All Jacked Up and Full of Worms (2022)

Does sincerity have no place in low-budget genre trash these days?  Must all of our D.I.Y. practical-gore freakouts be buried under mile-high layers of ironic detachment and nostalgia for decades of horrors past?  I was really hoping the low-budget, psychedelic gore fest All Jacked Up and Full of Worms would live up to the gruesome glory of its title, and in some ways I guess it does.  It’s impressively revolting filth in fits & jabs, at least when it’s leaning into the visceral disgust of its wriggling worm imagery – which ranges from real-life worms squirming in cigarette ashtrays to gigantic, intestine-length latex monstrosities stretching across warehouse-scale movie studio voids.  It’s too bad all of that effort is undercut by its juvenile edgelord humor, though, as shock value topics like needle drugs, Satanic worship, and pedophilia are frequently mined for cheap, empty punchlines.  When you see a “Special Worm Effects By” credit in the opening scroll, you’re prepared for a Screaming Mad George-style descent into Hellish, surrealistic gore.  Instead, you get a movie custom made for middle schoolers to prank each other with as a sleepover dare.

Like this year’s much more sincere gross-out horror Swallowed, All Jacked Up is set in a fictional world where consuming worms—either orally or nasally in this case—creates a powerful psychedelic trip akin to an acid overdose.  These are just regular, everyday worms, as far as the audience can tell – a conceit that’s underlined by the repetition of the word “worms” in every single line of dialogue.  As it’s explained by a worms enthusiast, “There’s only one wrong way to do worms, man […] Not do worms!”  This is a pure drug-trip movie, with several loosely connected characters becoming increasingly manic under the worms’ influence.  I’d recount their exploits here if they were worth repeating, but they’re mostly just an improv comedy assemblage of self-amused bits that don’t translate outside the troupe.  The worm imagery is frequent & remarkably grotesque, but so are the purposeless, off-topic jokes about sexually assaulting babies.  Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste (or tastelessness), but I just wonder how much further this movie could push its discomforts if it were a sincere low-budget horror instead of an irony-poisoned horror comedy.

Anyway, if you really want to watch a retro, VHS-warped gross-out that’s overflowing with worms, you might as well watch the 1976 Tubi mainstay Squirm instead.  It’s not an especially great film either, but it’s at least a genuine one.  All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is a distinctly modern echo of that era’s pure-schlock filmmaking, mimicking long-outdated surface aesthetics instead of seeking genuine, of-the-moment terror.  It’s likely unfair of me to pin it under the full weight of modern horror’s weakness for ironic detachment & retro aesthetic worship, but it was also unfair of the movie to make me sit through so many schoolyard jokes about baby rape, so let’s call it even.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spine of Night (2021)

There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz.  That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional.  A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook.  If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over.  Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).

The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc.  I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s.  She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends.  At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.

I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production.  The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem.  There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process.  Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder.  There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo.  It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.

-Brandon Ledet

A Cat in the Brain (1990)

Both of Wes Craven’s mid-90s meta horrors—Scream & New Nightmare—are modern classics, but I personally find the philosophical crisis of his return to the Nightmare on Elm Street series to be the more rewarding of the pair.  While Scream amuses itself with cataloging & emulating the tropes of horror as a pop-art medium, New Nightmare genuinely grapples with the havoc horror wreaks on our minds & souls, digging much deeper than Scream‘s surface-level jolts of recognition & nostalgia.  For all of their slashings & bloodshed, the scariest moment in either film is when Craven appears onscreen as himself, tormented by the real-world evil he’s unleashed by creating the fictional character of Freddy Krueger.  It’s a jarring moment of self-reflection that helped spark an entire wave of self-aware slashers that defined mainstream horror that decade (most of them penned by Kevin Williamson, screenwriter for Scream).  Craven wasn’t the first master of horror to arrive attempt that particular hard stare into the mirror, though.  He was beaten to the punch by the much trashier & flashier schlockteur Lucio Fulci in his own 1990 meta-horror, A Cat in the Brain.

With A Cat in the Brain, Lucio Fulci stars in a Lucio Fulci film as “Lucio Fulci” — a horror director who’s tormented by the violence he’s depicted onscreen throughout his career, hallucinating flashes of gore while preparing meals and performing mundane household chores.  This torment only worsens once his therapist begins to use those gruesome images as inspiration for his own murders, intending to frame Fulci for real-life reenactments of fictional crimes.  A rare moment of introspection from the aging giallo legend, A Cat in the Brain is a really fun, chaotic self-reflection on how the brutality of the horror genre is often flippantly overlooked by cheap-thrill seekers but still takes a toll on our psyches (of which I’m just as guilty as Fulci).  We can’t fill our brains with images of chainsaw maniacs, squished eyeballs, cannibals, mutant ghouls, and decapitated children without them having some effect on our mental health.  Their immediate effect is an easy trigger for cathartic release, usually through laughter or disgust.  Here, Fulci frets over the possibility that there may be a morally, spiritually corrosive effect that lingers after that initial amusement . . . or at least he pretends to.

As much as A Cat in the Brain feels like a crude precursor to the philosophy-of-horror crisis Wes Craven would soon be working through in New Nightmare, it’s also just a convenient excuse for Fulci to let his bad taste run wild on a shoestring budget.  Firstly, he gets to indulge in the very thing he’s supposedly condemning, padding out the runtime between obligatory dialogue exchanges with as many gory vignettes as he can get away with while maintaining the vaguest outline of a plot.  He also comes up with a pretty great excuse not to go to therapy for his horrific preoccupations, positioning his therapist as the real sicko pervert and his own art as a safer, fantastic form of cathartic release.  Mostly, he’s engineered an even greater excuse to recycle gnarly gore gags from his own back catalog, “hallucinating” violent scenes from better-loved, better-funded Lucio Fulci movies as if they were specially produced for this late-career meta crisis.  A Cat in the Brain isn’t just Fulci’s rough prototype for Wes Craven’s meta-horror; it also doubles as a Greatest Hits montage of his own past triumphs.

If nothing else, you’ve gotta love Fulci for immediately delivering the violence promised by this film’s title in its opening credits, illustrating his thought process at his screenwriting desk with footage of the black cat inside his skull gnawing on the hamburger meat he calls a brain.  You also gotta love that he calls himself out for being an absolute freak, even if the resulting self-critique portrait of the maestro at work is entirely insincere.  When Wes Craven toyed with “the boundaries between reality & fantasy” in his 1990s meta-horrors, you could really tell he was taking the philosophy & cultural impact of his own work seriously as a subject.  By contrast, Fulci is just having self-indulgent fun, even outdoing Scream‘s nostalgic callbacks to classic horror tropes by showing actual clips from better movies of his own heyday.  His approach may not be as heartfelt or meaningful, but it’s still a sickly delight.

-Brandon Ledet

Hallucinations (1986)

As a fan of low-budget, over-the-top horror movies, I’m used to art I like being dismissed as frivolous, juvenile, and needlessly grotesque.  When it comes to an exquisitely styled wet nightmare from David Cronenberg or a tightly constructed splatstick comedy like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, that kind of snooty dismissal of practical-gore horror as a lower artform can be infuriating.  I cannot summon that same defensive fervor for 1986’s no-budget horror comedy Hallucinations, though.  It is exactly the frivolous, juvenile grotesquerie that better funded, more thoughtful pictures in its genre get dismissed as outright.  Not for nothing, it’s also a delight.

In Hallucinations, amateur gorehounds The Polonia Brothers stage a series of barely-connected gross-out gags in their mother’s suburban home.  The gangly twin teens are best known for their surprisingly successful video store novelty Splatter Farm, but this unassuming follow-up gets their lizard-brain appeal across just fine.  The plot is a direct echo of the production’s circumstances: three teenage boys are left home alone while their mother’s at work and “hallucinate” various goblins, ghouls, and gore gags.  Sometimes, their nightmare vignettes are adorably low-tech, like when a spooky monk figure seems to have traveled back in time into the frame from Matt Farley’s Druid Trilogy.  Elsewhere, their low-fi effect is genuinely horrific in its gross-out juvenile spirit, as when one of the brothers mysteriously shits an entire dagger(!!!) while the camera fixates on the resulting blood & viscera that collects in his tighty-whities.  It’s alternatingly cute & gnarly with no sense of control or rhythm to that tonal pendulum, and most of its momentum is in the dread of anticipating where it’s going next.

I have no real context for how typical Hallucinations is to the Polonia Brothers oeuvre, as I have yet to see Splatter Farm or any of their other classic-era dispatches from the Pennsylvanian suburbs.  This just happened to be the title from their catalog that’s currently free to stream on Tubi.  Between the chainsaws, the puke, the loving nods to Herschel Gordon Lewis, and the VHS camcorder patina, I’d say its place in the larger horror canon lands somewhere between Things (’89) & America’s Funniest Home Videos, with all the charm & limitations of both amplified a thousandfold.  More importantly, it’s a great opportunity to test the boundaries of your appreciation for practical-gore juvenilia.  The film reeks of a teen boy’s bedroom, from the monster doodles drawn in the margins of otherwise untouched school notebooks to the moldy pile of mysteriously “used” athletic socks.  If you have any stomach for this kind of for-their-own-sake practical gore showcases, here’s your chance to test out the claim that you have low-brow, undiscerning tastes.  In my case, guilty as charged.

-Brandon Ledet

Skull: The Mask (2021)

My biggest cinematic disappointment so far this year was the vulgar children’s horror comedy Psycho Goreman.  The novelty of an R-rated version of Power Rangers is something I would have drooled over as a shock comedy and monster movies obsessed ten-year-old, but the film’s So Random! sense of humor was too poisonously self-aware to land with me in my much more cynical thirties.  The practical gore effects of its various intergalactic monsters were fantastic, though, and I was frustrated that they weren’t deployed for a more sincere purpose.  I mention this because the Brazilian splatter horror Skull: The Mask is much closer to what I wanted out of Psycho Goreman: 80s-metal album cover badassery that keeps its winking-at-the-camera self-amusement to a respectable minimum. And yet I enjoyed it even less than PG.  I can’t say it was a bigger disappointment, since Skull: The Mask wasn’t hyped up nearly as much among friends & critics as one of the year’s shiniest genre gems, but it let me down in a very similar way: great effects wasted on a frivolous purpose.

To be fair, Skull: The Mask does at least take aim at a worthwhile political target (instead of just mining our nearly empty well of 90s retro nostalgia like Psycho Goreman).  It’s a film about colonialist museums claiming ownership over Indigenous people’s artifacts for the sake of their cultural prestige, removing them from their original, spiritual purpose.  In this case, that artifact is the titular mask: a ritualistic object that destroys the body of its wearer then transforms it into a vessel for a muscular, blood-spewing demon.  All of the kills are aces, featuring victims’ faces macheted in half, hearts ripped from their chests, intestines wrapped around their throats, and blood pouring from their eyes in impossible geysers of gore.  There just isn’t enough substance to the narrative tissue between those gross-outs to make the film feel worthwhile.  Even the initial excitement of watching colonialist museum collectors get their cosmic comeuppance fades as the film devolves into a go-nowhere police procedural investigating the grisly deaths as if their cause was a mystery.

There is so much I love about Skull: The Mask, at least in the abstract: galactic psychedelia, black magic rituals, lesbian goths, pro wrestling body slams, heavy metal gore, etc.  It’s a shame the movie is far too cheap and unfocused to stand out as anything exceptional despite all those individually badass details. It’s mostly recommendable as a practical effects showcase not as a Movie, which is starting to become a familiar kind of disappointment after recent genre titles on its budget level like Terrifier, The Void, and Aquaslash.  I wish I could promote it as a vital antidote to the irony-poisoned ROFLMFAO humor of Psycho Goreman, but it trips over itself in other ways despite that welcome tonal adjustment.  Psycho Goreman at least has an appeal as a primer for lifelong horror fandom among the kids who’ll manage to sneak it past their parents’ censorship filters.  By contrast, Skull: The Mask is only useful for its eventual YouTube gore reel, which will save you at least 90min of frustrating tedium.

-Brandon Ledet

Flesh Freaks (2000)

I’ve recently become enamored with the carefully curated Blu-ray releases of the Toronto-based Gold Ninja Video, which is positing itself as a boutique physical media label for low-end genre trash & D.I.Y. oddities. From bargain bin Brucesploitation titles like The Dragon Lives Again to backyard filmmaking curios like Impossible Horror to a Criterion Collection-level art cinema treatment for Matt Farley’s Local Legends (one of my favorite films of the 2010s), Gold Ninja Video has been consistently extraordinary in their dedication to unearth & uplift otherwise ignored castoffs from genre cinema’s furthest reaches. That impressive track record prompted me to take a chance on the label’s recent Blu-Ray release of Flesh Freaks, an amateur shot-on-video zombie flick from the late-VHS era. Flesh Freaks itself is—to put it mildly—not great, but when considered in the context of Gold Ninja’s catalog of discarded low-to-no-budget relics I do find it fascinating as a kind of historical document. This sub-professional, juvenile zombie flick is an artifact from a bygone era when that kind of novelty could land legitimate VHS rental store distribution instead of being directly uploaded into the digital void on platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. In the 2000s, Flesh Freaks qualified as a Real Move – one that even secured a Fangoria Magazine blurb on its Clip Art promotional poster. If released today, it’d be an easily ignorable YouTube preview window that remains forever unclicked.

The reason I’m dwelling on all this extratextual background info is that it’s far more fascinating than the actual onscreen content. When considered outside the context of its time or finances, Flesh Freaks is a dutifully mediocre zombie flick, one that’s only saved from total dead-air tedium by its spectacularly violent third act – a delightfully grotesque practical effects showcase (that unfortunately arrives too late to fully justify the long stretches of mediocrity that precedes it). The story goes that unscrupulous archeologists accidentally uncover an ancient curse from Mayan ruins in Belize, conjuring zombie-like creatures who slay everyone at their dig site – except one lone survivor. Once home at the University of Toronto, the survivor struggles to explain the horrors he encountered in Belize to his impatient, curious friends. He also—shocker—has carried the Mayan zombie curse back with him, unwittingly unleashing a full-scale outbreak on his college campus. This Torontonian back half of the film is both more fun to watch and more technically accomplished than the opening stretch in Belize. Yet, the film dwells on its Belizean travelogue opening for as long as it can manage, emphasizing its importance so drastically that the film feels rigidly bifurcated between the two settings (rather than the Central American portion functioning as a place-setting flashback the way it’s intended). It turns out that, like all things in Flesh Freaks, that decision is much more forgivable & interesting when considered in the context of how the film was produced & distributed.

Flesh Freaks is the passion project of Torontonian horror nerd Conall Pendergast, made when he was still a pimply teen. Pendergast stars in the film himself as the contaminated traveler, of course, which is the tell-tale sign of a young aspiring filmmaker playing around with a decent camera for the first time (usually out of financial necessity). He first conceived of the project while traveling with his archeologist parents to their actual dig site in Belize. Bored and isolated in a remote, foreign location, Pendergast made the shrewd decision to utilize his stunning deep-jungle surroundings as easy production value for a Real Movie. Only, his zombie-outbreak footage merely amounted to a mediocre short film, one that would need to be heavily embellished to approach the length of a proper feature. Once Pendergast got around to assembling this “extra” footage back at the University of Toronto, he had more time, experience, resources, and collaborators at this disposal – resulting in much stronger, more distinct work despite the pedestrian locale. As a result, it’s the Belize travelogue footage that registers as the film’s runtime-padding, not its college campus epilogue. By the time Flesh Freaks stages its handmade gore spectacle in its climactic final minutes it feels like the emergence of a fully formed filmmaker, one we’ve been watching gradually evolve out of the shot-on-video ooze the entire film. While most bored teenagers were playing video games and spending their pocket change on ditch weed, Conall Pendergast made a Real Movie, one with distribution that reached far beyond his local social circle. That is in itself a genre cinema miracle, even if the actual film is a standard, paint-by-numbers zombie cheapie.

Since Flesh Freaks is more substantive as a cultural artifact than it is as a feature film, its recent Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video is still a recommendable purchase for curious genre nerds even if the movie’s reviews are generally unenthusiastic. All the context required to consider the film as a fascinating, unearthed relic is easily accessible in the disc’s overloaded special features. Deleted scenes, filmmaker introductions, commentaries, essays, as well as bonus feature films & shorts from Pendergast are all included on the disc. It’s as if this were Criterion reviving some long-lost Bergman classic instead of a small indie label publishing heavily padded excerpts from a nu-metal era horror nerd’s vacation footage. There are some beautifully sculpted D.I.Y. creations in the film’s zombie-swarmed climax, but for the most part Flesh Freaks is nothing especially remarkable when considered on its own. If anything, it’s the kind of movie you’d usually pick out at random on Amazon Prime only to bail five minutes in for a more promising option. Gold Ninja Video doing the work to highlight why it’s important & exemplary of its era is the real story here. They did a great job uncovering this lost artifact.

-Brandon Ledet

Terrifier (2018)

When reviewing modern, cheap-o horror films, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the practical effects of yesteryear and how much has been lost since the genre has slipped into excessive reliance on CGI. Every now & then a film like The Predator or The Void will remind me that practical gore effects wizardry is not all that’s required to pull off an entertaining horror movie, that those foundational techniques must be deployed in service of a worthwhile creative project. This year’s clown-themed microbudget gore fest Terrifier was my latest nostalgia check in this regard, and perhaps the most significant one of my lifetime. The film’s director, Damien Leone, is an exceptionally talented practical effects nerd who knows how to make the gore makeup trickery of horror past sing beautifully on the screen. Unfortunately, his gross-out gore effects wizardry is wasted on a creatively, morally defunct project unworthy of his artistry. Early in Terrifier I was delighted by the reminder of just how far practical effects craftsmanship can carry even the cheapest, flimsiest of genre fare. However, another reminder crept up in its interminable 80min runtime: the oft-repeated epiphany that the virtue of gore & sinew has its own limitations, that my nostalgia for this artistry should be kept in check.

Terrifier doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, nor does it even really have a premise. The film is mostly built around a character—a murderous antagonist, Art the Clown. Unlike other recent, superior killer clown movies like Clown or IT, the film’s setting & themes do very little legwork to justify why its killer is dressed as a clown; he just does so because clowns are creepy. That justification is initially more than enough, as Art the Clown’s basic design, fashion, and demeanor are so absurdly horrific that the film more than earns the indulgence. His old-timey black & white mime drag makes him feel like an ancient, supernatural Evil. His mugging, toothy smile reveals blood-gushing gum rot. He carries around a black plastic garbage bag of torture instruments like a dumpster-dwelling magician – tools he uses to pull of such clownish pranks as sawing women in half, converting severed heads into bloody jack-o-lanterns, and writing his own name in shit. Art the Clown is a wonderfully terrifying creation that is almost so deeply horrifying that he inspires laughter instead of screams, just in admiration for the audacity. The visual artistry of that character is so on point that the microbudget, amateurly rendered world he invades functions only to accentuate the achievement; he obviously belongs in a better movie, something that only becomes more apparent as he selects & dismembers his victims.

Where Terrifer loses me is in its gleefully cruel indulgence in misogyny, which often manifests as an open mockery of women. It’s a gradual ramping-up of gendered condescension that starts subtly enough with digs against the vanity of social media selfies, the vapidity of “sexy” Halloween costumes, and the archetypal characterization of college-age women as drunken, reckless flirts. Along with the exponential trajectory of the gore, these misogynist touches only worsen as the film goes along, until Art the Clown is mutilating women’s genitals at length in torture porn excess and, arguably worse, wearing their body parts as costumes to mince around in mockery of his victims’ femme demeanor. These are despicable acts perpetrated by a serial killer clown, so they might be justifiable in a depiction-does-not-equal-endorsement argument, but the movie lays no foundational support to offer context or meaning to the cruelty. Since there is no thematic texture to Terrifier beyond “Killer clown tortures hot naked women on Halloween night,” the torture & mockery of women becomes the entire substance of the text. Horror has already seen more than enough condescension, objectification, and destruction of women for this continuation to serve any purpose beyond meaningless cruelty, and it’s a shame that’s the effect all the film’s phenomenal practical-gore craftsmanship was sunk into.

Terrifier is an excellent gore & makeup effects showcase, but ultimately too dumb & too empty to get away with being this cruel. I’d totally be down for this microbudget backyard gore fest aesthetic if it were either fun or purposeful, but at some point the torture-porn wallowing & open mockery of women crossed a line for me and it just became miserable to sit through. This is a great business card for Damien Leone as a makeup effects artist, but as a film it’s a total disappointment. It’s only useful for its illustration of the limitation of practical effects craftsmanship, which can only get you so far without a sense of purpose to guide it.

-Brandon Ledet

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

From Beyond (1986)

Despite my lifelong obsessiveness as a horror fan, I have several personal taste hang-ups with a few directors considered to be the titans of the genre that I cannot explain, but cause me great shame. I cannot put into words, for instance, why 80s splatter mayhem excites me to no end when Peter Jackson’s behind the camera, but I’m not at all amused by tonally similar work from Sam Raimi. There’s no accounting for why the works of George A. Romero tend to bore me, but I have deep love & appreciation for the gore hound & social critic devotees that followed in his footsteps. I’m not at all proud of these “I don’t get it” reactions to a select few horror greats, but I do have to admit that Stuart Gordon is among the spooky titans whose appeal escapees me. I can laugh & swoon over the misshapen oeuvre of a Brian Yuzna or a Frank Henenlotter without ever tiring of their cartoonishly juvenile sex & violence, but Gordon’s own additions to that exact aesthetic, most notably the Re-Animator series, has always left me cold (except maybe in the case of Dolls, which feels more like a Charles Band production than a standard Gordon film). As I’d obviously much rather enjoy his work than decry it, I recently sought out Gordon’s surrealist, Lovecraftian horror From Beyond (made largely with the same cast & crew as Re-Animator) in hopes of finding something that would finally clue me in on what makes him so beloved. It was only a moderate success.

Produced by Yuzna and starring returning Re-Animator players Jeffery Combs & Barbara Crampton, From Beyond follows a classic HP Lovecraft/”The King in Yellow” plot about people who get too curious about supernatural forces and are subsequently driven mad by their experiences with a realm beyond normal human comprehension. A scientist is accidentally killed and his assistant is driven mad by an invention known as The Resonator. Through a series of intense purple lights and bizarre sounds, The Resonator is a machine that “accesses the imperceptible,” syncing up what we understand to be the world with an entirely different dimension of invisible threats & dangerous sensations. The mental capacity to access this invisible world is linked to schizophrenia and the pineal gland (which protrudes & throbs at the skull walls of characters’ foreheads like a tongue pressing against the inside of a cheek), but its ramifications extend far beyond our understanding of science. Invisible sensations (later echoed in titles like Final Destination & The Happening) terrorize the film’s characters as The Resonator’s immeasurable effect introduces them to Lovecraftian tentacle monsters & increases their desire for kinky, transgressive sex. Even in scrawling this plot description at this very moment, I’m shocked that From Beyond wasn’t instantly one of my all-time favorite films. Assuming I would’ve loved this exact setup with the touch of a Cronenberg or a Ken Russell behind the camera, I have to assume it’s Stuart Gordon himself who’s holding its potential back.

The major letdown of From Beyond is that for a movie about unlocking a sinister realm of infinite possibilities, the places it chooses to go are disappointingly unimaginative. On a visual craft level, I’m wholly in love with the film’s D.I.Y. feats in practical effects mindfuckery. The soft, shifting flesh of the film’s oversexed, inhuman tentacle monsters from another dimension are deserving of audiences’ full attention & awe. The story told around those creations is disappointingly limited in its juvenile white boy masculinity, however, which makes me wonder if you have to be a preteen horror nerd when you experience Gordon’s work for the first time to fully appreciate him as an auteur. Of the four main victims to The Resonator, it’s the two white men who most fully experience its mindbending wrath and transform into surreal monstrosities. The remaining two victims, The Black Man and The Woman, are treated with a much more limited imagination. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree’s character as “Bubba” Brownlee (even that name, ugh) is an ex-athlete bodyguard who throws out lines like “I know this behavior. I’ve seen it in the streets” in reference to Resonator addiction. His being locked out of the machine’s more extreme effects is disappointing, but what’s even worse is the way Barbara Crampton is immediately sexually violated in her first monster encounter, then asked to sexily model fetish gear. She also never fully devolves into the pineal gland demon her male colleagues transcend to despite her equal exposure to The Resonator. This should be a movie about an endless galaxy of cerebral terrors, but instead it’s mostly about impotence & other sexual hang-ups of white men in power, which is disappointingly reductive at best.

I can see so much DNA from some of my favorite horror titles seeping in at From Beyond’s fringes (Society, Slither, Videodrome, etc.) that it’s a huge letdown that the film is ultimately just Passably Entertaining. The feats of practical effects gore are impressive enough that I enjoyed the film more than Re-Animator’s more minor pleasures, but that isn’t saying much. There’s a violent, over-the-top goofiness to Gordon’s work that I appreciate in the abstract, but he’s so unselfaware about the unimaginative cruelty in the way he treats certain characters (especially women & PoC) that stop me short of heaping on praise. I might have been a lot less critical of it had I seen it for the first time as a kid, but I can’t help but find it a gross letdown now, especially since the infinite possibilities of its premise should have opened it up to so much  more. Then again, this all might just be a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for that.

-Brandon Ledet

The Void (2017)

I often tout the importance of practical effects in genre filmmaking, even claiming that it saves otherwise dire tongue-in-cheek properties like Zombeavers and Stung from total tedium. The recent horror fantasy picture The Void made me question that devotion to my practical-effects-above-all-else ethos. At every turn, The Void disappoints as a feature film & a genre exercise, except that its classic, tactile 80s gore is gorgeous to behold. I left the film positive overall due to its visual artistry, but just barely. I was so close to souring on The Void from a scene to scene basis that I almost wish I had watched the movie on mute while folding the laundry & making phone calls. It was only worthwhile for its imagery.

A sort of Stranger Things cocktail of 80s-specific genre nostalgia, The Void stages a John Carpenter-style single location thriller at a small town hospital and tortures its characters within by way of a Clive Barker-style threat of otherworldly hedonism. Every character bottled up in this promising, go-nowhere plot can be boiled down to a single defining characteristic: The Cop, The Pregnant One, The Old Timer, etc. Their flat, emotionless line delivery, snarky post-Joss Whedon riffing, and dispiriting lack of character depth made me expect a twist that never came where the hospital setting would be exposed as an artificial environment, like in Southbound or Cabin in the Woods. No such luck. The only thing that opens up their hospital-set imprisonment is that one of them is some kind of occultist figurehead with access to hideous, beastly mutations and a titular realm of otherworldly horrors. Instead of playing like a threat, though, this villain is the audience’s only salvation from a bland group of inhuman forgettables, more of whom survive than I would have liked.

As bland as The Void is to listen to & absorb on a narrative level, it sure is pretty to gander at. It’s got everything: the impossible to define monstrosities of The Thing, the triangle-reverent mysticism of Beyond the Black Rainbow, the wooded threat of The Witch, the heavy metal hellscapes of Thor 2: The Dark World, the home invasion brutes of You’re Next, the personal nightmare visualizations of Event Horizon (just without the pesky outer space setting classing up the joint), etc. Just about the only thing The Void doesn’t have is an original bone in its body, getting by mostly as a Frankenfilm composed entirely from pieces-parts of horror cinema past. I frequently didn’t care about that nostalgia-baiting nature of the imagery, though, especially when it came to the Cronenbergian creature designs & Hellraiser 2: Hellbound visage of exposed muscle & nerve. The Void may borrow heavily from seemingly every movie that came before it, the reference points that comprise its feature length mixtape aren’t the easiest visual feats to pull off and the film ultimately gets by on the strength of its grotesque visual artistry, even if just barely.

I usually don’t require much, if any, verisimilitude from my practical effects-heavy gore fests about mutant beasts & alternate dimensions, but something about The Void’s detachment from reality bothered me. When an in-over-his-head sheriff from a small industrial town sees someone he’s presumably known his entire life shave off their own face & melt into an alien-looking creature, I expect at least a little bit of an emotional freakout, if not a violent puking & fainting combo. Since The Void is disinterested in that kind of recognizable humanity, its best bet would’ve been a reason or explanation why everyone was acting so oddly, even if a comically outlandish, campy one. As is, the human interactions feel like dead space placeholders between the film’s admittedly righteous horror film homages to past practical effects monstrosities. These visual achievements were enough on their own to make the film feel at least worthwhile, but not nearly enough to elicit any kind of genuine enthusiasm. If the characters within the film don’t care all that much about having their ranks torn apart by mutated beasts, why should I?

-Brandon Ledet