Baby’s First The Thing

It may have had a rocky critical & commercial start when it first arrived in the 1980s, but at this point John Carpenter’s The Thing is a verified classic, one of the unassailable titans of the horror genre. Unlike how a lot of horror classics age into being so culturally familiar they’re no longer traumatizing, however, The Thing remains . . . inappropriate for most children. No matter how many times I watch that goopy-gory practical effects showcase, I’m always taken aback by how upsetting it is on almost a cellular level. The grotesque transformations its titular shape-shifting alien beast exhibits onscreen chill me to the marrow in my bones, even now that I know through repeat viewings what’s going to leap onto the screen and when. Of course, there are plenty of macabre children who love being exposed to those kinds of age-inappropriate nightmares long before they’re mature enough to fully appreciate them in context – the kind of kids who grow up to run amateur horror movie blogs. For most children, however, the cosmic grotesqueries of The Thing would be too much to stomach; they require a far more toned-down gateway into that particular end of horror fandom before graduating to the real Thing.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2010 darky fairy tale Rare Exports, is the perfect school age primer for future The Thing fandom. Whereas John Carpenter’s 80s classic mines the history of monster movies past (using Howard Hawks’s The Thing from the Another World as an entry point) to catch its adult audience off guard with a false sense of familiarity, Rare Exports does the same with a well-worn subject that would be just as warmly familiar to children: the myth of Santa Claus. It doesn’t take much recontextualization to make a magical world-traveling demon who constantly monitors children’s naughty behavior (and penalizes them accordingly) into something unnatural & scary. Like the more recent Michael Dougherty horror-comedy Krampus, Rare Exports rolls back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to reveal that character’s more authentic, pagan roots in the Finnish folklore of Joulupukki. The way Joulupukki is depicted onscreen in Rare Exports as an unknowable, evolving creature entirely separate from its Santa Claus corollary is much more in line with the shape-shifting alien of The Thing than it is with the set-in-stone demonic image of Krampus. Both Rare Exports & The Thing allow your imagination run wild in determining their respective beasts’ true form, but only one of them takes the time to scar you for life with surgical & animal cruelty gore in the meantime. That’s the one you probably shouldn’t burden your children with.

It admittedly does feel a little odd to recommend Rare Exports as the child-friendly version of The Thing, since it’s the only film of the pair to feature full-frontal male nudity. A good bit of it too. Although Joulupukki never reveals his finalized form in the movie, his little helper elves are essentially scary shopping mall Santas who forgot to wear their uniforms to work, chasing down little children in the snow while entirely nude. There’s nothing sexual about this nudity. The image of naked old men is played purely for childhood terror the same way the goopy surgical monstrosities of The Thing are played for deep phycological discomfort in adults. Because Rare Exports is made with a European sensibility that’s much less squeamish about nudity than Americans are in general, it doesn’t interfere too much with the feeling that this was a horror movie made specifically for children. The only way the naked male bodies on display in Rare Exports really stood out to me was in emphasizing the masculine environment of the entire picture – wherein gruff working-class Finnish men wage war against a Christmas beast in the harsh frozen wilderness. Like in The Thing, no women appear onscreen in Rare Exports, so that both movies feel like they’re about male bonding & male distrust just as much as they’re about terrifying supernatural creatures.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to how that (sexless) male nudity might have played for me if I were watching Rare Exports with my own child. I’d like to think I’d feel more comfortable exposing to them to those naked old men than to Carpenter’s hideous tentacle dogs, but who knows.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The World is Full of Secrets (2019)

I often hear cinephile intellectuals on podcasts like Film Comment & The Important Cinema Club evangelize for the merits of #slowcinema, which is typified by long, lingering shots where little to nothing happens onscreen for minutes on end. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully bought their galaxy-brain explanations of how the medium artfully explores the textures of boredom or how the absence of action makes even the tiniest of movement or change mean everything. At least, I haven’t yet reached the point in my amateur cinephilia where I’m actively seeking out these experiments in artful boredom myself. However, this critical exaltation of #slowcinema was very much on my mind throughout the recent New Orleans Film Fest screening of The World is Full of Secrets, despite the film being too dialogue-heavy & eventful to fully qualify for the distinction. This is very much a writer’s movie, composed largely of single-take performances of monologues in intense close-up, deliberately boring its audience and luring us into a trance so that any minor action or change onscreen feels vitally significant. I genuinely can’t believe how much it worked for me as pop entertainment.

Set during a slumber party in 1996 suburbia, The World is Full of Secrets is structured like a horror anthology wherein teen girls take turns answering the prompt “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” They encourage each other to be as disgusting, terrifying, and brutal as possible. The stories they tell are almost universally about young women who’ve been cruelly battered & torn down by a society that’s been misogynist since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, an offscreen narrator warns that the night will conclude with an act of violence in that very house. This clash between innocence & violence and this eerie undermining of the assumed invincibility of privileged, suburban life aren’t especially novel in a thematic sense, but the way they’re couched in lengthy, meandering monologues instead of proper anthology vignettes feels like a major stylistic gamble (as well as a blatant budgetary choice). The film plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.

There’s a wry sense of humor on display throughout this chatty horror anthology. It opens with an old-fashioned intro to a 1950s sci-fi horror, as if it were hosted by an Elvira-type TV ghoul. An elderly narrator voice then cuts through to intone “It was the summer of 1996 . . .” as if that date were a hundred years in the past (or maybe this film is a dispatch from a #slowcinema future?). What I loved most, though, is that the film openly acknowledges in its dialogue when it’s boring us, as its lengthy stories of misogynist violence take the non-linear, detail-distracted paths of teens gabbing on a landline. As often happens with #slowcinema—or so I’m told—this absurdly patient approach to narrative leaves the audience in a loopy state where tiny, hallucinatory details that break through the spooky atmosphere register as major events. Did I imagine a skull or the Devil’s talons entering the frame between these lengthy tales of woman-hating cruelty or did those images actually appear onscreen? It’s hard to remember for sure as floods of details from the monologues overwhelm the slumber party drama, but I never lost the sense that the movie was fucking with me and having a great time doing so. I admire that.

This prankish experiment in traditional storytelling, cheeky atmosphere, and artful boredom is obviously not going to be for everyone. About half our audience walked out midway through the screening once they realized the full scope of what we were getting into. I was personally tickled by it. There’s enough layered, soft-focus imagery crammed into its cramped Academy Ratio framing to keep your mind busy as the stories being told lull you into a #slowcinema daze. Once you’re hypnotized in that state, it’s up to the movie whether it wants to creep you out or laugh in your face, depending on its minute-to-minute whims. If nothing else, I greatly enjoyed the tension of not knowing which of those effects it was going to choose next at any given moment.

-Brandon Ledet

Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp objects down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet

Countdown (2019)

My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.

The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.

Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.

There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lighthouse (2019)

Watching Robert Eggers movies at a corporate multiplex feels like getting away with something perverse. Eggers has seemingly signed a deal with The Devil (A24) that allows him access to wide audiences for every aggressively Not For Everyone idea he has; the only catch is that the rooms these niche monstrosities play in are plagued by incrementally audible discomfort. As with The Witch, the audience I watched Eggers’s latest film with stormed out of the theater in a disgruntled huff – muttering variations of “What the fuck was that?” amongst themselves on the trail to the parking lot. To be fair, their confusion & frustration is entirely justified, as The Lighthouse is the kind of artsy-fartsy indulgence that you’d usually have to go out of your way to see at a tiny indie theater at the edge of town. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, The Lighthouse mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It has no business sharing suburban megaplex marquees with the superhero spectacle of the week; at least not before earning the perceived legitimacy of Oscar Buzz. We’ve designated an entire festival-to-VOD distribution template to keep this kind of challenging, deranged nonsense out of the eyeline of the unsuspecting public. Watching Eggers’s films break away from its designated playpen to cause havoc in the burbs feels like cheering on a puppy that runs across the dinner table at an aristocratic banquet. The more people protest the funnier it becomes.

That’s not to say this is a stuffy Academic art piece without traditional entrainment value. The Lighthouse’s tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow festival circuit Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot. Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other as the only company available on an isolated island rock. What’s “actually happening” in the story is deliberately obscured, as the combative pair’s descent into drunken madness continually disorients the audience to the point where it’s impossible to get our sea legs. The back half of the film is a roaring storm where time, place, and meaning are all drowned out by the two bearded seamen’s passionate clash of wills, and the film becomes more of a deranged experiment in mood & atmosphere than anything resembling linear storytelling. Still, their horniness for each other (and maybe-fictional mermaids), their constant farting in each other’s faces, and their drunken penchant for fisticuffs means this is never a dry academic exercise, despite Eggers’s painstakingly researched dialogue that makes it sound like an ancient, cursed novel. He even buried the title card that announces those research efforts deep into the credits instead of allowing it to immediately undercut the impact of the film’s transcendent conclusion, fixing the one problem I personally had with The Witch.

As delightfully bizarre & idiosyncratic as The Lighthouse can be, I don’t know that I can claim that there’s nothing else like it. Between The Forbidden Room, Cold Skin, and my beloved The Wild Boys you could piece together a neat little modern canon that this antique fever dream is nestled in, even if it is one of the clear standout specimens of that crop. The main difference to me is the value of the A24 marketing & distribution machine behind it, as the other movies of this cursed deep-sea ilk only made it to tiny arthouse theaters nearby, if they played on the big screen at all. The Lighthouse features two recognizable movie stars devouring scenery & each other at top volume. It’s like watching two Daniel Day-Lewises battling to drink each other’s milkshakes at the seaport to Hell. Even if I was the only audience member present who was tickled by those handsome seaside ghouls’ drunken struggles with merfolk, one-eyed seagulls, and divine lightbulbs, it was still heartwarming to see those perverse monstrosities eat up screen space at a corporate multiplex. The fact that the movie is so darkly fun on top of being such an obscured art piece only makes it feel like more of an outright prank on Normie America. In an age when tentpole franchise filmmaking is quarantining most of these bizarro art pieces to the straight-to-VOD wastelands, I’m always going to root for the stray beast that breaks free & runs wild – even if all it really has to say is “Having roommates sucks. And seagulls suck too.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Rare Exports (2010)

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 Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Rare Exports (2010).

Hanna: Although I’ve always loved Christmas movies, I had a real distrust in portrayals of Santa Claus in American television as a child. It’s not that I didn’t believe he was real; it’s just that the Santa I loved in Larry Roemer’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special held little resemblance to the one described my Finnish father. That Santa wasn’t a jolly, elderly fellow in from the North Pole, but a half-goat man named Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”) holed up in a place called Ear Mountain (Korvantunturi) in Northern Finland. Obviously, I thought, the producers of the American Christmas canon were a bunch of hacks who had done no real Christmas research; how else could you mistake a place called “Ear Mountain” for the North Pole? And why didn’t Santa look anything like a goat? It was a very confusing time for me; I always hoped for an accurate portrait of the Finnish Christmas specter. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, by Finnish director Jelmari Helander, fulfilled that Christmas wish a decade later.

Rare Exports brings us to present-day Lapland, where an eccentric, Christmas-loving American named Riley is leading a team of drillers deep into Korvantunturi for reasons unexplained. Riley seems to know that something special is lurking underneath Korvantunturi, and he’s itching to unearth it. A young rural boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila), who has been spying on the suspicious activity, begins researching the mountain; he’s horrified by what he finds, and begins preparing himself, his friends, and his tortured father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), for Christmas Yet to Come.

All told, Rare Exports gave me an hour and a half of holiday mayhem and deadpan Christmas-themed one-liners delivered by gruff Finnish men, and it was delightful. I always appreciate movies that portray a less popular version of Santa while still adhering to real cultural lore (e.g., Krampus, as opposed to an “Evil Santa” Santa Claus remix). I also love how absolutely weird this movie is (especially the final scene), and how easily the characters accept and adapt to their insane circumstances. Britnee, how does this movie compare to other Christmasy action/horror movies, especially American movies? Did Rare Exports set itself apart, or is it just some good ol’ fashioned Christmas schlock?

Britnee: Christmas horror films are typically either cheesy B-movies (like Santa’s Slay or The Gingerbread Man) or slashers about killers dressed up in Santa suits (like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Christmas Evil). The only Christmas film that I’ve seen that can be compared to Rare Exports would be Krampus. While it’s more of a dark comedy, Krampus isn’t a film about an evil Santa or a psycho dressed in a cheap Santa costume. It’s a film that brings attention to a Christmas character from Central-European folklore. Krampus is a goat demon who punishes bad children during Christmastime, which is much more similar to Joulupukki from Rare Exports than any other film version of Santa Claus. They even both use actual whips to whip bad children’s butts!

Unlike Krampus, which is one of the greatest “bad” horror movies of modern times, Rare Exports isn’t a “bad” movie at all. There are a few cheesy moments and witty one-liners (like the English translation gags during the Santa transaction), but it doesn’t stray from taking itself seriously as much as I expected it to. At first, I thought the film was going about a kid on a mission in a world of adults who dismiss his warnings until it’s too late. It sort of was like that, but the adults surprised me by capturing the “Santa” and trying to make money off of his captivity during the film’s second half. That second half is what really made Rare Exports unique, truly unlike any film I’ve seen before. So, yes, Rare Exports can be compared to American films like Krampus, but it really stands on its own it the best way possible.

Another part of Rare Exports that I really didn’t see coming was the abundance of elderly full-frontal male nudity. Perhaps the most nightmarish part of the film was the herd of naked old elves running after the pile of children in potato sacks. Brandon, were you as shook by the old nude elf men as I was? What are other parts of the film that you found to be skin crawling?

Brandon: The one isolated image that made my skeleton squirm inside my skin was those burlap sacks of writhing children. Like in modern Santa lore, Joulupukki has a fixation on transporting his Christmas goodies around in giant magical sacks here. Instead of red velvet bags of gifts, however, this “Santa” (with the help of his elves, of course) kidnaps naughty boys & girls from their homes in burlap sacks – presumably to be consumed by Joulupukki once he is fully summoned. The writhing sacks immediately look odd, but you don’t fully register what’s inside them at first glance. The whimpering protests from inside those giftbag prisons eventually start to make clear that what you’re looking at is neighborhood children being prepared for a Christmas feast, and that delayed realization makes for a truly horrific feeling. This film is just as much a dark comedy as it is a modern fairy tale, and there are few images I can think of that are darker than those writhing sacks (way more so than the wrinkly sacks hanging from the naked elves).

As much as I enjoyed its morbid humor and its willingness to go there when tormenting children, my favorite aspects of Rare Exports were mostly rooted in the way it functions as a modern fairy tale. The Joulupukki and Krampus traditions make so much more logical sense than the Christmas lore Americans are raised with, what the movie calls “the hoax of the Coca-Cola Santa.” Traditional fairy tales are usually set up as negative reinforcement tactics to scare kids into not doing dangerous (or, often enough, simply annoying) things for their own good & safety. Don’t wander alone in the woods or a witch will cook & eat you; don’t eat strangers’ food without asking or an entire family of bears will eat you; don’t talk to strangers or a wolf will dress in grandma drag and eat you, etc. It makes more sense, then, that a naughty boy or girl being monitored by a powerful, world-traveling Christmas demon would be punished by becoming dinner for that beast, not simply receiving a shittier gift than they’d get if they were good. Surprisingly, one of the most affecting parts of Rare Exports for me was the early woodcut & lithograph prints in the kids’ research about the myth of The Real Santa that reframed him in this fairy tale context. Usually, textual research montages aren’t anyone’s standout favorite moments in horror movies (if anything, they often overexplain background info that no one really needs to know), but I really appreciated it here as a crash-course history in Santa’s fairy tale origins as Joulupukki.

The elderly elves do most of the work in getting this Evil Santa legend across onscreen, of course, as the day is saved before the kaiju Santa beast has a chance to fully emerge from his Korvantunturi prison. I do agree that the image of the elves running naked towards the camera in herds was creepy, but I was personally more disturbed by their dead, child-hungry eyes than I was by their scrotums, which were just kinda . . . there. If anything, the elf scrotes only helped solidify an observation that was present in my mind throughout the film: this is a weirdly masculine movie. The central relationships between a boy and his single father, a boy and his bully/bestie, and a boy and his Christmas demon are all variances of masculine bonding or masculine conflict. In fact, I don’t recall there being a single female character represented onscreen anywhere in Rare Exports; even the neighborhood girls kidnapped as offerings to Joulupukki never escape their burlap sacks to show their faces. The elf scrotums mostly just registered to me as a matter-of-fact extension of the film’s general interest in masculine relationships & bodies, which was not at all what I expected from a dark fairy tale about Santa Claus. I’m not even saying that choice to solely focus on the lives of boys & men was a good or bad thing; it was just something I couldn’t help but notice.

Boomer, did the total lack of female characters occur to you at all during your viewing of Rare Exports? What do you make of how that choice relates to the film’s overall tones & themes?

Boomer: The lack of women in this movie is pretty astonishing, honestly. We never hear anything about what happened to Pietari’s mother at all, just that she used to make gingerbread cookies that Pietari’s father can recreate with modest success. Is she dead? Did she just leave the family? Is Pietari’s father’s harsh coldness the result of being widowed, or is his horrid personality the reason that she’s gone? I hope you’re not waiting for an answer, because we’re not going to get one. From a filmmaking perspective, I get the initial thought process of “This is a harsh and unforgiving place and thus we can reflect that by having only harsh and unforgiving men in this world,” but the moment that idea crosses one’s mind is the moment that one should both immediately rethink their understanding of gender roles and also write a woman in there, fast, before you forget! We know that there’s at least one woman in the area, since Piiparinen’s wife’s hair dryer is among the items stolen in order to facilitate Santa’s thaw, but that’s about it. Where are all the ladies? The only explanation that I can think of is that every woman nearby looked out her respective window, saw a strange naked man lumbering towards their home, and decided to skedaddle. It’s not satisfying, though. I can also see deciding to go full-tilt with the fairy tale elements, with so many of those narratives featuring a dead (or otherwise hopelessly lost) mother, but just because mom died doesn’t mean women cease to exist altogether. Even John Carpenter managed to put Adrienne Barbeau’s voice into The Thing, for goodness’s sake.

The “missing mom” narrative is well-worn, but not so much so that it annoys. While I enjoyed Rare Exports overall, I was put out for much of the film because I intensely dislike narratives that structure one of their primary conflicts around the “child believes, adults don’t listen” trope. It’s right up there with “the liar revealed” as far as dead horse plots for children’s films goes. This film feels like a “child’s introduction to horror” throwback tome, and while it would be easy to say that a scary film with a child protagonist is automatically a film for children, that’s not necessarily the case. Plenty of horror flicks with young heroes are certainly that (Monster SquadGremlinsThe Gate), but there are just as many where the presence of a child’s viewpoint doesn’t negate that the film is not for kids (Let the Right One InITThe Exorcist), and of course those which fall somewhere in the middle (Child’s PlayPoltergeistFirestarter). For me, it’s the reliance on the Cassandra plot–that the truthteller is disbelieved–that makes the film read as if written for a younger audience, not the child protagonist or the fairy tale nature of the story.

Of course, not that any of this is a bad thing. In fact, it turns the film into a child’s first Thing, which is an idea that delights me. I mentioned it above, but it bears similarities in its images, especially that of The Unspeakable Thing Beneath the Ice. Are there any other influences that you’ve noticed in multiple rewatchings?

Hanna: Rare Exports definitely falls into the tradition of male, rural coming-of-age stories with a bizarre swirl of action and horror, which seems to be of particular interest to Helander. His second feature film, Big Game, contains some of the same themes set in a more straightforward action template: as part of a male rite of passage, a Finnish teenager named Oskari (also played by Onni Tommila) is sent out into the wilderness of rural Lapland to track and capture a large piece of game (in Oskari’s case, the “big game” is the President of the United States, stranded by a plane crash en route to Helsinki). Like Pietari in Rare Exports, Oskari is boyish and meek, lacking confidence in himself and any voice of authority in his community, and ultimately finds his role through unconventional smarts. Big Game is also devoid of women; although it makes more sense in the context of that movie, I think it points to Helander’s singular focus on the development of the rural masculine identity, at the expense of other voices.

I definitely would have enjoyed Rare Exports much more if Pietari’s community had been developed a little further. I wouldn’t have minded a small, all-male cast if the men were truly isolated from any other people, but hinting at the existence of women without featuring them is a little bizarre; I think the presence of a few more women and children would have added some depth to the little herding community without sacrificing the sense of rural isolation. I also think it would have been much more effective to watch the number of children slowly dwindle down throughout the movie; instead, it was as if everyone all the kiddies had Roanoke’d before the film even began. Britnee, were there elements of the Rare Exports world that you would have liked to explore further?

Britnee: I would have loved to watch the excavation of Joulupukki. All we really get to see in regards to Joulupukki is a huge hole in the ground from where it was taken, and then we get to see it in a frozen block of ice with its massive horns sticking out. That’s it. The question of how all the elves got this massive frozen monster into a warehouse weighed heavy on my mind. Did they develop some sort of pulley system or were they all just super strong? It’s like a chunk of the movie is missing. Having more detailed Joulupukki scenes would probably have been quite expensive, but it would have made the film feel more complete.

Another element of the film that would have benefited from more exploration and detail is the bagging of the children in the potato sacks. As Brandon mentioned earlier, the children squirming around in potato sacks was pretty creepy. Having a peek into the process that the elves took to capture the children, shove them in the sacks, and hoard them in the warehouse would have heightened the film’s horror levels. The naked elves creeping into the children’s bedrooms to kidnap them for Joulupukki would have scarred me for life, and I wish the movie would have at least showed one of the kidnappings in action.

The aspect that I found to be the most unique about Rare Exports is its ending. It wasn’t really a happy ending, but it wasn’t really a sad one either. Yes, the children survive and the families involved in the destruction of Joulupukki end up wealthy, but their success is at the expense of enslaving the elves. Brandon, how did you feel about the film’s ending? Did you have any sympathy towards the enslavement of the evil elves?

Brandon: If I’m being totally honest, I 100% saw the final sequence as a happy ending on our initial viewing. I’d even go as far as calling it “cute.” The herders begin the movie at risk of losing their livelihood due to a disastrous cattle season, miserably depressed at the prospect of failing their families as providers, but at the end of our tale they’ve got a thriving new business with consistent annual demand. I guess because the elves had been acting as magical child-abducting creeps the entire film it never occurred to me that this conclusion could be seen as horrific. Their “rehabilitation” and commodification as globally-exported shopping mall Santas was such an upbeat turnaround from their naked, child-collecting mayhem that it didn’t really sink in how fucked up it was to see those humanoids (of a sort) being subjugated as a product. I saw the ending as a clever continuation of film’s function of a fairy tale, explaining where mall Santas come from the same way we explain that human babies are delivered via storks.

You’re totally right, though; the elves were in their own way just acting according to their nature & customs, and the fact that I never really felt for their plight at the end is making me feel a little like imperialist, capitalist scum in retrospect. I’ve got some soul-searching to do in how willing I am to overlook exploitation in a capitalist paradigm, even in fiction. You’ve now got me hoping for a sequel where the mall Santas rebel and return to their roots, bagging up the children who sit on their laps across the globe in accordance to their own cultural tradition and in defiance of their oppressors.

In general, I do think the film leaves more of an impression as a fairy tale & an act of mythmaking than it does an exploration of ethical or interpersonal conflicts in the modern era. Exploitation & enslavement aside, I suspect that from now on I’ll get a kick from thinking of mall Santas as child-hating demons who’ve been newly domesticated as living Christmas ornaments, their newfound good behavior tentative at best. Boomer, do you think Rare Exports will similarly affect the way you look at the ritual of Christmas in the future? Is there anything about the history or mythology of the holiday, as presented here, that is likely to stick with you every December?

Boomer:  I’m not sure I will think of traditions much differently in the future. I’ve always assumed that mall Santas were hiding their disdain for children, so imagining them as demonic entities isn’t really much of a stretch. I think I’ll probably just spend the rest of my life wondering what the adults in the village did with those giant horns. What are they good for? And what, exactly, did the Americans want to do with their giant evil Santa when they got him? Are they just the more festive branch of Weiland-Yutani, incapable of seeing something monstrous as a potential weapon? Or was there something less sinister and more ignorant going on, a metaphor for the Coca-Colonization of Santa Claus? The world may never know.

Lagniappe

Britnee: The landscapes in Rare Exports were gorgeous! The tranquility of the snowcapped mountains and snow dusted trees is a great backdrop for all the insanity that takes place in the plot.

Boomer: Like Brandon, all I could think about when those children were attached to the helicopter was just how miserably cold they must be, trapped in sacks and being whipped about in the freezing air.

Brandon: I was thoroughly charmed by our hero’s costuming throughout this movie. Pietari sports the same punk af haircut as the Swedish kids from We Are the Best!; he walks around the snow in his giant puffy coat & underwear; and his homemade sports-equipment armor is absolutely adorable, especially his butt shield that protects him from being spanked by the elves. There’s something about the attention to his costuming and how he adapts what he’s wearing to the situation at hand that makes him feel like a real, authentic little kid instead of a fictional invention.

Hanna: Ultimately, Rare Exports satisfied my need for a) a spooky Finnish Christmas movie, and b) hordes of old, diseased, elf men nudely galloping into a forest. If you’re interested in exploring the bizarre Yuletide traditions of the Nordic and Scandinavian persuasion, I would encourage you to read up on the annual arson attacks on the Gävle goat in Sweden.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-Brandon Ledet

The True Battle in Underworld (2003) Wasn’t Vampires vs. Werewolves, It Was Practical Effects vs. CGI

Despite extending its presence on movie marquees all the way into 2017 through a series of unnecessary prequels & sequels, 2003’s action-horror epic Underworld has always been something of a critical punching bag. Registering with an embarrassing 31% aggregated approval rating on the Tomatometer, this bygone nu-metal era tale of an ancient race war between werewolves & vampires was the Twilight of its day: a critically derided mall-goth romance that found the right angsty audience at the right angsty time. It’s admittedly easy to see why pro critics would be harsh on the film immediately upon its release, despite its populist appeal. It’s practically a work of mu-metal horror pastiche – combining elements of Blade, The Matrix, Resident Evil, and Romeo+Juliet into a single flavorless gumbo without contributing much spice of its own. The film was even sued (and settled out of court) for “borrowing” its elaborate vampires vs. werewolves mythology from the popular tabletop RPG Vampire: the Masquerade – which was the one aspect of its initial outing that critics did praise. Finally catching up with Underworld myself, sixteen years after it was first panned and two years after its final installments passed through theaters unnoticed like a fart in the wind, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected to. That enjoyment was purely a result of its visual effects work, though, which may have seemed less special at the time of its release than the modern miracle it feels like now in 2019.

I’m not about to rush out and gobble down all four sequels to Underworld or anything. Its vampires vs. werewolves race war mythology isn’t that exciting, nor is its star-crossed interspecies romance across those battle lines. Even the novelty of seeing legitimate actors like Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy occupy this leather-fetish mall-goth fantasy space could only lead to diminishing returns, as I imagine the star power in, say, Underworld 4: Awakening is much less luminous. I enjoyed Underworld for exactly one (admittedly shallow) reason: the werewolves look really fucking cool (despite being referred to in-canon as “lycans,” which is not cool at all). Whenever you look back to creature features from this early 00s era, it’s always best to brace yourself for some horrifically shoddy CGI. Contemporaries like Ghosts of Mars, Queen of the Damned, and Spawn all feature early-CG monstrosities whose ambitions overshot their means, resulting in visual effects that have aged about as well as diapers on the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes, then, when the werewolves onscreen in this Hollywood action-horror were genuine rubber-suit creations from practical gore artists. There’s so much physical blood, fangs, werewolf hair, and leathery nipples onscreen here when the standard for its era would have been a shapeless CG blur. Underworld is stubbornly committed to practical-effects gore (for its time at least) in a way I can’t help but respect, even if I can’t extend that same dorky enthusiasm to its romantic drama or its gothy worldbuilding.

You can get a concise snapshot of this stubbornness & dorky enthusiasm on the Special Features menu of the Underworld DVD, which includes a 12min featurette titled “Creature Effects.” Director (and all-around Underworld mastermind) Len Wiseman’s dorkiness just oozes from the screen in this behind-the-scenes interview. Dressed up like a mall-metal dweeb himself, Wiseman recounts meeting special effects artist Patrick Tatopoulos on the set of Stargate (where Wisemen was working as a props manager) and dreaming up ways to use the veteran’s expertise to craft a gothy creature feature of his own design (with some help from plenty of pre-exiting genre films of a higher caliber, of course). As Tatopoulos takes the audience on a backstage tour of the massive teams & teams of creators needed to achieve the film’s practical effects, it becomes apparent why CGI became the dominant industry standard. Animatronics tech, stilts, silicone body suits, and post-Matrix wire work all needed to operate in tandem to make just one werewolf crawl across the wall—and then CG effects were still used after the fact to smooth out the details. Watching artists work tirelessly to punch individual yak hairs into a werewolf mask or airbrush purple veins onto actors to indicate they’ve been poisoned with silver bullets is astonishing in its commitment to the value of real, tangible effects, even when they’re bolstered by CG touchups. Wiseman & Tatopoulos citing tiles like Aliens, the Predator, and Pumpkinhead as influences or insisting that they “wanted the werewolves to be sexy” really helps contextualize the horror nerd enthusiasm necessary to pull those effects off in the CGI-worshiping days of 2003 when the preference would be to just do it all on computers. It also helps explain why Underworld has aged (at least slightly) better than its contemporary critical reputation might have prepared us for.

Over time, Wiseman & Tatopoulos lost the war over preserving practical effects artistry in the face of CGI dominance. By Underworld 4: Awakening & Underworld 5: Blood Wars, CGI was no longer used to enhance their “sexy,” in-the-flesh werewolf creations, but instead had replaced them entirely. That’s a shame, since the obviously physical presence of those “lycans” in a time when everything was fading away into a CG blur was the one saving grace that makes Underworld something of a modern novelty. It would have been so cool to see that nerdy stubbornness extend into the 2010s, and might have afforded the series a second populist wind. Oh well, at least we can still revel in that dying artistry in the film’s behind-the-scenes tour, which some kind, copyright-infringing soul has uploaded to YouTube:

-Brandon Ledet

Messiah of Evil (1973)

A truly cursed relic of Lovecraftian grindhouse schlock, the mid-70s horror curio Messiah of Evil is an experience that feels at once warmly familiar & nightmarishly uncanny. It’s among a rare breed of horror classics like Carnival of Souls, Eyes Without a Face, and Val Lewton’s Cat People that are deceptively obedient to the tones, tropes, and craft of their era, but manage to achieve an unnerving, bone-deep chill once that familiarity lowers your defenses. Yet, it hasn’t yet been showered with the adoring cinephilic praise reserved for those now-canon genre relics. You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting “Shadows over Innsmouth” as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.

This film’s loose dream-logic narrative is constructed through two epistolary accounts: the narrated recollections of a young woman who’s been committed to an insane asylum and the diary of her missing father, which led her to that confinement. The father character is an artist who moved to a secluded seaside town in order to paint in peace, only to mysteriously cut off communication with his family back home while away. His daughter is met with skeptical hostility from the ghoulish, Innsmouth-like townies in the village where he disappeared, but eventually settles into his home and searches for clues to his whereabouts. Surrounded by her father’s art on sinisterly muraled walls and lost in his diary that seemingly documented a descent into madness, she follows the missing artist’s exact path and gradually loses her own grip on reality. She finds some welcome company from fellow outsiders also investigating the town’s paranormal allure, but mostly she & her new friends are dangerously outnumbered by the cannibalistic, ghoulish locals who are protecting some cosmic secret no one can seem to put into words.

In terms of conveying a clear, logical narrative, Messiah of Evil is a total mess – seemingly making shit up on the fly as it bides time between its set-piece scares. This deliberate delay of traditional horror movie payoffs is a blatantly practical tactic for the barebones production to cut financial corners, which often reduces what’s onscreen to a sight that usually tanks cheap-o horrors into total tedium: people endlessly talking in closed rooms. Whether our troubled heroine is reading her father’s journals to herself in voice-over narration or chatting up the traveling throuple of erudite snobs who prove to be her only friends in town, however, Messiah of Evil is somehow never boring. It must be that the writing itself is especially strong. Monologues about “blood moons pulling people towards Hell” and Lovecraftian accounts of hallucinatory beasts & ghouls are so intensely vivid in their imagery & delivery that you don’t have room to notice that the film is saving money by describing these horrors instead of depicting them. It weighs on you like a harrowing stage play, when it so easily could have been corners-cutting lip service.

Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t have to do all the work in unnerving the audience. Messiah of Evil occasionally ventures out of tis spooky-murals artist’s loft locale to stumble through a funhouse of assorted scares. A few sideshow attractions like a ghoulish local slitting an outsider’s throat or gnawing on a live beach rat help space out its more complexly staged set piece scares. When it really invests its time on those larger atmospheric payoffs, the movie has a way of transforming everyday locales—movie theaters, supermarkets, parking lots, etc.—into otherworldly nightmare realms. The actual flesh-eating creatures that pose a threat to all outsiders here aren’t especially distinct from the undead ghouls of Romero’s landmark horror The Night of the Living Dead from just a few years earlier. Yet, their effect on the audience & their impetus to kill are so difficult to put your finger on that calling them “zombies” would be selling them short. Zombies you can figure out & plan to defeat. By contrast, the threats here keep shifting & changing the rules based on the whims of the tone, so that trying to wrap your mind around their nature & vulnerabilities feels like training yourself to slip into a lucid dream.

The married couple who wrote, directed, and produced Messiah of Evil—Gloria Katz & Willard Huyk—later developed a professional relationship with George Lucas that culminated in their swing-for the-fences, career-ending flop in 1986’s Howard the Duck. Whether you want to take that association with Howard the Duck as confirmation that this movie is an unstructured mess, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of movie magic, or—in my rare case—further proof that Howard the Duck is vastly underappreciated is up you entirely. Personally, I believe Katz & Huyk to have an innate artistic understanding of the subliminal, dreamlike state movies put us in – logic be damned. That sensibility obviously displeased most audiences who caught their money-torching blockbuster, but it might be more widely accessible when rooted in the tradition of cheap-o moody horror. When the missing artist’s journal explains that, ”You’re about to awaken when you dream that you’re dreaming,” the potency of this film’s surreal nightmare logic became vividly clear to me – even if the structure & rhythms of the story it was telling never did. That’s not an easy effect to achieve, and many better-respected horror movies have failed in the attempt, so it’s a shame that Katz & Huyk haven’t received more audible recognition for the feat.

-Brandon Ledet

Prom Night (1980)

Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.

Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).

Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.

-Brandon Ledet