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

Episode #131 of The Swampflix Podcast: Gosford Park (2001) & Bob “The Madman” Balaban

Welcome to Episode #131 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the underappreciated genius of Bob Balaban’s career behind the camera, ranging from the prestige ensemble-cast drama of Gosford Park (2001) to the Lynchian horror comedy of Parents (1989).

00:00 Welcome

01:51 The Toy Story franchise
06:55 The Last Blockbuster (2020)
09:25 Jasper Mall (2020)
14:10 Dead Illusions (2021)
18:50 Bad Trip (2021)
25:00 Another Round (2020)
29:45 Tenet (2020)
32:55 Sound of Metal (2020)

38:00 Gosford Park (2001)
54:30 Parents (1989)
1:06:50 My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew

Druids Druids Everywhere (2020)

For the first half hour of Druids Druids Everywhere, I thought I had finally hit a wall with my enjoyment of Matt Farley’s backyard horror comedies. Now that I’m nearly a dozen feature films into his staggering catalog, it’s not like there’s much left to discover anyway. This past year I’ve found myself looking under every unturned rock in the Motern Cinematic Universe looking for Matt Farley movies that slipped by me a couple summers ago when I was at the heights of my Motern madness. It’s mostly been worth the effort! While not as heavily promoted or discussed as cult-gathering Motern Classics like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, both Obtuse Todd & The Paperboy offered some of the most sublimely inane moments of understated comedy in any Matt Farley work I’ve seen to date. Then, Druids Druids Everywhere shook my faith in the entire endeavor. Was it possible that Farley (along with longtime collaborator Charles Roxburgh) had made a movie even I, a hopeless devotee, couldn’t enjoy? It was scary; then it got better.

Originally intended to be the fourth & final entry into Farley & Roxburg’s “Druid Cycle”, Druids Druids Everywhere was always going to be a for-fans-only proposition. To fully appreciate their crazed commitment to the long-running bit of the Druid Saga, you’d not only have to already be under the spell of their greatest non-druid hits like Local Legends and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, but also to have seen the pre-requisite druid titles Adventures in Cruben Country, Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy and, the crown jewel of the series, Druid Gladiator Clone. That’s a lot of homework, especially for a no-budget comedy about a druid cult. It makes sense, then, that they decided to shelve the film in 2014 without ever officially releasing it, if not only to avoid scaring off new audiences who might have stumbled into it as their very first Motern experience. In the six years since that decision to shelve the film, though, public demand for Motern Content has only gotten louder, making Druids Druids Everywhere a Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail for the few dozen freaks who’ve seen all the other Druid Saga films and maintained enthusiasm for more. And now it’s finally been released as an extra feature on the recent (excellent) Gold Ninja Video release of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. I wish I could report that it was fully worth the wait.

To put it as simply as possible, the first act of Druids Druids Everywhere suffers what I’ll call The Adam Sandler Problem. Recalling the most annoying, soul-draining performances in Sandler’s cursed oeuvre, Matt Farley starts the film speaking in a painfully unfunny Voice that threatens to tank the whole enterprise if he sticks to it the entire runtime. It’s not exactly Little Nicky-level bad, but it’s not far off. Thankfully, he eventually drops the Voice (and its accompanying Spirit Halloween Store fake beard) and teams up with Roxburgh to rid the New England woods of the druid cult that’s been haunting them for four movies solid. Immediately, Druids Druids Everywhere feels like classic Motern, with extensive straight-faced gags involving evil clouds, home-cooked cans of Spaghetti-Os, and cargo pockets stuffed with magical dirt. The back half of Druids Druids Everywhere is rewardingly funny, but you have to suffer through some pretty dire schtick to get there. But, let’s face it, if you’ve gotten this far into the Motern catalog you’re going to be willing to put in the effort.

All the underplayed absurdism & recurring goofball players Motern fans love eventually bubble to the surface in this movie’s final act. If you’re already a Motern convert, it’s genuinely just a joy to dick around the woods with Farley, Roxburgh, and company MVP Kevin McGee for 90min. I doubt anyone who’s not already a fan would find much of value here, or likely even make it past the fake beard & Adam Sandler Voice intro in the first place. They knew that when they made the film, though, and it’s honestly generous of them to release it now anyway just so hopelessly curious nerds like myself could complete the Druid Saga and feel at rest. Sure, this is for-fans-only, but if you’re a Motern fan all you really need is moments of recognition to point at the screen at such classic Matt Farley Bits as walking!, ranting!, and playing basketball!. Please refer to the ranked Motern hierarchy below to determine whether you’re ready to enjoy such a low-key, but warmly familiar indulgence.
Must-See Motern Classics
Local Legends
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas
Second-Tier Motern Gems
Slingshot Cops
Freaky Farley
Druid Gladiator Clone
For-Fans-Only Motern Charmers
The Paperboy
Obtuse Todd
Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy
Adventures in Cruben Country
Druids Druids Everywhere

-Brandon Ledet

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

The Berlin Bride (2020)

The no-budget surrealist oddity The Berlin Bride drifts untethered to a proper context or place in time. It’s clearly styled to look & feel like a 1970s Euro horror (or a 1970s lifestyle magazine, depending on the scene), but its cheap digital patina plants it firmly in the modern age in a way that betrays that intent. A 70-minute oddity uploaded directly to Amazon Prime by director Michael Bartlett himself, the film is letterboxed by CG red velvet theater curtains to fill a widescreen frame – something you’re much more likely to see in an illegal YouTube rip of vintage VHS schlock than in a new, officially sanctioned release. Anytime you manage to forget that this is a modern picture and not an authentic lost 1970s oddity, a flash of surreally cheap cut-‘n-paste CGI interrupts the illusion and jolts you back to a modern context. Mentally vacillating between those two disparate timeframes is a uniquely bizarre experience, one that only enhances the film’s dreamlike, absurdist tone.

The titular Berlin Bride is, in fact, a mannequin. Two reclusive 1980s Berliners split ownership over a mysterious shopping mall mannequin that’s discovered abandoned in a public park. One of the men uses her right arm to replace his own amputated one. The other treats the rest of her as his newlywed bride. Both relationships provide their challenges: the amputated lady-arm becomes sentient & nocturnally impulsive, while the “husband” of the rest of the mannequin becomes increasingly obsessive over that missing appendage’s absence from his newlywed home. The resulting clashes that resolve this tension are surprisingly violent, pushing the film into throwback Euro horror territory. Yet, for the most part The Berlin Bride feels like a bedtime fairy tale – stuck halfway between the understated surrealism of a Jan Švankmajer or a Michel Gondry picture, depending on the temporal textures of the moment. It’s a distractingly cheap, uneven film, but it’s also an endlessly fascinating one.

It’s tempting to apply some metaphorical reading to the modern fairy tale premise that unfolds here, maybe something about the possessiveness of masculine sexuality or the horror genre’s longstanding relationship with dismembered women. Neither of those thematic pathways are as satisfying as treating The Berlin Bride as a weird-for-weird’s-sake oddity, though. It’s unignorably contemporary to the modern digital self-publishing landscape, but it feels like it’s time traveled here from a previous era when movies could just be Weird As Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something. Its closest modern equivalent is a no-budget, backyard version of Peter Strickland’s work, which I mean as a high compliment. Otherwise, I don’t really know what to do with the temporally dislodged fairy tale violence presented here, except to say that it pleased me.

-Brandon Ledet