Medusa (2022)

Like a lot of film nerds, my October ritual is to cram in as many new-to-me horror movies as I can before Halloween passes by. Outside of attending film festivals, Spooktober is my favorite time of year to share titles & takes with my online movie buds, but it can be an exhausting, self-defeating effort if you don’t find enough balance in your movie diet.  You cannot watch 31 new-to-you slashers or 31 new-to-you zombie comedies without getting sick of the genre.  So, that search for balance often sends me to the outer limits of what can comfortably be categorized as horror, which is where you find genre-defiant headscratchers like Medusa.  A loose, dreamworld descent into hedonism & blasphemy, Medusa indulges in some Saved!style Evangelical satire, purgatorial coma ward occultism, hints of Exorcist body possession, and violent street attacks from history’s least-cool girl gang.  It only qualifies as horror because that’s the only genre that can accommodate its loopy nightmare logic.  Thankfully, that edge-of-horror grey area is where the greatest movies ever made tend to dwell.

The thing holding Medusa back from achieving that greatness isn’t its resistance to categorization; it’s the high bar set by its fellow genre-defiant South American contemporaries like Good Manners, Ema, Bacurau, and Electric Swan.  It’s visually striking throughout, relying on some tried-and-true neon lighting & synthpop aesthetic cues to trigger a pithy “Pure Cinema” Letterboxd review or two.  There’s just not much that actually happens between its opening & closing bookends, when we meet a misogynistic Christian girl gang in a near-future Brazil and when they’re collectively possessed by the feminist spirit of a wanton woman who’s been wronged by their kind.  Like the demonized, sexually liberated woman they fear so much, the movie effectively slips into a coma between those two points, lucidly dreaming about Evangelical vocal choirs, spon-con influencer videos, atheist dance parties, and sex in the jungle.  It gradually emerges from that comatose delirium as feminism & hedonism spread through the woman-beating girl gang like an infection, culminating with the girls finally snapping out of it in high-pitched screams to the camera.  I was anxious for them to wake up & reorganize the entire runtime, but I guess if I wanted to watch a sharper, more propulsive version of this story I could always just revisit Ema.

Comparisons to other recent South American genre-benders are easy to make here, since that industry has continued to share a post-Buñuel dream-logic approach to narrative structure, each film lightly surreal in its loose progress of events.  The slow-motion music video loopiness of Medusa likely shares more in common with Jennifer Reeder’s Knives & Skin than any of its localized contemporaries, though, and it often feels like a bigger-scale, slightly bigger-budget version of that American indie.  It just also not any more coherent or streamlined.  The runtime crosses the 2-hour barrier for no particular reason other than its dripping-IV momentum never allows for its badass images to flow to the screen with any urgency.  Still, the Christian girl gang’s conversion to feminist liberators is a satisfying emersion from that pious, medicated dreamworld. It may not be the most finely tuned example of its kind, but it’s at least one of the few body-possession horrors you’re likely to find that isn’t just another riff on one of the usual suspects: Body Snatchers, The Exorcist, The Thing, etc. If you watch enough horror movies, that kind of novelty is invaluable, especially this time of year.

-Brandon Ledet

She Mob (1968)

I’m generally curious about vintage sexploitation films as a genre, the kinds of nudist novelties that were made obsolete in the 1970s when hardcore pornography creeped out of stag parties and into public theaters. When digging through the back catalogs of sexploitation greats like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman, however, I find myself clearly divided on which half of the sexploitation era tickles me and which I can barely stomach. Following Meyer’s debut The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959, the first half of the 1960s was dominated by “nudie cuties” – a wave of kitschy, oddly innocent nudist films you almost wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch with your mother. Things took a dark turn in the back half of that decade, however, when nudie cuties were supplanted by “roughies” – vile black & white crime thrillers that intend to titillate through softcore simulations of sexual assault. I usually suffer through roughies as an ill-advised completionist’s obligation when boning up on the works of directors like Meyer, Wishman, and Ed Wood; they’re uniformly grotesque. I was shocked, then, to recently discover a roughie that I found just as adorable as the nudie cuties I’m usually searching for in those directors’ catalogs: the 1968 lesbian girl gang thriller She Mob.

The titular “she mob” is a gang of ex-con women who hire a gigolo for an afternoon lay, then hold him for ransom against the wealthy businesswoman that keeps him as a house pet. Their leader, Big Shim, is a tough-as-nails lesbian in leather bondage gear, whose gigantic bullet bra doubles as a lethal weapon as she wages war against the fine folks of suburban America. Her underlings are swinging-60s delinquents, cartoonish exaggerations of femininity who immediately launch into one of three activities the second they wake up: masturbation, go-go dancing, or pillow fights. As you can imagine, not much happens in this softcore novelty; it’s mostly a hangout film as the gigolo waits to be set free by his girlfriend/employer. The climactic action before that rescue mission is a forced-feminization fantasy sequence where the girls dress up their captive boy-toy in lingerie, declaring “He thinks he’s such a man … Let’s see what kind of woman he’d make!” They then take turns lashing him with a whip. Besides that indulgence in light bondage & crossdressing, the sex in the film is about as tame as the plotting; it mostly consists of actors wriggling on top of each other in the nude. Still, the forced crossdressing angle is strikingly kinky for the era, and you can practically hear Ed Wood panting in the background.

That femmes-in-charge power dynamic just works for me – both as a subversion of the usual sexual assault eroticism of roughies as a genre and, frankly, as just plain erotica. It’s like the difference between Russ Meyers’s godawful biker gang roughie Motorspycho! and his all-time-classic girl gang thriller Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. The one where men torment female victims is gross, and the one where women torment male victims is hot stuff; those are just the rules. Beyond that, She Mob scores a lot of easy cool points in its proto-punk filmmaking aesthetics. The opening credits read like a xeroxed zine. All on-screen sex is intercut with close-ups of characters’ profuse sweat and heavy breathing. Masturbation scenes leer at performers’ breast surgery scars. And then there’s the scene where Shim gores her captive victim with the points of her bullet bra like a charging bull. It’s all effortlessly punk-as-fuck, just as much as it is generally effortless. The gender dynamics subversion at the core of its eroticism is a huge part of that proto-punk energy, and I think it helped clarify exactly why roughies don’t usually appeal to me. I usually avoid the genre at all costs if I can help it, but find me another dirt-cheap novelty picture where women kick the shit out of men while modeling complicated underwear and I am there (especially if the men get to try on the underwear).

-Brandon Ledet

Reži (2019)

The basic premise of the low-budget Serbian indie Reži (also distributed as Love Cuts and Cutting Close) is an incredible hook: a teenage brat attempts to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend while also suffering a stab wound from a local gang. I was so sold on that logline that I dragged my decrepit body out to the very last programing slot at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, a brutally unforgiving condition to see any feature film. It’s unclear how much of my exhaustion during that screening was due to the film itself vs. its late-night position at the tail end of a full week of low-budget wonders (or, most likely, a combination of both). I did feel frustrated that it didn’t fully live up to the darkly comic mayhem promised by its central hook, though, as it’s ultimately a pretty good film that’s constantly on the verge of being great.

Kristina Jovanovic stars as Aja, a tiny blonde teen with the attitude of a knuckle-dragging biker. Her brattiness borders on abuse as she stalks her long-suffering boyfriend, shouts “What the fuck is wrong with you?” at her doting mother, and just generally fills the world with nothing but combative violence & homophobic slurs. When Aja’s shit-talking bestie, Maja, starts a fight with a local gang, our loudmouth antihero is unexpectedly stabbed in the gut with a switchblade while defending her honor. Pervesely, it’s almost a relief when she’s stabbed, as the first moments of quiet & calm don’t arrive until after that act of violence. Before the stabbing, Aja moves through the world as an abusive whirlwind, unable to even eat a sandwich without appearing to be in a rage. Afterwards, there’s a sweetness & vulnerability to her character that reluctantly bubbles to the surface as she asks herself “What is it about me that makes people want to stab me?” and “How can I work on that so I don’t get stabbed again?” The tragedy of the film is that this wounded self-reflection arrives a little too late, as she’s already kickstarted a chain reaction of escalating violence with its own self-propelling momentum.

Reži feels like it’s reaching for the kind of tenderness & humor against a backdrop of constant cruelty that’s achieved to much greater effect in films like Wetlands & Tangerine, only further proving how difficult of a tone that is to balance. The chaotic, handheld camerawork & absurd dismissal of how serious stab wounds are can be enrapturing in stops & starts, but I do feel like the film overplays its acidity to the point where it can’t ever be fully endearing. Jokes about how girlfriends be crazy, threats of sexual assault, and constant barrages of ableist & homophobic slurs sour the mood too much for the bittersweet counterbalance of its repentance & romance to fully break through. Still, even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds. I may have never fully lost myself in its romantic or self-improvement drama, but I was certainly impressed by its sneering attitude & wickedly dark sense of humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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An offscreen narrator beckons us into a black & white underworld like a carnie ushering rubes into a mysterious tent, “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word & the act.” Promises of a “salacious new breed” of women whose “very existence are synonymous with violence” are followed by typical Russ Meyer rapidfire images– gogo dancers filmed from empowering low angles, jukeboxes, spinning records, leering men shouting “Go, baby! Go!”, etc. As soon as half a minute into Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! you already get the distinct feeling that Russ Meyer has finally made his masterpiece, eleven films & six years into a bizarre career still with a long way to go, baby, go. It’s a jazzy, psychedelic vibe just as much as it is a feature film, a true work of art that somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a very simple example of the “roughie” picture Meyer had been more or less tooling with since he broke away from his Immoral Mr. Teas-imitating nudie cutie work & decided to get much, much darker in his cinematic hondoggery. With Lorna & Mudhoney, Meyer was on the verge of accomplishing something truly great within the roughie genre, but fell just short. Faster, Pussycat! is that greatness.

At the center of this greatness is three larger than life superwomen: Varla (a beyond real Tura Satana), Billie (newcomer Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji, who was the sole highlight of Meyer’s misogynistic abomination Motorpsycho!). Varla, described here as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron” is the undisputed leader of this girl gang & the undisputed highlight of the film. She runs a tight ship, leading her two cohorts to recklessly drive roadsters across a desert hellscape (Meyer’s specialty, because the perilous locations fondly reminded him of his life-threatening time spent as a WWII combat photographer) & torment any little pissant insects that have the misfortune to fall into her web along the way. While playing chicken & generally causing havoc, they encounter such insects in Linda (Sue Bernard, who is a literal baby) & her dumb-as-bricks beau Tommy (Ray Barlow). When challenged to a time trial race by Tommy, Varla barks “I don’t beat clocks, just people.” She follows up that promise by more or less karate chopping the schmuck to death while his girlfriend is held in captive horror. A lot of the dialogue in Faster, Pussycat! is delivered this way; one-liners are shouted atonally in an adversarial tone Meyer first struck in his near-likeable Mudhoney. Varla & her girls are more female impersonators than actual women, striking the image of exaggerated cartoon versions of violent femininity. When a still-alive Tommy offers Varla a soft-drink she retorts “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we like is hard!,” a line that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a drag show. It’s no wonder that this film turned a young weirdo John Waters into a lifelong Meyer fan.

After Tommy’s early demise, the girls move on to their next male targets: a physically crippled, thoroughly vile curmudgeon (played by a pitch perfect Stuart Lancaster) and his two sons: good cop & dumb cop (Paul Trinka & Dennis Busch, respectively). Varla & the gang arrive on the curmudgeon’s farm practically dragging the traumatized Linda by her hair and immediately start scheming to rob the three men blind. The evil, crippled paterfamilias, of course, has his own schemes, mostly involving unsavory activities targeted at the much younger, much freaked-out Linda. His youngest, simplest son is first depicted as a stuttering mess gently nuzzling a kitten, but is quickly revealed to be quite a threatening tool when manipulated by his old man. Not that any threat they could possibly pose as a pair could match the brute strength of the superhuman Varla, who always seems to be poised to take control of any situation through pure, unadulterated violence. The result of this cosy set-up is a tense, divided household. Two rival, isolated gangs grit their teeth in each other’s presence, aching for someone to make the first move so they can start to draw blood, a true testament to a war of the sexes vibe Meyer introduced to his work as early as Europe in the Raw & Lorna, a contentious atmosphere that would follow him through the end of his bizarre career.

Although Faster, Pussycat! is a brisk 83 minutes of carnage, it’s near-impossible to touch on everything that makes it great in a short-form review. Rapidfire sex jokes, transgressive (for its time) representations of homosexuality, stark black & white cinematography, incredible shots framed by flanking beautiful denim-clad rumps, a classically tragic/climactic bodycount that would make Hamlet sweat, every precious frame of Tura Satana’s performance as Varla, the list goes on. Faster, Pussycat! is the moment when the self-propelling rhythms and seething anger of Meyer’s work really start to take hold. It’s no wonder that Roger Ebert says of the film in his memoir Life Itself, “That was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer, and he was the same man who made The Immoral Mr Teas.” Meyer had arrived as an artist & his first significant work was a real doozy. There was a palpable violence to the film, especially in the scenes were Stuart Lancaster’s curmudgeon angrily mumbles to himself about passing trains and where Tura Satana manhandles underage actress Sue Bernard in a too-believable violent manner. When Linda pleads, “All I want to do is go home! Please let me go home!”, it may as well be Bernard pleading directly to Russ. There is real terror in her eyes.

Still, despite all of its brutality, the film has a compulsively fun vibe to it that makes it perfect fodder for midnight movie screenings & is a decidedly sexy picture solely to the credit of its three leads, given that there is no nudity & no fornication typical to a Meyer film (although it stops just short on both counts). All of this greatness came from a very simple idea: after filming a bunch of male brutes beating on women in the vile picture Motorpsycho!, Meyer thought, “Why don’t I have the women beat up men for a change?” Screenwriter Jack Moran (who had been with Meyer since the nudie cutie days of Erotica & Wild Gals of the Naked West) built a wonderfully strange, violently tense world from there & the rest is trash cinema history. It would be another five years or six pictures before Meyer could even come close to topping this achievement with the beyond-reason Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and some (not me) would contend that even that picture can’t match the lightning-in-a-bottle magic he captured in Pussycat!. The film is that remarkable.

-Brandon Ledet

Girlhood (2015)

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Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz.

That’s not to say that Girlhood is all grays, haze, and sadness. It certainly does have it’s . . . bright, shining moments. Specifically, the scene where the central gang is dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” alone in a fancy hotel room while sporting shoplifted dresses is a transcendent dream of a respite that briefly shakes the dull pastel voids of the movie’s housing projects in favor of an intense music video chic. In that moment it’s not at all difficult to see why the protagonist Marieme would choose gang life over her only other viable options: vocational school or a life of housekeeping. Besides the “Diamonds” scene & several other moments of otherworldly dance parties, Girlhood also shines in its opening sequence, in which two female football teams clash to the sounds of minimal synth in an oddly beautiful, but violent display that sets the tone for what’s to come. As the football match lets out, the girls roam in a cloud of raucous chatter.

These dreamlike escapes are always fleeting, though. The group gradually splinters & the scene shifts from an unbridled, decidedly feminine joy to a quietly fearful trip through a very literal, very dangerous-feeling male gaze. A lot of what lurks in Girlhood‘s pensive silence is an unspoken oppression & the threat of violence from the few men in Marieme’s life, particularly her older brother. Torn between fending for herself & protecting her younger siblings, Marieme finds herself in the vulnerable position of not qualifying for high school and decides, rather quickly, to trade in her makeshift football gang for a much more purposeful gang of loveable reprobates. It’s through the empowerment of her new crew that she builds the confidence to occupy traditionally male spaces: night time public streets, fistfights, sexual exploration, etc. The meek quiet of that opening football sequence is quickly supplanted by the rush of Marieme getting whatever she wants through brute force & the solidarity of her newfound sisterhood. The problem is that Marieme is too smart to play the girl gang game forever. As much fun as she has with the scene’s selfies & shoplifting, pocket knives & smart phones, she begins to plan for the future, which is about as dangerously unsure & open-ended in the film as it is in real life.

Much of the Girlhood‘s back half deliberately raises more questions than it dares to answer as its protagonist tries to figure out exactly who she is & what she wants. Due to an unfortunate (but perhaps intentional, marketing-wise) similarities in titles, Girlhood has of course suffered a lot of comparisons to Richard Linklater’s technically impressive, but (in this reviewer’s eyes) messy at best in practice Boyhood. Given Boyhood‘s never-ending need to wrap everything up tightly in a neat little package, the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches to capturing the essence of youth on film. Girlhood has no interest in telling a complete story, but rather indulges in soaking in the cold, grey pastels of a life drifting through housing projects and the inevitable doom of the pull between personal & familial obligations that poverty & shrinking options for escape can often inflict upon far too many young people. Girlhood’s disinterest in closure is a commendable impulse with thoroughly satisfying results, even if those results don’t include straight answers or an A to B narrative. It’s less of a complete story than it is a solemn mood piece, a melancholy tone poem with occasional dance breaks and much-needed gasps for air.

-Brandon Ledet