Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

The Perfection (2019)

On paper, The Perfection sounds like it should be exactly My Thing. It’s an over-the-top, weirdly horny, queer horror cheapie after all – the kind of heightened trash that clashes cheap made-for-VOD genre sensibilities with an exquisite fine art setting. That’s why it’s so disappointing that I ended up hating the film early & often, practically despising it more for being almost enjoyable yet barely watchable than I would have if it had no potential for greatness. Only outdone by Under the Silver Lake in terms of wasted potential, this is truly one of the biggest letdowns of the cinematic year so far, but I almost feel as if I’m letting myself down by failing to enjoy it. It’s like someone poisoned my catnip.

I can’t get too far into the premise of The Perfection here without ruining its intended payoffs for those who might still enjoy it. The what-the-fuck-is-happening quality of the plot is one of its strongest assets, as long as you aren’t as utterly appalled by its unearned reveals as I ultimately was. It’s at least safe to say that Allison Williams stars as a world-class cellist who returns to the music academy that trained her as a child before her years of seclusion in caring for her sick mother & intensive therapy. The music academy’s director (Steven Weber) is cautiously suspicious of her return but delighted for the opportunity to hear her play with his new star pupil (Logan Browning). Things escalate quickly as the two women’s exquisite musical collaboration transforms into a passionate sexual tryst and then, almost immediately, a complex series of betrayals, revenge, cruelty, and bloodshed. This first act set-up prompts you to question the history, intentions, and mental stability of all the players involved, and the perverse fun of its fallout is in those mysteries being fully, exploitatively exposed. To reveal any more in this review would be a crime I’m not willing to commit, except to say that all of The Perfection’s twisty roads only lead to disappointment.

There’s plenty for me to complain about here. As with the similarly promising-but-disappointing Always Shine, The Perfection immediately hinders itself with gimmicky early-aughts-horror editing tricks – practically begging for audiences’ patience with promises that “Things will get wacky & crazy later! Hold tight!” Besides the artificial jump scares generated purely through those edits, the film repeatedly rewinds scenes of intense violence & betrayal to over-explain what was really going on – when those rewound flashbacks only reveal was already blatant & obvious. Ideally, the film would have just let its trashy premise clash against its pristine High Art setting, as superior films like In Fabric, Grand Piano, and Argento’s Opera have before it. Instead, everything about it comes across as cheap except that it happens to have a cello soundtrack. The film is also never quite as surprising as it believes itself to be, telegraphing many of its shocking Twists long before it rewinds itself to explain what was already obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before – undercutting its own value as a what-the-fuck-is-happening oddity at every turn. Nothing typifies this more than a last-minute wig reveal where a central character yanks off their own wig to expose a smaller, scragglier wig underneath . . . and not much else.

The truth is, through, that I would have readily forgiven all these minor sins against good taste if the third act’s morbid obsession with sexual assault hadn’t been such a letdown. This a violently gory, sensually horny, playfully twisty genre film that touches on Lovecraftian fears of breaking through reality to reach divine, horrible transcendence through beautiful music. I don’t understand, then, what it finds so alluring about the horror canon’smost repugnantly pedestrian go-to for creating tension & conflict for female characters. It’s as unearned as it is boring, frankly. You can’t promise your audience the endless horrors of the great abyss only to deliver the cheapest, laziest form of cinematic violence there is – especially since that violence has a long history of exploitation without justification in the themes of the text.

I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to have a good time with this ludicrous schlock. In fact, I envy anyone who did. I even suspect my distaste for it will cause conflict with other Swampflixers around Best of the Year list-making season, since it’s the exact kind of thing we usually praise around here. Indeed, I even found plenty to enjoy from scene to scene: the psychedelic freak-outs, the gory body horror, the comical over-utilization of split diopter shots, the tension of a world-class cellist summoning all their willpower to not shit themselves on a public bus, etc. I just can’t personally get past how much the film wastes its own potential in its editing, its handling of sexual abuse, and its eagerness to over-explain and then re-explain to the audience what’s already embarrassingly obvious. The fact that it should have easily been one of my favorite films of the year only makes it stand out as one of my most hated, however personal that reaction may be.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Granny (2019)

Between the releases of Greta & Ma in recent months, it seems as if the psychobiddy genre might be making a quiet comeback in American movie theaters. It’s arguable, though, that the genre has been alive & well on our television sets for decades even without this theatrical-release revival, thanks to the melodramatic schlock regularly churned out on the Lifetime network. While the trope of once-respectable grande dames losing their minds & becoming crazed killers used to function as late-career revivals for aging stars as high on the food chain as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland, it’s since trickled down into made-for-cable schlock on Lifetime for sorta half-famous stars from long-forgotten soap operas & B-pictures. Few Lifetime Original Movies are as blatant about their participation in this hagsploitation tradition as Psycho Granny, which sidesteps the usual Lifetime method of hiding its exploitation cinema intentions behind titles like Wife, Mother, Murderer, by essentially just naming itself after the top Google result for “psycho biddy synonym.” Originally pitched under alternate titles like Lineage of Lies & Granny’s Home, Psycho Granny’s shamelessly honest moniker is a decisive affirmation that Lifetime has been keeping this sleazy tradition alive even in the decades when major studios have been slacking. And, just to drive the point home, it was aired as a double feature with another Lifetime Original titled Killer Grandma.

Just because Lifetime makes psychobiddy cheapies the most often doesn’t mean they make them best, though. At least, I don’t think you’ll find anything in Psycho Granny that wasn’t done to greater delight in Greta or Ma. Instead of world-class acting giants like Isabelle Huppert & Octavia Spencer slumming it in delirious genre trash unworthy of their talents, we’re treated to a typifying performance from Robin Riker, most “famous” for starring in the (badass, but underseen) creature feature relic Alligator nearly 40 year ago. Psycho Granny opens with its best scene, a camp tableau in which Riker toasts/berates the dead bodies of her “family” members arranged about the dining room table, all recently poisoned by her traditional, grandmotherly turkey dinner. The rest of the picture is standard Lifetime Movie fare: a trashy, low-energy thriller in which Riker’s delusional “grandmother” character elbows her way into a young, pregnant couple’s lives – convincing them that she’s actually family and not a sociopathic killer. Like in Ma, she scrapbooks relics from her crimes in a menacing tone. Like in Greta, the humor and the horror of the scenario derive from the moments when she drops her helpless-old-woman facade to reveal the monster underneath – usually in Gollum/Sméagol-style arguments with herself in the rearview mirror of her car. The effect of these common touches just comes across a little dulled here, as if they were business as usual for the Lifetime Original Movie format, not wild, delirious transgressions from actors who should know better.

Psycho Granny is mildly fun & incredibly sleazy in the way all Lifetime movies are. There are some delightfully absurdist details in Riker’s behavior (including a weird fixation on her newest granddaughter-victim’s toilet flushing habits) and an occasional line like “I would kill for a glass of Pinot right now!” that stand out as primo Lifetime fodder. The move also hits its most ideal strides once Riker starts killing again in the third act – disposing of her victims in specifically grandmotherly ways: strangling busybodies with the hanging tennis ball chord in the garage and bashing skulls in with whistling teapots. Where the movie really shines, though, is in having Riker’s “No more wire hangers!” trigger be Millennials sending too much time on their phones. The film is obsessed with young husbands & mothers being distracted from quality family time by “burying their faces in their phones,” so that when Riker chastises their smartphone addictions, she’s playing directly into the generational resentments of Lifetime’s aging, judgmental audience. It’s a detail that recalls not only the wire-hangers trigger from Mommie Dearest, but also the wearing-white-after-Labor-Day kill from Serial Mom and the chicken-beheading mania of (possibly the greatest psychobiddy of all time) Strait-Jacket, which I mean as the highest compliment. The film never threatens to match the heightened fever-pitch camp of those pinnacles of the genre, but it does help connect the dots between traditional psychobiddy tropes and the usual goings-on of the Lifetime network.

The only inkling I had that Psycho Granny may have achieved more than the usual Lifetime standard is that it was directed by Rebekah McKendry, co-host of the excellent Blumhouse horror podcast Shock Waves. McKendry promoted the film as a “darkly comedic thriller” on her own social media, and the opening turkey dinner tableau hints at that subversive impulse. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly standard Lifetime movie about an aging, smartphone-hating woman who’s gone headfirst off the deep end. Which is to say that it’s a three-star campy pleasure in the age-old psychobiddy tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Child’s Play (2019)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

The Overlook Film Festival 2019, Ranked & Reviewed

Last year’s sudden appearance of the Overlook Film Festival on the local calendar was an unholy, unexpected blessing. There are only a few substantial film fests that are staged in New Orleans every year, so for an international horror film festival with world premieres of Big Deal genre movies to land in our city was a major boon, almost too good to be true. I attended the festival as a volunteer, catching three artsy-fartsy creature features (all directed by women) and a couple live podcast recordings over the course of a few days, hungry (bloodthirsty?) for more. This year, Swampflix attended Overlook with legitimate press credentials, meaning we were able to cover even more films playing at the fest, which was majorly exciting.

There were 23 features and 18 shorts from 11 different countries screening at the festival over the course of a single weekend in early June. It was overwhelming. Self-described as “a summer camp for genre fans,” The Overlook was centrally located, corralling all of its movie screenings to just a few venues: Le Petit Theatre for its more prestigious premieres, the UNO Performing Arts Center for a repertory screening of The Faculty (with Robert Rodriguez in attendance), and what is now the ghost of the old Canal Place theater for the bulk of its heavy-lifting. It was wonderful to be able to take fuller advantage of this super cool genre film extravaganza, especially considering that Canal Place’s closure might persuade them to leave us for another city, which would be a total shame.

Listed below are all eleven features we were able to catch at The Overlook Film Festival that weekend ranked in the order that we most appreciated them, each with a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. For a more detailed recap of our festival experience beyond these reviews, check out our podcast discussion of the fest.

1. In Fabric “Wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.”

2. One Cut of the Dead “So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.”

3. Ma “It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.”

4. Paradise Hills “This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.”

5. Come to Daddy “As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.”

6. Greener Grass “Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.”

7. Knives & Skin “Filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.”

8. The Vast of Night “The film chooses a very difficult path in distinguishing itself, relying more on the strength of its performances & written dialogue than its sci-fi chills & scares. It’s more akin to intimate walk & talk dramas like Dogfight, Before Sunrise, or My Dinner with Andre than the sci-fi horror tones you’d usually expect from an alien invasion story template.”

9. Gwen Gwen looks, sounds, and feels like Elevated Horror™. Its monochrome portrait of a family in crisis is illustrated mostly by the grey hues of soot & snow. There’s very little dialogue & no musical score to speak of, somewhat mistaking total quiet for atmospheric dread. Those drab, miserable textures lull the audience into a foggy calm, only to be shocked out of our seats by loud, violet stabs of lightning, medical fits, and nightmares of self-mutilation. This movie has genuine jump scares! But it’s not horror.”

10. Satanic Panic “It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but it at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.”

11. Porno “When most comedies fail to make you laugh, they leave you very few opportunities to be entertained otherwise. To its credit, Porno entertains throughout by relying on the most tried & true attractions in the entertainment business: sex & violence. Even if you’re impervious to its proper Jokes, there’s still plenty of blood-soaked juvenilia to keep you occupied.”

-Brandon Ledet

Braid (2019)

Braid exhibits both the greatest charms and worst faults of all directorial debuts: it’s tonally chaotic, unnecessarily showy, and overflowing with far too many ideas than what could comfortably fit in a single picture, yet those very qualities all amount to something that is undeniably fun & exciting. Hyperactive camera work tears through every color filter, image texture, and aspect ratio it can manage, as if this were a hand-held skateboarding compilation instead of a feature film. Concerns like logical consistency, tonal control, and purposeful pacing are all tossed out of the window in favor of gorgeous costumes & sets and over-the-top shocks in a twisty “plot” that’s too stoned & scatterbrained to possibly land anywhere solid. It’s the best kind of dirt-cheap indie production: the kind that just shoots a few fully-committed actors in an interesting locale and attempts to push those resources to their furthest possible limit in every single frame, logic be damned. It’s a total mess, but also a total blast.

Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a wealthy but mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. While in hiding (and searching the home for her cash-stuffed safe), they must play along with the friend’s house rules: Everyone must play; no outsiders allowed; nobody leaves. Their respective roles as Mommy, Doctor, and Daughter in this make-believe heist dynamic sledgehammers away at the border between fantasy & reality, and all three women rapidly backslide into the mania & trauma of young girls at play. As many horror premises as I’ve seen repeated over the years, “What if you had a friend who was still playing House and taking her role very seriously?” is a pretty unique story structure I can’t remember encountering onscreen before. The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs, detours into torture porn, and disorienting repetition of the game’s core setup, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.

Braid is going to be a huge turnoff for a lot of viewers. Not only is it a chaotic sugar rush that pulls the rug from under you so many times that there’s nowhere left to stand, but it’s also deliberately off-putting in its drama & politics. This is a film where one woman grows up to be a dominatrix because of her traumatic childhood, another spends the majority of her screentime dressed like a fetishized schoolgirl, and the third is supposedly driven mad by her own barren womb’s inability to carry child. I personally didn’t find myself getting too hung up on its more #problematic choices, though, mostly because I didn’t have the time. This is an 80 min whirlwind that spins you around until you’re vomitously dizzy and then chases you down the hallway with a knife. It’s an avalanche of pure candy (as long as you appreciate a certain sinister femme sensibility), and my head was swooning with too many pure-sugar pleasures to take notice of anything bitter: Madeleine Brewer in Grey Gardens drag, dollhouse miniatures with their own dollhouse miniatures nested inside, brightly colored silks & lace (sometimes splattered with gore, when necessary), etc. I don’t have much room left in my head for concerns with plot logic or politics when the other wares on display are this sumptuous, so I mostly just can’t wait to see whatever bonkers monstrosity new-comer Mitzi Peiron delivers next.

-Brandon Ledet

Gwen (2019)

Remember when wide audiences openly jeered The Witch for its supposed letdown of an ending that payed off the Satanic dread of its atmospheric tension with a moment of ethereal, haunting beauty? Remember when even that film’s defenders rejected the late-night-stress-dream horrors of It Comes at Night because there was no literal “It” to provide physical form to its themes of grief & hopelessness? I can’t imagine what either crowd would make of the spooky period drama Gwen, which boasts all the atmospheric dread & oil panting patina of an A24 horror film but refuses to deliver the genre goods it teases in any satisfying or recognizable way. If anything, when it’s time for the film to veer into a horror genre metaphor to amplify the themes & tensions of its premise, it instead pulls back to reveal that the real world is grim, joyless, and devoid of fantastic escape. It leaves you to stew in the misery of reality, despite being framed as a horror film (to the point of appearing on the docket of this year’s Overlook Film Festival) and it’s a tough, dry pill to swallow as a result.

A Welsh family struggles to maintain ownership of their farm during wartime at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The exact nature of the threat against them is clear. An aristocratic industrialist in a top hat wishes to seize their land to add to his factory & quarry space, but they won’t sell. As their house is cursed with animal deaths, parental seizures, and occultist symbols (all meant to be taken as direct threats), the film continually hints that a larger, supernatural force is creeping in from the edges of the frame, but it never actually arrives. It’s clear from the beginning that Capitalism in The Monster in this grim historical drama, but in a true horror film that threat would assume a physical form as well, terrorizing the family with tangible violence. Instead, we watch a mother & her two daughters cling to their dwindling few possessions & health as the evils of a modern economy bully them into submission (or death). It’s a miserable experience, even if purposefully so. It also never gets around to justifying its occasional dalliances in horror tones & tropes – whether by fully utilizing its spooky atmosphere or by releasing a physical demon to represent its economic one.

Gwen looks, sounds, and feels like Elevated Horror™. Its monochrome portrait of a family in crisis is illustrated mostly by the grey hues of soot & snow. There’s very little dialogue & no musical score to speak of, somewhat mistaking total quiet for atmospheric dread. Those drab, miserable textures lull the audience into a foggy calm, only to be shocked out of our seats by loud, violet stabs of lightning, medical fits, and nightmares of self-mutilation. This movie has genuine jump scares! But it’s not horror. Gwen takes the same cautious, teasing approach to genre as last year’s The Little Stranger, ultimately avoiding traditional payoffs entirely in favor of the real-world misery of economic exploitation. I don’t personally see the same dynamic at play in The Witch or It Comes at Night, but these muted British chillers at least give me a taste of how other people feel watching them. They’re handsomely crafted, well performed (especially The Bisexual’s Maxine Peake in the mother role in this case), and impressively disturbing in their own right. Yet, I can’t help but wish there was a supernatural monster onscreen to back up its disingenuous genre teasing.

-Brandon Ledet

Paradise Hills (2019)

Like all genre films, Paradise Hills feels like a loose collection of themes & imagery we’ve all seen before. Is it exactly fair or accurate to describe it as Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives set in the Queen of Hearts’s rose garden from Alice in Wonderland, featuring extras from The Hunger Games & Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Probably not, but that rambling assemblage of references at least hints to how familiar individual elements of its fantasy world feels, even if you’ve never seen them arranged in this exact configuration before. What makes Paradise Hills a great genre film is that it still feels entirely unique & spellbinding despite those pangs of familiarity. This is a dark, femme fairy tale I presume was conceived by first-time director Alice Waddinton after a poisonous tea service left her hallucinating & scared for her life. She may be painting with a familiar palette, but the resulting picture is wonderfully warped in new & exciting ways, especially considering how she conveys dread & menace through an overdose of the feminine.

An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. Spurned by their parents for being too queer, too fat, too rebellious, and too difficult to control, the young women are imprisoned in a high-femme reform school that feels as if it were borrowed from a lingerie fetishist’s erotic fiction. Jovovich keeps her prisoners in line as a green-thumb dominatrix who plans to excise their offending idiosyncrasies in the same way she snips the thorns from her endless supply of roses. On the surface this femme obedience school that transforms young rebels into proper mademoiselles feels almost paradisiac. The young women’s torture is mostly a PG-rated barrage of ballet, yoga, and garden tea service. There’s a sinister sexuality & dystopic undertone of Patriarchy to their entire ordeal, though, something that bubbles up to the surface with increasing violence as the unruly students bring their rejection of traditional gender roles to a boil.

The most immediately satisfying aspect of Paradise Hills is the visual splendor of its costume & production design. Although the titular obedience school is obviously an evil force that must be destroyed, there’s an intoxicating allure to its high-femme paradise. The lacy house robes & white leather bondage harnesses that serve as the school’s uniform are their own kind of gendered prison that erase the individual women’s distinguishing features, yet are also undeniably gorgeous & covetable on their own merit. Similarly, the school itself appears to be a romantic spa getaway for the ultra-rich, not the brainwashing torture chamber that it truly is. This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.

Many people are going to roll their eyes at how earnestly this film commits to its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise, but I found that sincerity to be refreshing. Undercutting the absurdity of its fantasy scenario with snarky one-liners or tongue-in-cheek camp would have broken its dark magic spell. Waddington (boosted by a cowriting credit from the increasingly fascinating Nacho Vigalondo) carves out a very peculiar, particular mood & aesthetic here, even if she uses familiar genre tools to get there. Welcoming in audiences who aren’t already on the hook for the film’s high-femme fairytale mystique with ingratiating humor would only deflate what makes it special. Paradise Hills’s uncanny sense of femme menace works best if the sensual surface pleasures of its fantasy realm instantly appeal to you as a world where you could lose your sense of time and self. It’s a film you sink into, like a warm familiar blanket, until you suffocate.

-Brandon Ledet

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet