Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the 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 extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

Actor Macon Blair has made a name for himself in his two collaborations with up & coming filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin & Green Room, which has left him associated with a slick, low budget style of edge-of-your-seat thrillers. As a first time director in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Blair uses that reputation to his full advantage. He applies the same eye for real world detail and believably brutal bursts of unexpected violence that have distinguished Saulnier’s films to a refreshingly new genre context those two works only hint at: comedy. The violence in Macon Blair’s filmmaking debut is just as swift, brutal, and authentic as it feels in either Blue Ruin or Green Room, but is somehow adapted to a dark comedic tone that evokes howls of laughter instead of fits of nail-biting. Like a subdued, small scale version of The Nice Guys, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore finds a way to continuously surprise & delight, despite depicting realistic, out of left field brutality.

Melanie Lynskey stars as an Average American Woman, seemingly milquetoast in every way except that she can’t let go of petty micro-aggressions. Book spoilers, untended dog poop, obnoxious car exhaust, getting cut off at the grocery store checkout: our modern day anti-hero is disgusted by a myriad of tiny displays of selfishness, rudeness, and greed. She declares, “Everyone is an asshole . . . and dildos.” This Falling Down style of railing against modernity finally breaks her psyche when her home is looted by lowlife meth addicts and the police show little to no interest in helping her retrieve her stolen things: a laptop, her grandmother’s antique silver, and (maybe most importantly) her mood stabilizing medication. This inspires her to embark on a vigilante mission along with a similarly self-righteous neighbor (Elijah Wood in some convincing metalhead Napoleon Dynamite cosplay) to take down the den of meth addict thieves herself. Antics ensue. Horrifically violent, exponentially snowballing antics.

Because Melanie Lynskey’s audience-centering protagonist is unmedicated and increasingly unhinged, there’s a heightened, almost cartoonishly surreal sense of reality in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. The film’s vigilantism is anchored to a believable real world setting, but there’s something absolutely absurd about the way every hunch its protagonist entertains immediately pays off and she swiftly finds her way back to the creeps who invaded her home. The meth head monsters she finds at the end of this trail of neatly laid-out clues are headed by none other than The Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow (who was fantastic in the recent horror anthology Southbound), presenting such a grotesque personification of Small Town Evil that the film takes on almost a religious parable level of simplistic exaggeration. Elijah Wood’s sidekick vigilante is just as clearly coded as a Force of Good with an unbreakable moral code, no matter how much you underestimate him based in his rat tail, his nunchucks, and his lackluster “hacking” skills. The criminals are just as amateur and unprepared as “the good guys” in this allegory about the messiness of revenge and by the time the whole ordeal becomes a violent showdown in a cookie cutter McMansion & the nearby woods, every last player is made to look like a (bloodied, exhausted) fool.

As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often is, Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, and smoking meth in the woods all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle, not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes” boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone. It’s rare that modern comedies are as tightly constructed or as visually striking as Blair’s debut. Each scene feels meticulously scripted, competently executed, and necessary to a larger plot with an inevitably bloody climax. In a post-Apatow world where we’re so used to comedies sprawling into overlong, heavily improvised tangential bits, it’s refreshing to see I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore function like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where every piece has its place in the larger picture. It also helps that the shocks of the film’s violence and the humor of its heightened sense of absurdity cut through any of its lost prestige as a product that was dumped straight to Netflix after a very brief festival run. It’s a great film no matter what circumstances dictated its (practically non-existent) theatrical release and I left it newly excited for the careers of several people I already knew I loved: Yow, Blair, Wood, and Lynskey. They’re all in top form.

-Brandon Ledet

XX (2017)

Traditional horror anthologies are difficult to critique as an artform since they often leave a lot of room for error in experimentation. Recent films like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound have modernized the horror anthology format into a familiar everything-is-connected structure that used to be a go-to for indie dramas in the mid 00s. This allows characters & storylines to cross paths & blend borders so that each short story segment coagulates into one all-encompassing gestalt. A more traditional horror anthology format would keep each of these segments rigidly separated, connected only through a wraparound buffer. Isolating each segment usually means that the film’s overall value as a collection is often ignored in favor of critiquing each individual story on their own terms. I don’t, for instance, knock Creepshow as a whole just because I despise the segment where Stephen King plays a hick farmer or dismiss Twilight Zone: The Movie because of John Landis or Stephen Spielberg’s duds of contributions. Instead, I tend to forget to even recall those segments and focus entirely on the short form experiments that did work for me: the Howard Hughes archetype who’s terrorized by roaches, that ludicrous Joe Dante segment with the cartoon demons, etc. Horror anthologies, like sketch or improv comedy, allow directors to take big chances in small doses. When these short form experiments pay off, they can be seared in your brain forever. When they fall flat, it’s easy to forget they even exist, which leaves little impact on the overall quality of the anthologies that contain them.

XX is the rare kind of horror anthology where each individual experiment pays off. Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts each take a chance on a premise rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but is instead boiled down to a digestible, bite-sized morsel. The stories are connected only by a delicately beautiful stop-motion wraparound (seemingly inspired by the stop motion animation classic Alice) and the gender of their directors, but together form a solid unit of efficient, effective horror filmmaking where every moving part manages to pull its own weight. The four female filmmakers involved in the project (five if you include the wraparound’s animator Sofia Carrillo) worked independently of each other, unaware of the ways their own contributions might visually or thematically overlap. This goes against recent pushes to homogenize anthology segments into a single everything-is-connected unit (a style at least partly pioneered by one of XX‘s contributors, Southbound producer/co-director Roxanne Benjamin), but feels very much in line with horror anthology classics, not to mention the horror comics like Tales from the Crypt & Tales from the Darkside that inspired them. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

Although their connections are entirely incidental, three of the four stories told in XX touch on motherhood and the anxiety of raising children in their respective segments. Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” makes a parent’s fear of their own child a literal threat. Kusama shows her chops as the most accomplished director of the batch (last year’s The Invitation is a must-see) by expertly building tension between a single mother in hiding and her increasingly beastly teenage son. The opening segment, “The Box” is a lot less literal with this anxiety, ruminating on the ways raising children can suck the life out you in a spiritual, philosophical sense reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode or the music video for Radiohead’s “Just. Annie Clark (of St. Vincent, guitar-shredding fame) directs the always-welcome Melanie Lynskey in the segment “The Birthday Party,” which lightens the mood of the motherhood anxiety by ending on its own music video style comedic punchline involving a death at a child’s birthday/costume party. The only outlier of the bunch is “Don’t Fall,” a motherless creature feature set on a camping trip that goes horrifically wrong when a young group of cityfolk desecrate sacred ground in the wild. It’d be understandable to argue that having one outlier in an otherwise thematically​ cohesive collection somewhat dampens XX‘s overall value as an anthology. I just see it as a natural part of horror anthology tradition, where uneven, off-kilter variance in themes & mode of expression is a highlight & an asset, not a drawback. One (competently made) outlier like “Don’t Fall” is just as much of a necessary feature for XX to feel like an old-school horror anthology as its rigid, animated wraparound buffers or its individualized title cards. It’s perfect in the way it invites imperfection into what shouldn’t be a tightly controlled environment in the first place.

I can’t objectively say exactly why XX struck such a chord with me while it’s left a lot of critics lukewarm or even bitterly cold. Some of my personal resonation might be linked to the way certain titles or themes echo the accomplishments of movies I already dearly love without retreading any of the same ground. “The Box” & “The Birthday Party” in particular share names with two of my all-time favorite features (directed by Richard Kelly & William Friedkin, respectively) and Karyn Kusama’s contribution functions as a semi-sequel to another one of my personal favorites (in print and onscreen) so well that even speaking its name might be a kind of spoiler. This sense of tradition obviously also extends into the way XX follows the rigidly segmented format of horror anthology past, recalling some all-time greats like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and (a recent discovery for me) Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. My appreciation of this feature-length collection might be even more simple than that, though. From the way food is dreamily framed in “The Box” to the way sound design is playfully jarring in “The Birthday Party” to the way the whole world crumbles around us in “Her Only Living Son” to the basic creature feature surface pleasures of “Don’t Fall,” there’s something worth latching onto in each segment of XX, some feature that can never outwear its welcome or play itself too thin thanks to the temporal limitations of its format. I find great, long-lasting pleasure in that, especially in the way each experiment becomes more sketched out as I mull them over in my mind long after the credits roll. It’s a damn good horror anthology in that way.

-Brandon Ledet