Bonus Features: Passion Fish (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, John Sayles’s 1992 comfort-watch Passion Fish, is a Southern-fried melodrama about a Rude soap opera star whose career comes to a halt after a paralyzing car accident. It looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about a proud woman overcoming sudden adversity, but pulls it off with an unusually direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the bullshit. In particular, the way the film depicts its lead’s discomfort, rage, and gradual acceptance of her newfound disability & reliance on a wheelchair feels refreshingly honest & relatably human for a 90s-era VHS rental. As a result, most recommendations of further viewing for anyone who enjoyed Passion Fish probably should touch on its unusually frank depiction of newfound physical disability, which really does set it apart from other, more maudlin works in its genre.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar depictions of recognizably Real people venting relatable frustrations over their own physical disabilities.

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

A young dancer (Lupino regular Sally Forrest) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to maintain the romance, career, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion. The resulting film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Never Fear is a romantic melodrama in which Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s more or less a standard sudden-illness weepie, but it’s emotionally fearless in directly tackling its subject in a way that can be impressively horrific in flashes. It isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is a film with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system. It’s also one of the few melodramas of its kind that matches Passion Fish‘s bullshit-free depictions of personal, internal conflicts over sudden physical disability.

Misery (1990)

If the bitter disability journeys of Passion Fish & Never Fear are too subtle or gentle for your liking, there’s always the Kathy Bates psychobiddy classic Misery. According to Steven King, Misery was written as a metaphor for his debilitating addiction to cocaine, which figuratively held him captive and forced him to write pulpy dreck far beneath his dignity as a Serious Artist. There’s likely some truth to that, but I do suspect King brandishes that anecdote at least somewhat to cover up the novel’s more obvious expressions of his open, seething contempt for his most enthusiastic fans. In the 1990 adaptation, Kathy Bates stars as a disgraced nurse who kidnaps her favorite pulp author after a blizzard-incited car crash and forces him to write novels that fit her headcanon instead of his own imagination. It’s a wonderfully blatant, literal depiction of the increasingly hostile relationships between artists & their audiences in recent years, where fans’ demands are too often allowed to dictate the work. It’s also, on the surface, a torturous body horror about a man held captive by a deranged medical professional who violently hobbles him to delay his recovery instead of working in his own interest.

In the opening sequence of Passion Fish, May-Alice is a big-city Soap Opera Star who’s frustrated that she relies on the whims & the capabilities of the small-town nurses hired to help her navigate her Louisiana bayou home. Things calm down once she finds an unlikely friendship with a nurse on her own wavelength, but that frustration over her reliance on another human being to accomplish mundane, daily tasks never really goes away. In Misery, a big-city Celebrity Author finds himself at the mercy of a small-town nurse who cares more about the fictional characters he creates than she does about his physical health (to put it mildly). Both films traffic in a warmly familiar 1990s mainstream filmmaking sensibility that sets expectations for a wholesome, safe viewing experience. Passion Fish cuts through that expectation with an unexpected vulgarity & bitterness as May-Alice becomes increasingly frustrated with her newly disabled body. James Caan goes through the same struggle as the Celebrity Author in Misery, except with a pronounced layer of traumatizingly gruesome body horror that even more drastically contradicts director Rob Reiner’s wholesome, mainstream sensibilities.

Weirdly, Misery also happens to employ an overqualified cinematographer in Barry Sonnenfeld, which mirrors Passion Fish‘s employment of industry legend Roger Deakins as its own DP.

The Intouchables (2011)

Maybe Misery‘s gory hyperviolence & Never Fear‘s Old Hollywood prestige are too fringe for a proper Passion Fish pairing. Maybe you just want to watch another by-the-books tearjerker that only strays from melodrama conventions by indulging in some occasional vulgarity. 2011’s The Intouchables isn’t exactly a great film the way Passion Fish is, but it does share some of its recognizable humanity that’s often missing from similar sudden-disability melodramas.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables chronicles an unlikely friendship between a paraplegic French aristocrat (who recently suffered a paragliding accident as part of his adrenaline seeking interest in X-Treme Sports) and the underqualified Senegalese ex-con he hires as his live-in caretaker (who only applied for the job as a ploy to remain on welfare). Although it arrived in theaters two decades after Passion Fish, it stumbles a lot more frequently in its own depiction of a budding friendship across race & class barriers (the Senegalese man is a pothead horndog criminal with no sense of public decorum, an often embarrassing line of humor). Still, there is a core sense of mutual respect & playfulness in their relationship that’s surprisingly endearing, especially in contrast to the long line of unsuitable, uptight, white caretakers who also interview for the job. The live-in caretaker is hired because he doesn’t look at his employer’s disability with any sense of pity or patronizing caution. His vulgar, casual demeanor cuts through the bullshit to allow them to meet on equal terms as human beings, even though one needs the other to accomplish most mundane tasks. The central friendship in Passion Fish is a lot more nuanced (and a lot less problematic in its race & class politics), but both movies share that vulgar, humanistic core.

I feel a little conflicted recommending a film I don’t wholly appreciate myself. The Intouchables alternates between charm & cringe so erratically that it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about the positives when the whole ordeal is through. For perspective, then, it’s a good idea to follow up the film by watching the trailer for its recent American remake, starring Kevin Hart. It’s a quick way to appreciate how much worse the material could have been (and apparently was!) in even cruder hands.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Passion Fish (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch Passion Fish (1992).

Boomer: I was born in Louisiana and didn’t reside elsewhere for longer than a month or two for the first 28 years of my life.  It’s been over a year since I was last home. With the pandemic continuing to rage because some people are just too selfish and obsessed with the abstract concept of personal liberty to just stay home, what could have been a few fortnights of quarantine, isolation, social distancing, and loneliness have stretched into over half a year with no real end in sight, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to travel again.  Where I am now is a place of natural beauty, varied cultural interest, and urban elegance, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lack a certain verdancy that I sometimes feel a longing for.  Few things of late have made me more homesick than the movie Passion Fish.

NYC-based soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is left paraplegic following a mundane but nonetheless tragic vehicle collision, and returns to her long-abandoned parents’ lakefront home on Lake Arthur.  Unable to fully care for herself in a home that wasn’t built with the wheelchair-bound in mind, May-Alice’s resentment of her newfound immobility, loss of employment, and isolation lead her to lash out angrily at a series of home nurses who range from grossly incapable to overly familiar to simply not being a good fit.  The last of these is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who has her own problems.  Although the two women are initially mistrustful and intermittently antagonistic, Chantelle’s unwillingness to coddle May-Alice or to allow herself to become another in a long line of nurses driven off by her employer’s hostility forges a bond between the two women that eventually exceeds what either of them could have expected.

I was given this movie a few years ago as a birthday gift by a couple who were my first friends here in Austin, and with whom I played weekly trivia—religiously—for a few years. As we have similar interests, one of the games that we used to play (poolside, in the car, wherever) was the one where you connect two actors using a series of “acted alongside” connections.  For example, if one person suggests Pam Grier and the other suggests Audrey Hepburn, one might connect Hepburn to Veronica Cartwright through The Children’s Hour, then Cartwright to Yaphet Kotto through Alien, then Kotto to Pam Grier through Friday Foster.  I have a profound love for both McDonnell and Woodard, and bring them up frequently as a connector when playing this game, which led to the recommendation (and ultimate gift) of Passion Fish.  It has been one of the best recommendations ever, as it transported me fully not only back home to Louisiana but also to my childhood in the nineties.

Passion Fish also falls under one of my favorite genres/topics: the story of women on the verge.  May-Alice’s frustration, feelings of impotence, and what she perceives as the loss of her identity as a woman of moderate celebrity, are clear and powerful without falling into the trap of ableism, which it easily could have.  Her career is over, her place in society is gone, and she finds herself back in a home she never wanted to revisit and has spent her entire adult life running from.  As we learn in one of a series of vignettes in which she reunites with various people from her past, May-Alice was always an outsider in her community, the “weird girl” who stood out and was socially punished for it; it’s no wonder that she sees the loss of the lifeline that she used to flee this place as the end of her journey, while also dealing with the associated traumas of losing the functionality of the lower half of her body.  It’s not an abstract issue: she falls off of the toilet and is alone in her house for hours without assistance, and the lack of accessibility features (like ramps) in her home minimizes her world.

May-Alice isn’t alone on this precipice either, as it turns out that Chantelle has lied her way into her current position, having lost her nursing credentials (and custody of her daughter) after falling in with a man who gave her access to crack cocaine.  It would be easy to dismiss this as another lightweight “inspirational” movie (complete with a problematic trope or two) were it merely about May-Alice overcoming obstacles through the help of a sassy stereotype, and to some I’m sure it comes across as one, but Chantelle is no mere prop for May-Alice’s recovery.  She has her own problems, issues, fears, and even romance — all of which are separate from her relationship with May-Alice as both caregiver and friend, even if those disparate threads sometimes intertwine.  Powerhouse performances from both lead actresses are what push this beyond being some lighthearted pablum for the masses into something truly beautiful, while weaving in various coastal/bayou cultural touchstones like ghost mythology, local folks who are recognizable as people instead of archetypes, and lots (and lots) of zydeco music.

One of the other ways that Passion Fish rises above the rest of the crop is through its narrative throughline.  We start in a New York hospital in which May-Alice awakens to learn that her life has changed from a faceless, impersonal member of the medical staff.  From there, as she falters at adapting to her new circumstances and decides to go home to Louisiana—even as she encounters fans of her work—all of them remain faceless and unseen to us, like specters. Only once she’s back home do those around her begin to exist again, and so does she.  In one of our long-ago MotM reviews of Big Business, I was openly opposed to the trope of “Rural living is simply better to urban life,” and while there’s some of that at play here, I also think that it exposes the facile nature of that assumption as we meet people both shallow and deep from each of May-Alice’s worlds.

I really enjoyed this vignette-style set-up of characters, although I was a little disappointed that some of them never reappeared.  First we meet May-Alice’s closeted(ish) Uncle Max, who at first reads as a parody of a Tennessee Williams character before revealing a depth of character beneath his genteel Southern nature.  From there we are introduced to two of May-Alice’s childhood tormentors who recall their “friendship” with their now-famous(ish) victim very differently, going so far as to attempt to bond with her over the girl they used to bully, not realizing that they are one and the same.  We also meet a trio of women from May-Alice’s soap opera world, including the actress who now plays her role on The Young and the Stupid and her closest friend (Angela Bassett!).  Each of these encounters seems to set up a future interaction or confrontation, but reveal that both worlds have people who have a depth of personality (Uncle Max), those who have a lack of it (her childhood bullies), and those who portray vapidity but actually have a rich internal life (the actresses).

Of these and the other vignettes, there are some that feel like a potential that is unfulfilled, and some that feel perfect in their concision.  Brandon, which was your favorite interaction? Is there a character you wish we saw more of?  Are there any characters who reappear that you feel were too large a part of the narrative?

Brandon:  I can’t say that I was especially invested in the either of the male love interests that drift in & out of these women’s lives, and by the end I don’t think the movie was either.  The story doesn’t conclude with the two leads settling down for a humble Southern-fried life on the bayou with new respective husbands in tow, so the men’s presence mostly felt like a means to draw the women out of their shells.  I wouldn’t have minded if the men’s screentime had been cut a little short to reflect that eventual unromantic conclusion, either to allow more breathing room for the more engaging relationship dynamics or just to shave the runtime down to under two hours (this is one of those languorous Entire Afternoon movies that’s in no rush to get anywhere in particular).  Whereas the potential bayou beaus mostly feel disconnected from the women’s lives outside this brief retreat from “the real world”, the other side characters that pop in for a single visit do a lot to illustrate what their lives were like before their recent traumas transformed them.  You just have to consider them in contrast with each other rather than in isolation.

I most appreciated the contrast between the visits from the two groups of women from May-Alice’s past.  While her stay at her family’s Lake Arthur home has been restorative (largely due to Chantelle), the film is not at all shy about interrogating why it would be worthwhile to leave that “simple” life behind.  Her smiling, suburban childhood bullies that drop in to snoop & gossip are torturous demons in Good Christians’ clothing.  Consider that unannounced lunch-date in contrast with her chosen family of Big City artists who visit between filming episodes of The Young and the Stupid.  They might be just as flawed as human beings, but they’re genuine & kind in a way that transcends the small-minded, small-town misery the snooping locals represent.  If the two love interest characters add anything to this story, it’s in softening that Small Town vs. Big City divide by demonstrating that there can be genuine, kind-hearted people in even the most toxic of closed-off communities.  Still, the two visits from those distinctly opposed groups of women still say a lot about the urban-rural divide when considered on their own.  It’s a very real, very distinct contrast  that I’ve felt even just moving the short distance from “down-the-road” in St. Bernard Parish to New Orleans proper, a trajectory I never intend to reverse.

On a shallower note, I also most enjoyed the visit from the Big City women because it featured the film’s true centerpiece: the “anal probe” monologue.  It’s an excellent actor’s showcase for one of the visiting soap stars, who explains the never-ending embarrassments of trying to make it in a viciously sexist entertainment industry that would rather her appear nude or ruminate on extraterrestrial anal probes in trashy sci-fi dreck than genuinely pursue her craft.  That monologue is a showstopper on its own, but it also points to what I found to be one of the film’s more rewarding choices: its R-rating.  Passion Fish looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about proud women overcoming sudden adversity, but it pulls that off with an impressively direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the usual bullshit — the same way that the cannibalism & lesbian romance cut through the bullshit in Fried Green Tomatoes.  You can especially feel the effect of that vulgarity in the early scenes where May-Alice is still in her full Rude Soap Star mode, cursing her nurses & her own failing body in a long string of f-bombs — making her simultaneously more Difficult and more Relatable.

Britnee, how different do you think this movie would be if it had toned down that vulgarity for an easy PG-13 rating?  Do you think you would have appreciated Passion Fish any more or less if you caught an edited-for-TV version where they replaced the word “fuck” with “frak” in those early scenes (Battlestar Galactica style, in honor of Mary MacDonnell)?

Britnee: How did I go all this time without knowing about Passion Fish?  Late 80s and early 90s dramas revolving around Southern women are always a treat, and Passion Fish did not disappoint.  And to top it off, Alfre Woodard is one of my favorite actresses.  She was, of course, amazing as Chantelle.  I’d say this was one of her top performances, putting it up there even with her role as Betty Applewhite in Desperate Housewives.  Passion Fish is a film about one of the most important things that a woman can have: female friendships.  The connection built between Chantelle and May-Alice came off so strong without feeling over-acted, making me shed a tear or two at the end of the film.

May-Alice’s potty mouth made me connect with her character right off the bat.  Her frustration with her being a paraplegic and having her world upended would not have come across the same way if her language was toned down.  I think the film would still be enjoyable without all the more R-rated parts, but it just wouldn’t be the same.  And I also shared the same enthusiasm for the “anal probe” monologue, which television (at least at the time the film was released) would have most definitely cut out.  Passion Fish without the anal probe bit would be like Christmas without a Christmas tree.  It’s just plain wrong.

What Passion Fish did so well was balance the two stories of Chantelle and May-Alice without allowing one to overpower the other.  There was something so heartwarming watching both women who’ve hit rock bottom find their way back up while stuck with each other on Lake Arthur.  Hanna, did you also think that Chantelle and May-Alice’s stories were balanced?  Or was focus placed more on one character than the other?

Hanna: I thought that May-Alice and Chantelle’s stories were pretty well balanced, especially for a plot that could have veered into Driving Miss Daisy territory.  Movies about Black people rehabilitating white people can come off a little gross, especially when their identity is defined by their role as a caretaker for the white character in need of some personal growth.  I do think there was a touch of that in Passion Fish.  I learned a lot about May-Alice throughout the film; she was an outspoken Joan Baez fan in rural Louisiana, she’s a gifted photographer, and she’s an excellent cook.  Other than Chantelle’s history with drug addiction and estrangement from her father and daughter, I only know that she can’t cook and she doesn’t like the swamp, which are both negations of May-Alice’s characteristics.  I enjoyed the interruptions May-Alice’s visitors (her gay uncle, southern Louisiana frenemies, and New York art friends), who all help to paint a richer picture of her character and life up until this moment.  Meanwhile, Chantelle’s visitors are strict reinforcements of her history with drugs: the boyfriend who got her addicted, and the father and daughter she lost in the process.  Both May-Alice and Chantelle were given equal weight and both are portrayed as strong women with complex inner lives, but May-Alices’s story felt a little more expansive than Chantelle’s.

I think the difference can be mostly explained by the nature of the two women’s recoveries rather than a narrative disinterest in Chantelle’s story.  May-Alice learns that she can create a rich and valuable world for herself being paraplegic in southeastern Louisiana.  Meanwhile Chantelle is rediscovering her personhood in the wake of an addiction that stole her life, and has just reached the point where she can trust herself enough to nurture her life and relationships in the last stages of recovery.  We get to see Chantelle relax into herself a little with her love interest, but I wish we had the chance to see that happen more fully, and I wish her world could have expanded in a direction that didn’t involve May-Alice or another man.  In the end, I think Alfre Woodard’s performance was a godsend for this role; she brought incredible depth to a Chantelle’s character, which could have easily tipped into flat stereotype in an otherwise powerhouse drama driven by two utterly compelling women.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m tickled by how this film’s behind-the-scenes pedigree contrasts its seemingly ordinary surface details.  This not only includes an early cinematography credit for industry legend Roger Deakins, but also the fact that it was written, directed, and edited by John Sayles – a respected novelist & returning Movie of the Month champ who also penned our beloved urban creature feature Alligator (1980).

Boomer: I love Brandon’s identification of this as an “Entire Afternoon” movie (trademark that).  That’s precisely what it is, although I would also say it falls into that genre of “Your Mom Rented This in the Nineties.”  For your enjoyment, here’s some local coverage of the 20th anniversary of the film in Jennings, where it was largely filmed.

Britnee: I normally get annoyed when actors have horrible Cajun accents in movies, which Passion Fish did have in abundance, but the plot was so wonderful that the slow Southern drawl that Cajuns do not have didn’t bother me one bit.  I actually found it to be super funny when Rennie would slip in and out of his accent and would sometimes sound like a suburban dad from Connecticut.

Hanna: The Anal Probe scene was also a favorite of mine; it was desperately professional, heartbreaking, and funny.  It reminded me of “The Actress”, an SNL skit where Emma Stone plumbs the dramatic depths of “mom that finds her husband cheating on her with her godson” in a gay porno.  I’ve filed both of these bits under my file of female actors authentically dedicating themselves to the tiny scrap of material they’ve been afforded.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Monster Brawl (2011)

Our current Movie of the Month, the low-budget horror comedy Monster Brawl, might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s partly because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a pro wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust expectations to the payoffs of that format. A one-time-only deathmatch tournament between famous monster archetypes in a haunted graveyard to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”, it’s staged as if it were a real-time Pay-Per-View broadcast of an actual pro wrestling event. Monster Brawl‘s feature-length commitment to that structure can be alienating if you’re not immediately tickled by its absurdity, which proved true for most of The Swampflix Crew. This turned out to be an extremely self-indulgent Movie of the Month selection on my part, as no one else in this polluted swamp seemed to have a good time with it. Whoops.

As a result, recommending further viewing to anyone who enjoyed Monster Brawl and wants to see more movies on its shamelessly trashy wavelength is somewhat of an empty exercise. It appears that no one enjoys Monster Brawl, outside maybe appreciating the creature design for the bayou-dwelling eco terrorist wrestler Swamp Gut. Regardless, here are a few recommended titles if you—improbably—loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar goofball horror comedies that traffic in the same grey area between creature feature & pro wrestling PPV.

Santo vs. The Vampire Women (1962)

No discussion of the intersection between pro wrestling & cheap-o horror would be complete without the masked luchador Santo. A wrestler so beloved in Mexico that he was practically a folk hero, Santo’s in-ring celebrity was exported to the big screen in over 50 feature films, many of them within the horror genre. I can’t speak to the quality of the majority of Santo’s cinematic output (much of which was never translated to English), but I can heartily recommend his most financially & culturally successful picture: Santo vs. The Vampire Women. It’s a film that’s most well recognized in the US for being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s a fun pro wrestling-themed Halloween Season watch even without that ironic mockery (especially without, honestly).

Amusingly, Santo vs. The Vampire Women mostly keeps its horror & its wrestling separated in the plot. Santo is hired by a worried father as a kind of bodyguard to protect his vulnerable daughter who is being actively recruited by a vampire coven, as the luchador comes from a long line of ancestors who are sworn “to eliminate evil of all kinds.” Unfortunately, the professional demands of being a popular sports entertainer means that Santo is often too “busy” to help keep the daughter-stealing vampire women at bay, as he’s often tied up with a wrestling match he can’t get out of. The novelty of the film’s wrestling angle exists almost entirely independently from the main action, which means that the story has to stop dead still to make room for the on-screen luchador matches the same way a porno’s story stalls for lengthy depictions of sex.

Even so, the Satanic ritual imagery & buxom vampire coven are so Cool on their own that this would be a solid horror cheapie even without the novelty of the wrestling angle. Anyone with an appreciation for pro wrestling pageantry and Poverty Row knockoffs of Universal Horror classics should have blast with the spooky-campy atmosphere established here. And maybe it’s for the best that it kept its wrestling & its plot separate, since Monster Brawl synthesized those two elements into a single structure-defining gimmick and practically no one enjoys it.

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Monster Brawl is not the only gimmicky fight tournament movie that I love more than I likely should. I also have a huge (likely nostalgic) soft spot for Paul WS Anderson’s big-screen adaptation of the gory button-masher Mortal Kombat. Much like how Monster Brawl structures its story around a Pro Wrestling Pay-Per-View, the Mortal Kombat movie goes out of its way to maintain the tiered tournament structure of its video game source material. It’s a little better funded than Monster Brawl and a little less committed to their shared gimmick (the official fights don’t start until 40min into the film in this case), so in comparison it stands out as a slicker, more accessible variation on the same deathmatch tournament theme.

Instead of fighting to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”, the combatants of Mortal Kombat compete “to defend the realm of Earth” from an “emperor sorcerer demon” who seeks to subjugate & steal the souls of every living being. The humans who enter this interdimensional deathmatch tournament (Mortal Kombat all-stars Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang) face off against evil creatures much less culturally overfamiliar than the Universal Monster knockoffs featured in Monster Brawl — mostly demonic ninjas with black magic control over elements like fire, ice, and … shapeshifting reptiles? Much like how Monster Brawl has its clear stand-out monster with Swamp Gut, however, the real star of Mortal Kombat is the four-armed mutant freakshow Goro — a beautiful blend of clunky animatronics and shitty mid-90s CGI.

The best argument for Mortal Kombat being a superior precursor to Monster Brawl is the way it keeps the audience’s energy up throughout, mostly by periodically re-playing its insanely high-BPM techno theme song as a constant pep-up. A hissing Christopher Lambert also hams it up for the camera as the wise “lightning god” Raiden in a way that stands out more than any single performance in Monster Brawl, which is more about playing on familiar archetypes than establishing anything novel or nuanced. If you found yourself amused by the premise of Monster Brawl but frustrated by the execution, Mortal Kombat might be the slicked-up, smoothed-out version of the film you were looking for.

Septic Man (2013)

Monster Brawl is not the first time director Jesse T. Cook has let down a member of The Swampflix Crew. In the earliest months of the blog, James published a two-star review of Cook’s feces-themed creature feature Septic Man, in which a sewer worker is trapped in a contaminated septic tank and subsequently transforms into a hideous turd monster. James wrote, “Watching a filth-covered man roll around in a septic tank for an hour and a half didn’t turn out to be as fun as I expected. […] Septic Man had the potential to be like a darker Toxic Avenger but instead has none of Troma’s charms and ends up being every bit as bad as its premise would imply.” He goes on to call the film “drab”, “ugly”, “depressing”, “boring” and, most bluntly, “crap.” Naturally, after subjecting everyone to what turned out to be a miserable experience watching Cook’s previous film, I felt that it was my turn to suffer Septic Man myself as penance.

James was right and wrong. Septic Man is only 80 minutes long; it’s also crap. It’s like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Troma got into the gritty Eli Roth-era torture porn game. I dare say I was charmed by it, though. The way the grunt sewer worker is financially pressured to keep working during a water contamination pandemic only to be transformed into a hideous Poo Beast just happened to hit me at the right time, considering the parallel labor exploitations of the COVID age. The gradual Turd Monster transformation was also surprisingly solid as a practical effects throwback (although he’s obviously nowhere near as loveable as our beloved Swamp Gut; no one is).

If I’ve learned anything from this exercise it’s that I have terrible taste and cannot be trusted, especially when it comes to the oeuvre of Jesse T. Cook. This blog is a septic tank of bad takes, and I am but the filth-mutated man trapped inside it.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Monster Brawl (2011)

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 Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Monster Brawl (2011).

Brandon: This summer, every major American sports conglomerate—the NFL, the NBA, MLB, etc.—publicly debated whether it was safe to restart operations as the COVID pandemic stretched on months beyond what was initially projected. This debate was unnecessary in the world of “sports entertainment“, however, as pro wrestling companies like WWE, AEW, and Impact! never shut down operations in the first place. Continuing a notoriously shitty history of exploiting their roster for maximum profit (see: lack of employee benefits for wrestlers because of their dubious status as “contract workers”), WWE has maintained consistent weekly broadcasts and monthly Pay-Per-View specials while COVID halted the rest of the entertainment industry. Unsurprisingly, the company had a breakout of coronavirus cases among its staff in late June and still continued weekly broadcasts without interruption. While it would have been impossible to maintain operations without any risk of COVID outbreak (imagine opponents wrestling while somehow also maintaining a six-foot distance), there have been some performative measures to make WWE’s broadcasts appear “safe”. The eeriness of watching wrestlers perform in empty arenas, in front of LED screens of webcam-wielding fans at home, or for their enemies on the other side of a plexiglass barrier has been a fascinating symptom of our dystopian times. The real gem of COVID-era pro wrestling, however, has been WWE’s increased reliance on pre-taped, off-site matches.

While the COVID pandemic has made pro wrestling even more immorally dangerous for its workers, it’s also made pro wrestling more cinematic. The over-the-top, deliriously silly pageantry of wrestling that attracts me to the “sport” in the first place has been especially heightened this year. We’ve seen #SwampFight matches set in haunted wetland shacks straight out of True Detective, Season 1. This year’s Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View featured a #CorporateLadderMatch: a vertical fight from the lobby to the rooftop of WWE’s corporate headquarters. My personal favorite was the #FireflyFunhouse match: a darkly surreal, Lynchian descent into the troubled psyche of John Cena, possibly the single greatest wrestling segment of all time. The rules of reality have been entirely broken & disregarded in favor of delivering the most memorably entertaining matches possible, which is something I wish this proudly unreal “sport” pursued more often. While these pre-taped, off-site pandemic matches have been a freshly exciting development for modern pro wrestling, they don’t feel like a total anomaly. I’ve not only seen similar matches within pro wrestling broadcasts before (mostly in Attitude Era segments set at funerals & boiler rooms and in the Hardy Boyz’ recent “Broken” series for Impact!), but they also distinctly recalled a little-loved B-movie from 2011 that I hold near & dear to my stupid little heart: Monster Brawl.

Monster Brawl is a one-time-only pro wrestling tournament between famous monster archetypes, held in a haunted graveyard to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”. It’s staged as if it were a real-time Pay-Per-View broadcast of an actual pro wrestling event, with comedian Dave Foley & genre film veteran Art Hindle providing live action commentary as traditional ringside announcers. Competitors with generic famous-monster gimmicks like Werewolf, Zombie Man, Lady Vampire, Mummy, and Frankenstein (“Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it,”) fight to the death in a standard-issue wrestling ring in the middle of a spooky graveyard straight out of a 1950s B-movie. Scratch that; it’s a set straight out of the #BoneyardMatch at this year’s pandemic-altered WrestleMania, wherein real-life famous monster The Undertaker buried opponent AJ Styles alive in a pre-marked grave. I don’t know how to convey how awesomely stupid it is to watch classic monster archetypes murder each other in a wrestling ring if that premise doesn’t automatically speak to your sensibilities the way it does to mine. When I see a Louisiana-themed Creature from the Black Lagoon knockoff named Swamp Gut who’s mostly made of trash and is pissed off about wetlands erosion, my heart just sings. I do hope that audiences outside this exact B-movie/pro wrestling fandom Venn Diagram could at least appreciate the film’s commitment to the bit, however. It establishes a very simple famous-monster-deathmatch-tournament premise upfront and never steps outside of those parameters to win over any potential detractors.

This might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust their expectations to the payoffs of that format. Everything I love & loathe about pro wrestling is present here: the over-the-top characters, the exaggerated cartoon violence, the infuriating marginalization of women outside the ring to Bikini Babe status, all of it. It’s a pure joy to see (generic versions of) the famous monsters that I also love plugged into that template, especially when the announcers underline the absurdity of the scenario with inane statements like “For the first time in professional sports, folks, we’re witnessing the dead rising from their graves to attack Frankenstein.” That combination delivers all the deliriously absurd action I’ve been enjoying from COVID-era WWE programming without any of the behind-the-scenes worker exploitation spoiling the mood. In fact, it looks like it was genuinely fun to conceive & film, judging by the loving care that went into the detailed character designs of the monsters and the unembarrassed commitment to the Pay-Per-View broadcast gimmick.

Hanna, while we’ve all been known to enjoy a cheap-o horror movie or two, you’re the only other member of the crew who watches pro wrestling with any regularity, so it’s probably safest to start with you. Was there anything particular about the spirit of “sports entertainment” that you saw accurately represented in Monster Brawl? How well do you think the film mimics the feel of either current or classic wrestling broadcasts – then, now, or forever?

Hanna: I should preface this by saying that I am the kind of wrestling fan who likes the idea of the Repo Man, so I realize that my opinions about what makes wrestling appealing may not be shared by the majority of the Sports Entertainment community. Apart from the athleticism and the glorious spots, wrestling makes me happiest in its highest moments of theatricality and absurdity. I also love horror movies, and I’m especially interested in global horror mythologies. In theory, this movie should have been a dream come true for me; I was so ready to love it, but ultimately it fell flat (in part due my extremely high expectations).

Unfortunately, I think that Monster Brawl’s fatal flaw is its monsters; for a movie focused on wrestling and goofy monster tropes, I didn’t find the characters that compelling. For the most part, the monsters didn’t fulfill any of the three criteria that generally attract me to wrestlers: they weren’t dramatically engaging, they weren’t scary, and they weren’t funny. You could argue that it’s hard to establish the kind of character investment that WWE has years to build in an hour and 29 minutes, but the pure glee that Swamp Gut instilled in me kills that argument (the Swamp-speak diatribe against pollution is one of my favorite movie-watching moments from this year). He’s the only character with a unique or memorable identity, the only one that I found myself rooting for – and he gets squashed by a werewolf! Despicable booking. How did they get the other monsters so wrong? How did a slimy pile of green swamp trash have more charisma than a vampire?

It’s absolutely possible that I’m being too hard on this movie; I don’t think it intended to be a masterpiece. Still, I was so disappointed at the untapped potential in the premise. I at least would have enjoyed it more if the camp had been turned up a few notches. What did you think, Britnee? Did the Monster Brawl monsters resonate with you? I know that you’re a sucker for theatricality, so did this film pique your interest in wrestling?

Britnee: Monster Brawl is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I really do enjoy watching wrestling because I’m a sucker for all things tacky and trashy, but I honestly don’t watch it all that much. I’ll watch clips online or watch a match or two when I’m indulging in someone else’s cable, but that’s pretty much it. Monster Brawl really felt more like a wrestling match than a movie, but could it be that wrestling matches are actually more like movies than I thought?

The part of the film that I kept going back and forth on were the monsters. It was like a Spirit Halloween store threw up on the screen. I actually enjoyed the cheap looking costumes and makeup effects because it really went with the B-movie vibe, but the biggest disappointment was the lack of creativity with their characters (except for Swamp Gut, of course). Like Hanna, I really wanted the monsters to go all out and have fun with their characters. Most of them just made gross scary noises and boring comments to one another. I was laughing immediately at the Witch Bitch character when she was introduced in the film’s beginning, but as time passed, she just became so boring. I wanted her to do insane witchy stuff during her battle with Cyclops, like brand a pentagram on his head or shove a broomstick up his ass.

The lack of creativity with the monsters was the only negative thing about this movie for me. Otherwise, it really was an all around good time. The tiny details in some of the stories were super funny, like the Mummy character being called a MILF (Mummy I’d Like to Find). Those little cheeseball moments reminded me why wrestling is great.

I know that the format of Monster Brawl is that of a wrestling tournament, but I wonder if the film would have been a little better if there was some sort of focused plot. For instance, what if there was more of a focus on just one of the monsters and their journey within the tournament? Boomer, did you enjoy the film adapting to the mold of a wrestling match? Or would you have preferred something different?

Boomer: It would appear that I am the only MotM-participating Swampflixer who has no interest in wrestling whatsoever. It’s not that wrestling didn’t try to grab hold of me with all of its might: my fifth grade class went completely apeshit for WWE while the rest of the world was getting into Pokémon and Animorphs (both of which were forbidden at our evangelical school), and there was even a tie-in promotional episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which the not-yet-famous-as-an-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared as … an alien cage fighter (it’s bad, although Jeffrey Combs is a delight as always). But despite all the pageantry, the sweaty homoeroticism, and the constant barrage of subliminal (Voyager), liminal (constant advertising and even airing on Sci-Fi/Syfy; a half decade period of Austin 3:16 shirts for sale in every store in America), and superliminal (being forced to watch wrestling events at elementary and middle school sleepovers) advertising, I was never all that interested. I can tell you that I know the names Chyna, Sting, and of course mainstream/mainstream-adjacent figures like Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Dwayne Johnson, but until this moment I was unaware that there are two famous “The Undertaker(s),” and, don’t judge me, but I’m more interested in the monster truck. I knew of Jimmy Hart, but only as the former trope namer for “Suspiciously Similar Song” on TVTropes. So the fact that this follows the format of a big Pay-Per-View match is news to me, but isn’t surprising, because the cultural touchstone that I couldn’t stop thinking about was Celebrity Deathmatch, which I would often see portions of while waiting out the clock for Daria to start. It followed a pretty similar trajectory; I didn’t really care for Celebrity Deathmatch either.

Of the things that others have mentioned liking about the film, I also enjoyed the overall cheapness of the costumes, which did in fact feel like they were kitbashed together from a Spirit Halloween or the seasonal section of a Savers or Big Lots; the unblinking eye on the Cyclops was particularly endearing in its “Let’s make a movie, gang!” aesthetic. It was a wise idea to intersperse these throughout the film before each match instead of frontloading the movie with all of the narrative elements and then devolving into the wrestling scenes. It took me over two hours to watch this 90 minute feature because every time a fight started, my eyes glazed over and I completely dissociated from the experience, my mind alternating between flashbacks to those sleepovers and my desire to be doing anything else while Jesse Simpson and Matt McCulloch re-enacted the moves that they saw on screen. I had to deliberately remind myself to pay attention, rewinding to make sure I hadn’t missed some element that would give me something else to write about in this segment other than Voyager, reciting segments of Roger Ebert’s review of North, and my boredom. As a longtime fan of Swamp Thing (both the character and the terrible eighties TV show), I did get a kick out of Swamp Gut, and I liked how his introductory segment was framed like a TV documentary show from a formerly-respectable-but-not-so-much-anymore station. I also really liked the potential of Witch Bitch, who could have been a lot of fun. The idea of a time-displaced Colonial Era witch finding meaning in the ring could have made for an interesting story, like a Million Dollar Baby-Eater, but her introductory segment took a turn for the very mean spirited almost immediately, and her early defeat made it clear that she was more of a placeholder than someone worthy of investing time in the characterization of.

I did like the aforementioned “Frankenstien’s monster if you’re a dick” joke, though. I’m glad that, even nearly ten years ago, everyone was already tired of that pedantry. It reminds me of this, one of the best Onion articles from the time when they were making satire and not just predicting the next horrible thing this administration was going to do.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would love to see more of Swamp Gut. He needs his own movie where he wrestles swamp-polluting douche bags. This is what will save the planet.

Hanna: Like Brandon mentioned, this wouldn’t have been a wrestling movie without some Bikini Babes. One is completely dedicated to the part of cheering on the monsters (or at least marginally enthusiastic), and the other looks like she’s mourning her career in the cemetery.

Boomer: In the recent podcast where Brandon and I talked about A Tale of Two Sisters, I admitted that I know I tend to be the most negative Swampflixian, although I still adhere to the maxim that enjoying something is more interesting than hating it. But now, at long last, with everyone else finding something to enjoy here and me being completely miserable, I am glad to have finally paid my debt for forcing everyone to watch Live Freaky, Die Freaky, which was universally reviled. I can rest easy now.

Brandon: I knew recommending this movie would be risky, but I’m glad we can all at least share in our love for Swam Gut. It also seems like the movie is somewhat successful in “working” the audience the way a real-life wrestling promotion would. Getting us heated over Swam Gut’s loss immediately after falling in love with his eco-terrorist politics is classic pro wrestling booking. It’s even something that’s been recently echoed by Daniel Bryan’s “Eco-Friendly Heavyweight Champion” angle on WWE — playing heel by plainly voicing his heartfelt climate change concerns.

Another great example of this is the way the two women wrestlers are booked in the intergender matches; it’s frustrating to watch Witch Bitch lose so viciously to Cyclops in the first match, but that tension makes Lady Vampire’s victory over Mummy in the very next round all the sweeter. I find that keeping the monsters simple & generic allows the audience to quickly get invested in those broad archetypes’ failures & successes. They’re instantly familiar to us and, thus, easy tools for emotional manipulation during the matches. That’s A+ in-ring storytelling in my book.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

Bogart on the Verge

I pre-ordered the new Seth Bogart album from the Wacky Wacko store several months ago and had completely forgot about it by the time it arrived on my doorstep this week. I was surprised, then, to (re)disover that the album’s title overlapped thematically with our current Movie of the Month selection, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It was also officially released on director Pedro Almodóvar’s birthday, something neither Bogart nor the Swampflix crew consciously intended to celebrate. That’s some beautiful happenstance.

Men on the Verge of Nothing is Bogart’s second album as a solo artist, following his self-titled debut in 2016. Ironically, his debut was much more closely aligned with the candy-coated pop art aesthetics of Almodóvar’s classic screwball comedy. This new record is more downbeat & despondent, practically reaching for the sleeping pills-laced gazpacho just to put an end to it all. It turns out the existential turn of phrase in the title is totally appropriate to how his music’s mood has soured (an understandable reaction to the ways the world has degenerated in the four years since the previous record). Still, you can feel a continued kinship with Almodóvar’s love for women, queerness, and artifice in all of Bogart’s work, whether or not it’s specific to the tone of Women on the Verge in particular.

Check out the video for the album’s single “Boys Who Don’t Wanna Be Boys” below (featuring appearances from other loveable L.A. weirdos like Tammie Brown, Peggy Noland, and Kate Berlant). If nothing else, it shares a strong cut-and-paste magazine collage aesthetic that appears throughout Almodóvar’s work, Women on the Verge included.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our podcast discussion of Pedro Almodóvar’s greatest hits.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast: All About Almodóvar

Welcome to Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna continue their Movie of the Month conversation about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by discussing the career highs of provocateur director Pedro Almodóvar. They particularly focus on his award-winning hot streak between All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).

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

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

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 Boomer,  Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.

The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.

Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?

Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.

Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?

Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?

Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?

Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.  I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here.  It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled.  Ivan, I could live without.  If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.

My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho.  When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque.  She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho).  Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party.  It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).

My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality.  The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop.  Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice.  Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact.  I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot.  There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing!  I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.

Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.

Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide).  It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.

Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: 3 Women (1977)

Our current Movie of the Month, the eerie mind-melter 3 Women, feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman film. I’m used to seeing Altman in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Ready to Wear, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. It belongs more to a lineage of psychological thrillers about mutually obsessed women than it belongs in Altman’s extensive catalog of chatty ensemble-cast comedies. As a result, recommending further viewing to anyone who enjoyed 3 Women and wanted to see more movies on its delicately horrific wavelength is going to have to be more about the content & genre of the film itself than the storied career of the beloved auteur behind it.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar dreamlike horrors about the fluidity of reality & personae.

Persona (1966)

I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other meld & swap personae, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for them (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats. In fact, it’s bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona.

Bergman’s arthouse classic is about a stoic stage actress’s beachside recovery under the care of a chatty nurse, who dotes on her far beyond the boundaries of a typical patient-caretaker dynamic. Over the course of their mental health getaway, their shared ugly anxieties surrounding fear of motherhood & amoral sexual desire bubble to the surface in such a horrific, unsettling way that you could consider the film a work of avant-garde horror. By the end of the film, the two women’s individual personae are inextricably mangled together in the wreckage of an abstract narrative that somehow remains one of the most chilling, bizarre specimens of this genre even after being mutated into so many loving imitations.

Robert Altman claimed that 3 Women was inspired entirely by a dream, not designed as a conscious homage to Persona. It’s difficult to fathom that Persona had no influence on his own personae-melding arthouse freak-out, though, especially considering the way Shelley Long’s endless mundane monologues mirror the ramblings of Bergman’s chatty nurse. Maybe 3 Women was inspired by a dream Altman had after watching Persona alone after midnight, stoned and unnerved (which happens to be the perfect viewing conditions for the film, in case you’re looking for a proper setting).

Images (1972)

While the exact level of influence Persona may have had on 3 Women will remain a mystery, the film does become less of an anomaly in Altman’s filmography once you dig around his earlier, scrappier works. 3 Women shares a lot of thematic DNA with Altman’s 1972 psychological horror Images in particular, which finds the director sinking even deeper into the familiar tones & tropes of genre filmmaking. Images practically feels like Altman taking a stab at making a giallo film (or its American equivalent, anyway), and that early-career experiment unexpectedly telegraphed a lot of what he would later develop into more idiosyncratic territory with 3 Women.

Susannah York stars in Images as a schizophrenic author who can’t find her footing within her increasingly fluid sense of reality. Mostly alone in her mountainside cabin while writing a children’s fantasy novel, York is tormented by visitors & phone calls – mundane interruptions she cannot distinguish from violent hallucinations. In particular, she cannot nail down which of these “visitors” is actually her husband, as his image is continually swapped out with other men from her past (who equally feel entitled to her body) as well as her own doppelganger. It is unclear whether Altman is implying that she’s tormenting herself with guilt over past infidelities or if this is a traditional Driven Mad By The Patriarchy story, but the immersive, disorienting editing style makes for a compelling watch all the same – especially once she decides to start killing off her hallucinated(?) visitors to finally get some peace & quiet.

I wish Altman tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often. He’s damn good at it. Britnee also recommended the false-imprisonment thriller That Cold Day in the Park as another one of Altman’s genre-heavy outliers, but the shifting personae surrealism of Images shares such a wide thematic overlap with 3 Women that it practically feels like a trial run. Plus, it features an uncharacteristically sparse, arrhythmic score from John Williams of all people, which alone makes it worth a look.

Single White Female (1992)

Maybe you don’t want to watch all these highfalutin arthouse echoes of 3 Women‘s basic themes. Maybe you want the dumbed down, fast food version of the story. Look no further than 1992’s Single White Female, which sleazes up Altman’s story of a fragile young girl usurping her older, more popular roommate’s persona for the Joe Eszterhas & Adrian Lyne era of erotic thrillers.

Single White Female is one of those great-premise/mediocre-execution thrillers that gets referenced more often than it gets watched. Based on a popular novel and successful enough to have earned a sequel, the film obviously left a cultural mark despite offering the least nuanced, most inane possible version of a young woman melding with (or, in this case, deliberately stealing from) the persona of her girl-crush. In fact, it left such an impact that in verb-form one character “Single White Femaling” another has become short-hand for the trope. That’s such a bizarrely substantial legacy for a film where basically none of its imagery or on-screen action has any detectable presence in modern pop culture.

To be fair, Single White Female does work surprisingly well as an erotic melodrama relic of its era, mostly because Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as the villain is an ice bath of off-putting character choices. Her intense fascination with her prettier, more graceful roommate isn’t allowed to be as delicately menacing as Sissy Spacek’s fascination with Shelley Duvall in 3 Women – at least not by the time she transforms into a full-on Norman Bates slasher villain in the third act. Still, her masterfully unsettling screen presence saves the film from being just a camp novelty, elevating to something genuinely eerie even when it’s at its silliest. Mind you, she did win the prestigious MTV Movie Award for Best Villain for the role.

If you’re going to engage with this genre in any significant way, you might as well experience it at its trashiest (and take in a phenomenal performance from Leigh while you’re at it). After all, we can’t survive on a diet of eerie, dreamlike arthouse oddities alone. It’s important to gobble down some junk-food cinema every now & then as a pick-me-up.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: 3 Women (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Hanna, and Brandon watch 3 Women (1977).

Britnee: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.

As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.

Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.

Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?

Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.

The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.

I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?

Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.

There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.

What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.

Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?

Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.

I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.

Lagniappe

Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.

Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.

Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!

Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.

And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Marjoe (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, the behind-the-scenes Christian evangelist exposé Marjoe, is one of the more captivating specimens of the “Direct Cinema” movement of the 1970s. It recalls both a politically subversive, Maysles Brothers-style documentary and a subversive take on the concert film, gawking at the stage performances of a lapsed Christian preacher who doesn’t believe his own sermons but needs to keep the show on the road to in order to pay the bills. Since both the movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself: a bizarre, charismatic creature who was trained (read: tortured) from a young age to be a kind of sideshow performer in the name of the Lord. As a result, recommending further viewing for Marjoe fans must take into account Gortner’s idiosyncratic characteristics as a screen presence more so than the circumstances of the film itself.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary Marjoe would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. At the time, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. It may have taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but if you lived anywhere south of De Moines, Iowa, chances are you never got a chance to see it until it hit home video decades later. Because of the film’s uniquely 1970s politics and the distinct peculiarities of Marjoe Gortner himself, it’s difficult to recommend many films that entirely overlap with its subject or mood. Unfortunately, though, Gortner is not the only sideshow attraction preacher out there with a morbid life story to tell.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its eccentric, politically subversive wavelength.

Jesus Camp (2006)

One of the most electrifying sequences in Marjoe is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the hippie documentary crew on how to act while socializing among Evangelicals, as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. This unspoken culture war between documentarian & subject immediately reminded me of the 2006 doc Jesus Camp, which chilled me to my core when I first saw it in college. Jesus Camp is careful not to tip its hand in revealing its political POV, at least not as overtly as in Marjoe‘s hotel room debriefing. Instead, it allows the Christian Evangelists it documents to define the battle lines as they see it. In their own words, the Evangelists claim they are engaged in a genuine Culture War with secularists, declaring “We want to reclaim America for Christ.” For once, it’s not the countercultural hippie artists who are being honest about the moral combat perpetrated by well-funded Christians with a pathological persecution complex; the fascists just openly, proudly admit what they’re up to.

Much of what makes Marjoe Gortner such a fascinating subject is that he was profoundly fucked up by an abusive childhood that trained him to be a sideshow Child Preacher in order to fatten his parents’ pockets. By the time the documentary catches up with him, however, those abuses are in the distant past, represented only by a few scratchy audio recordings & still photographs. Jesus Camp documents Evangelist indoctrination of young children in real time. Threatened with eternal damnation in torturous Hellfire if they don’t speak in tongues or if they dare enjoy secular pop music (or any other minor indulgence that doesn’t directly honor God), the children of Jesus Camp are deliberately warped by the adults around who run their Christian-themed summer camp (most notably head camp pastor Becky Fischer, the most infuriating villain in the history of cinema). The adults proudly boast that they’re indoctrinating the kids to become “prayer warriors” to fight in an ideological army for George W. Bush & the Republican Party – the exact kind of militarized Christian voter devotion that now keeps Trump in office all these years later, despite him being the least Christian man alive. The children are scared out of their little minds and just follow along as best as they can, lest they burn in Hell forever for minor infractions against God’s Will.

The icing on the cake in this pairing is that one of the central subjects that arises in Jesus Camp is a child preacher who uses his youth as a gimmick to draw attention to his sermons. Seeing how that schtick worked out for Gortner in the long run, I sincerely hope that kid got out okay after the cameras stopped rolling.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)

Not all Evangelists are as villainous as Jesus Camp‘s Becky Fischer. If Marjoe Gortner’s any proof, they can even be weirdly lovable (even if still mildly terrifying). Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, former televangelist and unlikely queer icon (thanks to her public embrace of gay men during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s & 90s). From her trademark spackled eye makeup to her Evangelist puppet shows to her former Christian water park empire, Tammy Faye Bakker is a kind of nightmarishly unreal public figure, but she’s also unexpectedly sweet & adorable once you get past her eccentric surface. Her own documentary is not as prestigious or artfully crafted as Marjoe Gortner’s, but it may function as better PR, as it allows her to charm the audience for as long as she feels like chattering.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a shamelessly trashy documentary that allows Tammy Faye Bakker to tell her rise-to-televangelist-fame story in her own words, while also openly having campy fun with the details. Made by the same production company that has since sunk all its efforts into the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, World of Wonder, the film has a deliberately cheap, made-for-TV tone. It effectively feels like a spoof of sensationalist true-crime reporting on 90s television, right down to RuPaul living his full Behind the Music fantasy as the narrator. The movie catches Faye after the most incredible chapters of her life have closed (as opposed to Marjoe, which documents Gortner while he’s still active on the Evangelist circuit), but her bubbly, bizarro personality and her history as one of the very first televangelist celebrities more than makes up for its timing. She even offers a universally detestable villain for the audience to hiss at while describing the figures behind her professional downfall: Jerry Fucking Falwell, the devil himself.

The WOW boys have almost too much fun while playing up Tammy’s inescapable camp value. They even use her vintage puppet characters to announce the chapter titles between her rambling anecdotes. Not every documentary has to be as politically fired-up as Marjoe or Jesus Camp to be worthwhile, however, and at least this one’s puppet show goofballery appears to have been the inspiration for Drag Race‘s beloved puppet challenge (Tammy Faye offhandedly uses the phrase “Everybody loves puppets” in a scene where she’s pitching TV shows to a bewildered producer who doesn’t know what to do with her).

Starcrash (1978)

While Tammy Faye is oddly charismatic in a similar way, there’s no substitute for Marjoe Gortner himself. I was delighted to discover after watching his own documentary that Gortner was able to leverage the film’s notoriety into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s. His hammy, off-kilter charisma is perfect for cheap-o genre filmmaking, which are always benefited by eccentric oddballs who audiences would never see in better-funded, better-regulated productions. Besides, it’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where Gortner’s acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store. We were so close to making that happen!

The jewel of Gortner’s B-movie repertoire seems to be the Roger Corman production Starcrash, a shameless Italian knockoff of Star Wars. Even among other eccentric personalities (and legitimate actors) like David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer, and Caroline Munro, Gortner stands out as a captivating oddity. There are space aliens, metallic giantesses, and retro-futuristic bikini babes all over the picture, but it’s Gortner’s Orphan Annie curls and weirdo charisma that always draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. The movie makes as much use of his weirdo charisma as it can, casting him as a telepathic, superpowered space alien with a laser sword (not to be confused with a lightsaber). Even the booming voice that overdubs his dialogue only accentuates his unconventional screen presence. It reminded me of when Muppets in Space explained Gonzo’s origins as a space alien who crash landed to Earth; it’s the first time his presence on this planet really made sense.

While it can be a little boring in patches, Starcrash is mostly fun, delirious late-night trash. It has no original ideas or clear sense of purpose (there’s a Millennium Falcon on its official poster), but goddamn if it isn’t beautiful. It’s so cheaply, gaudily lit & costumed that it stumbles into some genuine psychedelia that any cheap-o space adventure movie should envy. Gortner’s presence only enhances that entertainment value, which I believe would be true even without knowing the backstory of his Evangelist past. Something about seeing him in space just feels right; I wish he could have travelled there more often.

-Brandon Ledet