Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Stephen Soderbergh is the ultimate one-for-me-one-for-them director, but it’s still unbelievable that the final film before his (first) announced retirement was going to be a made-for-TV biopic. Seemingly fed up with the indignity of begging for funding for proper movies and the general corralling of proven auteurs to the limbo of Prestige Television, Soderbergh announced that he was bowing out of the game entirely. That “retirement” didn’t last long. If anything, he’s more prolific than ever now, having found a way to pump out a steady stream of heady low-fi genre experiments powered by smartphone cameras & celebrity actors’ goodwill. As always with Soderbergh’s career, there’s something slyly cheeky about the suggestion that he might’ve retired on a made-for-TV biopic, though; it’s as if the choice of project and the timing of the announcement were themselves a statement on the current state of the movie industry. Of course, that doesn’t mean he phoned in his work on Behind the Candelabra; it’s just as crowd-pleasing & devilishly self-amused as any of his other, better-funded films.

It helps that Behind the Candelabra isn’t so much a birth-to-death biopic as it is a chronicle of one specific, fucked-up romance that typified Liberace’s love life. Recent glammed-up biopics of outrageously costumed musicians (think Rocketman, Stardust, and Bohemian Rhapsody) have strained themselves limp trying to emphasize the Rock Star Magic of their subjects while sticking to the exact lifeless formula that Walk Hard parodied over a decade ago. Behind the Candelabra instead takes that alluring glam persona for granted, plainly presenting Liberace’s glittery hair pieces, disco-ball pianos, and on-stage limo arrivals without any stylistic embellishment behind the camera. The most the movie goes out of its way to underline the majesty of those Vegas showroom performances is in including the wide-eyed audience who ate it up with childlike wonder. It’s a glittery presentation that still mesmerizes even in its fictionalized recreations, and by the time Liberace declares “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” at the emotional climax it’s a tough point to argue against. Of course, those performances are only a small portion of runtime, as the title invites us to witness a much uglier performance behind those glimmering stage curtains.

Beyond the curdled vintage camp, the fabulous sequin capes, and the plastic surgery gore (!!!), the film is most worthwhile for its two central performances. Michael Douglas gets to return to the sexual menace of his erotic thriller era as an already-famous, ferociously horny Liberace in his middle age years. Meanwhile, Matt Damon goes full Dirk Diggler himbo as the pianist’s naïve teenage (ha!) boyfriend, who’s taken on more as a house pet than as an equal. Once the novelty of daily champagne bubble baths with his glamorous idol wears off, Liberace’s lover starts to question just how much personal freedom he’s given up to live a lonely life of wealth. The over-decorated mansion they share is populated only by a disapproving staff who act more as prison wardens than friendly faces. The relationship rapidly declines once Liberace pressures his young ward/fucktoy to get plastic surgery to look more like his biological son (or a Dick Tracy villain, depending on your perspective); it’s an eerie undercurrent of body horror that crescendos when Damon shouts “He took my face!” in horrified acceptance of how much of himself he’s given up to accommodate the Glam God who runs his ever-shrinking world. It’s a pain that stings even worse when he realizes that he’ll eventually age out of his usefulness to the much older man, and there’s a replacement waiting in the wings to start the cycle all over again.

For the most part, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t do much to test the boundaries of the TV Movie as an artform. Soderbergh skips the pageantry of an opening credits sequence, occasionally goes meta with trips to movie sets & the Oscars, and concludes the somewhat dour drama with a show-stopping musical number, but for the most part he’s pretty well-behaved. If Behind the Candelabra is to be contextualized as a Soderbergh Experiment the way most of his movies are, it’s merely in the fact that he made a TV Movie at all. Maybe the idea of being stuck in television productions for the rest of his career was enough to make him want to retire (or at least take a break from the press), but the results are mostly as sharp & slyly playful as most of the one-for-them pictures he makes for the big screen. The performances, the costume & set design, and the jarring mix of high/low, dour/camp sensibilities are all wonderfully realized, and I’ve seen plenty of much better funded, Oscar-winning biopics about glamorous musicians do much worse with their glut than what’s accomplished here.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night Stalker (1972)

It’s that time of year again: every time you turn on the television, A Christmas Story is playing. I don’t have cable and haven’t in something like six years, and I don’t even think I’ve been in a place that did have cable in over a year (although given that I’ve barely left the house in nine months, that figure is bound to be skewed), but even without access to TNT or TBS, I know that right now, as I write this (although perhaps not as you read it), Alfie is deciphering an advertisement for Ovaltine hidden in his Little Orphan Annie program, or he’s turning in his thesis about what a responsible gun owner he would be, or saying something that’s similar to “fudge” as lug nuts scatter in the road. But this Christmas season, I’m asking you to think about my favorite Darren McGavin role, which is much greater than “father obsessed with a sexy lamp.” I want to tell you about Carl Kolchak, the unlikeliest vampire slayer.

The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1972. It was a ratings smash, prompting a sequel telefilm, The Night Strangler, which in turn led to the creation of one-season wonder TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (confusing, I know, as the titular night stalker of the first film is the villain), which I’ve sung the praises of in a few different episodes of the lagniappe podcast with Brandon. Kolchak was an early influence on the genre of mysterious urban fantasy/sci-fi on television, although I don’t think it would fall very easily into that category (think X-Files, not Dresden Files*). What it is, above all things really, is a noir, with all of the tropes of the 1940s adapted for a trashier 1970s world: it’s ambiguous as to whether Kolchak’s girlfriend is a prostitute or a showgirl (or both), the traditional noir voiceover is here embodied by Kolchak’s omnipresent journalistic dictaphone narration, etc. And did I mention that the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Carl Kolchak is employed as a reporter by the Daily News, operating out of Las Vegas, albeit reluctantly according to his long-suffering editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who claims that Kolchak’s continued unlikely employment is owed solely to a soft spot on the part of the paper’s owner. As we later learn when Kolchak is talking to his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), he’s been fired twice in Chicago, once in New York, twice on the West Coast, and, somehow, he was fired from three different papers in Boston. Whatever the journalistic equivalent of an ambulance chaser is, that’s Carl Kolchak, and although “sleaze” isn’t the right word for what he’s got, he cuts a particularly slovenly figure in his powder blue seersucker jacket and straw porkpie hat. He spends his evenings driving from crime scene to crime scene as directed by the police scanner, often arriving at the same time as backup, and he’s forever throwing himself right into the middle of the action with his camera with no regard for his own safety. He’s a complete disaster, and I love him.

Our feature opens with the murder of a swing-shift casino cashier as she walks home alone at night, which turns out to be only the first in a string of slayings—and exsanguinations—of young women, all at the hands of someone oddly strong. Things get even weirder when a hospital is robbed of its entire blood supply, and the local law enforcement briefs the press with the news that the latest victim of the serial killer was bitten on her neck, that the body was completely emptied of blood, and that there was human saliva in and around the wound. Kolchak tries to file a piece with “vampire killer” in the headline, and although he makes it clear in the body of the article that there’s simply a killer on the loose who’s suffering from the delusion that he’s a vampire, Vincenzo refuses to print it. It’s only when Gail starts to express concern that Carl might end up running afoul of a real life vampire that he starts to consider this as a possibility, which is further cemented when Carl arrives at the scene of a second blood bank burglary in process and watches a man fight off nearly a dozen cops and shrug off multiple gunshots.

The Night Stalker clocks in at 72 short minutes, which I must assume is an average length for TV movies of that era, and it’s a perfect little time capsule of mishmashed genres and tones that come together in an unlikely, brassy symphony. What I love about Kolchak, the show, is that our title character occupies a world in which every single person that he encounters is shockingly hostile, from fellow reporters to every LEO that crosses his path to random citizens who happen to be on the same sidewalk. Carl Kolchak is a walking magnet for two things: supernatural weirdness and people on the verge of boiling over, and it really gives the impression that every person in an urban environment in the early seventies was a ticking time bomb. The broad strokes of the show that is to come exists here in this early feature form: Vincenzo will carry over into the show (albeit as the editor of the International New Service based out of Chicago, were the series was set), and Kolchak’s stable of informants are here in a primordial version as well: the coroner with the big mouth, the switchboard operator with the weakness for a Whitman’s sampler, Bernie the FBI buddy with who’s willing to give the benefit of the doubt—you know, the usual suspects.

It’s not hard to see why this was so successful as a telefilm, or why it had potential as a franchise. I mean, a TV movie of the week where two sweaty, middle-aged men, one with a potbelly, defeating a vampire isn’t necessarily such stuff that dreams are made on, but despite what one must assume was a fairly minimal budget, there are several great action sequences. Although the climactic defeat of the undead is fun, I was very impressed by the hospital scene in which vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) fights off a several hospital employees, including one orderly being thrown out of an upper floor window in some nice stunt work for the time, followed by a shockingly well-executed bit of automotive choreography as several police cars and even a motorcycle cop glide around in an alley.

Other than the increased budget (you’re not gonna see Kolchak going Baja across lanes of traffic in the show, or an intense six-car ballet like you do here, and the occasional defenestration, such as in the opening of “The Trevi Collection,” creates the action through editing, not practical effects), there’s one other thing that the film has over the show, which is that its presumption of finality allows the film to fully commit to having a bleak, noir ending. We see, multiple times, that modern (or at least contemporary, as this was produced fifty years ago) police forces are just as incapable of defending the neon-filled oasis of Vegas from an old world vampire as a Transylvanian village, and they’re hopelessly outmatched despite their manpower and firearms. This makes for an interesting backdrop, as each skeptic is forced to accept the reality of the situation, and Kolchak shares his knowledge with law enforcement. In the end, however, despite the authorities’ full understanding of the situation, they use the threat of an arrest for homicide of Skorzeny to run Kolchak out of town permanently. His bags are delivered directly to the D.A.’s office where his lawkeeping nemeses wave a warrant in his face, present him with the supernatural-free article that they’ll be running instead of his correct piece, and tell him not to bother trying to reach Gail, as they’ve already ejected her from Vegas as an “undesirable element.” It’s a grim conclusion for our newspaperman, who has seen the truth and had it denied by the powers that be, and we close on his recollection of the events with the narration telling us that Carl and Gail never found each other again.

Of course, as an audience, we know that Kolchak will have many** more adventures, but it’s a fittingly depressing final note for our hero, all things considered. Ironically, had this not done so well, this would have been Kolchak’s end, and while I’m glad it wasn’t, had this been all the Kolchak that the world was given, it would still be solid.

*I’m just kidding. No one thinks about The Dresden Files.

**Well, one season’s worth.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016)



James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, the film is easily the most outrageously entertaining  work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do on Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

In the mid-90s version of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, Tori Spelling plays a perfect teen daughter who falls head over heels for a bad seed her mother suspects to be a thug & a murderer. It was a fairly standard rehashing of the classic “road to ruin” B-pictures of the 1950s, which was essentially Lifetime’s bread & butter in its heyday and the exact kind of crap that made that channel’s original content memorable in the first place. Franco’s remake finds a way to blow all that to hell while still paying respect to its source material’s basic aesthetic appeal. The essential plot overview is still the same here –an overly nosy mother (this time played by Spelling) worries that her teen daughter is falling for someone who could lead to her ruin; and she turns out to be right! — but the major details are replaced to heighten the absurdity of the scenario: the daughter’s dangerous love interest is a lesbian vampire and it’s her sapphic coven of undead “nightwalkers” that pose a threat,not her. What we have here is star-crossed lovers being torn apart because they’re from different worlds: box wine suburbia & bloodsucking lesbian murder covens, respectfully. Its tragic romance is something out of a Shakespearean play, an element Franco’s production plays up by centering the film around a Shakespearean play, specifically Macbeth. Life is but a stage & Franco seems intent on masturbating in every corner of that stage, an impulse that plays beautifully in the made-for-TV schlock landscape.

You’d be forgiven to find some James Franco projects a little insufferable for their artistic pretensions (you’d certainly have a lot of projects to choose from there; the man never sleeps). That pretension totally works in this garbage bin smut context, though. In the film Franco himself plays a college campus theater director staging a girl-on-girl erotica adaptation of Macbeth, with the film’s director, Melanie Aitkenhead, sitting at his right hand, nodding approvingly. The two cohorts gleefully eat up their own slash fiction filth from the comfortable distance of a theater audience. There’s a comment on the artificiality of the whole production built into that device, but it’s mostly a nod to Franco & Aitkenhead knowing & enjoying the exact kind of campy smut they’ve staged here. There’s also a couple college classroom lectures our danger-sleeper-wither protagonist attends titled “Vampires & Sexuality” and “Virginity & Sisterhood” that casually dig up thematic implications like homophobia & teen sexuality in titles like Dracula & Twilight with no intention of actually exploring those topics in any insightful way. Franco, who receives a “story by” credit here on top of being an executive producer, constantly reminds the audience that he knows how to make a smart, poignant vampire picture; he just happens to be more interested in making very softcore sapphic porn.

The one way Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? might be mistaken for something mildly insightful is in its depiction of college campuses as a dangerous hellscape for young women. Although it’s true that a gang of fanged lesbians dressed in Hot Topic lingerie are out to turn our troubled protagonist into a “nightwalker,” they are mostly treated as an afterthought in light of the film’s true villains: men. In order to ethically sustain themselves on human blood, our spooky The Craft knockoff vampire coven feeds on frat house rapists & dude bro Redditor types, of which its college campus setting has plenty. This moral center unravels under even the slightest scrutiny, though. They murder rapists, sure, but they leave their victims’ drained bodies next to the girls they were going to assault, carelessly setting them up to take the blame. That’s hardly model vigilante behavior, but what’s even worse is that when they accidentally turn the film’s most egregious example of toxic rape culture into a nightwalker, they just accept him as one of their own and allow him to go about his usual predatory business. It’s probably not too smart to dissect this film’s thematic trajectory, honestly. It’s much less of a thoughtful, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night style of vampire flick than it is a trashy Jennifer’s Body-type. Despite what Franco’s play-within-a-play self reflection might invite you to believe, it’s most likely best to enjoy the film for its laughable melodrama and its purty pictures.

Speaking of purty pictures, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is damn ugly, just truly hideous stuff. Of course, due to its subject matter, it’s hopelessly buried under what I consider the absolute worst era of pop culture aesthetic: late 90s nu metal/mall goth. The film’s Charmed/Twilight/Disney’s Descendants Spirit Halloween Store cosplay was almost entirely unavoidable, though. What really stands out is its endless establishing shots of bland drone-POV cityscapes, its watery-purple stage blood, and its Dr. Phibes by way of a Halloween-themed T.A.T.U. music video masquerade parties, all just perfectly hideous in a way only television can get away with & not get called out for it. It’s tempting to assume that the film’s visual cheapness was an intentional means to point to its own artificiality, like the college lectures or the Macbethean play-within-a-play machinations. The truth is, though, that the film is naturally hideous because it’s so damn earnest. If it were a more ironic production it likely would’ve tried avoiding its television-ugly genre trappings, but this is one remake that stays true to its dirt cheap Lifetime roots, a shoddy authenticity that helps sell its intrinsic camp pleasures beautifully.

It’s a well-informed balance between heady subject matter & campily melodramatic execution that makes Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? such a riot, a formula that holds true for all of Lifetime’s most memorable features whether they focus on co-ed call-girls, wife-mother-murderers or, in this case, lesbian vampires. This film has the gall to approach topics as powerful as grieving over familial loss, coming out to your parents, and the horrors of date rape, but does so only as a means to a tawdry end, namely inane mother-daughter shouting matches & young, lingerie-clad girls making out in spooky graveyards. It’s wonderfully trashy in that way, the best possible prospect for made-for-TV dreck. If when you were watching Refn’s fashion world horror The Neon Demon you wished it were instead cheap & awful, this film’s fashion photography montages & horrendous pop music are going to blow your trashy mind (also, you are ridiculous). If you think Ren Faire goth never got its fair shake as an aesthetic turn-on, you are about to get all worked up by this TV-14 smut (with little to no payoff, of course). If when you were watching the Paul Rust/Gillian Jacobs romcom Love, you found yourself curious what the fictional show-within-a-show witchcraft drama Witchita might feel like instead, you are in luck, you silly thing.

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? only appeals to the basest of your television pleasure zones, assuming that if you tuned in for a Lifetime movie, you’re in the mood for some really trashy shit. The one thing it changes up from the normal formula is that it mixes its awful Tori Spelling-brand acting (she really has not improved an inch in the last two decades; she’s impressively stubborn in that way) with some stubby-fanged, throat-tearing gore (it’s not called Mother, May I Sleep with Safety?, after all). Throw in some supernatural baloney about vampires never needing to feed if they find their one true love (no word on if that’s reversed if it winds up being just a college fling), some of the world’s sloppiest blood-eating, and a few stray howler lines like “I’m going to turn you into a nightwalker, bitch!” and you have one strange, campy delight. Again, Franco & company trust that if you show up for this picture in the first place, you’re going to be down for some tawdry smut along the way. They’re not wrong. I had a lot of shameful, lowbrow fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Praying Mantis (1993)


three star

In a radio interview conducted earlier this year, Jane Seymour said that she took the title role in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman due to the fact that she had learned just the day before that her third husband, David Flynn, had spent all of her money and left her 9 million dollars in debt. Her agent informed her that it would be in her best interest to take the very next television role that came along, as this would allow her to earn a steady paycheck to support herself and her children and begin to pay off this deficit. The show ended up running for several years and was quite popular in its day, with an enduring legacy that brought us a television film wrap-up and a recent Funny or Die sketch that brought back many of the actors from the show’s run. Dr. Quinn also holds a special place in my heart as well, as it instigated the first argument I ever had with my family in which I knew I was morally correct: I was staying with my grandmother during the airing of an episode in which the town preacher wants to burn a book (presumably Faust) in which a man sells his soul to the devil. My grandmother was insistent that, for religious reasons, “we must be careful about what we put into our minds”; I was equally insistent at age 7 that burning books was a moral evil. I was punished pretty severely, but I knew I was right.

With that personal anecdote out of the way, let’s talk about Praying Mantis, a 1993 TV movie directed by Seymour’s fourth husband, James Keach, whom she likely met on the set of Sunstroke the previous year. You may know Keach as the man who gave Jane Seymour all of those oddly shaped diamond pendants every Christmas for the past few years. Did you notice that there weren’t any of those commercials this year? Yeah; they split up in 2015. To be fair, 22 years is a long time for a Hollywood couple to be together. I picked up the VHS copy of Praying Mantis a few years back based on the cover image alone: a bride in a wedding dress stands with her back to the camera, clutching a large knife behind her. The film also stars Barry Bostwick as her newest victim, Dr. Quinn co-star Chad Allen as his son, and Frances Fisher as the sister of Bostwick’s late wife, who has been living with the family.

The film opens with an expository scene in which Seymour’s character, Linda, marries a man and then murders him immediately after the ceremony (once they have established that she talks about her father all the time and that she convinced him to have a small ceremony without any attendees). She then sets her sights on Don (Bostwick); he owns a small bookstore chain, and she poses as a romance novelist looking to research Russian history for her work. She slips into his life and ingratiates herself with his “teenage” son Bobby (Allen), whose mother passed away a few years before. In the interim, the departed woman’s sister, Betty (Fisher), has lived with the father and son and acted as a mothering influence on young Bobby. Betty is almost immediately suspicious of Linda when the latter unwittingly reveals that she doesn’t know that Anna Karenina is a novel, but she eventually succumbs to Linda’s attempts to lure her back to her alcoholism. Don throws Betty out, and she sees a news item that lends credence to her theory; can she warn him before he becomes Linda’s newest prey?

Even if you didn’t know from the outset that this was a made-for-TV movie, it would be obvious in the film’s opening moments, wherein we see terrible lighting issues, hear cheap music, and bear witness to opening credits created using the same font as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although there’s a reasonable amount of tension generated over the course of the narrative, this is still a very by-the-numbers lady killer story, a kind of genderswap The Stepfather produced for a Lifetime audience. Although it’s impossible to say so definitively, my guess is that Seymour probably agreed to participate for the same reason she signed on for Dr. Quinn: fast money. She sleepwalks through this project, meaning that the heavy lifting is mostly performed by Fisher, who is up for the task and manages to put a lot of subtlety into her performance. If you catch this movie on TV late one night, it might be worth a viewing, but I doubt it’ll ever rise out of obscurity enough to warrant the remastering necessary to show this film on anything other than VHS. The thrills are fun but ultimately have no staying power.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet



Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014)


three star


Do I have a soft spot for talking animal movies or something? Earlier this year I found perverse entertainment in the talking dog pro wrestling movie Russell Madness and then presented the talking-pig-saves-the-day epic Babe 2: Pig in the City for our August Movie of the Month selection. And now I’m here to report that the Lifetime Original Movie Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever isn’t actually all that bad. “Not actually all that bad” is far from high praise, I know, but for a made-for-TV movie about an internet meme in which the main character repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to complain about how awful the movie is, it’s a fairly surprising distinction. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever knows exactly what kind of movie it is & doesn’t pretend to be anything more. It self-references its protagonist’s meme fame by adopting I Can Haz Cheezburger font for multiple gags. It willingly points out when it subs a stunt puppet for the real Grumpy. It “jokingly” promotes Grumpy Cat merchandise with little to no pretence. When its self-described “sappy melodrama” plot kicks into high gear, Grumpy complains “Don’t get sappy on me. Oh wait, I forgot. It’s a Lifetime Movie. Go ahead.” Self-deprecation & self-referential humor can sometimes be low hanging fruit, but it kinda works for this movie, given the limited possibilities of its Grumpy Cat: The Movie premise.

I guess a lot of what saves Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever from being the worst movie ever is in the casting of Aubrey Plaza as Grumpy Cat’s voice over (and as Aubrey Plaza in a sound booth). Just like when Plaza played a live-action Daria Morgendorffer in a spoof trailer comedy sketch a few summers back, the casting just makes way too much sense. Her comedic persona is basically of a human cat, right? Her wry, detached, disinterested sense of humor sets the bar so underachievingly low here (in a good way!) that it’s always possible for the movie to succeed. The plot involves some kind of depressive Gordy situation where only one grumpy preteen girl can hear Grumpy Cat talk. This girl gets mixed up in a small-time heist situation involving two rock & roll douches & a Peep Beep Meme Creep mall cop dweeb. While she thwarts their evil deeds Grumpy Cat shows zero interest in getting involved in the goings on. She just sorta riffs on the idiocy of the plot, hanging back, essentially life-tweeting/hate-watching her own movie. Imagine a family comedy with its own MST3k commentary built in, but skewing to a younger crowd & you pretty much get the picture.

Even though it aims a younger audience, though, the movie manages to get a few subversive jabs in there. It introduces its shopping mall setting as “a soul-sucking bastion of consumerism which serves to drain people’s bank accounts and alienate them from the true meaning of life.” Plaza also injects a lot of her own comedic persona into the role, especially in the way she calls her costars “terrible human beings” & “witches”. There are plenty of non sequitur asides distracting from the plot, but the most fucked up of all is a brief tangent in which Grumpy Cat is sentenced to prison (the pound) & promptly executed (put down). Quite the light-hearted gag, that. Worse yet is an exchange after the whole botched heist ordeal concludes & Grumpy Cat’s human’s mother asks her formerly-grumpy child, “Those guys didn’t do anything to you, did they?” & Grumpy Cat responds “That’s a different kind of Lifetime Movie.” I know this is a movie about a cat with a mean streak, but yikes. That one’s got bite.

For the most part, though, the moments I enjoyed most about Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever weren’t subversive at all. The film works best when it embraces its own hokey stupidity. When Grumpy is propped up in front of a green screen to simulate driving, flying, setting off explosions, or going Rambo with a cat-sized automatic paint gun are dumb & simple enough to get by on their own half-assed charm. My favorite moment of all in Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, though, is Plaza’s line-reading of “We’re in a movie!” during the film’s action-packed climax. It’s a sublimely dumb moment in a thoroughly dumb movie about “the Internet’s biggest cash cat”. In 2014, Grumpy Cat seemed to be doing a lazy, half-hearted victory lap, soaking up the last of her short-term fame in moves like appearing on Monday Night Raw & starring in her own Christmas movie. Anyone tuning in for a dumb made-for-TV Christmas movie about a cantankerous cat should be well-prepared for what’s delivered here, especially considering how the film warns you of its emptiness with early onscreen references to Keyboard Cat & Nyan Cat (come to think of it, Lil Bub was snubbed). Grumpy Cat’s  Worst Christmas Ever doesn’t ask much of itself, which is oddly enough what makes the whole thing work in its own diminutive way. Well, that & Aubrey Plaza, who is delightful in her refusal to be delightful.

-Brandon Ledet

Jenifer (2005)



Steven Weber is not a movie star. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Every time I see him, all I can ever think about is his character from Wings, a sitcom that ran for the better part of a decade and then was syndicated for the entirety of my formative years. I can only see Brian Hackett. Even when Weber is supposed to be Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s poorly overproduced miniseries remake of The Shining, or whatever his character’s name was in that Larry David movie that Larry David hates, he’ll always be slacker Brian Hackett to me. The inverse is also true; Argento is not a director who should be bound by the limits of the small screen, as was seen in Do You Like Hitchcock? and here. Apparently Weber has a talent for screenplay writing, which he exercised here in this first season Masters of Horror episode, adapting a horror story from a 1974 issue of Creepy: “Jenifer.” This is also Dario Argento’s return to America after Trauma, which he chose to shoot in what he described as “featureless Minnesota” for presumably thematic reasons that I still don’t understand. All discussion about his crumbling auteurship aside, it can never be said that Argento does not put all of his energy into his work. The Masters of Horror DVDs are some of the best you can ask for, featuring hours of special features for each episode, including interviews with actors who worked with the director of that episode earlier in his career as well as featurettes and other behind-the-scenes footage; here, it’s really evident that Argento, despite being in his sixties at the time, is working just as hard on this one hour film as he did on the exalted films from earlier in his career. It’s just too bad that the end product isn’t really all that worthwhile.

Frank Spivey (Weber) is a police officer who shoots and kills a derelict when the man refuses to drop the giant blade he is holding to the neck of a woman whose face is unseen. With his dying breaths, the man warns Spivey that he can’t comprehend what he has done, before Spivey sees the face of the woman he rescued and recoils in horror. Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming), as we will learn she is named, has an attractive body but a terrifyingly hideous face, featuring enlarged and asymmetrical black eyes and a malformed mouth full of jagged teeth; she also drools profusely and her tongue appears to be covered in food bits at all times. Spivey becomes obsessed with her despite her appearance, inviting her to stay in his home while they look for her family. Things start to go awry almost immediately, as Jenifer gorily eats the family cat, prompting Mrs. Spivey and the couple’s son to leave the home, but Jenifer and Spivey begin to have sex and Spivey seems addicted. When he cannot curb Jenifer’s cannibalistic outbursts (which culminate in the killing and eating of the little girl who lives next door), Spivey moves Jenifer to a cabin in the woods and takes a job as a shelf stocker at a grocery store operated by a single mother (Cynthia Garris). Jenifer can’t help but kill yet again, eviscerating and feeding upon the entrails of the shop owner’s teenage son (Jeffrey Ballard). Realizing that he can never stop her, Spivey takes Jenifer into the woods to kill her, but is shot by a hunter before he can complete the deed; Jenifer goes with the hunter, to begin the cycle anew.

Jenifer succeeds in one way that Argento’s previous films didn’t: Jenifer herself is positively grotesque and disgusting. As in the original comic story, there’s never an explanation given as to where she came from or why she does what she does, although Argento imagined that she was an alien life form of some kind and instructed the makeup department accordingly, making this the first and only appearance of an alien life form in his body of work to date. I mention this not only because it is noteworthy, but because much of the short itself is not. Everything interesting about Jenifer is revealed and discussed in the supplementary materials, not in the text proper, which is a problem. The plot is paper thin, and the fact that this is apparently a recursive narrative is the only thing that makes it notable at all. Of the two television projects that Argento worked on in 2005, this one manages to be stronger than Do You Like Hitchcock? in its sense of style and its lush Oregon landscape, but this is still a paper-thin plot about a man whose sex drive is stronger than his will to live or his oath to protect people, which makes him difficult to care about. Although it is apparent that Jenifer is warping his mind somehow from the moment the two meet, we spend no time with Spivey before this event, so we have no way of knowing if he was ever a decent cop and good father who is turned by his weakness to his lusts, or if he was always as pathetic as he is presented to be at the conclusion.

Masters of Horror was always better in concept than in action. In practice, it seems that most of directors invited to be part of the series were past the point where they or their points of view could be said to have any cultural relevancy. The BTS materials demonstrate that Argento was somewhat hamstrung by the sensibilities of the network, even though you’d expect Showtime to have a loose hand. A monstrous woman with a hideously deformed face but great breasts eviscerating and feasting upon a cat and a seven year old girl? Fine. But show her chowing down on a victim’s penis? Too far! According to Howard Berger, who designed and applied the prosthetics and makeup for Jenifer, Argento also asked him to design a horribly alien murder vagina, which he then crafted out of chicken parts and prosthetic teeth; Showtime nixed this idea as well. And frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that. At the time of filming, Argento was still physically directing his actors, acting out how he wanted them to move and react to things like a person truly passionate about their craft; he was also trying to push the boundaries of horror and good taste, taking no prisoners and holding back nothing in the pursuit of an artistic endeavor. But not being able to realize his perversely horrifying or horrifyingly perverse ideas isn’t really the problem with the final product. Passion isn’t imagination, or talent, or relevance. It’s vital but insufficient, and the problems with Jenifer are that it’s just too blasé, too 1990s The Outer Limits, too television. Jenifer herself will give you nightmares, but that’s the discomfort of the uncanny valley, not tension. The story is repetitive despite its short run time (“Will Jenifer kill again? Yes.”), and it has no staying power.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)



Way back when I first started working my way through the films directed by Dario Argento, I opened my review of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage with a reference to  the early U.S. promotional materials for that film, which banked on the connection between the young Italian director and Alfred Hitchcock. The quotation from Hitchcock cited therein, that he found Argento’s work to be troubling, fascinates me, especially as Argento himself was known at the height of his career as the Italian Hitchcock. As I reach the end of Argento’s C.V., I have to note that this comparison is reductive and does a disservice to both men. Even at their worst, Hitchcock’s stories always made sense, and his reprehensible antihero protagonists were viewed from a distance that was sufficient to allow the audience to have ambivalent feelings about them. For instance, famously, the intent of the scene in which Norman Bates pushes a
car into a bog was designed to elicit an anxious reaction when the vehicle failed to sink, because part of you wants him to succeed. After three and a half decades directing films, Argento was finally able to go full Hitchcock in this tepid made-for-tv picture.

The film opens with an utterly inconsequential sequence in which young Giulio (Elio Germano) is riding his bike in the woods before stumbling upon two women, who make their way to an abandoned shack. He spies on the two through the window as they excitedly slaughter a rooster and dance about in its blood. They discover him peeping and chase him away, screaming after him that they will catch him eventually (they don’t). We then see Giulio in the present day; he’s now a film student working on a thesis about German expressionism, whenever he can tear himself away from peeping on his neighbor, Sasha (Elisabetta Rocchetti), in various states of undress. He also bears witness to Sasha’s frequent altercations with her mother. One day, while visiting his local video rental outlet, he notices Sasha and a blonde woman, Federica (Chiara Conti), both attempting to rent Strangers on a Train. Sasha ultimately rents the movie, but promises to bring it back the very next day so that Federica can have her turn. Giulio befriends the slacker shop owner, Andrea (Ivan Morales). A few nights later, an intruder enters Sasha’s home and kills her mother. Because Giulio had previously seen Federica and Sasha laughing together in the park, he becomes obsessed with the idea that they’ve entered into a murder pact, Strangers on a Train style.

Giulio’s girlfriend Arianna (Cristina Brondo) thinks he’s being absurd, and her mood doesn’t improve when she realizes his evidence gathering technique involves spying on nude women. Giulio begins snooping around Sasha’s apartment while cleaners are there and goes so far as to steal a piece of her mail, which shows how much she stands to inherit from her mother’s death; Sasha realizes Giulio is spying on her. Later, while he is in the shower, an intruder breaks in but is scared off, prompting Giulio to have his locks changed. The next day, he meets up with Andrea, who asks him to mind the shop for a moment; Giulio uses this opportunity to get Federica’s address from the customer database, and to flirt with Sasha when she stops in. Giulio then follows Federica from her home to work one day, where he sees her supervisor behaving inappropriately. He follows the two back to the boss’s apartment, where it is revealed that she stole money from the company and that he is blackmailing her for sexual favors. Before he can force himself upon her, however, he notices Giulio doing what he does best, peeping, and pursues the kid into the street, where he sustains an injury to his foot before absconding on his comical scooter. He’s in full-on Rear Window mode now, with his binoculars and his foot cast, and when evidence starts to mount that he might not be as crazy as was initially suspected, including an attempt on his own life, Arianna joins him in his investigation.

Do You Like Hitchcock? is an unimaginative movie, full of twists that ultimately render the mystery moot and featuring a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Giulio is a creeping peeping tom, and there’s no way around it; his Harriet the Spy hijinx are not adorable when applied to an adult who only becomes aware of a murder because it interrupts his voyeurism. This is, apparently, the message of the film, given that the final frames are dedicated to reminding the viewer of all the times he spied on people without their knowledge. There’s no denunciation of his activities on the part of the film, and the only person who calls him out on the inappropriateness of this behavior is Arianna, who is presented as an unlikable shrew who lashes out and fails to believe Giulio when he needs her to.

As an Argento product, this is most clearly similar to The Black Cat, except that here the object of emulation is Hitchcock, not Edgar Allan Poe. There are a few reasons why that film worked and this one doesn’t; first and foremost is in the different lengths of the two films. It’s not as if giving Argento a shorter running time will guarantee a great picture (as we’ll see next time), but a lot of Black Cat‘s tautness can be attributed to its abbreviated running time, which ensured the director’s digressions were largely kept to a minimum. Secondly, the characters in the 1990 film were pastiches of ideas and character traits from several different Poe characters, so they felt both familiar and novel, grounded and immortal at the same time; here, it’s impossible not to compare Giulio to both James Stewart’s L. B. Jeffries and Harvey Keitel’s Usher, and where the latter two are consequential, the former is blandly nonpresent, existing only as a cipher through which the plot can happen. And that’s not even getting into the vast difference in acting ability.

There’s also the fact that, in Black Cat, characters couldn’t just walk around saying, “Oh, this killer’s M.O. reminds me of ‘Berenice’,” or “oh, this crime scene is just like ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.” Hitchcock could have gone all the way with this metatextual reframing of the narrative, making this movie like Scream with Hitchcock films in place of slasher flicks. Instead it falls flat, as Giulio says things like “I thought they were doing Strangers on a Train, but they’re doing Dial M for Murder!” Subtlety has never been Argento’s forte, but this movie has virtually no subtext whatsoever, save for one recurring visual that is probably unintentional. There’s a rather large poster for Il cartaio on the video store door, right next to a poster for Hitchcock’s latter day thriller Marnie, which is largely forgotten or reviled these days, with good reason (if you ever wondered what it would look like if James Bond raped Tippi Hedren, Marnie is the movie for you, you sick bastard). Cartaio and Marnie are very dissimilar films, but they both represent a period in each of their respective directors’ careers where the bloom was off the rose, so to speak; their best works already having been completed and canonized as classics, but neither director was ready to go quietly into obscurity.

The connection to Marnie is further underscored by Federica’s similarity to the title character of that film, as both are blackmailed and assaulted by their employers for having stolen funds. Aside from the obvious references to Strangers and Dial M, there are also a few other appearances of elements from Rear Window, some of which are updated for modernism in a way that I actually enjoyed. If you ever wondered how the finale of Rear Window would have been different if Stewart could have just called Grace Kelly on her cell phone, this is the movie that will answer that question for you, for better or worse. The rooftop pursuit has elements of Vertigo in it while also harkening back to a similar chase sequence in Cat o’ Nine Tails, which is a nice touch. Maybe it’s the inherently small nature of television that held this film back, but all in all, it’s one that’s not really worth bothering with. If you want to see Argento try his hand at Hitchcock and succeed, go back and rewatch the opening of Sleepless again; the train-bound chase sequence that centers around the retrieval of mysterious files and papers is very much a spiritual descendant of similar scenes in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, and packs more of a punch (and more respect for Hitch and his legacy) into 13 minutes than this film does in its entire runtime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Midnight Offerings (1981)




Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie) and Mary Beth McDonough (Erin Walton from The Waltons) step away from their well-known country girl roles to become dueling teen witches in this made-for-TV horror flick. When I first realized that Midnight Offerings was a made-for-tv movie from the early 80s, I expected it to be a joke of a horror film, oozing with campiness, but to my surprise, it was actually a little more on the serious side. There were even a couple of scenes that I found to be legitimately frightening, but unfortunately, the film wasn’t serious enough to avoid getting a Camp Stamp.

Vivian Sotherland (Anderson) is an evil teenage witch who uses her supernatural powers for selfish reasons. For example, her football star boyfriend was at risk of flunking out of high school, so she had his teacher killed in a pretty impressive car explosion. Also, she wanted to have her own car, so she gave her father’s supervisor a heart attack in order for him to get a promotion and use his pay increase to get her a vehicle. As her reign of terror really starts to take off, a new girl moves into town, and guess what? She’s also a witch! The new girl, Robin Prentiss (McDonough), knows that she has powers, but she doesn’t know that she’s a real witch until she does a little bit of research. Once Vivian realizes that Robin is also a witch, the good witch versus bad witch battles begin!

Interestingly, Anderson would go on to star in the cult classic horror film, Happy Birthday to Me, in the same year that Midnight Offerings was released. It seems as though she was really trying to get away from her Little House on the Prairie image, but she will forever be known as sweet little Mary Ingalls. I think that her Prairie reputation made her role in Midnight Offerings even more terrifying. She had this “good girl gone bad” vibe going on, and it was amazing. If it’s at all possible to get your hands on this forgotten film, it’s definitely worth a watch or two.

-Britnee Lombas

Small Sacrifices (1989)


three star

In 80s cinema, Farrah Fawcett was best known for her performances as revenge-hungry victims in films such as The Burning Bed and Extremities. However, in the made-for-TV biopic, Small Sacrifices, Fawcett transforms from a victim to a straight-up killer by taking on the role of the infamous Diane Downs. In the early 80s, Downs made headlines after being accused of shooting her 3 children in the backseat of her car. A few years after the incident in 1988, true crime writer Anne Rule published Small Sacrifices, which (obviously) the movie was heavily based on. The film has definitely made its share of appearances on the Lifetime channel throughout the years, so it’s easy for it to blend in with all the other made-for-TV dramas. The only thing that really sets it apart from the rest is Fawcett’s phenomenal performance. She’s really good a playing a bad mom. As horrible as that may sound, I mean it in the best way possible.

With her fluffy blonde hair, cute Southern accent, and all-American smile, Fawcett perfected the innocent image of Downs. How could this sweet single mother of 3 kill her children? Well, she was disturbingly obsessed with a married man (and fellow postal worker) Lew Lewiston, and during one of their rendezvous, he mentioned to her that he was not interested in having children. Interestingly, Ryan O’Neal played the role of Lew, and at the time, he and Fawcett were in an iconic relationship. Lew ended his relationship with Downs to go back to his wife, but Downs wasn’t having it. She completely lost her mind and took her children on a late night car ride, and while Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was blaring in the background, she shot them all. Of course, she created an elaborate story about being attacked by a stranger that was hanging out on the deserted road, but she really sucked at keeping her story straight. Little by little, she transformed from being a grieving mother to a terrifying psychopath. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to portray someone so mentally unstable, but Fawcett nailed it. She was so good that I had a difficult time separating her from her character, and that’s not something I come across very often.

Lifetime junkies, true crime lovers, and everyone in between, Small Sacrifices is an absolute must-see. The movie is about 3 hours long, so be prepared to spend a good bit of time with this one.

-Britnee Lombas