Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

There’s a scene that I loved in Spider-Man: Far From Home that I wish I could explore in more detail than is really appropriate for an opening paragraph, even if the review is as late as this one. To be as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that we once again spend some time with a character who finds Tony Stark’s narcissism and egotism as obnoxious as I do, and I got a minor thrill out of the fact that, within this narrative in which (spoilers for Endgame) Stark’s corpse has barely cooled, the evil that he’s done lives after him and the good is interred with his arc reactors (or something). His former employees hated his freaking guts, with Stark’s careless dismissal of the “little people” in his sphere, despite their individual contributions to the technology that kept his empire alive, presented in a more honest way than we’ve seen before. Somewhere along the way, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma tricked everyone into forgetting that Tony Stark is someone that would be very difficult to get along with, unless you were a gorgeous twenty-something he wanted to bed. That he died and left most of his legacy to a kid from Queens he barely knows is strange, to say the least, and Stark’s spurned employees don’t see a reason why they should have to honor that desire. Frankly, neither do I, and I have the benefit of living outside of the narrative and can recognize how weird it is that this Spider-Man isn’t really all that Spider-Manny.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s going to Europe! Along for the ride are his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya), and Flash (Tony Revolori). Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), seen in the last Spider-film only on the school’s video announcements, is also along for the ride. The aforementioned all disappeared for five years during what’s now being called “The Blip,” the time period during which half of all life was snapped out of existence by Thanos at the end of Infinity War, before being snapped back into existence by Tony in Endgame (ok, he’s not without a redeeming feature or two); some students return to discover that their younger sibling is now biologically older than them, even if they are still chronologically elder. To those who were gone during the interim, that means that there’s a whole new group of freshly-minted peers, with some of Peter’s classmates having, subjectively, grown from pipsqueak to hunk overnight. One such character is Brad (Remy Hii, who, like me, is 32, making me wonder if I could still pull off a potentially problematic Never Been Kissed investigation), whom Peter fastens onto as a potential rival for MJ’s affection. As soon as the group gets to Europe, element-based monsters appear and start wreaking havoc on all that priceless architecture, and Peter must team with new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to stop them, etc. Also part of this story are Tony Stark’s hideous sunglasses, which turn out to be linked to yet another A.I. that connects to an orbiting Stark weapons platform, among other things, and which Stark meant to go to his “successor.” But is Peter’s head adult enough to wear so heavy a crown? And if not, him, whom? Also, Samuel L. Jackson appears in his contractually obligated appearance as Nick Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) is also there. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

There’s both too much and too little going on here. “Too much” in the sense that, with a release date a mere 61 days after the premiere of Endgame, there hasn’t really been sufficient time to let that film digest in the public consciousness; “too little” in the sense that, if we are going to dive straight back into this world, we don’t really get to spend sufficient time exploring the massive consequences of The Blip. I still remember the thrill of electricity that ran through my fat, greasy, balding 2009 body the first time I read in an issue of Wizard that there were going to be Captain America and Thor movies in 2011, and how that seemed so far away, and all the speculation and discussion and anticipation that created. Endgame truly felt appropriately consequential and, at the risk of coming across as sententious, iconoclastic. It was a capstone to a truly impressive decade of mainstream film; to break ground on something new so soon diminishes the poignancy and the potency of what we just saw in theaters two months prior. In my Endgame review, I noted that the film functioned as the “All Good Things” of the first ten years of the MCU, but even Rick Berman and Brannon waited at least six months before getting straight to Voyager. This analogy bears out in the content of Far From Home as well, where we find our intrepid band of heroes literally far from home, but the narrative quickly settles into something that’s so familiar it’s essentially the same old thing, just blanched of some of the color that made it special. Perhaps, like the franchise that once boasted the most films in a single series, we’re about to experience such diminishing returns that the next ten years of Marvel fail to penetrate the public consciousness the way its forbearer did.* Give my fat, greasy, balder 2019 body the chance to feel that excitement and anticipation again, Marvel.

I understand that fans are too hungry for new content to let the land lie fallow for a season so that the earth is sweet again, or at least I understand that this is the narrative. I also understand that the MCU is a machine that generates money, and that this is the real reason we’re not going to see a summer without an MCU flick until the well runs dry (if it ever will). But if we are going to head back so soon, we should spend more time really living with the aftermath of The Blip. As it is, an entire half of the universe just experienced a cataclysmic existential shift; half of all life just lost seven years, not to mention there’s very little exploration of the fallout from the doubtlessly widespread infrastructure issues that this creates. What we get is a single fundraiser for Aunt May’s homelessness initiative, which barely glances off of the surface of what kind of a massive housing crisis must now be a reality for everyone. The implications are boundless, but the most devastating event in the history of existence is used mostly as a source to mine for comedy in the fact that formerly sexually ineligible middle school nerds are now hot (32 year old) seniors.

I’m coming down pretty hard on this for a movie that I had a fairly good time watching. I’m not really upset with the product, just with the system of production. I mean, I’m never going to love the fact that Peter Parker’s whole deal–being a street-level superhero who had to balance all his great responsibility with his need to have some semblance of a normal life–is kinda defeated by having Tony Stark acting as Daddy Warbucks bibbedi-bobbedi-booing Peter straight out of Queens. Even when one considers that Peter’s desire to be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is part of his external conflict in this film, Tony Stark’s presence looms so large and his shadow casts so far that it drags down the plot. The narrative connection between the former Stark employees and their complicated boss not only works for me because it’s critical of Tony Stark, but also because it makes the world feel larger in an organic way; having Peter’s story be so dependent on Tony’s makes it smaller. Gone is the relatability of the fable, in which perseverance is a virtue, replaced by the rhetorical distance of the fairy tale, in which you might be rewarded for hard work, but also sometimes you’ve just got a fairy godmother to do that shit for you.

There were a lot of things that I liked. There’s a series of illusions that appear throughout the film (to say more would reveal too much) that are really cool to watch. There’s also an appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, which both comes out of nowhere and is a welcome addition, although it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what the larger implications of that might mean. Such as: is Jameson just the same across reboots? Do you think Simmons thinks its weird that he used to be 27 years younger than Aunt May when she was Rosemary Harris, but now he’s ten years older than Aunt May now that she’s Marisa Tomei? Are there really multiple earths? This film posits the existence of other dimensions and presents evidence for it, but the source is ultimately less than reliable.

I saw this one opening weekend, and in the time since, news broke about the potential dissolution of the contract that allows the MCU (under the Disney omnibrand) to use Spider-Man in their films, with much hand-wringing and corporate apologia and weeping/gnashing/sackcloth. But honestly, I’m not sure that getting a little distance from the larger MCU isn’t for the best right now. At least if we don’t see Tom Holland for a few months, it might give us time to miss him.

*In this analogy DS9 equates to the Netflix shows (more inspective of humanity’s darker impulses, tightly focused, “grittier” for lack of a more accurate term), and the original series is/are the comics (originating mostly in the sixties, socially conscious for both the time of origin and now, sometimes aliens steal character’s brains). Don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 44: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is referenced in Life Itself: Because Ebert wrote the screenplay for the film himself in collaboration with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the title is referenced several times throughout the book. On page 212 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls that “Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by Fox, I wonder whether he didn’t suspect that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might be his only shot at employing the resources of a studio at the service of his pop universe of libinous, simplistic creatures. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he explained, should be simultaneously a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially “reviewed” the film, since he wrote it himself, but he did make the following observation in a piece written for Film Comment to commemorate its tenth anniversary in 1980 – “Remembered after 10 years, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems more and more like a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum. At the time Russ Meyer and I were working on BVD I didn’t really understand how unusual the project was. But in hindsight I can recognize that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And BVD was made at a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.”

I’ve already written extensive praise for the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, way back in our first year of blogging for this site. I even singled it out as my favorite film from legendary schlockteur Russ Meyer, a dirty old man whose bonkers version of smut is admittedly something I admire more than I should. Not much has changed in my opinion of the film in the four years since I first reviewed it; it’s still the exact type of go-for-broke, sex-crazed nonsense I crave when I’m searching for gems in the trash. Something has changed about the film itself, though: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is now a Disney-owned property, thanks to the company’s recent terrifying acquisition of 20th Century Fox. This is now Walt’s happening and it freaks me out. In an age where gigantic companies like Disney, Amazon, and Apple are gobbling up the entire market of film distribution, I can’t help but worry about the future of weirdo smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Along with fellow X-rated disasterpiece Myra Breckenridge, this is a film that only exists because of a fluke fad when 20th Century Fox attempted to crash in on the loose moral boundaries of The Sex Revolution, back when porn was threatening to go mainstream. A half-century later, we’ve somehow backslid into more protective, Puritanical attitudes toward sexual content, all in the name of being Family Friendly. Major blockbusters are being scrubbed of all overt sexuality so they can be broadly exported to all foreign markets; Apple has been hands-on in censoring sex & violence during production of televised content for its upcoming streaming platform Apple+; human trafficking laws like SESTRA have been used as a flimsy excuse to boot porn from social media sites like Tumblr (and sex workers from the internet entirely); and now the squeakiest of squeaky clean corporate conglomerates own the rights to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Of course, there’s a deliciously transgressive quality to Russ Meyer’s tongue-in-cheek exposé on “the oft-times nightmare world of Show Business” now being in the same canon as Family Friendly #content like Frozen & Moana. By Ebert’s description, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “a camp exploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding,” which might instantly qualify it as the most fascinating specimen in Disney’s collection. Written in a sweaty six-week rush, Ebert & Meyer’s vision of the Hollywood party scene is a nonstop hedonist orgy where “everybody’s a freak.” They pack the screen with every boundary-testing transgression they can muster: open homosexuality, rampant drug abuse, suicide, abortion, public sex, mocking spoofs of the still-recent Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate; etc. Its enigmatic antagonist is an intersex maniac who collects a coterie of horned-up acid freaks and announces things like, “You will drink the back sperm of my vengeance!” Unapologetically horny women recruit potential sex partners with come-ons like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d love to strap you on sometime.” Meyer described his approach in this full-on, shameless commitment to hedonistic excess as “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience,” but even in all of that sensory overload you can clearly make out Ebert & Meyer’s personal, shared fetishistic fixations: mainly gigantic breasts (like, comically large) & classic car grills. This film is everything Disney’s boardroom-directed Cinematic Properties aim to avoid: shameless, alienating smut with deeply problematic moral implications & intimate insights into the personal ids of its creators. That’s why it’s both fascinating and terrifying that it’s now under their control – a conundrum that I’m sure will only become more frequent as they gobble up more of the market.

Ebert gradually distanced himself from the delirious smut of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as he grew older & more tempered (and, not to mention, sober), but I doubt he or Meyer would have been happy with this film landing in Disney’s greedy, culture-crushing hands. One of the wildest indulgences of the film involves 20th Century’s Fox’s theme music scoring a violent beheading during the climactic pansexual orgy, and Ebert’s “Screenplay By” title card accompanies one of the sleaziest images in the film to follow: a sleeping woman forcibly fellating a gun. No matter how much he gradually cleaned up his act, I don’t believe that anti-corporate, pro-provocation rebelliousness ever left him, certainly not enough to support Disney’s flagrant disregard for anti-Trust laws. As thing are, Disney owns adult-oriented platforms like Hulu in addition to its planned “family friendly” Disney+ platform arriving later this year, so I don’t’ think they’ll be locking Beyond the Valley of the Dolls away in the dreaded Disney Vault anytime soon. It’s scary how much transgressive art they could lock away if they chose to do so, though, especially considering how far outside their usual parameters over-the-top smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gleefully treads. At the very least, I doubt they’ll be greenlighting many feverishly over-sexed, direct-from-the-id visions like this in the foreseeable future, and the more screenspace they eat up around the globe the duller the world will be for trash-gobblers like us.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Endgame: New Nerd America

I was several weeks behind the curve when I finally caught Avengers: Endgame on the big screen. Thoroughly spoiled on which characters were going to die and filtered though several cycles of praise & backlash for its merits as either A. the greatest film of all time or B. just another superhero sequel, I was predisposed to a fairly lowkey moviegoing experience. Ultimately, I did have about the same reaction to it that I did with last year’s less-loved Avengers film, Infinity War: I was tickled by the components of the MCU that already tend to tickle me and bored with the characters & storylines that always tend to bore me. That high-floor/low-ceiling quality of this series leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander, especially when stretched out over a three-hour downer of an “action” film that is very light on action. What I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout Endgame was how inconceivably popular it is, and profitable. Making over a billion dollars in its first weekend and still packed to the walls in our spacious Faux-Max theater many weeks into its run, Endgame is a mind-bogglingly popular film – one that’s even gunning to become the #1 box office earner of all time. How, then, is it possible that what was playing out on the screen in front of me was so deeply, incurably nerdy?

It wouldn’t really be going out on a limb to suggest that nerds have won the culture war. Considering the regularity with which the box office is dominated by superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, and all other Disney-owned properties within that spectrum, it’s been clear for years that nerd culture is popular culture. You can no longer infer any general characteristics of a person who says they’re “such a nerd” because they’re into Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Everyone is into Marvel & Star Wars to some degree. They’re the foundational pillars of our Disney-owned monoculture. Still, there was something uniquely extreme about Avengers: Endgame that felt like the arrival of a new paradigm in modern pop media. I was no longer sharing theater space with moviegoers who were being slowly, gradually indoctrinated into watching “nerd-ass shit” by way of handsome movie stars delivering snarky one-liners to reinforce how above-it-all & non-nerdy the characters & creators actually are. I was in the deep end. Endgame is a very long, deeply sincere film where the (supposedly) relatable smartass of the group that holds audiences’ hands with nerdery-deflating jokes dies onscreen and you’re supposed to cry over the loss. I got the distinct sense during our screening that I was now sharing theater space with a New Nerd America. The snarky training wheels are off. Our transformation is complete.

It’s not just that Endgame is long or overly serious, either. It’s also that it follows a complex sci-fi plot most audiences would balk at if it were in service of an original property. This is a time travel film in which several teams of costumed superheroes travel through distant times & places throughout the galaxy to retrieve the Infinity McGuffins necessary to undo their failure from the last nerdgasm. All the usual time travel paradoxes from sci-fi nerdery past arise during this mission – including the implication that their actions could be creating alternate timelines throughout Avengers history (that, of course, can be dealt with in future adventure$ on platform$ like Di$ney+). A few dismissive, smartass jokes about the absurdity of the heroes’ “time heist” reassure the audience that what we’re watching is still Cool & With it, but for the most part it’s treated like a dead-serious genocide prevention mission staged across the vast nerdiness of space-time – one that’s largely met with genuine, heartfelt tears from its loyal, global audience. What’s especially bizarre about that reaction is that it’s evoked by scenes from the audiences’ own indoctrination into the New Nerd America paradigm. When the Avengers time-travel back to their Infinity McGuffin-encrusted past, they’re also traveling to the milestones of the monoculture’s gradual nerd transformation, fully displaying how far we’ve come in the ten years of MCU culture domination.

Sequels that time-travel back to their previous installments to observe & alter their own lore aren’t an entirely new plot phenomenon. It’s been done before in Back to the Future II, Terminator: Genisys, Happy Death Day 2U, and probably several others I can’t name offhand because I’m just not nerd enough. What’s different here is that Endgame has twenty-one pervious films in its own franchise it can choose to revisit, an oceanic wealth of #content. Revisiting those past franchise entries, especially the first Avengers team-up from 2012, is a stark reminder of how far off the nerd-culture deep end America has truly gone. This is a time-travel sci-fi picture where superheroes square off against their own doppelgangers in a world-threatening conflict you have to watch nearly two dozen previous pictures of homework before you can fully understand. It sounds exhausting in the abstract, but so many people have kept up with the series so gradually that we hardly had time to step back and consider just how elaborate & convoluted it has become. It’s an engagement with pop media that has become common in the American household: binging on over fifty hours of a single story (usually on television) to keep up with talk at the watercooler, even in instances when you’re told that the story only “gets good” after the first twenty hours or so. I’m not the first person to compare Marvel movies to television, but it definitely wasn’t lost on me that at the exact same time this film was eating up the nations’ screen-space at the theater, the same audience was ravenously digesting the swords-and-dragons show Game of Thornes at home, over seventy hours into its run. Nerds.

I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. I can’t match the emotion or enthusiasm of Boomer’s five-star review, but it was pretty alright. I also enjoyed the twenty-first Marvel film that preceded it – another sci-fi action film titled Captain Marvel – which is so recent that it’s still playing in theaters simultaneous to Endgame. I also stayed after the credits of this three-hour epic that I kinda-sorta liked to watch a spoiler-loaded advertisement for its next follow-up, Spiderman: European Vacation, out this summer. I don’t know, I guess you could say I’m a total nerd that way. Or, more accurately, you could say that I’m a totally average, unexceptional American consumer, just counting down the days until our official form of currency is converted to Disney Dollars. The culture war may have been lost a long time ago, but Endgame has offered its casualties a rare opportunity to step back & observe how nerdy we’ve become, like live frogs gradually being brought to a boil.

-Brandon Ledet

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.

The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.

Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.

Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.

Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.

-Brandon Ledet

Tower of Terror (1997)

Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.

Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.

The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.

Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999)

When we were listening to the Old People Rap Station the other day, the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes duet “What’s It Gonna Be” prompted me to joke about the brief time in the early 00s when all R&B videos looked like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. That’s when I realized I had never actually seen Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, despite being aware of it for more than half my life. The only reason I could conjure the made-for-TV movie’s aesthetic in that moment is because it was that heavily advertised before it first aired. It turns out, though, that it’s not a film you actually have to watch from start to finish to get the full picture. Just in knowing that Zenon was originally conceived as a pilot for a Disney Channel television series set on a space ship that vaguely resembles the set of the “No Scrubs” video is enough to clue you in on what the film can deliver. The only question, then, is how you’ll feel inhabiting that world for 97 minutes.

Imagine if the satirical wit was surgically removed from Clueless, the characters were age-regressed to junior high, and the whole thing were set on a space station. The titular Zenon, played by forgotten Disney Channel starlet Kirsten Storms, is essentially a futuristic Cher Horowitz in-training, far too whip-smart to obediently live a quiet life on her near-lifelong space station home. After acting out in a few too many (harmless) outer space pranks (often with the help of a sidekick played by a young Raven-Symoné), Zenon is literally grounded by being sent to live with her aunt on Earth. Besides her adjustments to the allergies, gravity, and Fahrenheit measurements Earth life presents, she also struggles with the pressure to beat the clock in two pressing concerns: 1) Saving her space station home from an evil corporation’s plans to corrupt it with a computer virus and 2) Making it back in time to attend a Microbe concert, which will be the first-ever boy band performance in space. I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself whether she’s able to save the day and attend the big dance climax, but I’m not sure plot is the most important aspect of this fine work either way.

In the second act stretch where Zenon is stuck on Earth and dodging the flirtatious/contentious attentions of her new classmates, I shared in her painful longing to be back in space. The most fun the movie has is its writers’ room playfulness with futuristic Heathers slang, casually tossing out phrases like “stellar,” “lumerious,” and “zetus lapetus” as if they meant something to the audience. Other turns of future-phrase that tickled me: “Gossip travels at the speed of light,” “I wouldn’t miss it for all the stardust in the galaxy,” and “Terra firma . . . the firma the betta.” I also was amused by off-hand references to President Chelsea Clinton and to how the band Microbe is so old-fashioned because their songs still have melodies. If the Zenon concept had been developed into a television stories, as intended, it’s easy to see how this kind of goofy future-slang could’ve been fun weekly fodder for the nerdier set of late 90s Disney devotees. It’s probably better for its legacy that it wound up being a television event movie (with two “zequels”!), though, since it’s still remembered fondly by the folks who caught it nearly twenty years ago. I imagine it was a great gateway drug into sci-fi nerdery for plenty of burgeoning geeks and its girly version of a pigtails, jellies, and shiny lip gloss futurism still stands as a great encapsulation of a very specific time in pop culture visions of the future my mind will continue to conjure every time I hear the right note of old school R&B.

-Brandon Ledet

Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet