Sissy (2022)

I saw a good number of my favorite movies of the year (so far) at Overlook Film Fest in June, which is usually the case.  The programming at that annual horror festival is unmatched by any other local fest I can name, as long as you’re a fully committed genre nerd who doesn’t pay much attention to the Awards Prestige dramas of the fall.  It’s also condensed to a single weekend in early summer, which means it’s impossible for me to catch every movie I want to see in the program. So, I often spend the half-year after Overlook catching up with titles I missed during the festival (which almost invariably pop up on the streaming platform Shudder at one time or another).  Often, I feel validated in which movies I opted to skip at the fest (i.e., She Will), but every now and then there’s a fun little novelty like Sissy that I wish I had seen with a crowd.  It’s always hard to tell how much of an enthusiasm boost I’m giving to movies based on the horror-nerd fervor of the festival, but I do suspect that Sissy killed in the room at Overlook, and I would have loved to share in that joy.

In micro-subgenre terms, Sissy offers an Australian splatstick comedy version of the modern social media thriller. Let’s call it Heavenly Tweetures, Ingrid Goes Down Under, Aussies Aussies Aussies, whatever you like.  It references cult sitcom Kath & Kim in its opening minutes, so you immediately know that it’s filling an Australia-specific niche.  At the same time, its story of a “mental health” social media influencer who becomes a homicidal maniac when she reunites with her childhood bully is a fairly standard-issue template for its genre.  Sissy only Aussifies that template in its irreverent tone & practical-effects gore.  There’s a Dead Alive tinge to its head-crunching kills that makes for a good, goofy time even when the movie is at its most brutal.  That buoyancy seeps through its ironic Disney princess musical score, its Blood Brilliant Tampons™ visual jokes, and its adoring Love Island reality TV parodies; but it’s the gore gags I most would’ve wanted to experience with a crowd.  They’re delighfully vicious, and they’re ultimately what makes the movie special.

There really isn’t much to Sissy‘s social media satire that you can’t find elsewhere.  The titular killer’s addiction to the endorphin rush of notification chimes and her sociopathic ability to alternate between self-care rhetoric & spon-con abuse of her self-appointed position as a mental health authority are familiar to anyone who’s drawn to this kind of material.  I’d even argue that the other notable social media satire at this year’s Overlook, Deadstream, did a much better job of squeezing laughs out of that exact Youtuber brain-rot persona.  There’s a sincerity to Sissy‘s central drama that you won’t find in Deadstream, though, from its nostalgia for childhood BFF kinship to the anxiety-inducing horrors of joining an established adult friend group midstream.  If there’s any incisive social commentary to be found here, it might be in the #terminallyonline understanding of morality where everyone falls into one of two categories: “A Good Person” or “Cancelled.”  It’s when Sissy desperately, violently strikes out to avoid becoming “Cancelled” that the movie evolves into its ideal form: a flippantly funny slasher, not a thoughtful social treatise.

If watching a mental wellness YouTuber become Jokerfied at the first threat of getting cancelled appeals to you, Sissy is a hoot.  That premise is very appealing to me, so I’m not sure why I didn’t prioritize it at Overlook the way I did with Deadstream.  Frankly, I should be cancelled for the offense.

-Brandon Ledet

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Between the 2018 version of Halloween, last year’s revision of Candyman, and this year’s update to Scream, the legacy sequel appears to be the hottest trend in mainstream horror filmmaking.  Rebooting iconic horror IP without disregarding the continuity of the original source material is the exact kind of “safe bet” investment Hollywood Money Men love. It simultaneously drags old customers back to the theater with a nostalgia magnet while luring in fresh-faced Zoomers with allowance money to burn.  Tobe Hooper’s grimy cannibal classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absurdly ill-fitting candidate for the legacy sequel treatment, though, no matter how tempting it must be to cash in on its decades of name-recognition.  Nine films into the franchise, there’s still no clear continuity in either story or tone across the various Texas Chainsaw sequels & reboots.  Each individual entry is a chaotic outlier with no solid tether to the rest of the series beyond the chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface.  It’s also been almost a half-century since the Tobe Hooper original, which means that Leatherface and his first-one-that-got-away “final” girl would easily be pushing 70 years old in a modern-day sequel.  And that’s to say nothing of the tastelessness of dragging Sally back into Leatherface’s chow zone after the original actor who played her, Marilyn Burns, died in 2014.  The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre recasts Olwen Fouéré (of Mandy notoriety) in the Sally role, feigning to give her the same long-awaited revenge mission Laurie Strode’s pursuing in the new Halloween cycle, only for that subplot to be treated as a callous joke with an abrupt, dismissive punchline.  That gag is poorly conceived, needlessly cruel, and ultimately just an excuse to participate in extratextual Online Discourse that has nothing to do with the movie’s central narrative – the exact three qualities that make the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a sickening hoot.

Besides the all-growed-up-final-girl revenge plot, another goofy hallmark of the legacy horror sequel is giving its youngsters in peril jobs that did not exist when the series originated.  Both the new Halloween and the new Slumber Party Massacre go the obvious route, unleashing The Shape & The Driller Killer to attack true crime podcasters who treat their heyday slayings as entertainment #content.  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes the long way, staging a showdown between Leatherface and wealthy social media Influencers who want to transform his small Texas town into a big-city Liberal utopia – a rural cult for terminally online Zoomers.  It’s a ludicrous premise, one the film only uses an excuse to directly comment on hot topics like cancel culture, gentrification, “late-stage Capitalism”, school shootings, and the Confederate flag.  Leatherface’s new crop of victims aren’t characters so much as they’re pre-loaded Twitter talking points (even with Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher doing her damnedest to perform her Culture War discourse with a genuine pathos as the new final girl).  Worse yet, the film decidedly falls on the Right-Wing side of that cultural divide, taking the positions that the Confederate flag is more a symbol of heritage than of racism, that automatic assault rifles are necessary to survival, and that today’s socially progressive youth are inherently weaker & more superficial than the rural townies they condescend to as small-minded bigots.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre only floods its small Texas town with big-city Influencers as targets for Leatherface’s chainsaw, but every single time it’s obliged to give their presence a narrative purpose, it defaults to complaining that kids today are whiny Liberal wimps – a sentiment that only gets queasier the longer it fixates on their ritualistic disemboweling once the slaughter begins.

So, to recap: the teens are annoying, the dialogue is clumsy, the themes are reactionary, and it’s all a flimsy excuse to stage 80 minutes of for-its-own-sake hyperviolence.  By those metrics, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty faithful to slasher tradition, which has never had a functional moral compass, nor a reliable system of quality control.  I’d even go as far as to call it a great slasher, despite its atrocious politics.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’22 is careless when it comes to its characters, its debt to its source material’s legacy, and its broader cultural commentary, but it pours a lot of careful consideration into the craft of its kill scenes.  And since the movie is mostly kill scenes, it mostly gets away with it.  Leatherface’s chainsaw rips into a party bus packed with panicked social media addicts, tears townie challengers to chunks, and chases our new final girl through crawl space floorboards like an upside-down shark’s fin.  The violence is constant and constantly surprising, drowning the screen in so much goopy stage blood that you can hardly squint past it to see the rotten Conservative politics blurring up the background.  For better or worse, that gore-hound payoff will seal this movie’s legacy.  There will be vocal backlash against its reactionary Culture War politics for about a decade, then it’s going to be gradually reclaimed as one of the better entries in the Texas Chainsaw franchise as those talking points become 2020s kitsch.  Certainly, there are first-wave slashers from the 1980s with a more overtly bigoted, misanthropic worldview that have been reclaimed as cult classics with retrograde politics that are “of their time.”  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is of our time in the ugliest, most gruesome way possible.  It will similarly age gracefully as an adorable time capsule of our worst present-day filmmaking & cultural impulses.  All you can really do in the meantime is enjoy the novelty of the individual chainsaw kills, of which there are plenty to indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

Spree (2020)

What a year it’s been, right? No need to go into the details. Sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been screaming into the void. I’m sure you have too. Let’s talk about a movie.

So Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer reached out to me last week and was like, “Have you done enough void screaming for the weekend? Do you want to watch a movie together and then Zoom after?” And I was like, “Yes, this is the new paradigm. We are very far behind on Into the Dark, or we could catch up on the shows we used to watch together. There’s a new season of Lucifer and we’re like two seasons behind on 3% now.” So he advised he would check with Current Roommate of Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer and the consensus was that we would watch Spree. I googled it and the first thing I saw was “executive produced by Drake” and I thought to myself “The Aubrey Drake Graham of Degrassi the Next Generation fame? That’s worth a seven dollar rental!” If you’re going to watch Spree, you should go in completely blind like I did, but you’re already here so here’s the gist. 

Spree tells the story of Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, aka Steve from Stranger Things or Gabe from Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, depending on your Kinsey score), a sad California boy who was born in LA but spent much of his life growing up in less glamorous surroundings. Desperate to join the world of the influencer elite, he’s spent his whole life in emulation of social media culture with no success, the never-was yang to the yin of his has-been father (David Arquette).  Desperate for a sense of meaning, he plans what he believes is a guaranteed path to social cachet through a “lesson” in growing an internet following over the course of a single shift as a driver for rideshare app Spree. Navigating the clogged arteries of the roadway, he comes into contact with a few “celebrities” of various kinds, including up-and-coming stand-up comedienne Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who is in the process of leveraging her similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from (henceforth STBLDF) Instagram following into a comedy career, as well as uNo (Sunny Kim), an internet-famous DJ serving as a dark mirror of Kurt, focused solely on brand-building and mining her real life for content. Throughout the night, Kurt is egged on by “BobbyBasecamp” (Josh Ovalle), a kid whom he babysat in his youth and who has since grown into a teenaged (STBLDF) Twitch streamer with a massive following.

Perpetually astride a glowing self-balancing scooter and with a neck-mounted streaming camera which is ready to go at a moment’s notice with a few taps, Bobby is the epitome of nouveau célébrité. His presentation borrows heavily from the rhetorical strategies and spaces of omnipresent social media cultural touchstones, living in a garish mansion that captures the embarrassing excess of Jake Paul, possessing the hair-trigger temper and toxicity of “famous for screaming” Twitch stars like Tyler1, and exhibiting the boyish good looks of someone like Cameron Dallas or whoever the du jour equivalent is (I am old). This also makes him the epitome of what Kurt wants to be: famous and beloved, living a life that is artificially performative over substantively experienced, and above all, popular. Which Kurt finally does become… when he murders Bobby, among others. 

Yes, the “spree” of the title doesn’t refer solely to the (STBLDF) Uber that “employs” Kurt, it also refers to Kurt’s bloody journey from a sad vessel empty of anything other than an all-consuming desire for fame as an abstract concept to the infamous “Rideshare Killer” over the course of single night. Kurt literally charts a path that leads from the area outside LA toward the heart of that city which, more than any other, can embody the emptiness, shallowness, and meaninglessness of fleeting celebrity. It’s not the most original idea, but there’s a certain magic to the way that he begins his trek in the dusty surrounds of LA, amidst the infamous right-wing extremism that lies just outside the urban enclaves of Southern California (his first and most justifiable victim being a soft-spoken neo-Nazi en route to speak to his followers about white supremacy), and works his way through vignettes of the outer “wilderness” of adulterous real-estate-agents-to-the-stars, fame-adjacent misogynist himbos, and an intersection between two DJs (one on the way down and one on the way up), before finding himself amidst a large homeless encampment that girds the underbelly of the celluloid city. Kurt is Dante and LA is hell, with concentric circles of torment in which there is only one sin, vanity, and which only increases in magnitude as one approaches the city’s rotten heart. Each person he encounters is slightly more famous than the last, exemplified by his initial chance meeting with Zamata’s Jessie prior to a potentially career-making performance and their engineered reunion later, after said performance garners her even more celebrity.

As the first victim (that we see) is the aforementioned white supremacist, followed not long after by the asshole himbo who spouts all of our favorite chestnuts about being prettier when smiling, etc., the film at first lulls one into a false sense of security that the audience is about to watch another version of Schumacher’s Falling Down or Goldthwaite’s God Bless America updated for the found-via-social-media footage generation. But while both of those films are at least somewhat invested—with varying levels of success—in maintaining a sense of empathy for their respective leads’ descent into madness, Spree doesn’t have the same values or desire to curry audience insertion into the character’s worldview. Instead, we open with an introduction that tells us, from the outset, that Kurt finally achieved the viral success he sought for so long; as a result, his journey from nobody to somebody is a foregone conclusion, so we are here to be party to the execution(s), not the destination. 

This would be a 5-star film were it not for the intermittent preachiness about the evils of social media. Not content to have the film treat new media as an object about which we can draw our own conclusions, the script is filled with far too many moments of overt negative sentiments expressed via character monologues. In the most tasteless moment of what is an admittedly pretty tasteless film, Kurt drives near the encampment of people experiencing homelessness mentioned before and gives a speech about how the people living there don’t care that they have no social media presence, that they are completely unconcerned that, as far as an increasingly online world is concerned, they don’t exist at all. One can read this as an envious screed, in which Kurt realizes that there are a group of people who are apathetic about the very thing that has consumed his entire existence, or as the screenwriter’s thesis about the emptiness of a digital world in which every interaction is built around the construction of one’s personal “brand” and promotion of self-care and toxic positivity that entail ignoring the social ills that are just a stone’s throw away.

Meta-textually, there’s a lot happening here as well. There’s the intersection of fame from “legitimate” means via traditional media and “illegitimate” fame via new media at play when one of the groups that Kurt picks up contains both Mischa Barton and Frankie Grande. Barton was an actress from childhood who started on the stage and gradually rose to widespread recognition as one of the leads on the wildly popular The O.C., becoming a household name for a time through conventional means. Grande, on the other hand, is the older half-brother of pop music persona Ariana Grande; his cultural prominence is based solely on gaining a large social media following through that association and parlaying that into reality TV appearances and then clawing his way into the pop culture psyche via nepotism and shameless self-promotion, the two driving forces of social media stardom. Later, the climax of the uNo vignette comes as a result of the DJ accidentally finding Kurt’s handgun in the glove compartment and posing with it in a careless fashion. There’s also the exciting novelty of presenting the narrative in various split screens that allow characters to face off against each other while the camera captures both performances in simultaneous shot/reverse shot instead of from an objective angle, which is fairly inventive (not to mention all of the dashcams, STBLDF Instagram and Twitch streams, and occasional security footage). 

As the story continues, Kurt’s initial underwatched stream slowly grows to encompass a huge audience, especially once he takes over Bobby’s stream. Suddenly thousands of people are watching, and we see them respond in their comments: memes emerge in real time as viewers type out parts of Kurt’s insane monologue and repeat them to each other as the stream goes on; various audience members beg Kurt to admit that his killing of Bobby was faked for the views while others comment about how “fake” the whole thing is and congratulate themselves for seeing through it; and, of course, there are various combinations of Kurt’s name with homophobic slurs. There’s also one comment that calls out Jessie’s performance outfit as making her look like a Minion, which is comedy gold. As the intensity ramps up, so does the speed of these comments, requiring complete attention to keep up with everything that is happening at all times. These little moments and metacommentaries provide a much more fulfilling denigration of social media as a concept than Kurt driving his car through tents full of disadvantaged people or Jessie turning her stand-up performance into a rant about the need to disconnect (it’s well acted by Zamata, but doesn’t really seem like something that would spark much interest online, if we’re being honest).

These intrusions of finger-wagging into the narrative are all that hold Spree back from being truly great, as it otherwise demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms. The film’s “epilogue” consists of reactions in the aftermath to the titular spree through a series of article titles and forum posts. From initial reactions to the so-called Rideshare Killer, to “we don’t say his name” thinkpieces (complete with a link to the related article “A Complete List of the Names We Don’t Say,” which haha and also ouch), to Kurt becoming a hero of incels in STBLDF 4chan, there’s a lot of meat on these bones that I have no doubt will reward multiple rewatches. Were it not for the moments where that subtlety is pushed aside for onstage phone-smashing antics and vapid soliloquies that spell things out for the dullards in the audience, this would be an instant classic.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond