Knock at the Cabin (2023)

I’m not yet exhausted with M. Night Shyamalan’s schtick, but I am beyond exhausted with the MPAA.  Shyamalan could continue making corny Twilight Zone episodes for the rest of his life, and I’ll always line up to witness his latest stunt, even if they more often land as fun novelties instead of great cinema.  When I think about him, I smile.  Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly angered by the continued existence & influence of the MPAA, our modern echo of retro Hays Code moralism.  With Knock at the Cabin, my backburner delight with Shyamalan has inevitably clashed with my overboiling anger with the Motion Picture Association of America, an archaic institution with the power to determine who gets to see his work.  Shyamalan’s latest film is not only an earnest goofball headscratcher from one of Hollywood’s foremost earnest goofballs; it’s also the latest glaring data point in the MPAA’s long history of institutional homophobia.

I was already grumbling about recent MPAA offenses before I sat down to watch Knock at the Cabin the theater.  In just this past month, the original cut of the animatronic horror comedy M3GAN was noticeably defanged to meet the MPAA’s outdated standards for a PG-13 rating, a threshold far below what young teens can freely access on television & the internet at home.  Even more egregiously, the MPAA neutered Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi freakout Infinity Pool by cursing it with an NC-17 rating, forcing the studio’s hand in distributing a tamer R-rated edit that national theater chains would be willing to program (even though those chains could freely, legally ignore MPAA rulings whenever they want).  Listening to Cronenberg explain in interviews that the MPAA review & appeal process still involves guiding input from Catholic & Protestant priests in the year of Our Dark Lord 2023 was flabbergasting.  Much like how Blockbuster & Wal-Mart’s self-censorship against distributing immoral, ungodly pop media has guided what the movie industry was willing to produce in the recent past, the MPAA’s relationship with larger theater chains is still directly, purposefully limiting what art I can legally consume as an adult.  It’s corporate, Puritanical bullshit.

The frustrating thing is that M. Night Shyamalan is extremely accommodating to MPAA standards for safe, consumable art.  I remember a behind-the-scenes DVD featurette for The Happening where Shyamalan declared himself to be “Mr. PG-13” and was showing squirmy anxiety over directing his first R-rated feature.  In that film, Shyamalan went out of his way to earn the R, including an onscreen depiction of young children being blasted with a shotgun (which is exactly the shot he was setting up for in that “Mr. PG-13” interview).  By contrast, Knock at the Cabin makes no overt efforts to earn its R rating “for violence and language.”  If anything, its obscured, dulled-down violence and cautious “You piece of crap!” expletives play like the film has been preemptively compromised & edited down for a PG-13 rating, if not for a broadcast television premiere.  Unlike his last one, Shyamalan’s latest widespread disaster film finds him working in “Mr. PG-13” mode, and I can’t help but assume that the only reason the priest-guided MPAA condemned it with an R-rating because its lead couple is gay.  After all, the organization has a long history of rating sexless, violence-free gay content unsuitable for minors, including the even more innocuous titles Pride, Love is Strange, and 3 Generations (not to mention John Waters’s A Dirty Shame landing an NC-17 despite being relatively tame compared to the hetero Farrelly Brothers comedies Waters had indirectly inspired).  Knock at the Cabin is just their latest target.

Beyond noting my personal, petty indignation, the reason the MPAA’s rating matters here is that it’s a real-world example of the fictional homophobia referenced in the text itself.  The world at large is still violently hostile to the public existence of same-gender couples, which is what makes the selfless sacrifice asked of Knock at the Cabin‘s leads so politically loaded.  While vacationing in a remote cabin with their adopted daughter, a married gay couple (Ben Aldridge & Jonathan Groff) are taken hostage by four doomsday zealots who met online (led by the imposing gentle giant Dave Bautista).  The home invasion scenario quickly turns into religious parable, as the armed intruders explain that the hostages must make a Jellicle choice: sacrifice a member of their own family or watch the rest of the world suffer a Biblical apocalypse.  The movie spends a lot of time debating the mechanics & validity of this supernatural scenario, approximating the exact middle ground between Richard Kelly’s sprawling Twilight Zone whatsit The Box and the Evangelical parable The Shack.  Once those debates are settled, though, the real watercooler discussion questions posed to the audience get pretty thorny: Why should this tirelessly persecuted queer couple sacrifice themselves to save a world that spits in their general direction?  How much grace & compassion do they owe to Q-Anon fascists, dive-bar gaybashers, and the institutional homophobes of the MPAA?  Doesn’t the world, on some level, deserve to burn?

I am no priest, so I wasn’t part of the decision-making process for how, exactly, Knock at the Cabin “earned” its R rating.  Maybe “Mr. PG-13” put his foot down on removing the one or two “F-bombs” that put the film over the cussing limit.  Maybe the MPAA took a harsh stance because the film was largely self-financed—not pre-approved corporate product—and Shyamalan didn’t have the extra funding to fight their decision (another sin the organization often repeats).  Maybe none of this matters at all.  Shyamalan still got to screen his off-kilter camera angles, his off-putting cornball humor, and the stunning off-type performance from Bautista (whose hulking presence alone is a sight to behold, recalling the awesome image of Frankenstein’s monster gently, disastrously stooping down to relate to a little girl in 1931).  The MPAA got to decide who’s allowed to see Shyamalan’s latest, but they didn’t stop him from making it, and they didn’t prevent it from earning the #1 box office slot on opening weekend, despite their efforts.  Still, their harsh rating of the film reads like old-school, textbook homophobia to me, enhancing its themes in glaring, unintentional ways.  I pray someone will Jellicle-choice them out of existence as soon as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Infinity Pool (2023)

A lot of people are going to write off Brandon Cronenberg’s latest sci-fi horror Infinity Pool as a disappointing follow-up to Possessor, when it’s really just an ill-timed one.  Cronenberg wrote Infinity Pool during the years-long lull between his debut feature Antiviral and his COVID-era breakout Possessor, and it’s only the industrial happenstance of production scheduling that determined which of his second & third projects reached the screen first.  You can feel the frustration of his stop-and-start project developments seeping through the text.  Alexander Skarsgård stars as a hack novelist whose privileged familial connections have kept him afloat in the six years since his debut work was critically skewered then forgotten, which positions him as a kind of self-satirical avatar for Cronenberg as a nepo-baby auteur on a long, winding road to acclaim.  It doesn’t make much sense for the director to quickly follow up his greatest success to date with a Charlie Kaufmann-style writer’s block thriller—wherein a frustrated creative gets themselves into exponential cosmic trouble simply because they cannot produce—but Cronenberg doesn’t have control over which of his scripts are greenlit when, so that out-of-sync feeling is totally forgivable in context.  That’s not what makes the film ill-timed; it’s how similar his Skarsgård avatar’s cosmic trouble is to other recent films & television programs that partially dulls Infinity Pool‘s sharpest edges.

While vacationing with his benefactor wife (Cleopatra Coleman) at an Eastern European luxury resort in a futile search for creative inspo, James Foster (Skarsgård) is recruited into an informal crime ring of ultra-wealthy hedonists, led by a hothead babe with a babydoll London accent (Mia Goth).  These international elites have discovered a nifty loophole that allows them to get away with murdering & pillaging the impoverished locals outside the resort, suffering no consequences for their crimes outside frequent trips to the ATM for stacks of bribe money.  As a diplomatic, bureaucratic measure, the local government has developed technology to clone the wealthy tourists and have their doubles suffer the consequences instead, only requiring that the wanton criminals watch justice be served in increasingly ultraviolent geek shows.  The transgression of watching their own deaths proves addictive, and their crimes only become more pointless & brazen so they can return to the executioners’ theatre.  James’s major mistake is assuming that he is accepted among the group as an equal, but since he married into wealth instead of “earning” it himself, his new clique treats him as just another plaything – pushing him to indulge in grotesque, humiliating acts for their amusement.  On some psychosexual sublevel, he appears to enjoy this social torture, or he’s at least reluctant to put a stop to it.

I doubt Cronenberg would have timed the distribution of Infinity Pool to January 2023 if he knew how many thematic parallels it would find on the current pop culture landscape.  After seeing Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and season two of White Lotus all become pop culture talking points in such a short stretch, it’s probably time to pump the brakes on skewering the ultra-wealthy for using other people’s lives as a consequence-free playground for a while.  That said, I’ve enjoyed most of those tee-ball satires for their individual doses of class-politics catharsis and, although a late addition to the collection, Infinity Pool is the one that most directly panders to my fucked-up tastes.  You cannot pack the frame with this many strobe lights, gore gags, hallucinatory orgies, and creepy masks without me walking away smiling.  Letting Mia Goth loose to terrorize Skarsgård as a crazed domme armed with fried chicken & a handgun instead of leather whips & cuffs is also a brilliant move, as she greedily devours scenery with vicious, delirious abandon.  Among all its “Eat the Rich” classmates of 2022, Infinity Pool most reminded me of Triangle of Sadness, mostly for how far it pushes its onscreen depravity for darkly comedic, cathartic release – careful to put every possible substance the human body can discharge on full, loving display (except maybe for feces, which might be included in the NC-17 cut; can’t be sure).  Plenty audiences are likely to be turned off by both works for their disregard for subtlety & restraint, but that’s exactly what makes them great.

This film’s poor timing in distribution shouldn’t discount its of-the-moment merits.  Extratextual concerns aside, it’s very funny, upsetting, and reluctant to be neatly categorized or understood (despite its wealth of easy comparison points).  I suspect it will age well, even by time its “Unrated” cut hits VOD in the coming months, since distance from our recent wealth of anti-wealth satires can only do it favors.  It also seems like Cronenberg got to work out something ugly & pathetic he wanted to exorcize from his own psyche here (often through outright self-mockery), which is the exact kind of weirdo personal touch I’m always looking for in art.

-Brandon Ledet

Sick (2023)

Besides maybe the horny-old-biddies football comedy 80 For Brady being inexplicably set in 2017, the new straight-to-Peacock slasher Sick is likely to be the most conceptually bizarre period piece of the season.  The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but it is still ongoing, which makes screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s decision to set Sick in the early-pandemic days of Spring 2020 a little confusing, if not outright immoral.  COVID-themed horror that takes advantage of the pandemic’s of-the-moment novelty and finance-forgiving social isolation is now a three-year-old gimmick at this point, with early standouts like the excellent screenlife ghost story Host getting produced & released in the same timeframe when Sick is set.  So, why would Williamson bother stepping outside his highly successful slasher franchise Scream to dial the clock back to those early COVID days, when that’s already such an overcrowded market?  Apparently, it’s because he’s been itching to complain about people who are a little too zealous & militant about mask-wearing, social-distancing safety measures in public life, and he couldn’t be satisfied venting about it in a Facebook rant like every other Gen-X crank, so he made a feature film instead.

In its opening hour, Sick appears to take the ambient terror of COVID very seriously, likening it to the intangible menace of horrors like Final Destination, The Happening, and Skinamarink.  Again, this is a period piece set in the early wiping-down-your-groceries era of the pandemic, when coherent public understanding of how COVID spreads—let alone vaccines—had yet to formulate.  There’s an oppressive paranoia in all public life that’s distinct to that era, illustrated by how a single cough in a grocery store has all other shoppers shooting daggers in your direction.  The tension is instantly high, and the vibes are instantly bad, which is a great start for a lean, low-budget slasher with only 80 minutes of playtime.  It’s also a great excuse to isolate a slasher’s teens-in-peril victims, who plan to ride the pandemic out by self-quarantining in a cabin in the woods.  The knife-wielding killer who stalks them also comes pre-masked, as was the fashion (and legitimate safety precaution) of the time.  All of this COVID-based terror is cleverly considered, but once the killer’s face & motives are revealed, Williamson’s screenplay devolves from we’re-all-in-this-together societal camaraderie into bitchy “Some of you are taking this pandemic stuff a little too seriously” apathy, and all of the tension gives way to eyerolls & jerk-off motions.

As often as Williams is determined to step on rakes in the last few pages of his screenplay, a lot of Sick‘s faults are smoothed over by DTV action director John Hyams’s knack for bone-crunching impact & small-scale visual spectacle.  The novelty of COVID horror is fading, and the basic tropes of the home-invasion slasher are so familiar that Williamson made a name for himself mocking them in a meta-horror franchise nearly three decades ago, but Hyams manages to make Sick feel consistently thrilling & surprising from moment to moment.  Yes, we have already seen Jason Voorhees emerge from Crystal Lake as an unkillable ghoul, but have we ever seen him thrust his blade at victims from under the water, like a deadly-sharp Jaws fin?  Yes, we’ve already seen teens chased around a remote cabin after enjoying a few hand-rolled joints, but rarely with such creative, dynamic blocking & fight choreography – since most independent first-wave slashers of that ilk were made by youngsters who enjoyed a few beers & joints on-set themselves.  Honestly, Sick has all the hallmarks of a classic slasher: style, efficiency, brutality, novelty, and boneheaded reactionary politics that sour nearly all of those merits.  According to that scorecard, Hyams has acquitted himself, Williamson has embarrassed everyone and, as is always true, Jane Adams (whose role I won’t spoil) deserves better.

-Brandon Ledet

Skinamarink (2023)

For anyone disappointed that Jane Schoenbrun’s microbudget darling We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was a somber teen-crisis drama instead of the low-fi creepypasta horror it was mismarketed as, Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink might be the salve for your year-old wounds.  Curiously, the next project on Schoenbrun’s docket is titled I Saw the TV Glow, which is the closest thing to a coherent plot synopsis you could apply to Ball’s narrative-light experiment in digital-grained dread.  Skinamarink is crowdsourced Internet Age horror, both in funding and in conception.  After honing his craft by adapting user-submitted dream journals into horror shorts on his YouTube channel Bitesized Nightmares, Ball crowdfunded a feature-length amalgamation of those comment-section submissions’ most common themes & images for his official, theatrical debut.  Skinamarink was essentially conceived by the internet hivemind.  It was marketed by it too, illegally leaked out of online film festival platforms and spread around as a slumber party-style dare among TikTok Zoomers, as if it were vintage found footage instead of an upcoming theatrical release.  Whereas We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about creepypasta, Skinamarink is a genuine example of it, which makes the two films an unlikely, unholy pair (and possibly just the start of a larger, not-yet-defined Internet Age film movement).

It’s easy to forget Skinamarink‘s Internet Age DNA in the moment, though, since it’s aesthetically nostalgic for an earlier era.  While the look & feel of Skinamarink conjures memories of impossibly late nights spent online in my teen years, its 1995 setting dials the clock back even further to a time before when it was affordable to bring the internet home.  Ball shot the film in his own childhood home, perfectly preserved with popcorn ceilings and unstylish lighting fixtures that recall a bland childhood everyhome.  In its one overtly nightmarish conceit, two young siblings—Kevin and Kaylee—wake to discover that not only are their parents missing, but the doors & windows to the outside world are missing too, with the remaining smoothed-out walls forming an endless, featureless labyrinth.  Ball creates a first-person-POV childhood nightmare experience by removing all possible distinguishing features from both the setting and his characters, ensuring there are no framed art pieces, family portraits, or even characters’ faces to differentiate this eerie childhood memory from your own (presuming you’re old enough to remember a pre-internet world).  The exact vintage toys, cartoons, and drab carpeting of a 90s childhood immerse the audience in an uneasy familiarity with this forgotten psychic space.  Even the title—a reference to an ancient novelty song best remembered as the repurposed theme for The Elephant Show in the 1980s—feels eerily familiar, but initially difficult to place.

That dual familiarity to 1990s suburban homes and 2000s internet subdungeons is an important sensory anchor in a film with very little narrative structure to speak of.  Kevin and Kaylee are young children with malleable minds, so they take the sudden disappearance of their parents & escape paths as a simple matter of fact, choosing to ride out the nightmare by playing with their off-brand Legos in front of public-domain Fleischman cartoons looping on the basement TV.  On their occasional excursions up the stairs and down the hallways it becomes increasingly apparent that something is in the house with them, an evil presence that’s destined to be colloquially known as The Skinamarink as this film’s legacy stretches into the future.  To explain how The Skinamarink torments these faceless children in this featureless suburban prison would spoil the three or four identifiable events in the otherwise sparse 100 minutes of film grain & room tone.  It’s a work mostly made of textures, not narrative.  The heavily distorted tape hiss & digital grain invite you to lean in, searching for something tangibly evil in the undulating darkness.  You do eventually find it, usually in loud flashes that interrupt long stretches of wooshy quiet with the arthouse equivalent of a jump scare.  What’s much more important is the dread you feel looking for something that isn’t there, though, which leaves a much starker, more memorable impression than the spooky shapes The Skinamarink eventually takes.

Skinamarink is simultaneously a familiar experience and an alien one, mixing generic horror tropes with an experimental sensibility – like a Poltergeist remake guided by the spirit of Un Chien Andalou.  It’s the kind of loosely plotted, bad-vibes-only, liminal-space horror that requires the audience to meet it halfway both in emotional impact and in logical interpretation.  In the best-case scenario, audiences will find traces of their own childhood nightmares in its darkened hallways & Lego-piece art instillations.  Personally, I was more hung up on the way it evokes two entirely separate eras of my youth: my alone-time online as a sleep-starved teen and my alone-time in front of cathode TVs as a sleep-starved tyke a decade earlier.  There’s some dark magic in the way it buries its analog horror tropes under a heavy digital shroud, and the looping, undulating patterns of the digital film grain were often just as mesmerizing as the search for the monster they obscure.  Even if the film doesn’t ignite your brain on that digital-psychedelia level or stir a more sinister, subliminal reaction in your chest, its immediate financial & cultural success is still a victory worth celebrating.  It isn’t often that a film this strange breaks out of the straight-to-Shudder release model, much less one shot in a single week for $15,000.  Skinamarink is a good omen for the continued theatrical distribution of Weird Art in our sanitized corporate hell-future, even if it plays like a cursed internet broadcast from a post-theatrical world.

-Brandon Ledet

From Daniel Sadcliffe to Daniel Radcliffe

I never engaged much with the Harry Potter movies as they rolled out throughout the aughts, but from what I remember glimpsing in Dear Reader, Wizard People, Daniel Radcliffe was not an especially talented child actor.  I couldn’t hear Radcliffe’s pipsqueak line-readings over the drunken growls of Brad Neely’s alternate narration track, but I distinctly remember him having a dazed, deer-in-headlights look in Wizard People that suggested even he didn’t know why he was helming the blockbuster franchise.  It’s incredible, then, that Radcliffe was able to turn that early windfall into what’s now a decades-running acting career instead of just a passive, eternal source of royalty checks.  What’s even more incredible is just how weird he’s committed to making that career.  Radcliffe continually chooses projects where he gets to play absolute freaks: Dr. Frankenstein’s groveling hunchback lab assistant (and possible boyfriend), a computer nerd with guns surgically bolted to his hands, a farting corpse with a magical boner, any role he can land to distance himself from his association with Harry Potter – efforts I am cruelly undermining here.  Much like the kids who headlined the Twilight series, Radcliffe has put his blockbuster blood money to great use in the years since he broke free. Only, while RPat & KStew are chasing high-brow critical prestige, Radcliffe is out there determined to be seen as the biggest weirdo to grace the screen since Nic Cage screeched about the bees.  It’s been a truly magical transformation.

Radcliffe’s determination to let his freak flag fly recently reached its highest fever pitch in the Funny or Die sketch turned Roku Channel Original Weird: The Al Yankovic StoryWeird is a mock biopic that sensationalizes the notoriously squeaky-clean polka musician Weird Al’s life to match the more traditional rock ‘n roll hedonism of his MTV-era colleagues, complete with Dr. Demento scouting talent at the local biker bar and Al’s father forbidding him to play “the devil’s squeezebox.”  It’s a single-joke premise that might feel a little redundant for anyone who’s already seen similar music industry parodies like Walk Hard & Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but its single joke is still—importantly—very funny.  Weird is the kind of comedy nerd’s comedy where every character introduction has you muttering “Oh, that’s good casting” under your breath.  It’s Radcliffe’s casting that really makes the film special, though.  As much as the purpose of Weird is to contextualize Al Yankovic as an essential American pop culture icon—alongside fellow greats like Madonna, Elvira, Pee-wee, and Divine—it also completes the mission of contextualizing Daniel Radcliffe as a true weirdo himself (although a Brit).  Radcliffe commits to the bit with full fervor, playing the raw, scuzzy, self-destructive sexuality of Weird Al as if he were starring in an Iggy Pop biopic instead, strengthening the over-the-top absurdism of the film’s only joke by playing it with a straight face unseen in the genre since Leslie Nielsen passed.  Radcliffe has played much weirder characters than Al in the past—the titular Swiss Army Man chief among them—but I’m not sure he’s ever done so more convincingly.

Things weren’t always this way.  A decade before The Al Yankovic Story, Radcliffe’s career appeared to be taking a much more pedestrian leading-man path, starting with the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black.  A comeback production for the legendary Gothic horror studio Hammer, The Woman in Black is super scary, both as a traditional ghost story and as a worst-case-scenario vision of Radcliffe’s potential career as a bland leading man instead of an eccentric weirdo millionaire.  Both Hammer and Radcliffe had a lot to prove in the otherwise low-stakes, low-profile production, and only Hammer scored high in that gamble.  In its story of a vengeful ghost who targets rural village children, Hammer was able to prove they were ready to produce well-balanced, traditionalist ghost stories again – offering a mix of shameless jump scares and long stretches of atmospheric quiet where all of the spookery lingers in backgrounds, mirrors, and mist.  It’s not an especially shocking nor inventive horror film, but it is an efficient & effective one, where every adaptive choice helps amplify its eerie scares . . . except for Radcliffe’s casting as the lead.  Much like in the early Harry Potter films, Radcliffe is just kinda there.  He’d be easily replaceable as the film’s lead if it weren’t for his box-office draw as a recognizable name on the poster, which would only lead to diminishing returns if his career continued down that path (especially as the Harry Potter franchise sunk further into the toxic muck of TERFdom).  The Woman in Black was marketed as Radcliffe’s debut as a serious adult actor, a legitimate talent with real staying power beyond the franchise that made him famous as a tyke.  Instead, he comes across as just some guy, totally replaceable by any number of BBC repertory players.

The curious thing here is that The Woman in Black is a much better movie than Weird; it’s just not a better Daniel Radcliffe Movie.  I would much rather live in a world where Radcliffe is a walking, talking Nic Cagian meme than one where he’s a competent but unnoticeable leading man.  Looking back at the ten years between The Woman in Black and Weird, it appears that Radcliffe also wants to live in that world. He’s a genuine weirdo, and I think that’s beautiful.

-Brandon Ledet

M3GAN (2023)

M3GAN is the best horror movie of the year! I know it’s only the eighth day of the year so far as of this writing (I hope you’re all enjoying your king cake and that you all waited until this weekend to do so, since not waiting until after Twelfth Night is the reason we’re all cursed), and I’m sure a hundred other hacks have already made the same joke, but who am I to mess with the formula? After all, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?

Four years ago, Child’s Play creator Don Mancini was on the Post Mortem podcast and confirmed what many had assumed for years: that the film that introduced us to the pre-eminent killer doll, Chucky, was a critique of consumerism. “Because of my exposure to the world of advertising and marketing through my dad,” he said, referencing his father’s pharmaceutical work, “I was very aware from an early age of the cynicism inherent in that world, particularly selling products to children. Madison Avenue refers to children as ‘consumer trainees’ and I discovered that as a child. I thought, I wanted to write a dark satire about how advertising affects children.” Many of those anti-consumerism elements were excised from the final product following editing and collaboration with John Lafia, but they’re not removed completely: the original Good Guys doll that is inhabited by the dark soul of a serial killer is still very clearly inspired by both Cabbage Patch and My Buddy dolls of the 1980s, up to and including the insidious nature of advertising directly to children through animated programming as seen in the Good Guys cartoon that Andy watches in the first film. By Child’s Play 3, toy company exec Sullivan (previously introduced in the second film) is expressing, verbatim, the things that Mancini quotes real life movers and shakers at the cathedrals of capital, saying “And what are children after all, but consumer trainees?” 

Smartly, M3GAN initially seems to be coming at the “killer toy” plot from a similar angle, and although the corporate greed of toy companies remains relevant throughout (Ronny Chieng’s upper management character David Lin at one point expressed excitement at the prospect of the M3GAN toy finally letting their company, Funki, “kick Hasbro in the dick”), the story quickly becomes less about consumerism than it is about letting technology be your kids’ babysitter, or parent. The film opens with an advertisement for the “Purrpetual Petz,” in which a child mourns the loss of her dog but whose spirits lift immensely upon receipt of her new best friend, a giant fuzzy triangle that’s somewhere on the scale between a squishmallow and a Furby, with funny/scary human teeth for some reason, and which is capable of “defecating” little bits of scat if overfed (via the interactive app). We zoom out on said app to find Cady (Violet McGraw) feeding her Purrpetual Pet on a tablet in the backseat of her parents’ SUV, en route to a ski vacation that never comes, as the vehicle is violently smashed by a snow truck. Elsewhere, her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) is hard at work at Funki, the makers of Purrpetual Petz, along with her assistants Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez). Her boss David (Chieng) is riding her hard to churn out a prototype for a less expensive version of the Petz line since their competitor has launched a knock-off version at $50, half the price of at Purr Pet; his sycophantic assistant Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten) constantly at his side. When David catches Gemma working on her pet (no pun intended) project, a Model 3 Generation Android nicknamed “M3GAN” instead of her assigned work, he puts her on notice, moments before she gets the call from the hospital where Cady is being treated, the lone survivor of the car crash. Gemma finds herself having trouble interacting with Cady, as her gorgeous mid-century modern house is a mixture of that era of furniture style with the sort of home personal assistant gadgetry that many people who are less paranoid than I am have in their houses. Gemma’s toy robot collection isn’t for playing, it’s for observing, and when Cady asks her to read her a bedtime story, Gemma has no books that might interest the nine-year-old and has to go searching for one on an app, which then has to update. 

This is the meat of the film’s larger techno-hesitant themes; it’s not anti-technology per se, but it is invested in highlighting the ways that we let software and the expectation of instant gratification take on a huge role in our lives, to the point of supplanting our actual relationships. We’ve all seen it. Less than 48 hours before my viewing of the film, I went out Friday evening to a restaurant happy hour with the same friend who went with me to see M3GAN, and there was a mother-and-son duo seated near us who caught my friend’s attention, as the woman first tried to engage her young son in conversation before finally giving up and letting him have his device, and she herself got involved with something on her phone. My dinner companion noted that the kid was playing some video on his small tablet but wasn’t even watching it, as it sat in his lap while he ate with his headphones in. So often, when we see this thing play out in movies, it’s often a condemnation of the young, how they don’t have any attention span because of TikTok or how Gen Z is doing blah blah blah now that enough of them have come of age to become the new political scapegoats after we Millennials destroyed the diamond industry and somehow caused the downfall of the West because of avocado toast. M3GAN is acutely aware that this is a problem across all generations, and that the young aren’t to blame for the fact that algorithms are created to entrap them before they’re old enough to have the understanding of how they’re being psychologically manipulated, whether it’s Cady here or Andy in Child’s Play. Before their deaths, Cady’s parents discuss screen time, and how many hours a day Cady is allowed to interact with her device; later, it’s Gemma who is so caught up in staring at her phone that she doesn’t notice that Cady is eating her breakfast in silence and waiting for her aunt to talk to her, and when she encourages Cady to play with her tablet while the older woman puts time in on her work project, Cady asks how long she is allowed to do so before she has to turn it off, and Gemma is caught off guard by the notion that limiting screen time is something that parents even have to do. 

For as long as I can remember, there’s been much ado about the effects of using TV as a babysitter. Won’t someone please think of the children? What long term psychological damage will little Johnny endure if he watches reruns of Growing Pains every day after school while one or more parents decompresses from the stresses of work? Is there maybe too much Tinkerbell content available on demand, and is it the worst thing in the world to let little Jenny absorb it for a few hours while dinner is prepared, now that she’s too squirmy to sit in the kitchen and watch how the sausage gets made? But none of us were really prepared for the way that video apps (especially ones with short-form content that consistently and continuously releases dopamine in the lizard parts of the brain) and constant connectivity were going to rock our world. I’m not just saying that because I’m Abe Simpson in that evergreen “Old Man Yells At Cloud” meme; I’m of the generation that were children when 9/11 happened and watched how every adult in the world lost their mind in a jingoistic fervor that, coupled with unfiltered access to constant one-sided news rhetoric, means we all have to monitor our parents’ social media as well just to make sure they don’t all start agreeing with Andrew Tate and Kanye West. Unfortunately, when this sort of presents itself in media, it’s often a very shallow, surface-level critique because, as Audre Lorde writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and the same corporations that are causing and have caused reckless and irreparable damage to our society (and, if we’re being completely honest, to the fabric of democracy) are necessary tools of the same megacorporations that produce the content that we consume, so Disney can never really take the piss out of Twitter because that’s where all their megafans live and their engagement is driven. 

M3GAN sidesteps this by not being “about” social media, or even “about” the so-called evils of technology. It’s about what happens when the responsibility of guardianship is overlooked, and it does so without shifting blame to the people who are the victims: the kids. There’s a lovely little visual storytelling beat in the aforementioned scene in which Gemma asks Cady over breakfast to entertain herself for a while; she promises that she won’t be more than a few hours, but we cut immediately to an establishing shot of the house, where night has fallen, signalling that Gemma has been caught up in her work all day. It’s not Gemma who suddenly realizes that she never made lunch or dinner that initiates the next scene, it’s Cady peeking into Gemma’s office and the latter making the connection that she’s been in her workshop all day with no regard for Cady’s well-being or engagement. That Cady has taken the time that she was alone and used it not to sit around and waste the day watching videos or playing one of the millions of Candy Crush derivatives that are out there these days but instead to draw is telling: children need more than just to be set up with a device all day, and it’s foreshadowing that M3GAN, for as much as she seems to be the perfect toy and friend, is never going to be able to replace real social interaction for Cady, even if the algorithms that drive her machine learning (like the algorithms that drive the online content that all of us consume) are working hard to replace all other areas of her life. Late in the film, the psychologist assigned to ensure that Gemma is capable of taking care of Cady (Amy Usherwood) has a discussion with the former, warning her that the kinds of connections that, according to attachment theory, children need. She warns Gemma that allowing Cady to invest so much time in M3GAN could consequently lead Cady to develop emotional bonds that will end tragically, one way or another. 

All of this probably makes it seem like the film is super serious, but it’s not; it’s actually very funny. It wasn’t until after the viewing that I realized the director, Gerard Johnstone, was also the man behind Housebound, a film we loved so much that we made it into content for Swampflix twice: first with a very positive 2015 review and again five years later as the topic on one of our earliest episodes of the Lagniappe podcast. That actually explains the comedic sensibility; it’s not omnipresent, but it’s almost funnier that the jokes are paced with some distance between them, allowing them to break the tension when they reappear, and the emotional whiplash of it all is part of the fun. There are two perfectly attuned parodies of children’s commercials that appear in close proximity to each other, and although they’re probably more like the advertisements of the late-nineties to early-aughts than those of the present, that makes them familiar and charming to most of the intended audience. The first is the aforementioned Purrpetual Petz ad, and the second is an advertisement for the competing knock-off, which forsakes the pooping feature for a light-up butt that tells you the creature’s mood. Both have the energy of that Kooshlings commercial meets the one for Baby Uh-Oh with the one for Baby Rollerblade mixed in for good measure. Directly between them rests the scene depicting the harrowing death of Cady’s parents, which is fraught with tension throughout. They’re spread a bit further out than they were in Housebound, but they’re just as effective. 

If I have one complaint, it’s that M3GAN is a little restrained with its violence in certain places. The final confrontation is as good as it gets at this level, with some real peril for a child, which always ramps up the tension. The kills get gorier as the film goes on, but it feels like it could have cut loose sooner and with more oomph, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s a worthy entry in the killer doll canon even if it decides to be demure and understated in certain places. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Nope (2022)

When Nope was announced earlier this year, Brandon reached out to ask if I wanted to do coverage of it and, of course, my answer was “Yes.” Get Out was my top film of 2017, and I was passionate about giving Us a five star review in 2019. The only issue was that, when Nope came out in mid-July, I was going through a pretty rough, prolonged breakup. I missed the screenings they were holding at the drive-in and wanted to see it so badly that when a copy proverbially fell off the proverbial back of a proverbial truck, I immediately watched it, but not without some difficulty. The audio quality was awful, so much so that some of the dialogue was virtually inaudible, and the video cohesion also suffered, especially in the night scenes. I was lucky to have a friend over watching it who had seen the film in theaters, so she was able to describe what was happening at times when the truck-fallen video didn’t have the resolution to speak for itself (most notably in scenes with Jean Jacket). And so when people asked if I had seen it, I said “Yes,” but for a long time, I hadn’t really. If anything, I had seen a bunch of shadows on a cave wall. But all that has changed, and although as I sit here on the first day of the new year fulfilling a very late promise, I’ve seen the real deal, and I can’t go back to the cave. 

Nope largely takes place on the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch, a legacy and a legend which has passed the prime of its life. Otis Haywood Jr., or “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) has recently taken over the business from his father Otis Senior (Keith David), who was killed in a freak accident some six months prior when pieces of metal fell from the sky, supposedly from a plane. The horse that was being trained under the path of the inexplicable event had a key embedded in its flank, while Otis Senior somehow ended up with a nickel embedded in his brain through his eye. OJ inherited the gift of horse training from his father but lacks the elder man’s interpersonal abilities on the micro and macro levels, being unable to work a crowd as his father did but also failing to communicate with others on a day-to-day level without a high dose of awkwardness. All the social skills went to his younger sister, Emerald “Em” (Keke Palmer), a fast-talking, wise-cracking whirlwind who never stops hustling, much to OJ’s chagrin. We see this from one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which OJ begins to recite the rote speech that was no doubt his father’s, about their family’s descent from the Bahamian jockey who appeared in Horse in Motion, what is generally considered to be the first motion picture, and how they are keeping that tradition alive by continuing to train horses for film. OJ is hesitant, stumbling over his words, until Em appears and delivers the spiel with style and aplomb. When she wanders off during the actual screen test and the movie crew fails to heed OJ, causing the horse to act out in a way that costs them the job, we have the perfect vision of how the two siblings function as a team, two halves of a whole that only works when they are together. The two other major players in the film are Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who experienced a harrowing and traumatic tragedy on the set of a gimmick 90s sitcom, and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a peroxide-highlighted electronics store employee who gets wrapped up in the Haywoods’ lives after he becomes suspicious while installing cameras and other monitoring equipment at their ranch. 

Why do they need that monitoring equipment? Why, because OJ and Em are dealing with a UFO, of course. And if they can get footage of it, then they’ll be financially set, meaning that OJ will no longer have to sell off the horses from the ranch to remain solvent. 

Jordan Peele’s films are always thematically rich, and manage to exist in that space where they remain fascinating, captivating, and utterly watchable. Many films manage to mostly stay the course and we can forgive their slight imbalances if they manage to avoid tipping too far to one side (Glass Onion comes to mind—it gets close at points but never tilts so much that it starts to take on water), and others can lean too far over one side and become (in the words of Lindsay Ellis) “Oops, all allegory.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of things that Nope could be said to be “about,” or which present rich veins of interpretable ore to be hammered out and turned into gold by better writers than I am. So with that said, I want to talk about the three themes that are my favorites in Nope: the illusory nature of totems, the illusory nature of memory, and the illusory nature of media.

There are a number of totemic items present throughout the story: the Monopoly pieces that the crew sets out when planning to get the shot of the alien creature they have nicknamed Jean Jacket, after a horse that was supposed to have been Em’s ninth birthday gift but which ended up being selected for a movie; the VHS tape of her father’s spiel that Em watches the night that Jean Jacket vomits viscera all over the Haywood farmhouse; the giant balloon version of Jupe that suffers the same fate as the real one. Even the original Jean Jacket himself, in his absence, represents something about Em, her brother, and the fickle nature and absurd reality of the film industry. But the two biggest ones belong to OJ and Jupe. For the former, it’s the coin that improbably killed his father. For the latter, the impossible is represented in something equally quotidian and mundane that was given significance because of circumstance: a shoe. At one point in the film, OJ asks Em if there is a term for a “bad miracle,” referencing the way that his life has changed as a result of witnessing an extra-terrestrial, but this also plays into Jupe’s backstory, in which he was the ostensible human lead in Gordy’s Home, the aforementioned TGIF-style sitcom in which the gimmick was that a family had adopted a chimpanzee. During the filming of an episode of the show’s second season, one of the chimps playing Gordy was started by the popping of an on-set balloon and went on a violent rampage, killing several people and maiming the actress playing Jupe’s older sister, sparing only Jupe himself, who was transfixed throughout the attack on the unusual sight of a shoe standing straight up on its heel. Even as an adult, he keeps this same show in his ad hoc museum of Gordy’s Home memorabilia, enshrined in a place of honor. What differentiates the two men is that OJ ultimately realizes that the nickel that he’s pinned to his wall in memoriam of his father isn’t important, not really; it may have struck the killing blow but he recognizes that it is, in essence, a real life MacGuffin, with no inherent import in and of itself. Jupe continues to attribute significance to the show insofar as he comes to see himself as the recipient of some supernatural, if not necessarily divine, intervention. Late in the film, OJ notes that the alien Jean Jacket isn’t sticking around because doing so is in its nature, but because Jupe thought that he could tame the alien because his belief in his infallibility as some kind of animal whisperer, as made manifest by the impossibility of the self-stabilizing shoe, and he turned out to be very, very wrong. The power of totems is an illusion; it’s just people projecting their magical thinking onto objects in the same way that we often anthropomorphize nature, again to our detriment when it comes to predators. 

For Jupe, part and parcel of this is the nature of his memories. When asked about the incident by Em, Jupe doesn’t recount any honest details to her: not his fear, not the sickening sound of flesh being struck by simian fists, not the panic in the voice of his TV father as he attempted to escape the carnage. Instead, he recalls a Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the event, except that he doesn’t even really describe the sketch and how it plays out (other than the small detail that Sketch!Gordy panics at mention of the jungle, not the real cause of his outburst), only recounting which cast member played whom and praising Chris Kattan’s performance as Gordy without any specifics other than that Kattan was “undeniable” and “eating it up, crushing it, devouring every moment.” The real memory, as we see it play out, is visceral and full of intricate details, down to the particular transparency of the tablecloth on the on-set dining table that obscured Jupe’s eyes from Gordy, foreshadowing that Jean Jacket’s territorial attacks are only against things that it perceives as looking at it. We know that this event still haunts Jupe and that, like a lot of traumatic memories, the specificity of the day remains vivid and sharp in his mind, interjecting itself into his thoughts when he’s preparing for a performance at the ranch, intrusive. Jupe has taken this memory and buried it under layers of media interpretation and interpolation and changed its quintessential form, just as he has foundationally changed the “meaning” of the shoe. Jupe makes his living off of nostalgia and in so doing never leaves the past behind, and he has supplanted his own memories with, for all intents and purposes, a movie; OJ, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the future and finding ways to keep Haywood open, and Em is focused on the present, with her hustles both professional and romantic. As such, we spend much less time in full flashbacks for the Haywoods; though they are standing in the shadow of Otis Senior and talk about him, each character only gets one actual visual representation of their memories, and it’s open to interpretation how much of each is accurate. OJ’s takes the form of a dream in which his father, speaking of one of the horses, says “I guess some animals ain’t fit to be trained,” a statement which perfectly slots into OJ’s current situation and provides a key moment of insight/realization about the nature of Jean Jacket, in a manner perhaps too apropos for the elder Hayworth to have actually said it and instead synthesized from OJ’s real memories through that ephemeral nature of dreams. Prior to this, on her first night back at the farmhouse, Em recounts the days leading up to her ninth birthday and looking down from the window to see the two generations of Otises training the namesake Jean Jacket, speaking with a soft bitterness about how Otis Senior had given up her promised horse because of “some Western.” This memory, too, is flawed: OJ corrects her by saying that it was actually Scorpion King that the horse had been picked for, and that the film had ended up using camels instead. Memory can be a mirage as much as it can be a mirror, and it’s ultimately imperfect. 

At its peak, though, that’s the biggest theme of Nope: the distortion of reality via the camera lens. One of my favorite lyrics from one of my favorite bands comes from the opening of Typhoon’s track “Young Fathers,” which is “I was born in September / And like everything else I can’t remember / I’ve replaced it with scenes from a film.” Jupe has done this almost literally, but Nope is also about the nature of how the proliferation of media has irrevocably changed our lives. There’s a really fun mixture here of media both real—Scorpion King, The Horse in Motion, Saturday Night Live—and imagined—Gordy’s Home, Six Guns, a nonexistent SNL sketch—which plays with the audience’s perception. After all, if you sort of half remember the SNL sketch in which Kattan plays the monkey man Mr. Peepers, then it doesn’t seem impossible that there was a similar sketch about Kattan playing Gordy. Theoretically, the camera lens should offer us perfect, objective truth, should record reality as it is without the wrinkles and imperfections that our memories include because of distance from events and the horizons of our experience, but that’s not what actually happens, because media is just as edited as our memories are, meaning that they are just as flawed in their ability to capture an inarguable “reality.” In few places is this more apparent than in media parasite organization TMZ, which becomes a literal part of this film when one of their employees appears at Haywood Ranch right in the middle of the Haywood crew’s big push to capture Jean Jacket on film, disrupting the entire operation while begging OJ with his dying breath to get pictures of the entity. This man values the money shot over his own life, and he pays dearly for it. The great irony is that nothing is “real” until it’s captured on film, but even that supposed “truth” is still subject to the edit; if nothing is real until we film it, but film is inherently not true either, then is there even such a thing? Every character in this movie navigates their life in some way informed by mass media: cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) intones a dead-serious rendition of the pop novelty song “One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater” at the Haywoods’ dinner table; Angel singsongs the famous “They’re here” line from Poltergeist when Jean Jacket appears; the course of Em’s life was changed in a small way by Scorpion King, and Jupe’s was altered on a mass scale by Gordy’s Home. It’s just as much a force in everyone’s lives as Jean Jacket itself. 

There’s still more onion to peel back here, but it’s not for me to take up all that space. I could go on and on about how it’s a fascinating choice that almost no character is called by their real name but by a nickname or derivation thereof (even Holst is introduced offscreen as “Ants”), or about the performances (Kaluuya really embodies a specific kind of eyes-averting blue-collar humility that was familiar and beautiful to me, while Palmer is a natural at everything, it seems), or all the little bits of foreshadowing, but I think that’s enough for today. This review is long overdue, but if you’ve for some reason avoided seeing Nope up to this point, then there’s no time like the present. Giddy up. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Motion Stopocalypse

One of the bigger trends of the 2022 movie calendar was the prominence of stop-motion animation as a medium.  Netflix’s cheeky horror anthology The House was the first Great film of the year, and that early stop-motion triumph rolled into the wide, acclaimed release of so much direct competition that it now feels distant & puny in retrospect.  Rolling into awards season, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio are formidable contenders for best animated film of the year against the more typical Disney-funded CG mediocrities that have earned that prize by default since Toy Story put Pixar on the map.  And then there was Phil Tippet’s magnum opus horror show Mad God, which pushed the stop-motion medium to the outer limits of what animated cinema can achieve.  Usually, I’m on top of all stop-motion feature films as soon as they’re released, but this year offered so many varied, prominent titles in that category that I let a couple slip through my fingers until now.  Neither The Old Man Movie nor Wendell & Wild completely blew my mind as I caught up with them for Best of the Year listmaking season, but that was mostly a result of them joining such an already crowded field.  In a more typical year, these would have been the only two stop-motion releases of note, and I likely would have been much more ravenous for what they have to offer.

The more disappointing title of this late-entry pair is Wendell & Wild, since it’s the one with the highest pedigree behind its production.  Not only does it reunite the iconic comedy duo Key & Peele as a pair of wisecracking demons, but it’s also the comeback film of legendary stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who has not directed a film since 2009’s Coraline.  As a recently converted Monkeybone apologist, it brings me no pleasure to report that Wendell & Wild is, by far, Henry Selick’s worst film to date.  The good news is that it’s still pretty great, as long as you only pay attention to its mall goth art design & vintage Black punk soundtrack.  Story wise, the film is a sprawling, unresolved mess in a way a lot of blank-check Netflix productions have been for directors like Scorsese, Baumbach, Fincher, and The Coens, who have been putting in some of their career-weakest work on the platform with no one to push back on or hone their ideas.  Out of the pair, Netflix was smart to give del Toro’s Pinocchio the bigger Oscars Campaign—it is the better film—but it’s also far from del Toro’s best work either.  If anything, the two films could have borrowed and swapped a lot of their shakier qualities: Wendell & Wild should have been a punk rock musical, since its charms rely entirely on its soundtrack & visual spectacle, and Pinocchio should not have been a musical at all, since its entire songbook is limp & forgettable.  They’re both decently entertaining movies about rebellious youth, though, with Wendell & Wild falling somewhere at the Hot Topic end of that spectrum.

If the story of a high school punk rocker teaming with a pair of wisecracking demons to resurrect her dead parents with magical hair cream (and to avenge the wrongful deaths of the family’s condemned root beer factory while they’re at it) is a little overly complicated, maybe The Old Man Movie has a leg up on Wendell & Wild.  In The Old Man Movie, three siblings have to recapture & milk their grandfather’s escaped cow before its udder explodes, nuking their entire village in a milky “lactocalypse”.  Those are pretty clear, cut-and-dry stakes even if they are ridiculous ones, and the movie even provides a helpful 24-hour deadline before that udder catastrophe strikes.  The Old Man Movie also enjoys the benefit of nonexistent expectations. Henry Selick’s previous films Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach rank highly among the most beloved stop-motion films of all time.  By contrast, The Old Man Movie is the most profitable animated film ever exported from Estonia, but it’s likely most audiences outside that country have never heard of it.  That might hint at its comparatively limited appeal, since Selick makes mildly spooky movies that are still friendly enough for children, while The Old Man Movie looks like it was made for children but would likely psychologically scar any who wander into the room.  It performs the shrill gross-out humor of Ren & Stimpy in the once-wholesome visual language of Wallace & Grommet.  It’s teeming with grotesque milk monsters, mile-high piles of pig shit, and unstoppable killer kratts – pushing it more into Phil Tippet nightmare territory than Henry Selick’s goth kid starter packs.

Some of The Old Man Movie‘s one-off gags offend, especially when it singles out hippies & women as targets for mockery.  Other gags deliver enormous laughs that make the eyerolls worthwhile, especially in its visible disgust for the gnarlier details of daily farm work.  While Wendell & Wild pushes the boundaries of stop-motion as an artform into the technological marvel territory of a Laika film, The Old Man Movie scales it back down to a handmade claymation style that feels a little like serial killer bedroom art.  It was refreshing to see a film so volatile in its moods & humor after the more cumbersome, plot-fixated machinations of Wendell & Wild felt so weighed down by its own enormity.  That’s not to say Wendell & Wild isn’t shocking or over-the-top in its own ways; it’s especially bold to see a children’s film about a rebellious youth’s team-up with demons get a major-platform release in a year when online Evangelicals are obsessed with the ways Satan is “grooming” children into cannibalism & debauchery through “hidden” messages in popular media.  What’s most incredible, though, is that neither The Old Man Movie nor Wendell & Wild qualify as the wildest, most outrageous stop-motion release of the year – a title that has a shocking amount of competition (and still belongs to Mad God).  There has been enough of a wealth of anarchic, ambitious stop-motion feature films that I can be a little bratty and brush both of these movies off into the “Pretty Good” pile instead of the “Saviors of Modem Animation Pile.”  I want to live in a world where I’m this spoiled every year.

-Brandon Ledet

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms (2022)

Does sincerity have no place in low-budget genre trash these days?  Must all of our D.I.Y. practical-gore freakouts be buried under mile-high layers of ironic detachment and nostalgia for decades of horrors past?  I was really hoping the low-budget, psychedelic gore fest All Jacked Up and Full of Worms would live up to the gruesome glory of its title, and in some ways I guess it does.  It’s impressively revolting filth in fits & jabs, at least when it’s leaning into the visceral disgust of its wriggling worm imagery – which ranges from real-life worms squirming in cigarette ashtrays to gigantic, intestine-length latex monstrosities stretching across warehouse-scale movie studio voids.  It’s too bad all of that effort is undercut by its juvenile edgelord humor, though, as shock value topics like needle drugs, Satanic worship, and pedophilia are frequently mined for cheap, empty punchlines.  When you see a “Special Worm Effects By” credit in the opening scroll, you’re prepared for a Screaming Mad George-style descent into Hellish, surrealistic gore.  Instead, you get a movie custom made for middle schoolers to prank each other with as a sleepover dare.

Like this year’s much more sincere gross-out horror Swallowed, All Jacked Up is set in a fictional world where consuming worms—either orally or nasally in this case—creates a powerful psychedelic trip akin to an acid overdose.  These are just regular, everyday worms, as far as the audience can tell – a conceit that’s underlined by the repetition of the word “worms” in every single line of dialogue.  As it’s explained by a worms enthusiast, “There’s only one wrong way to do worms, man […] Not do worms!”  This is a pure drug-trip movie, with several loosely connected characters becoming increasingly manic under the worms’ influence.  I’d recount their exploits here if they were worth repeating, but they’re mostly just an improv comedy assemblage of self-amused bits that don’t translate outside the troupe.  The worm imagery is frequent & remarkably grotesque, but so are the purposeless, off-topic jokes about sexually assaulting babies.  Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste (or tastelessness), but I just wonder how much further this movie could push its discomforts if it were a sincere low-budget horror instead of an irony-poisoned horror comedy.

Anyway, if you really want to watch a retro, VHS-warped gross-out that’s overflowing with worms, you might as well watch the 1976 Tubi mainstay Squirm instead.  It’s not an especially great film either, but it’s at least a genuine one.  All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is a distinctly modern echo of that era’s pure-schlock filmmaking, mimicking long-outdated surface aesthetics instead of seeking genuine, of-the-moment terror.  It’s likely unfair of me to pin it under the full weight of modern horror’s weakness for ironic detachment & retro aesthetic worship, but it was also unfair of the movie to make me sit through so many schoolyard jokes about baby rape, so let’s call it even.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Company of Wolves (1984)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli continue their celebration of Angela Lansbury by discussing the coming-of-age werewolf anthology horror The Company of Wolves (1984).

00:00 Welcome

00:55 Knife+Heart (2018)
03:52 The Menu (2022)
05:00 Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2022)
08:20 Andor
09:58 Weird (2022)
13:50 Fire of Love (2022)
16:10 Barbarian (2022)
17:25 Fifty Shades
20:07 Do Revenge (2022)
22:14 Don’t Worry Darling (2022)
25:25 Bones and All (2022)
29:10 The Eternal Daughter (2022)

32:48 The Company of Wolves (1984)

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew