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

Movie of the Month: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Lisa and the Devil (1973).

Hanna: I didn’t know anything about Mario Bava the first time I saw Lisa and the Devil (1974)It was two or three Halloweens ago, when streaming services pepper their suggestions with every horror movie in their arsenals, especially Argento & Bava films from the 70s with irresistible, colorful covers.  The film has persistently clung to my mind since then because of its totally bizarre ending and its resplendent, House of Usher-esque mansion.  I don’t know if it held up for me on a second viewing, and it has a gross depiction of sexual assault at ~1:14:00 that I had completely forgotten about, but I still overall enjoyed Bava’s spooky dreamscape.

At the outset of Lisa and the Devil, Lisa—a German tourist played by Elke Sommer—is climbing off a tour bus in Toledo, Spain.  The very first stop of the tour brings her group to a mural of the Devil carrying the dead away, with a face that “expresses a quality which reflects the very soul of pleasure and evil.” Lisa seems struck by this mural, and inexplicably leaves her friend behind with the tour group to go wandering through the small Spanish village alone.  She’s drawn into an antique shop and finds herself mesmerized by a sort of box-less music box/turntable with six rotating figures (if somebody could tell me what this thing is called, I would be much obliged – it’s extremely cool).  She interrupts the shopkeeper’s conversation with the lone customer in the shop, who’s fussing over the particularities of a large wooden doll, to purchase the object.  The customer turns to look at Lisa, who realizes that he bears a striking resemblance to the “very soul of pleasure and evil” plastered on the mural.  From that point on, Lisa is lost; she dashes from the shop and wanders hopelessly through the deserted streets of Toledo, finding it impossible to return to the town square and repeatedly running into the menacing man from the mural (played by Telly Savalas) and the human manifestation of his life-size wooden doll.  Eventually night falls, and she’s picked up by a tense couple and their driver in a lovely green car.  Lisa is hopeful that this is the end of her nightmare, until the car breaks down in front of a sprawling Spanish villa of an elderly blind countess (Alida Valli) and her odd son Maximillian (Alessio Orano).  The villa is staffed, of course, by Leandro, who continues to drag around his giant wooden doll for a mysterious purpose.

The rest of the film slowly unfolds into a visually striking festival of murder.  The long shots of Lisa wandering throughout the remote village and the rich, green grounds of the villa are fantastic, and the interior of the villa oozes with a thick, decrepit opulence (I love the rotting cake room).  I mostly found the performances a little lackluster, especially Sommer (who, despite being the leading lady, has about 10 lines of dialogue), but Telly Savalas is a pleasure to watch as a puckish devil butler who’s perpetually sucking on lollipops.

Britnee, I think I’m a Bava newbie compared to the rest of the Swampflix crew.  I’ve heard some people say that this one is especially strange and dream-like, but it was the first Bava film I ever saw, so I didn’t have much of a reference for his body of work.  How do you think Lisa and the Devil stacks up against his other films?

Britnee: I’ve actually only seen a couple of Bava films, but there was something different about this one. The other films I’m thinking of—Blood and Black Lace (my first Movie of the Month choice!) and Kill, Baby…Kill! in particular—weren’t as dreamlike for sure, but even more so, none had a character as comical as Leandro. Bava’s characters tend to be dark, mysterious, and serious – just not the type of characters that you really connect with.  In no way is that a bad thing, because I’ve never watched a Bava movie for the cast.  Bava movies are beautiful, bloody treasures about creepy sickos, and I expect nothing more.  Leandro caught me off guard because I expected him to be terrifying since he’s basically the Devil.  I thought he was going to terrorize Lisa from the moment she ran into him in the antique shop, but he felt like more of a guide instead – guiding Lisa and the audience to and around the castle while making clever comments and sucking on lollipops.  He felt more like a witty uncle than Satan.

My absolute favorite thing about Lisa and the Devil are all of the creepy mannequins. The first one we see that continuously reappears is a mannequin of Carlos, the dead lover of the dead woman who Lisa resembles.  But we eventually get introduced into a room filled with them!  It seems that everyone who’s murdered by this bizarre castle family is transformed into a mannequin.  This becomes apparent when Leandro takes Lisa’s measurements after she faints.  I was hoping for some satanic ritual where Leandro turns the dead bodies into mannequins before our eyes, but it never goes down that road.

The ending of this film is so unexpected.  Just when we think that Lisa is free and leaving Spain, she’s trapped on a plane with corpses and Leandro.  This is where she turns into a mannequin and essentially dies.  Brandon, what are your thoughts on the ending?  Should Lisa have lived or died on the castle grounds instead?

Brandon:  I don’t have any strong opinions about whether Lisa should have survived this film un-mannequined, but I do appreciate that she got to escape from the castle grounds after sunrise.  At first, the shifting geography of the city and Lisa’s role as a silent observer had me thinking of this movie as a dream-logic story, but her return to the modern world outside the castle helped me re-contextualize everything as fairy tale logic, which is its own distinct thing.  The way the castle feels untethered to the modernity, the way its decadent food is used as bait to lure in outsiders, and the way Bava constantly frames its inhabitants through mirror reflections all feel traditional to fairy-tale storytelling – something that didn’t dawn on me until the castle receded back into its own temporal limbo at, well, dawn.  I loved seeing Lisa emerge from that fairy tale realm to return to her modern-tourist reality, and by then I was pretty much down for however Bava wanted to wrap it up.  Maybe she couldn’t fully escape the castle because she ate the food and drank the wine: a classic fairy tale blunder.

As always with Bava, Lisa and the Devil is consistently beautiful, and parsing out the whats & whys of ~what’s really going on~ in its plot is miles beside the point.  What I love most about this film is how much it resembles a standard haunted castle horror movie (maybe with more shapeshifting mannequins than usual) but the longer you grapple with its internal sense of logic the less familiar it feels.  The car troubles that lead a foursome of naïve passersby to the film’s haunted castle are clichéd almost to the point of conscious parody, and yet the Technicolor surrealism they encounter inside is something you’ll be hard-pressed to find in any of the Hammer Horror or Corman-Poe movies it recalls.  Boomer, what do you think Bava brings to the creepy-castle horror movie as a genre?  Is his filmmaking or storytelling style particularly suited for this generically spooky setting in any way?

Boomer: One thing that I thought was notable here is that, when we think about Mario Bava, we mostly think about his earlier directorial work, starting with 1957’s I, Vampiri, then peaking in the early-to-mid 1960s.  That’s the era with perennial classics like Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963) as well as movies that we’ve mentioned above: Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966). After that, we get things like Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970), which I did not care for, and 1972’s Baron Blood, which I got on VHS many years ago and managed to sit through precisely once. When we talk about Bava, we always talk about him as a horror or giallo director, and although that makes up the bulk of his filmography, we rarely talk about his sword-and-sandals swashbucklers (Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik the Conqueror), his non-giallo crime thrillers (like Danger: Diabolik), or his westerns (The Road to Fort AlamoRoy Colt & Winchester Jack), and even his non-horror sci-fi The Day the Sky Exploded usually gets lumped in with his horror sci-fi like Planet of the Vampires and Caltiki – The Immortal Monster. But what’s really missing from this list are references to his comedy pictures, like spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and sex romp Four Times That Night

Strangely, I think it’s the last of these that has the most influence on Lisa and the Devil, as it allows for a little levity in the proceedings.  I don’t think any actor I’ve seen in a Bava film has been as magnetic and fun as Telly Savalas is here, hamming it up and clearly having a good time.  The scene in which he bums a smoke from one of the visitors and then loudly chastises the man for smoking indoors when the blind countess enters the room is an inspired gag, as are his seemingly improvised moments, like when he dances with one of the mannequins.  Italian horror movies are littered with scenes in which a person gives exposition to a bound or unconscious figure (Profundo rosso comes to mind), but Savalas manages to turn even this into a lively and comparably electric scene. I’ve often said that comedy and mystery “live” in the same mental space; what is a punchline if not a resolution that makes you laugh?  What is the answer to a riddle if not the solution to a mystery?  That Savalas is an American amidst these Europeans (most of whom probably learned their lines phonetically or were dubbed, both of which were in fashion at the time) also contributes to a separation between himself and makes him appear much more lifelike and composed.  All too frequently, casting is treated as something that’s purely matter-of-fact in films; Dune is about the dangers of trusting a white savior and deconstructing that narrative of white messiahs, but that also means it’s about a white twink savior, so of course the current film adaptation has the whitest and twinkiest of currently working actors.  Here, the casting of Savalas contributes to the tone, which I found fascinating. 

To circle back on Bava’s storytelling style, the gothic is definitely where his powers reign supreme, and I don’t think that anyone else could have helmed this movie and captured that energy and atmosphere as well as he does here. Comparing this film to the body of work of his two major contemporaries, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, both of them made their own dreamlike haunted house stories within a few years, with Suspiria for the former and The Psychic for the latter, although the reasons for the house/school being/seeming haunted in each of those films is decidedly different, both from one another and from Lisa and the DevilLisa is also a much more successful counterposing of the modern and the gothic than the aforementioned Baron Blood. In that film, a modern (for 1972) American co-ed visits his ancestral home in Austria and resurrects a murderous aristocratic forefather, while Lisa is a modern (for 1974) tourist thrust into a decaying relic of a home inhabited by murderous aristocrats.  That they both exist, were released a mere 2.5 years apart, and that Bava wrote both in addition to directing them, says something about his interest in contrasting those two things later in his life, and I do wish we could have seen more of that before he passed away in 1980.  Interestingly, although Suspiria is largely considered Argento’s masterpiece and The Psychic was a film I heard discussed in certain circles with frequency, Lisa and the Devil is one I had never heard of before this viewing. 

Shudder’s interface describes this as “Bava’s strangest film” (emphasis added), presumably because it boasts a more dreamlike atmosphere than his other horror fare, but I can’t say that I necessarily agree.  Although the ending leaves much to the imagination and interpretation, this is a film that makes explicit early on that the narrative takes place in a timeless non-time on a carousel that loops.  We first see the animated music box thing in the shop as soon as Lisa wanders away from her tour group, and it immediately captivates her, with the six figures depicted representing the characters that we will meet as well as the fact that, although they may be in motion and constantly moving away from one another, they are nonetheless in a closed loop that ends where it begins.  We are also let in on the fact that the ghosts or spirits that reside in the villa are not necessarily bound there, as Lisa meets Carlos for the first time far from the Countess’s home; it’s here that he drops his watch, breaking it in such a way that the clock’s hands do not lie over its face, cluing us in that not only is this a loop, but one in which time has no meaning. Full size mannequins weren’t really a thing until the mid-1750s, when they were made of wicker.  Wicker mannequins gave way to those made of wirework, which were supplanted with papier-mâché mannequins, which were themselves replaced with wax figures, which eventually gave way to the plastic mannequins—with which we are mostly familiar—in the 1920s.  The figures here appear waxen to me, which immediately pegs them as being outmoded and out of time by half a century in the film’s contemporary 1970s setting. 

Lagniappe

Hanna: Besides the gorgeous, lustrous cinematography, I will forever treasure Lisa and the Devil as the only film I know of with a haunted European villa and a haunted plane.  I would 1000% watch Lisa descend further into madness in a surreal plane-centric sequel.

Britnee: I thought Leandro was strangely similar to the bald, lollipop sucking detective from the popular 70s detective show Kojak. Well, it turns out that they’re the same person.  Telly Savalas is both Leandro and Kojak!  Kojak premiered shortly after Lisa and the Devil, so this lollipop habit crossed over between the two as they were most likely being filmed at the same time.

Boomer: Telly Savalas is best remembered as TV’s Kojak or as one of many Blofelds (he’s the one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for the record), but for me, he will forever be remembered as the stepfather from the Twilight Zone classic “Living Doll.” He’s also in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “A Matter of Murder” with Darren McGavin, meaning it’s the only time outside of their respective series that Kojak and Kolchak worked together, so stick that in your back pocket to whip out as trivia for your relatives at Thanksgiving this year.

If this film’s ending was a chiller to you, I also recommend the short story “Showdown,” by Shirley Jackson. Although spooky season as defined by the Gregorian calendar may be officially over, if you believe, you can carry it with you in your heart all year, and this short story, which was previously mentioned in our Lagniappe episode about 2020’s Shirley, remains one of the most chilling ghost stories to ever stir my soul.

Brandon: We cannot let this conversation go by without acknowledging the bizarre existence of 1975’s The House of Exorcism.  Since contemporary distributors weren’t sure how to market Bava’s loopy nightmare in America as-is, they re-edited Lisa and the Devil into a cash-in knockoff of Friedkin’s wildly popular The Exorcist, titled The House of Exorcism.  In that cut, the haunted castle sequences of Lisa and the Devil are recontextualized as hallucinations Lisa suffers while writhing in a hospital bed, possessed by Satan (there are also some additional nude scenes shoehorned in to up the titillation factor for the drive-in crowd).  It’s a bizarre viewing experience if you’ve already seen Lisa and the Devil, simulating the horror of watching a shitty movie you remember being great – like revisiting the original King Kong only to find half the scenes replaced by clips from Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

Bava was rightfully appalled by the production of House of Exorcism, and successfully had his name removed from the project.  It’s embarrassing as a standalone film, but I will say there’s a welcome novelty in seeing the horror master’s usual laidback pace properly sped-up in the edited-to-shreds clips it uses from Lisa and the Devil.  It’s maybe the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding disrespectful youngins who “speedwatch” everything at 1.5x.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: 
Brandon presents Lifeforce (1985)
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

In retrospect, I was being redundant when I described last year’s The Twentieth Century as feeling like “watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.”  That assessment still rings true, but I could’ve lightened my wordcount by just saying it felt like “watching a Guy Maddin movie”.  I’m used to seeing playful flashes of violence & vulgarity in Guy Maddin’s work, but something about Matthew Rankin’s kink-soaked debut doubled down on both in a way that really spoke to my juvenile sensibilities.  It turns out my oversight was in comparing The Twentieth Century to the statelier, well-respected Maddin of recent years, the one who’ll interject a Sparks music video about a man’s addiction to “derrieres” in the middle of his narratives but will stop short of fixing his camera on an ejaculating cactus for a minutes-long visual gag.  Guy Maddin was once a young button-pusher himself, though, something that should have been obvious to me even before I made the time to watch his own early-career kink comedy Cowards Bend the Knee.  It turns out I was just a few years too late in my Guy Maddin appreciation to catch him in his prime as a juvenile provocateur.

In Cowards Bend the Knee (or The Blue Hands), Guy Maddin reimagines (and improves!) the silent horror classic The Hands of Orlac as a kinky sex comedy about hairdressers, prostitution, abortion, hockey, and revenge.  Instead of a morally simplistic body horror about a concert pianist who becomes murderous when his hands are surgically replaced with a serial killer’s, Maddin abstracts his version in a Russian nesting doll story structure that’s long been familiar to his features.  We start with scientists examining a sperm specimen under a microscope, revealing in close-up that the sperm cells are hockey players competing on ice.  The star player is Guy Maddin as “Guy Maddin,” the team captain and son of the distinguished announcer who calls the games.  He’s pulled aside from his championship victory celebrations by a distraught girlfriend who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, which leads the couple to a hair salon & brothel that triples as an illegal backroom abortion clinic.  Maddin leaves his girlfriend mid-abortion for the madame’s beautiful daughter, who will not let him touch her body until her father’s death is avenged.  Her plan for retribution, of course, involves her father’s severed hands being surgically attached to her new lover’s body to guide his way.  Also, his old girlfriend is now a ghost who works at the salon.

Like all of Guy Maddin’s movies, Cowards Bend the Knee is deliberately aged & battered to look like an authentic curio from the earliest years of silent cinema.  Images often stutter & repeat in harsh jags as if the projector is struggling to feed the deteriorating film from reel to reel.  That antiqued image quality offers a great contrast to the shameless sexual fetishism of the film’s winding Greek tragedy plot.  Despite its title’s mention of legs, this is a film that’s fixated on the perversity of hands in particular.  From the more obvious kink acts like incest, fisting, and female-dominant wrestling to the unexpected eroticism of a haircut, the film presents the shape & use of hands as if they were the filthiest appendages on our bodies.  And maybe they are.  Maddin even accentuated the film’s sexual transgressions by premiering it as an art instillation where viewers watched each six-minute chapter as individual vignettes through key holes, as if peering into a bedroom (or a sex dungeon).  It’s all very silly and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also surprisingly thoughtful & genuine in its presentation of sexual fetishism and the way its magnetic pull can lead you to making desperate, self-destructive decisions.

The Saddest Music in the World taught me that Guy Maddin is a goofball prankster despite his work’s formalist exterior.  Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary taught me that he’s a bit of a luddite with a loving eye for the tones & textures of German Expressionist horror.  The Forbidden Room taught me that he works best in short-form vignettes that pulls the audience deeper into exponentially smaller worlds.  All of those aspects of his work were already firmly set in stone as early as Cowards Bend the Knee, but that one still taught me something about him that made me fall even further in love with his art: he’s also a filthy pervert.

-Brandon Ledet