00:56 Breathless (1983)
05:57 Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)
09:50 The Burning Bed (1980)
12:45 Orphan: First Kill (2022)
– The Podcast Crew
00:56 Breathless (1983)
05:57 Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)
09:50 The Burning Bed (1980)
12:45 Orphan: First Kill (2022)
– The Podcast Crew
Both of Wes Craven’s mid-90s meta horrors—Scream & New Nightmare—are modern classics, but I personally find the philosophical crisis of his return to the Nightmare on Elm Street series to be the more rewarding of the pair. While Scream amuses itself with cataloging & emulating the tropes of horror as a pop-art medium, New Nightmare genuinely grapples with the havoc horror wreaks on our minds & souls, digging much deeper than Scream‘s surface-level jolts of recognition & nostalgia. For all of their slashings & bloodshed, the scariest moment in either film is when Craven appears onscreen as himself, tormented by the real-world evil he’s unleashed by creating the fictional character of Freddy Krueger. It’s a jarring moment of self-reflection that helped spark an entire wave of self-aware slashers that defined mainstream horror that decade (most of them penned by Kevin Williamson, screenwriter for Scream). Craven wasn’t the first master of horror to arrive attempt that particular hard stare into the mirror, though. He was beaten to the punch by the much trashier & flashier schlockteur Lucio Fulci in his own 1990 meta-horror, A Cat in the Brain.
With A Cat in the Brain, Lucio Fulci stars in a Lucio Fulci film as “Lucio Fulci” — a horror director who’s tormented by the violence he’s depicted onscreen throughout his career, hallucinating flashes of gore while preparing meals and performing mundane household chores. This torment only worsens once his therapist begins to use those gruesome images as inspiration for his own murders, intending to frame Fulci for real-life reenactments of fictional crimes. A rare moment of introspection from the aging giallo legend, A Cat in the Brain is a really fun, chaotic self-reflection on how the brutality of the horror genre is often flippantly overlooked by cheap-thrill seekers but still takes a toll on our psyches (of which I’m just as guilty as Fulci). We can’t fill our brains with images of chainsaw maniacs, squished eyeballs, cannibals, mutant ghouls, and decapitated children without them having some effect on our mental health. Their immediate effect is an easy trigger for cathartic release, usually through laughter or disgust. Here, Fulci frets over the possibility that there may be a morally, spiritually corrosive effect that lingers after that initial amusement . . . or at least he pretends to.
As much as A Cat in the Brain feels like a crude precursor to the philosophy-of-horror crisis Wes Craven would soon be working through in New Nightmare, it’s also just a convenient excuse for Fulci to let his bad taste run wild on a shoestring budget. Firstly, he gets to indulge in the very thing he’s supposedly condemning, padding out the runtime between obligatory dialogue exchanges with as many gory vignettes as he can get away with while maintaining the vaguest outline of a plot. He also comes up with a pretty great excuse not to go to therapy for his horrific preoccupations, positioning his therapist as the real sicko pervert and his own art as a safer, fantastic form of cathartic release. Mostly, he’s engineered an even greater excuse to recycle gnarly gore gags from his own back catalog, “hallucinating” violent scenes from better-loved, better-funded Lucio Fulci movies as if they were specially produced for this late-career meta crisis. A Cat in the Brain isn’t just Fulci’s rough prototype for Wes Craven’s meta-horror; it also doubles as a Greatest Hits montage of his own past triumphs.
If nothing else, you’ve gotta love Fulci for immediately delivering the violence promised by this film’s title in its opening credits, illustrating his thought process at his screenwriting desk with footage of the black cat inside his skull gnawing on the hamburger meat he calls a brain. You also gotta love that he calls himself out for being an absolute freak, even if the resulting self-critique portrait of the maestro at work is entirely insincere. When Wes Craven toyed with “the boundaries between reality & fantasy” in his 1990s meta-horrors, you could really tell he was taking the philosophy & cultural impact of his own work seriously as a subject. By contrast, Fulci is just having self-indulgent fun, even outdoing Scream‘s nostalgic callbacks to classic horror tropes by showing actual clips from better movies of his own heyday. His approach may not be as heartfelt or meaningful, but it’s still a sickly delight.
There have been a few truly great entries in what I call the Writer’s Block Thriller genre in recent years, a canon once populated only by Charlie Kaufman screenplays. Titles like Staying Vertical, Sybil, and Ismael’s Ghosts haven’t exactly dominated the pop culture discourse, but they’re fantastically frustrating headtrips for the few audiences who discovered them in their film festival & Netflix algorithm burial grounds. These are films in which a creatively constipated artist stares at the blank page until they go mad, eventually getting further & further wrapped up in pointlessly absurd, go-nowhere conflicts created mostly by avoidance of completing their own work. The Writer’s Block Thriller is often a meta, heavily neurotic genre that’s mostly about their off-screen creators’ personal & professional anxieties more than they are about characters or plot. Even when done well, there’s an embarrassing layer of narcissism that weighs down the exercise, which can feel like reading a stranger’s tell-all diary. When done poorly, it can feel like reading an exceedingly boring stranger’s diary, which doesn’t at all help with the second-hand embarrassment.
Black Bear fits very snugly in the Writer’s Block Thriller genre, if not only because it plays more like an academic writing exercise than it does a complete work. Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon co-star in this meta mental-breakdown thriller as narcissistic filmmakers & artists who are bad at their jobs and bad at their relationships. They start the film as Brooklynite hipsters staging a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? type dinner party from hell while on an artists’ retreat in the woods. Then, their character traits are scrambled & reassigned for a second, paralleled scenario in which they all continue to manipulate & berate each other in feel-bad Edward Albee tradition – this time for twice the length. These two lopsided segments are rigidly separated by chapter breaks & a repeated image that resets the stage like a rotary dial: Aubrey Plaza sitting at a writing desk, frustrated by the blank page. It plays as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine had access to a nice woodland cabin location & a few talented actor friends for a long weekend, but no clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with those resources. You can practically see him sitting at his own writing desk, unable to get any work done because petty arguments with his friends & lover are looping loudly in his own neurotic skull. The result feels labored, uninspired, self-indulgent and, worst of all, pointless.
If there’s anything useful that came out of this Creative Block writing exercise, it’s in gifting the three central actors a lot of archly hyper-emotional dialogue to play around with. I’ve seen some claims that this is Aubrey Plaza’s best work to date, which can only be assumed if you haven’t been paying attention to her work in recent years; she’s been just as great in much better films (Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, Joshy, hell even The To Do List & Dirty Grandpa). Still, it’s true that the second, overreaching segment of the film allows her to run wild & manic in a way we only really get to see from Elizabeth Moss in recent years (an unavoidable comparison, given the central premise’s parallels with Queen of Earth), a mode that Plaza is deliciously sinister in. As frustrating as Black Bear‘s structureless meandering can be in a narrative sense, it is consistently impressive as an actors’ showcase. That feels like an intentional feature of the writing too, which loosely sketches each character as an over-the-top stage play archetype rather than a real person. In the film’s best scene, Plaza is trapped at a dinner table listening to a couple systematically contradict every one of each other’s statements in an absurdly endless flood of bickering & snipes – the one time both the writing and the performances seem in sync instead of circling each other in search of a purpose.
The most frustrating thing about Black Bear‘s shortcomings is that it’s totally aware of its own pointlessness. In the opening segment, a character openly asks a filmmaker “How you can you make something if you don’t have anything to say?” with the incredulity of someone who just sat through a screening of Black Bear. Levine even works in a parody of a Kubrickian asshole director who allows his creative hubris to drive his collaborators into the ground with endless takes & headgames in empty pursuit of some unattainable intellectual exercise that’s above everyone else’s heads. By all accounts, Kubrick was a total nightmare to work with, but at least his films all felt like they had a clear vision & sense of purpose. By contrast, this movie feels like a placeholder for an idea that never fully formed by the time production wrapped. If the best Writer’s Block Thrillers feel like reading a filmmaker’s personal diary, Black Bear feels like flipping through an abandoned, forgotten sketchbook. It’s all very lopsided, unfinished, and not quite ready for public view.
Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Dracula a year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.
Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.
Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
One of the most exciting things about schlock cinema as an art form is the experimentation that comes with filmmakers working under financial pressure. I’m especially fascinated by old horror cheapies that attempt to incorporate footage or sets from other films produced by the same studio in order to pad out runtimes or increase production value. Sometimes, this can lead to interesting results, like with Peter Bogdanovich’s footage cannibalizing debut feature Targets. It can also lead to complete disaster, as with the set-repurposing Roger Corman production The Raven, which is, objectively speaking, an incomprehensible mess (and, oddly enough, one of the films pilfered for Targets). The Last Horror Film is a proud contribution to this frugal tradition of recycled cinema, an early 80s horror that goes above & beyond in its milking production value out of better-funded films that came before it. It even goes a step beyond the Roger Corman recycling model by including imagery from better-funded horror films’ advertising to boost its own allure. It may not be a formally slick or thematically ambitious horror pic, but the way it gets by using financial shortcuts is honestly nothing short of inspiring.
Narratively speaking, The Last Horror Film doesn’t amount to much more than Taxi Driver Goes Giallo. A Travis Bickle-type obsesses over an actress known to the world as the undisputed Queen of Horror Films. Aspiring to leave his service industry life behind & claim his true destiny as a celebrated filmmaker, the sweaty creep follows his beloved scream queen across the ocean to the Cannes Film Festival in France. He films her there in secret, both at public press junkets and in private, voyeuristic settings. Meanwhile, friends & colleagues of the actress are violently killed under extreme, giallo-type lights, with the killer’s face entirely obscured, but heavily indicated to be the weirdo taxi driver. What’s partly so great about The Last Horror Film is that it makes absolutely no attempt to hide its giallo/Scorsese genre mashup. The film namechecks both Taxi Driver & Jodie Foster in the script to clue the audience in on its sense of self-awareness. The giallo-inspired kills include multiple close-up shots of straight razors to drive that point home as well. The film has very little use for subtlety & nuance, but instead focuses on squeezing as much entertainment value as possible out of its extremely limited resources.
Besides the aforementioned inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching. It’s in those stretches where The Last Horror Film goes from surprisingly entertaining to nearly invaluable, especially when it takes notice of the film industry weirdos mixing it up with the locals at the discos surrounding the fest. The Last Horror Film set out to make a watchable horror picture armed only with an interesting location and clips from other, better funded works and it did a kind of amazing job of it, fully committing to its blatant acts of tourism and grimy modes of meta film commentary.
There’s an A Night to Dismember quality to this film, especially in its feeling of hastily edited collage, but The Last Horror Film deviates from that Doris WIshman classic in its unexpected success in building a cohesive narrative out of its loosely gathered scraps. Much like the Wishman picture, this giallo pastiche attempts to deliver the goods in terms of cheap gore-for-gore’s-sake thrills: electrocutions, decapitations, melted faces, etc. These blatant, bloody bread & circuses moments are held together by legitimately artful, almost Fellini-esque dream sequences in which our crazed cabbie desperately clutches his make-believe Oscar while his scream queen deity (Hammer horror vet Carolyn Munro) coos at him in encouragement. While it never really reaches the heights of meta-commentary in similarly-minded works like Demons, the film also makes attempts to put its film industry setting to thematic use. There’s especially noteworthy scenes in which the famed horror actress is being hunted down in public, but everyone at Cannes, including the police, brush off her terror as a tasteless publicity stunt.
While maybe not masterful filmmaking in an arthouse sense, The Last Horror Film is a triumph in schlocky alchemy. Its blatant tourism of 1981 Cannes somehow makes a film that would otherwise be a (literal) cut & paste knockoff without it into an invaluable historical document. It’s the kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated for its minor successes, even if they’re only employed for cheap horror film shocks & chills. In some ways, it’s miraculous that the film is even watchable at all.
We here at Swampflix watch horror films year round, which is what makes it easy to slap together our annual Halloween Reports. Horror dominates our Movie of the Month selections and our topics for The Podcast. It’s a genre we return to eagerly & frequently no matter what the season. Still, there’s something particularly special about the ritual of watching horror films every October, a month-long celebration of the macabre. As often as we participate in this ritualistic horror binge, though, we rarely step back to think about what the ritual actually means. What’s the significance or the satisfaction of watching all these fictional victims, usually oversexed teenagers, die on camera in all of these ludicrous ways, whether at the hands of a somewhat realistic serial killer or by supernatural monster? The 2012 meta horror comedy Cabin in the Woods, delivered by Joss Whedon & close collaborator Drew Goddard, strives to answer that question on a philosophical level. The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, The Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.
In essence, The Cabin in the Woods is two separate, competing films at once. One film is the most basic teens-hunted-by-zombies picture you can imagine, except equipped with the stagey nerd humor Whedon’s built his career around. The other film is a glimpse into the writer’s room & packed cinemas that would cruelly put those teens in zombie peril in the first place. A remote, NSA-reminiscent science lab is in the midst of an annual ritual where they lure a group of unsuspecting teens into a controlled environment (complete with the titular cabin) and influence them through chemicals & electronics to live out basic horror archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the whore, the fool, the final girl), effectively leading lambs to the slaughter. They’re horror directors in this way. Their predetermined, controlled environments are essentially genre tropes, horror convention. When they drug the victims of their rat maze to increase their libido or lower their intelligence they’re essentially writing their doom into a live-action screenplay. Curiously enough, they serve as the audience as well as the creator, watching enraptured as their victims are cruelly murdered and even, in a scene more or less lifting directly from Heathers, casually partying while someone is brutally assaulted in the background. It’s a high concept dynamic that not everyone will be game for, but it’s one that leads to some surprisingly smart, bleak self-analysis. As much as I enjoyed other recent meta horror comedies like The Final Girls or John Dies at the End that approached similar thematic territory, there’s a dedication and a follow-through to The Cabin in the Woods that I believe to be unmatched by its genre peers.
Something I greatly resect in this film is its openness about what it’s doing. The film begins from the perspective of the science lab, where a lesser work would’ve saved the artificiality of the environment for a last second reveal. The best part about The Cabin in the Woods is that it tips its hand so early, leaving the only true mystery to be when, exactly, its two competing films are going to meet and how much of a disaster it will be. The film is patient with the payoff of those two worlds clashing, but also so thorough and so ambitious with its follow-through that waiting for the hammer to fall is actually a large part of its appeal. A straightforward zombie picture set in the woods would’ve rang formulaic & hollow, no matter how much Whedon’s spin on the dialogue attempted to set it apart, to the point where a go-for-broke third act reveal of the influence of the science lab would’ve played like a cheat. Instead, we get a full-length reflection on how the two films interact, a dynamic that has a lot to say about how horror audiences interact with film in general. It’s pretty rare to see something that confident & dedicated play out on the screen, no matter what genre.
I can comfortably say I’m far from the biggest Whedon fan. His Avengers work is fairly decent (and it’s cool to see him writing for a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth as an idiot jock here), but I’m not the right kind of pop culture nerd who wistfully daydreams about the good ol’ days of Firefly or Buffy. I’m ambivalent. If The Cabin in the Woods were merely one of those Whedon productions that take place in an alternate universe where teens & 20 somethings always have something clever to say, I wouldn’t have been onboard, which is probably why it took me so long to watch it in the first place. I don’t know if it was the collaborative effort with Goddard (who, sadly, hasn’t helmed another film before or since) or what, but Whedon’s usual schtick is still detectable here, except put to a career-high effectiveness that actually makes his dedication to cleverness count for something. The way The Cabin in the Woods dismantles horror tropes and holds a (two-way) mirror up to the audience who would typically eat them up is, without question, pure brilliance. I can’t think of a better film to recommend during the Halloween season, when binging on formulaic horror is at its peak ritualistic significance. The places this film takes you in its third act alone will add clarity & perspective to your horror watching habits in a way most films could only dream of, all while delivering a satisfactory dose of the very tropes you lust after as a bloodthirsty audience. I could see making screenings of this movie an annual ritual of its own, if not only to hold onto the way it enhances enjoyment of the other, less mindful horrors I’ll be watching anyway.
I had previously complained in a recent review that the film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein had moved away so far from the original formula of its predecessor I Was a Teenage Werewolf that the two films had almost no reason to share a title at all (except, of course, for the former to make a quick dollar off the latter’s notoriety). I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a huge financial & cultural success largely due to its first-ever depiction of a teenager transforming into a murderous monster, a basic concept it’s near-impossible to imagine modern horror without. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was then rushed out within five months of that film’s release and, although it boasted an impressively cruel villain & killer monster design, the film featured no actual teenagers to speak of, completely missing the point of its predecessor’s success. The bridge that actually connects these two disparate works wasn’t to come until a year later.
1958’s How to Make a Monster combines the monsters from I Was a Teenage Werewolf & I Was a Teenage Frankenstein into a single picture, but not in the way that you’d expect. Much like how the second film in the series moved away from the Teenage Werewolf original’s formula for success & originality, How to Make a Monster ventured even further out to sea and somehow found its own legs to stand on as a unique work of meta horror. Instead of staging a logical physical altercation of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein from the previous pictures, How to Make a Monster instead depicts a movie production of that altercation. Set on the American International Pictures movie lot, the film centers on the make-up artist who created the look of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein and his mental unraveling during the production of a film where the two monsters meet onscreen. It’s the exact kind of meta horror weirdness I was a huge sucker for in Wes Craven films like New Nightmare (except maybe a little cheaper & a little goofier) and it works like gangbusters.
Much like with the first two films, the only narrative through-line How to Make a Monster holds with its loosely-connected franchise is the idea of a mad scientist exploiting innocent teenagers in their experimental medicine. Instead of trying to save the world through treacherous experimentation like in the first two pictures, however, this mad scientist is a make-up artist trying to save the monster movie as a genre. Once he discovers that he’s been laid off by the studio due to the decline in monster movie popularity, our dastardly mastermind applies hypnosis through homemade experimental make-up to turn his two latest creations, Teenage Frankenstein & Teenage Werewolf, into literal monsters that “scare” studio heads into changing their minds . . . by murdering them. There’s a lot of industry talk in How to Make a Monster about the artistry of monster movie make-up, the cycles of genre films’ popularity, typecasting among horror actors, and the “therapeutic” qualities of horror films for audiences that all make the movie feel like a love letter to the industry. A lot of the movie works like a pretty standard monster movie genre piece, but the rest holds such a high reverence for cheap horror as a finely-crafted artistry that its reliance on the genre’s basic tropes actually serve the film well.
If you’re going to watch just one film in this franchise I highly recommend sticking with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It’s a rare example of a cheap drive-in monster flick that actually finds high art in its genre trappings & taps into the subconscious fears that spring from puberty in an oddly authentic way. However, How to Make a Monster does a great job of molding that past success in horror filmmaking into an entirely new format. It’s a standard monster movie in terms of its monstrous thrills, but it repurposes those tropes into a meta, self-reflective work that genuinely surprised me in its genre innovation. The film functions nicely as a connector between the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein flicks that came before it, but it also stands firmly on its own as a unique work in the 50s drive-in horror genre, especially in the way it reflects on what that genre is & what it means to the American movie-going public.
It’s difficult for me to speak objectively about The Final Girls‘ merits as a horror comedy, because so much of the film’s content is so distinctly in my wheelhouse. It’s also difficult to describe the film’s high-concept premise without spoiling its major conceit. So, I’ll just leave you with this vague recommendation for now: if you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. Save reading reviews (like this one, for instance) for after you give the film a chance. It’s best to go into this movie cold if you can manage it. I wish I had, anyway.
For those who need a little more convincing up front, here’s a quick run-down of the film’s premise. The Final Girls revolves around a fictional example of the oldschool “camp site slashers” mentioned above named Camp Bloodbath. Good title. When Camp Bloodbath is first introduced as a Grindhouse-style trailer on a smart phone, it’s unclear exactly how involved the plot will get with the horror relic. The answer is very. Five modern teens with varying degrees of familiarity with the film find themselves magically transplanted inside the move itself, à la The Last Action Hero. Don’t spend too much time questioning exactly how this could possibly happen, because the movie has very little interest in providing an answer. Instead, the device is used as a launchpad for lovingly spoofing the slasher genre from a modern perspective. It’s a means to a satisfying end.
As you can tell from The Final Girls‘ title, the film has a lot of fun playing with slasher genre tropes, especially in the film’s interactions between the self-aware modern teens & the fictional teen camp counselors at Camp Bloodbath. A lot of the teens’ plans to escape the machete-wielding Billy Murphy, a Jason Voorhees stand-in, revolves around abstaining from sex. The thinking is that teen sex invariably ends in death in oldschool slashers, which is something even the Friday the 13th series itself mocks in the humorously self-aware hologram scene in Jason X. The Final Girls also pokes fun at how teen dialogue is often moronic in oldschool slashers, like when an 80s teen tells a modern visitor, “Go suck a turd,” and he amusedly replies, “The writing is so bad.” Another modern character comments on her soon-to-end shelf life with the line, “I’m the mean girl in the 80s horror movie & we’re past the midpoint so . . .” There’s also attention paid to Camp Bloodbath‘s over-the-top John Carpenter score, the fact that cheap horror films can sometimes head to career-long typecasting, and the fact that there is often a very fine line between a slasher & a porno. The genre trope references are nothing if not relentless.
One of my favorite things about The Final Girls is that it not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of the film’s outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly comedy, it does reach for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit. As the modern teens attempt to escape their fictional prison they discover that all roads lead back to camp. In their words, “The movie won’t let us leave.” As a result, they find themselves stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque 90min loop until they can fulfil the slasher genre’s plot cycle to its conclusion, including establishing which virginal “final girl” would will remain alive to slay Not Jason at the film-within-the-film’s conclusion. There’s also a creepy interplay in the way exact dialogue from Camp Bloodbath bleeds over into “real life” conversation & in the way the 80s camp counselors are ritually devoted to their cues in certain scenes. Not all of the world-building is creepy, though. Just as the The Final Girls pokes fun at the predictability of horror movie tropes, it also mines humor from the artificiality of more general cinematic devices like black & white flashbacks, slow-motion escapes, and the physical appearance of production credits.
The reason I said earlier that I couldn’t be objective about The Final Girls as a finished product is that I recognize the film has some glaring faults, but I greatly enjoyed it anyway. Its straight-forward Jokes aren’t always as laugh-out-loud funny as they’re posed to be. The rules of its universe are more fluid & self-contradictory than they should be. There’s also an unfortunate mount of weak CG imagery, which would normally be excusable in a cheap indie like this, except that the film calls direct attention to it in over-the-top Sam Raimi-style camera movement. However, that last complaint might be a little particular to my tastes, since I’m far from an Evil Dead fan. These are minor speed bumps for me, though, since so much of what’s going on in The Final Girls I’m already predisposed to enjoy. Not only am I a sucker for high-concept camp, but the movie features features contributions from a handful of minor personalities that I’m always down to watch in action: Alia “Maeby Fünke” Shawkat, Thomas “Silicon Valley” Middleditch, Joshua John “Teen Witch/Near Dark/Class of 1999” Miller (as a writer/producer), etc. The film’s 80s pop music cues also hit my sweet spot, including expert use of “Dance Hall Days“, “Cruel Summer“, and the most emotionally confusing “Bette Davis Eyes” strip tease you’re ever likely to see. There’s also a great deal of heart in the main protagonist’s personal relationship with one of the fictional 80s teens, one that’s particularly refreshing in its emotional severity considering the detached irony of a lot of the film’s meta humor.
Because so much of The Final Girls lines up with any particular interests it is difficult to say whether or not a majority of people will be able to get on its wavelength. I can, however, say this much in the movie’s behalf: audiences typically too squeamish for the slasher genre should be able to stomach the film’s limited gore, as it’s played for laughs more so than terror. I’m not sure that crowd will get as much out of the film’s trope play as the genre’s more dedicated fans, but as I said earlier, there’s plenty else going on to satiate anyone in the mood for a high-concept comedy with an occasional note of devastating heartbreak. If nothing else, The Final Girls will make an excellent compromise for those looking to introduce the horror comedy genre to the less-than-enthused. I expect it’ll make good fodder for many Halloween-themed movie binges in the years to come, perhaps sandwiched between the very “camp site slasher films” it lovingly spoofs.
Just two weeks ago, we lost a cinematic great who was often overlooked for his accomplishments as an auteur, perhaps due to his extensive work in genre films. Wes Craven may have made an occasional goofy trifle like a Shocker or a Swamp Thing, but his more accomplished films have unmistakably reshaped the horror landscape in a significant way. I don’t have much of a stomach for them myself, but his early works The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House on the Left rang out like the enraged, too-believable battle cries of a deeply disturbed mind eager to unleash its violent cravings upon the world at large. Honing in that anger for something more purposeful & universally palatable, Craven later scared the every living shit out of mainstream audiences with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did for the simple act of falling asleep what Jaws did for nightswimming. Craven’s instantly infamous Freddy Krueger creation, brought to disturbingly vivid life by actor Robert Englund, would’ve been enough to coast on for the rest of the director’s life, but instead Craven broke out into more surreal territory with The Serpent & The Rainbow, political satire in The People Under the Stairs, and the very nature of horror as a genre in the meta franchise Scream, among other projects. Craven was an inventive fella, to put it mildly. He was enthusiastic about exploring new, strange ideas that would allow his demented id to escape from his mild-mannered exterior, scaring his audience while simultaneously challenging them in unexpectedly intellectual ways, the latter being something a lot of horror peddlers don’t bother with often enough.
My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. The Scream franchise introduces its meta context by having the typical bonehead slasher victims be atypically self-aware of classic horror film tropes that usually lead to violent deaths, allowing for them to make commentary on the very film that they populate (eventually with their lifeless bodies). However, thanks to the dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare allows itself even more free rein with its meta context. The movie itself is about the making of another Freddy Kruger picture, a cursed production that blurs the lines between reality & nightmare and free will & scripted fiction to the point where it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a character being awake, getting trapped in Freddy’s playground of the subconscious, or, worse yet, living out one of Wes Craven’s screenplays.
Set on the 10th anniversary of the original Freddy Krueger picture, New Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. As the anniversary of the film draws near, threatening phonecalls (often accompanied by Earthquakes) that impossibly seem to be from Freddy Krueger himself torment the poor actress, establishing a mood of dread very early in the picture. The strange thing is that Langenkamp is good friends with Robert Englund, her colleague who portrays Krueger in the movies. Englund, playing himself (and Freddy, of course), is portrayed as a genteel dude here, spending his days idly painting in the sun room of a mansion undoubtedly funded by the success of the Elm Street films, a far cry from the undead homicidal maniac he embodies with Freddy. As mentioned above, Wes Craven also plays himself in New Nightmare. He explains to Heather that he’s been working on a script (or a “nightmare in progress” as he calls it) for a new Elm Street picture as a means to stop Krueger from becoming “real”. According to Craven, because Freddy was killed off in the 6th installment of the franchise (Freddy’s Dead: The “Final” Nightmare), he has been set free like a genie from a bottle, now able to manifest in real life, causing real havoc. The only way to stop Freddy, Craven explains, is to make another picture, an ordeal Heather is very reluctant to suffer.
There is so much to enjoy in New Nightmare & the film really does at times feel like all of the best elements of Wes Craven’s aesthetic conveniently gathered in one package. Striking an unnerving artificiality from the get go, the whole film feels like a constant dream state, a feeling that’s only amplified as the walls between the conscious & the subconscious, as well as the walls between the movie & the movie within the movie, begin to break down into a mess of Freddy Krueger themed chaos. As for Krueger himself, he actually doesn’t appear in his full form for much of the film. He’s more of a disembodied idea than a physical threat, often appearing solely as a clawed glove & at one point literally becoming larger than life by appearing in the clouds above a freeway. Heather’s horrified reaction to Krueger’s new, true-life form & his adoring fans’ gushing at his publicity appearances call into question Craven’s own thoughts on his creations & their fandom, particularly with the rougher work of films like The Last House on the Left. Otherworldly landscapes of bedsheets & subconscious dungeons recall the POV of a child’s imagination Craven so well captured in The People Under the Stairs. Although the dream state reflections of The Serpent & The Rainbow and the original Elm Street as well as the meta reflections of the Scream movies may have been more thoroughly solidfied in his other pictures, it’s nice to see those two worlds bounce off each other in such a satisfying way here.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might not be his most technically accomplished film & it’s doubtful that it’ll be the one he’s most remembered for, but it holds a special place in my heart as a sum of the accomplishments of a director I grew up loving & fearing. When I heard the recent news that the incredibly gifted director had died, it was the first film I thought to revisit as a means of remembrance. It only helps that the director himself makes an appearance in the film to weigh in on the magical nature of filmmaking, directly referencing his personal compulsions to create, the often hellish compulsions that drive anyone to create, and the ways art can take on a life of its own outside its creator’s will or control. Besides being a great film as well as a reflection on the nature of horror as a genre & art as an enterprise, New Nightmare is a solid means to commemorating the accomplishments of a great director who is unfortunately no longer with us. He will undoubtedly be missed, but we’ll always have great films like New Nightmare to remember him by. Much like his creation Freddy Krueger, Craven lives on.
Nothing can sink a film faster or more thoroughly than the viewer’s misplaced expectations. I know it’s not fair to judge a film based on what you expect it to deliver as opposed to what’s actually on the screen, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Clouds of Sils Maria is a good movie. It’s visually stunning, hosts a handful of excellent performances from greatly talented actresses, and doesn’t have any particular scenes that fall flat without impact. Still, I can’t help but feel like the movie let me down in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was good, but I was expecting it to be great, an unfair expectation or not.
As far as the film’s performances go, most of Clouds‘ emotional weight rests on the shoulders of Juliete Binoche & Kristen Stewart, who play an aging actress of stage & screen who’s struggling with an ever-evolving industry & her young, no-bullshit assistant, respectively. Having never seen Stewart in a single Twilight movie (okay maybe I drunkenly heckled the first one), I’ve only ever had positive experiences with her work, so her success in Clouds of Sils Maria comes as no surprise to me. Juliet Binoche’s immense talent is another no-brainer, but it’s her unlikely chemistry with Stewart that makes the screen sing. Whether the two are tensely conducting business across a series of electronic devices, tensely rehearsing lines for Binoche’s latest role, or tensely enjoying an alcoholic beverage, there’s a great push & pull to their relationship that unfortunately proves to be a well-played non-starter. Chloë Grace Moretz also cashes in on some long detected, but rarely seen acting chops here in a role as a Lindsay Lohan/Miley Cyrus archetype, but there’s no mistake that this is Binoche’s & Stewart’s show.
The other significant element in play is the movie’s play within a play structure, which of course comes with an avalanche of meta context. As Stewart’s & Binoche’s characters discuss acting as a craft, it’s difficult to separate their words from the real-life actors speaking them. As they rehearse lines from a script about an older executive seducing a younger version of herself, it’s difficult to separate the-play-within-the-movie’s sexual power dynamics from their characters’ relationship as intimate coworkers. As they discuss the current state of tabloid culture & celebrity gossip it’s difficult not to think of the dialogue as the actresses venting on camera. Clouds of Sils Maria has a lot of fun playing with audience perception, blurring the lines between fiction & reality in an admittedly catty, but intricately layered fashion.
There’s also a lot of simplistic, but effective visual majesty derived from the location of the film’s title. The clouds of Sils Maria’s mountaintops are flowing, river-like washes that add a drowning sadness to the separation, death, and axiety that plague the opening of the film. At one point the clouds & mountain roads overwhelm Stewart’s character in a psychedelic cacophony that suggests a drastic change coming in the film’s structure (à la Bergman’s Persona) is imminent, but alas very little changes & the film silently rolls along, just like the clouds that decorate it. There’s so much commendable about Clouds of Sils Maria that it pains me to admit that I wasn’t fully satisfied with the entirety of what was delivered. I left the film with a mind full of pleasant sentiments & images, but still feeling empty-handed, as if I had tried to grasp a passing cloud, only to watch it dissipate between my fingers. It’s a difficult reaction to describe, but I also doubt I’m the only one who felt it.