Monkeybone (2001)

There are two immediately obvious reasons why the special effects horror comedy Monkeybone is worth revisiting in 2022: its director and its star.  Henry Selick’s upcoming Wendell and Wild is his first feature film since 2009’s cult favorite Coraline, and it appears to be perfectly in rhythm with the stop-motion nightmares for kids that have defined his career.  Not only is Monkeybone Selick’s only live-action film to date, but it also happens to feature another beloved 90s figure who’s making a comeback this year: Brendan Fraser, who’s soon to launch a Best Actor awards campaign for Aronofsky’s The Whale. Fraser is in his wacky, live-action Looney Tunes mode in Monkeybone, as opposed to the dramatic vulnerability mode he brings to films like Gods & Monsters and, presumably, The Whale.  Trapped in a literal nightmare-world induced by a coma, Fraser’s comic book artist protagonist goes to war with his own cartoonish creations in a physical version of the Hot Topic mall-goth fantasyscapes Selick made his name on in A Nightmare Before Christmas.  It’s like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Tim Burton directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, one made even more fascinating by the fact that it flopped hard on its initial release – investing $75mil on a $7mil payoff.

To my shame, I don’t want to spend much time praising what Selick nor Fraser achieve in Monkeybone.  No, I want to praise Chris Kattan.  I outright groaned when Kattan’s name showed up in the opening credits, expecting the SNL veteran to be voicing the titular, annoying cartoon monkey sidekick character as an extension of his Mr. Peepers sketches.  It turns out that Kattan is totally innocent on that front; Monkeybone is voiced by John Turturro, the scamp. He’s also supposed to grate on the audience’s nerves, as evidenced by Fraser’s constant efforts to get him to shut up & go away every time he opens his obnoxious little mouth.  For his part, Kattan doesn’t show up until about an hour into the runtime, playing the corpse of a gymnast who died in a horrific accident.  Through convoluted cosmic circumstances that involve a deal with Death herself (played by Whoopi Goldberg, naturally), Fraser’s comatose cartoonist takes over the gymnast’s body mid-organ donation and flees the hospital into an unsuspecting world.  Kattan’s physical acting as an animated corpse with a broken neck and organs plopping out of its open body cavity had me absolutely howling with laughter.  It was the quickest I’ve ever turned around on a famous actor’s presence in a film, encountering Kattan’s name with dread, then finding his performance so deliriously funny that I almost threw up from the physical exertion. I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that another 2022-relevant actor played a major part of that movie-stealing gag: Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as the perplexed surgeon who trails behind the undead gymnast, continuing to harvest his organs as they fall to the ground behind him.  It’s sublimely silly.

As screechingly funny as Monkeybone gets during Kattan’s third-act zombie run and as wildly imaginative as Selick’s coma-induced Land of Nightmares set designs can be, its legacy mostly resonates with a what-could’ve-been melancholy.  Selick might have become a household name if this film didn’t flop so spectacularly. Or at least we wouldn’t get his work confused with Tim Burton’s quite so often.  Grimmer yet, Fraser, Kattan, and Rose McGowan (playing a humanoid-cat cocktail waitress, of course) have all gone public with stories of behind-the-scenes sexual abuse from major Hollywood players in the #MeToo era, haunting the film with questions of where their careers might have gone in a better world.  In the aftermath of those revelations, Fraser’s getting his late-career comeback, McGowan’s become a self-appointed spokesperson for the movement, and Kattan has continued to live in relative, semi-retired anonymity (give or take an affectionate shoutout in this summer’s Nope).  I don’t know that Kattan deserves the same red-carpet career revival as his co-stars, or if the actor would even be interested in a proper Kattanissance if it were an option.  I do know this, though: his performance is absolutely the highlight of Monkeybone, somehow outshining all of the cheeky monkeys, cyclops babies, Guernica bulls, and Nazi Mickey Mouse prison guards that Selick packs into the frame.  It would have been an interesting relic even without Kattan, creating an amusement park dark ride version of the kinds of grotesque cartoons that only aired on late-night Comedy Central in the 1990s.  Still, Kattan’s late-in-the-game intrusion is what pushes it over the line from interesting to essential.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch All Cheerleaders Die (2013).

Brandon: I’m a little baffled by the lack of a visible cult following for Lucky McKee’s 2013 zom-com All Cheerleaders Die – a delightfully vapid, shockingly cruel horror comedy about undead cheerleaders seeking supernatural revenge on their high school’s misogynist football team.  Its reputation and promotional materials make it look like an unwatchable embarrassment only fit for gore-hungry teens who haven’t yet seen the superior titles of the teen-girl-revenge horror cannon.  And yes, the biggest hurdle All Cheerleaders Die has to clear on its path to cult-classic status is that it’s dead last on the list of films of its ilk worth prioritizing before you get to it: Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Jawbreaker, Sugar & Spice, Buffy, Teeth, Carrie, etc., etc., etc.  That’s great company to be in no matter where you fall in the high school clique hierarchy, though, and I’d love to see this overlooked, over-the-top trash gem cited among those better-respected peers more often.

All Cheerleaders Die starts with faux-documentary footage that anthropologizes the high school cheerleaders’ social rituals as queen-bitch rulers of the school.  Our outsider-goth protagonist intends to infiltrate, expose, and tear down the institution of popular-girl supremacy by joining the squad and sabotaging them from the inside.  Only, once she makes the team, she finds it to be an unexpected heartfelt bonding experience . . . especially after they’re all murdered by the school’s meathead jocks, then collectively rise from the grave to avenge their own deaths.  The film is a tonally chaotic mix of campy bitch-sesh dialogue, disturbing jabs of misogynist violence, high-femme lesbianism, vintage zombie gore, and supernatural goofballery involving magic crystals & spells – all lightyears away from the grimy digicam footage that establishes its early tone.  It’s a riot.

It’s been nearly a decade since All Cheerleaders Die floundered in theaters, and it’s yet to leave much of a cultural footprint among the genre nerds & edgy teens who’d likely love it.  In my ideal world, it would be leaving blood stains on midnight movie screens & sleepover TV sets on a weekly basis.  So, how did it go over with the rest of the Swampflix crew?  Does the cult start here, or did y’all find it to be just as terrible as its marketing suggested? 

Alli: I’m overall feeling pretty lukewarm about it. I don’t think it’s an unwatchable wreck, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of cult classic for me. It’s convoluted and lacks focus, but there’s a good movie lurking in there somewhere. One thing that caught me off guard is how long it takes to actually get to the undead part of the story. Early on, it concerns itself more with the teen drama than it does with the horror, which is really where it gets interesting. Then, once the cheerleaders die, it feels like all the teen girl bonding has already taken place, except for with Leena the resident witch. I would have liked to see them continue to bond and overcome internalized misogyny together, with the gay goths indoctrinating the cheerleaders in their ways and the cheerleaders teaching the gay goths that sometimes being popular and athletic is both hard work and has its perks, and that as girls they experience the same kinds of harassment and violence that male entitlement brings.

The good parts of this stlightly outweigh the rambling, though. There are some very funny lines peppered throughout. At the beginning, when Leena names her cat Madeline the only thing I could think was “Wow! That’s super gay.” And lo and behold, the movie did deliver the gay. (Also, it made me glad that I can pick up on the secretly-attracted-to-girls teen vibe after living through that awkward time. My experiences were not wasted!) I also appreciated the shallow aesthetic of this movie. It looks very Disney Channel Original at times while also delivering some real dark shit. The floating stones and the cemetery sign immediately come to mind. Who designed that sign? Do they work with Hot Topic as well as making small town graveyard signage? The way the bubblegum twenty teens look clashes with the gory violence really works for me.

For those interested in a very similar story but told in a less messy way, I highly recommend Lily Anderson’s 2018 book Undead Girl Gang. There’s popular girls resurrected, misfits bonding with them, and a murder mystery! I imagine this movie was influential on that book, but I do think it improves on a lot of the ideas in some very fun ways.

Boomer: I also come down on the “so okay, it’s average” non-side of the metaphorical fence on this one. When asked about my thoughts when recording our recent Monkey Shines podcast episode, I noted that I would give it one thumb up and one thumb down. Although I liked the concept and the way that it played around with it, there’s a definite muddledness to the narrative that, when combined with the Disney Channel Original Movie VFX, made the whole thing feel cheaper than the sum of its parts. Not that it looks cheap per se; normally, with a movie like this one where virtually the entire cast is unknown, you end up with something that looks like the kind of bargain bin, incorrectly lit, blurry student film that you can find streaming on Tubi (alongside 2001: A Space OdysseyTribulationThe Human Centipede 3, and The Color Purple, because Tubi is a lawless place). And because this was on Tubi, I don’t think that was an unfair assumption going in, especially when the film opens with the (thankfully unfulfilled) promise that we’re about to watch a found footage flick, complete with exactly the kind of overexposed footage that it’s common to find in movies from unseasoned filmmakers. The ability to chalk up poor editing, bad angles, out of focus footage, and inaudible dialogue to an error on the part of a character rather than the production crew has been a boon to neophyte moviemakers out there in the world, and although All Cheerleaders Die opens with a few of these hallmarks, it transitions to being a “real” film pretty quickly. 

But that’s also where some of the other issues come into play. For one thing, this cast of all white, mostly brunette girls caused some issues with telling the characters apart, especially early on. We watch Felisha Cooper’s Alexis die early on at the end of the “found footage” section, and we see that Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey) is clearly a different person. But then we meet Martha (Reanin Johannink) after that section, and it wasn’t until the football players showed up at the cheerleaders’ pool party did I realize that she and Mäddy were different people. There’s something a little strange and careless about the casting of actors who are all a little too similar. I’ve never been confused about which Mean Girl is which, or gotten Nancy and Bonnie confused in The Craft even though Fairuza Balk and Neve Campbell are both pale-skinned and raven-haired. It might be possible to get so high while watching Jawbreaker that when Rebecca Gayheart’s character reminisces about Liz Purr you have a moment where you ask yourself “Who’s that?”, but you’re never going to think that it’s Rose McGowan. That carelessness also seems to bleed over into an overabundance of names ending in a -y/-ie sound: Tracy, Lexy, Kaylee,  Mäddy, Cody, Moochie, and for some reason both a Terry and a Larry, who have no relation to one another. What’s up with that? When you’re watching Heathers, you know that they’re all named Heather (or Betty/Veronica Finn/Sawyer) on purpose, but here it once again just seems needlessly confusing, which is something that you want to avoid when making a movie with a pretty small audience in the first place. 

This certainly has a strong cinematic quality, but the sense you get overall is muddled by the whip-quick changes. First it seems like a found footage movie, but it’s not! It seems like Lexy will be an important character, and she is, but only as a motivating factor for other people’s actions! Why is Cody Saintgnue even in this movie? What is the purpose? There’s a very Jawbreakers-ness to the fact that the only non-evil straight male love interest in the movie is virtually irrelevant (I just watched that cinematic masterpiece again last month for perhaps the tenth time, and every single time I see it, the fact that Julie has a love interest at all gobsmacks me every time), but also, what is he doing here? In Heathers, for instance, the nerds have a Rosencrantzian purpose: to squirt milk out of their noses when a Heather looks at them, to be bullied by the jocks at Heather Chandler’s funeral and thus inspire Veronica and J.D. to target them, to provide chorus in the school. Here, they feel like they’re part of the movie because high school movies have stoners — full stop. So instead of a very tight, clean movie about high femme lesbian cheerleaders eating misogynists, we have a film that meanders around and has several really impressive sequences that turns into a DCOM version of Avengers: Infinity War at the end because Mäddy and her goth girlfriend have to stop the villain from collecting all of the infinity stones. The pool party scene, the beach scene, the car crash, the girls at school — all of it is very, very cool. I was immediately won over by the way that we cut straight from the expository found footage (that doesn’t really tell us much at all) to the very fun, frenetic cheerleading auditions. It managed to combine the campy peanut butter of all of those lacrosse scenes in the first season of Teen Wolf with the campy chocolate of the training montage in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer set to “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” by The Divinyls into a perfect little Reese’s cup. But somewhere between there and the end, after thinking to myself for the first (and presumably last) time I really wish Brittany Snow was in this and also Wow, it’s really fucked up that the only black guy in this movie is our primary villain and he’s out here sexually assaulting a bunch of white girls both literally and symbolically, it ended up being a not-quite-camp-classic for me. 

Britnee: I’ve seen the cover of All Cheerleaders Die many times while perusing through the all the deliciously trashy flicks on Tubi, and nothing about it nor the short description sold me. I don’t really like zombie movies, so a low-budget zombie movie about a group of cheerleaders didn’t seem like something I would be into. I was surprised by how unique the supernatural elements were, though, and it at least wasn’t the annoying, basic zombie crap I expected.

There’s something about gay cheerleaders killing asshole men that really warms my heart. How is it that this is the only film I’ve come across with that plot? It’s wonderful! It does have a pretty slow start and doesn’t really speed up until midway, during the confrontation between the cheerleaders and football players in the woods. That’s when I really became invested, and to be honest, everything that happened prior didn’t really register with me. What really got me amped was the magical Wiccan stones. I didn’t understand how they worked or if they’re a real part of the Wiccan religion, but it thought it was fascinating. The way that the green stones attracted blood and made the blood lines look like slithering snakes was rad.

Would I watch this again? Sure, it was pretty fun, but I’m not quite sure if I see it as being a cult classic. Maybe I’ll change my mind a few years down the road after a couple more watches.

Lagniappe

Britnee: If I would have watched this as a 14-year-old mall goth, I would have been super into it. I don’t mean that as an insult at all! I just think that my interests and style at that time would have really drawn me to hunting down a DVD copy of this movie at all costs. It would be in my vampirefreaks.com bio at the very least. There was a nostalgic feeling that to it that made me cringe a little, and I think I somehow was tapping into embarrassing 14-year-old-Britnee memories. 

Alli: I definitely agree with Boomer about everyone looking extremely similar. I wasn’t confused the whole time, but with the super similar white girl names, it did get rough. I also noticed that the black guy was this super evil, violent, rapey villain, and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I do believe that he has a couple of non-white guys in his crew, but it was a very, uhhh, problematic casting choice.

Boomer: I will say that, for all that I’ve said about how I found myself wishing I was watching a movie with more well-known actors, part of this was based on what I perceived for most of the runtime as a particularly terrible performance by Tom Williamson, who portrayed the villainous Terry. He spent the first 90% of the film emoting absolutely nothing: there was no change in his features whether he was sizing up Maddy, looking down at the crash site in which she and the others were presumably killed, or while watching Vik walk up to a teacher in order to tell her about what happened the night before. Once he got his hands on the infinity stones, however, he turned into a big campy weirdo, so I guess we can chalk that up to a character choice for the sociopathic Terry. Brooke Butler’s performance as Tracy was inconsistent, but she was nonetheless very fun to watch, and lead Caitlin Stasey was so magnetic that when I recently caught an episode of the current (terrible) Fantasy Island on TV that she happened to be in, I watched the whole (terrible) thing; and for what it’s worth, cheers for ABC for having a queer lady romance where two women demonstrate what they want to do to each other erotically with a rose. We’ve come a long way, baby. Special kudos, though, goes to Amanda Grace Cooper, who played Hanna. I really enjoyed her performance as both Hanna and Martha-in-Hanna’s-body, and she was the standout for me. I will also say that, for me, the movie would have been 10% better if it had left out Maddy’s video diary entry about her revenge plot. Given how quickly she pivots to genuine fondness for the cheerleaders and the unnecessary forced third act conflict that results from the others discovering the video, I could have done without it. 

Brandon: The Swampflix Crew may not have been entirely convinced of All Cheerleaders Die‘s greatness, but you can at least tell Lucky McKee believed in its cult potential.  Not only does it abruptly end with a shameless tease for a never-made sequel, but it also started as a revision of McKee’s shot-on-video debut, years before he had “made it” as a haunted-household name.  The 2001 SOV version of All Cheerleaders Die is a rough-draft prototype that’s not quite as polished (duh) nor as gay (booo) as its big-budget “remake,” but it’s just as surprisingly successful given its limitations.  It’s no-budget backyard filmmaking at its most charming & upsetting, and it’s obvious how McKee convinced himself of its greater potential as a post-Heathers teen girl bodycount comedy.  I still don’t fully understand why he was wrong, but I’m at least glad y’all found things to enjoy about his second attempt.

Next month: Boomer presents Stepmonster (1993)

-The Swampflix Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Brandon and Boomer discuss the farcical, anti-capitalist body horror How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), starring Richard E. Grant.

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Miller’s Crossing (1990) & Barton Fink (1991)
12:00 Murder, She Wrote: South by Southwest (1997)
15:45 The Conjuring 2 & 3 (2016, 2021)
26:00 Morbius (2022)
32:40 After Yang (2022)
36:50 Gagarine (2022)
43:15 Neptune Frost (2022)

48:18 How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Flux Gourmet (2022)

David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s recently revisited his early work to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art.  I didn’t have time to catch Crimes of the Future opening weekend because I spent those four days submerged in the lower-budget, lower-profile offerings of The Overlook Film Festival at Canal Place.  From the vantage point of that Overlook microcosm, the premise & circumstances of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet appeared eerily in sync with what I’d been reading about the new Cronenberg.  Strickland obviously doesn’t have as deep nor as prestigious of a catalog as Cronenberg’s (yet!), but there’s still a clear, circular career arc to his latest bedchamber dispatch.  Flux Gourmet feels like Strickland revising the giallo-tinged Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing, one-of-a-kind absurdism he’s achieved in the decade since.  The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between, just as Crimes of the Future reportedly lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and his late-career philosophic cold showers.

Strickland’s preposterous performance art fantasy world is enclosed in an artists’ colony that patronizes “culinary collectives” & “sonic caterers.”  Its current artists in residence are an avant-garde noise band that mic & distort routine, mundane cooking processes for a rapturous audience of pretentious art snobs.  Their work recontextualizes the sounds of food prep as both a difficult-listening version of music and as a low-key form of witchcraft, recalling the fuzzy borders between foley work, madness, and divine transcendence in Berberian Sound Studio.  Despite their inscrutability as artists, they suffer every dipshit rockstar cliché you’d expect from broader, more accessible comedies like Airheads, This is Spinal Tap, and That Thing You Do. The film essentially gives the witchy performance art collective of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria the VH1 Behind the Music treatment, with petty squabbles over what to name the band, how much creative input the frontwoman allows the rest of the “collective,” and what they’re going to eat on tour overpowering the more supernatural goings on at the art institute. 

If Strickland’s kinky, insular phantasmagoria has anything to say about the real world outside its walls, it’s in the way it satirizes the creative process of all commercial art, no matter how fringe or intellectual.  Every character at the culinary art colony has a direct equivalent in the production of music, movies, and fine art.  Gwendoline Christie funds the collective’s work, limiting their creative freedom with producer meddling & studio boardroom notes just to flex her authority.  Longtime Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed plays the hothead bandleader, enraged by every one of her collaborators’ minor creative suggestions, especially Christie’s.  The list goes on from there: Asa Butterfield as a go-with-the-flow bandmate who tiptoes around his hot-tempered bosses; In Fabric’s Richard Bremmer as an insufferable academic who intellectualizes everything the band accomplishes without contributing anything to the project; a faceless audience who shows their appreciation for the band’s performances in writhing backstage orgies; etc.   My personal favorite is, of course, Makis Papadimitriou as a quietly suffering journalist who attempts to remain objective & separate from the work but gets sucked into the absurd drama of the band’s creative process anyway.  Not only is Strickland more appreciative of the journalist’s significance in the artistic ecosystem than most art-world satires normally are, but he also uses the writer as a constant fart-joke delivery system in a way that tempers the film’s potential for pretension.

I don’t know that Flux Gourmet’s art-world parody has as much to say about the creative process as The Duke of Burgundy has to say about romantic power dynamics or In Fabric has to say about fetishistic obsession.  I’m also at the point with Strickland that I don’t need him to prove his greatness with profound statements or unique observations about the world outside his head.  The nail-salon talons & over-the-top Euro fashions of his visual aesthetic remain a constant delight, as does his naughty schoolboy sense of humor.  I wouldn’t recommend Flux Gourmet as Baby’s First Strickland, just as I imagine Crimes of the Future wouldn’t be as valuable of a Cronenberg gateway as bona fide classics like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, and eXistenZ.  I guess if there’s any way Strickland has the one-up in that comparison, it’s that there’s a lot less homework you’d have to catch up with to understand his whole deal, so Flux Gourmet is an easily digestible delicacy for the those with only a slightly advanced palate.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Ape! (2020)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Fresh (2022)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Heard She Got a Metal Detector

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Delicatessen (1991)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet