Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Feature Disaster: Spontaneous Combustion (1990) & Society (1992)

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When I first set out to track down a copy of Society, I turned to my old pal, the Vulcan Video catalog search, which showed that there was a copy at the location nearest me. When I went to locate it, however, it was nowhere to be found on the shelf, and the kind woman working the counter that day noted that their copy had actually been sold several years back and that the catalog listing was an oversight (an unusual lapse for the fine folk of Vulcan). We did eventually track down a copy of the film in their stacks, one of those early double-sided DVDs with Society on one side and Spontaneous Combustion on the reverse. I was pretty pleased by this, because a double feature usually means an easy instant follow up article (just add water).

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. There’s nothing easy about Spontaneous Combustion.

The film stars America’s non-darling Brad Dourif as Sam, the adult son of a husband-and- wife team who were given an experimental anti-radiation injection during a propagandistic Cold War exercise. Following his birth, both parents spontaneously combust after contact with their new infant, leaving him to be raised by the mysterious Lew Orlander (William Prince), a wealthy industrialist who acts as the face of the original experiment when his company takes over from the government.

Some reviews identify Sam as a would-be actor, apparently based on his first scene in the film, in which he recites some lines of Shakespeare on stage with a student, but I think he’s supposed to be a teacher, as is his love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain). One can hardly blame the audience for being unclear as to who Sam is, what his motivations are, or for failing to follow the so-called plot of the film. From what I can understand, Sam was once married to Rachel (Dey Young), Orlander’s granddaughter, who was always pushing Sam to visit Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who is secretly in Orlander’s employ. Since their divorce, Sam has struck up a relationship with fellow anti-nuclear activist Lisa, but this relationship is also the result of Orlander’s manipulations, and the supposed homeopathic medication she has been sharing with him is actually from Dr. Marsh. These treatments are provided in order to encourage the growth of Sam’s supernatural power to start fires.

All of this seems pretty straightforward, but there’s also the mysterious reappearance of Sam’s childhood toy that sends him off searching for the truth of his origins, Sam’s budding powers and the ensuing accidental deaths thereof (including a couple of police officers and John Landis in a cameo as a radio . . .  technician, maybe?), a radio evangelist/medium who seems to be speaking to Sam directly for reasons that are utterly unclear, the sudden reappearance of a woman (Melinda Dillon) involved in the original experiment and her just-as- sudden murder, the murder of another woman who was investigating the soon-to- be-activated nuclear plant nearby, Lisa’s own pyrogenetic powers, and an inordinate number of conversations held on neon telephones.

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The composition and plotting of this movie are bafflingly inelegant, and even two viewings left me unable to accurately gauge just what in the hell was happening at any given time. This was a frustrating viewing experience, both times, and not in the sense that some deeply philosophical films are hard to parse. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion feels like a unauthorized, non-union sequel to Firestarter that was hastily edited together by someone trying to recreate the experience of watching that film with a 104° fever. It’s a movie that actively tries to discourage you from watching it even as the story (such as it is) unfolds, challenging the viewer to a test of wills.

Despite the incohesiveness of the overall plot, I was able to discern two similarities that would reasonably connect this film to Society and, to the inebriated mind of some marketing exec, warrant putting the two films on a single disc. First, the actor playing Sam’s father, Brian Bremer, also portrayed Petrie, Billy’s rival for student body president, in Society. More thematically, both Billy Whitney and Sam are the children of working class people raised by wealthy elites for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there it is.

Even if you find yourself with a copy of this double DVD in your pursuit of watching Society, don’t flip that disc. It’s not worth it.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Vampire Mafia of Innocent Blood (1992) vs. The Zombie Mafia of Shrunken Heads (1994)

One of the stranger details of our Swampchat discussion of October’s Movie of the Month, John Landis’ 1992 horror comedy Innocent Blood, was that we couldn’t think of a single other film that featured a vampire mafia. You would think that another movie or a TV show or a comic book out there would’ve covered the topic before. The truth is that there very well may be an example out there that we’re over-looking, but it just hasn’t reached one of the four of us yet. Britnee & Erin suggested that there were similarities in the Canadian horror comedy Blood & Donuts‘ formula, but from what I understand that film is about a vampire navigating a world of modern day criminals, not about a world of modern day criminal vampires. After searching my brain for closer points of comparison over the past few weeks, I still couldn’t recall any other instances of a fictional vampire mafia, but I did happen to recall something somewhat similar: a zombie mafia.

It turns out Innocent Blood‘s undead criminals kissing cousin was under our noses all along, depicted in a film Britnee reviewed for this site several months ago: Shrunken Heads. Written/produced by infamous schlock-peddler Charles Band & directed by Danny Elfman’s brother/former bandmate Richard Elfman, Shrunken Heads is a goofy horror comedy featuring an undead ring of organized criminals, but is very much different from Innocent Blood in tone & purpose. While Innocent Blood feels like a perfect marriage of a Scorsese knockoff & a goofy vampire horror comedy, Shrunken Heads feels like a slightly edgy kids’ horror that went straight to VHS, which is pretty much the speciality of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment brand in general.

In the film, a trio of young lads upset the day-to-day business of a teenage crime  boss who acts like a slightly-too-old leftover from Bugsy Malone. Not one to be fucked with, he promptly has the pre-teen offenders murdered in a vicious hail of gunfire. They’re then promptly resurrected by a voodoo priest/newspaper salesman who turns their remains into magical, flying shrunken heads who zip around, avenging their deaths by murdering their mobster hitmen & raising them from the dead to attack the aforementioned teenage crime boss. And there you have it: zombie mobsters.

Of course, there are some glaring differences between Shrunken Heads‘ undead mafia & that of Innocent Blood. The most essential difference is that Innocent Blood‘s vampire mafia remained somewhat organized after their transformation while the zombie mafia in Shrunken Heads disassembles their crime ring in acts of undead mutiny. Still, the films’ basic undead mobster shenanigans & goofy horror comedy mayhem make them prime candidates for a tangentially-related double feature, one backed up by the nearness of their release dates. I don’t think Innocent Blood‘s vampire mafia aesthetic has been matched by any other slice of media, but I do think Shrunken Heads may have come to closest to hitting that benchmark.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this snapshot of the vampire-crowded box office that buried it, and last week’s look at John Landis’ list of works in the horror genre.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spooky-Goofy World of John Landis’ Work in Horror

Director John Landis is typically known for his work in comedies. His name is synonymous with comedy milestones like Animal House, Kentucky Fried Movie, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, and Coming to America. That’s why when we were discussing October’s Movie of the Month, Landis’ vampire mafia oddity Innocent Blood, we were a little surprised in the director’s interest in horror as a genre, previously thinking of his cult classic An American Werewolf in London mostly as a one-off fluke. It turns out that Landis has a long history of working within horror, dating all the way back to his very first feature, with nearly ten credits to his name as a director that fit right into his work in Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London. Listed below are all of John Landis’ horror credits (or at least the ones that I could find) in chronological order, each ranked & reviewed.

Schlock (1973)

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If there were any question about whether or not John Landis’ displays for gleeful love for oldschool horror in An American Werewolf in London & Innocent Blood were a fluke, it’s answered as soon as his very first feature. As you can tell from its succinct/accurate title, Schlock is a silly love letter to the very silly history of silly B-movies, particularly in the 50s sci-fi horror drive-in era. In the film Landis himself plays the titular Schlock, a missing link primate dubbed The Banana Killer by the press both because he leaves banana peels at the scenes of his crimes (He’s an ape! Bananas! Get it?!),which have an escalating body count of more than 200 dead, and because whoever committed these crimes “is obviously bananas.” That kind of hokey humor is typical to the film & it works best when it’s incongruously paired with depictions of violence. For instance, a local news station covering the Banana Killer murders holds a “Body Count Contest” where viewers can guess the number of mangled bodies contained in a group of garbage bags for a prize, as if guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar at a little kid’s birthday party. Not only is this moment sublimely silly, but it also jabs at the way news coverage of mass murders can shamelessly turn tragedy into entertainment.

Unfortunately, the Body Bag Contest gag is among the very few of the film’s inspired moments. If Schlock had been structured like Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie and stuck to a pastiche of B-movie inspired sketch comedy (as in the excellent 2000 mockumentary The Independent), it’d amost certainly be a cult classic. Instead, it gets unnecessarily bogged down in the logistics of telling a complete story about a murderous missing link, playing a bit like a full length parody of the little loved, little remembered movie Trog. You can feel the sketch comedy structure screaming to break out from within, like in a last minute gag that promises/threatens a sequel titled Son of Schlock & in a trailer-like intro that proclaims, “First, Birth of a Nation. Then Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Love Story, See You Next Wednesday [which doesn’t exist outside of Landis’ ongoing inside joke]. And now, Schlock! Schlock! Schlock!” while Landis’ literal monkeyshines are intercut with a playground strewn with dead bodies & banana peels. Another interesting moment features Schlock, aka The Banana Killer, watching The Blob in a movie theater, focusing on a scene in which characters are watching a scene in a movie theater before a Blob attack. SO we’re watching a movie in which a killer ape watches a movie in which unsuspecting teenagers watch a movie just before an evil alien blob threatens their lives. This tactic of showing appreciation for the history of horror films by actually showing those films is repeated in Innocent Blood, where several televisions are tuned into old midnight monster movies in the midst of vampiric mayhem. Too bad Schlock is a little too accurate to the format of the trashy sci-fi horror films it’s mocking/paying tribute to. It has a few standout, bonkers scenes that make it interesting as a relic, but the task of watching it in its entirety is a bit of a chore.

American Werewolf in London (1981)

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fourstar

While we were watching Innocent Blood for our Movie of the Month discussion it was difficult not to consider the film’s merits in the context of what Landis had already accomplished in An American Werewolf in London. Titles like Animal House or The Blues Brothers might be considered the apex of his career as a whole, but American Werewolf is easily his most well-regarded feature film as a horrormeister. In a lot of ways, American Werewolf‘s reputation works to its detriment, drumming expectations up to an almost unmatchable standard. In reality, it’s actually an unassuming little horror comedy. Besides a couple practical effects spectacles in its werewolf transformation scenes & creature design (provided by horror make-up genius Rick Baker) and a climactic sequence of epic monster movie mayhem, there really isn’t that much to the film. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. To the contrary, its alternating gruesome/amusing tone is pleasantly unrushed & by the time it reaches its fever pitch conclusion of beheadings, car crashes, and oldschool werewolf attacks it’s nearly impossible not to be won over by its charms, which is about the same reaction I had to Innocent Blood.

The plot of An American Werewolf in London is fairly simple, straightforward stuff in terms of the werewolf genre. Two young American lads are backpacking through Western Europe when they reach a spooky tavern in a small community that has pentagrams & religious candles hanging amongst its dart boards & pints of lager. Picture the tavern in the original Wicker Man movie & you’ll have a good idea of the vibe. Anyway, the spooky locals warn the boys to stick to the road, advice they obviously disobey, which obviously leads to them being attacked by a werewolf. One friend dies & the other transforms into a mythical man-beast, much to the surprise of the big city doctors that help him recover from the attack. There are a few surprises in the formula: dreams in which the protagonist is hunting naked in the woods, a nightmare sequence in which uniformed space monsters burn down his home & murder his family, a growing army of his victims’ ghosts that urge him to commit suicide, etc. For the most part, though, this faithfulness to oldschool werewolf horror is entirely intentional, solidified by the film’s constant references to the Lon Cheney/Bela Lugosi famous monsters classic The Wolfman (a tactic echoed in Schlock & Innocent Blood). If the intent of American Werewolf was to update The Wolfman-type monster movies for modern sardonic senses of humor & special effects capabilities, I’d say it’s mostly successful. At the very least, I think I enjoyed it slightly more than 1981’s The Howling, which seems to be a good reference point for where Landis was aiming.

Twilight Zone: The Movie Prologue & “Time Out” (1983)

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It’s tempting to skip over Twilight Zone: The Movie in this write-up, both because Landis’ segments of the production barely qualify as horror & because of the infamous on-set disaster that resulted in three real-life deaths, a tragedy that has haunted the director & the movie industry at large for decades. The two segments Landis directs in the Twilight Zone movie are a prologue in which Dan Aykroyd scares fellow weirdo comedian Albert Brooks with a scary face (provided again by make-up genius Rick Baker) and a who-cares story about a racist prick getting a taste of his own hateful medicine at the hands of Nazis, the Klan, and so on. The prologue section is mostly nonsense & the thriller-esque anti-racism fantasy segment somehow feels even thinner. The funny thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the film’s two producers, Steven Spieldberg & John Landis, directed the film’s weakest vignettes by far, while contributors George Miller & Joe Dante actually delivers a couple short-form horror classics. In short, Landis was greatly upstaged here, which is funny because I felt his werewolf movie just a couple years before greatly upstaged Dante’s somewhat similar (Rick Baker collaboration) The Howling.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

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The music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is by far the best example of John Landis’ horror work. It’s tempting to say that the economy of a 15 minute short film leaves little room for Landis to drop the ball in any significant way, but his two segments in The Twilight Zone: The Movie barely ammount to more than that & they aren’t nearly as effective or as memorable as the “Thriller” video. It’s more that Landis pushed himself to include every hallmark of his horror work into the video’s short runtime that makes it so enjoyable. It was rick Baker’s incredible make-up work in An American Werewolf in London that got Landis the job in the first place (as that was the only Landis film Jackson had actually seen at the time he was hired) so the special effects genius worked with the director one last time to turn The King of Pop into a werewolf. The affection for 50’s monster movies are on display in the video’s movie theater scene (featuring Landis himself enjoying a tub of popcorn) and promotional posters for Schlock & The Masque of the Red Death. There’s no choreography in Landis’ other work, but the video’s infamous dance routine of the undead reflects the irreverent humor he’s known to bring to the table. You can even feel Landis’ geeky love for horror in a Vincent Price “rap” that includes the lines “The funk of 40,000 years & grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom.” There’s no other way to put this really: “Thriller” is perfect. It’s not only Landis’ most iconic work in the horror spectrum; it’s also just one of the most perfect specimens of the music video as an art form.

Side note: Jackson apparently thought the “Thriller” video was so perfect & enticing that he included this warning, “Due to my personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” That’s how powerful “Thriller” is. Jackson was worried it was going to start a wave of Satanic converts.

Innocent Blood (1992)

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Much like how Landis’ much better-regarded An American Werewolf in Paris feels like an average werewolf movie until its technical marvel monster transformations & last minute mayhem set it apart from its peers, our current Movie of the Month & the director’s only horror feature since American Werewolf, Innocent Blood plays like an unremarkable combo of the vampire & mafia genres until it devolves into delightful chaos. This change that gets kicked off sometime around when the head mob boss, Sallie “The Shark” Macelli, is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the front half of Innocent Blood, but until the vampire mafia starts to take rise, it feels like a dull compromise between far too many modern vampire films & bargain bin Scorsese knockoffs. It’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans once the plot gains momentum that make the movie shine, especially in scenes like Don Rickles’ horrific vampire transformation or a never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene that equal any ridiculousness you’d find in American Werewolf. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) combined with Marcelli running around converting his dopey goons, balance Innocent Blood‘s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies with the more straightforward genre fare of the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss, holding down most of the movie’s charm.

Landis backs up this silliness & genre play with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee (the same kind of onscreen references he brought to Schlock, American Werewolf, and “Thriller”). At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to accomplish here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it. The film also smartly goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism, despite its reverence for its cinematic ancestors. The same way silver bullets aren’t required to kill werewolves in American Werewolf, vampires in Innocent Blood may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but their reflections appears in mirrors & victims are disposed of with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before, one with a surprisingly deft balance between honoring mafia & vampire traditions, while still knowing when & where to stray. Like with American Werewolf, when the screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Masters of Horror: “Deer Woman” (2005)

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Unfortunately, Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London proved to be the only Landis horror features to date. There were some vague horror elements to his work in the anthology pictures The Twilight Zone: The Movie & even vaguer yet, Amazon Women on the Moon, a more sci-fi-leaning B-movie spoof flick without nearly enough horror elements in Landis’ segments to be included here. Otherwise, Landis’ horror work has been restricted to the small screen, starting with the Michael Jackson music video. The three most recent examples of his horror work have been hour-long segments in anthology television shows, starting with Showtime’s short-lived Masters of Horror. Surprisingly enough, Landis’ two Masters of Horror vignettes were actually far more enjoyable than his similar work in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Perhaps it was working alongside names like Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Takashi Miike, and John Carpenter that inspired him to step up his game. Since Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller failed to do the same, though, its more likely that the more inherently goofy format of the televised anthology horror simply allowed Landis to bring much needed levity to his horror work, something he excels at, given that he mostly cut his teeth in the comedy genre.

Landis’ first contribution to Masters of Horror, “The Deer Woman”, is a sublimely silly story about a Native American legend involving a beautiful woman with the legs of a deer that tramples unsuspecting victims to death. The episode is riddled with subpar dialogue & even less-commendable performances from its actors, but still proves itself to be memorably goofy by its conclusion. The titular deer woman is a non-verbal knockout of a woman, who seduces her victims merely by smiling & nodding. Once she lures them into a dangerously secluded place, she snaps off their erections & tramples their corpses into goop. Although the title gives away this reveal far before it arrives, “The Deer Woman” is still written like a police procedural, which works only because it’s amusing watching the central detective, who is essentially a small-town Agent Mulder, try to piece together crimes that don’t quite make sense. In one scenario, he imagines a beautiful woman beating her victims to death with a taxidermy deer leg. In another, he imagines a deer dressed in flannel & jeans punching victims to death as if in a barroom brawl. This cartoonishness mixed with the episode’s grotesque sense of gore is a mostly winning combo, one commendable in its dedication to inanity. The episode serves as John’s son Max Landis’ very first screenwriting credit, but the father-son pair apparently bickered about the details of the story’s conclusion to the point that John insisted on including his name as a writing credit as well. With cheeky references to An American Werewolf (cited as evidence for the faux-Mulder’s monster killer theory) & Frida Kahlo’s self portrait The Wounded Deer, “The Deer Woman” is a perfectly-suited small-scale entry in Landis’ horror catalog, especially once the the titular deer woman is using her deer legs to gallop from rooftop to rooftop in a ludicrous display.

Masters of Horror: “Family” (2006)

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Landis’ second contribution to Masters of Horror was a grotesquely comedic portrait of a serial killer building a family of bleached skeletons that’re something of a Norman Rockwell by way of Norman Bates display. Norm! from Cheers is the serial in question, fairly amusing here as he bickers with his skeleton family & listens to spooky blues music in his basement/skeleton lab. The back & forth switching between the serial killer’s fantasy & reality are darkly amusing, such as in a scene that alternates from him bathing his “mother”/melting the skin off her bones with acid. As he tries to add a young couple to his collection & expand his family with a younger, sexier set of bones, he makes himself vulnerable to discovery and, worse yet, punishment for his evil deeds. As enjoyably goofy as “The Deer Woman” can be, it’s fairly safe to say that “Family” is the best example of Landis’ televised horror anthology work. It would easily fit right in with the best episodes of Tales from the Crypt, especially once it reaches its disgusting last second reveal. If you’re going to watch just one of his post-Innocent Blood television episodes, this would be your best option.

Fear Itself: “In Sickness & in Health” (2008)

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There really isn’t much at all to say about John Landis’ most recent entry in the horror genre. When Masters of Horror was denied a third season by the Showtime network, the show was transformed into a one-season failure titled Fear Itself on NBC. The transition to network television was not kind to the horror anthology program, since it severely limited what it could get away with in terms of gore & vulgarity (although those restrictions have surely been more laid back in the seven years since). Besides John Landis, the only notable director from the Masters of Horror era to return to Fear Itself was Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon. Besides those two names, nothing of note came from Fear Itself’s pitifully short run. As for Landis’ entry in particular, he tells the story of a wedding day ruined by a mysterious, hand-delivered note that reads, “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.” Absolutely nothing of interest happens between that note’s arrival & the final reveal that *gasp* the note was delivered to the wrong person & the protagonist bride we’ve been following the whole time was actually the killer. Okay. The episode is mostly a bore, made fascinating only by the inclusion of the actor who played The X-Files‘ “Smoking Man” dressed in priestly garb. It’s an interesting image, but nothing to get too excited about, since “In Sickness & In Health” is nearly an hour in length.

I sincerely hope that this most recent example of John Landis’ horror work will not be his last, as the director has proven in the past that he has much better work in him. I’d love to see him return to the genre on the big screen on last time, perhaps for a Frankenstein or zombie picture, since he’s already covered the werewolf & vampire genres in the past. As long as brings a sense of goofball comedy to the production, it could be worthwhile.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at the vampire-crowded box office that buried it.

-Brandon Ledet

A Snapshot of the Vampire-Crowded Box Office that Buried Innocent Blood (1992)

It’s difficult to say for sure exactly why our current Movie of the Month, John Landis’ vampire mafia horror comedy Innocent Blood, flopped on its initial release in 1992. Critics were lukewarm at best to the film, but similar opinions from folks like Roger Ebert about Landis’ An American Werewolf in London did little to stop that film from gaining a cult audience just a decade prior. Personally, and I know this isn’t a very popular take, I feel that Innocent Blood is pretty much on par in quality with An American Werewolf, especially in its horrific special effects & dark sense of humor. So, it puzzles me exactly why An American Werewolf hextupled its budget at the box office while Innocent Blood failed to gain traction.

Whatever the exact reason for the disparity in Landis’ only two horror comedy features’ financial successes, it could not have helped Innocent Blood‘s chances that the film arrived during a particularly active year for vampire cinema.  While An American Werewolf in London had only to compete with The Howling & Wolfen in 1981 (not that three werewolf movies in one year isn’t impressive), Innocent Blood shared a calendar year with no less than at least seven other vampire features. There were certainly vampire films that made a great deal of money in 1992, but among the dozens of similar works released in the late 80s & early 90s it’s still conceivable that a couple of good ones could’ve gotten buried by the crowded market, Innocent Blood being chief among them.

I’m not going to bore you with reviews of each of 1992’s vampire movies. I will, however, link you to the trailers for every one that I could find, just to give you an idea of how overwhelming the year’s onslaught of vampire media might’ve been. Innocent Blood was very much of its time & couldn’t possibly have been made in another era, and it’s that exact quality I believed contributed to its financial & critical downfall. 1992’s selection of vampire films are chronologically listed below along with their IMDb-provided plot synopses & dates of release to provide context of the crowded vampire market Innocent Blood was facing.

Sleepwalkers, released April 10, 1992

“A mother-and-son team of strange supernatural creatures move to a small town to seek out a young virgin to feed on.” [written for the screen by Stephen King]

Bloodlust, released April 23, 1992

“Three vampires wander the streets of Melbourne killing, screwing and taking drugs. They decide to carry out a heist, stealing three million and attracting the attention of various psychotics, who chase them through a blood spattered odyssey into the Melbourne underground.”

My Grandpa is a Vampire (aka Grampire), released June 8, 1992

“Sent on a trip from California to New Zealand to visit with his eccentric grandfather, Lonny discovers that his grandpa is a vampire. Unnerved at first, he soon discovers that his grandpa is a good vampire.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, released July 31, 1992

“A flighty teenage girl learns that she is her generation’s destined battler of vampires.” [written, of course, by Joss Whedon]

Innocent Blood, released September 25, 1992

“Marie is a vampire with a thirst for bad guys. When she fails to properly dispose of one of her victims, a violent mob boss, she bites off more than she can chew and faces a new, immortal danger.” [directed, of course, by John Landis]

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released November 13, 1992

“The vampire comes to England to seduce a visitor’s fiancée and inflict havoc in the foreign land.” [directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the most successful vampire picture of 1992]

Tale of a Vampire, released November 20, 1992

“Condemned to life without end, and to an undying passion for a lost love he can never find, a vampire stalks a beautiful young woman.”

Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, released December 7, 1992

“Alexander Hell, SCOTT SHAW, is a cross-dimensional mercenary. He rides his Harley out of the dark abyss to send ancient vampires back to Hell.”

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Innocent Blood (1992)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Erin made Britnee , Brandon , and Boomer watch Innocent Blood (1992).

Erin: A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in . . . Pittsburgh.  Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element.  Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob.

There’s something for everybody!  Stunts!  Grotesque special effects!  Gallons of blood!  Strippers!  Don Rickles!

Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.

I really like this movie.  I’ve seen dozens of vampire films and most of them are lacking things like . . . plots.  Direction.  Cinematography.  Scripts.  Innocent Blood was clearly made with a sufficient budget and by a team who knew what they were doing.  It isn’t scary enough to really be a horror movie, although it pays homage to the genre.  There are schlock elements, but all in all it feels too mainstream for me to consider it a camp film.

Vampire films often sit in a strange place between monster movies and mainstream dramas.  John Landis seems to have envisioned a film respectful to the grand history of monster movies, but essentially a gritty, sexy, 90s dramedy.  I’d say that he gets about 95% of the way there.  There’s the preposterous sex scene that feels overlong, some pacing issues around the end of the second act that slow down the movie, and a soundtrack that is all. about. that. jazz.  That said, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a vampire movie while avoiding camp or outright bad movies.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Innocent Blood a pretty good monster movie that’s appropriate for a filmography that includes An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, and Animal House?  Am I blinded by my exposure to truly, truly terrible movies? Does this movie stand out to you as a vampire film?

Brandon: It’s funny, because the near-campless first half of the film really wasn’t doing it for me. It felt like Landis was splitting his time between making both a mediocre vampire movie & a mediocre mob film. There was a little fun to be had in the way Marie talked about her “food” (read: victims) in lines like “How about Italian?” & “Never play with the food” and the dissonance between her glowing-eyes blood feasts & the Sinatra-scored, bargain bin Scorsese mob aesthetics, but it didn’t feel all that special as an example of either genre. Innocent Blood didn’t truly win me over until it devolved into utter chaos, a change that gets kicked off sometime around when mob boss Sallie “The Shark” Macelli is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the back half, but it’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans that make the movie shine. It’s hard for me to read scenes like Don Rickles’ vampire transformation or that never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene as anything but exercises in camp.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s so much implication that Landis knows exactly what he’s doing here. Like Erin said, it’s not an entirely campy affair through & through. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) see to that. It’s just that when Marcelli is running around converting his dopey goons, hissing at lightbulbs, and curling up for a cat nap in a meat freezer, the movie’s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies thankfully start overtaking what was promising to be a too-serious & not-too-special film in the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss.

Landis backs up this silliness with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee. At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to do here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it.

Britnee, how much of that camp/serious divide was segregated between the vampire mafia cast and the scenes featuring the demure vampire Marie & her undercover cop love interest Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, who also played a “Joe” in Empire Records, oddly enough)? Did Joe’s & Marie’s scenes ever approach the fever pitch absurdity of Mercelli’s vampiric mob-building or was their share of the plot more dedicated to the film’s more serious, straight-forward impulses?

Britnee: The relationship between Marie and Joe was interesting, to say the least, but I never found it to be this serious, genuine romance that it tries to be. From the time the two had the cliché meet-cute in the middle of a snowy Pittsburgh street, I sensed that there was a campy romance brewing. And in all honesty, campy romances make for the best cinematic experiences. When comparing Joe and Marie’s scenes to the explosive vampire mafia scenes, I find myself going back and forth deciding whether or not the couple could be taken more seriously than the vampire mobsters. Part of me feels that they do fall a little more on the serious side, but then my head is filled with images of Marie’s fiber optic eyeballs during her memorable lovemaking scene. When reading the film credits, I noticed that a licensed optometrist was credited, so if eyes could magically change color, I guess that’s exactly what it would look like. Anyway, I guess the two contribute to the film’s small amount of seriousness because their romantic element isn’t as outlandish as a bunch of bloodthirsty mobsters covered in meat juice.

During our viewing of the film, there were a couple of times when I almost forgot about Marie and Joe because the insanity that was the budding vampire mafia completely overshadowed their characters.  There were times where I felt as though half an hour went by and the two lovebirds where nowhere to be seen. Of course, I was too enthralled by the vampiric mob madness to care. Landis is an obvious special effects junkie, and the majority of this film focuses on the stunning effects of the monster mobsters. He may have unintentionally drawn attention away from Marie and Joe’s characters, but I can’t blame him for getting carried away because for such an unknown movie, the effects were far from shoddy. They were brilliant! The scene where Manny (Rickles) gets his first dose of sunlight after making the “turn” is pure art. His skin tears open as he’s burning up and turning into pure ash, and it’s one of the greatest examples of exceptional special effects work that I’ve ever seen.

Boomer, do feel as though Marie’s character was not very prominent in the film? Did she make any contribution other than a couple of funny quotes and some sexy moments?

Boomer: It’s funny you should ask, since I was thinking throughout the film how tangential Marie’s role is to the more intriguing and interesting elements of the plot. She acts as a catalyst, as her actions against the first wiseguy she devours onscreen serves to lead LaPaglia’s Joe to out himself as an undercover cop, and her second meal leads to Loggia’s Sallie turning undead and dreaming of an enthralled vampire Pittsburg underground. For a character whose actions set the plot in motion, we know almost nothing about her.

Who is Marie? Is that her real name? When was she turned? Why? Who turned her? How does she feel about her parasitic nature? Nearly all contemporary vampire narratives in which the vampire is not explicitly villainous (and even some where they are) at least pay lip service to the idea that being an undead monster is a bit of an ongoing existential crisis. It’s ironic that the first shot of the film reveals (and revels in) Marie’s entire nude body, as her literal nakedness lies in direct contradiction to the way that she is metaphorically covered and hidden throughout the film. Other than her animal instinct to feed (and breed) and the actions she takes in an attempt to rectify her accidental release of a monster mobster, we have no idea what Marie does with her literally endless spare time. She feels guilt enough over her actions to consider ending her existence by meeting the sun, but her ultimate decision to continue (un)living is less a heartfelt triumph of the spirit than an “Eh, I guess I’ll stick around.” It’s less an issue of Marie not being prominent and more an issue of her being two-dimensional, standing out as a flat character even against shallowly characterized (but endearingly entertaining) scenery-chewers like Rickles and Loggia.

Now that I consider it, none of the main characters are fully fleshed out. Joe is determined to take down the Italian mafia, but any other motivations he may have in his personal or private life are unspoken, if they exist at all. The same can be said of his fellow cops (and a criminally underutilized Angela Bassett as the Pittsburg DA) or of the mobsters from Loggia down. For a prolonged section of the film, the protagonists and antagonists exist in completely different plotlines that only tangentially intersect, and I think that the crime the film is most guilty of is devoting too much focus to Marie and Joe, especially if none of that attention yields any character insight or development; there’s both too much and too little of Marie to be satisfying. A film that focused instead on Luis Guzman, for instance, ineptly bumbling his way through an investigation would have more potential entertainment value, all things considered. LaPaglia’s not a bad actor, he just seems to be under the impression that the ratio of crime thriller to comedy of the film he’s in skews in the opposite direction it actually does.

Perhaps it’s my postmodern eye, but throughout the film I kept attempting to apply some metaphor to the representation of vampirism. In the past thirty years we’ve seen vampirism stand in for disease, sexuality, and corruption, and even vampires themselves as metaphorical minorities and outsiders. From the way that Marie’s particular vampirism operates, at first I was expecting that we would eventually get some correlative relationship with AIDS, but no clear metaphor eventually coalesced, at least not one that I could see.

What do you think, Erin? Is there a metaphor that I’m missing, or one we as an audience could infer regardless of authorial intent?

Erin:  That’s a great question, Boomer.  Innocent Blood has a lot of action, but not a lot of character development, even as characters are doing such intense things as literally transforming into undead monsters.

I’m not sure how to parse the metaphor of Marie’s vampirism in this movie.  I find that usually vampirism is linked to themes of excess, hedonism, and greed.  Marie certainly has some of these elements – her two main interests in life are sex and food.  On the other hand, as you pointed out, we never really learn anything about her past, her other motivations, or how this episode of her life changes her.

The mobsters might be the place to look for metaphor in Innocent Blood.  Sal’s greed for power and his megalomaniacal feelings of invincibility are the things that cause his downfall.  Maybe the metaphor of vampirism here is for both greed and trying to use powers that are not fully understood or appreciated.  Sal tries to convert his whole mob into vampires, but doesn’t seem to make any considerations for the fact that they will no longer be able to work during daylight or that their favorite Italian foods will now cause great distress.

All in all, I’m leaning towards saying that John Landis wasn’t trying to explore the metaphors of vampirism so much as he was trying to produce a mainstream monster movie to appeal to the mass market.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Marie a cipher here, an empty Manic Pixie Dream Girl only in the movie as a plot device?  Is vampirism presented in the same way?  Is that problematic?

Brandon: There’s a near endless list of metaphors that have been attached to vampirism in the past, ranging from as disparate of meanings as the unchecked thirst for power Erin mentioned to the powerlessness of cyclical depression & drug addiction. I’m just not seeing anything explicit in Innocent Blood that suggests a clear metaphor. The mobsters’ thirst for power angle Erin suggests is something I’d buy, with plenty of evidence backing it up in the film, but where exactly does that leave Marie as a character? The more I reflect on the emptiness of Marie’s general presence, I’m left thinking that the movie could’ve been so much better without her. It’s as if she were a starting point that eventually lead Landis & writer Michael Wolk to the much more fleshed out undead mobster concept. If Marie had been left on the editing room floor or at the very least taken a backseat after she got the mobster plot rolling, we might have a much tighter plotted movie. The befuddled law enforcement POV Boomer suggested above in particular could’ve been worth a try. Then again, we wouldn’t have that insanely sleazy sex scene in that scenario, so maybe they made the right choice afterall.

In addition to the absence of a clear vampirism metaphor, Landis’ film also goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism. Marie may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but her reflection appears in mirrors & she kills her fellow vampires with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. Somehow, though, I’m not at all bothered by all of this. As much as I might’ve appreciated a clearer set of rules or a more well-defined metaphor, I believe that the film is perfectly entertaining as is. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before. When his screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Britnee, do you think that Innocent Blood could’ve been more successful if it were more dedicated to the vampire movie as a genre or do its deviations from the format make it all the more memorable/entertaining?

Britnee: This may sound a bit crazy, but I don’t really think of Innocent Blood as being a vampire movie. I know that there are indeed many vampires in the film, but they aren’t the sexy, mysterious vampires that dominate the vamp movie world. They’re a group of grotesque undead dudes that look more like zombies than actual vampires, and as Brandon previously stated, they are killed off like zombies as well. Of course, Marie does fall into the sexy vampire category, but she wasn’t really a big part of the film. Even when she did have her vampire moments, she reminded me more of a werecat from the 80s film Cat People than an actual vampire. Landis was attempting to almost reinvent the vampire, but in 1992, the world just wasn’t ready for something so huge. The general public would have probably better received the film if Landis stuck to more traditional vampire guidelines, but I am ever so grateful that he didn’t. The film’s many deviances make it a cult masterpiece, which is 100 times more valuable than a box office hit.

The idea of a monster mob film is brilliant, but other than Innocent Blood, I don’t recall ever coming across any other films that incorporate the mob with the supernatural. The two elements surprisingly work together in harmony.

Boomer, did you feel as though the monster mob is what mainly contributed to the film’s success? Why didn’t this idea take off and influence other horror films?

Boomer: I can honestly say, with no mental evasion or dishonesty, that the parts of this film which work best are those which relate to and revolve around vampire mafia plot. Loggia’s screen presence, hammy though it may be, is definitely the energetic core of what would otherwise be little more than a late-night Cinemax softcore skin flick that happened to star half the future cast of The Sopranos. I feel like I’ve seen the Underworld (Len Wiseman) meets underworld (mafia) schtick before, but after racking my brain and consulting TV Tropes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be one of those ideas that is so ingenious you only think it must have been done dozens of times. Maybe on Angel? Or Forever Knight? Kindred: The Embraced? But definitely not in a feature, or in any work in which the vampire mob was so central to the story.

As to why this didn’t usher in a new era of similar or copycat bloodsucking mafia flicks, I don’t really think there was room in the world for that genre to flourish. The popularity of film mafiosos waxes and wanes; after scores of films about gangsters in the early days of cinema, features about organized crime largely receded until the 70s and 80s, when pictures like Scarface and the Godfather series created a resurgent interest in “fuggedaboutit” movies that didn’t really survive into the 90s. The last great genre piece from that era was Goodfellas, which came out two years before Innocent Blood, and as far as prestige cinema goes, there’s really no comparison between the two. Landis’ American Werewolf endures because its story blended horror and comedy more successfully than Innocent Blood does, and its striking effects work made it stand out despite being released the same year as both The Howling and Wolfen. Aside from Rickles’ character’s (admittedly well done) death sequence, Innocent Blood doesn’t have American Werewolf‘s tangible viscerality; overall, Innocent Blood is a much cheaper-looking movie. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that it was a Cinemax made-for-TV film, and would never have guessed that Landis was involved.

Innocent Blood also fails to stand out among its vampiric brethren as well, as it lacks the sweeping epicness of, say, Interview With a Vampire, which came out just two years later, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was released the same year (Innocent Blood also doesn’t have the built-in audience that comes from being an adaptation, either). As a result, it failed to gain the prominence or immortality that other movies in the same vein and of the same era did. It just wasn’t gruesome enough, or memorable enough, or gangstery enough. In shooting for a middle ground, it ended up having too many ideas; consequently, it failed to stick in the public consciousness in a meaningful way.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Innocent Blood is an ultimately inconsequential film, the kind of movie that seems destined to be included in one of those ubiquitous Cracked.com lists, like “Six Movies with a More Interesting B-Plot than Premise.” I didn’t care for it as much as some of my fellow reviewers, but I didn’t dislike it either. I guess, on the whole, I’d say that on the range of John Landis’ contributions to the world, where American Werewolf is the limit of the best end and spawning whiny privileged misogynist Max is the limit of the lower end (and no, I didn’t forget the death of two children during the production of the Twilight Zone feature; Max is arguably worse), Innocent Blood falls somewhere in the vicinity of Beverly Hills Cop III.

Britnee: Innocent Blood is an excellent horror-comedy as well as a truly entertaining film with an unforgettable plot and cast (well, except for Marie). The true gem of this film isn’t the vampiric mafia or the vampire/human romance; it’s Lenny (David Proval), Sal’s dopey-eyed assistant.  The only other film that I’ve seen him in is The Brady Bunch Movie, in which he makes a 10 second appearance as an electrician with a bad lisp, and I had no idea that he embodied so much talent and pizazz until I saw him in this film. He only had a handful of lines, but each one was pure gold. I still crack up when I remember his worried face by the bathroom window, screaming “Sal!” while Sal is in a tub of his own blood after Marie’s failed attack.

Brandon: Although we’ve already ragged on Marie & actress Anne Parillaud a good bit here, I will at least admit that she has one interesting quirk to her outside of the glowing eyes & knack for BDSM: lighting. As we’re first introduced to Marie, buck naked in her apartment, she’s revealed to be a bit of a candle hoarder. Because much of what she was doing & saying was less than captivating, our minds were left to wonder about Marie’s endless sea of lit candles in several early scenes. Does she prefer candles to electric light because they remind her of simpler times? Where do they come from? Does she buy them wholesale? Do her vampire powers allow her to light them all at once or does she have to go around the room igniting each one with a match like a chump? Marie talks a lot about her “food” (victims), but I feel she has an equal passion for candles that goes conspicuously uncommented on.

Erin: I think that one of my favorite things about this movie are the more mature actors.  Don Rickles, Robert Loggia, and Elaine Kagan working together in Sal’s transformation at the Bergmans’ house has to be one of the best scenes I’ve had the pleasure of watching.  I really wish that John Landis had focused more on the “monster mobster” side of the plot, especially with the amount of talent he had on tap.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew