Psycho Ape! (2020)

The mini-DV backyard horror comedy Psycho Ape! proudly promises to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, and then it delivers exactly that.  In case the audience dare question the scope of that mission statement, the movie is careful to catalog as many dumb-and-cheap ape movies as it can for context.  It treats retro ape-movie ephemera as sacred relics: an official Congo boardgame, a pristine Blu-ray restoration of Schlock, a store-bought gorilla suit you’d expect to see in a Bowery Boys comedy, etc.  Single-scene characters debate their personal rankings of famous primate franchises like King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young as background-noise hangout banter.  When it devolves into a traditional bodycount slasher (with a gorilla-suit murderer instead of a kitchen-knife killer, naturally), the psych expert on the monster’s trail is Dr. Zoomis: a cheeky portmanteau of Dr. Zaius & Dr. Loomis.  Psycho Ape! goes absurdly overboard proving its credentials in dumb-and-cheap ape cinema scholarship, so that when it claims to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, you have no choice but to take its word for it.  I’m probably supposed to be aging out of this kind of bad-on-purpose, Troma-tinged schlock at this point in my life, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by something so lovingly reverent of such a disreputable, outdated subgenre – especially since it cites my personal favorite title, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, as one of the all-time greats.

On a dark & eerie night “25 years ago” (so, say, 1995), a “teenage girl slumber party” is crashed by a violent gorilla with an unquenchable bloodlust.  His weapon of choice is a standard-issue Chiquita banana, but it wreaks the same bloody havoc as kitchen knives & meat cleavers in traditional slashers.  Although most of the slumber-party teens are bludgeoned, stabbed, and choked to death by the phallic fruit, the titular psychotic primate does leave behind one anointed final girl: the obsessive ape-movie cineaste Nancy Banana (played by Kansas Bowling, director of the similar retro-schlock throwback B.C. Butcher).  In the following decades, the gorilla continues to kill at random, while Nancy Banana pines for the love that could’ve been, dedicating her life to becoming “the next Jane Goodall” (by which she means she really wants to fuck that ape).  They inevitably re-unite, and the film takes wild detours from its initial slasher template into retro romcom & beach party tropes.  If you’re at all familiar with the history of ape-falls-in-love-with-platinum-blonde cinema, you know that their cutesy romantic bond can only end in tragedy – complete with an obligatory spoof of the genre’s iconic “Twas beauty killed the beast” stinger.  The main difference is that this example also starts with tragedy and is careful to intersperse as many bloody banana stabbings it can afford in-between its cutesy romcom gags.

I just put more effort into pulling a coherent plot out of Psycho Ape! than director Addison Binek intended his audience to bother with.  Structurally, it’s more of a loose sketch comedy than it is a linear narrative.  Binek raised $7,500 in production funds through Kickstarter, then spent it all on goofing off with a gorilla costume, a camera, and as many friends as he could gather (seemingly including a ton of Troma alumni).  It’s basically a hangout movie for sickos, Motern for edgelords.  As proudly dumb & cheap as Psycho Ape! is, though, it’s anything but lazy.  Most hodgepodge horror comedies shot in this scatterbrained, tangential style are infuriatingly lazy (see: Da Hip Hop Witch), but Psycho Ape! establishes a distinctive internal logic that transcends any need for plot or scene-to-scene logic.  It’s a temporal mash-up of schlock ephemera from the past half-century: 50s Benny Hill grabassery, 60s lava lamp psychedelia, 70s first-wave slashings, 80s splatstick gore, post-Kevin Williamson 90s meta horror, 2000s digi-cam backyard movies, 2010s YouTube pranks, sub-Sarah Squirm 2020s gross-outs, and timeless scat & murder gags to tie them all together.  Some of the most sublime moments of the entire picture are just throwaway transition shots of Nancy Banana dancing with her gorilla beau in a vintage yellow bikini, with everyone involved openly laughing at how idiotic the project is on a conceptual level.  The fun they’re having on-“set” is infectious.  It’s a reckless party movie dressed up like a bodycount horror, but it’s oddly sincere in its dedication to having a good time and to honoring the ape-horror comedies that came before it.  I had a blast.

-Brandon Ledet

Fresh (2022)

Is Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom?  I have no clue how to go about verifying that claim, but it’s the exact kind of hook this movie needs to reel in an audience.  After premiering to positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was picked up for quick, wide distribution by Searchlight Pictures.  That used to entail a gradual, platformed theatrical rollout built on word-of-mouth promotion . . . when Searchlight was owned by Fox. But since Searchlight is now a Disney subsidiary, it means Fresh was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu.  It may have topped a few online publications’ “What’s New to Streaming This Week” roundups the weekend it premiered, but in a month or so it will have effectively disappeared from the public consciousness.  So, let’s go ahead and confidently call Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom so it has fighting chance to get noticed at all; researching that claim could only spoil the fun. 

The first half-hour of Fresh is pure romcom.  Or it’s at least the kind of “indie” romcom about messy, listless twentysomethings that regularly premiere at Sundance year after year: Obvious Child, Together Together, The Big Sick, etc.  Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as a Los Angeles transplant who’s struggling to survive the anguish of first-date awkwardness in the Tinder era.  Some of the indignities of modern dating are genuinely harrowing, like the threat of unsolicited dick pics or the threat of violent physical retaliation after even the gentlest rejection.  Mostly, though, her dates with self-absorbed losers literally named Chad are played for cutesy comical effect.  Her luck turns around when she meets an eerily handsome & charming bachelor played by Sebastian Stan, who appears both well-adjusted and genuinely interested in her as a person; he’s the only potential match who asks her questions about herself, anyway.  It’s when they officially pair up that the opening credits finally roll, and the film perverts its modern romcom trappings with some unexpected torture porn viciousness.  I won’t reveal too much of the post-twist premise, but I’ll at least advertise that it encourages Stan to chew more than just the scenery as Edgar-Jones’s romantic foil, and he is ravenous.

Fresh‘s straight-to-streaming distribution path isn’t the only reason it needs a killer hook.  This is cute, sick stuff, but it ultimately doesn’t have much to say as anything but a style exercise.  You could sum up its entire thematic scope as a morbidly literal interpretation of the idiom “Dating apps are meat markets,” which is potentially a problem for a horror comedy’s two full hours in length.  The style is substance in this case, though, not only in the tension of its competing torture-porn/romcom tones but also in how first-time director Mimi Cave relentlessly disorients the audience with twirling camera work.  It’s especially impressive as a COVID-era production, given that most scenes only involve one-to-three actors sharing the screen at any time, but it doesn’t feel dramatically constrained by pandemic precautions the way a lot of recent thrillers do.  There’s a hungry audience out there who would appreciate what Fresh is doing if they only knew it existed, which is why I’m pushing to brand it with its own unique genre-mashup superlative.  There have been plenty of other cannibal comedies & romantic horrors over the years, so let’s give this one its own title to defend as the first of its niche: the torture-porn romcom.

-Brandon Ledet

Heard She Got a Metal Detector

Starting last year, we have entered a new, revolutionary era for the movie-making division of Motern Media, with shockwaves that will rattle the bones of independent cinema for at least the next decade to come.  Motern megalomaniac Matt Farley has announced plans to complete & distribute two feature films a year for the foreseeable future, collaborating with longtime filmmaking partner Charles Roxburgh to match the overwhelming pace of Farley’s music production in their backyard movie output.  That personally imposed two-films-a-year metric would sound too ambitious to be sustainable for an amateur auteur if it weren’t for Farley’s deep public record of superheroic stubbornness.  Between his 22,000+ song catalog, six-hour marathon concerts, conceptual triple albums, and outright spiteful takeover of the Sufjan Stevens “50 States” project, Farley unleashes an unrelenting flood of self-published #content at a pace unmatched by any Online Era artist I can name.  The only time he’s announced an ambitious creative project without fulfilling his initial goal is when he & Roxburgh planned to produce a septology of Druid-themed movies shot on a digi-camcorder in the woods, but wisely cut the project short when it was “only” a quadrilogy (still an impressive feat).  And, who knows, maybe this new two-film-a-year production metric will force Motern’s hand in delivering the final three parts of The Druid Cycle after all, picking up where they left off with Druids Druids Everywhere in 2014.  They’ve got to run out of fresh ideas at some point, right?  Right?!?

The first pair of films from this new, revolutionary era in Motern Cinema offers both a wild deviation from the norm and a nostalgic return to basics.  It’s obviously much easier to get excited about the outlier, so I’ll start there.  Releasing it direct-to-Vimeo in 2021, Farley & Roxburgh present Heard She Got Married as their version of a “straight forward psychological thriller,” a wild tonal departure from their classic tongue-in-cheek creature features.  Instead of playing his usual stock character of an outsider artist who never “made it”, Farley leads as a has-been rock star who moves back to his hometown “in The Tri-Town Area” to adjust to a post-fame life.  The film is as bizarre as ever in its hyper-specific character details (including a local weirdo who is fixated on convincing strangers to taste his homemade hotdogs), but it’s an all-growed-up, oddly sinister maturation of the Motern template.  The Motern family of recurring players are getting old, and there’s a darkness to their nostalgia for the sunnier days of their rambunctious youth, summarized by the line “We all had a good time when we were kids, but it’s over.”  When Farley’s has-been rock star investigates the suspicious behavior of his psychotic mailman, it’s played as a sad, petty distraction from his real work of growing up & moving on – as opposed to previous heroic investigations of small-town threats like the Riverbeast, the Gospercaps, and the creep with the killer foot.  It’s disarming to see Farley & Roxburgh mine such a dark tone out of the exact character dynamics they usually play for laughs, especially since the movie ends on a sincere psych-thriller twist instead of an absurdist punchline.

Premiered at a couple isolated screenings in 2021 and now widely available on Blu-Ray through Gold Ninja Video, Metal Detector Maniac is more of a business-as-usual effort from Motern than its sister film.  It delivers all the novelty songs, adorable locals, 1-on-1 basketball, and preposterous horror villainy you’d expect from a Farley/Roxburgh horror comedy.  Metal Detector Maniac was initially intended to be a sincere throwback to video store-era horror schlock, but in the writing process it devolved into a goofball satire dunking on the absurdity of academia.  Farley co-stars with longtime Moes Haven bandmate Tom Scalzo as college professors who get distracted from their academic research by a self-assigned “citizen sleuth” investigation of a suspicious metal detector hobbyist who lurks around the public park.  Unlike with the similar maniac mailman investigation of Heard She Got Married, the metal detectorist’s devious behavior is a non-sequitur that only occasionally distracts from what’s really on Matt Farley’s mind: petty grievances over the cushiness of tenured university jobs.  Metal Detector Maniac is mostly an excuse for Farley to complain about the ridiculous racket of paid sabbaticals, university presses, and inspirational “pre-writing” sessions that he’s locked out of as a self-published artist.  A no-budget horror about a maniac with a killer metal detector is a hilariously incongruous platform for these bitter, detailed complaints about professorship, which is the exact kind of the-monster-doesn’t-matter approach Farley’s applied to his creature features in the past.  It strikes a much more routine, expected tone than Heard She Got Married as a result, but another scoop of ice cream is still a scoop of ice cream: a familiar delight.

As a pair, these two new Motern releases are most essential in the way the document both extremes of Matt Farley’s prolific, bifurcated music career.  The bumbling “citizen sleuth” professors of Metal Detector Maniac specifically study the practice of spontaneous, improvisational songwriting, intellectualizing a “Don’t think, just make art” ethos to the adoration of their students and the skepticism of their colleagues.  By contrast, the tonal change-up of Heard She Got Married is echoed in the earnestness of its soundtrack, consisting of Farley’s sincere rock n’ roll anthems instead of the improv novelty songs that score his horror comedies (and pay his bills).  In-the-know Motern fans will distinguish Heard She Got Married as a MO75 film and Metal Detector Maniac as a Moes Haven film, but I’m not sure that level of Matt Farley obsessiveness is necessary (or even healthy).  At most, the only pre-requisite homework required to fully appreciate these delirious sister films is spending an hour watching Farley’s classic self-portrait Local Legends, which is one of the greatest films of the 2010s anyway.  Of this pair, Metal Detector Maniac is more likely the title that holds up on its own without prior Motern Media familiarity, but I’m also too deep into the cult indoctrination process to make that call anymore.  All I can say for sure is that both films are included on the Gold Ninja Video release of Metal Detector Maniac, and they both signal that the Motern filmmaking method is still going strong as we enter the 2020s – whether Farley & Roxburgh are trying out new things or sticking to what’s already proven to work.  Which is good news, since they’re planning to double their catalog of movie titles over the next few years regardless of audience appetite.

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

To my shame, I am not yet equipped to watch the new Scream sequel that just hit theaters, because I haven’t yet seen most of the films in that franchise (despite the 1996 original being a major touchstone of my teen years).  I plan on correcting that major horror-nerd blind spot later this year, but in the meantime, I have a ton of pent-up teen-slasher energy and nowhere to direct it.  Thankfully, the SyFy Channel has offered a cheaper, at-home alternative to that theatrical Hollywood offering, as they often do.  2021’s Slumber Party Massacre is a SyFy Channel remake of the classic semi-feminist slasher The Slumber Party Massacre and, honestly, an improvement on the 1982 original.  Although I was largely mixed on the first Slumber Party Massacre film, I have seen every entry in that series, and I’m generally a big fan (especially of the crazed, MTV-inspired wet nightmare Slumber Party Massacre II).  Feminist author Rita Mae Brown wrote The Slumber Party Massacre to be an academically critical parody of the leering teen-slasher genre, but the Roger Corman production machine softened its satirical edges beyond the point of recognition, leaving it little room to stand out in a crowded field of Halloween knockoffs.  Four decades later, metatextual post-modern commentary on horror tropes is much easier to get greenlit without producers’ interference (thanks largely to the popularity of Scream), so the Slumber Party Massacre remake got a chance to double back and do things right.  The only shame is that it’s working on a SyFy Channel scale & budget, when it should at least have been afforded the same resources & platform as the similarly minded 2019 remake of Black Christmas – a film it bests at its own game.

Slumber Party Massacre 2.0 worryingly opens with a straight-faced reenactment of the tropiest 80s slasher you can imagine, complete with girls dancing in skimpy pajamas and the hyper-phallic Driller Killer from the original series.  Besides the final girl archetype disarming the killer’s drill with a soup can, there isn’t much to the cold open that telegraphs how silly & self-aware the film will quickly become.  Decades after that initial sleepover massacre, a new crop of teen girls arrive in the same small town and repeat the same ritualistic slasher-victim tropes: car engine troubles, pajama dance parties, giggling over pizza, the works.  Only, they’re consciously re-enacting this ritual to bait the Driller Killer to their cabin so they can collectively stab & bludgeon him to death as an act of vigilante justice.  The only trouble is that there’s a nearby cabin of young gym-body hunks who are having a genuine sleepover slumber party (complete with an abs-out pillow fight), who might now be in danger of the killer’s phallic drill.  While the 1982 Slumber Party Massacre was too subtle for its own producers to catch onto what film they were making, the 2021 version is so over-the-top and blatant in its satire that you have to be awed by its audacity.  Once the pro-active vigilantism of its would-be teen victims is exposed, the movie has a blast openly riffing on subjects as widely varied as voyeurism, queer-bating, slut-shaming, and the wide cultural brain rot of true crime podcasts.  It’s obviously not as grimy nor as authentically bizarre as the original Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, but I still really enjoyed its self-aware quirks & post-modern pranks on slasher tradition.

There’s nothing especially original about Slumber Party Massacre‘s post-modern genre commentary, but originality is just about the last thing I expect out of SyFy Channel mockbusters anyway.  What’s really exciting & novel here is that the film announces the arrival of the very first SyFy Channel auteur.  Director Danishka Esterhazy is also responsible for the 2019 Banana Splits movie, another shockingly delightful horror-comedy revamp of a long-dead cultural curio.  Both films are irreverently self-aware & gory in the exact same way, and Esterhazy deserves major accolades for managing to establish a recognizable creative voice in a set-em-up-knock-em-down filmmaking environment that usually doesn’t have much of a discernible personality.  There are rigid limitations to what Esterhazy can achieve on the SyFy Channel playground, but her voice is at least cutting through more clearly than Rita Mae Brown’s did on a Corman set in the 1980s.  I’m looking forward to whatever self-aware genre prank she gets away with next—SyFy Channel Original or otherwise—even more than I’m looking forward to catching up with 5cream.

-Brandon Ledet

WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

There are plenty of recent horror gems that indulge in reverent nostalgia for the genre’s VHS era – from Censor to Rent-a-Pal to Beyond the Gates to the aptly-titled anthology series V/H/S.  I doubt any could match the detailed authenticity of the found-footage horror anthology WNUF Halloween Special, though, which goes far beyond the tape-warp filters and Tim & Eric quirk humor that usually define the limits of modern horror’s VHS throwbacks.  Inspired by the real-life War of the Worlds-style hoax broadcast Ghostwatch, the WNUF Halloween Special carefully simulates a local news broadcast from Halloween Night in 1987, complete with all the commercial breaks, fashion faux pas, and technical flubs you’d expect from that time & setting.  Smartly, it sets its spooky news show in a fantasy world where only a couple commercials are miserably repeated every ad break instead of, you know, all of them. It also helps speed along the proceedings (and helps justify its wear-and-tear VCR tracking) by making its found-footage framing device a taped-off-the-TV VHS cassette instead of a live broadcast, allowing us to fast-forward past the more tedious, redundant segments that plague local news shows.  More importantly, that POV choice helps underline the creepiness of its on-screen violence by raising uneasy questions about who is holding the remote control.

As its title suggest, WNUF Halloween Special is most satisfying as Halloween Night programming.  It doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a last-minute reveal, well after its regular news segments bleed into a special investigative report inside a local haunted house.  Until its sub-Geraldo reporter-on-the-street is tormented by murderous ghosts in the third act, the film is more about ~vibes~ than it is about story.  There’s an eeriness to the way its supernatural terror (with a horrific history of familial tragedy) is treated as a cutesy human interest story by the news anchor hosts, but that unease is counterbalanced by adorably costumed locals and Halloween-themed commercials  Until the film is ready to reveal what’s really going on inside its cursed suburban home, it almost plays like mood-setting background fodder for a Halloween house party; you can get away with chatting over beers with friends while only keeping one eye on the screen and not miss any of its core substance.  It’s basically the movie equivalent of one of those Halloween sound-effects cassettes that used to come with spooky-season Happy Meals.  I mean that as a compliment, as so much of what it’s trying to achieve is a time-warp nostalgia trip to Halloweens past.  Mood & atmosphere are its entire point.

Even though the WNUF Halloween Special delays all progress of its narrative until the last possible minute, it does end up justifying its 1980s setting by actually having something to say about that era beyond how cool its ephemera looks in retrospect.  A lot of the more inane, throwaway news segments in the early broadcast stoke the Satanic Panic moral craze of that era with a polite, irresponsible smile.  As nostalgic as it can be for the look of 1980s cultural leftovers, it’s also sharply critical of the regressive, reactionary politics lurking under the surface of that microwaved nostalgia.  If you’re looking for a purely goofy, reverent VHS nostalgia trip to vintage home video recordings, its recent spiritual successor VHYes wrings out just as many found-footage scares from its own sketch-comedy parodies.  The WNUF Halloween Special is more honest about the real-world evils & idiocies of its temporal subject (even if it does spare you from having to watch the same local commercial more than twice).  There are plenty of modern novelty horrors with a nostalgic eye for VHS tape warp & tacky 1980s fashion, but they’re rarely this fun to watch with friends or this thoughtful about what horrors really haunted our culture in that era.  Plus, thanks to a (currently sold-out) home video release from Camp Motion Pictures it’s also one of the only examples you can actually view on its ideal VHS format.

-Brandon Ledet

Delicatessen (1991)

One of my most rewarding viewing projects for the website this year was a chronological rewatch of the Alien series.  Not only did it help justify an ancient purchase of a Blu-Ray boxset I acquired years before I even owned a Blu-Ray player, but it also helped solidify the Alien saga as one of the very best horror franchises around.  There is no such thing as a bad Alien movie.  Their 40+ years of pop-media terror has spanned from philosophical reflections on the origins of humanity to dumb-as-rocks creature feature blockbusters – each worthwhile in their own special fucked up way, if not only for boasting one of the most continually upsetting monster designs in the Classic Horror canon.  While my appreciation for the series as a whole grew tremendously during that binge, I can’t say many of the individual movies rose or fell in my personal rankings or esteem.  There were only two exceptions: the dumb-fun teen horror AvP: Requiem and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s live-action cartoon Alien: Resurrection, both of which are far more fun & imaginative than uptight horror nerds are willing to give them credit for.  I’d even place Resurrection as the second-best film of the franchise (and I did!), bested only by the subliminal nightmare fuel of Ridley Scott’s original.

The truth is I’m always a sucker for Jeunet’s grimy aesthetics & cutesy twee bullshit.  Even when he deviated into the tropes & trappings of a traditional war epic—a genre that usually bores me to sleep—with A Very Long Engagement, I still greedily ate it up with a spoon.  Obviously, though, it’s when Jeunet mucks about with horror & sci-fi genre templates that I’m especially hopeless to his sepia tone charms.  To that end, I had a lot of fun returning to his debut feature, Delicatessen, after falling back in love with Alien: Resurrection all over again.  My tastes are basic enough that the chaotic twee romcom Amélie remains my favorite Jeunet film overall, but if he only made cannibal comedies (Delicatessen), big-budget creature features (Resurrection), and dystopian steampunk sci-fi (City of Lost Children), I’d be forever chuffed.  With Delicatessen, Jeunet premiered as an already fully-formed auteur, indulging in the exact improbably whimsical romances, monochromatic fantasyscapes, and vaudevillian comedy traditions that would carry throughout his career.  He just had to squeeze them all into a guaranteed-to-be-financed genre template, the same way he later had to adapt those same quirks to the American blockbuster template in Alien: Resurrection.  It’s hilarious in both cases how little of his personality he’s willing to give up to satisfy the expectations of the genres he’s working within, making for the exact kind of high-style, self-indulgent filmmaking I always love to see in horror.

Delicatessen is a (non-musical) Sweeney Todd-style comedy about an apartment building full of starving weirdos who turn to cannibalism as a desperate response to Post-War rationing.  Jeunet’s eternal muse Dominique Pinon arrives as the building’s new super, unaware that the butcher/landlord plans to kill him to replenish the residents’ meat supply as soon as he’s done fixing up the squeaks & leaks and repainting the ceilings.  A heavy dust storm of war-ravaged buildings drapes the sky outside the apartments, so that everyone feels trapped inside, living in an exponentially quirky microcosm.  That dusty coating antiques the film’s setting with the same Universal Horror & German Expressionist throwback aesthetics you’ll see in other traditionalist weirdos’ films like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man or Guy Maddin’s everything.  For the most part, though, Jeunet is not especially interested in the terror or tension of old-school horror, just the surrealist headspace those traditions tap into.  People may be chopped up & eaten by a small-minded, isolated community of weirdos, but this is hardly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Most of the runtime is eaten up by twee-as-fuck dalliances like Pinon’s ill-advised romance with the butcher’s daughter, or their depressed neighbor’s Rube Goldberg suicide contraptions, or the last minute heist plot meant to sneak Pinon out of the building unchewed.  It looks grim & sinister at all times, but it’s all very silly & cute.

The one stroke of pure genius in Delicatessen is Jeunet’s casting of Dominique Pinon as a former circus clown, complete with black & white television broadcasts of his act with his former partner, a chimpanzee named Mr. Livingstone.  The image of Pinon’s wonderfully bizarre face slathered in vintage clown makeup is initially terrifying, fitting firmly in the film’s old-school horror traditionalism.  At the same time, Jeunet only uses that imagery as excuse to launch into the twee whimsy that interests him as a storyteller – including romantic sequences of Pinon wooing his neighborly crush with vaudevillian clown routines, sentimental heartbreak over the loss of Mr. Livingstone, and the eerie theremin-like sounds of Pinon playing a musical saw.  I always appreciate when a horror film manages to be genuinely scary, but that’s not usually what I’m looking for in the genre.  What I most love about horror is that it’s one of the only mainstream cinematic spaces left where creators are allowed to indulge in pure personal obsession & id with no regard for sensibility or logic.  Judging by Delicatessen & Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet doesn’t seem especially interested in the psychological terror or cathartic violence of horror, but rather takes advantage of the freedom the genre’s commercial viability affords him as a total weirdo with his own pet obsessions & personal quirks audiences & financiers won’t put up with in other contexts.  I applaud him for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Goreman (2021)

Psycho Goreman is the movie I most desperately wanted to see made when I was ten years old.  In other words, it’s an R-rated version of Power Rangers. The Astron-6-adjacent horror comedy deliberately evokes the live action Saturday morning TV programming of my youth in its tone & imagery, but ages up the humor of that vintage 90s Kids™ media with hack jokes about how believing in God is for rubes and wives are humorless nags.  I can’t say that novelty lands especially sweetly in my thirties, especially since its So Random! sense of humor is poisonously self-aware, but I’m convinced I would have absolutely loved it when I was still a child obsessed with monster movies & shock comedy — the same way I’m sure the world’s biggest fans of the equally unfunny Deadpool movies are the children who are technically too young to watch them but snuck them past their parents. 

At least Psycho Goreman is aware of its ideal audience, as evidenced by its explosively violent little-girl protagonist.  After bullying her soft-hearted brother into digging a massive hole in their backyard for her own sadistic delight, our audience-surrogate sociopath discovers a long-buried magical amulet that unleashes an ancient evil unto the world, à la The Gate.  The amulet affords her total command over the wicked monster that emerges—the titular Psycho Goreman—an intergalactic mass-murderer who’s embarrassed to be indentured to the “two brainless meat children” who discover his remote control.  It’s pretty much a hangout film from there.  Psycho Goreman delivers purposefully overwritten Pinhead speeches about the evil acts he’d like to commit once freed; his pint-sized girlboss makes him perform menial demeaning tasks for her own amusement instead; and an intergalactic council of outer space weirdos directly out of a Power Rangers episode plot to destroy “PG” while he’s temporarily indisposed.  It’s all very cute, even if the jokes it’s in service of aren’t very funny.

I’m not opposed to this type of ironic 90s Kid™ retro-nostalgia on principle.  If nothing else, I’ve enjoyed similar homages to the era’s cultural runoff in films like Brigsby Bear, Turbo Kid, and the actual Power Rangers reboot.  I just didn’t connect with the self-amused meta humor of this particular specimen in that genre, something I should have expected as soon as the similarly limp WolfCop trailer preceded it on my local library’s copy of the DVD.  Still, Psycho Goreman has a lot going for it visually, with enough practical gore, rubber-suit monsters, and stop-motion grotesqueries to pave over the dead silence of its jokes falling flat.  More importantly, while I’m no longer a taboo-craving ten-year-old, plenty of little weirdos out there still are.  If they can manage to sneak this naughty R-rated novelty past their parents while they’re still at the right age, it could birth a ton of lifelong horror nerds.  I’m choosing to count that as a net good, even if I’m not as personally enthusiastic about the movie as I wanted to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Boys from County Hell (2021)

Much like with zombies, it’s easy to convince yourself that every possible angle on vampire lore has already been covered in movies, leaving no more room for novelty or innovation.  To its credit, the Irish horror comedy Boys from County Hell points to a pretty major oversight in that seemingly overworked genre, an obvious angle on the vampire movie as an artform that’s hard to believe hasn’t been covered before.  In practice, it’s a fairly standard indie horror about working class joe schmoes’ war with an ancient vampire.  However, its locally-sourced vampire lore predates the Bram Stoker Dracula novel that most other vampire movies pull direct influence from, clearing out the cobwebs of a now ancient genre to make its archetypal ghoul surprisingly fresh again.  Too bad its chosen POV & tone feel just as tired as the vampire mythos of the least-inspired movies it’s attempting to subvert.

Boys from County Hell is not at all shy about expressing its boredom with standard vampire lore.  The film is set in the small Irish town where Bram Stoker researched his genre-defining novel, using local folklore about a vampiric demon named Abhartach as inspiration for the broader details of Count Dracula.  As a result, the town has become a minor vampire-themed tourist attraction, drawing the most annoying of foreign backpackers to Abhartach’s grave and to the town’s only pub, The Stoker.  Local soccer & construction bros roll their eyes at the intrusion of outsiders, complaining between pints of beer that “Most people don’t even know Stoker was Irish” in thick, subtitle-necessary accents.  Of course, they’re eventually confronted with the “true” version of the mythical vampire once Abhartach’s grave is inevitably disturbed, unleashing an in-the-flesh bloodsucker on the unsuspecting working-class townies who’ve long dismissed the ghoul as an old wives’ tale.

To be honest, there isn’t much innovation or novelty in the movie’s actual vampire action once Abhartach is freed from his grave.  Sure, some of the long-established Rules of horror-movie vampirism are proven to be nonsense (re: sunlight, crucifixes, stakes to the heart, etc.), but much of the set pieces & iconography feel overly familiar for a movie that deliberately intends to upend its chosen genre.  Even Abhartach himself is designed to look like a Nosferatu type, recalling the equivalent ancient roommate in Taika Waititi’s own horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows.  The most the film really distinguishes him from Dracula is in his method of extracting victims’ blood, which is more as a kind of organic magnet than a direct suction technique.  That choice does lead to some stomach-churning rivers of blood that gush out of the undeserving townies—a truly horrific sight—but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to subvert the entire vampire genre in any substantial way.

I wouldn’t need Boys from County Hell to do more to reinvigorate the vampire movie’s basic tropes & imagery if there were anything else of interest outside those defiantly traditional scares.  The titular lads who guide the film’s tone & POV are total bores, the kind of one-dimensional bros that could only be worth following if they were also targets of parody.  Instead, the film is clearly aligned with their macho sensibilities, as reflected in its jocky soundtrack & humor.  There’s only one woman of note in the entire cast (Louisa Harland, the weirdo cousin from Derry Girls, in a minor supporting role), but there are sleazy guitar riffs a plenty.  As a result, I personally struggled to connect with this on any level beyond its direct commentary on the tired tropes of the vampire genre.  That academic commentary was just enough to make the film worth a one-time look, but I doubt I’ll be returning to it in the future.  I’ll save all my Irish horror comedy love for Extra Ordinary, a movie wherein women exist and truck-commercial guitar licks are rightfully mocked.

-Brandon Ledet

Slaxx (2021)

You would think that a low-budget, 70min horror movie about a killer pair of blue jeans would be met with lowered, forgiving expectations, but the truth is that Slaxx has a lot to live up to.  Not only has the early buzz about this satirical, shopping mall-set horror comedy been generally positive, but the bar for movies about killer inanimate objects has been set weirdly high in recent years – especially when it comes to killer fashion.  Between In Fabric (about a killer cocktail dress), Deerskin (about a killer deerskin jacket), and Bad Hair (about a killer hair weave), this once-niche genre has recently ballooned to include plenty of genuinely great, surprisingly thoughtful horror novelties.  Unfortunately, the killer blue jeans movie doesn’t quite clear the hurdle set by those superior works, but if it were just a smidge funnier or politically sharper it might’ve gotten there.

Slaxx joins the much wider, richer genre of Shopping Mall Horror by setting its blue jeans bloodbath in a parody version of stores like American Apparel and H&M.  It smiling, supposedly philanthropic corporation professes to be “Making a better world today” through the sale of trendy green-fashions, but secretly outsources its clothes’ production to subcontractors who employ child-labor facilities in India, often with lethal consequences.  That’s how the roll-out of their new, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants style one-size-fits-all-blue-jeans becomes sabotaged by the vengeful ghost of a child laborer, who possesses the blue jeans in order to massacre the company’s employees & clientele.  There are some well-observed political targets in that premise, especially in how consumers are in constant hunt of new, affordable clothing but don’t want to pay attention to the human rights violations that make that product possible (or, worse yet, want to be tricked into thinking their purchases are doing a real world good).  Unfortunately, the film’s humor is too broad & too self-amused to be worth much.  Its sketch-comedy level parodies of vapid YouTube Influencers™ or teenage Mean Girls don’t really have a place in what’s essentially a corporate-world satire; or at least they’re not nearly funny enough to earn one.

The frustrating thing is that the film’s actual horror gags are on-point, even if its satirical humor is loose & unfocused.  The blue jeans puppetry is especially cute, smartly opting for practical greenscreen effects over the weightless CGI buffoonery you’d expect.  There are plenty of great jeans-specific gore gags peppered throughout the film, including some gnarly images of the killer pants using their zippers as teeth to gnaw off their victims’ limbs or gathering in circles to gently slurp up the resulting pools of blood.  And when the movie isn’t making fun of the store’s teen employees for being airheaded Zoomers, it occasionally pauses to contrast their mangled body parts to broken-down mannequins, re-aiming the satire back at the proper corporate target.  Obviously, it’s a film with a pronounced sense of humor about itself (often to its own detriment), so not all the killer-pants puppetry is thematically serious or grotesque.  It also makes time for the slacks to enjoy a solo Bollywood dance number (complete with a behind-the-scenes look at that gag’s practical puppetry) just to keep the mood light.  It’s adorable in isolation, but not adorable enough to pave over the more straightforward Jokes that simply just don’t land.

I’m usually not this harsh about films with premises this silly.  Just last year, I (mildly) praised a film called Aquaslash about a killer amusement park waterslide, and that only has one scene where the central gimmick pays off.  I really do think Slaxx is suffering from bad timing.  In any other era, its adorable killer-pants puppetry would’ve been enough to win me over.  There just have been too many excellent, high-profile examples of that exact gag in recent genre films for Slaxx to skate by on novelty alone.  It needed to be just a little funnier or just a little more politically focused to stand out in the growing crowd of Killer Fashion horror comedies.

-Brandon Ledet