The Toll (2021)

CW/TW: Discussion of rape culture as a source of anxiety and sexual assault. 

Cami (Jordan Hayes) is not having a good day. She’s en route to see her father (James McGowan), and since her flight touches down at 2 AM due to delays, she tells her dad she’ll take a rideshare to his place instead of expecting him to pick her up. Her mood does not improve when her driver, Spencer (Max Topplin), makes awkward attempts at small talk that tend toward the sinister; he reveals that he’s a bowhunter and, when asked what he hunts, includes “humans” on the list as a bad joke. Or is it? Cami’s suspicions are further aroused when Spencer attempts to take a turn onto a rural road that Cami doesn’t recognize, and she is not assuaged to see that the turn is indicated on the rideshare app’s navigation screen. As their path takes them through a deeply wooded area, Spencer’s car suddenly breaks down, stranding the two of them alone . . .

A few years ago, I looked up the reader reviews for Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book that I read on a flight in 2014, beginning my trip to New York with a good, hearty cry as the plane touched down at JFK. I was surprised by the negative reviews of it, until I dug a little deeper and saw that most of them were centered around the book’s length (178 pages) versus its cost (MSRP of $16.95 at the time). I had picked it up at the airport on my way out, so I knew exactly how much I was getting and at what cost, but it struck me as an immature (and grossly capitalistic) way to evaluate a piece of art. In fairness, during my more economically insecure (and less mature) days, I sometimes was affected by the same kind of thinking: “How can [band] charge full price for an EP that’s only 8 tracks?!” was a thought that passed through my brain more than once, and it fills me with shame to look back on it. It’s a toxic way of thinking, and from time to time I still have to remind myself of this, especially when it comes to movies. When I was a kid, movies (and of course books) were the only way I could escape an unhappy home environment for a little while, and when I was allowed to rent something from our local video store or borrow only one tape from the library, I felt cheated when it ended up being shorter than I expected. The anguish of wasting the one rental I was allowed that month in 1996 on a 45 minute tape of Carrotblanca that contained shorts I had already seen irrevocably changed my interaction with movies for the rest of my life; I still can’t pick up any form of physical media without immediately checking the run-time before I look at anything else. To me, the purported ongoing “bloat” of films to lengths greater than three hours isn’t a turnoff the way that it is for others; if anything, every time I see that a film is 150+ minutes, my interest is piqued like that Stan Kelly image that became a meme. This is decidedly not how Swampflix at large operates, where the “tight ninety” (™ Alli) is the preferred vision. 

All of that is (as is my wont) a needlessly and pointlessly indulgent digression and lead-in to the fact that I loved this 80 minute(!) thriller. Like Lucky, The Toll is a recent thriller that taps into —and unfortunately necessary—anxieties about existing in public spaces as a woman. In this month alone, my best friend expressed her concerns about parking in a pay garage so that we could meet her family downtown to watch the Independence Day fireworks; days later, she mentioned how fraught with danger it would have been for her to take the bus alone instead, and I have seen enough with my own eyes to know that her hesitancy is valid. Even without the benefit of hearing about the day to day horrors from countless first and secondary sources, as a man, I know how other men talk about women when they’re not around, and it’s terrifying. It’s easy to immediately sympathize and empathize with Cami, trapped alone in the woods with a stranger, even before things get “really” scary. 

Where The Toll plays with expectations is in what happens after the breakdown, which coincides with Spencer’s phone glitching and Cami’s dying. The audience watched as Spencer selected Cami specifically from a list of riders and this, along with our knowledge about the general shitshow that is patriarchal entitlement, primes us for where this story is presumably headed. However, once the characters are stuck in the woods, as they discover more and more reasons to mistrust one another, the audience is tipped off that something equally as pernicious but more ethereal is afoot. After several false scares, Cami opts to take off on foot towards the main road and leave Spencer behind, but discovers that there are now warning signs in the road that would prevent a vehicle from passing, warning of a road closure and graffiti’d with small notes and smiley faces that warn of the need to pay a toll of some kind. She soldiers on, and although she stays on the path, she finds herself back where she started, with one hiccup: she started walking away from Spencer back towards the main road from which they came, but she approaches him from the front, as if coming from deeper in the dark, dark woods. Spencer makes his own attempt to leave, but is likewise thwarted; in a beautifully underlit scene, he leaves the road altogether and sets off into the woods at a perpendicular angle, only to re-emerge from the forest onto the road from the opposite side. 

Other messages begin to appear as well. A warning about “The Toll Man” appears, written in the dust on Spencer’s back windshield. Cami discovers a cache of photos of herself in Spencer’s car, leading her to accuse him of stalking her and orchestrating the evening’s events, while he in turn is dumbfounded by this turn of events and accuses her of planting them; while neither are looking, the pictures disappear as suddenly as they appeared, as if they never existed in the first place. Assuming that someone in the woods is harassing them (The Strangers is mentioned), the two prepare to defend themselves, but they are eventually discovered by an older woman (Canadian treasure Rosemary Dunsmore) on a tractor, who offers to help them. When they relate their experiences, however, she realizes with horror that she will be unable to assist. “It’s been a long time; I’d forgot,” she says. “I’m not where you are. We’re looking at each other like we’re close, but you’re someplace else. You’re in his place. The Toll Man.” Like a malevolent fae, The Toll Man traps wayward travelers who have the scent of death if they should be unlucky enough to find their way onto his road; someone with suicidal ideation or bound for an accident is then diverted into his realm so that he can extract his toll: death. 

This has the potential to be more goofy than scary (The Bye Bye Man, anyone?), but in spite of its possible pitfalls, this one manages to work. I’ve recently been watching The X-Files for the first time, and although I know it’s a huge part of the show’s iconic imagery, every time Mulder and Scully go into the woods with their giant flashlights that are all-but-unnecessary simply because of how brightly backlit the trees are, I have to stifle a laugh (while watching the pilot, I turned to my best friend and almost shouted “Is that supposed to be moonlight?!”). That bled into the pop culture landscape a lot, and I’m pleased to say that the darkness that surrounds Spencer and Cami definitively looks like real, arboreal darkness. Their flashlight barely illuminates the first row of trees closest to them, and beyond that lies nothing but dread, inky blackness. The creepiness of it lingers, even after the Toll Man shepherds them away from the car and toward an isolated house, which contains other illusions that aim to warp their perceptions of reality, including images of Spencer’s dead mother (Jana Peck), who taunts her son with the secrets that she took with her to the grave when she killed herself. When the duo is separated, Cami is also confronted with images from her past; a canopy bed appears in the woods, where a younger version of herself is terrified after being assaulted by an “upstanding” young man (Thomas L. Colford); present-day Cami comforts her, but past Cami is in her head, and knows that although the wound is gone, the scar persists. A similar blending of indoor past and outdoor present was part of the visual language in The Ritual, and I loved it there as I do here. There’s something deeply uncanny about it, and as Cami is hounded by visions of the people who were present in the aftermath of her assault (very similarly to Lucky, although no one sings here), the impossible largeness of the darkness just beyond the treeline merges with the impossibly large weight of her past, while also descending on her in a way that can only be described as claustrophobic. 

The ending comes at the viewer fast, and I won’t spoil the conclusion here other than to say that the circle is fully closed. What we learn in those final ten minutes paints a new picture of everything that came before it, and this is the first film of 2021 that has made me feel like I’m already ready to rewatch it and see what I missed the first time. Although it feels like a Shudder release, it’s currently only available for rental or purchase, but when it comes to streaming, make sure to check it out. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #139 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daughters of Darkness (1971) & Lesbian Vampires

Welcome to Episode #136 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four stylish, retro horrors about lesbian vampires, starting with Daughters of Darkness (1971).

00:00 Welcome

03:00 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
04:20 Pig (2021)
08:20 Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
10:10 Zola (2021)
15:00 Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
22:00 The Night of the Hunter (1995)
29:30 Disclosure (1994)
33:22 French Exit (2021)

39:50 Daughters of Darkness (1971)
1:00:35 The Vampire Lovers (1970)
1:11:42 Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
1:24:55 The Hunger (1983)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube³ – Cube Cubed

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the sequel & prequel to the high-concept Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997): Cube² – Hypercube (2002) & Cube Zero (2004).

00:00 Welcome

05:35 A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)
25:55 Black Widow (2021)
28:55 Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)
34:44 Karnan (2021)

37:30 Cube 2: Hypercube (2002)
57:50 Cube Zero (2004)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Episode #138 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Empty Man (2020) & Belated 2020 Discoveries

Welcome to Episode #138 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss the most noteworthy movies from last year theyve seen in the six months since they made their respective Top Films of 2020 lists, with a particular focus on the mainstream horror oddity The Empty Man. Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

01:50 Good on Paper (2021)
04:30 Mother’s Day (2016)
08:30 The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
09:20 Nobody (2021)
15:40 The Summer of Soul (2021)
22:20 Coyote Ugly (2000)
28:55 The Columnist (2021)

36:15 The Empty Man (2020)
1:04:20 Pinocchio (2020)
1:21:24 Ham on Rye (2020)
1:39:10 Babyteeth (2020)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Sator (2021)

There’s a thin line between dread & tedium and, unfortunately, the cheaper your film is the likelier it is you’re on the wrong side of it.  It used to be that horror movies set on spaceships post-Alien would struggle most with that conundrum, as they often failed to match the exquisite tension of their inspo.  Now we’re officially in an era where The Witch inspires that same mediocrity in bulk, just in a woodland setting.  It took a lot of decent-to-great movies to get here (Hagazussa, Relic, The Other Lamb, The Ritual, Apostle, The Head Hunter, It Comes at Night, etc.) but we’re finally at the point where we simply just don’t need any more low-budget ~atmospheric~ horrors set in the woods, at least not for a while.  I can pinpoint the exact moment that line was crossed too.  It’s in the opening credits of Sator, which repurposes the final shot of The Witch as an early moodsetter instead of a last-second cathartic release.  It’s literally picking up where The Witch left off, highlighting its diminished returns before it ever has a chance to stand out on its own.  We’re done with the woods for a while, folks.  Time to pack up the tents.

To be honest, even without the shadow of The Witch lingering across woodland-horror cinema at large, you’d have to dial the clock back to even before The Blair Witch Project for Sator feel fresh or exciting in any significant way.  Its most attention-grabbing details are in the circumstances of its production: a no-budget family affair written, shot, directed, produced, edited and scored by Jordan Graham.  You can tell this is a deeply personal project for Graham, not only because of his obsessively auteurist control over the entire production but also because of his casting his own grandmother, June Peterson, in a central role.  Like the grandmother figure in Trey Edward Shults’s similarly underfunded Krisha, Peterson appears to be suffering enough from dementia that she’s not fully aware she’s participating in a movie production at all.  The film is structured around several trips to grandma’s house in the woods, wherein Peterson pontificates about a local demon figure named Sator who possesses the bodies of the spiritually weak.  She discovered the existence of this demon through automatic-writing exercises, which provide most of the loopy, vaguely menacing atmosphere the film can muster through her mumbled monologues.  The film that Graham builds around that automatic-writing core is some pretty basic Indie Horror 101 material.  Grainy black & white tours of a candlelit cottage are crammed into a boxed-in aspect ratio, scored with cassette tapes of Peterson’s audio journals and occasionally interrupted by the mythical Sator – a cloaked humanoid figure in a deer skull mask.  As much as I admire the scrappy, D.I.Y. feel of its production values, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve taken that exact haunted-cottage tour a dozen too many times in the past couple decades, if not just in the past five years.

My overriding thought throughout Sator was “Do I want a snack or am I bored?”  I ate some Ritz crackers, and the feeling did not go away.  In the abstract, I’m in love with the idea of automatic-writing exercises leading directly to demonic possession; I spent too many years chasing down a bachelor’s degree in Poetry for that premise not to appeal to me.  The actual text of those automatic-writing journals never feels specific enough in its mythology or iconography to land with any real impact, though.  They mostly just recall Bray Wyatt’s pro wrestling sermons when his in-ring character was Insufferable True Detective Fan.  They drone on with no clear sense of purpose, and the visual iconography that accompanies them never amounts to anything novel or substantial.  It’s likely not fair to single out this particular example of post-Witch woodlands horror as the subgenre’s tipping point, but hey, this is the one that dares to repeat the final image of Robert Eggers’s A24 Horror linchpin in its opening minutes.  Once that comparison is invited, it’s impossible not to look back to the steadily diminishing returns of the genre in the years since Black Phillip’s enticing offer of the taste of butter & a pretty dress and to long for the days when that kind of whispered oration felt goosebumps-fresh.

-Brandon Ledet

Skull: The Mask (2021)

My biggest cinematic disappointment so far this year was the vulgar children’s horror comedy Psycho Goreman.  The novelty of an R-rated version of Power Rangers is something I would have drooled over as a shock comedy and monster movies obsessed ten-year-old, but the film’s So Random! sense of humor was too poisonously self-aware to land with me in my much more cynical thirties.  The practical gore effects of its various intergalactic monsters were fantastic, though, and I was frustrated that they weren’t deployed for a more sincere purpose.  I mention this because the Brazilian splatter horror Skull: The Mask is much closer to what I wanted out of Psycho Goreman: 80s-metal album cover badassery that keeps its winking-at-the-camera self-amusement to a respectable minimum. And yet I enjoyed it even less than PG.  I can’t say it was a bigger disappointment, since Skull: The Mask wasn’t hyped up nearly as much among friends & critics as one of the year’s shiniest genre gems, but it let me down in a very similar way: great effects wasted on a frivolous purpose.

To be fair, Skull: The Mask does at least take aim at a worthwhile political target (instead of just mining our nearly empty well of 90s retro nostalgia like Psycho Goreman).  It’s a film about colonialist museums claiming ownership over Indigenous people’s artifacts for the sake of their cultural prestige, removing them from their original, spiritual purpose.  In this case, that artifact is the titular mask: a ritualistic object that destroys the body of its wearer then transforms it into a vessel for a muscular, blood-spewing demon.  All of the kills are aces, featuring victims’ faces macheted in half, hearts ripped from their chests, intestines wrapped around their throats, and blood pouring from their eyes in impossible geysers of gore.  There just isn’t enough substance to the narrative tissue between those gross-outs to make the film feel worthwhile.  Even the initial excitement of watching colonialist museum collectors get their cosmic comeuppance fades as the film devolves into a go-nowhere police procedural investigating the grisly deaths as if their cause was a mystery.

There is so much I love about Skull: The Mask, at least in the abstract: galactic psychedelia, black magic rituals, lesbian goths, pro wrestling body slams, heavy metal gore, etc.  It’s a shame the movie is far too cheap and unfocused to stand out as anything exceptional despite all those individually badass details. It’s mostly recommendable as a practical effects showcase not as a Movie, which is starting to become a familiar kind of disappointment after recent genre titles on its budget level like Terrifier, The Void, and Aquaslash.  I wish I could promote it as a vital antidote to the irony-poisoned ROFLMFAO humor of Psycho Goreman, but it trips over itself in other ways despite that welcome tonal adjustment.  Psycho Goreman at least has an appeal as a primer for lifelong horror fandom among the kids who’ll manage to sneak it past their parents’ censorship filters.  By contrast, Skull: The Mask is only useful for its eventual YouTube gore reel, which will save you at least 90min of frustrating tedium.

-Brandon Ledet

The Stuff (1985)

I’ve watched the classic trailer for Larry Cohen’s The Stuff so many times on VHS & DVD rentals of other schlock over the years that I felt like I had seen the film before, but it was entirely new to me.  Well, not entirely new.  Not only had I been exposed to the film’s most sensational images over & over again (if not just from that trailer, then from horror genre docs like King Cohen and Horror Noire), but I also feel like I’ve seen its exact behind-the-curtain corporate villainy satire before in more widely canonized titles like They Live! or Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  As a result, it wasn’t the goopy practical-effects gore or cynical parody of Reagan-Era capitalism that bowled me over while finally watching the movie for the first time, as delightful as both those elements are.  Instead, it was actor-director duo of Larry Cohen and Michael Moriarty that really distinguished The Stuff as something phenomenal – the same chemistry that distinguishes Q: The Winged Serpent as one of Cohen’s very best.  There’s just something explosively entertaining about watching those two dialed-to-11 knuckleheads collaborate on a shared commitment to excess that Cohen struggles to match in his other works.  They’re perfect together.

While Q: The Winged Serpent sets Moriarty loose as a proto-Nic Cagian madman, completely untethered from good taste or reason in his go-for-broke Acting Choices, The Stuff finds him uncharacteristically reserved – although just as bizarre.  He stars as a deceptively laidback Southern Gent, stunning his corporate-asshole opponents with a mixture of affectations borrowed from Columbo and Foghorn Leghorn.  Moriarty declares himself to be “an industrial saboteur”.  He’s hired to investigate and disrupt the production of a mysterious health-craze food item known simply as The Stuff, which has quickly dominated the marketplace with seemingly no FDA regulation.  In essence, The Stuff is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers update with the sinister aesthetic of 80s television commercials for overly processed foods.  The titular, yogurt-like substance is essentially an alien being that takes over and oozes out of its consumers’ bodies, turning world domination into an inside job.  Moriarty is humanity’s only chance for survival.  He takes down the evil corporations behind The Stuff’s production & distribution with an “Aww shucks, I’m just asking questions” Southern Charm that never stops being bizarre in the context of this otherwise aggressively modern horror comedy.  Whereas all the goopy gore gags and by-the-numbers plot points of the film are predetermined by the genre, every one of Moriarty’s Southern-fried line deliveries lands as a total, expectation-subverting surprise, and it’s his performance that keeps the film electrically engaging between the shocks of budget-busting gore.

While Moriarty can be counted on to keep The Stuff‘s faithful genre beats surprising from scene to scene, it’s Larry Cohen’s furious efficiency that allows that performance to shine.  The Stuff clocks in well under 90 minutes, and wastes no time jumping into the thick of its 80s-specfic corporate greed parody.  The seemingly alien substance of The Stuff is immediately discovered, consumed, and declared delicious in the first minute of the runtime.  A modern version of this film would feel the need to explain the step-by-step plotting how that substance landed on grocery shelves, and then to backtrack to detail its exact origins lest it be ridiculed for its “plot holes” on the dregs of YouTube.  Cohen wastes no time on such buffoonery.  He immediately jumps to the good stuff: the alarming omnipresence of the villainous product in people’s homes and the complete disregard for those people’s safety from government regulators.  By jumping right into it, he leaves way more room for his sinister TV commercial parodies and for specific potshots at real-life evil corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds.  More importantly, he also leaves plenty more room for Moriarty’s absurd Columbo Leghorn performance, of which there could never be enough.

The beautiful thing about watching Cohen & Moriarty collaborate here is that they seem to be working in two entirely different speeds.  Q: The Winged Serpent offers unhinged, sweaty excess from the two madmen from start to end.  Cohen’s still operating at that breakneck speed in The Stuff, seemingly because he can’t help himself.  Meanwhile, Moriarty has slowed his own lunacy down to a molasses-esque trickle, and it’s just as delectable as any of the film’s ooey-gooey practical effects.  I greatly enjoyed The Stuff as an efficient, vicious genre film with a fearless commitment to throwing punches at the worst offenders of Reagan Era greed.  I enjoyed it even more as a showcase for Michael Moriarty’s off-kilter excess as a deranged leading man.  Larry Cohen happens to be the best possible filmmaker to maximize both of those indulgences, and this one still lands as one of his best even if you feel like you’ve been overexposed to its broader details.

-Brandon Ledet

Army of the Dead (2021)

Thanks to the post-production remodeling of the mythical “director’s cut” of Justice League for HBO Max, there has been a ton of online critical reclamation of Zack Snyder’s artistry this year.  The “It’s pretty good, actually!” consensus on The Snyder Cut has earned him the same “vulgar auteur” status previously bestowed upon filmmakers like Tony Scott, Paul WS Anderson, and Michael Bay – real meathead types.  Personally, I’m not seeing the vulgar genius of Snyder’s work, at least not in relation to his absurdly expensive Justice League revision.  That 4hr superhero epic registered with me as the pinnacle of plot obsession in contemporary cinema, getting so mired in the connective tissue between action sequences that it transcends the medium altogether by becoming Television.  The Snyder Cut couldn’t be faulted for being erratic or messy like the previous edit of Justice League, but in smoothing out all rough edges on that compromised vision, Snyder created a pure-plot experience completely devoid of recognizable humanity or imagination. I almost admire The Snyder Cut for pushing the modern superhero picture to its obvious endgame (a $400mil TV miniseries), but I might just be telling myself that so that I feel like I got something out of the time investment.  Either way, it’s interesting as a cultural curio but aggressively mediocre as entertainment media, so that the director is only worth engaging with for the hype he inexplicably generates.  It’s less that the emperor wears no clothes; it’s that I don’t understand why everyone’s so ecstatically complimenting the emperor’s Ed Hardy t-shirt.

Even with my Snyder Cut skepticism still festering as an open wound, I can at least admit that 2021 has been a career-restorative year for the director in other ways.  His new straight-to-Netflix zombie epic (everything he makes is a dialed-to-11 epic) isn’t exactly a whiplash-inducing return to form after the exhaustion of Snyder Cut discourse, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, mildly entertaining follow-up.  I’ll take it.  Army of the Dead is easily Zack Snyder’s most enjoyable movie since his Romero-homage debut Dawn of the Dead (penned by James Gunn, who turned out to be the more talented voice in the room), by which I mean it’s Passably Okay.  It appears that the zombie flick is the only appropriate fit for Snyder’s obnoxious blatancy, from his boneheadedly literal soundtrack cues to his exhausting emphasis on every single scene as the most Epic, all-important moment ever.  Army of the Dead surely would’ve landed with more impact and novelty in the nu-metal aughts, when Snyder’s previous action-horror felt like a breath of fresh air.  It’s starting to become adorable that he’s somehow still stuck in that long-putrid era, though.  He’s been hacking away at the same dirtbag Godsmack aesthetic for so long that it’s pushed past tacky to become full-on kitsch.  I understand the temptation to reclaim him as a misunderstood genius in that context, if not only because it’s a funny gag.  In practice, though, his movies are way too draining to be worth the small flashes of enjoyment you can glean from them, even when they’re Passably Okay overall.

Dave Bautista stars as a superhuman burgerflipper who has survived the zombie apocalypse by laying low working the grill at a greasy diner.  He’s approached by a shady casino owner who hires him to break into the quarantined city of Las Vegas and recover an abandoned vault full of untraceable cash, guarded only by hordes of cannibal corpses roaming the otherwise empty streets & gambling halls.  From there the movie is a blend of militant zombie-shooting action horror and a self-amused heist film.  As those two genres run in tandem, there’s all the assembling-the-team montages, first-person video game gore, disastrous getaways, and witty interpersonal banter (mostly notably delivered by Tig Notaro as the resident wiseass) fans of either side of the divide could hope for.  And then there’s more.  And then more.  And more.  Army of the Dead‘s 148min runtime is an outright war crime, dulling all its genre-blending, Vegas setting fun with at least an hour’s worth of superfluous material that should have been lopped off in the editing room.  Like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, the film peaks during its opening credits, which squeezes in an entire zombie movie’s worth of exposition into a concise, bite-sized morsel of a montage (set to a Richard Cheese song, another Dawn of the Dead callback).  It’s the only part of the movie that could be considered concise, considering how unnecessarily weighed down and laborious everything that follows feels.  There’s a fun 90min movie buried somewhere in this macho, self-important excess, but Zack Snyder does not make those kinds of movies.  Pity.

If we can have a years-later Snyder Cut revision of Justice League, I think we also deserve an Un-Snydered cut of Army of the Dead.  I’m not saying we need to toss out all his unashamed meathead tendencies, where the initial zombie breakout is caused by roadhead and the years-later evolved zombies are referred to as “Alphas.”  Keep all the Gym Bro action horror you want, just make the damned thing zippier.  There’s a stripped down, streamlined, self-contained movie in here that absolutely rules, but you have to squint real hard through the Hoobastank fog to see it.  Snyder needs someone to push back on his All-Out Epic tendencies, especially when it comes to explaining each and every baby step in the plot.  Instead, like with The Snyder Cut, he’s allowed to turn the modern zombie movie into modern zombie television, something we’re all sick of after 29 seasons of The Walking DeadArmy of the Dead is already greenlit to spin off multiple prequels and animated side plot series on Netflix, the same way The Snyder Cut reconfigured Justice League into a 4-hour made-for-TV miniseries.  That mode of literal-minded, plot-obsessed Epic filmmaking is not some vulgar stroke of auteurist genius in the modern media landscape.  It’s just how big-budget “movies” are made now in a post-MCU world.  At least this one has its moments.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast: Devil Master Diary

Welcome to Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon discuss notorious schlockteur Donald G. Jackson’s directorial debut, 1977’s The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master) and its buzzkill behind-the-scenes documentary Demon Lover Diary (1980).

00:00 Welcome

03:50 Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
08:40 The Woman in the Window (2021)
15:17 Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
22:12 Out of the Dark (1988)

27:20 The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master, 1977)
38:40 Demon Lover Diary (1980)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas and Brandon Ledet

Fried Barry (2021)

Last year, I praised the lost-in-time horror whatsit The Berlin Bride for feeling like it “travelled here from a previous era when movies could just be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something.”  The new straight-to-Shudder curio Fried Barry made me eat those words just a few months later; I regret everything.  An episodic, self-amused tale of drug abuse and alien abduction, Fried Barry desperately wants to be an instant-cult-classic geek show but lacks any of the propulsion or command over atmosphere that would make that distinction possible.  It’s all hacky, edgelord comedy stunts and no attention to tone or purpose.  Equally obscene and tedious, it’s essentially a half-speed horror version of Crank – with all the “insensitive” political jabs and mouthbreathing misogyny that descriptor implies.  It’s a movie that deliberately strives to be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something, exactly what I asked for.  I can’t say exactly why that for-its-own-sake exercise was mesmerizing to me in The Berlin Bride but punishingly boring for me here.  I can only shrug Fried Barry off as A Bad Movie that only gets worse the longer it hangs around.

If Fried Barry has any of the potential cult-status value it’s clearly desperate to earn, it’s as a kind of “dare” film for teenagers who are technically too young to watch it.  The film opens with a cheeky warning that it’s strictly for an 18+ audience, which reads as a wink that you need to be 15 or younger to be excited by its meaningless transgressions.  The titular Barry, described by his loving wife as a “useless piece of shit”, is immediately shown shooting heroin into his arm in a hideous series of post-Tony Scott rapdifire montages, emphasizing just how Edgy and Fucked Up the next 100 minutes are going to be.  While high, Barry is abducted by aliens, who probe both his anus and urethra for good measure, then commandeer his body for a joyride on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa.  From there, the aliens take a nightlife tour of the city, periodically stopping for improv-heavy bits of cringe humor among the “useless piece of shit” locals.  The film is caught halfway between a PSA about how overwhelming it is to trip balls in public and a PSA about how obnoxious it is to simply go nightclubbing.  In either instance, you’re going run into the worst people, and they’re going to spoil the mood.

For the most part, the movie rests on the decision to cast Gary Green as Barry, as he does have the kind of arrestingly odd bone structure that David Lynch could build an entire movie around.  It probably goes without saying that first-time director Ryan Kruger is no David Lynch, at least not yet.  Whether it’s because of the heroin or the alien body possession, Green isn’t asked to do much here besides stand around as a human prop.  His episodic adventures mostly focus on the much less fascinating bit-part actors who bounce their own inane performances off him, pausing occasionally for gross-out eruptions of gore.  If this dynamic has any chance of working, it’s in the first half of the film when seemingly everyone is uncontrollably attracted to Alien Barry and impulsively propositions him for sex.  If the film had committed to the all-out sexual bacchanal of that premise, it might’ve at least had a unifying theme or purpose to its grotesque pageantry.  Instead, it’s an excuse to sneak in some on-screen titties for the under-15 crowd and for a blatantly homophobic gag where Barry murders his one potential male partner.  And then the sex stops all together mid-film at the tongue-in-cheek “Intermission” title card, abandoning the one thread of continuity that tied all this meaningless bullshit together.  Pity.

A movie this obscene has no business being this boring.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where an alien invader inspires human locals to break all their previously held sexual taboos on-sight might’ve been something worthwhile.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry that was more heavily scripted instead of relying on Improv 101 edgelord humor would’ve been less irritating.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where women were allowed to be more than just victims, whores, and nags might not have sat on my stomach so queasily.  Can’t say.  All I know is that this version feels pointlessly obnoxious, and not in the fun way.

-Brandon Ledet