Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Zombi Child (2020)

Bertrand Bonello’s follow-up to the wonderfully icy teen-terrorist drama Nocturama is a from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film. Zombi Child directly reckons with the racist, colonialist history of onscreen zombie lore, and pushes through that decades-old barrier to draw from the untapped potential of its roots in legitimate Vodou religious practices. It’s a deceptively well-balanced film that evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while somehow also delivering the genre goods teased in its title. The only film I can recall that attempts its same wryly funny but passionately political subversion of long-established horror tropes is the recent festival circuit curio I Am Not a Witch, and yet it’s clearly part of the same lineage as its genre’s pre-Romero beginnings in titles like I Walked With a Zombie. Gore hounds and horror essentialists are likely to be bored by the thoughtful, delicate deconstruction of the genre attempted here, but if you can get on-board with Bonello’s academic evisceration of zombie cinema tropes the movie feels almost outright revolutionary.

The narrative is split between two dominant timelines. In 1960s Haiti, a man is zombified by a Vodou ritual that drags his body out of the grave only to force him to work as a slave on a sugar cane plantation. In 2010s Paris, his teenage descendant is struggling to adapt to her new life at a bougie boarding school for (mostly white) French legacy kids, gradually losing touch with her Haitian heritage. The modernism of the contemporary timeline at first feels entirely disconnected from the eerie atmosphere of the historical Haitian setting. Teen girl bonding rituals and casual discussions of Rihanna’s discography don’t immediately feel as if they have anything to do with zombie plantation slaves an ocean & a half-century away. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the subjugative evils of the past cannot be severed from their echo in the present; it is impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship across class, cultural, and racial borders without acknowledging the colonialist abuses of our ancestors. At least half of Zombi Child is an observational coming-of-age drama that plainly presents modern teen girlhood at its most natural, but it still manages to establish a direct tether from that setting to a centuries-old Vodou tradition long before the connection becomes explicit at the film’s crescendo.

The most impressive aspect of Bonello’s touch here is how out in the open the film’s academic explorations can be, even though a significant portion of the screentime is focused on teens just hanging out, being kids. Classroom lectures at the boarding school about the unfulfilled promises of the French Revolution and the imperialist legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte (the school’s founder, no less) are allowed to simmer for minutes on end. The girls themselves are self-designated literature nerds, which means they get to discuss the evolution of the zombie movie in-dialogue and to recite poems with lines like “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring the dead.” The historical Haiti setting is much less vocal, as it mostly follows a zombified plantation slave’s sublingual path back to human consciousness. It’s no less overtly academic in its themes, though, pushing discussions of how cinema represents “black bodies” and slave labor to its most literal extreme. Sequences of zombie field workers despondently hacking at sugar cane with machetes—too pathetically drained of human life to even remain vertical without assistance—are just as horrifying as any brain-eating or disemboweling undead carnage you’re likely to see in a more straightforward genre exercise.

The zombie genre has become an over-saturated market in the last few decades, especially when it comes to grim post-Apocalyptic melodramas like The Walking Dead. At this point, the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom. The continued appeal of zombies as a genre device is understandable though, especially when you consider the flexibility of the metaphor. There’s nothing especially novel or compelling about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers uncover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: Indigenous peoples’ frayed relationships with white settlers in Blood Quantum, the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, etc. Zombi Child feels like a slightly different beast, though, and not only because it’s not a straight-up Horror film. Bonello’s contribution to the genre stands out because he dials the clock back even further than these equally political Romero riffs to directly engage with zombie lore at its original, real-world birthplace. It scorches the earth so it can start entirely anew, calling into question whether our cultural zombie obsession is itself a continuation of colonialist pilfering. More impressive yet, it does so while also taking time to declare “Diamonds” to be the best Rihanna song.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #111 of The Swampflix Podcast: Lady in a Cage (1964) & Elevator Horror

Welcome to Episode #111 of The Swampflix Podcast!

Elevated horror” is so 2010s; now elevator horror is the hottest new trend.  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss a trio of movies about killer elevators, starting with the Olivia de Havilland psychobiddy classic Lady in a Cage (1964). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Sea Fever (2020)

One of the most rewarding aspects of genre filmmaking is the way it liberates artists to accept that there truly is no story that hasn’t been told before, so why even bother. All a contemporary storyteller can really do is make a well-worn narrative feel fresh with new contexts & details, focusing on discovering new textures instead of inventing new structures. That conundrum is true across all media but feels blatantly out in the open for genre films in particular, which are entirely built on repeating & mutating already established storytelling patterns. This year’s aquatic horror creep-out Sea Fever is a prime example of how effective that kind of detail & context variance can be in a story we’ve already seen a thousand times before, chilling its audience with an eerily well-timed mutation of a very familiar genre template. There is no way writer/director Neasa Hardiman could have known how unnervingly of-the-moment her film would feel in the extraordinarily bizarre year it seeped into wide distribution, but that’s the power of genre movies at large. They allow filmmakers to look at old stories from new angles to unlock their full, evolving potency.

In Sea Fever, an Irish crew of deep-sea fishermen violate Coast Guard regulations to seek a bigger catch in whale-populated waters. However, their rickety trawler is thwarted by a much larger creature than a wayward whale. It’s caught in the bioluminescent tendrils of a gigantic, Lovecraftian sea monster that pumps the already dilapidated boat with a dangerous organic toxin. It first appears that a clear green hair gel is seeping through the walls of the ship, a mysterious substance that quickly contaminates the crew’s fresh water supply. That toxin is gradually revealed to be a parasite that causes madness (and eventually a gory demise) to anyone infected, putting everyone onboard at risk both by parasite and by fellow crewmembers. To stop this parasite from spreading to uninfected citizens ashore, the crew must quarantine themselves on the trawler for its full incubation period before seeking safety – a directive that puts the biology research student onboard (Hermione Corfield as the film’s lead) at odds with the working class fishermen who normally crew the boat. I shouldn’t have to explain how that internal conflict over whether or not to inconvenience yourself in quarantine to protect the mass-population outside is relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic the world was suffering when this film happen to finally hit VOD platforms this Spring, but it does sting hard once you get there.

It’s easy to tally the familiar genre tropes & iconography Hardiman reshapes for her own purposes here as they populate onscreen. A working-class crew being hunted by an unconquerable creature on an isolated vessel while staving off the madness of social isolation is immediately reminiscent of the Alien franchise. The monster itself is distinctly Cronenbergian in its menacing sexuality, particularly in how its semen-shaped tendrils pump toxic goo into the trawler through pulsating anus-shaped orifices; it’s as upsetting as it sounds. The most overwhelming influence here, however, is John Carpenter’s The Thing, especially once the gooey, seminal parasite has infected the crew’s water supply. Their already maddening, combative period of quarantine is amplified by the crew’s paranoia of each other and constant need to inspect their fellow victims for traces of infection. The movie stops short of deploying a Kurt Russell type with a flamethrower to strap his fellow crewmembers to a chair for involuntary parasite checks, but it’s not far off from going there. And even if it did, the timing of its arrival during the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychologically upsetting details of its monster invader would still have been more than enough to distinguish it as a worthwhile Thing revision. That kind of pattern repetition & mutation is exactly what genre filmmaking is all about.

I was a little hesitant about Sea Fever‘s potential in its early stirrings, as the limitations of its budget showed in the first few scenes’ imagery & dialogue. Once its central conflict got cooking, though, I was genuinely chilled by the experience, especially once it hit a heated debate about the personal sacrifice of quarantining yourself for the greater, communal good. It was nice to see a scientist positioned as the hero in that debate for once, something I took time to note even while squirming in discomforting resonance at the thought of the film’s invisible, lethal enemy within. If you’re looking for a variation on The Thing that resonates with a particular of-the-moment clarity in our current self-isolation limbo, Sea Fever is eager to crawl under your skin. That effective variation on a familiar genre classic is even more impressive once you consider how little impact the better-funded, better-distributed aquatic horror Underwater made earlier this year with a ton more resources at its disposal. The major studio entry in the aquatic horror genre was passably entertaining but did little to rework its familiar elements into something freshly exciting. By contrast, Sea Fever committed even harder to appropriating familiar genre elements and swam away with something incredibly disturbing & of-the-moment, an exciting achievement for a low-budget contender in the fight.

-Brandon Ledet

Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.

In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.

Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).

While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Quantum (2020)

You would be forgiven for never wanting to see another zombie movie again. The genre was niche enough in its 70s & 80s heyday, to the point that it was synonymous with just one filmmaker’s name—Romero—with plenty of leftover room for loonier weirdos like Raimi, Jackson, and Fulci to play around in the margins without wholly repeating the master’s territory. After the last decade or so, however, just the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom, as the market has become ludicrously oversaturated with zombie #content. I’m not sure if the genre hit its point of no return with the Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse novelty handbook, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies literary remix, or season 230 of The Walking Dead, but it’s clear that most horror nerds are fatigued with the deluge of the undead. I’m not totally tapped out on zombies just yet myself, though, even if only because I was never compelled to watch the Walking Dead series that sucked the well dry. The appeal of zombies as a genre device has mostly stayed fresh for me, as I continue to appreciate the flexibility of the metaphore. There’s nothing especially compelling to me about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers discover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, romantic relationships that rot far beyond their expiration date in Life After Beth, and even low-budget zombie #content production as the embodiment of modern filmmaking in One Cut of the Dead. In my eyes, it’s still okay to keep making zombie movies even in this incredibly crowded market; you just better do something interesting with the metaphor to justify the indulgence.

Blood Quantum has no problem satisfying that very simple criterion in making a worthwhile modern zombie film, offering a fresh metaphorical context for the genre I’m certain I haven’t seen before. Set in an alternate-history 1980s, the film details a zombie breakout among white Canadian urbanites that eventually reaches an isolated First Nations reservation of the Miꞌkmaq tribe. It appears that Indigenous people are immune to the zombie virus, putting the white outsiders that gather at the gates at the tribe’s mercy. Likewise, the Miꞌkmaq people themselves are at risk if the outsiders they shelter in their community prove to be unknowingly infected. This conflict between the First Nations people vs. their volatile white interlopers is obviously rich with potential for metaphorical extrapolation. If you really wanted to, you could probably map out an entire history of white settlers endangering & effectively extinguishing the land’s Indigenous inhabitants over the course of the movie – starting with the Miꞌkmaq’s tribe’s apparent adaptability to a lethal environment that’s dangerous to outsiders, and extending to how their humanist pity for the invaders eventually leads to their own demise. It’s a line of interpretation that the movie actively encourages, especially in details like the outsiders’ blankets being infected with the zombie virus, iconography that deliberately recalls smallpox outbreaks of the past. Curiously, the film also works on another level as a kind of power fantasy where the economic & healthcare vulnerability many Indigenous peoples suffer on modern reservations is reversed, putting white oppressors on the receiving end of a shitty deal for a change. It’s all very fluid & fun to pick apart, like zombies pulling apart the wet, viscous entrails of a freshly split-open victim. And since director Jeff Barnaby grew up on a Miꞌkmaq reservation himself, it seems to be coming from a genuine, authentic place, which is even rarer in modern zombie media.

All that said, Blood Quantum‘s merits as a colonialism metaphor aren’t likely enough to overpower any potential audience fatigue with the zombie genre at large. Outside its central conceit and cultural context, it’s very much a straight-forward zombie movie, one that owes a lot of its visual & storytelling textures to The Walking Dead in particular. It’s a solid genre entry on that front, especially in how hard it leans into the post-Romero gloom & gore of the genre by making sure no character is safe from having their head smashed open or their torso bifurcated by chainsaw. It even cuts some of its thematic seriousness by indulging in juvenile jock humor inolving defecation & fellatio, softening up its political severity with some classic Raimi & Jackson-flavored goofery. However, the real selling point of the film is the way it finds yet another new application for the zombie apocalypse as a literary metaphor, which is quite a feat considering how many times that well has been returned to over the decades. Whether or not a new metaphor alone is enough to draw you back into the genre is up to you, as the film entirely plays it straight as a genre entry elsewhere. You have to be onboard for some of the same-old same-old to appreciate those new textures.

-Brandon Ledet

Wolf Devil Woman (1983)

Martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (also credited as Ling Chang) was once the biggest TV star in Taiwan. She has since effectively disappeared. Chang has dozens of credits to her name as an actor at the fringes of the wuxia genre in the 70s & 80s, many of which are seemingly lost forever in the distribution & archival voids that vaporize most cheap-o schlock. Impressively, she even leveraged that notoriety into directing four martial arts films herself in the 1980s, a career path that proved much more turbulent & misogynistically policed than her initial designation as a television actress. When Chang tried her hand at being an auteur, she found her reputation shifting from “beloved TV star” to “difficult to work with,” a bullshit designation that’s routinely leveled at female creatives to protect the industry-control enjoyed by their male “colleagues.” Of her four completed features, only half were even credited to her name, the other two being filed under a male pseudonym. Despite how common this disgraceful undercutting of Pearl Chang’s potential as a genre auteur feels in the history of women in the film industry, it still stings harshly when you watch her work. She was exploding with creativity in her directorial period, limited only by her lack of funding and her lack of Industry support. She deserved so much better, and it’s hard not to get hung up on the potential art we lost because of that dismissal.

Wolf Devil Woman is the best-known of Pearl Chang’s directorial efforts, and even it’s mostly notorious as a “so-bad-it’s-good” exercise in high camp. Chang stars in the film herself as a feral woman who was raised by wolves after her parents were executed by a demonic Emperor. Narratively, it’s a straightforward revenge story in which the wolfen orphan exacts revenge on the Demon who ruined her life by using her animalistic hunting skills (and the supernatural abilities afforded to her by ingesting mystical “white ginseng”) in battle. Tonally, the movie is much harder to pinpoint. It can be absolutely brutal, as in the opening sequence where the wolf-girl’s parents bury their baby in snow and douse her with their own blood to keep the infant warm. It can be adorably cheap, especially in its costuming, which dresses Chang in a wolf plushie doll as if it were a pelt and achieves her Demon foe’s look with a rubber Party City mask. Overwhelmingly, though, I think of Wolf Devil Woman as being outright psychedelic – a disorienting Pure Cinema indulgence that makes for some very loopy late-night viewing despite its limited means as a cheap-o production. It can’t pretend to be as controlled or as accomplished in its far-out psychedelia as triumphs like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, but its bootleg quality as a VHS-era indie knockoff from the fringes of the genre only make it feel stranger, like a found object that tumbled far outside the boundaries of a proper wuxia canon.

Some of the ways Chang achieves this Bootleg Psychedelia effect are recognizably rooted in tradition: 2D animation visuals bolstering the effects budget; vibrantly colored gel lights affording the Demon’s lair a Suspiria vibe; wire work uplifting the martial arts sequences with the fantasy of flight (a wuxia mainstay), etc. Where Chang really goes off the rails is in her deployment of quick, recurrent cuts that repeat the same action over & over again in rapid-fire delirium. It’s a deliberately dissociative effect, best evidenced by the insanely omnipresent imagery of the titular wolfwoman ripping a live rabbit in half with her bare hands to illustrate her animalistic nature. As a revenge tale, Wolf Devil Woman is too predictable & languidly paced to merit much enthusiasm. As a stylistic exercise, however, it’s overflowing with delirious creative choices that dazzle the eye after hypnotizing you into that false calm. I believe the instinct to laugh the entire movie off as a joke because of a few goofy (budgetary-based) costume choices is selling these artistic merits short, but I’m still glad that at least one of Chang’s few feature film earned some kind of cultural notoriety. I wonder what she might have been able to achieve with bigger & better chances to express her vision onscreen, but like with so many female auteurs in the history of the Industry, her opportunities were frustratingly limited.

We don’t get to know what a better-supported Pearl Chang career might have yielded, but at least we got one cult gem out of the limited resources she was afforded.

-Brandon Ledet

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