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

The Ritual (2018)

It’s no mystery why a dirt-cheap horror indie would obscure the look of its killer creature for most of its runtime. If a smaller movie is careful enough with its location & casting choices, it can pour most of its financial resources into the look of its monstrous threat, leaving an outsized impact through limited means. That tactic is a huge gamble, though. The longer you keep your monsters off-screen, the more pressure there is for them to deliver the goods. After a significant enough wait, an underwhelming creature design can cause an entire picture to fall apart & fade away, only to be remembered vaguely as a disappointment. The recent indie creature feature The Ritual, a British production Netflix picked up at last year’s TIFF, boldly goes all in on obscuring the monster at its center. Staged in the cheapo horror-favorite location of The Woods and featuring Thomas from Downton Abbey (Robert James-Collier) as its most recognizable performer, the movie puts a massive amount of pressure on its mostly off-screen monster to a leave significant impact once it steps into the light. Thankfully, the movie pulls through with a deeply chilling nightmare beast, fully satisfying the demands it put on its own mysterious force of Evil.

Four British bros hike into the forests of Northern Sweden as one of the most bizarrely ill-advised college reunion festivities imaginable. The trip gradually takes on a distinctly black metal-flavored tone of ominous terror as they stray further from hiking trails into thickly wooded wilderness, but their macho sense of comradery leaves little social grace for smartly bailing on the experience. No one would blame them for backing out of their dangerous, over-confident choice recreation, except themselves as they tease each other with questions like “What’s wrong? Are you scared of the woods?” It turns out, of course, that a healthy fear of the woods may have been beneficial on this particular venture, as they become increasingly lost & surrounded by mysterious, menacing forces. Besides the aforementioned creature that patiently hunts them one at a time and the encroaching vestiges of a witchcraft culture who worship the damned beast, the men are also supernaturally tortured by visions of their own worst fears & regrets. Sometimes even more harrowing than the ritualistically arranged animal corpses, the creepy altars, and the flashes of an unfathomable beast appearing in the creases of the trees is the mental invasions of their own guilty, grief-stricken memories. Their doom is entirely inescapable, as it encroaches from the outside and from within.

The Ritual is a debut feature for American director David Bruckner, who has so far cut his teeth helming standout segments of horror anthologies like Southbound & V/H/S. Sticking to the narrative economy demanded by anthology vignettes, he relies on a number of well-worn genre tropes that burden the film with a consistent sense of familiarity. The discovery of abandoned cabins in the woods and ominous pagan symbols (which in themselves suggest a black metal Wicker Man aesthetic) recall other classic lost-in-the-wilderness horrors like The Blair Witch Project. Its story of old friends being tormented by their toxic memories & friendship dynamics (not to mention bloodthirsty monsters) feels like The Descent for British bros, except in the woods instead of a cave. Its individualized visions of internal torment recall films like Event Horizon, except in the woods instead of a spaceship. There’s no doubt that this is a straightforward genre film, even if it pulls its disparate influences from varied extremes within that genre. That familiarity puts just as much strain on the film’s creature design as its decision to delay the monster’s reveal for as long as possible. Everything that distinguishes The Ritual as a modern, indie creature feature is the look, design, and lore around that monster. What’s incredible about the film, then, is that it really pulls off the trick of making that monster count. This is a great creature feature because, and only because, its creature is great. It would have been a forgettable letdown otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

A Quiet Place (2018)

The production company Platinum Dunes’s recent trajectory is an illustrative microcosm of where mainstream horror filmmaking is currently situated in the 2010s. The Michael Bay-funded production brand got its start in horror in the early 2000s, buying up the rights to bankable intellectual properties like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and reshaping them into big budget Hollywood blockbusters, much to horror fans’ . . . horror. These passionless remakes, combined with that same era’s torture porn grime, painted a grim picture of where horror was going as a medium. Platinum Dunes made a sizable profit off a genre it only saw value in as a vehicle for making a sizable profit, but in the long-term found that exercise both creatively unfulfilling for themselves and alienating to the genre fans they were catering to (at least according to producer Brad Fuller in a recent interview with Shock Waves). Recently, they found much greater success by producing an original property helmed by a creative voice with a personal vested interest in seeing it done right. A Quiet Place has already made over $200mil on a $17mil budget without retracing the steps of a previous classic and without alienating the genre film fans that made it a success. Along with last year’s adaptation of IT, A Quiet Place’s overwhelming success indicates that although it’s possible to make a tidy profit off the horror audiences studios usually take for granted with thoughtless dreck, it’s even more rewarding to pay attention to the quality of the work instead of using the genre as an “Anything’ll do” placeholder. A Quiet Place is in many ways as a traditional mainstream horror with wide commercial appeal, but it’s an example of that medium done exceptionally well. It’s a shame Platinum Dunes and other well-funded production companies didn’t realize the financial potential for that balance back in the grim nu-metal days of the early 00s.

Although tracking A Quiet Place’s arrival through the trajectory of Platinum Dunes is illuminating in picking apart the status of the modern horror, the true auteurist voice behind the picture is The Office vet John Krasinski (another repeat Michael Bay collaborator). Like the producers behind the film, Krasinski admits to not typically being a fan of horror, but fell in love with the original script’s premise when presented an opportunity to play the lead role. Krasinski’s passion is exactly what was missing from the company’s early remakes of horror classics. He not only signed on to play the father figure at the center of the film’s dystopian creative feature nightmare, but also insisted on personally rewriting major elements of the screenplay, directing, and eventually casting his own wife (consistently impressive badass Emily Blunt) as his co-lead. This isn’t exactly the mainstream horror flick equivalent of John Cassavetes putting his own family through hell in projects like A Woman Under the Influence, but Krasinski does make this mainstream genre flick feel surprisingly personal. It’s easy to detect what drew him to the project. A real-life father, Krasinski turns this high-concept monster movie into an expression of fatherly anxiety over the traditionally macho concerns of serving as protector over a vulnerable wife & children. It’s a remarkably Conservative (and rigidly gendered) way of depicting a family-in-crisis dynamic (Michael Bay is involved, after all), but one that’s self-reflective & repeatedly challenged as it falls apart in the face of impending doom. Although each character in A Quiet Place’s drastically limited cast gets their share of the spotlight and their own internal conflicts, the film overall feels like a solid Dad Horror movie, a nice compliment to all the great Mom Horrors of recent years: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The trick is that even if these macho protector anxieties are as personal to Krasinski as they were to Trey Edward Schults in the superficially similar It Comes at Night, the Platinum Dunes commitment to commercial appeal makes sure they don’t distract the movie from delivering the traditional horror genre goods. It’s one of those rare instances where the personal & the commercial reach a wonderfully harmonious equilibrium, true movie magic.

The surprise of A Quiet Place’s commercial success is neither Platinum Dunes finding a second chance on the horror media landscape nor how personal Krasinski made the project feel. It’s that a largely silent, subtitled monster movie was able to appeal to such a wide audience. In the not-so-distant future, a species of blind, bug-like creatures with an exceptional sense of hearing has seemingly wiped out the majority of the human race. This isn’t explained in an opening text crawl or expositional dialogue, but rather the block letters of newspaper headlines that were used for similar information dumps in 1950s sci-fi B-pictures. A small family carefully maneuvers through this environment, speaking only subtitled sign language and tiptoeing barefoot in avoidance of the aggressive monster-bugs that will destroy them if they make a single peep. This delicately quiet environment sometimes makes for a distracting theatrical experience (I was very aware of the rest of the audience and the sounds of Avengers: Infinity War bleeding over through the walls), but it also sets the mood for an excellent jump scare environment. Loud noises and sudden monster attacks are heart-stopping in their intense clash with the near-silent atmosphere they erupt from. It also helps that the monsters themselves are impeccably designed (appearing to be a gumbo of details borrowed from Alien, Cloverfield, and Starship Troopers), with features that only become more interesting as their onscreen exposure increases late in the runtime. The “If they hear you, they hunt you” gimmick is a fantastic starting place for a horror film, but given general audiences’ aversion to subtitled dialogue and impatience with quiet builds (that were a few compulsive cellphone-checkers in my own audience) it’s amazing that the film could make its world so instantly accessible to so many people. It’s probably the closest a largely silent feature film has had to wild commercial appeal since the Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Artist nearly a decade ago.

While the wonderfully tense creature feature atmosphere is what got butts in the seats, it’s Krasinski’s commitment to the film’s familial drama that affords it a lasting effect. This is the story of a flailing father figure struggling to maintain traditional family values (with prayer before meals, clearly defined gender roles for his children, the whole deal) in a world thrown into chaos by hearing-sensitive monsters. Early on, when he’s shown surveying his farmland dominion from atop a silo while his wife preps a nursery for their unborn baby inside, the movie feels like a North-Western survivalist power fantasy where the bearded flannel men of Instagram can daydream about their macho roles as Protector after the inevitable downfall of society. The subversion of this Doomsday Prepper fantasy is much subtler than the critique that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the initial rustic Pinterest calm is thoroughly disrupted by the film’s chaotically violent conclusion. The first cracks in his macho armor are presented by his deaf teen daughter (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmons, whom Krasinski smartly insisted on casting over hearing-abled actors), who is vehemently frustrated with the traditionally femme domestic roles he attempts to force on her. This is matched by her perpetually petrified brother’s reluctance to being trained as a hunter-gatherer future-Dad. What’s even worse is the father’s failure to protect his wife & kids form the monsters invading their idyllic Norman Rockwell homestead. When his wife asks, “Who are we if we cannot protect them?” you can see Krasinski slipping into an existential Conservative Dad crisis both in front of and behind the camera. For all A Quiet Place’s merits as an adventurous, high-concept creature feature with wide commercial appeal, it’s that protective paternal anxiety, especially skewed towards Macho Dads, that makes the film feel like a substantial work. Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.

-Brandon Ledet

Son of Kong (1933)

Most discussions of cheap cash-in horror sequels are framed as if they were a phenomenon born of 70s & 80s slashers that have carried over to the modern day. The truth is that it’s a time-honored tradition almost as old as horror cinema itself. For a classic example of the shameless cash-in horror sequel, 1933’s Son of Kong serves as a fascinating specimen. Rushed to market just nine months after the 1933 creature feature classic King Kong, Son of Kong is a massive, kaiju-scale step down from masterful to cute. At a mere 70 minutes, this incredibly thin sequel aims for a lighter, more comedic tone than its predecessor to cover up the fact that it couldn’t match that picture’s scale of production. Grand sequences of stop motion spectacle depicting tribal warfare & a dinosaur stampede were cut for time & budget, leaving the film hanging without a third act. The titular monster was also a goofy echo of the original film’s infamous ape, offering audiences a cutesy, infantile version of a creature they once feared (like, less than a year earlier). Baby Kong’s adorability is almost irresistible as a novelty, though, and the film that contains him is likewise charming in its own limited, misshapen way. Like most modern horror sequels, its genuine thrills are cheap echoes of its predecessor’s former glories, but there’s something amusingly absurd about the lengths it goes to keep an already concluded story alive & open to profit.

The disappointing thing about Son of Kong is that, on a script level, it has a decent foundation for an interesting King Kong sequel. A month after the city-destroying tragedy of the previous film, Kong capturer/promotor Carl Denham is left in unfathomable debt & legal trouble for the damages caused by his now-dead super ape. It’s the logical fallout of an illogical conflict, one the movie talks itself out of as it constructs a reason for Denham to return to Skull Island to meet Kong’s orphaned baby. Exhausted by his status as a public pariah and fearful of rumored criminal indictments, Denham again sails on an explorer’s mission that leads him back to Skull Island in search of legendary (and nonexistent) treasure. There, he’s met with the consequences of his greedy transgressions in the first film: a mutinous crew that refuses to return to the dangerous island, native tribes that embargo the entrance of white colonists because of his theft, and most notably Kong’s helpless baby ape who can barely fight off the island’s other monsters as a goofball orphan with no parental projection. Denham bonds with this pitiful, adorable creature (as well as a female musician he picked up along the journey), feeling immense guilt for the harm he inadvertently caused it. The trouble is that the return of his presence on the island is still unwelcome and puts Baby Kong in just as much danger as his dead ape father.

Although the reduced shooting schedule & budget wiped out her planned third act spectacle, screenwriter Ruth Rose did a commendable job of both keeping the mood light and upping the active involvement of the female co-lead, dampening the original film’s damsel in distress dramatic impulses. The jokes are plentiful and often surprisingly funny, especially in a pure anti-comedy sequence where a musical band of trained monkeys perform for unenthused bar patrons for a relative eternity. Other deadpan reactions like “My father is dead.” “What a tough break,” and a stammering “Well, uh, captain, uh . . . about that mutiny,” also play surprisingly well as the movie often finds genuine humor without delivering outright jokes. Still, it’s difficult to determine exactly how humorous Baby Kong is intended to appear, as many of his action sequences are repeats of the exact stop-motion dino fights that served as genuine special effects spectacle in the first film. Son of Kong is essentially the opening, island-set half of King Kong without the third-act payoff of the city-destroying conclusion, except now everything is twice as goofy & half as visually impressive. The sequel unfortunately also echoed the racist impulses of the first, even adding to its depictions of native savages & undertones of interracial romance paranoia by introducing the character Charlie the Chinese Cook. As amusing as the film can be at any given moment, its faults are both plentiful and glaring.

Cheap sequels have long relied on audiences’ contentment (and even enthusiasm) for reliving former pleasures on a smaller scale and with a goofier flavor. Yes, the creature battles in King Kong are more technically impressive and lead to a more spectacular end, but Son of Kong still features a sequence where a giant ape fights a giant bear in an all-out brawl. Take your entertainment where you can get it. It also helps that the film is at times genuinely humorous in a way that suggests its overall camp value may be somewhat intentional (for those willing to be a little forgiving). It’s difficult to imagine looking at Baby Kong’s exaggerated, googly-eyed mug and suppose the filmmakers were looking to deliver a serious-serious masterpiece, even if is ultimate trajectory is dramatic. Comparing Son of Kong to the original King Kong does it no favors, but it still has an interesting enough premise for a sequel to a film that obviously didn’t need one. In this way, it persists as a mildly delightfully oddity, which has been more than enough to justify fandoms of other cheap, rushed horror sequels released in the decades since. At the very least, I’d like to submit the film’s musical monkeys scene as a genius stroke of proto-Tim & Eric anti-humor, a 90 second stretch of pure cinema bliss that more than justifies the rest of the film’s existence:

-Brandon Ledet

Blue My Mind (2018)

How much innovation do you need from a genre movie for it to feel worthwhile? Your answer to that question is likely to determine your relationship with the Swiss coming of age body horror Blue My Mind. The embarrassment & horror of the changing body during teen pubescence being interpreted through the metaphor of creature feature transformations has been a genre trope going at least as far back as 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In more recent years, it’s become an especially common conceit for femme coming of age horror movies, with titles like Raw, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Teeth, and too many others to name establishing a clear narrative pattern for how these stories are told. A young teen girl experiencing her earliest encounters with menstruation & sexual desire finds her appetites extending beyond sex to bloodlust and her body’s changes extending beyond normal pubescent growth to a supernatural horror she finds increasingly difficult to hide or contain. Outside maybe taking the metaphor more deadly-serious than most titles listed above, Blue My Mind is fairly well-behaved in its adherence to the rigid genre structure established by its predecessors, following the exact narrative pattern you’ve been trained to expect. The only variable is discovering which type of beast, exactly, the protagonist is transforming into and how many teenage transgressions she’ll manage to commit along the way. Where it distinguishes itself, then, is in the details of its visual craft & character work, which is often the case with strict genre pictures. Luckily for me, I very much enjoy the femme coming of age transformation horror genre Blue My Mind dutifully participates in and didn’t need many novel details to fall in love with its familiar rhythms & grooves. Your own mileage may vary based on your relationship with the same tropes.

Mia is a 15-year-old wannabe badass who immediately seeks asylum with the rebellious reprobates of her new high school. Her new friends drink, smoke, cut class, shoplift, watch pornography, and flirt with the idea of shedding their virginity. Mia fakes being tough & experienced with these teenage transgressions, barely hiding her anxiety as an undeveloped outsider. This barely concealed social shame is coupled with the shame of her changing body & increasingly monstrous appetites. Coinciding with her first period, the entire lower half of her body launches into open rebellion. At the same time, she finds herself compelled to eat raw, still-live fish directly out of her family’s fish tank (or wherever she can get it). Blue My Mind might not be innovative in the metaphor of its central transformation, but it is ambitious in its comprehensive collection of femme teenage crises. Self-harm, drug experimentation, bulimia, dangerous flirtation with older men, flashes of same sex attraction, and indulgences in petty crime sprees detail the boundary-testing exploits of a teen in crisis of both mind & body. This being primarily a body horror, it’s the crisis of the body that eventually overtakes much of the film’s energy as Mia spins completely out of control, but the movie does take plenty of time to establish conflicts in her personal relationships—particularly with her mother and her best friend—before it focuses on the consequences of her transformation. There are some gruesome moments of self-surgery & festering injury that provide shocking pangs of outright horror, but the transformation at the film’s center is mostly concerned with the grief & helplessness of a rebelling body and unruly hormones forcing physiological changes that cannot be reverted or suppressed.

Following Good Manners, Blue My Mind is the second title I caught at this year’s Overlook Film Fest where revealing the exact nature of its central creature feature transformation might constitute a spoiler, since it’s patiently doled out late into the runtime. Much like how the narrative’s adherence to genre tropes telegraphs exactly where the story is going, it’s clear to the audience exactly what Mia is transforming into long before her body gets here. Again, appreciating the movie as a genre exercise requires an attention to its aesthetic & character-specific details, rather than an examination of where it falls within the larger pubescent body horror picture. The washes of cold aquatic blues, the strained relationships with parents & friends, the freewheeling dance parties set to repetitive synthpop, and the grief of letting go of the body’s original shape against your will all hit with serious emotional impact even if the genre tropes they service are overly familiar. If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Manners (2018)

A long, winding picture that’s shy to reveal its basic genre or intent to its audience, Good Manners is a strange, unexpected beast. It would be near impossible to define the film in terms of an overarching theme (outside the undercurrents of class & gender politics that flow throughout), since its two halves are clearly bifurcated in both tone & genre. It would also be reductive to frame Good Manners as a monster movie I caught at a horror film festival, as that context did little to set expectations for the patient, sincerely dramatic rhythms of a story that sprawls & shifts in mood as it explores the logical consequences of an illogical crisis. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. Minute to minute, Good Manners discovers its dramatic rewards in the emotional beats of a dark fairy tale that follows its own inherent progression instead of the command of a central metaphor. As a whole, it offers the welcome novelty of centuries-old, long-familiar stories about monstrous transformations recontextualized in a new, unpredictable package. That alone is a commendable achievement.

A financially strapped black woman takes on a position as a live-in nurse at the edge of São Paulo, Brazil. Recalling the economic power disparity in the art cinema classic Black Girl, she finds herself helplessly subordinate to her white, wealthy, pregnant employer’s whims as her nanny position expands to include cooking, cleaning, and emotional labor duties that far exceed her original job description. However, the power dynamic shifts drastically when the employer’s pregnancy brings on strange, unexplained stomach pangs and violent sleepwalking episodes. Her cravings for raw meat also push the pregnancy into menacing, supernatural territory, with only the nanny at hand to take the abnormalities seriously. This vulnerability lands the pair on more equal, even amorous footing as the dread of the approaching birth threatens to upend their little remaining stability. Eventually, the pregnancy-themed body horror of the first half reaches its inevitable, fever pitch climax. Halfway into the runtime, Good Manners outs itself as a lowkey monster movie with fairy tale rhythms to its narrative, only for the timeline to then jump seven years into the future to further explore the consequences of that disruption. The second half of the film is a sad, anxious echo of the first, with its own conflicted relationships & inevitable consequences building to a secondary, unavoidable monster movie climax.

It feels odd to tiptoe around the reveal of the central monster’s nature in the film, since it’s telegraphed to the audience long before it arrives onscreen or its name is spoken. There’s too much horror lore in the canon for the significance of the moon cycle or an ultrasound technician remarking what big eyes, mouth, and hands the unborn baby has to go unnoticed. The patience of the reveal is almost a sly joke, as the movie delivers the exact monster you expect, just in a different form than how you’re used to seeing it. Depicted through both CG & practical puppetry (when not restlessly shifting inside a pregnant belly), the monster in question is an adolescent beast—dangerous, but in need of parental care. The movie isn’t shy about delivering typical creature feature goods in later scenes set in traditional horror movie locales (like an after-hours shopping mall), but it mostly evokes a post-del Toro fairy tale take on adolescent monster narratives like The Girl with All the Gifts or Let the Right One In. It’s a film about motherhood & unconventional families first and a monster movie second, a declaration of priorities made explicitly clear by how long it takes for the monster to even appear.

Good Manners is distinctive in ways that stretch far beyond its narrative patience & temporal sprawl. Animated flashbacks, operatic musical tangents, and the visual precision of a Canadá music video push its take on the creature feature into totally unexpected territory that transcends any of its telegraphed genre tropes. On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (2000)

The 2016 theatrical release of Shin Godzilla was an incredible experience for varied reasons: it was an excellent course corrective for a series that hit a slump with Gareth Edwards’s lumbering 2014 Godzilla film; it packed a surprisingly acidic taste of unexpected political satire among its kaiju action; Godzilla himself is always exciting to see on the big screen no matter the vehicle, etc. Most significantly, though, as an American audience, I appreciated the chance to see a Japanese Godzilla production faithfully translated in its original tone & intent on the big screen, which is a frustratingly rare experience. From the original 1950s Godzilla to the 1985 American-Japanese coproduced sequel to beyond, the standard for most Godzilla imports is for them to be heavily re-edited & altered in translation in their American dubs. In the case of Godzilla 1985 (titled Return of Godzilla in Japan), many of the scenes not involving the monster itself were swapped out with inserts of war rooms packed with American actors, completely altering the story. There’s no telling to my English-language ear what might have been lost in translation in Shin Godzilla’s journey to America, but I highly doubt that anything so egregious transpired there. It’s something I appreciated even more in retrospect when recently watching Godzilla 2000: Millennium for the first time. While the American dub of Millennium doesn’t quite substitute entire scenes with American actors like Godzilla ’85, it does drastically alter the tone & intent of the original Japanese script in a show of bad faith for the attention spans of American audiences and the inherent appeal of the original work. Shortened by nearly ten minutes and punched up with intentionally campy dialogue not included in the original script, the American release of Godzilla 2000 is yet another example of the typical fuckery this long-running franchise is subjected to in its trips across the ocean and the language barrier.

Luckily for Americans, there’s a baseline enjoyability to all Godzilla movies that transcends these bad faith translations. As the 24th entry in the franchise and the start of its own “Millennium” era, you might suspect hat Godzilla 2000 would find it necessary to change up the basic formula to keep itself fresh. Instead, this is largely the same kaiju action vehicle all Godzilla movies are, just with updated effects. Chronologically a sequel to the 1954 film, Godzilla 2000 finds its titular lizard beast returning to the shores of Tokyo to battle a mysterious UFO that has been terrorizing its people & buildings (mostly the buildings). While different organizations argue over whether Godzilla needs to be subdued or destroyed, the monster busies himself by attacking the mysterious UFO with his kaiju fire-breath, to no avail. For its part, the UFO attempts to absorb Godzilla’s DNA to steal his regeneration powers, making it possible for the alien species to adapt to life on Earth. This culminates in the UFO transforming into the (new to the series) kaiju Orga for a classic big-beast battle among Tokyo’s fragile skyscrapers. The fight is played 100% seriously, but the Humorous Dialogue surrounding it can be try-hard goofy in a way that’s difficult to earn a genuine laugh. There’s enough physical humor & basic absurdity inherent to the original Japanese cut that there’s no need for these additional wisecracks, which include a military general bragging that his missiles will “go through Godzilla like crap through a goose.” Har, har. I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of making a Godzilla film that’s shorter & campier than the series’ dead serious nuclear origins (Godzilla vs. Hedorah is my favorite in the franchise, after all), but the joke-writes on Godzilla 2000 do seem especially hokey, outside maybe the brilliance of the “Get ready to crumble” tagline. Either way, they didn’t cut any of the sweet monster action in the American release, which is a universal pleasure that can never be truly lost in translation.

As frustrating as it likely was to have its Japanese cut goofed-up for its domestic release, I’m sure it was still a massive joy to have a Godzilla picture back in American theaters in the year 2000. The few previous Toho-produced Godzilla films were straight to video affairs (I’m guessing the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla picture gave the series enough of a popularity-boost to transcend that) and kaiju movies are obviously meant to be seen as big and loud as possible. That’s largely because special effects are their main draw, whether or not films like Godzilla ’54 and Shin Godzilla back them up with Big Ideas. Special effects-wise, Millennium offers an exciting mix of the old and the new. Godzilla & Orga are still actors in rubber suits stomping around hand-built miniatures. That original-flavor special effects recipe is spiced up with a more current influence, though, particularly the matte painting & set piece spectacle of the early Spielberg era and the shoddy CGI of post-Spielberg disaster pictures. Godzilla 2000 arrived long after the 90s disaster epics wave of titles like Twister & Independence Day (not to mention Godzilla ’98’s own participation in that aesthetic), so it shouldn’t be so jarring to see Toho’s tried & true brand of Kaiju action mixed with that influence. Still, the visual references (to Twister & Independence Day particularly) are too specific and too plentiful not to stand out in this context. I’m sure that the Japanese cut of Godzilla 2000 is the superior piece of writing (and I probably should have watched it before filing this review) but even the goofed-up American version of the film retains enough visual spectacle, both in classic kaiju action & in its 90s disaster epic aesthetic, to be well worth a look. That was likely especially true for those who caught it on the big screen in its initial theatrical run. It would have been vastly preferable for Millennium to be afforded the Shin Godzilla treatment of a faithful American translation, but this is still a badass monster movie where Godzilla lays an extensive beatdown on a sky scraper-sized UFO beast. It would be near-impossible to ruin that.

-Brandon Ledet

The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Life (2017)

I know in my heart that it’s reductive to discuss a film solely in terms of genre, but that kind of categorization & attention to tropes is all the mental energy I can really afford the recent sci-fi horror Life. With characters & dialogue that linger with you for about as long as a fart and insipid, free-floating camera work stylization that distracts more than it enhances, Life has little to offer anyone not already on the hook for its basic genre thrills. It’s a decent enough spaceship horror with creature attacks that delight in their novelty & brutality just enough to excuse the waste of space human drama they interrupt. If you’re looking to Life for ambitious, heartfelt cinema you’re going to leave dejected. As a genre exercise, however, it’s a mild success that more or less pulls its own weight.

A spaceship packed with near-future scientists discover the first sign of extraterrestrial life. Initially the size of a microbe, this alien species grows exponentially in dimension, strength, and intelligence throughout the film until it ultimately poses a threat to humanity at large. When the size of a tiny translucent mushroom, the little Baby Genius bastard is strong enough to break every bone in a scientist’s hand. It grows from there to some kind of flying killer starfish to resembling an evil translucent Creech, making this more believable as a Monster Trucks prequel than the Venom prequel it was idiotically rumored to be upon initial release. Nicknamed Calvin, this evil little bugger is the obvious star of the show, as his wet blanket victims have nothing compelling to do or say between his shockingly violent attacks. Ryan Reynolds does his usual “lovable” asshole schtick & Jake Gyllenhaal reprises his stoic blue collar caricature from Southpaw, but for the most part our cosmonauts are a boring wash of measured British whispers, all interchangeable & instantly forgettable. I even had a difficult time differentiating the two female leads despite one of them being played by Noomi Rapace, who I’ve seen in several films before. Calvin was an interesting enough design & enough of a killer brute to hold my attention throughout Life on his own, but it is a shame he didn’t have more interesting people to kill.

As far as Alien retreads go, Life isn’t even the most interesting one to be released this year, not while Michael Fassbender is making out with himself in Alien: Covenant. The one interesting idea the film brings to that formula is in having the idiot scientist who first prods the monster with his finger actually being verbally chastised by his coworkers for acting like an unprofessional fool, when in other examples of the genre they’d all act that way. Beyond that, the film can only deliver thrilling monster attacks & an interesting creature design, unless you think an overly dramatic reading of Goodnight Moon is enough to carry an emotional climax on its own. Luckily for me, I’m already a huge sucker for space horror as a genre and found Calvin both charming & nastily brutal enough for the film to feel worthwhile. It’s reductive to say so, but your own interest level in that genre’s minor chills & thrills will likely dictate your experience with this one as well.

-Brandon Ledet