The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

It’s very difficult for a horror movie to shock a modern, jaded audience, but The Babysitter 2: Killer Queen eventually did drop my jaw in astonishment. It wasn’t any of the film’s over-the-top gore gags or rug-pull cameos from the original cast that shocked me, but rather the name under the Directed By credit in the concluding scroll: McG. After suffering the stylistically flat, aggressively unfunny 140-minute eternity preceding that credit I was genuinely shocked to be informed it shared a director with its predecessor. If The Babysitter was helmed by the deliriously fun, bubblegum McG who directed the Charlie’s Angels movies, then Killer Queen was clearly the work of the flavorless-gruel McG who directed Terminator: Salvation. It was an appalling step backwards for a filmmaker whose sugary music video aesthetic had finally found its niche, only for it to be immediately abandoned.

Is there any point in recapping the plot, bloodshed, or aesthetic choices of this disposable novelty? Doubtful. The same overlit Burger King commercial visuals, empty nostalgia signifiers, and hack writers’ room humor that plagues all straight-to-Netflix trash is carried over here in the exact ways you’d expect, which is a shame since the first Babysitter film felt freshly exciting & playful in its own distinguishing details. The only standout aspect of Killer Queen is that it oddly feels nostalgic about its own predecessor, a fun-but-forgettable sugar rush with the cultural longevity of cotton candy in a rainstorm. Instead of pushing The Babysitter’s Satanic teen cult absurdities into new, undiscovered territory, Killer Queen merely retraces its steps to provide additional background info & throwaway gags for every returning character, no matter how inconsequential. It’s only been three years since the first Babysitter film—a frivolous diversion meant to be enjoyed & immediately forgotten—yet Killer Queen treats it with the glowing “Remember this?!” reverence of an I Love the 80s VH1 special.

I initially thought Killer Queen’s diminished returns were a result of the charisma vacuum left by Samara Weaving—you know, the titular babysitter—but even when she returns to the screen in a contractual act of charity here the result just feels like a waste of her valuable time. It’s also tempting to blame the film’s shortcomings on its four(!) credited screenwriters. The lack of imagination on how to expand or push the teen-cult premise forward in any way is damaging enough, but the joke writing is somehow even less inspired. The most consistent line of humor involves a middle-aged stoner who loves his hotrod more than his teenage daughter; but we all Get It because it’s a really cool car! That’s not a joke that becomes any funnier the second dozenth it’s repeated, but that writers’ room vapidity should never have been a factor in the first place. McG’s breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic should be beating you over the head with so much giddy, hyperactive inanity that there’s no time to notice minor concerns like plot, dialogue, or character development. Instead, you can practically hear him snoring in his La-Z-Boy director’s chair just outside of the frame.

-Brandon Ledet

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh (2020)

When I traveled to California for the first time last year, I was low-key worried that I might be inducted into a cult during my brief visit and be trapped there forever. I was already on the mailing list of a California-based U.F.O. cult at the time, and most of the cults I’ve become familiar with while researching movies over the past few years have originated in the state: The Church of Satan, Scientology, The Buddhafield, etc. There’s just something about the California temperament and its invitation for transplants to remake & remarket themselves in the state’s robust pop culture industry that makes its citizens uniquely susceptible to cult-leader predation.

Given how abusive most of those cult leaders become with enough time & unchecked power, that topic is a questionable foundation for a kooky, twee comedy. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh is about a young couple of Middle America transplants who move to Los Angeles in an effort to reinvent themselves, only to immediately become involved in the treacherous, routine bloodshed of a suicide cult. It’s a lot cuter than it sounds, considering the real-life abuses that it parodies, but it might ultimately be too cute to resonate with any significance at all. Seven Stages is an overwhelmingly harmless, breezy movie about ritualistic suicide – which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were funny enough to distract from that tonal discrepancy.

Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington costar as recent L.A. transplants who are horrified to discover that their new apartment is only cheap because it’s the preferred “worshiping” grounds of a suicide cult. Taika Waititi plays the cult leader—the titular Holy Storsh—which is excellent casting considering his magnetic charisma as a real-life Personality. Thanks to Storsh’s teachings, intruders repeatedly break into the newly arrived couple’s shithole apartment for the privelege to commit suicide in their bathtub – a ritual aimed to achieve the bliss of “instantaneous eternity.”

This seems like an extreme practice at first, but the more the couple digs into Storsh’s vague self-help mumbo jumbo the more they warm up to their uninvited, self-harming visitors. They gradually transform their apartment into a Luxury Assisted-Suicide B&B to accommodate the ritual, then inevitably become indoctrinated into the cult as active participants themselves. It’s a tale as old as California, although in real life it tends to end in devastated & befuddled relatives back home rather than light chuckles & a wasted afternoon. I don’t know that I expected the movie to operate with the same Traumatizing Apartment Cult intensity as Rosemary’s Baby or anything, but it certainly could have benefited from taking the violence that drives its light-hearted jokes more seriously, at least so that there would be some tension for the punchlines to relieve.

There’s a sitcom-style repetition to the visits from the guest-start suicide cultists as they take turns breaking into the apartment, which allows the movie to pack in a ton of familiar, always-welcome faces who’d please any comedy nerd with an affinity for the L.A. scene: Maria Bamford, Mark McKinney, Brian Posehn, Dan Harmon, etc. These tangential guest-star spotlights don’t register with any staying power outside their momentary gags, though, so all that really matters is the unraveling of the central couple who rent the doomed apartment.

Some signs of the couple’s mental unraveling are absolutely inspired, especially the loopy improv-style backstory of why they had to leave Ohio and the gradual escalation of their birdhouse-building home business that transforms the apartment itself into a Lynchian otherworld. Mostly, though, the only memorable details from the picture are Micucci’s natural adorability and the catchy bathtub-themed suicide jingle Taika Waititi’s enigmatic cult leader sings over the opening credits.

The rest of the movie just gently flows down the drain as a pleasant-but-forgettable amusement – decent enough for lazy-afternoon viewing, but not worth going out of your way for despite the impressive cast list on the poster. Given the ultraviolent premise’s connection to real-life California cult culture and the talent involved, I think it’s reasonable to expect more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lodge (2020)

A few years ago, I did a write up on Goodnight Mommy, the debut fictional film of directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, which the duo have followed up on with The Lodge; there’s a really great fake title that I would love to give to The Lodge that fits perfectly but spoils the ending. I would love to give it away here, but I’ll refrain (but look for it in the tags of this post). Originally slated for release at the end of last year, I assume it was moved to an early 2020 release date to avoid competing with Doctor Sleep for the contender of heir apparent to the legacy of The Shining (they needn’t have bothered, given that nobody bothered to see Doctor Sleep despite it being great). Like The Shining before it, The Lodge delves deep into manifesting loneliness and isolation, and the maddening affects thereof, as a vast wintry landscape with no apparent end in sight.

Teenage Aidan (IT and Knives Out‘s Jaeden Martell) and younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) Hall are displeased at their father Richard (Richard Armitage)’s plan to marry Grace (Riley Keough). Their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) took the news that Richard planned to finalize their divorce and remarry more poorly, killing herself and leaving young Mia inconsolably and existentially terrified about the fate of her mother’s soul, which Richard is ill-equipped to handle. He plans to move forward with his relationship with Grace regardless, and, intent on getting the kids to bond with her, takes the whole family to their remote Massachusetts lodge for Christmas. The Hall children are understandably (if unkindly) suspicious of Grace because of her past: at age 12, she was the lone survivor of a mass cult suicide that was orchestrated by the cult’s fundamentalist leader, her father; she and Richard met because she was the subject of one of his books*. Richard leaves the three alone in the titular lodge while he attends to a work obligation and plans to return before the holiday.

It’s not a pleasant time for Grace. She decorates the lodge for Christmas as the kids sullenly choose not to help her. The abundance of Christian iconography on the walls (a portrait of Mary that hangs over the dining table, crucifixes all over the place) also triggers her PTSD, and even her medication doesn’t prevent her from having recurring nightmares featuring images from her childhood. As she dreams, she relives the experience of finding the dead bodies of her father’s followers, mouths duct-taped and adorned with the word “sin” and covered with purple cloths, and she is haunted by the image of her father’s maniacal face and firebrand evangelism. Aidan is the most hostile, but Mia starts to warm to Grace and befriends Grace’s dog Grady (also the name of the previous caretaker of the Overlook in The Shining) and after Grace falls through ice and nearly drowns while retrieving Mia’s doll, a replica of the girl’s dead mother. Keough delivers a nicely understated performance in a scene in which she tells Mia about wanting a dog when she was young and how her father forbid her from having anything of her own, and that Grady represents her independence and self-reliance.

Snowed in on the night of the 22nd, the trio falls asleep around a gas heater during a double feature of The Thing and Jack Frost. When they awake the next morning, the Christmas decorations have disappeared, as has all of the perishable food, as well as everything of Grace’s. Aidan tells Grace that he dreamt that the family suffocated. Grady has disappeared, the power is out, clocks seem to have jumped ahead to January 9, and all of the phones in the house are dead. Without her medication, Grace’s mental state deteriorates rapidly, and she eventually attempts to walk to the next town for help despite the children warning her that she’ll never make it. After encountering a seemingly abandoned cross-shaped building in the endless snowscape and imagining that her father is inside, Grace is heartbroken to find that she has walked in a great circle and found herself back at the lodge with the kids. Aidan tells Grace that they are dead and in purgatory, and evidence begins to mount that this might be the case.

The Lodge is a pretty decent horror film. I’m a philistine who still hasn’t managed to see Fury Road, so my only exposure to Keough’s previous acting is that episode of Riverdale where Archie and Jughead are riding the rails to escape Hiram Lodge’s wrath (DO @ me if you want to talk Riverdale, dear readers). She carries this film, and young actress McHugh also delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance. Martell is well cast even if the role isn’t terribly demanding on a performative level; there’s not much to Aidan other than “teenager who hates his incumbent stepmother.” Martell’s boyishness lends Aidan an air of innocence; the audience isn’t sure if his actions are merely born out of teenage frustration and grief or some greater malice. Armitage is serviceable in his role as Richard, which is fine. You don’t have much sympathy for a guy who is an incredibly poor father and selectively observant as a partner. He doesn’t seem to be aware that Grace is on extremely vital medication for her issues, is incapable of consoling (or even comprehending) his daughter’s concerns about her mother’s seeming damnation, and sees no issue with leaving her alone with his children (who hate her) for a prolonged period of time. Instead of easing them into the concept of accepting Grace as his new life partner, he pulls emotionally manipulative stunts on them like inviting her to holiday dinners without giving the kids time to prepare themselves for this upset. Since he knows full well that he will likely have to work during the holidays, he essentially sets up a situation in which his children will be left alone with his fiance, like an experiment to see if he can be as far removed from the situation as possible while all of the unpleasant parts that make up the beginning of acceptance take place and he can swoop in and be around for the good stuff. He’s a truly despicable character, and I appreciate both that the film doesn’t shy away from that and that Armitage plays him as a person who really and truly does not realize that he’s a garbage human being.

The weakness of the film is largely in its unevenness. Grace is largely unseen for the film’s first act; when Laura arrives to drop off the kids at Richard’s house for his custody time, she sees Grace’s silhouette through a window and the back of her head as she leaves through a back gate (this is after Richard promised her that Grace would not be present when she arrived, and even lies about whether Grace had been there recently at all). When the kids dig through their father’s research for more information about Grace, we only see her as a child. When Richard attempts to “spring” Grace on the kids at Thanksgiving, we only see her through frosted glass as Richard apologizes and sends her away. All of this is counterposed against Mia’s story. Mia loves and loved her mother, even going so far as to create doll versions of the whole family, which she moves about in an ornate dollhouse that replicates the title location. At her mother’s funeral, when the grieving release balloons in memory of the deceased, Mia frantically tries to tie the ribbon on her balloon to the doll’s hand so that it can get to heaven, metaphorically, and when her balloon drops while the others float away, it devastates her. After all, is that not the metaphorical image of her mother failing to get to heaven, just as Mia fears is already the case, given how Catholicism defines suicide?

When we finally meet Grace in the flesh, it’s as if the narrative wants to say, “Hey, look, she’s not so scary after all. She’s just a person.” I wish that this worked, that we had been dwelling in the perceptions (and preconceptions) of the Hall children up to this point and that the reveal that Grace is a perfectly nice person was a shock. One could argue that this is the point, but the children never seem to fear Grace. They hate her, they blame her for their mother’s death, but they never seem to be afraid of her (until it’s too late). That end of Act I/beginning of Act II switch then makes Grace the main character, and Mia moves mostly into the background as the film becomes more about the conflict between Grace and Aidan, with his sullenness and inappropriate behavior (like watching Grace shower) making it more difficult to sympathize with him, while Grace makes an admirable attempt to maintain her composure and sanity as she withdraws from her medication and starts sleepwalking and hearing her father’s voice. Is it just her PTSD? Or is it something more?

You get the answer to that question, but I had the same problem with this one that I had with Goodnight Mommy; in that review, I mentioned a commenter on another site’s review of the film who advised that “If you haven’t guessed [the plot twist] by ten minutes in, you haven’t seen a movie before.” Luckily, you get a fair bit further into The Lodge before the “twist” becomes obvious; I was along for the ride until the clues started to pile up in one direction. There’s also more to the falling action here than there was in the duo’s previous film: by the time you learn “the truth” in Goodnight Mommy, there’s barely ten minutes left to explore the ramifications of that, but The Lodge lets the cat out of the bag at the beginning of Act III and spends more time on consequences. It’s unfortunately predictable, but it wears its horror influence on its sleeve, and there are no bad performances, with McHugh and Keough providing a strong backbone when the strength of the narrative atrophies a little. There’s no rush to see it on the big screen, but it’s worth a watch.

* According to the Wikipedia plot synopsis, Richard is an investigative journalist. The film does not make this completely clear; both I and my companion thought he was a psychiatrist or psychologist, and had specifically treated Grace (the only line of dialogue that we really get which clarifies their relationship is an offhand reference one of the kids makes to Grace being in one of their father’s books). Richard is a terrible father, and we didn’t put it past him that he would have a relationship with a patient. Him being a journalist makes slightly more sense and is less ethically questionable, but he would have to be making medical professional money to afford both a lodge and such a fancy modern house.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Midsommar (2019)

“For Dani, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. A fairy tale.”

About a week after seeing Midsommar, the friend with whom I attended a screening featuring a post-film Q&A with director Ari Aster turned to me as we were hanging out and asked, “Boomer, did you actually like Midsommar?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?” To which he responded, “I’m not sure. I think that Q&A kinda ruined it for me.” And I have to admit, as soon as the film ended, I was fully ready to do my write-up, only for my excitement to dwindle as Aster and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League swirled mostly-empty rocks glasses and chuckled. At first, I was mostly concerned for Aster’s feelings (I’m a softie like that); when I saw Hereditary, there wasn’t a single guffaw or chuckle from the audience with whom I sat in the dark and partook in a somber meditation on grief (at least until the very end, but I’ll circle back around to that), but in the sold-out audience for Midsommar, there were laughs within the first 5 minutes, leading to out-and-out peals of laughter until the film’s closing moments. I worried that Aster would hear this reaction and determine that we were a theater filled with bumpkins and deviants–and not the fun kind–who didn’t appreciate his work.

This was not the case, or if it was, Aster did a good job covering his disappointment, engaging in the good natured ribbing of the characters’ foibles, noting that if a viewer didn’t think the film was intentionally comedic by the time an older woman was manhandling the male lead’s buttocks and helping him thrust, then he must not have done his job. Comedy was his real interest, he stated, and he had gotten sidelined into doing horror because that seemed to be of greater public interest. And that is one of the beautiful draws of Midsommar: it is hilarious. I needn’t have worried at all it seems; I wrote in my Hereditary review about “a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences,” but Aster stated that he himself found that scene hilarious, and it was intentionally comedic.

It’s been long enough since Midsommar came out that an extended director’s cut rerelease has already happened, but in case you’ve had the misfortune of missing the film, a brief synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh), recently having experienced a horrific family tragedy, accompanies her douchebag boyfriend Chad Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden. Ostensibly, this is not a holiday but a research expedition as part of Josh (William Jackson Harper)’s thesis research about Hårga, the commune from which the group’s exchange student friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) hails. However, the inclusion of Mark (Will Poulter), a doofus completely lacking in even the least bit of self-awareness, cements that the Swedish foray exists solely for the purpose of eating a bunch of mushrooms and trying to bed as many commune girls as possible during the Hårga’s titular Midsommar festival, with this year’s being a special kind that only comes every ninety years. And then, as is the genre’s wont, bad things happen. And good things, too. After all, that quote about Dani above? That’s from Aster.

From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dead Calm to upcoming Movie of the Month Who Can Kill a Child?, I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the “day won’t save you” concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of “darkness” with about the success that you would expect. People lose track of time and then possibly lose track of the concept of time, all under the watchful and unfaltering gaze of the sun. That alone isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile, of course; the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man kept the seminal original’s daytime frights, but lost the core of what made Robin Hardy’s version a classic (although what it lost in the fire it gained in the flood; it’s a romp).

What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called “static image[s] of relatively little interest.” It’s been three years since the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” stopped updating, but I have no doubt that they would have a lot to say about the growing Aster oeuvre. His two big features so far have depended heavily on lingering shots of mostly-static settings to convey a sense of displacement and balance. The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.

A friend who is known for his tirades recently produced a new rant about the performative sententiousness of horror fans, noting that many he has met seem to think that horror fans have a kind of ownership of subtextual analysis. And hey, I know I’ve been guilty of that. (Said friend also hated Hereditary, unsurprisingly.) In a way, Aster reminds me of Panos Cosmatos, in that his films act as originals in spite of being pastiches of older genre films; I’ve said before that my favorite thing about Hereditary is how it starts out as an apparent homage to The Bad Seed, before turning into Ordinary People for so long that you gaslight yourself into thinking all that seemingly extraordinary stuff from Act 1 was just in your head, before bam: Rosemary’s Baby all along. In Midsommar we find a movie that, frankly, owes its existence to the aforementioned The Wicker Man (1973, just to be clear), but has a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. You don’t need another thinkpiece on this movie; various outlets have already dove into the apparent pro-eugenics nature of the narrative, an argument that I’ve read four times now and still have difficulty following, and have read the film as a trans narrative and a new camp classic. And if a slightly sloppy Q&A (someone actually gave Aster their contact info on a Drafthouse order card and asked to work on his next project, so the audience was matching the level of “shoot your shot” that the director was putting out, at least) in which Aster admitted under questioning that the 72-year life cycle didn’t actually jibe with the 90-year festival cycle didn’t ruin it altogether, I don’t think anything can.

P.S.: I didn’t even get to touch on my three favorite moments, but here they are:

  1. The paneled cloth depicting a particular Hårga fertility ritual, and each time that something popped up on screen that had appeared in it previously (how Christian didn’t notice that his lemonade was distinctly pinker than anyone else’s is a mystery).
  2. The foreshadowing in Pelle’s scene with Dani, where he tells her that his parents died too. In a fire.
  3. “What game are those kids playing?”
    “Skin the fool.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy

One of the great mysteries of Matt Farley’s backyard-movie catalog for Motern Media is how many films, exactly, fit under that umbrella. Farley has been making microbudget narrative features with friends & local weirdos for decades, but any “official” list of Motern titles, even when cross-referenced between his IMDb page & Motern’s website, is deliberately incomplete & unclear. Although the full list of titles is seemingly unavailable (outside of asking Matt directly by Twitter or by phone, as he is very available), it is clear that the “official” Motern Media movie catalog is marked as starting with an interconnected series of films Matt & friends produced in the early 2000s about ancient druid cults disrupting modern New England. Like Matt’s frequent impulses to craft triple albums, six-hour marathon concerts, and 20,000 song catalogs, this early Druid Trilogy is a stupefying work of outsized ambition. The plan, as Matt explains it, was to make a 7-part film series on this single druid theme. Only four films were completed before the project was (presumably wisely) abandoned, three of which were released, leaving behind a charmingly imperfect, oddly open-ended trilogy with an absurdly complex mythology. If anyone would have had the prolific energy & single-minded stubbornness to see a 7-part series of supernatural comedies about modern-world druid cults through to completion, it would have been Matt Farley, so I have to trust that jumping ship after the initial trio was the right thing to do. As it stands, though, Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy is exactly the glimpse of Motern Media’s early stirrings you might want to explore after falling in love with more fully-realized works like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas.

The first entry in the Druid Trilogy and, thus, the first “official” Matt Farley movie is the 2002 comedy Adventures in Cruben Country. What is sure to play as a fairly standard backyard movie project to the uninitiated will feel like a shocking revelation to already converted Motern devotees. All the way back in the early 00s, when I was but wee high school dweeb, Matt Farley’s pet subjects of walking instead of driving, the novelty songwriting process, the joys of one-on-one basketball, and Halloween costume monsters stalking the woods just outside of town were already fully-formed, lived-in obsessions. In an early, fictional version of what would eventually become The Motern Media Infomercial Podcast, Matt rants at length on a radio broadcast soapbox about how much better the world would be if everyone walked everywhere instead of driving cars, an argument you can still hear him make verbatim in the 2010s. In the film, he’s playing the fictional character of Matt Farley, the Musical Mayor of Thomasville. The film is a kind of fantasy where he can exercise the same auterist control he uses to run Motern in real life while governing an entire city of loyal citizens who have to listen to his official dispatches & novelty songs with rapt attention. True to form, Matt is far more interested in indulging himself with this Musical Mayor fantasy than he is with staging a conflict with the cult of “druids” (black-magic creeps with bedsheets for “cloaks”) who stalk the woods in nearby Cruben Country. When the mayor’s plan oversteps its bounds by proposing that Cruben Country be converted into a massive playground packed with basketball courts, however, the druids encroach to discredit him, threaten his journalist girlfriend, and essentially exile him from Thomasville. The highs of Adventures in Cruben Country never quite match the best of Farley’s work, but it’s still a successfully funny, adorable hangout comedy with strong Adventures of Pete & Pete vibes that telegraph what he’d later accomplish in Manchvegas. The movie is most astonishing in its early glimpses of novelty song-scored basketball games, extensive rants about walking, and Kevin McGee villainy – all of which would be better deployed later in his catalog, but are amazing in the earliness of their arrival here.

Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel doesn’t exactly pick up where Cruben Country leaves off. Or does it? There are enough stray elements in common between the two films to suggest that Sammy is a direct sequel: Kevin McGee’s casting as the main evil druid; Matt’s ex-journalist love interest; a series of underground tunnels ostensibly intended to encourage walking; props like frying pans, frozen pizzas, and mystical jars of dirt worshiped by the druids, etc. However, there is no mention of Matt ever having been mayor of his small New England town. Also, I’m 90% sure the film is intended to be a direct parody of the early 80s cult horror The Pit (which I’m reluctant to confirm, since we’ll be discussing it as a Movie of the Month this October and I don’t want to prematurely read too much about it). The complex mythology of dirt-worshipping, government-infiltrating druids is maintained as background detail in this film, which mostly concerns an adult, brain-damaged Matt Farley, who has renamed himself Jamie and spends his days talking to an oversized teddy bear. The bear, named Sammy, issues commands to the infantilized Matt, eventually leading him to feeding human sacrifices to a tunnel-dwelling monster in the woods. If Cruben Country recalls Manchvegas, Sammy is much more prescient of the nastier tones of Freaky Farley, with the teddy bear encouraging some real disturbing Norman Bates/Peeping Tom behavior between non-sequitur gags about misshelved library books & frozen-pizza binges. The narrative of Sammy is just as incongruous with Cruben Country as the tone, as we never see the accident that transforms Matt into Jamie, nor are given direct indication if Matt used to be mayor. Is Sammy even set in Thomasville or are these films only of a series in the sense that they rearrange talisman props & characters into Madlib style configurations? They each feel self-contained enough for the latter to be true. I could easily ask Matt directly for the answer to these questions and for insight into what the unreleased Druids Druids Everywhere & the three unproduced films in the druid series might have been, but I’m honestly having more fun truing to parse out the mess on my own than I would with a clear, direct answer.

The third (and most artistically satisfying) release in Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy is Druid Gladiator Clone, a film I’ve already reviewed at length & one I quite enjoy for its aesthetic resemblance to early 00s pranksters like Tom Green & the Jackass crew. If you haven’t fully caught the Motern bug, but are still curious about these early druid-mythology comedies, it’s the one to see, as it delves furthest into the unnecessarily complex (even in Motern terms) lore; it’s also, on a basic level, the funniest of the trio. As a trilogy (and abandoned heptalogy), however, this collection of work is remarkable in its microbudget ambition & its deadpan commitment to the silliest of premises. In other words, it’s pure Motern. Matt Farley already had his humor & his pet obsessions fully developed and ready to broadcast to the work in the early aughts. What the Druid Trilogy afforded him & director/co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh was a D.I.Y. film school environment where they could learn the details of comic timing & maxed-out absurdity that would later lead to more substantial (even if just as low-budget) work. This crop of films is the exact Early Motern insight I was looking for. It’s probably for the best that Farley’s earlier attempts at backyard filmmaking (as well as mysteriously unavailable titles from later in the catalog like Obtuse Todd) are still just outside my reach. Much like the disjointed, irreconcilable plots of these three loosely connected films, the Motern movie catalog is all the more fascinating for maintaining a slight air of mystery.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Hell (2016)

three star

What is it about Californians’ disposition/DNA that makes them so susceptible to cults? Whether it’s a documentary like Going Clear or a far-fetched thriller like The Invitation, I always get the sense that a California setting is downright essential for a fertile cult breeding ground. The recent CNN documentary Holy Hell only strengthens that argument. When its cult subject The Buddhafield begins in California it flourishes, offering a spiritual utopia for college educated depressives in the midst of Reagan-era yuppiedom. It isn’t until the cult moves from California to Austin, TX that its promise of inner peace starts to fall apart in favor of the cult culture cliché of serving an enigmatic leader as a Master. Not far from the atrocity of Waco, The Buddhafield miserably & deservedly crumbled. In West Hollywood it looked like The Garden of Eden, except with the unusual uniform of Raybans & Speedos.

One of the stranger aspects of Holy Hell as a cult life expose is its ungodly wealth of access. Documentation Will Allen was a film school student nursing childhood obsessions with Death & “The Truth” when he entered The Buddhafield cult on the ground floor, so he poured his filmmaking passion into documenting the “truth” that he found with his new “family” for the decades he was hypnotized under his Master’s spell. It’s rare (I hope) that a cult as contemporary as The Buddhafield would be this unknown & this under the radar, but Holy Hell’s hook is how intimately associated & submerged its documentarian was in the menacing organization’s trenches. Allen knows exactly how to make a cult look inviting & attractive to an outsider because he lived through it himself. He initially portrays The Buddhafield as an oasis of young, attractive, talented people losing touch with reality in the wilderness as they begin to feel “Alive” for the first time & revel in “freedom from self.” He then slowly introduces the more disconcerting aspects of life at The Buddhafield, like a ritual where members are hypnotized into “knowing,” “seeing,” and “tasting” God & the gradual realization that their “spiritual leader” is a selfish, life-destroying monster that permanently damages the very victims he dares call family. At the beginning of Holy Hell, members of The Buddhafield rationalize “If this is a cult, at least it’s a really good cult.” By the end they’re left empty & permanently scarred by a human monster who still abuses young, malleable minds today (back in the holy mecca of California, of course) . . . if they were able to escape his mental grasp in the first place.

It’s tempting to get hung up on the weirder aspects of Holy Hell and treat it like a tale of curiosity like Tickled or Finders Keepers, but the abuse at the center of this documentary runs even deeper than that of those deceptively dark human interest stories. It’d be easy to reduce this story down to its weirder details, like a cult member who’s convinced that he’s making fruit salads “for God” or The Buddhafield’s strange abstinence policy or the fact that although individual members essentially work as the cult leader Michel’s employees they were still charged money for their weekly hypnotherapy sessions. There’s a lot of very specific detail to get distracted by here. However, the film’s main function is as an expose of Michel’s inhumane crimes and abuses. Holy Hell’s real life horrors are way too grave for the film to be treated as an arm’s length curiosity. It’s not a flashy documentary; it doesn’t feel too different from what you’d normally expect form a CNN production. Yet, its intimacy & the ongoing atrocity of its subject makes for a fascinating watch. At the very least I’d recommend it as a double feature to drive home the severity of Karyn Kusama’s recent thriller The Invitation. As a pair the films call into question the dangers & menace of faux spirituality, not to mention make California look like a hellscape below its sunshine & bare skin surface.

–Brandon Ledet

Faults (2015)

fourstar

There’s a dividing line in Faults (a fault line, if you will) where the film goes from bitterly funny to something truly special. The first half of the film feels like a low-key, character-driven comedy inspired by the golden age of the Coen brothers. It’s manages a delicate balance between funny & depressing in its depictions of a once-famed cult deprogrammer pathetically milking what he can out of a complimentary hotel stay & a desperate, elderly couple who just want their daughter back. It’s an engaging slow burn of building tension, but there’s not much to conclude from this first half other than a general feeling that “This guy sucks.” As he delves deeper into his latest deprogramming case, however, Faults shifts gears and becomes an ambitiously deranged power struggle that transcends the low-key stakes of the first half of the film, but wouldn’t feel the same without them. It’s a deliberate shift that shakes the audience violently, snapping them out of the melancholy haze of the first half like a real life deprogramming.

The central power struggle between cult member & deprogrammer at the heart of Faults raises a lot more questions than answers, but the questions prove themselves more satisfying being left open ended. By the time we’ve followed the down-on-his luck deprogrammer, Ansel, as he shills a book no one wants & attempts half-assed modes of suicide, the cult member who supposedly needs saving, Claire, seems rather well adjusted. Sure, Claire makes ludicrous claims that she had sex with God or that she can make herself invisible, but she seems way better off than a once-famous man who now has to resort to stealing ketchup & 9 volt batteries to make ends meet. Claire has no problem discussing her past, saying that she was once “weak & stupid,” but has since grown as a person (and a divine being). Ansel, on the other hand, refuses to talk about his past, which is haunted by an outstanding debt & a former cult member he failed to “save”. In comparison to the rock bottom lifestyle Ansel is barely holding together, Claire’s religious organization Faults (which follows a single god, recognizes no individual leader, and encourages meditation) feels like a viable, or even preferable, way of living.

What’s most surprising about Faults is that it doesn’t allow itself to stop there. The contrasting lives lead by Ansel & Claire are merely a launching pad for the much stranger, more unnerving territory that their power struggle leads to. The conflict between the depressingly mundane and the divinely transcendent is apparent even in the movie’s sets, where strange, haunting lights invade wood paneling motel rooms & cheap diners. Words like “clear”, “free”, and “levels” make the film’s fictional cult Faults feel somewhat reminiscent of the real-life cult Scientology, but that comparison fades to reveal something much stranger in the second half as well. There’s something strange going on in Faults’ cult member vs deprogrammer power struggle that refuses to be fully understood or pigeonholed as it pushes through the expected territory of where that plot should lead and reaches for something more extraordinary. As an audience member you start to feel like the film has you sleep deprived, questioning your free will, and breaking down your personal identity just as you’d expect in a deprogramming. It’s wickedly funny in the way it manipulates you into feeling unease, but that humor does little to soften just how strange everything begins to feel once the conflict comes to a head.

-Brandon Ledet