We Need to Do Something (2021)

Back in the before times, when I had a roommate with whom I could endlessly debate back and forth about what we wanted to watch, we had an informal rule of thumb that either one of us could veto a movie if, upon selecting it from the streaming service du jour, we saw the IFC Midnight logo. By the third year of our domesticity, we had, in equal measure, been both burned and delighted (and fallen somewhere in between) by films that attempted to forewarn of their middling budgets by either their hit-or-miss distributor or the lack of confidence in a theatrical release bespoken by having an NCTA rating instead of one by the MPAA. It’s been a long time since those days, both objectively and subjectively, but the 2021 release We Need to Do Something proves that, even if one has to film under pandemic restrictions, some of our old stalwarts can still get something into the consumer’s home that mostly hits, all while doing more with less. 

Melissa (Sierra McCormick) is a teenage girl in a situation that goes beyond unenviable: sheltering in an (admittedly spacious and tastefully decorated) bathroom with her mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw, of Hocus Pocus and Clinical fame) and father Robert (Pat Healy), as well as precocious younger brother Bobby (John James Cronin). As her desperate composition of text messages to her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) is continuously interrupted by automated tornado warnings as well as Bobby’s unhelpful recitation of the differences in various cyclone severity rankings, we get insight into the inner workings of this family and their various sins. Diane is clearly having an affair, as she keeps sending inbound calls to voicemail and, when asked about them, says that the calls are coming from “nobody.” Robert’s vice-like grip on his thermos speaks volumes to anyone who’s ever encountered a semi-functioning alcoholic, Melissa’s rebuffing of her mother’s concerned questions about her apparently self-inflicted wrist wound implies a self-harm habit that her parents have ignored, and, finally, Bobby is extremely annoying. Things become extremely dire when not only does an uprooted tree fall in front of the bathroom door, preventing it from opening more than a mere 6-8 inches and thus blocking the family’s egress, but Robert drops Melissa’s phone on the other side of the door while using it as a flashlight to check on this situation. Diane’s phone dies and Robert’s is non-functional in an unexplained way (although it seems like he’s just bad at using it), but Diane lovingly comforts her panicky son, promising that someone will come looking for them soon despite Robert’s agitation and lack of alcohol making the situation even more anxious. 

Reviews for this one have been mixed to negative, which I suppose should come as no surprise, based on the track record of non-A24 indie horror lately, like Things Heard and Seen and What Lies Below. Given that the first two auto-fill options when typing the film’s title into Google are “we need to do something ending” and “we need to do something explained,” it’s clear that this is one of those films that has the misfortune to get noticed, but only by the worst kinds of viewers, those raised on a steady diet of C*nemaS*ns (et al) criticism and who need everything to be boiled down, pureed, and fed into their little infant mouths with a rubber-tipped spoon. With that in mind, that the film’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score is 41% isn’t surprising, but that it’s been a failure (55%) with professional critics as well is a bit of a shock. I’ll freely admit that there was a time when I was more likely to gravitate toward narratives with a more defined structure, but I was never someone who got upset about an open-ended and ambiguous ending. Unfortunately, the internet has really given voice to not only white supremacy, incels, and creeps in general, but also to people who would probably drag Frank R. Stockton into the streets and beat him to death, and also whatever the hell this is. Your brains are full of worms, folks, I’m sorry to say, and I think mine might be too. There’s a seemingly universal cry for more explicit storytelling, but to be honest, the worst parts of the film are the ones that center around the reasons why this is happening. 

We get an early clue when Melissa is texting as the clouds roll in, when she types out that she thinks that the impending storm front may have “something to do with—” before her screen glitches. In flashbacks, we learn about her relationship with Amy, starting with how they met. Amy has an arm full of scars, implying that she’s a cutter, but there’s more to it than that. She actually has Cotard syndrome, and although the overlap of Cotard’s and self-harm is pretty rare, it’s not unheard of, especially when co-presenting with schizophrenia. Besides this, Amy also appears to be something of a teenage goth, and a witch to boot; Amy believes she “cured” herself of her Cotard’s by casting a necromancy spell on herself, which didn’t necessarily bring her back from the dead, but does appear to have broken her delusion. However, as the result of an odd series of events—which include the two teen girls’ attempts to get back at a literally out-of-focus bully who spreads rumors and digging up the corpse of the family’s dead dog Spot—they may have actually unleashed something otherworldly that is caused their misfortune. One could rightly argue that this is the least interesting thing about the film, even if it does highlight how one can continue to make a film despite restrictions (the scenes with Amy and Melissa are shot entirely outdoors—on sidewalks, behind buildings, seated on bleachers—so that the movie gets away with having only one bathroom set); these could be cut in their entirety and merely increase the tension and mystery, without opening the can of worms that comes with making two teens’ extremely teenagery “magic” unnecessarily powerful. If every angsty teen who carved a bully’s name into a candle summoned a demonic monster (even bearing in mind the potential presence of something living in Amy’s body post-spell), then a lot more abusers and shitty exes would be dead. 

Even with that millstone around the film’s neck, it’s still powerful. I’ll grant that this could be because of some of my own psychological fears and damage contributing to the overall discomfort and anxiety that I felt during the runtime. Just as Unsane ended up as my number three film of 2018 by knowing where all of my fears live, so too does We Need to Do Something effectively and articulately seek out and find all of my weak points with regards to having been raised by an abusive father. There’s a scene late in the film in which Robert, driven mad by days without food (or booze), attempts to force young Bobby, first via psychological manipulation and then using physical strength, through the too-narrow space between door and jamb, and when Diane attempts to “interfere” and save her son from having his skull crushed, Robert turns on her with the kind of ferocity that’s all-too-familiar to anyone who were raised by a father with intense and unpredictable rage issues, especially if you had another parent whose entire life seemed to revolve around running interference to protect their child or children from the full force of that particularly banal evil. With all due respect to Jessica Kiang, who wrote in her review for Variety that Something “fails to capture the actual psychological awfulness of being trapped too near your nearest and dearest, with no end in sight,” this film captures that feeling frighteningly well. This one gets a big recommendation from me, although if paternal abuse of the verbal, psychological, or physical forms is a major trigger for you, you might want to sit it out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Till Death (2021)

Megan Fox got to play her own version of Gerald’s Game this year, in Till Death, which recently appeared on Netflix in the U.S. Although there are certainly some issues with pacing, it’s still fairly effective, especially for a film with such a small cast and, from the end of Act I forward, only one location. 

On the eve of Emma (Fox)’s eleventh wedding anniversary to her husband, Mark (Eoin Macken), she breaks things off with her lover Tom (Aml Ameen). We learn that Mark is a lawyer and Tom is a member of his firm when Emma meets Mark at his office for their anniversary dinner. While waiting for him, she can’t help but glance through an NYPD file on his desk, detailing her attack by Bobby Ray (Callan Mulvey), whose assault left her with a scarred back; we also learn that she blinded him in one eye with her keys while defending herself. Mark immediately betrays his controlling nature, noting that he expected Emma to wear “the red dress” (his favorite) and waving off her own feelings by noting that they have time before dinner to take her home to change. At the restaurant, he also orders dessert for her after she declines, and forces her to blindfold herself before they drive to their next destination; she reluctantly accepts, although she removes the fabric in exasperation just before the couple arrives at their lakehouse. That their anniversary also falls in the dead of winter may be a metaphor for the coldness of their relationship, but given how … overwritten other elements of this screenplay tend to be, I’m not sure. 

Clocking in at 90 minutes, the plot doesn’t really get going until the 22 minute mark. I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible on the off chance that you want to watch something suspenseful but not terribly scary this spooky season, but the description on Netflix itself reveals the “twist” that gets the movie going: “A woman finds herself shackled to her dead spouse as part of a revenge plot. As the rest of the plan unfolds, a desperate battle for survival begins.” Although not particularly groundbreaking, there’s still plenty of menacing anxiety to be had here, and it’s reductionist to compare this one to Gerald’s Game (even though, um, I did that) when its narrative deviates from that novel/film fairly quickly. Both Till Death and Gerald’s Game are psychological thrillers about survivors of different forms of violence that initially present as narratives centering around immobility and physical isolation as purely physical dangers but which turn into very different narratives, but the similarities end there. Game becomes a story about the struggle for survival despite psychological breakdown in the face of certain death from dehydration or starvation, as well as outside factors in the form of a wild dog and a spectral figure; Death turns into a more straightforward home invasion thriller, with the added complication that our heroine is literally unable to decouple from her dead husband and that her attacker is the man who stalked and stabbed her a decade before, now released to menace her again.

Calling Till Death “more straightforward” is neither an insult nor a compliment, nor is it good or bad that the film feels a little like it was written by Donald Kaufman from Adaptation. The film walks a fine line between throwing twists in at the right places and following the path of least resistance in others. Not every movie needs to blaze every trail, and if you don’t know what kind of movie you’re watching by the time that Megan Fox wakes up in perfect, un-smeared makeup, then hopefully you know what kind of movie you’re watching by the time that she washes her husband’s blood off of her face and then carefully considers her still perfect, still un-smeared makeup in the bathroom mirror. And it’s not that the film can’t pull the rug from under you; for instance, once Emma gets over the initial shock of her husband’s death, she immediately tries to shoot through the cuffs binding her to him, only to discover that there was only one round and the pistol is otherwise empty. Frustrated, she tosses the gun and it lands under the bed, and I immediately thought that she would soon have to deal with a wild animal later (perhaps because I was too stuck on my Gerald’s Game hypothesis) and would be unable to get to the gun in order to defend herself, after finding bullets elsewhere in the cabin. But no, her husband’s so many steps ahead of her that he’s already cleared the house of anything useful, and although Chekhov’s gun does come into play again later, it’s in a more interesting way than I could have expected. 

The film’s biggest weaknesses come when it tips its hand a little too much. The scenes that exist to demonstrate and set up Mark’s controlling nature are overwrought and on-the-nose. He’s not just picking out her dresses and ordering her dessert, he’s also oddly theatrical; at any moment up to the point of his death, he’s a hair’s breadth from tipping his hand too much, too early. When stuck in an elevator with both Tom and Emma, who pretend to only know each other from a prior office Christmas party, Mark turns juuuuust too menacing for a picosecond too long as he growls “You know damn well it wasn’t the Christmas party,” before breaking the tension he artificially inflated by jovially adding “It was the holiday party!” noting that it wouldn’t do to have the political correctness police scold them. It’s not enough for Emma to notice, with a wistful gaze full of regret, that a woman at another table has accepted a proposal; the narrative has to force the two women into the bathroom at the same time so that Emma can give the younger woman a warning about becoming trapped in a loveless marriage. Hating on Megan Fox’s acting ability was pretty du jour internet comedy during the late aughts, but she’s more than fully capable of conveying what needs to be communicated in these scenes without needing to telegraph these beats so strongly. I’m not sure if the producers didn’t have enough faith in Fox, in the audience, or both, but we spend far too much time with unnecessary narrative wheel-spinning before we get to the point that I’d almost recommend skipping the dinner sequence entirely, but it’s threaded with just enough foreshadowing and plot-seeding that it has to be born on one’s shoulders for a bit of a slog. 

Despite that there are sections of the narrative that can feel like a bit of a barefoot slog across the snow, I’d still say that this is a cute way to spend an evening, especially if you’ve ever had a bad breakup (which, I mean, who amongst us hasn’t?) and wondered if it could have been worse. Turns out, yeah, it could have been. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Things Heard and Seen (2021)

Things Heard and Seen is good, actually. I don’t know if people are simply unprepared for reckoning with the fact that, if you live with ghosts and a gaslighter, the abuser is still the most dangerous thing in your house, or if this is another instance of modern audiences having been infantilized with jump scare horror pablum to the point that slow burns are impenetrable, but don’t believe the backlash. Maybe I should know better by now than to wonder why a film like Things Heard and Seen is treated with so much derision by the general public, resulting in largely negative reviews of both the professional and armchair variety. I suppose that derivativity, like beauty, must be in the eye of the beholder, especially when one of the negative reviews that I read had to stretch all the way back to What Lies Beneath to find something specific to which Heard and Seen could be compared (negatively, and illegitimately I think). There were a few writers I saw who also felt a little bit of a connection to The Shining as well, which is practically unavoidable given its subject matter, but the film also seems to be doing some of that intentionally, given its 1980 setting and its snowy conclusion. Overall, this felt fresh to me in a way that apparently it did not to others.

Successful art restorer Catherine Clare (Amanda Seyfried) lives in Manhattan with her husband George (James Norton) and daughter Fanny. George was once a painter of no small talent and has recently finished his dissertation. At Fanny’s birthday party, the couple share the news with their family and friends that they are moving to upstate New York, where George has secured a teaching position at the fictional liberal arts college Saginaw, near the town of Chosen, also fictional, in the real Hudson Valley. We learn that George was very recently cut off financially by his parents, and that Catherine only became aware of their prior dependency once that funding source dried up. We also learn that Catherine has an eating disorder, as she generally eats a starvation diet and purges after having one bite of Fanny’s cake.

The two get set up in a beautiful, if unmaintained, farm house by real estate agent Mare Laughton (Karen Allen), and the domesticity of this life isolates Catherine pretty quickly. This isolation isn’t helped by the fact that she almost immediately begins to see evidence of a haunting in their new home: she smells phantom, inexplicable gas fumes, occasionally sees lights that seemingly have no origin, and discovers personal items of previous occupants that appear cursed at best, including a ring jammed in a window sash and an ancient Bible belonging to the house’s first owner, a man of the cloth, in which certain names have been scratched out and replaced with only the word “damned.” For his part, George immediately seems to get along with his colleagues, especially Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), the department chair who offered George the position based on his glowing letter of recommendation and his thesis on the work of Hudson Valley School founder Thomas Cole. He compliments George for the section of his thesis that pertained to Cole’s religious ideas, which were of the Spiritualist ideas that largely derived from the theological work of Emanuel Swedenborg; George shrugs off this praise, noting that Cole’s Spiritualism was the issue with which he struggled the most in the composition of his dissertation. When they meet, Catherine and DeBeers immediately hit it off, as he likewise notes that there is something in her house that George refuses to see. 

Despite George’s passive controlling of Catherine’s social circle, she still manages to form relationships with a few locals and some of George’s other peers, including the Vayle brothers, college-aged Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and younger teen Cole (Jack Gore), as well as “adjunct weaving instructor” Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn, who steals the show), George’s colleague and wife of fellow instructor—and marijuana cultivator—Bran (James Urbaniak). Meanwhile, George strikes up a relationship with Willis (Natalia Dyer), an Ivy League student home from school, against her better judgment. When he decides to throw a party for his colleagues, Catherine insists (over George’s pretentious objections) that they also invite their neighbors, and it is from Marie that Catherine learns about the tragic deaths of the last couple who lived in the house, and that not only was George intentionally keeping this information from her, he also kept secret that Eddie and Cole are actually their surviving children. George’s other lies, perhaps a lifetime of them, start to unravel, and so does he, as Catherine learns from the local spiritualists that evil spirits only commune with evil people, and that the spirits she sees in the house are actually there to protect her, and that she should listen to their warnings. 

There’s a lot of art discussion happening, and I’m always interested in that. There’s a little quotation that I like from video essayist and artist Lola Sebastian that I really love and think about all the time, because it articulates something that I could never express so succinctly and with such ineffably quiet brevity. She’s specifically writing about Sufjan Stevens, but her statement has much further reaching and broader implications about the importance of acknowledging the wider human experience outside of the various American pop culture meccas that we see over and over again: “Rich lives [and] big stories happen everywhere, to everyone.” George is a person who fails to see that, even a little bit, because of his obsession with being a person of status. He takes money from his parents to support the family in New York until they can’t help him any longer, and he decides that if he’s going to have to live upstate, he’ll be spending time only with those he deems fit company for a man of his standing, so only his academic colleagues and none of the family’s rural local neighbors. And given that he himself knows that he only has his position fraudulently, we know that he must be performing a constant tightrope act of delusion and self-deception. He’s a truly infuriating character, and that he can be so damned frustrating while attempting to come off as friendly and affable is a testament to a truly great performance by Norton. He effectively captures that ineffable quality of being smug but incredibly fragile, like a balloon that’s constantly threatening to burst. 

This is not a movie that you can watch half-heartedly while also doomscrolling or thinking about your grocery list. It’s decompressed, but that’s the point; it creates a painting before you, giving you enough time to see every detail and every brush stroke, and peopling its landscape with fully realized characters who are as believable as if they were flesh and blood. It requires all of your attention, and if you can give it all of that, you’ll be rewarded. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #145 of The Swampflix Podcast: Phantom of the Paradise (1974) & Horror Musicals

Welcome to Episode #145 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four classic horror movie musicals, starting with Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
04:20 The Wicker Man (1973)
07:00 The Amityville Horror (1979)
14:00 A Cat in the Brain (1990)

18:00 Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
42:24 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
1:07:00 Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
1:26:40 The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

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

– The Podcast Crew

The Thrill Killers (1964)

I have a bottomless affection for the kinds of vintage Z-grade horror pictures that were regionally marketed under different titles depending on what drive-in double bill they were plugged into, like how Shivers is also known as Blood Orgy of the Parasites or The Exotic Ones is also known as The Monster and the Stripper.  Few—if any—of those regional re-brands can compete with the marketing strategy for Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Thrill Killers, though, which was re-released a couple years into its run under the title The Maniacs Are Loose!.  I don’t know if the title change itself was much of an improvement on Steckler’s original vision, but the re-brand also included an incredible theatrical gimmick of William Castle proportions.  The Maniacs Are Loose! opens with a “professional hypnotist” named The Amazing Ormond who puts the audience under a spell so we can hallucinate axe-wielding maniacs stalking our very theater while the movie plays.  The Amazing Ormond’s hypnosis technique involves a red-spiral “hypnodisc” that re-appears throughout the new edit of the film, the only flashes of color in the otherwise cheap-o black & white print (and also a callback to the hypnotic spirals of Steckler’s calling-card film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies).  Whenever that image flashed during screenings of The Maniacs are Loose!, Steckler himself would run around the theater with a prop axe to scare the freaked-out, teenage audience, reprising his onscreen maniac-killer role (under the All-American pseudonym “Cash Flagg”) in the flesh.  Now that‘s entertainment!

Besides helping to pad out its meager 70min runtime, that Criswell Presents-style framing device makes a lot of sense as a cheap way to accentuate The Thrill Killers‘s best qualities.  Steckler is absolutely horrifying as a cold-hearted skinhead killer, looking like a straight edge punk scene prototype for Michael Myers.  As a director, Steckler tries to top the proto-slasher grime of Hitchcock’s Psycho by releasing three violent escapees from “The State Asylum for the Criminally Insane” to stab, shoot, and decapitate the citizens of Los Angeles at random, just for the thrill of it.  All three of the main killers are intimidating brutes but are so generic in their menace that you remember them by their weapon of choice rather than their character names: Knife, Gun, and Axe.  Steckler himself makes the biggest impression as Scissors, the gang’s rogue, wordless accomplice who mostly operates outside the main plot until its action-packed finale (which oddly shifts away from cutting-edge horror to Old Hollywood Western territory).  As a whole, The Thrill Killers is sloppy & sluggish but impressively mean as a cheap echo of Psycho in an urban setting.  It’s a decent genre picture but doesn’t offer much that you couldn’t find better executed in The Honeymoon Killers, Spider Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even smutty roughies like She Mob.  The one major exception is Steckler’s deeply creepy performance as one of the on-the-loose maniacs, and I imagine seeing him emerge in the flesh during his kill scenes only heightened that terror (despite the goofy novelty of the hypnodisc gimmick).

The theatrical gimmickry of The Thrill Killers‘s maniacs-on-the-loose rebrand not only accentuated Ray Dennis Steckler’s terrifying performance, but it also accentuates his adorable enthusiasm for filmmaking as a profession.  For all its decapitations & stabbings, the most shocking aspect of the film is how much of it is directly about the self-fulfilling joy of making bad movies.  Its maniacs are specifically on the loose in Hollywood, California, allowing Steckler plenty of room for metatextual jokes & jabs at the expense of his own drive to make movies that no one else really cares about.  The film’s square-jawed hero is a failed actor whose slow path to success is testing his wife’s patience & his own sanity, so that an omniscient, Ed Woodian narrator can explain how years of trying to “make it” in the film industry can destroy your relationships with family & reality.  There’s some obvious frustration in Steckler’s dialogue about the unrelenting “hunger to be a movie star” and Hollywood’s function as “the world of non-reality”, but he stops short of suggesting that the killer maniacs on the loose are all failed actors who never quite made it in the industry.  By the end of the film, it’s clear that he has way too much fun making his dime store genre pictures to disparage the industry that way.  And if even if it weren’t clear then, it must’ve been clear when he traveled with a print of the film, dressed in-character, waving around a prop axe to scare local crowds in-person.  The Thrill Killers itself is only a moderate delight as a sickly, sloppy proto-slasher, but Ray Dennis Steckler’s enthusiasm on both sides of the camera is so infectious that I can’t help but be charmed by it (especially in the loose-maniacs version).

-Brandon Ledet

Nightmare Sisters (1988)

Maybe the trick to becoming a genuine, enthusiastic fan of David “A Talking Cat!?!” DeCoteau is to watch as many of his low-budget, low-effort novelties as possible, even if you don’t especially enjoy them.  Individually, each DeCoteau film I’ve watched to date has been a disappointment, failing to live up to the full camp potential of their absurd premises.  And yet, I’ve become fonder of the horndog galoot with every subsequent letdown.  If nothing else, I’m in awe that he’s managed to direct 174 features over the past four decades despite never showing any detectable passion for his craft.  DeCoteau conveys none of the unflappable zeal for filmmaking that you’ll see from other underfunded but manically persistent auteurs like Matt Farley, Don Dohler, or Ed Wood.  He’s become most infamous in genre schlock circles for his profound laziness, filming his modern straight-to-streaming novelties in his living room & backyard with no attention paid to changing up the décor to suit the setting of individual productions.  It’s an incredibly frustrating dispassion to encounter in a relatively famous horror auteur at first, if not only because it’s the exact opposite quality I’ve been trained to expect and appreciate in my outsider-artist genre filmmakers.  And yet, the more times DeCoteau disappoints me the more my affection & admiration grows.  I’m starting to love that he gets to make his stupid little anti-effort genre comedies from the comfort of his luxuriant home, that he’s been lazing about on the payroll of notoriously hard-working schlockmeisters like Roger Corman & Charles Band.  If nothing else, it’s just nice to see someone live the dream.

The best way I can track my reluctantly growing appreciation for DeCoteau is to compare my recent reaction to his topless novelty horror Nightmare Sisters to my reaction to his near-identical topless novelty horror Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama just two years ago.  Both films use an uncomfortably racist caricature (in this case, an Indian palm reader) as a launching pad for nudist shenanigans among a coterie of low-level 1980s scream queens in sorority drag.  Whereas Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama torments its VHS-cover babes with a wisecracking puppet, Nightmare Sisters transforms its spooky pin-ups (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer) into the monsters themselves.  They start the film as nerdy sorority sisters who can’t land dates, but a run-in with a cursed crystal ball transforms them into topless bombshell succubi who bite off frat boys’ dicks.  It toes the same thin line between horror comedy & softcore porno as Slime Ball Bowl-o-Rama, but it’s a lot more honest & upfront about what it’s doing – staging its most memorable scene in a clawfoot bathtub so the horned-up succubi have an excuse to monotonously scrub each other’s bodies while giggling at nothing in particular.  The film is by no means great, but it is often adorably quaint as a VHS-era nudie cutie with a soft Halloween theme.  It’s got all the exact highlights and lowlights of Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, except this time around I found those details cute instead of annoying, something I can only attribute to my growing affection to the goofball behind the camera.

Besides his trademark laziness, DeCoteau’s calling card as a schlockteur is his cutesy, sexless brand of homoeroticism – which usually just amounts to casting twinks & chiseled-abs jocks in ostensibly straight roles, giving each film the feeling of a gay porno that just never fully came together.  Because Nightmare Sisters is a Reagan Era comedy aimed specifically at teen boys’ libidos, it’s unsurprising that the frat boys villains’ go-to insults for the nerdy pledges under their thumbs are an unimaginative barrage of homophobic slurs.  Those jocks are punished for their crimes by having their dicks bitten off by the anti-heroine succubi, whose sorority house is decorated with tighty-whitey beefcake postcards of celebrities like Tom Selleck flexing their hirsute muscles.  More to the point, Linnea Quigley’s big song-and-dance number when she transforms into a punk-rocker succubus is a love tune in which a woman pines for a gay prostitute, directly contrasting the straight-boy sex appeal of the flesh on display with the much more substantial homoeroticism flowing just beneath the surface.  The central conflict of Nightmare Sisters is that the frat boys & sorority girls can’t have sex without magical intervention, because they’re just too nerdy to admit what they want or to go for it.  Considering the girls’ and boys’ mutual disinterest in each other and the much more pronounced tension of the frat house hazing rituals that get in their way, their problem might be that this tits-and-blood horror comedy is just too gay to allow them to hook up.  It’s all so campy and insincere that it makes the heterosexual mating rituals of the American college student feel like retro kitsch.

Like with Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, my favorite parts of Nightmare Sisters were its opening credits (including a rockin’ song with the lyrics “Suck you, suck you, succubus” from a band called Haunted Garage) and its A+ poster.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the two films share so many merits and faults, since they were apparently filmed the very same week with most of the same cast & crew.  What is surprising is how much more fun I had watching this lazily tossed off DeCoteau novelty when its better-funded, slightly more effortful predecessor left me so cold.  Maybe if I watch a couple dozen more of his shameless, passionless frivolities I’ll even get around to calling one “good”.

-Brandon Ledet

Bit (2020)

After watching the retro erotic thriller The Voyeurs and the teen vampire wish-fulfiller Bit in the same week, I’m starting to come to terms with the terrifying reality that the house style of The CW has become one of the major cinematic influences of our time.  The channel’s decades of flat digi cinematography and robotic line deliveries from an endless parade of hard-bodied hotties has now seeped out into the wider cinematic bloodstream, so that all low-to-mid-budget #content aimed at youngsters looks like an unaired pilot for a CW series.  Let’s call Bit the modern successor of shows like Buffy & Charmed, a gothy but harmless horror primer for teens turned off by the macho gatekeeper end of the genre (slightly retooled for a post-Riverdale world).  It even opens with a affectionate potshot at the Twilight saga, which very well might be the birthplace of the CW’s unholy stylistic reign on the big screen.  It’s all very cheap but cute, making up for what it lacks in momentum, tension, and scares with a gothy wish-fulfilment sense of cool.

A trans teen vacationing in Los Angeles is inducted into a hipster lesbian vampire coven who target male predators around the city.  She occasionally feels remorse over abandoning her family & friends for this new social circle (self-described as “Bite Club”) and reluctance to drink blood to sustain herself, but for the most part everything’s safe & comfortable.  At its core, this is a teenage fantasy about a small-town outsider who finds her all-accepting, empowering clique in the big city.  Our bloodsucking heroine repeatedly muses that “This feels like a movie,” or “My life’s like a horror movie,” to point out the daydream happenstance of her stumbling into a feminist vampire collective her very first night in L.A.  Her vampire elders offer her a tantalizing power fantasy in “a world where every woman is a vampire” and “men are the ones who are afraid to fucking jot at night.”  There’s some infighting about how the coven’s No-Boys-Allowed policy applies to her brother, some changeups in local leadership, and a few run-ins with vampire-hunting MRAs, but that’s not really what excites Bite or its baby-goth target audience.  The film is much more wrapped up in its venting-into-the-void misandry, chaste lesbian make-outs, and trips to see The Death Valley Girls live in concert.  It’s a hangout film for the teenage horror nerd set who grew up watching a certain broadcast-television station and are now ready to see its programming aged up with some swearing & gore.

Despite its on-the-surface feminist politics, Bit is more adorable than it is searing or provocative.  I would’ve enjoyed it best in high school, but I happened to grow up with The Craft instead.  I can’t say with any authority that The Craft is necessarily any better than Bit in terms of its . . . craft, no more than the generations before me could say the same about The Lost Boys or, I dunno, I Was a Teenage Werewolf.  Each generation deserves their own teen-goth induction ceremony movie, and this entry in that canon just happens to be aimed at kids young enough to appreciate an off-handed Cheetah Girls reference. 

-Brandon Ledet

Candyman (2021)

Now that the Delta Surge is receding and local vaccination numbers are looking robust, I’m personally getting comfortable with returning to movie theaters.  Anecdotally, I’m also seeing larger crowds testing those same waters than I did this summer when I briefly showed up masked & vaccinated at the local multiplex just before Delta sent me right back into my turtle shell.  Luckily for me (and unluckily for movie theaters), the film distribution pipeline hasn’t yet caught up with that return of consumer confidence, which means there hasn’t been a flood of major new releases to wash out the big-ticket movies I missed in the past few months of extended seclusion.  So that’s how I got to see Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot on the big screen in the weeks leading up to Halloween, even though it was initially released in the summer.  By now, professional critics and terminally online horror nerds have already talked the merits & faults of Candyman ’21 to death (and the bee-swarmed mirror realm beyond it), so I expected there was no room left for discovery or interpretation in my late-to-the-game viewing of the film.  And yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the new Candyman despite my tardiness – both in how much I enjoyed it and in how well it works as a direct, meaningful sequel to the Bernard Rose original.

I remember hearing a lot of chatter about how the new Candyman is blatant in its political discussions of the continued gentrification of Chicago, but I somehow missed that those discussions are linked to an ongoing, generational trauma echoed from events of the original film.  This latest update could have been justifiably titled Candyman 4: Candyman, since it directly recounts and expands the lore of the original film through audio recordings & shadow puppetry.  By the end, we’ve seen & heard several characters from the original cast dredging up the most painful details of that shared past, landing DaCosta’s film more as a “reboot” than as a “remake” despite the expectations set by its title.  However, rather than developing Candyman lore by transferring the Candyman character to exotic cultural locales (New Orleans’s Mardi Gras celebrations in Candyman 2 and Los Angeles’s Day of the Dead celebrations in Candyman 3), DaCosta instead expands the boundaries & definition of Candyman himself.  Building off his body’s occasional form as a gestalt of bees, Candyman is explained to be a buzzing hive of various tormented Black men throughout American history instead of just a single murderous ghost with a hook for a hand.  He’s a symbol for Black pain fighting its way from under the boot of this country’s long history of racist violence, and the terror in this particular chapter is in watching our troubled-artist protagonist get absorbed into that history despite his mostly charmed life.

Personally, I don’t mind that the new Candyman is transparent in its political messaging & metaphor.  It’s at least conceptually sturdy in how it chooses to examine the generational & cultural echoes of trauma, which is a much more rewarding mode of “haunting” for this particular horror icon than it would’ve been if he latched onto another lone victim like Helen Lyle.  Its art gallery setting is a brilliant choice in that paradigm, as it both functions as a physical symbol of gentrification and as an open forum where heady ideas about art & symbolism are totally justified.  Candyman is first summoned by white art snobs in a gallery showing of political Black art that they do not take seriously (beyond its economic value), presenting him as a significant yet volatile form of Black representation in popular media.  If there’s any lesson taught in his re-emergence and his eventual absorption of the painter who gives him new life on canvas, it’s that the pained, racist history that he represents should not be evoked lightly.  DaCosta seems careful not to revive Candyman for a cheap-thrills supernatural slasher; she wants to genuinely, directly contend with what place he holds in the larger pop culture zeitgeist.  I believe she finds plenty of worthwhile political substance to contend with there, so I don’t understand the supposed virtue of being subtle about it.

My only sticking point with the new Candyman, really, is how often it shies away from depicting onscreen violence.  The greater cultural & political violence that Candyman represents is sharply felt when the film is viewed as a whole, but individual kills are often obscured through mirrors, wide-shots, and physical barriers in a way that often undercuts their in-the-moment effect.  It plays like a PG-13 television broadcast of an R-rated film, except in this case the network forgot to bleep the cusses.  DaCosta is way more concerned with the meaning behind Candyman than she is in the physical consequences of his presence, which makes the film feel like it was intended for an audience who appreciates the social commentary aspect of horror without all that icky horror getting in the way.  She totally nails the eeriness & tension that a good horror scare can build, especially in her expansion of the buzzing bee & mirror realm imagery that made Candyman iconic to begin with.  She just also seems disinterested in (or maybe even politically opposed to) the cathartic release of an onscreen kill shattering that tension to shards.  At its most visually upsetting, Candyman makes room for the slowly-building body horror of a bee sting that festers beyond control.  Mostly, it’s upsetting in its concepts & politics, which isn’t going to satisfy most audiences looking for the latest, most exciting big-screen scares.  I’m honestly surprised I was satisfied with it myself, violent catharsis notwithstanding.

-Brandon Ledet

Lamb (2021)

It’s difficult to define what qualifies something as Movie Magic, but the dark fantasy film Lamb is electric with it . . . for its opening half-hour.  The first of the film’s three “chapters” builds all its magical-realist tension on our curiosity over what, exactly, is going on with its titular child-creature and the lonely farmer couple who raise it as their own.  Isolated on an Icelandic farm with only sheep to break up the monotony of their quiet, daily chores, a married couple adopt a newborn lamb and swaddle it as if it were a human baby.  We peer into the lamb’s crib wondering what’s going on under those tightly wrapped blankets, what makes it any different from the other lambs who’re routinely born in the barn. We’re invited to look into the eyes of the older sheep on the farm, anthropomorphizing their intellectual & emotional responses to the humans who feed & shepherd them.  The longer we stare, the more they begin to look like expressive, reactive puppets instead of natural creatures, blurring the line between documentary footage and Movie Magic.  The loss of that boundary sets up an endless realm of possibility in what’s going on with the one lamb the couple has decided to raise inside their home, the one that the camera obscures so that our own imagination can fill in the details.  Then, when the baby lamb is shown in full, the magic vaporizes.

My heart sank in Lamb‘s second chapter when it had to stop obscuring its centerpiece creature.  Conceptually, I am onboard with this low-key fairy tale about an isolated couple’s desperation to be parents despite the lingering pain of past attempts, but the practicality of visualizing the human-lamb hybrid they adopt onscreen is a mood-killer.  Specifically, it’s the choice/necessity to supplement its practical effects with CGI that really zaps the Movie Magic out of the picture.  This is the kind of film that really needs the tactility of the Babe animatronics or even the surreal stop-motion of Little Otik to work. Instead, we see a tactile human body toddle across the screen with a cheaply animated CG head superimposed on top of it, never convincingly integrating with the physical world it supposedly occupies.  In close-up, when the lamb-child is napping or quietly observing her adoptive parents, she’s perfectly believable as a real, tangible creature that has magically appeared in the couple’s lives – which is why her more obscured presence in the first chapter works so well.  It’s when the camera pulls back to show her hybrid body structure in full that the spell is instantly broken, leaving Lamb with all the Movie Magic of a Geico commercial.  And since this film isn’t working with a Babe-level Hollywood budget, I’m convinced that the only way to fix it would have been to crudely superimpose her parents’ heads onto different actor’s bodies to level the uncanny playing field.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Lamb besides the magic of its titular creature-child.  It’s a quiet, unrushed film with very little plot or dialogue.  If you can’t gaze in wonder at the little lamb baby for all three chapters, there isn’t much else to do except wait for the credits (or hope for a scene where the lamb’s “mother” timidly asks her husband “Did . . . did you have sex with our sheep?”).  For a more truly magical narrative about an isolated, troubled Icelandic couple in which human actors dance with unconvincingly animated CG animals, I’d recommend watching Björk’s music video for “Triumph of a Heart”.  There’s way more heart, humor, chaos, and magic in those five minutes than there is in this entire two-hour snooze.

-Brandon Ledet