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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Horror Noire (2019)

It’s initially tempting to receive the Shudder-produced documentary Horror Noire as a kind of celebratory victory lap after the financial & awards season successes of Get Out helped greenlight so much new black art in the horror genre. Indeed, the film includes several interviews with black creators whose latest projects were funded in the wake of Get Out’s game-changing pop culture impact, including author Robin R. Means Coleman, whose eponymous source material itself was greenlit into this feature-length documentary the very morning after Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (as reported on an episode of Shock Waves early this year). Horror Noire does allow the recent success story of Get Out to boost morale on its back end, and several black authors & filmmakers do use the opportunity to plug their latest projects, but this documentary is just as much of a rebuke as it is a celebration. It’s first & foremost an academic conversation covering the history of black representation in American horror cinema, from the coded racial caricature of amoral classics like King Kong & The Creature from The Black Lagoon to the celebratory upswing in black filmmaking in the modern day. The history of black representation, black audiences, and black art in American pop culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for Horror Noire to play like the victory lap a lesser film could slip into, and it’s impressive to see a talking-heads doc on this scale & subject to be willing to have those tough conversations. As one interviewee puts it, “We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us.”

The list of celebrity interviewees from The Black Horror Hall of Fame gathered here is impressive and alone worth the effort of putting this doc together: Jordan Peele, Ernest Dickerson, Ken Foree, Tony Todd, Loretta Divine, Keith Davis, The Craft’s Rachel True, etc. Their talking-heads commentary is smartly staged as audiences watching the screen inside a movie theater rather than as creators toiling in their workspaces, emphasizing how onscreen representation shaped them as people as well as artists. The real joy of this film, however, is how much it allows author Robin R. Means Coleman to guide the discussion in her own words instead of letting the flashier celebrity interviewees fully take over. She obviously has a reverence for horror cinema as an artform, but she’s also fearless in interrogating the ways it has failed black audiences since the very beginning. American history itself is declared to be “black horror.” Birth of Nation is framed as a horror film from black audiences’ POV. Tropes like the easily scared back buffoon providing comedic relief, the “magical negro” helping white characters navigate supernatural realms, and the sole black character being the first to die – and so on – are called out for their social menace even in beloved horror classics like Candyman & The Shining. Get Out’s success is contextualized as a cyclical breakthrough moment that’s already been seen before in landmark texts like The Night of the Living Dead, Blacula, and post-Spike Lee 90s gems like Tales from the Hood. Coleman is given free rein to throw bare-knuckled academic punches here, and she does not disappoint.

Although this isn’t the surface-level celebration of black success stories in horror cinema that it easily could have been, it’s still only a thematic primer that compresses Coleman’s rigorous academic text into a breezy 83min discussion. As such, I didn’t walk away with too many deep-cut recommendations for titles I haven’t seen before (Sugar Hill, Abby, and Def by Temptation being the few standouts), but the implied promise is that there’s plenty more to dig into once I pick up the book that inspired this production. Since this is just a standalone feature and not a ten-part mini-series, however, that compression is perfectly suited for the task at hand: using the success of Get Out to center a crucial academic discussion that well deserves the signal boost. It’s not the exhaustive, final word on the topic the way a lengthy academic text could afford to be, but it’s a worthwhile conversation starter that isn’t afraid to take on the Goliaths of the genre as it interrogates a history just as worthy of scrutiny as celebration. A weightier film would’ve been less digestible in a single sitting, and a lighter one would’ve underserved the political & emotional severity of its subject. In that way, Horror Noire finds an ideal Goldilocks middle ground, while doing the essential public service of amplifying Robin R. Means Coleman’s authorial voice.

-Brandon Ledet

Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Get Out (2017)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Although they’re often (rightly) called out for their inherent misogyny, there’s a popular reading of slasher films that claims they’re subversively, politically progressive because they ask a traditionally male audience to identify & empathize with a female victim’s POV. Aligning horror nerds’ sympathies with a Final Girl archetype might not seem like the height of radical discourse, especially considering what typically happens to those characters on-screen, but it does have a cultural value to it that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sleazy 80s slashers. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele recognizes this function of horror audience sympathies and shifts its culturally critical eye from feminism to racial politics. Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.

Our de facto Final Girl protagonist is a young, hip photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family home for the first time. Isolated in a secluded, wealthy suburb, he’s faced with the outnumbered, paranoid feeling of being the only black man in a sea of white, smiling faces. The only other POC in his hosts’ community are “the help”, who have an unnatural, creepily robotic way of acting (assumedly in a direct nod to The Stepford Wives). Instead of tackling the blatant, violently hateful kind of racism that would more typically be skewered in this kind of movie, however, Get Out finds horror in racism’s much subtler, more difficult to pin down forms. The girlfriend’s family is initially very cordial with our Final Boy, but in an awkward, discomforting way, plagued with a wide variety of micro-aggressions he awkwardly smiles through to avoid confrontation. By using phrases like “my man,” “thang,” and “Sup, fam?” in an attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease, the family only makes his presence feel all the more alien. They declare proudly that they can’t possibly be racist, since they enthusiastically voted for Obama. Twice! The girlfriend, in turn, makes a big show of pointing out every subtle slight in an attempt to seem cool & above it all. Nothing about the scenario is cool. Through eerie atmosphere, mood-setting jump scares, and surreal nightmare imagery, Peele slowly, steadily reveals the ugly spirit lurking under this try-hard liberalism that reduces a human being into a cultural specimen. And when the corrupt, corrosive nature of that sentiment comes violently crashing to the surface, it’s exposed to be just as cruel & terrifying as the kind of racism usually depicted through white hoods & burning crosses.

Get Out is a good, well made genre film that then becomes spectacularly great in its violent, no fucks given third act. Peele’s well-rounded screenplay brings every stray theme, from the racial discomfort to the main character’s guilt over past inaction to metaphorical motifs as small as roadkill deer, back around for a glorious, purposeful conclusion. The seemingly well-meaning, casual racism that had been lurking under the surface like a paranoid delusion is exposed as a horrifically grotesque monster that reduces black men to physical objects, targets for the white & wealthy’s fascination & possessive entitlement. Additionally, Peele filters this thinly veiled maliciousness through a surreal nightmare where reality is warped by perception-shifting hypnosis. If I had one complaint about Get Out it’d be that it could’ve spent a lot more time diving into the otherworldly imagery & paralyzing implications of its hypnotic dream-space, known in-film as The Sunken Place, instead of chasing tension-cutting meta humor with the film’s comic relief character. The Final Boy’s best friend phones in periodically to act as an audience surrogate, asking questions like, “How are you not scared right now?” & directly calling out the girlfriend’s family as the creeps they so obviously are. He’s an amusing presence in the film, but he’s one that pushes Get Out away from the more unique touches of its modern horror surrealism into a more overly familiar horror/sketch comedy tone. However, Peele still gets the most he can out of his subtle nightmare plot’s moment to moment creepiness, especially from always-welcome character actors Catherine Keener & Stephen Root, and you can tell he made this passion project from the perspective of a life-long horror fan who knows exactly how the format works most efficiently. From Get Out‘s cultural criticism to its play with Final Girl tropes to the gloriously bizarre territory of its third act reveals & Sunken Place surrealism, it’s an impressive, striking debut feature, a great first go for a filmmaker who hopefully has a long career of these horrific, satirical mind-benders ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet

Keanu (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a film in theaters and actually laughed out loud (at least for films that are actually meant to be comedies). I can’t even remember the last time I saw a comedy that would be considered a new release. I guess it would be Krampus, but Krampus is considered to be a horror-comedy and not just a straight up comedy. Recent funny films that have hit theaters would be The Boss, The Brothers Grimsby, and Meet the Blacks, just to name a few. Maybe the movie trailers and reviews didn’t do these films justice, but nothing about these films made me want to make my way to a theater and drop ten bucks to see them. Keanu was a different story. Knowing my love for cats, a friend of mine sent me the movie trailer for Keanu via text message. At first, I thought this was a silly trailer for a fake movie that was part of the Key and Peele sketch comedy show. Well, I just about exploded with joy when I found out that this was going to be a real movie. A real movie that was going to actually be in real movie theaters. A film about an adorable kitten mixed up in a drug cartel that included tunes from music legend George Michael was something I wouldn’t miss for the world. Yes, I definitely shelled out ten bucks for this one.

Keanu has a strong, action-packed start. Two assassins, known throughout the film as the Allentown Brothers (actually played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), massacre a buttload of people in a drug lair housed by a church. A cute little kitten that goes by the name of Iglesias escapes the madness and ends up on the doorstep of Rell (Jordan Peele), who is going through a terrible breakup. Iglesias, renamed Keanu by Rell, brings Rell out of his depression and becomes the most important thing in his life. His world falls apart again when Keanu is kidnapped from his home. With the help of his straight-laced cousin Clarence, Rell sets out to find Keanu. The two end up going undercover as the infamous Allentown Brothers to get Keanu back with the nicknames of Tectonic (Peele) and Shark Tank (Key). Tectonic and Shark Tank join a gang with a leader that goes by the name of Cheddar (Method Man) as part of their plan to get Keanu back. The duo quickly finds themselves teaching teambuilding exercises to gang members and selling drugs to The House Bunny actress Anna Faris, among other things.

What I found to be very interesting about this film was that it was actually very violent and gory. The shooting scenes are brutal but funny at the same time. It’s a strange feeling for sure. Key and Peele really pushed the envelope by having all that violence in a comedy starring a super cute kitten. Also, one part the really stuck out to me was towards the end of the film when Clarence and Rell actually get arrested after taking down a major drug operation. It was so surprising because it was so realistic. Usually when the good guys in movies steal cars and deal drugs to ultimately take down the bad guys, they’re let off the hook and the film concludes to a silly happy ending.  In Keanu, our main comic stars go straight to jail after they save the day because, well, they actually broke a ton of laws throughout the movie.

Peele is by far the star of the show. He was absolutely hilarious consistently throughout the film, and I was laughing during just about every moment he was on the screen. He gets especially funny when he takes on the role of Techtonic. Unlike Key, he doesn’t rely on overacting and ridiculous Dane Cook-like humor to have a funny performance. I know that it sounds like I’m being harsh on Key, and I don’t really mean to be. He did bring a good bit of humor to Keanu, and he starred in one of my favorite scenes in the movie: while on a drug trip, he imagined himself in the video of George Michael’s “Faith,” tight jeans included. Clarence, like myself, is a huge George Michael fan, and there are some insanely hilarious parts in the film (other than the “Faith” drug trip) which involve his love for George Michael that I completely adored. Key’s style of comedy just doesn’t a-Peele to me as much as Peele’s, so I can’t help but compare the two.

Once the film was over, my cheekbones were sore from laughing so much, but then a more serious feeling came over me. I realized that I would probably do the same thing Rell did if my cat was in Keanu’s situation. Keanu’s adorable little kitten meow tugged at all my heart strings, and hopefully, other viewers had the same reaction. Keanu was like an Air Bud for adults. In a world filled with animal abuse and abandonment, it’s nice to see a film that promotes human/animal bonds. Give your fur babies lots of kisses and hugs and catch Keanu before it leaves theaters!

-Britnee Lombas