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The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys.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 In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit.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

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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

 

Magic in the Mirror (1996), Prehysteria! (1993), and the Half-Hearted Spectacle of the Moonbeam Fantasy Picture

While discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy picture Magic in the Mirror, a recurring theme in our conversation was the film’s blatant frugality. Magic in the Mirror was a kind of recycled production made from the scraps of a never-completed project titled Mirrorworld. In its same year of release, notoriously frugal producer Charles Band managed to squeeze a direct to video sequel from its leftovers, titled Fowl Play. Boomer noted in our initial conversation that part of Magic in the Mirror’s charm was that its rushed, amateur quality makes it feel as if anyone could have made it, including the audience at home. That charm extends to Charles Bands’ Full Moon Entertainment brand at large, which has a subpar batting average of great-to-terrible releases, but is admirable in its financial scrappiness and ability to stay afloat in an ever-shrinking indie movie market. Full Moon was likely at its height as a force in indie film production in the home movie market era of the early to mid-90s, which emboldened Band to extend his brand into several sublabels. This included both two softcore pornography branches and a children’s entertainment wing: Moonbeam Entertainment, which produced Magic in the Mirror. Full Moon features have always felt a little like children’s movies that happened to depict R-rated sex & gore, so in a way a Moonbeam Entertainment children’s fantasy wing was a totally natural progression for Band. The cheap, amateur delights of Magic in the Mirror seem to be typical of the sub-brand’s offerings, even if some of its earlier projects were better funded and of a higher profile. For instance, the premiere Moonbeam Entertainment release, Prehysteria!, should theoretically be of an entirely different class than Magic in the Mirror, but is more or less mired in the same concerns of amateurish craft & militant frugality. It’s the Charles Band way.

I can’t pretend to know the difference in budget between Magic in the Mirror and Prehysteria! (Magic in the Mirror is our first Movie of the Month selection without a corresponding Wikipedia page), but it’s easy to tell from context clues which was the more prestigious Moonbeam Entertainment release. The very first production of the Moonbeam sub-brand, Prehsyteria! is both the more prestigious and the more successful picture. Prehysteria! was directed by Charles Band and his father Albert Band (who also helmed my beloved Ghoulies II) themselves, while Magic in the Mirror was left in the hands of small time Full Moon player Ted Nicolaou (who, to be fair, also directed one of Full Moon’s best offerings in TerrorVision). Magic in the Mirror was sparse with special effects, leaving most of its visual spectacle to the over the top costuming of its killer duck-people and fairy queen. By contrast, Prehysteria! is practically a special effects showcase (by Charles Band standards, anyway). Its miniature dinosaur creations are achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and animatronic puppetry, which is seemingly where all the film’s effort & financing was sunk. Charles Band’s dream for Moonbeam was to create a sublabel of children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard edge” and it’s something he intended to achieve on the back of Prehysteria!’s success. The gamble paid off (for a while), resulting in two direct-to-video sequels and keeping Moonbeam afloat for half a decade. It’s an effort that required the same frugality that resulted in Magic in the Mirror, though. Band pushed the allure of owning VHS copies of the film by including a behind-the-scenes “Moonbeam VideoZone” featurette after the credits. That featurette reveals that the reason the film required co-directors was so that two units could shoot separate scenes simultaneously, wasting no production time. It was rushed to market in 1993 in the first place to ween off the anticipation for Spielberg’s dino spectacle in Jurassic Park. Artistically, it didn’t have much on it its mind beyond getting dinos on the screen in front of kids as quickly as possible because of that deadline. Prehysteria! may have been more of a top priority for Charles Band in building the Moonbeam brand than scraping together Mirrorworld’s leftovers into an afterthought feature in Magic in the Mirror, but the two films share his remarkably frugal thumbprint all the same.

In the tradition of the drive-in exploitation era, most Charles Band productions don’t feel the need to accomplish much beyond selling the premise of what’s on the poster. Magic in the Mirror promises a magical land of evil duck-people on the opposite side of a child’s mirror and once it gets there the film is content to remain inert. Prehysteria! is much the same in its own promise of a miniature Jurassic Park. The special effects behind the tiny dinos on the poster receive most of the film’s care and attention. The dinosaurs are given pop star names (Elvis, Madonna, Hammer, Paula) and are featured dancing to rock n’ roll. Although they could conceivably fuck you up even at the size of toy chihuahuas, they’re instead made to be as cuddly as Gizmo. They’re undeniably cute and that’s all most children are likely to care about when watching the film. Charles Band knows this and makes no effort to fill out the world around them. The kids onscreen who adopt the dinos (including The Last Action Hero’s Austin O’Brien among them) are bratty siblings with an archeologist dad. The dino eggs wind up in their possession because of an unintended cooler-swap, which angers the colonizing asshole (Stephen Lee doing his best Wayne Knight) who cruelly stole them from South American tribesmen. The villain wants “his” dinos backs. The kids want to hide them from the rest of the world. This conflict is established early in the first act and doesn’t change much form there, leaving everything outside how cute the dinos are in a state of stasis. The villain gets in exactly one campily amusing line: “I’m getting prehysterical over here!” The children, for their part, are only interesting in how queasy their relationship with their father’s sexuality can feel at times; they openly mention his desperate horniness as a single man, complete with his potential girlfriends for his affections and, worst yet, refer to him as “daddy” in prepubescent squeaks. Terrifying. Charles Band may not have invested as much characterization into the children as he puts into the dinos, but his inability to grasp the difference between a childlike & an adult tone occasionally makes for an interesting moment, if not only for the cringe factor.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Prehyteria! from the majority of the Moonbeam Entertainment output, it’s that it appears to have been an intensely personal project for Charles Band. He not only chose this film to launch Full Moon’s child-friendly sublabel and co-directed it with his own father, but the movie also reflects the one subject that could be said to be an auteurist preoccupation for the VHS era schlockmeister: miniature bullshit. From Puppet Master to Dollman to Demonic Toys to Evil Bong and beyond, Charles Band has basically built a career around stop motion and puppetry visualizations of (often evil) tiny beings in action. Prehysteria! isn’t one of the more exceptional specimens in that catalog in terms of filmmaking craft, but it is interesting to see his usual fixations filtered through a children’s entertainment lens (as opposed to his R-rated horror productions that just feel like children’s films). It’s the distilled ideal of a Moonbeam Entertainment production it that way. Still, for all the film’s special care and attention from the top man in the company, Prehysteira! largely feels on par with the half-assed, good-enough-to-print spectacle of Magic in the Mirror. Oddly, Magic in the Mirror feels like a more special picture than Prehysteria! because of that lack of attention. The animation & puppetry behind the dinos in Prehysteria! are impressive, but they raise questions in contrast to the rest of the picture on why none of that energy was matched elsewhere. Magic in the Mirror’s own scrappiness is noticably thorough by contrast. Its humanoid duck costumes are obviously handmade & amateurish, but there’s a sinister quality to their design anyway and the rest of the film matches that off-putting, off-brand, off energy in a way that feels more consistent than Prehysteria!’s super cute dinos dancing in a charisma void. Prehysteria! is the higher profile picture that’s likely to be more fondly remembered (i.e. remembered at all), but Magic in the Mirror is a much more honest, ugly picture of what Moonbeam’s commitment to frugality truly looked like. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bizarrely fascinating.

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 and last week’s look at its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fowl Stench of Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play (1996)

The most immediate, visceral reaction I had to our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy nightmare Magic in the Mirror, is that it’s an absurd abomination that should not exist. While the movie makes some strides to justify its hideous existence though a half-hearted allegory about how imaginative kids are overlooked & undervalued, that well-intentioned narrative is just a thin sheen on the unintended horror of the film’s villains: “The Drakes.” For a kids’ movie about humanoid ducks who boil people alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes, Magic in the Mirror can be surprisingly sinister. There have been plenty low-budget rehashings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland over the decades, so the film doesn’t particularly stand out in its fairy tale premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world by traveling into an alternate magic realm through an antique mirror. The bargain basement, Howard the Duck-looking freaks that await her there do tend to linger with you in their own nightmarish way, however, and are the only pressing reason for thrill-seekers to dig the film back up from its VHS-era gravesite. If the largely forgotten, viscerally upsetting Magic in the Mirror shouldn’t exist, the existence of it dirt cheap, Drake-focused sequel is even more of an affront to humanity and all that is good in the world.

Like all schlock peddlers, producer Charles Band has hinged his entire career on aggressive frugality. Years after the abandoned production of a fantasy film titled Mirrorworld shut down, Band’s children-friendly Full Moon Entertainment sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment recycled materials from the unfinished work to create the horror that is Magic in the Mirror. Band’s frugality knows no bounds, though, and he managed to squeeze two productions out of Mirrorworlds’ discarded scraps. There isn’t much extratextual info available about Magic in the Mirror (this may be our first Movie of the Month selection without a standalone Wikipedia page), but it appears the film earned minor theatrical distribution through Paramount Pictures. A straight-to-VHS sequel to the film was produced simultaneously with the original, though, and both releases reached US audiences in 1996. It should be a smooth transition between the two pictures then, as if they were one 3-hour movie with a credits sequence intermission. Many of the potential pitfalls of cheap kids’ movie sequels should be avoided in a back-to-back production like this: the main kid shouldn’t have time to age out of their role and the shared cast & crew should ensure some level of consistence in overall quality. Somehow, the quality drop between Magic in the Mirror & Fowl Play was still notably drastic. Even as ill-conceived & glaringly cheap as the original Magic in the Mirror feels, it’s apparently the Citizen Kane of tea-drinking duck people fantasy cinema.

Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play is at least promising in its basic premise. After a quick (and necessary) recap montage detailing the events of the first film, Fowl Play reverses the original dynamic by having the terrifying duck people invade our world through the magic mirror for a change. I’m always down for a fun suburban invasion premise (which is why The Lost World is my favorite Jurassic Park movie, don’t @ me), but this dirt cheap, sub-Full Moon Production doesn’t follow through on the premise in any significant way. Instead of filming the humanoid duck tea-enthusiasts as they terrorize & boil alive the people of a small American city, the film frugally confines most of its runtime to a single living room. The evil mirror realm duck people merely mix in with guests at a lame, daytime costume party in a cheap living room setting, threatening menace in plain sight, but never delivering. What initially seems like a great premise for a Magic in the Mirror sequel eventually reveals itself to be another shrewd financial choice among many. The Drakes don’t invade our world through the mirror to open up the possibilities of the plot; they do it because the sets were even cheaper to maintain than the leftover scraps of Mirrorworld. It’d be impressive how this movie was pulled out of thin air if it weren’t so frustrating to watch as an audience.

From the cheap sets to the comic misunderstanding plot, Fowl Play feels like the pilot for a syndicated Magic in the Mirror TV show more than a proper sequel (I’m specifically thinking of the deservedly forgotten Honey I Shrunk the Kids TV series). The movie even ends with the protagonist from the first film making her first human friend, as if their weekly adventures were going to continue into perpetuity. Alarming details, like lipstick on a duck bill or carefully-prepared murder tea, carry over form the first film, but in smaller, cheaper doses. While Magic in the Mirror makes motions to justify its mallardian horrors with an overarching theme of childhood isolation, Fowl Play doesn’t bother. Its only narrative conflict is whether or not an already awkward costume party might become more of a disaster as it goes along, which I’m pretty sure has been the plot of many sitcom episodes. Magic in the Mirror was cheap, but at least it was somewhat ambitious. Fowl Play looks like it was scraped together in a panic as production on its predecessor was being shut down (which might actually be the case). The only scenario I could imagine where someone is really into it would be if they saw it before the first film and were caught off-guard by the ghastly visage of the Drakes. Even then, they’re given less screentime & less to do here, even though they’re referenced in the awfowl pun title.

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Magic in the Mirror (1996)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon , Alli, and Boomer watch Magic in the Mirror (1996).

Britnee: Moonbeam Entertainment, the sub-brand of Charles Band’s Full Moon Features, produced some of my favorite children’s fantasy and sci-fi films during the early 1990s. VHS copies of Prehysteria!, Dragonworld, and Pet Shop always lingered around my family’s television, but the one Moonbeam film that I just couldn’t get enough of was Magic in the Mirror. There’s just something about the film’s wackadoodle story and low-budget quality that is both memorable and charming. Magic in the Mirror may very well be the root cause of my garbage taste in movies because, until recently reading through the overwhelming amount of negative reviews, I had no idea that anyone could dislike it.

Magic in the Mirror is a modern-day fairy tale. Mary Margaret Dennis is a young girl with an active imagination, but her botanist father and physicist mother fail to give her the attention and encouragement that she desperately needs. She spends most of her time with her imaginary friends, Bella and Donna, and doesn’t have much human interaction. After discovering a bag of magical golden berries and inheriting an antique mirror from her late great-grandmother, she crosses to the other side of the mirror. What awaits her there is a surreal world ruled by human-like mallards that have a passion for tea made of people, which is steeped for a mere 60 seconds (I usually let my Earl Grey steep for 3 minutes).

Brandon, there’s an interesting mix of science and fantasy in Magic in the Mirror. Most of the scenes with Mary Margaret’s mother involve her working on an invention (a laser beam that defies space and time) while Mary Margaret is trekking through a mallard-filled fantasyland. Is there a message being made about science versus fantasy in Magic in the Mirror? Or is it just two cool concepts combined to make one hell of a movie?

Brandon: If we’re going to single out Magic in the Mirror as “one hell of a movie,” I think we have to place the emphasis on the word “Hell.” Most of my appreciation of the film stems from the way it plays like a child’s half-remembered nightmare, so it’s funny to see it described here as “memorable and charming.” Before reading that introduction, I presumed it would be film’s nightmare quality that buried its imagery in the subconscious of 90s Kids™ who saw it young enough for it to torment them permanently, preventing it from being forgotten the way most Moonbeam Entertainment pictures have. Productions from Charles Band’s prime distribution label Full Moon (typified by franchises like Dollman, Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Demonic Toys) have always felt a little like kids’ movies that happened to feature R-rated monsters & gore. It’s only natural, then, that its (supposedly) child-friendly sub-brand would come across as an unintentional horror show. Magic in the Mirror was a production recycled from unused material for a canceled Full Moon fantasy film titled Mirrorworld (militant frugality is another one of Charles Band’s calling cards), so for all we know its magical kingdom of malicious mallards was originally designed to terrify adults, like the off-putting humanoid amphibians of Hell Comes to Frogtown. As an exercise in filmmaking craft, Magic in the Mirror possesses all of the cinematic artistry of a Wishbone episode. However, its villainous threat of humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes has a potency that far outweighs the limited means of its production values. In fact, the film’s aggressive cheapness somehow makes it feel even more sinister, as if we were an audience of children invited over to a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement. By shifting the focus away from intentional monster-based scares to a children’s fantasy context, Full Moon had somehow delivered one of the most genuinely creepy films in its catalog. Until I can forget the sounds of these cursed duck beings greedily slurping their murder-tea, I’m going to be losing a lot of much-needed sleep. I can only imagine that effect would be even worse if I had caught this movie in its early VHS days (although, like Britnee, I had a strong childhood fondness for Prehysteria!, so who knows).

While I’ll concur that the film’s mixture of science fiction & fantasy as if they were two sides of the same coin was interesting, I’m not convinced the movie thought through the significance of their convergence to any great extent (unlike the recent animated gem Mary and the Witch’s Flower). The mother’s invention of an antimatter raygun almost doesn’t qualify as sci-fi at all, since its childlike logic is so far outside the bounds of reality. The divisions between those two genres seem to be present only to mirror the divisions between Mary Margaret and her mother. Mary Margaret is a fantasy-minded child with an overactive imagination. The too-serious adults in her life (especially her mother) refuse to pay her any attention because they only care about boring, rigid adult stuff like science, careers, and facts. In a way, it’s totally appropriate that the sci-fi aspect of the mother’s antimatter raygun (along with the botanist father’s cataloging of magic berries) only make sense in a fantasy context, since the film is told from Mary Margaret’s detached-from-reality perspective. Magic in the Mirror is by no means singular in its premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world through a nightmarish adventure in a fantasy land; a short list of similar (but more substantial) works might include MirrorMask, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Labyrinth, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, His Dark Materials, and former Movie of the Month Paperhouse. The way it captures a young child’s isolation among adults who don’t have the time of day for their imaginative whimsy has its own merits, though, especially as Mary Margaret & her mother attempt to breach the invisible barrier of the mirror to reconnect with each other, each with their own tools (the magic berries & the raygun, respectively). This belittling feeling of being ignored by the too-serious, fact-minded adults around you is very relatable for kids and it’s one I can only remember being addressed this extensively in the much classier Val Lewton picture Curse of the Cat People.

Boomer, we seem to be painting two portraits of Magic in the Mirror here. One is a thoughtful expression of childhood frustration with being ignored by the adults who lord over you. The other is a subliminal nightmare that lingers only as a fear of cheaply costumed duck-people who boil children alive for the pleasure of the taste. Did either of these qualities overpower the other in your viewing of the film or did they work perfectly in tandem, like two realms on opposite sides of the same magic mirror?

Boomer: Unlike you, Brandon, I didn’t find the ducks–excuse me, Drakes–all that scary. Maybe if I were a child the first time I saw it, I would have had a different experience, but as it is, the flappy mouths and glug-glug-glug drinking sounds were too similar to the intentionally comical appearance of the eagle-headed colonel from Danger 5 to elicit anything other than laughter from me (which it did, every time). If anything, their sped-up waddling and the terrible flying effects render them adorably pathetic in spite of their menacing tea habits. Had I been a child during my first viewing, I would have found the Mirror Minders the far creepier creatures, as the thought of an oversized manchild in drab motley watching me from the other side of my mirror is a much more disturbing thought in its abstract than being boiled alive for a mere sixty seconds. I know that they’re supposed to be charming in a Mr. Tumnus way, but their high pitched voices and the “I used to be a birthday clown but now I live in the woods” color palette aren’t exactly virtues to me. I, too, am a longtime fan of Full Moon Entertainment, and frequently find myself extolling its virtues, like the fact that it was one of the first studios to have an interconnected film universe, with the eponymous main characters from their respective films coming to blows in the crossover Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys (which also featured a shrunken nurse from one of my personal favorites, Bad Channels, as Dollman’s love interest). That doesn’t mean I’m going to give a pass to just anything that Band put his hands on (I submit my review of Dungeonmaster as evidence), but I found this film more charming than alarming, despite the Mirror Minders. There is a bit of a creep factor, but it does, as you say, work in tandem with its more traditional fantasy fare.

The way that the film steals (or “pays homage to,” if you’re feeling generous) images from other dark children’s films of the 80s and early 90s really contributes to its overall charm. The influences of Lewis Carroll’s Alice duology are obvious (and explicitly pointed out in the film’s trailer), but Magic in the Mirror carves out a place in that same rhetorical space as 80s kid flicks with a dark undertones and anchors itself there. The visual of Mary Margaret approaching her great-grandmother’s herbiary could be from any number of films, but there’s a definite NeverEnding Story vibe as the framing calls to mind the moment that Bastian finds the book with the Auryn on the cover in Mr. Coriander’s book shop. Further, although Return to Oz hews closer L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels than the 1932 musical to which it is supposedly a sequel, it carries over the same “Oz is a hallucination/dream” conceit as the Judy Garland film. Once our heroine crosses back over into Oz, she meets the witch Mombi, who is played by the same actress as the cruel woman who runs the sanitarium in Kansas; her imagined mechanical man Tik-tok is influenced by the “face” in the machine that the woman intends to use to electrocute poor little Dorothy’s brain. This wasn’t a new idea even at the time (for instance, Captain Hook is traditionally played on stage by the same actor who portrays Mr. Darling, dating back to the earliest theatrical presentations of Peter Pan), but the similar dark tone to Return works to give Magic in the Mirror perhaps more gravitas than it rightly deserves. Dragora is played by the same actress as Mary Margaret’s principal, her vizier is the same actor as her mother’s douchey assistant, and all of the characters on the other side of the mirror have names that are similar to the scientific nomenclature in the herbiary. There’s no implication that the mirror world is a fantasy in the psychological sense (especially once Dr. Dennis crosses over and meets her royal doppelganger), but if the director were to claim he’d never seen Return to Oz, his pants would likely burst into flame.

Perhaps the most important commonalities in all of these works are the dual themes of grappling with and overcoming parental alienation coupled with a desire for the retention of the comforts of childhood, which bears some inspection. Dorothy Gale is an orphan being raised by her elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t understand her worldview or imagination. Bastian Balthazar Bux is the son of a widower father who keeps his child at arm’s length due to his grief over the loss of his wife. Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth feels overlooked by her family in lieu of the attention lavished upon new baby Tobey, and isn’t ready to forsake her LARPing to fall into the role of caregiver for her little brother. Alice’s parents are never mentioned, but readers can infer her relationship with her sister to be one of guardianship, and much academic ink has been spilled over this interpretation. In every instance the fantasy otherworld seems to be an escape but ultimately proves to be a crucible that causes each character to grow and have a better understanding of both themselves and their parents, and return home to find that, in their absence, the parental figures have learned to be more accepting of the child character as well. Dorothy realizes that there’s no place like home, and is moved by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s concern for her. Bastian learns that he can’t live entirely in his fantasies, and Mr. Bux sweeps his son into a long overdue hug after realizing that his blind grief over his wife nearly cost him his son as well. Sarah returns home with a newfound love for her brother and realizes that her fantasy world will always be there if she needs it, but shouldn’t consume her entirely; she has a pleasant interaction with her step-mother and realizes that being a big sister is an adventure all its own. The narrative of Mary Margaret and her parents follow this model so slavishly it’s almost paint-by-numbers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that these stories continue to be created and continue to be popular speaks to a near-universality of this metaphorical journey, and likely will as long as there are children whose budding maturity arouses confusing feelings of the dual but opposed desires for independence and attention, for individuality and community (so . . . forever).

My roommate has, of late, developed a fascination with soap operas. One of the reasons for this is that he loves anything that he feels like he, an amateur, could make himself. The Bold and the Beautiful so cheaply and poorly made that it captivates him, and I understand that, because that’s often how I feel about Full Moon (and Moonbeam) flicks. Other than the generally well-made puppets, there’s a pall of cheapness permeated with earnestness that lends these endeavors a charm that isn’t fully earned. As an example, I’d like to point to the scene where Mary Margaret finally meets the queen after escaping from the Drakes; you as the viewer should feel an air of majesty and magic around her, but that intended effect is completely undercut by the drabness of the dead grass all around her throne. Like, you couldn’t have sent someone out there the day before to spray paint the grass to make it uniformly, magically green? But no: this scene plays out in a field that is perfectly manicured but very, very brown. Alli, were there other parts of the film where it was obvious to you that the filmmaker’s reach exceeded their grasp? Did you find that endearing like I do, or no? What worked and what didn’t for you?

Alli: I’m going to be sadly honest here and say that this one just didn’t click for me as far as being amateurishly charming. I just thought it was bad. That being said, this discussion has given me a new angle to explore this.

Initially my reaction was that it felt like the children’s film version of Troll 2, but less fun because things that are obviously meant to appeal to children often just come across as obnoxious to me. The Mirror Minders, for instance, got on my nerves in a way that very few things can. (To get personal for a second, I think it’s something to do with the fact that Tansy reminded me of my ex.) I thought that the fact that the duck suits, while aesthetically great, were made in such a way that the actors literally couldn’t walk in them was so haphazard and ill-conceived. The whole plot felt taped together from bits and pieces that the writers found from previously scrapped ideas, resulting in an overall incoherence.

However, now I want to view it as if the purpose was to convey the feeling of a child’s point of view and how a child would approach filmmaking. I have a nephew who comes up with bizarre, horrifying ideas and plot lines that zig and zag in wild directions. If he were to write a movie, it would feel a little like this. Of course it’s a cheap aesthetic. Kids have a way of taking a book of unprotected pressed leaves and making it into a grimoire. In that way, I feel like the filmmakers here really hit the mark. It felt like they put a lot of time and energy into the ideas that really caught them and let everything else slide. For instance, the Mirror Minding chamber is a well-designed set that perfectly contrasts between the two worlds. The costumes for the queen and the Drakes are quite nice for a shoestring budget, even if waddling and running in those duck costumes seems like it was a dangerous endeavor. I feel like all of this put together would really appeal to children who hyperfocus on the ideas that they’re really in love with. And in that way, the movie works. Just not for me.

One of the things that seemed extremely undeveloped for me was Mary Margaret’s parents’ marital problems, which result in both of them trying to control their daughter’s interests and behavior whenever they happen to be paying attention to her. We see that her dad is a little bit of a depressed layabout and that her mom is a career focused scientist with her eyes on the prize, but everything else is given to us in hints. For instance, Lazlo seems to be constantly flirting with her, and the dinner scene seemed like a wildly inappropriate staging for a swinger’s party that a child was just dragged into.

Britnee, what do you think of that dinner party scene? Am I reading too deeply into this?

Britnee: The dinner party scene always seemed a little odd to me. And for a weird ass movie like Magic in the Mirror, that’s saying a lot. Mary Margaret is so out of place at that dinner. I know that’s what was intended, as parts of the film that take place in the “real world” spend a lot of time showing us how Mary Margaret doesn’t belong, but that scene just doesn’t feel right. No one recognizes that she’s a child, and she’s treated as a fellow grown up during the dinner. The dinner guests (Lazlo and his wife) do not like Mary Margaret one bit, and it’s more of a dislike of her being at the dinner rather than a dislike of her personally. The possibility of the two wanting to get it on after dinner with Mary Margaret’s parents would be a fantastic reasoning behind their strange behavior.

I wouldn’t put it past a Moonbeam feature to have some sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the film, even though this is 100% for children. Moonbeam movies are pretty trashy for being family features, which is probably why I’m drawn to them so much. I have this image of the film crew throwing back a few beers while saying something along the lines of, “Dude, wouldn’t it be funny if, like, Mary Margret’s parents wanted to get it on with Lazlo and his wife? That would be totally sick! Let’s make it happen!” So Alli, I definitely do not think that you’re reading too deeply into the weird dinner party scene and the marital problems of the parents. If anything, you’ve pointed out the obvious.

While on the topic of the parents, I found their characters to have some gender-swapped traits, as far as most parents in 90s movies go. The dad is a very soft-spoken, artsy fellow that is a little more understanding of Mary Margaret’s creativity, but the mother is a career-minded scientist that doesn’t seem to understand her daughter at all. Most children’s films of this era have a mother who is supportive of their child’s wild imagination, while the father has a very no-nonsense type of personality. I’m not sure if a statement was trying to be made here, but if there was, it’s not a very positive one. The myth of career women not being able to be maternal seems to be purposefully implied with the mother’s character.

Brandon, what are your thoughts of gender roles of Mary Margaret’s mother and father? Do you think that Mary Margaret’s mother is villainized for being a career-minded mother?

Brandon: It’s certainly valid to read that icy mother-daughter dynamic as an indictment of women who chase career opportunities at the supposed expense of their domestic responsibilities. There’s plenty of other examples of that shrewish, disciplinarian mother trope in 80s & 90s family-friendly cinema that makes Magic in the Mirror appear to be a thoughtless participation in a sexist cultural ideology (Sally Fields in Mrs. Doubtfire immediately comes to mind, if nothing else). I’m just not convinced that the mother is villainized, exactly. She’s more in desperate need of being reminded of the value of childhood play & open-ended imagination. As potentially (and wrongfully) critical it may be of the way the mother balances home life with professional ambitions, the dynamic she has with her less . . . intense husband does recall a common, unfair expectation of women to be the daily disciplinarians of children while fathers get to enjoy the benefits of filling a kind of goofball best friend role. It’s a dynamic that’s been more purposefully explored elsewhere (Lady Bird being an excellent recent example), but I do think it has a real life significance.

What I’m struggling to interpret in retrospect, though, is how the mother’s real life relationship with Mary Margaret correlates with her mirrorworld avatar. In more classic films like The Wizard of Oz & MirrorMask, real life characters’ fantasy realm counterparts are typically amplifications of whatever anxieties they inspire in the young protagonist. In Magic in the Mirror, actor Saxon Trainor is the most significant player to pull double duty as a character in both realms: she plays the uptight scientist mother in the “real” world and the floral, despotic queen of the mirrorworld whose rule of the land is being challenged by the Drakes. Boomer, can you help me make sense of what these two characters have to say about each other in tandem? The usurping drake queen is portrayed by the same actor (Eileen T’Kaye) who appears as Mary Margaret’s schoolteacher, Mrs. Mallard, so the avatars might be saying something about the role of authority figures in Mary Margaret’s life, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what. The easy answer is that the dual casting was solely a Charles Band-brand, money-saving manuever, but I don’t fully buy that.

Boomer: I’ll try! In the classic ’32 Oz, Margaret Hamilton is both the horrible Elmira Gulch, a shitty neighbor who taunts Toto into attacking her in order to have an excuse to have the dog put down, and then in the fantasy world (again, I feel the need to stress the idea that Oz is a child’s fantasy as being a film-only conceit) she is the Wicked Witch of the West who is Gulch’s reflection as a figure of evil and terror, right down to threatening Dorothy’s dog. In Return, the asylum attendants who move patient beds from place to place on squeaky wheels are reimagined in Oz as the creepy Wheelers, again played by the same actors. It’s a recurring trope of fantasy, as the majority of these films present the idea that a child’s fantasy world is a rhetorical space for that child to inspect, explore, and perhaps expunge their conflicting emotions about the world as seen through their eyes. As a society, we’ve progressed far beyond the relatively shallow understanding of human psychology that characterizes the work of Sigmund Freud, but there are still elements of his theories that hold true; he was of the opinion that, until they reach a certain level of maturity, children have a very black and white view of morality, and they cannot rationalize “good” and “evil” as being constituted within the same person. This was further explored by Bruno Bettelheim (admittedly also a problematic source) in his book The Uses of Enchantment: “all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects.” Essentially, most of these films are modern interpretations, adaptations, or reinventions of the fairy tale, and as such they textually examine the dichotomy of the “true” parent and the “pretender” parent. We see this most often in the way that fairy tales often feature an evil stepmother, which is a sanitization of older stories in which the biological mother was the cruel one. The switch to the use of the stepmother was an invention on the part of the Grimm Brothers (check out the chapter on the absent mother in Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde for more info about this phenomena). To further quote Bettelheim: “the typical splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and evil stepmother […] is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits the anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother” and it also preventing the associated guilt “about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her.”

Mary Margaret’s relationship with her mother is a textbook example of this dichotomy: her real mother, though loving, seems to have no idea how to interact with a child or even how children conceptualize the world; she even admits as much in her laboratory. As a result, Mary Margaret has a mother who cannot connect with her in the way that her father does, who has no room for flights of fancy or imagination. As Britnee noted above, Mary Margaret is essentially treated as a small adult and not a child. In contrast to her relationship with her father, who seems to work from home, have a job that even a child could understand, and have endless free time, her mother has a lab, has a job that is incomprehensible to a child (and me, really, because this anti-matter laser is fucking nonsense), has rules and boundaries that are enforced but neither explained nor understood, and is distant emotionally and often absent. With this as a source of unidentifiable (to a child) anxiety, it makes complete sense that Mary Margaret casts Sylvia as Queen Hysop in her fantasy world; the queen is an absolute authority who is likewise cold and distant, rules her kingdom with a set of seemingly arbitrary rules that are not explained, and exacts punishment without explanation. As a method of discipline, being “planted” is simply a fantasy version of being told to stand in a corner; as a worldview, a queen’s “I don’t have to listen to anything; I’m the queen” is not dissimilar from a mother’s “Because I said so.” It makes perfect sense that Mary Margaret would cast her mother in this role in her fantasy world.

Except! This isn’t Mary Margaret’s fantasy. The world on the other side of the mirror is completely real, and although Sylvia/Hysop are not the only doppelgangers/analogues on both sides, most of the characters aren’t. There’s no equivalent to Mr. Dennis on the other side, nor do Tansy or Bloom have mirror images on “our” side. Magic in the Mirror is trying to have it both ways, treating the fantasy world as a real place (like in the Oz books) while incorporating the conceits and rhetorical strategies of those works which treat fantasy worlds as literally fantasy and entirely in the mind of the protagonist (like in the Oz films). As a result, there’s a separation in the metaphorical batter that I think is causing your confusion. Alli, you mentioned that this film doesn’t work for you; I doubt that its internal inconsistency as to whether this is a fantasy film or a fantasy film is likely not the reason, but would you have preferred one or the other? Do you feel like you could have gotten more out of it if the filmmakers had chosen one tack and stuck with it?

Alli: The lack of internal consistency is definitely not what didn’t work here. I guess I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for cheaply made kids’ movies that I have for ones geared towards adults. I don’t think I can handle the unironic, saccharine acting or the film school aesthetic. There was a time and place for that in my life, and it’s sadly over.

However, if I have to choose, I think I would have preferred this movie to stick to the fantasy. I have a big soft spot for everything fantasy, and there’s really not enough fantasy films out there, which is probably why I’m such a big Del Toro fan. It’s a shame the vast majority of fantasy film is low budget and aimed at children, but I think children need fantasy and escape in their lives, however low budget it is. The idea of getting away to a mysterious land and being a hero is empowering, even in something as ridiculous as this. Whereas, a fantasy film would still be empowering, but those always have a bigger dose of the horror of self exploration. Alice learns that a dream world with a lack of focus isn’t all fun and games. Coraline learns to forgive her parents for being busy after finding out that an overbearing mom, albeit exaggerated, is terrifying. Mary Margaret never learns anything about her own behavior. She just escapes. And I like her all the better for not having changed and being the same creative, stubborn child at the end. That’s the beauty of true fantasy for children; kids find out that they were and are strong.

It would have been neat for the movie to retain both the internal fantasy elements and the fantasy/scifi elements like A Wrinkle in Time does. I know that’s a bit more elegant for fare of this kind, but I think it could have been done with a little less focus on the lives of the parents. The whole parental plot in general just felt like a placeholder for something else. Probably, more adventures and obstacles in this mirrorworld that they didn’t have the budget for or the inclination to write.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like that there’s no clear-cut good side in this story. Obviously, massive ducks bent on making tea out of other life forms is definitely bad, but who are the good people here? The queen literally plants her subjects after no trial or due process. I don’t see how that’s preferable to Queen Dragora. I guess the good side is the Mirror Minders? I don’t know, but I appreciate the subtlety.

Boomer: The fact that the main character’s name was Mary Margaret is terribly distracting. It took me a minute to realize why it was so familiar, until I remembered that this was the name of Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in the “real world” on Once Upon a Time, another piece of contemporary enjoyable-in-an-unintended-way-but-also-terrible fairy tale media that I happened to stick with for longer than I should have for reasons of my own (#swanqueen). Also, as far as a final question, what was up with the use of that county courthouse as the “castle” of Dragora and her comically sped-up waddling henchmen?

Brandon: While I might be the only member of the crew to be genuinely terrified by the look of them, I do believe the Drakes are the main reason to seek out Magic in the Mirror. Not only do they offer bizarre insights like an answer to the eternal question “What would Howard the Duck look like in lipstick?,” they they also include the laziest, most nonsensical “wordplay” you’re ever likely to hear in a finished screenplay. It’s unclear what failed puns were intended when Drakes refer to their mallardian queen as “your Quackiness” or “your Quacktitude,” but they’re laughably half-assed in the attempt. I should warn you, though: do not be fooled into watching the sequel Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play. Despite what may be promised in its title & cover art, there isn’t necessarily any more Drakes content in that picture than there was in the first one. Also, the whole thing appears to have been filmed in a crewmember’s living room while the sets of the first film were being hurriedly broken down, which might as well be the case since both films managed to secure a 1996 release. Full Moon truly is a wonder. If, as Boomer suggests, the charm of Magic in the Mirror is partly that you, an amateur, could have made it yourself, the charm of Fowl Play is that it looks like it could’ve been made by your kids. And not even the more talented ones.

Britnee: When the mallards make their infamous people tea, the people are steeped for 60 seconds. I don’t think that a human would necessarily die from being boiled alive for a mere minute (I refuse to Google this in fear of the results), but they would be severely injured once they are pulled out of the giant duck teapot. It would be interesting to know what happens to the people after the steeping. Are they given medical attention and returned to the other side of the mirror? Are they thrown in some sort of mass grave where they will eventually succumb to their injuries? I haven’t watched Fowl Play, but I’m almost positive this isn’t explored in the film. It would just be nice to know the full story, but maybe some things are better left unanswered.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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 The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)

I’ve always interacted with the Pokémon brand from the fringes, a casual fan at best. When Pokémon reached its fever pitch popularity as a cultural presence in the United States, I happened to be making my awkward transition into a mood teen, wary of being associated with Kids’ Stuff, and embarrassingly dedicated to making nu metal the cornerstone of my Personal Brand. Still, the appeal of the “pocket monsters” that populate the Pokébrand’s various trading card collectibles, Nintendo games, and television series was always apparent to me, even if I didn’t know the intricate minutia of its Pokélore. It’s incredible that a Japanese pop culture brand has been able to get American kids hooked on collecting & trading what’s essentially a stylized version of yokai, despite having no real connection to its cultural significance. What’s even more amazing still is the longevity of that obsession. Not only has the smart phone game Pokémon Go recently reinvigorated a lot of what BuzzFeed would call 90s Kids’ interest in the brand, but in the couple decades of its international cultural presence, its output has not really subsided for those who never left. I may not personally be able to rattle off more than a handful of pokémon types off the top of my head, but after following family & friends around to the city to “catch” the little digital bastards on their phones and seeing the hordes of like-minded players doing the same in massive clusters of dork, it’s become apparent that they do have a kind of cultural longevity that can’t be ignored. This fact is convincingly backed up by the evidence that there are twenty feature length Pokémon films to date, including five that earned theatrical distribution in the United States. That’s a whole lotta catching/battling of miniature monsters.

As immediately apparent as the appeal of hoarding & imagining the staged battles of various pokémon types (that resemble creatures as varied as space aliens, dragons, ducks, and kittens) is to kids who encounter it at an early enough age, it can be exasperating to an outsider. In his 1999 review of the first Pokémon movie, Roger Ebert is stunned in his befuddlement. He spends most of the review attempting to define what pokémon even are and struggling to find reference points to entertainment media he does understand, which is how he ends up comparing the film (unfavorably) to My Neighbor Totoro. His confusion is entirely justified, to be honest. Even the film’s title, Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back, is an intimidating warning that it is not a self-contained story that can be easily grasped by the uninitiated. Mewtwo Strikes Back wastes no time explaining the gyms, stadiums, “catching,” pokéballs, teams, trainers, or even the little monsters of its world (although it does waste time elsewhere). Instead of starting with a clean slate, it functions as a 90 minute episode of the original television show. Our human heroes (Ash, Brock, and Misty) are introduced in a brief narrative paragraph about their penchant for getting into all kinds of pokémon-related adventures, but much more attention is paid to staging a pokémon match in the middle of the opening credits (complete with a dance remix of the television series’ theme music) to set the mood. If you’re new to the Pokémon universe, I’d recommend at least watching the pilot episode for the series to get a hold of the basic narrative. Otherwise, the best you’ll be able to grasp is that The Good Guys and The Bad Guys are competing To Be The Very Best in a world of tiny monsters where the main objective is to Catch Them All and train them for battle (where victory means both establishing supremacy & collecting more pokémon).

This particular episode in the Pokésaga concerns the creation and the radicalization of the titular Mewtwo, The World’s Strongest Pokémon. Much like how the rarity of certain specimen in all trading card circles (Pokémon, Magic, baseball, or otherwise) increases their value, there are rare pokémon that tower over more common types in their strength & narrative significance. According to this film, the rarest of them all is a psychic pokémon named Mew, so much so that it’s considered by most trainers to be extinct. An Evil Corporation (the standard go-to villain for kids’ media) that seems tied to the series’ Team Rocket baddies employs scientists to clone this long lost creature, which resembles a hybrid between a kitten & a space alien, into a more powerful form, known as Mewtwo. Bigger, stronger, and more leopard-like than Mew, Mewtwo is essentially the nuclear bomb of pokémon, even leaving behind a mushroom cloud in his wake as he destroys the scientists who created him. He’s so psychically powerful that he can control the weather with the wave of a finger, but he struggles with questions like “But why am I here?” is his RoboCop-inspired rise to sentience. Mewtwo does eventually find meaning in his own existence: righting what he perceives to be a power imbalance between pokémon and their human trainers based in his interactions with his evil Team Rocket creators. Believing that “Humans and pokémon can never be friends” and that pokémon have disgraced themselves by serving humans as slaves, Mewtwo crafts an army of pokémon “superclones” to attack the world’s greatest trainers, hoping to level society so that it can be properly rebuilt. Ash & his travel companions, of course, became central figures in this massive battle and just barely hold their own against Mewtwo thanks to the help of other trainers and (*gasp*) the original Mew. In the heat of the battle, Ash sacrifices himself to save his closest pokémon companion, fan favorite Pikachu, and is turned to stone. The pokémon in the battle bring him back to life with their magical monster tears and, realizing he was wrong about the human exploitation of pokémon, Mewtwo calls off his revolution and flies his superclones off to Pokéheaven or somewhere pokéadjacent.

You can tell as soon as the title that Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back will have no real finality as a self-contained story and will ultimately function as Just Another Episode within the larger Pokémon brand. Given that same ongoing narrative structure’s popularity in popular media like pro wrestling, soap operas, and The MCU, that’s not necessarily a problem. The film does little to wow anyone who’s not already devoted to the Pokémon brand, but it’s entertaining enough as a kids’ fantasy animation to feel worthwhile. Its various monster battles are old-fashioned kaiju fun, Picachu & Mew are absurdly cute character designs, and the hand-drawn animation is much more complex, & visually interesting than what modern CG kids’ media has devolved into (especially considering the recent release of The Emoji Movie). I can only point to a few details where Mewtwo Strikes Back‘s novelty amounted to much more than that. Besides the absurdity of the title and climactic choices to treat both Ash and Pikachu as christ-like figures (complete with a hilariously tragic Turn the Other Cheek sequence), I can really only single out the final battle as a must-see highlight. Clones of various pokémon fight their originating doubles to the point of fatal exhaustion while a heartfelt acoustic ballad titled “Brother My Brother” overpowers the soundtrack with bleeding heart cheese. Lyrics demand “Tell me, what are we fighting for?” and the movie takes a strong, tear-filled “Fighting is meaningless & horrible” stance of pacifism, despite being a part of a universe where battling for supremacy over other trainers is everything. The narration’s ponderings about “the great mystery and the great miracle” of Life sometimes approach the over-the-top absurdity of that “Brother My Brother” scene, but the movie generally lacks that kind of energy throughout. At the very least, there are some glaring missed opportunities in Mewtwo’s abuse of pokémon cloning technology, which could have easily led to to some Cronenbergian pokémonstrosities radically different than the ones that regularly appear on the television show. Instead, we’re treated to exactly the kinds of entertainment offered by the show, just for a longer stretch of time.

I sympathize with Ebert’s desperate in-over-his-head feeling in being assigned to professionally review this movie, which he had no real business watching. Even having a longterm semi-familiarity with pokélore, I found myself frequently confused with rules of the universe established in Mewtwo Strikes Back, especially in regards to the volume & variety of particular pokémon types and the scope of the evil Team Rocket. As there are nineteen more feature films in this series (the most recent of which was released just this year), that sense of knowing the rules of the Pokéverse is either more easily grasped by those who regularly play the brand’s various video & card games or doesn’t matter at all, even to devotees. Maybe watching more of these features will better acclimate me to the rules of its lore, but I’m going to need a lot more of that “Brother My Brother” absurdity to carry me across the finish line if that’s the kind of dedication it requires. Pikachu is pretty damn cute, but not cute enough to pull all that weight on their little electric rat back alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet