Movie of the Month: Strange Days (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 Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

Parasite (2019)

“Money is an iron.”

This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man.

A couple of years ago, a friend was taken on a date by a man of great wealth (she never mentioned his name, either to maintain the air of mystery or possibly due to an NDA). She described the evening, in which they were seated at a table in a clearing that was essentially devoid of people, servers appearing seemingly out of thin air when more wine was needed or to deliver unidentifiable gourmet foods and then disappearing back into the bushes. At the end of the night, when her host was driving her home in a wine-buzzed state, he tapped the rear bumper of another car. My friend watched as the wealthy man got out and talked to the other driver, the scene playing out in the Lynchian halo of headlights: no arguments, just a civil conversation, until finally her host took out his wallet, handed the younger man an amount of cash, and at the end of their discussion, the victim hugged the man whose car had struck his own. “In that moment,” my friend said, “I realized my whole life was a lie. Nothing matters. Money can do anything.” Money is an iron.

Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, of Train to Busan) lives in a half-basement apartment with his parents and sister, all of them working odd jobs, like folding pizza boxes, to scrape by. One day Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) visits the family to deliver a suseok shaped like a mountainand meant to act as a charm to bring the family wealthand ask Ki-woo to take over his position as English tutor to the teenaged daughter of a wealthy family whose patriarch Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is the CEO of an IT company. Ki-woo, who is naturally bright but was unable to afford college following his required military service, is initially reluctant, but agrees to interview for the position with school documents forged by his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and is accepted for the role by the relatively simple-minded family matriarch, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Noticing that the couple’s younger, undisciplined child, son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), likes to paint, Ki-woo secures a job for Ki-jeong as the boy’s art teacher, under the guise of a friends cousin from art school in the U.S. With a little more finagling, he gets his mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, of Snowpiercer) positions working for the Park family as well. And that’s when things get . . . weird.

To say more would be to spoil the film’s various twists and turns, although all of them are foreshadowed beautifully: Ki-taek’s tendency to leave the windows of the family’s hovel open results in disaster, Ki-woo’s obsession with and allegiance to the rock that is meant as a talisman for the family’s upward mobility brings him nothing but misfortune, even Ki-jeong’s fortuitously lucky guess that something “traumatic” happened to Da-song when he was younger turns out to be true, after a fashion. For the Park family, money is an iron, as it not only frees them from difficulties others experience, but protects them from even having to be aware of them, as they live in an ornate, sun-kissed mansion surrounded by a perfectly manicured and maintained lawnthe only vegetation that we see in the entire film. Approaching the Park home from the street, there is only a set of stairs and a garage door visible, but once inside, the walls at the edge of the property make the house and its inhabitants seem completely isolated, the shrubbery creating an optical illusion as if there is no world beyond the edge, no starving people living in easily-flooded basements just subway stops away.

The Parks are not malicious people, just naive and separated from the rest of the world. The Kims are not evil either; they are merely trapped within a social structure that offers no legitimate or straightforwardly moral methods to escape from their social tier. The rules are different for the rich, and it shows in the way that they treat their domestic employees: Ki-taek may be treated like a trusted advisor and even a friend most of the time, but Dong-ik doesn’t hesitate to remind him that he is being paid when the former is hesitant to participate in a roleplay for Da-song’s birthday. The Parks also remark upon Ki-taek’s smell, noting that it is musty and “like the subway,” not that any member of their family has set foot in a subway in years, and Dong-ik’s involuntary reaction to being confronted by the scent unexpectedly plays a major role in the film’s resolution. Further, the Park family even fetishizes poverty at one point, as husband and wife lie together and he whispers to her about the eroticism of the “cheap” panties (actually Ki-jeong’s) that were found in the backseat of his car earlier in the film.

Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Rare Exports (2010)

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 Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Rare Exports (2010).

Hanna: Although I’ve always loved Christmas movies, I had a real distrust in portrayals of Santa Claus in American television as a child. It’s not that I didn’t believe he was real; it’s just that the Santa I loved in Larry Roemer’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special held little resemblance to the one described my Finnish father. That Santa wasn’t a jolly, elderly fellow in from the North Pole, but a half-goat man named Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”) holed up in a place called Ear Mountain (Korvantunturi) in Northern Finland. Obviously, I thought, the producers of the American Christmas canon were a bunch of hacks who had done no real Christmas research; how else could you mistake a place called “Ear Mountain” for the North Pole? And why didn’t Santa look anything like a goat? It was a very confusing time for me; I always hoped for an accurate portrait of the Finnish Christmas specter. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, by Finnish director Jelmari Helander, fulfilled that Christmas wish a decade later.

Rare Exports brings us to present-day Lapland, where an eccentric, Christmas-loving American named Riley is leading a team of drillers deep into Korvantunturi for reasons unexplained. Riley seems to know that something special is lurking underneath Korvantunturi, and he’s itching to unearth it. A young rural boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila), who has been spying on the suspicious activity, begins researching the mountain; he’s horrified by what he finds, and begins preparing himself, his friends, and his tortured father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), for Christmas Yet to Come.

All told, Rare Exports gave me an hour and a half of holiday mayhem and deadpan Christmas-themed one-liners delivered by gruff Finnish men, and it was delightful. I always appreciate movies that portray a less popular version of Santa while still adhering to real cultural lore (e.g., Krampus, as opposed to an “Evil Santa” Santa Claus remix). I also love how absolutely weird this movie is (especially the final scene), and how easily the characters accept and adapt to their insane circumstances. Britnee, how does this movie compare to other Christmasy action/horror movies, especially American movies? Did Rare Exports set itself apart, or is it just some good ol’ fashioned Christmas schlock?

Britnee: Christmas horror films are typically either cheesy B-movies (like Santa’s Slay or The Gingerbread Man) or slashers about killers dressed up in Santa suits (like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Christmas Evil). The only Christmas film that I’ve seen that can be compared to Rare Exports would be Krampus. While it’s more of a dark comedy, Krampus isn’t a film about an evil Santa or a psycho dressed in a cheap Santa costume. It’s a film that brings attention to a Christmas character from Central-European folklore. Krampus is a goat demon who punishes bad children during Christmastime, which is much more similar to Joulupukki from Rare Exports than any other film version of Santa Claus. They even both use actual whips to whip bad children’s butts!

Unlike Krampus, which is one of the greatest “bad” horror movies of modern times, Rare Exports isn’t a “bad” movie at all. There are a few cheesy moments and witty one-liners (like the English translation gags during the Santa transaction), but it doesn’t stray from taking itself seriously as much as I expected it to. At first, I thought the film was going about a kid on a mission in a world of adults who dismiss his warnings until it’s too late. It sort of was like that, but the adults surprised me by capturing the “Santa” and trying to make money off of his captivity during the film’s second half. That second half is what really made Rare Exports unique, truly unlike any film I’ve seen before. So, yes, Rare Exports can be compared to American films like Krampus, but it really stands on its own it the best way possible.

Another part of Rare Exports that I really didn’t see coming was the abundance of elderly full-frontal male nudity. Perhaps the most nightmarish part of the film was the herd of naked old elves running after the pile of children in potato sacks. Brandon, were you as shook by the old nude elf men as I was? What are other parts of the film that you found to be skin crawling?

Brandon: The one isolated image that made my skeleton squirm inside my skin was those burlap sacks of writhing children. Like in modern Santa lore, Joulupukki has a fixation on transporting his Christmas goodies around in giant magical sacks here. Instead of red velvet bags of gifts, however, this “Santa” (with the help of his elves, of course) kidnaps naughty boys & girls from their homes in burlap sacks – presumably to be consumed by Joulupukki once he is fully summoned. The writhing sacks immediately look odd, but you don’t fully register what’s inside them at first glance. The whimpering protests from inside those giftbag prisons eventually start to make clear that what you’re looking at is neighborhood children being prepared for a Christmas feast, and that delayed realization makes for a truly horrific feeling. This film is just as much a dark comedy as it is a modern fairy tale, and there are few images I can think of that are darker than those writhing sacks (way more so than the wrinkly sacks hanging from the naked elves).

As much as I enjoyed its morbid humor and its willingness to go there when tormenting children, my favorite aspects of Rare Exports were mostly rooted in the way it functions as a modern fairy tale. The Joulupukki and Krampus traditions make so much more logical sense than the Christmas lore Americans are raised with, what the movie calls “the hoax of the Coca-Cola Santa.” Traditional fairy tales are usually set up as negative reinforcement tactics to scare kids into not doing dangerous (or, often enough, simply annoying) things for their own good & safety. Don’t wander alone in the woods or a witch will cook & eat you; don’t eat strangers’ food without asking or an entire family of bears will eat you; don’t talk to strangers or a wolf will dress in grandma drag and eat you, etc. It makes more sense, then, that a naughty boy or girl being monitored by a powerful, world-traveling Christmas demon would be punished by becoming dinner for that beast, not simply receiving a shittier gift than they’d get if they were good. Surprisingly, one of the most affecting parts of Rare Exports for me was the early woodcut & lithograph prints in the kids’ research about the myth of The Real Santa that reframed him in this fairy tale context. Usually, textual research montages aren’t anyone’s standout favorite moments in horror movies (if anything, they often overexplain background info that no one really needs to know), but I really appreciated it here as a crash-course history in Santa’s fairy tale origins as Joulupukki.

The elderly elves do most of the work in getting this Evil Santa legend across onscreen, of course, as the day is saved before the kaiju Santa beast has a chance to fully emerge from his Korvantunturi prison. I do agree that the image of the elves running naked towards the camera in herds was creepy, but I was personally more disturbed by their dead, child-hungry eyes than I was by their scrotums, which were just kinda . . . there. If anything, the elf scrotes only helped solidify an observation that was present in my mind throughout the film: this is a weirdly masculine movie. The central relationships between a boy and his single father, a boy and his bully/bestie, and a boy and his Christmas demon are all variances of masculine bonding or masculine conflict. In fact, I don’t recall there being a single female character represented onscreen anywhere in Rare Exports; even the neighborhood girls kidnapped as offerings to Joulupukki never escape their burlap sacks to show their faces. The elf scrotums mostly just registered to me as a matter-of-fact extension of the film’s general interest in masculine relationships & bodies, which was not at all what I expected from a dark fairy tale about Santa Claus. I’m not even saying that choice to solely focus on the lives of boys & men was a good or bad thing; it was just something I couldn’t help but notice.

Boomer, did the total lack of female characters occur to you at all during your viewing of Rare Exports? What do you make of how that choice relates to the film’s overall tones & themes?

Boomer: The lack of women in this movie is pretty astonishing, honestly. We never hear anything about what happened to Pietari’s mother at all, just that she used to make gingerbread cookies that Pietari’s father can recreate with modest success. Is she dead? Did she just leave the family? Is Pietari’s father’s harsh coldness the result of being widowed, or is his horrid personality the reason that she’s gone? I hope you’re not waiting for an answer, because we’re not going to get one. From a filmmaking perspective, I get the initial thought process of “This is a harsh and unforgiving place and thus we can reflect that by having only harsh and unforgiving men in this world,” but the moment that idea crosses one’s mind is the moment that one should both immediately rethink their understanding of gender roles and also write a woman in there, fast, before you forget! We know that there’s at least one woman in the area, since Piiparinen’s wife’s hair dryer is among the items stolen in order to facilitate Santa’s thaw, but that’s about it. Where are all the ladies? The only explanation that I can think of is that every woman nearby looked out her respective window, saw a strange naked man lumbering towards their home, and decided to skedaddle. It’s not satisfying, though. I can also see deciding to go full-tilt with the fairy tale elements, with so many of those narratives featuring a dead (or otherwise hopelessly lost) mother, but just because mom died doesn’t mean women cease to exist altogether. Even John Carpenter managed to put Adrienne Barbeau’s voice into The Thing, for goodness’s sake.

The “missing mom” narrative is well-worn, but not so much so that it annoys. While I enjoyed Rare Exports overall, I was put out for much of the film because I intensely dislike narratives that structure one of their primary conflicts around the “child believes, adults don’t listen” trope. It’s right up there with “the liar revealed” as far as dead horse plots for children’s films goes. This film feels like a “child’s introduction to horror” throwback tome, and while it would be easy to say that a scary film with a child protagonist is automatically a film for children, that’s not necessarily the case. Plenty of horror flicks with young heroes are certainly that (Monster SquadGremlinsThe Gate), but there are just as many where the presence of a child’s viewpoint doesn’t negate that the film is not for kids (Let the Right One InITThe Exorcist), and of course those which fall somewhere in the middle (Child’s PlayPoltergeistFirestarter). For me, it’s the reliance on the Cassandra plot–that the truthteller is disbelieved–that makes the film read as if written for a younger audience, not the child protagonist or the fairy tale nature of the story.

Of course, not that any of this is a bad thing. In fact, it turns the film into a child’s first Thing, which is an idea that delights me. I mentioned it above, but it bears similarities in its images, especially that of The Unspeakable Thing Beneath the Ice. Are there any other influences that you’ve noticed in multiple rewatchings?

Hanna: Rare Exports definitely falls into the tradition of male, rural coming-of-age stories with a bizarre swirl of action and horror, which seems to be of particular interest to Helander. His second feature film, Big Game, contains some of the same themes set in a more straightforward action template: as part of a male rite of passage, a Finnish teenager named Oskari (also played by Onni Tommila) is sent out into the wilderness of rural Lapland to track and capture a large piece of game (in Oskari’s case, the “big game” is the President of the United States, stranded by a plane crash en route to Helsinki). Like Pietari in Rare Exports, Oskari is boyish and meek, lacking confidence in himself and any voice of authority in his community, and ultimately finds his role through unconventional smarts. Big Game is also devoid of women; although it makes more sense in the context of that movie, I think it points to Helander’s singular focus on the development of the rural masculine identity, at the expense of other voices.

I definitely would have enjoyed Rare Exports much more if Pietari’s community had been developed a little further. I wouldn’t have minded a small, all-male cast if the men were truly isolated from any other people, but hinting at the existence of women without featuring them is a little bizarre; I think the presence of a few more women and children would have added some depth to the little herding community without sacrificing the sense of rural isolation. I also think it would have been much more effective to watch the number of children slowly dwindle down throughout the movie; instead, it was as if everyone all the kiddies had Roanoke’d before the film even began. Britnee, were there elements of the Rare Exports world that you would have liked to explore further?

Britnee: I would have loved to watch the excavation of Joulupukki. All we really get to see in regards to Joulupukki is a huge hole in the ground from where it was taken, and then we get to see it in a frozen block of ice with its massive horns sticking out. That’s it. The question of how all the elves got this massive frozen monster into a warehouse weighed heavy on my mind. Did they develop some sort of pulley system or were they all just super strong? It’s like a chunk of the movie is missing. Having more detailed Joulupukki scenes would probably have been quite expensive, but it would have made the film feel more complete.

Another element of the film that would have benefited from more exploration and detail is the bagging of the children in the potato sacks. As Brandon mentioned earlier, the children squirming around in potato sacks was pretty creepy. Having a peek into the process that the elves took to capture the children, shove them in the sacks, and hoard them in the warehouse would have heightened the film’s horror levels. The naked elves creeping into the children’s bedrooms to kidnap them for Joulupukki would have scarred me for life, and I wish the movie would have at least showed one of the kidnappings in action.

The aspect that I found to be the most unique about Rare Exports is its ending. It wasn’t really a happy ending, but it wasn’t really a sad one either. Yes, the children survive and the families involved in the destruction of Joulupukki end up wealthy, but their success is at the expense of enslaving the elves. Brandon, how did you feel about the film’s ending? Did you have any sympathy towards the enslavement of the evil elves?

Brandon: If I’m being totally honest, I 100% saw the final sequence as a happy ending on our initial viewing. I’d even go as far as calling it “cute.” The herders begin the movie at risk of losing their livelihood due to a disastrous cattle season, miserably depressed at the prospect of failing their families as providers, but at the end of our tale they’ve got a thriving new business with consistent annual demand. I guess because the elves had been acting as magical child-abducting creeps the entire film it never occurred to me that this conclusion could be seen as horrific. Their “rehabilitation” and commodification as globally-exported shopping mall Santas was such an upbeat turnaround from their naked, child-collecting mayhem that it didn’t really sink in how fucked up it was to see those humanoids (of a sort) being subjugated as a product. I saw the ending as a clever continuation of film’s function of a fairy tale, explaining where mall Santas come from the same way we explain that human babies are delivered via storks.

You’re totally right, though; the elves were in their own way just acting according to their nature & customs, and the fact that I never really felt for their plight at the end is making me feel a little like imperialist, capitalist scum in retrospect. I’ve got some soul-searching to do in how willing I am to overlook exploitation in a capitalist paradigm, even in fiction. You’ve now got me hoping for a sequel where the mall Santas rebel and return to their roots, bagging up the children who sit on their laps across the globe in accordance to their own cultural tradition and in defiance of their oppressors.

In general, I do think the film leaves more of an impression as a fairy tale & an act of mythmaking than it does an exploration of ethical or interpersonal conflicts in the modern era. Exploitation & enslavement aside, I suspect that from now on I’ll get a kick from thinking of mall Santas as child-hating demons who’ve been newly domesticated as living Christmas ornaments, their newfound good behavior tentative at best. Boomer, do you think Rare Exports will similarly affect the way you look at the ritual of Christmas in the future? Is there anything about the history or mythology of the holiday, as presented here, that is likely to stick with you every December?

Boomer:  I’m not sure I will think of traditions much differently in the future. I’ve always assumed that mall Santas were hiding their disdain for children, so imagining them as demonic entities isn’t really much of a stretch. I think I’ll probably just spend the rest of my life wondering what the adults in the village did with those giant horns. What are they good for? And what, exactly, did the Americans want to do with their giant evil Santa when they got him? Are they just the more festive branch of Weiland-Yutani, incapable of seeing something monstrous as a potential weapon? Or was there something less sinister and more ignorant going on, a metaphor for the Coca-Colonization of Santa Claus? The world may never know.

Lagniappe

Britnee: The landscapes in Rare Exports were gorgeous! The tranquility of the snowcapped mountains and snow dusted trees is a great backdrop for all the insanity that takes place in the plot.

Boomer: Like Brandon, all I could think about when those children were attached to the helicopter was just how miserably cold they must be, trapped in sacks and being whipped about in the freezing air.

Brandon: I was thoroughly charmed by our hero’s costuming throughout this movie. Pietari sports the same punk af haircut as the Swedish kids from We Are the Best!; he walks around the snow in his giant puffy coat & underwear; and his homemade sports-equipment armor is absolutely adorable, especially his butt shield that protects him from being spanked by the elves. There’s something about the attention to his costuming and how he adapts what he’s wearing to the situation at hand that makes him feel like a real, authentic little kid instead of a fictional invention.

Hanna: Ultimately, Rare Exports satisfied my need for a) a spooky Finnish Christmas movie, and b) hordes of old, diseased, elf men nudely galloping into a forest. If you’re interested in exploring the bizarre Yuletide traditions of the Nordic and Scandinavian persuasion, I would encourage you to read up on the annual arson attacks on the Gävle goat in Sweden.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

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