Episode #99 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2019

Welcome to Episode #99 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-ninth episode, the entire podcast crew assembles to discuss their favorite films of 2019.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

James’s Top 10 Films of 2019
1. Uncut Gems
2. The Lighthouse
3. The Beach Bum
4. Parasite
5. Knives Out
6. Midsommar
7. Dolemite is My Name
8. Marriage Story
9. The Irishman
10. Her Smell

To hear everyone else’s picks, listen to the show . . .

Enjoy!

-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, Britnee Lombas, and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

Rare Exports (2010) Fan Art: Season’s Greetings from Joulupukki

Here’s a holiday card illustration of Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”), who never fully emerges in Rare Exports (2010), our current Movie of the Month, despite being the film’s central villain.

-Hanna Räsänen

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion, our look at how it subversively works as a child-friendly introduction to The Thing (1982), and last week’s comparison to its American counterpart, Krampus (2015).

Movie of the Month: Rare Exports (2010)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Rare Exports (2010).

Hanna: Although I’ve always loved Christmas movies, I had a real distrust in portrayals of Santa Claus in American television as a child. It’s not that I didn’t believe he was real; it’s just that the Santa I loved in Larry Roemer’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special held little resemblance to the one described my Finnish father. That Santa wasn’t a jolly, elderly fellow in from the North Pole, but a half-goat man named Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”) holed up in a place called Ear Mountain (Korvantunturi) in Northern Finland. Obviously, I thought, the producers of the American Christmas canon were a bunch of hacks who had done no real Christmas research; how else could you mistake a place called “Ear Mountain” for the North Pole? And why didn’t Santa look anything like a goat? It was a very confusing time for me; I always hoped for an accurate portrait of the Finnish Christmas specter. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, by Finnish director Jelmari Helander, fulfilled that Christmas wish a decade later.

Rare Exports brings us to present-day Lapland, where an eccentric, Christmas-loving American named Riley is leading a team of drillers deep into Korvantunturi for reasons unexplained. Riley seems to know that something special is lurking underneath Korvantunturi, and he’s itching to unearth it. A young rural boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila), who has been spying on the suspicious activity, begins researching the mountain; he’s horrified by what he finds, and begins preparing himself, his friends, and his tortured father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), for Christmas Yet to Come.

All told, Rare Exports gave me an hour and a half of holiday mayhem and deadpan Christmas-themed one-liners delivered by gruff Finnish men, and it was delightful. I always appreciate movies that portray a less popular version of Santa while still adhering to real cultural lore (e.g., Krampus, as opposed to an “Evil Santa” Santa Claus remix). I also love how absolutely weird this movie is (especially the final scene), and how easily the characters accept and adapt to their insane circumstances. Britnee, how does this movie compare to other Christmasy action/horror movies, especially American movies? Did Rare Exports set itself apart, or is it just some good ol’ fashioned Christmas schlock?

Britnee: Christmas horror films are typically either cheesy B-movies (like Santa’s Slay or The Gingerbread Man) or slashers about killers dressed up in Santa suits (like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Christmas Evil). The only Christmas film that I’ve seen that can be compared to Rare Exports would be Krampus. While it’s more of a dark comedy, Krampus isn’t a film about an evil Santa or a psycho dressed in a cheap Santa costume. It’s a film that brings attention to a Christmas character from Central-European folklore. Krampus is a goat demon who punishes bad children during Christmastime, which is much more similar to Joulupukki from Rare Exports than any other film version of Santa Claus. They even both use actual whips to whip bad children’s butts!

Unlike Krampus, which is one of the greatest “bad” horror movies of modern times, Rare Exports isn’t a “bad” movie at all. There are a few cheesy moments and witty one-liners (like the English translation gags during the Santa transaction), but it doesn’t stray from taking itself seriously as much as I expected it to. At first, I thought the film was going about a kid on a mission in a world of adults who dismiss his warnings until it’s too late. It sort of was like that, but the adults surprised me by capturing the “Santa” and trying to make money off of his captivity during the film’s second half. That second half is what really made Rare Exports unique, truly unlike any film I’ve seen before. So, yes, Rare Exports can be compared to American films like Krampus, but it really stands on its own it the best way possible.

Another part of Rare Exports that I really didn’t see coming was the abundance of elderly full-frontal male nudity. Perhaps the most nightmarish part of the film was the herd of naked old elves running after the pile of children in potato sacks. Brandon, were you as shook by the old nude elf men as I was? What are other parts of the film that you found to be skin crawling?

Brandon: The one isolated image that made my skeleton squirm inside my skin was those burlap sacks of writhing children. Like in modern Santa lore, Joulupukki has a fixation on transporting his Christmas goodies around in giant magical sacks here. Instead of red velvet bags of gifts, however, this “Santa” (with the help of his elves, of course) kidnaps naughty boys & girls from their homes in burlap sacks – presumably to be consumed by Joulupukki once he is fully summoned. The writhing sacks immediately look odd, but you don’t fully register what’s inside them at first glance. The whimpering protests from inside those giftbag prisons eventually start to make clear that what you’re looking at is neighborhood children being prepared for a Christmas feast, and that delayed realization makes for a truly horrific feeling. This film is just as much a dark comedy as it is a modern fairy tale, and there are few images I can think of that are darker than those writhing sacks (way more so than the wrinkly sacks hanging from the naked elves).

As much as I enjoyed its morbid humor and its willingness to go there when tormenting children, my favorite aspects of Rare Exports were mostly rooted in the way it functions as a modern fairy tale. The Joulupukki and Krampus traditions make so much more logical sense than the Christmas lore Americans are raised with, what the movie calls “the hoax of the Coca-Cola Santa.” Traditional fairy tales are usually set up as negative reinforcement tactics to scare kids into not doing dangerous (or, often enough, simply annoying) things for their own good & safety. Don’t wander alone in the woods or a witch will cook & eat you; don’t eat strangers’ food without asking or an entire family of bears will eat you; don’t talk to strangers or a wolf will dress in grandma drag and eat you, etc. It makes more sense, then, that a naughty boy or girl being monitored by a powerful, world-traveling Christmas demon would be punished by becoming dinner for that beast, not simply receiving a shittier gift than they’d get if they were good. Surprisingly, one of the most affecting parts of Rare Exports for me was the early woodcut & lithograph prints in the kids’ research about the myth of The Real Santa that reframed him in this fairy tale context. Usually, textual research montages aren’t anyone’s standout favorite moments in horror movies (if anything, they often overexplain background info that no one really needs to know), but I really appreciated it here as a crash-course history in Santa’s fairy tale origins as Joulupukki.

The elderly elves do most of the work in getting this Evil Santa legend across onscreen, of course, as the day is saved before the kaiju Santa beast has a chance to fully emerge from his Korvantunturi prison. I do agree that the image of the elves running naked towards the camera in herds was creepy, but I was personally more disturbed by their dead, child-hungry eyes than I was by their scrotums, which were just kinda . . . there. If anything, the elf scrotes only helped solidify an observation that was present in my mind throughout the film: this is a weirdly masculine movie. The central relationships between a boy and his single father, a boy and his bully/bestie, and a boy and his Christmas demon are all variances of masculine bonding or masculine conflict. In fact, I don’t recall there being a single female character represented onscreen anywhere in Rare Exports; even the neighborhood girls kidnapped as offerings to Joulupukki never escape their burlap sacks to show their faces. The elf scrotums mostly just registered to me as a matter-of-fact extension of the film’s general interest in masculine relationships & bodies, which was not at all what I expected from a dark fairy tale about Santa Claus. I’m not even saying that choice to solely focus on the lives of boys & men was a good or bad thing; it was just something I couldn’t help but notice.

Boomer, did the total lack of female characters occur to you at all during your viewing of Rare Exports? What do you make of how that choice relates to the film’s overall tones & themes?

Boomer: The lack of women in this movie is pretty astonishing, honestly. We never hear anything about what happened to Pietari’s mother at all, just that she used to make gingerbread cookies that Pietari’s father can recreate with modest success. Is she dead? Did she just leave the family? Is Pietari’s father’s harsh coldness the result of being widowed, or is his horrid personality the reason that she’s gone? I hope you’re not waiting for an answer, because we’re not going to get one. From a filmmaking perspective, I get the initial thought process of “This is a harsh and unforgiving place and thus we can reflect that by having only harsh and unforgiving men in this world,” but the moment that idea crosses one’s mind is the moment that one should both immediately rethink their understanding of gender roles and also write a woman in there, fast, before you forget! We know that there’s at least one woman in the area, since Piiparinen’s wife’s hair dryer is among the items stolen in order to facilitate Santa’s thaw, but that’s about it. Where are all the ladies? The only explanation that I can think of is that every woman nearby looked out her respective window, saw a strange naked man lumbering towards their home, and decided to skedaddle. It’s not satisfying, though. I can also see deciding to go full-tilt with the fairy tale elements, with so many of those narratives featuring a dead (or otherwise hopelessly lost) mother, but just because mom died doesn’t mean women cease to exist altogether. Even John Carpenter managed to put Adrienne Barbeau’s voice into The Thing, for goodness’s sake.

The “missing mom” narrative is well-worn, but not so much so that it annoys. While I enjoyed Rare Exports overall, I was put out for much of the film because I intensely dislike narratives that structure one of their primary conflicts around the “child believes, adults don’t listen” trope. It’s right up there with “the liar revealed” as far as dead horse plots for children’s films goes. This film feels like a “child’s introduction to horror” throwback tome, and while it would be easy to say that a scary film with a child protagonist is automatically a film for children, that’s not necessarily the case. Plenty of horror flicks with young heroes are certainly that (Monster SquadGremlinsThe Gate), but there are just as many where the presence of a child’s viewpoint doesn’t negate that the film is not for kids (Let the Right One InITThe Exorcist), and of course those which fall somewhere in the middle (Child’s PlayPoltergeistFirestarter). For me, it’s the reliance on the Cassandra plot–that the truthteller is disbelieved–that makes the film read as if written for a younger audience, not the child protagonist or the fairy tale nature of the story.

Of course, not that any of this is a bad thing. In fact, it turns the film into a child’s first Thing, which is an idea that delights me. I mentioned it above, but it bears similarities in its images, especially that of The Unspeakable Thing Beneath the Ice. Are there any other influences that you’ve noticed in multiple rewatchings?

Hanna: Rare Exports definitely falls into the tradition of male, rural coming-of-age stories with a bizarre swirl of action and horror, which seems to be of particular interest to Helander. His second feature film, Big Game, contains some of the same themes set in a more straightforward action template: as part of a male rite of passage, a Finnish teenager named Oskari (also played by Onni Tommila) is sent out into the wilderness of rural Lapland to track and capture a large piece of game (in Oskari’s case, the “big game” is the President of the United States, stranded by a plane crash en route to Helsinki). Like Pietari in Rare Exports, Oskari is boyish and meek, lacking confidence in himself and any voice of authority in his community, and ultimately finds his role through unconventional smarts. Big Game is also devoid of women; although it makes more sense in the context of that movie, I think it points to Helander’s singular focus on the development of the rural masculine identity, at the expense of other voices.

I definitely would have enjoyed Rare Exports much more if Pietari’s community had been developed a little further. I wouldn’t have minded a small, all-male cast if the men were truly isolated from any other people, but hinting at the existence of women without featuring them is a little bizarre; I think the presence of a few more women and children would have added some depth to the little herding community without sacrificing the sense of rural isolation. I also think it would have been much more effective to watch the number of children slowly dwindle down throughout the movie; instead, it was as if everyone all the kiddies had Roanoke’d before the film even began. Britnee, were there elements of the Rare Exports world that you would have liked to explore further?

Britnee: I would have loved to watch the excavation of Joulupukki. All we really get to see in regards to Joulupukki is a huge hole in the ground from where it was taken, and then we get to see it in a frozen block of ice with its massive horns sticking out. That’s it. The question of how all the elves got this massive frozen monster into a warehouse weighed heavy on my mind. Did they develop some sort of pulley system or were they all just super strong? It’s like a chunk of the movie is missing. Having more detailed Joulupukki scenes would probably have been quite expensive, but it would have made the film feel more complete.

Another element of the film that would have benefited from more exploration and detail is the bagging of the children in the potato sacks. As Brandon mentioned earlier, the children squirming around in potato sacks was pretty creepy. Having a peek into the process that the elves took to capture the children, shove them in the sacks, and hoard them in the warehouse would have heightened the film’s horror levels. The naked elves creeping into the children’s bedrooms to kidnap them for Joulupukki would have scarred me for life, and I wish the movie would have at least showed one of the kidnappings in action.

The aspect that I found to be the most unique about Rare Exports is its ending. It wasn’t really a happy ending, but it wasn’t really a sad one either. Yes, the children survive and the families involved in the destruction of Joulupukki end up wealthy, but their success is at the expense of enslaving the elves. Brandon, how did you feel about the film’s ending? Did you have any sympathy towards the enslavement of the evil elves?

Brandon: If I’m being totally honest, I 100% saw the final sequence as a happy ending on our initial viewing. I’d even go as far as calling it “cute.” The herders begin the movie at risk of losing their livelihood due to a disastrous cattle season, miserably depressed at the prospect of failing their families as providers, but at the end of our tale they’ve got a thriving new business with consistent annual demand. I guess because the elves had been acting as magical child-abducting creeps the entire film it never occurred to me that this conclusion could be seen as horrific. Their “rehabilitation” and commodification as globally-exported shopping mall Santas was such an upbeat turnaround from their naked, child-collecting mayhem that it didn’t really sink in how fucked up it was to see those humanoids (of a sort) being subjugated as a product. I saw the ending as a clever continuation of film’s function of a fairy tale, explaining where mall Santas come from the same way we explain that human babies are delivered via storks.

You’re totally right, though; the elves were in their own way just acting according to their nature & customs, and the fact that I never really felt for their plight at the end is making me feel a little like imperialist, capitalist scum in retrospect. I’ve got some soul-searching to do in how willing I am to overlook exploitation in a capitalist paradigm, even in fiction. You’ve now got me hoping for a sequel where the mall Santas rebel and return to their roots, bagging up the children who sit on their laps across the globe in accordance to their own cultural tradition and in defiance of their oppressors.

In general, I do think the film leaves more of an impression as a fairy tale & an act of mythmaking than it does an exploration of ethical or interpersonal conflicts in the modern era. Exploitation & enslavement aside, I suspect that from now on I’ll get a kick from thinking of mall Santas as child-hating demons who’ve been newly domesticated as living Christmas ornaments, their newfound good behavior tentative at best. Boomer, do you think Rare Exports will similarly affect the way you look at the ritual of Christmas in the future? Is there anything about the history or mythology of the holiday, as presented here, that is likely to stick with you every December?

Boomer:  I’m not sure I will think of traditions much differently in the future. I’ve always assumed that mall Santas were hiding their disdain for children, so imagining them as demonic entities isn’t really much of a stretch. I think I’ll probably just spend the rest of my life wondering what the adults in the village did with those giant horns. What are they good for? And what, exactly, did the Americans want to do with their giant evil Santa when they got him? Are they just the more festive branch of Weiland-Yutani, incapable of seeing something monstrous as a potential weapon? Or was there something less sinister and more ignorant going on, a metaphor for the Coca-Colonization of Santa Claus? The world may never know.

Lagniappe

Britnee: The landscapes in Rare Exports were gorgeous! The tranquility of the snowcapped mountains and snow dusted trees is a great backdrop for all the insanity that takes place in the plot.

Boomer: Like Brandon, all I could think about when those children were attached to the helicopter was just how miserably cold they must be, trapped in sacks and being whipped about in the freezing air.

Brandon: I was thoroughly charmed by our hero’s costuming throughout this movie. Pietari sports the same punk af haircut as the Swedish kids from We Are the Best!; he walks around the snow in his giant puffy coat & underwear; and his homemade sports-equipment armor is absolutely adorable, especially his butt shield that protects him from being spanked by the elves. There’s something about the attention to his costuming and how he adapts what he’s wearing to the situation at hand that makes him feel like a real, authentic little kid instead of a fictional invention.

Hanna: Ultimately, Rare Exports satisfied my need for a) a spooky Finnish Christmas movie, and b) hordes of old, diseased, elf men nudely galloping into a forest. If you’re interested in exploring the bizarre Yuletide traditions of the Nordic and Scandinavian persuasion, I would encourage you to read up on the annual arson attacks on the Gävle goat in Sweden.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Blood & Donuts (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and our newest contributor, Hanna Räsänen, watch Blood & Donuts (1995).

Britnee: Do you ever remember a movie only by the feeling that it gave you? Not quite remembering any dialogue between the characters or even what those characters really looked like? Blood & Donuts is a film that I recalled loving simply from the feeling I got reminiscing about it. There’s just something about this movie that makes me feel comfortable and at peace. Yes, it’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time. It’s yet to be released on DVD, so if you are able to find a copy of it (be it streaming or VHS), it’s going to have that wonderful grainy quality that I just love so much.

Blood & Donuts is a vampire movie, but it’s far from your average run of the mill vampire flick. Boya (Gordon Currie), is perhaps the kindest vampire in the history of the genre. He is awoken from his deep slumber by a stray golf ball that breaks through the window of the abandoned home where he has taken refuge. He hasn’t been awake since the moon landing of 1969, and he now finds himself in the early 90s. As he begins to explore his new surroundings and find street rats to feed on, he gets into some messy situations with a local gang, falls for a girl that works at a donut shop, and tries to escape his murderous ex-lover.

I personally liked how the film doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on Boya’s transition into the 90s. There are no cheeseball scenes where he tries to get hip with the current trends and fashions. Boya just sort of rolls with the changes while looking a little dusty. Once he actually takes a bath, he really doesn’t look like a blast from the past. Brandon, would you have preferred the film to have delved more into Boya getting acclimated into his new world?

Brandon: At the very least, I don’t think the film would have been as memorable or distinctive if it dedicated more of its runtime to watching Boya adjust to his new Gen-X surroundings. Given its cheap-o production budget and the fact that it’s about a vampire, I was prepared for an off-beat Canuxploitation horror cheapie like Cathy’s Curse or The Pit. As soon as the CGI golf ball awakens Boya from his slumber in the opening scene, my expectations shifted to more of a goofball fish-out-of-water (and time) comedy like Peggy Sue Got Married or Blast from the Past. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that the film gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely: a kind of melancholy indie hangout movie that never fully tips into any single genre, so it leaves itself open to constant surprise & discovery. In that way, it reminded me a lot of a former oddball Canadian pick for Movie of the Month, the Apocalyptic hangout dramedy Last Night (both films even feature bit roles from Canadian filmmaking royalty David Cronenberg), which is to say that it’s much more interested in establishing a mood than it is in winning its audience over with familiar genre beats or easy-to-digest humor. Following Boya around as he blunderously acclimates to his new Gen-X 90s surroundings as a vampire who’s been asleep since the 60s might have been amusing in its own way, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as unique of an experience as the low-key hangout dramedy Blood & Donuts delivers instead.

We do get some insight into Boya’s internal adjustments to his new surroundings. We just get the sense he’s been through this process so many times before that he’s more exhausted by it than he is amused. He stumbles around this movie’s few grim locations (a graveyard, a seedy motel, a 24-hour donut shop) in a total daze, as if shaking off a 25-year hangover. As his mind sharpens and his body loosens up, the movie turns into a character study of an oddly tender, sensitive man who just happens to be a bloodsucking vampire. He harvests his blood from rats to prevent himself from murdering because he is a humanist. He’s fascinated with the quirks of modern human culture surrounding him, like novelty donut flavors (kiwi? really?) and classic cartoons. His hobbies include long baths and scrapbooking. The very first conversation in the film, between the vampire and his newfound cabdriver friend Earl, is about how it’s okay for grown men to cry. Boya is an overly-sensitive, non-threatening man-boy – the kind of undead sweetheart that goth teens must’ve fallen in love with before Jack Skellington replaced his type in the zeitgeist.

Speaking of Boya’s attractiveness, I feel like the only threat he poses as a vampire is in his naturally seductive qualities. Women can’t help being pulled into his orbit. We see this most extensively with a bookworm donut shop employee, Molly, whom the film posits as his main love interest. We also see where that potential romance may lead, thanks to a hairdresser who fell in love with Boya in the 1960s and has been going mad in the decades since while obsessing over his sudden absence and his vampirism’s promise of an eternal (albeit melancholic) life. That seduction also extends to the men who come in direct contact with Boya. When he eventually kills Cronenberg’s evil bowling-alley crime boss he does so with the neck-sucking sensuality that charges all vampire media with a horny overtone. His goofball cabbie buddy Earl (whose bizarro Eastern European-flavored Christopher Walken impersonation probably deserves its own lengthy discussion) is head-over-heels in love with him by the end of the film, and unsure what to do with how these uncomfortable impulses conflict with the unconvincing machismo persona he projects in public. Even the way that Boya’s muscly chest and naked buttocks are leeringly framed with the female gaze (by director Holly Dale) makes him out to be a luring sexual object for everyone to enjoy, to the point where I expected the movie to end with the vampire, Earl, and Molly riding out into the sunset as a bisexual throuple.

Since we’re living in an age where mega-corporations like Disney try to get away with earning social media brownie points for teasing that a character might maybe be gay or bi in a throwaway line or two without fully committing to, you know, actually representing LGBTQIA people onscreen, I should probably be a little cautious about diagnosing the three leads of this film as a bisexual love triangle. Still, I can’t help but feel that this movie is operating with some big Bi Energy, and that ended up being one of its major charms for me. Boomer, am I looking for onscreen bisexual representation where it doesn’t exist? What did you generally make of this film’s sexuality & romance, queer or otherwise?

Boomer: I was honestly a bit taken aback by how queer this film was, textually and not just subtextually. Sure, vampire media often likes to dally in this trope, as the vampyr is often a monster invoked as a Conservative’s nightmare (they are sexually free, often foreign, seductive, parasitic, and seek to convert; conversely, the liberal’s nightmare is our old friend the zombie, who is characterized as a braindead consumer, utterly mindless, incapable of independent thought, and represent an ultimate destruction of identity as part of a horde). To code that character as queer is both an invocation of those fears and, in a more postmodern film landscape, a way of defanging (I’m so sorry) elements of humanity that previous generations demonized. It took a while for it to sink in for me that the film was really willing to go there, given that the first scene between Boya and Earl initially felt like a bad parody due to the . . . let’s charitably call it a “unique” performance choice on the part of Earl’s actor (Louis Ferreira) to go with that accent. I was also shocked by how much the camera lingered on Boya’s body, not least of all because my only previous exposure (ahem) to Currie was in his role as Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the early aughts Left Behind films.

What you’ve brought up about the female gaze is notable as well. Video essayist Jamie “Rantasmo” Maurer has a short, interesting video about how the supposed homoeroticism of Top Gun is, in many ways, a manifestation of the reaction on the part of the (presumed default) straight male audience to the creation of a rhetorical space in which a man is being treated as a sexual object without the presence of a female character observing them, thereby eliminating the rhetorical distance that allows straight male audiences to feel more comfortable when viewing the object of objectification. Compare it to the classic “Diet Coke Break” commercial, in which an office full of women gather to watch a construction worker remove his shirt; the ad isn’t just about how sexy he looks when he’s drinking his Diet Coke, because that has the potential to alienate the straight male audience, but instead gives members of the audience the psychological “out” of saying “I’m not objectifying this man; these women are objectifying him,” creating a rhetorical distance between actor and spectator. Not only does Blood & Donuts feel no need to practice this distancing, but it in fact goes so far as to have the (presumably) straight Earl be the viewpoint character who is so thoroughly entranced by Boya’s taut abs, pushing this straight (again, so sorry) over the line into being unabashedly queer. I’d be curious to compare this to the subtext in Interview with a Vampire, seeing as it is often considered a keystone piece of queer cinema, which, though adapted and directed by men, is based on a novel by a woman; this is the reverse, with Holly Dale directing a screenplay written by a man. There’s something in there, if one of you fine folks want to pull that thread, it’s just been too long since the last time that I saw Interview for me to draw any conclusions.

I’ll admit that, like Britnee, I felt like this was a movie that is more evocative of a feeling than it was a narrative, lying somewhere on the spectrum between USA Late Night and IFC at 3 AM, when D.E.B.S. was over. As such, I had some difficulty getting into it, as it’s kind of a sleepy film, from an era of night shooting with indecipherable lighting choices of a kind you just don’t see anymore. I was fully committed to it by the time that Boya takes his milky bath and has long distance sex with Molly, though, even if the campiness of it made me think more about that one episode where Doctor Crusher has sex with a ghost than what was really going on in front of me. How did this movie make you feel, Hanna? Were you won over by its low budget zeal? Were there choices that you really loved, or that you would have done differently?

Hanna: Blood & Donuts completely won me over, in part because it completely surpassed my too-low expectations. Like Brandon, I prepared myself for a straightforward, deliciously trashy horror comedy; instead, I found Blood & Donuts utterly strange and surprisingly sweet. The characters’ moments of sensitivity were often funny – see Boya’s fastidious dedication to his ancient, leather-bound scrapbook, or Molly’s attempts to understand Boya’s vampirism through an incredibly on-the-nose reading list (featuring titles like Parapsychology, Dreams, and Vampires). Ultimately the movie honors and values these sincere expressions of tenderness, rather than undermining them through parody. I think the fuzzy, low-budget production actually enhances this effect; the earnest absurdity of Boya, Molly, and Earl would have hardened under a sharper lens.

In spite of the low budget and the cheesy special effects, I think the film managed to explore some unique ideas, especially the coexistence of sensitivity and ruthlessness. This is exemplified in one of my favorite aspects of the film: using a 24-hour doughnut shop as the main hub of the film’s action and Boya’s deeply-rooted existential crisis. Bernie, the owner of the shop, has “the firm belief that any jerk off the street deserves at least a well-made doughnut, and a safe place to eat it”. True to form, the shop is a haven for a rough brand of masculinity: buff outcasts, petty criminals, and scruffy derelicts. It’s a sugary substitute for the local dive bar, where the scum of the earth order fresh pastries and coffee instead of stiff highballs (and, based on the amount of consistent business he gets, Bernie is apparently tapping into some deep-seated need for sugary treats). He also takes his doughnuts very seriously, as indicated by the array of unique fruit fillings, as well as the encouragement for patrons to leave honest “impressions” of new flavors. I was simultaneously tickled and touched by the idea of a dreamy underworld where crime and grime are inextricable from kiwi doughnuts; where sweetness can be life-saving, or at least provide a temporary reprieve from violence. It’s also fitting that Boya—who struggles to reconcile his eternal reliance on bloodshed with his pacifism—would end up in such a place.

I fell in love with the extremes of violence and compassion in Blood & Donuts, and I was surprised by the depth this movie had gleaming from its schlocky disguise. Britnee, what do you think about the heart of the tiny universe Dale brought to life? Do you think it stands apart from its low-budget peers?

Britnee: No lie, I wish that I was a neighborhood resident that could frequent the donut shop. Everyone just seems so nice and accepting there, and at all hours of the night! All of the shabby chic buildings and constant aura of mystery create an environment that I just didn’t want to leave. What I truly enjoyed the most about Dale’s wonderful Blood & Donuts world is the portrayal of our vampire pal, Boya. Vampire lore is easy to play around with, but most movies tend to work within the same handful of vampire characteristics. We either have a bloodthirsty vampire that lures innocent prey to their doom or a vampire that hates being a vampire with no control over their actions. As far as vampiric variations in film go, Boya stands in a category all of his own. He is able to control his urges and only unleashes the vampire within when he’s helping his human pals fight the bad guys. He values friendships and human connections, yet he doesn’t constantly mope around bitching about being a vampire. His vampirism does not define who he is. Boya is like the cool guy you can have deep, philosophical conversations with who just so happens to be a vampire. A world where vampires are like Boya is a wonderful world indeed.

I love how Dale was able to make most of the characters, including those who had just a single line, genuinely loveable. Her focus on the humanity of the characters is what really sets this film apart from the other vampire flicks of the 90s. Take Earl for example. His character could’ve easily leaned more towards being a total doofus that’s only around for a couple of laughs, but he ends up being a genuine sweetheart that adds so much life to the movie. I was surprised that I became as interested in his well-being as I did, considering that I could barely understand his lines through the filter of his Canadian-New-York-City-Eastern-European-Christopher-Walken accent. Dale truly made the most of what she had to work with, which really wasn’t much considering the film’s low budget. This really shows her talent as a director. If I wouldn’t have researched the film’s budget, I truly wouldn’t have known that it was filmed for less than $300,000. Now, I’m not known for having the best taste, but I seriously didn’t get many low budget movie vibes from this picture.

Blood & Donuts is such a nice movie. Nice as in, every character is surprisingly nice considering what roles they play. The most evil people in the movie are the goofy guys in the bowling alley gang, and they’re really not the worst. The film works without having a disturbingly evil antagonist. Brandon, am I being too light Cronenberg’s bowling alley gang? Do you think the film would have benefited from really evil bad guys instead of mediocre bad guys?

Brandon: It pains me to admit this because Videodrome alone makes him one of my most beloved directors, but David Cronenberg was the worst part of this movie. Yes, that assessment includes Earl’s bizarro “New Yorker” accent (which, if nothing else, at least got a laugh out of me in his “Are you referring to me?” Taxi Driver bit). I do think Cronenberg & his bowling alley cronies were significantly crueller than the rest of the cast, though, even in their limited screentime. In his one lengthy monologue where he whips his goons into shape, he insults them with ableist slurs in a go-nowhere tirade that reads as pointless improv filmed in a hurry. When those goons beat Earl to a pulp in a back alley they squeeze artificial lemon juice into his wounds to add further insult, holding the little yellow bottle at crotch level as if pissing on him. That latter gag at least had some novelty to its cruelty, but their presence in the film is largely pointless, as if they had broken off from the production of Innocent Blood and wandered onto the wrong set. Britnee may be right in pointing out that they’re ineffective as villains, but I do think they’re vicious & purposeless to a point where they never really jive with the movie at large.

Thankfully, Blood & Donuts doesn’t waste much time pretending that its Bowling Alley Mafia villains matter either. It already has enough of an antagonist in Boya’s dangerous combination of sex appeal & eternal life that not much other menace is necessary to justify its weirdly tragic tone. The film has the basic attributes of a quirky indie comedy of its era (which is certainly the type of film Earl believes he’s in), but in practice it’s mostly a mopey goth kid drama about how hard it is to be a sexy vampire everyone falls in love with. Boomer, you already said you had a difficult time sinking into the mood of this picture, but did that emotional conflict of an eternal being falling in love with fleeting-lives humans register with you at all despite the film’s goofier touches & lackadaisical pacing? How engaged were you by the tragedy of Boya’s allure as a lover and his reluctance to lure more victims into his sexy orbit?

Boomer: I’m loathe to admit it because I pride myself on being the kind of person who can enjoy just about any piece of media on some level, but this is one of those that falls into the vague and purely personal category of “difficult to pay attention to” (pardon my dangling preposition). I get that this is a bit of an insult to the film despite being a matter of personal attention spans (for instance, I would never fault someone for feeling the same way about Knife+Heart, which might be my new favorite film of all time). There’s nothing lazy about the movie per se, but even with my hard and fast rule of “No phones during movie time” I found myself sometimes losing focus from the screen and actually staring at the wall behind it. There’s a dearth of information about the movie online, so try as I might both during and after the film, I couldn’t quite make sense of Boya’s relationship with Rita, the hairdresser. When we first see the photo of the two of them together in ’69, I was convinced it was a wedding photo, which made me instantly dislike Boya; who promises to sire their spouse and then runs off for over two decades? He seemed more like a deadbeat lover who went out for smokes and never came back than he did a figure of desire (even for me, and that is very much my type), which, coupled with my overall general distrust of men with long hair (don’t @ me), led me to read Boya not as a man reluctant to get into another doomed relationship so much as a serial sexual predator who has determined exactly how long he needs to disappear in order to mostly be forgotten, Rita notwithstanding. Maybe I just don’t get the allure. I read much less of a tragically romantic Mayfly-December Romance angle and more creepiness, although I’ll admit that might be the fact that Left Behind completely warped my brain when I was a kid. There’s also just something not-quite-consensual afoot when we’re talking about supernatural charisma and long distance dry humping(?), and that throws up my defenses, I suppose.

Hanna, what did you think about this film as a vampire movie specifically? We’re pretty accustomed to vampires who break the “rules” around these parts, but I was still pretty shocked that in Boya’s first scene he was standing in pretty direct sunlight (although this is less the case later), and that he appeared in Earl’s rearview mirror. Are you a vampire media fan? What are some of your faves? Where would this movie rank among them?

Hanna: I’m a big proponent of horror creatures that break the rules. Vampires have been used as boogeymen for anti-miscegenous, xenophobic, and homophobic cultural tensions from the Victorian era onwards, as people have come up with all kinds of outrageous and malicious false ideas and people they fear (e.g., contagious homosexuality). It seems to me that the harder horror moviemakers lean into vampire lore, the wider the gulf they create between vampires and humanity apart; in that case, I think it makes sense that Boya the Humanist wouldn’t be beholden to the rules of vampires in the past.

In the grand scheme of vampire media, this felt like a mid-life crisis vampire movie. Most vampire media – movies, books, and TV-shows included – focuses on the violent, lustful carnality of vampirism; the intoxicating thrill of eternal love; or the loneliness of eternal life. While I am 100% on board with gratuitous vampire trash and bloodlust (shamefully, I was a big fan of Queen of the Damned as a child), I also appreciate media that focuses on the vampires for whom the thrill of blood-soaked indulgence has soured—or was never appealing to begin with—because I personally think eternal life would be pretty miserable, no matter how hot and mysterious my vampire self might be. I read that as Boya’s main internal conflict, beginning when Rita asks him to transform her into a vampire, which seemed to be his impetus for climbing into the attic and isolating himself from humanity. When that fails, Boya has to reckon with the consequences of beholding the suffering of loved ones for an eternity, or condemning a mortal companion to live out the end of the world with him. He reminds me of Louis from Interview With the Vampire, but dialed back about 6 notches on the tortured soul and vampire-bitching (thank you, Britnee). I love that Boya handles the limits of his self-actualization like a real human: with mopey dissatisfaction and ennui.

Boomer, I can also definitely see your interpretation of Boya as a fiend biding his time for a fresh hookup, though, and now I’ll have to do some deep soul searching re: my love for Boya.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Boya spends a lot of time in the bathtub, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of some psychological issues or maybe he’s also part merman?

Hanna: I would like to give a standing ovation to Helene Clarkson’s fantastic eyebrows; they really add to Molly’s character.

Boomer: Here’s Gordon Currie being interviewed by Kirk Cameron, if you can stomach it.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without mentioning the musical stylings of Nash the Slash, who’s credited as providing the film’s score. A notorious Torontonian weirdo who masked his face with surgical bandages when performing, Nash the Slash’s contributions here are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that helps solidify the movie’s sleepy, melancholic tone. To be honest, seeing his name in the credits is the most significantly eccentric presence that he brings to this particular project, but the more you dig into his Wikipedia page and his performance art-style music videos the more fascinating he becomes. If for nothing else, I’m at least super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #6 of The Swampflix Podcast: Women in Captivity Cinema & Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

inaworld

Welcome to Episode #6 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixth episode, James & Brandon discuss the last year’s unexpected trend of movies featuring women in captivity with friend & photographer Hanna Räsänen. Also, James makes Brandon watch Melvin Van Peebles’s eccentric opus Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

– James Cohn & Brandon Ledet