The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Movie of the Month: Wings of Fame (1990)

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 Boomer made BritneeAlli, and Brandon watch Wings of Fame (1990).

Boomer: Wings of Fame is an odd little film that at first appears to be about the nature of life and death, or perhaps celebrity or love, but makes no real statements about any of these big concepts. Instead, it is itself a “high concept” film with a singular conceit: the afterlife of the famous is different from that which awaits you or me (if anything other than floating for eternity on a foggy and dismal sea awaits us), and their accommodations are equivalent to the fame that they retain in the waking world. When a famous actor (Peter O’Toole) is assassinated in Europe, his accidentally-killed murderer (Colin Firth) immediately follows him into this strange new world beyond the veil of mortality, having gained notoriety equivalent to the actor’s as a result of having dealt his death blow.

Within this world, Cesar Valentin (O’Toole) struggles to discern what drove Brian Smith (Firth) to want to see him dead, as the two rub undead elbows with a roller-skating Einstein and scientists, politicians, and artists of various disciplines. Other than Einstein, none of them actually exist (there is a Rose Frisch who was a scientist, but she died 25 years after the film was released, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to be in this world), but you wouldn’t know that from the film itself. Cleverly, Wings shows you people that you believe existed, even though they didn’t, like Bianca the sad pop star and Zlatogorski the Soviet poet, who actually ascends from the basement back to a stateroom as his work gains popularity in the living world as the political situation changes.

Brandon, what do you think about this conception of the world that is to come? Do you think that it was a smart choice to generate unreal celebrities to populate this surreal world? How does this contribute to that air of surrealism?

Brandon: I’m honestly conflicted over the introduction of fictional celebrities to this dreamworld scenario. Not only are they a little distracting (I initially felt like a dolt for only recognizing names like Einstein, Hemingway, and Lassie before realizing many of these characters never really existed); they also partially drain the premise of some of its potential surrealism instead of adding to it. Titles like The Congress, Celebrity Death Match, Clone High, and Mr. Lonely have similarly generated absurdist humor out of juxtaposing celebrities we’re not used to seeing interact in a shared, impossible realm, but are each more fully committed to evoking a surrealist effect out of that Famous Person overlap. Wings of Fame is something of a pioneer within this post-modern enclave, however, predating many of those titles by a decade or two. The only example of absurdist gathering-famous-people-throughout-time-in-a-single-space media I can think of that predates it is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure from just a year earlier and that film spends its entire runtime going out of its way to make that juxtaposition possible. I think Wings of Fame would’ve been a much more jarringly surreal work if it had populated its eerily sparse stage play sets with more recognizable historical figures, at least as background characters. (There’s a moment featuring a generic “rocker” in particular that easily could’ve been punched up with a Hendrix-type). I’m also not convinced that the film was ever intended to be an aggressively surreal picture in the first place, unlike the similar works that followed. A lot of its charm rests in its subtle, underplayed execution of an over-the-top premise and the creation of fictional celebrities is an essential part of that approach.

As Wings of Fame is the sole feature credit for Dutch filmmaker Otakar Votocek as a writer-director, it’s difficult to get a full estimation of what sensibility he was attempting to convey here. I do get the sense, though, that he was more interested in the mechanics of how this Celebrity Limbo works rather than how his characters’ inner lives are affected by their artificial environment. Wings of Fame is mostly a philosophical piece about how legacy translates to currency in this afterlife of luxury, setting up a kind of class war between tiers of celebrities who enjoy different levels of fame, and how our only chance of (temporarily) avoiding fading into oblivion is to leave a lasting impact on pop culture or history while we’re still breathing. It makes total sense for the film to use archetype placeholders instead of real life historical figures in that way, but the characters’ absence of pre-loaded personalities does cause the central story to stumble a bit when it switches its interests from philosophy to psychology. The mystery of why Firth’s assassin takes out O’Toole’s pompous actor in the opening sequence is never as interesting to me as the details of the space where that decision lands them. Similarly, the contentious love triangle they form with the gloomy pop singer Bianca feels more like a necessary evil plot structure than a dynamic the film is genuinely interested in (although I am often tickled by the way Bianca continually shrugs off their confessions of deep, unending love for her, since she presumably hears those kinds of things all the time). Part of the reason those conflicts feel a little empty to me is because I don’t know the characters well enough as people to recognize what they’re going through (as opposed to their much more fascinating, heavily detailed surroundings). Using real celebrities whose personas we’re already familiar with might have fixed that.

Britnee, what do you make of the film’s balance between telling a compelling story and establishing the rules of its supernatural, fame-obsessed afterworld? Did the mystery of Firth’s murder motivation or the outcome of the Bianca-centered love triangle mean as much to you as the mechanics of the Celebrity Limbo premise?

Britnee: I had a difficult time focusing on any of film’s central plots because I was more interested in figuring out how the Celebrity Limbo works. The idea of a hotel for dead celebrities is fascinating, so of course, that’s what I focused on. The idea of celebrities getting downgraded to shittier rooms as they become forgotten in the living world was so smart and hilarious. It’s hard not to think about recent dead celebrities in that scenario. For instance, when Bill Paxton passed away earlier this year, there was an influx of people watching Twister and Big Love, so there’s not doubt that he initially would move into a luxurious suite. As time moves on, this will begin to decline, so up to the attic he goes. It really made me think about the craze that occurs after famous musicians and actors die, but how it all starts to dwindle as time goes by. They’re never really “forgotten;” they just aren’t topping the charts anymore.

Also, the film sort of forced me to feel that way because it doesn’t really do much as far as storytelling goes. Caesar has a short-lived confrontation with Brian, but it’s not very aggressive or emotional. The love story between Bianca and Brian is very bland, and there’s not much passion between the two of them. Yes, they make love and she cries in his arms from time to time, but there’s no real connection. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all (I actually enjoyed it very much), but it drove me to really not care too much about any of the film’s main plots.

What really struck my interest was the lottery system that allows Brian and Caesar to be released back into the real world. I wish the film would have spent more time following the two on their journey back into the world of the living.

Alli, would you have liked the film to be half about Brian and Caesar’s journey in limbo and half about their return to the real world? Why or why not?

Alli: I think it would have been nice to see slightly more of Mr. Valentin’s journey in a world where he’s been dead and gone. Would he have ended up being an impersonator of himself or would older people and movie lovers on the street just make comments about how much he looks like himself? Obviously, Caesar is used to a certain standard of living and now he’s suddenly penniless on the streets, so I think it could have been a depressing peek into the world of washed-up celebrities. There’s always a place for him in community theater, though, so maybe he’d end up in the acting world again. I’m a big Peter O’Toole fan. He’s always great. I think his chemistry with Firth wasn’t the best, but he’s enough of a character to carry it along. It would have been fun to watch them navigate the world and team up. After all, Brian is the only person Caesar has that understands what he’s been through and wouldn’t think he’s crazy for telling his story. Basically, I want more O’Toole screen time in general.

I didn’t really understand exactly why Brian chose Caesar in the climactic lottery. He was Caesar’s murderer, so maybe felt indebted that way, especially watching the death authorities usher him onto a transport into the mists. But while we know that the logic of this world is obviously nonexistent, there could have been a resurgence of interest in Valentin’s work. That’s the thing about being famous: you’re constantly shifting from being in an out of the public consciousness. I’d like to have seen a point about that made with the tide rolling in with some of the left-for-obscurity celebrities walking back ashore.

Boomer, do you think the movie would have benefited from people being able to check back in once their fame resurged? Or just more logic to the way the hotel works in general?

Boomer: I’m not really sure. I like that there’s a bit of dream logic to the way that this afterlife works, although I admit that I often go back and forth on my feelings about the concreteness of the “magic” (for lack of a better term) in the films that I watch. I will say that my personal favorite subplot in the film is the story of the fall and rise of Zlatogorski: he finds himself in the bowels of the hotel as a semi-forgotten Russian poet, but his poetry finds a new life in the hearts and minds of a nascent group of Soviets, leading the attendants of the hotel to force him against his will to ascend back to a stateroom in accordance with his fame in the world of the living. He rejects this elevation (as one would expect of a person whose works touch the hearts of hopeful communists, he is not a fan of this social striation) and ultimately tries to return to the sea of obscurity on whose shore the hotel sounds, but is unable to slip blissfully into the anonymity (and post-death rest) that he so desires. It’s a fascinating character study in miniature, both of an individual character and, in its own way, of a nation, but it also gives us the most revelatory information we have about the “rules” of this afterlife: we know that your accommodations are determined by your notoriety among the living, but you also cannot end this cycle even if you want to fade away into the night.

So what happens if someone becomes so insignificant that they are rejected from the hotel, but there is a resurgence in public interest in them? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but one which I’m not sure can be adequately satisfied. Perhaps they are spat back up on shore just as Zlatogorski was when he tried to leave, half-drowned and soaked to the bone, as you suggested. Maybe there’s no resurgence, just the echoes of their memory in the minds of man. One could even argue that those people who experience this complete absence from cultural relevance only to be remembered are those despairing faces we see floating in the open water amid the mists, begging to be saved. Or maybe that’s what really happens to the people who win the “lottery” and get to return to life for a second chance, and the lottery itself is all a sham. After all, it’s not as if Valentin has been completely forgotten by the world at large, as his film work seems to be experiencing (an admittedly minuscule) revival. Maybe it’s really Brian who is along for the ride and not the other way around, like how no one ever thinks about William Alexander or Richard Burbage until the next wave of “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?” madness comes along.

Every element of this world could be nothing more than a facade, but I don’t think that making the mechanics of this afterlife more specific and transparent would better serve the film. Its strengths lie in being a work that evokes this kind of discussion, and making the rules more explicit would undoubtedly take away some of the magic, for me at least. Part of what makes the narrative so strong for me is that we often think of that which lies beyond the veil in terms of absolutes or absences: heaven or hell, or perhaps nothing. Instead, Wings of Fame posits a place that is both heaven (for many) and hell (for people like Zlatogorski) and is thus neither. If death takes us to a heaven, a hell, or merely oblivion, the one thing that all these conceptions shares is an understanding that there is a finality, in either a just reward or quiet nothingness. The hotel is all and none of these things, but most significantly it is a place that is just like the world we live in now, full of anxiety, a desire for more, and a place in society that is largely determined by the opinions of others, over which we have little, if any control.

Brandon, how did you feel about the escape clause/lottery that results in Brian and Valentin being returned to life? How do you interpret that event in relation to the film’s themes? What do you make of the fact that they re-emerge as adult men, not reborn (although there are very few narratives like this one in film, I feel like the end of What Dreams May Come, in which the protagonist’s wife escapes her personally created hell to be reincarnated anew as an infant, is the standard finale of the few narratives that explore death and what follows it in this way)?

Brandon: The lottery system conclusion of the film was more confusing than satisfying for me, mostly because it was a previously unmentioned idea that completely upends the afterlife’s core dynamics at the very last second. The lottery’s not exactly a deus ex machina, since it merely shifts the goal posts for victory instead of saving the day, but it does leave the movie with the feeling of a hastily-written comedy sketch without an ending that goes out on the weirdest note possible out of desperation. I do appreciate that the mystery & the melancholy of the film is carried through the conclusion as Brian and Valentin return to Earth as the literal undead, but I’m not sure that the denouement has any thematic significance to how the afterlife works or how fame can make a person relatively immortal. The worst possible ending would have seen the two men come to in a hospital room after the opening assassination attempt in an “It was all a dream” reveal, but I’m not sure this version wasn’t at least a slightly similar disappointment. To be honest, a reincarnation-as-babies ending might have even been preferable, since this one felt so thematically disconnected & hazy.

I don’t think the ending does much to lessen the impact of the philosophically stimulating reflections on fame that come before it, however. Like I said before, the layout & the mechanics of the fame-economy afterlife Wings of Fame envisions is much more interesting than the interpersonal character dramas it contains, since the characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out or detailed as the (after)world they inhabit. I’m less interested in the lottery system escape that releases the characters from this realm than I am in the question of whether the realm itself is hellish or heavenly. The idea of history’s most infamous personalities coexisting in a kind of eternal artists’ salon is initially far more appetizing than the fading-into-oblivion alternative, but Wings of Fame does a good job of complicating its allure. Described as a limbo ruled by “jealousy, fantasy, and boredom,” there’s a kind of psychological torture inherent to an eternity spent in a mansion with mismatched, egotistical celebrities that might be . . . less than ideal.

Britnee, do you think the hellish or heavenly aspects of Celebrity Limbo ever outweigh each other or did this movie’s version of the afterlife register as entirely neutral to you? Is “living” in this post-mortem mansion a prize for a life well-lived, the punishing price of fame, or ultimately neither?

Britnee: I found Celebrity Limbo to be a very hellish place. The idea of being confined to living in a bland hotel until the lottery system works in your favor makes me want to cry. All the silence, dull colors, and obnoxious dead celebrities would drive me insane!  It’s possible I would feel differently if the hotel wasn’t so boring. Perhaps being trapped in a hotel that was similar to a Disney resort wouldn’t be so bad. All those huge pools, funky colored walls, and bowls of free ice cream don’t seem like a bad deal to me. There’s just something about the hotel in this movie that makes me really uncomfortable. Also, the idea of being downgraded to a crappy room or upgraded to a fancy room based on something completely out of your control is absolutely nerve-racking. I can’t help but imagine myself getting comfortable in a decent room and then being forced to move to one of those dirty rooms on the upper floor where I would spend my time anxiously waiting for a change in my popularity. Because of the hellish vibes that I get from Celebrity Limbo, I would have to say that it’s more of a place of punishment than a reward for fame. The rich and famous are known for always doing what they want and getting what they want, and that’s not a possibility in this realm. Their money and power means nothing in limbo, and they rely on the world of the living to keep their memory alive. Honestly, I kind of like the idea of celebrities getting a taste of the reality they avoided in the living world once they enter the afterlife.

Alli, if Wings of Fame was a current film, what do you think Celebrity Limbo would be like?

Alli: I think a current day Wings of Fame would include a lot of self-created celebrities, along with more pop stars, mentions of drugs, and probably an overwhelming soundtrack. So basically even more hellish.

Although, I think it would be a completely different sort of strange. The current era certainly has had more time to reflect on the nature of celebrity, and we even have a whole different idea of what a celebrity is. You can be a YouTube star, a “reality” TV star, have a sex tape scandal, or just run a popular blog, and that’s extremely weird. (It’s especially strange considering that so many of these self-created celebrities are teenagers.) The way you can go from a regular person on the internet to instant fame with a single viral video is really disorienting to think about. It also means that just as quickly as you rose you can fall back into obscurity once another person gets the spotlight. In the era of internet fame and noise, there would be so much changing of rooms that I don’t think the staff would be able to keep up. I do like to think about the amount of internet-famous cats would be there, though. Colonel Meow is not forgotten amongst the legions of cat ladies.

All those teenagers, self-absorbed adults, and bursts of general chaos would probably devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type scenario: tribes of kids just looking for some validation and ways to fit in, claiming the entire ball room or hedge maze. It would be interesting, but definitely lack the slow-paced meditation that Wings of Fame accomplished. I think a lot of the themes of the film would suffer because of our current era’s transparently shallow celebrities. I think we as a culture have embraced the meaninglessness of fame way too much for a contemporary film to be anything but fake-deep and maybe even edgy.

Lagniappe

Alli: Part of the way Wings of Fame avoids coming across as trying too hard is the surrealist and absurdist humor. I know we’ve talked about the lottery scene being sort of an out of nowhere type thing, but I just loved the oblivion S.W.A.T. team swarming in and the juxtaposition of the game show atmosphere.

I had also a lot of moments during this movie thinking of the French New Wave classic Last Year at Marienbad, which takes place at a mysterious hotel filled with ghostlike guests who seem to lack direction. It’s almost the serious, Peter O’Toole-less version. It doesn’t have any thoughts on the ideas of fame, but it certainly has a similar surrealist feel.

Britnee: I felt like I was watching a episode of a televisions series, not a full blown movie, when viewing Wings of Fame. The film didn’t feel like it was complete once it finished. I really think the movie would have benefited from spending a little more time focusing on “life” after the lottery win.

Brandon: As much as I was fascinated by Wings of Fame‘s world-building, I really do believe that it was a mistake to not indulge in filling the characters’ ranks with real life historical figures & pop culture celebrities. The biggest missed opportunity in that dynamic might have been to take Peter O’Toole’s snobbish Shakespearean actor down a peg by having the actual William Shakespeare either insult his talents or offend his posh sensibilities with some Al Bundy-style slobbery. O’Toole doesn’t get much in the way of comeuppance by the movie’s conclusion and it could have been amusing to see him briefly have his balloon deflated by a (dead) celebrity he admires.

Boomer: Thanks for indulging me in this one. I know that I normally recommend movies that are bizarre in a different way, with style but little artistic depth (Class of 1999), flicks that are very genre but with an unusual twist (Head Over Heels), or dark comedies that maybe take it too far (Citizen Ruth), so it was nice to share this one with all of you.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Clinical (2017)

Vinessa Shaw, the love interest from 1990s Halloween classic Hocus Pocus, is all grown up now and starring in her own features, as evidenced by this year’s Netflix release Clinical. Shaw stars as Dr. Jane Mathis, a psychiatrist who specialized in post-trauma therapy until two years ago, when teenage patient Nora (India Eisley) broke into her office around Christmastime and slashed Jane several times with the same piece of glass that she was using to slit her wrists, before attempting to slash her own throat.

The scarred Jane has re-established her practice in the home in which she grew up and works with much more low-risk patients: workaholics, struggling couples, etc. She finds the work less fulfilling, however, and against the recommendation of her own therapist Terry (William Atherton), she accepts a new patient named Alex (Kevin Rahm), the recipient of a face transplant following a car accident that left him with significant scarring, both physically and mentally. Despite the support of her childhood best friend Clara (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her policeman boyfriend Miles (Aaron Stanford), Jane finds herself haunted by images of Nora in her waking life and her sleep paralysis dreams, perhaps exacerbated by her sessions with Alex. Her fears are further amplified when she learns that Nora has actually been released from the facility where she was being treated by Doctor Saul (Nestor Serrano), meaning that the nocturnal disturbances and creepy events befalling her may not be just in her mind. Or are they?

Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of “jump scare” horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how “slow” and “dull” this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the “twist.” Admittedly, being unimpressed by how telegraphed a plot twist may be is something that I’ve been guilty of, but I’d like to think that this is only the case when the upset of expectations is the relevant film’s primary selling point. I’ve also complained about a film’s pacing as well, but that’s a complaint about a problem with a filmmaker’s methods and editing, and I’ve never said that a film was bad because it chose to evoke a mood or create atmosphere by telling a story with a deliberately slow pace.

Make no mistake: this is a movie that invests time into the nooks and crannies of every scene, but it does so with the (successful, in my opinion) intent of creating a sense of verisimilitude. It’s no more taxing on one’s patience than a classic thrillers like The Stepford Wives. Jane’s return to her practice is deliberate and thoughtful, demonstrating that recovery is a process both for her and for her patients, and the time that she spends trying to break through Alex’s shell is relevant to the narrative and a strong demonstration of the importance of good character work. The concept of an epiphanic moment, in which a character participates in a single therapy session and has a sudden clarifying realization that “fixes” their problems, is overplayed in the media; on the other hand, sometimes those moments in which a patient realizes that some event or repeated rationalization is a cornerstone of their mental disorder or bad thought patterns do happen, albeit after many, many sessions.

In film, the essence of a twist that actually works requires that the ironic reveal or sudden turn forces the viewer to reconsider all that which appeared before, which is in itself a kind of revelation, not dissimilar to what one might experience when working on their own mental health and personal growth. The way that Clinical‘s twist plays out forces the viewer to re-examine the content and context all of Jane and Alex’s sessions in a new light. It’s subtle, but the film plays out as a kind of macrocosm of the psychological process: a lot of conversation and discussion that normally drips little bits of insight and sometimes demonstrates no obvious progress at all, until there’s a breakthrough.

Shaw is also excellent in this role. Looking at her IMDb page, she’s stayed active but kept a relatively low profile. This film hinges largely on her performance, and she knocks it out of the park, radiating a professional warmth in her role as counselor but tempering that competency and self-assurance in her private moments of terror and self-doubt, not to mention the doubt and self-recrimination. It’s a wonderful dichotomy of character that Shaw fulls off effortlessly, as Jane preaches the importance of talking therapy to her patients while also abusing her relationship with her own trusting therapist to illicitly get prescriptions for her own maladies. Shaw is utterly fascinating to watch, and I can only hope that we’ll be getting to see more of her in future projects. The normally vivacious and energetic Rahm is also great in his role as Alex, playing against type as a physically mangled man completely withdrawn from the world, pathetic but never so much that he loses your sympathy, even as you start to suspect that he may be hiding something about the tragic accident that left him with a scarred face.

If I did have a complaint, it would be that the film’ conclusion barrels along at a pace, accelerating in a way that dredges up and ties different plot threads together almost too quickly as they crash into one another, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I would also object to the way that Doctor Saul treats his patients, were it not for the fact that, all too often, real world psychologists also behave this way toward those under their care. Overall, however, this is a great thriller that I’d recommend to anyone who can sit still for a little while without checking their phone, and especially to all those who like to temper their Christmas cheer with a scare or two.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.

Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.

Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.

It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Hearts of Fire (1987)

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 & Boomer watch Hearts of Fire (1987).

Britnee: Known as the film that killed critically acclaimed director Richard Marquand (Return of the JediEye of the Needle, etc.), the 1987 musical drama Hearts of Fire has somehow managed to disappear from the cinematic landscape. It’s so strange for a film with such a well-known director and big name actors (Bob Dylan & Rupert Everett) to not achieve even cult status. I’m not going to beat around the bush here. Hearts of Fire is terrible. It’s so terrible that it went straight to video after spending a very short time in theaters. Until this day, it’s difficult to get a hold of a physical copy because it was never released on DVD, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be.  All of this negativity aside, I wholeheartedly love this movie. It’s a lot of stupid fun without trying to be funny, and that’s why I just had to make the Swampflix crew watch it for Movie of the Month. The film stars music legend Bob Dylan as a washed up rock star turned chicken farmer named Billy Parker. Billy develops an uncomfortable romantic friendship with a young musician, Molly McGuire (Fiona). Molly plays small gigs with her band at her hometown bar (somewhere in Pennsylvania) that’s filled with some very interesting characters, including a barmaid who looks like a combination of Large Marge and Dolly Parton. Billy stumbles into the bar and quickly develops an interest in Molly.  He sort of becomes her mentor, but it’s also obvious that he wants to get in her pants super bad. It’s so hard to watch middle-aged Bob Dylan flirt with a teenager, and it gets even worse when she flirtatiously calls him names like “Dirty Old Man.” Billy is performing in London, and he takes Molly along for the ride. Almost immediately after landing in London, Molly runs into her all-time-favorite singer, James Colt (Rupert Everett), the hottest name in modern music. It doesn’t take long for Molly to be caught in a love triangle between these two men while also striving to achieve her dream of being a superstar. The chemistry between the three main characters is perfect. Dylan moves like a zombie and mumbles truckloads of nonsense, Fiona is a bubbly teen with a great raspy singing voice (Bonnie Tyler meets Laura Branigan), and Everett is the stereotypical 80s pop star. When the three interact with each other, it’s pure entertainment.

The character Billy Parker was initially written for Mick Jagger, but he turned down the role because, well, the script was crap. I’m so thankful he did because Dylan is hilarious in this movie without even trying. He literally mumbles all of his lines and pretty much sleepwalks throughout the entire movie. Dylan was obviously not very excited about starring in Hearts of Fire, and it shows through his acting. He must’ve been very desperate for cash at that point in his life.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dylan’s acting in Hearts of Fire? Was he attempting to portray a tired, old rock star or was he actually a tired, old rock star?  How different would this movie be if Mick Jagger had taken the role of Billy?

Brandon: The originally intended, Mick Jagger version of Hearts of Fire at least makes more sense. Billy Parker is a hard-drinking, fast-loving rock n’ roller, a lifestyle Jagger had genuinely been living for decades by the time this film was released. I don’t necessarily believe that Jagger’s rock n’ roller energy could have saved the film’s embarrassingly lifeless script (which was co-written by Showgirls/Basic Instinct coke monster Joe Eszterhas, of all people), but he could at least have afforded it some authenticity. As Britnee suggests, part of what makes Hearts of Fire so memorably bizarre is that Bob Dylan is absurdly miscast in the role. First of all, unlike Jagger, Bob Dylan does not fuck. Not that he’s a 76 year old virgin or anything, but he’s more of a music industry legend for his rambling, radical politics poetry than he is for pure sexual charisma. Second of all, 1980s Bob Dylan especially does not fuck. Fresh off a creative slump where the singer-songwriter churned out several little-loved gospel records as a Born Again Christian, Dylan was as soft & as unsexy as ever. That’s why it’s so weird to see him don the leather-clad costuming of a rock n’ roll toughie; nothing in his past as an indignant hippie folk singer or a mediocre gospel enthusiast suggests he had earned the right (give of take a recording or two with The Band). The conceit of the film requires Dylan to be playing himself, but not quite, so that he credibly turns heads when he saunters into rock clubs unannounced. Instead, he’s playing a version of himself that never actually existed. This is made doubly strange by the fact that Dylan has the energy level of a man twice his age. He’s less than 50 years old in Hearts of Fire, but he has the charisma of an ancient geezer, to the point where when he smashes a hotel room in a moment of supposed rock n’ roll excess, all the audience can do is laugh at the labored, slow-motion movements in his old man body. Dylan was tasked with making Hearts of Fire cool. Rather than achieve that impossible task, he turned it into a joke.

As fun as it is to gawk at a past-his-prime Dylan slowly seeping out of his range as a dangerous rock n’ roller romantic lead, I do feel really bad for Fiona here. I have to assume Hearts of Fire was even more damaging for her career as a VH1, Pat Benatar-era rock n’ roll singer than it was for the director’s, if not only because I’ve never heard of her before. She’s actually super charming as the film’s lead, Molly McGuire (except maybe when she’s performing the lifeless radio rock that poisons the soundtrack), which makes it a total shame that she’s asked to act circles around a cardboard cutout of Bob Dylan, a man 20 years her senior. With Mick Jagger in the opposite role, there might have been more of a chance for an erotic spark between Molly & Parker to earn film’s baffling R rating, despite Jagger being roughly the same age as Dylan. Instead, we watch an old man leer at Fiona through drooped eyelids between nonsensical, patronizing mumblings about the dangers of the music biz. Her younger, more viable option for a romantic partner is a synthpop twit played by Rupert Everett, who’s essentially laying out a roadmap for Russell Brand’s career as a public nuisance two decades later. He’s no better than Dylan’s old fart, has-been rocker, really, and the men in Molly’s gradually appear to be two versions of the same asshole on different ends of a shared career trajectory. Their patronizing treatment of Molly as a muse & a protégé instead of a professional equal is exemplified even by their respective choices for a “first date” location: an ice cream parlor and a carnival. They treat her like a little kid (just one they happen to want to sleep with). What’s extra gross about this dynamic is that the movie leers right along with them. Rock n’ Roll was very much still a Boy’s Club at the time of Hearts of Fire‘s production (maybe even more than ever, thanks to the groupie-exploiting hijinks associated with hair metal) and the film obliges the male gaze’s interest in Fiona’s body just as often as it allows her to play music. The camera drools over her as she skinnydips, sleeps pantsless, and forgoes a bra in her sound booth recording sessions. Fiona not only deserved a better pair of rock scene buffoons to lust after her; she deserved a better movie overall.

Boomer, what did you make of Fiona’s performance and her positioning at the center of this bizarre rock star love triangle? Was the Boy’s Club perspective of the film’s version of rock n’ roll at all offset by details like her ultimate decision to choose neither man as a lover & the one lovemaking scene that focused on Everett’s naked flesh for a change? Or was the movie just as limiting of her potential as the leading man-children who populate it?

Boomer: I thought Fiona was quite charming, actually. For the first 45 minutes of the film I found the scenes that focused solely on her to be the best part: her deprecating interactions with her shitty boss, her short but sweet scene with her roommate, even her objections to joining her bandmates in their new gig (despite her objections that she doesn’t play lounge music being bratty in a Reality Bites way). But every time Dylan was on screen, all of my good will just got sucked right out of me. It wasn’t just his performance (which was, make no mistake, terrible), but also his overall look and demeanor. Young Dylan was a cutie pie, and the elder Dylan now is like a noble statesman in his appearance, but a shudder ran down my spine when Molly asked him to go skinny dipping with her; she’s young and effusive and adorable and he looks like someone took 60s Dylan’s face and turned it into a tanned and cracked handbag. All I could think about was this exchange between Bart and Marge in “A Fish Called Selma”: “Why did they make that one Muppet out of leather?” “That’s not a leather Muppet, that’s [Bob Dylan]!”

Which is not to say that Everett serves as a better love interest. His sex scene with Fiona may have focused more on his flesh than hers, but it is to the film’s detriment, as the scene itself is the least erotic love scene that I’ve born witness to since Argento’s Phantom of the Opera. Everett is not an ugly man (I’d argue that his shower scene in Cemetary Man could make any receptive audience member, wombed or not, pregnant), but he’s never been more unappealing than in this greasy mullet and untweezed unibrow. He only barely manages to be more attractive than Dylan by virtue of the fact that he’s not sporting Dylan’s embarrassing earring, which was as distracting as it was pathetic.

Despite being surrounded by so much poor decision-making in the way of casting, costuming, and everything else, Fiona manages to be likable and ebullient. I did spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to her fame, however. In a film like this, when a semi-naive country girl is dropped into the lap of a more experienced performer and explores his world of fame from the inside, you expect there to be a certain kind of turning point. Although Colt is subtly inferred to drink too much, Molly never falls into chemical dependence or is forced to confront the fact that her lover is a rock star with a libido to match and he “needs” more than one woman, nor does she have any real failings. The suicide of one of Colt’s fans is the only real obstacle in her life or career after she leaves Pennsylvania, and she’s really only involved tangentially as a witness. Her decision to take neither of her proposed love interests as her endgame partner suggests a kind of feminism, but ultimately feels more like the screenwriter didn’t expect women to experience fame and all of its accompanying temptations and pitfalls the same way that men do, or even at all.

Britnee, do you think that there was a faded rock star in 1987 who could have played the Billy Parker role without it coming off as creepy and weird? Would it have been a better choice to hire an actor who could sing instead of a singer who could(n’t) act? Who would you have cast instead in the roles of Parker and Colt, and why?

Britnee: The thing about washed up rock stars is that they are usually highly unattractive and just hard to look at in general (Bret Michaels immediately comes to mind), so the idea of any real-life, washed up rock star successfully playing the role of Billy Parker seems close to impossible. Most of the musicians that I immediately thought of were still big names in 1987, but their careers are over and done in this day and age. Honestly, I think that 1987 Iggy Pop would have been the best choice. Bob Seger would come in as a second choice, but he’s got a dad vibe to him that isn’t sexy at all. He’s got a very interesting personality and he definitely knows how to work his sexuality, unlike Dylan. Iggy Pop would probably make the unavoidable creepiness of Parker’s character much easier to stomach, but the idea of casting an actor that can sing in the Billy Parker role makes a lot more sense to me. It’s a film after all, not an album. Take a look at James Colt. Everett’s singing wasn’t amazing, but his acting was pretty good. Come to think of it, having a real-life musician in the role of James Colt would have been a better choice, if a musician had to be in the film. Even if the younger musician sucked at acting, more people would have seen this movie and it wouldn’t have flopped so hard at the box office.

In my fantasy recasting of Hearts of Fire, I’m imagining Chris Sarandon as Billy Parker. I recently watched Fright Night and was reminded of how he really does own the screen. As for James Colt, I would cast my favorite 80s music bad-boy, Billy Idol. He’s just so much fun! He’s got some decent acting skills as far as music videos go, and his charisma is out of control. His personality is so vibrant compared to the blandness that is Everett, and it’s what the role of James Colt desperately needs. This is a guy who is the biggest name on the music scene, so lets give him some flare.

Sometimes when musicians take on acting, it does work in their favor. For instance, David Bowie, Cher, and Barbra Streisand had many successful roles in major films. However, most of the time, it just doesn’t work out.

Brandon, after all of the flops that feature musicians attempting to be actors, why do you think this is still such a prominent occurrence in film? Why don’t they just give it a rest? Is there some sort of method to the madness?

Brandon: I have to assume that most acting turns from musicians are  marketing decisions, not artistic ones. When David Byrne directs a weirdo art film like True Stories, it’s obviously coming from a place of artistic passion, but it’s a different story altogether when, say, Vanilla Ice stars in a rap-oriented remake of a Marlon Brando motorcycle picture. Vanilla Ice likely didn’t get into the rap game thinking the best way to purely express himself would be as a leading man in a high-fructose romantic comedy. That decision had to have been made for him through a series of boardroom meetings over marketing data that suggested Cool as Ice would boost his album sales & cultural cachet. I can’t speak for Bowie, Cher, or Streisand’s respective movie industry success stories as either passionate work that happened to pay off or marketing decisions that stuck because of natural talent, but Hearts of Fire is most definitely seeped in the desperate cash grab end of that dichotomy. Fiona’s marketing team was likely invested in catapulting a rising star with a hit motion picture, while Dylan’s own publicity team was attempting to borrow some Mick Jagger edge to forgive the sins of his thoroughly un-cool gospel period that immediately preceded the film. I’m pretty sure that Hearts of Fire proved to be an embarrassment & a failure for both musicians, but it’s especially cringe-worthy for Dylan, whose prematurely senile mumblings in the film did absolutely no favors for his dangerous rock star street cred.

Most marketing decisions are a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition made while a pop star is Having a Moment. To hammer the comparison home, I have to assume that Cool as Ice was greenlit when “Ice Ice Baby” was endlessly looping on the radio. By the time the movie hit theaters, however, Ice’s moment had more or less passed and audiences’ thirst for him had, um, cooled. Hearts of Fire feels similarly late to the table. The late 80s was admittedly a strange, stagnant time for radio rock. Nirvana wouldn’t break through until a few years later (as immortalized in the documentary title 1991: The Year Punk Broke), so most genuinely subversive rock n’ roll movements at the time (punk, sludge, thrash, etc.) were largely invisible to mainstream audiences. Still, even a cheesy hair metal soundtrack would have been more cutting edge than the stubbornly old-fashioned 70s arena rock and post-Benatar VH1 rock Fiona & Dylan were tasked with selling as cool here. Even the Soft Cell & Human League style of new wave pop Everrett’s character is supposedly a sell-out for playing would have been years & years stale by the time Hearts of Fire was released. They might as well have made fun of him for singing disco. Casting Bob Dylan as a dangerous, sexy rock star isn’t the only way Hearts of Fire fails to keep its finger on the pulse of modern rock either. When Fiona & company play “aggressive” rock meant to rile up the British punks pogoing in the London audience, it plays like an unintentional joke. In a real life 1987, those kids would have laughed them off the stage for performing the music their parents listen to.

Boomer, I get the general sense that punk & metal aren’t entirely Your Thing as much as other music genres. From that outside perspective, was Hearts of Fire‘s version of dangerous 80s rock n’ roll as noticably, laughably out of date for you or could you more easily excuse the inauthenticity of the youth culture it was selling?

Boomer: Untrue on the count of the first, but correct with regards to metal. I think you’re probably thinking back to this passage from my Shock ‘Em Dead review, and you’re remembering it correctly: “I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy […] who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me.” So, yeah, as with some things that I like, there’s a bit of personal backlash against the devotees rather than the thing itself; I think that this feeling is evident in the way that I’ve written about Christianity in my The Late Great Planet Mirth articles as well. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with my roommate, who pointed out that he’s always associated Star Trek and the Grateful Dead with each other in his mind, because they’re both works of art that are as famous for their fandoms as they are for the text itself; as much as I would like to enjoy metal, the fandom is simply too toxic for me to enjoy.

My obvious punk days are behind me (it’s hard to show your commitment when you no longer have enough hair to die or ‘hawk), but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a fan of the music or the ethos, although I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the slow infiltration of nationalism into the punk scene (admittedly not as deep in the bone as it is in some pockets of the metal scene, where it seems to breed like a weed) disturbing and disconcerting. Like, seriously, Nazi punks fuck off.

Overall, I found the film to be laughable in its attempt to be “hard” or “edgy,” although I credit that feeling more to simply being a person and not a punk fan. I mentioned it before, but I found Molly’s insistence that she doesn’t play lounge music to be the complaint of a contemptuous brat. I’m reminded of a story I read about a flautist who had been coddled and fawned over from an early age and reached high school as a prodigious talent but also a confrontational and sententious jerk. His high school band raised money by performing an annual community concert wherein they played various compositions with which the general public was familiar, like the Star Wars hero theme and the score to Harry Potter; he refused to participate because doing so was “beneath” him. He was accepted to Julliard but flunked out within a year because he felt that he knew more than his professors. At the time of the last update that the author of the story (a former high school bandmate) had heard, the flautist was now having to live on Earth with the rest of us, with no prospects in his desired field but still clinging to his delusions of musical godhood and not having learned the humility that usually accompanies such a fall from grace. I look at Molly and consider her age and have to ask, just how many dues could she have possibly paid? How could she possibly be so naive? But then the film sees fit to have a haggard musical genie come along and sweep her away from her podunk town, which makes the film a fantasy of wish fulfillment for every backwater kid who knows three chords and thinks they have a story to tell. With that in mind, I’m not surprised that the narrative is so acutely lacking in self-awareness of how these stories play out in real life that we’re supposed to agree with her and be swept along in her wake, but you hit the nail on the head with the words “laughable” and “inauthentic.”

Boomer: I’ve never seen a film so hell bent on not pulling the trigger on Chekhov’s Gun. When Billy first rolls into town, the handle of a revolver is hanging out of the front of his jacket. I’m pretty certain that we also see the same gun sitting on the counter in his kitchen near the end of the film, but we never see him using it at all. There’s not even a scene where he takes Molly out to the back forty to shoot tin cans off of a fence while he pontificates about some metaphor comparing the cans to men who will try to steal or subvert her talent. Sure, we get to see one of Colt’s (har har the irony) fans use a gun, but it’s not the same one. I kept wondering when Billy’s gun was going to come into play, but it never does. That’s a first draft problem, but this is also a first draft movie, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.

Brandon: For a much more authentic look at a singer-songwriter struggling to establish her own voice in the oppressive Boys’ Club of 1980s rock n’ roll, I highly recommend 1982’s Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The feminist messaging is more pointed, the songs are more believably punk, and you get to have a glimpse at a before-she-was-famous Laura Dern. As much as I allowed myself to be charmed by Fiona as a personality, I think Hearts of Fire is really only worth digging up to laugh in Bob Dylan’s face as he bizarrely attempts to pass himself off as a sexy, dangerous rock god & fails miserably. The Fabulous Stains, by contrast, is a genuinely great movie set in a notably similar atmosphere.

Britnee: I’ve recently watched a couple of interviews with Bob Dylan around the time Hearts of Fire was filmed, and he is just as tired in real life as he is in this movie. He should’ve gone on a two-week cruise instead of making a movie to get some of his energy restored. But as sad as it sounds, I love how horrible he was, and I love how horrible this movie is. I wish it had achieved cult status so there could be midnight showings with fans dressed up as James Colt (in oversized suits and greasy mullets).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Five Decades, Year by Year: Boomer’s Favorite Horror Movie of Each Year Since 1968 (Part Two: 1993-2017)

This feature is Part Two (of Two) in an extensive list of highlights and heartfelt recommendations from the last 50 years of horror cinema . . .

1993: It’s no secret that I love Needful Things. Leprechaun is a camp classic, and my dual loves of Timothy Hutton and George Romero mean that I have to take note of The Dark Half (even if I don’t love it), but the 1993 title belt goes to Guillermo del Toro for his Cronos, the most original take on a vampire film since Martin, although its internal mythology and cinematic eye far surpass that of the earlier film. The details in my mind are scant, but perhaps that’s for the best since I can’t spoil anything for you.

1994: A few years back, I would have called Cemetery Man my favorite horror film of 1994. While I do still enjoy it and find the imagery haunting (and there’s a Rupert Everett shower scene that might make everything in your house pregnant), a recent discussion with other socially progressive horror fans about the film’s admittedly questionable sexpolitick has made me want to revisit the film before I give it an unequivocal go-ahead. As such, I can’t recommend 1994’s Freddy Krueger entry Wes Craven’s New Nightmare enough. Before Craven jumped feet first into the meta-slasher genre, he tested the waters with this horror film about horror films, featuring an intriguing mythology that repositions the Krueger monster in the real world, as the embodiment of an ancient and real demonic entity that has become comfortable in Freddy’s skin. Featuring the return of Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed Nancy in the original film and Dream Warriors, this film serves as the perfect capstone to a trilogy of horror, if you watch the first film, the third, and this one, ignoring the others (except for morbid curiosity about how bad they can be). Brandon even came to a similar conclusion recently.

1995: This was a terrible year for horror cinema. If 1988 was the nadir of horror sequelitis, then 1995 is a close second. And if I told you that 1995 gave us one good thriller at least, you’d probably guess that I was talking about Se7en. But I lied; there were two good thrillers! A forgotten gem, Copycat stars Sigourney Weaver as a psychologist who studies serial killers until she is attacked by a deranged Harry Connick, Jr., leaving her mentally unwell and agoraphobic. That is, until a series of killings under investigation by detectives Dermot Mulroney and Holly Hunter force her to face her terror… before her fears can figure out where she lives.

1996: It’s The Craft. I mean, you knew that it would be, right? Obviously I love Scream, and it’s the better film objectively by a few miles, but there’s so much joy in watching the ladies of this coven succumb to their dark teenage impulses while refracting and reflecting the abuses that they have suffered back onto their teachers, bullies, parents, and other tormentors. There’s also a distinctly unusual story structure at play here that can make the film feel strange when you see if for the first time, like it’s not playing by the rules of cinema, and I love that as well. I have a friend who is working on the remake of the film, should it ever get off the ground, and when he told me about it I made sure to schedule some time to talk about what he had to get right, but the truth is, The Craft should remain untouched, unless you’re slipping it out of a DVD case (or, even better, a VHS sleeve) to watch it.

1997: This was almost the hardest year to make a choice about on this entire list. I share Brandon’s appreciation for Office Killer, and I think that Scream 2 is the rare sequel that is of equal quality to its predecessor. Guillermo del Toro gave ten-year-old Boomer nightmares for weeks from just the trailer for Mimic, and a series of sequels of diminishing quality doesn’t dull the horror of the original Wishmaster. Event Horizon is the real winner of my heart, pitting Sam Elliott and Lawrence Fishburne against each other aboard a derelict spaceship whose experimental propulsion system unwittingly opened a portal to Hell (of course, as one character says, “Hell is only a word. The reality is much worse.”). The film initially garnered an NC-17 rating for its violence, prompting some of the more truly horrifying scenes to be cut down to mere seconds of screentime and presented in flashes, which really only serves to make them subliminal and more horrifying. It’s a film that actually makes you want to reconsider the straight and narrow path.

1998: The post-Scream nineties were full of imitators. 1998’s Urban Legend has a special place in my heart because of its cast (notably future Dead Like Me actress Rebecca Gayheart, the always-amazing Alicia DeWitt, everybody’s first love Joshua Jackson, and Loretta DeVine, whose role here undoubtedly inspired Niecy Nash’s Scream Queens character Denise Hemphill). I also enjoy its attempt to compartmentalize and adopt contemporary folk tales into a basic slasher revenge narrative. Halloween H20 is also a great watch, and is (in my opinion) the best nineties sequel to a horror franchise that originated in another decade, recapturing the feeling of the first film and raising the stakes. That’s all well and good, but the best Scream imitator is undoubtedly The Faculty, which combines the classic pod people/body snatching plot with a commentary on interclique politics and general distrust of authority. It’s no surprise, then, that the script was penned by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, but he’s not the only notable name in this incredibly talented cast and crew: Josh Hartnett, pre-Fast/Furious Jordana Brewster, Elijah Wood, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris (who went on to replace the above-mentioned Gayheart on Dead Like Me), and Shawn Hatosy–and that’s just the teenagers! Rounding out the adults in the cast are Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart, Famke Jensen, Bebe Neuwirth, and Mrs. White herself Piper Laurie. Also, Usher is there. It’s a shame that this one’s no longer on Netflix, because it’s the perfect nostalgic high school Halloween flick for the ages.

1999: On any other list, The Blair Witch Project would probably be the title you’d expect to see here. I mean, what does it have to compete with? Two dumb giant aquatic creature movies (Lake Placid and Deep Blue Sea)? A Carrie sequel that was twenty years too late and that no one wanted? Two separate remakes of black and white horror classics that should have been left alone (House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting)? The Sixth Sense? Ok, maybe that one. But as unassailable and iconoclastic as Blair Witch was, I’m throwing my weight behind The Ninth Gate, which may come as a surprise to those who are aware of my general dislike for Johnny Depp vehicles (in fact, I didn’t even hate Sleepy Hollow, which also came out this year; it’s actually quite a beautiful film and probably Tim Burton’s last great live action picture). The Ninth Gate is about a rare book dealer who becomes part of a larger conspiracy that seeks to reunite a series of woodcarving prints from various editions of an alchemical text in order to use the clues hidden therein to summon the Devil. It’s a great premise, and the film itself is eerie enough, even before the film categorically answers whether or not the horror facing the protagonist is truly supernatural or merely the manipulation of a reckless cabal of rich fools with cult-like devotion and bottomless pocketbooks.

2000: Ginger Snaps! Ginger Snaps! Katharine Isabelle is a delightful terror in this film that connects the blossoming of womanhood with a “change” of a more… lycanthropic nature. The scene in which one sister tries to help her sister through the removal of a painful and disgusting tail is a particularly nauseating treat. In this nickel-budget indie, everything is pitch perfect: the blandness of suburbia, the power of sisterhood, the uselessness of parents. Seek it out.

2001: Frailty was the directorial debut of the late Bill Paxton, and it’s an interesting experiment in determining which of your friends are purely rational and which are inclined to a more supernatural explanation. Of all the films that annoy me with their revelation that, “surprise,” the rational explanation of the film’s events is incorrect and the supernatural explanation is the correct one, Frailty toes the line with surprising subtlety and grace, never answering the question one way or the other and providing ample evidence for either viewpoint. Unusually, however, my favorite horror flick of 2001 is explicitly supernatural: The Others, in which Nicole Kidman and her poor, ill children are forced to confront the ghosts of the past (or are they?). Although a lot of the film’s surprises have been diminished by parody and overplay over the years (I think that TNT played The Others five times a week from 2003 to 2005), it still holds up, and it continues to reward with every viewing.

2002: The influence of The Ring on the horror films that followed in the next ten years is undeniable, for better or worse, and I was fortunate enough to see 28 Days Later on the big screen at a recent Terror Tuesday so that I could be reminded just how fantastic it is (I found myself listening to “In a House In a Heartbeat” for weeks after). It’s so good. But 2002 truly belongs to the beautiful oddity that is Bubba Ho-Tep, starring camp icon Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley, whiling away his final days in an assisted living facility. You see, the “Elvis” who died in 1977 was actually an impersonator with whom the real Presley traded places in order to get some distance from his fame and all the trauma that accompanied it. He’s not the only supposed dead man there either: Ossie Davis plays a wheelchair-bound JFK, whose skin color was changed in order to hide him away from those who would do him harm after his “assassination.” Together, these two decrepit American icons have to fight off a reanimated mummy before it can suck the life out of every patient in their nursing home.

2003: When I started this list last year, I was genuinely perplexed as to what I should list as the best of this year, as virtually every film was complete garbage. Freddy vs Jason? The remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Darkness Falls and Dreamcatcher? I even went so far as to include Haute Tension on my outline with the assumption that I would find the time to watch it (I didn’t). But then a light appeared in the heavens and I saw A Tale of Two Sisters, a South Korean thriller about a young girl named Su-mi who returns to both her secluded family home after psychiatric treatment and to a dependency upon and protection of her younger sister, Su-yeon, against the apparent evils of their wicked stepmother. There’s more happening here than meets the eye, however, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t caught this one. It’s also going to be the last legitimately good horror movie you’ll read about on this list for a while, so settle in.

2004: Yikes. Another shitty, shitty year. There were not one but two sequels to Ginger Snaps in 2004, neither of them really being worth the effort. I almost want to give the credit to Cube Zero, serving as the best sequel to 2007’s Cube, a fantastic master class in making the most of your budget and finding a way to make the most of the “characters in search of an exit” premise. But Cube Zero isn’t Cube, so hat’s off to you, Shaun of the Dead.

2005: When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, the husband and wife team behind The Boogeyman (Snowden’s father was a professor at the college on which my boarding school’s campus was housed). It was an eye-opening experience, as the two talked about how much could change from inception to release. You got the feeling that they were embarrassed by the final product, which transposed their creepy urban horror fairy tale to a remote farmhouse, among other liberties taken with their material. Fun trivia fact for a couple of people you’ve probably never heard of and probably will never think about again: the couple first bonded over their love of Rosemary’s Baby! I’m not saying all this because their film is good, or even passable, but it is indicative of a studio push for more financially safe, viable horror fare that would haunt the 2000s with lazy special effects, tired plotlines, and actors who were moving out of their family-friendly TV programs and trying to find success in film (usually unsuccessfully; who would have thought that the person who would best survive the demise of their WB family drama would be Melissa McCarthy?). I guess I’m giving this one to Dark Water? I mean, it’s not good, but it’s always nice to see Jennifer Connelly getting work.

2006: This was the year of bad remakes. The above-cited Black Christmas and The Wicker Man got a lazy and a crazy remake, respectively, while the remake of The Omen was passable at best and the reimagined The Hills Have Eyes is utterly lacking in charm. I guess that my favorite horror movie of the year was technically Slither, helmed by future galaxy guardian herder James Gunn, but I saw it only once when it was in theaters and, though I enjoyed it at the time, I’m hesitant to throw my weight behind it. Instead, I’ll praise Pan’s Labyrinth, another Guillermo del Toro picture that I’ve always considered to be more of a “dark fantasy” along the lines of a more mature NeverEnding Story or Legend than a horror film, but I suppose its nightmarish imagery means that it falls within the purview of this list. It’s probably his most well-known film in the U.S. that doesn’t have the words “Hellboy” or “Blade” somewhere in its title, so you’re probably already well aware of it, but if you haven’t seen it before, now is the time to strike, especially as its narrative of using imagination and compassion to fight fascism is more important now than it was 11 years ago.

2007: I don’t really care for Planet Terror, but I did love Death Proof. It’s typical Quentin Tarantino: lots of talk about pop culture topics, women with their feet hanging out of car windows and over the edge of booths to be ogled, discussion of great music made by bands you’ve never heard of before, and hilariously over the top violence. But it’s also atypical in that all of the characters are women; I’m not positive, but I think this may even be the first Tarantino that passes the Bechdel Test (it’s been a minute since I saw it, but it’s possible that Kill Bill had a few lines of dialogue exchanged between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu or Thurman and Vivica A. Fox that didn’t explicitly mention Bill, but I can’t be sure). All of the characters are women, and the film also plays with convention by allowing us to slowly get to know a group that is quickly murdered by the killer before a whole car full of new Final Girls appears to make him sorry he was born. It was also the best American, studio-produced film to come along in years (and the last for a while).

2008: Speaking of which, Let the Right One In is my favorite of 2008, as we must reach beyond our domestic crop of films in 2008 to find one that is even worth mentioning. Luckily, this one’s not only passable but superb. In this creepy Swedish vampire film that was as iconoclastic of the genre as Martin and Cronos were in their respective days, the audience witnesses a bizarre (and horrifying) love emerge between a bullied prepubescent and his new neighbor, who is more than what they seem. The same rule applies here as it did with Jacob’s Ladder: if you haven’t already seen this movie, don’t read anything else about it until you get a chance to watch it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, although you might be a little nauseated.

2009: Our cousins in the U.K. made the best horror (technically thriller) film of 2009 with Exam, a movie about eight people in a room who are competing for a single job opening in a vaguely-defined company that is situated to do important work in a bizarre world. Functioning as a kind of pre-Black Mirror surreal speculative fiction that looks at our world as it is, but slightly askew, the narrative follows the breakdown of these applicants who are faced with the titular exam. There are only a few simple rules: no talking to the Invigilator (exam proctor) or the armed guard at the door, no spoiling their paper, and no leaving the room. Failure to comply means disqualification, which is implied to be more devastating than simply not being considered for the job, but something darker. Much like Cube before it, the minimalist setting and cast allow the film to explore the darker side of human nature in a microcosm of society while standing in opposition to an unknown force.

2010: We have to cross the channel to France for my favorite horror film of 2010: Rubber, a bizarre ode to “no reason” that follows a psychopathic tire as it winds its way across a desert wasteland and encounters a variety of armchair philosophers who make muddled statements to make about the nature of man, art, and other topics. Brandon wasn’t as much of a fan as I was, but everything in his review is  nonetheless accurate, so give that a read!

2011: If you go back through my old American Horror Story reviews on Tumblr or my personal blog (I’m not linking here because, like all writers, I’m a little embarrassed by my early work), you’ll find a fair amount of antipathy for Emma Roberts, whom I eventually came to accept as a passable actress about halfway through the first season of Scream Queens (perhaps because playing an unrepentant bigot with delusions of grandeur and the moneyed background to support it is squarely within her wheelhouse). As such, her presence in Scream 4 should have bothered me much more than it did at the time, but I found her portrayal of Sidney Prescott’s younger cousin to be a good role for her, and the film is great overall. Enough time had passed that the ground from which this franchise was born was fertile again (especially after the mess that was Scream 3), and the story works great within the paradigm of being a soft reboot while also bringing back the characters that we had grown to know and love over 15 years. Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox truly feel like they’ve come home after a long time away, and the additions to the cast like Hayden Panettiere, Mary McDonnell, babealicious Nico Tortorella, and Alison Brie all contribute to a film that’s better than it has any right to be, and better than we deserve. It’s a shame that Scream 5 seems so unlikely now, but if this is where the franchise has to end, then at least it went out with style.

2012: This was the hardest decision on the list. I have nothing but love for Cabin in the Woods (see Brandon’s review here). Not only is it hilarious, scary, full of Easter Eggs, and generally perfect, it’s got many of your fave Joss Whedon collaborators (even if, understandably, your least favorite Joss Whedon collaborator these days is Whedon himself), but I also have a special fondness for it since a theatrical viewing was the first treat I gave myself after completing the grueling process that is graduate school (I was in my seat an hour after I took my last exam. Still, I’m going to have to give this year’s honors to Berberian Sound Studio, a pitch-perfect deconstruction of working behind the scenes on a giallo film, especially if you’re a timid English sound editor whose only previous experience is with tenderly shot pastoral documentaries. From the moment of his arrival, Gilderoy (Tobey Jones) is a nervous ball of anxiety, experiencing culture shock in his friction with a gaggle of aggressive Italian filmmakers (who in turn grow increasingly frustrated with his nebbishness). This only grows more potent as the film on which he is working, The Equestrian Vortex, becomes more intense. His inability to stomach the film’s subject matter becomes a liability; despite being a part of the process (and thus seeing how the metaphorical sausage is made), he descends into a kind of madness that takes him to unexpected places. Both Cabin and Studio are deconstructions of the horror genre that work perfectly as examples of the genre as well, and both are well worth your time.

2013: I didn’t see Odd Thomas, which has been sitting in my Netflix queue for nearly four years now, and although I’m super intrigued by the mechanisms of the creation of Escape from Tomorrow, I haven’t managed to catch that one either. I saw The Conjuring but wasn’t particularly impressed, and although I saw the next films by the directors of the Evil Dead remake and Mama (Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe, mentioned above and Andrés Muschietti’s recent adaptation of IT, respectively), I haven’t seen either of those. I’m going to have to give it to Oculus, strangely enough. I have no love whatsoever for professional wrestling, but I’m obligated to note that WWE films managed to put out a pretty decent horror film. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it attracted my attention initially for having two actresses from two of my favorite sci-fi franchises, Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) and Karen Gillam (Amy Pond, companion of the Eleventh Doctor), as well as Australian heartthrob Brenton Thwaites. The ending, and the overall plot, leave much to be desired, but I was pleasantly surprised when, sitting in the theater, I was presented with a horror film that was (a) original, (b) well produced and edited, and (c) genuinely terrifying at parts. It’s certainly nothing to write home about, but the fact that it’s a horror movie down to its bones and doesn’t rely on metatextual references to support it makes it a noteworthy experiment.

2014: While we should all hail Babadook as the ingeniously inventive (and nightmarish) metaphor for depression and loss that it is, there’s something about the feature-length music video that is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that captured my heart from the first time that I saw it. I’m more fond of it than Brandon is, in a kind of inverse of our respective feelings about Neon Demon, another film that could be described using the words “feature length music video.” Demon and A Girl Walks are both mood pieces that rely on certain filmic techniques to tell a very short (if deceptively complex) narrative in a long form; after all, each film’s plot could be condensed into a three sentence recap apiece without excising any relevant details. But whereas I found Neon Demon to be a beautiful kaleidoscope of color that grew tiresome somewhere around the eighteenth hour of electronic musical droning, I was never bored by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, while Brandon felt the opposite. Instead, I felt that 2017’s Raw was the spiritual successor to Suspiria that I wanted Neon Demon to be, while A Girl Walks is the timeless monochrome meditation that my life was missing. So, you know, take it from us(?) and watch neither, or both.

2015: People who know me personally are probably sick to death of hearing me talk about Queen of Earth, which I not only wrote about extensively just over two years ago, but also named my top film of 2015. I am sure that there are those who would object to my definition of this film as a “horror movie,” given that a surface viewing would show that the film lacks the normal hallmarks of that genre. What’s fascinating, though, is that this is a horror movie, with unsettling music, inexplicable and creepy appearances, a sympathetic and intertwined backstory for both our antagonist and our protagonist (if either of the main characters could be defined in such simple and straightforward terms). This is a thriller in which all of the violence is emotional, not physical, and that makes the film all the more haunting.

2016: It’s The VVitch. I mean, what else would it be? This one swept through the entire Swampflix staff like a delightfully distressing flu, earning a spot on every contributor’s list of best films of the year: Alli and Britnee both put it at number two on their respective lists, Brandon put it at number five, and it was my pick of the year. We’ve all written words upon words about it, so I don’t know what else to add to our compendium. Read Brandon’s review here.

2017: Barring the sudden and unexpected appearance of an unforeseeable dark horse candidate, Get Out is going to be my number one movie of the year, followed by the aforementioned Raw as a close second. As such, there’s no argument that it’s also my favorite horror movie of 2007 (again, with Raw as a close second), but I’ll be saving most of my thoughts for the end-of-the-year list. In the meantime, you can slake your thirst by reading Brandon’s review here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Five Decades, Year by Year: Boomer’s Favorite Horror Movie of Each Year Since 1968 (Part One: 1968-1992)

This feature is Part One (of Two) in an extensive list of highlights and heartfelt recommendations from the last 50 years of horror cinema . . .

1968: There are two truly noteworthy zombie movies that came out in 1968: the undeniable classic Night of the Living Dead and the endearingly awful Astro Zombies (some even consider it the worst film ever made!). But for my money, nothing tops Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby when it comes to existential dread and the anxieties and paranoias of urban living, as well as the socially imposed restrictions that treat women like baby machines with no agency. After fifty years, that at least still rings true, but recent right-backed legal policy coming out of this administration means that we really haven’t come as far as we would like to think.

1969: This wasn’t a great year for horror cinema; in fact, of all the frightful flicks that came out this year, the only one I consider to have much staying power is the pilot for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone follow-up Night Gallery, which aired about a week after Halloween on November 8. Although the program itself is a mixed bag that errs heavily on the side of nonsense and lacks much of the gravitas of its spiritual predecessor, this premiere consists of three shorts: “The Cemetery,” which is genuinely unsettling and cost young Boomer many a night’s sleep; “Eyes,” about a rich woman’s desire to see again, no matter the cost to others; and “The Escape Route,” in which a Nazi gets his just desserts (not to get political two entries in a row, but I have to point out that you can tell this one is fiction because the Nazi gets treated to a fate he deserves, unlike the American Nazis we see now).

1970: 1970 may have been the year that gave us Equinox, a triumph of amateur cinema and Harryhausen-esque special effects, but it also gave the world its first look into the directorial mind of Dario Argento, and longtime readers of the site know I simply can’t overlook The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. See my review of that one here for more!

1971: Argento churned out a second film in less than a year for a 1971 release date with Cat o’ Nine Tails, but I didn’t care for that one as much as Plumage. In fact, in my opinion, the best horror film of 1971 was Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a psychological thriller that airs on local broadcast television pretty frequently, having lapsed into that gray market that’s not quite the public domain, but may as well be. Despite the fact that it was met with a lukewarm reception by critics of the time, the film is tense and serves as an interesting peek into the times in which it was made. I’m hesitant to say more for fear of spoiling it for future viewers, but it’s well worth the viewing.

1972: The late Wes Craven had a sick thing about mothers. For every Heather Langenkamp protecting her son in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (see Brandon’s revisit of the film here), there are a dozen Amanda Kruegers getting raped by countless asylum inmates in A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors. Last House on the Left is a movie with a distressingly gross approach to sexpolitick, but it is nonetheless an important part of horror cinema history and demands to be seen, if you can stomach it. Acting as a kind of spiritual remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which was itself an adaptation of a European folktale, as explored in this video by Leon Thomas), this serves as an interesting companion piece to Rosemary’s Baby but in a suburban, not urban setting, and about the other kind of horror that parents are inherently subject to: loss.

1973: The Exorcist may be the most famous horror film of 1973, and was the highest grossing horror movie of all time until its box office earnings were surpassed by IT this year, but although William Friedkin’s adaptation is an undisputed classic, I’ve always found The Wicker Man to be a creepier film with a slower build and a better ending. There’s a distinctly pagan feeling to the film that adds an air of discomfort to the proceedings that the polish on Friedkin’s film can’t match. If you’re only familiar with the title because of the terrible/campy Nic Cage remake, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not tracking down the original.

1974: Although I’ve been known to sing the praises of the late Tobe Hooper’s seminal work (and perhaps his opus, give or take however much credence you lend to the stories that Poltergeist was ghost-directed by Spielberg) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the most truly original horror film of the year was Bob Clark’s underrated holiday masterpiece Black Christmas. Years before Halloween, Clark set this proto-slasher during the winter holiday and focused on the travails of a group of sorority sisters who are at first amused by a series of dirty phone calls before they start to disappear one by one. Every character in this film feels real, from each housemate to their alcoholic house mother, and the non-ending makes the whole thing that much more terrifying. It’s a must-see.

1975: Although there’s debate over whether Profundo Rosso (Deep Red) or Suspiria is Argento’s true masterpiece, Rosso works better as a thriller while Suspiria works more as an art house nightmare. 1975 gave us the former, as well as the remarkably well-done Jaws and the frequently-cheesy-but-still-great Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror, but my absolute favorite horror movie of 1975 is the fantastic The Stepford Wives. Even 40 years later, the central conceit of the film still stands the test of time. Even though a little reworking (as evidenced in this year’s Get Out) can adapt the plot to apply the timeless story of disenfranchisement, gaslighting, and the presumption of moral authority because of social power, the original remains as haunting today as it did the year it was released. The only thing scarier is how terrible the remake was.

1976: It was a tough call between The Omen and what I ultimately chose as my favorite horror movie of 1976, but as much as I love the slow burn of Damien and his various acts of evil, Richard Donner’s story of the birth and early childhood of the Antichrist simply doesn’t affect me as much as Brian DePalma’s Carrie, the first of many, many, many adaptations of Stephen King’s works to hit the big and small screens. Sissy Spacek is simply too captivating an actress to ignore here, and Piper Laurie has never been better than she is in this film as the hysterical mother of the main character. The ending is just as much a part of the public consciousness as the reveal at the end of Psycho, but the fact that the finale is a foregone conclusion makes the film that much more tragic, really.

1977: It’s no surprise that I’m picking Suspiria as my top movie for this year, but because I’ve written about it extensively both here and in other places, I want to take this opportunity to recommend the Japanese horror flick House (a.k.a. Hausu), which is similar in a lot of ways. Both films feature a cast composed almost entirely of women in their later years of schooling, visiting the unusual home of an older woman and facing apparitions and other horrors. But where Suspiria plays the haunted house concept to create a discomfiting dream, Hausu is more comedic, featuring bizarre cat monsters, seemingly hungry pianos, and various other absurdities that I won’t spoil for you here. It’s a must-see, even if you can’t get your hands on the Criterion version.

1978: What a great year for horror! In addition to cult classics like I Spit on Your Grave!, we also had John Carpenter’s undisputed masterpiece of slasher horror Halloween, which introduced the world to Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Meyers. We were also blessed to receive George Romero’s return to the world of his first masterpiece with the improved (your mileage may vary) sequel Dawn of the Dead, which is my favorite of his zombie films, not least of all because it features being barricaded in a mall against the mindless undead horde outside, which was an idle daydream of many children, myself included. But it’s actually Romero’s other 1978 release, the post-modern vampire film Martin, that’s my favorite horror film of the year. It hasn’t aged as well as others (our titular protagonist is a sexual predator in addition to his blood hunger), but it definitely holds a special place in my heart. Despite all of his problems, Martin remains sympathetic, and the film serves as an excellent companion piece to Carrie in its demonstration of the way that the cycle of psychological abuse can take root in a family and repeat over and over again. The audience is consistently confronted with its presumptions and forced to question whether or not there’s anything wrong with Martin other than being told that he is “unclean” for his whole life, and the way that this received abuse harms his psyche and makes him act out in a predictable, if horrifying, fantasy.

1979: Again, it’s no surprise that I’m picking Alien as my best horror movie of 1979, since, as has previously been noted here, it’s my favorite horror film of all time. But I also think it’s important to point out some of the other horror classics, both seminal and forgotten, that came out the same year. Five years after Black Christmas pioneered the “The call is coming from inside the house!” horror element, When a Stranger Calls perfected it. Young Carol Kane, whose career is largely comedic, plays against type as the frightened babysitter who is terrorized by a series of calls that are coming from, well, you know (all I ask is that you avoid the 2000s remake like the plague). 1979 also saw the release of the first Phantasm, a series that grew increasingly absurd as time wore on but is still surprisingly watchable and creepy, and I’m surprised that the Tall Man antagonist has never entered the mainstream horror fandom in the way that Freddy, Michael, and Jason did (although his influence on the Slenderman creepypasta can’t be denied). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention David Cronenberg’s The Brood, which helped introduce him to a larger audience, and is one of his best works, even in comparison to more successful features that followed, like Scanners and The Dead Zone.

1980: A lot of people would immediately jump to the conclusion that The Shining is the scariest movie of 1980, and they may be right. Kubrick’s opus (give or take a 2001 or a Barry Lyndon or whatever) is probably the best remembered of his oeuvre in the mainstream, and it’s a film that has continued to terrify two successive generations, much to Stephen King’s chagrin. It’s a movie that needs no recommendation, so I won’t bother with wasting your time. However, an oft-overlooked film is Watcher in the Woods, a Halloween favorite of my childhood and beyond, and I can’t recommend it enough. Still, my favorite horror flick of 1980 has to be Altered States, starring William Hurt as a man whose experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and human psychic regression go further than he could have expected and have an effect on him that no one could have foreseen. Although silly at points, it’s a film with unforgettable imagery that will haunt you for weeks after, from multi-eyed goat creatures being crucified in Hurt’s visions to Hurt’s protohuman monster stalking about and making dangerous mischief, Altered States never gets old no matter how many times one sees it.

1981: The best horror movie of 1981 is actually a horror comedy, John Landis’s greatest creation (sorry, Max), An American Werewolf in London. I recognize this, and acknowledge that it is technically and narratively superior to Scanners, but I still find the Cronenberg flick to be more entertaining (if that’s even the word) on a personal level. The likelihood of something horrible happening to an entire generation because of poor pharmaceutical screening and a tendency to treat pregnancy as an ailment or illness has a greater verisimilitude than the possibility of lycanthropy, especially given that Thalidomide was given to pregnant women in Canada, resulting in a huge number of physical birth defects, and this was likely the inspiration for the film. If you’re only familiar with Scanners because of that one exploding head gif, then you’re missing out.

1982: When I first wrote my review of 1982’s Pieces, over two years ago, I stated that it “set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.” Although revisitations of the film outside of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays yielded a less exciting experience, it’s still a great film. Other films that I’ve reviewed before from this year include Basket Case and Tenebrae, which are both contenders for the best of the year, as is John Carpenter’s pinnacle creature feature The Thing, but my hands-down favorite has to be Poltergeist, which I was fortunate enough to see in 70 MM earlier this year and loved every minute of it. The hysteria of suburbia, the horror of undead meat, the premature celebration over the supposed “cleansing” of the house: this is a movie that sticks with you. No matter how many times I see it, Poltergeist never gets old.

1983: If you’re a Stephen King fan, 1983 was a good year for you, as it featured Lewis Teague’s adaptation of Cujo, the release of John Carpenter’s movie version of Christine, and David Cronenberg’s understated The Dead Zone film. But it’s Cronenberg’s other big release that year, Videodrome, that I hold in the highest regard. Few films have stayed with me as long as this one has, in all of its gruesome body horror. Few films so capture a descent into madness with such style and substance. “Long live the new flesh!” may be the film’s most well known mantra, but my personal favorite comes to my mind most often: don’t be afraid to let your body die.

1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, and although the series overall is my favorite franchise to be born out of the slasher wave of the seventies and eighties (over Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Child’s Play), and the first film saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy, it’s not my favorite horror film of that year. Nor is Silent Night, Deadly Night the top contender either, although I have a fondness for its absurdity in spite of its more troubling aspects. The year truly belongs to Night of the Comet, though: a film about two teenage sisters who survive an apocalyptic comet fly-by. Those who were not protected are atomized instantly, while those who were partially protected slowly turn into mutated zombies. Full of some of film’s best post-apocalyptic vistas, great performances from young actors, and a breakneck pace that moves from one situation to another (Mall! Radio Station! Government Bunker!), this is one to catch, even if it is no longer available with the easy access Netflix used to provide.

1985: Although Phenomena is my favorite Argento film, I have to give Fright Night the award for my favorite horror movie of 1985. It’s a film that speaks directly to the heart of every horror fan who let their imagination carry them to places outside the realm of reason, as well as all those who discovered a love of creature features with the help of a host like Elvira or Joe Bob Briggs. Despite a terrible remake featuring David Tennant and the late Anton Yelchin, the legacy of the original (starring Roddy McDowall, William Ragsdale, and Chris Sarandon at his most sultry and scary) remains untarnished–except maybe by the sequel.

1986: I have to profess a certain fondness for Slaughter High, a mediocre slasher film that relies on nerd revenge fantasies to carry what little emotional load it has. With a tagline like “Marty majored in cutting classmates,” you’d think that the film could do no wrong, but the plot meanders like a stumbling drunk and the stilted cinematography is boring. It only works as much as it does because of my association with the title (Slaughter is also the name of the town in which I grew up) and some pretty inventive (if occasionally nonsensical) kills. Instead, I’d like to highlight the refreshing Troll, a film that has been completely forgotten in lieu of the infamy of its in-name-only sequel, which has enough of a cult following that it spawned a documentary. The original film starts The Neverending Story‘s Noah Hathaway as Harry Potter Jr. (it’s a coincidence), a teen whose family moves into a new apartment in a building that is haunted by an evil troll. It’s essentially a kid flick that’s light on gore but manages to creep, while also featuring a cavalcade of burnouts, future stars, and others: June and Anne Lockhart, Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Warwick Davis, and Michael Moriarty.

1987: Another great year, with the first feature to be based on a work of Clive Barker (Hellraiser), the “baby’s first horror movie” of myself and many others (The Gate), and the second film of John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy (Prince of Darkness), but no movie from this year captures my fancy and interest quite like Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner, a tongue-in-cheek parody of the more serious 1963 seminal splatterer Blood Feast. Despite only a few titles to her name and a depressingly short career, Kong remains one of the best examples of a successful female horror director, and Blood Diner is her masterpiece. You can read Brandon’s review of the film here.

1988: More pretentious and short-sighted critics than those of us here at Swampflix love to complain about the number of franchise entries and sequels that we’re dealing with in today’s cinemas, but the eighties, and specifically 1988 and 1989, were in many ways worse. This is the year that gave us Hellbound: Hellraiser II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Friday the 13th Part 6, Halloween 4, Sleepaway Camp II, Return of the Living Dead Part II, Poltergeist III, Fright Night Part 2, Critters 2: The Main Course, Zombi 3 and Phantasm II. It also gave us original flicks like the oft-forgotten Pumpkinhead, Lair of the White Worm, Brain Damage, and Child’s Play, which terrified me more as a child than any other film save perhaps Puppetmaster. It’s been a long time, and the law of diminishing returns has meant that each sequel further watered down the terror of Chucky, but there’s still a lot to be frightened by here, as a child (whose doll is possessed by a murderer and no adult believes him) and as an adult (a parent whose child seems to be committing heinous acts of violence and blaming his toys). It’s a rare film that ages with you and puts you on both sides of the horrific events, and I respect that.

1989: Silent Night, Deadly Night 3! C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D.! Stepfather 2! Sleepaway Camp 3! Beyond the Door III! Howling v: The Rebirth! Amityville 4! Friday the 13th Part VIII! Nightmare on Elm Street 5! Yet another banner year for sequels, and a crop of truly terrible ones at that. It’s no surprise we have to look outside of the American studio system for my favorite horror flick of the year. Sure, Pet Sematary is decent and I think that Leviathan deserves more fond remembrance than it is usually awarded (and I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Society was made in 1989, even if it wasn’t released until 1992), but there’s nothing that came out this year that tops La chiesa. Read my review of it here.

1990: This is a tough one. Rob Reiner’s Misery is an amazing movie, and my one of the best Stephen King adaptations for the big screen, up there with Kubrick’s The Shining, Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and DePalma’s Carrie. I also have a real fondness for Tremors, which is as pitch perfect as a deconstruction of giant monster movies as Scream is for slashers. But I have to give Jacob’s Ladder the prize here. Despite having a twist ending that has been spoiled by pop cultural osmosis (like Psycho before it and The Sixth Sense that followed), this is a film of deep sorrow, anxiety, and fear, and it will haunt your dreams for longer that you’d expect. If you haven’t seen it already, skip checking out any information about it and go straight to the video store (analog or online) and see this film before it can be ruined for you.

1991: In my review of last year’s Don’t Breathe, I noted some similarities, both superficial and not, to The People Under the Stairs, one of the oft-overlooked films of Wes Craven’s career. It’s hard to recommend this film without giving away too much of its central thesis, but it is noteworthy that the film tackles race with a surprisingly deft hand for a director who was both white and 50 years old (and thus the epitome of “The Man”) at the time of production. This isn’t even getting into the fact that Craven was never a man of great subtlety (see the above discussion of Last House on the Left). Somehow, he managed to create a film that is more complex than the larger part of his body of work while also expressing frustration at gentrification, the forced creation of urban ghettos, and the rise of the slum lord. It’s not only his most nuanced work (comparatively), it’s also his most socially relevant.

1992: And speaking of socially, relevant my favorite horror movie of 1992 is the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Nah, I’m just kidding, it’s Army of Darkness! Nah, still kidding, although those are both a lot of fun. No, I’m talking about Candyman, which takes the childhood game of Bloody Mary and transposes it to Chicago’s South Side, giving the title monster, played by Tony Todd, a sympathetic back story in which he was murdered by a racist mob because of his interracial marriage. That aspect of the story is mostly overlooked in order for director Bernard Rose to create some of the most enduring horror imagery of the 1990s. That rib cage covered with bees? Geesh. It’s no surprise that contemporary horror like American Horror Story continues to use elements of this film, including not only the bee imagery that is an integral part of this year’s Cult storyline, but also protagonist Helen’s leitmotif, composed by Phillip Glass, which the show uses often.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

What We’d Most Like to See from the Sequel to Unfriended (2015)

It takes a few months of vetting & email exchanges to pull off our regular Movie of the Month discussions, so our individual selections for the feature are typically scheduled long before they’re published on the site. Even with that publishing delay, though, our selections often stumble into serendipitous timing. For instance, it turns out this October was an especially good time for us to return to the found footage social media horror Unfriended for a Movie of the Month round-table. Not only did the conversation happen to coincide with the American release of Unfriended‘s German knockoff, Friend Request, but it was also just announced that a sequel to the laptop-framed sleeper hit has already been filmed and is looking for a near-future release date. So, with this already-completed sequel lurking on the digital horizon and its gimmicky supernatural horror predecessor fresh on our minds, we thought it’d be a good time to weigh in as a crew on what we’d most like to see from Unfriended 2.

Britnee: What I most want to see in Unfriended 2 would be for the victims to actually leave their homes in order to get to the bottom of a cyber mystery. Confining the entire crew of teens to their bedrooms for most of the first Unfriended got to be a little boring. Each teen could be on FaceTime together (I think more than two people can be on it at once?). They’d all be tasked with figuring out the true reason Laura Barns died by visiting her grave, the place where she shot herself, etc. The idea of using smartphones to communicate with each other instead of laptops seems to be more modern, so I’m assuming the film will go in that direction.

Also, what if Laura had a brother or sister that wanted to avenge her death? A Barns sibling could act as a lure to get shitty teens to visit Laura’s haunted cyber world where they’d meet super crazy/brutal deaths. Laura can kill a couple of teens and her sibling can try their hand at murder too.

Brandon: My initial impulse would also be to switch up Unfriended‘s technology gimmick to a new device or platform from the laptop-framed Skype chat POV of the original. The mental roadblock I’m running into there, though, is that a lot of the better options have already been taken.  Sickhouse already delivered a Snapchat Story version of The Blair Witch Project, so smartphones have been done. Afflicted already supposed what a supernatural horror would look like filmed entirely through GoPros. Neither work is perfect, but by repeating either gimmick, Unfriended 2 risks becoming a kind of redundancy. Its only technological refuge from there might be framing its story from the POV of an Apple Watch, and I’m not even sure I would want to watch that.

With little choice but to repeat the laptop-framed Skype conversation format from the first film, I think Unfriended 2‘s best chance for satisfying audiences is the usual route taken by slasher sequels: going broader with the humor and gorier with the kills. There’s an endless sea of electronic appliances out there that the next wave of online teen bullies could be forced to kill themselves with by Laura Barns’s ghost. Salsa blenders & hair straighteners have already been employed, but there’s still clothing irons, trash compactors, egg beaters, dishwashers, light sockets, and all kinds of other household electronics that could be used to dispose of Unfriended 2‘s teenage trash. Just look to the bonkers Stephen King trash fire Maximum Overdrive for more inspiration there. The sequel could even forgo the verisimilitude of the online experience in the first film and go full-on live action cartoon in its sense of gimmick-dependent novelty. Why not fully commit and kill the new batch of kids with lethal pop up ads or literal computer viruses?

Basically, like with most slashers, I don’t expect Unfriended 2 to be anywhere near as good as the original film, so I think its best chance for memorability is to be as violent and as silly as possible.

Alli: I know you think smartphones and Snapchat wouldn’t be original enough, but I haven’t seen a movie that utilizes those in this context. I really would like a ridiculous Unfriended-style murder with the dog Snapchat filter flipped on. Or maybe a horrific face swap.

Also, the ending is a little ambiguous. Maybe Blaire lived to tell the tale. Maybe Laura messed her up just enough that she’s going to be babbling about ghosts for the rest of her life, which could lead to the cliché, but inevitable horror movie mental institution scene.

There could even be an element of The Ring involved, where the YouTube video of Laura’s suicide is now cursed. A group of kids from the same high school could have watched it and now face the same fate as the original teens.

I know all of this sounds very derivative, but the idea of a sequel to a movie that was this tightly wrapped up seems like a cash grab.

It could also be interesting if Unfriended 2 went straight to a streaming service and worked that in somehow. An “Are you still watching?” prompt after a violent death scene would be a delightfully goofy moment.

Boomer: I’d like to once again note my surprise at the fact that not only was Unfriended decent, but actually pretty good. With that in mind, I don’t have much hope for the sequel. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie, but the need for a sequel gave us the underwhelming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I think actually works on some levels as a creepy film about people losing time and being possessed in the woods, but is terrible as a continuation of the original story for various reasons, not the least of which is a rejection of the first film’s found footage roots in favor of a more traditional cinematic style). Alternatively, we could end up with something like Scream 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that is competent and almost as good as the original, if not of equal quality.

My biggest complaint about Unfriended was that it set Blaire up as a traditional Final Girl and then cut her to shreds. I remain unconvinced that she was deserving of the retribution that she received; I was never fully convinced that she participated in the creation of sock puppet accounts to encourage Laura to kill herself, and the fact that she (in her own drunkenness) filmed Laura in her inebriated, passed out state (but didn’t, at least in my reading of the text, share the video) is casually unthinking but not outright cruel. If anything, I’m hoping that the sequel will clarify this and show whether or not Blaire was, in fact, deserving of the vitriol heaped on her. Maybe we’ll see her as the new internet poltergeist, doling out unbalanced revenge on those who commented on her own Facebook, or she’ll be like Alice from the first two Friday the 13th films, surviving to the end only to be killed off in the first scene of the follow-up. Only time will tell.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017).

-The Swampflix Crew