Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

Detour (1945)

One of the things we often overlook when we get nostalgic about classic film noir is how shockingly cheap the genre was, at least the bulk of it. Slicker, major studio noir films like The Maltese Falcon packed the screen with gruffly handsome leading men & gorgeous femme fatales, but most noir pictures were from low-budget studios desperate to turn crime world sensationalism into tidy profits. Most classic noir is low-grade genre schlock that elevates its meager production values with an overbearing sense of style, especially in its adoption of German Expressionist lighting & cinematography. Edward G. Ulmer (who had once directed the German Expressionist-inspired horror classic The Black Cat for Universal) may have made the most quintessential example of this genre schlock alchemy. Ulmer’s Detour is the sweatiest, most explosively nervous noir I can ever remember seeing. Its limitations as a Poverty Row cheapie are apparent in every frame, and yet its overbearing sense of style & desperation achieve an overwhelming, nerve-racking effect throughout. It carries none of the suave, macho cool that major-studio noir is fondly remembered for; it’s cheap, sweaty, unglamorous, and incredibly exciting from start to end.

If you believe his dodgy, exponentially suspicious narration track, Detour‘s antihero protagonist isn’t even the hard-drinking criminal type we’re used to following as a noir lead. He’s merely a nightclub pianist hitch-hiking across the country to visit his out-of-town girlfriend. The way he tells it, he stumbles into his on-the-run outlaw status through no fault of his own, explaining, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Through a truly unhinged internal monologue he recounts how his hitch-hiking travels were derailed when he befriended a wealthy gangster and “accidentally” killed him, having to assume the dangerous, sought-after man’s identity in order to keep up the appearance he was still alive. The narration is frantically, deliriously overwritten. He never simply says “diner waitress” when descriptive slang like “hash-slinger” will do. “Hitch-hiking” is too glamorous of a term, so he opts for “thumbing rides.” Money is “little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for […] pieces of paper crawling with germs.” Given its limited budget for staging legitimate set pieces or action-thriller payoffs, the movie is essentially an hour-long rant about a shitty vacation delivered at a machine-gun pace. It’s like listening to someone recite the screenplay for Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker from memory at the crescendo of a gnarly coke binge.

As with a lot of low-budget genre fare, every character in Detour is explosively, inexplicably angry with little to no provocation. This is especially true of our lead’s main foil, Vera (Ann Savage), the only stranger who instantly sees through his false identity to expose the fraud underneath. Just when you start to feel like Detour is missing the tough, dangerous women that make noir classics so enjoyable despite their overwhelming, hard-drinking machismo, Savage crashes into the frame full force like an 18-wheeler plowing through the walls of an all-night diner. If the nervous tension of the picture is already unbearable before she arrives, it’s outright lethal once she takes over the sketchy hitch-hiker’s life and pushes him further down his aimless path of petty crime. She’s chaotic & unglamorous in a way that would never be allowed in a mainstream picture – more feral animal than femme fatale. The movie builds its tension entirely off the narrator’s deliriously overwritten dialogue and the anarchic propulsion of Savage’s performance. The expressionistic touches of Ulmer’s eye are only set-dressing, contextualizing those core sources of nervous-energy as the hallmarks of a bad dream that only gets worse the longer it spirals out.

Detour is one of those select films that’s so cheap it was allowed to slip into the public domain but was still afforded the Criterion Collection restoration treatment. That better-late-than-never acclaim is totally understandable even without the cineaste prestige of Ulmer’s name in the credits. This is the exact kind of low-budget, high-tension noir filmmaking that inspired the chaotic, handheld immediacy of the French New Wave (among other devotees who loved noir as the nasty, forsaken schlock it truly was). It’s wildly, discomfortingly cheap, to the point where it feels as if it’s barely under Ulmer’s control even though nothing especially intricate or extravagant happens onscreen. It’s pure noir in that way, even though we nostalgically remember the genre being a little more polished & better-funded than it was in its Poverty Row majority.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt (1999)

Albert Pyun is one of those under-the-radar schlockteurs of the direct-to-VHS and early-VOD eras who churns out dozens & dozens of low-profile genre pics at an alarming rate without drawing too much attention to himself. Chances are that if you’ve seen an Albert Pyun film it wasn’t on purpose, but rather a statistical inevitability since he’s made so many sci-fi & crime film cheapies that you were bound to stumble into one of them eventually. For instance, I recently picked up a $1 used DVD copy of Pyun’s “urban” crime film Corrupt because it featured New Orleans rapper Silkk the Shocker on the cover, who I couldn’t recall ever having seen in a proper feature film before. I still haven’t. Part of Albert Pyun’s “Urban Trilogy” (alongside the Snoop Dogg vehicles Urban Menace & The Wrecking Crew), Corrupt is indeed Silkk the Shocker’s feature film debut as an actor, but only on a technicality. Shot in early-digital’s cheapo days (and trying to pass off the Czech Republic as New York City), this film is a very slight 69min that just barely holds itself together long enough to qualify as a movie. Silkk The Shocker also fades into the background for long stretches so that his costar, Ice-T, winds up claiming the most screentime (despite being the antagonist). This is an Ice-T movie that Silkk The Shocker just happens to pass through from time to time, but my purchase of the film under a mistaken pretense of what I was getting into is fairly typical to the quantity-over-quality M.O. for Pyun in general, so I was amused by the bait and switch.

While the title might signal that this is a thriller about crooked cops, it turns out Corrupt is the name of Ice-T’s character, not a descriptor of his persona. The controversial-rapper-turned-network-television-star appears here as the exact kind of criminal dirtbag he now pursues weekly as a fictional police detective on Law & Order: SVU. A drug kingpin with a hot temper, Corrupt threatens to implode an ongoing truce between NYC gangs because he cannot leave one particular brother-sister duo in his neighborhood alone – the brother (Silkk the Shocker) because he suspects him of stealing his drugs and the sister (Eva La Dare) because he wants to use his powerful street status to coerce her into bed. Silkk the Shocker occasionally runs across the screen to fire a gun in Ice-T’s general direction but most of Corrupt is concerned with that latter conflict with the sister. This is a shockingly dialogue-heavy picture about sexual coercion & rape in organized street crime, amounting to more of a melodrama than a crime thriller. A few disorienting smash-cut establishing-shot montages attempt to convince the audience that we’re watching a New York story, but most of the film is confined to single-location indoor scenes in the warehouses & diners of Bratislava, so that the film feels like a morbid stage play wherein a gangster abuses his power to manipulate a woman who does not want to sleep with him into bed. It’s a much more somber, wordy picture than you’d expect given its early-digi crime cheapie pedigree, which is the exact kind of expectation vs. reality dissonance that typifies Albert Pyun’s career.

Since the novelty of a Silkk the Shocker movie is minimalized along with the local rapper’s screentime, there are exactly two reasons why anyone should ever seek out Corrupt on purpose. The first is that its DVD (as well as the only version of the film uploaded to YouTube, appropriately) includes an amazingly disrespectful commentary track from Ice-T. Bored in the recording booth, Ice-T mercilessly riffs on the film in an MST3k tradition as if under the (understandable) assumption that no one would ever possibly be listening. He makes fun of the cheapness of Albert Pyun’s catalog in general, and jokes about how he only did a Pyun film because he’s been “blackballed from real movies” (this was before his TV career took off). He even makes fun of the audience for having purchased the DVD in the first place, much less played his commentary track, reasoning “You’re a loser with too much time on your hands.” (Fair point, no lies detected.) On the off chance that you’re actually interested in the production details for Corrupt, he does ease off these self-deprecating bon mots for insights like his complaint that “There was no place to shit” on set, so the crew would have to “hold it in the whole day.” It’s amazing. The second reason the film is potentially worth seeking out is that it features a scene in which Ice-T self-emulates with impossibly cheap CG-fire effects in order to dispose of his enemies (his mechanism for surviving the burns himself being too convoluted to be worth explaining). The image is so cheaply done that it approaches an art-film surreality that gives me hope there are other sublimely absurdist moments awaiting me the next time I accidentally stumble into an Albert Pyun film. It’s still a moment I’d recommend enhancing with Ice-T’s commentary track for peak effectiveness, though.

Since purchasing this film, one of my favorite modern critics (Justin Decloux of Film Trap and the Important Cinema Club podcast) has published an entire book of critical essays exploring the appeal of Albert Pyun as a filmmaker, titled Radioactive Dreams. Maybe after reading that collection I’ll be better equipped in purposefully seeking out Pyun films for pleasure instead of stumbling across them in confusion. One thing will not change though: Corrupt will still hold less value as a Silkk the Shocker vehicle (despite him being featured prominently on the poster) than it does as a showcase for Ice-T – as an actor as well as a raconteur (in his no-fucks-given commentary track) and a rapper (Ice-T songs play almost continually throughout the film with his vocals alarmingly high in the mix). I guess I’m going to have to seek out my Silkk the Shocker fix in his next film credit after Corrupt, Hot Boyz, which was apparently produced & directed by his brother Master P.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspicion (1941)

Given its austere domestic settings and the casting of Joan Fontaine as a woman driven mad by the sinister social forces that box her in, it’d be easy to frame Suspicion as the B-picture version Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It’s certainly a narrower, cheaper follow-up to that lush psychological drama, one with more of a penchant for outright comedy, which always has a way of making a film seem lesser-than. The main difference between the two pictures is that Hitchcock is far less interested in Fontaine’s character’s inner psyche here than he is in Rebecca. Suspicion is more explorative of a masculine sensibility, particularly in the cad-like villainy of an absolute scoundrel played by Cary Grant, who torments Fontaine throughout the picture. This is a film about the sinister combination of masculine charm & traditional handsomeness, to the point where if it were released in the 2010s instead of the 1940s it would have almost certainly been framed as a condemnation of the dreaded Toxic Masculinity. It also surely would’ve gotten more flack for how its Studio-sabotaged ending failed to fully condemn that weaponized machismo with any true conviction.

Fontaine stars as a Provincial daughter of immense wealth who’s staring down a potential life of spinsterdom, alone with her overprotective parents & mountainous piles of books. She’s taken aback, then, when a handsome playboy played by Grant actively courts her for marriage, when he could just as easily pursue much more worldly, glamorous women from the nearby metropolis of London. It quickly becomes clear that Fontaine has been singled out by Grant because she’s an easy mark, willing to overlook his glaringly obvious character flaws because he’s a handsome charmer. When Grant becomes frustrated that his new cash-cow wife’s inheritance money from her wealthy family isn’t pouring in quickly enough to bankroll his outrageous spending & gambling habits, things turn sinister. Characters who could bring money into the home through their last wills & testaments conveniently start dropping off like flies, and Fontaine fears her demise may be next thanks to her robust life insurance policy. Much of the film is dedicated to generating paranoia through the eyes of Fontaine’s increasingly suspicious protagonist as she attempts to parse out exactly who or what she has married – an overgrown man-child, a handsome grifter, a coldly calculating killer? Unfortunately, the studio behind the picture chickened out and forced Hitchcock to choose the least interesting answer to this question possible, but the director does a great job of holding onto the suspense of her suspicions for as long as they’ll allow him to.

Suspicion works best as a character study of an absolute scoundrel, especially since much of the film is dedicated to sussing out exactly how sinister Grant’s handsome-devil playboy antagonist truly is. So many of his character traits from frame one are the tell-tale signs of a toxic macho bully we’ve all come to recognize as the worst aspects of traditional masculinity. Instead of sincerely relating to Fontaine’s bookish Provincial nerd, he nefariously makes a point to seduce her, like a mid-2000s pick-up artist. He negs her with the off-putting pet name “monkey-face,” repeatedly violates her personal boundaries when she tells him “No,” and infantilizes her reactions he she is legitimately upset with his lies & selfish deeds. And because he’s a handsome charmer who people find pleasant to be around, they’ll excuse even the most roguish offenses of his behavior. Characters will wave off his faults by describing him as “a baby” or explaining, “You mustn’t mind Johnny when he cuts up. That’s what makes him Johnny!” When someone asks early on, “Isn’t Johnny terrible?,” it’s meant as a compliment to his cheeky devilry, but as his list of faults accumulate it retroactively plays almost as a warning. Johnny is terrible; in fact, he’s not much more than an amalgamation of the modern man’s worst behavior. Once he starts reading pulpy crime novels as if they were instruction manuals, the situation only worsens, but he was already a danger to everyone around him from the start – especially to women.

The only thing that hinders Suspicion from being a convincing screed on the dangers of toxic masculinity is its bungled conclusion, which was reportedly altered by RKO Pictures to preserve Cary Grant’s likeability with audiences by making the character’s guilt improbable (although not entirely absolved). The good news is that there are plenty of other places to find this exact story of male entitlement run wild in other works, at the very least in the novel this film was adapted from and its spiritual descendent in Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (which has also seen several big-screen adaptations). There’s also plenty of places to see Hitchcock’s cheeky devilry as an auteur uninhibited by studio influence, partly due to the success of more stately pictures like Rebecca. What you don’t see as often is Cary Grant’s excellence as a dangerous cad who’s too handsome & too charming to fully resist – likely to your own peril. No matter how much the studio attempted to neutralize his performance of toxic bravado, the damning display of weaponized charm & sinister entitlement still shines through, and Suspicion is most worthwhile as a vehicle for his performance of a truly dastardly character who represents the worst societal ills of his gender.

-Brandon Ledet

Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Have a Nice Day (2018)

Questions of cross-cultural influence are always difficult to pin down with any definitive authority. At first glance, the animated Chinese gangster story Have a Nice Day looks like an awful lot like the post-Tarantino American crime pictures of the 1990s, where criminals spend way more time hanging out & chewing the fat than they do committing crimes. However, as Tarantino himself was heavily influenced by Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s (the A Better Tomorrow franchise’s influence on Reservoir Dogs is especially apparent), it’s difficult to determine whether Have a Nice Day is a reflection of his work, a continuation of a larger Chinese crime cinema tradition, or a combination of both. There’s a second 90s-era American auteur who potentially had just us much of an influence on Have a Nice Day’s tone, though, a much more unlikely source of inspiration: Richard Linklater. The film’s flat animation style and long stretches of meandering, sometimes philosophical dialogue recalls a distinctly Linklater headspace that’s not exactly common to crime thrillers about villainous gangsters. It’s an unlikely source of inspiration that solidifies the film’s 1990s indie cinema atmosphere, even though its visual design resembles a graphic novel from the 2010s.

An in-over-his-head professional driver steals a bag stuffed with one million yuan from his crime-boss. Over the course of a single night, several disparate parties, from top level gangsters to money-hungry restraunteurs, jockey for possession of the bag, leaving a trail of broken bodies in their fight over its ownership. Have a Nice Day is less distinct for its narrative, which is a typical post-Tarantino crime story, than it is for its atmosphere. It feels as if its conflict is contained in a universe where it’s perpetually 3am and everyone’s as delirious as they are desperate for easy money. The landscape is established as a quiet, desolate picture of urban squalor, backed by hip-hop instrumentals & (more often than not) total silence. Meat cleavers, switchblades, cellphones, plastic surgery disasters, rundown internet cafes, a sparsely populated pavement slick with light rain: this is a small, inconsequential world defined by financial desperation & early morning depravity. The money in that bag means a lot to many people, maybe even least of all to the gangsters it was stolen from. The stolen money seems to be the only road out of this forever-rut of 3am crime sprees, a chance for freedom worth drying for, if not for escaping boredom alone.

The actual animation of Have a Nice Day isn’t as much of a draw as its static visual design. The crisp lines & flat fields of color feel representational of modern graphic art sensibilities, but the computer-smoothed movements of its action isn’t exactly impressive. Often, entire scenes will play out with a single character unloading long paragraphs of dialogue, portraying no movement outside the Flash animation flapping of tense mouths. The only break from this late-night drudgery is a tangential musical spoof of Chinese propaganda films, a brief daydream in an environment that requires that kind of mental escapism for survival. Otherwise, this is Tarantino (or Woo, depending on how you want to track that influence) without the explosive violence. This is Linklater without the broad relatability. The blankness of the animation style matches the financial & ambitious rot of desperate characters in an empty world where the only excitement offered is a stolen sack of cash. The film is calm, hollow, and slow-moving in its escalation of violence & danger, a distinctly 90s hangout vibe in an animated context where that type of atmosphere is a rarity.

-Brandon Ledet

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

One of the most infamous scenes of onscreen cinematic violence is not actually as gratuitous in its visual depiction of brutality as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s staging of the shower stabbing in Psycho crams 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts into 45 seconds of footage (which is where the documentary on the scene, 78/52, gets its name), bewildering its audience with a fractured visual narrative that makes us feel like we’re seeing more explicit violence than we are. Our minds fill in the gaps. Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell sustains this technique for the entire runtime of a feature-length crime narrative. You Were Never Really Here is being frequently compared to the violent third act catharsis of Taxi Driver, which is understandable considering its on-paper premise about a mentally strained brute singlehandedly taking down a child prostitution ring while simultaneously uncovering a larger political conspiracy. Ramsay’s approach to violence is much less explicit & blunt than what’s delivered in Taxi Driver, though, obscuring its emotional release by instead focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. It’s remarkably similar to the Psycho shower scene in that way, a connection acknowledged several times in the dialogue (thanks to serendipitous adlibbing from Dead Silence‘s Judith Roberts, who plays the would-be stand-in for Norman Bates’s mother in Ramsay’s film). If you’re looking for a prolonged echo of the bloody catharsis that concludes Taxi Driver you’re not likely to find it here, no matter how similar the two films might sound in concept.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a mercenary muscle who specializes in rescuing underage girls from child prostitution rings. When this grueling job overlaps with a larger web of political intrigue involving a governor, a senator, and one particular underage victim, he suddenly finds himself alone in the world, attempting to take down an Evil force much larger than one man could possibly handle. He attacks this problem with brute strength by way of his peculiar weapon of choice, a ball peen hammer, but any minor successes he can achieve only open his life to more violent and emotional chaos. This one-dude-vs-a-human-trafficking-network narrative is now common enough to be its own genre, if not only through Liam Neeson’s recent catalog alone. Where films like Taken or Brawl in Cell Block 99 often feel like macho power fantasies, though, You Were Never Really Here shows little to no interest in offering any such release. Our broken macho man anti-hero cannot successfully beat his problems to pulp. Instead of making him come across like a heroic badass, his horrific line of work leaves him weeping, codependent with his elderly mother, and in desperate need of a kind stranger to hold his hand or kiss his cheek. Physical, masculine strength is a debilitating force for Evil in this picture. Our protagonist is haunted by past childhood, wartime, and occupational atrocities that we only glimpse in flashes, but leave him effectively crippled. In crime thriller terms, this is less the stylized romance of Drive than it is the dispiriting grime of Good Time. It resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester. We linger on her characters’ emotional pain without being offered any clear catharsis.

It never feels right to discuss a Lynn Ramsay film in terms of plot, since so much of her storytelling is paired own to elemental indulgences in imagery & sound. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood enhances the film’s emotional discomfort with slightly off-rhythm guitars, violins, and percussions. Any visual information missing from the obscured bloody hammer attacks is supplanted with the menacing specificity of other off-kilter images: burning photographs, mouths sucking on thin plastic, bloody tissues piling on an office desk, sugar peeling off a crushed jellybean, etc. If the film draws an aesthetic comparison to another title in Ramsay’s (depressingly limited) filmography it’s Morvern Callar, her most strikingly grimy descent into emotional chaos to date. Not only does You Were Never Really Here share that film’s impossibly dark humor and (despite its absence of heavy Scottish accents) necessity for subtitles, it’s also at its core an editing room achievement in cinematic sight & sound. This may be Ramsay’s closest adherence to a genre structure to date, outweighing even the Bad Seed & Omen vibes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s deeply seated in the increasingly fractured mental space she’s been carving out as far back as Ratcatcher. The film’s security camera sequence is also her most impressively staged set piece outside the hellish house party that opens Morvern Callar, a very high bar to clear for any filmmaker. Whether you want to compare individual details from the film to Taken, Psycho, Taxi Driver, or any number of past stylized crime thrillers (Nocturama also comes to mind, based on the fractured imagery of its own security cam sequence), there’s no denying that this is pure Lynne Ramsay. The director obscures, subverts, deconstructs, and viciously tears apart a traditionally macho genre until its only viable comparison point is the furthest reaches of her own sublimely upsetting oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

Swamp Women (1956)

I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.

An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?

Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.

With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.

-Brandon Ledet