Whether it’s to avoid dating itself with the rapidly evolving technology of smartphones & social media or if it’s to avoid the practical problem-solving that modern tech offers, a lot of contemporary horror drags its settings back to earlier, grimier eras of the genre’s past. Personally, I’m getting bored with how much current horror product is an echo of 1970s grindhouse & 1980s neon sleaze. That nostalgic impulse is getting really shortsighted in its avoidance of documenting & processing the world we actually live in now, if not outright cowardly & lazy. So, if most contemporary horror has to live in the past for narrative convenience, I’m going to be more excited to see movies set outside that genre heyday of the first slasher wave. For instance, the recent slasher prequel Pearl is inherently more interesting than its grimy sister film X, since its own tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche of Technicolor melodramas is way less familiar & less overmined than the grindhouse Texas Chainsaw riff it followed. The same goes for the truck stop sex worker slasher Candy Land, which is set in the grunge & grime of the mid-1990s, after the first slasher wave crested and the second, meta-comedic wave began post-Scream. As soon as the film opens with a montage of transactional sex scenes set to Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” it already feels like a much-needed break from the digitally added 1970s grain and the Carpenter-nostalgic 1980s synths of its fellow low-budget festival horrors, which have long been a matter of routine.
What endears me most to Candy Land‘s grunge-90s setting is that it doesn’t appear to be nostalgic about past horror trends at all. It’s instead nostalgic for the film festival boom of the Sundance era that made names like Soderbergh, Araki, and Haynes stars of the indie scene. Candy Land starts as a very cool, loose hangout dramedy about the daily rituals of truck stop sex workers (or “lot lizards” in CB radio lingo) before it gradually turns into a rigidly formulaic slasher to pay the bills. The true glory days of independent filmmaking are over, and most low-budget productions that want to score wide distribution have to resort to flashy genre gimmicks to earn streaming sales on the festival market. And so, we have a workplace drama that opens with sex work and ends with murder, holding back the necessary kill rhythms of a body count slasher as long as it can until it’s time to deliver the goods. Unlike most slashers that dive headfirst into the bloodbath, that delayed payoff allows you space to care about the characters in peril: a good-girl-gone-bad played by The Deuce‘s Olivia Luccardi, a sweetheart hedonist gigolo played by X‘s Owen Campbell, a shit-heel sheriff played by Sliver‘s Billy Baldwin, etc. There’s a built-in tension & danger in the main characters’ profession that makes for a great horror setting (something it’s most frank about in an extensive, brutal scene of male-on-male rape), but writer-director John Swab appears to be more interested in making a truck stop Working Girls than a truck stop Friday the 13th. I admire his practicality. Not everyone gets to be Sean Baker; sometimes you gotta cosplay as Rob Zombie to land your funding.
Candy Land excels more in its minor character observations than in the tension release of its cathartic violence. It’s set in an insular world where all sex is transactional, all sexuality is fluid, and all cops are bastards. The truck stop brothel has a grunge-fashionista uniform of leather jackets, acrylic nails, booty shorts, and heavy metal t-shirts. The girls shower, menstruate, and parade puffs of pubic & armpit hair in defiantly casual, thoughtless exhibitionism. There’s a pronounced overlap in the rules & rituals of working the truck stop and the rules & rituals of the fundamentalist Christian cult Luccardi’s newbie abandoned to get there, both with their own built-in, complex lingo. There’s also some unmistakable political commentary in which of those two insular cults proves to be harmful to the community at large – first to the johns, then to the workers. Its Christmastime setting underlines the tension between those two warring worlds with a bitter irony that’s been present in the slasher genre as far back as its pre-Halloween landmark Black Christmas. The movie might have been more rewarding if it didn’t have to sweep aside its observations of social minutia to make room for bloody hyperviolence, but I doubt it could’ve been widely distributed or even made at all without that genre hook. At least Swab didn’t default to the industry’s current go-to setting for that horror hook; he instead recalls a brighter time in indie filmmaking when you could make a notable, low-key sex worker drama without having to hit a specific body count metric.
One of the things I look forward to most every Overlook Film Fest is their vendor partnership with Vinegar Syndrome, who usually bring a table of pervy, schlocky products to peddle in the festival’s shopping mall lobby. There are certainly cheaper ways to shop for Vinegar Syndrome titles; the boutique Blu-ray label is infamous in genre-nerd circles for their generous Black Friday sales. Still, that annual trip to the Vinegar Syndrome table at Overlook is the closest feeling I still get to browsing the Cult section at long-defunct video rental stores like Major Video. There’s just no beating the physical touch of physical media. The staff always points me to titles I would’ve overlooked if I were just scrolling on their website, too, which is how I got around to seeing gems like Nightbeast & Fleshpot on 42nd Street in the past. Sidestepping the shipping costs doesn’t hurt either. Vinegar Syndrome has never before complimented my Overlook experience quite as decisively nor directly as it did this year, though, when the vendor rep nudged me into picking up a copy of the early-90s creature feature The Suckling. It was perfect timing, since I had just wandered from a screening of the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which featured a great rubber monster puppet but had no real grit or texture to it elsewhere. You could feel the audience pop every time the retro, gurgling monster appeared onscreen, which unfortunately becomes less frequent as the film chases down mental health metaphors instead of practical-effects gore gags. I liked Appendage okay, but I left it starving for more rubber monster mayhem, which that Blu-ray restoration of The Suckling immediately supplied in grotesque HD excess. God bless Vinegar Syndrome for coming through that night and, for balance, Hail Satan too.
While The Suckling may have a major advantage over Appendage in its commitment to rubber-monster puppetry, it’s an extremely inferior product in terms of political rhetoric. Instead of pursuing a thoughtful, responsible representation of women’s bottled-up familial, romantic, and professional frustrations in the modern world, The Suckling pursues a politically reckless subversion of women’s right to choose. Only, I don’t get the sense that it meant to say anything coherently political at all. This is a kind of anti-choice, pro-environmentalist creature feature where an aborted, toxically mutated fetus gets its revenge on the brothel-clinic that brought it into this sick, sad world. It knows that abortion is enough of a hot-button political issue to grab jaded, seen-it-all horror audiences’ attention, but it doesn’t know what to do with that thorny subject except to milk it for easy shock value. The illegal dumping of toxic waste that mutates the aborted fetus into the titular monster is just as much of underbaked political messaging, a boneheaded matter of course that got no more thoughtful consideration than its knock-off John Carpenter score. The Suckling uses abortion as lazy rage-bait marketing, even going as far as to hand out fake, miniature aborted fetuses in jars as mementos during its original New Jersey grindhouse run. Personally, I found being offended by the movie’s amorphous politics part of its grimy charm. It’s not a full-on Troma style edgelord comedy at pregnant women’s expense, but it’s still playing with thematic heft that’s way out of its depth as a dumb-as-rocks monster flick. By contrast, Appendage is way more coherent & agreeable politically but loses a lot of texture by prioritizing that agreeability over its titular monster, and The Suckling is way more memorable in its commitment to political tastelessness.
Set in 1970s Brooklyn to make its indulgence in post-Halloween slasher tedium feel relevant to the plot, The Suckling follows a young, timid couple’s visit to a seedy brothel that doubles as an illegal abortion clinic. Once their fetus is flushed down the toilet by the clinic’s nursetitutes, it’s greeted by illegally dumped toxic waste in Brooklyn’s sewers, then rapidly evolves like a flesh-hungry Pokémon until it becomes a Xenomorphic killing machine. Its fetal killing powers are supernatural and vaguely defined, turning the brothel-clinic into a womblike prison by covering all the doors & windows with fleshy membrane so it can hunt down its freaked-out prisoners one at a time. Once Skinamrinked in this liminal space for days on end, the Suckling’s victims turn on one another in violent fits of cabin fever, to the point where their infighting has a higher kill count than the monster attacks. The sex workers are, of course, the highlights among the cast, especially the mafiosa madame Big Mama and her world-weary star employee Candy, who frequently fires off nihilistic zingers like “I hope we die in this fucking sewer” as if she were telling knock-knock jokes. The only time we see them at work is before the Suckling gets loose in the house’s plumbing, in a scene where a teenage dominatrix pegs a jackass businessman with a vibrator wand while rolling her eyes in boredom. Otherwise, they’re just killing time between Suckling attacks, to the point where the film becomes a kind of perverse hangout comedy in which every joke is punctuated by a violent character death. The longer they’re trapped in the house the looser the logic gets, taking on a dream-within-a-dream abstraction that had me worried it would end with the abortion-patient mother waking up in the brothel-clinic waiting room and fleeing from the procedure. Thankfully, the ending goes for something much grander & stranger that I will not do the disservice of describing in text.
The Suckling is not a perfect movie, but it is a perfect This Kind Of Movie, delivering everything you could possibly want to see out of schlock of its ilk: a wide range of rubber monster puppets, over-the-top character work, stop-motion buffoonery, and opportunities to feel offended without ever being able to exactly pinpoint its politics. It’s New Jersey outsider art, the only directorial credit for local no-namer Francis Teri. You can feel Teri’s enthusiasm in every frame, just as often resonating in the film’s off-kilter compositions as in its rubber-puppet monster attacks. I don’t know if it’s the cleaned-up Blu-ray image talking, but The Suckling does feel like it belongs to a higher caliber than most made-on-the-weekends subprofessional horrors of the video store era, turning its cheapness & limited scope into an eerie, self-contained dreamworld instead of an excuse for laziness. The only place where the film is lazy is in its political messaging, which makes the entire medical practice of abortion look as grotesquely fucked up as how the Texas Chainsaw family runs their slaughterhouse. And I haven’t even gotten into its hackneyed depiction of mental institutions. Whether you can overlook that political bonheadedness to enjoy the boneheaded monster action it sets the stage for is a matter of personal taste but, given how hungry the Appendage audience was for more rubber monster puppetry, I assume this movie has plenty potential fans out there who need to seek it out ASAP – whether on Blu-ray or on Tubi. If anything, there should’ve been a long line in the Overlook lobby leading to the Vinegar Syndrome table where the entire Appendage audience queued up to buy a copy. It’s wonderfully fucked up stuff, and exactly what I was looking for that night.
We cover many flavors of schlock on this blog, but we tend to ignore one of the most popular, profitable sources of schlock around: “faith-based” Christian propaganda. Outside a one-off podcast episode where we dipped our collective toe into the frigid waters of Evangelical schlock (covering God’s Not Dead & The Shack) and Boomer’s long-dormant Late Great Planet Mirth series covering the Evangelical Rapture films of decades past, we haven’t dealt much with the cheap-o Christian propaganda that pads out new release schedules at every suburban multiplex, despite it indulging the same market-based opportunism as genres we do love, like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. That’s mostly because modern “faith-based” media preaches only to the choir, echoing predetermined conclusions that its target audience already righteously agrees with: God is real, abortion is evil, and anyone who disagrees is an agent of Satan. It’s hard to have fun with even the silliest of B-movies when their messaging is that sourly cruel & misanthropic. If anything, the micro-industry of “faith-based” propaganda has made it explicitly clear that it doesn’t want heathens like us in the audience. It doesn’t want us alive & free to walk about in public at all, a sentiment it’s more than willing to voice through fascist mouthpieces like Kevin Sorbo & Kirk Cameron into the nearest, loudest megaphone. That’s why it’s so weird that I found myself watching, reviewing, and—against all odds—enjoying the faith-based propaganda piece The Devil Conspiracy. Like God’s Not Dead before it, it’s a despicable film that asserts in every line-reading & plot beat that God is real, abortion is evil, and anyone who disagrees is an agent of Satan. Unlike God’s Not Dead, however, it’s also a fun, silly little romp and a good time at the movies.
The Devil Conspiracy represents a new evolution in “faith-based” Christian propaganda, borrowing the visual language of action-fantasy superhero epics to sweeten the bitter, hateful messaging at the genre’s core. It brings me no pleasure to admit that the gamble mostly works, which is evident in how little enthusiasm actual Catholics & Evangelicals appear to have for it. My (admittedly light) internet research attempting to gauge the film’s cultural impact revealed very little since it snuck into wide distribution this January, except a few articles detailing small Catholic protests decrying the movie as “blasphemous.” This is surprising on both sides of the Christian-heathen coin. You’d think that religious groups would embrace the film as cultural outreach, Trojan Horsing the same anti-Satan, anti-abortion rhetoric that’s usually reserved for bland message pieces “starring” Kelsey Grammer into a thrilling action film comparable to (the Thor: The Dark World era of) The MCU. You’d also think that schlock-hungry horror obsessives catching a glimpse of the word “Devil” in the title would’ve been drawn to its bonkers logline premise, of which I can do no better job marketing than to just copy & past in plain text: “The hottest biotech company in the world has discovered they can clone history’s most influential people from the dead. Now, they are auctioning clones of Michelangelo, Galileo, Vivaldi, and others for tens of millions of dollars to the world’s ultra-rich. But when they steal the Shroud of Turin and clone the DNA of Jesus, all hell breaks loose.” The Devil Conspiracy may have achieved the widest gap between wild premise and mild purpose in the history of genre filmmaking. It is the ultimate reactionary superhero film, approximating what it might be like if Zack Snyder remade End of Days for Pure Flix Entertainment. The result apparently baffles everyone and pleases almost no one, except the few freaks who find the novelty of R-rated Christian superhero propaganda inherently fascinating (i.e., me).
It might surprise you to learn that the plot to clone Jesus from his mythical DNA remnants on the Shroud of Turin isn’t a ploy to jumpstart his Second Coming. Because the world is so overrun with abortion-happy Satanists, Jesus’s DNA is instead perverted to create a suitable host body for the in-the-flesh coming of Satan, who has been awaiting his opportunity to reign on Earth since he initially rebelled. Satan’s poor mother-to-be is an unsuspecting, unmarried academic who values science over religion, to her own peril. After losing a few God’s Not Dead-style theological “debates” with enlightened clergymen, she’s kidnapped by Satanists and, in the film’s most hellish sequence, forcibly impregnated in a laboratory with the Jesus/Satan hybrid child, which essentially transforms her into a demonic hellbeast with a baby bump. It’s up to the archangel Michael and his magical sword to save her soul and save humanity before the Satan-Christ can be born in the flesh, which mostly amounts to him fighting off a few robed cultists in industrial hallways. It’s not easy staging a blockbuster superhero epic on the leftover sets & budget of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, but The Devil Conspiracy does a decent job of wringing its batshit premise for all its worth. There’s something about its scrappy brand of demon-slaying, Satanist-decapitating action-horror that helps its despicable messaging that “Science has given The Devil his way out of Hell” go down a lot smoother than it would’ve coming out of Kevin Sorbo’s equally horrific mouth, despite my better judgement. As soon as the superheroic prologue where Lucifer falls from “Heaven” (outer space) to Hell (the Earth’s core) and growls to Michael that it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” there’s no appropriate response to its incendiary, Biblically metal imagery other than “This is badass.”
I should be clear here: I’m glad The Devil Conspiracy failed. Ideologically, I am opposed to everything it has to say about humanity & spiritualism. Formally, I think it hits the exact same numbing dips in novelty & momentum that most secular, crowd-pleasing superhero epics suffer. Still, there was a lot of perverse fun in watching one of these hateful propaganda pieces aim its weapons just outside its usual target demographic, seeking not just to preach but also to entertain. In a different, worse world where it became a breakout success, I’d hate seeing its army of imitators emerge from the bowels of Heaven to smite my heathen ass. As an anomalous, R-rated Christian propaganda film loved by no one, it’s got its scrappy, schlocky charms. May I never be tempted by one of these evil, hateful sermons again, no matter how spectacularly silly.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Brandon, James, Hanna, and guest Bill Arceneaux discuss a selection of genre films that screened at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, including the exhaustive direct-to-video erotic thriller documentary We Kill for Love (2023).
In a year when all the buzziest horror titles are slow-cinema abstractions, it feels nice to finally have one stab me squarely in the brain stem after so many near-misses. I greatly enjoyed the experience of parsing my way through The Outwaters & Skinamarink, but my response to both of those microbudget crowd-displeasers was more intellectual than emotional. Yes, Skinamarink left me tense & unnerved, but it also left me with lingering questions about how its modern digital filters interacted with or clashed against its vintage analog setting. The Outwaters is, by design, much more traditionally satisfying, delivering recognizable scares in its found footage freak-out finale, but it also leaves plenty of free time to question whether the deliberate boredom of its opening acts is worth the journey to that finale. I had no such doubts or hesitations about Mark Jenkin’s slow-cinema nightmare Enys Men. In many ways, Enys Men is even more inscrutable & disjointed than both of those digital-age D.I.Y. abstractions, since its dream-logic “plotting” makes it impossible to fully interpret in any clean, clear terms. And yet I had full confidence that Jenkin thoroughly, thoughtfully considered each of his formal & narrative choices so that instead of picking apart its eerie psychedelic imagery I was instead fully submerged in it, eventually gasping for air as the resulting tension became unbearable. When defining the effects & methods of slow cinema as a young film critic, Paul Schrader coined the term “transcendental style” as an easy go-to marker for what it could achieve. It’s immensely satisfying to finally know what that transcendence feels like, at least when it’s deployed for a purely horrific effect.
It’s a little dishonest for me to link Enys Men so closely with smaller, modernist works that just happen to terrorize audiences at the same slow-drip tempo. This Cornish folk horror about a Stone Henge-like monument to sailors drowned at sea is part of a long English filmmaking tradition, as recently documented in the folk horror compendium Wooodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Its vintage 16mm camera equipment & 1970s setting threaten to dip into kitschy folk-horror pastiche, but instead it feels like a genuine marriage of form & content that projects a timeless, eerie familiarity rather than cutesy nostalgia. Even its version of “transcendental style” owes a lot to slow cinema giants of the distant past, with its science researcher protagonist repeating her daily field work in a distinct, methodical Jeanne Dielman rhythm (before her own fixed routine unravels to resemble the seaside ghost story of John Carpenter’s The Fog). Slow cinema has only gotten more extreme in the half-century since Chantal Akerman made The Greatest Film of All Time, though, and Enys Men‘s underlying modernity eventually shines through in the volatility of its editing style once its nameless researcher loses grip. It’s remarkable how Jenkin dredges up something that feels at once familiar yet cutting edge – a Skinamarinkian slow-cinema shocker rendered in a vintage Don’t Look Now color palette. More important, its traditionalist imagery is useful in establishing a false sense of comfort & safety among a jaded horror audience who’ve seen it all before, so that when we’re plunged into the unfamiliar in the final hour, the effect is much scarier than it would’ve been under a layer of modern digital grain.
Mary Woodvine stars as the nameless volunteer scientist who studies a small cluster of flowers on the cliffs of the titular Enys Men (a Cornish name that translates to “Stone Island”). After several lonely weeks observing “No changes” in those flowers, she notices lichen growing on their pedals, an intrusion that has an instant hallucinatory effect on her psyche. Initially isolated with only her field research and a few dog-eared paperbacks to fill her days, she’s joined by the presence of ghostly figures from both the history of Enys Men and from the history of her own life. It’s unclear where the young girl who resembles her fits into her own past (a lost daughter? a younger version of herself?), but it is clear that the drowned miners & seamen memorialized by the stone monument outside her cottage door still linger around the island as lost spirits. Or at least that’s what little sense my brain could make of the loopy, looping images Jenkin floods the screen with; there’s ultimately too little information to confidently assign any linear story to the emotional, hallucinatory journey our researcher in distress travels. Enys Men is a pure psychedelic meltdown of id at the bottom of a deep well of communal grief, one where running out of your monthly supply of tea is just as devastating as losing a boatful of loved ones at sea. Like Akerman before him, Jenkin makes his troubled protagonist’s world so small & regimented that the tiniest changes in her routine mean the world in the moment. Only, assigning any logical meaning to those changes is a fool’s mission in this case, as her downfall is staged entirely inside her own mind, with the titular island serving mostly as spooky Old World set dressing.
Hesitations about individual examples aside, you have to respect that the innate marketability of the horror genre is starting to import experimental filmmaking tactics into the mainstream. Enys Men immediately picked up North American distribution after it premiered at last year’s Cannes, likely because its traditionalist folk horror aesthetic was such an easy sell. Meanwhile, Jenkin’s previous feature Bait has yet to reach wide domestic distribution despite its years of fanatic endorsement from major British critic Mark Kermode and its similar vintage visual panache. It’s likely no coincidence that Bait is a real-world drama about gentrification in a small Cornwall fishing village, which can’t help sounding like homework even if it’s just as freely, weirdly expressive as Jenkin’s follow-up. The joy of seeing movies as difficult as The Outwaters & Skinamarink break through as unlikely hits earlier this year only highlights how horror has become one of the only viable mediums where artists can Trojan Horse actual Art into mainstream venues, since the genre’s popularity is seemingly eternal. Since Skinamarink was the biggest hit of the three, it turns out that a little grassroots buzz & viral marketing on TikTok also help. It’s a shame that Enys Men missed the boat on TikTok’s momentary obsession with sea shanties a few years ago, when it was best primed to be a cult-circuit hit. It’s still wonderful that it was nationally distributed at all, though, since it’s the exact kind of sensory nightmare that requires theatrical immersion to fully work its dark, hypnotic magic.
After I happened to spend an entire day watching horror movies about motherhood at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I found myself searching for patterns in the festival’s programming wherein the movies were communicating with each other just as much as they were provoking the audience. I didn’t have to squint too hard at my next double-feature to see their thematic connections, since the word “artifice” was already staring back at me in the first film’s title. My third & final day at this year’s Overlook was all about the tension between identity & artifice, and how the latter obscures the former. In the philosophical sci-fi horror at the top of that self-programmed double bill, the opaque surface of artifice is stripped away to reveal a complex, futuristic sense of identity underneath. In the true crime documentary that followed, the surface of artifice is removed to uncover no discernible human identity at all, which makes for a much bleaker, scarier reveal. Please forgive me for the inanity of reporting that this is an instance where the truth is stranger than fiction; I watched these particular movies hungover in a chilly downtown shopping mall, and I’m not sure my brain has fully recovered from watching two twisty thrillers about the complexities of human identity in that hazy state.
That morning’s theme-unlocking opener, The Artifice Girl, is a well-timed A.I. chatbot technothriller, turning just a few actors running lines in drab office spaces into a complex study of the fuzzy borders between human & artificial identity. Approached with the same unrushed, underplayed drama as the similarly structured Marjorie Prime, The Artifice Girl jumps time frames between acts as the titular A.I. chatbot is introduced in her infancy, gains sentience, and eventually earns her autonomy. She is initially created with queasy but altruistic intentions: designed to bait and indict online child molesters with the visage of a little girl who does not actually, physically exist. As the technology behind her “brain” patterns exponentially evolves, the ethics of giving something with even a simulation of intelligence & emotion that horrifically shitty of a job becomes a lot murkier. By the time she’s creating art and expressing genuine feelings, her entire purpose becomes explicitly immoral, since there’s no foolproof way to determine what counts as her identity or free will vs. what counts as her user-determined programming. The Artifice Girl does a lot with a little, asking big questions with limited resources. The closest it gets to feeling like a professional production is in the climactic intrusion of genre legend Lance Henriksen in the cast, whose journey as Bishop in the Alien series has already traveled these same A.I. autonomy roads on a much larger scale in the past. It’s got enough surprisingly complex stage play dialogue to stand on its own without Henriksen’s support, but his weighty late-career presence is the exact kind of hook it needs to draw an audience’s attention.
By contrast, David Farrier’s new documentary Mister Organ desperately searches for an attention-grabbing hook but never finds one. The New Zealand journalist drives himself mad attempting to recapture the lighting-in-a-bottle exposé he engineered in Tickled, investigating another unbelievable shit-heel subject who “earns” his living in nefarious, exploitative ways. At first, it seems like Farrier is really onto something. The titular Mr. Organ is an obvious conman, introduced to Farrier as a parking lot bully who “clamps” locals’ tires for daring to park in the wrong lot, then shakes them down for exorbitant piles of cash to remove the boots – making the high-end antique store he patrols a front for a much more lucrative, predatory side hustle. With only a little digging, that parking lot thug turns out to be a much bigger news story, one with fascinating anecdotes about stolen yachts, abandoned asylums, micro cults, and forged royal bloodlines. Or so Farrier thinks. The more he digs into his latest subject’s past to uncover his cleverly obscured identity, the more Farrier comes away empty-handed & bewildered. Mr. Organ is more an obnoxious Ricky Gervais caricature of a human being than he is a genuine one. He babbles for hours on end about nothing, holding Farrier hostage on speakerphone with the promise of a gotcha breakthrough moment that will never come. Organ is a literal ghoul, a real-life energy vampire, an artificial surface with no identity underneath. As a result, the documentary is a creepy but frustrating journey to nowhere, one where by the end the artist behind it is just as unsure what the point of the entire exercise was as the audience. It is a document of a failure.
Normally, when I contrast & compare two similarly themed features I walk away with a clearer understanding of both. In this case, my opinion of this unlikely pair only becomes more conflicted as I weigh them against each other. In the controlled, clinical, fictional environment of The Artifice Girl, an identity-obscuring layer of artifice is methodically, scientifically removed to reveal a complex post-human persona underneath. In the messy, real-world manipulations of Mister Organ, the surface-level artifice is all there is, and stripping it away reveals nothing that can be cleanly interpreted nor understood. Of course, the fictional stage play version of that exercise is more narratively satisfying than the reality-bound mechanics of true crime storytelling, which often leads to unsolved cases & loose, frayed ends. The Artifice Girl tells you exactly how to feel at the end of its artificially engineered drama, which is effective in the moment but leaves little room for its story to linger after the credits. The open-ended frustration of Mister Organ is maybe worthier to dwell in as you leave the theater, then, even if its own conclusion amounts to Farrier throwing up his hands in forfeit, walking away from an opaque nothing of a subject – the abstract personification of Bad Vibes. As a result, neither film was wholly satisfying either in comparison or in isolation, and I don’t know that I’ll ever fully make sense of my dehydrated, dispirited afternoon spent pondering them.
Film festival programming is a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure game where individual moviegoers can have wildly varied, simultaneous experiences at the exact same venue. Overall, I had a great time at this year’s Overlook (an annual horror festival that’s quickly become the most rewarding cinematic Cultural Event on the New Orleans social calendar), but I weirdly frontloaded my personal programming choices so that the films I was most excited to see—Late Night with the Devil, The Five Devils, and Smoking Causes Coughing—were all knocked out as a rapid-fire triple feature on the very first day. For the rest of the weekend, I wandered around Overlook in a self-induced daze, wowed by my Opening Night selections and hoping something smaller & more anonymous would match those early highs as I bounced between screening rooms at the downtown Prytania. I can’t say I ever got there (at least not in the way other festivalgoers gushed about big-name titles like Renfield, Talk to Me, and Evil Dead Rise throughout the weekend), but I did find some clear thematic patterns in my personal program as the fest stretched on. For instance, my entire second day at this year’s Overlook focused on the horrors of motherhood, a self-engineered happenstance I can’t imagine was the intent of the festival’s programmers, since they could not have known which exact Choose Your Own Adventure path their audience would lock ourselves into. While nothing on Day 2 floored me the way buzzier titles had on Day 1, they collectively gave me a lot of squicky Mommy Issues to dwell on in the festival’s downtown shopping mall locale – a theme that, come to think of it, was also echoed elsewhere on the docket in Clock, The Five Devils, Give Me an A, and Evil Dead Rise.
The best of the motherhood horrors I caught that day was the prickly pregnancy story Birth/Rebirth, which will premiere on Shudder later this year. In its simplest terms, Birth/Rebirth is a morbid little Found Family story where the family glue is composed of reanimated corpses & unethically harvested fetal tissue. Let’s call it Women in FrankenSTEM. It details the unlikely team-up of a brash, uncaring pathologist who experiments on reanimating dead bodies in her inner-city apartment and a warm, compassionate nurse from the same hospital who loses her young daughter to an aggressive bacterial infection. The two women form a makeshift family when they inevitably bring the daughter back to “life” via a serum derived from prenatal tissue, harvested through a chemical process that eventually leads to desperate acts of violence to keep the experiment going. There’s plenty of morbid humor in the film’s “Honey, I’m home,” “How was work?” domestic banter as this new family routine becomes more comfortable, but its tone & central themes are relatively heavy. For all of its upsetting surgical imagery involving needles, spines, and wombs (sometimes made even grimier through found-footage camcorder grain), the film often just engages in a very thoughtful contrast/compare debate about the differences between science & medicine. That debate gets especially heated when hospital staff maintain a cold, scientific distancing from their pregnant patients instead of treating them like human beings in need of compassionate care, a threshold that even the more humane nurse crosses in pursuit of keeping her daughter “alive.” Birth/Rebirth is refreshingly honest & matter-of-fact about pregnant women’s bodily functions and the medical industry’s indifference to their wellbeing. It’s not a great film (often lacking a pronounced sense of style or narrative momentum), but it is a satisfying, provocative one.
The worst of the motherhood horrors on my docket was the Mongolian axe-murder thriller Aberrance. Aberrance may even be the worst feature I can remember seeing at any film festival, a self-programming mistake that became apparent as soon as its opening frames foreshadow its pregnant damsel in distress running from its axe-wielding killer under a veil of cheaply rendered digital snowfall. Whereas Birth/Rebirth had smart, straightforward observations to make about how misogynist the medical industry can be, Aberrance instead follows a series of for-their-own sake plot twists that muddle any possible good-faith readings of its social messaging. At the start, this vapid, cheap-o thriller pretends to be a domestic violence story about a heroic neighbor bravely standing up to the abuser next door, who keeps his pregnant wife locked away from the world in order to “protect” her from her own mental illness. Several generic plot twists & mainstream horror tropes later, the movie appears to be asserting an extensive list of incendiary falsehoods that get more infuriating as they thoughtlessly pile up: Don’t be nosy about apparent domestic abuse conflicts in other people’s homes; don’t trust the medication prescribed to treat your mental illness; and, most importantly, if a woman is mentally ill, the best fix is for her to just have a baby. While Birth/Rebirth has incisive things to say about women’s minds, bodies, and care, Aberrance doesn’t care at all about the pregnant victim at the center of its story. She’s a mostly wordless vehicle for thematically inane, irresponsible plot twists and flashy, for-its-own sake camerawork that initially appears playful & inventive but quickly becomes dull & repetitive. The only halfway interesting thing about the movie is the cultural specificity of its Mongolian setting, but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for its boneheaded qualities as a mother-in-peril story.
Lurking somewhere between the disparate quality of those two polar-opposite motherhood thrillers is the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which will premiere on Hulu sometime later this year (likely as part of their annual “Huluween” package). Appendage‘s connections to the day’s unintentional motherhood theme are initially less apparent than the first two films’, unless you consider a woman growing a sentient, talking tumor on her hip to represent an abstract form of giving birth. The story follows a young fashion designer whose professional stress over a highly competitive, demanding job manifests in a hateful, id-indulging tumor that grows on her body and gradually develops a life of its own. It’s a fairly common creature feature set-up, especially in a horror comedy context. Think Basket Case but make it fashion (or Hatching but make it fashion, or Bad Milo but make it fashion, or How to Get Ahead in Advertising but make it fashion, etc.). The scenes featuring the rubber-puppet monster make for an adorable addition to that subgenre, but they also highlight how bland Appendage can feel when the absorbed-twin tumor is nowhere to be seen. Except, I did find its connective-tissue drama interesting within the larger theme of the day, if only through happenstance. By the end of the film, it’s clear that our troubled fashionista’s self-negging workplace woes are less about job stress than they are an echo of her uptight WASP mother’s overly harsh criticisms of her every decision. As it chugs along, Appendage proves to have way more on its mind about its underlying Mommy Issues than it does about the fashion industry, which is mostly used as an arbitrary broad-comedy backdrop akin to the killer-blue-jeans novelty horror Slaxx. The promise of the premise is that we’ll watch a young woman spar against the monstrously abnormal growth on her body, but instead we often watch her do petty, verbal battle with the abnormal monster who birthed her.
Birth/Rebirth was my favorite selection from the second day of Overlook by any metric, and it only grew in my estimation as the day’s incidental horrors-of-motherhood patterns revealed themselves. Even so, there are brief moments of Appendage that make it recommendable as potential Halloween Season viewing, especially for anyone who’s delighted by throwback practical-effects monsters. The same cannot be said about Aberrance, an entirely useless work as both a pregnancy narrative and as an axe-wielding slasher cheapie. It’s admirable that Overlook programmed a low-budget no-namer from an underserved market like Mongolia but, much like me, they took a chance on a dud. It still helped guide & flesh out my Choose Your Own Adventure programming choices for the day, though, even if only to make the other motherhood horror titles that bookended it appear even greater by comparison.
It’s easy to get dispirited by the deluge of current pop culture product that’s just nostalgic regurgitation of vintage hits from decades ago. If you dwell on how much of our current “creative” output is just a distant echo of pre-existing iconic works, you’re only going to see a culture in decline. Not all pastiche is empty, though. While most nostalgia bait cites past triumphs for an easy pop of recognition, there are plenty modern throwbacks that sincerely interrogate or subvert the artistic intent & cultural context of their inspirational texts. For every Netflix special that drags the Power Rangers out of retirement for a nostalgia-stoker victory lap, there’s an absurdist French comedy that subverts & recontextualizes that same vintage 90s iconography into something wonderfully new & strange. The same day I saw Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist Power Rangers parody Smoking Causes Coughingat this year’s Overlook Film Festival, I also happened to catch a similarly subversive nostalgia piece in Late Night with the Devil, which dialed the pop culture clock even further back for even weirder effect (and won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Feature as a result). Late Night with the Devil is vintage TV Land horror, a parody of a late-night 70s talk show broadcast that’s hijacked midway by The Devil. It stokes vintage 1970s pop culture nostalgia as its initial hook, but mostly just uses that temporal backdrop for a sense of comfort & familiarity that can be stripped away for effective third-act scares once the titular Devil is conjured. It’s also thematically purposeful in returning to that era because it has something specific to say about pop culture at that time, an embarrassingly low bar that isn’t cleared by more routine nostalgia cash-ins like the upcoming Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Once & Always.
David Dastmalchian stars as a late-night talk show host who teeters somewhere between the post-vaudevillian comedy of Johnny Carson and the cigar-smoke intellectualism of Dick Cavett. After a faux-documentary prologue sketches out the basic outline of Dastmalchian’s fictional Night Owl talk show (including its imagined ratings war with Carson and its host’s personal dabblings in the occult), we’re submerged in a real-time Sweeps Week novelty episode of the show, supposedly broadcast on Halloween Night in 1977. Even within that Halloween Special context, Late Night with the Devil mostly functions as a loose collection of 70s kitsch, touching on iconic-to-forgotten figures of the era like Orson Welles, Anton LaVey, and The Amazing Kreskin as if they’re all of equal importance. Things get dicey when the Night Owl producers restage a real-life version of Friedkin’s 70s horror classic The Exorcist as a shameless ratings stunt, unwittingly unleashing a powerful demon that calls itself Mr. Wriggles onto the American public through live broadcast. The demonic scares of the film’s back half allow its initial Nick at Nite nostalgia trip to go wildly off the rails in exciting, unpredictable ways. It also opens the text up for direct, sincere criticism of the era’s professional machismo – interrogating the ways that men nearing the top of the corporate ladder were willing to exploit the vulnerable underlings below them (especially if they’re women) just to scramble up the last few rungs. Sweeps Week desperation has never been so deadly, nor has inane talk show chatter about “current” events & the weather.
If there’s anything holding Late Night with the Devil back from achieving greatness as a standalone novelty, it’s that there are so many nostalgia-critical genre throwbacks already out there to match or best. In particular, its real-time simulation of an actual cursed, vintage TV broadcast is outshone by the Satanic Panic era news report parody film WNUF Halloween Special, which is also framed as a ratings stunt gone wrong. Not only does WNUF have more politically incisive things to say about the cultural moment it time-travels to for cheap gags & scares, but it also fully commits to the bit in a way Late Night with the Devil doesn’t dare. Instead of repeating the WNUF trick of breaking up its broadcast with parodies of vintage television commercials, Late Night cheats by bolstering its narrative with backstage drama & impossible “documentary” footage that distract from the verisimilitude of its premise. It’s a frustrating indulgence at first, but the film eventually makes the most of it in a go-for-broke, reality-bending finale that’s worth forgiving the few shortcut cheats it takes to get there. If you don’t mind a little logical looseness in your “found footage” horror novelties, Late Night with the Devil is perfectly calibrated Halloween Season programming. It pulls double duty in both nostalgically calling back to vintage horrors past (which is especially welcome if you’ve already seen The Exorcist and its many knockoffs one too many times) and finds modern political & technological justifications in returning to those well-treaded waters. It’s not nostalgia bait so much as it’s nostalgia perversion, which is a much more interesting angle than you’ll find most modern pop culture attempting.
Welcome to Episode #182 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of dark, horrific takes on classic fairy tales, starting with the 1995 creature feature Rumpelstiltskin.
02:14 Finde (2021) 05:30 The Little Mermaid (1968) 08:37 The Cremator (1969) 16:40 The Firemen’s Ball (1967) 21:51 Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
26:41 Rumpelstiltskin (1995) 48:41 Beauty and the Beast (1978) 1:02:50 Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) 1:16:00 Freeway (1996)
Being born on the day that I was made for an interesting way of keeping track of time with regards to school when I was a kid. One of my dearest friends was born on October 27th, which meant that she spent her childhood believing that her favorite movies, which were all Halloween-oriented, came on television in honor of her, which leant her younger years a little bit of magic that was sorely needed. My birthday always landed during or after the last week of school, so much so that I turned 18 the day after I graduated from high school, and my college graduation was also exactly one day prior to my birthday. I know this will finally be the thing that dates me after I’ve played so coy over the years about how old I am, but I finished fifth grade in 1998, and one of my classmates came home with me for a birthday sleepover. My next-door neighbor, a girl a few years older than I was, secretly snuck me a VHS tape of a movie that she had recorded off of HBO, for us to watch on the tiny TV/VCR combo that I got for my birthday that year. I didn’t know it, but my whole world was about to change, not because I was turning 11, but because an extremely meta horror film was about to stab me in the brain and change everything that I thought I knew about how movies worked. It’s been 25 years, and I’m still just as in love with it, as well as (all but one of) the sequels it spawned in the intervening time. What’s your favorite scary movie … franchise?
Scream VI is a delight. After a fairly decent return to the world of Ghostfaces and voice changers in 5cream, this new installment lands on its feet despite the departure of the franchise’s main lead, Neve Campbell. Don’t get me wrong; I love Neve Campbell, and I love Sidney Prescott. In fact, I went to two separate screenings of Scream VI just 48 hours apart because I overbooked myself, and I wore a different Sidney Prescott t-shirt to each one, which is a testament to the fact that she is my favorite final girl. Somehow, despite her leaving this series after the last film, Scream VI manages to not only soldier on in her absence, but feel complete in spite of it; in fact, her absence is barely felt at all. This loss is mitigated by several mentions of her and the agreement between the lone veteran of the first film, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), and new lead Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) that Sidney “deserves her happy ending” with her husband and children far, far away from whatever Ghostface copycat shenanigans are happening in New York, to which I also whole-heartedly agree. It’s a shame that the studio wasn’t willing to meet her salary requirements (a friend asked me how much Campbell asked for and I have no idea what her fee would have been, but she is worth every penny that they refused to pay), but if she’s not going to be in it, I’m hard pressed to think of a kinder send-off than she got. The news that VI would bring back fan-favorite Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) was the only thing that kept me from writing this sequel off when it was in development last year, and her return is one of countless elements that make this film feel like it’s living up to the franchise’s legacy in spite of the loss of its star.
It’s been a year since the events of the last film, in which Sam Carpenter returned to her hometown of Woodsboro, a town that’s rapidly heading towards overtaking Cabot Cove as the murder capital of small town America. After years of running from her past after discovering that the man who raised her was not her father and that she was actually sired by infamous serial killer Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich)—who, alongside Stu Macher (Matt Lillard) went on a spree in 1996 that formed the plot of both Scream and its in-universe adaptation Stab—Sam returned to the town to protect her sister from the latest killer(s) to don the Ghostface mask. In the intervening twelve months, she has become the subject of a widespread online conspiracy theory that she, as Billy Loomis’s daughter, was the true mastermind behind the 2022 Woodsboro spree and that she framed the guilty parties. Now living in NYC with her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), who attends Blackmore University as a freshman, Sam is struggling not only with PTSD but the fact that it felt good to kill her tormentors, and she’s worried that it’s her father’s legacy still living inside of her. Also at Blackmore are Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), twin niece and nephew of Sidney’s friend and classmate Randy, originator of “the rules.” Aside from these characters, introduced in the last film, we also meet: Quinn (Liana Liberato), the sex positive roommate of the Carpenter sisters; her father, Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney), who transferred to the NYPD when Quinn went off to college because of his guilt over the loss of his son, her brother; Ethan (Jack Champion), Chad’s shy, nebbish roommate; Anika (Devyn Nekoda), Mindy’s under-characterized girlfriend; and Danny (Josh Segarra), Sam and Tara’s neighbor, whom Sam has been snogging in secret.
After a fun and effective twist on the opening scene formula that I won’t spoil here, Sam becomes a primary suspect in the slaying of two of Tara’s classmates, including “chode” Jason (Tony Revolori), a noted Argento freak (he even dies wearing a 4 mosche di veluto grigio shirt). The sympathetic Bailey is heading up the investigation and reveals that the killer left a Ghostface mask at the scene of the crime, which forensic evidence indicates was one of the masks used by the killer(s) in the previous installment; he gets an unexpected assist from Atlanta-based FBI agent Kirby Reed, who shows off the scars that Ghostface 2011 gave her. Despite some bad blood between herself and the Carpenters as the result of portraying Sam as a “born killer” in her latest book, a major crack in the case comes from longtime Ghostface opponent Gale Weathers, who finds a shrine to all of the previous killers and their victims in an abandoned theatre. From there, bodies start to rack up and more Ghostface masks are left behind at the scenes like Easter eggs, counting down from the killers in Scream 4 to 3 to 2, etc., leading up to a climax where no one is safe and no one can be trusted.
What is your favorite scary movie franchise? Obviously, mine is Scream, but that wasn’t always the case. For many years, I was a Nightmare on Elm Street kid, through and through. What Craven’s earlier franchise had that made it stand out from so many other slasher empires was an increased focus on the continuity of characters between entries. Even though Nancy Thompson didn’t make it out of Dream Warriors alive, she effectively passed the baton to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette in Warriors, Tuesday Knight in Dream Master), who passed it on to Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox), who becomes a final girl par excellence, in my opinion. The Scream franchise has remained one of the most consistent with regards to its core cast and with its content, with every film (other than Scream 3) being good-to-great and subverting the trend of recasting characters between films that was common in earlier slasher series (see above, re: Kristen Parker, but also Tommy in the Friday the 13th films, Andy in the Chucky movies, Mike in the Phantasms, Angela in Sleepaway Camp 2, and on and on). People didn’t go to the movies to see Jason Lives because they cared about the characters from A New Beginning; they went to see Jason Voorhees kill a bunch of teenagers. Scream isn’t about that; it’s about commenting on that phenomenon, and as a series, it’s important to remember that the ever-changing killer behind the infamous mask allows for Scream to reinvent itself by evolving its storytelling and maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the genre of which it is both text and annotation. Nightmare laid this groundwork by straddling this line, with Nancy and Alice as characters that one cared about alongside the primary franchise driver in the form of Robert Englund’s Freddy. Scream is this concept in culmination; 5cream being willing to kill off Dewey (David Arquette), a character who has been with us since 1996, not only reiterated that no one was safe but also that horror isn’t just about fright and suspense and terror and surprise, but also about sorrow. I won’t spoil anything, but Gale takes some real hard hits in this one, and because I’ve known Gale since I was a child, I felt a profound sense of possible loss, which isn’t something you can say about Dream Child or Jason Lives (or Hellraiser: Hellseeker or The Curse of Michael Myers or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, etc.).
In the year since 5cream, one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about the film had to do with Melissa Barrera’s purported lack of acting ability, and although I never participated in the spread of that complaint, I must admit that I agreed. I’m happy to report that I have no such complaints about her performance in Scream VI, where she really shines. Last time, Sam was wooden, unyielding, and didn’t seem to have chemistry with a single one of her co-stars; this time around, a large part of the film’s emotional weight requires a real sense of sisterhood between Ortega and Barrera, and the latter brought her A-game to the table this time. There’s a veritas and a humanity to the way that Sam worries about her younger sister’s refusal to process their shared trauma, and there’s just as much honesty in the way that Tara feels smothered by her long-absent sister’s overprotective return to her life; it would be easy for either character to seem unreasonable, but neither does, and that’s good conflict to find in the middle of this latest slasher sequel. It’s interwoven beautifully with the actual text as well, as, in the finale, both girls’ survival demands that Sam literally let Tara go, which is a nice touch.
Overall, this is a strong sequel in a very strong franchise, possibly the horror franchise with the best hit to miss ration (5:1, in my book, and even the dud has Parker Posey to liven it up, so that’s something). Even though there are moments that are questionable (some of the people we see attacked should not have survived what happened to them), there are more than enough great sequences, character beats, and thrills to make up for them.