Kathryn Bigelow and the Loveable Scumbag

On of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movies about men. Her prestigious war dramas aren’t exactly jingoistic love letters to American patriotism, but they do appeal to a kind of macho sensibility that helps explain why they would be praised over women-led projects with a quieter, more introspective bent. I don’t believe this is some calculated, cynical angle Bigelow chose in order to earn Awards Circuit accolades, though. The nature & textures of masculinity (and masculine violence) have been an auteurist preoccupation for the director dating all the way back to her early career as a genre film toughie. Her breakout success Point Break is a passionate bromance between an undercover cop and a dirtbag adrenaline junkie. Her cult classic vampire Western Near Dark follows the seduction & indoctrination of a macho farm boy into a subservient role among a clan of ghouls. Her Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—follows history’s greasiest anti-hero’s exploits in worming his unwanted, uninvited way back into his ex’s life. Masculinity is the thematic through-line throughout Bigelow’s decades-long career. It’s even one that concerns her debut feature.

Bigelow’s debut feature as director, The Loveless, is an early 60s motorcycle gang pastiche. It essentially remakes the Brando beefcake classic The Wild One as in introspective art piece (as opposed to Cool as Ice, which remade it as a breakfast cereal commercial). A young Willem Dafoe stars as a tragically beautiful biker brute in his first lead role. Unlike the mouthy charmer Ralph Fiennes plays in Strange Days, Dafoe hardly speaks a word in his leather biker get-up. Rather, his classic machismo is communicated though intense stares and hardened body language. Occasional poetic voiceover about how “the endless blacktop is [his] sweet eternity” suggests there’s a poet’s mind behind his stern eyes and supermodel cheekbones, but that suggestion of vulnerability only makes his machismo more dangerous. When Dafoe’s biker gang parks in small-town middle-America on their way to the races at Daytona, his pronounced male beauty inevitably captivates local women – leading to their ruin at the hands of jealous, abusive townies. Dafoe’s biker beauty isn’t as actively malicious as Fiennes’s scumbaggery is in Strange Days or Patrick Swayze’s hedonistic thrill-seeking is in Point Break, but his leather jacket & rockabilly lifestyle is still a destructive force for those seduced by his allure. His masculinity is both a pleasure & a bane, something Bigelow would expand upon in later works.

Fortunately, her sense of filmmaking craft & narrative purpose would expand as well. The Loveless is visually sumptuous in a way Bigelow’s later features consistently are (reflecting her formal education as painter). However, it’s also frustratingly inert – often feeling like a nostalgic fashion magazine shoot rather than a proper feature film. Willem Dafoe is so goddamn beautiful to gaze at in his leather get-up that it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s narrative shortcomings, but its 82min runtime still manages to linger for a relative eternity. The closest the film comes to exhilarating action is in a climactic, crazed shootout at a townie dive bar. However, it’s a violet display Bigelow later perfected to a very similar effect in Near Dark – making this early trial run feel trivial in retrospect. The entire point of the film, then, is the visual seduction of Dafoe’s macho posing & posturing. It was Bigelow’s very first film and she was already fixated on what masculinity means, what it looks like, and what effect in manifests in the world. There can be a debate as to why that fixation is rewarded in critics’ and awards institutions’ circles over the preoccupations of other women auteurs, but it’s clear to me that the impulse in Bigelow is at least personal & genuine. Like Angela Basset in Strange Days, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, and Marin Kanter in The Loveless, she can’t help but fall for a loveable scumbag.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017), and last week’s comparison of its police brutality themes to those of Blue Steel (1989).

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.

As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.

Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.

There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Rare Exports (2010) Fan Art: Season’s Greetings from Joulupukki

Here’s a holiday card illustration of Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”), who never fully emerges in Rare Exports (2010), our current Movie of the Month, despite being the film’s central villain.

-Hanna Räsänen

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion, our look at how it subversively works as a child-friendly introduction to The Thing (1982), and last week’s comparison to its American counterpart, Krampus (2015).

Joulupukki’s Little Helpers

Too many Christmastime horror novelties of the recent past stick to the tried & true slasher template in which a serial killer dresses as Santa Claus while hunting down their teenage victims (Silent Night Deadly Night, Santa Claws, Santals Slay). Thankfully, the 2010s gifted us with at least two new genre gems that dug a little deeper into the holiday’s lore to unearth some lesser-seen Yuletide terror. The Finnish fairy tale Rare Exports—our current Movie of the Month—exposed the world to the kaiju-scale horrors of Jolupukki, a pagan goat-demon who punishes naughty children with much more fury than a stocking stuffed with coal. The more recent American horror comedy Krampus—one of our favorite movies of 2015—did the same for its titular horned demon, who served more as a collaborative counterpart to Santa Clause in Central European folklore, whereas Joulupukki served as direct inspiration for the character. Both films sidestep the Santa Slasher cliché the Christmas Horror genre too often settles into by rolling back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to its traditional pagan origins. Since neither film are big-budget affairs, however, they have to delegate some of the wintry mayhem caused by their respective CG goat demons to their minion underlings, a financial necessity they approach in drastically different ways.

For its part, Rare Exports is entirely about Joulipukki’s little helpers. When the children go missing from a remote village outside the mountain Korvantunturi (where Joulupukki is believed to be imprisoned), it’s assumed that the goat-demon himself is responsible for their disappearance. However, to save precious production dollars and avoid the embarrassment of a potentially cheap-looking CG Joulupukki, the film never fully unleashes the kaiju scale beast; it only gradually defrosts him to provide a ticking clock for the protagonists to race against. The childhood abductions are instead orchestrated by Santa’s “elves”: mute, naked old men who resemble Santa Claus impersonators stripped down for a much-needed shower. Thematically, Rare Exports is about coming-of-age self-actualization and familial male bonding. Plot-wise, though, it’s all about those elves. By its conclusion, the film proves to be a fairy tale about where shopping mall Santas come from, the same way we explain that babies are delivered via stork. These naked, Santa-reminiscent elves stir up a lot more mayhem than Joulupukki himself, but they also provide a much-needed punchline to the story’s mythmaking buildup. Without them, Rare Exports would feel uneventful & pointless; it would literally be just watching ice melt.

Krampus is a lot more active in his own titular, American movie platform. He hunts children & adults alike when an ungrateful, bickering family fails to get over their bullshit and into the spirit of Christmas. Eventually, you see his hideous Santa Claus Monster face in grotesque close-up at the film’s climax, a gorgeous practical effect. For most of the film’s rising action, though, he’s shot from a distance through a thick veil of show that cleverly obscures any potential flaws in the CGI. Like in Rare Exports (and in modern Santa Claus lore) most of the day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground horror in Krampus is handled by the goat-demon’s little helpers – heavy emphasis on the word “little” in this case. Teddy bears, gingerbread men, jacks in the box, and all kinds of other assorted Christmastime totems are animated to attack the grinchy Scrooges for their crimes against the holiday. Michael Dougherty maintains a tone akin to his cult-favorite debut Trick ‘r Treat throughout the film, but by the climax this cavalcade of demonic Christmas toys feels as it were guest-directed by Charles Band (and I’m sure straight-to-VHS Fully Moon cheapies were the exact kind of bullshit Dougherty was raised on). Krampus gets a lot more featured screen time in his climactic closeup than Joulupukki gets in his own film, but in both cases the Yuletide demon-goats leave most of the work to their minions.

Overall, I think Rare Exports is a better constructed film with a much deeper, clearer connection to its pagan folklore. The evil nudist elves’ transformation from child-abducting ghouls to professional shopping mall Santas even connects that North European tradition to its modern North American equivalent. Krampus still holds its own as a great Holiday Horror flick in its own right, though. It feels like the rare Christmas film that actively hates the holiday’s rituals & familial obligations in a way that a lot of people do, but don’t often see in acknowledged in popular media without repute. Krampus’s little helpers are massive part of that bahumbug sentiment, as they visually represent the holiday attacking its detractors in a direct, tangible way. I’m not convinced its investment in actual Krampus lore runs as deep as Rare Exports’s connection to Joulupukki, but a major-studio amplification of the Charles Band template is still its own kind of pleasure.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how it subversively works as a child-friendly introduction to The Thing (1982).

-Brandon Ledet

Baby’s First The Thing

It may have had a rocky critical & commercial start when it first arrived in the 1980s, but at this point John Carpenter’s The Thing is a verified classic, one of the unassailable titans of the horror genre. Unlike how a lot of horror classics age into being so culturally familiar they’re no longer traumatizing, however, The Thing remains . . . inappropriate for most children. No matter how many times I watch that goopy-gory practical effects showcase, I’m always taken aback by how upsetting it is on almost a cellular level. The grotesque transformations its titular shape-shifting alien beast exhibits onscreen chill me to the marrow in my bones, even now that I know through repeat viewings what’s going to leap onto the screen and when. Of course, there are plenty of macabre children who love being exposed to those kinds of age-inappropriate nightmares long before they’re mature enough to fully appreciate them in context – the kind of kids who grow up to run amateur horror movie blogs. For most children, however, the cosmic grotesqueries of The Thing would be too much to stomach; they require a far more toned-down gateway into that particular end of horror fandom before graduating to the real Thing.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2010 darky fairy tale Rare Exports, is the perfect school age primer for future The Thing fandom. Whereas John Carpenter’s 80s classic mines the history of monster movies past (using Howard Hawks’s The Thing from the Another World as an entry point) to catch its adult audience off guard with a false sense of familiarity, Rare Exports does the same with a well-worn subject that would be just as warmly familiar to children: the myth of Santa Claus. It doesn’t take much recontextualization to make a magical world-traveling demon who constantly monitors children’s naughty behavior (and penalizes them accordingly) into something unnatural & scary. Like the more recent Michael Dougherty horror-comedy Krampus, Rare Exports rolls back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to reveal that character’s more authentic, pagan roots in the Finnish folklore of Joulupukki. The way Joulupukki is depicted onscreen in Rare Exports as an unknowable, evolving creature entirely separate from its Santa Claus corollary is much more in line with the shape-shifting alien of The Thing than it is with the set-in-stone demonic image of Krampus. Both Rare Exports & The Thing allow your imagination run wild in determining their respective beasts’ true form, but only one of them takes the time to scar you for life with surgical & animal cruelty gore in the meantime. That’s the one you probably shouldn’t burden your children with.

It admittedly does feel a little odd to recommend Rare Exports as the child-friendly version of The Thing, since it’s the only film of the pair to feature full-frontal male nudity. A good bit of it too. Although Joulupukki never reveals his finalized form in the movie, his little helper elves are essentially scary shopping mall Santas who forgot to wear their uniforms to work, chasing down little children in the snow while entirely nude. There’s nothing sexual about this nudity. The image of naked old men is played purely for childhood terror the same way the goopy surgical monstrosities of The Thing are played for deep phycological discomfort in adults. Because Rare Exports is made with a European sensibility that’s much less squeamish about nudity than Americans are in general, it doesn’t interfere too much with the feeling that this was a horror movie made specifically for children. The only way the naked male bodies on display in Rare Exports really stood out to me was in emphasizing the masculine environment of the entire picture – wherein gruff working-class Finnish men wage war against a Christmas beast in the harsh frozen wilderness. Like in The Thing, no women appear onscreen in Rare Exports, so that both movies feel like they’re about male bonding & male distrust just as much as they’re about terrifying supernatural creatures.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to how that (sexless) male nudity might have played for me if I were watching Rare Exports with my own child. I’d like to think I’d feel more comfortable exposing to them to those naked old men than to Carpenter’s hideous tentacle dogs, but who knows.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Who Can Kill a Child? Nic Cage, That’s Who

When discussing the influencing texts & spiritual descendants of the 1970s grindhouse shocker Who Can Kill a Child?, the tendency is to focus on the Killer Children aspect of its plot. Seen as a gory follow-up to the shrewdly economic British chiller Village of the Damned and an early telegraph of the Stephen King-penned Children of the Corn, Who Can Kill a Child?’s lasting legacy has been rooted in bringing extreme 1970s ultraviolence to an otherwise well-worn Killer Children horror subgenre. Indeed, that is a large part of the film’s appeal as a gradually escalating creep-out. Its tale of British tourists being swarmed by an entire island of genocidal, adults-slaughtering children (as if they were Romero zombies instead of wide-eyed tykes) is incredibly harrowing. As its title suggests, though, most of the horror of that scenario is that at some point the cornered adults must fight back to ensure their own survival and, c’mon, who can kill a child? Just look at their innocent little faces! The British tourists eventually get there after much reluctance & inner turmoil, but there is a recent spiritual descendant to Who Can Kill a Child? that found adults who were much more enthusiastic about the prospect. Apparently, parents are the most enthusiastic child-killers we have around, especially when they’re played by Selma Blair & Nicolas Cage.

Both the adults-massacring phenomenon of Who Can Kill a Child? and the children-killing phenomenon of Mom & Dad (starring Blair & Cage as murderous parents) are unexplained supernatural events with ambiguous origins. The killer kids in our Movie of the Month are somewhat contextualized as exacting revenge on the adults of the world for the way children are always the ones who suffer most in times of war & famine, but the source of their newfound telepathic abilities and infectious killer instinct remains unexplained. Similarly, the widespread epidemic of crazed parents everywhere murdering their own children in Mom & Dad is visually linked to broadcasts of menacing static over television & radio, but the source of those broadcasts is never fully detailed – to the film’s benefit. However, the reason why those parents find it so easy to kill their own children once the static sets them off is much clearer here than the adults-slaughtering impulse of Who Can Kill a Child?. Before any supernatural event occurs in Mom & Dad, the familial relationships between parents & children are already hateful & combative. The film is first & foremost a satire about familial resentment in American suburbia, where passive-aggressive conflict, barely concealed racism, and disgust with teens’ bodies & sexuality are thinly paved over with epithets like, “You’re part of a family. That means you love each other even when you don’t love each other.” All the static broadcasts really do is chip away at that social convention to reveal that, of course, your family are the people you want to kill the most.

Selma Blair & Nicolas Cage are the exact kind of broad, over the-top actors necessary to make a horror comedy about parents who resent & murder their own children a fun romp instead of a vile slog. Their cartoon-level showboating is also necessary to match the filmmaking energy of Brian Taylor, who pushes his hyperactive sugar rush aesthetic from the Crank series to amore purposeful use here. Still, no matter how many deliriously over-the-top novelties are to be found in Mom & Dad—Nic Cage singing “The Hokey Pokey” while destroying a billiard table comes to mind—the underlying familial resentment that fuels its parent-child fights to the death remains palpable throughout. Blair & Cage play “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with The Right Career & The Right Family bitterly unfulfilling. Their light banter in early domestic scenes with their children barely conceals the family’s seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. All the static phenomenon does is externalize the violence that was already threatening to explode under the surface. Who Can Kill a Child? is a much more somber, focused, and daringly explicit film in depicting its child-on-adult violence, but it never fully justifies its central premise with a clear reason or sentiment behind its Killer Children phenomenon. By contrast, Mom & Dad’s thematic justification for intergenerational violence is all too clear, uncomfortably mirroring the underlying resentment of all American households in a deeply ugly light. Despite its grindhouse-70s opening titles sequence, however, Mom & Dad is not nearly as willing to commit to depicting violence against children onscreen as Who Can Kill a Child? is, which almost makes its glibness with that violence land with less heft.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at its more muted predecessor, Village of the Damned, and last week’s assessment of its influence on Children of the Corn.

-Brandon Ledet

Ancestors of the Corn

My memories of it were never especially vivid, but the 1984 Stephen King adaptation Children of the Corn scared me silly as a kid. All I truly remembered about the film was a rural town of killer children roaming roadside cornfields under the cult-leader rule of the prophet Isaac, played by series mascot John Franklin. I didn’t even have that central character’s name locked down in memory, though, as I’ve been wrongly referring to him by the more memorable name Malachi for decades (despite that name belonging to one of Isaac’s faithful child soldiers, not the leader himself). Still, even with the only the vaguest memory of that mid-80s cult curio rattling around in the back of my brain, it was easy to recognize it as a clear descendent of our Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child?. It’s not nearly as vicious, purposeful or, frankly, as good as Who Can Kill a Child?, but it certainly shares a lot of its thematic DNA.

Originally a short story published in Penthouse Magazine one year after Who Can Kill a Child?’s theatrical release, Stephen King’s killer-children cult thriller is strongly reminiscent of its elder. In both films, a tourist couple are trapped in a remote village overrun by violently rebellious children who’ve massacred all other nearby adults. Both films open with the eeriness of being the only car on the road while violent children quietly watch from their hidey holes. They’re primarily Daylight Horror films staged in open, sunlit spaces that are unusual for a genre that loves to build tension in cramped darkness. Their respective Killer Children contingents are headed by enigmatic leaders who mock traditional religious ceremonies in their town’s abandon churches and, most damningly, share the rarely used scythe as a murder weapon. If King was entirely unaware of Who Can Kill a Child? when he wrote this film’s source material (or if Fritz Kiersch hadn’t seen the picture before directing this adaption nearly a decade later) then this is a phenomenally precise case of parallel thinking.

At first, it appears as if the major distinguishing factor that would deviate Children of the Corn from the Who Can Kill a Child? template is that Isaac’s corn-worshipping flock aren’t killing adults for a supernatural cause, but rather a misguided superstition. There’s a Wicker Man-inspired track here about a cult who believes they must sacrifice anyone over 18-years-old to a vengeful god they call “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” to ensure a good corn harvest. Being ritually murdered by alarmingly organized children on the orders of a false prophet with an overactive imagination sounds genuinely chilling, but that’s not exactly what’s gong on here. There’s plenty of confirmed-to-be-“real” supernatural shit transpiring in these corn fields: harvest demons, Hellish weather patterns, predictive visions, and anything else Stephen King’s coke-addled mind could excitedly splatter on the page in its default over-excited state. If anything, it complicates Who Can Kill a Child?’s supernatural horror by adding more, more, more to the pile instead of appreciating the simplicity of the original’s premise & execution.

The true mutation of the Who Can Kill a Child? formula here is that Children of the Corn perversely feels like a Killer Children horror film made for children. The adult couple abducted by Isaac’s corn-worshiping cult (featuring The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton in an against-type distressed damsel role) provide a basic plot for the story to follow as outsiders who interrupt the killer-children’s natural order. They’re not necessarily the POV characters, though. The film is narrated by a cutesy child actor who plays a detractor within the cult who questions Isaac’s “wisdom.” Even with all the bloodshed & spooky cult rituals, the film plays with a Kids’ Movie sensibility throughout, which excuses some of its sillier touches like its faux-Latin choral score and its dynamic shots of “menacing” corn. A too-early viewing of Who Can Kill a Child? would scar a child for life, but catching Children of the Corn on late-night cable at an early could easily create a lifelong horror fan, something I can personal confirm. I suspect that’s how this deeply silly film earned no fewer than nine sequels, anyway, while Who Can Kill a Child? has been relegated to in-the-know cult status. Children of the Corn is about as original & hard-hitting as a Kidz Bop cover of that superior work, but there are far worse things a film could do than transform impressionable children into future genre nerds.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its more muted predecessor, Village of the Damned.

-Brandon Ledet