The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)

I have no idea how long the term “kindertrauma” has been lingering in online media discussions, but I have been seeing it a lot lately.  It’s a useful, succinct description of a very specific phenomenon that means a broad range of things to a broad range of people.  Kindertrauma movies are the movies that scared you as a young child, before you developed enough media literacy to fully understand what you were seeing.  It’s the snippets of films that replayed in your childhood nightmares, distorted exponentially out of proportion the further you got away from the source.  My own half-remembered kindertrauma clips were the janitor’s closet prison of The Lady in White, the bicycle surgeons of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the cotton-candy cocoons of Killer Klowns from Outer Space . . . all from movies my daycare owner’s teenage daughter happened to tape off the TV.  For a lot of Millennials, images from the Canadian cheapie The Peanut Butter Solution ranks high on that list.  It’s kindertrauma royalty.

The Peanut Butter Solution is just one of dozens of children’s films produced for the Canadian series Tales for All, but it’s the one that enjoyed the widest international distribution and the one that boasted the most baffling out-of-context images.  It has all the gravitas of an Afterschool Special—right down to its dinky Casiotone score—but it’s a total nightmare for the young & unprepared.  It’s a charming tale of local winos who died in a late-night squat fire while trying to keep warm, then befriend a local schoolboy as ghosts.  The boy is so freaked out by the squat’s charred wreckage that he’s scared bald (a condition his doctor diagnoses as “hair ’em scare ’em”), so the ghosts have to coach him on how to get his mojo back with a secret hair-growth recipe passed around among undead drunkards.  Only, he puts in more peanut butter than the recipe calls for (to help it stick better to his scalp, duh), so his hair starts going freakishly long, practically a foot a minute.  This, of course, leads him to being kidnapped by his ornery art teacher, who imprisons dozens of his fellow classmates in an underground sweatshop that transforms his hair into magical paintbrushes.  Any five-minute stretch of the film is enough to fire up the imaginations of kids who happened to catch it out-of-context on cable in the 80s & 90s, sticking to the backs of their minds like so much Skippy brand peanut butter (who paid for their prominent ad placement in the titular scene).

The Peanut Butter Solution is driven by the kind of little-kid nightmare logic that you can only find in German fairy tales and Canadian B-movies, pinpointing the middle ground between “Hansel & Gretel” and The Pit.  It pretends to hold educational value for its pint-sized, impressionable audience, warning of the dangers lurking in abandoned buildings, strangers’ trucks, and overactive imaginations.  It’s heart’s not really in that, though, and any attempts to make sense of its internal logic is just a path to madness.  This wonderfully deranged tale is only truly interested in connecting the dots between a random assemblage of low-intensity menaces that freak kids out: teachers, bullies, the homeless, pubic hair, etc.  It obviously couldn’t get away with adapting the standard “I dreamed I was naked in class” nightmare that a lot of kids have, so it stripped its protagonist naked in the only place that wouldn’t compromise its PG rating . . . and then it goes even weirder places.

Kindertrauma movies are obviously hyper specific to the eras when their freaked-out audiences were young children.  Titles like Willy Wonka and The Wizard of Oz are iconic enough that they’ve inspired nightmares for entire generations of children for decades, but I feel like it’s the much smaller, more disposable media that qualifies as proper kindertrauma – the kind of cheap-o nightmare fuel that doesn’t stick around long enough to become culturally familiar, so it just privately burns in your brain for decades as low-heat nightmare fuel.  I’ve seen a lot of those titles for the first time as a fully formed adultStepmonster, Paperhouse, Return to Oz, Troll 2, Gooby, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, etc.—but it’s always clear when you spot them; you can always tell “This warped someone’s brain as a kid.”  They’re rarely this unpredictable, though. They’re also rarely this distinctly Canadian, considering that The Peanut Butter Solution happens to feature Céline Dion’s first two songs recorded in the English language.  Even if you weren’t traumatized by it as a small, soft-brained child, it’s still a total Canuxploitation nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fog (1980)

I first saw John Carpenter’s cosmic body horror The Thing in the midnight slot at The Prytania.  I loved the film, but struggled to stay awake during the final third, fighting a losing battle against its low-key, matter-of-fact tone and unrushed pacing.  A few years later, I’m a few years older and struggled to stay awake at a 7pm screening of John Carpenter’s The Fog at The Broad.  I appreciated the opportunity to see a proper projection of a beloved genre classic, but that novelty wasn’t enough to keep my eyes from being magnetically drawn to the top of my skull.  Immediately after my screening of The Fog, I biked home to rent the film VOD and rewatch the last half-hour to make sure I didn’t take a “long blink” through anything vital.  I did the same the morning after that midnight screening of The Thing in 2015, “re”watching the back half of the film over a cup of coffee.

I don’t believe the drowsiness of The Fog‘s mood & pacing is a detriment, no more than I believe The Thing is anything less than a 5-star classic.  The Fog just happens to be one of those low-budget horrors that’s so moody & dreamlike that it leaves you both riveted and halfway asleep – joining the likes of Carnival of Souls, Messiah of Evil, and its seaside sister film The Living Skeleton.  The prologue is a campfire horror story about a drowned ship’s crew who haunt the land as ghosts, proving ahead of time that you can condense this 90min film’s plot into just 5 minutes of dialogue.  So, what does Carpenter fill the other 85 minutes of dead air with?  As the children would say, just vibes.  The titular fog is a glowing, sentient force of nature that slowly creeps onto the screen, inviting some glowing-eyed ghost friends along for the ride.  It is the most literal interpretation of “atmospheric horror” around, surviving on pure mood and eerie weather until supernatural mayhem is unleashed in the go-for-broke finale . . . if you’re awake to witness it.

Most of what makes this film of interest to modern audiences is its horror icon bonafides.  Carpenter may be working on a scrappy budget here, but he puts his glowing-eyed monsters to a much more ambitious, ethereal effect than their subterranean brethren in C.H.U.D.. That’s why he’s the best.  Give the man a kitchen knife & a store-bought William Shatner mask, and he’ll inspire decades of copycats in a subgenre of its own.  The Fog never really took off in the same way as Halloween, but there are plenty of Carpenter regulars around to give it a similar classic-horror pedigree: producer Debra Hill, scream queen Jamie Leigh Curtis, her screamier-queenier mother Janet Leigh, town drunk Tom Atkins, etc.  Adrienne Barbeau is a particular highlight among those collaborators, playing the coolest local radio D.J. around, talking her small seaside town through the ghastliest night of their lives in the smoothest tones possible.

The Fog is far from Carpenter’s flashiest work.  It doesn’t have the impossible body contortions of The Thing, the pro-wrestling caricatures of They Live, nor the psychedelic rug-pulls of In the Mouth of Madness.  Besides the icy synths of Carpenter’s score and the calming, laid-back cool of Barbeau’s performance, there isn’t much to recommend here as the artistic pinnacle of anyone’s career.  It’s got plenty mood & craftiness to spare, though, achieving a wonderfully vivid nightmare vibe on a community theatre budget.  Even if you stay awake & alert the entire runtime, it’s easy to question whether you slipped into a dream halfway through.

-Brandon Ledet

Umma (2022)

A few months ago, it was baffling that a Sam Raimi-produced horror film starring Sandra Oh was getting so little press coverage in the early weeks of its theatrical release.  Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm.  Umma follows through on its promise of giving Oh the same heightened-emotions acting showcase that similar recent horror films like Hereditary, The Babadook, The Invisible Man, The Night House, and Here Before gave their own lead women in distress.  The problem is that it aspires to participate in that distinctly modern subgenre without fully understanding its appeal.  Umma indulges in the go-to themes of post-Hereditary trauma horror while backdating its filmmaking sensibilities to the look and feel of mainstream horror in the aughts, somehow offering the worst of both worlds.  It’s useful as a glimpse into what aughts horror might have been like if its protagonists weren’t 100% white by default, but it’s even more useful as a counterpoint to contrarians who claim A24 & other “elevated horror” peddlers have ruined the genre in recent years.  Things used to be way duller, and not that long ago.

Every post-Hereditary trauma horror needs a blatant 1:1 metaphor to dictate all of its scene-to-scene scares.  Umma claims the cliché anxiety “I’m turning into my mother” as its own metaphorical territory.  Given how common the cyclical, hereditary nature of abuse is as a go-to theme in modern horror, that might not sound specific enough of a metaphor, but Umma takes the phrase “I’m turning into my mother” very literally.  Not only does Sandra Oh’s childhood abuse survivor start to repeat her mother’s cruelty while raising her own daughter (influenced by her mother’s ghost, of course), but she also physically mutates to look like her, forming CGI wrinkles & drooped cheeks in her most monstrous moments.  She is haunted by her mother, but she is also transforming into her.  There’s some genuine, heartfelt drama to be mined from that premise, making it very clear why Oh found the project so promising as an actor that she also put her weight behind it as an Executive Producer.  Her only mistake, apparently, was in not pushing screenwriter Iris Shim to hire a more visually ambitious director.

Umma is well considered in its narrative & themes, but it’s got absolutely nothing going on visually or tonally that feels fresh or even up to date.  It just played in theaters a few months ago, but it feels like watching the last leftover DVD from the Blockbuster Video going-out-of-business sales that you just never got around to.  It can be interesting to see that dusty aughts-horror aesthetic applied to the story of a Korean American family, and the film’s most memorable visual details are directly tied to that cultural POV: kumiho attacks, haunted hanboks, creepy wooden masks, etc.  It’s a shame, then, that those details couldn’t be brought into the meticulous visuals & atmospheric tones of the A24 horror aesthetic that guided its choice of themes.  The dingy, underlit basements & attics where it stages most of its ghost attacks are shot with an outdated, uninspired visual eye that hasn’t been seen onscreen since the 2000s remake cycle of titles like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and The RingUmma is Shim’s debut feature, so I hope that if she continues to work in horror, she’ll take more inspiration from the genre’s recent visual & tonal trends along with its function as a metaphor machine.  As is, it seems like she’d be more at home directing TV – a writer’s medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

I have a severe case of Oscars Brain this week, a condition that makes me think of every movie I’m watching in an Awards Season context that will cease to matter in just a few days.  It’s an embarrassing affliction.  Pray that it heals soon.

Intellectually, I know that the Oscars are a ridiculous pageant with no genuine implications for what pictures qualify as The Best Movies of the Year (except maybe in its winners having an easier time getting their Best-Movies-of-Next-Year projects funded).  The ceremony is a great excuse to watch challenging dramas I’d usually put on the backburner of my sprawling watchlist.  It’s also a great excuse to gawk at beautiful, sparkly gowns on television while eating junk food.  Those are ultimately very superficial functions in the grand scheme of cinematic discourse, though.  I don’t put much emotional energy into the wins & snubs of the awards race, but I do enjoy the ritual of tuning in with friends, pizza, and champagne on hand.

It’s just nice to have one month out of the year when everyone talks about movies that don’t star superheroes or talking cartoon animals.  If you ask most audiences, there have only been three actual movies released in the past year, the ones that feature Spider-men, Batmen, and Ghostbusters.  The Oscars are a nice respite from that constant IP-worship chatter among The Fans™, which dominates all online discussion of movies for the other eleven months of the calendar.  Hilariously, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying their best to court The Fans as a potential TV audience, pushing for all the Spider-Men and other supertwunks out there to share the spotlight during the ceremony in semi-official “Fan Favorite” awards, as if the literal billions of dollars they earn crowding real movies out of the box office isn’t already enough of a reward.  To be honest, it’s making me extremely petty.  I can’t hear the word “Ghostbuster” without rolling my eyes, desperate for anyone to talk about a genuinely substantive movie for a goddamn change.  For all of pageantry, inanity, and bribery that makes The Oscars a total sham, at least it does clear space for real movies like Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, and The Power of the Dog to breathe in the daylight until Captain Morbius or whatever the fuck swoops into suck up all the oxygen again.

The new Ghostbusters film gives that petty reflex a lot of ammunition too.  Afterlife is absolutely absurd as a nostalgia-bait IP booster.  It somehow misremembers the original Ghostbusters franchise as an E.T.-era Spielberg heart-warmer instead of a frat-boy special effect comedy.  Instead of using its ghost-infestation premise as an excuse for rapid-fire joke delivery (a tradition that was kept alive in the previous 2016 reboot), this lands closer to the Stranger Things version of 80s nostalgia, complete with a major role for breakout stranger thing Finn Wolfhard.  There are constant Who You Gonna Callbacks to things that used to be jokes in the original Ghostbusters film—marshmallows, Twinkies, firemen poles, retro commercials for the titular ghostbusting service—but they’re treated with a reverent awe that makes absolutely no sense considering the series’ goofball origins.  Afterlife is an earnest drama about a family who moves from the big city to a rural farm to confront the mess left behind by their absentee patriarch (Egon Spengler, for all you Bustheads out there), haunted both by his dusty belongings and by an upswell of actual ghosts.  It’s also a throwback to 80s Amblin kids’ adventure films, to the point where a wisecracking side character named Podcast functions as all of the Goonies characters rolled into a single out-of-time archetype.  What it’s not is a traditional Ghostbusters film, at least not beyond the familiarity of the logo and a few unnecessary cameos.

As intensely odd as Afterlife is as a nostalgia trigger for adults, I do think it’s passably adorable as a standalone children’s film.  With the rare exception of titles like MirrorMask & City of Ember (which, appropriately enough, also features a small role for Bill Murray), I can’t think of many dark, live-action fantasy adventure films made for young audiences in recent decades.  Even Stranger Things feels pitched to an older, nostalgic audience who remembers growing up with kids-on-bikes horror adventures in the 80s instead of their fresh-eyed children.  In that way, I think Ghostbusters: Afterlife is most useful as an intergenerational bonding tool that kids can enjoy for its legitimate spooky-adventure charms while their knucklehead parents point and smile at the callbacks & Easter eggs, drooling onto their Target-brand Ghostbusters t-shirts between nostalgia pops.  It’s frustrating that we can’t make children’s movies like this without tying them to pre-existing IP from 40 years ago, but hey, that’s the pop culture hellscape we’re rotting in, so you gotta celebrate the small victories where you can find them.

There are a lot of small touches to Ghostbusters: Afterlife that genuinely brought me joy – mostly the Creechification of Slimer in the nü-ghost Muncher (Josh Gad’s greatest performance to date) and Carrie Coon’s aggressive disinterest in absolutely everything happening around her as the non-plussed mom.  I can’t claim that those minor, momentary joys justify how much cultural discourse the Ghostbusters brand has generated over the past few years.  This movie is far too shallow & disposable to earn its vast pop culture real estate.  If it weren’t for all the online chatter about how the Oscars and critical institutions ignore movies that people have actually heard of, though, I don’t think that shallowness would bother me.  This is a perfectly cromulent kids’ movie with plenty of soothing nostalgia indulgences to lure in those kids’ parents, which is perfectly fine.  I just really wish there were more space to occasionally discuss something else.  I don’t know if that would require audiences or producers to be more adventurous in what creative voices they pay attention to, but it really is exhausting talking about fluff like this all year round when there’s not much to it.  It’s sad how vital the Oscars are in breaking up that monotony, since that ceremony is itself equally shallow & silly, just in a different way.

-Brandon Ledet

Last Night in Soho (2021)

I was left so unexpectedly cold by Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver that I spent my entire review of the film apologizing for my apathy.  Surely, if I was shrugging off a stylish heist thriller with an #epicplaylist from the director of the beloved action comedies Hot Fuzz, Shawn of the Dead, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the problem must’ve been with me, not with the movie.  Five years later, I’m a lot more confident in shrugging off Wright’s follow-up to Baby Driver, whether that confidence is a “fool me twice” lesson learned or just a growing trust in my own tastes.  A couture-culture ghost story styled to recall post-giallo Euro horrors like Suspiria & The Psychic, Edgar Wright’s latest genre exercise is tailored to appeal to my exact sensibilities.  I was fully prepared to defend Last Night in Soho against its initial critical backlash (the same way I took mild delight in last year’s other maligned fashion-student thriller, Cruella).  I regret to report that it’s somehow even worse than Baby Driver, despite the genre alchemy of its Italo ghosts & high-fashion setting.  Its first hour is cute but a little boring; its second hour is less cute and super infuriating.  Combined, they’re dull & disastrous enough to convince me to swear off all future Edgar Wright projects entirely.

Thomasin McKenzie stars as a mousy country bumpkin who enrolls in an elite London fashion school.  Skeezy men creep on her from all sides, while the girls in her dorm bully her for being out of step with big-city tastes.  Like in Suspiria, things get worse when she moves to an off-campus apartment to enjoy some solitude & independence, only to be haunted by the ghosts of London’s seedy past.  Our troubled heroine has carefully cultivated two personality quirks that make her Not Like Other Girls: psychic abilities as a spiritual medium and an obsession with retro “Swinging 60s” kitsch.  Both quirks bite her on the ass in her new apartment, where she’s transported in dreams to the 1960s, passively observing her room’s former tenant (an absurdly stylish Anya Taylor-Joy) from the frustrating safety of a mirror realm.  This nocturnal time travel starts as wish fulfillment for the teenage fashionista, but it quickly turns into a bitter nostalgia check, revealing London’s supposedly glorious past to be a misogynist hellscape.  The Swinging 60s Barbie of her dreams pursues a career as a nightclub singer but is manipulated into prostitution by her manager instead.  Meanwhile, the CG ghosts of the singer’s long-dead johns leak out into the fashion student’s waking life, driving her past the brink of madness.  As if dwelling on the grim circumstances of forced prostitution wasn’t punishment enough, the audience is then treated to an idiotic twist that reveals how the chanteuse fought back against her rapist captor & his customers, devolving into a #girlboss vigilante finale that feels shamefully regressive – even for horror.

Last Night in Soho is way too frothy to justify its gendered political provocations, especially considering their sour aftertaste.  It feels like a one-off time travel tangent from a TV show with a bored writers’ room, like a trip to the Star Trek holodeck or a standard episode of Sliders.  Something that superficial has no right to be this irritating, just like how a movie directed by a supposed visual stylist has no right to feature CG ghosts this anonymously bland (at best recalling the unmasked killer reveal in last year’s time-loop slasher Lucky, a film with a small fraction of this one’s budget).  And the CG shards of broken mirrors look even worse.  Still, Last Night in Soho does have a few core saving graces: the relatable depiction of youth as an embarrassing collection of ill-fitting hipster affectations; the inherent entertainment value of ghost story clichés; and the even more potent entertainment value of watching Anya Taylor-Joy model pretty clothes.  They aren’t enough to save it from tedium & misery, but they might be enough to make it more interesting to think about & rewatch than Baby Driver, despite being the worse film.  If I’m smart, I’ll do my best to not think about any Edgar Wright films ever again, as our tastes are obviously drifting further out of sync as we grow old.  Then again, he recently announced he’s developing a new project with his original muse Simon Pegg, which is just enough of a draw to remind me of what I liked about his movies in the first place – like Road Runner guiding Wile E. Coyote off yet another cliff.

-Brandon Ledet

The Turn of the Scrooge

I’m becoming increasingly bitter towards the Christmas holiday season in my adult years, which is making traditional Christmas Movies borderline intolerable.  In an effort to make this mandatory-cheer Hell Month something to look forward to instead of something to dread, my household has shifted into celebrating Yule as a seasonal alternative.  So far, this change has mostly amounted to exchanging gifts & eating festive meals around a small, contained fire, but it has drastically shifted what I think of as seasonally appropriate holiday #content.  December is all about ghost stories for me now, a Yuletide tradition most popularly reflected in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and made-for-British-TV horrors that rarely get exported to the US).  I have no appetite whatsoever for the hundreds of disposable Christmas-schmaltz romances that auto-populate on Hallmark & Lifetime every year.  I’ll always have room in my belly for more spooky ghost stories, though, which is my way of saying I wish it could be Halloween year-round.

To that end, this Yule season felt like as good of a time as any to catch up with one of my biggest ghost-story blind spots: the most beloved movie adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  It’s no surprise that 1961’s The Innocents is the exact impeccable classic that it’s lovingly remembered as.  I was initially unsure that I’d be able to fully sink into it, since i was initially comparing it to a recent first-time viewing of the similarly styled The Haunting, but the camera trickery & psychosexual discomforts were distinctly their own thing despite the parallels.  The Innocents is cold, eerie, beautiful, brutal.  After a half-century of cultural familiarity & exultation, it still cuts sharp against the throat, weaponizing a kind of narrative ambiguity that’s been slowly bled out of modern mainstream horror.  The only other film I can recall that perverts the traditional atmospheric scares of Gothic horror with such overt sexual menace is Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, and even that particular erotic nightmare didn’t dare include young children in its main cast.

The easiest way to highlight The Innocents‘s bravely alienating mood is to contrast it against lesser-loved adaptations of its source material, of which there are dozens to choose from.  Take 2020’s The Turning, for instance, which ages up the little-boy protagonist of the story into a teenage Finn Wolfhard and takes a definitive side in the story’s internal debate over whether its ghosts are “real.”  There’s something incredibly creepy about a pre-pubescent child hitting on his governess with the sexual drive of a sadistic adult man (possibly due to being possessed by that man’s ghost), hiding behind fake-polite apologies like “What a wicked boy I’ve been.”  A teenager hitting on an adult authority figure is also gross & uncomfortable, but it feels more matter-of-course than supernatural.  Wolfhard’s casting feels like a deliberate choice to make James’s story more accommodating for today’s simple-morals audience.  It also backs The Turning into a corner where it has to make the ghost-possession half of its story more explicit to compensate, saving the question of whether it’s all in the governess’s head for a cheap, last-second twist.  Meanwhile, Truman Capote was hired for a script re-write of The Innocents to make its ghost vs. insanity balance even more ambiguous & difficult to pin down.

In all honesty, The Turning isn’t too bad for a modern PG-13 horrorbuster.  It just has the misfortune of being contrasted against one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time.  It’s also self-sabotaged by one of the sloppiest, most insulting twist endings the genre has seen in a long while (or at least since 2016’s Lights Out).  The hilarious thing is that the DVD I borrowed from the library prominently features a fix-it Alternate Ending option on its main menu, and that ending is somehow just as bad as the original.  The even more hilarious thing is that the best shot in the entire movie is buried under the end credits, after the gotcha twist has already pissed off everyone in the audience, presumably playing to an empty theater.  That shot is of the governess’s hand tracing the illustrative details of the haunted house’s antique wallpaper, set to a heavy industrial drumbeat.  It’s the exact kind of eerie, pure-image artistry that The Innocents indulges in feature length.  It would be much easier to settle for The Turning‘s cheap-shot jump scares & carefully posed creepy mannequins if I hadn’t already seen The Innocents conveying (a more daringly ambiguous version of) the same story in gorgeous art-photography experiments with double-exposure layering & deep black voids.  It’s a shame that the one time The Turning attempts to translate that visual artistry for the 21st Century is in the minutes after it’s already shat the bed.

I’m not covering any new ground here by declaring The Innocents great and The Turning disappointing.  These are widely accepted truths.  All I can really do here is advocate for more people to think of The Innocents and similar haunted-house stories as Christmas Classics.  I’d love to see a cultural shift on this side of the pond where we watch spooky possession stories like this every December instead of stuff like A Christmas Prince VII: Still Princin’.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mad Women’s Ball (2021)

The latest of many actor/director co-credits from Mélanie Laurent, The Mad Women’s Ball, is a solemn period drama set in a prison-like mental institution in 19th Century France.  It’s a formulaic film in a lot of respects, touching on every dramatic cliché you’d expect in its women’s sanitorium setting.  There’s nothing new here you won’t see in goofier, better-publicized works like Girl Interrupted, Cosi, Unsane, or your local drag scene’s cabaret parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  And yet, those clichés are all performed so earnestly in The Mad Women’s Ball that their familiarity hardly matters.  At the risk of repeating a cliché observation myself, Mélanie Laurent’s extensive background as an actor shows in her filmmaking’s focus on performance & characterization, two details that add enough specificity & emotional impact to the central drama that it avoids backsliding into tedium.

It helps that the ghost story half of The Mad Women’s Ball actually does manage to feel novel, in that it takes the existence & presence of “spirits” seriously without forcing an illustration of them onscreen or tipping the tone into horror.  Our POV character (Lou de Laâge) is the kind of stubborn, free-thinking intellectual who would routinely get institutionalized for “hysteria” by their embarrassed, cold-hearted families in this era.  Except, she also suffers the burden of constant communication with spirits of the dead which, as you can imagine, are in no short supply in her new asylum/prison/home.  She slowly earns her way out of confinement by proving her supernatural connection with these spirits to her nurses & guards (including Laurent as her sole kind-hearted advocate), helping them reconnect with ghosts of their past in exchange for the promise of freedom.  Meanwhile, she finds uneasy, unlikely sisterhood with her fellow “patients,” who range from genuinely ill to politically troublesome, like herself.

As the title implies, The Mad Women’s Ball culminates in a grand masquerade where the local wealth class is invited on asylum grounds to gawk at (and sexually violate) its patients as they dressed in costume – apparently a very real, very fucked up tradition in some mental institutions at the time.  Until that physical convergence of life inside & outside the asylum, Laurent contrasts their parallel timelines with an aggressive crosscutting effect, her one major stylistic imposition on the plot.  Otherwise, the film’s aesthetic recalls the melancholic Bates-in-prison episodes of Downton Abbey, with the chaotic echoes of unwell women resisting “therapy” (i.e., torture) echoing throughout its dank, joyless hallways.  This is a long, somber, delicate film with only occasional flashes of musical accompaniment.  The contrasting crosscuts between life inside & outside the asylum are absolutely essential to giving it a sense of vibrancy, and it makes total sense that its narrative would have to resolve with those two worlds crashing into each other.

Outside those crosscuts, I’m not sure Laurent does much to call attention to her craft as a filmmaker here.  She mostly just provides a stage for her characters & performers to shine, treating their individual quirks & personae with full respect – whether they’re a bipolar pickpocket with a wicked mean streak or a spiritual medium whose genuine talent for communication with the dead is misunderstood for madness.  Laurent chose to direct a film set in a time that was brutally unkind to women, seemingly so she could extend kindness & empathy to them in retrospect.  It’s surprisingly heartwarming, despite the institutional cruelty & cultural familiarity of its setting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Medium (2021)

In the abstract, giving The Exorcist a found-footage update for the 2020s sounds tedious, but The Medium manages to feel freshly upsetting & emotionally engaged while never drifting outside those genre boundaries.  It helps that the film was produced by Na Hong-jin, director of 2016’s The Wailing – the last great Exorcist-scale possession horror to rejuvenate the genre.  In the early stages of development, Na proposed that Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun collaborate with him on a direct sequel to The Wailing (presumably on the strength of Banjong’s breakthrough hit Shutter), but the concept gradually spiraled out into its own unique horror epic separate from that source of inspiration.  Considering the limitations of its initial concept, the general over-saturation of body-possession & found-footage horror media, and its 30-day shooting schedule, The Medium is impressively massive in its scope & imagination.  This is big-scale blockbuster horror achieved on a scrappy indie budget, and it still manages to be scary as hell.

The Exorcist looms too large in horror iconography for any possession story to avoid the comparison, but The Medium does more to stray from Friedkin’s genre blueprint than simply exporting it to international religious contexts outside the original’s Catholicism.  Stretching its legs with a 131min runtime helps create enough space for the film to distinguish itself from that ancestry, as does its modern-documentary framing device (which obviously triggers its own preloaded horror canon comparisons).  We get to know the mockumentary’s subjects for a long while before the supernatural terror escalates to a fever pitch, which helps lay a solid emotional foundation most modern horrors don’t bother building.  It’s the story of a small family in the rural region of Isan, Thailand, whose women pass down the spirit (and professional occupation) of a shaman through generational inheritance.  While the current shaman’s niece seems to be inheriting that spirit as the next natural successor, it turns out the spirit taking root in her body is something much more sinister.  Deadly hijinks ensue, despite the shaman-aunt’s best efforts to exorcise the unwanted presence from her innocent niece’s body.

For all its ambitious scale & intimate familial drama, The Medium is most impressive for its efficiency in delivering every possible genre payoff it can squeeze into its spacious runtime.  It attempts eerie atmospheric dread and cheap-thrills jump scares.  It genuinely engages with the emotional drama at the core of its spiritual inheritance story and indulges in squirmy cultural taboos that would turn off most horror naysayers.  It’s also not afraid to invite comparisons to iconic touchstones of the found-footage canon – including the shaky-cam nature runs of The Blair Witch Project, the night-vision security footage of Paranormal Activity, and the vertical smartphone aspect ratios of the genre’s current “screenlife” era.  Still, it throws so much supernatural mayhem at the screen in its go-for-broke third act that it manages to do things I’ve never seen in any found footage movie before, especially in the way its possessed victims directly, violently interact with the camera crew & their equipment.  The actual possession half of its hybrid-genre is less surprising in its execution, but it’s remarkably upsetting & brutal all the same.

I’m glad we were gifted The Medium instead of The Wailing Part II: Possession Boogaloo, as initially planned.  Then again, I would’ve also been skeptical of the final product’s “found-footage Exorcist” premise had I not seen the results.  This is one of those shining examples of how little a movie’s chosen genre template actually affects its overall quality.  It’s all in the execution, and this particular Exorcist deviation is executed with both fury & elegance.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest.  My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog.  I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid.  And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or.  Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate.  Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect.  Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure.  Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs.  Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary.  I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto.  I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.

To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm.  Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances.  His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door.  His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes.  I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend.  They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.

I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home.  It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog.  There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish.  If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene.  My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1973’s Lisa and the Devil, is a supernatural murder mystery set in a haunted mansion full of creepy mannequins.  As usual with Mario Bava, it’s consistently beautiful & eerie while wildly inconsistent in its central mystery’s internal logic.  Parsing out what’s really going on in Bava’s films is always miles beside the point; they thrive on vibes and vibes alone.  So, what really sets this loopy-logic Bava mystery apart from the rest of his catalog is its haunted castle setting, which vividly contrasts the moods & tones of his filmmaking style against other Gothic horrors of his era from The Corman-Poe Cycle and Hammer Studios.  It’s in that contrast where Lisa and the Devil‘s twisty dream logic and harshly artificial color gels really shine as something special.

I knew I was going to use November’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to clear out a few of my Mario Bava blindspots.  What I didn’t know is that so many of those major blindspots would also be set in haunted castles (as opposed to the bloody couturiers of Blood & Black Lace or the eerie alien landscapes of Planet of the Vampires).  As I dug further into Bava’s catalog this month, I really started appreciating how his haunted castle movies boast all of the spooky atmosphere of Hammer Horror at its best, boosted with a lurid Technicolor sleaze that satisfies in a way Hammer rarely does – if ever.  Nearly every one is a Masque of the Red Death-level knockout, which is rare for the genre.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Mario Bava classics set in haunted castles.

Black Sunday (1960)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mario Bava spent so much of his career playing with camera equipment in spooky castles, since that setting is exactly where he made a name for himself at the start of his career.  Bava’s debut feature credit as a director, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) crams in as many haunted-castle spooks & ghouls as it can possibly fit in an 87min runtime: vampires, witches, Satanic rituals, an overachieving fog machine, etc.  Even in black & white—devoid of Bava’s trademark color gels—it clearly stands out as the very best of the director’s haunted castle horrors.  If anything, the harsh black & white lighting offers a vintage Romero sheen that feels like a novelty in Bava’s larger Technicolor catalog.

If actors dress up in ritualistic costumes and repeat the word “Satan” enough, I’m automatically going to be charmed.  It still helps when it’s someone as electrically intense as Barbara Steele.  In her breakout, career-defining performance(s), she stars as both a vampiric witch who’s punished for her allegiance to Satan and as the innocent descendent she plans to drain of her blood & youth.  Steele’s haunting screen presence (conveyed most fiercely through her intense eye contact) is what makes the movie enduringly iconic, but Bava’s background as a cinematographer heightens every frame with a stark beauty & terror.  It’s not Bava at his most idiosyncratic (given that it’s drained of his usual indulgences in color & disregard for plot), but it might be Bava at his best.

The Whip and the Body (1963)

Barbara Steele is not the only horror legend who cut their fangs working with Bava.  Christopher “Dracula” Lee collaborated with the Italo-auteur on both the dark fantasy epic Hercules in the Haunted World and in the haunted-castle chiller The Whip and the Body.  It’s The Whip and the Body that really leans into the strengths of Lee’s sultry screen presence, casting him as a BDSM ghost who haunts a modest seaside castle (and the masochistic woman he used to adulterize with when he was alive).  It’s never much of an exaggeration to say that Christopher Lee was pure sex in his handsome youth, but in The Whip and the Body that statement isn’t even a figure of speech.  He haunts the castle as the personification of sadistic sex just as much as he’s the ghost of a cruel pest who even his mistress despised.

The ghostly psychosexual terror of Lee’s kink-ghost is the perfect mechanism for Bava’s usual indulgences in atmosphere & aesthetics.  It’s customary for haunted castle movies to feature menacing gusts of howling wind, but here Bava gets to mix in sounds of Lee’s leather whip to pervert that trope into something freshly upsetting.  The film haunts a lovely middle ground between the classic gothic horror of Black Sunday and the Technicolor fairy tale horrors of Lisa and the Devil (complete with a dagger in a bell jar as its fairy tale version of Chekov’s gun).

Baron Blood (1972)

Like The Whip and the Body, Baron Blood is about a craven misogynist who haunts his family castle as a menacingly horny ghost.  Like Black Sunday, it even dabbles in an undercurrent of witchcraft for counterbalance; the sexist ghost is resurrected from the dead as revenge from a witch who wants to see him tortured for eternity instead being allowed to rest.  Unfortunately, this late-in-the-game middle ground between those two classics doesn’t stack up to Bava’s usual standard.  It’s conveyed in muddy 1970s browns, and the stoney-baloney pacing of that era is in no rush to get anywhere. 

So yeah, Baron Blood is by far the weakest entry of this haunted-castle Bava set.  It has its own laidback 70s charms, though, including occultist rituals, rusty torture devices, and a fiendish ghoul with sopping hamburger meat for a face.  All it really needed to be a Lisa and the Devil-level stunner was a peppier sense of urgency and a few color gels.  Save it for a lazy weekend afternoon, so it’s not such a big deal if you take a nap in the middle of it.

-Brandon Ledet