily have been a Gooby-level embarrassment.

-Brandon Ledet

Tra-la-logs vs. Hoonies: Finding Gooby in The Pit

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Boomer lamented the loss of its screenplay’s original subtext about childhood struggles with Autism. In its conceptual phases, The Pit was intended to be a thoughtful insight into the mind of a child on the spectrum. Jamie’s misunderstanding of personal boundaries and fantastic obsessions with his “talking” teddy bear and the Tra-la-logs (troglodytes) that live in a pit in the nearby woods were originally intended to be empathetic teaching points about the internal processes of a child on the spectrum struggling with the emotional & sexual discomforts of early puberty. Realizing that kind of subtle, thoughtful child psychology drama wouldn’t make nearly as much money as a bonkers horror film with the same basic premise, producers pushed for a different story altogether. In The Pit as a final product, the woods-dwelling troglodytes & telepathic teddy bear are demonstrated to be real, and really dangerous. Jamie himself makes a leap from a misunderstood, bullied child with boundary issues to a full-on perverted menace who even out-creeps the flesh-eating Tra-la-logs as the film’s most hideous monster. I understand some of Boomer’s mixed feelings on this shift from empathetic child psychology drama to exploitative horror cheapie, but ultimately, I gotta say the producers made the right call (at least in terms of The Pit’s entertainment value). I’ve already seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to recapture the imaginations & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a talking teddy bear. It was 2009’s Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended terror & laughable absurdity (thanks largely to being covered on the “bad movie” podcast How Did This Get Made?); It’s the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche.

Once you consider them as a pair, the parallels between Gooby & The Pit are unmistakable. A G-rated (presumably Christian-targeted) children’s film, Gooby follows a small child struggling to adjust to his family’s move into a new home, not his burgeoning sexuality, but the ways his anxieties manifest are very similar to Jamie’s. Instead of fearing Tra-la-logs, the pint-sized protagonist of Gooby fears “Hoonies”: two-headed CGI bird-beasts that only he can see. He also processes the emotional stress of his changing life and the threat of the Hoonies through his relationship with an anthropomorphic teddy bear. In The Pit, the teddy bear is a telepathic communicator who encourages Jamie to explore his sexuality and enact his revenge on perceived enemies in increasingly unsavory ways. In Gooby, the titular teddy bear transforms into a six-foot tall imaginary friend (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, of Hagrid fame) who provides his corresponding troubled child with emotional support in a time when he’s isolated from the humans in his life. Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous threats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. Gooby, by contrast, risks the child psychology sincerity of The Pit’s original form and falls flat on its face because of its shortcomings in budget, dialogue, and character design. By trying to make the imaginary teddy bear friend of The Pit’s basic dynamic a lovable goofball, Gooby only succeeded in creating a new kind of horror, one that plays as an embarrassing mistake instead of a successful attempt at small-budget genre filmmaking. Both films are equally fascinating & unnerving, but only one’s effect feels successful in its intent – the one that asks to be treated as a horror film to begin with.

There are plenty of successful, well-considered children’s films about processing mental & emotional anxiety through imaginary devices – Paperhouse, MirriorMask, The Lady in White, A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, to name a few we’ve covered here. Gooby & The Pit attempt a very specific, shared angle on that formula in their teddy bear vs. imaginary monsters (whether they be Hoonies or Tra-la-logs) interpretation of childhood Autism conflicts. The difference is that Gooby fully commits to the “It was all in their head” metaphor originally intended but abandoned by The Pit, to disastrous results. Whether a limitation in talent or budget, Gooby never had a chance to be anything but an absurd, unnerving embarrassment headlined by a nightmarish teddy bear goon. The producers of The Pit likely saw their own project heading in that direction when they decided to bail from the original child psychology melodrama script to pursue a more marketable cheapo horror genre payoff. The results are largely the same. The Pit & Gooby are both deeply uncomfortable curios that reach a very peculiar level of terror you might not expect given how goofy they appear from the outside. The difference is that The Pit comes out looking ingenious for framing that effect as its intent, whereas Gooby persists only as a how-did-this-get-made mockery, an abomination & an embarrassment. They’re basically the same movie, but only The Pit was self-aware enough to realize its own horrific effect.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Pit (1981)

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 CC made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Pit (1981).

CC: When I was first asked to join Swampflix I was both excited and apprehensive because I knew that I would soon have to select a Movie of the Month. How could I possibly choose something that I’ve seen but none of the experts at Swampflix have? I was doubly intimidated when I was informed that my first selection would be the October Movie of the Month, which has traditionally been a horror film. Thank goodness for my years of idly watching whatever garbage played during daytime television in my cable-free, pre-internet childhood. I saw The Pit around the same time I saw the 1979 film Prophecy, a sci-fi horror featuring a truly disturbing mutated, skinless bear. As a result, I kinda mixed some parts of the two in my mind. Mainly, the disturbing gore.

The Pit is a 1981 Canuxploitation (Canadian schlock) horror film that was for some strange reason filmed in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. It follows the story of socially inept and lustful 12-year-old Jamie, who discovers a pit full of monsters he calls “Tra-la-logs” (instead of troglodytes) in the woods behind his house. He quickly discovers the monsters will eat any meat he supplies them, even . . . HUMAN FLESH! When Jamie’s not pushing his enemies into a pit of monsters, he’s blackmailing librarians for sexy nudes and stalking his babysitter. Oh yeah, and he talks to a teddy bear who may or may not be demonically possessed. In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, “This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

Boomer, what did you think of The Pit? Were there too many plot elements and horror tropes or was it delightfully overstuffed?

Boomer: I loved this movie. It definitely felt a little sporadically organized, given that there are at least three different kinds of horror going on here (psychological/psychosexual, supernatural [arguably?], and cryptozoological), and that means that the film is being pulled in multiple directions at once, but while that certainly means that it runs the risk of being muddled (and it shows its seams at times), it hangs together pretty well on the whole, minus a few things that I would consider to be poor choices. I really like that, for the most part, the film acts as an insight into the mind of a repressed little boy who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s stuck in a state of arrested development and lives almost entirely in his own imagination, and his parents are so unprepared to deal with his specialized needs (or as Sandy says, “exceptional children”) that they treat their son like an alien being. At first, the things that we learn about Jamie—like that he was wearing a superman cape (presumably as a loincloth) and swinging around in trees pretending to be Tarzan—are unusual, but not bizarre, antisocial, or dangerous enough to warrant the kind of response that his family and community provide: old ladies talking about his maladaptive behavior when he is within earshot; getting punched in the face by a bully with no apparent repercussions for the larger, more aggressive boy; the cruel taunts and pranks from Abergail [sic]; and arguably the worst, Marg Livingstone, who treats Jamie as if he were an aggressive adult sex offender released on parole, rather than an odd little boy who needs a good talking to. If a child develops a crush and acts on it inappropriately, you would think an adult would first scold the kid and then get the parents involved if it happened again, but Marg just hides behind bookshelves like a creep instead of tackling the problem head-on like a grown-up (not that this excuses what Jamie does to her later). He builds, of course, to violence and sexual harassment (his extortion of Marg under threat of violence to her niece is when he really crosses the line), but his community already despises and ostracizes him at a time when the audience can’t help but sympathize with him.

There’s a lot that happens in implication here, much more than in other horror movies of the era, area, or budget. Jamie’s father looks to be at least a decade older than his mother, if not two, so the audience is left to assume that there’s a bizarre sexual energy in the house even before the parents abandon the boy in the hands of a local college student they barely know. On top of that, we get Jamie’s monologue in the bath about how his mother often washes him and washes him, even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, implying that Mrs. Benjamin goes a little “Piper Laurie as Margaret White” whenever Jamie acts out. Honestly, the amount of sexual repression and psychological damage, combined with the “child with a secret” trope and the northeastern US backdrop, give the whole thing a Stephen King vibe all the way through. When we hear Teddy speaking, he does so with Jamie’s voice, much like little Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend that helps him interpret the world around him when adults fail to provide even the most scant or answers (or sympathy). The titular pit is almost the least interesting aspect of the entire film, except as an objective correlative metaphor about the giant hole in Jamie’s understanding of the world that leads him to do some pretty fucked up things. For me, the only real problem is when the “tra-la-logs” in the hole are revealed to be literal and real and not just aspects of Jamie’s psyche. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does irrevocably change the tone when the psychological inspection of Jamie is interrupted for 20+ minutes by characters we’ve never seen before: a toothless and typical “monsters eat skinny-dipping teenagers” scene, an abbreviated police procedural about finding the missing persons, and a bunch of camo-hatted hunters pursuing the troglodytes back to their pit and shooting them all.

Reading up on the film, apparently the original script was more explicit in the fact that the action of the film was all in Jamie’s mind, with no escaped troglodytes and nothing supernatural about Teddy. To me, the influence of that first script is most apparent in the scene where Jamie forces Marg to strip, as we see Teddy’s (read: Jamie’s) voice coming from a recording on the other end of the phone line instead of, for instance, coming from the bear himself. On the other hand, there’s also the scene where poor Sandy finds Jamie’s nudie mags and then puts them back where they were, while Teddy’s head turns to the door after she leaves, clearly indicating that there is something not-of-this-earth about the bear. There was clearly a lot of studio interference going on here, and I wish we could see the film as it was originally intended, but nonetheless I’m delighted that I’ve finally seen it.

I’ve been hard on all of the adults in this film with the exception of Sandy (who certainly has moments where she could be a better influence on Jamie and help guide him into being less antisocial, but overall is fairly balanced in her treatment of him and only freaks out when he really crosses the line, like when he sneaks into the bathroom while she’s showering), but the one I feel most perplexed about is Marg. The film acts as if we’re supposed to have more empathy for Jamie, and reasonably so (at least at first), while Marg in general reacts very poorly to Jamie’s affections, crude though they may be. Again, why would you not address a twelve year old boy about how inappropriate it is for him to put your picture on a nude? By acting as if it never happened, you’re doing nothing to alter or change this behavior, which is irresponsible and bizarre, especially when you are an authority figure in his life. Brandon, am I being too hard on Marg?

Brandon: I think the issue is that you’re being too soft on Jamie, which is making you overly judgemental of Marg by extension. Jamie’s prurient interests in adult women goes far beyond the typical crushes of boys his age and instead weighs on the community around him as a genuine sexual menace. The creepiest thing about it is that he knows his predatory, privacy-violating behavior will be excused by the adults around him because of his apparent juvenile innocence. He’s like a horned-up version of Rhoda Penmark (of The Bad Seed) in that way, playing the part of a curious child who loves his teddy bear whenever anyone’s looking, but privately operating as a sexual sociopath with complex schemes on how to exploit the older women around him for cheap thrills. I don’t get the sense that we’re meant to sympathize with Jamie, but rather are supposed to be creeped out by his premature sexuality & his overreaction to bullies (both actual & perceived). His juvenile horniness feels like a threat that’s terrorized his community long before the film’s narrative starts, as indicated by his parents’ deliberate absence, his long back-history of traumatized babysitters, and Marg’s already-established paranoia in his presence. I’m totally on Marg’s side in suspicion & fear of that horny little devil, which is why it’s so satisfying when he ultimately meets his demise at the hands of his own Rhoda Penmark-type equal (in a conclusion that makes no logical storytelling sense, but strikes a perfect note of poetic justice anyway).

Jamie’s terrifying, predatory sexuality is a large reason why I fell in love with The Pit, because it’s a genuinely horrific threat that effectively creeped me out even though the film at large is campy & over-the-top. As already suggested, this is a film that’s delightfully overstuffed with non-traditional monsters: flesh-eating troglodytes, a telepathic teddy bear, and a horny pubescent boy. Because of the cheapness of the troglodytes’ Roger Corman-level costuming & the bear’s cartoonish vocal dubbing, it’s easy enough to laugh those threats off as being too goofy to take seriously. Jamie’s predatory sexuality is much more difficult to dismiss, recalling other unconventionally eerie films of the era like Pin, The Baby, Sleepaway Camp, and Flowers in the Attic that transcend their limited means by tapping into adolescent sexual discomfort. Britnee, did you similarly find Jamie’s sexuality to be the creepiest threat in The Pit? Were the tra-la-logs or the telepathic teddy bear at all scary to you or did they play like campy jokes in comparison to the horny little boy who considers them friends?

Britnee: When I think of what scares me the most in general, it’s children like Jamie. Creepy, sleazy little perverts who think they’re untouchable. I wanted to jump through the screen and light that teddy bear on fire just to punish Jamie for being a gross creep. Also, it seemed like the teddy bear had part of his soul, so burning it would possibly destroy Jamie (like Voldemort’s horcruxes!). Even if the tra-la-logs were more realistic and genuinely terrifying or if the teddy bear was possessed by a demonic spirit and using a child to do its dirty work, nothing even comes close to how terrifying Jamie is. He’s also at the age where kids are the most annoying: not quite a teenager, yet older than an elementary school student. All of these horrible things combined made it really difficult for me to have any sort of sympathy or understanding for Jamie, and this is why I don’t have children or work with children.

What I love most about The Pit, other than the fact that it contains my worst fear (creepy kids), is that it’s so unpredictable and goes in a ton of different directions. I just didn’t know what to focus on. Should I have been concerned about the tra-la-logs climbing out of the pit and wreaking havoc on the innocent folk of this small town? Or should I be more worried about the possessed teddy bear guiding a perverted kid in the wrong direction? I didn’t really know, but I also didn’t really care because all of the distracting little subplots made the ending of the film all the more shocking for me. There’s nothing quite like a film that ends with a twist, and oh boy, was this ending twist so satisfying. I went home and slept like a baby after the movie ended.

CC, you mentioned watching this as a young kid. How was watching it again as an adult? Is there anything that you were more scared of in the film back then that didn’t scare you in the recent viewing? Or vice versa?

CC: As mentioned previously, I had somewhat blended the plots to both The Pit and Prophecy in my 6-9 year-old brain and as a result, didn’t really remember much of The Pit beyond the glowing eyes of the tra-la-logs. It’s a strange detail to fixate on too, since the tra-la-logs themselves get so little screen time. I’m surprised that Jamie’s extremely disturbing Teddy did not leave more of a lasting impression. Mind you, I was terrified of clowns, the dark, some dolls (especially Chucky or Chucky-adjacent ones), Troll II, Freddy Kruger, walking up staircases or down hallways, and cars so I probably was just trying to make sure that at least teddy bears could stay on my “safe” list. It should also be noted that none of the weird sexual stuff stayed with me, but that might again be my baby brain trying to protect me from the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons this film did stick in my mind is that it’s not particularly scary. A psycho-sexual thriller starring a 12-year-old and lacking in significant jump scares is more creepy and off-putting than most horror I had been exposed to at this age. Boomer, what’s your take? Is The Pit a scary movie? Does it even count as horror?

Boomer: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this film to be “scary” per se, and not just because it turns into a bargain basement Don Dohler (redundant, I know) movie in the third act. I’m in agreement with Brandon and Britnee in that the scariest thing about this film is its function as a disturbing exploration of the psyche of an oversexed pubescent boy, and Jamie is, as Brandon notes, a genuine sexual menace. I just find myself having more sympathy for Jamie (initially; he falls off the slippery slope very quickly). I think that may have more to do with how old/mature we interpret Jamie to be and whether or not he has some kind of social disorder or is on the autism spectrum, and I’m quick to admit that this is likely due to my reading of the film being rooted in my own horizon of limited experience.

When I was in the fifth grade at a repressive Christian school, the students in my class were on a rotating schedule of who was to deliver the lunch orders for the entire class to the cafeteria in the mornings. I remember clearly that this happened on a Thursday, because the lunch room was in back of auditorium that was used for assemblies and in which the middle and high school students had “chapel” assemblies every week. The previous night, the son of the pastor who headed the megachurch of which the school was part had been caught in flagrante delicto with the school secretary’s daughter in his car during the Wednesday night service. Every student in grades 6-12 had been gathered in the auditorium to watch an “educational” video in which one of the talking heads (not those) stated clearly that “We [adults] always know when teenagers are having sex, because the boy is always angry, and the girl is always crying.” Leaving aside the more subtle nastiness in that statement (the heteronormativity, the prurience of adults with regards to teenage sexual behavior, etc.) and focusing on the extreme inappropriateness of the ideas presented in it, this is deeply fucked up. That’s not even getting into the fact that the girl in question was expelled and the pastor’s son was allowed to continue to attend school, and the undeniable sexism of that, not to mention the implicitness of the fact that this decision should not be questioned; after all, wasn’t the pastor ordained by God and thus above having his decisions questioned?

This was just one piece of a 5000+ component puzzle of my understanding of sexuality in an extremely religious and oppressed household and community. For years, if there was a girl who was crying at school, the only logical conclusion was that she was a slut (she couldn’t possibly have been simply frustrated at the overall sexism and degradation she experienced at this school, or in a home headed by a patriarch who considered this a sufficiently healthy learning environment . . . right?). There was nothing healthy about my own understanding of sex and sexuality until I was in my late teens at best, and even then, I was still possessed of toxic ideologies and regressive attitudes that have taken years to unlearn, and which I still find myself noticing and confronting in my life on a daily basis. I could recount dozens upon dozens of stories just like this one that illustrate how my own mind and that of many others I knew were warped by an abusive home, school, and church life that created one Jamie after another. I’m certainly not saying that I think Jamie shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions; he definitely should. Leaving aside the extent to which Jamie is mentally capable of understanding what he’s doing (more on that in a moment), I just see his home life and the repressed reactions of his parents and community as being contributing factors to his personality problems: he explicitly says that his mother enjoys bathing him despite the fact that he is at an age where he should be able to bathe himself (hinting at potential molestation); he says that his mother often bathes him even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, which immediately makes me think of poor Carrie White getting locked in her closet by her mother for her “uncleanness”; when he acts inappropriately, his father snatches him up, threatens violence, and doesn’t even consider having a conversation about consent, privacy, or the inappropriateness of voyeurism; and ultimately, his parents completely abdicate their responsibility to raise their child and leave him in the care of a stranger with, at most, a day or two’s warning.

At least one source I’ve found indicates that screenwriter Ian Stuart’s original script was explicit in its demonstration that Jamie had a developmental disorder, that The Pit was intended to be “an earnest exploration of the inner life of an autistic child” and that “[the] tra-la-logs and the talking bear were all products of Jaime’s mind, and his perversions were mostly interior.” Although no one in the film talks about neurological atypicality vis-a-vis their relationship to socialization issues (other than Sandy’s oblique references to working with “exceptional children”), after having worked in education, the signs that Jamie is on the spectrum were apparent to me in my reading of the film. With this in mind, he clearly has parents who are completely unprepared, ill-equipped, and unwilling to do the hard work of raising a special needs child. It doesn’t make his actions forgivable (in particular, the peeping at poor Marg under the threat of proxy violence is completely inexcusable and the most nauseating thing in the whole film), but I see the reactions of the adults in his life to his actions as making them complicit in the escalation of his behavior. To loop back around to CC’s question, I wouldn’t say that the film is “horror” per se, but it does effectively demonstrate the disturbing way that children with disabilities are often abused and neglected. The Arc, an organization that was originally created to assist people neurologically atypical individuals in finding legal recourse against institutions that denied services to them, reports that one in three children with autism or some other kind of mental impairment will experience abuse in their lifetimes (although they indicate that there’s insufficient study data to confirm all of their findings, and they do not differentiate between abuse by parents and other entities like caregivers or teachers).

Any properly socially aware person can see that the sexist, unequal treatment of male and female children and the cultivation of a “boys will be boys” mentality that denigrates the lived experience of women contribute to a society in which someone like Brett Kavanaugh can come within spitting distance of a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land while his accusers are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence. The difference is that at the time of his (“alleged”) infractions, the older and neurotypical Kavanaugh was mentally competent to take responsibility for his actions, while Jamie is (arguably) an autistic child whose need for specialized care is neglected by his parents and who is ostracized and isolated by his community. His curiosity about sexuality combined with his punishment for having said curiosity, devoid of any kind of education about why his actions are inappropriate and reprehensible and how they can be expressed more healthily, turns him into a ticking time bomb of perversion (and worse). To me, this is a movie about the horrors of abuse, neglect, complicity, and the failure of communities (on the familial and societal level) to take responsibility to teach young men about consent, assault, bodily autonomy, boundaries, and respect. The true horror of The Pit is that it acts as a mirror of society and shows us how rape culture can be perpetuated: “This is how you get Jamies. This is how you get Kavanaughs. This is how you get Brock Turners.” The only difference is that Jamie (again, arguably, given that nothing is ever made explicit about his neurological state) lacks the mental faculties to meditate on his toxic ideologies and change them without some kind of guidance, which he is denied at every turn.

Brandon, bearing in mind that the screenwriter originally intended to make Jamie’s autism explicit, and that this was one of the many changes made by the studio between conception and release, do you see any of that implied on screen, or am I giving the film too much credit? Does it affect your feelings about Jamie? Is the “Hollywoodifying” of the script (like making the bear’s possession and the existence of the tra-la-logs explicitly real on top of dropping Jamie’s disorder) something that you observe as a continuing problem in the film industry (i.e., are there any recent films in which the “seams” between the original intent and the finished product are so obvious)?

Brandon: The thoughtful child-psychology drama you’re describing is clearly detectable early in The Pit, but it’s something that gets muddled the more the film indulges in the schlocky horrors offered by the tra-la-logs, the telepathic teddy bear, and Jamie’s weaponized libido. To note a particular way that dynamic changes, consider the shifting implications of how Jamie’s relationship with his parents tracks from beginning to end. When Jamie’s just a sexually confused, mentally disturbed young boy who can’t differentiate between reality & fantasy, his parents come across as abusive brutes, ill-quipped to properly raise a child with special needs (or any child at all, really). Later, when the horrors of the film are made explicitly real and Jamie is demonstrated to be a cold-hearted, perverted killer who takes orders from a demonic toy and feeds (mostly undeserving) victims to his pet troglodytes, that parent-child dynamic shifts dramatically. The threats of physical violence, reports of inappropriate bath time scrubbing, and eagerness to delegate responsibility for the little creep to unsuspecting babysitters are still disturbing on their own merit, but they can easily be read as desperate, last-ditch efforts from parents frustrated by & fearful of a murderous, horned-up monster child. Any credibility The Pit might have had as a sincere inner-life portrait of a troubled child on the spectrum is lost as soon as magic is shown to be real & Jamie starts deploying it against his enemies . . . but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing.

On some level, I recognize that an intellectual, measured approach to Jamie’s dysfunctional psychology would likely be the more ethical path for The Pit to take, but as an appreciator of shameless, bonkers genre films, I’m honestly deeply appreciative that the original script underwent the “Hollywoodization” process instead. I’ve seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to thoughtfully capture the imagination & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a teddy bear. It was 2009’s unintentionally terrifying curio Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended what-the-fuck factor (thanks largely to being covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast) – the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous treats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s-good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. The Hollywoodization of The Pit is partially what saves it from being an embarrassment. As an audience, we’ve practically been trained to expect the restrained “It was all in Jamie’s head” reveal from the original script, which is what makes touches like the teddy bear’s unexplained anthropomorphism or the tra-la-logs’ third act escape from the titular pit such mind-blowing developments. The producers may have pushed for an intellectually hollower effect with those changes, but it feels like they’re breaking unspoken storytelling rules as a result, and the film feels like something much wilder than the Gooby precursor it easily could have been (considering its production value & quality of dialogue).

Because of the types of films I’m most typically drawn to (“messy,” over-the-top, “style over substance” genre fare), I more often run into unintentionally implied messages & themes rather than ones that have been erased or diluted in production. Sometimes, these unintended messages can be delightfully absurd, such as how Juame Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror film Orphan makes adopting a child appear to be a dangerous terror or how the 1989 fantasy comedy Teen Witch encourages young women to ditch their loyal best friends for easy popularity without there being fallout or consequence. Sometimes, the result is shockingly offensive, such as how the 2016 horror Lights Out encourages parents with depression to heroically commit suicide to spare their children of the burden or how this year’s G-rated talking-animal comedy Show Dogs groomed children to be accepting of sexual molestation (before appropriate outrage had that underlying theme removed from the film while it was still in theaters). Whether delightful or abhorrent, I always find this kind of unintentional messaging in cheapo cinema to be fascinating, even more so than tracking the ways a screenwriter’s original intent was diluted on its way to the screen. As such, I find myself scratching my head over what the completed, explicitly supernatural version of The Pit is saying about Jamie & childhood psychology more than I am fretting over what may have been lost from its first draft on the page. The final version of the story isn’t saying much (if anything) substantial about children on the spectrum, but it’s loudly ranting about something, however incoherent.

Britnee, what moral or message are you getting from The Pit as a completed work, if any? What is the film ultimately saying about Jamie & childhood psychology?

Britnee: If there is any moral message that I got from The Pit, it’s “You can’t be a little shit without being punished.” I saw Jamie as a terror of a child who ran around terrorizing people for sheer pleasure and killing people who got in his way or did him “wrong.” The more harassing and killing he did, the more I hoped that he would be punished for his actions in some way, which in the end, he did. Not once did I think about what was causing him to be so horrible. I just assumed he was pure evil. Now that it’s been a while since I initially watched the film and I’ve read Boomer’s take on Jamie’s character, I definitely see how Jamie was a victim of abuse and neglect. For instance, when I watched the bathtub scene, I thought he was acting like a perv and manipulating Sandy into the bathing him for sexual pleasure. My dislike for his character made me disregard his cries for help when he told her about how his mom bathed him hardcore even when he’s not dirty. While Sandy seemed concerned after hearing this, she did nothing. Sandy was really the only person he seemed to trust (he even told her the tra-la-log secret!) and she failed him. So between Sandy and his neglectful parents, he really didn’t have anyone to guide him in the right direction and get him the help he desperately needed.

In regards to childhood psychology, the film may be trying to say, “Hey, if you have a disturbed kid like Jamie, pay attention to their abnormal behavior and get them help before they do some serious damage.” It’s possible that Jamie would’ve had a chance if his parents would have brought him to a therapist or psychiatrist instead of ignoring him, hoping the problem would just go away on its own. All that being said, I still really hate him, but I sort of understand why he’s such a terrible human being.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I usually don’t do any prior research for Movie of the Month choices before watching the films, but I did a quick Google Image search for The Pit because it sounded like a movie I watched as a teenager. The movie I was thinking of was 1987’s The Gate, which is about a group of kids that unleash demons from a hole in their backyard. I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.

Brandon: The Canuxploitation factor of The Pit, combined with its Wisconsin shooting locale, is undeniably part of its value as a curiosity. There’s a whole outsider-artist industry of regional genre cinema out there that rarely reaches wide distribution or acclaim, but can be fascinating in its creative dissonance with routine Hollywood filmmaking. To that point, I accidentally spoiled myself on some of the film’s stranger touches when I recently watched Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel for an unrelated viewing project. Farley himself is an outsider, regional artist who makes backyard movies with friends & family in New England, far from The Pit’s Wisconsin locales. He must see a kindred spirit in The Pit’s aggressively local aesthetic, though, as Sammy is – unbelievably – a feature-length homage/spoof of this little seen cult classic, set in Farley’s Massachusetts haunts.

As strange & highly specific as The Pit can be, there’s an entire world of regional cinema weirdos out there producing curios just like it for barely existent audiences (and in the case of Sammy, I mean just like it). As an amateur, localized film critic with a deliberately D.I.Y. blogging aesthetic, I find that pocket of outsider filmmaking to be inspiring, if not outright heroic.

CC: I’m a big fan of films where children are put in danger (like The Goonies, The Monster Squad, or even The Nice Guys) so a film where children are both in danger and the source of the danger are really enjoyable for me. I’m glad my co-writers were also able to have fun with this weird gem.

Boomer: Super grateful that CC brought this gem to the table. I’d like to apologize for any lack of clarity on my part with regards to Jamie’s monstrosity and if it appeared I was trying to completely deflect responsibility for his behavior onto the myriad of (mostly bad) adult caretakers and gatekeepers in his life. I’d also like to forewarn any interested parties that, should you find this film on YouTube, although it will at first appear that it’s been mangled in some way and starting in the middle, but no, that’s just the way that it is.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Brandon presents Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

The Fly II (1989)

One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.

For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.

“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.

Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.

Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.

-Brandon Ledet

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Let me get the hottest take you’ll read in this review out of the way upfront: 1997’s The Lost World is the best film in the Jurassic Park franchise. As a technical achievement & a special effects showcase, there’s no topping the original Jurassic Park film from 1993, but The Lost World has a much more exciting, bonkers energy to it as a mean, over-the-top novelty in a way that’s always stuck with me. I prefer Spielberg when he embraces the B-movie spirit of his genre films, which are essentially $100+mil versions of Roger Corman’s schtick, instead of trying to “elevate” them into respectable material. The jump scares, suburban-invasion monster attacks, and raptor-kicking gymnastics of The Lost World strike the perfect B-movie tone needed to bring the Jurassic Park franchise into what it always pretends to be but rarely is: a series of creature features about the horrors of dinosaurs invading the modern world. I wasn’t much impressed by Colin Trevorrow’s recent soft-reboot to the franchise, Jurassic World (outside Bryce Dallas Howard’s laughably awful performance therein), but its own horror-centric sequel attempts the same B-movie revitalization that The Lost World brought to its predecessor in a way I can’t help but appreciate. Fallen Kingdom is dumber, meaner, and more over-the-top than the first Jurassic World, but it leans so heavily into the franchise’s modern world dino-horror tendencies that it feels like a remarkable improvement anyway. The only problem is that its characters & dialogue aren’t anywhere near as interesting as its big picture ideas.

Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard return as the world’s blandest romantic duo, this time with Howard’s absurdly inhuman performance zapped of its eccentricities so that she’s just as uninteresting as Pratt (although she is introduced in an audience-trolling shot that starts with her infamous high heel running shoes). They team up to rescue the world’s remaining dinosaurs from the island where the previous film was staged, as it is under the threat of a very active volcano. Unbeknownst to them, the privatized military they’re helping “rescue” these endangered dinos are actually villainous capitalists who are tasked with abducting the poor beasts only to sell them as organic weapons on the black market. This sets up a political dichotomy between bleeding-heart animal rights activists dedicated to “Save Our Dinos” and capitalist meanies who only want to ravage the earth for “easy” profit (there’s got to be a better way to make money than herding and capturing dinosaurs). The movie uses that political divide to shoehorn in some painfully unfunny anti-Trump humor with throwaway lines about “nasty women,” CNN scrolls joking about the president’s science denial, and a villainous turn from Toby Jones as a dino auctioneer with a grotesque orange-hair combover. The political humor is too vague & out-of-place to mean much of anything, except that the movie is going to age about as well as a canned fart. Likewise, the volcanic dino rescue is an over-labored setup for the movie’s much more interesting second half, even if its lava explosion action sequence does generate some memorable imagery. Fallen Kingdom opens with a punishing tedium not seen in this franchise since the doldrums of Jurassic Park III, so it’s downright miraculous that the film turns itself around enough to thrive as an over-the-top novelty horror in its second half.

All credit to Fallen Kingdom‘s back-half turnaround as a passably decent horror film goes to director J.A. Bayona (hot off the heels of his undervalued fantasy drama A Monster Calls). Outside a few moments of dino-melting volcanic mayhem in the opening stretch, Bayona treats Fallen Kingdom’s first hour as a necessary evil to bring the movie (and the dinos) to where he truly wants to go: a haunted mansion. Bayona comes alive in the film’s second half, where a dinosaur auction goes inevitably wrong and a small crew of unlikely caricatures are locked in a dark Gothic manor with loose, prehistoric monsters. The better half of Fallen Kingdom is a haunted house horror movie with dinosaurs instead of ghosts, the most exciting the franchise has seen since the suburban invasion themes of The Lost World. The way Bayona plays with odd imagery, like dino shadows being cast by lightning flashes or an encroaching claw reaching to rip a child out of the safety of their bed, is some surreal horror nonsense I can’t help but appreciate for its B-movie flavored audacity. The problem is that the movie tries way too hard to justify the indulgence in its over-labored setup (the same way Rampage over-explained a “plausible” reason for its own monster mayhem earlier this year, when it should have stuck to the simplicity of its video game source material). The script also could have used a few joke punch-ups from writers who are, you know, actually funny. Neither of these issues are necessarily Bayona’s fault, though, and the director makes the best of the material he can when he’s actually let loose to play around with the film’s Gothic horror hook (recalling an absurd revision of his much better-written haunted house film The Orphanage).

The best chance Fallen Kingdom had to be its ideal self was if it were never attached to the Jurassic Park franchise at all. It opens performing the labor of tying its haunted dino house conceit into the mess leftover from the first Jurassic World movie and “closes” by setting up a clear path for the next installment. This post-MCU dedication to franchise filmmaking is a massive burden on the movie’s shoulders, barely leaving any room for its central hook to fully deliver the goods, all for the sake of cross-film storytelling logic. Maybe this burden wouldn’t be as noticeable if the characters were more engaging or the humor successfully landed (that’s generally how it works in the MCU, anyway). As is, Fallen Kingdom barely squeaks by as an enjoyable big-budget Roger Corman descendant, when it should have been the second-best film in the franchise (after The Lost World, naturally). It’s doubtful we’ll ever get another haunted house dino horror film again, so this one’s novelty deserves to be cherished, but it’s also a shame that the opportunity was buried under so much debt to a franchise that doesn’t deserve the effort.

–Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond