Welcome to Episode #130 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss over-the-top exploitation thrillers about Evil Twins, starting with the 1981 Italo whatsit Madhouse.
– The Podcast Crew
Welcome to Episode #130 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss over-the-top exploitation thrillers about Evil Twins, starting with the 1981 Italo whatsit Madhouse.
– The Podcast Crew
The Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, our current Movie of the Month, carries a lot of low-key hangout energy for a movie about a bloodsucking immortal ghoul. The film’s central vampire, Boya, is reluctant about his role as an eternal seducer & killer, appearing to be genuinely pained by the danger he poses to the vulnerable humans around him. He attempts to limit his sanguine footprint by feeding off street rats and avoiding eye contact with potential romantic partners, until the urge overpowers him or until his vampirism proves useful in saving the day for his mortal friends. One of the ways this small-budget Canuxploitation horror signals this low-key, anti-violence hangout ethos is by setting its story in a 24-hour donut shop, where Boya can hang out in wholesome solidarity with other nocturnal weirdos without frequenting the orgiastic goth nightclubs more typical to vampire cinema. That donut shop is a quirky choice that maybe suggests a livelier horror comedy than Blood & Donuts cares to deliver, but it still helps distinguish the otherwise tempered film as a singular novelty (which can only be a boon in the crowded field of vampire media).
While vampire movies are a dime a dozen, donut shop movies are more of a niche rarity. There are certainly iconic donut shops to be found scattered around pop culture –Big Donut in Steven Universe, Miss Donuts in Boogie Nights, Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World, Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, etc. However, those settings are isolated diversions rather than serving as a central location like the one in Blood & Donuts. The only other significant feature film I can think of with a plot that revolves so closely around a donut shop is Sean Baker’s 2015 Los Angeles Christmas-chaos piece Tangerine, which is anchored to a real-life LA donut shop called Donut Time. The opening credits of Tangerine scroll over a yellow enamel table at Donut Time, scratched with the names of bored vandals who have visited over the years. The movie serves as a kind of whirlwind feet-on-the-ground tour of a very niche corner of LA, but it’s anchored to Donut Time as a significant landmark to establish a sense of order amidst that chaos. It opens there with its two stars (Mya Taylor & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) splitting a single donut because they’re perilously cash-strapped. It also climaxes there in a classic Greek stage drama confrontation between all the film’s major players in a single, donut-decorated location that explodes the various hustles & schemes they’ve been struggling to keep under control throughout. Both Blood & Donuts and Tangerine wander off from their donut shops to explore the city outside (Toronto & Los Angeles, respectively), but their shared novelty locale provides the structure that allows for that indulgence
Like how Boya (Gordon Currie) awakens from a decades-long slumber at the start of Blood & Donuts, the similarly dormant Sindee (Rodriguez) emerges from prison at the start of Tangerine out of the loop on what’s been happening in her local trans sex worker microcosm since she’s been away. Over the opening shared donut, she learns from her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was locked up, so she bursts out of Donut Time into the Los Angeles sunshine to enact her revenge on all parties involved. Obviously, this flood of Los Angeles sunlight distinguishes Tangerine from the late-night vampire drama of Blood & Donuts (as well as distinguishing Baker’s film as a kind of novelty within its own Christmas movie genre). Otherwise, though, the two films have a similar way of collecting oddball characters in low-income-level gathering spots—like, for instance, donut shops. Tangerine speeds through a blur of 7/11s, laundromats, dive bars, by-the-hour motels, and car washes until it finds its way back to its Donut Time starting point. It finds an unexpected symmetry within the low-rent late-night locales of Blood & Donuts’s own tour of Toronto, something that’s most readily recognizable in the films’ respective visions of impossibly filthy motel rooms. Or maybe it’s most recognizable in how David Cronenberg’s mobster runs his crime ring out of a bowling alley, while the pimp antagonist of Tangerine runs his own out of a donut shop.
You’d think that a nocturnal vampire comedy from the 90s and a sunlit 2010s trans sex worker drama would have very little in common, especially since the former is so lackadaisical and the latter is commanded by high-energy chaos. Their shared donut shops locales and commitment to exploring the character quirks of the weirdos who frequent them bridge that gap with gusto. The word “donut” may not appear in Tangerine’s title the way it does with its Gen-X predecessor, but the film is just as committed to accentuating the novelty of its central location. Despite being far too young to reasonably remember the TV commercial she’s referencing, Sindee announces, “Time to make the donuts, bitch!” to her romantic rival as they approach the climactic showdown. She also jokingly asks the Donut Time counter girl, “Do you have watermelon flavor?,” an echo of Blood & Donuts’s own bizarre inclusion of a kiwi-flavored donut. As a pair, the two films seem to be serving as two pillars of a sparsely populated Donut Movie subgenre. The longer you scrutinize how they use the novelty of that locale the more they appear to have in common despite their drastically different surface details.
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 Brandon, Boomer, and our newest contributor, Hanna Räsänen, watch Blood & Donuts (1995).
Britnee: Do you ever remember a movie only by the feeling that it gave you? Not quite remembering any dialogue between the characters or even what those characters really looked like? Blood & Donuts is a film that I recalled loving simply from the feeling I got reminiscing about it. There’s just something about this movie that makes me feel comfortable and at peace. Yes, it’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time. It’s yet to be released on DVD, so if you are able to find a copy of it (be it streaming or VHS), it’s going to have that wonderful grainy quality that I just love so much.
Blood & Donuts is a vampire movie, but it’s far from your average run of the mill vampire flick. Boya (Gordon Currie), is perhaps the kindest vampire in the history of the genre. He is awoken from his deep slumber by a stray golf ball that breaks through the window of the abandoned home where he has taken refuge. He hasn’t been awake since the moon landing of 1969, and he now finds himself in the early 90s. As he begins to explore his new surroundings and find street rats to feed on, he gets into some messy situations with a local gang, falls for a girl that works at a donut shop, and tries to escape his murderous ex-lover.
I personally liked how the film doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on Boya’s transition into the 90s. There are no cheeseball scenes where he tries to get hip with the current trends and fashions. Boya just sort of rolls with the changes while looking a little dusty. Once he actually takes a bath, he really doesn’t look like a blast from the past. Brandon, would you have preferred the film to have delved more into Boya getting acclimated into his new world?
Brandon: At the very least, I don’t think the film would have been as memorable or distinctive if it dedicated more of its runtime to watching Boya adjust to his new Gen-X surroundings. Given its cheap-o production budget and the fact that it’s about a vampire, I was prepared for an off-beat Canuxploitation horror cheapie like Cathy’s Curse or The Pit. As soon as the CGI golf ball awakens Boya from his slumber in the opening scene, my expectations shifted to more of a goofball fish-out-of-water (and time) comedy like Peggy Sue Got Married or Blast from the Past. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that the film gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely: a kind of melancholy indie hangout movie that never fully tips into any single genre, so it leaves itself open to constant surprise & discovery. In that way, it reminded me a lot of a former oddball Canadian pick for Movie of the Month, the Apocalyptic hangout dramedy Last Night (both films even feature bit roles from Canadian filmmaking royalty David Cronenberg), which is to say that it’s much more interested in establishing a mood than it is in winning its audience over with familiar genre beats or easy-to-digest humor. Following Boya around as he blunderously acclimates to his new Gen-X 90s surroundings as a vampire who’s been asleep since the 60s might have been amusing in its own way, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as unique of an experience as the low-key hangout dramedy Blood & Donuts delivers instead.
We do get some insight into Boya’s internal adjustments to his new surroundings. We just get the sense he’s been through this process so many times before that he’s more exhausted by it than he is amused. He stumbles around this movie’s few grim locations (a graveyard, a seedy motel, a 24-hour donut shop) in a total daze, as if shaking off a 25-year hangover. As his mind sharpens and his body loosens up, the movie turns into a character study of an oddly tender, sensitive man who just happens to be a bloodsucking vampire. He harvests his blood from rats to prevent himself from murdering because he is a humanist. He’s fascinated with the quirks of modern human culture surrounding him, like novelty donut flavors (kiwi? really?) and classic cartoons. His hobbies include long baths and scrapbooking. The very first conversation in the film, between the vampire and his newfound cabdriver friend Earl, is about how it’s okay for grown men to cry. Boya is an overly-sensitive, non-threatening man-boy – the kind of undead sweetheart that goth teens must’ve fallen in love with before Jack Skellington replaced his type in the zeitgeist.
Speaking of Boya’s attractiveness, I feel like the only threat he poses as a vampire is in his naturally seductive qualities. Women can’t help being pulled into his orbit. We see this most extensively with a bookworm donut shop employee, Molly, whom the film posits as his main love interest. We also see where that potential romance may lead, thanks to a hairdresser who fell in love with Boya in the 1960s and has been going mad in the decades since while obsessing over his sudden absence and his vampirism’s promise of an eternal (albeit melancholic) life. That seduction also extends to the men who come in direct contact with Boya. When he eventually kills Cronenberg’s evil bowling-alley crime boss he does so with the neck-sucking sensuality that charges all vampire media with a horny overtone. His goofball cabbie buddy Earl (whose bizarro Eastern European-flavored Christopher Walken impersonation probably deserves its own lengthy discussion) is head-over-heels in love with him by the end of the film, and unsure what to do with how these uncomfortable impulses conflict with the unconvincing machismo persona he projects in public. Even the way that Boya’s muscly chest and naked buttocks are leeringly framed with the female gaze (by director Holly Dale) makes him out to be a luring sexual object for everyone to enjoy, to the point where I expected the movie to end with the vampire, Earl, and Molly riding out into the sunset as a bisexual throuple.
Since we’re living in an age where mega-corporations like Disney try to get away with earning social media brownie points for teasing that a character might maybe be gay or bi in a throwaway line or two without fully committing to, you know, actually representing LGBTQIA people onscreen, I should probably be a little cautious about diagnosing the three leads of this film as a bisexual love triangle. Still, I can’t help but feel that this movie is operating with some big Bi Energy, and that ended up being one of its major charms for me. Boomer, am I looking for onscreen bisexual representation where it doesn’t exist? What did you generally make of this film’s sexuality & romance, queer or otherwise?
Boomer: I was honestly a bit taken aback by how queer this film was, textually and not just subtextually. Sure, vampire media often likes to dally in this trope, as the vampyr is often a monster invoked as a Conservative’s nightmare (they are sexually free, often foreign, seductive, parasitic, and seek to convert; conversely, the liberal’s nightmare is our old friend the zombie, who is characterized as a braindead consumer, utterly mindless, incapable of independent thought, and represent an ultimate destruction of identity as part of a horde). To code that character as queer is both an invocation of those fears and, in a more postmodern film landscape, a way of defanging (I’m so sorry) elements of humanity that previous generations demonized. It took a while for it to sink in for me that the film was really willing to go there, given that the first scene between Boya and Earl initially felt like a bad parody due to the . . . let’s charitably call it a “unique” performance choice on the part of Earl’s actor (Louis Ferreira) to go with that accent. I was also shocked by how much the camera lingered on Boya’s body, not least of all because my only previous exposure (ahem) to Currie was in his role as Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the early aughts Left Behind films.
What you’ve brought up about the female gaze is notable as well. Video essayist Jamie “Rantasmo” Maurer has a short, interesting video about how the supposed homoeroticism of Top Gun is, in many ways, a manifestation of the reaction on the part of the (presumed default) straight male audience to the creation of a rhetorical space in which a man is being treated as a sexual object without the presence of a female character observing them, thereby eliminating the rhetorical distance that allows straight male audiences to feel more comfortable when viewing the object of objectification. Compare it to the classic “Diet Coke Break” commercial, in which an office full of women gather to watch a construction worker remove his shirt; the ad isn’t just about how sexy he looks when he’s drinking his Diet Coke, because that has the potential to alienate the straight male audience, but instead gives members of the audience the psychological “out” of saying “I’m not objectifying this man; these women are objectifying him,” creating a rhetorical distance between actor and spectator. Not only does Blood & Donuts feel no need to practice this distancing, but it in fact goes so far as to have the (presumably) straight Earl be the viewpoint character who is so thoroughly entranced by Boya’s taut abs, pushing this straight (again, so sorry) over the line into being unabashedly queer. I’d be curious to compare this to the subtext in Interview with a Vampire, seeing as it is often considered a keystone piece of queer cinema, which, though adapted and directed by men, is based on a novel by a woman; this is the reverse, with Holly Dale directing a screenplay written by a man. There’s something in there, if one of you fine folks want to pull that thread, it’s just been too long since the last time that I saw Interview for me to draw any conclusions.
I’ll admit that, like Britnee, I felt like this was a movie that is more evocative of a feeling than it was a narrative, lying somewhere on the spectrum between USA Late Night and IFC at 3 AM, when D.E.B.S. was over. As such, I had some difficulty getting into it, as it’s kind of a sleepy film, from an era of night shooting with indecipherable lighting choices of a kind you just don’t see anymore. I was fully committed to it by the time that Boya takes his milky bath and has long distance sex with Molly, though, even if the campiness of it made me think more about that one episode where Doctor Crusher has sex with a ghost than what was really going on in front of me. How did this movie make you feel, Hanna? Were you won over by its low budget zeal? Were there choices that you really loved, or that you would have done differently?
Hanna: Blood & Donuts completely won me over, in part because it completely surpassed my too-low expectations. Like Brandon, I prepared myself for a straightforward, deliciously trashy horror comedy; instead, I found Blood & Donuts utterly strange and surprisingly sweet. The characters’ moments of sensitivity were often funny – see Boya’s fastidious dedication to his ancient, leather-bound scrapbook, or Molly’s attempts to understand Boya’s vampirism through an incredibly on-the-nose reading list (featuring titles like Parapsychology, Dreams, and Vampires). Ultimately the movie honors and values these sincere expressions of tenderness, rather than undermining them through parody. I think the fuzzy, low-budget production actually enhances this effect; the earnest absurdity of Boya, Molly, and Earl would have hardened under a sharper lens.
In spite of the low budget and the cheesy special effects, I think the film managed to explore some unique ideas, especially the coexistence of sensitivity and ruthlessness. This is exemplified in one of my favorite aspects of the film: using a 24-hour doughnut shop as the main hub of the film’s action and Boya’s deeply-rooted existential crisis. Bernie, the owner of the shop, has “the firm belief that any jerk off the street deserves at least a well-made doughnut, and a safe place to eat it”. True to form, the shop is a haven for a rough brand of masculinity: buff outcasts, petty criminals, and scruffy derelicts. It’s a sugary substitute for the local dive bar, where the scum of the earth order fresh pastries and coffee instead of stiff highballs (and, based on the amount of consistent business he gets, Bernie is apparently tapping into some deep-seated need for sugary treats). He also takes his doughnuts very seriously, as indicated by the array of unique fruit fillings, as well as the encouragement for patrons to leave honest “impressions” of new flavors. I was simultaneously tickled and touched by the idea of a dreamy underworld where crime and grime are inextricable from kiwi doughnuts; where sweetness can be life-saving, or at least provide a temporary reprieve from violence. It’s also fitting that Boya—who struggles to reconcile his eternal reliance on bloodshed with his pacifism—would end up in such a place.
I fell in love with the extremes of violence and compassion in Blood & Donuts, and I was surprised by the depth this movie had gleaming from its schlocky disguise. Britnee, what do you think about the heart of the tiny universe Dale brought to life? Do you think it stands apart from its low-budget peers?
Britnee: No lie, I wish that I was a neighborhood resident that could frequent the donut shop. Everyone just seems so nice and accepting there, and at all hours of the night! All of the shabby chic buildings and constant aura of mystery create an environment that I just didn’t want to leave. What I truly enjoyed the most about Dale’s wonderful Blood & Donuts world is the portrayal of our vampire pal, Boya. Vampire lore is easy to play around with, but most movies tend to work within the same handful of vampire characteristics. We either have a bloodthirsty vampire that lures innocent prey to their doom or a vampire that hates being a vampire with no control over their actions. As far as vampiric variations in film go, Boya stands in a category all of his own. He is able to control his urges and only unleashes the vampire within when he’s helping his human pals fight the bad guys. He values friendships and human connections, yet he doesn’t constantly mope around bitching about being a vampire. His vampirism does not define who he is. Boya is like the cool guy you can have deep, philosophical conversations with who just so happens to be a vampire. A world where vampires are like Boya is a wonderful world indeed.
I love how Dale was able to make most of the characters, including those who had just a single line, genuinely loveable. Her focus on the humanity of the characters is what really sets this film apart from the other vampire flicks of the 90s. Take Earl for example. His character could’ve easily leaned more towards being a total doofus that’s only around for a couple of laughs, but he ends up being a genuine sweetheart that adds so much life to the movie. I was surprised that I became as interested in his well-being as I did, considering that I could barely understand his lines through the filter of his Canadian-New-York-City-Eastern-European-Christopher-Walken accent. Dale truly made the most of what she had to work with, which really wasn’t much considering the film’s low budget. This really shows her talent as a director. If I wouldn’t have researched the film’s budget, I truly wouldn’t have known that it was filmed for less than $300,000. Now, I’m not known for having the best taste, but I seriously didn’t get many low budget movie vibes from this picture.
Blood & Donuts is such a nice movie. Nice as in, every character is surprisingly nice considering what roles they play. The most evil people in the movie are the goofy guys in the bowling alley gang, and they’re really not the worst. The film works without having a disturbingly evil antagonist. Brandon, am I being too light Cronenberg’s bowling alley gang? Do you think the film would have benefited from really evil bad guys instead of mediocre bad guys?
Brandon: It pains me to admit this because Videodrome alone makes him one of my most beloved directors, but David Cronenberg was the worst part of this movie. Yes, that assessment includes Earl’s bizarro “New Yorker” accent (which, if nothing else, at least got a laugh out of me in his “Are you referring to me?” Taxi Driver bit). I do think Cronenberg & his bowling alley cronies were significantly crueller than the rest of the cast, though, even in their limited screentime. In his one lengthy monologue where he whips his goons into shape, he insults them with ableist slurs in a go-nowhere tirade that reads as pointless improv filmed in a hurry. When those goons beat Earl to a pulp in a back alley they squeeze artificial lemon juice into his wounds to add further insult, holding the little yellow bottle at crotch level as if pissing on him. That latter gag at least had some novelty to its cruelty, but their presence in the film is largely pointless, as if they had broken off from the production of Innocent Blood and wandered onto the wrong set. Britnee may be right in pointing out that they’re ineffective as villains, but I do think they’re vicious & purposeless to a point where they never really jive with the movie at large.
Thankfully, Blood & Donuts doesn’t waste much time pretending that its Bowling Alley Mafia villains matter either. It already has enough of an antagonist in Boya’s dangerous combination of sex appeal & eternal life that not much other menace is necessary to justify its weirdly tragic tone. The film has the basic attributes of a quirky indie comedy of its era (which is certainly the type of film Earl believes he’s in), but in practice it’s mostly a mopey goth kid drama about how hard it is to be a sexy vampire everyone falls in love with. Boomer, you already said you had a difficult time sinking into the mood of this picture, but did that emotional conflict of an eternal being falling in love with fleeting-lives humans register with you at all despite the film’s goofier touches & lackadaisical pacing? How engaged were you by the tragedy of Boya’s allure as a lover and his reluctance to lure more victims into his sexy orbit?
Boomer: I’m loathe to admit it because I pride myself on being the kind of person who can enjoy just about any piece of media on some level, but this is one of those that falls into the vague and purely personal category of “difficult to pay attention to” (pardon my dangling preposition). I get that this is a bit of an insult to the film despite being a matter of personal attention spans (for instance, I would never fault someone for feeling the same way about Knife+Heart, which might be my new favorite film of all time). There’s nothing lazy about the movie per se, but even with my hard and fast rule of “No phones during movie time” I found myself sometimes losing focus from the screen and actually staring at the wall behind it. There’s a dearth of information about the movie online, so try as I might both during and after the film, I couldn’t quite make sense of Boya’s relationship with Rita, the hairdresser. When we first see the photo of the two of them together in ’69, I was convinced it was a wedding photo, which made me instantly dislike Boya; who promises to sire their spouse and then runs off for over two decades? He seemed more like a deadbeat lover who went out for smokes and never came back than he did a figure of desire (even for me, and that is very much my type), which, coupled with my overall general distrust of men with long hair (don’t @ me), led me to read Boya not as a man reluctant to get into another doomed relationship so much as a serial sexual predator who has determined exactly how long he needs to disappear in order to mostly be forgotten, Rita notwithstanding. Maybe I just don’t get the allure. I read much less of a tragically romantic Mayfly-December Romance angle and more creepiness, although I’ll admit that might be the fact that Left Behind completely warped my brain when I was a kid. There’s also just something not-quite-consensual afoot when we’re talking about supernatural charisma and long distance dry humping(?), and that throws up my defenses, I suppose.
Hanna, what did you think about this film as a vampire movie specifically? We’re pretty accustomed to vampires who break the “rules” around these parts, but I was still pretty shocked that in Boya’s first scene he was standing in pretty direct sunlight (although this is less the case later), and that he appeared in Earl’s rearview mirror. Are you a vampire media fan? What are some of your faves? Where would this movie rank among them?
Hanna: I’m a big proponent of horror creatures that break the rules. Vampires have been used as boogeymen for anti-miscegenous, xenophobic, and homophobic cultural tensions from the Victorian era onwards, as people have come up with all kinds of outrageous and malicious false ideas and people they fear (e.g., contagious homosexuality). It seems to me that the harder horror moviemakers lean into vampire lore, the wider the gulf they create between vampires and humanity apart; in that case, I think it makes sense that Boya the Humanist wouldn’t be beholden to the rules of vampires in the past.
In the grand scheme of vampire media, this felt like a mid-life crisis vampire movie. Most vampire media – movies, books, and TV-shows included – focuses on the violent, lustful carnality of vampirism; the intoxicating thrill of eternal love; or the loneliness of eternal life. While I am 100% on board with gratuitous vampire trash and bloodlust (shamefully, I was a big fan of Queen of the Damned as a child), I also appreciate media that focuses on the vampires for whom the thrill of blood-soaked indulgence has soured—or was never appealing to begin with—because I personally think eternal life would be pretty miserable, no matter how hot and mysterious my vampire self might be. I read that as Boya’s main internal conflict, beginning when Rita asks him to transform her into a vampire, which seemed to be his impetus for climbing into the attic and isolating himself from humanity. When that fails, Boya has to reckon with the consequences of beholding the suffering of loved ones for an eternity, or condemning a mortal companion to live out the end of the world with him. He reminds me of Louis from Interview With the Vampire, but dialed back about 6 notches on the tortured soul and vampire-bitching (thank you, Britnee). I love that Boya handles the limits of his self-actualization like a real human: with mopey dissatisfaction and ennui.
Boomer, I can also definitely see your interpretation of Boya as a fiend biding his time for a fresh hookup, though, and now I’ll have to do some deep soul searching re: my love for Boya.
Britnee: Boya spends a lot of time in the bathtub, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of some psychological issues or maybe he’s also part merman?
Hanna: I would like to give a standing ovation to Helene Clarkson’s fantastic eyebrows; they really add to Molly’s character.
Boomer: Here’s Gordon Currie being interviewed by Kirk Cameron, if you can stomach it.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without mentioning the musical stylings of Nash the Slash, who’s credited as providing the film’s score. A notorious Torontonian weirdo who masked his face with surgical bandages when performing, Nash the Slash’s contributions here are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that helps solidify the movie’s sleepy, melancholic tone. To be honest, seeing his name in the credits is the most significantly eccentric presence that he brings to this particular project, but the more you dig into his Wikipedia page and his performance art-style music videos the more fascinating he becomes. If for nothing else, I’m at least super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019
-The Swampflix Crew
One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.
For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.
“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.
Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.
Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.
As I proudly count Videodrome as one of my all-time favorite films, I have no excuse for how long I’ve put off watching its kissing cousin, eXistenZ. Like how all Cronenberg horrors are driven by unspoken, cerebral fear, maybe I was subconsciously worried about seeing one of my most loved works lessened in its cultural update from cable television moral outrage to video game paranoia. eXistenZ even opens with a murder executed through an organic firearm made of bone & teeth, which picks up right where the flesh gun assassination conclusion of Videodrome leaves off. I wasn’t at all disappointed by my experience with eXistenZ, however. The film didn’t tarnish my appreciation of earlier Cronenberg works like Videodrome, but rather enhanced them by providing better context for the director’s career at large. Not only does a Cronenberg spin on the video game paranoia explored in less-horrific titles like The Matrix & TRON have an instant appeal to it, but eXistenZ also serves as a great bridge between the cerebral body horror of the director’s early career and the cold philosophical comedies he’s been making since the mid-2000s.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a hotshot virtual reality game developer who’s workshopping her greatest work to date, eXistenZ. The focus group testing of the game is disrupted when an assassination attempt is made with the aforementioned bone gun, leaving the developer/artist vulnerably injured. A marketing nerd played by Jude Law then finds himself operating as a makeshift bodyguard, whisking the developer away to safety while a vaguely-defined They (a paranoid conspiracy theory combination of both anti-gamers & gaming corporations) chase the pair down. Reality blurs as the two new “friends” delve into multiple levels of games within games to ensure the safety of both eXistenZ and its creator. There are no TRON-like digital landscapes around to give away what is “reality” vs what is eXistenZ, so the movie mostly amounts to a colossal mind fuck of Cronenberg needling his audience into a paranoid questioning of the validity of every character & every story beat. His version of a virtual reality future is much grimier & more organic than most similarly-minded sci-fi, works that tend to vizualize their own futurescapes with crisp lines & sanitized spaces. Cronenberg’s horrific vision is not the reality presented by the gaming systems, “meta flesh game pods” that plug into players’ spines through an umbilical chord & a puckered asshole of an outlet, or “bio-port” in the movie’s parlance. The writhing game pods, which look like gigantic human ears with clitoral nobs, make technology itself to be a literal horror, which really essentializes the paranoia films like The Matrix & The 13th Floor labor to communicate.
It’s interesting that no character in eXistenZ ever once says the term “video game,” yet we know exactly what medium Cronenberg is targeting. The glowing flesh cell phones & casual acceptance of virtual reality as a commonplace technology suggest a distant future where video games are a long-obsolete artform, but not so distant that the anus-like bio-ports & umbilical chord connectors that make gaming possible are acceptable to everyone. eXistenZ gleefully taps into the sexual taboo of female on male penetration, lingering on moments when Jennifer Jason Leigh has to lube up & enter Jude Law’s bio-port for stabs of psychosexual unease. Cronenberg sets up a fictional work where ours is “the most pathetic level of reality,” but the biological technology necessary to transcend it is a source of bottomless horror. Much like with Videodrome, he uses that bodily unease to open the film to metacommentary on the value of his own art. While Videodrome explores the violent & sexual urges titillated by a shifting media landscape, eXistenZ focuses on the nature of artificial realities created in individual movies, calling into question what qualifies as “real.” Characters detach from their in-game personas to critique the quality of the dialogue they’re compelled to say & what value a scripted sex scene has on their characterization. eXistenZ feels like the beginning of Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.
From the continuation of Videodrome ideology to its dream logic sci-fi mindfuckery to the surprise of seeing a large chunk of the Last Night cast reassembled for a gross-out horror, I was always going to be predisposed to enjoy eXistenZ. It felt almost as if I were destined or scripted to watch & enjoy the film, a fate I delayed for as long as I could, but did not avoid indefinitely. As I’m wrapping up this review, I’m feeling a phantom itch where my bio-port should be, which is the exact kind of reality-questioning paranoia I hope to catch from all of my Cronenberg fare. If Jennifer Jason Leigh enters any room I’m in for the remainder of my life I’m going to let out an uncontrollable scream.
When watching the recent psychological/philosophical horror High-Rise, a movie that ranked very highly as one of my favorite films of 2016, I could only think of one viable comparison point for why it worked so well for me: Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Exterminating Angel. The class system resentment & nonstop-party terror of The Exterminating Angel informs so much of what makes High-Rise a deeply unnerving picture, but something I had initially overlooked was how Cronenbergian the film was at the same time. The unspoken, unexplained psychology & philosophy that terrorizes audiences in High-Rise is very much reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg, which is no surprise once you consider that Cronenberg is an avid fan of J.G. Ballard, who penned High-Rise‘s source material (as well as the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash). In fact, Cronenberg had made a film, his very first feature no less, that closely resembles High-Rise even more than The Exterminating Angel, especially in its narrative structure & visual palette, presumably because it was inspired by Ballard’s text.
Much like High-Rise, Cronenberg’s debut film Shivers is set entirely within a high-rise condo community where residents have very little reason to ever leave the convenience of their homes. An opening slideshow, narrated liked an advertisement, takes the audience on a guided tour of the high-rise, making a big deal out of its convenience commodities like swimming pools, medical facilities, and recreational sports courts. Unlike with High-Rise, however, the catalyst for this self-contained society devolving into an orgy of uninhibited bloodlust is never left ambiguous or open for interpretation. This particular community is torn apart when a mad scientist perverts an experiment meant to supplant traditional organ transplants with a bio-engineered parasite that can be made to assume an organ’s functions by making that parasite a kind of aphrodisiac & a stimulant. This experiment gets out of control when the mad scientist’s teenage mistress spreads the parasite through copious amounts of promiscuous sex and the entire building devolves into zombie-like behavior, except with a lust for sex instead of brains.
It’s fascinating to see a young, scrappy Cronenberg working within the framework of a drive-in exploitation horror before honing his craft in more focused, better funded works like The Fly or Videodrome. Although the usual Cronenberg themes of body horror & unexplainable paranoia are certainly present throughout, Shivers becomes a fairly standard creature feature once the venereally-spread parasite is let loose onscreen. Even the creature itself, which looks like a monster’s detached & wriggling tongue, is a far cry like from the special effects mastery of later Cronenberg works. You can also feel the cheap exploitation edge to the film in its various alternate titles, which are very un-Cronenberg: The Parasite Murders, They Came from Within, and (the shooting title) Blood Orgy of the Parasites. Unfortunately, Shivers is mostly notable because of its cultural significance as proto-Cronenberg & an early glimpse at what would later be perfected in High-Rise. On its own, it’s only a moderately interesting slice of exploitation cinema where a mad scientist torments an entire apartment building (including horror legend Barbara Steele among his many victims) because humanity has “lost track of its instincts” and would supposedly be better served engaging in “a beautiful, mindless orgy.”
The sexual nature of the violence in Shivers, as fascinating as it is in relation to venereal disease paranoia, means the film is far from a “fun” watch. Also, the budget of a first time filmmaker means Cronenberg couldn’t push the mayhem anywhere close to the scale of High-Rise‘s dissent into widespread madness. I can only recommend Shivers to those interested in the humble beginnings of Cronenberg & the influences of one of last year’s more unnerving (and incredibly divisive) horror films. It’s most interesting as a telegraphed version of better work that was to follow. That’s not to say there’s no value to that kind of entertainment, though, and Shivers worked best when it deepened my appreciation for movies that I already loved.
Welcome to Episode #22 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-second episode, we’re doing a little tidying up. Brandon, CC, and James continue their discussion of the Top Films of 2016 with some Honorable Mentions. Also, Brandon makes CC watch David Cronenberg’s cult classic Videodrome (1983) for the first time, a viewing experience that’s been in the works for years. Enjoy!
-Brandon Ledet, CC Chapman, and James Cohn
I’m going to try to keep this short & reductive, so as not to get unnecessarily mean. There was a weird detail to our December Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic Canadian black comedy Last Night, that reminded me to finally check out a work I’ve been putting off for years. However, much like how our conversation around the Laura Dern black comedy Citizen Ruth lead me to finally pulling the trigger on David Lynch’s Inland Empire only to find it an exhaustingly ugly, empty exercise in art film pretension, Last Night similarly lead me astray. In the film, cult Canadian director David Cronenberg plays a distressed business man who spends his (and everyone else’s) last day alive at the office, making sure things run smoothly in the world’s final moments before its mysterious doomsday mechanism arrives. It’s when Cronenberg’s character, conveniently named David, leaves the office that Last Night‘s scenario begins to feel eerily familiar. David calmly navigates the world-crumbling chaos & riotous hooliganism taking over Toronto from the comfort of his expensive-looking luxury car. Watching this unfold, I thought I had accidentally entered some kind of time loop, as it’s this exact scenario that Cronenberg directs Twilight vet & honorary Death Grips member Robert Pattinson through in his 2012 film Cosmopolis. The major difference there is that in Last Night this is a single detail in a large, thematically fulfilling tapestry, while in Cosmopolis it’s the entire exhaustingly cold, empty journey.
I’ve had a DVD copy of Cosmopolis lurking in my to-watch pile since the mass Blockbuster Video close-out sales of 2013. I was smart to stay far away as long as I could resist. I’m not at all hostile towards the basic idea of a feature length film about Robert Pattinson venturing across town in a limousine solely to get a haircut. After all, I was fairly ecstatic about the film Locke, in which Tom Hardy makes a series of phone calls to orchestrate a concrete pour from the driver’s seat of a car. Cosmopolis had a lot more going on than Locke in terms of set pieces & range of characters; Pattinson occasionally leaves the relative safety if his “office” limo to visit a basketball court or a bookstore or, of course, a barber shop. The purpose of the film’s dialogue is much more difficult to pin down, though, aiming more for philosophical musings on existentialism and capitalist vampirism than any linear narrative. It was all white noise to me, recalling the empty-headed speculation of Southland Tales without the energy or humor. With the detached coldness of an absurdist stage play or a going-through-the-motions table reading, Cosmopolis provides very little for its audience to hold onto. It has some interesting cultural context, considering how it’s dead rat-brandishing protesters that surround the all-important office limo mirror the time’s Occupy movement and I’ll admit that Pattinson is entertaining enough to carry his beyond-demanding lead role. It just ultimately signified nothing to me, despite the fact that I was very much positive on Cronenberg’s similarly detached Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. Don’t ask me why that is, because I honestly have no clue.
I’m not sure that Cronenberg’s apocalyptic car ride in Last Night influenced his choices in directing Cosmopolis in any way. Not only was the latter film adapted from a Don DeLillo-penned novel, there are some pretty major differences between his character’s business man coldness and Robert Pattinson’s. Last Night‘s business dude seems to be a kind, gentle man despite the emotionless way Cronenberg portrays him. Cosmopolis‘s protagonist, by contrast, is a heartless brute & a money-grubbing sociopath, making the film feel like Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass: The Movie. In that case, the world is crumbling because of a man-made financial crisis; in Last Night we don’t know why the world is ending, just the humanist ways it’s many characters grieve its loss. When Last Night ends we see strangers comfort each other & fight through personal insecurities to achieve intimate, emotional connections in their final moments. When Robert Pattinson finally reaches the barber in Cosmopolis, he gets a terrible, asymmetric haircut. I’ll leave it to you to guess which result I found more satisfying and to draw connections on why Cronenberg would be attracted to two disparate, dialogue-heavy projects in which wealthy businessmen calmly drive through a crumbling society in the comfort of a luxury vehicle. In the mean time I’ll be trying to forget the frustration & boredom I suffered when I finally pushed play on Cosmopolis . . . or eagerly awaiting the end of the world. Whichever comes first would be fine.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), and last week’s gaze into the bright explosions of its Michael Bay contemporary, Armageddon (1988).
When Last Night played the festival circuit in 1998, critics made a big deal about how its small scale, intimate depiction of the Apocalypse was entirely antithetical to Michael Bay’s massive explosion orgy of the same year, Armageddon. Almost a decade later, it’s still an interesting point of contrast. There are obvious ways that an indie budget Canadian black comedy wouldn’t match up to a massive Hollywood special effects spectacle, mostly in terms of scale. Armageddon is packed to the gills with recognizable faces (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, so many more), while Last Night boasts the muted star power of niche Canadian indie superdarlings like David Cronenberg & a before-she-was-minorly-famous Sarah Polley. Last Night saves money & energy by not at all addressing the mechanism for the world’s end, instead focusing on the personal reactions of a small group of people to the grief it inspires; Armageddon dedicates more than half of its bloated 150min runtime to blowing up an asteroid “the size of Texas.” Last Night limits its scope to the city of Toronto, while Armageddon attempts to span the entire globe (or at least a version of the globe where the USA eats up 60% of the terrain) and utterly destroys three major cities in the process. These financial & genre differences are to be expected from the get go, though. What’s really interesting outside the two doomsday films’ sense of scale is the relative blackness of their souls.
For all of Last Night‘s Gen-X cynicism & neurotic existentialism, it’s above all else a humanist story. We join the world well after it has accepted its impending communal death and although the film often chooses to laugh through the pain, it makes a point to celebrate the way characters, often strangers, comfort each other in their shared moment of grief. Armageddon is an entirely different kind of beast. The Apocalypse depicted in Michael Bay’s film is not a crisis that must be accepted & emotionally processed; it’s an obstacle that can be overcome by a tough son of a bitch American badass who blows stuff up real good. We first meet our supposed hero (Willis) launching golf balls at oil spill protestors & chasing an employee around his rig with his adult daughter. The black-hearted conservative fantasy continues when he & his rag tag crew of “roughnecks” (who at one point, no joke, self-describe as “a bunch of daddies”) are recruited to blow up the Texas-sized asteroid, because the pansy nerds at NASA just could not get the job done. So much of Bay’s film is outright despicable. Steve Buscemi’s asked to charmingly deliver a torrent of pedophile humor. Every depiction of a foreign country (who apparently all sit on their hands while America saves the day) is cartoonish in its culture-gazing, especially in the comic relief of its Chinese businessmen. One of the film’s many climactic crises is solved when a man violently tosses aside a trained female astronaut (with practically no dialogue) to bang on a machine with a wrench & yell at it until it works. Thousands of lives are lost as entire cities crumble, but less thought is given to casualties than to finding more space for yet another Aesosmith song or a lengthy assembling-the-team montage. Armageddon doesn’t muster one ounce of the compassion or the empathy of Last Night and often feels actively deplorable in its views on humanity, both political & spiritual. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the film is worthwhile in its own right.
As ugly as Armageddon‘s hostile, conservative soul in its terms of narrative & dialogue, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. With the low attention span of a Hausu or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bay’s camera carefully considers each kinetic set-up and somehow turns a succession of beautifully crafted shots into a rapid fire assault on the senses & sensibilities of its audience. The way Last Night understands basic human fears & intimacies and the way they galvanize in timed of widespread crisis is impressive, but I don’t think the film ever approaches Armageddon‘s attention to filmmaking as a craft. It’s not even a question of budget, either. Even when you ignore for a minute all of the CGI buildings and hand-built miniatures Bay can’t resist gleefully exploding every few narrative beats, he has a distinct touch as a stylist. I’m not sure McKellar can claim the same in Last Night. The intense colors, framing, and rhythms of Armageddon are far above the film’s intelligence level in terms of plot & dialogue and it’s fascinating to watch something so smartly beautiful used for such an ugly, evil purpose.
I don’t mean to imply that Armageddon needs to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked masterpiece. If anything, it’d full-blown camp spectacle. Details like the opening narration about dinosaurs and the unfathomably awful animal crackers seduction scene had me howling with laughter, when I’m fairly sure that was far from their intent. Last Night‘s joke about the world’s biggest (and presumably final) guitar jam playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” was the only gag that got that big of a laugh out of me, even though I’d say that film is the one that “deserves” to be championed as a lost classic. Armageddon is much more firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good side of that divide. It takes everything touching, mysterious, and humanist about Last Night and explodes it into a mean-spirited spectacle of jingoistic hero worship & casual misogyny. And yet, I found myself floored by Bay’s disaster epic for the entirety of its impossibly bloated runtime, a reaction I certainly did not expect on this revisit. Last Night is the more artful, empathetic portrait of humanity in crisis and fulfils every desire you’d have for a small budget indie about the Apocalypse. Armageddon, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored as a remarkable achievement in its own right, even if it is the exact polar opposite of McKellar’s black comedy and, arguably, a loud exemplifier of the worst aspects of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. As deplorable as Armageddon is as a Death Wish-style conservative fantasy piece, I’ll never sarcastically deride its inclusion in the Criterion Collection again. I get its appeal now, despite my better judgement.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).
Alli: Primarily an actor, this is the first feature film Don McKellar directed. When approached by a film project about the Y2K scare, he became inspired to make a movie about the end of the world. Last Night is about the end of the world, but it’s not about explosions, catastrophic earthquakes, super volcanoes, global climate change, or even about the physical mechanism causing it at all. Told in loosely interconnected vignettes, It’s a movie about how people would react to the last moments they have left.
McKellar plays Patrick Wheeler, a sarcastic, neurotic loner, who just wants to enjoy some solitude on his last night, much to the dismay of his parents. As he comes back home from an awkward “Christmas” dinner with his family, he meets Sandra (Sandra Oh), who wants to get home to her husband (David Cronenberg) before the world ends. In between, Jennifer (Sarah Polley), Patrick’s sister parties in the street, Donna (Tracy Wright) works in an office by herself dancing to the oldies, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) hooks up with everyone, and Patrick’s family watches home videos. Slowly the movie counts down to midnight when the world will end.
Britnee, did you like the premise of an apocalyptic movie focusing on just the people, or were you missing the cause of it all?
Britnee: The idea of an apocalyptic movie focusing on human life rather than extreme environmental events seems like something that I would really enjoy, but I didn’t have the most pleasurable experience watching Last Night. I was so frustrated with just about every single character throughout the entire movie, especially Sandra. She was such a robot, and although this was more than likely purposefully done, I wanted to pull my hair out watching her unsuccessfully make her journey home to her husband before the world ends. Just watching her choose between two bottles of wine in the looted convenience store drove me crazy! Her last hours of human life were wasted by her lollygagging around the city, and the sad part is that she didn’t even seem as though she was happy or at peace with the fact that the world is ending. The only characters who were not total disappointments were Jennifer and Craig because they made the most out of their last few hours on Earth when compared to everyone else. I get that this film took a more comical approach to the end of the world, and it may seem as though I’m taking the film a bit to seriously, but my nerves were completely shot by the end.
Speaking of the ending, I was really shocked at the way the film concluded. As Patrick and Sandra each have a pistol romantically pressed against each other’s skulls, one would expect their brain juice to be splatter all over the place as the countdown to the world’s end get in the single digits. Of course, a film as unpredictable as Last Night would not end in such an expected way. They both pull the guns away from each other after the countdown is over, and instead of bursting into flames (or whatever is supposed to happen to humans when the world ends), they start making out. It wasn’t a disappointing ending at all, but it just didn’t feel very satisfying. I think I wasn’t satisfied with the ending because I didn’t vibe with Patrick and Sandra’s nonchalant characters.
Boomer, were you satisfied by the not-so-morbid ending of Last Night? Were you bored by Patrick and Sandra’s relationship?
Boomer: Usually, you and I are pretty in-sync when it comes to MotM flicks, Britnee. This time, though, it looks like we had contrary opinions. I loved this movie much more than I expected to, and while I thought that the relationship between Patrick and Sandra was one of the less compelling elements in the larger, more engaging gestalt, it certainly didn’t rub me the wrong way in the way that it seems to have affected you. With regards to the ending, however, I have to admit that I found it more sad than expected (not even counting the death of Cronenberg’s Duncan); for the entire film, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, for some last minute miracle to fend off the end of the world. The general atmosphere of the nineties hung so low and thick over the ambiance of the film that I kept expecting all the Sturm und Drang about the end of the world to be a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing, much like the Y2K bug (which, to be fair, could have been as disastrous a technological issue as was advertised were it not for the efforts of computer engineers to prevent the “crash”). It wasn’t until sometime around the 10 PM chyron that I realized that night wasn’t falling and began to accept that the end of the world might be legitimate.
I did find Sandra and Patrick to be compelling, although I felt a greater empathy for Sandra, especially as her quiet desperation to die with agency, instead of falling victim to the indifferent vicissitudes of fate, escalated as that agency slipped through her fingers. Patrick’s initial scenes painted him somewhat unsympathetically; though we later got some insight into his past that informed this behavior, that poor first impression never quite left me. Overall, although we spend most of the film with these two, I was more captivated by the quieter moments that we spent with other characters, and the human condition demonstrated therein. I was particularly captivated by the woman on the trolley whose existential crisis has left her in a state of near catatonia, as well as the silent acceptance of death that played out as Geneviève Bujold’s Mme. Carlton spends her final hour in a mostly empty music hall.
So, here’s the part where I make a confession. I wrote the above paragraph on the day before the night of the election, and today is the day after. There’s a lot of anxiety in the air today, especially among and on behalf of LGBTQIA folk, people of color, and those of non-Christian faiths. The number of hate crimes against the historically disenfranchised has skyrocketed already, and many among us are afraid of what’s to come. Whether or not a societal collapse is inevitable (as it is in this film) or avertable (as Y2K was), Last Night speaks to me more strongly now than it did just a week ago when I first saw it. Will we have an initial outburst of rabblerousing and violence that peaks and dies as we all accept, and perhaps embrace, the end as it comes? Only time will tell.
Brandon, did you find that particular premise, of a society that panics and then accepts its death with dignity (for the most part) believable? As a concept, it mostly exists to set the table for the human drama to unfold in a world that mostly reflects ours, with focus on the subtle apprehension thereof rather than having characters deal with the fallout of a radically different social environment (as is usually the case in films with this subject matter). If it is believable, why? If not, why does it work anyway?
Brandon: I think the major reason Last Night works as well as it does for me might be the very reason it frustrated Britnee. There’s a defeatist resignation to most of the characters that I found fascinating from scene to scene, whether it manifested in strong convictions like Sandra’s determined quest for a romantic suicide or the more delusional avoidance of unpleasant thoughts from folks like Patrick’s nostalgic parents and the woman on the go-nowhere bus. There are no non-believers in this world. Everyone has accepted that The End is nigh, from the mentally deranged, self-appointed town crier to the well-tailored business man with a wealthy homestead. And yet, although there’s no real point for society to continue to carry on, the gas company makes sure their utilities keep flowing, news broadcasts continue to air, sex work still thrives, and so on. I think the major reason this all resonates as realistic to me is that the panic before the calm, much like the exact cause for the impending Apocalypse, occurs two whole months before the film begins. We aren’t privy to the moment when the world accepts its doomed fate. We only witness their mental unraveling once the dust of the initial panic has settled. They’ve had two months to come to terms with their collective ruin and although everything is calm on the surface (like when Sandra is picking out her last bottle of wine in the decimated grocery store), mental anguish finds its own way to disrupt the facade: a nihilistic approach to sexual experimentation, a choreographed romantic suicide, a dissent into meaningless acts of violence & vandalism, etc.
Like Boomer said, it’s difficult to discuss this particular film this particular week without relating it to the doom & gloom of the disastrous election that’s just behind us. The idea that as inauguration day approaches in the next two months, this End of the World feeling we’re enduring will become normalized & emotionally dulling is a nightmare, but a realistic one. With all national travesties I’ve witnessed in my lifetime (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, recent years’ recordings of consequence-free police brutality/murder, etc.) there’s always an immediate, media-covered mass mania that’s then followed by a more subtle, muted aftereffect that’s far more damaging to the collective psyche, yet typically ignored as complacency sets in. Last Night pictures an entire society (Toronto, to be specific) with a shared PTSD, a collective mental anguish that expresses itself in a variety of quietly dysfunctional ways. This is far more realistic to me than what an End of the World scenario usually looks like in cinema (consider, for instance, Last Night‘s contemporary, Armageddon) and I think beginning & ending the film within that post-acceptance existential crisis was a brilliant move on McKellar’s part. Trying to capture the initial panic might not have rang nearly as true and I’ve only seen a couple films in the years before or since that approach The End in the same way (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World being the most immediate example that comes to mind). It’s feeling especially likely this week that we might get a chance within our own lifetimes to see exactly how realistic that actually is, so maybe time will tell.
The only thing that McKellar didn’t get exactly right for me (and I’m sensing this same complaint coming from both Boomer & Britnee) is his own performance in the lead role. There’s a lot of 90s genre convention in this movie that I’m totally on board with: the laid back Gen-X vibe, the all-in-one-day temporal setting, the everyone-is-connected vignette structure. I just can’t get past parts of McKellar’s performance as Patrick. He seems to believe that the character he wrote for himself is more likable than he really is, as if his 90s-specific cynicism is something to be celebrated in the face of so many deluded phonies who don’t “get it” the way he does. It’s true that Patrick gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on, but a lot of his dialogue felt like the early efforts of a first-time writer-director, while other, better actors in the film did a much more artful job with the material. It reminded me a lot of the sore-thumb performances Tarantino sometimes delivers in his own films, despite the apparent fact that acting really isn’t his forte. Alli, do you think McKellar’s performance is a detriment to his own movie? I find myself wondering if Last Night (which I should stress that I really enjoyed on the whole) might’ve been improved if he were merely a side character, replaced by another actor, or removed completely, but that might just be my personal desire for Cronenberg, Oh, and Polley to grab more of a spotlight clouding my judgement.
Alli: I didn’t expect the timing of us watching this to be so apt. Sorry for being such a downer, everyone. I actually chose it because I think the countdown makes it a good New Year’s Eve movie, which I guess is still being a downer in a different way.
The first time I watched this movie I was definitely uncomfortable with Patrick as a character. At first he’s just rude and unpleasant. After that, he’s detached and sarcastic. I would say that McKellar’s performance in the role is very stiff and awkward. I think he fell less into the Tarantino and more into a Woody Allen trap, playing the “lovable” asshole. “Lovable” here defined as intolerable. I’m glad he doesn’t stay that way for the whole movie, but I think if more of his tragic story could have been revealed earlier on it would have made me more sympathetic.
A movie with more from Duncan (Cronenberg) would be great. I really do want to know how he ended up getting home even though Sandra was having a hell of a time. Actually I would be really curious to see this movie with any of the other characters having a bigger role. It’s really compelling to have a movie full of characters where all of them, for me anyway, are interesting. They all have their sad goals and just barely hidden animosity for how unfair it all is. I think one of the things this movie does really well is showing all kinds of coping, which basically boils down to what kind of weird jerk are you in a crisis. I think I understand where Britnee is coming from in that they’re all very narcissistic in their own way, with the exception of Jennifer and her boyfriend, who are just along for the ride. It’s all about their personal expectations at the end, letting themselves down seems like a bigger concern than imminent death.
Speaking of expectations, something really interesting to me about this movie is the soundtrack. It feels so personal to every character and setting. Everyone is concerned with setting just the right atmosphere. There’s a DJ committed to playing his favorite top 500 songs of all time with no requests, which is an eclectic blend of oldies. Patrick’s parents are continuing the Christmas tunes. Craig has his 70’s funk. Patrick himself seems preoccupied with finding the perfect end of the world music debating on various classical composers. It ends on Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Guantanamera“, which when I looked it up was also used in the Godfather Part II in the New Years scene in Havana. I don’t know if that was an intentional coincidence with the New Year’s imagery or just an exercise of what is the strangest song you could go out on.
Britnee, what do you make of the soundtrack? Is it all just as big of a disappointment as everything else everyone is doing? I think another thing this movie invites is the question of how we would personally choose to spend our last hours. Do you have a song in mind?
Britnee: I actually thought the soundtrack was pretty entertaining, especially Craig’s sex music. I’m pretty sure that Craig had the same sexy funk song on repeat for each encounter, and I let out a ton of good laughs each time the song came on. Honestly, Craig is probably my favorite character in the movie, and maybe his own personal “soundtrack” has more to do with this than I thought. I also completely forgot about the radio DJ and his personal music countdown until you mentioned it. That guy was living his best life, even though he only had a couple of hours left of the best life he was living. The film’s soundtrack really does play a bigger role in Last Night than in most films because everyone’s own personal soundtrack really represents their personalities. This would explain why Patrick got on my nerves too. He just couldn’t pick a damn song!
If I could have my end of the world song, I would hands down pick “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush. I would need a song that would make me feel as though the end of the world is not truly the end of everything. The lyrics “I just know that something good is going to happen. And I don’t know when, but just saying it could even make it happen” reminds me of having hope in the most dire situations, and I would definitely need that reassurance while waiting for the world to end.
Boomer, If you had to spend your final hours on Earth with just one character from this movie, who would it be and why?
Boomer: Hands down, I would spend my last day with Craig. I was inordinately excited when I saw Callum “Canada’s Brad Pitt” Rennie’s name in the opening crawl, and found myself a little disappointed that Patrick didn’t take him up on his offer. Regardless of sexual orientation, who could turn down an end of days romp in the hay with 1998 vintage Rennie? I certainly couldn’t. On a less shallow note, I think that Donna and I would have a good time together as the curtain fell on our world. Between her unrestrained dancing to the music on the radio (more on that in a moment), her secret drinking (in moderation) and the relative reasonableness of her final desires (knock shit off desks, get plowed), she seems like an agreeable and pleasant person to know, end of the world or not. I also can’t stop thinking about Jessica Booker’s Rose: her restrained indignation about people’s misplaced priorities and her resignation to spending her last hours with a family to which she doesn’t technically belong, watching their home movies. You can be my granny anytime, Rose.
Speaking of music, I appreciate this discussion pointing out how each person approaches the preparation of a soundtrack for the end of the world; what should be a relatively effortless task is treated by various characters with varying degrees of solemnity and gravitas. It’s a lot easier to make a playlist that suits your mood and activities in 2016 than it was in 1998, but I don’t think that I’d find it any easier to choose the musical arrangement of my transcendence to oblivion with Spotify or Grooveshark than it would be with a stack of CDs or records (other than to say I would definitely not be in attendance at Menzies’s show). I find myself in disagreement with Britnee again, however (why is this movie tearing us apart?!); I didn’t care for the soundtrack overall. As a longtime DJ at KNWD and KLSU and former Chief Announcer at the latter, I appreciate the prominence of the unseen man whose voice touches different scenes. I won’t deny that a bittersweet smile broke across my face when he threw his playlog to the wind and broadcast what he wanted, but the movie truly revealed the narrowness of its budget when it came to the music selection. The final song was fine, given the way that it was woven into the narrative, but I would think that I’d recognize more than one or two tracks on the countdown of the “greatest songs of all time.”
To backtrack a little to our nihilism in the face of the gestating sea-to-shining-sea fascist regime, I’ve always prided myself on my belief that my worldview would more or less mirror Patrick’s: quiet acceptance of the end. When my friends would compare plans to bug out in the face of viral epidemics, bunker down against the nuclear song of fire and ice, or imagine themselves as the one who fought off a crazy with an assault rifle, I never wanted to participate; I instead pointed out that the majority of people would die in the first wave and that I accepted without complaint that I would be one of them. Who knows where any of us will be a year from now (history tells us that they come for artists, writers, and teachers first, and the registry for the last of these is already slouching toward Megiddo, DC, waiting to be born), but I can say that I never expected that the end would come with whispery goose-stepping past the Lincoln Memorial and Tila Tequila declaring “sig heil.” I’ve been less self-assured of late. Like Britnee, I am afraid: afraid for myself, afraid for my Muslim neighbors, afraid for every person with flesh that errs on the far side of ochre, afraid for my queer brothers and sisters, afraid of a bleak future that extends to the horizon and afraid of how far that future might extend beyond the rim of my sight. All I know is that I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of Patrick’s final scene in recent days: “ln a way, l feel kind of privileged. I mean, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened, and we’re gonna be there. I mean, no one was there to witness the beginning, but we’re gonna be there at the end.”
Brandon, it seems I’ve gone a little maudlin, although no more so than is called for in these dark days, I’m afraid. Let me ask: which character’s final moments do you feel best reflect how you would imagine you’d face your last day? Whose final moments resonate with you most, on a personal level?
Brandon: It’s much easier for me to answer that question than I’d care to admit, since I’ve already thought about it a lot. Like Boomer, I always pictured myself just sort of accepting immediate demise in a Doomsday scenario. I’m deeply creeped out by “doomsday preppers” who stockpile weapons & escape plans for a possible Apocalypse, since it seems like they’re actually looking forward to humanity’s final moments in an exceedingly unseemly way (with John Goodman’s recent performance as a prepper type in 10 Cloverfield Lane being a great illustration of what I mean by that). My own final day in a planned-ahead-of-time Apocalypse would likely fall on one of the two sides of Patrick’s family, depending on what kind of endgame scenario we’re talking about. If we’re talking a real life Trumpian death by nuclear holocaust (or whatever other kind of holocaust our president-elect could easily trigger in office), I’d probably go out like Patrick’s parents. I’d spend my final hours glumly going through my things, eating a nice meal with loved ones, and (although I don’t particularly care about Christmas) staging one final run-through of a favorite holiday or activity: Halloween, Mardi Gras, my birthday, a film marathon, something like that. On the other hand, if we’re talking a natural or supernatural event like the one hinted at in Last Night, a demise far outside humanity’s control, I’d like to think I’d go out like Patrick’s sister, Jennifer, played by Sarah Polley. I’d love to spend my final minutes strapping on a stupid party hat, raising a bottle of champagne to the soon-to-disappear sky, and yelling drunkenly with a bunch of other doomed idiots celebrating their own final moments on this garbage planet. There’s a the-band-keeps-playing-as-the-ship-sinks vibe to that mentality that I’ve always closely identified with (which is probably why one last Mardi Gras ranks so high on my list of wishes & wants).
Speaking of that partying until the bitter end mentality, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite gag of the entire film in this conversation. There’s a very brief scene in which a news report details the world’s largest guitar jam taking place in humanity’s hour of crisis. The song the doomed souls decide to play & sing together? Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” one of the most inane pop songs I could imagine given the severity of the setting and, like Boomer pointed out, one of the only songs of any cultural significance the film shelled out money for. We’ve been pretty dour as we talk over this film’s themes & tone, which is to be expected given the total shit show 2016 has been on the whole and the imminent doom we’re staring down ourselves, but it’d be a shame if we didn’t make it clear that it’s successfully funny as a comedy as well. Although understandably bleak, Last Night is consistently humorous throughout and there’s a brilliance to the brevity of that “Taking Care of Business” gag that sums up the believable way the film portrays mass mania in the face of humanity’s impending extinction.
Brandon: I think it’s worth repeating that although this film was framed and marketed as a Y2K movie, it doesn’t need or rely on that cultural context for longevity in its significance. Even if he wasn’t particularly smart about casting himself as the lead role, McKellar was dead on in completely avoiding direct mention of the machinations of the Apocalypse in the story and instead focusing on humanity’s reaction to the crisis. Besides straining the limitations of the budget, any kind of asteroid or Y2K bug or killer spiders or what have you threatening the world might’ve reduced Last Night to a novelty (again, just look to Michael Bay’s Armageddon for context there). By avoiding the narrative gratification of knowing exactly what’s going on globally and instead focusing on the small details of interpersonal drama within that crisis, McKellar made something a lot more significant and potentially timeless, which is a funny thing to say about a work that feels so Gen-X 90s in its resigned shrug of a tone.
Britnee: Last Night and the conversation we had about the movie has made me realize that I am super scared about the end of the world. I think that may be why I didn’t vibe well with the movie. I wasn’t able to connect with any character because no one was screaming and freaking out like I would have been. If no one hears from me for a few weeks, please check for me in my closet. I’ll probably be in the fetal position in the corner.
Boomer: I don’t know what song I would choose to be my doomsday knell, but I can tell you that last week at karaoke there was only one song on my mind: the late Leonard’s “Everybody Knows.” It seemed the most apropos (well, actually, “Democracy” seemed most suited for the situation, but I wasn’t prepared to be on stage for eight straight minutes): “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.”
Alli: It’s interesting to be living in a time that we sort of have to think about the end of it all. It’s also interesting to watch a quiet, personal take. While we’re not exactly in the same circumstances as Patrick and co, Last Night feels eerily relevant. I guess while we’re making plans and if we’re just looking at the current situation, I think I have to regretfully inform everyone that I’d be joining in with the hooligans and smashing stuff up. I need a good primal scream and to smash some things. If we’re talking about a natural event though, I think I’d have a big party and make a lot of food for anyone who wants to come.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2016
February: Brandon presents Society (1992)
-The Swampflix Crew