The Exotic Ones (1968)

I don’t know how useful this review of the 1968 creature feature The Exotic Ones (aka The Monster and the Stripper) will be to anyone reading it, since the film is very precisely my exact personal brand of trash. This locally-set novelty attempts to combine the Roger Corman rubber-suit monster movie with the post-Russ Meyer nudie cutie into one perfect swinging-60s trash pile. It has so much fun establishing a nonstop party atmosphere on its French Quarter strip club set that it goes to Matt Farley levels of effort to delay the inevitable disruption of its horrific monster – almost a full hour into its 90-minure runtime. This movie has nothing on its boozy, lingerie-clad mind beyond ogling as many burlesque performers as it can before it must sober up and deliver the horror genre payoffs promised on its poster. It’s a sloppy, horny, locally flavored party film with no clear themes or purpose beyond the cheap, simple pleasures of Bourbon Street hedonism; it’s also my new best friend.

Bourbon Street mafia types abduct a swamp-dwelling sasquatch known as The Swamp Thing from the Louisiana bayous (played by rockabilly musician Sleepy La Beef) and force him to perform onstage as part of a cheap strip club act. In color! You can pretty much guess how the story plays out once the “monster” (a shirtless, hairy oaf with vague caveman features) is displayed for the public, assuming you’ve seen any monster-in-captivity movie released since 1933’s King Kong. The Exotic Ones delays those tedious plot concerns for as long as it can manage, though, saving the entirety of its creature feature narrative for its final half hour. Everything that precedes that third-act genre shift is just a parade of go-go dancers, burlesque performers, and various other salacious sideshow acts. Some slight attention is paid to fabricating a rivalry between the club’s newest act (a shy R&B singer who’s reluctant to strip for tips) and its long-established queen bee (a daredevil stripper with flaming titty tassels and drag queen eyebrows), but it doesn’t amount to much. You can guess which one the monster falls in love with once he arrives to the scene, can’t you? And which one taunts him into a rage? You’ve pretty much already seen this movie, outside the specific quirks of its strip routines, and the producers wisely pack the screen with as large of a variety of them as possible to keep you alert & entertained.

The Exotic Ones very quickly won me over as a fan with its opening newsreel-style introduction to New Orleans as a city – a rapid-fire montage that was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s strip club “documentary” Mondo Topless. Machine gun-paced cuts of strippers & French Quarter storefronts assault the audience as a beat-reporter narrator invites us onto “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night.” It’s not exactly hyperbole when he describes Mardi Gras as “a time of reckless abandonment,” but the monologue is still deliciously overwritten & tonally chaotic – harshly juxtaposing a “Get a load of this filth!” moralism with tantalizing shots of naked, gyrating flesh. I personally loved seeing local 1960s sleaze-joints documented with the same reverent, drooling eye that was typically reserved for notorious prostitution hotspots like Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” or New York City’s 42nd Street porno theater strip. I don’t know that a New Orleans-specific remake of Mondo Topless disguised as a dirt-cheap monster movie is exactly the movie most audiences needed in their lives, but it is exactly the one I needed in mine.

Judging by most genre nerds’ boredom with the Ed Wood-penned Orgy of the Dead (a film I’m personally fond of, to my discredit), this movie’s 5% monster mayhem, 95% strip routines mixture will likely not win over everyone. The go-go strip routines and the surprisingly gory violence are both far more enthusiastically wild & erratic than those in Orgy, but you must already be on the hook for that genre imbalance for the formula to work on you. It seems that even the film’s own producers—June & Ron Ormond—weren’t entirely sold on the artistic merits of this kind of amoral hedonism. Shortly after The Exotic Ones‘s release (and a life-threatening plane crash) the couple shifted into making fire & brimstone Christian propaganda meant to scare audiences away from the temptations of Hell. Oh well. I personally could have watched a hundred Bourbon Street monster movies in this same vein, but no party lasts forever – not even the “reckless abandonment” of Mardi Gras.

-Brandon Ledet

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invisible Man (2020)

The last movie I saw in theaters was Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. Normally, documenting the last movie I saw in theaters wouldn’t be worthwhile, since I go so often that it would be outdated information before I could publish a review. These are not normal times. I watched The Invisible Man on the big screen a few days before all Louisiana cinemas were ordered to close indefinitely by the governor, as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As you already know, it’s been an incredibly long & complicated couple weeks in a way that fuzzes up the memory and distorts our relationship with time. I saw The Invisible Man a relative eternity ago. Even as a traumatizing work that tackles very real, very harmful cycles of abuse, it was a welcome distraction from the hellworld outside – a mode of cinematic escape that no longer currently exists and already feels like it’s been missing in my life forever.

Whannell reinterprets The Invisible Man’s traditional lore from Universal’s Famous Monsters era the same way a lot of horror filmmakers have been revitalizing the genre in the wake of Get Out: by reassessing who we select as the genre’s villains. Most variations of Invisible Man lore—from the original 1930s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel to its slimeball offshoot Hollow Man in 2000—dwell on the implied voyeurism & lack of criminal consequences that accompany public anonymity. Rather than avoid the most sordid implications of that power, Whannell makes it an explicit part of the text. The Invisible Man is not the hero of this story. He’s a millionaire brat who uses a self-funded invisibility suit invention to invade the privacy of and further abuse his former girlfriend, who’s been traumatized by his controlling behavior to the point of seeking shelter outside his home. It’s like a reinterpretation of Batman where billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne using his extraordinarily expensive gadgetry to beat up jobless street criminals is framed as a horrifying act – which is to say it’s a realistic, politically engaged interpretation.

The only responsible way to convey The Invisible Man’s function as an abusive villain is to tell the story from his victim’s perspective. Elizabeth Moss stars as The Invisible Man’s long-abused ex-lover, a woman desperate to move on with her life after the trauma of living with the brute but continually haunted by his presence. He is reported to be dead by his own hand, but his presence still terrorizes her in both concrete & intangible ways – including literally gaslighting her by turning up the gas on the stove while she’s cooking breakfast. No one believes her that this reported-dead man is now invisible and tormenting her in anonymity, of course, at least not until his presence is unignorable because it is outright lethal. Watching this woman suffer a series of escalating, privacy-invading microaggressions that no one else takes seriously until it’s far too late has a genuine, deeply upsetting connection to how abuse manifests in real life – as does the metaphor of her post-trauma recovery being hindered by her abuser’s lingering presence. On a pure conceptual level, the movie is brilliant.

This is a much quieter film than Whannell’s previous effort, the technophobic action thriller Upgrade. He trades out that preceding film’s exciting, body-mounted camera work & pulsating synths for the cold, oscillating sweeps of security cameras and the quiet terror of an “empty” house. Casting Elizabeth Moss in the central role was a genius move, as that eerie stylistic restraint essentially makes The Invisible Man a one-woman show – something Moss is overqualified for, considering the Olympian acting feats of titles like Her Smell & Queen of Earth. Whannell’s skill for action-horror payoffs eventually comes to the forefront in the rapid escalation of the third act, once the titular villain’s cover is blown. Until then, the entire film rests in Moss’s more-than-capable hands and it’s hard to imagine an actor who could carry that responsibility as expertly as she does. If COVID-19-delayed movie releases continue to snowball in the coming months, she might even be able to turn that reduced competition pool into Awards Attention that most early-in-the-year releases couldn’t dream of. It would be deserved, no matter the context.

The Invisible Man opens with a coldly silent prison break, wherein Moss’s traumatized victim escapes her abuser’s home while he is sleeping, terrified to make even the smallest sound. I was hyper-aware of our theatrical audience’s presence during this sequence, especially the restless teens who were tittering and playing with their phones on the far end of our row. As the movie became increasingly tense, the teens quieted down and got lost in the experience of it – something I can’t imagine would have happened if they had watched it at home. Thanks to COVID-19 closures, The Invisible Man is currently available on VOD, months before it normally would have been released outside theaters. I won’t pretend that I know when cinemas will open again or what films will be available when they are, but I very much hope this disruption does not permanently upend the theatrical experience as a viable business. There’s an undeniable immersive, communal magic to the theatrical experience and—as great as it was—I very much hope that The Invisible Man is not the last time I get to experience that escapist joy.

-Brandon Ledet

Deerskin (2020)

I remember being affectionately amused by Quentin Dupieux’s meta-philosophical horror comedy Rubber when I reviewed it a few years back, but I wouldn’t fault anyone who wasn’t. There’s a “How goofy is this?” Sharknado quality to the film—an ironic B-movie about a sentient, killer car tire—that I could see being a turn-off for a lot of audiences, even horror nerds. At any rate, Dupieux’s latest work is much more straight-faced in its commitment to its own gimmick, with no winking-at-the-camera fourth wall breaks to temper the Absurdism of its premise. Even speaking as a defender of Rubber, it’s all the better for it (and now I’m doubly curious about all Dupieux’s films that I’ve missed in-between).

Deerskin stars Jean Dujardin as an unremarkable middle-aged man who purchases a vintage deerskin jacket. The jacket transforms him from an unfashionable divorcee on the verge of a Mid-Life Crisis into a self-proclaimed fashionista with “killer style.” The jacket itself is tacky & doesn’t quite fit his Dad Bod correctly, but it absolutely changes his life with a much-needed confidence boost. Only, this newfound confidence quickly snowballs into an absurdist extreme. Whenever alone, he converses with the jacket. Anytime he encounters a mirror, he stops to admire himself in it. He lovingly films the jacket with a digital camcorder, convinced its greatness must be documented. Then, deluded that no one else in the world should have the privilege to wear any other jacket (as his is obviously the superior garment), he begins indiscriminately killing jacketed strangers in its honor.

The most obvious way that Deerskin succeeds as an absurdist comedy is that it’s damn funny from start to end. Not only is the idea of a jacket being so fashionably mesmerizing that it leads to a life of crime hilarious even in the abstract, but the overqualified Dujardin’s straight-faced commitment to the bit sells each gag with full inane delight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Adèle Haenel is equally overqualified as the Oscar winner’s costar, aiding in his crimes as an amateur film nerd who edits his jacket-themed home movies into coherent Cinema. The pair’s unlikely chemistry as an amateur filmmaking duo is hilarious in its deadpan seriousness, a sincerity that nicely counters the ironic distancing of Rubber. Anytime you slip into not taking the titular jacket’s “killer style” seriously, a vicious flash of violence or selfish cruelty re-anchors the story in a real place. Its seriousness sneaks up on you.

In Rubber, the killer car tire’s crime spree is explained as a philosophical exercise in an Absence of Reason – absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Deerskin is just as silly on its face as that over-the-top splatter comedy, except that it has a clear, genuine satirical target: Masculine Vanity. The entire film plays as a hilarious joke at the expense of macho narcissism, especially of the Divorcee in Midlife Crisis variety. Not to miss an opportunity for meta-commentary, Dupieux uses this platform to satirize his own vanity for making an entire feature film about a killer jacket in the first place. Even if you’re not a fan of his work in general or if—for some reason—the premise of this macho mutation of In Fabric doesn’t entice you, maybe that willingness to self-eviscerate will be enough bridge the gap.

-Brandon Ledet

Flesh Freaks (2000)

I’ve recently become enamored with the carefully curated Blu-ray releases of the Toronto-based Gold Ninja Video, which is positing itself as a boutique physical media label for low-end genre trash & D.I.Y. oddities. From bargain bin Brucesploitation titles like The Dragon Lives Again to backyard filmmaking curios like Impossible Horror to a Criterion Collection-level art cinema treatment for Matt Farley’s Local Legends (one of my favorite films of the 2010s), Gold Ninja Video has been consistently extraordinary in their dedication to unearth & uplift otherwise ignored castoffs from genre cinema’s furthest reaches. That impressive track record prompted me to take a chance on the label’s recent Blu-Ray release of Flesh Freaks, an amateur shot-on-video zombie flick from the late-VHS era. Flesh Freaks itself is—to put it mildly—not great, but when considered in the context of Gold Ninja’s catalog of discarded low-to-no-budget relics I do find it fascinating as a kind of historical document. This sub-professional, juvenile zombie flick is an artifact from a bygone era when that kind of novelty could land legitimate VHS rental store distribution instead of being directly uploaded into the digital void on platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. In the 2000s, Flesh Freaks qualified as a Real Move – one that even secured a Fangoria Magazine blurb on its Clip Art promotional poster. If released today, it’d be an easily ignorable YouTube preview window that remains forever unclicked.

The reason I’m dwelling on all this extratextual background info is that it’s far more fascinating than the actual onscreen content. When considered outside the context of its time or finances, Flesh Freaks is a dutifully mediocre zombie flick, one that’s only saved from total dead-air tedium by its spectacularly violent third act – a delightfully grotesque practical effects showcase (that unfortunately arrives too late to fully justify the long stretches of mediocrity that precedes it). The story goes that unscrupulous archeologists accidentally uncover an ancient curse from Mayan ruins in Belize, conjuring zombie-like creatures who slay everyone at their dig site – except one lone survivor. Once home at the University of Toronto, the survivor struggles to explain the horrors he encountered in Belize to his impatient, curious friends. He also—shocker—has carried the Mayan zombie curse back with him, unwittingly unleashing a full-scale outbreak on his college campus. This Torontonian back half of the film is both more fun to watch and more technically accomplished than the opening stretch in Belize. Yet, the film dwells on its Belizean travelogue opening for as long as it can manage, emphasizing its importance so drastically that the film feels rigidly bifurcated between the two settings (rather than the Central American portion functioning as a place-setting flashback the way it’s intended). It turns out that, like all things in Flesh Freaks, that decision is much more forgivable & interesting when considered in the context of how the film was produced & distributed.

Flesh Freaks is the passion project of Torontonian horror nerd Conall Pendergast, made when he was still a pimply teen. Pendergast stars in the film himself as the contaminated traveler, of course, which is the tell-tale sign of a young aspiring filmmaker playing around with a decent camera for the first time (usually out of financial necessity). He first conceived of the project while traveling with his archeologist parents to their actual dig site in Belize. Bored and isolated in a remote, foreign location, Pendergast made the shrewd decision to utilize his stunning deep-jungle surroundings as easy production value for a Real Movie. Only, his zombie-outbreak footage merely amounted to a mediocre short film, one that would need to be heavily embellished to approach the length of a proper feature. Once Pendergast got around to assembling this “extra” footage back at the University of Toronto, he had more time, experience, resources, and collaborators at this disposal – resulting in much stronger, more distinct work despite the pedestrian locale. As a result, it’s the Belize travelogue footage that registers as the film’s runtime-padding, not its college campus epilogue. By the time Flesh Freaks stages its handmade gore spectacle in its climactic final minutes it feels like the emergence of a fully formed filmmaker, one we’ve been watching gradually evolve out of the shot-on-video ooze the entire film. While most bored teenagers were playing video games and spending their pocket change on ditch weed, Conall Pendergast made a Real Movie, one with distribution that reached far beyond his local social circle. That is in itself a genre cinema miracle, even if the actual film is a standard, paint-by-numbers zombie cheapie.

Since Flesh Freaks is more substantive as a cultural artifact than it is as a feature film, its recent Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video is still a recommendable purchase for curious genre nerds even if the movie’s reviews are generally unenthusiastic. All the context required to consider the film as a fascinating, unearthed relic is easily accessible in the disc’s overloaded special features. Deleted scenes, filmmaker introductions, commentaries, essays, as well as bonus feature films & shorts from Pendergast are all included on the disc. It’s as if this were Criterion reviving some long-lost Bergman classic instead of a small indie label publishing heavily padded excerpts from a nu-metal era horror nerd’s vacation footage. There are some beautifully sculpted D.I.Y. creations in the film’s zombie-swarmed climax, but for the most part Flesh Freaks is nothing especially remarkable when considered on its own. If anything, it’s the kind of movie you’d usually pick out at random on Amazon Prime only to bail five minutes in for a more promising option. Gold Ninja Video doing the work to highlight why it’s important & exemplary of its era is the real story here. They did a great job uncovering this lost artifact.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lodge (2020)

A few years ago, I did a write up on Goodnight Mommy, the debut fictional film of directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, which the duo have followed up on with The Lodge; there’s a really great fake title that I would love to give to The Lodge that fits perfectly but spoils the ending. I would love to give it away here, but I’ll refrain (but look for it in the tags of this post). Originally slated for release at the end of last year, I assume it was moved to an early 2020 release date to avoid competing with Doctor Sleep for the contender of heir apparent to the legacy of The Shining (they needn’t have bothered, given that nobody bothered to see Doctor Sleep despite it being great). Like The Shining before it, The Lodge delves deep into manifesting loneliness and isolation, and the maddening affects thereof, as a vast wintry landscape with no apparent end in sight.

Teenage Aidan (IT and Knives Out‘s Jaeden Martell) and younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) Hall are displeased at their father Richard (Richard Armitage)’s plan to marry Grace (Riley Keough). Their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) took the news that Richard planned to finalize their divorce and remarry more poorly, killing herself and leaving young Mia inconsolably and existentially terrified about the fate of her mother’s soul, which Richard is ill-equipped to handle. He plans to move forward with his relationship with Grace regardless, and, intent on getting the kids to bond with her, takes the whole family to their remote Massachusetts lodge for Christmas. The Hall children are understandably (if unkindly) suspicious of Grace because of her past: at age 12, she was the lone survivor of a mass cult suicide that was orchestrated by the cult’s fundamentalist leader, her father; she and Richard met because she was the subject of one of his books*. Richard leaves the three alone in the titular lodge while he attends to a work obligation and plans to return before the holiday.

It’s not a pleasant time for Grace. She decorates the lodge for Christmas as the kids sullenly choose not to help her. The abundance of Christian iconography on the walls (a portrait of Mary that hangs over the dining table, crucifixes all over the place) also triggers her PTSD, and even her medication doesn’t prevent her from having recurring nightmares featuring images from her childhood. As she dreams, she relives the experience of finding the dead bodies of her father’s followers, mouths duct-taped and adorned with the word “sin” and covered with purple cloths, and she is haunted by the image of her father’s maniacal face and firebrand evangelism. Aidan is the most hostile, but Mia starts to warm to Grace and befriends Grace’s dog Grady (also the name of the previous caretaker of the Overlook in The Shining) and after Grace falls through ice and nearly drowns while retrieving Mia’s doll, a replica of the girl’s dead mother. Keough delivers a nicely understated performance in a scene in which she tells Mia about wanting a dog when she was young and how her father forbid her from having anything of her own, and that Grady represents her independence and self-reliance.

Snowed in on the night of the 22nd, the trio falls asleep around a gas heater during a double feature of The Thing and Jack Frost. When they awake the next morning, the Christmas decorations have disappeared, as has all of the perishable food, as well as everything of Grace’s. Aidan tells Grace that he dreamt that the family suffocated. Grady has disappeared, the power is out, clocks seem to have jumped ahead to January 9, and all of the phones in the house are dead. Without her medication, Grace’s mental state deteriorates rapidly, and she eventually attempts to walk to the next town for help despite the children warning her that she’ll never make it. After encountering a seemingly abandoned cross-shaped building in the endless snowscape and imagining that her father is inside, Grace is heartbroken to find that she has walked in a great circle and found herself back at the lodge with the kids. Aidan tells Grace that they are dead and in purgatory, and evidence begins to mount that this might be the case.

The Lodge is a pretty decent horror film. I’m a philistine who still hasn’t managed to see Fury Road, so my only exposure to Keough’s previous acting is that episode of Riverdale where Archie and Jughead are riding the rails to escape Hiram Lodge’s wrath (DO @ me if you want to talk Riverdale, dear readers). She carries this film, and young actress McHugh also delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance. Martell is well cast even if the role isn’t terribly demanding on a performative level; there’s not much to Aidan other than “teenager who hates his incumbent stepmother.” Martell’s boyishness lends Aidan an air of innocence; the audience isn’t sure if his actions are merely born out of teenage frustration and grief or some greater malice. Armitage is serviceable in his role as Richard, which is fine. You don’t have much sympathy for a guy who is an incredibly poor father and selectively observant as a partner. He doesn’t seem to be aware that Grace is on extremely vital medication for her issues, is incapable of consoling (or even comprehending) his daughter’s concerns about her mother’s seeming damnation, and sees no issue with leaving her alone with his children (who hate her) for a prolonged period of time. Instead of easing them into the concept of accepting Grace as his new life partner, he pulls emotionally manipulative stunts on them like inviting her to holiday dinners without giving the kids time to prepare themselves for this upset. Since he knows full well that he will likely have to work during the holidays, he essentially sets up a situation in which his children will be left alone with his fiance, like an experiment to see if he can be as far removed from the situation as possible while all of the unpleasant parts that make up the beginning of acceptance take place and he can swoop in and be around for the good stuff. He’s a truly despicable character, and I appreciate both that the film doesn’t shy away from that and that Armitage plays him as a person who really and truly does not realize that he’s a garbage human being.

The weakness of the film is largely in its unevenness. Grace is largely unseen for the film’s first act; when Laura arrives to drop off the kids at Richard’s house for his custody time, she sees Grace’s silhouette through a window and the back of her head as she leaves through a back gate (this is after Richard promised her that Grace would not be present when she arrived, and even lies about whether Grace had been there recently at all). When the kids dig through their father’s research for more information about Grace, we only see her as a child. When Richard attempts to “spring” Grace on the kids at Thanksgiving, we only see her through frosted glass as Richard apologizes and sends her away. All of this is counterposed against Mia’s story. Mia loves and loved her mother, even going so far as to create doll versions of the whole family, which she moves about in an ornate dollhouse that replicates the title location. At her mother’s funeral, when the grieving release balloons in memory of the deceased, Mia frantically tries to tie the ribbon on her balloon to the doll’s hand so that it can get to heaven, metaphorically, and when her balloon drops while the others float away, it devastates her. After all, is that not the metaphorical image of her mother failing to get to heaven, just as Mia fears is already the case, given how Catholicism defines suicide?

When we finally meet Grace in the flesh, it’s as if the narrative wants to say, “Hey, look, she’s not so scary after all. She’s just a person.” I wish that this worked, that we had been dwelling in the perceptions (and preconceptions) of the Hall children up to this point and that the reveal that Grace is a perfectly nice person was a shock. One could argue that this is the point, but the children never seem to fear Grace. They hate her, they blame her for their mother’s death, but they never seem to be afraid of her (until it’s too late). That end of Act I/beginning of Act II switch then makes Grace the main character, and Mia moves mostly into the background as the film becomes more about the conflict between Grace and Aidan, with his sullenness and inappropriate behavior (like watching Grace shower) making it more difficult to sympathize with him, while Grace makes an admirable attempt to maintain her composure and sanity as she withdraws from her medication and starts sleepwalking and hearing her father’s voice. Is it just her PTSD? Or is it something more?

You get the answer to that question, but I had the same problem with this one that I had with Goodnight Mommy; in that review, I mentioned a commenter on another site’s review of the film who advised that “If you haven’t guessed [the plot twist] by ten minutes in, you haven’t seen a movie before.” Luckily, you get a fair bit further into The Lodge before the “twist” becomes obvious; I was along for the ride until the clues started to pile up in one direction. There’s also more to the falling action here than there was in the duo’s previous film: by the time you learn “the truth” in Goodnight Mommy, there’s barely ten minutes left to explore the ramifications of that, but The Lodge lets the cat out of the bag at the beginning of Act III and spends more time on consequences. It’s unfortunately predictable, but it wears its horror influence on its sleeve, and there are no bad performances, with McHugh and Keough providing a strong backbone when the strength of the narrative atrophies a little. There’s no rush to see it on the big screen, but it’s worth a watch.

* According to the Wikipedia plot synopsis, Richard is an investigative journalist. The film does not make this completely clear; both I and my companion thought he was a psychiatrist or psychologist, and had specifically treated Grace (the only line of dialogue that we really get which clarifies their relationship is an offhand reference one of the kids makes to Grace being in one of their father’s books). Richard is a terrible father, and we didn’t put it past him that he would have a relationship with a patient. Him being a journalist makes slightly more sense and is less ethically questionable, but he would have to be making medical professional money to afford both a lodge and such a fancy modern house.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Housemaid (1960)

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has had such an interesting journey from its initial release in October of last year. After winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, the film made its way back into theaters and is still riding on the wave of success. I loved this movie so much that it landed in the number four spot of my Top 15 Films of 2019 list. I find Bong to be a fascinating individual, and I’ve been watching and reading through many of his interviews lately. During several interviews, the director mentioned how influential the 1960 South Korean film The Housemaid was to Parasite and his film career in general. The Housemaid, directed by acclaimed Korean director Kim Ki-young, has been hanging out in my watchlist for quite some time, and this was just the push I needed to make time to watch it. Like Parasite, The Housemaid blends horror and melodrama while touching on class issues in South Korea. I absolutely loved this movie. It kept me on the edge of my seat for its entirety, and I was surprised to see how far it pushed the envelope. I was in complete shock by how dark certain parts of the film were, and that’s a film quality that I will always have mad respect for.

Most of the film takes place in the home of the Kim family. Mr. Kim is a composer and the main breadwinner of the family; Mrs. Kim is his pregnant wife who works from her sewing machine at home; their young son is a bratty little turd; and their young daughter is suffering from what I believe is polio. There’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that they live in a two-story home, as it was a symbol of moving up in the ranks of South Korean society. When running the household becomes overwhelming for Mrs. Kim as she is both pregnant and working, the family decides to bring in a housemaid, Myung-sook. She immediately seems to have a bit of a sinister side when she grabs a rat in the kitchen with her bare hands and begins creepily spying on Mr. Kim. Myung-sook eventually has a brief affair with Mr. Kim, and she becomes pregnant with his child while still working for the family. She develops an obsession with Mr. Kim, and her obsession is best expressed in a fabulous scene where she is spying on him from the outside of a window during a rainstorm. It’s spine chilling!

At first, I caught myself looking at Myung-sook as a crazy woman trying to tear apart a family, sort of like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, but my opinion of her definitely changed as time went by. Mrs. Kim eventually finds out that Myung-sook is pregnant, and she talks her into throwing herself down the stairs to miscarry her child. Once she followed Mrs. Kim’s orders, I felt so much empathy towards her character. She didn’t want to lose the child she was carrying, but the burden of having a child out of wedlock with a married man in South Korea in 1960(ish) must have felt horrific. After the stair scene, the lives of everyone in the home spiral downward so quickly and the film becomes a complete rat-poison soaked nightmare. Even the Kim children aren’t off limits to the household horrors.

The World Cinema Project restored The Housemaid in 2008 and it became part of the Criterion Collection. The restoration is beautiful considering that the quality of materials prior to the restoration was not fantastic (e.g., there were massive English subtitles that needed to be removed). I also found out that there is a Housemaid trilogy, which begins with The Housemaid, followed by Woman on Fire (1972), and ending with Woman on Fire ’82 (1982). There’s even a remake of The Housemaid that came out in 2010! I’m so excited to get into this bizarre Housemaid universe. Hopefully the other films live up to the original’s standard.

-Britnee Lombas

Color Out of Space (2020)

Richard Stanley is back, baby. After decades of Film Industry exile (documented in the bizarre saga Lost Soul), the witchcraft-obsessed genre freak has re-emerged fully charged and ready to explode. It would be inaccurate to claim that Stanley’s comeback feature hadn’t missed a beat since his early-90s nightmares Hardware & Dust Devil. The director seemingly also hasn’t been keeping up with modern filmmaking trends & aesthetics either, though. If anything, Color Out of Space finds Stanley regressing back to the grotesque 1980s sci-fi creep-outs of horror legends like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon. His comeback’s practical gore effects, neon lighting, and ominous synth score all harken back to an era before Stanley’s own heyday. He even mines Stuart Gordon’s pet favorite source material to achieve the effect: public domain short stories penned by H.P. Lovecraft. The only blatant difference between Color Out of Space and its 1980s predecessors (beyond its casting of a post-memeified Nicolas Cage) is that Stanley appears to be a true believer in the spooky, occultist forces that his imagery conjures – opening the movie up to some genuinely heartfelt moments of supernatural familial trauma.

To oversimplify Lovecraft’s fifty-page short story, Color Out of Space is about a horrific, unearthly color that crashes to Earth via a meteor and puts all of humanity in potential peril. In classic Lovecraftian fashion, this unfathomable hue (represented onscreen as a searing neon purple) drives anyone who gazes upon it absolutely mad, representing a kind of forbidden, otherworldly knowledge the puny human mind cannot handle. This global-scale phenomenon is presented in Stanley’s adaptation as an intimate drama among a nuclear family unit, with an increasingly unhinged Nicolas Cage centered as its figurehead. Cage’s family lives on an isolated alpaca farm (a Mad Libs-style variation on the source material’s story template), driving each other into a sweaty, self-cannibalizing mania as the titular cosmic hue spreads from its meteoric landing pad to the plants, animals, and other wildlife who share the farm with them. The prologue before the meteor crash is a little creaky & awkward, recalling the tone of a VHS-era fantasy movie that never quite earned the forgiving lens of cult classic status. Once the horror of the Evil Color fully heats up, however, the movie is genuinely just as disturbing as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware – if not more so.

Most audiences are going to treat Color Out of Space as an excuse for yet another memeable Nic Cage highlight reel to pass around via YouTube clips. The movie’s exponential mania setup provides more than enough fodder for that kind of ironic mockery, eagerly leaning into the humor of Cage’s patented freak-outs. If all you want from the film is some classic Nic Cage stunts, you’ll get what you paid for: Nic Cage milking alpacas, Nic Cage ferociously gnawing on vegetables, Nic Cage foaming at the mouth while repeatedly firing a shotgun. He even revives his classic Vampire’s Kiss accent fluctuations to update them with erratic backslides into Donald Trump parody. When his petrified children ask each other, “Dad’s acting weird, right?,” it’s a hilariously cautious understatement. This movie totally delivers on the Nic Cagian absurdity that ironic goofs recently searched for in the much more somber Mandy, only to find it in isolated scraps. I just think framing Stanley’s film as a pure indulgence in over-the-top buffoonery is selling its merits short. As consistently fun as the Nic Cage Freak-out is as a novelty from scene to scene, the movie at large registers as a genuine, heartfelt nightmare. The thing about Stanley’s 90s films is that they were always a little cheesy & over-the-top, but they were also legitimately scary. So is his decades-delayed comeback.

The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden, maddening knowledge can be (and has been) applied to a wide range of metaphors, from the philosophical to the psychosexual to the purely surreal. As I took it, Color Out of Space finds deeply personal resonance in the source material specifically as an illustrative metaphor for the spread of cancer. Mirroring Stanley’s mother’s death by lymphoma in real life (as well as bit player Tommy Chong’s real-life struggle with prostate cancer), the nuclear family unit at the film’s center immediately starts the story off in a grim mood, suffering the aftershocks of their mother figure’s battle with breast cancer. The supernatural, maddening growths that later mutate from the purple meteor crash site aren’t entirely contained to the plants & animals in the area. They also scramble the cells of the family’s cancer-survivor mother figure so that she’s an unrecognizable, difficult-to-stomach burden on her family. Meanwhile, her loved ones devolve into increasingly hostile maniacs, unable to maintain their cool as the mutinous growths resulting from the meteor tear their bonds to shreds. On the surface, Color Out of Space is a genre film throwback to Lovecraftian horrors of the 1980s like Society, Possession, and From Beyond. What really enables it to terrorize its audience, however, is that it’s also a fucked-up family drama about cancer wreaking havoc on a household. It’s just as heartbreakingly grim as it is colorful, Nic Cagian fun.

I was genuinely horrified by this film’s total nightmare of a third act; it’s the same lingering chill I picked up from Hardware, Stanley’s powerful debut. He may not know how to construct a recognizably human prologue before his supernatural plots take off. Nor does he know how to conduct a Normal conversation, if his recent interviews and past clashes with potential financiers are any indication. He sure does know how to deliver an upsetting, fucked-up horror show, though, and I hope it doesn’t take another two decades before he’s allowed to stage another one.

-Brandon Ledet