Movie of the Month: Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon & Britnee watch Who Can Kill a Child? (1976).

Boomer: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) tells the story of British tourist Tom and his wife Evelyn, who is six months pregnant. The couple have left behind their two slightly older children in order to take a final holiday to the Spanish island of Almanzora before the new baby comes. Tom has visited the island before, and we first meet the two when they arrive at their first stop in the coastal town Benavis, enjoying the city’s festival while blissfully unaware that two mutilated corpses have washed up on the beach. The two rent a boat and make their way to Almanzora, only to discover a village devoid of adults, and the children they encounter have a vague air of menace. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the two Brits, they encounter a couple of holdouts and learn what has happened on this seemingly peaceful island.

There are a lot of beautifully composed shots in this film, with a couple of standouts: the pan to Evelyn in the village watering hole, revealing a shadowy and imposing figure behind a beaded curtain, who turns out to be a seemingly innocent girl; likewise, the reverse shot revealing the swarm of children coming over the hill near the fisherman’s house is also wonderfully done. Overall, however, the cinematography and direction avoid being too expressionistic or cinematic, instead relying on a more documentarian style of filmmaking to evoke the feeling that the situation in which the couple find themselves could happen to anyone; this was an intentional choice on the part of the late director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (who also directed The House that Screamed, which I’ve been trying to find for years) and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who is probably better known for his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, including Volver, La mala educación, and La piel que habito). Despite the realism of the visuals, the narrative itself is straightforwardly literary in its use of dramatic irony. I particularly like that Tom identifies the flower which he and Evelyn encounter en route to Almanzora as having come from the island, noting that the currents often carry objects from the island to the coast, both of them fully ignorant of the corpses they missed by that much: first when the bus on which they arrive passes the ambulance carrying the first body away from the beach, and again when both ignore the commotion at the Benavis shorefront out of a heat-induced apathy.

On my second watch, I also noticed that the couple are as damned by Tom’s self-importance as they are by whatever event is happening on the island. Evelyn first wants to stay in Benavis (which would have saved them from the fate that befell them on the island, at least for a time) but is convinced to proceed to Almanzora. Tom claims to know a great deal about the island, having been there eleven years prior, but despite his previous knowledge has to be corrected about the correct pronunciation of its name, foreshadowing that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does and telegraphing that the coming time when the duo will briefly think that their situation has improved will prove to be a false hope. Also, who the hell brings up the child murder-suicide subplot of La dolce vita on a quasi-romantic holiday?

When Brandon reached out to me to let me know that he and Britnee had loved the movie, he also noted that the opening sequence, which featured 7.5 minutes of archival footage of real life atrocities, mostly featuring images of crying children, was “A Lot.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, since the screening that I attended last summer as part of the Un-Hitched film series (which also featured Body Double and Special Effects), until I recalled that that screening’s presenter did mention at the time that other versions of the film contained an opening that we “[didn’t] need to see.” It appears that the longer, more questionable version is the only one available to the general viewing public, as it appeared on both the Blu-ray that Brandon acquired and the DVD version I rented from Austin’s Vulcan Video. I’m not certain from where the 16mm version I saw first came or for what region it was edited, but moving forward I would recommend skipping straight to the second “chapter.” It’s not just that the real-life material is slapped onto the film haphazardly (and tastelessly, although with good intentions; one of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the director, who admits regret at having started the film this way … because he feels he should have put it at the end), but also that the overlong introduction throws off the film’s flow. Now, the first encounter with the silent child at the pier at Almanzora comes at the 28th minute, not the 21st. We see the first dead body on the island at 40 minutes, not 32.5. A few modern reviews of the film littered about the internet bemoan the film’s “slow” pace, and it may merely be that the film’s timing feels off because it’s frontloaded.

Britnee, having seen the film with the brutal and unnecessary prologue, do you think that the film would benefit from having that footage moved to the end? How would that color the film experience? I’m assuming that removing it altogether rather than abbreviating it or relocating it is the best solution, but maybe you disagree. Is it really necessary in order to understand the film’s thesis, or does it muddle the water? Is the film even a good demonstration of that thesis?

Britnee: Watching those 8 horrid minutes of children suffering (mostly dying) from war and poverty had my stomach in knots. It was also insane seeing the real-life footage in high-quality as Brandon’s Blu-Ray copy had a wonderful restoration of the movie. My experience with the film’s intro may be a bit different than most since I don’t really have any close relationships with children. I find children to be more annoying than adorable, and I try to avoid them for the most part. Had I not watched the grisly intro, my emotions during the film would have been a bit more stagnant. I would have maintained a “Just kill the damn kids!” attitude from beginning to end. Once the 8 minutes were finally over, my heart was broken from the pain and suffering children have to go through for things that are out of their control. So when the kids on the island of Almanzora began to start their evil shit, I had some empathy for them and saw their evil behavior as them evolving into powerful beings to take revenge on the adults that they depended on for protection. However, any bit of sympathy I had for these island kids went down the drain after they used an elderly man as a human piñata. After that bit, my reaction to everything was, “Dammit, kill that kid!”

The thought of having the intro at the end of the film did cross my mind, and I honestly think that would’ve been so much better. I do think that footage is necessary to understand the evolution that is occurring in the children, causing them to kill the adults, and having it at the end of the film would still make that point clear. The lengthy intro can be a turn off for someone coming into this movie for the first time. If this version would have played at the screening Boomer attended, I could imagine there being a few walk-outs. Not only is the footage’s placement in the film an issue, but the length is totally unnecessary. A brief 1 minute montage would be enough for the audience to understand what the film is trying to say.

Who Can Kill a Child? is most certainly a film that isn’t afraid of crossing boundaries. One particular scene that I found to be surprising was when a smiling toddler got shot in the head and his dead body was pushed off a window sill. I mean, he was trying to kill the film’s main couple, but I was still shocked to see his bloody corpse after the act. Brandon, were you surprised by the film’s treatment of dead children? Were there any particular scenes that surprised you?

Brandon: If I was surprised by the matter-of-fact depictions of ficitional children’s lifeless bodies, it’s because it was initially unclear how willing the film was to Go There. After the (deliberately) excruciating montage of real-life war atrocity footage that opens the film, onscreen depictions of violence suddenly decide to play coy for reasons unknown. Because this is a genre film from the amoral grindhouse days of the 1970s, it’s immediately clear that this island of tykes are up to no good, but their creepiness begins with a quiet, eerie menace instead of a non-stop violent assault. Their first kill after the British couple arrives on their shore is of a local old geezer whom they bash over the head with his own cane offscreen. The film is willing to show the giallo-flavored red acrylic stage blood pouring from his head wound, but the actual blows that do him in are obscured as sounds, not images. What makes the movie remarkable is how its violence escalates from there into shocking explosions of brutality. The old man’s body is strung up like a piñata and swiped at with a scythe. The children responsible are ultimately mowed down with an automatic assault rifle, execution-style, when they block the road back to the shore. They’re beaten back with a boat oar in desperation as they swarm our child-killing “hero” like a zombie hoard.

In retrospect, it’s even creepier the violence is gradually escalated in this way. It’s clear that the children were always going to kill the adult-tourist invaders who disrupt their community; they just take their time to savor the hunt by turning it into a schoolyard game. It’s kind of a shame, then, that the documentary footage intro tips the film’s hand in prematurely exposing its willingness to Go There, since it takes a while for the violence to re-escalate back to that horrific starting point.

Because of that gradual escalation of violence, it’s difficult for any standout scene or set piece to top the climactic struggle Britnee already mentioned, where our hero shoots a child dead, point blank, in the face. Hounded into a cramped, locked cell with nowhere left to go, the tourist couple have no choice but to finally fight back instead of merely avoiding death. So, they find themselves firing a gun at the cutest, most cherubic cartoon of a child. It initially plays as if that transgression had taught the other kids a lesson (or at least a boundary) and they back off from the adults’ holding cell in apparent defeat. Except, they’ve been playing the long game! They’ve recruited and undercover soldier on the inside who can attack the pregnant tourist from within her own belly in an exceptionally gruesome moment of body horror. It feels as if the entire film is leading up to the crisis of that holding cell, a bottled-up stage play of grief, pain, and torment that really caught me off guard in its willingness to Go There psychologically on top of its willingness to depict brutal acts of violence against children & adults alike.

But what, exactly, do we make of this war between adults & children? What grievances inspired this climactic showdown? At one point, a single-scene character floats the idea that the children are striking back because in outbreaks of war & famine due to adults follies “It’s the children who suffer the most.” You could read that grievance as lip service to justify the war-atrocity prologue, but I do like the idea that these kids collectively have a cosmic vendetta against adults for bringing them into a cruel world where they have no protections or control in times of crisis, even though those crises are always adults’ fault. Then again, the film seemingly has more interest in its titular question of how far you’d have to be pushed to willingly kill a child than it does in exploring the source of this cosmic vendetta, which is why so much emphasis is put on that climactic showdown where our hero pulls the trigger on a gun aimed at an angelic tyke’s face. Boomer, what point do you think this film was trying to make in drawing its battle lines between adults & children, and just how invested do you think it is in exploring those themes vs. merely playing up the moral conundrum posed by the title?

Boomer: Metatextually, having watched the interview with the director, I can say that he was heavily invested in making the film about the damage done to children by adult violence. Most sources online note that the film was based on film was based on a novel by Juan José Plans’s, El juego de los niños (The Children’s Game), but in the interview Serrador noted that the film and the novel were created at the same time, and that the film was actually released prior to the novel’s publication, although I haven’t found any other evidence to support that claim. He noted that the novel provides more of an explanation as to why the children behave the way that they do, citing a yellow dust of possibly extraterrestrial origin settling over the (in the novel) landlocked town and causing the erratic and violent behavior of the children. I also can’t corroborate this, as the novel has never been translated into english, but he noted that he found the explanation unsatisfactory as it focused more on the moral quandary and removed adult violence from the equation. So we know that, from authorial intent, he was less concerned with making an exploitation film that featured characters struggling with the moral quandary of attacking children than he was with making a film that tackled the evils of war and the aftereffects that such struggles have on those least able to understand and withstand them.

But if Barthes is right and the author is dead, then I have to say that, purely within the text, I feel that the film is less concerned with that track. As noted before, my initial viewing did not contain the prologue of real world violence; even with that, the only real attention paid to the motivation of the children comes in the shop where the English couple purchase film, when the clerk notes that children suffer the most from war, poverty, and general big evils. It feels more like lip service to me, a prevarication to excuse creating a film that explores how far one would have to be pushed before they would commit to so evil a plan as murdering kids. That having been said, I don’t feel like the film revels in its violence, either; we’re certainly not supposed to feel a sense of relief, justice, or triumph when Tom is finally forced to mow down a line of children with an automatic weapon, nor should we rejoice when he kills the child in the window. I think it’s certainly not a coincidence that the couple we follow is English, hailing from the power that arguably did the most damage to the world in their colonial conquerings (although Spain was, um, certainly not innocent in their expansions either, so there’s possibly a little intracolonial hypocrisy going on there). When viewed through that lens, however, one can argue that the film is a mea culpa for a colonial power, which would lend credence to the director’s professed values, even if they are not clear on screen.

When I saw the film as part of the Un-Hitched series, it was described as “What if The Birds, but with kids?” And that’s certainly present, but the director also cited Night of the Living Dead as an inspiration as well, which is most clearly apparent in the final scene, where our “hero” (although Tom is not nearly as much of a hero as Dead‘s Ben is) is killed by the authorities. Britnee, what other films do you see as having inspired or being inspired by Who Can Kill a Child?

Britnee: I got heavy The Wicker Man vibes from Who Can Kill a Child?, and being that The Wicker Man was released just 3 years prior, it isn’t outlandish for me to suggest that film had some influence on Who Can Kill a Child?. Both films involve outsiders stuck on an island full of deceitful human predators, carefully keeping track of their every move as part of some sick and twisted game. I was quick to categorize Who Can Kill a Child? as a killer kid movie, which it totally is, but it’s just as much of an island horror as well. Something about being stuck on an island where everyone is out to get you is deeply unsettling. The film taking place on such an isolated island scared me just as much as the bloodthirsty children. I also want to mention that the timing of the couple’s arrival to Almanzora really amped up the island horror levels. The massacre on the island began as quickly as it ended, which was made apparent by the unattended cart of melted ice cream and almost completely burnt rotisserie chickens.

When Brandon and I watched the movie, he said something along to lines of, “That’s their Malachi,” when the eerily silent boy rubs Evelyn’s pregnant belly. That’s when I started to make influential connections between Who Can Kill a Child? and Children of the Corn. The children of Almanzora were not as loud and rowdy as the youth of Gatlin, Nebraska, but they were very organized and had the same determination to take down all adults. Come to think of it, the only time we hear the children make any noise is when they fake cry or give Birthday party cheers while wacking at a human piñata. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Children of the Corn, but I can imagine that there are even more similarities that can be picked out. Now that we’re getting closer to Halloween, it may be a good time for me to pay those Corn Kids a visit and binge the series.

At least with Children of the Corn, the adults make it out alive, which I totally thought was going to happen with Evelyn and Tom. Brandon, would you have preferred an ending where the couple made it off the island after blowing it up (or something along those lines)? Or were you satisfied with the film’s actual ending?

Brandon: The big-budget Hollywood ending to this nasty Euro-grindhouse provocation would be for the heroes to prevail & neutralize the threat while clearing a path back to safety. There is something perversely funny about the idea of that traditional victory involving the detonated explosion of an island full of children since, as the titular moral conflict suggests, that act is typically crueler than it is heroic. As amused as I might have been by that massacre being framed as a Happy Ending, I do think the way the film concludes is already perfect. It gifts us with the fantastic children-as-zombies visual homage to the Romero template in one of the film’s strongest set pieces. It’s an admirably honest participation in the inherent nihilism of the horror genre at large. And, most importantly, it emphasizes that the British couple were doomed from the moment they arrived, and the delay of their demise was just a sick schoolyard game. I can’t imagine an alternate ending that could be equally satisfying, which is more than I can say about the way the film begins.

Lagniappe

Boomer: An interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit: the cinematographer was the son of a film developer who handled the processing of rolls of film shot by the director’s father, leading the cinematographer to joke in his interview that he had been developing the director’s prints since they were children.

Britnee: Tom reminds me so much of this douchey guy that was in a tour group with me in Rome. He was constantly bragging about the 2 months he spent in Rome during his college days while being dismissive of everyone’s opinions because he was such a Rome “expert.” Tom was being a little bit of a show-off in Almanzora just because he spent a short amount of time there many moons ago, and I think that’s what really led to the couple’s demise. He should’ve just listened to his wife.

Brandon: I love how sweaty & gross the two leads are allowed to become over the course of this picture. This is Daylight Horror in the most literal sense, as the heat & sunshine are almost as much of a menace as the killer children. To that point, I initially made fun of Evelyn’s unfathomably tragic bangs in the early scenes, but once they were pasted to her forehead with sweat in the island heat, I appreciated how disheveled & panicked they made her look. By the time she has her Big Scene in the holding cell she looks demonically possessed, which fits the heightened tone of the moment beautifully, and I’m not sure it would’ve played that way without those shitty, godawful bangs setting the stage.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

Halloween Report 2019: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means many cinephiles & genre nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the second-best day of the year (behind Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (or the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hopefully this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge. Happy hauntings!

Art House Horror

If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.

La Belle et la Bête (1946) – “I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a deliriously horny Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.”

Midsommar (2019) – “The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor, Hereditary, instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”

The Reflecting Skin (1990) – “The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.”

Inferno (1980) – “Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special.”

 

The Horrors of Fashion

Of Montreal aren’t the only damned souls who suffer for fashion; check out these violent dispatches from the Hell of haute couture.

In Fabric (2019) – “Wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.”

The Neon Demon (2016) – “In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ‘Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.’ Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.”

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) – “Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace.”

 

Femme Nightmare Realms

Sink into the insular, hyper-feminine sensory pleasures of these Girls’ Club fantasy realms, but beware the nightmares that lurk just under their candy-coated surfaces.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) – “Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Peter Jackson shoots these girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extremely particular young women.”

Braid (2019) – “The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs and detours into torture porn, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.”

Paradise Hills (2019) – “This is far from the first fairy tale to lure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.”

Cam (2018) – “As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation.

 

 Sexual Mania

Cronenberg may be the godfather of the “horniness made me violently crazy” subgenre of body horror, but there are plenty of dangerously turned-on descendents beneath him willing to take up that prurient mantle.

The Wild Boys (2018) – “Feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.”

Knife+Heart (2019) – “A neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus.”

Climax (2019) – “Your personal response to this pretentious, obnoxious, ‘French and fucking proud of it’ smut will vary wildly depending on how much interest you tend to have in the type of edgy, over-the-top art-schlock Gaspar Noé usually traffics in. If it’s something you have absolutely zero patience for, the movie will alienate you early & often – leaving you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen. If, like me, you’re always curious about what Noé’s up to but never fully connect with the fucked-up party therein, you might just find yourself succumbing to the prurient displeasures of DJ Daddy and the killer sangria.”

Body Double (1984) – “It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.”

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) – “Josephine Decker’s version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.”

 

Sci-Fi Horror

Horror often depends on the uncanny & the supernatural invading the hard-facts logic of the real world to unnerve its audience, but sometimes the best key to unlocking that disruption of reality is the factual speculation of science fiction.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) – “I had remembered Beyond the Black Rainbow as being less plotty and less emotional than Mandy, but after this revisit I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. Between Barry’s resentful anger & Elena’s silent anguish, Beyond the Black Rainbow traffics in plenty of extreme emotional expression; it’s just not the aspect of the film that stuck with me most on first watch.”

Phase IV (1974) – “It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist ‘looks into the Eye of God.’ It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind.”

Pig Film (2018) – “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

Elizabeth Harvest (2018) –Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.”

Child’s Play (2019) – “While a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. It’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place.”

 

Mainstream Horror

It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.

Us (2019) – “The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.”

Ma (2019) – “It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.”

Orphan (2009) – “As much as I’ve come to respect Jaume Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.”

Venom (2018) – “Tom Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.”

Glass (2019) – “A strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the ‘bad guy’ mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide.”

 

Slashers

One crazed killer stacking up an exponential body count while a Final Girl archetype builds up the courage to best them in a climactic showdown; a simple, but evergreen formula.

Black Christmas (1974) – “The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort.”

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989) – “In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions.”

Halloween (2018) – “When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.”

 

Softcore Torture Porn

Maybe there’s no such thing as Great Torture Porn (since the term itself is something of an insult) but there are some great movies that use torture as an effective device for building tension, dread, and disgust.

Pledge (2019) – “Not only does the film sidestep the torture porn genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking.”

Apostle (2018) – “Visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a ‘cult’ classic.”

Escape Room (2019) – “The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.”

 

Creature Features

Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) – “From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.”

The Pit (1981) – “In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, ‘This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

The Gate (1987) – “Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control.”

Overlord (2018) – “Real-life Nazis are gross & worthy enough of destruction without the help of schlocky exaggeration, but just in case you’re not fully convinced (as seems to be the case with young Alt-Right recruits online) Overlord takes giddy pleasure in spelling it out for you.”

 

Horror Comedies

Here’s some recommendations in case you’re looking to have some yucks along with your scares.

One Cut of the Dead (2019) – “So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.”

Come to Daddy (2019) – “As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.”

Chained for Life (2019) – “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

 

Campy Spectacles

If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, sometimes intentionally and sometimes far from it. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) – “Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format.”

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991) – “There’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own.”

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – “Effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes.”

Gooby (2009) –Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at.”

And as if that weren’t enough already, we also have podcast episodes on Crawl, Ready or Not, Knife+Heart, Border, Ma, Pledge, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, The 6th Sense, Little Otik, The Witches of Eastwick, Darkman, and Blade, all horror gems we’d heartily recommend.

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast: Downton Abbey (2019) & Movie Sequels to TV Shows

Welcome to Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-second episode, Britnee & Brandon are joined by special celebrity guest star Boomer to discuss feature-length movie sequels to television shows, with a particular focus on Downton Abbey (2019), Da Kath and Kim Code (2005), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

There’s a scene that I loved in Spider-Man: Far From Home that I wish I could explore in more detail than is really appropriate for an opening paragraph, even if the review is as late as this one. To be as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that we once again spend some time with a character who finds Tony Stark’s narcissism and egotism as obnoxious as I do, and I got a minor thrill out of the fact that, within this narrative in which (spoilers for Endgame) Stark’s corpse has barely cooled, the evil that he’s done lives after him and the good is interred with his arc reactors (or something). His former employees hated his freaking guts, with Stark’s careless dismissal of the “little people” in his sphere, despite their individual contributions to the technology that kept his empire alive, presented in a more honest way than we’ve seen before. Somewhere along the way, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma tricked everyone into forgetting that Tony Stark is someone that would be very difficult to get along with, unless you were a gorgeous twenty-something he wanted to bed. That he died and left most of his legacy to a kid from Queens he barely knows is strange, to say the least, and Stark’s spurned employees don’t see a reason why they should have to honor that desire. Frankly, neither do I, and I have the benefit of living outside of the narrative and can recognize how weird it is that this Spider-Man isn’t really all that Spider-Manny.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s going to Europe! Along for the ride are his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya), and Flash (Tony Revolori). Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), seen in the last Spider-film only on the school’s video announcements, is also along for the ride. The aforementioned all disappeared for five years during what’s now being called “The Blip,” the time period during which half of all life was snapped out of existence by Thanos at the end of Infinity War, before being snapped back into existence by Tony in Endgame (ok, he’s not without a redeeming feature or two); some students return to discover that their younger sibling is now biologically older than them, even if they are still chronologically elder. To those who were gone during the interim, that means that there’s a whole new group of freshly-minted peers, with some of Peter’s classmates having, subjectively, grown from pipsqueak to hunk overnight. One such character is Brad (Remy Hii, who, like me, is 32, making me wonder if I could still pull off a potentially problematic Never Been Kissed investigation), whom Peter fastens onto as a potential rival for MJ’s affection. As soon as the group gets to Europe, element-based monsters appear and start wreaking havoc on all that priceless architecture, and Peter must team with new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to stop them, etc. Also part of this story are Tony Stark’s hideous sunglasses, which turn out to be linked to yet another A.I. that connects to an orbiting Stark weapons platform, among other things, and which Stark meant to go to his “successor.” But is Peter’s head adult enough to wear so heavy a crown? And if not, him, whom? Also, Samuel L. Jackson appears in his contractually obligated appearance as Nick Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) is also there. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

There’s both too much and too little going on here. “Too much” in the sense that, with a release date a mere 61 days after the premiere of Endgame, there hasn’t really been sufficient time to let that film digest in the public consciousness; “too little” in the sense that, if we are going to dive straight back into this world, we don’t really get to spend sufficient time exploring the massive consequences of The Blip. I still remember the thrill of electricity that ran through my fat, greasy, balding 2009 body the first time I read in an issue of Wizard that there were going to be Captain America and Thor movies in 2011, and how that seemed so far away, and all the speculation and discussion and anticipation that created. Endgame truly felt appropriately consequential and, at the risk of coming across as sententious, iconoclastic. It was a capstone to a truly impressive decade of mainstream film; to break ground on something new so soon diminishes the poignancy and the potency of what we just saw in theaters two months prior. In my Endgame review, I noted that the film functioned as the “All Good Things” of the first ten years of the MCU, but even Rick Berman and Brannon waited at least six months before getting straight to Voyager. This analogy bears out in the content of Far From Home as well, where we find our intrepid band of heroes literally far from home, but the narrative quickly settles into something that’s so familiar it’s essentially the same old thing, just blanched of some of the color that made it special. Perhaps, like the franchise that once boasted the most films in a single series, we’re about to experience such diminishing returns that the next ten years of Marvel fail to penetrate the public consciousness the way its forbearer did.* Give my fat, greasy, balder 2019 body the chance to feel that excitement and anticipation again, Marvel.

I understand that fans are too hungry for new content to let the land lie fallow for a season so that the earth is sweet again, or at least I understand that this is the narrative. I also understand that the MCU is a machine that generates money, and that this is the real reason we’re not going to see a summer without an MCU flick until the well runs dry (if it ever will). But if we are going to head back so soon, we should spend more time really living with the aftermath of The Blip. As it is, an entire half of the universe just experienced a cataclysmic existential shift; half of all life just lost seven years, not to mention there’s very little exploration of the fallout from the doubtlessly widespread infrastructure issues that this creates. What we get is a single fundraiser for Aunt May’s homelessness initiative, which barely glances off of the surface of what kind of a massive housing crisis must now be a reality for everyone. The implications are boundless, but the most devastating event in the history of existence is used mostly as a source to mine for comedy in the fact that formerly sexually ineligible middle school nerds are now hot (32 year old) seniors.

I’m coming down pretty hard on this for a movie that I had a fairly good time watching. I’m not really upset with the product, just with the system of production. I mean, I’m never going to love the fact that Peter Parker’s whole deal–being a street-level superhero who had to balance all his great responsibility with his need to have some semblance of a normal life–is kinda defeated by having Tony Stark acting as Daddy Warbucks bibbedi-bobbedi-booing Peter straight out of Queens. Even when one considers that Peter’s desire to be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is part of his external conflict in this film, Tony Stark’s presence looms so large and his shadow casts so far that it drags down the plot. The narrative connection between the former Stark employees and their complicated boss not only works for me because it’s critical of Tony Stark, but also because it makes the world feel larger in an organic way; having Peter’s story be so dependent on Tony’s makes it smaller. Gone is the relatability of the fable, in which perseverance is a virtue, replaced by the rhetorical distance of the fairy tale, in which you might be rewarded for hard work, but also sometimes you’ve just got a fairy godmother to do that shit for you.

There were a lot of things that I liked. There’s a series of illusions that appear throughout the film (to say more would reveal too much) that are really cool to watch. There’s also an appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, which both comes out of nowhere and is a welcome addition, although it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what the larger implications of that might mean. Such as: is Jameson just the same across reboots? Do you think Simmons thinks its weird that he used to be 27 years younger than Aunt May when she was Rosemary Harris, but now he’s ten years older than Aunt May now that she’s Marisa Tomei? Are there really multiple earths? This film posits the existence of other dimensions and presents evidence for it, but the source is ultimately less than reliable.

I saw this one opening weekend, and in the time since, news broke about the potential dissolution of the contract that allows the MCU (under the Disney omnibrand) to use Spider-Man in their films, with much hand-wringing and corporate apologia and weeping/gnashing/sackcloth. But honestly, I’m not sure that getting a little distance from the larger MCU isn’t for the best right now. At least if we don’t see Tom Holland for a few months, it might give us time to miss him.

*In this analogy DS9 equates to the Netflix shows (more inspective of humanity’s darker impulses, tightly focused, “grittier” for lack of a more accurate term), and the original series is/are the comics (originating mostly in the sixties, socially conscious for both the time of origin and now, sometimes aliens steal character’s brains). Don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Midsommar (2019)

“For Dani, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. A fairy tale.”

About a week after seeing Midsommar, the friend with whom I attended a screening featuring a post-film Q&A with director Ari Aster turned to me as we were hanging out and asked, “Boomer, did you actually like Midsommar?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?” To which he responded, “I’m not sure. I think that Q&A kinda ruined it for me.” And I have to admit, as soon as the film ended, I was fully ready to do my write-up, only for my excitement to dwindle as Aster and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League swirled mostly-empty rocks glasses and chuckled. At first, I was mostly concerned for Aster’s feelings (I’m a softie like that); when I saw Hereditary, there wasn’t a single guffaw or chuckle from the audience with whom I sat in the dark and partook in a somber meditation on grief (at least until the very end, but I’ll circle back around to that), but in the sold-out audience for Midsommar, there were laughs within the first 5 minutes, leading to out-and-out peals of laughter until the film’s closing moments. I worried that Aster would hear this reaction and determine that we were a theater filled with bumpkins and deviants–and not the fun kind–who didn’t appreciate his work.

This was not the case, or if it was, Aster did a good job covering his disappointment, engaging in the good natured ribbing of the characters’ foibles, noting that if a viewer didn’t think the film was intentionally comedic by the time an older woman was manhandling the male lead’s buttocks and helping him thrust, then he must not have done his job. Comedy was his real interest, he stated, and he had gotten sidelined into doing horror because that seemed to be of greater public interest. And that is one of the beautiful draws of Midsommar: it is hilarious. I needn’t have worried at all it seems; I wrote in my Hereditary review about “a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences,” but Aster stated that he himself found that scene hilarious, and it was intentionally comedic.

It’s been long enough since Midsommar came out that an extended director’s cut rerelease has already happened, but in case you’ve had the misfortune of missing the film, a brief synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh), recently having experienced a horrific family tragedy, accompanies her douchebag boyfriend Chad Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden. Ostensibly, this is not a holiday but a research expedition as part of Josh (William Jackson Harper)’s thesis research about Hårga, the commune from which the group’s exchange student friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) hails. However, the inclusion of Mark (Will Poulter), a doofus completely lacking in even the least bit of self-awareness, cements that the Swedish foray exists solely for the purpose of eating a bunch of mushrooms and trying to bed as many commune girls as possible during the Hårga’s titular Midsommar festival, with this year’s being a special kind that only comes every ninety years. And then, as is the genre’s wont, bad things happen. And good things, too. After all, that quote about Dani above? That’s from Aster.

From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dead Calm to upcoming Movie of the Month Who Can Kill a Child?, I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the “day won’t save you” concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of “darkness” with about the success that you would expect. People lose track of time and then possibly lose track of the concept of time, all under the watchful and unfaltering gaze of the sun. That alone isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile, of course; the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man kept the seminal original’s daytime frights, but lost the core of what made Robin Hardy’s version a classic (although what it lost in the fire it gained in the flood; it’s a romp).

What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called “static image[s] of relatively little interest.” It’s been three years since the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” stopped updating, but I have no doubt that they would have a lot to say about the growing Aster oeuvre. His two big features so far have depended heavily on lingering shots of mostly-static settings to convey a sense of displacement and balance. The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.

A friend who is known for his tirades recently produced a new rant about the performative sententiousness of horror fans, noting that many he has met seem to think that horror fans have a kind of ownership of subtextual analysis. And hey, I know I’ve been guilty of that. (Said friend also hated Hereditary, unsurprisingly.) In a way, Aster reminds me of Panos Cosmatos, in that his films act as originals in spite of being pastiches of older genre films; I’ve said before that my favorite thing about Hereditary is how it starts out as an apparent homage to The Bad Seed, before turning into Ordinary People for so long that you gaslight yourself into thinking all that seemingly extraordinary stuff from Act 1 was just in your head, before bam: Rosemary’s Baby all along. In Midsommar we find a movie that, frankly, owes its existence to the aforementioned The Wicker Man (1973, just to be clear), but has a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. You don’t need another thinkpiece on this movie; various outlets have already dove into the apparent pro-eugenics nature of the narrative, an argument that I’ve read four times now and still have difficulty following, and have read the film as a trans narrative and a new camp classic. And if a slightly sloppy Q&A (someone actually gave Aster their contact info on a Drafthouse order card and asked to work on his next project, so the audience was matching the level of “shoot your shot” that the director was putting out, at least) in which Aster admitted under questioning that the 72-year life cycle didn’t actually jibe with the 90-year festival cycle didn’t ruin it altogether, I don’t think anything can.

P.S.: I didn’t even get to touch on my three favorite moments, but here they are:

  1. The paneled cloth depicting a particular Hårga fertility ritual, and each time that something popped up on screen that had appeared in it previously (how Christian didn’t notice that his lemonade was distinctly pinker than anyone else’s is a mystery).
  2. The foreshadowing in Pelle’s scene with Dani, where he tells her that his parents died too. In a fire.
  3. “What game are those kids playing?”
    “Skin the fool.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Blood & Donuts (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and our newest contributor, Hanna Räsänen, watch Blood & Donuts (1995).

Britnee: Do you ever remember a movie only by the feeling that it gave you? Not quite remembering any dialogue between the characters or even what those characters really looked like? Blood & Donuts is a film that I recalled loving simply from the feeling I got reminiscing about it. There’s just something about this movie that makes me feel comfortable and at peace. Yes, it’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time. It’s yet to be released on DVD, so if you are able to find a copy of it (be it streaming or VHS), it’s going to have that wonderful grainy quality that I just love so much.

Blood & Donuts is a vampire movie, but it’s far from your average run of the mill vampire flick. Boya (Gordon Currie), is perhaps the kindest vampire in the history of the genre. He is awoken from his deep slumber by a stray golf ball that breaks through the window of the abandoned home where he has taken refuge. He hasn’t been awake since the moon landing of 1969, and he now finds himself in the early 90s. As he begins to explore his new surroundings and find street rats to feed on, he gets into some messy situations with a local gang, falls for a girl that works at a donut shop, and tries to escape his murderous ex-lover.

I personally liked how the film doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on Boya’s transition into the 90s. There are no cheeseball scenes where he tries to get hip with the current trends and fashions. Boya just sort of rolls with the changes while looking a little dusty. Once he actually takes a bath, he really doesn’t look like a blast from the past. Brandon, would you have preferred the film to have delved more into Boya getting acclimated into his new world?

Brandon: At the very least, I don’t think the film would have been as memorable or distinctive if it dedicated more of its runtime to watching Boya adjust to his new Gen-X surroundings. Given its cheap-o production budget and the fact that it’s about a vampire, I was prepared for an off-beat Canuxploitation horror cheapie like Cathy’s Curse or The Pit. As soon as the CGI golf ball awakens Boya from his slumber in the opening scene, my expectations shifted to more of a goofball fish-out-of-water (and time) comedy like Peggy Sue Got Married or Blast from the Past. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that the film gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely: a kind of melancholy indie hangout movie that never fully tips into any single genre, so it leaves itself open to constant surprise & discovery. In that way, it reminded me a lot of a former oddball Canadian pick for Movie of the Month, the Apocalyptic hangout dramedy Last Night (both films even feature bit roles from Canadian filmmaking royalty David Cronenberg), which is to say that it’s much more interested in establishing a mood than it is in winning its audience over with familiar genre beats or easy-to-digest humor. Following Boya around as he blunderously acclimates to his new Gen-X 90s surroundings as a vampire who’s been asleep since the 60s might have been amusing in its own way, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as unique of an experience as the low-key hangout dramedy Blood & Donuts delivers instead.

We do get some insight into Boya’s internal adjustments to his new surroundings. We just get the sense he’s been through this process so many times before that he’s more exhausted by it than he is amused. He stumbles around this movie’s few grim locations (a graveyard, a seedy motel, a 24-hour donut shop) in a total daze, as if shaking off a 25-year hangover. As his mind sharpens and his body loosens up, the movie turns into a character study of an oddly tender, sensitive man who just happens to be a bloodsucking vampire. He harvests his blood from rats to prevent himself from murdering because he is a humanist. He’s fascinated with the quirks of modern human culture surrounding him, like novelty donut flavors (kiwi? really?) and classic cartoons. His hobbies include long baths and scrapbooking. The very first conversation in the film, between the vampire and his newfound cabdriver friend Earl, is about how it’s okay for grown men to cry. Boya is an overly-sensitive, non-threatening man-boy – the kind of undead sweetheart that goth teens must’ve fallen in love with before Jack Skellington replaced his type in the zeitgeist.

Speaking of Boya’s attractiveness, I feel like the only threat he poses as a vampire is in his naturally seductive qualities. Women can’t help being pulled into his orbit. We see this most extensively with a bookworm donut shop employee, Molly, whom the film posits as his main love interest. We also see where that potential romance may lead, thanks to a hairdresser who fell in love with Boya in the 1960s and has been going mad in the decades since while obsessing over his sudden absence and his vampirism’s promise of an eternal (albeit melancholic) life. That seduction also extends to the men who come in direct contact with Boya. When he eventually kills Cronenberg’s evil bowling-alley crime boss he does so with the neck-sucking sensuality that charges all vampire media with a horny overtone. His goofball cabbie buddy Earl (whose bizarro Eastern European-flavored Christopher Walken impersonation probably deserves its own lengthy discussion) is head-over-heels in love with him by the end of the film, and unsure what to do with how these uncomfortable impulses conflict with the unconvincing machismo persona he projects in public. Even the way that Boya’s muscly chest and naked buttocks are leeringly framed with the female gaze (by director Holly Dale) makes him out to be a luring sexual object for everyone to enjoy, to the point where I expected the movie to end with the vampire, Earl, and Molly riding out into the sunset as a bisexual throuple.

Since we’re living in an age where mega-corporations like Disney try to get away with earning social media brownie points for teasing that a character might maybe be gay or bi in a throwaway line or two without fully committing to, you know, actually representing LGBTQIA people onscreen, I should probably be a little cautious about diagnosing the three leads of this film as a bisexual love triangle. Still, I can’t help but feel that this movie is operating with some big Bi Energy, and that ended up being one of its major charms for me. Boomer, am I looking for onscreen bisexual representation where it doesn’t exist? What did you generally make of this film’s sexuality & romance, queer or otherwise?

Boomer: I was honestly a bit taken aback by how queer this film was, textually and not just subtextually. Sure, vampire media often likes to dally in this trope, as the vampyr is often a monster invoked as a Conservative’s nightmare (they are sexually free, often foreign, seductive, parasitic, and seek to convert; conversely, the liberal’s nightmare is our old friend the zombie, who is characterized as a braindead consumer, utterly mindless, incapable of independent thought, and represent an ultimate destruction of identity as part of a horde). To code that character as queer is both an invocation of those fears and, in a more postmodern film landscape, a way of defanging (I’m so sorry) elements of humanity that previous generations demonized. It took a while for it to sink in for me that the film was really willing to go there, given that the first scene between Boya and Earl initially felt like a bad parody due to the . . . let’s charitably call it a “unique” performance choice on the part of Earl’s actor (Louis Ferreira) to go with that accent. I was also shocked by how much the camera lingered on Boya’s body, not least of all because my only previous exposure (ahem) to Currie was in his role as Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the early aughts Left Behind films.

What you’ve brought up about the female gaze is notable as well. Video essayist Jamie “Rantasmo” Maurer has a short, interesting video about how the supposed homoeroticism of Top Gun is, in many ways, a manifestation of the reaction on the part of the (presumed default) straight male audience to the creation of a rhetorical space in which a man is being treated as a sexual object without the presence of a female character observing them, thereby eliminating the rhetorical distance that allows straight male audiences to feel more comfortable when viewing the object of objectification. Compare it to the classic “Diet Coke Break” commercial, in which an office full of women gather to watch a construction worker remove his shirt; the ad isn’t just about how sexy he looks when he’s drinking his Diet Coke, because that has the potential to alienate the straight male audience, but instead gives members of the audience the psychological “out” of saying “I’m not objectifying this man; these women are objectifying him,” creating a rhetorical distance between actor and spectator. Not only does Blood & Donuts feel no need to practice this distancing, but it in fact goes so far as to have the (presumably) straight Earl be the viewpoint character who is so thoroughly entranced by Boya’s taut abs, pushing this straight (again, so sorry) over the line into being unabashedly queer. I’d be curious to compare this to the subtext in Interview with a Vampire, seeing as it is often considered a keystone piece of queer cinema, which, though adapted and directed by men, is based on a novel by a woman; this is the reverse, with Holly Dale directing a screenplay written by a man. There’s something in there, if one of you fine folks want to pull that thread, it’s just been too long since the last time that I saw Interview for me to draw any conclusions.

I’ll admit that, like Britnee, I felt like this was a movie that is more evocative of a feeling than it was a narrative, lying somewhere on the spectrum between USA Late Night and IFC at 3 AM, when D.E.B.S. was over. As such, I had some difficulty getting into it, as it’s kind of a sleepy film, from an era of night shooting with indecipherable lighting choices of a kind you just don’t see anymore. I was fully committed to it by the time that Boya takes his milky bath and has long distance sex with Molly, though, even if the campiness of it made me think more about that one episode where Doctor Crusher has sex with a ghost than what was really going on in front of me. How did this movie make you feel, Hanna? Were you won over by its low budget zeal? Were there choices that you really loved, or that you would have done differently?

Hanna: Blood & Donuts completely won me over, in part because it completely surpassed my too-low expectations. Like Brandon, I prepared myself for a straightforward, deliciously trashy horror comedy; instead, I found Blood & Donuts utterly strange and surprisingly sweet. The characters’ moments of sensitivity were often funny – see Boya’s fastidious dedication to his ancient, leather-bound scrapbook, or Molly’s attempts to understand Boya’s vampirism through an incredibly on-the-nose reading list (featuring titles like Parapsychology, Dreams, and Vampires). Ultimately the movie honors and values these sincere expressions of tenderness, rather than undermining them through parody. I think the fuzzy, low-budget production actually enhances this effect; the earnest absurdity of Boya, Molly, and Earl would have hardened under a sharper lens.

In spite of the low budget and the cheesy special effects, I think the film managed to explore some unique ideas, especially the coexistence of sensitivity and ruthlessness. This is exemplified in one of my favorite aspects of the film: using a 24-hour doughnut shop as the main hub of the film’s action and Boya’s deeply-rooted existential crisis. Bernie, the owner of the shop, has “the firm belief that any jerk off the street deserves at least a well-made doughnut, and a safe place to eat it”. True to form, the shop is a haven for a rough brand of masculinity: buff outcasts, petty criminals, and scruffy derelicts. It’s a sugary substitute for the local dive bar, where the scum of the earth order fresh pastries and coffee instead of stiff highballs (and, based on the amount of consistent business he gets, Bernie is apparently tapping into some deep-seated need for sugary treats). He also takes his doughnuts very seriously, as indicated by the array of unique fruit fillings, as well as the encouragement for patrons to leave honest “impressions” of new flavors. I was simultaneously tickled and touched by the idea of a dreamy underworld where crime and grime are inextricable from kiwi doughnuts; where sweetness can be life-saving, or at least provide a temporary reprieve from violence. It’s also fitting that Boya—who struggles to reconcile his eternal reliance on bloodshed with his pacifism—would end up in such a place.

I fell in love with the extremes of violence and compassion in Blood & Donuts, and I was surprised by the depth this movie had gleaming from its schlocky disguise. Britnee, what do you think about the heart of the tiny universe Dale brought to life? Do you think it stands apart from its low-budget peers?

Britnee: No lie, I wish that I was a neighborhood resident that could frequent the donut shop. Everyone just seems so nice and accepting there, and at all hours of the night! All of the shabby chic buildings and constant aura of mystery create an environment that I just didn’t want to leave. What I truly enjoyed the most about Dale’s wonderful Blood & Donuts world is the portrayal of our vampire pal, Boya. Vampire lore is easy to play around with, but most movies tend to work within the same handful of vampire characteristics. We either have a bloodthirsty vampire that lures innocent prey to their doom or a vampire that hates being a vampire with no control over their actions. As far as vampiric variations in film go, Boya stands in a category all of his own. He is able to control his urges and only unleashes the vampire within when he’s helping his human pals fight the bad guys. He values friendships and human connections, yet he doesn’t constantly mope around bitching about being a vampire. His vampirism does not define who he is. Boya is like the cool guy you can have deep, philosophical conversations with who just so happens to be a vampire. A world where vampires are like Boya is a wonderful world indeed.

I love how Dale was able to make most of the characters, including those who had just a single line, genuinely loveable. Her focus on the humanity of the characters is what really sets this film apart from the other vampire flicks of the 90s. Take Earl for example. His character could’ve easily leaned more towards being a total doofus that’s only around for a couple of laughs, but he ends up being a genuine sweetheart that adds so much life to the movie. I was surprised that I became as interested in his well-being as I did, considering that I could barely understand his lines through the filter of his Canadian-New-York-City-Eastern-European-Christopher-Walken accent. Dale truly made the most of what she had to work with, which really wasn’t much considering the film’s low budget. This really shows her talent as a director. If I wouldn’t have researched the film’s budget, I truly wouldn’t have known that it was filmed for less than $300,000. Now, I’m not known for having the best taste, but I seriously didn’t get many low budget movie vibes from this picture.

Blood & Donuts is such a nice movie. Nice as in, every character is surprisingly nice considering what roles they play. The most evil people in the movie are the goofy guys in the bowling alley gang, and they’re really not the worst. The film works without having a disturbingly evil antagonist. Brandon, am I being too light Cronenberg’s bowling alley gang? Do you think the film would have benefited from really evil bad guys instead of mediocre bad guys?

Brandon: It pains me to admit this because Videodrome alone makes him one of my most beloved directors, but David Cronenberg was the worst part of this movie. Yes, that assessment includes Earl’s bizarro “New Yorker” accent (which, if nothing else, at least got a laugh out of me in his “Are you referring to me?” Taxi Driver bit). I do think Cronenberg & his bowling alley cronies were significantly crueller than the rest of the cast, though, even in their limited screentime. In his one lengthy monologue where he whips his goons into shape, he insults them with ableist slurs in a go-nowhere tirade that reads as pointless improv filmed in a hurry. When those goons beat Earl to a pulp in a back alley they squeeze artificial lemon juice into his wounds to add further insult, holding the little yellow bottle at crotch level as if pissing on him. That latter gag at least had some novelty to its cruelty, but their presence in the film is largely pointless, as if they had broken off from the production of Innocent Blood and wandered onto the wrong set. Britnee may be right in pointing out that they’re ineffective as villains, but I do think they’re vicious & purposeless to a point where they never really jive with the movie at large.

Thankfully, Blood & Donuts doesn’t waste much time pretending that its Bowling Alley Mafia villains matter either. It already has enough of an antagonist in Boya’s dangerous combination of sex appeal & eternal life that not much other menace is necessary to justify its weirdly tragic tone. The film has the basic attributes of a quirky indie comedy of its era (which is certainly the type of film Earl believes he’s in), but in practice it’s mostly a mopey goth kid drama about how hard it is to be a sexy vampire everyone falls in love with. Boomer, you already said you had a difficult time sinking into the mood of this picture, but did that emotional conflict of an eternal being falling in love with fleeting-lives humans register with you at all despite the film’s goofier touches & lackadaisical pacing? How engaged were you by the tragedy of Boya’s allure as a lover and his reluctance to lure more victims into his sexy orbit?

Boomer: I’m loathe to admit it because I pride myself on being the kind of person who can enjoy just about any piece of media on some level, but this is one of those that falls into the vague and purely personal category of “difficult to pay attention to” (pardon my dangling preposition). I get that this is a bit of an insult to the film despite being a matter of personal attention spans (for instance, I would never fault someone for feeling the same way about Knife+Heart, which might be my new favorite film of all time). There’s nothing lazy about the movie per se, but even with my hard and fast rule of “No phones during movie time” I found myself sometimes losing focus from the screen and actually staring at the wall behind it. There’s a dearth of information about the movie online, so try as I might both during and after the film, I couldn’t quite make sense of Boya’s relationship with Rita, the hairdresser. When we first see the photo of the two of them together in ’69, I was convinced it was a wedding photo, which made me instantly dislike Boya; who promises to sire their spouse and then runs off for over two decades? He seemed more like a deadbeat lover who went out for smokes and never came back than he did a figure of desire (even for me, and that is very much my type), which, coupled with my overall general distrust of men with long hair (don’t @ me), led me to read Boya not as a man reluctant to get into another doomed relationship so much as a serial sexual predator who has determined exactly how long he needs to disappear in order to mostly be forgotten, Rita notwithstanding. Maybe I just don’t get the allure. I read much less of a tragically romantic Mayfly-December Romance angle and more creepiness, although I’ll admit that might be the fact that Left Behind completely warped my brain when I was a kid. There’s also just something not-quite-consensual afoot when we’re talking about supernatural charisma and long distance dry humping(?), and that throws up my defenses, I suppose.

Hanna, what did you think about this film as a vampire movie specifically? We’re pretty accustomed to vampires who break the “rules” around these parts, but I was still pretty shocked that in Boya’s first scene he was standing in pretty direct sunlight (although this is less the case later), and that he appeared in Earl’s rearview mirror. Are you a vampire media fan? What are some of your faves? Where would this movie rank among them?

Hanna: I’m a big proponent of horror creatures that break the rules. Vampires have been used as boogeymen for anti-miscegenous, xenophobic, and homophobic cultural tensions from the Victorian era onwards, as people have come up with all kinds of outrageous and malicious false ideas and people they fear (e.g., contagious homosexuality). It seems to me that the harder horror moviemakers lean into vampire lore, the wider the gulf they create between vampires and humanity apart; in that case, I think it makes sense that Boya the Humanist wouldn’t be beholden to the rules of vampires in the past.

In the grand scheme of vampire media, this felt like a mid-life crisis vampire movie. Most vampire media – movies, books, and TV-shows included – focuses on the violent, lustful carnality of vampirism; the intoxicating thrill of eternal love; or the loneliness of eternal life. While I am 100% on board with gratuitous vampire trash and bloodlust (shamefully, I was a big fan of Queen of the Damned as a child), I also appreciate media that focuses on the vampires for whom the thrill of blood-soaked indulgence has soured—or was never appealing to begin with—because I personally think eternal life would be pretty miserable, no matter how hot and mysterious my vampire self might be. I read that as Boya’s main internal conflict, beginning when Rita asks him to transform her into a vampire, which seemed to be his impetus for climbing into the attic and isolating himself from humanity. When that fails, Boya has to reckon with the consequences of beholding the suffering of loved ones for an eternity, or condemning a mortal companion to live out the end of the world with him. He reminds me of Louis from Interview With the Vampire, but dialed back about 6 notches on the tortured soul and vampire-bitching (thank you, Britnee). I love that Boya handles the limits of his self-actualization like a real human: with mopey dissatisfaction and ennui.

Boomer, I can also definitely see your interpretation of Boya as a fiend biding his time for a fresh hookup, though, and now I’ll have to do some deep soul searching re: my love for Boya.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Boya spends a lot of time in the bathtub, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of some psychological issues or maybe he’s also part merman?

Hanna: I would like to give a standing ovation to Helene Clarkson’s fantastic eyebrows; they really add to Molly’s character.

Boomer: Here’s Gordon Currie being interviewed by Kirk Cameron, if you can stomach it.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without mentioning the musical stylings of Nash the Slash, who’s credited as providing the film’s score. A notorious Torontonian weirdo who masked his face with surgical bandages when performing, Nash the Slash’s contributions here are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that helps solidify the movie’s sleepy, melancholic tone. To be honest, seeing his name in the credits is the most significantly eccentric presence that he brings to this particular project, but the more you dig into his Wikipedia page and his performance art-style music videos the more fascinating he becomes. If for nothing else, I’m at least super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).

Boomer: Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a complex movie. I saw it as part of the same “Women on the Verge” film programming block at the Alamo Drafthouse last summer that also showcased An Unmarried Woman, on back to back weekends, no less. The film is largely based on the real recollections of notable 1950s model Anne St. Marie from recordings made by director Jerry Schatzberg; this was his film directing debut after having largely worked as a fashion photographer, and he made tape recordings of his conversations with St. Marie in her declining years. These tapes form the backbone of the narrative of Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway, in what I think is the finest performance of her career), with Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus) standing in as a fictional version of Schatzberg himself. This structure, even if unknown to the audience, lends the film a sense of verisimilitude, even in the moments in which Lou’s recollections are self-contradictory or self-aggrandizing and lacking in any kind of internal inspection.

In additional to great performances from Primus and Dunaway, Roy Scheider also gives a stunningly brutal edge to Mark, playing against type (like me, you probably grew up with Scheider as tough-but-fair Chief Brody in Jaws or as the paternal lead Captain Bridger on seaQuest DSV) as an abusive, hypocritical asshole. Or is he? Lou’s memories are so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s impossible to know for sure what he really did or didn’t do (although, yeah, he probably was a jerk, because everyone is in this movie, to some extent).

Britnee, what did you think of this approach to storytelling? It’s not exactly Rashomon, since we’re not seeing the same events from multiple characters’ points of view; it’s one truly unwell woman’s conflicting recollections about her life as she tries to make sense out of all the misfortunes that have befallen her, both her fault and her own, and her conscious and unconscious attempts to make her own mistakes fit a framework of existence in which everything bad happened to her and outside of her power, and all the good things in her life were the result of her actions. To me, it’s mesmerizing in its lack of self awareness while still making me very sympathetic toward Lou. How do you feel?

Britnee: At first, I was really confused as to what the film was trying to do. Was Lou lying purposefully? Were any of her recollections real? It wasn’t until I was a good half hour or so into the film that I realized the confusion I was feeling was exactly what Lou was feeling. Dunaway does such a wonderful job of making Lou’s character likable, so that her potentially false memories come off as being innocent rather than malicious. The back and forth between Lou’s flashbacks and reality made me feel like I was a peeping tom in the window of her mind. Often, spending time in Lou’s mind became super uncomfortable (especially in her memories of abuse), but those moments really helped me understand her character and sympathize with her. Her not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is truly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Films about the fashion industry always tear at my heart. Watching women being objectified and tossed out like trash once they’re of a certain age (usually 30 years old) is difficult. On a lighter note, watching films like Puzzle and comparing it to today shows how much the world of fashion and modeling has progressed. Models of all ages and sizes are gracing the covers of major fashion magazines and runway shows now. The industry still promotes some ridiculous standards for women to live up to, but it does seem to be getting better. One of the saddest scenes in Puzzle was when Lou’s was hired for a shoot as her modeling career was coming to a close. She puts on a red Lucille Ball wig and is glowing with excitement to show off her new look when a younger model arrives, completely ignoring her. To make things worse, one of the women working on the shoot makes a rather patronizing statement about her new look at the same time. She was getting kicked while she was down, and you could see it all over her face.

The fashion world was so cruel to Lou, and the saddest part is that she had no true friends or family to fall back on for support. At first, it seems like Aaron is the only one in the world that is concerned about Lou, but in the end, he uses her just like everyone else. She has so much faith and admiration for him, so watching him exploit her mental illness during the interview made me so angry. Brandon, did you feel the same way about Aaron?

Brandon: It’s important to note that Lou interacts with two entirely different versions of Aaron, reflected in two entirely different timelines. I do believe that Aaron exploited Lou and worsened her mental condition through his own greedy actions, but I’m not so sure that his taped interviews with her were the worst of that exploitation. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that any interview was recorded in the first place. Boomer mentioned that the film was based off a real-life set of interviews the director recorded with a fashion model he once collaborated with, but that information is extratextual. Within the reality of the film, confidently saying that anything that materializes onscreen actually “happened” is a bold claim. Lou might be, through no fault of her own, the least reliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. It’s not that she’s actively lying to make herself appear more important or morally superior through historical revision, either; it’s that she’s so mentally fraught that her memories and real-time perception cannot be trusted – least of all by herself. It’s difficult to say whether the older, contemporary Aaron is actually visiting her in the recorded interviews framing device. Not only is Aaron much gentler & kinder in those exchanges than he is in earlier memories, but Lou also interrupts one of her exchanges with him to mentally project herself on the beach outside the window, interacting with an entirely different character in lipsync. We see the world through her shattered-glass eyes, so I don’t know that we can even trust that she’s talking to Aaron in those exchanges at all. She could as easily be just talking to a wall and playing her arrhythmic castanets to no one.

If he does exist as represented onscreen, I suppose Aaron exploiting his former crush and collaborator’s mental breakdown for filmmaking fodder is a little cruel, but his intentions mostly appear to be noble. He’s at least recording her story in her words, offering a creative platform for an artist whose industry has abandoned her as she’s gotten too old and too “difficult” to turn them a profit. It’s the younger Aaron, the one who more likely exists, who really came across as a villain to me. I think of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as one of the Driven Mad By The Patriarchy mental-breakdown dramas (which are generally excellent as one-woman acting showcases, proven true by Dunaway here). As with the protagonists of films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, safe., The Nun, The Love Witch, and countless others, Lou is a broken person who’s lost her sense of reality and sense of self trying to live up to patriarchal standards by becoming The Ideal Woman. Whether or not she was biologically predisposed to having dysfunctional mental health, the cruelty & exploitation that defines her life as a woman in the modern world is what sends her over the edge. Even when she’s still a young schoolgirl, all anyone wants from her is sex & profit, a systemic objectification that continues throughout her adult life. As her only close friend, Aaron was in a unique position to be the one person in her life who could help her, to be the one person concerned for her well-being instead of pushing her to satisfy his own desires. Instead, he pressures her into (ultimately nonconsensual) sex through the guise of artistically collaborating as photographer & model. It’s the most devastating betrayal of a film that’s overflowing with selfish cruelty in nearly every scene.

What I’m having a difficult time reconciling here is how those two versions of Aaron (the framing-device interviewer & the in-memories photographer) overlap, and what Schatzberg is saying about himself in the process. CC, do you read a lot of guilt & remorse in the director’s depictions of his own real-life relationship with Anne St. Marie here or do you think the project was more driven by his pity for her, blind to how he came across onscreen through the avatar of Aaron?

CC: I honestly feel uncomfortable trying to parse out the director’s intent here. This is a film that directly grapples with how people present their own image, clearly establishing that we cannot be trusted to present ourselves truthfully. If nothing else, that alone makes any attempt to guess Schaztberg’s intent a maddening puzzle with no possible satisfying answer. We can all at least agree that Aaron does bad things and it’s not flattering; supposing anything more than that would be pure speculation.

No matter what he intended with his minor self-portrait or his more elaborate depiction of a woman in crisis, Schatzberg is at least in good company. I find it fascinating that so many male directors of the 1970s were fixated on this topic. Much like Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Altman in 3 Women, Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Polansky in Repulsion, Schatzberg toes a thin line between empathy and exploitation in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. These are all sympathetic portraits with a shared critical eye for how women are ritually broken down by their place in society. As Ebert described when he called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” they put you in the mind of a type of woman who rarely gets to center her own story. They’re also excellent actors’ showcases for women who are unlikely to find such substantial roles elsewhere, most significantly Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. That’s why it’s disappointing that they’re so often filtered through the directorial male ego. It also may be part of the reason I consistently find this genre deeply upsetting and unenjoyable, even if the films are well made.

To his credit, Schatzberg did collaborate with a female writing partner, Carol Eastman, who earned sole credit for the movie’s completed screenplay. It was Eastman who chose to base the final product off interviews Schatzberg conducted with friend & model Anne St. Marie, who he claims he never had a sexual affair with in real life. As such, the depictions of Lou, Aaron, and every other character onscreen is just as much a creation of her voice as anyone else’s. Boomer, how do you think this collaboration with Eastman distinguishes Puzzle of a Downfall Child from other examples of its genre where the male director wrote the screenplay on their own? Is it important at all that a woman co-write this film? What might have been lost if it were written entirely by a man?

Boomer: That’s a great question. I mentioned before that this film and An Unmarried Woman were part of the same Alamo Drafthouse specialty series, which took its name, “Women Under the Influence: Life, Love, and Madness in the ’70s,” from the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, the first film in the showcase. The fourth and final film was the seldom-seen Play it as it Lays, based on Joan Didion’s novel and directed by her husband; they, too, shared writing credit. Jazmyne Moreno, whom I mentioned before as the host of Austin Film Society Cinema’s screening of On the Silver Globe and who is the current host and programmer of AFS’s Lates Series, was the (co-)programmer for these, and I respect her judgment a lot; she’s an amazing person and I’ve never been let down by any of her programs (her introduction for Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place and a screening of Friday Foster way back in March 2017 are particular highlights of my Austin filmgoing experiences). We’re coming to these films with nearly 50 years of cultural criticism in the interim, and all of the touchstones of women-driven empathy machines of the era that you noted are well chosen, because you’re right: there is an issue of cultural distance via time that separates us from what were groundbreaking films at the time but which are not entirely without an element of exploitation with regards to the women at the core of the film. But just because Hans Robert Jauss is dead doesn’t mean he was wrong: every text has a different face for each reader, and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I share your discomfort with trying to parse Schatzberg’s authorial intent, but I have to admit that I’m equally vexed by trying to suss out what Eastman’s intention was, not least of all because I would be projecting my male reading onto her female authorship, which this discussion has made me acutely aware of. I can’t make claims about her intentions with any authority, so I hope it will suffice it to say that my personal head canon is that she either (a) liked Schatzberg and wanted to lovingly take the piss a little by making his author avatar a bit of a dirtbag, or (b) she was subversively using the medium of the screenplay to take potshots at him behind his back. I hope it’s the former, but the latter is also of interest. Either way, even though Schatzberg was close to the film’s original inspirational personality, I still find it doubtful that the film would have been as sensitive to Lou had Eastman and her pen not been there to ensure that there was a woman’s voice in the creative room. Brandon mentioned the way that Lou was the victim of systemic objectification from a young age; it’s easy to imagine a film without Eastman’s influence playing Lou’s pubescent “seduction” only as it was first shown, a kind of mutual attraction, affection, and teasing, and not as it really was upon later revisitation, a clear-cut case of a man taking advantage of a much younger woman. We can never be sure, but I’m glad we don’t have to know.

We’ve talked a lot about issues related to the fashion industry and systemic sexism and all of its accompanying moral evils. What I remembered most about this movie after spending a year apart from it before this rewatch was Dunaway’s performance, which may be the highlight of her career. Contemporary reviews were mixed; the New York Times cited ” a character of such lovely, tentative lucidity that to be with her is, as it should be, worth a whole movie,” while Variety stated she “first garners wholesome pity, but the plot development soon banishes her to bathos and finally boredom.” Britnee, what did you think? Were there any other performances in the film that stood out to you?

Britnee: Dunaway’s performance in Puzzle was definitely one of her best. Her best performance to me will always be her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which is a film I quote at least once a week. Puzzle is a close second though. Dunaway really has a way of having characters take over her completely, just like when a ghost uses a human body as a vessel. Interestingly enough, her role in both films is based on an actual person, as is her star-making role in Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe biopics are her jam?

I really enjoyed the scenes of the film that were set at Lou’s beach cottage. I would have loved to hangout with her there, sipping coffee or tea while listening to her stories that intertwine fantasy and reality. Her character reminds me of some of my favorite family members and friends whom I visit to get a good story, be it a delusion of grandeur or a memory from many years ago. I just love to listen, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Lou’s character so much.

The only other performance that stood out to me (other than Aaron, which I mentioned earlier) is Mark. As Boomer mentioned, his character in Puzzle is so different from Jaws’s Chief Brody. Years ago, I watched All That Jazz, where Schneider portrays a character loosely based on Bob Fosse, who is a womanizing douchebag. I remember being slightly heartbroken seeing Chief Brody play a “bad” guy, and that feeling resurfaced while watching Mark in Puzzle. If I had not been so familiar with his Jaws character, I don’t think his performance would have been as stand out as it was. Either way, he still wasn’t nearly as interesting as Lou.

I had no idea who Anne St. Marie was prior to watching Puzzle, but I have found myself searching for her modeling photographs and articles about her career since watching the film. Brandon, did Puzzle spark an interest in Anne St. Marie’s career for you?

Brandon: Not really. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive of Anne St. Marie as a historical figure & an artist, but there’s nothing especially unique to her story (as presented in the film) that doesn’t apply to all fashion models everywhere. A straight-forward birth-to-death biopic or even a feature length documentary on her life would most likely struggle to fill the time with something to say, besides just packing the screen with her more notable photographs. Puzzle of a Downfall Child doesn’t have many major events in Anne St. Marie’s life to build a traditional narrative around, which is partly what affords it so much room to explore the more intangible aspects of her life’s story: the ways her mental illness distort her understanding of the world and the ways the fashion industry compounds the mental & emotional toll of The Patriarchy. How much of those themes & tones are specifically true to Anne St. Marie and how much was an artistic fabrication of Schatzberg & Eastman’s is up for debate, but I feel like I’ve already learned more about the type of person Anne St. Marie was through this movie than I could ever gather by reading a factual biography on her life & career.

If I were going to investigate Anne St. Marie’s career any further, I’d most want to see a slideshow or a lookbook of her best outfits & photographs. Fashion is an artform I know embarrassingly little about, but I do find its visual pleasures to be magnificent. Like the opera or the ballet, it’s an artform that I always love to see interpreted through cinema for the inherent visual splendor of its setting, especially when paired with a genre conceit or avant-garde filmmaking techniques: Blood and Black Lace, Phantom Thread, The Neon Demon, etc. Puzzle of a Downfall Child does a great job of utilizing a fashion industry aesthetic for cinematic visual indulgences and thematic explorations of systemic misogyny & mental health crises. Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film. I’d love to see some of Anne St. Marie’s work just to appreciate the visual pleasures of her artform, but I feel like abandoning the birth-to-death biopic template that sticks to factual bullet points about the subject made for a better story & a better film.

CC, can you think of any notable fashion industry artists—whether model, designer, or photographer—where that would not be true? Is there anyone who has worked in fashion who you’d rather see a factual biopic about their life than a poetic cinematic interpretation like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or would that loose interpretation always be the preferable approach?

CC: I also tend to prefer this interpretive, expressive style of filmmaking over the traditional biopic. If I wanted to dig into a straightforward biography on a historical figure’s life, I’d just read their Wikipedia page. Even the most factually accurate biopics never really get to the core essence of their subjects the way these more artistic interpretations do. You can never truly capture a person’s inner life on film, but movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child at least edgecloser to that ideal than a straightforward biopic ever could. Besides, just providing the facts of their life isn’t really all that interesting, so this way is much more entertaining.

There are a few fashion figures I’d like to see receive this treatment. The first that comes to mind is the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only does Schiaparelli have an interesting biographical background as someone who fled her childhood as the daughter of nobility and academics (and the tedious suitors therein) to marry a fortune teller in London and start her own career as an designer (and eventually a single mother); she also just had an approach to fashion that might make for a great movie artistically. Interpreting fashion as a graphic artform and not just a utilitarian necessity of life, Schiaparelli worked closely with Surrealists like Salvador Dali & Man Ray. I’m no filmmaker so I can’t speculate exactly how one would interpret her life & work for the screen, but I imagine the clash of couture fashion & Surrealism alone would give you a lot to work with.

I could also imagine an interesting movie based on Schiaparelli’s mentor Paul Poiret. In fact, most of the names that immediately come to mind for movie treatments are designers, not models. That’s likely because designers are already afforded their own voice creatively in a way models aren’t, so I already somewhat know what they have to offer. One of Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s more striking choices is in offering a voice to a type of fashion industry figure who’s usually denied that outlet, apparently repressing it to the point of inflicting insanity.

Lagniappe

CC: For a film about fashion I found most of the clothing to be pretty lackluster in this. The make-up was on-point, though.

Britnee: One very minor scene in Puzzle that stuck with me was when Lou and Aaron were eating hot dogs in Central Park. Watching Faye Dunaway eating sloppy street hot dog made me laugh for a good bit.

Boomer: It wasn’t until Brandon pointed it out that I realized that yes, this is very much like a giallo film. No wonder I loved it so much.

Brandon: It’s appalling how little effort has gone into properly distributing this film on physical media. You can catch restored 35mm screenings at film festivals or scattered repertory venues, but it’s never seen official VHS or DVD distribution in the US (oddly, it has been afforded that respect in France). Luckily, that lack of proper stewardship does leave the movie open to more . . . questionable modes of distribution, which is why you can watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child in shockingly high quality on YouTube right now. A proper Criterion Blu-ray release for the film feels both necessary and inevitable, but for now take what you can get:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Knife+Heart (2019)

Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies-set giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?

It’s 1979, Paris. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) makes “blue movies,” better known as gay pornography, along with her best friend Archie (Nicolas Maury), cameraman François (Bertrand Mandico) and her lover of ten years, Loïs (Kate Moran), although that relationship has recently come to an end. Tragedy strikes when one of her actors, the insatiable “Karl” (Bastien Waultier), is stabbed to death by a man in a terrifying full face mask after a night out cruising. As a result, Anne is interviewed by Inspector Morcini (Yann Collette); back in the studio, she retitles their current production to Homocidal and recreates this interaction with Archie in her place and heroin addict Thierry (Félix Maritaud, of BPM and Sauvage) and José (Noé Hernández) in the roles of the police. Anne recruits a new actor, Nans (Khaled Alouach), who is noted for his twin-like resemblance (not his twink-like resemblance, although that could also apply) to a former star of hers named Fouad, which is fortunate; after Thierry is also murdered, most of the actors fear returning to set. In her personal life, Anne spends her days drinking straight from the bottle of whisky that she keeps on herself at all times and stalking Loïs around nightclubs when she isn’t too drunk to move. After a third murder, Anne traces the clues to a forest that, according to folklore, is used for faith healing via grackle—as with most gialli, it only makes marginally more sense in context—where she finds a small cemetery and the grave of Guy (Jonathan Genet), and the answer to the identity and motivations of the killer.

The only negative thing that I can say about Knife+Heart is that the fact that it now exists means that I may now never finish my own giallo script (titled Profundo Giallo, naturally, because I am a NERD), which features many of the same narrative beats, although for the sake of future copyrights I should note that Gonzalez and I were both drawing from the same well of archetypical giallo ideas. Still, it may end up being difficult to prove that we independently came to the idea of having a queer character (Loïs here, Oliver in PG) whose relationship with a primary protagonist ended poorly discover a vital clue while reviewing grainy footage. Really, we’re just both putting the same twist on the standard giallo trope that I call “Obscured Clues,” which was the most frequently recurring narrative element in Argento’s Canon; that is, a character witnesses something that they do not initially realize is a clue and then struggle to recall its importance.

Knife+Heart is a neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus. It’s surely no coincidence that the film is set in 1979, on the eve of what we would come to know as the AIDS epidemic; the establishment of the era, represented by the police department and their dismissive treatment of the killings of Anne’s actors, is largely unconcerned with a series of tragedies that befall society’s “undesirables.” This is made more manifest by the way that the pretty young things are killed: in cruising bars and by-the-hour hotels, in alleys with needles in their arms, etc. I could honestly live the rest of my life in happiness without ever seeing another AIDS allegory film, but this one manages to weave subtlety into this tapestry, which makes for a better narrative overall. That this can happen in a movie that also features an actor campily full-on humping a typewriter in one of Homocidal’s scenes speaks to a strong directorial vision.

Anne is no doubt destined to be a divisive character; in his review for MovieJawn, Anthony Glassman writes that Paradis’s character “metamorphoses from a drunken psychopath into a driven and caring mother figure,” and although I was fully within Anne’s headspace, horrible person though she is at times, I can’t really disagree. Repeatedly, we see that she is incapable of accepting that her relationship with Loïs has come to an end, and we realize that this love is far from healthy, given both Anne’s obsession and Loïs’s inconsistency as she verbally spurns Anne over and over again while also leading her on and admitting that she still loves her. That this leads Anne to stalk Loïs around a nightclub saturated with over-the-top radiant lighting and finally confront (and assault) her makes Anne despicable but no less sympathetic. The film almost dares you to try and hate Anne, but if you’ve a queer person who has ever had your heart broken to the point that you drink yourself into a stupor on a nightly basis and wake up in strange places, then you understand every drive that Anne has, even if her actions are occasionally unforgivable.

This is best epitomized in one of the most underrated scenes in the film (I’ve seen no mention of it in any other reviews that I have read), in which Anne attends an art performance at a lesbian bar where the two participants are a woman in lingerie and another woman in a bear suit. The human character begs for the bear’s love, and the bear attempts to refuse, claiming that to love the woman is to destroy her, but the woman doesn’t care. To love is to be devoured; to love is to devour. As the bear demonstrates its love for the woman, its claws leaving theatrical trails of stage blood all over her body, the woman begs for this destruction, demands to be completely destroyed, and the bear can do nothing but oblige, its love is so all-consuming that neither of them can stop. It’s so fucking powerful and real. To love is to die; love is to kill. Love is to consume and be consumed until there is nothing left but char and ash and fragments that say to every passerby: “A fire was here, and it destroyed all that it touched, but in those moments of destruction, each thing touched was brighter than the sun.”

I could go on and on about this movie for about 10,000 more words, but not without spoiling anything (the Golden Mouth is a delight!). This is a delightfully and unabashedly queer movie, and the world has never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond