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

We Are the Flesh (2017)

As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.

While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.

Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.

I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.

I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #27 of The Swampflix Podcast: Beyond Society – Brian Yuzna’s Collabs With Screaming Mad George & Blood Diner (1987)

Welcome to Episode #27 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-seventh episode, Brandon makes James watch the blood-soaked horror comedy Blood Diner (1987) for the first time. Also, James & Brandon discuss all ten collaborations between director Brian Yuzna & “surrealistic” special effects master Screaming Mad George, the monstrous creative team behind the horror classic Society (1992). Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Raw (2017)

2017 is turning out to be a banner year for horror. After the absolutely stunning Get Out, which was so richly steeped in both metaphor and lived experience, Julia Ducournau’s beautiful and haunting Raw has just hit American audiences like a ton of bricks, or buckets of grue dropped from a great height. It’s a well-worn topic of discussion within the intersection of horror fandom and social criticism that the monsters that we create are reflective of our political climate: zombie movies are more popular during republican presidencies, while vampire films abound during democratic ones. The conclusions drawn from this generally tend to focus on how zombies (rampantly consumerist, at least in Romero’s films; horde-like; unthinking in their consumption; mindless and easily led) represent progressive view of conservatives, while vampires (often foreign, sexually deviant, parasitic) represent the conservative view of progressives. It annoys me that Raw is already identified as a “cannibal movie” in much of the press since that spoils so much of the surprise, but the cat’s out of the bag now; on this political spectrum, I’m not sure where films about cannibalism lie, especially when we’re seeing great zombie flicks coming out of Asia (like Train to Busan) and Raw itself is a Belgian/French co-production.

Raw follows the arrival of new vet student Justine (Garance Marillier) at her parents’ alma mater, where her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already an upperclassman. Awoken on her first night by gay roommate Adrien (Raba Nait Oufella), Justine is taken through the first in a series of hazing rituals, which ends with the lifelong vegetarian being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Unexpectedly, this awakens a ravenous hunger in her for meat, of increasingly exotic kinds. This is all paired with the other things that young women often go through: sexual lusts, falling for a gay best friend, and finding out more about yourself than you ever really wanted.

To say more would give away too much of what makes this film such a delightful (if stomach-churning) experience, but I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called the film “Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,” which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.

I’m not usually averse to spoiling the films that I review, but I’ll say no more about Raw, because this film demands to be seen, especially on the big screen. If you’re fortunate enough to have a screening near you, waste not a minute more: go see this movie tonight before someone spoils it for you. In my review of my favorite films of 2016, I mentioned that I was left unsatisfied by The Neon Demon; this is the film I wanted The Neon Demon to be. Go see it. Go now!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Dentist (1996) and Brian Yuzna’s Search for His Very Own Horror Franchise

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One of the few minor details that bugged me about Brian Yuzna’s otherwise satisfying class politics body horror Society was that it left its abrupt conclusion open for a sequel instead of chasing a more logical narrative end. It’s now been over two decades since Society‘s initial release and, although the idea of expanding the original film’s scope to include other shunting-obsessed wealthy circles like Hollywood or Washington DC sounds promising, there still has yet to be a proper sequel. Leaving Society open in that way, then, has only weakened its own fortitude as a standalone film. Yuzna would have to look elsewhere to establish a horror franchise all of his own the way Nightmare on Elm Street is closely associated with Wes Craven and Alien is associated with Ridley Scott. Yuzna directed two Re-Animator sequels, Bride of Re-Animator & Beyond Re-Animator, and served as a producer on the first, but that series truly belongs to Stuart Gordon. He also directed two sequels for the Christmas-themed slasher series Silent Night, Deadly Night, but that franchise is way too loose & haphazard to claim an authorial voice. Brian Yuzna’s very own horror franchise wouldn’t be found in completing works others had started, but in staking his own ground as the director of both The Dentist (1996) & The Dentist 2 (1998). The Dentist may not have the cult classic staying power of Society as a continually referenced horror work, but its effect is just as equally, brutally fucked up, and it’s easy to see how a single madman could be responsible for both acts of cinematic sadism.

Usually when you rewatch a movie that scared you as a kid, it turns out that it wasn’t so traumatizing after all. That wasn’t my experience with Yuzna’s 1996 body horror slasher The Dentist. If anything, The Dentist felt ten times more nightmarish than it did to me as a kid on this most recent watch. It’s a deeply, almost unforgivably upsetting work, playing as if the shunting sequence from Society were stretched out to feature length instead of capping off an otherwise conventional late 80s horror. Co-written by Yuzna & Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon, The Dentist stars Corbin Bernsen as a killer dentist eventually known as Dr. Caine, who on the surface wouldn’t be all that different from any other cliché of a refined sadist who listens to classical music while slaying/mutilating his victims, except that he hurts them through the delicate nerve centers of their mouths. Some people have a difficult time stomaching on-screen violence directed towards eyeballs or fingernails or groins or any number of specific locations on the body because of a physical aversion to witnessing its depiction. I’m that way with dental-themed gore. The visual of a tooth being pulled or a tongue being split physically hurts me every time, so The Dentist wouldn’t have to do much to make me sweat in fear & anxiety. In fact, it’s likely that catching this film on HBO at a young age is partly why I’m that particular kind of squeamish in the first place. With the first The Dentist film, however, Yuzna & Gordon found a way to make the premise even creepier by aligning the audience POV with the mind of the deranged killer who would inflict that kind of pain in the first place. It is, on every conceivable level, a deeply uncomfortable experience.

In what’s essentially a slasher film take on Falling Down, The Dentist aligns the audience’s perspective with that of a hateful, Conservative monster who has a total meltdown once his marriage starts to fall apart. After wrestling with paranoid suspicions that his wife is sleeping with the pool boy, Dr. Caine does some sleuthing & catches the two lovers in the act (on their anniversary, no less) and suffers a full-blown psychotic break. In his pitch black misogynist fantasy, he confronts the pair mid-fellatio and forces his wife to bite the pool boy’s cock at gunpoint in a moment to so hateful against women as a species it would make even Russ Meyer blush. This is the exact seething anger lens we see the world through in this film. We already know Dr. Caine is evil because he fantasizes about hurting his own wife and obsesses over the state of every one he meets’ teeth, but even that isn’t enough for Yuzna, who doesn’t traffic in subtlety. Enraged by the witnessed infidelity, Dr. Caine shoots a dog out of spite, goes to work at his dental practice to mutilate multiple victims (mostly women & children) during sadistic oral procedures, and eventually cuts out his own wife’s tongue as a gift on their big anniversary date. It’s deeply, spiritually upsetting stuff, misanthropic violence paired with creepy internal monologues about how, “Nothing, no matter how good or pure is free of decay. Once the decay gets started, it can only lead to rot, filth, and corruption.” Divorced from Dr. Caine’s hateful paranoia about a “lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene” and his personal hangups about how sex = filth, The Dentist is still a horror show. In close-up, medical detail, gums are punctured by hooked teeth scrapers, teeth are violently yanked from their grooves, tongues are stabbed with high-pitched drills, molars are ground into white powder, etc. Yuzna shoots these nightmare visuals through an unflinching fish-eye lens, something usually reserved for a children’s Saturday morning TV show, a music video, or a comedy, but it’s impossible to take the gore lightly. Still, it’s in marrying that visual terror to an even uglier, more difficult to stomach world view and never allowing a second of escape from either that Yuzna found a way to sustain the abject disgust of Society‘s shunting sequence for the entirety of a feature film.

The Dentist 2 (1998) would not be able to repeat that trick. Leaving behind the philosophical monologues on tooth & soul decay that made the first one so especially unnerving, this sequel follows the same pattern of a lot of horror follow-ups and focuses instead on increasing the gore. Yuzna even brings in Society collaborator Screaming Mad George to contribute to the film’s horrific special effects (one of ten shared projects between the two sick bastards), tipping his hat to the fact that gore had become a priority over writing. Escaping from the pristine, dream space psych ward where he had been locked up at the conclusion of the first film, Dr. Caine hides under a false identity in a small, isolated town where he’s now the only qualified dentist (after brutally murdering the one already operating there, of course). The first The Dentist film already stretches audience belief of how long Dr. Caine could possibly get away with killing & mutilating patients before being stopped either by law or by mob rule, but the second one really has no concern for anything resembling reality. The plot isn’t anything to speak of, other than that the dentist is made to feel jealous by a new woman’s sexual desires in a new locale while his mutilated wife from the first film hires a PI to track down his whereabouts. Instead of philosophical diatribes about filth & decay, the film signifies its killer’s murderous insanity through his constant hallucinations of rotting teeth, roaches crawling in his parents’ mouths, and non-existent demons with cartoonishly long tongues (who would’ve fit right in with members of Society). Dr. Caine periodically cuts his arm to relieve these hallucinations, at one point giving himself a crimson mask once they become unbearable in their persistence. There are a couple noteworthy moments, like Dr. Caine joking that “Pulling teeth is like, well, pulling teeth!” during an interrogation, a single-scene cameo from Clint Howard, and the wife from the first film finger fucking the dentist’s mouth to tease out his tongue for a fitting act of revenge, but for the most part The Dentist 2 is all gore! gore! gore! And you know what? It kinda works. I was sweating in fear during the oral horror scenes as much in the sequel as I was with the first film, despite logically knowing that it was a desperately inferior work.

Diminishing returns and forgotten thematic nuance is a large part of the nature of horror franchises as an art form, though, and it’s fitting that Brian Yuzna’s only franchise all to his own got to see that roundabout way of success. The Dentist 2 left its conclusion just as open-ended as Society‘s for a sequel that likewise never came, but Yuzna had already succeeded in scoring his very own franchise just by getting two films deeo. You can feel it as soon as Dr. Caine delivers the first film’s declaration, “I am the instrument of hygiene, the enemy of decay and corruption, The Dentist. And I have a lot of work to do.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Dentist has been treated with the same cult classic longevity as Society, a film it rivals at the very least in pure shock value. It’s so overlooked that its entire “Production History” section on Wikipedia reads, “The Dentist was shot in Los Angeles in a residential home.” That can always change, though. Maybe Society‘s Trump-era cultural resurgence will inspire more people to look back to The Dentist the way I just have or maybe people will dig up the first one just to see Baby Mark Ruffalo make an appearance in a few brief scenes. Either way, whether it remains obscure or not, Brian Yuzna has succeeded in creating a horror franchise in the way Society never became. It’s a damn disturbing one too.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990), and last week’s celebration of minor scream queen Heidi Kozak.

-Brandon Ledet