Child’s Play (2019)

I honestly have no idea why Orion Pictures bothered slapping the Child’s Play brand name on this evil-doll horror comedy, beyond the easy box office returns of its name recognition and the fact that its parent company, MGM, owned the rights. With a quick redesign of the killer Chucky doll and a few nodding references to the original franchise removed, Child’s Play (2019) could easily transform from a deviant remake of a beloved genre relic into an entirely new evil-doll franchise of its own design. Protective, enthusiastic fans of the original Don Mancini series have been cautions to support this corporate retooling of the director’s work, since he’s built a long-running series of passionate, campy, queer horror novelties out of the bizarro slasher premise for decades (with Brad Dourif in tow as the voice of the killer doll for the entire run). I can see how outside voices dialing the Chucky brand back to its origins for a franchise-resetting remake could feel like a betrayal to longtime superfans (especially since series steward Mancini is still making films & television shows featuring Dourif’s version of Chucky to this day). For casual fans like me, however, this MGM-sponsored blasphemy is an exciting development in Chucky lore. This is the exact right way to pull off a worthwhile remake: return to the original germ of an idea, strip away everything else, and then build something so new around it that it’s hardly recognizable. The 2019 Child’s Play remake would have been much more upsetting to me if it were a mindless, risk-adverse retread of what Mancini had already accomplished. Thankfully, it’s instead entirely its own thing separate from Mancini’s work, the ideal template for a decades-later revision.

While the 2019 Child’s Play is a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. In addition to borrowing the Child’s Play brand name, this film also makes direct references to other titles in that exact inappropriate-kids’-horror-canon: The Texas Chain Massacre II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, RoboCop, etc. In that way, it reminds me more of what Charles Band accomplished with Full Moon Entertainment (which is overflowing with straight-to-VHS titles about killer dolls) than it does Mancini’s work under the Chucky brand. Like most of the Full Moon catalog, Child’s Play ’19 is a violent, R-Rated horror film that perversely feels like it was intended for an audience of children, which will have to sneak their way into a movie theater (or access to unsupervised late-night streaming) to enjoy it. That’s why I was bummed to see so few pro critics & Letterboxd mutuals have a good time with this over-the-top shlock. It’s so blatant about its efforts to tap back into the goofy, childlike imagination of the straight-to-VHS nasties of yesteryear that it even makes fun of the inane “That would never happen!” complaint that’s frequently lobbed at these things in the 2010s (during a slumber party screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II). I was saddened, then, to see real-life movie nerds critique the film for being silly & illogical as if those weren’t its selling points. As a collective audience, we could all benefit from lightening up & going with the flow instead of straining to “outsmart” the exact kind of genre candy we used to enjoy back when we had an imagination. It’s fucked up to say so, but I hope the right kids find this film at an inappropriate age, just like how I found titles like The Dentist & The Lady in White too young in my own day.

Mark Hamill takes over the vocal booth duties from Bard Dourif in this iteration, performing Chucky as a more of a Teddy Ruxpin cutie gone haywire than a misogynist murderer on bender. That’s because the remake drops the original film’s premise of a serial killer installing their own damned soul into a doll’s body via a mysterious Voodoo ritual in favor of something more “modern”: my beloved The Internet Is Trying To Kill Us horror subgenre. Newcomer director Lars Klevberg updates Chucky to the 2010s by giving him a Luddutian makeover as a malfunctioning piece of future-tech. The killer doll isn’t Evil, necessarily. Rather, he’s a symptom of what goes wrong when we automate too much of our daily lives, submitting our autonomy to computers in exchange for comfort. The Buddi doll is now a home appliance connected to every other automated tech in your house: lights, thermostats, self-driving cab services, home-use surveillance drones, The Cloud etc. When one of these dolls inevitably goes haywire through faulty programming, these conveniences now become an arsenal to dispose of humans who dare get in the way of his friendship with this “best buddy” (the child who owns him). Chucky himself has become a real-life horror of technology as well, as the animatronic puppet used in the film has been smoothed out into a distinct Uncanny Valley look that’s frequently bolstered with cheap CGI – meaning he’s often creepy though the limitations of his animation as much as anything else. It’s up to a ragtag group of neighborhood tykes to stop the doll before he causes too much havoc with all this future-tech, as the adults in their lives don’t believe something so innocent-looking & benign as a Buddi doll could possibly be responsible for the community’s murders. Similarly, it’s up to the kids in the audience (who really shouldn’t be there, the scamps) to preserve this deeply silly film’s legacy, since adults’ lack of imagination is failing them in real life too.

It would be easy to confuse the new Child’s Play for one of those standard modern-era remakes of 80s horror classics that mistake an origin story for the killer and a more generally self-serious, muted tone as an “improvement” in revision. This is a major studio production after all, one with recognizable faces like Aubrey Plaza & Brian Tyree Henry lurking in the cast. I was delighted to discover, then, that it’s something much stranger & more unapologetically goofy than that: a film that’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place. There may be some 2010s-specific updates to the material in the technophobia of Chucky’s design and the Adult Swim-type glitch edits & meme humor that accompanies it, but otherwise this feels like a perfect 80s horror throwback. It recalls the over-the-top delirium of basic cable & VHS horror from the era, while also exceeding as an entirely new, silly thing of its own design. It’s damn fun, an it’s a damn shame how few people have remembered how to have fun with ludicrous genre films of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Satanic Panic (2019)

I closed out my experience at the Overlook Film Festival this year the exact way I started it: with a comedy that wasn’t at all funny. Just like with my opening night selection, Porno, I sat through much of Satanic Panic in the festival’s closing hours not laughing at any of the film’s proper Jokes but being amused by the absurdist excess of the sex & violence onscreen anyway. Humor is entirely subjective, as I learned a day prior when a total stranger scolded me for laughing during Peter Strickland’s killer-dress giallo pastiche In Fabric because it is “not a comedy” (hard disagree), so I’m sure this splatter comedy has a core demographic of genre nerds out there who are going to slurp up its cutesy occultist humor like so much blood & viscera. For the rest of us, the film is at least committed to exploiting the full absurdist potential of its sex & violence, perhaps the two most reliable sources of entertainment in the history of commercial art.

This film picks up where Rosemary’s Baby leaves off. Upwardly mobile suburbanite aristocrats gather in a beige McMansion to worship Satan as their Dark Lord. Their ritual du jour involves summoning the demon Baphomet to impregnate a sacrificial virgin, providing a physical form for an Evil deity. Our POV character is the virgin sacrifice in peril – a pizza delivery driver who dares speak up when the cult stiffs her on her tip, only for them to single her out for their depraved ceremony of untold horrors. Most of the film details her fight for survival over the course of a single night as she must first accept that witchcraft is real, then adapt to overthrow the black magic Satanists who want to destroy her with it. Luckily, her blue-collar pedigree has better prepared for the fight than the pampered suburbanites that surround her, whether or not they have all the forces of Hell to summon for backup.

In its least convincing moments Satanic Panic attempts a weirdly earnest emotional throughline about personal courage & survivor’s guilt. Its Society-esque thematic territory in which the Rich are an evil force that are actively trying to kill us is much more successful, but still a little hollow. Mostly, the plot is a thin excuse to juxtapose a wholesome cutie who loves fuzzy bunnies with the blood-soaked horrors of Satanic worship. It’s a relatively harmless source of humor (excusing a rape joke or two, re: preemptively losing her virginity), but also not a particularly novel or clever one. For me, the film worked best when the humanity of its characters was forgotten entirely in pursuit of sexual, gory mayhem: strap-on “killdo” drills, poisoned children, fisted neck wounds, Cronenberigan anus monsters, blood-soaked occultist orgies, etc. It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but Satanic Panic at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.

From a production level standpoint, this should’ve been able to accomplish much more than what Porno pulled off. While that film was a more amateur affair populated by unfamiliar faces and limited to just a few locations, this is a Fangoria-supported debut feature for Horror Industry notable Chelsea Stardust and features supporting performances from Rebecca Romjin, Jerry O’Connell, and Arden Myrin among its suburbanite Satanists. It’s far from a major studio production, but the fact that it amounts to the same general effect of something as cheap as Porno can’t be a good sign. Because both of those titles were able to earn their place on the schedule for the same generally well-curated horror festival, and both screenings were met with uproarious laughter from plenty of genre nerds besides me, I assume there are many people out there who will find Satanic Panic hi-larious, whether or not they would enjoy it more than Porno. Admittedly, I did eventually have fun with its commitment to bloodlust & excess myself, but I also walked away a lot more cautious about making time for these unvetted splatter comedies the next time I’m prioritizing what to see at a genre film festival. I now know that they’re a type, and not necessarily my type.

-Brandon Ledet

Porno (2019)

I often talk about how the worst kind of movie is a comedy where the jokes don’t land. It’s an experience that can feel alienating (and, frankly, boring), especially when every other person in the theater is slapping their knees and doubling over with laughter. Watching Porno on opening night of this year’s Overlook Film Festival was the most alienated I’ve felt by a comedy since the opening weekend of Deadpool 2. In both instances, I was surrounded by the boisterous laughter of audiences who were tickled silly by every joke delivered onscreen, despite not a single one of them being in any way subversive or clever. I somehow still managed to have a good time with Porno, though, even while feeling like the odd man out in that crowd. That’s because it’s a horror film on top of being a comedy, and its horror beats deliver where its humor fails. When most comedies fail to make you laugh, they leave you very few opportunities to be entertained otherwise. To its credit, Porno entertains throughout by relying on the most tried & true attractions in the entertainment business: sex & violence. Even if you’re impervious to its proper Jokes, there’s still plenty of blood-soaked juvenilia to keep you occupied.

While closing shop on a busy weekend in 1990s suburbia, the Christian employees of a vintage movie theater discover a demonically possessed porno reel in a storage closet. When they watch the cursed reel out of lustful curiosity, the transgression releases an evil succubus that seduces & disassembles them one by one. The small staff of repressed twenty-somethings spend the night fighting off the succubus in a fool-hearted attempt to save the world outside the cinema, but in a larger sense they’re really fighting off the lustful temptations that conflict with their Evangelical values: sexual voyeurism, substance abuse, homosexual desire, etc. While the jokes could’ve used a punch-up from someone with sharper comedic chops, the sex & violence of the premise are fully committed to delivering the goods. I may not have laughed at any of the spoken dialogue, but as genitals were ripped to shreds in unflinching gore, grown men were pegged over a toilet by a femme sex demon, and occultist nudists bathed in blood & strobelit giallo hues, I occasionally found myself having a blast. I don’t know that I could enthusiastically recommend the picture as a non-stop laugh riot, but once its sex gradually becomes less vanilla and the number of onscreen dicks (mutilated or otherwise) piles up in practical gore mayhem, it kinda gets charmingly juvenile.

There’s a particular kind of Horror Nerd out there for whom this movie will work entirely, comedic warts & all. I know this for a fact because each bon mot landed to thunderous guffaws at our Overlook screening. I’ll even admit that some of my own enjoyment of the picture was in hearing those very same Horror Bros squirm with disgust when a scrotum was ripped open by a sex demon or a prostate was worked for all the un-Christian pleasure it was worth, since those moments were when I laughed the most. Given that the film shares thematic overlap with B-pictures I’ve enjoyed before like Demons, All About Evil, and Cecil B Demented (and it even features posters for personal favorites like Ed Wood’s Orgy of the Dead & Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons), there’s definitely a shared appreciation for camp & excess where my own sensibilities overlap with its intended crowd. I just more often found myself amused when they were sexually antagonized than when they were comedically pandered to. Porno may not succeed by most horror comedy metrics, but it’s willing to engage with the sexual taboos that would most upset its straight-guy-horror-nerd target audience and I greatly respect that chutzpah, even if I was in no danger of busting a gut.

-Brandon Ledet

One Cut of the Dead (2019)

It’s near impossible to recommend One Cut of the Dead without spoiling what makes it special, so I’m going to have to tread lightly here. This is maybe the most deceptively complex horror comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most patient; the movie takes a huge gamble in saving all its major comedic payoff for its concluding half hour – an alchemist third-act twist that retroactively transforms the movie you think you’ve been watching for the previous hour into pure gold. Whether or not all its potential audience will stick around for the full benefit of that payoff is a major risk, especially since encouraging viewers who are going in blind to push through the limitations of its initial conceit might already be tipping the film’s hand. All I can really report without prematurely revealing too much is how the film toyed with my own expectations. I found it quietly charming, then disorienting & awkward and then, finally, one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long, long while – horror or otherwise.

As the title suggests (perhaps awkwardly, in Japanese-to-English translation), the initial conceit of One Cut of the Dead is that it is an experiment in staging a zombie-invasion horror film in a single take. A microbudget movie crew filming a zombie cheapie in an abandoned WWII lab (that once experimented with bringing the dead back to life) are attacked by real-life zombies between takes. The unflinching, handheld camera offers a meta POV of the crew’s shock & subsequent fight for survival as the zombie mayhem they’re struggling to authentically stage for an unseen audience becomes “real.” Deciphering exactly what’s meant to be “real” within this paradigm and what’s merely a limitation of staging a single-take zombie picture on an amateur budget is increasingly difficult. Stage blood & actors’ spit splash against the lens. Performers wait a beat or three too long for their proper cues to deliver their next line. The POV cameraman is directly acknowledged by the actors, despite there already being a meta remove of a movie-within-the-movie. So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.

The biggest hurdle in convincing people to watch One Cut of the Dead long enough to catch onto what it’s accomplishing is that it’s a little difficult to convince people to watch any zombie movie in 2019, especially the kind that was made for less than $30,000 and most plays at genre film festivals like The Overlook. That’s the ultimate trick to the picture, though. This isn’t about zombies at all. Rather, it’s a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein. Even before you’re allowed to fully catch on to what you’re watching, the movie’s already pitting a microbudget film crew against the horrors of the world outside their orbit. Actors strain to convey believable emotion in a preposterous scenario; sound technicians fight off the undead with boom mics; directors & cameramen defy all survival odds to piece together whatever scraps they can salvage from a film shoot that immediately goes to hell. This is a movie about the improbable joys & common frustrations of making movies, a sentiment that only becomes more apparent the more time & attention you afford it.

-Brandon Ledet

Greener Grass (2019)

Did you find yourself disappointed that Too Many Cooks wasn’t an hour longer? Have you ever started an online petition to greenlight a gender-flipped remake of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie? Ever have a nightmare that David Lynch rebooted Stepford Wives as an Adult Swim sitcom? The precise target audience for Greener Grass is such an unlikely combination of interests & tolerances that it’s an unholy miracle the movie was ever made in the first place, much less screened at competitive film festivals like Sundance & The Overlook. It’s not enough that its audience has to be thirsty for a femme, Lynchian subversion of Adult Swim-flavored anti-comedy; they have to sustain that thirst for 100 unrelenting minutes as they’re flooded with enough illogical chaos & menacing irreverence to last 100 lifetimes. It’s an exhausting experience no matter who you are, but there are apparently enough weirdos out there who find this peculiar brand of comedic antagonism pleasurable enough to fight through the delirium. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

At its core, Greener Grass is a comedy of manners. First-time directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Leubbe costar as suburban housewives in the same cookie-cutter, fly-over America we’re used to seeing in films like Blue Velvet & Edward Scissorhands. The film is so blatant in its adoption of the Sinister Evil Lurking Under Suburbia’s Manicured Surface trope that it practically functions as a parody of the genre. There’s a framework for a serial killer plot in which a crazed grocery bagger stalks local women and usurps their lives & homes, but it’s mostly treated as an afterthought, some light background decoration. Instead, the film generates most of its horror by mocking middle class suburbanites as subhuman monstrosities. Sharing a communal vanity that drives every single adult to get braces, they make out in wet, sexless slurps that torment the audience in unholy foley work. Proud of the size & cleanliness of their in-ground swimming pools to the point of mania, they bottle the pool water for drinking on the go. Traveling around from beige McMansion to beige McMansion in electric golf carts, they callously trade husbands & children as bargaining chips in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Each awkward social interaction is scored with creepy music cues as the humiliation from not keeping up with the Jones drives them each dangerously mad. It’s a total horror show, in that it’s totally banal.

DeBoer & Leubbe are joined by fellow LA comedy scenesters like Mary Holland, D’arcy Carden, Beck Bennet, and Janizca Bravo as they mercilessly mock the status-obsessed suburban monsters of Everywhere, America. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact target audience for this femme, improv-heavy anti-humor, outside the comedy nerds who turn up for UCB shows in NYC & LA. It was certainly surprising to see the film appear on the schedule for the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, which tends to cater to more immediately familiar horror tones than what the grocery-bagger killer side-plot has to offer here. I will admit it, though: the film is horrifying. Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

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