Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Paradise Hills (2019)

Like all genre films, Paradise Hills feels like a loose collection of themes & imagery we’ve all seen before. Is it exactly fair or accurate to describe it as Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives set in the Queen of Hearts’s rose garden from Alice in Wonderland, featuring extras from The Hunger Games & Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Probably not, but that rambling assemblage of references at least hints to how familiar individual elements of its fantasy world feels, even if you’ve never seen them arranged in this exact configuration before. What makes Paradise Hills a great genre film is that it still feels entirely unique & spellbinding despite those pangs of familiarity. This is a dark, femme fairy tale I presume was conceived by first-time director Alice Waddinton after a poisonous tea service left her hallucinating & scared for her life. She may be painting with a familiar palette, but the resulting picture is wonderfully warped in new & exciting ways, especially considering how she conveys dread & menace through an overdose of the feminine.

An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. Spurned by their parents for being too queer, too fat, too rebellious, and too difficult to control, the young women are imprisoned in a high-femme reform school that feels as if it were borrowed from a lingerie fetishist’s erotic fiction. Jovovich keeps her prisoners in line as a green-thumb dominatrix who plans to excise their offending idiosyncrasies in the same way she snips the thorns from her endless supply of roses. On the surface this femme obedience school that transforms young rebels into proper mademoiselles feels almost paradisiac. The young women’s torture is mostly a PG-rated barrage of ballet, yoga, and garden tea service. There’s a sinister sexuality & dystopic undertone of Patriarchy to their entire ordeal, though, something that bubbles up to the surface with increasing violence as the unruly students bring their rejection of traditional gender roles to a boil.

The most immediately satisfying aspect of Paradise Hills is the visual splendor of its costume & production design. Although the titular obedience school is obviously an evil force that must be destroyed, there’s an intoxicating allure to its high-femme paradise. The lacy house robes & white leather bondage harnesses that serve as the school’s uniform are their own kind of gendered prison that erase the individual women’s distinguishing features, yet are also undeniably gorgeous & covetable on their own merit. Similarly, the school itself appears to be a romantic spa getaway for the ultra-rich, not the brainwashing torture chamber that it truly is. This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.

Many people are going to roll their eyes at how earnestly this film commits to its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise, but I found that sincerity to be refreshing. Undercutting the absurdity of its fantasy scenario with snarky one-liners or tongue-in-cheek camp would have broken its dark magic spell. Waddington (boosted by a cowriting credit from the increasingly fascinating Nacho Vigalondo) carves out a very peculiar, particular mood & aesthetic here, even if she uses familiar genre tools to get there. Welcoming in audiences who aren’t already on the hook for the film’s high-femme fairytale mystique with ingratiating humor would only deflate what makes it special. Paradise Hills’s uncanny sense of femme menace works best if the sensual surface pleasures of its fantasy realm instantly appeal to you as a world where you could lose your sense of time and self. It’s a film you sink into, like a warm familiar blanket, until you suffocate.

-Brandon Ledet

Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

A couple years ago when Disney was making ungodly amounts of money off its “live-action” remake of its own animated Beauty and the Beast adaptation, there was an online push to remind everyone that the perfect live-action Beauty and the Beast already exists. Often cited as the inspiration for Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, legendary French filmmaker Jean Cocteau had already transformed the fairy tale’s 18th century source material into pure cinematic magic in the 1940s, a visual achievement that has been exceeded by few films of any era or genre, much less one that tells its exact story. It turns out I was smart to procrastinate on that online recommendation for the perfect Beauty and the Beast adaptation – not only so that I wouldn’t enter the film overhyped, but also so that my first experience with it would be on the big screen at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival. After being confronted with its magic & majesty in a proper theatrical environment, I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.

Opening with a classic “Once upon a time” preamble and establishing a toxic dynamic in the prologue where the titular Belle suffers at the whims of her wicked sisters and her financially irresponsible father & brother, La Belle et la Bête is on the surface a picture book fairy tale with few deviations from its genre template. Where the film’s unorthodox horniness starts to creep in is in the oddly sensual magic of the Beast’s castle. Like in the Disney cartoon most of us would be familiar with, the castle is alive & sentient. However, instead of being anthropomorphized as singing, dancing appliances, the castle is alive in more weirdly sensual ways. Stone faces carved into the fireplace silently watch visitors while slowly smoking, as if enjoying a post-coital cigarette. Muscular arms of bare flesh hold candelabras in dutiful, disembodied servitude – jutting out erect from framed adornments on the castle walls. Bedroom doors & mattresses beckon for entry in pleading ASMR whispers, luring Belle into undressed comfort. The castle isn’t alive so much as it’s thirsty, desperate for the sensual touch of a visitor. At first the production design reads as a post-German Expressionist nightmare recalling early Universal Monsters & Val Lewton sets in its impossibly tall, drastically lit interiors. Then, as the horniness & power dynamics of the film’s central romance heats up, it registers more clearly as a sentient sex dungeon – as if the Beast’s longing for sensual human contact were so strong that it started infecting the inanimate objects that house him in a kind of everlasting thirst curse.

In this unexpected kink dynamic, the titular Belle is our unlikely domme. Too beautiful to be living her life as a servant, yet cursed to be mired in domestic labor because of her father’s business debts, Belle is unfairly powerless in an increasingly cruel world. That might explain why she finds taboo pleasure in exerting power over the Beast, who is ostensibly her captor but grovels at her feet. Belle is prisoner to the Beast’s whims in the same way that all kink subs tend to exert control by ordering their doms to issue commands. He laps water out of hands like an obedient dog. He watches her eat extravagant meals in a pre-Internet version of Mukbang. He showers her in jewels & beautiful clothes yet shies away from her eye contact & compliments. He kneels at her feet, awaiting commands, flipping the power dynamic of their captor-prisoner relationship. La Belle et la Bête is a femdom fairy tale, just as much of a kink romance story as Secretary or Crimes of Passion or Belle du Jour, although its costume design pedigree allows it to hide that dynamic in plain sight. The film is genuinely creepy & beautiful as a straightforward fantasy-horror romance; there’s just also a subtly played layer of sadomasochistic kink just under its surface that made me feel a little uncomfortable with watching it in the same theater as young, French-speaking children.

As the endless possibilities of CGI allow for anything to happen onscreen, the magic of moviemaking is slipping away from us. There’s nothing especially magical about remaking an animated film in CG-bolstered live-action in the 2010s, as the tools that allow for that achievement are common to the point of being pedestrian. The practical effects, hand-built sets, and disorienting fairy tale logic of La Belle et la Bête were going to be more memorable that the 2017 Beauty and the Beast “remake” no matter what, then, as its basic building blocks & cultural context are far more unique and, by necessity, inventive. What really makes the film stand out from most modern fairy tale adaptations, however, is how unbelievably horny it feels in a kink power dynamic context. Even your average dark fairy tale corrective like The Fall or Tale of Tales tend to emphasize the violence of their source inspiration much more predominately than the sex. There are many things that make La Belle et La Bete a special, one-of-a-kind work, but I’m not sure enough emphasis has yet been afforded to tis raging, kinky libido.

-Brandon Ledet

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A director couldn’t ask for a much more successful debut feature than the one Joe Cornish had with Attack the Block in 2011. Produced by nerd mascot Edgar Wright and introducing the world to future Star Wars lead John Boyega as a baby-faced teen, that small-budget creature feature has gradually transformed into a cult classic over the last eight years, drumming up a lot of anticipation for Cornish’s much-delayed follow-up. Of course, that kind of early success is a blessing and a curse, as it put a lot of pressure on Cornish’s sophomore effort to deliver something remarkable – an expectation it never truly lives up to. There’s nothing especially horrendous about Joe Cornish’s King Arthur modernization The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s occasionally charming & overall harmless, but also overlong & minor in a way that undercuts its potential. The excellence of Attack the Block weighs heavily on it in terms of expectation & anticipation, but also in highlighting how The Kid Who Would Be King underutilizes its urban London setting. We’ve seen Cornish stage an excellent modern fantasy horror in city streets before, so it’s hard to reconcile why he fails to repeat the formula on this second round.

Story-wise, there isn’t much deviation from the traditional Arthurian legend here besides the modern setting & the age of the players. After an opening illustration of the Arthurian template as told in a child’s picture book, we meet a pair of young, bullied kids who feel the weight of an increasingly grim world but are helpless against it. Newspapers declare “GLOOM,” “WAR,” “FEAR,” and “CRISIS” in bold headlines, and schoolyard bullies shake them down for chump change, recalling the curse of modern negativity that sets the table for Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Sensing that the world has become leaderless, heartless, and unprincipled, King Arthur’s long-dormant half-dragon/half-sister Morgana wakes from her underground brooding hole to attack London with her flaming skeleton army. It’s up to the bullied, gloomy kids (led by Andy Serkis’s offspring, Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to save London from serving Morgana as slaves in Hell, a destiny triggered by the discovery of a sword in a stone at a nearby construction site. A shapeshifting Merlin soon arrives to provide guidance & (much-needed) comic relief and the rest of the story essentially tells itself. The humor is cute but not hilarious. The action is decent but not spectacular. The modernization of Arthurian lore is consistent but not adventurous. The entire exercise is pleasantly executed, but not distinct enough to justify the effort of its sprawling runtime.

The inconsistency of The Kid Who Would be King’s success depends entirely on when it fully utilizes its urban London surroundings and when it gets lost in the rural wilderness. In the film’s best moments, kids slay demons on horseback in city streets & middle school hallways – action set pieces that fully realize the modernized Arthurian lore promised in the premise. The problem is that a large portion of the film wanders far away from the city and often feels like any other fantasy epic from the last forty years of cinema – just one with a modern budget & kids’ film sensibilities. Patrick Stewart is even featured in a recurring cameo as one of Merlin’s many forms, directly referencing the 1981 feature Excalibur, a cornerstone of the genre. The Kid Who Would Be King also shoots itself in the foot by namechecking the protagonists of more successful modernized fantasy genre exercises like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (or, in the bullies’ parlance and one of the film’s only successful one-liners, Percy Jockstrap), each of which did a much more convincing job bringing ancient fantasy elements to the city streets instead of the other way around. That’s not even to mention the more low-budget, artsy-fartsy examples the film could have emulated like A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, and appropriately enough, Attack the Block. Too much of The Kid Who Would Be King loses sight of the modern, urban allure of its premise and drifts hundreds of miles away from London streets – and every minute wasted in that wilderness is a bore.

I can’t come down on this movie too harshly. There’s plenty of minor pleasures to enjoy throughout, even if those flashes of joy are buried under a lumbering runtime. Angus Imrie is adorable as the teenage version of Merlin and feels like the arrival of a fresh comic presence. The synthy score provided by Electric Wave Bureau recalls the golden age of 80s fantasy cheese of films like Ladyhawke & Legend in just the right way. I’ll even admit that the inherent Britishness of Arthurian lore and the unfair expectation set by the excellence of Attack the Block might have been preventing me from enjoying what’s ultimately a harmless, competently staged children’s adventure film. Still, I was outright bored by any sequence that took place outside the streets of London, which made up for an alarming portion of a film that did not need to be two hours long to begin with. The benefit of retelling stories like The King Arthur legend is that audiences are already familiar with the template, which frees you up to play with the details. If you only modernize the story halfway, you can only expect the result to be halfway interesting, and we’ve already seen Joe Cornish achieve something much more substantial than that with a comparable setting & budget.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Eastrail 177 Trilogy & Lady in the Water (2006)

Welcome to Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-sixth episode, Brandon & Britnee dive deep into the murky waters of M. Night Shyamalan at his nerdiest. They discuss the director’s so-called Eastrail 177 Trilogy (Unbreakable, Split, Glass) and Britnee makes Brandon watch her personal favorite Shyamalan joint, Lady in the Water (2006). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet

Druid Gladiator Clone (2002)

Slipping further back into the Motern Media catalog of Matt Farley film productions, I was beginning to worry that I was wasting time & energy in search of the initial high I found in standout titles like Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. A self-funded, microbudget “backyard” filmmaker, Farley has been making movies with his friends & family for decades to little outside fanfare, but something in his D.I.Y. auteurism really clicked when he reached his creative apex in Manchvegas & Riverbeast. It’s difficult to know even where to start when digging through Farley’s pre-Riverbeast titles, as their quality varies wildly (despite their shared financial ceiling). It’s difficult to even discern what qualify as his “official” releases. Most sources cite Freaky Farley as the official Motern Media debut, perhaps because of that film’s (largely unsuccessful) push for film festival submissions. Farley himself lists at least three prior full-length pictures on his own website, all available on YoutTube. IMDb, to the contrary, lists the first Matt Farley production to be Druid Gladiator Clone from 2002, a homemade movie that feels like it was designed for YouTube streams, even though it predates that site by years (and its current form only has about 1,000 views on YouTube to date). Seemingly captured on MiniDV camcorders and boasting special effects work that appears to have been pulled off with Apple’s pre-loaded iMovie software, Druid Gladiator Clone would appear from a distance to be an entirely skippable frivolity, even in Matt Farley’s microbudget terms, something not even worth its IMDb listing. Miraculously, Farley managed to turn it into a bizarre delight decidedly of its era, something as essential to Motern Cinema as the 16mm summertime slasher spoof of Manchvegas or the start of his modern digital era in Riverbeast. Druid Gladiator Clone is a dangerous film, because it’s one that might convince you that all Matt Farley productions are worth giving a chance, even the “unofficial’ castaways.

Farley & career-long co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh somehow transform the budgetary limitations of their camcorder equipment by leaning into its significance in early 2000s pop culture. Druid Gladiator Clone is staged with the fish eye lens “tracking” shots & “candid” camera techniques of a late 90s skateboarding video, aligning it with significant MTV media of its time like the Jackass series & The Tom Green Show. The movie is essentially a prank show made entirely harmless because its pranks’ “victims” are featured players who are in on the gag. Matt Farley stars as a modern-day druid named Farley, naturally, who zaps unsuspecting victims with his lightning-like “Beams of Goodness.” It’s initially very difficult to pinpoint exactly what this inane mythology means. Every time Farley shoots cheap CGI lightning out of his fingertips, the unsuspecting recipient of his Beams of Goodness immediately falls unconscious, appearing dead. Farley even lifts & drops the arm of each victim three times with bizarrely methodical repetition to ensure their zonked state. This effect is only temporary, though, and victims of his supernatural pranks tend to recover within a half hour of being struck by his fingertip lightning. In true Motern Media fashion, this mildly sinister set-up is then made weirdly, aggressively wholesome as Farley discovers that his lighting beams can be used to put his victims in a good mood instead of zapping them unconscious. This development contradicts what his druid superior (Motern regular Kevin McGee) trained him to believe. This shift from menacing pranks to learning the power of positivity occurs in the first third of the movie, leaving a full hour of runtime to be eaten up by romantic sitcom mix-ups, “gladiator battles” between fellow druids in latex Halloween masks, and Farley “fighting” the cloned version of himself promised in the title (by challenging him to a round of H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court). Mostly, Druid Gladiator Cone is a series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed “cloaks” (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.

As with all of Matt Farley’s productions, part of the joy of Druid Gladiator Clone is the accomplishment of its own completion. The college setting apartments & classrooms recall the art project ambitions most young twenty-somethings have about making full-length movies with their family & friends. What’s miraculous about Farley & crew is that they had the dedication to follow though on those ambitions and have been making backyard movies on a semi-regular schedule for over two decades running. What’s even more miraculous is that nearly all these pictures, even the ones stretching back to the Motern family’s college days, are not only watchable, but even worth enthusiasm. I wouldn’t suggest anyone begin their Matt Farley journey with Druid Gladiator Clone, but if you already have an affinity for Motern’s house style & find joy in seeing repeat players show up like old pals (this film is particularly humanizing for Kevin McGee, even though he plays a villain), it’s a surprisingly rewarding experience. The idea of a Jackass-style candid camera prank show where everyone’s in on the ruse and no one gets hurt is so weirdly wholesome & earnest, especially once applied to an unnecessarily complex supernatural mythology about “druids” (shirtless, magical boys) learning how to become better people. Structurally, Druid Gladiator Clone is barely held together in a sketch anthology style, recalling horrendous microbudget productions like the Blair Witch Project spoof Da Hip Hop Witch. The main difference is that Farley & crew are naturally, genuinely funny, something that doesn’t require much structure or budget to feel worthwhile. My enjoyment of this wholesome college prank show makes me fear that I’m too deep under the Motern Media spell to effectively watch any of Farley’s output with a critical eye. I’m so on hook for their eternally juvenile antics that I’m in awe of the commitment it took to capture the low-budget spectacle of this camcorder sketch comedy anthology, even with its defiant inattention to basic craft & exploitation of dirt cheap special effects software. Someone send help.

-Brandon Ledet

I Kill Giants (2018)

The 1980s saw a wealth of children’s fantasy films that were incredibly dark in theme & tone, considering their target audience. Titles like Return to Oz, The Never-Ending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Paperhosue seemed custom designed to bore parents out of the room just so they could scare children shitless as soon as they were alone with the VCR. These tonally hazy fantasy films are a little too traumatic for most kids and a little too precious for most adults, but they can generate a fascinating tension through that divide. There are plenty of modern entries into that canon keeping the tradition alive too; they just tend to be minor indie releases too few people get to see: MirrorMask, American Fable, The Hole, etc. Let’s go ahead and add I Kill Giants to the traumatic children’s fantasy movie pantheon. Remarkably similar to the recent dark fantasy drama A Monster Calls in both themes & tone, it might be tempting to pass off I Kill Giants as a lesser echo of that more accomplished work. The truth is, though, that both films are part of a larger tradition and work exceptionally well as companion pieces, especially since I Kill Giants offers a version of A Monster Calls’s dark fantasy template through a more femme POV.

Like A Wrinkle in Time, I Kill Giants is the perfect fantasy piece for gloomy middle schoolers who believe they’re fundamentally different from all the “other girls.” Truthfully, all middle school girls would probably self-identity as being Not Like Other Girls, but the giant-killing anti-hero of this film pushes that personality trait to the extreme. Dressed like a feral Louise Belcher left to run wild & dingy in the New England wilderness (bunny ears & all), our troubled protagonist finds herself at the center of a mythical battle everyone else in her small town seems to willingly ignore. Deploying homemade steampunk contraptions of her own invention (straight out of The Book of Henry), and casting spells & potions like an amateur woodland witch, she serves as a self-elected protector of her town against the impending threat of murderous giants. Since she’s an avid D&D player and a fantasy illustrator with a vivid imagination, it’s unclear if these giant CGI threats at the edge of the woods & ocean are “real.” Her obsession with their looming danger makes her hopelessly socially awkward around peers and her hexes are often interpreted by authority figures to be frivolous vandalism, but she very well may be saving those lives from the towering brutes they rationalize as “tornadoes and earthquakes and crap.” What is clear, however, is that she is using her pursuit of the giants as an excuse to avoid dealing with a mysterious trauma in her own home, the reveal of which serves as the film’s cathartic release.

Ultimately, I don’t believe I Kill Giants uses its killer-giants metaphor as a way of dealing with Death & bullying through a childhood lens quite as well as the thematically similar A Monster Calls; it certainly doesn’t have as sharply specific of a point to make about processing trauma through that device, at least. However, it does work well enough on its own terms to survive the comparison, especially once it finds its narrative grooves in the relationships our emotionally-battered protagonist establishes with her best friend, her school psychologist, and her older sister (the latter of whom are played by Zoe Saldana & Imogen Poots, respectively). If the movie needs to separate itself from J.A. Bayona’s similarly gloomy children’s literature adaptation (I Kill Giants was adapted from a 2008 graphic novel, while A Monster Calls’s own illustrated source material was published in 2011, so who cares), its existence is more than justified by reframing the story with a femme perspective and finding its emotional core in a wide range of female bonds. It’s an unnecessary distinction to have to make, though, since both films are part of a much larger dark children’s fantasy tradition. If you normally fall in love with films that hover between child’s imagination sensibilities & traumatically adult themes, you’re likely to find worthwhile qualities in either picture. If that tension is not usually your cup of genre movie tea, though, I doubt I Kill Giants will be the one to finally win you over.

-Brandon Ledet

Moonbeam’s Childhood Terrors: The Secret Kingdom (1998) & Magic in the Mirror (1996)

The most shocking revelation in our Movie of the Month discussion of the Charles Band-produced children’s fantasy film Magic in the Mirror was that I was the only member of the Swampflix crew who found the movie to be a total nightmare. While everyone else found the film’s villains— humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make delicious tea— to be amusingly quaint, I cowered in fear of their menacingly cheap presence. I stand by my description of those tea-slurping murder-ducks as resembling “a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement” and believe a large portion of the movie’s appeal to be the discomfort of their design. Schlockmeister Charles Band’s production company Full Moon has long been fascinating to me for pumping out cheap, R-rated horror films that feel like they were intended for children. In the mid-90s, Band somehow made his aesthetic even more terrifying by deliberately making films for children’s media sensibilities, but still allowing his violent, horror impulses to shine through. If the cheap duck costumes from Magic in the Mirror are not a compelling enough argument that the Full Moon children’s media sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment was more horrifying than most of Band’s deliberately horrific productions, I’d like to submit 1998’s The Secret Kingdom as Exhibit B. The Secret Kingdom follows Magic in the Mirror’s exact formula of infusing a fairly innocuous down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy adventure with truly horrific character design, but its own childhood terrors are much more blatant & inarguable than the ducks that disturbed me so much in our Movie of the Month.

Mysteriously, neither Charles Band nor Moonbeam’s names are listed in the opening credits of The Secret Kingdom. IMDb lists Band as an “uncredited executive producer” on the film, though, and his fingerprints can be found all over the premise thanks to his seemingly lifelong obsession with miniature bullshit (see: Dolls, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, etc.). In this particular case, a pair of snotty siblings are transported to a miniature, war-torn kingdom located beneath their kitchen sink, due to a magical lightning storm (or some such nonsense). A world of miniature terrors awaits them there, thanks to a maniacal dictator’s obsession with achieving “perfection” through elective surgery. The Minister of Perfection barely fights back his Nazi undertones as he proudly shows off his favorite “perfected” creations: people with smoothed-over flesh instead of eyes, Nazi cops with metal places for faces, a creepy S&M dog-man who aids in hunting undesirables, etc. The Alice in Wonderland-riffing premise of The Secret Kingdom isn’t too far off from the basic plot of Magic in the Mirror. The only differences are in their Mad Libs-style details: instead of a fantasy kingdom the kids are transported to a steampunk metropolis; instead of traveling through a mirror their adventure is prompted by an ancient lighting rod; instead of negotiating a war between two queens they negotiate a war between a surgery-addicted bureaucrat & a band of woodland rebels. The only major difference between them is that the terror of the Minister’s creations are unambiguously horrific, while the menace of the humanoid ducks is vague enough to be debatable. Director David Schmoeller (who also helmed the horror oddities Tourist Trap & Puppet Master for Band) makes his blatant horror intentions clear in jump scares & references in the dialogue to titles like The Bad Seed & The Elephant Man. Charles Band’s stated vision for Moonbeam was to produce children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard hedge”, but by the time The Secret Kingdom arrived late in the sublabel’s run a glimmer of that hard Full Moon edge reemerged in the work and was all the more terrifying for its contrast with the safe children’s fantasy picture surrounding it.

It’s possible I find The Secret Kingdom more outright creepy than Magic in the Mirror because it hits closer to home. First of all, the non-sink portion of the film is conspicuously set in New Orleans and reminds its audience of that locale often with a slew of gratuitous local details: The St. Louis Cathedral, The Natchez, French Quarter street performers, Mardi Gras parade floats, above-ground cemeteries, street cars, issues of the Times Picayune, etc. More significantly, the tiny-world-under-the-kitchen-sink premise is very reminiscent of the (presumably problematic) film The Indian in the Cupboard, which was a VHS era staple in my childhood. It might seem odd that Band would produce an intentional knockoff of a flop that lost $10mil at the box office, but I suspect that it’s possible he may have felt like he could improve on the premise as the king of miniature bullshit. Even if their similarities are only an instance of parallel thinking, Band’s way of putting his own unique stamp on the premise was hiring a horror director responsible for one of the most disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre-modeled 70s slashers in charge of a children’s film and populating it with eyeless, dog-like, Nazi victims of state-ordered surgery. Band may have truly thought of Moonbeam as a way to produce Full Moon-style pictures “with no hard edge” for a younger demographic and that may have been the case with early Moonbeam pictures like Prehysteria!, which sweetly supposed “What if dinosaurs were miniature & danced to rock n’ roll?” By the time he got to the eyeless goons of The Secret Kingdom and the child-boiling duck-people of Magic in the Mirror, though, I believe he lost sight of that mission statement. The children’s film backdrops that clash with these nightmarish monstrosities only make them appear more horrific by contrast and the sensation that dynamic generates just feels plain wrong. I don’t think the Moonbeam catalog necessarily reflects the creative heights of the Charles Band aesthetic in terms of absurdism or novelty, but it did often generate the most legitimately creepy imagery of his schlocky oeuvre, if not only for those creations’ soft-edge context.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film this comparison to its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play, and last week’s look back to Moonbeam’s premiere picture, Prehysteria!.

-Brandon Ledet