Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.

Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.

I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.

-Brandon Ledet.

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Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast: Romantic Escapes from Occupied France & Trouble Every Day (2001)

Welcome to Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-second episode, Brandon and CC close out the year with a discussion of fancy-schmancy French cinema. They discuss four escapist romances directed by Claude Autant-Lara during Germany’s WWII occupation of France. Also, CC makes Brandon watch Claire Denis’s New French Extremity horror Trouble Every Day (2001). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Skin (2018)

2017 was a great year for fish-fucking movies, considering the American distribution of the horned-up Polish mermaid musical The Lure and the surprise Best Picture Oscar win for del Toro’s Creature from the Black Lagoon slashfic The Shape of Water. It was during this fish-people pornography frenzy that I first heard of the Xavier Gans creature feature Cold Skin, so I’ve been anticipating its arrival here for a solid year, hoping our new national fetish could continue into pervy perpetuity. Given its French Horror pedigree & its provocative title, I expected Cold Skin to be the most extreme of the 2017 fish-fucking titles – especially considering the grotesque sexual menace of recent French titles like Raw, We Are the Flesh, and The Untamed (which does feature some alien space-squid fucking, which, close enough). I felt a little letdown, then, that Cold Skin is merely a serviceable creature feature that keeps most of its human-fish sexual behavior muted, off-screen, and de-eroticized. It’s like the movie’s scared to fully commit to the implications of its fish-people fucking, which is a huge hindrance in a year where more head-on explicit engagements with the same topic are out there winning Oscars.

In 1914, a depressive academic eagerly takes a year-long gig studying Antarctica weather patterns in solitary isolation. With his only assigned task being to measure the strength & direction of Antarctic winds and his only company being a stack of literary texts, he looks forward to being left alone with his brooding thoughts in a frozen wilderness. Of course, this plan of “seeking peace through nothingness” doesn’t last long and our protagonist soon finds himself living in “a monster-plagued inferno” (his love for Great Works of Literature often inspires him to describe his plight in verbose prose). Instead of living in total isolation as planned, he finds himself contending with two unexpected threats: a species of nocturnal fish-beasts that attack his cabin nightly and a near-feral man who’s made a life out of fighting these creatures off with a gun from the vantage point of his nearby lighthouse. The bearded brute has also taken in one of the anthropomorphic fish monsters as a house pet & sex slave, which bothers the bookish weather observer at first on the grounds of human decency, then later romantic jealousy. This unlikely trio—the brute, the scholar, and the fish slave—form a bizarre domestic routine in the Antarctic wilderness, fighting off encroaching monsters nightly and struggling to make eye contact during the day.

As a horror genre indictment of colonialism, in which two white men have the audacity to wage war on native creatures protecting their own territory, Cold Skin is a passably okay creature feature. Its cold digital photography & fanged-Delgo creature designs amount to an interesting enough visual aesthetic, and there’s plenty of monster-attack action to fill the time. The movie’s major flaw is that it’s deluded in thinking those nightly creature attacks are somehow more interesting than its implied fish-fucking – which it’s very wary about exploring in any direct way. It almost uses the colonialist rape & sexual subjugation of the fish-people as an excuse to avert its eyes when it comes to the more legitimate interspecies sparks of romance that later arise. The fish sex that does occur is nothing you’d want to see. I don’t know that explicit fish-person eroticism is a healthy desire for what I want depicted in modern cinema or if my brain has just been thoroughly wrecked by the cultural zeitgeist’s entertainment of that impulse in the last year. I do know that enough movies have more fully committed to engaging with that topic in recent memory that Cold Skin’s sexuality feels downright bashful in comparison – so that all that’s left are its minor creature feature payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

The House That Jack Built (2018)

I thought I had gotten confident enough in my distaste for Lars Von Trier’s audience & critics trolling that I no longer considered keeping up with his provocations du jour an obligatory exercise. During the entire hype & backlash cycle for Nymphomaniac, I largely abstained from engaging – neither reading reviews nor thinking about what he was trying to say with the film, much less actually watching all 325 (uncut) minutes of it. Honestly, it was freeing. However, von Trier’s follow-up to that massive, prurient temple of self-indulgence, The House that Jack Built, somehow lured me back into his orbit, like Wile E Coyote unable to walk away from the Road Runner even if it means repeatedly falling off the same cliff. There was a carnival sideshow aspect to The House that Jack Built that I was too weak to resist. Its initial reaction out of Cannes was polarized between mass, disgusted walkouts & glowing 5-star reviews. It was touted as both an inflammatory gore fest and the height of art film pretension – two modes of cinema I can’t help but love seeing smashed against each other. Even more enticingly, the film was being shown in select theaters in its “unrated” festival cut for one night only before making the theatrical rounds in a toned-down R-Rated edit (a move that really twisted the tighty-whities of the nerds at the MPAA), which only helped boost the attraction of its promised grindhouse sleaze. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of The House that Jack Built is that I didn’t have an especially strong reaction to its faults or merits, that I was neither especially tickled nor offended through most of its lengthy runtime. I had allowed the carnival barker promises of a highly divisive, hyperviolent art piece to lure me back into engaging with Von Trier’s edge-lord pranksterism, only to experience the one thing you never want to encounter at the movies: boredom.

I will credit The House That Jack Built for this: it does break the pattern that’s become so stubbornly, cruelly repetitious in the stories von Trier chooses to tell. The typical Lars von Trier film introduces the audience to a complex, lovable woman and then proceeds to torture her as harshly and unforgivingly as possible for the entire length of a feature. It was a tactic that worked on me in early-career titles like Breaking the Waves & Dancer in the Dark, but it has only become increasingly pointless as it’s repeated verbatim in each subsequent, cruelly grim work. The House that Jack Built disrupts this career-long pattern, but perhaps in the most boring way possible. It maintains the violent-destruction-of-women themes that are constant to his previous pictures, but this time switches the central POV to the man who’s destroying them, a serial killer played by Matt Dillon. Von Trier also deliberately strips his female characters of their depth & nuance, turning them into pathetic, braying dolts who practically beg to be murdered to save the world the trouble of their existence. Broken into five “incidents,” The House That Jack Built is practically an anthology horror; each victim is played broadly & without empathy so that there’s time to move onto the next. Matt Dillon punctuates each chapter with visual-collage art history lectures and psychiatric conversations with the poet Virgil (Bruno Ganz), contrasting the film’s dirt-cheap mid-2000s torture porn aesthetic with the literary grandeur of Dante’s Inferno. The kills themselves are gruesome, featuring unflinching depictions of mutilated women & children Dillon has claimed as trophies, but they’re also no more shocking than anything you’d see in an Eli Roth movie or a Saw sequel—flatly shot acts of pointless cruelty that are as boring now as they were when they were the Mainstream Horror standard a decade ago. Von Trier has devolved his torture of female characters to the most pedestrian, artless level of cinematic masturbation available. The annoying part is that he knows exactly what he’s doing; it’s all for a cheap joke.

Not only does von Trier change up his usual schtick by switching POVs to the man responsible for the women’s pain, he also chooses the most eyeroll-worthy subject possible for that new perspective: himself. In its best moments, The House That Jack Built functions like a buffoonish self-parody exaggerating how the director’s harshest critics see his work. The oversimplification & increased cruelty of his typical tones & methods are entirely the point – as he parodies media perception of his life’s work through the avatar of a serial killer who makes mediocre art out of violence. In a way, the mildly dopey Matt Dillon is perfectly cast in the role, recalling the empty-headed brutes of American Psycho & Killer Joe who think themselves superior to the mouth-breathers around them, but doesn’t actually have anything insightful, useful, or clever to say themselves. Dillon’s titular misogynist fancies himself to be the kind of hyper-intelligent serial killer sophisticate who turns mutilation & dismemberment into a fine art, like a 21st Century Hannibal Lector. He even autographs his evidence with the nom de plume “Mr. Sophistication” to taunt the police on his tail and compares the corpses he leaves behind to classic examples of paintings, piano compositions, and cathedral designs. He imagines himself to be a meticulous perfectionist in his violence/art, but is in fact a sloppy buffoon – more Paul Blart than Dexter. It’s initially a hilarious self-own, with von Trier expressing amazement that he keeps getting away with his woman-tormenting provocations despite the glowing flaws repeated throughout his work. The way Dillon’s ineptitude clashes with his illusions of grandeur and how he exploits MRA-type hurt-puppy tactics to weasel out of getting stopped from committing another crime (i.e. many making another movie) suggests a focused self-awareness of exactly how on Trier’s art is perceived by his harshest detractors. It’s a deliberate attack on his audience, then, when the cartoonish self-parody of the film’s earliest kills dissipates, and he begins to play the cruelty of the violence straight. After being shown how pointlessly cruel these empty provocations can be, it’s a lot to ask from the audience to sit through them again without the jokey remove. It’s also unforgivably boring in that straight-faced repetition, especially considering the extremity of the material.

There are some undeniably striking images & themes scattered throughout The House That Jack Built, but they’re overwhelmed by so much deliberately pedestrian genre filmmaking & self-trolling inside humor that it’s like searching for diamonds in dogshit. The way I can tell that the film doesn’t work as a whole in its own right is that it wouldn’t mean anything to someone who wasn’t already aware of Lars von Trier’s filmography & past PR debacles. Its horror genre payoffs are not extreme enough to justify the visceral reactions they elicited at Cannes or their banned by-by-the-MPAA outlaw status; anyone who survived the Hostel era of grimy torture porn grotesqueries has seen it all before, if not worse. The one time I was personally shocked & offended by this highfalutin troll job was in a Faces of Death-style sequence of real-life footage of dead bodies resulting from Nazi war atrocities. It’s not that I believe that thematic territory to be wholly off-limits (a very similar tactic worked for me with great impact in BlacKkKlansman earlier this year, for instance); it’s that it was evoked merely to poke fun at the blowback von Trier received for favorably comparing his artistry to Hitler’s at a press conference. It’s just so frustrating to sit through so much pitch-black misery for the sake of someone else’s self-amusement, especially when they demonstrate upfront that they know better. In The House that Jack Built’s earliest stretches, it feels as if von Tier is truly coming to terms with the follies of his own cruelty & pretensions; he appears willing to make a joke at his own expense, satirizing his worst impulses for cartoonishly broad humor. By the end of the film, however, he doubles down on being his own biggest fan, lashing out at his heretics with exaggerated, weaponized versions of his cruelest, most unlovable tactics. The House That Jack Built is only a self-critique for so long before it becomes a temple for von Trier’s own cinematic legacy; it’s a black hole of creative & receptive energy that only drags all of us further into the discussion of his art & his persona – whether or not we find him interesting to begin with. I’m embarrassed that I afforded him my attention here. I have spent too much of my life online to have been tricked into feeding this particular troll again. I should have known better.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Panos Cosmatos’s Overlooked Emotional Hellscapes

My most immediate reaction to Mandy when sent stumbling from the theater this past September was that it was a kind of emotional & narrative breakthrough for director Panos Cosmtos. By comparison, I had remembered his debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, to be less plotty & more emotionally detached. Upon revisiting that debut with the rest of the Swampflix crew for our most recent Movie of the Month discussion, I no longer believe that to be true. There’s plenty of deeply-felt emotion running throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow; it’s just something I had forgotten in retrospect while considering the film’s more immediate surface pleasures: its gorgeous washes of color, its overwhelming synth score, its eerie psychedelic mutation of early 80s genre pastiche, etc. Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as emotionally bleak as Cosmatos’s follow-up, and both films actively subvert any potential attempts to reduce them to bro-friendly 80s genre nostalgia by sinking into those painful emotional hellscapes at a gruelingly slow pace. The colorful, synthy textures of those hellscapes wouldn’t mean a thing without that deep hurt at these two films’ cores, which is something that’s easy to forget when praising more immediately rewarding images like The Sentinauts or The Cheddar Goblin.

You would think that Mandy would be the more difficult film to take seriously on an emotional level, given its pedigree as an over-the-top Nic Cage curio. It’s easy to lose sight of the film’s pathos when praising Cage’s chainsaw-wielding revenge mission against a demonic biker gang or the fake commercial for boxed mac & cheese created by the folks behind Too Many Cooks. Mandy dares you to not take its emotional core seriously, opening with a knock-knock joke in its first lines of dialogue and interrupting Cage’s Oscar-winning mode of sad restraint for his more meme-worthy freak-out mode in a lengthy bathroom-set meltdown. Even the central narrative conflict that drives that emotional meltdown and the concluding revenge rampage recalls macho genre tropes in the home invasion & rape revenge tradition that would indicate a detachment from raw emotion in its exploitative violence. However, the central overriding tone of Mandy is emotional pain. The demonic chainsaw rampage that concludes its narrative is not made to feel satisfactory or badass, but is rather a grotesquely macho expression of frustrated emotion, an unhealthy processing of loss. The film opens in a romantic nirvana shared between Cage & Andrea Riseborough, a peaceful domesticity that cannot be fully mourned once it’s lost to the “crazy Evil” of the world outside. For a movie that’s likely to be remembered most for its heavy metal brutality & Cheddar Goblin buffoonery, that frustrated mourning commands a surprising amount of Mandy’s screentime – whether in a lengthy monologue about a traumatic childhood memory or in an extensive shot of Nicolas Cage crying through a barb wire mask, as if he were paying homage to the messages-from-home scene from Interstellar in a Hellraiser sequel.

That same tactic of lingering on silent, distraught faces was already present in Cosmatos’s arsenal in his debut. Beyond the Black Rainbow risks losing its pathos to the same macho genre pastiche & sensory pleasure indulgences as Mandy, especially in its co-option of the woman-in-captivity thriller narrative. It also loses a lot of its potential for a potent emotional core to its deliberate lack of dialogue; there are seemingly more lines spoken in Mandy’s early scene of stoney-baloney pillow-talk about outer space than there are in the entirety of Beyond the Black Rainbow. The emotional textures of the two films are also drastically opposed: Mandy finds its pathos in a violently disrupted utopia of marital bliss, while the only romantic pairing in Beyond the Back Rainbow is defined by a seething, resentful anger. It’s in that quiet, jaw-clenched resentment that Beyond the Black Rainbow finds its own tones of emotional devastation, however, depicted through the same lengthy gazing at distraught facial expressions that we’re confronted with in Mandy. Although the emotional core of Cosmatos’s debut is largely calm & silent, it’s conveyed with such devastating conviction from its two central performers (Michael Rogers & Eva Bourne) that it lands with thunderous impact. Stuck on either side of the observation glass in a go-nowhere science research project—one as captive subject and the other as studious captor—the two central characters in Beyond the Black Rainbow are visibly, absurdly miserable. The captive’s misery manifests in deep, pensive sadness while the captor’s misery takes the form of seething, resentful anger; either way, they’re both feeling a lot, which is something that might not stand out in initial viewings of the film, given the flashier, plentiful sensory pleasures that threaten to drown it out.

Panos Cosmatos has explained in interviews that he thinks of both films as art therapy – using the subliminal tools & methods of cinematic expression to cope with the loss of his parents and to reflect on the domestic tones of his own romantic life. Yikes. I don’t know that I can see any direct, concrete allegories for what he’s saying about those topics through either of these works, nor do I believe the filmmaker is even attempting to achieve that kind of direct, concrete expression. The emotional extremes of Beyond the Black Rainbow & Mandy bleed through the two films’ visual intensity as an evocation of pain & mood. It’s a much more difficult effect to pinpoint or explain that the enormity of Johann Johannsson’s score or the hilarity of The Cheddar Goblin (an image that itself is even used to contrast a character’s misery); but once you pay attention to the emotional torment at the core of Cosmatos’s art, it becomes just as deafening as anything else at play.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and our examinations of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974) & Dark Star (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

 

Summer of ’84 (2018)

After the all-consuming cultural takeover Stranger Things staged a couple summers back, it’s near-impossible for an 80s kids-on-bikes genre throwback to escape limiting, direct comparisons to the Netflix TV series. For an eerie 80s nostalgia piece to stand out at this point, in an oversaturated market just brimming with the stuff, it has to have an angle: Beyond the Black Rainbow shines in its paranormal psychedelia; Super Dark Times de-mystifies the wholesomeness of the era’s memory to expose its true-life teen boy grotesqueries; Ready Player One foresees a grim near-future where 80s nostalgia eats us all alive. The filmmaking collective RKSS fulfilled this requirement wonderfully in their 2016 debut feature Turbo Kid, which turns nostalgia for half-remembered, comically exaggerated 80s runoff into a weirdly mutated, hyperviolent sugar rush. That’s why it’s disappointing that their follow-up sophomore feature, the kids-on-bikes mystery thriller Summer of ’84, plays its own material almost entirely straight, offering way-too-little-way-too-late in terms of finding a fresh angle on the 80s throwback craze to avoid redundancy. Turbo Kid feels like a 1980s throwback in its surface pleasures, but in practice goes too far over-the-top in its own whimsy to resemble anything specific from the decade in any direct, recognizable way. Summer of ’84, regrettably, finds RKSS delivering something that could easily be shrugged off as “just another Stranger Things,” waiting until its final few minutes to attempt anything novel or unexpected with the material – to muted results. The good news is that Stranger Things is pleasant, crowd-pleasing entertainment; the disappointment is in knowing RKSS can achieve more than that.

Summer of ’84 lays out the exact shameless 80s nostalgia tone it’s going for as thickly and as early as possible, ranging from sly Spielberg nods like kids riding around on bikes at sunset, armed with flashlights, to blunt Spielberg nods in lengthy discussions of Gremlins and declarations like “I’m going to become the next Spielberg!” The young boys in question are feeling restless in their Spielbergian suburb/prison, only able to fill up so much of their summer vacation ogling crusty porno magazines and spying on the Hot Girl Next Door with the Side Ponytail through binoculars & bedroom windows. It’s almost a blessing, then, when a local serial killer starts abducting boys their age in the nearby vicinity, bringing some supposedly needed “excitement” into the neighborhood. Taking full advantage of the opportunity for adventure, the boys launch their own vigilante investigation of the abductions, fixating on a beloved neighborhood cop/obvious creep played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer. Summer of ’84 is a little too late to the table to offer much insight in its revelations that suburban life is more sinister than it appears on the surface, try as it might in lines like “Every serial killer lives next door to someone,” and “The suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.” Even if the Spielberg & Joe Dante territory the film is directly aping weren’t enough to cover it, David Lynch has just about run that topic into the ground all on his own. It does find a somewhat novel angle on the material by clashing its initial gee-walkers 80s boys’ adventure tone with a last-minute shift to pitch-black cruelty & brutality that feels anachronistic to its era (outside extreme examples like Cloak & Dagger). It’s a tonal shift sold exceptionally well by Sommer’s creepy neighbor-cop, but it’s one that arrives too late to have much effect on the overall picture.

There are a few early jump scares that might indicate the dark, novel places Summer of ’84 eventually goes in its concluding minutes, but for the most part what’s on the screen just resembles things we’ve already seen many times over as an audience. Beyond its resemblance to Stranger Things, the film also recalls the teenage Rear Window mutation Disturbia in its killer-next-door-neighbor binoculars investigations. I swear one of the scrawny teen-boy actors (Cory Grüter-Andrew) is styled to look exactly like Martha Plimpton in The Goonies and it’s cute, but super distracting. It’s tough to tell whether the casual Reagan Era misogyny & homophobia shared amongst its central teens is meant to be a critique of films from that era or just a reflection of the culture at the time, but either way it was a topic covered much more purposefully in Super Dark Times. Really, then, Summer of ‘84’s one standout angle on the material is the harsh clash of its teen-boy adventurism and the cold, brutal reality of its serial killer plot. If the tonal contrast of that juxtaposition has been featured front & center for the entire length of the picture, Summer of ’84 might have established a unique enough angle on the 80s nostalgia craze that it would invite deeper critical discourse than just comparisons to previous works. As is, everything before that final shift can be comfortably described as “just another Stranger Things;” that isn’t the worst critique to suffer, but it’s also well below the wilder, go-for-broke standard set by Turbo Kid.

-Brandon Ledet