Boomer’s Top Films of 2015

After much delay, here is my list of my ten favorite films of 2015. As is typical for me, it is longer than necessary and overly self­-concerned. Only two are wholly original, while six rely heavily on nostalgia and two arguably do. Before we get to it, first, the films that would probably be on this list had I seen them as planned, but I didn’t: Listen to Me, Marlon; Mommy; What We Are in the Dark; Mad Max: Fury Road; Felt; Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Other films that I enjoyed this year but that didn’t make it onto this list were Trainwreck, Ant-­Man, and, obviously, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which should be on this list, but I saw it too late to count it here).

10. Jupiter Ascending – I know that everyone on earth hated this movie, except for a tiny band of rebels that has taken up hiding in small corners of the internet, making .gifs under an embargo from the rest of the web. Is the plot silly? Yes. Is Mila Kunis the wrong actress for this role? Oh my, yes. But is it the worst movie of the year? Not by a long shot. Jupiter Ascending, by simply existing, posits that there is still an audience in the world that is interested in brand new intellectual property, that there is still room in the world for movies that don’t require brand name recognition to turn a profit. As it turns out, the Wachowski Siblings seem to have been incorrect in their assumption sabout how much leeway audiences are willing to give them, or it may be that the world simply isn’t ready for a movie that states bees are capable of recognizing royalty and that life on earth was seeded for the sole purpose of eventually harvesting all organic existence to create eternal life goo. Regardless, I’ve seen virtually nothing but negative criticism about this movie and its plot holes (which I’m not here to apologize for or deny the existence of), but how much can you really hate a movie that features Channing Tatum flying around on hover skates and an extended Terry Gilliam homage sequence? I can’t bring myself to hate it at all, which is more than I could say for other films this year (*cough* Jurassic World *cough*).

9. Kingsman: The Secret Service – I first saw an “extended preview” for this movie during an airing of American Horror Story’s fourth season, and I wasn’t impressed or intrigued in the slightest. I think the problem was that the preview in question chose to focus on the action-­oriented nature of the film, neglecting to highlight that this film wasn’t simply an action movie clone but a love letter to Roger Moore’s time as James Bond (meaning that this is the first, but far from last, film on this list that traded on nostalgia for my attention). From the disfigured henchman whose physique is enhanced with deadly weapons, to the world-­takeover plans of the eccentric villain, to the huge Blofeld-­esque base hidden deep within a mountain, this movie was a delightful revisitation of spy films of yesteryear. By deconstructing the idea of the gentleman assassin by having protagonist Eggs face classist discrimination within the ranks of the secret organization by which he has been recruited and gleefully combining the camp of Moore’s Bond with the brutality of a Bourne film, Kingsman stood out as an early contender for best action movie of the year, even if it did get dumped into theatres at a bad time of year.

8. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story – This movie made me weep openly at several points throughout the film. Maybe it’s because I have a huge soft spot in my heart for all things related to the Jim Henson workshop and a particular fondness both for Sesame Street in general and Big Bird in particular (several children in this movie are seen carrying the same plush replication of the character as the one I had as a child, purchased for me by my mother when we went to see Sesame Street on Ice, one of my earliest memories). More likely, however, it’s because this is a deeply sentimental documentary, one that is lovingly crafted in a way that I would be more critical of if the subject material was more contentious. But what’s controversial about Big Bird? Nothing that I can think of. Within the structure of the contemporary documentary, there is a pattern: exposition about the subject, an exploration of the subject in its heyday, the appearance of some kind of problem that affected the subject, and projections about the potential future of the subject. Normally, that third part revolves around something controversial or contentious: a sudden death on the set of a film project, the exposure of something criminal or unethical about an individual, etc. Here, however, the dark turning point is the sudden but natural death of Jim Henson, which affected Spinney but did not destroy or devalue him. Everyone interviewed in this doc has nothing but kind things to say about Spinney and his wife, and it’s nice to see such an overwhelmingly positive doc that does not shy away from the darker elements of his life, like his first marriage and the paternal abuse he endured as a child. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the accusations made against Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash in recent years (accusations that were thrown out in court, it should be noted), it touches the heart to know that some heroes don’t have to fall in the public eye; some childhood icons can still be idolized.

7. Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh Ich seh) – In my review of this film, I expressed criticism of the directors’ choices, especially as they pertain to the foreshadowing of film’s eleventh hour revelations. However, I also noted that this was a gorgeous movie with style to spare. The tension between the twins and the woman who may be their mother or a bandaged impostor builds in an exponential but organic way. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn,” referring to the way that the twins ultimately turn the tables on the woman whose increasingly cruel and incomprehensible changes in behavior make them question her identity, but those moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s quite good, it just could have worked as a  master class in how to direct a contemporary thriller had the directors had a little more self control with regards to the foreshadowing and kept it as subtle as the horror that permeates much of the rest of the film.

6. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – I expressed most of my thoughts about this documentary in my review of it, so I recommend reading that for a clearer picture of why I enjoyed it so much. Still, I’ll reiterate that the film, which explores all the ways that fate conspired to hand young indie director Richard Stanley the opportunity to create his lifelong pet project and then cruelly rip his dream from his hands through no real fault of his own, is definitely worth a watch, for artists and non-­artists alike. Stanley was standing on the cusp of a potentially great career, but hurricanes, stars’ personal tragedies, big egos, and Hollywood backroom dealing so thoroughly broke his spirit that he eventually spent months going native in Australia in order to escape from the artistic and personal trauma of it all, only for the production to find him again. A recounting of one of the most troubled productions in film history, this was definitely one of the best films of the year.

5. It Follows – “Aesthetic” has become a Tumblr buzzword of late, memetically taking on a life of its own to the point where simply posting the word under a photo of virtually anything is a joke in and of itself. I’m not some old bastard living up on a hill and complaining about this, but it has dulled the word’s meaning to the point that we are approaching a need for a new word to represent that which the word used to mean­­ in much the same way “epic” can be applied to anything from a nation-­building generation-­spanning narrative to Taco Bell meat wrapped in a giant Dorito now. While the word still means something, let’s talk about It Follows, 2015’s premiere indie horror movie that far succeeded expectations. Starring Maika Monroe (who was presumably created in a laboratory by scientists who couldn’t choose between replicating Brie Larson or Georgina Haig), David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore film is planted squarely in the aesthetics of 1988 in a way that elicits a warmness in me and takes me by surprise. I don’t necessarily think that It Follows is the best horror film in recent memory, although it is arguably the best of 2015 despite being more creepy than frightening; I simply find the tension of it to be less fascinating than its visual choices. It calls to mind other 80s­-appropriating vehicles that rely on nostalgia, but succeeds and captures more clearly that era than most despite being set in the present (or very near future): the kids watch nothing but old cartoons and B&W B­-movies on a television set with knobs (sitting atop an older console TV), they play Old Maid with cards from the 1970s, modern cars are seen only in the deep background, and, most tellingly, pornography exists only as magazines that look like they fell through a portal in time from 1978 (neighborhood boys spy on a teen girl in a bathing suit, as if any child with the internet could be so “innocent”). It’s like a product that falls just shy of being tailor­-made for me, right down to posters that would look great on the cover of a VHS box.

4. Cop Car – Saying that this film plays on nostalgia is a bit of a cheat, as it doesn’t make any direct comparisons to films of the past in the way that, say, Kingsman or It Follows does. However, in my review of the film, I mentioned that it seems directly inspired by the dark perspectives of the Coen Brothers, especially Fargo. Cop Car plays out most like that film in terms of its mostly cynical plot focusing on innocence lost because of poorly timed discoveries and seemingly harmless curiosity. There’s also a real attention to emotional honesty and investment that lend the film a verisimilitude that serves to heighten the emotional investment it solicits. I said more in my review of the film, so check that out for more.

3. Turbo Kid – Perhaps more than any other film on this list (with the possible exception of the following entry), Turbo Kid was a smorgasbord of eighties ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effect magic. The plot relies on a huge  narrative convenience, but it’s so much fun that it’s worth going along with.

2. The Final Girls – The nostalgia bait is particularly strong for me with this film, as it trades not only on my fondness for the slasher genre but also on my fondness  for my old hometown: Baton Rouge, here standing in for L.A. (I think). The Frost­Top shows up in this film, as does the Varsity Theatre, a building that I walked past every day for nearly a decade and which plays an important role as the location where the main “real world” characters get Last Action Hero’d into the film­-within-­the-­film Camp Bloodbath. There’s no lead-up to the moment where the crossover happens, and the fact that the film expects us to forget about the fact that Our Heroes escaped into the film while fleeing a horrible fire that likely killed dozens of others (as well as the presence of some truly terrible CGI) does some damage to the film’s credibility. Overall, however, as a send­up of Friday the 13th (et al) that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman and the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is well deserving of attention.

1. Queen of Earth – This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and ultimately isn’t intended to be in ascending order of enjoyment or objective value, except in the case of this film, which I found to be, within the limited number of new films that I saw this year, the best of the bunch. I detailed all the things I loved in my review, but I’ll briefly recapitulate here: two lifelong friends visit terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the woman slowly  becomes more deranged. This was my favorite movie of the year, and its 1970s aesthetic makes it work all the better. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Crimson Peak’s Giallo Treats

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A lot has been made about the genre mashups to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s most recent foray into horror: Crimson Peak. As Erin mentioned in her review, the film boasts an oldschool horror vibe that longingly looks back to the infamous Hammer horror productions of the 50s & 60s, while also recalling the romantic parlor dramas & ghost stories of the Victorian era. Indeed, those points of reference are worn proudly on the film’s sleeve. It’s impossible to look at the ancient, spooky, castle-like haunts that plague the film’s three central characters (played by Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Waskowska) without conjuring thoughts of the Hammer horror style. The romantic, Victorian ghost story aesthetic is referenced by Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist directly (along with apt name-checks for Jane Austen & Mary Shelly for good measure) because she herself is writing one & submitting it for publication. Something I could not stop thinking about while I was watching Crimson Peak, however, (and I’m sure I’m far from alone) was the stylistic influences of the Italian giallo genre of the 1960s & 70s, particularly the work of Dario Argento & Mario Bava.

While the narrative of Crimson Peak is much more closely related to the Hammer horror classics & Victorian ghost stories mentioned, the film’s visual palette & style-over-substance mentality are deeply rooted in giallo. I’m not talking the traditional murder mystery giallo films where the genre gets its name (though there certainly is a good bit of that), such as Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, but more of the spooky witchery in works that came later, like in Argento’s Suspiria. The most easily recognizable giallo element at work in Crimson Peak is the film’s lighting. Stark red, blue, green, and yellow lights clash in the film’s internal spaces as if Bava himself were alive & running del Toro’s lighting on set. Also present is Argento & Bava’s love of a gleaming straight razor just begging to slit a throat, as well as a masked, gloved, mostly offscreen killer shrouded in black-clad secrecy until the last-minute reveal. The giallo influences get more specific from there– be they the creepy dolls from Deep Red, Phenomena‘s fascination with close-up shots of insects, or the image of characters spying through keyholes, which is so prevalent in giallo that it appears in two of the genre’s recent pastiche tributes: Amer & The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

What’s most striking about Crimson Peak‘s giallo heritage, though, is just as elementary as the Mario Bava lighting, but also important enough to be referenced in the film’s title: blood. There is a ludicrous amount of blood in this film. Just ridiculous. It flows from the sink & the bathtub faucet. It seeps through the floorboards & runs down the walls. Characters cry blood. They cough it up. Snow is blood-red in Crimson Peak, as are the film’s beautiful CGI ghosts. I should mention here that most of this “blood” is actually the red clay that rests below the trio of central characters’ haunted household. The effect is, of course, intentional, allowing del Toro to fill the frame with absurd amounts of a thick, blood-red substance (stored even in gigantic bloody vats in the house’s basement/workroom), without relying on a supernatural source for it. It can be no mistake either that the film’s blood-red clay is much more akin to the vibrant hue you’d see in an acrylic paint or a ripe tomato. Giallo films were particularly fond of this cartooonish style of stage blood as well, tending to shy away from the more brownish hues of the real stuff.

So, if you happen to have any buddies out there who are huge giallo nerds & haven’t yet shown an interest in Crimson Peak (is that possible?) it might be worthwhile to shoot them a recommendation. The film’s tendency to value visual style over narrative substance should fit in snugly with their tastes, as should its over-the-top lighting & untold gallons of crimson blood. Of course, the film will play even better if these hypothetical giallo nerds also have a taste for Hammer horror & Victorian ghost stories. I’m sure there’s a great deal of overlap on that Venn diagram & the movie will eventually find a sizeable cult following, even if it currently isn’t doing so hot at the box office. It genuinely deserves it, if nothing else, just based on its visual accomplishments alone.

-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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twohalfstar
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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fivestar

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)

fourstar

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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three star

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

The Guttenberg School or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Gutte (in Just 5 Easy Steps)

While we were discussing September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, it was amusing to me that no one around here could muster anything cruelly negative to say about the film’s male lead, Steve Guttenberg. Once upon a time Guttenberg starred in a relentless onslaught of successful, but mediocre comedies (including Short Circuit, Three Men & a Baby, and far too many Police Academy sequels), amounting to a high profile on the Hollywood landscape that felt at best incongruous with the man’s modest level of talent & low-key natural charisma. Perhaps feeling that the Hollywood machine was pushing an undeserving everyman down their throats, moviegoers eventually reduced The Gutte to a sort of a fad & a punchline. Guttenberg has never been able to recreate the success streak he achieved in the 1980s & the mention of his name is more likely to elicit a mild chuckle than any more desirable reaction. Being slightly too young to remember a time when Guttenberg was a disingenuous cinematic omnipresence, I’ve always had a sort of mild ambivalence to the actor, but more recently I’ve discovered that I’ve grown to actually love seeing him pop up in unexpected projects. Nostalgia has been kind The Gutte. After enjoying his performances in a few of his stranger, off-the-beaten-path roles, I genuinely get excited whenever he’s involved in something worth watching. Detailed below are the five performances that shaped my personal path to learning to stop worrying and start loving The Gutte, hopefully serving as a guide to those who want to leave their Guttenberg hate in the distant past where it belongs.

1) Collaborations with Rob Thomas: Party Down (2010) & Veronica Mars (2005)

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The first time I can recall having a strongly positive reaction to Steve Guttenberg was in an episode of the (sadly defunct) television show Party Down titled “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday.” Within the episode, the titular catering service (featuring such talented comedians as Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, etc.) arrive at the swanky mansion of Steve Guttenberg (playing himself, of course) only to discover that he had already celebrated his birthday & forgot to cancel the catering. Not wanting the food to go to waste, Guttenberg improbably invites the crew inside to enjoy a wild night of drinking (fine vintage wines from his personal collection), philosophy, workshopping, and frank discussions of art. It’s an incredibly funny & endearing performance from Guttenberg, one that makes for one of the best episodes of the entire series (no small feat, that). I later discovered that this was not the first time Guttenberg had worked with Party Down‘s producer Rob Thomas. The Gutte was also a major figure in the second season of Thomas’ cult television show Veronica Mars, playing mayoral hopeful & monstrous reprobate Woody Goodman. It’s difficult to discuss much of Goodman’s story arc without spilling  the beans on a few of the season’s surprises (it was a mystery show, after all), but I will say that it gave Guttenberg a chance to play cold & sinister notes that aren’t normally afforded his normal roles as affable goofballs. In fact, both of Guttenberg’s collaborations with Thomas revealed aspects to his onscreen presence that suggest a depth of talent that’s gone shamelessly unmined (no offense to fans of Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol). It would be great to see more of this subversion of The Gutte’s usual schtick in the future, even if it only amounts to a cameo on Thomas’ current project, the far-better-than-it-should-be iZombie.

2) Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

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Thanks to a sublimely silly review by our own Britnee Lombas, I eventually discovered that one of Steve Guttenberg’s strangest roles was also one of his earliest. In 1980, The Gutte starred as a DJ/rollerblade enthusiast in the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music. Although as a musical act the Village People were designed to be a cynical cash grab aimed at the popularity of disco among homosexual audiences, the Village People movie is almost completely scrubbed of anything non-heteronormative (something Britnee & I discussed at length in our Swampchat on the film) and Guttenberg was used as the central bait & switch. Although the promise of Can’t Stop the Music is a film starring The Village People, it’s actually a film starring a then-nobody Steve Guttenberg, with The Village People (along with celebrity athlete Bruce Jenner) serving mostly as accessories & much needed dance breaks. Guttenbeg’s performance is mostly just serviceably dorky (and sexually incongruous) in Can’t Stop the Music, but he does hold one of the film’s best moments in the opening sequence. I dare you to watch The Gutte rollerskating to maddeningly repetitious lyrics about “New York, New York, New York” at the beginning of the film & not love the goof just a little, little bit. It worked for me, at least.

3) The Boyfriend School (1990)


By another suggestion from Britnee, I of course re-encountered The Gutte in the 1990 romcom The Boyfriend School. Well, “romcom” might be a little bit of a misnomer there. Long stretches of The Boyfriend School (aka Don’t Tell Her It’s Me) play like a horrifying exercise in cringe comedy, one that subjects Guttenberg’s protagonist to a long list of indignities that include Hodgkin’s lymphoma, being pressured into living a false identity, and getting goaded into committing an act of sexual assault. So much unsightly suffering is piled on Guttenberg’s protagonist (especially for a romcom) that I felt as if the film were somehow a punishment a producer was putting Guttenberg through to atone for the sins of his mid 80s omnipresence. As I put it in our Swampchat earlier this month, “Throughout the endless parade of embarrassments (especially in the first half of the film), my brain was screaming ‘This is Hell! This is Hell! Set him free!’ The Gutte may not have been exactly deserving of his ludicrously overblown success, but surely this punishment was a little rough for even him.” Guttenberg’s performance in the film is amusingly silly at times, especially in his post-cancer Uncle Fester makeup & his New Zealand biker alter-ego Lobo, but what really rings loudly in the film is a distinct sense of sympathetic suffering. I ended up liking The Gutte more after The Boyfriend School, if nothing else, just because I felt so sorry for him.

4) P.S. Your Cat is Dead! (2002)

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More than a decade after his 80s omnipresence, but years before his subversive turn on Veronica Mars, Steve Guttenberg found himself wrapped up in a personal passion project, P.S. Your Cat is Dead!. Much like with his turn as himself on Party Down, there’s a meta aspect of Your Cat that makes the film interesting as a Guttenberg oddity. Throwing on some nerdy glasses & unshaven Gen-X grime, Guttenberg plays a struggling stage actor & playwright who has recently reached a professional low with the failure of his one-man production of Hamlet. Following this blow, he loses the sole copy of a manuscript he’s been tirelessly working on & his girlfriend leaves him on New Year’s Eve. That’s not even to mention that his cat is deathly ill & currently receiving overnight treatment at the vet. All of this tension leads to The Gutte’s long-suffering artist to capture a burglar (& frequent uninvited visitor) in the act for a long night of psychological torture & surprisingly poignant exchanges that eventually leads to, surprisingly enough, deep-seated questions about his own sexuality. As far as labors of love go, P.S. Your Cat is Dead! is an interesting glimpse into what makes The Gutte tick. A small indie picture with homosexual connotations was never going to reignite Guttenberg’s career as a leading man, but it was still a picture he decided to star in, produce, and direct (his sole feature credit as a director), presumably because he was such a fan of the material’s origins as a play. P.S. Your Cat is Dead! is by no means a knockout, phenomenal picture (and honestly not all of the homosexual content has aged very well), but it is a low-key look at a different side of The Gutte, one that possibly could’ve enjoyed a career as a mediocre Woody Allen devotee. It’s likely to be the closest you’ll ever see the actor actually fulfilling the genteel artiste characteristics he’s assigned in Party Down, something I’ve honestly come to cherish.

5) Lavalantula (2015)

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Speaking of meta content, Guttenberg plays yet another actor in the recent Asylum mockbuster Lavalantula. I first heard of the 2015 CGI creature feature from our contributor Erin Kinchen in the Boyfriend School Swampchat, where she said, “[Guttenberg’s] latest credit seems to be for Lavalantula.  If you are thinking that this is a move about giant and horrifying lava spewing tarantulas, then you are absolutely correct.  Could it be a hidden gem in the land of self-aware, poorly produced B movies?  Could it be the movie we’ve all been waiting for to watch at 3:00 am while eating a whole bag of pizza rolls?  Maybe.  But probably not.” She’s not wrong. In a lot of ways Lavalantula is no better or no worse than other subpar Syfy titles like Piranhaconda or Sharknado 3. I will contend, though, that despite the quality of the film, Guttenberg comes across as oddly likeable in Lavalantula. His role as a washed up actor who used star in 80s dreck like Clown Cops (poking obvious fun at Police Academy) and nonexistent superhero movies like Red Rocket (a SuperGutte movie could actually be fun, now that I think about it), is a pretty amusing exercise in self-deprecating humor, especially considering exactly how washed up you have to be to star in a move about volcano-born spiders that drool lava & spit fireballs in the first place. Extended cameos from people like That Red Headed Kid From The Sandlot (Patrcik Renna, who looks more or less exactly the same as he did 20 years ago) & The Guy Who Does the Voices in Police Academy (Michael Winslow) only hammer the point home how far The Gutte has fallen. Yet, you can tell Guttenberg is having a blast poking fun at himself & his reputation.

The idea of fire-breathing spiders getting ejected from a volcano is mildly amusing at first, but wears thin at a feature length, so what stands out most about Lavalantula is how effortlessly likeable Steve Guttenberg really is. At this point, I can easily sit through an entire Syfy Original stinker just to spend more time with the goof, which is something I never could have done comfortably in the past. In just five projects or so, my conversion to a Guttenberg fan is alarmingly thorough, complete. Now, all I have to do is hope that someone out there is willing to put these odder, dare I say loveable aspects to his personality & range to good use on a worthwhile project, preferably something that doesn’t tease a Sharknado crossover in a throwaway “gag” or curse The Gutte with the visual tolls of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It could happen. It could!

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, check out our Swampchat discussion & last week’s comparison of the film to another horrific romance novelist romcom, 1989’s She-Devil.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Boyfriend School (1990)

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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 Britnee made Brandon and (newcomers) Erin & Boomer watch The Boyfriend School (1990).

Britnee: As a fan of uncomfortably terrible films, I was more than excited to select The Boyfriend School (aka Don’t Tell Her It’s Me) for September’s Movie of the Month. This is a film that was washed away with the other thousands of unsuccessful romantic comedies of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but it’s truly a diamond in the rough. What makes The Boyfriend School stand out from the rest is, well, just about everything. The film’s cast includes the crème de la crème of chintzy actors: Steve Guttenberg, Shelley Long, Jami Gertz, and Kyle MacLachlan. Who can resist a line-up like that? Throw in a crap ton of cringe worthy, knee-slapping moments, and you have one hell of a movie.

The film follows the sad, sad life of Gus Kubicek (Guttenberg), a depressed cartoon artist that just won a battle against Hodgkin’s disease. His overbearing sister, Lizzie (Long), is a romance novelist, and she is disturbingly obsessed with getting him a girlfriend. She decides to prey on a young journalist, Emily (Gertz), and attempts to force Emily and Gus to become a couple. It’s extremely difficult to sit through the first half of this film without doing a couple of facepalms. Every ounce of Gus’s embarrassment and humiliation seeps from the screen and into your soul, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Lizzie creates a persona for Gus, and he morphs from a chubby, hairless Average Joe into a hunky biker from New Zealand named Lobo Marunga. Guttenberg ends up looking like Mad Max and George Michael’s love child, and it’s absolutely amazing.

Brandon, what are your feelings on the love story between Gus and Emily? Should she have ran after him or away from him?

Brandon: Discomfort is certainly the story at the heart of this film & Emily The Love Interest had so, so many discomforting reasons to run away from Gus that the movie was honestly pretty gutsy to go for the traditional romcom ending at the airport than the much more appropriate option of a murder-suicide. At the risk of spoiling a decades old Steve Guttenberg vehicle for anyone who could possibly care, let’s get this out of the way: Gus violated Emily. He doesn’t come clean about not being Lobo until the morning after they slept together. That’s pretty fucked. The only time Emily met Gus as himself he was in full Uncle Fester cosplay (because of the cancer, God help our souls) and the two of them were force-fed jellyfish salad (a dish Emily humorously describes as “chewy tears”) in a scene that makes Shelley Long’s character out to be less of a romance novelist & more of a torturer whose techniques rival those of Vlad the Impaler or the Holy Inquisition. Even if Emily saw something in Gus through the façade of Lobo Marunga, she should at least have ran far away to escape his sister’s evil clutches.

The strange thing is that even though Gus is a certifiable monster for not coming clean before doing the deed, it’s still difficult not to feel bad for him because he starts the film as a visible monster. In the opening scenes Gus is a Hunchback of Notre Dame type who’s locked himself away in his seaside cabin to draw cartoons & die alone so his Jack Russell terrier can pick at his bones. It very well may have been his sister that motivated him to win his battle with cancer, but she uses his extra time on Earth to remind him of how sad & ugly the disease has made him as a means to try to whip him back into shape & “get himself out there”. No one comes across looking good in this exchange. Gus is is a horrifying shell of a man. His sister is a Type A sociopath who takes great glee in playing God. Emily is an astute journalist who can’t figure out that this dude (that she has met before) who is most definitely not from New Zealand is not from New Zealand. There are very few traces of dignity or humanity to be found in this film & the resulting cringe fest is oddly fascinating.

Erin, am I exaggerating here? Is this kind of absence of dignity or recognizable humanity normal for a romcom or does The Boyfriend School push the pained awkwardness into unusually morbid territory?

Erin: I have got to agree that this movie definitely pushed the boundaries of taste, even for a self-consciously cheesy romcom.  I’d almost categorize it as a cringe comedy, instead.  I can only hope that the actors protested their roles in this wreck of a movie.  It’s set in a strange and unrealistic world, a caricature of a reality populated by caricatures.  Yes.  Undignified and inhuman and inhumane.  The most real character is Annabelle, Gus’s toddler niece, who has a speech delay and has somehow survived Lizzie’s negligent and neurotic parenting.

Maybe we’re missing something with this movie, or there was a disagreement between the editing team and the director.  If the movie as watched is the intended product, then The Boyfriend School might be a comprehensible work if the watcher forgets the romantic comedy genre and watches it as an exploration of the universe of romance novels.  It has all of the hallmarks of a trashy novel: unrealistic universe mechanics, tragic back stories, completely unbelievable plot turns, romantically picturesque settings, unethical sexual encounters . . .

Boomer, what do you think? Were we mislead by marketing?  Is there any redeeming quality to be found at all in this movie?

Boomer: It took me nearly a week to track down a copy of this movie, and the copy that I did find was the kind of bare-bones affair rushed onto the market in the early days of  DVD to fluff up home video collections; in fact, it has one solitary “special” feature: the theatrical trailer, which I watched before the movie, out of habit. I’m not sure if it was the American market trailer, since it features the alternate title, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, but the narrative outlined in the promo recapitulates the film’s plot fairly well: unlucky man is made over into a precognitive Dog the Bounty Hunter cosplayer by his sister in order to win the heart of the girl of his dreams. The trailer does make Kyle McLachlan’s Trout character out to be more of an innocent in the end of his relationship, rather than the two dimensional cuckolder that he is in the film, and it fails to show that Gus will end up, as Brandon notes, violating Emily; the marketing is pretty straightforward in broad strokes and (mostly) in the details. At the end of the movie, I thought to myself, “Yes, that was certainly a movie.” The 1990s were the decade of the romcom, a short period in which so many films of the genre were made that the concept itself was subject to so much dilution and derivativeness that Meg Ryan went from starring in such straightforward love stories as falling for a rival storeowner in a remake of The Shop Around the Corner to being swept off her feet by angels and handsome timelost scientific pioneers (that was actually 2001, but you get the picture). As a cultural artifact, The Boyfriend School is charming in its simplicity and straightforwardness, if not necessarily in its subject matter.

As Emily says to Lizzie near the end of the film, the former hates the latter in the abstract, but can’t hate her in the flesh. I would wager that this is true of virtually any character played by Shelley Long; she’s just an intensely likable actress with a great sense of comic timing, and it’s hard to be certain that the enjoyment I got out of this movie would have been present without her. Long brings an effervescent effusiveness to a role that would likely play as more malicious had Lizzie been portrayed by another actress. Jami Gertz is also quite charming here, despite the fact that her character is paper-thin. During the time it takes Gus to grow a full head of hair, learn to poorly impersonate a Kiwi, lose those horrible face prosthetics that are supposed to simulate illness, and sweat off all the cotton stuffed around his waistline, what do we see Emily doing? Shaving her legs. We don’t see anything of her relationship with Trout, or her working on a different story (at one point Gus does read an article of hers about snakehandling, the first paragraph of which is actually about that religious practice, while the rest is advertising copy about desktop publishing software–great job there, propmaster), and yet I felt her character was likable in her sweetness, if a bit obtuse, even before the film felt the need to go full Liz Lemon with her mud-sprayed, torn dress airport run. Even Gus, a handsome creep played with discomfiting ease by Guttenberg, comes off as hatable in the abstract but not the flesh, and, to his credit, Gus is only at Emily’s the night of the violation to come clean about his double identity, although he stops putting forth an effort on this front almost immediately, for the sake of plot contrivance.

If anything, it was the tight plotting of this movie that struck me as a pleasant surprise, especially in a film with such low stakes, so to speak. In contrast to a lot of the romcoms that followed in the next ten or so years, there’s not a single wasted line or moment, and there are a lot of subtle touches and ironies that I found to be inspired, or at least novel. The film introduces the “Unkow” clue and the fact that Lizzie’s dog only likes Gus early in the movie, with a kind of deft subtlety that belies the over-the-top facade of a somewhat high concept story. Lizzie is constantly trying to impress upon Anabelle the potential consequences of her adorable but dangerous random childlike actions, but she fails to foresee the consequences of her own meddling in things that she shouldn’t. She even mentions that she has to get Gus to the metaphorical last page of the bodice-ripping romance she’s constructing in her mind; for her, what matters is getting to that final paragraph of sexual conquest, and what happens afterwards is irrelevant because, in her novels, nothing happens next. It’s a formulaic, cookie-cutter movie, but with the kind of foreshadowing and payoff that you wouldn’t expect from a movie sharing shelf space with other forgettable fare like Something to Talk About, Addicted to Love, or Simply Irresistible (why were so many of these movies named after songs, anyway?).

Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough about a movie that’s, by and large, pretty inconsequential, despite featuring a brief scene between Beth Grant and a life-size demonstration doll with questionably accurate anatomy. What about you, Britnee? How do you see this film fitting into the milieu that was the romcom ocean of last millennium’s last years? Is it a precursor, a relic, or a non-starter?


Britnee:
Even though I really enjoy this film (for all the wrong reasons), I would have to say that when compared to the romcom scene of the 90s, it’s nothing more than a dud. The film does try hard to be great by playing on the popular “don’t judge a book by its cover” love story, where the nerd gets the hot girl in the end, but as we all know, it leans more towards being a psycho in disguise horror-type film. What really hurt this film (among other things) and caused it to be a romcom failure was the hard-to-believe romance between Gus and Emily. You can’t have a solid romantic comedy without the romance. When she initially meets Gus as himself, she has no romantic or friendly feelings for him, and Gus merely makes a few compliments on her “playboy model” looks. What causes him to go after Emily is his twisted sister, who pushes him to win Emily’s heart for her own sick pleasure. A couple of heartfelt exchanges after Lizzie’s disastrous dinner would’ve made all the difference. Even when Gus becomes Lobo, there still doesn’t seem to be much going on between the two. None of Gus’s personality shines through in his Lobo character. He does have a couple of vocal slipups, but he doesn’t give Emily a reason to fall for him, which really ruins the creditability of the “romantic” ending scene. He violated her and she didn’t really care for him to begin with, so why is she going after him? Big mistake. Huge.

I first came across this film on late-night cable, and the main reason I tuned in was because I noticed that Shelley Long’s name was in the TV Guide description. I’m a huge Shelley Long fan, so I wasn’t going to miss this one. Strangely enough, it wasn’t Shelley that won me over; it was Guttenberg’s horrible New Zealander caricature. In real life, Guttenberg looks, sounds, and acts like someone who would own a candy shop or run a summer camp, so seeing him head to toe in leather, whispering to himself, “I am Lobo. I hunt alone. I need no one,” is beyond hilarious. Even when he’s plain old Gus, there’s just something about his signature Guttenberg mannerisms that make the character unforgettable.

Brandon, do you think Guttenberg did well in his role as Lobo/Gus? Does he contribute this film’s failure or is he without blame?

Brandon: Here’s where I have to cop to genuinely enjoying Steve Guttenberg. It helps that I am just a few years too young to remember a time when he was this unlikely, but oddly ubiquitous leading man that was legally required to star in every movie offered to him no matter the quality. I have the fortunate position of remembering The Gutte as an odd cultural footnote. It’s fascinating to me to see him play parts like the mayor with a secret on Veronica Mars or the pot-smoking DJ in the Village People movie or even his own charming self on Party Down. He’s not a particularly versatile actor, but he is a pleasantly goofy one. Somewhere along the line, I’ve somehow learned to love The Gutte, God help me.

I think that’s why it hurts so damn much to see him in the cancer survivor Uncle Fester make-up, the embarrassing leather daddy New Zealander chaps, and the lowly position of Shelley Long’s whipping boy in The Boyfriend School. I felt as if the film were a punishment someone was putting Guttenberg through to atone for the sins of his mid 80s omnipresence. Throughout the endless parade of embarrassments (especially in the first half of the film), my brain was screaming “This is Hell! This is Hell! Set him free!” The Gutte may not have been exactly deserving of his ludicrously overblown success, but surely this punishment was a little rough for even him. Y’all were right to call The Boyfriend School out for being more of a cringe comedy or a psycho in disguise horror than a romcom, but I find it also plays like an act of penance. Even in the film’s trailer, which Boomer mentioned earlier, where the Gutte is talking directly to the camera (looking like his normal, healthy, non-Kiwi self for longer than he does in the entire film), I can feel the menacing presence of someone slightly off-screen holding a gun to his head & pointing at the cue cards.

Erin, do you think it’s time that we as a society let Steve Guttenberg back into our hearts? Now that he’s served his time in the squalid prison of The Boyfriend School, what kinds of roles (if any) would you like to see him play?

Erin: I can understand how The Gutte earned his spot in the limelight – his completely non-threatening, boy-next-door good looks, his passable skill with goofy comedy, and his string of not-too-terrible 80s movies.  Not to discredit what I’m sure was lots of work, but it seems like The Gutte benefited a bit from right-place-right-time syndrome.

His current career has been hit and miss . . . well, actually, after appearing in Veronica Mars ten years ago, mostly miss.  His latest credit seems to be for Lavalantula.  If you are thinking that this is a move about giant and horrifying lava spewing tarantulas, then you are absolutely correct.  Could it be a hidden gem in the land of self-aware, poorly produced B movies?  Could it be the movie we’ve all been waiting for to watch at 3:00 am while eating a whole bag of pizza rolls?  Maybe.  But probably not.

I’d love to see Steve Guttenberg reclaim his career with a well produced family comedy (The Gutte as a slightly befuddled dad? Sure!), then maybe take on slightly more adult dark comedy roles that explore the world of the aging baby-boomers as they navigate a world vastly different from their heyday.  The Gutte takes on Tinder and deals with the death of his close friends?  Is that past The Gutte’s range?  I’d like to think not.

Boomer, do you see any room in our current movie environment for a Gutte-back?  Are his current roles due to some fault in talent, natural Hollywood career trajectory, or are we simply seeing a man taking the projects that make him happy?

Boomer: There is something to be said for Guttenberg’s natural charm. I, too, remember his sinister turn on Veronica Mars as yet another in a long line of adults who couldn’t be trusted, a wealthy man whose privilege made him feel above morality; somehow, this role felt well suited for him, despite his charm in movies like Police Academy, the Three Men and a Little X flicks and even, God help me, Cocoon. As an actor, he has a charisma that helps him sell characters that are despicable, either intentionally (as on Mars) or unintentionally (as in The Boyfriend School). Earlier, I praised Long, saying that another actress in the role would have made Lizzie seem more sinister, but that dubious accolade could be ascribed to Guttenberg just as easily, and his contribution to making Gus likable in spite of the character’s flaws can’t really be ignored.

Which is not to say that I’m suffering from a lack of Guttenberg in my life, at least not in the way that I miss seeing Shelley Long in vehicles that show off her charm (her occasional appearances on Modern Family notwithstanding). But I could stand to see him in something new. He could put in an appearance as relatively obscure character given new prominence in an upcoming Marvel film, for instance; there’s no dearth of those coming out, and it could give him the visibility he needs to resurrect his career. Personally, I think I’d like to see him in a role more like Michael Keaton’s in Birdman, where he tackles a thinly veiled version of one of his former characters in a serious, postmodern way. The Boyfriend Academy, perhaps? Or maybe Three Men and a Divorcee? If the Vacation movies aren’t sacred, perhaps nothing is.

Lagniappe

Brandon: When I said earlier that there’s very little humanity for the audience to identify with in this film, I may have been selling Gus’ aforementioned, nonverbal niece Annabelle a little short.  Known to her mother by the hideously cruel nickname “Piglet”, Annabelle is a bizarre collection of quirks just like every other character in the film, but she does have the very relatable impulse to escape the confines of The Boyfriend School‘s sadistic universe (and the evil clutches of Shelley Long) by ending her own life. Whether she’s shoving metal into electrical sockets or ingesting toxic household products, I totally understand Piglet’s desire to leave a world that can be this unkind to a man as simple and as goofy as The Gutte. Thank you for speaking up for the audience, Piglet, (even if you couldn’t use your words) when you repeatedly asked that they shuffle off this cruelest of mortal coils.

Britnee: Something I forgot to mention in the Swampchat was the short, strange appearance of zydeco music in the film. Shortly after Gus enrolls in Lizzie’s “boyfriend school” and starts getting into shape, all the fun 80s film pop is set aside to allow a few minutes of zydeco. Watching Guttenberg run to zydeco made my little Cajun heart very happy, but it really threw me for a loop. It was such a weird choice of music for a running scene, but I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised because, afterall, this is a weird movie. A weird movie with a little heart and loads of discomfort.

Boomer: I was surprised to learn that the screenwriter of The Boyfriend School, Sara Bird, was also the author of the book on which the film was based, and she was named by The Austin Statesman as Austin’s best author in 2011. It’s hard to conceptualize that this accolade could be applied when School is, overall, a fairly mediocre movie, but I can see that the tight plotting of the film probably mirrors a more complex structure in the original novel. That having been said, this film gave us Beth Grant tonguing a lifesize mannequin, so it’s not without some value. I probably never would have seen this movie were it not for this Swampchat, and I can’t say that it changed my life, but it did give me a new perspective on the genre, so I’d have to say I appreciated the opportunity to view this little oddity.

Erin:  The Boyfriend School is definitely a strange movie.  I think that it definitely seems like a novel in the characterization and pacing.  Purely speculation, but I think that some of the creepiness would be mitigated if presented in written form since we would be able to understand some of the thought processes of the characters.  It’s actually pretty interesting for a self-referential trashy movie.

Upcoming Movie of the Months
October: Erin presents Innocent Blood (1992)
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew

An Ill-Advised Journey through All Craptastic Four Fantastic 4 Adaptations

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It’s gradually becoming conventional wisdom that you simply cannot make a watchable Fantastic 4 movie. For two decades running Hollywood has failed rather miserably to adapt Stan Lee’s/Jack Kirby’s half-goofy/half-gritty characters into a successful feature film, despite having much better luck with other Lee/Kirby designs such as Iron Man & The X-Men. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Fantastic 4 specifically that is so difficult to competently capture on film, despite the wild commercial success of other superhero properties. What is certain, though, is that despite the disparate variety of approaches, no adaptation has won over fans of the comics or even casual movie goers looking for mindless escapism. And it’s somehow still likely that there will be even more shoddy attempts to adapt this property in the future, despite the four already-raised red flags. Listed below is a brief review of every Fantastic 4 feature released so far, hopefully to serve as a guide for the morbidly curious.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

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three star

Perhaps the most infamously troubled Fantastic 4 adaptation of all also happens to be the one I enjoyed the most. A Roger Corman production from the mid-90s, the original Fantastic 4 movie is often rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights that he eventually put to grander use over a decade later with the 2005 adaptation. As a result to these backscene shenanigans the Corman picture never saw an official release. To this day, the film can only be viewed through bootleg VHS copies & less-than-legal YouTube uploads. There’s even a documentary in works called DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (which I’m dying to see) that’s supposed to recount the entire troubled production & intentionally bungled release, which are, in short, a jumbled mess.

What’s most surprising about this mucked-up non-release is that it’s actually a really fun picture, much unlike the three adaptations that followed. Corman’s production ignores the insanely popular trend of Burton’s Batman pictures & intentionally reverts to a time when comic book movies were still made for children. 1994’s The Fantastic Four plays like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon. Even Dr. Doom’s surveillance setup & pack of obedient goons recalls the evil Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget more than it does any other villain I can name. Sure, the costumes & effects employed here were way behind the times even for 1994 & the film was easily distracted by subplots that involved not one, but two will-they-won’t-they love stories as well as some less than compelling & entirely tangential jewel thief goblins that must’ve wandered from the set of Ernest Scared Stupid by mistake, but that’s all part of the movie’s hokey charms.

When viewed as a children’s movie instead of how we think of modern superhero fare, Corman’s The Fantastic Four is a fun little modestly-budgeted movie. There are some great cheesy lines like “Hello, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny & Susan go out into space with us?” & [flying a spaceship] “Using turn signal. Turning right.” The cheapness of some of the effects can be fun in a campy way, especially in the psychedelic outer space transformation scene where the group gains their powers (where the background looks like something you’d expect to be projected behind The Doors) & in Doom’s hand-drawn space palace. There’s also some really awkward twists on the Fantastic 4’s core members’ group dynamics, like in the revelation that Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards knew Susan “The Invisible Woman” Storm as a little girl who she had a crush on him (gross!), Ben “The Thing” Grimm’s self-hating depression cycles turning him into a silent film bum, and in an over-explained monologue that reveals that each of the 4’s powers are reflections of their personalities, (something that’s much more subtly hinted at or assumed in the films to follow). Corman’s stab at adapting The Fantastic 4 is far from a perfect picture, but it is at the very least a mildly enjoyable slice of mid-90s children’s media with a fascinating context given its troubled production & lack of an official release. That’s more than you can say for any of the other films listed here.

Fantastic 4 (2005)

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onehalfstar

If Corman’s goofy adaptation sorta worked in its decision to chase the goofy, kids’ media bent of the Fantastic 4 universe, the 2005 adaptation that it made possible fails miserably because it makes no decisions at all. The mid-00’s Fantastic 4 is remarkably bad, just awful. Even more-so, it’s a prime example of what’s terrible about Hollywood’s chase for the PG-13 movie, a grey blob of un-creativity meant more to hit every possible demographic in their wallets more than it is meant to entertain. It tries to mimic the childlike goofery of the Corman film in lines like “Why the long face?” (directed at a stretched-out Mr. Fantastic, of course) & “That’s my nose. This is my face, genius,” (in a scene where an invisible Sue Storm is being sloppily kissed, of course), but also attempts to appeal to salacious old men in a gag where Sue (played here by 00’s sexy symbol Jessica Alba) is left publicly embarrassed in her underwear, ripe for the oggling. The 2005 adptation has its foot one in, one out, trying to juggle Corman’s children’s movie with the adult Burton Batman aesthetic; it drops the ball on both ends.

One of the strangest aspects of the film is that even though it arrived with an outrageously larger budget more than a decade after Corman’s picture, its effects were not nearly as impressive. Corman’s The Fantastic Four may have looked cheap, but at least it looked cool. The only practical effects used in the 2005 film are in The Thing’s prosthetic costume, which I gotta admit I thought was kinda cool-looking in a hand-made way (although the awfulness of Michael Chiklis’ labored voice work ruined that effect). Everything else looked stuck in the late 90s, especially in the transformation scene where the crew mutates into their newly powerful bodies, where the CGI was barely a step above an old-school screensaver.

The CGI wasn’t the only thing stuck in the late 90s, either. Further solidifying the movie’s cynical grabs at the perfect PG-13 market, Fantastic 4 is crawling with dirt bikes, snowboards, pop punk, and antiquated rap rock, gasping its final breaths here in the twilight years of its heyday. Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is essentially a live-action Poochie in his 2005 incarnation, appealing to all of the cool, radical kids out there who are too X-treme for the establishment. The movie also indulges in some X-treme marketing in a single, extended scene that finds room for ad placement for ESPN, The X Games, Red Bull, Burger King, Pepsi, Sobe, Mountain Dew, Dos Equis, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. It was dizzying. There’s something very telling in that sequence’s love for X-treme branding as nearly every minute of the movie that surrounds it feels just as hollow & desperate to make a buck.

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

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Despite the mixed reviews, narrative bankruptcy, and all-around awfulness of 2005’s Fantastic 4, it was still financially successful enough to garner a sequel. X-treme marketing really works, y’all! There’s a reason studios are chasing those sweet, sweet PG-13 bucks. Two years after Johnny Storm won The X-Games, Fantastic 4 returned to the silver screen, this time with a Silver Surfer in tow. The sequel is somehow even more awful & empty than the first, its narrative hinged on a much-delayed wedding between Mr. Fantastic & Sue Storm that no one could possibly care about. The Silver Surfer is an interesting character (voiced here by Lawrence Fishburn) who threatens to shake things up with his space alien aesthetics & threats of world destruction, but the movie is largely uninterested in this line of thought.

What it is interested in is repeating itself. Rather than trying to tell a worthwhile story about its titular villain , Rise of the Silver Surfer aims to tell more goofy jokes (with even fewer that land) and make room for more nonsensical asides, like in a sequence where Mr. Fantastic & The Thing both bust moves on the dance floor at a bachelor party for that all-important wedding, making me question the value of living another day . . . or at the very least watching another Fantastic 4 movie ever again. Besides some surprise cameos from folks like Brian Posehn & Kerry Washington (not to mention a not so surprise cameo from Stan Lee as himself, even though he played a mail man in the first film), Lawrence Fishburn’s competent voice work, and a needless sideplot where the 4’s powers are switched around in a gag that felt hokey even for Scooby-Doo (2002), there’s just really not much to distinguish this film from the first. It feels like an exact repeat of the not-at-all satisfying formula that came two years before, complete with yet another gag where Jessica Alba is left naked in public, complaining “Why does this always happen to me?” It’s a moment almost existential in its pleading desperationg, prompting me to ask it of myself as a member of the movie-going public. Why?, indeed Jessica. Why?

Fant4stic (2015)

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twostar

Although Corman’s Fantastic 4 film is the adaptation most widely known for its troubled production, the version that’s currently running in the theater may one day give it a run for its money. Although director Josh Trank won a lot of superhero fans over with his debut film Chronicle, they’ve quickly abandoned ship with the release of his much higher profile follow-up. To give you some perspective on just how much critical abuse the latest Fantastic 4 film is receiving, just take into consideration that it currently boasts a dismal 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the much more infamously reviled (and not even officially released) Corman movie is carrying a 33% on the same site. According to Trank, the film’s problems could mostly be blamed on studio interference after 20th Century Fox reportedly hijacked the production in order to, in their eyes at least, limit damages & save face. It’s difficult to say if the final product would have been more successful if it were left completely in Trank’s hands, but there’s definitely enough going for it that indicates a decent Fantastic 4 film was at some point in the works here before it was hideously derailed. Trank claims that his original, unaltered cut of the film was a much better product than what was delivered, but that remains to be seen.

What actually reached theaters is not an entirely shoddy film, however. At least not in the first half. The beginnings of 2015’s Fant4stic (hey, if they’re going to spell their shit that way on the ads, they have to live with it) feels like a kids’ movie in a way very much unlike how Corman’s film did. The idea of children getting in over their heads while building teleportation devices in their garage using stacks of N64s and other dated electronics calls to mind a wonder-struck Spieldbergian kids’s flick or maybe Joe Dante’s Explorers or JJ Abrams’ Super 8. Much like with a lot of recent non-MCU superhero films, though, Trank’s Fant4stic succumbs to the mood-spoiling temptations of post-Dark Knight grittiness. During an early scene, The Thing’s family name “Grimm” flashes in neon, serving as an early warning of the Nolanisms to come. It might as well have read “Gloomm” or “Broodd”.

As the Spieldbergian tykes transform into disgruntled teenage nerds, the film gradually became a slog of very sciency lab montages, who-cares struggles with military figureheads, and knowing looks of teenage lust & self-hatred. This transformation wouldn’t be so bad if it actually built to something significant, but the film completely derails after the 4’s superpower-gaining transformation scene and never really gets started in any significant way. In short, it’s a total nonstarter. By the end credits, reminders of flashes of promise in the film’s cast, which included Miles Teller, Tim Heidecker and (voice of Homer Simpson) Dan Castanella feel so distant that they’re almost unbelievable. I was left in the darkened theater with one all-consuming thought: “What happened?”

The two characters that are seemingly hardest to get right on film are The Thing & Dr. Doom. Part of what makes the newest Fantastic 4 film so frustrating is that it gets them both so horribly wrong. The Thing’s 100% CGI body is much more of a yawn than his practical effects looks in the earlier films & his silly/infamous “It’s clobbering time!” catchphrase is one of the Nolan-spoiled elements in play, as it is delivered by a physically abusive family member (whereas in the other film’s it’s first heard as a cheeky action movie one-liner or through the speakerbox of an action figure). Also bungled here is Doom. In all craptastic four films listed here, Doom is burdened by the prolonged build of the origin story format and, thus, afforded very little time to rock his metal face & hooded cape look. He gets the most screentime in Corman’s film, but even then he’s often obscured by that behind-the-chair Dr. Claw angle. In the 2015 version, since Doom isn’t shown in his full glory until very late in the film, audiences mostly know him as an angry Redditter type, the kind who rarely bathes & is very concerned with the “ethics in gaming journalism” or whatever. He’s grotesquely misused.

Perhaps the absurdity of Stan Lee’s & Jack Kirby’s collaborative aesthetics are just too at-war with our current Dark Knight gloominess. The most enjoyable moments of the latest Fantastic 4 film are when it reverts back to the childlike wonder wholeheartedly embraced in Corman’s adaptation. There’s even a couple full-on goofy moments, like with Johnny Storm’s X-treme love of Fast & Furious style street racing, or the way Sue Storm’s energy shield is at one point employed as a Hamster Ball of Justice. For the most part, though, the movie is sank by a crushing lack of imagination despite its high concept & well known characters. Watching the Fantastic 4 waste their time in the alternate greenscreen universe of Planet Zero or buck against the tedium of government interference is way more of a chore than it should be, very far removed from the unhinged silliness that made Corman’s film mostly enjoyable. I don’t think the 8% score on the Tomatometer is accurately indicative of the film’s overall quality, as it was a much better picture than the X-Treme branding of 2005’s picture & its weak echo of a sequel, but it does reflect a frustration I personally felt. The first half held so much promise. The second delivered so, so little.

-Brandon Ledet

Babe is the Undisputed King of Cinematic Talking Pigs, but Who are the Pretenders to His Throne?

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It’s fairly well established that the Babe franchise is height of live-action, talking-pig children’s media. If you ask someone, “Hey, what was that movie with the talking pig?” it’s highly likely that Babe will be the response. The technical achievements of the first Babe film alone (which include animatronic puppets designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop & an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects), mark it as the height of quality in talking pig media. That sense of movie magic wonder is backed up by a fantastic, effortlessly affecting script (adapted from a 1983 novel called The Sheep-Pig), as well as a intense fever dream of a sequel, our current Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Pig in the City. Babe is an impossibly cute little swine with an angel’s singing voice & a heart of gold that unites even the most disparate of beasts across species lines. In short, he is talking pig perfection.

Of course, being the king of any genre is going to attract some pretenders & Babe has more than his fair share. Starting as soon as the first Babe film’s 1995 release date, there have been multiple live-action piggies looking to wean off some of its swine-adoring audience. I’ve found four pretenders to the Babe throne, all of varying quality. None were fit to shine the king’s hooves, but a couple were at least mildly enjoyable.

The four Babe pretenders are listed below in order of their release dates, hopefully serving as a guide for which ones to avoid in the case that two perfect Babe features weren’t enough to satiate your talking pig needs.

Gordy (1995)

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Gordy, the original pretender, is a movie so slick in its Babe-usurping ambitions that it even beat the first Babe film to the theaters by a few months in 1995. Considering the length of Babe‘s production & the high-profile nature of its visual effects vs. the all-around lackluster quality of Gordy, I feel it’s pretty safe to assume that the latter was a mockbuster rushed into production in order to beat Babe to the punch, delivering shoddily-constructed cute pig antics before the true king arrived. Gordy is the most blatant Babe imitator & also one of the least enjoyable. It’s just an absurdly empty picture, relying on a cutesy, seemingly made-for-TV farm life aesthetic complete with line dancing & a honky tonk soundtrack. Even Gordy‘s visual effects pale in comparison to Babe‘s, relying on an ancient, possibly peanut butter-aided Mr. Ed effect to simulate its talking farm animals.

The best thing Gordy has got going for it is its titular piggy, which I’ll admit is a cute little bugger. As the film awards Gordy front-page publicity as a “hero pig” (for saving some rich dude’s grandson from drowning in a swimming pool of all things) & dresses him up in adorable costumes for a photoshoot (as a scuba diver, a professor, a surfer, etc.) it become increasingly apparent that the pig’s natural cuteness is all the film had in mind. As I mentioned in my exploration of the horror film Pigs, there’s a narrative focus on makeshift families that feels oddly ubiquitous in all pig media (perhaps due to the inherent domesticity of farm life) and both Gordy & Babe participate in that angle. Like with everything else, Gordy’s journey to unite two single parent families (including one headed by an uncomfortably creepy country singer) is much less satisfying than Babe’s struggle to fit in on his own farm. The only entertaining aspects you’re likely to find here is a couple chuckles in seeing Gordy in the scuba gear & in scenes where he teaches human children to understand pig talk, which apparently is a talent reserved for “people who take the time to understand animals, especially the pure of heart.” Blech.

My Brother the Pig (1999)

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As thoroughly empty as Gordy is, it still doesn’t represent the depths of live-action pig cinema. Things get much worse. The straight-to-DVD 1999 comedy (in name only) My Brother the Pig offers even less than Gordy in the way of entertainment and calls into question exactly how films this terrible make it to completion, especially considering the volume of them that are made for pint-sized audiences. Do we really hate children this much? The movie’s only saving graces are in the odd sensation of watching a teen Scarlett Johansson & Eva Mendes starting their careers in hopelessly mindless dreck.

In My Brother the Pig a 13 year old ScarJo struggles to live with her rascal little brother & pristine co-ed nanny, all the time believing that she doesn’t get the love & attention that she deserves. In all honesty, she deserves shit. Her brother may be annoying but at least he does mildly interesting things from time to time (like hosting food fights set to late-90s ska) instead of endlessly complaining like a spoiled brat. Anyway, the mischievous little bro activates some magic crystals through some kind of spilled ice cream spell and is unexpectedly transformed into a pig. This prompts a road trip to Mexico in order to visit Mendes’ family, who happen to be “keepers of the animal spirits.” I promise you it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds. My Brother the Pig only barely even reaches the basic “talking pig” requirements of this genre thanks to the transformation (which “amusingly” leaves him with a pig’s tail) and a particularly silly rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. It’d be more than forgivable if you skip this one entirely.

Animal Farm (1999)

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three star

Just one month after My Brother the Pig‘s home video release, 1999’s Hallmark adaptation of Animal Farm aired on cable television. Unlike Gordy & My Brother the Pig, Animal Farm is actually pretty decent. It’s far from the technical achievement of Babe, but it does feature a nice mix of talking animal techniques, including all three approaches in the genre: animatronics, CGI, and the good, old-fashioned Mr. Ed trick. Just like with Babe, the animatronic puppets featured in Animal Farm were provided by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. And they look pretty great, especially for a made-for-TV production. The sheep, collies, pigs, geese, and horses also call into mind a similar scenario as Babe, but it’s a more-than forgivable similarity, especially considering those animal’s real-life ties to farm life as well as the fact that Animal Farm‘s source material outdates The Sheep-Pig by nearly four decades.

One of the immediate differences you’ll notice between Babe‘s talking pig & those of Animal Farm is that George Orwell’s creations are much more grotesque & realistic than cute. Instead of the adorable voice work provided by the immensely talented (and, unfortunately, recently deceased) Christine Cavanaugh in Babe, the pigs in Animal Farm boast intense, booming voices. They pose themselves as intellectuals, authority figures, and (as the story goes) cruel bullies that are worlds away from Babe’s loveable personality. The kind wisdom of Kelsey Grammar’s voice work softens the portrayal of swine just a tad in the picture, but for the most part pigs are terrifying monsters here with their own authoritarian brutality as well as black & white propaganda footage. I’ll give Hallmark a lot of credit there: they actually put a lot of effort into preserving Orwell’s well-known story for the screen, not at all softening its violent edges for young audiences. For instance this is the only film in the genre where threatened trips to the butcher’s block for pigs are actually fulfilled. Overall, Animal Farm‘s a pretty decent adaptation of an important, but perhaps too-familiar work, far better than what I was expecting based on its pedigree.

Charlotte’s Web (2006)

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threehalfstar

Speaking of surprisingly well-executed adaptations with source material that predates Babe’s The Sheep-Pig origins, Nickelodeon’s 2006 take on E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web is actually pretty great as well. It’s hard to say exactly why this version of Charlotte’s Web works so well on its own, but it does feel the most distinguished from Babe in terms of the talking-pig genre, so it at the very least it sidesteps a lot of comparative scrutiny. Even the state-of-the-art puppetry of Babe is entirely avoided here, replaced by the omnipresent use of CGI that has dominated children’s media in the past decade. I am usually turned off by this kind of CGI-dependent kids’ media, but I still ended up finding Charlotte’s Web to be the most enjoyable live-action, talking-pig film that didn’t feature Babe, the genre’s undisputed king.

I’m willing to attribute Charlotte’s Web success to the casting just as much as the inherent charm of the source material. Dakota Fanning plays Fern competently & the “humble”, “terrific”, “radiant” piggy Wilbur was voiced by relative unknown Dominic Scott Kay. It’s the rest of the animal personalities that really makes the movie work. Julia Roberts is greatly cast as the gentle, titular spider, as is John Cleese as a pompous sheep. Other voices include Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates, Andre 3000 & Cedric the Entertainer. That’s quite a ridiculous crew. What really holds the film down, though, is the all-too-perfect decision in hiring Steve Buscemi to voice Templeton the Rat. There’s some corny “children are better listeners” bullshit echoed from Gordy here (which most likely borrowed that sentiment from White’s novel) as well as some lame humor in the film’s repetitive fart jokes & lines like “What the hay?!” & “I guess the yolk’s on me”, but Buscemi’s turn as Templeton as well as the decision to remain faithful to the source material made the film an enjoyable little diversion, just barely more entertaining & distinct than 1999’s Animal Farm. And a lot less creepy.

There might be something to be said about the fact that the best three live-action, talking pig films were all adaptations of pre-existing novels. The narrative slightness of Gordy & My Brother the Pig at the very least prove that a cute pig alone is not enough to carry a film (duh). Still, there’s something special about Babe & Pig in the City that the other two enjoyable adaptations listed here don’t even come close to touching in terms of quality & rewatchability. Babe is the king. No matter how enjoyable, the film versions of Charlotte’s Web & Animal Farm are merely the best among the pretenders to his throne.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre, and last week’s look at its companion in live-action, pig-themed horror, Pigs (1972).

-Brandon Ledet

The Subtle Terror of Babe 2: Pig in the City vs the Straightforward Terror of Pigs (1972)

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Although the idea of talking pigs in children’s media is not at all uncommon, Babe 2: Pig in the City is distinctive from its verbal swine brethren at the very least in its eagerness to terrify its pintsized audience. The only live-action talking-pig children’s movie that even comes close to Pig in the City on the terror scale is the 1999 made-for-TV adaptation of Animal Farm & even that horror show is softened a bit by the kindly wise voice of Kelsey Grammar. For more true pig-themed terror you have to look beyond Pig in the City‘s kids’ movie genre & venture into the seedy world of adult horror cinema. Horror flicks like Razorback & Chaw typically look for menace in the wild boar instead of the domesticated pig, which is a little besides the point here. 1972’s Pigs (alternately titled Daddy’s Deadly Darling) is about as literal you can get in the quest for pig-themed horror, delivering exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse, from a grindhouse exploitation film about flesh-eating pigs distributed on home video by infamous schlock-peddlers Troma.

There are of course innumerable, immediate differences in what you’ll find in these two wildly different features. The pigs in Pigs don’t talk (or think much for that matter). They’re also the main source of the movie’s terror, whereas in Pig in the City Babe is a unifying force that helps a hodgepodge gang of animals buck against the terrors of the outside world. Also, while Babe 2 is an adventurous film that explores expansive, otherworldly landscapes, Pigs rarely leaves the disgusting slop of its sty. That’s not to say, however, that they’re entirely separate form one another, at the very least thematically speaking.

Pigs is entirely faithful to its 70s schlock format, perhaps even painfully so. In its opening minutes, for instance, it powers through the rape-revenge plot of typical 70s exploitation fare in a (thankfully) breezy bout of exposition that does little more than get the requirement out of the way early. The Horror Movie Victim, Lynn, stabs her father to death after an attempted rape and is committed to a mental institution when she fails to cope with what happened. Thus completes her brisk transformation into an Escaped Horror Movie Crazy. Once on the lam, Lynn finds herself vulnerably alone in a seedy small town (much like how Babe is abandoned among reprobates in The Big City) where she quickly takes up a waitressing job at a bar owned by a fellow Horror Movie Crazy, who happens to have the curious hobby of murdering people & feeding their corpses to his pigs. There is an occasional subversion of schlock tropes here in that his flesh-eating pig farm is treated like no mystery & that instead of sizing Lynn up as a potential victim, he forms a makeshift family with her, essentially becoming her new father figure. Other than that, Pigs plays out almost exactly as you’d expect based on its genre & date of release.

Reading between the lines, there’s a surprising amount of connective tissue here. Both Pig in the City & Pigs have a strangely psychedelic quality to them that disorients their audiences. Pig in the City is, of course, more graceful in this effect, using a wide-angle lens POV of a child’s eye to overwhelm the screen with clowns, fires, confetti, and Nazi-esque dogcatchers. Pigs is much cruder in its psychedelia, assembling bizarre montages of pigs squealing while the heroine-murderess Lynn loses her mind. As the pigs feed on human corpses, their mouths soaked in blood, quick jump cuts & strange sound collages throw the viewer off-balance in unexpected ways, especially considering how cheap (in every meaning of the word) the film can be.

What’s even more surprising is the two films’ shared narrative focus on how familial bonds can be formed from the unlikeliest of sources, whether they be a roving gang of starving animals or a pair of mentally unhinged sociopaths who feed anyone they consider a threat to their pet pigs. The focus on familial bonds may be a result of the pig’s historical role as a farm animal & the farm’s domestic tradition (it’s a theme that’s certainly echoed in all of the non-Babe, pig-themed children’s media I’ve seen as well) or it could just be a simple coincidence. Either way it’s a theme that connects seemingly unreconcilable films otherwise related only through their live action pig subjects & the fact that they’re terrifying. If there’s ever a remake of Pigs (and anything’s possible in today’s remake market, mind you) it could up that terror factor even more by giving its flesh-eating pigs the power of speech. Especially if it keeps the squeal-laden freakout montages. There’s a lot a film like Pigs could learn from Babe 2, but a talking pig that also eats human flesh really sounds over the top in a way that I can get behind.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet