Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)

Well, here we are again: it’s the continuing adventures of Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck)! Like its predecessor, Basket Case 3: The Progeny replays the final minutes of the preceding film, as we once again see Duane reattach his unwilling brother to his side following the untimely death of Susan. Unlike Basket Case 2, however, we don’t pick up moments later, but instead it’s been a couple of months. Duane and Belial were once again separated, although less traumatically this time, and Duane has spent the intervening time in a padded cell at Granny Ruth’s (Annie Ross) to ensure that he doesn’t exact any further violence on the small community of “unique individuals.” But there’s a new wrinkle in the tapestry of their lives: Eve, the female counterpart to the monstrous Belial, is pregnant, and Granny Ruth doesn’t feel she has the expertise to provide a safe birthing environment, so it’s time to take this (freak)show on the road! So all of Granny Ruth’s X-Men have to load up on a school bus with blacked out windows to travel from her estate in Staten Island to Georgia, where her physician friend (and perhaps former lover?) Hal (Dan Biggers, of In the Heat of the Night fame) will assist with Eve’s birth. Since Duane can’t be left alone, he’s along for the ride as well, straightjacketed and kept apart from Belial, who hasn’t forgiven him for the events that concluded Basket Case 2. Things seem to be going well, as Granny Ruth is reunited with her multi-armed son Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty), first mentioned in the previous film as the catalyst for Ruth’s interest in and defense of “unique individuals,” and Dr. Hal has an amicable relationship with local law enforcement, as evidenced by his friendly and jovial interactions with Sheriff Griffin (Gil Roper), who even knows about and appreciates the mechanical genius of Little Hal. Duane even has a positive interaction with Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the sheriff’s daughter. It seems like things have finally turned a corner for the Bradley twins.

That is, of course, until the sight of Dr. Hal in his surgical outfit triggers Belial’s memories of the doctors who originally separated him from Duane, and he attacks the doctor in the middle of Eve’s procedure, mortally wounding the doc and complicating the birthing process. And what a birth it is! Thirteen monstrous little baby Belials come out of the fleshy lump that represents Eve’s womb, one after the other on the same umbilical cord like a nauseating, pulsating string of teethed pearls. They are monstrous. Further complicating matters is Duane’s escape from Hal’s estate; he seeks out Opal so that they can run away together but is recognized as one half of the infamous Times Square Freak Twins, leading two deputies to head out to Dr. Hal’s, where they mistake Eve for Belial and ultimately are responsible for her death, leading Belial on a roaring rampage of revenge, one which involves a dominatrix outfit, an overly long bit involving the alliterative names of all the deputies, and a robotic exoskeleton. And a swarm of little baby Belials, which somehow manage to be kind of cute despite being as disgusting as their father (I think it’s their little animatronic mouths that won me over).

As I said before, Basket Case 2 is my favorite of this trilogy. The original is a classic, but the first sequel expands the number of unique individuals in a way that makes sense, while keeping the majority of the focus on the Bradleys, even when they spend much of the film apart, and shows Duane accepting himself as a unique individual in his own right, separate from Belial. A traumatic event at the end of the film leads him to make a bad decision, but it all holds together. Basket Case 3 is a different animal: neither Belial nor Duane is really the central character here, Granny Ruth is. Belial and Duane’s separation is more than just physical here, as they spend most of the film not talking to each other, although both of them cause trouble for themselves and everyone else by falling back on old patterns of behavior, first when Belial attacks the doctor because his native language is violence, and when Duane exposes Granny Ruth’s cabal because he falls in love with every woman who shows him a moment’s kindness. In each instance, it falls to Granny Ruth to try and rectify the situation, but even when she is the centerpiece, nothing that she does in this film approaches the same energy level as her “Our sanctuary has been violated!” speech from BC2. The closest that we come is the “Personality” musical number, which is delightfully weird, or perhaps Ruth’s final speech to the viewers of “Renaldo” about the importance of playing nice, but neither are as riotous or have the staying power of anything in the previous films.

If anything, the film is simply too unfocused, which may be the result of editorial changes. Supposedly, the producers instructed Frank Henenlotter to make this film less gory than either previous entry and the original script, resulting in the omission of 11 pages from the shooting draft. The excision of this material likely contributed to the more rambling nature of this narrative. For instance, there’s a scene in which the entire Ruth clan appears in a fast food restaurant, freaking out the customers and generally causing annoying havoc, but there’s never a moment of menace, and we see neither Belial or Duane in the whole set piece. Compare this to, for instance, the scene in BC2 where Susan is harassed by a local about how she never comes to his bar and always seems to be buying more food than two women alone in a house could eat: neither Bradley boy is in this scene, but it does set the tone for how others view Ruth and her activities, and creates a sense of tension. We could also compare this to the scene in the previous film where Duane confronts a P.I. at a seedy bar with his fellow freaks: like the fast food restaurant scene, the freaks are in public, but there’s a purpose and an intensity to the scene, despite it being in a ridiculous film.

Still, there’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own. It’s unfortunate that this us the apparent end of the Basket Case series, as it’s been 18 years since the film, enough time for all those little monsters to start thinking about college and adulthood, which would make for an interesting follow up (then again . . . maybe not), but a man can still dream that we’ll meet the Bradleys again, one day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Basket Case 2 (1990)

When we last saw Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), they had fallen to their presumed deaths, but as Basket Case 2 opens, we learn that they survived their fall and are now semi-famous as the “Times Square Killer Twins.” After a brief interlude at the hospital to which the two were taken, they are collected by the kindly Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and her lovely granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray), who whisk the two back to Ruth’s home, a Staten Island mansion that the older woman has set up as a home for “unique individuals” like Belial, where they can live out their lives in peace, away from the prying eyes of society. These include such various freaks as Platehead, Half Moon (who looks a bit like Mac Tonight), Huge Arthur, and Frog Boy (played by none other than Tom Franco–yes, of those Francos). Belial takes to this new situation pretty quickly, even meeting a lady Belial named Eve (yes, they eventually hook up, and yes, we get to see every excruciatingly gross and hilarious moment of it), while Duane immediately falls for Susan, seeing in her the chance for a normal life that he could have now that he and Belial have finished exacting vengeance upon the doctors who originally separated them. It seems like the Bradley Brothers may have finally found peace… except that Marcie (Kathryn Meisle), a sleazy reporter for the tabloid Judge & Jury, is hot on their trail, with the backing of her editor Lou (Jason Evers) and the help of private gumshoe Phil (Ted Sorel). Before the boys can get their happily ever after, they have to make sure there are no more breadcrumbs that could lead the outside world to their new home.

Basket Case 2 is a very different animal from Basket Case, and not just because of the influx of funding, making for a movie that looks better, although its generally more balanced lighting and wider color palette also means that some of what made Basket Case the cult classic it is has been lost. There are still some pretty atmospheric moments, most notably in the bar where Phil meets Duane in an attempt to tempt him to turn in Belial or at the “freak show” where Granny Ruth lets Belial loose on a con artist, but this second film features a lot more daytime shooting than you would expect after the seemingly endless night in which the first movie seemed to take place. In general, the tone is more whimsical; Frank Henenlotter has said that he doesn’t think of himself as a horror filmmaker but as an exploitation director, and in this feature even more than Brain Damage that ethos comes through. The freaks are often horrible (although none of them reach the nauseating, pulsating grotesqueness of Belial), but they’re also pretty non-threatening, especially when they spend much of the film’s runtime comically skittering about in a state of nervous anxiety. They’re simply not scary, which is fine, actually, as it allows for Belial to continue to be a monster and gives Duane the opportunity to explore his dark side. His previous reluctant involvement in Belial’s revenge scheme evaporates, as he finds there’s a deep well of darkness within that he can tap to take action against all those who would seek to do harm to his new family. For all of its cheap thrills and corny gore, Basket Case could never be accused of having a character arc, which Basket Case 2 actually does. The extent to which Belial could be developed is pretty limited, but Duane moves from being merely Belial’s enabler/assistant to committing his own crimes and even self-identifying as a freak despite being the most normal (looking) person in the house other than Ruth and her granddaughter. This comes to a head, however, when he realizes that Susan is hiding her own freakishness and reacts… poorly, he attempts to correct his error by going way overboard, but I’ll leave the details of his overcorrection for you to discover on your own, dear viewer.

Of the Basket Case trilogy, BC2 is my favorite. Despite the eight year production gap, Van Hentenryck slides back into the role of Duane pretty easily (even if it’s impossible to ignore that he went from a young-looking 28/29 during the production of the first film to a youthful-but-obviously-older 37 by the time of BC2, despite the second film picking up moments after the end of the first), and Belial is still Belial. Duane gets some great stuff to do here, even if he’ll be completely supplanted as the star by Ross’s Granny in the final Basket Case (for better and for worse). You can see why Henenlotter chose to take that direction in this film, where Duane’s restrained madness is great, but not nearly as delightful as Ross’s utter commitment to the role, as perhaps best evinced in the scene where she counsels Belial, which contains the immortal line “I understand your pain, Belial, but ripping the faces off people may not be in your best interest.” There’s a great expansion of new freaks that also puts BC2 at the top, and it’s more restrained than BC3 will be; that film will add even more “unique individuals” but lose some of the best ones from here (alas, Frog Boy, I wish we could have known you better). Ultimately, this film also has the best individual sequence in the whole trilogy in the scene in which Marcie finds herself cornered in her own home, only to realize that there might be something unexpected in one of her own baskets . . . .

I’m proud to say it’s one of the best looking films in my VHS collection (I’m guessing it wasn’t a very popular rental, given that it plays like it’s the first time every time), but for those of you without this kind of access, Basket Case 2 is available for rent for the low, low price of $1.99 on YouTube.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012)

One film into his self-financed oeuvre, I’ve already come to understand Matt Farley both as a kindred spirit and as a new personal hero. I’m sure he’d be surprised to hear either, as he churns out his weirdo art projects under the Motern Media umbrella from a small apartment in New England, more than a thousand miles from where I’m writing this in New Orleans. As someone who makes zines, podcasts, and runs an amateur film criticism blog in the late 2010s, I recognize myself in Farley’s dedication to his miniature media empire. Producing any kind of online content without a major outlet boosting your signal (even media that would have simply been considered Art pre-internet) is essentially just shouting into the digital void, listening to the hollow sound of your own echo. That’s why it’s essential to collaborate on a personal level, to make and share your projects with your friends. The only reason we’ve been able to keep Swampflix going over the last three years is that we’re our own little community, one that doesn’t necessarily need outside feedback to feel worthwhile. Three years is a minor pittance in Matt Farley time, though. Farley has been producing microbudget “backyard” movies with his own community of collaborators for nearly two decades now. He has an obsessive need to create that has spread from filmmaking to podcasting, making zines about long walks he takes in his Manchester, NH neighborhood, and throwing annual 6 hour-long concerts for an audience of dozens. He’s even managed to turn the music production end of Motern Media into a livable salary, uploading tens of thousands of novelty songs to Spotify with search-optimized titles to make fractions of pennies off every stream. All this effort, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of Matt Farley. I hadn’t heard of him myself until a couple weeks ago; that’s exactly why he’s my new personal hero.

Between writing torrents of novelty songs to support his family, Matt Farley has managed to produce seven “officially” released feature films since 2003. Each star (and are crewed by) family, friends, and fellow employees of the local group home for teens where he used to work. There’s an authentic John Waters energy to his productions as a result. The accents, cultural references, and shooting locations are aggressively local to Farley’s small town New England surroundings, which he treats with a reverence few outsiders could ever understand. Also like with John Waters’s films, much of the joy of his work is in watching these amateur players flatly deliver intentionally-overwritten dialogue, but not with any perceptible winking-at-the-camera irony. They each carry a strange screen presence that cannot be found elsewhere in all of cinema, but they’re earnestly trying to put on a good show, even if a goofy one. There’s also an aggressive dedication to politeness & good manners in Farley’s work that separates it from Waters’s more decidedly nasty aesthetic, but there’s an obsessiveness & localized specificity to their respective works that links them all the same. To fully understand John Waters or Matt Farley fandom is to immerse yourself in their obsessions, to spend multiple films soaking in the isolated worlds they’ve built by hand with family & friends and no outside input. As a result, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start in their respective catalogs or even how to judge an individual film’s merits isolated from the larger whole, as it’s the total, cumulative effect of their lives’ work that makes them so endearing. Much like how Waters’s early career had its Pink Flamingos, though, Motern Media does have its own calling card picture that serves as a gateway to understanding his brand of lovably wholesome amateurism: 2012’s Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!.

Matt Farley stars as the protagonist of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! himself (duh), a public pariah in a small Massachusetts town who’s returning after a years’ long absence. He suffers constant ridicule for his past insistence on the existence of a mythical “riverbeast” that stalks the nearby woods. Thanks to a William Castle-style introduction that warns us of exactly when & where the riverbeast will appear, we know the monster’s existence to be “real”, so that his reputation as an embarrassment & a kook is entirely unearned. What’s most charming about this set-up is that the riverbeast itself is almost entirely inconsequential to the movie, only appearing occasionally to interrupt the small-town drama as a kind of Roger Corman-inspired act break. Between the riverbeast’s rubber suit visage and the movie’s warnings of exactly when it will appear, there’s no sense of danger or dread established by the movie’s stubbornly infrequent monster attacks. Matt Farley is barely interested in the conventional thrills of a creature feature, if at all. That genre structure mostly serves as an excuse to pack the screen with small-town weirdos, comedic non-sequiturs, and tangential novelty songs about the river. The real centerpiece of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is not any of its monster attacks in the woods, but rather a lengthy wedding sequence staged in a backyard that starts with a petty argument over potato casserole and ends in a minutes-long dance party. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is at its core a hangout film, in that it’s a document of friends hanging out & staging gags around the non-existent legend of a non-existent monster & the public triumph of the one man who believed it to be real. It’s the story of Matt Farley’s miniature media kingdom in a microcosm, as it’s the story of a man possessed by a singular obsession finding himself at odds with a world that could not care less.

If you only watch the microbudget end of genre cinema for MST3k-style, “so-bad-it’s good” heckling, you’re likely to find little joy here. Admittedly, the score is cruelly repetitious, the acting is preposterously amateur, the story is stitched together through voiceover walk n’ talks, the volume varies wildly from scene to scene, and the entire plot is re-explained in the dialogue roughly every three minutes. Still, as with most misunderstood B-pictures, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is far less valuable as a punching bag for cynics than it is as a genuine example of outsider art. Its bizarre references to a mysterious family activity called “helicopter hamburger,” lengthy lectures on breakdancing & cat litter, and dedication to novelty song dance parties recall the similarly amateurish antics of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but again with a wholesome earnestness that show could never match. Making fun of Matt Farely’s movies would be entirely beside the point, as the core purpose of his productions in the first place is to have fun with his family & friends (immortalized for all to see, usually at full-length on YouTube). That’s a difficult concept to grasp in just one feature, so I’m not sure the full impact of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! could ever fully sink in on a first viewing without any prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre. It’s only after getting more familiar with his insular, hand-built world in a few other movies that Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!’s significance as a calling card for the Motern Media empire becomes crystal clear. Of course Farley, perhaps the most self-aware man in the world, knows exactly how significant it is within the larger Motern picture. He even brings out the titular riverbeast (usually his director/collaborator Charles Roxburgh in costume) for dance parties at his annual Motern Day Extravaganza concerts to jive with his crowd (of dozens). He really is a hero, even if he’s one that must suffer mockery to get his outsider art into the world.

Last week I spent four consecutive days in a massive convention hall distributing zine versions of collected Swampflix works to librarians from all over the country. It was a bizarre way to attempt to connect with people, but it was at least a more tactile experience than a typical day of running an amateur film criticism blog in the late 2010s. Over those four days of talking with other zinesters and trying to grab the attention of passersby, I often thought of Matt Farley’s aggressively localized media empire. Out of every dozen or so people who stopped to talk to us about our zines (or to learn about zine culture in general), there were only one or two who enthusiastically got what we were doing and found great joy in talking about movies with a stranger. Similarly, I doubt every person who heard the Important Cinema Club podcast’s (essential listening) episode on Matt Farley followed through to check out his work online, even though most of it is readily available on sites like YouTube. Farley had to chip away at the B-movie, independent film market for over fifteen years before that message even reached me and there was a high chance even I wouldn’t put forth the effort to check out his work once I heard it (the episode did initially get released over a month ago, after all). What I love most about him is that I have no doubt that he would likely continue to make these films with or without a growing, dedicated audience. Like all of Farley’s films, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is a work born solely of passion & dedication, outsider art with no reward beyond seeing its completion and connecting with the few people outside your insular community who get it. I recognize that same stubborn obsessive dedication within myself, which makes me think of him as a kindred spirit. I also know that it will be nearly impossible to keep my own tiny film criticism community going for a full decade, let alone two, which is what makes him a true hero.

-Brandon Ledet

My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989)

The way I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s influence has trickled down throughout genre cinema is a fascinating thing to track. Both the teen horror genre and the term “teenager” itself were relatively new concepts when that landmark feature arrived in 1957 and it was the first film to truly make something substantial of that cultural shift. In most teen-marketed sci-fi & horror films of the drive-in era, young audiences watched their peers flee in terror from adult or alien monsters. I Was a Teenage Werewolf changed the game by making the teenagers themselves the monsters. It was the first film to metaphorically connect creature feature transformations into heinous, violent monstrosities to the hormonal powder keg of puberty, something that’s been exhaustively explored by countless horror pictures in the decades since. The most common descendant of that device is the modern teen-girl transformation horror, where young women transform into uncanny beasts immediately following their first menstruation: Ginger Snaps, Teeth, Raw, Blue My Mind, etc. Other examples of the film’s descendants don’t even bother to gender-swap or shift the context of the film at all, functioning almost as straight-up remakes: Teen Wolf, Cursed, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, etc. My Mom’s a Werewolf is a wrung even lower on the I Was a Teenage Werewolf devotee ladder. Not only does the film ruin the puberty metaphor by reverting the premise back to the monstrous adults of the 1950s, it’s also a blatant knockoff of the 1980s Teen Wolf franchise—essentially a copy of a copy. The same could also be said of the other notable, femme Teen Wolf knockoff Teen Witch, but that film had a delirious sense of Reagan Era absurdity & a sugary onslaught of MTV-inspired musical numbers. My Mom’s a Werewolf can’t compete with that, nor does it even try to.

As fascinated as I am with I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s influence on the horror genre, My Mom’s a Werewolf would have been much better served by dropping the teenager pretense entirely. The teen daughter indicated by the title is mostly present as an audience surrogate, spying in on a parent’s storyline that doesn’t particularly need her POV. The film does find an interesting angle by making the brat & her cash-starved bestie out to be horror nerds who pour over every detail of Fangoria magazine & attend dingy genre film conventions for weekend fun. It’s cool to see female characters occupying that archetype, as the 1980s (if not the 2010s, really) considered that kind of fandom to be strictly boys’ stuff, but they’re mostly present as observers & a distraction. The true center of the story is an overworked suburban mother with an emotionally distant husband & a pain-the-the ass kid. Ignored & taken for granted by her own family, she finds herself being wooed by a creepy pet shop owner who lavishes her with praise & kisses on the hand, when all she wanted was to purchase a flea collar for the family dog. Coerced partly through hypnotism and partly through her unaccommodated housewife libido, she flirts with the idea of having an affair with this creep while her daughter covertly spies on her from a distance. This is abruptly halted when the pet shop creep bites her on the toe (which, in a visual gag, is employed as a euphemism for cunnilingus), beginning her transition into a shapeshifting momwolf. It’s a very long journey until she’s a full-blown lycanthrope, though. Most of her symptoms surface as increased horniness, half-hearted nightmares, and a frequent need to shave her now-hirsute (hersute?) legs, making it a very long road to her werewolf form’s appearance at the climax. Just as much as it’s a letdown that her transformation is framed through her teen brat daughter’s POV, her werewolf form also can’t help but be a letdown when it’s finally revealed, as it’s a no-effort rubber mask Halloween costume with some mom clothes draped on top.

If My Mom’s a Werewolf holds any fascination on its own merits outside its novelty as a knockoff of a more popular I Was a Teenage Werewolf knockoff, it’s in its depiction of a middle-aged woman’s sexual awakening. A modern remake of this premise would have rich metaphorical material to work with as an exploration of an overworked, overlooked suburban wife rediscovering her body & her libido through a werewolf transformation, an entirely different angle on the conceit than the teen puberty horror we’re used to seeing. As is, the film can be frequently amusing in the way it mixes blatant sex jokes & pantomimed cunnilingus (both in the toe-biting scene & in a separate hand-licking exchange) in what otherwise feels like a kids’ movie. When the husband affectionately refers to his wife as his “little bran muffin,” she retorts, “Your little bran muffin misses your big cucumber.” When she later visits a dentist to file down her new werewolf fangs, he asks in heavy breaths, “Are you here for a drilling or a filling?” The film is not subtle. Everyone in My Mom’s a Werewolf is horny as heck except the one person who’s supposed to be fucking the momwolf (her husband) and their sex-neg daughter who disapproves of her newfound libido from the shadows.

This isn’t supposed to be a comedic softcore picture about a lonely, adulterous, housewife, though. The title promises some werewolf action the budget can’t convincingly muster, leaving My Mom’s a Werewolf a terrible movie with a great concept/poster. Sometimes the film’s cheapness can be adorable, including absolute garbage titles like Galaxina & Deathrow Gameshow in its teen nerds’ horror fandom & achieving a bargain bin bastardization of Sirk in its blatantly artificial suburban exteriors. Mostly, though, the absence of a legitimate budget is huge hindrance. A psychic’s palm-reading business is staged as a loose collection of scarves in an otherwise empty room. The only performers of note are last-second afterthought cameos from Kimmy Robertson & Marcia Wallace (who also had a small role in Teen Witch that same year). The 60s AM radio gem “Li’l Red Riding Hood” must’ve been the most expensive thing they sprung for, given how many times it repeats on the soundtrack. Most damning, though, is the rubber mask Halloween costume effects for the titular werewolf, which are just as cheap as they are lazy. To be more than a Teen Wolf knockoff curio, the film really needed to do a better job by its titular momwolf—by design, by POV, by everything really. Momwolves deserve a better movie. Teen-wolf daughters (and sons) have already had theirs many times over.

-Brandon Ledet

Mom and Dad (2018)

Over-the-top Nicolas Cage performances are often conversationally boiled down to a single moment of absurdist novelty. Entire movies are remembered solely as “the one where Nic Cage yells about the bees,” “the one where Nic Cage angrily recites the alphabet,” or “the one where Nic Cage stares at imaginary iguanas.” By that measurement, Mom and Dad will surely be remembered as “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s that exact kind of delirious lunacy trash-hungry audiences pray for in every Nic Cage cheapie, a novelty he stubbornly withholds in most of his direct-to-VOD dreck. Admittedly, though, the “Hokey Pokey” scene in Mom and Dad is only a brief diversion (in a movie composed almost entirely of brief diversions). He doesn’t even sing the entirety of the novelty dance song before he runs out of energy, just barking out a few lines in a single angry burst. The absurdist novelty of that moment cannot be undervalued, though; it truly is a wonder to behold. It’s also just one minor detail in a much larger, nastier tapestry of unexplainable violent outbursts. Mom and Dad thankfully amounts to much more than merely being “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s also a wickedly fun satire about modern families’ barely concealed hatred for their own, a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home.

Cage stars opposite Selma Blair as middle-aged parents struggling to find fulfillment within a traditionalist family unit. Light banter barely disguises parents’ & kids’ seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. This tension transforms into externalized violence when an unexplained supernatural event compels all parents of children everywhere to murder their own offspring in an epidemic of blind rage. Some of the widespread fallout of this event is captured in flashes of news coverage and in sequences of blood-splattered mayhem as parents swarm like zombie hoards to pick up their kids from schools & hospital nurseries. Mostly, though, the violence is contained to the suburban housing development where Cage & Blair’s rabid parents live. They chase their children around their home with various domestic objects, hellbent on murdering the ungrateful little brats while still doling out weaponized barbs of parental advice & commands. Meanwhile, memories & daydreams yank the audience outside the chaos of the moment to consider how the self-loathing midlife crises that preceded this bloodbath aren’t actually all that different from the violence itself. These relationships were never healthy, even when they were covered up with a smile instead of the buzz of an electric-powered jigsaw. This is an inversion of the dark humor we’re used to seeing in pictures like Cooties & The Children, where the kids are the otherworldly creatures to be feared. Here, parents are made to fear themselves, especially in regard to their unexamined jealousies & resentments toward their own offspring, who still have their glory years ahead of them instead of bitterly fading in the rearview on the road to selfless familial sacrifice.

Judging by the general negative reaction to last year’s similarly cartoonish home invasion horror comedy The Babysitter, I suspect many audiences will be frustrated by the frantic tone & editing rhythms of Mom and Dad. This is, paradoxically, a hyperactive movie with zero narrative momentum. Individual moments may indulge in the sugary energy of a breakfast cereal commercial and the whole thing is scored with a barrage of playful pop music, but its commitment to tangential asides & abrasive flashbacks often keeps its story static. Fully enjoying Mom and Dad, then, requires a forgiving appreciation of its pitch-black comedic nastiness, a wicked sense of humor where every parent is an untrustworthy monster and no child, neither newborn nor middle-aged, is safe from the malicious creatures who spawned them. I do think the movie plays it a little safe when it comes to explicitly depicting that child-endangering violence onscreen, especially in comparison to the recent cheap-o monster movie Clown. What it lacks in shock value brutality, however, it makes up for in a gruesome tone & worldview. The movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. To be honest, it’s a dynamic I find much more honest & relatable than the Family Above Everything messaging offered in feel-good-films like Coco. Even if you’ve never had a family member chase you down the hallway with a meat-tenderizer, Mom and Dad’s violent, deep-seated resentment is sure to resonate with you on some level (especially if you’re a middle-aged parent with ungrateful teens at home).

Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet