Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Luz (2019)

In the mad dash to gobble down as many potential Best of the Year List contenders as possible before we start making ranking our personal favorites films of 2019, only one last-minute title has jumped out at me as a worthy dark horse entry. The bewildering thing is that it’s a student film, the thesis project of first-time director Tilman Singer. A 70min genre exercise with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, Luz is maybe the most unassuming indie gem from 2019 to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. Its ability to hypnotize & disorient an audience into a state of total delirium in just an hour’s time is a commendable act of cinematic black magic, an effect unmatched by any other last-minute 2019 catch-ups I’ve flooded my brain with in recent weeks.

This barebones genre gem is a story of demonic possession. A visibly shaken, scraped-up cab driver is held for questioning at what appears to be a late-1970s police station. Apparently driven mad by an encounter with her last customer, the cabbie is subjected to hypnotism at the hands of a creepy doctor under the cops’ employ for further interrogation. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the doctor is possessed by a demon who is obsessed with our dazed cabbie, waiting for its most opportune moment to strike. We cut between the interrogation, the ill-fated cab ride, the dive bar where the doctor became possessed, and the Catholic school where the cabbie first encountered the demon in a disorienting kaleidoscope of narratives that only becomes creepier the more they shift & overlap.

On an aesthetic level, Luz is a thoroughly pleasant genre throwback indulgence in all the ways you’d expect: grimy celluloid grain, analog synth score, candlelit Satanic rituals, the full works. There are plenty of other movies that can deliver that exact brand of Euro-horror genre nostalgia, though. What really stands out here to me is the narrative ambitions that disorient time & place with an aggressive, deranged fervor. As the story’s various competing fractions combine into one sharp-edged mosaic, the film achieves a deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve. The closest comparison point I have for its accomplishments are the supernatural horrors of giallo greats like Argento & Bava in titles like Suspiria & Kill Baby Kill. That’s an impressive echelon for a film school thesis project to sneak into, which alone makes Luz stand out as one of the year’s most unexpected treasures.

-Brandon Ledet

I Lost My Body (2019)

The 2D-animiated French oddity I Lost My Body is an economic bargain, especially if you consider an audience’s time & attention to be the true currency of cinema. This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.

One movie is a thrilling action adventure starring a sentient severed hand (think Thing from The Addams Family) who bravely travels across the city to find its former home — a still intact, living human body. The other is a wistful twee romance starring the awkward man who used to be attached to that hand. That melancholy romance angle is obviously the more familiar narrative track — especially considering the twee pedigree of the film’s co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, who also penned Amélie. An excruciatingly shy pizza delivery guy falls in love with a customer who is seemingly unaware that he even exists. Instead of simply introducing himself, he devises an elaborate scheme to insert himself into the woman’s life that he believes makes himself out to be a hearthrob romantic, but instead makes him out to be a total creep. As cosmic penance he loses his hand. Thankfully, that means we gain better cinema.

While our lovesick anti-hero is an overthinking, neurotic mess, his severed hand is a creature of pure action. From the moment it flops onto the hospital floor to teach itself to walk until when it attempts action hero stunts ziplining between buildings to reach its far-off destination, the hand is in constant motion. High-risk train rides, adopting a soup can as hermit crab armor, brawls with rats & pigeons: there’s no denying the hand’s adventures across the city are more exciting to watch (if not only for their novelty) than the frustrating, self-sabotaging inaction of its former human partner. Despite that glaring contrast, however, it gradually becomes clear that both of these protagonists are suffering from the same emotional ills: grief & purposelessness. As they both yearn for intimacy & a sense of purpose that’s been violently removed from their lives, the man and his hand become clearly linked thematically (as well as anatomically).

A bolder, more idiosyncratic film might have fully committed to the severed hand as the sole POV protagonist. In its most transcendent moments, I Lost My Body ponders what a hand’s fantasies & memories might look like. Through the hand’s “eyes,” we’re invited to ponder all the various tasks the tools at the ends of our arms are useful for: violence, art, tenderness, sex, labor, play, etc. It also never stops being wonderfully bizarre to see a world of infinite dangers animated from the hand’s low-to-the-ground POV. A melancholy twee romance & tale of ennui cannot compete with that kind of novelty. Still, the two contrast-and-compare narratives make for a delightfully strange combination, and their pairing makes for a remarkably efficient 80min stretch of traditional animation entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Wounds (2019)

Either Wounds is clearly the most underrated film of the year or I’m a filthy alcoholic dipshit from New Orleans who sees too much of himself in this horror gem to acknowledge its most glaring faults. Can it be a little of both? The novella the film was adapted from, The Visible Filth, was written by Nathan Ballingrud – a former bartender at the exact Garden District pub I worked at as a grill cook when I was treading water in the service industry post-college. I didn’t know that extratextual factoid while watching the film (in a late-night stupor after meeting friends at another, much trashier New Orleans bar, appropriately enough). Yet, I felt that personal connection to the material scarily deep in my boozy bones anyway. Wounds thoroughly, genuinely freaked me out by regurgitating an eerily accurate snapshot of my hyper-local, self-destructive past through the most horrifically grotesque lens possible. It’s a wickedly gross, deeply upsetting picture – one I believe deserves much more respect for the ugliness of its ambitions.

Armie Hammer stars as a hunky, arrogant bartender who moved to New Orleans to study at Tulane University, but flamed out early to instead become a charming drunk. Bored & inert, he spends his days passive-aggressively sniping at his fiancée (Dakota Johnson) and his nights seducing his barroom regulars who’d be much better off without his enabling influence (Zazie Beetz, for the time being). This tricky balance is toppled over when a group of underage college student brats drunkenly leave behind a cursed object in his bar, one of my personal favorite horror movie threats: an evil smartphone. The messages, photos, videos, and electronic tones he’s exposed to via this wicked phone have a kind of King in Yellow quality that break down his sense of reality – as mundane & dysfunctional as it already was. The imagery Iranian director Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) conjures to convey this supernatural evil is spooky as fuck: Satanic rituals, re-animated corpses, tunnels to nowhere, floods of flying cockroaches, etc. Our dumb stud bartender never fully uncovers their meaning or origin, though. They merely unravel his modest, liquor-soaked kingdom until he has nothing left.

The most baffling criticism of this film is that its scattershot haunted house imagery is spooky without purpose, framing Wounds as a jump-scare delivery system with nothing especially coherent to say. My personal, geographical proximity to the material might be clouding my judgement, but I believe the film has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Wounds is a grotesque tale of a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that is left is rot. When we start the film, our dumb hunk is a bitter shell of a person who drinks to distract himself from the disappointments of a go-nowhere life and a festering relationship. Externally, he appears to be doing pretty great: living in a beautiful shotgun apartment and paving over his grotesque personality with his winking, handsome charm. His Lovecraftian run-in with a haunted smartphone is only a heightened exaggeration of his internal “functional” alcoholism crisis spiraling out of control until he has nothing left: no job, no friends, no home, barely a couch to sleep on. Not all of the imagery that accompanies the phone’s curse clearly correlates to this plight, but there’s a reason that cockroaches are a major part of it. He’s gross, and soon enough so is the boozy world he occupies.

Not to get too gross myself, but the low-50s aggregated ratings of this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. Wounds is an unpredictable creep-out overflowing with genuinely disturbing nightmare imagery and a lived-experience familiarity with what it means to be a charming drunk who works the graveyard shift at the neighborhood bar. Its tale of emotional & spiritual rot for a hunky, barely-functioning alcoholic on the New Orleans bar scene is so true to life that I have an exact bartender in mind who the story could be based on (although he’s a dead ringer for Lee Pace, not Armie Hammer). I guess I should message him to beware any abandoned smartphones he might find lying around the bar, but I get the sense that he’s already doomed no matter what.

-Brandon Ledet

IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Violence Voyager (2019)

It’s becoming an annual routine for me to be captivated by some sexually menacing, cursed object that seemingly no one else in Film Nerd Land cares about. In the recent past, titles like The Wild Boys, Double Lover, and We Are the Flesh have triggered that ol’ Cronenberg feeling deep in my subconscious so that they’re all I want to talk about, despite being too alienating & gross to properly evangelize. Violence Voyager is my beloved Cronenbergian Nightmare of the Year in that respect, as it’s at once the most exciting and the most deeply uncomfortable film I’ve seen in ages, one I’m desperate to discuss with some like-minded freaks but feel hesitant to widely promote given its not-for-everyone discomforts. I won’t claim that it’s my favorite film of this cursed ilk, but it very well might be the most disturbing, as its peculiar brand of horror & sexuality involves the abuse of young children. More disturbing yet, the film feels as if it were made entirely by one loner-creep in some far-off basement, as if he were racing to publish his work before being raided by the authorities for crimes against society & good taste. It’s the rare work of modern outsider filmmaking that feels genuinely dangerous, with all the excitement & unease that descriptor implies.

In essence, Violence Voyager is a Cronenbergian puppet show. Sidestepping the financial time constraints of traditional animation, Japanese filmmaker Ujicha hand-operates 2D cutouts of illustrated characters against hand-painted backdrops. Their vintage illustration designs and seemingly hundreds of alternate poses means the work is neither lazy nor simplistic, but they’re still crudely animated & vocally dubbed to approximate an amateur backyard puppet show instead of a professional production. It feels as if a Henry Darger type had cut out characters from ancient board game boxes and recorded their imaginary interactions on VHS tapes that somehow made it into wide circulation. The genius of this technique is that it allows Ujicha to experiment with a mixed media approach that incorporates liquids, fire, smoke, and shadows. Just when you think you’ve gotten a grasp on what the movie is up to visually, the surprise intrusion of a seminal goo or firecracker “explosion” will knock you on your ass again. No matter how much effort artists like Jim Henson & Jan Švankmajer put into ensuring puppetry is taken seriously as adult entertainment in the past, the medium still inherently feels like it’s designed to attract children – an effect that Ujicha leans into with diabolical intent. Violence Voyager sometimes looks & sounds like cheap-o Saturday Morning television aimed directly at kids, but just one viewing could scar a child for life.

Plot-wise, Violence Voyager plays like an adaptation of a vintage choose-your-own-adventure novel or first-wave video game. A blonde American boy named Bobby is ostracized as a foreigner in his mountainside Japanese community, but has managed to make a few friends among the local children (and with a cat tamed Dereck). While getting into some Summertime Mischief in an isolated pocket of the mountain forest, Bobby and his BFFs stumble across a rundown amusement park named Violence Voyager. Admitted free of charge and armed with Super Soakers, they’re instructed to fire their “weapons” at an invading force of alien robots, which pop out of bushes at random in a kind of in-the-flesh video game. This embarrassingly dorky activity turns sinister as the amusement park quickly transforms into an escape room. Bobby discovers that he & his besties aren’t the only children who’ve been lured to the amusement park prison. Dozens of local children are being held hostage and turned into mutant abominations that eerily resemble the alien invaders of Violence Voyager lore. Grotesquely disfigured and forever psychologically scarred by his captors, Bobby must become the futuristic adventurer he only pretended to be when the stakes were fictional. The results of his heroism are more revolting than awe-inspiring, but it’s a noble effort all the same.

The biggest price at the door for enjoying this diabolical work is that you must be okay with seeing violence against children & animals simulated for your entertainment. As nasty as Ujicha’s visual creations can be, it helps tremendously that the acts of fantastic, unreal violence are crudely animated instead of pantomimed in live action. It does not at all help that the children are often nude. As far as the audience can tell, the Cronenbergian mutation experiments that drive the film’s plot do not involve any outright sexual abuse. However, the film stubbornly lingers on the imagery of naked child bodies in an uncomfortable way that pairs horrifically with the cheerful optimism of its vintage kids’ games aesthetic. Even before the true horror starts, the kids look oddly deformed & scarred – as if they had been raised near an unmentioned industrial dump. Later, we’re confronted with illustrations of their genitalia in mad scientist laboratory environments; the abusive implications of that juxtaposition crawls right under your skin regardless of whether it’s directly mentioned. I mean it both as a compliment and a warning that this film is reminiscent of Henry Darger’s work; it’s both a beautiful art object and a traumatic guided tour of some far-off sicko’s subconscious.

I don’t know that I can outright recommend Violence Voyager without feeling like a total scumbag, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t report that it’s one of my personal favorite discoveries of the year. If you’re looking for one of the most bizarre, brutal, psychologically disturbing visions of Hell that 2019 has to offer, look no further. Just be prepared to walk away wondering if the weirdo who made it is a potential sex criminal, or if you wound up on a government watchlist merely by renting it. It is one especially queasy slice of sleaze, which is apparently something I regularly crave.

-Brandon Ledet

Doctor Sleep (2019)

I reread The Shining this past October. It was part of my effort to read more spooky books after finishing up a posthumous Shirley Jackson collection (Let Me Tell You) that had a few good gothic outliers in it but was largely more domestic than the portions of her body of work with which I was more familiar (my next read after The Shining was David Mitchell’s Slade House, which was great but should really only be read if you’ve already finished his Bone Clocks, which is an endeavor). My erstwhile roommate and I talked about it midmonth when we met up for a mutual friend’s birthday, and he mentioned that, of all of Stephen King’s works that he had read, The Shining is the one that most closely resembles an objective (and admittedly pretentious) definition of “literature,” and as someone who loved the pulpiness of The Dead Zone but also literally threw Salem’s Lot into the trash at about the midway point, I had to agree. At the time, I had no idea that the forthcoming Doctor Sleep was an adaptation of the sequel to the earlier novel (or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from 1980, or something between the two, as the case turned out to be), but boy was I excited once I learned that was the case!

2019 marks the first time that three theatrical King adaptations have hit the big screen in the same year since 1983, which featured the hat trick of Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine.* I had more positive feelings about IT: Chapter 2 than most (long story short: it was a better Nightmare on Elm Street movie than about half of the films in that franchise) and didn’t see the Pet Sematary remake, but boy was my King itch scratched by Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep follows an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who, following the incident at the Overlook Hotel in the first film, was taught by the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, taking over for the late Scatman Crothers) to “lock away” the malevolent spirits that followed him—the rotten woman from Room 237, the Grady twins**, and even Horace Derwent—inside mental boxes. As an adult, he finds himself falling into the same patterns as his father and even going further; he’s not just an alcoholic, but abuses harder drugs as well, and even Jack Torrance never stole cash out of a single mother’s purse. Taking an inventory of his life, Danny starts anew in another town, where he seems to thrive and even becomes “psychic penpals” with a girl named Abra, whose Shining is perhaps even stronger than Danny’s. Elsewhere, however, a group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot seek out and murder children with the Shining in order to feed on their psychic essence. When the Knot’s de facto leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes aware of Abra, the group seeks her out as their next victim, and she turns to Danny for help.

I loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s since Oculus, and I think that he may be the best horror director of this generation. The Haunting of Hill House series that he released last year was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and his adaptation of Gerald’s Game established that he was more than capable of adapting the tone, tension, and dry bones terror of a Stephen King narrative. With him at the helm, there was little to no chance that this film would be anything less than perfect. Every shot is beautifully composed, and although I know many probably balked at the film’s 152 minute runtime, there’s not a single frame of wasted celluloid in this film. Even the moments when, theoretically, nothing is happening (like Danny’s and the Knot’s long cross country drives), the camera watches from a place of elevated removal, watching and waiting and letting the tension build, subtly echoing Rose’s viewpoint when she “flies” while astral projecting in her pursuit of Abra. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but isn’t above descending into occasional camp either (Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer mentioned that the villains gave him strong True Blood vibes, which is a criticism not without merit). This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight (the supermarket scene is a particular standout). Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.

*Graveyard Shift, Misery, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie all came out in 1990, but Darkside is an anthology with only one King adaptation in its ranks, so I don’t count that. 2017 actually boasted four features, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 both premiered on Netflix and not in theaters, and although IT was a clear success, the less said about The Dark Tower the better. Technically, King’s website also lists an April 2017 release date for My Pretty Pony, which is a movie that I’m not entirely sure exists. Even the Wikipedia page for the short story on which it is based talks about the film’s 2017 release in the future tense, and I can’t find any evidence of the film ever coming to fruition.

** Yes, I know they are not identified as the children of former caretaker Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining, and that Grady’s daughters in the novel are explicitly not twins (being aged 8 and 10); don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast: Parasite (2019) & Vertical Class Warfare

Welcome to Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss one of 2019’s great crowd-pleasers and one of its most divisive oddities: Parasite & Us. And because both films deal in vertical class warfare, they then descend below ground to wrangle with C.H.U.D. (1985). Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Ladyworld (2019)

“This party would be a lot more fun if it was over.”

In Ladyworld, eight women in their early-twenties are trapped in a house indefinitely after what seems to be a society-collapsing earthquake. As the consecutive days without electricity, water, or food supplies pile up, this event triggers the group’s collective descent into madness. I didn’t love this movie as much as I expected to, given the promise of that premise, but it’s still a solid entry in a genre I personally never tire of: the horrible party that never ends. Even if Ladyworld didn’t achieve the full atmospheric menace attempted in its disjointed imagery, stage play dialogue, and aggressive sound design, that story template of a miserable party gone out of bounds still guarantees a deeply unnerving effect the movie fosters admirably.

Often, these microcosmic descents into communal madness are deployed as allegories of larger societal ills. The Exterminating Angel’s never-ending party satirized wealth disparity in a grotesquely unfair class system; mother! hinged its own chaotic symbolism on an Environmentalist bent; Demon was haunted by a buried past of antiemetic genocide; etc. For its part, Ladyworld mostly seems concerned with hierarchal distributions of power. Within mere hours of the earthquake trapping these young women at a never-ending birthday party, the group splits into two camps behind self-elected leaders. This divide ignites a power struggle that results only in escalating violence and seemingly no positive motions toward survival. It’s a kind of femme variation on Lord of the Flies in that way, with the women exchanging that novel’s conch for a decorative crystal. It’s tough to say if there’s any clear messaging or themes intended behind this power struggle, beyond mocking the pointlessness of the impulse. If the movie has anything direct to say about hierarchal power, it’s that “No one needs to be in charge when everyone has a knife.” And the knives are only necessary because we’re naturally prone to violence & chaos.

It’s almost pointless to pick apart what the movie’s doing on a plot level, though, since its main focus appears to be atmospheric menace. Ominous drones & rhythmic breathing overpower the soundtrack as characters indulge in impov warmup exercises and cake on inch-thick layers of makeup. A paranoid myth that a man is lurking in the house, waiting to attack them, spreads throughout the group like a hushed religious belief. The menace of unending boredom & unstructured idle time escalates to a feverish panic, with the two warring factions starting shit with each other just so there’s something to do. The strongest case the movie makes for its value as a consistently unnerving, abrasive work of outsider art is when one character praises a painting in the house for being ugly. She contends that the necessity for everything to be pleasant & beautiful is a kind of artistic oppression, one that Ladyworld actively fights against in its tonal & atmospheric aggression. This is an ugly film about the ugliness of basic human nature, something that comes across much stronger in its visual & aural experiments than in its dialogue or plot.

As I’m writing about Ladyworld’s emphasis on cinematic language over traditional storytelling and its use of the party-out-of-bounds narrative template to terrorize its audience with atmospheric menace, I’m again left wondering why this isn’t my new favorite movie. Maybe if I had been fully immersed in a theatrical setting instead of watching it on my couch, I might have felt its psychological impact a lot stronger. Maybe I seek out these kinds of movies too often, so watching adult women devolving at a never-ending-slumber-party-from-Hell feels like something I’ve already seen approximated in recent films like Queen of Earth, #horror, and – most recently—Braid. Disregarding my sky-high expectations and over-saturation in this genre territory, though, this film is still an impressive work of D.I.Y. alchemy – turning a single location & a small crew of fresh-faced collaborators into something deeply, unrelentingly upsetting. It’s not the greatest specimen of its ilk, but it’s still a commendable one.

-Brandon Ledet

The True Terror in The Faculty (1998) is High School Athletics

I was lodged so embarrassingly deep in the target demographic for the 1998 Robert Rodriguez creature feature The Faculty that I spent my pre-teen allowance money on its soundtrack CD. The first time I heard Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” was as a Creed cover on that soundtrack, years before the band re-branded as Christian Rock. The movie that soundtrack was cross-promoting was a blatant attempt to update the Invasion of the Body Snatchers alien-takeover template for the post-Scream era. Its Kevin Williamson-penned screenplay even features a lengthy discussion of Body Snatchers lore, leaning into the writer’s weakness for self-referential pop culture meta-analysis. As with Williamson’s work on Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cursed, this winking at-the-camera dialogue is delivered by hip, young teen actors (Josh Harnett, Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Jordana Brewster, Usher, etc.) to appeal directly to a high school age crowd with an expendable income – the same teen-cool throwback aesthetic that currently fuels The CW’s Riverdale. Between those just-barely-older-than-me movie stars, their weirdly horny relationship with the adult staff, the film’s gateway introduction to sci-fi themed gore & body horror, and the marketing’s hard-rock posturing, I was helpless to resist the allure of The Faculty. But it turns out my vulnerability as the film’s target demographic runs even deeper than that.

The central threat in this drive-in era creature feature throwback is an invading alien force that burrows deep into the brains of its human hosts – turning them into mind-controlled Lovecraftian monsters who hide in plain sight as suburban high school teachers. The intended menace of this transformation is the spread & enforcement of Conformity, a satirical target that would have loudly spoken to me as a preteen nü-metal shithead (and one that’s increasingly hilarious in retrospect, given the characters’ unanimous modeling & marketing of a Tommy Hilfiger wardrobe). However, because of all the stylized, teen-targeted cool of this sci-fi mayhem, the alien creatures themselves register mostly as badass, fist-pumping payoffs worthy of celebration – especially in moments that opt for practical effects gore over CG rendering. The only aspect of The Faculty that can remain genuinely creepy, then, is the behavior those creatures illicit in their titular school staff hosts. Yet, even those results are varied on a pure horror scale, as the movie insists that the women on the school staff transform into horned-up dominatrix types rather than personality-free Conformity ghouls – upping the film’s appeal to hormonally-addled teens but muting its potential for genuine terror. One major member of the staff sidesteps that horny makeover entirely, though: the high school sports coach, played by the liquid Terminator himself, Robert Patrick. He remains an absolute fucking nightmare, no matter how goofy or dated the film might feel elsewhere.

Part of the coach’s terrifying presence in the film is due to Patrick’s hyper-masculine performance as an emotionless hard ass; part of it is that his gender allowed him to avoid the inhibiting sexualization that dampened the presence of fellow castmates like Selma Hayek & Famke Jensen. For me, personally, though, what’s really terrifying about Patrick’s onscreen menace as a rage-filled monster is that it recalls every single relationship I had with a high school or middle school PE coach growing up. As the kind of wimpy indoor kid who’d much rather watch horror movies than play football, I consistently had combative relationships with PE coaches throughout my educational career. I was terrified of them; they were not at all amused by me either. This culminated in being kicked out of PE entirely in my senior year of high school, when the coach reassigned me to library duty for that period (a blessing he foolishly coded as a punishment) and told me I would only pass if he never had to see or talk to me again. Watching Robert Patrick bully the similarly wimpy, unathletic Elijah Wood for daring to eat lunch alone on his football field was a vivid flashback to that conflict. When the coach jokingly recruits the nerd for track & field, Wood protests “I don’t think a person should run unless he’s being chased.” The coach retorts, “Get out of here,” ushering the twerp out of his macho domain. I’ve thankfully never had a coach follow up that conflict with an act of physical violence (represented here in Lovecraftian tentacled monstrosities), but I always feared that transgression was imminent, so this particular coach-wimp relationship dynamic taps into a very specific source of fear long buried in my past.

Of course, a burgeoning horror film nerd having a combative relationship with a high school sports coach is not all that unique to my own lived experience. If anything, centering the film’s source of terror on a scary macho football coach is just as blatant in appealing to a specific target demographic as the hip-teen casting & soundtrack contributions from then-bankable bands like Stabbing Westward & The Offspring. You can feel that screenplay-level machination in the way Patrick’s character is broadly portrayed as a sports coach archetype. He’s referred to simply as Coach and is an instructor in seemingly every sport played at the school: football, track, swimming, basketball, etc. Like Terry Quinn’s iconic performance as the archetypal Stepfather or Corbin Bersen’s skin-crawling performance as the archetypal Dentist, Robert Patrick transforms the broad concept of the high school sports Coach into a classic movie monster abomination on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or The Wolfman. It would have robbed the film of some of its other post-Scream late-90s charms and transformed the endeavor into something much more thoroughly horrifying, but I think they could have easily reworked the entire premise to be about that one monstrous villain alone – under the title The Coach. His performance is that scary, and the real-life terror of sports coaches runs psychologically deep for many horror nerds – something I had forgotten until I was confronted by the menace of this particular space alien bully all over again.

-Brandon Ledet