Episode #13 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Flesh Eaters (1964) & the Dual Franchises of The Fly

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Welcome to Episode #13 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seemingly doomed, much-delayed thirteenth episode, Brandon discusses all five entries in the 1950s & 80s versions of The Fly with Wisconsin-based critic Dustin Koski. Also, Brandon makes special newcomer co-host Bill Arceneaux watch the early gore horror landmark The Flesh Eaters (1964) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Gin Mittens.

-Brandon Ledet & Bill Arceneaux

Baskin (2016)

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twostar

The Turkish horror film Baskin knows how to craft a disturbing image & a depraved scenario, but is that enough of a foundation for an entire feature film? Without much of a story to tell the production winds up feeling like an HD home video of a trip to a haunted house, not at all like a narrative feature. This problem is further compounded when you’re forced to carpool to said haunted house with a gang of overgrown dude bro bully cops. The five interchangeable police officers who are tortured & destroyed by Baskin’s haunted house creations aren’t necessarily portrayed as sympathetic. In fact, they’re quite despicably abusive. However, after long enough exposure to their shitty macho jokes about bestiality & trans sex workers the film starts to take on the same one-of-the-guys locker room vibes that sunk the similarly visually-promising Witchin’ & Bitchin’. The characters are just as repugnant as they are uninteresting, but the film seems to think hanging out with them is enough of a narrative lead-up for a trip to a haunted house full of Hellish freaks when the truth is it makes the whole enterprise feel like a waste of time. There’s nothing accomplished in Baskin that couldn’t be conveyed in a still image, which is a huge problem.

The cocktail napkin plot sends the cops on a call to a remote, out of the city area, where they encounter some demonic, Event Horizon type shit, essentially entering the gates of Hell by careless mistake. The vile imagery of their Hell on Earth experience can range from beautiful (including a heavenly shot of God-sized hands plunging into water to save a drowning man, recalling the German Expressionist horror The Hands of Orlac) to despicable (eye-gouging & rape). The film tries to tack on a meaning in the depravity with some kind of Martyrs-esque philosophy about the spiritual transcendence of extreme pain, but it’s all very vague & never registers as anything more than aimlessly grotesque. Baskin is obviously proud of the demons & demonic lairs it built for the production by hand & those details indeed look great, but I get the feeling they’d be better experienced at a GWAR concert or an off-the-highway, Halloween season attraction in a warehouse. There’s not enough narrative or tonal effort here to justify a feature length film experience.

That’s not to say that the film can’t be scary. Baskin finds terror in simple, straightforward imagery. Its stark lighting & disembodied hands call back to the best of the giallo genre. Its flashlight-driven haunted house aesthetic reminds me of long gone teenage years of “urban exploring” in locations like abandoned pools & hospitals. There’s some interesting dialogue in the last act about how “you can carry Hell with you at all times; you can carry it inside you” and the film’s overall conceit about literally entering Hell opens it up to some sublimely surreal moments. There’s just not enough going on here to make its overall nastiness & cruelty worthwhile. After watching this year’s horror anthology Southbound achieve the same pull-the-rug-from-under-you terror of an unexpected trip to Hell, Baskin fails while reaching for (and without matching its grotesque cruelty for easy discomfort), this film feels more than a little useless.

There’s enough imagery in Baskin to promise that first time director Can Evernol might make some truly memorable horror pictures down the line, but that imagery is much better enjoyed as a scroll through Google image search results than as a painful 100 minute struggle through toxic bully personalities, dead still pacing, and demonic sexual assault. And if he never masters the craft of cinema, he at least has a future in the seasonal work of constructing haunted houses. Baskin isn’t successful as a feature film, but it’d make for a killer resume for that line of work.

-Brandon Ledet

Clown (2016)

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fourstar

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The current era of straight to VOD horror pictures might be too varied & too widespread to command any particular unified aesthetic, but that wasn’t true when horror cheapies were going straight to VHS. The (thankfully hands-off) Eli Roth production Clown seems to call back to a very specific time in 90s VHS horror filmmaking when names like Clive Barker, Lloyd Kaufman, and Charles Band ruled the less than prestigious landscape. Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product.

One of Clown’s greatest attributes is its patience in slowly ratcheting up the insanity levels of its over-the-top horror premise. Set in an alternate universe where children in the 2010s get super excited about birthday clowns, a selfish business dad attempts to make good by dressing as a clown for his child’s birthday party once the hired entertainment drops out. His fatal mistake is in donning a cursed clown costume with thousands of years of demonic baggage (it could happen to anyone) that completely ruins his fun, spontaneous act of self-effacing generosity by morphing him into a reluctant serial murderer . . . of children. His transformation from milquetoast real estate agent to voracious, child-eating demon is gradual, manifesting in distinct stages. At first, he cannot remove the clown uniform he wears to the child’s party, with even the false nose & wig not budging with the help of power tools. Next he falls ill, coughing up projectile vomit, and becoming as pale as clown makeup. Finally, he transforms into his true self: a gigantic, child-eating beast tied to an ancient legend that requires him to eat a very specific number of children to break the curse. This slow rollout of body horror recalls past transformation pictures like Cronenberg’s The Fly & James Gunn’s Slither, except with a much cheaper budget for its Rick Baker-reverent effects & hideous, child-destroying gore.

I’m emphasizing the horrifically young age of Clown’s victims here, because it really is a big deal. Many horror films will tease children in peril for easy shock value, but few actually dare to go there, since it’s such a sensitive subject. Think, for instance, of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The film’s villain, Freddy Krueger, is explained to be a child molester & murderer, but in the actual movies he kills teenagers instead of children, which is a much easier age range of slasher victims for audiences to stomach. Clown gleefully crosses that line, leaving a disturbing aftertaste as it seems to find delight in its titular monster devouring young tykes for sustenance. This not only affords the film a kind of odd, transgressive edge; it also adds a real sense of danger to scenarios where the clown is lurking in a playground ball pit or telling young child, “I wanna see my #1 birthday boy.” In any other horror film you’d expect a relief in the promise that the film will likely let the kid off the hook. Here, the danger is not only made to feel real, it’s also made to be humorous, which is all the more disturbing.

There are a few hyperbolic ways to describe Clown that might oversell its charms. I could comfortably say it’s a lowkey retooling of Cronenberg’s The Fly or that its titular demon makes Pennywise look like Ronald McDonald, but I feel like those takes would be slightly misrepresentative of its basic aesthetic. There’s an essential cheapness to Clown that recalls projects the Masters of Horror anthology series or maybe late era Hellraiser sequels and you have to be at least somewhat down with that production level as a genre fan to get on the film’s wavelength. That being said, I do feel like Clown has undeniable flashes of brilliance, especially noticeable in the scenes where our poor, repentant, child killing clown attempts & fails to commit suicide in increasingly ridiculous ways to stop the horror (attempts that only end in goofy colors of blood splatter) and in an opening credits sequence where children’s birthday party screams are overlaid on top of otherwise innocuous cartoon clown imagery. The film is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its particular aesthetic.

If you like trashy, throwaway horror pictures that mix black soul cruelty with incongruous humor, you might fall in love with the oddly campy discomfort Clown commands. Otherwise, maybe stick to the year’s artier horror offerings like The Neon Demon or The Witch. There have been enough great examples of those that you don’t need to catch this one if you’re not interested in its very specific, flippantly grotesque humor & tone.

-Brandon Ledet

The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence (2015)

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halfstar

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I’m calling it now, folks. The Human Centipede 3 is the single least enjoyable motion picture I’ve ever seen in my life. I pray that never changes. This is a franchise that’s been known for its vile, misanthropic humor & shameless navel-gazing since its meme-like inception in the late 2000s, but I’ll admit to actually enjoying the first couple titles in what’s likely to remain cinema’s least prestigious trilogy of all time. Unfortunately for my eyes (but perhaps fortunately for my soul), I could not carry that mild enthusiasm into the third and, as the merciful title promises, hopefully final work.

I assume most people who would bother reading this review in the first place would be fully aware of the franchise’s central conceit, so I’ll do my best to spare you the (literally) shitty details here. Instead, here’s a brief overview of its, um, artistic trajectory. First Sequence, released wide in 2010, boasted the tagline “100% medically accurate.” In a way, it’s difficult to argue the point. It’s a small, quiet torture porn horror where the titular poop-eating science experiment fails immediately & miserably due to infection, as any reasonable person would expect. 2012’s Full Sequence upped the ante significantly & almost retroactively made its comparatively dull predecessor a joy to watch. Its tagline reading “100% medically inaccurate,” it tells the story of a mentally disabled, sexually perverse superfan of First Sequence recreating the film’s experiment in a warehouse and, major surprise, it actually kind of works. His centipede is longer and more durable despite the disgusting conditions of its environment begging for a life-ending infection to take hold. Full Sequence is not only meaner & more disgusting than the first film; it’s also much more satirically pointed, revealing an indictment of its own audience for being the sick fucks who would want to watch not one, but two of these atrocities in the first place. I saw the film at a packed New Orleans Film Fest screening at Chalmette Movies and was both tickled by the darkly comic depravity I had just witnessed & strongly tempted to ask each attendee what’s wrong with them for showing up in the first place on their way out the exit. The Human Centipede 3: Full Sequence thoroughly ruined all of that questionable goodwill.

The all-important tagline of Final Sequence is “100% politically incorrect.” I hope you can already see the problem there. Long gone are the morbid fascination factor of the first film and the unexpected satirical edge & audience hatred 0f the second. In their place is a desperately unfunny, try-hard “political” comedy of legendarily hideous & vapid proportions. The same intense focus on gore & human cruelty that’s consistently present throughout the franchise is in tact here, but Full Sequence finds entirely new, unwelcome ways to disappoint & disgust. In some ways it’s director Tom Six’s greatest achievement yet, as it is a truly depraved work surely no decent human being could enjoy without failing a litmus test that calls into question their capacity for empathy, compassion, maturity or potential for spiritual growth. If someone ever tells you that The Human Centipede 3 is their favorite film, do the world a favor and push them into the nearest incinerator. Anytime a property claims that its goal is to be “100% politically incorrect” prepare yourself to witness some vile, misanthropic shit that’s toxic at best in its societal & spiritual value. Final Sequence surpasses even that low bar of depravity, sucking all joy out of its entire franchise & anything else unfortunate enough to lie in its vicinity. By the time I made it to the end credits (no small feat, that), I had to fight back an urge to alternate between screaming & chugging hard liquor in a scalding hot shower.

Inexplicably, though, it’s not necessarily the “100% politically incorrect” humor that makes the movie such a chore to survive. It’s the lead performance by actor Dieter Laser that sinks the film decisively before it even gives itself a chance to offend the audience with an onslaught of rape jokes & racial slurs. Laser delivers what is, hands down, the single most annoying lead performance in the history of the motion picture as an artform, if not the history of scripted theater. He is loud, brash, incomprehensible, devoid of value. His work here should be legally deemed criminal with some kind of mandatory penalty leveled on him as a penance (though, hopefully not one that takes inspiration from the film itself). Did I mention that Dieter Laser is profoundly awful in The Human Centipede 3? Good, because he’s shit, or perhaps something even more difficult to stomach.

For those of you paying close attention to this franchise (God help you), you may recall that Dieter Laser played the Nazi-esque doctor in First Sequence who invented the human centipede torture meme in the first place. Both he & the actor who portrayed his copycat in Full Sequence are recast here as the heads of a prison in the fiercely Republican state of Texas despite this being a universe where the first two films exist & are available on DVD. As the warden & assistant warden of George H.W. Bush Prison (topical humor! funny!), these two evil fucks attempt to please their right wing governor (played by Eric Roberts of A Talking Cat?! & Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs fame) by implementing methods of discipline that wouldn’t fly on Adult Swim’s Superjail!. Laser explains openly, “I believe in bringing back medieval torture methods” when he’s not busy screaming racial epithets at the top of his lungs. His assistant does him one better by suggesting a recreation of Tom Six’s visionary work in First Sequence & Full Sequence. Their centipedal masterwork isn’t realized until the final fifteen minutes of Final Sequence, a choice that withholds whatever perverse pleasure could possibly derived from the spectacle of seeing the longest human centipede yet in favor of boring/annoying the audience with Laser’s beyond-grating lack of subtle nuance or basic dignity. You know exactly where the film is going and yet it drags is little insectoid feet getting there so that you can spend more time “enjoying” political commentary that relates conservative Texans to Nazis in the first two minutes & doesn’t bother expanding its scope from there. What a godawful piece of trash.

I’ll admit that I didn’t watch this film in the best environment. Instead of heckling it with friends on a late night or quietly squirming in a crowded film fest screening like the fist two, I swallowed this shit while enjoying my breakfast alone on a Sunday morning. I doubt a better venue would’ve helped much, though. Outside a couple stray one-liners like “We don’t get to deal with their shit no more. They just got to deal with each others'” and a doctor’s fretting that the experiment is “in serious conflict with [his] Hippocratic Oath,” there’s truly nothing of value here. Even the intense gore, which includes an up-close, believably real castration, pales in comparison to the depravity of Full Sequence. On its list of achievements, Final Sequence boasts the two most disgusting rape scenes I’ve ever seen in my life (two low points I hope to never experience again), only to pull back & reveal that one of them was all just a dream, an empty exercise.

Tom Six, who appears as himself in the film & is aptly described by Laser’s cruelly unbearable warden as “a poop-infested toddler” knows a thing or tow about empty exercises. His one true accomplishment in Final Sequence is making the longest centipede yet to appear in the series, but no one could possibly care, considering the rotting pile of garbage he births it in. Six appears smug here, proud of his work & its cultural impact, directly referencing a South Park episode his magnum opus inspired. He forms a makeshift human centipede Ouroboros here, fashioning a cinematic monster that greedily feeds on its own filth. Everything feels off, a complete failure overflowing out the sides of Six’s pull-up diaper. Only porn star Bree Olson seems comfortable with the production value & “political incorrectness” on display and for some reason Six feels the need to mercilessly punish her for it. A final scene of Dieter Laser screaming unintelligibly into a bullhorn aimed at no one in particular, perhaps a long-dead God, suggests that Six knows exactly what a shitty monument to nothing he’s constructed here, but that doesn’t make the nihilistic exercise worthwhile in the least.

Trust me, folks. I’ve been known to enjoy many a shitty movie in my time, but my claim that Final Sequence is the worst film I’ve ever endured is not a challenge or a low-key recommendation or a thinly-veiled dare. This is a hateful, empty work meant to be enjoyed by no one. No one. If you can avoid giving Tom Six even the microscopic revenue of a hate watch on Netflix I highly recommend toughing out a life without having seen a spiritless, self-obsessed work of misanthropic masturbation that might forever define of sewers of needless, failed horror cinema . . . if you can manage to bear the thought. At the very least, I’ll envy you.

-Brandon Ledet

Green Room (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his last two features writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has carved out a nice, little niche for himself in constructing intimate, terrifying thrillers about folks who are in way over their heads (in blood & viscera). His last film, Blue Ruin, was a tightly-wound revenge thriller in which a doomed, ordinary man took on an organized criminal syndicate despite his ineptitude for violence in a private war he instigates (or avenges, depending on your perspective). His attempts at violence are ugly & disastrous, as he fucks up constantly, but the inertia of the plot doesn’t allow him any viable options but to continue on anyway. There isn’t much of a difference in Saulnier’s follow-up, The Green Room, except a change in scenery and a shift in perspective from revenge to survival in its central plot concerns. The Green Room somehow feels less special & more pared down than Blue Ruin, but it’s still an effective thriller that never loosens its chokehold on the audience’s throat throughout its runtime thanks to an increasingly limited set of options for a positive outcome for any one of its characters, protagonist or otherwise.

Fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights (featuring Burying the Ex‘s Anton Yelchin & The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat among its members) are struggling to make it home from a disastrous road tour, resorting to siphoning gas & camping roadside to ease their financial desperation. Keeping their punk band ethics D.I.Y. & internet presence free, the band finds themselves in the fragile situation of playing one last gig for an isolated skinhead (ne0-Nazi) community (run by a no-nonsense, ice-cold Patrick Stewart). As soon as The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’s classic diddy “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the vulnerability of their situation becomes terrifyingly apparent & only gets worse as the plot thickens & the chokehold tightens. After their set The Ain’t Rights accidentally uncover a couple nasty secrets their racist/militaristic punk show hosts are hiding at their concert venue/compound and the situation snowballs into a total nightmare where they’re locked in a small, windowless dressing room with no hope for escape except an all-out bloodbath where the ill-prepared youngsters aren’t likely to survive. Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with this kind of genre fare: most of them don’t.

If there’s a prevailing concern that drives every scene of The Green Room it’s authenticity. Scenes of D.I.Y. punk kids drinking beers, listening to records, getting dead serious about their biggest artistic influences during college radio interviews, and having out-of-body religious experiences while thrashing around in a mosh pit all feel true to the punk scene as I know/remember it, albeit without the stench of body odor that would seal the deal. Apparently The Thermals frontman Hutch Harris was brought in as a coach for this aspect of the film, which is about the cutest thing I’ve heard of since Deb Harry handed out “punk rock merit badges” to the Frog Scouts on The Muppet Show. I only have to assume that the skinhead scene is represented with the same level of authenticity, as I’ve thankfully had very few experiences with their presence at New Orleans D.I.Y. shows. I’d like to see a version of this kind of punk scene thriller without these white power monsters’ involvement, but the movie seems well-researched in their representation. At the very least it gives the same fetishistic attention to the various designations of their bootlace colors as Friedkin gave to the gay S&M scene’s handkerchief coding in Cruising.

The Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture, either. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread. From the Dead Kennedys cover to the end credits my veins were pulsing so hard they felt as if they might explode. That’s a sign of a highly effective thriller, but it wasn’t necessarily a feeling I’d wish to return to at any point.

The Green Room amplifies the hopeless situation of Blue Ruin by confining its action to an extremely limited space & uping the potential number of lives at stake, but I couldn’t help but find the plight of Saulnier’s in-over-their-heads protagonists a little repetitive here. There are some truly great, small moments in the film (the religious experience in the mosh pit especially stands out), but in a larger context I felt it was mostly delivering a heart-racing sensation of fear & apprehension. It was intense in the moment, but felt like somewhat of a cheap thrill once I reached the relief of the end credits. As a genre picture I think The Green Room checks off all the right boxes & delivers everything you could ask for as an audience looking to cower & sweat. However, I’d love to see Saulnier switch gears in the future & push where else he can take that intensity/authenticity with an entirely different set of genre expectations.

-Brandon Ledet

The Flesh Eaters (1964)

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fourhalfstar

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“There’s something in the water that eats flesh! I said ‘eats flesh’! People!”

The 1980s were undeniably the glory days of gore in horror cinema, but they weren’t necessarily the root of extreme on-camera violence. George Romero is often credited as being the godfather of gore, ushering in the era of special effects that paid great detail to exposing the insides of horror’s actors/victims. Romero’s seminal work, The Night of The Living Dead, was released as early as 1968, well before onscreen gore reached its Reagan-era fever pitch. Before The Night of the Living Dead hit the theaters, however, it was originally titled The Night of the Flesh Eaters and subsequently changed its moniker to avoid confusion with a film simply titled The Flesh Eaters released just four years prior. The Flesh Eaters shares no resemblance with the zombie-centric plots of Romero’s Living Dead series in even the vaguest sense, but it does beat the director to the punch somewhat in terms of onscreen gore, so it’s somewhat appropriate that they almost shared a name.

The Flesh Eaters is horrifically violent for a mid-60s creature feature, paying great attention to the special effects of its blood & guts make-up. Many credit the film as being the very first example of gore horror & it’s difficult to argue otherwise. The anachronistic-feeling intrusion of extreme violence in what otherwise feels like a standard Corman-esque B-picture is beyond striking. Although I’ve seen far worse gore in films that followed in its wake, the out-of-place quality the violence has in The Flesh Eaters makes the film feel shocking & upsetting in a transgressive way. I don’t know for sure if Romero was at all inspired by The Flesh Eaters or if he even had seen it before making The Night of the Living Dead, but his work certainly wasn’t the first gore-soaked spectacle in town, not by a long shot.

A drunk movie starlet, her overworked assistant, and a cocky airplane pilot are temporarily marooned on a small, mysterious island. It’s there that they encounter a creepy scientist fella experimenting with a microscopic, weaponized life form that greedily eats human flesh clean off the bone. At first the only evidence of these tiny mutant bastards is the washed-up skeletons that arrive picked-clean on the shore. Soon they reveal themselves as tiny spots of nuclear glow that can only be described by their potential victims in the vaguest of terms: “that shiny stuff”, “that little silver stuff”, etc. Without revealing too much, I can promise that these tiny, evil, glimmering somethings eventually snowball into a much bigger, stranger problem that a small crew of shipwrecked amateurs stand very little chance of surviving.

Directed by the guy who voiced Papa Racer on the 60s Speed Racer cartoon (Jack Curtis) & partially funded by his winnings on a long-forgotten television game show, The Flesh Eaters is largely a labor of love. There are some details to what it delivers that relegates it to a camp cinema context: some nonsensical asides about Nazis, a beatnik caricature that would’ve made even the extras in Corman’s Bucket of Blood blush, some bathing suit oggling, a William Castle-style distribution gimmick in which audiences were armed with “instant blood” to feed the flesh eaters in case of attack, etc. As goofy as The Flesh Eaters can be in moments, however, what truly makes it unique is the ahead-of-its-time attention paid to its special effects. Holes are poked into film strips themselves to indicate the flesh eaters at work. Blood & gore ooze out of victims in a horrifically stark black & white. The scale of the third act mayhem far exceeds what you’d reasonably expect based on the budget. The Flesh Eaters suffered many setbacks, including years-delayed distribution & a hurricane disrupting production, but it was well worth the effort. It eventually stood as a must-see landmark of horror cinema that would in its own way predict where the genre was headed in the decades to come and it still plays remarkably fresh today because of that grotesque innovation.

-Brandon Ledet

Stung (2015)

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three star

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A lot of people were harsh on last year’s winking-at-the-camera B-picture Zombeavers for being a little too try-hard & calculated. Personally, I’m a little more forgiving on silly, made-for-cult-audiences trifles than most, so I enjoyed its SyFy Channel-type camp well enough. What saved the picture for me more than anything was the handmade beaver puppets. The film’s dialogue was never quite as amusing as it wanted to be, but the slightest appearance of a zombie beaver puppet could have me howling.

Toeing the exact same line between terrible dialogue/acting & delightful special effects is the recent horror comedy Stung. The directorial debut of German special effects artist Benni Diez, Stung is a fairly basic creature feature about mutant wasps that brutally disrupt a stuffy garden party. Much of the film is bland & sloppily slapped together, but a few bonkers plot twists in the third act & a refreshing focus on handmade practical effects save it from feeling like another hopeless CGI-heavy cheapie like a Lavalantula! or a Sharknado 3. If you have little to no interest in monster movie creature effects, you’re likely to spend most of the film bored & frustrated in the wait for bodies to drop & the credits to roll. The only attraction featured here is the giant mutant wasps themselves.

Remove the mutant wasps from Stung & you basically have the world’s worst episode of Party Down. A small catering company handles a quirkily pathetic garden party while experimenting with a will-they-won’t-they romance that no one could possibly care about. The lead is a painfully unfunny physical comedian with a whiny “But I’m a Nice Guy”/friendzoned approach to romance. His love interest is a Type A Bitch we’re supposed to deride for caring more about her flailing small business & personal survival than getting laid by a bartender/clown/employee. The best bet for finding a worthwhile character is among the party guests, since the leads are such dull wastes of time. My vote for MVP (or maybe Only Valuable Player in this case) goes to genre film veteran Lance Henriksen as a drunken small town mayor.At the very least he gets a couple decent one-liners out, like when he quips “This party needs an autopsy” (before the killings start) and when he responds to the correction, “Those are not bees, those are wasps” with “Who gives a shit?” Even Henriksen’s world-weary irreverence does little to liven up the proceedings, though, and most of the film’s time that’s not filled by killer wasp mayhem feels like a huge waste of effort.

It’s a good thing, then, that there’s so much killer wasp gore to (excuse the expression) chew on here. Stung‘s gigantic mutant wasps click & screech like insectoid pterodactyls. When they sting their prey they use the victim as a flesh vessel to incubate even larger wasps. These transformations are massive, wet, disgusting, and above all else entertaining. The mayhem gets even more gnarly from there, especially in the film’s go-for-broke third act stupidity. Gigantic nests, wasp-controlled human drones, wriggling larvae, and flaming monsters all make for a wickedly amusing good time as long as you pay more attention to what the creatures are up to than anything said or done by their entirely-forgettable victims. Stung is to be enjoyed for its Them!-style monster puppets & 80’s Peter Jackson gore, not for its sense of narrative or tonal nuance. About the only thing that qualifies as a successful joke in the film is when one character carries around a can of bug spray as an in-vain mode of protection, but even that gag qualifies as a triumph of the costume department. Stung is all about its puppets & gore and nothing else. That just happened to be enough to make it worthwhile for me.

-Brandon Ledet

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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threehalfstar

One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.

In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.

I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.

Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.

-Brandon Ledet

La chiesa (The Church, 1989)

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fourstar

Following the completion of my Dario Argento project, I felt myself suffering from a distinct lack of Argento in my life. As such, I had to try and fill this lack with some of his other work. Upon beginning the retrospective, I decided not to include films that Argento had written but not directed, as this would have included a large body of films that were never released in the U.S. and would thus have been nearly impossible to track down. Most of the films to which he contributed a story or script idea in the heyday of his career did cross over, however, and I was able to track down a DVD copy of La chiesa (The Church). La chiesa was intended to be the third film in the series and is considered to be an official sequel according to some sources, but it’s unclear how it fits into that series.

Lamberto Bava (son of director Mario Bava) had previously served as the assistant director on Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae, and the two collaborated again on Demoni and Demoni 2, the latter of which was the film debut of a very young Asia Argento, with Bava directing and Argento contributing to the script. However, a film originally titled The Ogre (directed by Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, who contributed to the scripts for Demoni and Demoni 2) was released as Demoni 3: The Ogre in 1988, with La chiesa following in 1989. 1991 saw the release of yet another film titled Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, who had previously directed 1969’s Legion of the Damned from a script by—you guessed it—Dario Argento. Adding to the confusion, Bava did not direct La chiesa; it was instead directed by Michele Soavi, another member of that generation of Italian horror directors. All of this also fails to note that there were at least three other films that had the name “Demoni” applied to them as a marketing strategy; simply put, it’s ultimately unclear whether or not this film should be considered as a text which is part of an official ongoing narrative or simply as a text to be discussed in relation to the other texts made by its creators.

Regardless, the film works well as a standalone horror movie, and has Argento’s fingerprints all over it even if it was directed by someone else. Long ago, Teutonic Knights came upon a village that was supposedly inhabited by witches. An inquisitor damned the village when he saw one of the inhabitants with crucifix-shaped scars on her feet, and the knights slaughtered the entire population and buried all of the bodies in a mass grave; the location was then consecrated with a giant cross, and a church was built atop this grave to seal the great evil inside. One child (Asia Argento) almost escapes, but is simply the last victim—or so it seems. In present day (1989) Italy, Evan Altereus (Tomas Arana) arrives at the titular church, where he is taking over as the librarian. He meets art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working to revitalize a mural that shows the image of souls being tormented by a giant demon and his smaller attendants. Evan also meets the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is obsessed with the maintenance of the church, and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie), who spends a great deal of his time practicing archery and imagining that he is either a Teutonic Knight or shooting at one. Lotte (Asia Argento), the preteen daughter of the church groundskeeper, lives in the church as well.

Evan becomes fascinated by the gothic cathedral’s history, talking incessantly to Lisa about the designs of gothic churches and the oddness of the fact that no royal or high clergyman had ever been buried there. Renovations in the basement lead to the discovery of a scroll that becomes the focal point of Evan’s obsession, ultimately leading him to find the cross/seal; he breaks this seal and becomes the first person possessed by demonic spirits. Ultimately, as the groundskeeper and others fall under the influence of evil, the church’s built-in failsafes, designed by the alchemist architect, seal the church’s doors, trapping the aforementioned characters inside along with a field trip group of about twenty nine-year-olds, an argumentative young biker couple, an elderly couple, and a small bridal party. As the hand of evil closes around them, Father Gus races to save himself and Lotte.

First things first: this movie, like a lot of Argento’s directorial work, doesn’t hold up narratively or logically. The opening scene, featuring the slaughter of an entire village, raises a lot of questions from the first moments. Are the inhabitants of this village actually witches? Is Asia Argento’s character immortal, or is she reborn in the present day? I want to say that the backstory would have a stronger impact if it was made clear that the villagers were innocent and that the possessing entity was created out of the evil of slaughtering so many innocents, but there’s not enough evidence against that reading to definitively state that is not already the case. Even if we accept that (a) the villagers were witches, and that (b) the witches were in league with demons, and thus (c) the demons are entombed evil who escape and begin to possess the church inhabitants, there are still so many things left unexplained. Why does the demon-capturing failsafe only take effect after possessed Evan returns from ripping out his own insides and stalking Lisa at home? He could have never come back, in which case a demon made it into the real word beyond the church without consequence. Why does Father Gus have flashbacks about Teutonic Knights, and is he the knight in that sequence or the knight’s killer?

So much is left unexplained that the film fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. Evan’s full on demonic appearance is deeply unsettling in all of its practical effects glory, and it’s only one of the haunting images on display throughout. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the film ever got a DVD release in the original Italian, and the dubbing work here is notably bad; Lotte and an adult woman even have the exact same voice in the dub, which is really distracting. Overall, however, if you’re suffering from a lack of Argento in your life, like I was, it’ll help to fill that void, and is an interesting experiment in collaboration for Argento fans.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pelts (2006)

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three star

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When I wrote my review of Jenifer, I noted that it was unique among Dario Argento’s body of work in a few ways, for better or worse. Jenifer herself was imagined by Argento as an alien life form, even if that wasn’t explicit in the text itself, making her the only extraterrestrial in his canon (unless I’m in for the shock of a lifetime when I get to Dracula 3D); further, the effects work on Jenifer was grotesque and monstrous, with the only similar prosthetic work in his films that I can recall being the monstrous child in Phenomena. Argento’s second Masters of Horror episode, Pelts, is also quite unlike his previous work, although not in the way that is frequently referenced. Nearly every review of Pelts mentions the short film’s “political message,” especially given the generally apolitical nature of all of Argento’s work, but I don’t really think that there is one, at least not in the way the uninitiated interpret the word. As a composition scholar, I am obliged to perceive and interpret all forms of composition and creation as inherently political, as all creation is an act of expressing individuality and thus is a political act in and of itself; by choosing what to include and what to exclude in the created thing, be it a poem, speech, or painting, the author/composer makes a de facto “political” statement. And, yes, the fact that Argento focused this film on the fur trade does lend itself to the assumption that the director is making a capital-P “Political” statement, but I don’t think that was Argento’s goal, nor do I think that decrying fur played a larger role in the inception of this plot than wanting to show a man skinning himself of his own flesh and then working backwards to create parallelism did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jake Feldman (the one and only Meat Loaf Aday) is a fur trader who lusts after Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), a stripper who is disgusted by Feldman’s possessiveness and the fact that, as a furrier, he constantly reeks of dead flesh. She has made it clear that she will dance for—but never sleep with—him, no matter how pathetic he is. One of his suppliers, Jeb Jameson (John Saxon, who previously worked with Argento in Tenebrae), is an old drunk who takes his son Larry (Michal Suchánek) into the woods to check the raccoon traps he set earlier. Larry expresses some concern when he realizes that his father is taking him beyond a warning fence, onto the land of Mother Mater (Brenda McDonald), but the elder Jameson scolds his son for his superstition. The two come upon stone ruins, which Larry notices are carved with the faces of raccoons, while his father instructs him to crush the windpipes of the animals they have trapped, apparently in abundance, and to take a baseball bat and crush the skulls of any raccoon that does not die instantly. Jeb calls Feldman to tell him that he has secured a large number of pelts, the most beautiful he has ever seen. Later, after the two have skinned the animals and their pelts are drying, Jeb heads to bed while Larry ecstatically examines the animal hides with a spiritual reverence. Moved by their beauty, he goes upstairs to his father’s room and crushes his skull with the baseball bat before gleefully setting up a trap and then killing himself with it.

Feldman and his lackey find the two in this position and, thinking quickly, take off with the raccoon skins. Various workers in Feldman’s shop begin to self-harm in ways that are reminiscent of their interactions with the furs in the coat-making process, until the coat is finally completed. In the meantime, Feldman visits Mother Mater, who warns him that the nearby fenced-off woods are protected by the “pine lights,” which he laughs off when he realizes she means raccoons. Feldman presents the coat to Shanna, who sleeps with him in exchange for it. He excuses himself to the restroom, where he proceeds to skin himself, cutting off his own flesh in roughly the shape of a tank top and then attempts to gift this flesh to Shanna, who flees from him. Feldman pursues her to the elevator, where her hand is trapped and then torn off (symbolic of the animal that gnawed its own foot off to escape the trap), and then they both die. The end.

I remember watching Tenebrae and being shocked by how unusually violent it was in comparison to the (comparatively) understated violence of the films that preceded it; Pelts gives that film a run for its money. Argento brought back Howard Berger, who had done the make-up and visual effects on Jenifer, and he was again interviewed on this DVD. Berger, who has worked with director Quentin Tarantino numerous times, recalled in his interview for this project that Tarantino’s directions on the set of Kill Bill largely consisted of “make it bloodier than Tenebrae.” He felt he had come full circle by contributing to this project, citing that it was the goriest thing he had ever worked on, and I can’t argue with that. There’s not a lot to engage an audience here on a philosophical level (and certainly nothing on a political level), but there’s more than enough to satisfy even the sickest fans of gore. I consider myself to have a fairly strong constitution, steeled by many a midnight horror flick, but some scenes were almost too much for even my stomach. The scene in which Feldman flays himself is horrifying in all the best ways, and the scene in which the younger Jameson serenely plunges his face into a bear trap carefully combined tension and the grotesque in perfect measure. That’s a real feather in the cap of the people who worked on the short’s practical effects, but it also highlights the poor quality of much of the CGI work. The worst offender in this arena has to be the scene in which one of Feldman’s employees sews her eyes, mouth, and nose shut; there’s no real reason why this couldn’t have been done practically using a dummy head, especially given Berger’s talents, and it looks terrible and rushed in the final product.

Although Meat Loaf is most well known as a musician and his most memorable role since The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a supporting one in Spice World as the Girls’ driver, he has a willingness to completely immerse himself in a part the way that many actors who are more “legitimate” or noteworthy do not. Feldman is an utterly vile person, and any humanization that he has is as a result of Meat Loaf’s surprisingly nuanced and careful performance. Saxon is the only other actor of note in the production, and he does the opposite, playing up the campiness of the Jameson character; it’s a bit of a relief to see him killed off so early, as that frees Saxon from sullying himself too much. The rest of the cast is largely comprised of nobodies; each of them has an IMDb page full of “Man #3,” “Bouncer,” “Tough Guy,” and “Stripper #4” credits, and there’s not much to say about any of them. Ellen Ewusie really gets the worst of this, however, as her interview (like Moran Atias’s in the supplemental materials for Mother of Tears) illuminates her as a woman saddled with attempting to discuss building the background and motivations of a character who exists solely for titillation, and I wish I could see her in a role that requires more than that.

Overall, this was an experience that I neither loved nor hated. The message is less “fur is murder” and more “selfishness is self-destructive,” which is all well and good but not very groundbreaking. The acting is a mixed bag, and there’s so much gore packed into this short run time that it is worth a watch if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s by far the better of Argento’s two Masters episodes, and while it’s not very good, it is an unusual part of the director’s canon that gives some insight into his mind that is lacking in his other works.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond