Bonus Features: Lifeforce (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1985’s Lifeforce, finds screenwriter Dan O’Bannon returning to the retro sci-fi horror he revived to great success in Ridley Scott’s Alien (and, less famously, in John Carpenter’s Dark Star).  Just like in Alien, Lifeforce follows an unprepared crew of astronauts who are lured by a mysterious distress signal to a hostile alien landscape (in this case, on the surface of Halley’s Comet), where they’re hunted by the horrific creatures who inhabit it (in this case, soul-sucking nudist vampires).  By the time those creatures become stowaways on the space crew’s return to Earth, it’s clear that O’Bannon was recalling a very specific subgenre of Atomic Age sci-fi from his youth in both films; what’s unclear is what exact retro sci-fi titles he was referencing.

After revisiting Alien and watching Lifeforce for the first time this year, I did find myself curious about what Atomic Age sci-fi cheapies had influenced their shared tropes.  What I found was a group of cheap, quaint space travel pictures with a remarkable narrative overlap in O’Bannon’s screenplays.  Alien & Lifeforce are both updated to the modern horror tastes of their times, but there were plenty of retro space travel cheapies that mapped out the future details of their shared plot structure.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see the vintage prototypes for its distinctly 1980s mayhem.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

You can’t ask for a much more straightforward, no-frills prototype for O’Bannon’s stowaway space alien invasions than It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  Even though the film’s rubber-masked pig-man is more adorable than scary, the way it hides in the rafters & crawl spaces of its Earthling victims’ spaceship is pure Alien.  It’s the kind of 1950s space travel thriller where the poster declares “$50,000 guaranteed by a renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove It is not on Mars now!” (despite the fact that It spends most of the runtime on a spaceship, not its Martian home planet).  It also laid out a roadmap to the kinds of stowaway alien invasion movies that O’Bannon would later emulate in his two biggest productions.

It!  The Terror Beyond Space even introduces its Earthling spaceship crew chatting around the dinner table, which is how audiences got familiar with the crew of Nostromo in Alien.  The stark difference here is that the women onboard the ship are mostly around to serve the men coffee at that table, and to tend to their wounds after the Martian creature attacks.  O’Bannon originally wrote Eleanor Ripley as a man, and his domineering nudist vampire villain in Lifeforce isn’t exactly the personification of Feminism, but you still have to credit him for giving his women characters something more to do than hang around as waitresses & cheerleaders.

Queen of Blood (1966)

In a lot of ways Queen of Blood is the least substantial of these Alien prototypes, if not only because it’s one of those AIP/Corman cheapies that were built out of Americanized scraps of better-funded, more imaginative Soviet sci-fi films — lurking among throwaway titles like Battle Beyond the Sun & Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.  It’s the one that most closely resembles the plot of Lifeforce, though, in that its stowaway alien invader is a wordless, beautiful woman who feeds on the blood of men like a vampire.  You’d think that of all the retro sci-fi films of this ilk this would be the one titled Planet of the Vampires—since Mario Bava’s own eerie Alien prototype doesn’t feature any actual vampires—but the title Queen of Blood is just as badass, so we’ll have to let that slide.

It’s hard to know exactly what to praise in Queen of Blood, since so much of its sci-fi spectacle is borrowed wholesale from the Soviet film Mechte Navstrechu, but its titular, green-skinned vampire queen is fabulous; she’s got a whole Juno Birch thing going on and it’s wonderful.  Not for nothing, but the film’s space crew also include prominent female scientists who actively save the day as the horndog men around them fall victim to the vampire, which is more than you can say for either Lifeforce or It!  The Terror Beyond Space.

The Green Slime (1968)

If you want to see the retro Alien prototype at its goofiest, you likely won’t do any better than 1968’s The Green Slime, a sci-fi creature feature collaboration between MGM and the Japanese studio Toei.  From its funky psych-rock theme song to its adorable X from Outer Space-style miniatures, to its slimy rubber monster, The Green Slime is pure kitsch.  Many of its plot details overlap with the specifics of Alien, though, despite that goofiness: its stowaway creatures’ lethally corrosive blood, its menacing stockpile of alien eggs, its doomed crew members’ refusal to adhere to proper quarantine protocol, etc.  You can practically picture little baby O’Bannon propped in front of his cathode-ray TV scribbling notes on how to tell an alien invasion story.

The Green Slime was mocked on the pilot episode for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and it’s easy to see why they thought it left enough dead air for the show’s riffing to fill.  Its adorable old-school special effects work compensates for its lethargic pacing issues, though, and it’s the only film on this list that even vaguely resembles the batshit goofballery that O’Bannon would later indulge in Lifeforce.  It’s a shame that Lifeforce didn’t have its own titular theme song, though, since the one for The Green Slime is such a delight:

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

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 HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

Brandon:  Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper and adapted from the sci-fi pulp novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien.  It is an absurdly lavish production for a Cannon Group film—or really for any film with this chaotic of an imagination—especially considering the scrappier genre pictures its creators usually helm. 

It starts as an Alien-style sci-fi pulp throwback where dormant “space vampires” are discovered in both bat & humanoid form on an abandoned spaceship parked on Haley’s Comet, then brought back to London for scientific examination.  Once the lead vampire awakes on the autopsy table and sucks the electrified “lifeforce” out of the first nearby victim, the boundaries of the film’s genre classification explode into every possible direction.  This is at times an alien invasion film, a body-possession story, a sci-fi spin on vampire lore, a post-Romero zombie apocalypse picture, and an all-around genre meltdown whatsit that keeps piling new, upsetting ideas onto each subsequent sequence until you’re crushed by the enormity of its imagination.  With Lifeforce, Hooper & O’Bannon found the rare freedom to stage a gross-out B-picture on a proper Hollywood blockbuster budget, and they indulged every bizarre idea they could conjure in the process – complete with extravagant practical effects and a swashbuckling action-hero score performed by The London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been meaning to make time for Lifeforce since as far back as our buddies at the We Love to Watch podcast covered it five years ago.  I am not surprised that I loved it, but I was delighted to discover how much its space-vampire mayhem is a supernatural form of erotic menace, which is my #1 horror sweet spot.  It would have been more than enough for the soul-sucking space-vampires to turn Earthlings into exploding dust-zombies & leaky bloodsacks, but what really made me fall in love is how they start the process by hypnotizing their victims with intense horniness. 

Like with Alien, Dan O’Bannon is playing with the psychosexual terror lurking just below the surface of retro sci-fi relics like Queen of Blood & The Astounding She-Monster, but the approach to modernizing that erotic menace is much more heteronormative here than with the male-pregnancy & penetrative fears of H.R. Giger’s iconic alien designs.  Lifeforce portrays modern-day London as a city of sexually repressed Conservative men whose greatest fear is a confident, nude woman.  The lead nudist vampire is not only too sexy & self-assured for the terminally British subs who fall under her spell, she also terrorizes them by linking that intense erotic attraction to the blurred gender boundaries of their own psyches.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when her victims describe her as “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence [they’ve] ever encountered” or when she confesses that her physical form is just a projection of the femininity trapped inside their own minds.  By the time a silhouette of her breasts is framed as if it were Nosferatu‘s creeping shadow, I was fully in love with the way this film attacks its uptight macho victims through the vulnerability of their erotic imaginations.  I love a good wet nightmare, and it was endlessly fun to watch them squirm.

Hanna, what do you make of this film’s sexual & gender politics?  Does its erotic terror add anything substantial to the more traditional zombie & vampire scares that throw London into chaos, or does it just feel like an exploitative excuse to cram some straight-boy-marketed nudity onto the screen?

Hanna: Boy howdy!  Lifeforce was one of the exponentially wildest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  Brandon, I think you mentioned The Wicker Man during our screening, which is the exact vein of horny fear I found in this movie; the ill-fated, repressed sexualities of Anglo-Saxon men never cease to delight me.  I was completely on board with a beautiful naked woman walking her way—unbelievably slowly—through quivering throngs of Brits.

Overall, Lifeforce is a fantastic addition to the vampire canon, which has always had lots to say about the terror of sex and sexuality.  Most of the vampire movies I’ve seen feature naturally hot, youthful vamps, lounging around in sensuous mansions.  I’ll never turn down a coven of hot Draculas, but I loved that these vampires of Lifeforce were truly horrifying space hell beasts using the fantasies of their hosts to craft their appearances (I like to imagine the other aliens that these vampires have sucked dry throughout the galaxy – imagine the hottest tentacled space glob in the universe).  Human sexuality is so specific to particular events and images at different moments of a person’s life that I think lots of people don’t understand where their kinks and preferences come from.  I loved that moment Brandon mentioned when the lead space vampire (named “Space Girl” in the credits, which tickles me) tells Col. Carlsen that she’s the manifestation of his femininity; he’s totally locked that aspect of his sexuality away from himself, but it’s plainly obvious and extremely easy to exploit.  What would Space Girl find in my mind?  I kind of want to know, but I kind of don’t!

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed by the exclusive focus on heteronormative sexuality.  On one hand, part of the humor of this movie is that Space Girl exerts minimal effort while successfully throwing London into unchecked chaos with her cadre of androgynous space vampire hunks, due in large part to the desperately horny male leaders of foundational institutions.  Clearly, this was the correct tack to take from a strategic standpoint.  It’s just that for a super sexy movie that featuring exploding dust zombies, shapeshifting space vampires, and a floating, coagulated blob comprised of torrents of Sir Patrick Stewart’s blood, couldn’t we have gotten just a little touch of queer flirtation?  (I guess she sucks the life force out of a woman in the park, but we don’t actually see it happen, so I’m not counting it!) We get a little touch of that in the femininity scene, but I wish the movie would have delved into even kinkier territory.

Boomer, I thought these space vampires were a great direction for film’s hall of vampires.  What did you think?  How do these monsters compare to their terrestrial blueprints? 

Boomer: I was also hung up on the vampires’ heteronormativity.  We spend so much full-frontal time with Space Girl that I could draw her labia from memory right now, weeks after seeing the movie, but we (of course) had plentiful and abundant convenient censorship of our hot space twunks’ docking equipment. I suppose it’s logical that a film that exists solely because of the male gaze and which requires the ubiquity of the male gaze to make narrative sense should also cater solely to it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t complain about it. 

Unusually for me, I prefer my vampire fiction mystical rather than scientific.  It’s not just because most sci-fi vampire films are pretty bad (Daybreakers immediately comes to mind, followed by Bloodsuckers and Ultraviolet); there are plenty of terrible supernatural vampire movies. Still, when measuring good against bad, the ratio of good sci-fi vampires to bad ones skews much more negatively than their magical brethren. As much as I liked Lifeforce, that this (blessed) mess counts as one of the good ones kind of tells you everything that you need to know, right? I just like it when vampires have to glamour people or have to be invited in; I think it makes for more interesting storytelling than vampirism-as-a-virus or, as is the case here, vampires are extraterrestrial beings that suck out life force.  When it comes to twists on the lore, however, there was one thing that I really did like: the reanimation of victims who must likewise consume life energy, and which turn to dust if unable to do so.  The effects in these scenes were nothing short of spectacular, and they were the best part of the film.  I know that they must have been remastered at some point, but those puppets were really something fascinating to behold. 

One of the things that I did have some trouble with was the pacing, especially with regards to character introductions.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s like watching 2001 (or Star Trek: The Motion Picture) on fast-forward as spectacular vistas and space structures are explored, before we’re suddenly in a very boring office space, and we’re figuratively and literally down to earth for the rest of the movie.  There’s not that much interesting about any of the spaces we explore (other than that one lady’s apartment with the Liza Minnelli poster), and it felt like every 20 minutes a new guy just sort of walked into the view of the camera and the film became about him for a while.  I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be our protagonist, which left me spinning.  That our leads were all largely indistinguishable white dudes also contributed to this for me; when Steve Railsback reappeared after not having been seen since the ship exploration sequence, I thought he was the same character as the guy who had exploded into dust in the scene immediately prior.  Was this also an issue for you, Britnee?  Did the pacing work for you? 

Britnee: When looking back on the scenery in Lifeforce, all I can recall is the color brown. All of those wood paneled walls and dull office spaces made the sets feel a little musty. The one major exception is when the space crew explores the mysterious 150-mile-long spacecraft (a scale I still can’t wrap my head around). I loved the uncomfortable rectum-looking entrance that leads them to the collection of dried-up bat creatures and the hive of nude “humans” in glass containers. I wasn’t ready to leave that funky space place so quickly. I wanted to see more compartments of the craft explored. There was 150 miles of it after all, and they only went through what seemed to be less than a mile. I know poking around the craft would cost money, but with the massive budget for this film, the money was obviously there. It just should have been spent better. 

As for the pacing, I was so focused on all of the space vampire mayhem that I didn’t pay much attention to all of the boring white guys who were main characters . . . unless they were getting their life sucked out of them and exploding into dust. It was pretty difficult to keep up with who was who and how they plugged into all of the insanity, but it didn’t really bother me because just about everything else in the movie was so much fun. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Lifeforce would do so well as an animated series. I saw that there was talk about a potential remake, but it seems like animation would be the way to go. That way, there would be fewer financial limitations, so all the freaky stuff could be even freakier. 

Boomer: That both of our male leads (at least I think they’re our leads) had hard-C alliterative names (Colonel Carlsen and Colonel Colin Caine) was a real detriment.  But once Kat pointed out that Carlsen was Steve Railsback, aka Duane Barry, I could at least keep track of him. 

Brandon: I was initially disappointed by the lack of onscreen peen myself, but the more I think about how much this movie is about straight men’s psychosexual discomforts the more I’m okay with it.  If you’re going to frame your lusty B-movie this strictly through male gaze, you need to at least interrogate the limitations & vulnerabilities of that gaze, and I think Lifeforce does that well.  Rather than a remake, I think there’s an angle for a spinoff sequel that follows the two Nude Dudes around the entire night instead of Space Girl, since most of their adventures were off-screen.  Coming to Hulu as soon as Disney buys up the Cannon Group catalog, after they’ve gobbled up the rest of the pop media landscape.

Hanna: Speaking of constant female nudity, my favorite tidbit of trivia about Lifeforce is that it was extremely difficult to find a female lead willing to be naked for the entire movie. Hooper had to resort to chartering a plane of German actresses to London after failing to find an English actress; by the time the actresses got to London, they had collectively agreed not to audition for the part. Thank God for Mathilda May! Maybe it would have been too much trouble to get some peen in the picture; I’m glad we got at least a little ethereal, vampiric nakedness.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1973’s Lisa and the Devil, is a supernatural murder mystery set in a haunted mansion full of creepy mannequins.  As usual with Mario Bava, it’s consistently beautiful & eerie while wildly inconsistent in its central mystery’s internal logic.  Parsing out what’s really going on in Bava’s films is always miles beside the point; they thrive on vibes and vibes alone.  So, what really sets this loopy-logic Bava mystery apart from the rest of his catalog is its haunted castle setting, which vividly contrasts the moods & tones of his filmmaking style against other Gothic horrors of his era from The Corman-Poe Cycle and Hammer Studios.  It’s in that contrast where Lisa and the Devil‘s twisty dream logic and harshly artificial color gels really shine as something special.

I knew I was going to use November’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to clear out a few of my Mario Bava blindspots.  What I didn’t know is that so many of those major blindspots would also be set in haunted castles (as opposed to the bloody couturiers of Blood & Black Lace or the eerie alien landscapes of Planet of the Vampires).  As I dug further into Bava’s catalog this month, I really started appreciating how his haunted castle movies boast all of the spooky atmosphere of Hammer Horror at its best, boosted with a lurid Technicolor sleaze that satisfies in a way Hammer rarely does – if ever.  Nearly every one is a Masque of the Red Death-level knockout, which is rare for the genre.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Mario Bava classics set in haunted castles.

Black Sunday (1960)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mario Bava spent so much of his career playing with camera equipment in spooky castles, since that setting is exactly where he made a name for himself at the start of his career.  Bava’s debut feature credit as a director, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) crams in as many haunted-castle spooks & ghouls as it can possibly fit in an 87min runtime: vampires, witches, Satanic rituals, an overachieving fog machine, etc.  Even in black & white—devoid of Bava’s trademark color gels—it clearly stands out as the very best of the director’s haunted castle horrors.  If anything, the harsh black & white lighting offers a vintage Romero sheen that feels like a novelty in Bava’s larger Technicolor catalog.

If actors dress up in ritualistic costumes and repeat the word “Satan” enough, I’m automatically going to be charmed.  It still helps when it’s someone as electrically intense as Barbara Steele.  In her breakout, career-defining performance(s), she stars as both a vampiric witch who’s punished for her allegiance to Satan and as the innocent descendent she plans to drain of her blood & youth.  Steele’s haunting screen presence (conveyed most fiercely through her intense eye contact) is what makes the movie enduringly iconic, but Bava’s background as a cinematographer heightens every frame with a stark beauty & terror.  It’s not Bava at his most idiosyncratic (given that it’s drained of his usual indulgences in color & disregard for plot), but it might be Bava at his best.

The Whip and the Body (1963)

Barbara Steele is not the only horror legend who cut their fangs working with Bava.  Christopher “Dracula” Lee collaborated with the Italo-auteur on both the dark fantasy epic Hercules in the Haunted World and in the haunted-castle chiller The Whip and the Body.  It’s The Whip and the Body that really leans into the strengths of Lee’s sultry screen presence, casting him as a BDSM ghost who haunts a modest seaside castle (and the masochistic woman he used to adulterize with when he was alive).  It’s never much of an exaggeration to say that Christopher Lee was pure sex in his handsome youth, but in The Whip and the Body that statement isn’t even a figure of speech.  He haunts the castle as the personification of sadistic sex just as much as he’s the ghost of a cruel pest who even his mistress despised.

The ghostly psychosexual terror of Lee’s kink-ghost is the perfect mechanism for Bava’s usual indulgences in atmosphere & aesthetics.  It’s customary for haunted castle movies to feature menacing gusts of howling wind, but here Bava gets to mix in sounds of Lee’s leather whip to pervert that trope into something freshly upsetting.  The film haunts a lovely middle ground between the classic gothic horror of Black Sunday and the Technicolor fairy tale horrors of Lisa and the Devil (complete with a dagger in a bell jar as its fairy tale version of Chekov’s gun).

Baron Blood (1972)

Like The Whip and the Body, Baron Blood is about a craven misogynist who haunts his family castle as a menacingly horny ghost.  Like Black Sunday, it even dabbles in an undercurrent of witchcraft for counterbalance; the sexist ghost is resurrected from the dead as revenge from a witch who wants to see him tortured for eternity instead being allowed to rest.  Unfortunately, this late-in-the-game middle ground between those two classics doesn’t stack up to Bava’s usual standard.  It’s conveyed in muddy 1970s browns, and the stoney-baloney pacing of that era is in no rush to get anywhere. 

So yeah, Baron Blood is by far the weakest entry of this haunted-castle Bava set.  It has its own laidback 70s charms, though, including occultist rituals, rusty torture devices, and a fiendish ghoul with sopping hamburger meat for a face.  All it really needed to be a Lisa and the Devil-level stunner was a peppier sense of urgency and a few color gels.  Save it for a lazy weekend afternoon, so it’s not such a big deal if you take a nap in the middle of it.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Hello Again (1987)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1987’s Hello Again, is a fluffy romantic comedy about an undead but unflappable Shelley Long, one that sidesteps all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  Even after she’s resurrected from the dead, Long’s status as a medical phenomenon has less impact on the film’s tone & plot than her nature as a hopeless klutz among big-city sophisticates does.  It’s a dynamic that allows her to go absurdly broad in fits of Mr. Bean-style physical comedy, often to the point where you forget there’s any supernatural shenanigans afoot in the first place.  The film is less about her being undead than it is about her being adorably ungraceful.

What most surprised me about this fairly anonymous studio comedy is that there’s some shockingly substantial talent behind the camera.  Director Frank Perry began his career as a New Hollywood troublemaker, filming excruciatingly dark, uncomfortable comedies about The Human Condition.  Whereas Hello Again actively avoids the inherent darkness of its subject, earlier Perry films seemed to revel in the discomfort of their premises.  So, I used this month’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to dig a little further into Perry’s back catalog to see just how dark those earlier films could get and if they had tangible connection to the mainstream studio comedies he was cranking out by the 1980s.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see the darker side of its director.

The Swimmer (1968)

The most bizarre aspect of Hello Again is how matter-of-fact it plays the absurdity of Shelley Long’s return from the grave.  She’s not a decaying corpse; she doesn’t have magical powers; she’s just there.  That underplayed absurdism is something Perry had done before to much more sinister effect when he was still a New Hollywood buttonpusher (along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the majority of his early screenplays).  In The Swimmer, Perry cast Burt Lancaster as an aging suburban playboy who, on a whim, decides to “swim home” by visiting a string of friends’ backyard pools across his wealthy neighborhood.  It’s a boldly vapid premise that’s somehow molded into a low-key mindmelter of 1960s moral rot through an eerie, matter-of-fact sense of surrealism.

Like Hello Again, The Swimmer is more of a quirky character piece than it is concerned with the internal logic of its supernatural plot.  Instead of only traveling by the “continuous” “river” of swimming pools he initially envisions over his morning cocktail, Lancaster spends a lot of runtime galloping alongside horses, leisurely walking through forests, and crossing highway traffic barefoot.  He does often emerge from one borrowed swimming pool to the next, though, and along the way we dig deeper into the ugliness of his himbo playboy lifestyle.  He starts the film as a masterful charmer, seducing the world (or at least the world’s wives and mistresses) with an infectious swinging-60s bravado.  By the time he swims his last pool, we recognize him as a miserable piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to kiss the feet of the infinite wonderful women of his past who we meet along the way.  The overall result is sinisterly ludicrous beefcake melodrama, presented in lurid Technicolor.  Sirk could never, but Perry did.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Although it’s ostensibly a back-from-the-dead zom-com, the dramatic core of Hello Again is much less about the supernatural circumstances of Shelley Long’s second chance at life than it is about her transformation from a dowdy housewife to a fully realized, fully satisfied person.  And it turns out one of Frank Perry’s earliest professional triumphs is a much darker prototype of that same basic story.  Diary of a Mad Housewife is a woman-on-the-verge black comedy about an absurdly horrid marriage that drives a put-upon housewife to a steamy, but equally toxic affair.  Her husband constantly negs her in an abusive way; her side-piece boyfriend also negs her, but in a kinky way.  She emerges from the other end completely miserable, but at least finally having done something for herself.

Most of the humor in Diary of a Mad Housewife is wrung from just how obnoxiously awful the husband character is to his “beloved.”  From the second she wakes up, he floods her with a constant stream of complaints about her body, her clothes, her hair, and her behavior.  It’s basically an early draft of Mink Stole’s ranting complaints at the start of Desperate Living – hilariously unpleasant & cruel in its never-ending barrage.  Like in Hello Again, the titular mad housewife (Carrie Snodgress) struggles to rub elbows with elite sophisticates at the stuffy society parties her husband wants to attend (not to mention the housekeeping struggle of throwing those large-scale parties to being with).  This earlier draft of that tension is just much darker than anything Hello Again offers, including a stubborn refusal to offer its put-upon protagonist a happy ending.  Other highlights include a hunky-hipster Frank Langella, the world’s most rotten children, and a chaotic pre-fame cameo from “The Alice Cooper Band”.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Maybe Diary of a Mad Housewife‘s proto-Desperate Living opening was not happenstance at all.  The film very well may have been a direct influence on John Waters’s filmmaking style, as evidenced by Waters’s fawning commentary track on Perry’s most iconic film: the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest.  I’ve owned my Mommie Dearest DVD for at least a decade, have watched it lots, and somehow didn’t notice until this month that it includes a full commentary track from Waters.  He does a great job of quipping throughout it MST3k style while also genuinely attempting to revamp its reputation as a “so good it’s great” melodrama.  More to the point, he recalls early in the runtime that a critic once attempted to insult him by saying he’s not “the underground Russ Meyer,” he’s “the underground Frank Perry.”  Of course, Waters took that insult as a compliment, as well he should have.  Frank Perry’s great.

I highly recommend watching Mommie Dearest with the commentary track flipped on, especially if you’re already seen it and want to spend some quality time with one of history’s greatest talkers.  Waters has some great quips about how Perry frames Crawford as “a female female-impersonator role” & a Strait-Jacket style horror villain, but I mostly just appreciated the way he tries to reclaim the film as a genuine crowd-pleaser.  Waters absolutely nails it when he explains, “There’s no better kind of movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.”  I’d also put Hello Again in that exact same category, even if its own campy humor is much more measured & straightforward.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hello Again (1987)

Britnee: There are many comedies that play around with the morbid humor of characters coming back from the dead. We actually did an episode of The Swampflix Podcast a few months ago where we talked about My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a great example of a film that makes that gruesome subject light and funny. While they can be hilarious, what My Boyfriend’s Back and similar films do that I’m not a huge fan of is attach their undead humor to traditional zombie lore (bodies starting to rot, hunger for human flesh, etc.). Thankfully, there is a funny movie about someone returning from the dead who is in great health and looks fabulous from start to end: Hello Again (1987). It also happens to be my second Movie of the Month selection that stars Shelley Long, the ultimate 80s funny lady.

Lucy (Shelley Long) is a clumsy housewife who’s married to her college sweetheart, Jason (Corbin Bernsen), a plastic surgeon rising through the ranks of high society in NYC. Lucy is constantly tripping over her own feet, spilling food on her light-colored clothing, and in one of the most memorable scenes, ripping her dress in two by stepping on the hem. She most certainly does not fit in with the snobby groups her husband rubs shoulders with. While visiting her occultist sister Zelda (Judith Ivey), Lucy chokes on a piece of a South Korean chicken ball and dies. Thankfully, Zelda comes across an ancient book in her shop in which she finds a spell that could bring Lucy back from the dead. In order for the spell to work, there are three things that need to happen approximately one year after death: (1) the deceased must have died before their time; (2) the person performing the spell has to have pure love for the deceased; (3) the Earth, the moon, and the dog star must be aligned in a perfect isosceles triangle. Zelda makes it happen, and Lucy returns from the grave. She then tries her best to navigate through life (again) while developing a romantic relationship with the ER doctor who witnessed her death (Gabriel Byrne).

There’s not much explanation of how the magic works post-resurrection, except that Lucy needs to find true love before the next full moon. Nothing is mentioned on how long her new life will last, if she will continue to age, etc. I love that the film doesn’t spend a ton of time getting lost in some bizarre, made up lore. Instead, we get to watch Lucy be an undead klutz with the most incredible fashion sense, and it’s wonderful.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on how Hello Again handles the subject of coming back from the dead? Was it boring or creative?

Brandon: I didn’t find the way it handles Lucy’s resurrection boring or creative, really. That’s because I’m not sure the film handles that subject at all.  Lucy could’ve just as easily been deep-frozen, or lost in the woods, or simply comatose for a year and it wouldn’t have had that much effect on the film’s tone or plot. Hello Again is less about her being undead than it is about her being unflappable, sidestepping all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  And it’s cute as heck.  We already have plenty gory screwball comedies about the decaying bodies of the living dead — from Death Becomes Her to Dead Man on Campus to Idle Hands to the aforementioned My Boyfriend’s Back.  This particular zom-com feels way more fixated on how much your life & social standing would change if you unexpectedly disappeared for a year than it does on the practical, grisly details of its supernatural conflict, and that’s fine.  If anything, the last 18 months of global social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that thought experiment more relevant and relatable.  Watching Lucy emerge from the grave to feel out her place in a world that has moved on without her is eerily reminiscent of what it currently feels like to leave my house to see friends & family for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a little awkward, a little absurd, surprisingly sad, but ultimately good for our souls.

If there’s anything I wished Hello Again would’ve pushed a little harder, it wouldn’t be the flesh-decaying zombie angle, but rather the Mr. Bean style physical humor Shelley Long gets to indulge in as a hopeless klutz.  She’s incredibly loveable (and funny!) as a clumsy goofball who can barely keep herself together among the big-city sophisticates she refers to as “jazzy people.”  I guess my ideal version of the film would be a Mr. Bean-meets-Groundhog Day premise where Lucy repeatedly dies in pathetically silly ways (steps on a rake, drowns in a birdbath, gets crushed by a falling piano, etc) only to get resurrected for yet another chance at self-actualization/true love until she gets it right.  Instead, the movie brushes both its supernatural & slapstick shenanigans aside for some heartfelt melodrama about Lucy re-establishing her place in the world (with a brief flirtation with tabloid fame along the way).  It’s cute, but not nearly as funny as watching her split her dress open at a fancy party to expose her underwear to all the major financial donors at her husband’s hospital so they can drop their monocles and exclaim “Well, I never!”  The only other major Shelley Long star vehicle I can recall seeing is Troop Beverly Hills, and it’s only Lucy’s unfashionable clumsiness that really distinguishes those two performances for me (as adorable as they both are), so I would’ve loved to see it exaggerated to greater effect.

Hanna, what do you think Shelley Long brings to the table as the central performer here?  Hello Again asks a lot of her as its star.  She has to convey sincere romance with a dead-serious Gabriel Byrne as a rival doctor at her husband’s hospital; she has to comically outshine a wide range of the exact quirky side-character archetypes that she usually plays herself (especially Judith Ivey as her sister Zelda); she has to pose both as a dowdy housewife and a burgeoning fashionista.  Does she somehow pull it all off?  

Hanna: I’m not super familiar with Shelley Long (apart from her role in The Money Pit, which I love), but I was super impressed by her tireless commitment to the various zany demands of Hello Again. Her adaptability in whatever situation she’s thrown into is key to her character and the success of this movie; it seems obvious that one of Long’s strengths as a performer in general is being totally game for anything (including making a fool of herself), and that quality carries over to Lucy’s indomitable spirit in the face of heartbreak, fame, and the occult nonsense that brought her back to life. It helps that Long is eminently likeable! She’s especially charming when she’s living my nightmare of exposing her big white panties to a slew of hot-shot doctors at a dinner party, but I was just as happy to see her strut around her sister’s bookstore in an absurdly fabulous dress after her Big Makeover.

Even though Long obviously did a great job, I’m not sure if all of the threads of Hello Again came together in a satisfying way. Like Brandon said, there’s a lot going on: Lucy’s story is picked up by the global news and becomes a viral celebrity, forcing her to dodge paparazzi at the hospital; Jason (Corbin Bernsen) shacked up with Lucy’s opportunistic best friend, Kim (Sela Ward) in Lucy’s absence, then tries to win Lucy back once she becomes famous; and of course there’s the love subplot with the dreamy ER doctor Gabriel Byrne, which includes a Beauty and the Beast-ish threat of Lucy being sent back to the grave if she fails to find true love before the next full moon. There are a few more tiny subplots, but for the most part they were a little underdeveloped, and sometimes forgotten. This is especially true of Lucy’s love curse, which is briefly mentioned to add some stakes to her living situation but largely goes unaddressed without consequence. I really loved the characters in Hello Again and I was entertained by each scene individually, but I never felt like I had a firm grasp on the overall direction of the story. But! That’s okay – it was an absolute delight anyway.

Boomer, do you think Hello Again could have used a little more development, or was it perfect as an erratic late-80s comedy? Is there an element of Lucy’s life after death that you wish had been explored further?

Boomer: There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and one of the topics of discussion that we have danced around is Long’s big performance near the end in which she is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Kim’s latest (dead) husband. It’s a true delight in which she shows off her talent for funny voices and physical comedy that’s very large but refrains from going too broad. In a movie that is, in many ways, largely unfocused, it serves as a capstone on the various small bits of physical comedy scattered throughout. That’s kind of the film’s bread-and-butter, though, as it moves from a small, heartfelt reunion, to scenes of Lucy speaking with her former boss about how, despite being irreplaceable, she was replaced within two weeks of her death, to her realization that her understated suburban housewife style has become all the rage in Los Angeles, for dubiously believable pop psychology reasons. It’s fair to say that by the time they’re having a full-on Oh God! style press conference, things have gotten pretty muddled. 

I did think that the brevity of the time between Lucy’s death and resurrection was a bit of a misstep. This is a bit of a strange reference point for a film in this genre, but I kept thinking about Flight of the Navigator, and how that film’s eight year jump forward allowed for the passage of enough time for significant changes to occur and thus return that film’s protagonist to a world that was sufficiently different and alienating. It might have been weird, narratively, for Zelda to still be clinging to the idea of bringing back her sister after so long a period of time, but while it’s not inconceivable that a year might be enough time for, say, a playground to be converted into a fairly-far-along construction site, it does seem like far too little time for various other events to have occurred. The one that seemed the most unbelievable to me was that her son, who was presumably 17 or 18 at the beginning of the film given that he was still deciding whether or not to go to college, had compressed what, in the real world, would be at least six years of professional development into a mere twelve months. A longer time before resurrection would also go some distance toward making Kim and Jason a little more well-rounded and multi-dimensional, as opposed to their largely static roles in the film as it exists now. In the film, the Jason moves on so quickly that it would probably raise a few eyebrows, and instead of having Kim simply hop into bed (and matrimony) with Jason, she could have had a scene with Lucy in which she talked about having a hard time finding her footing and eventually falling for Jason because the two spent so much time together after Lucy’s passing. I could definitely see both her and Jason played more sympathetically, with both of them as flawed individuals who brought out the worst in each other as her lust for wealth cross-pollinated with Jason’s ambitions to create an LA power, and powerfully misguided, couple. 

Lagniappe

Brandon: Even if it can be narratively frustrating, there is something charming about how disinterested Hello Again is in its own plot vs. how in love it is with its collection of quirky characters.  One of the funniest line deliveries in the entire film is when Zelda crashes a stuffy society party and introduces herself to the shocked sophisticates, “My name’s Zelda! I have a story for you. Hey, don’t worry. I’m just Lucy’s eccentric sister.”  I love how blatant the film’s priorities are in that exchange. 

Boomer: I literally said “Oh my god, Sela, you look amazing” the moment she appeared on screen. I also love Judith Ivey. If you’re able to track it down, I’d recommend giving her audiobook version of the Stephen King short story “Luckey Quarter” (sic) a try; it’s very charming. 

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November: 
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Sneakers (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.  Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.

I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top.  Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.

The Net (1995)

For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net.  The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.  It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc.  On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.

Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.  Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.

Disclosure (1994)

For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking!  Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not.  However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.

There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina.  Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace.  The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers.  Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame.  It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.

Hackers (1995)

And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers.  When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before.  Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry.  Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit.  Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison?  Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time?  Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc.  In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative.  I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal.  It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set.  Hack the planet!

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Sneakers (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 HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Sneakers (1992).

Boomer: love the movie Sneakers. This movie has everything: government conspiracies, a villain with a praiseworthy goal, hacking, phreaking, a blind man driving a van, the creation of a voiceprint password by cobbling together pieces of recordings, two scenes with River Phoenix in a scrub top, significant anagrams, post-Cold War espionage, ancient car phones, crawlspaces, codenames, rooftop confrontations, extremely futuristic but uncomfortable looking furniture made out of wire mesh, call tracing, electronic toy dogs, complex mathematics, briefcases full of cash, intrigue, prestidigitation, and two-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I never, ever get tired of it. 

Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), some twenty years after his friend and fellow idealist Cosmo was arrested while Martin was out getting pizza to celebrate some illegal but morally admirable money transfers, now works with a tiger team of “sneakers.” There’s Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-C.I.A. and the group’s watchtower man; conspiracy theorist and electronics whiz “Mother” (real-life conspiracy theorist Dan Aykroyd); Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn), a blind man whose hearing is so precise that it allows him to participate in the now largely defunct form of hacking known as phreaking; and young, pretty Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacking prodigy. Only two people know that Martin is actually the still-wanted fugitive once known as Martin Brice: Cosmo, who died in prison, and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Mary McDonnell), with whom he is still relatively friendly. His secret, and his freedom, are threatened one day when Martin is approached by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who task him with stealing a “black box” piece of decryption hardware from a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue, in his first film role). Although they succeed in obtaining the device, their payday is complicated by the revelation that they’ve actually been duped by former NSA operatives, now working for a person or persons unknown. Now, the team, including Liz, will have to use all of their wits to avoid not just jail time, but death. 

Sneakers was a box office success. This is owed in no small part, I’m sure, to its all-star cast, which also includes James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley in roles that are too spoilery to note in a synopsis. It’s got a great soundtrack from the late James Horner, who perfectly balances the film’s intermittent intrigue and danger with its larger comedic tone, creating something that is at turns triumphant, cautious, and playful. Director Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the duo who previously penned the somewhat thematically similar WarGames), seems to be seeking to correct the mistakes of 1985’s Fletch. The earlier film, on which Robinson was an uncredited screenwriter, is also one of intrigue with touches of comedy, but despite Fletch‘s modicum of success at both the box office and with audiences, I agree with Roger Ebert’s contemporary assessment of the movie’s star: “[Chevy] Chase’s performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level. […] Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.” Here, Robinson banks on Robert Redford’s longtime association with the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the CondorAll The President’s Men) as well as his natural charisma as an actor to do some of the shorthand of making Sneakers work without having to do too much legwork itself. Of course, every actor is great here; Poitier could have been used more, but he’s the absolute center of every scene that he’s in, and my love of Mary McDonnell is long documented so I won’t repeat myself here. Aykroyd, bless him, makes a meal out of his proto-Mulder role as he effortlessly tosses off lines about increases in cattle mutilations and ties the (unsuccessful, he claims) assassination of JFK to the men behind the Pete Rose scandal

Since I’ve mentioned Ebert, however, it bears noting that he was lukewarm on the film, calling it “sometimes entertaining […] but thin” and claims that it “recycles” older film cliches: “Redford’s team […] is yet another version of the World War II platoon that always had one of everything. […] the black guy, the fat guy, the blind guy, the woman[,] and the Kid.” Although he found parts of Sneakers cliche at points, he also praised Robinson for directing “with skill and imagination.” Brandon, I know that I’ve forced you to watch quite a few conspiracy films over the years; you were moderately positive in our discussion of Winter Soldier but struggled to find something nice to say about Undiscovered CountryGiven that Sneakers is at its core a cyberpunk story like previous Movie of the Month Strange Days, albeit one with a cassette futurism aesthetic, and that I know how much you love The Net, I’m hoping you enjoyed this one. Did it work for you? If so (or if not), why (or what would you have preferred)? 

Brandon: Like the last Mary McDonnell film we discussed as a Movie of the Month selection, Passion Fish, Sneakers mostly landed with me as an Afternoon Movie: low-key mainstream filmmaking best enjoyed while the sun is still out on a profoundly lazy day.  It’s the kind of movie I used to catch on broadcast television as a kid, when commercial breaks would stretch the runtime out to actually take up an entire afternoon, pleasantly so.  At the risk of participating in gender binary rhetoric, I’d say the main difference is that Passion Fish is a Mom Movie, while Sneakers is solidly a Dad Movie — the perfect basic cable background fodder to passively enjoy while your grandpa snores over the soundtrack.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip; it’s all cyber and no punk.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not middle-aged movie stars who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with the same 1990s cyberterror anxieties exploited in the much goofier The Net, I found it highly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design — which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.

As a result, I was more invested in the charm of the casting and the performances than I was in the actual espionage plot, which boils down to a global-scale hacking MacGuffin that has since become standard to most modern blockbusters in the MCU and Fast & Furious vein.  We’re introduced to Redford’s motley crew of square-looking cybercriminals in two separate rollcalls: one in which NSA agents read out their respective arrest records to quickly sketch out their past, and one in which they individually dance to Motown records with Mary McDonnell to show off their personal quirks.  I found the movie to be most vibrantly alive in those two scenes because of its general commitment to highlighting the eccentricities of its cast.  Redford & Poitier squeeze in an obligatory “We’re getting too old for this shit” quip in the first ten minutes of the film, but outside of those two rollcalls it’s rare for the movie to acknowledge just how out-of-place and Ordinary its elite hackers look (at least when compared to other 90s gems like Hackers and The Matrix), when that’s the only thing I really wanted to dwell on.  I could’ve watched an entire movie about Dan Akroyd’s awkwardly past-his-prime Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, for instance, since that role could’ve been much more comfortably filled by a Janeane Garofalo or a Fairuza Balk type without any change in demeanor or costuming.  What is Mother’s deal?  I’d love to know.

Britnee, were you similarly distracted by the movie’s casting & costuming of its “cyberpunk” hackers?  Who were the highlights (or lowlights) of the film’s cast of characters for you?

Britnee: I have to admit that Sneakers took me by surprise when I realized it was a hacker movie. I’ve known about its existence for years. It was always hanging out in my local library’s VHS collection. Its cover is a sneaky look at Robert Redford with a group of middle aged pals, so I just always assumed it was about him owning a shoe store in New England or something along those lines. It turns out that I was way off.

Like Brandon, I always expect hacker films to have a cast of sexy 90s cyperpunks. Leather pants, spiky hair, and those tiny cyber sunglasses that make no sense but all the sense at the same time. The only other way I’ve seen a hacker represented in a movie is a gamer guy with a messy t-shirt or a girl with a tight black tank top and cargo pants. The group in Sneakers is far from what I’m used to seeing as hackers in film. They look like my great-uncle and his group of wacky friends. Maybe Hollywood is working with the dark web overlords to paint a false picture of what real life computer hackers look like (sexy 90s cyperpunks) so we don’t think to consider middle aged sports bar crews as real hackers. Phil Robinson and friends were probably risking everything  to go against “them” to show us a glimpse of what real hackers are. That’s my Sneakers conspiracy theory, anyway.

All that being said, Robert Redford knocked it out of the park as Marty. He always beams so much charisma on screen, and in Sneakers, he does so while balancing being a hacking genius and a hero to dads everywhere.  I actually thought the casting all around was amazing, but I would have loved to see a nerdy middle aged woman in the same garb as Mother as a member of the crew. That would be the only suggestion I would make regarding casting, and that’s just me being selfish.

Something that really fascinated me about Sneakers was the beginning and ending wraparound about taking money from Republicans to give to liberal causes. I was surprised to see that in the movie considering it being in 1992 (post-Regan and in the midst of Bush). And it did tremendously well at the box office! Hanna, was this something that surprised you as well, considering the political climate at the time in the US? 

Hanna: Actually, I think this movie was a pretty safe political bet for Hollywood at the time. Sneakers was released just two months before Clinton’s election in 1992, and Marty—played by white, charismatic, red-blooded American Redford—is, in some ways, a perfect embodiment of the Third Way, a left-center political position that Clinton championed. Marty and his adversary both agree “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it”; the antagonist wants (or proclaims to want) to completely destroy the binary of wealth by toppling the inherently corrupt economics systems across the globe; in his new world, billionaires will cease to exist. This is obviously an untenable solution, but at least it’s radical. Marty’s idea of economic justice, on the other hand, is moving millions of dollars from the Republican National Convention to non-profits and NGOs, which is a fun joke that doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who is able to wield power and wealth. I would love the RNC to be suddenly and inexplicably bankrupt, but I doubt that the Koch brothers would give up on their political machinations after the RNC’s funding wound up at Greenpeace in the Sneakers universe. The film seemed squarely settled in the camp of without actually challenging the circumstances fueling wealth inequality; the film’s solution isn’t to radically re-think a system that allows a few wealthy people to disproportionately control our political, social, and economic realities, but to periodically move million dollar donations from one (pretty unpopular) organization to philanthropic ones, like Robin Hood for CEOs. At the very least, I wish they had been funneling money from Unilever.

Did any of that have any impact on my opinion or enjoyment of this movie whatsoever? Absolutely not. I loved Sneakers, and crime comedies from the late 90s do not have any kind of responsibility to be politically radical. Like Boomer mentioned, Ebert was soured by Sneakers’s use of material recycled from other movies, and it does play like a movie designed identify every possible permutation of the crime comedy cliché; fortunately for Phil Alden Robinson, I was more than happy to lap it up. I love any and all heist/spy movies, but I especially appreciated the earnest absurdity of Sneakers, from the standard CSI mumbo jumbo (enhancing on the tiniest details of already blurry photos) to goofy spy nonsense involving a room fortified with temperature and motion alarms. These cliches are definitely animated by a stellar cast, and I don’t think this film would have worked quite so well for me if it weren’t for the performances, especially from Redford and Poitier. I was so tickled by Crease’s impassioned probe into the details of Janek’s secret funding at 52:42 that I had to rewind and rewatch it multiple times (“Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because I know you can! And don’t tell me you won’t do it, because I’ve got to have it! Dammit, I need to know, and I need to know now!”), and it couldn’t have worked without Poitier hamming it up. As others have mentioned, Redford perfectly captures a version of the Strong, Good-Hearted, Down-To-Earth Man with smoother edges (like Harrison Ford mixed with Alan Alda, kind of), a character that is equally irresistible to Dads and Moms alike. This is the kind of movie that should have been on annual rotation in my household, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ve been singing this film’s praises ever since it was first brought to my attention some 5-6 years after release, when it turned up at a sleepover. It’s the rare (perhaps the only) film with expressly leftist views that my father tolerated watching more than once, and that should tell you something about its quality, if nothing else. 

Hanna: This movie made me remember how much I enjoy anagrams. I know it’s not a practical encoding technique, but those anagrams in the opening credits really roped me in, and I was on the edge of my seat when Robert Redford started shuffling those Scrabble tiles around. Spy films need more anagrams!

Brandon: As much as I enjoyed this movie as a time capsule of mainstream 90s filmmaking, I’m convinced I would’ve fully loved it as a post-“retirement” Soderbergh heist flick.  Pairing this caliber of movie star casting with the more playful, eccentric visual style of an Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, or No Sudden Move would’ve pushed it much closer to the style-over-substance ethos that usually wins my heart.  As is, it’s handsomely staged, but maybe a little too well behaved.  Maybe what I’m saying is that I should finally check out Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Britnee:  In 2016, NBC planned on making a TV series reboot of Sneakers, but to my knowledge, it looks like nothing came of it. I actually think a Sneakers TV series would be pretty great, so I hope something is still brewing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September:
 Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November:
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Starstruck (1982)

Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom & Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual.  Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos.  It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut.  There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.

I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time.  Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.  To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.

Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show).  You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson).  The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.

Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway.  It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school.  The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible.  There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc.  None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though.  For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical.  It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.

The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship.  That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types.  Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band.  Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff.  Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot.  Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space.  It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play.  It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all.  Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out.  Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide.  The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.

The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition.  Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released.  That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision.  That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye.  It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Starstruck (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Starstruck (1982).

Brandon: I’ve been thinking a lot about movie musicals lately.  Not only are the releases of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake threatening to dominate online film discourse all the way through next Oscars season, but we also recently discussed the grim, reality-grounded stage musical London Road as a Movie of the Month selection.  In his intro to London Road, Boomer mentioned a few reasons why the movie musical is a medium he struggles to connect with as an audience—its awkward rhyme schemes, its Declared Feelings, its emotional artificiality, etc.—a few of which I bristle at myself.  The real reason I struggle with most musical theatre, though, is that I often just don’t care for its music.  The singing-for-the-back-row emotional projection of most traditional, stagey musicals strikes me as a kind of false, strained earnestness that takes me out of the promised fantasy of the artform.  When I think of movie musicals I do love—Rocky Horror, Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig, The Lure, etc.—they’re often the ones that indulge in the punk, glam, synthpop, and new wave musical tones I already listen to in my idle time.

In that respect, the 1980s new wave extravaganza Starstruck is perfectly suited for my movie musical tastes.  Not only does it operate like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desertall huge tastemaking discoveries for me as a young film nerd—but it also plays like a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s landmark debut She’s So Unusual, one of the greatest pop albums of all time.  If you’ve ever found yourself watching a marathon of Cyndi Lauper music videos on YouTube (if you haven’t, who are you?) you’ll notice that there’s a vaguely defined storyline from that She’s So Unusual album cycle wherein Lauper is a bubbly, working class teen desperate to escape her restrictive household to find other artsy weirdos like her in the big city outside her reach.  Starstruck was released at least a full year before that album but follows a remarkably similar storyline: a bubbly teen who’s tired of working the counter at her family’s local pub maneuvers her way into fronting a new wave punk band, then a Top 40s pop career (thanks largely to collaborating with her younger, manically ambitious cousin) where she excels as her So Unusual self.  There’s some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying here as it is in those videos.

Speaking of music videos, I think the main reason Starstruck works so well for me as a movie musical is that its break-from-reality performances are presented in the visual language of early MTV broadcasts.  Given how much of my idle time is still spent YouTubing videos from 80s icons like Lauper, Kate Bush, and Madonna, that MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema speaks to me in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.

Boomer, was Starstruck able to sneak past your own genre biases, or did its new wave-ification of the artfrom still fall flat in the face of your general movie musical skepticism?

Boomer: I was initially resistant to giving in to Starstruck‘s allure in much the same way that the first time I saw God Help the Girl; despite my absolute and utter adoration for all things Belle & Sebastian (a close friend gave me a copy of The Life Pursuit for my recent birthday and it hasn’t left the turntable yet), I had a hard time surrendering to Stuart Murdoch’s twee vision until the first non-title musical number well and truly won me over. With regards to Starstruck, I had the same hesitancy, and was also immediately set a bit off-kilter by its odd opening that dispensed with the normal film structure–there’s no studio or distributor logo, we’re simply thrust straight into the opening credits. From there, we meet our two leads in a brief intro scene that’s mostly taken up by a phone call that obscures both of their faces. Before the film even hits the three minute mark, Phil Judd from The Swingers is staring straight into the camera and singing “Gimme Love,” and by the seven minute mark, Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is doing her own musical number, singing “Temper Temper.” And I … wasn’t really having a great time, if we’re being honest. As I’ve noted before, the two things that I dislike most about typical Western musicals are the artificially earnest “musical voice” that’s a hallmark of “classically” trained singers and the belabored nature of musical lyrics, as plot points and exposition are beaten into submission in order to match a rhyme scheme and rhythm. As to the former, I much prefer the raw earnestness of your average local garage band to the operatic diaphragming of the university, and although Kennedy’s untrained and—frankly—confrontational vocals certainly aligns with my preferences, the strong-armed rhyming lyrics are very much in the style of those of traditional musicals: So trigger happy you get vicious / Also getting malicious / And you throw the dishes. I know that those are real lyrics because The Swingers were a real band, but they’re painful.

But then … as soon as “Temper Temper” ends at about 8.5 minutes in, the “musical” part of this musical dries up for nearly 30 minutes, and we just get to enjoy the antics of Angus (Ross O’Donovan) and Jackie as they try to make Jackie famous. When Jackie first starts to tightrope walk in the family pub, the film was giving such strong The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking vibes that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, because I realized that what I had initially interpreted as just another “teenager wants to be a star” narrative, with all of its well-worn waypoints that we know from previous films in the genre, was actually a fantasy for children (the nudity, swearing, and smoking notwithstanding). The elaborate set piece that follows, in which Jackie dangles precariously from a wire between two buildings, was a genuine thrill in which there’s no real danger, unless you put yourself into the accepting mindset of a child who thinks Jackie may actually plummet to her death. That this is prelude to “Body and Soul,” which was the best and most energizing musical number to that point, only makes it that much more fun. The song itself wasn’t necessarily better than the dead-in-the-water tracks that frontloaded the picture, but that it’s not framed as an on-stage performance lends itself to a feeling of genuine spontaneity, and the frenetic energy of the family and the ever-present barflies as they dance around and sing is infectious, and the backing band gives it an effervescent quality that was lacking in the first two numbers. It’s genuinely catchy! 

And then we have our first (and only) song that’s a showpiece for Angus, and even though Angus is by far the most fascinating and magnetic character in this movie, it’s also … not very good. However, as musical producer/host Terry (John O’May) says to Jackie at one point after she botches a show, “There’s only boring and interesting, and you certainly weren’t boring;” and Angus is never boring. This is about the point where the movie really started to lose my interest: Angus’s number, “I Want To Live In a House,” fun as it was, ends at 55:05, and it’s less than two minutes before Jackie does her disastrous rendition of “My Belief in You,” which lasts over three minutes of screen time (56:45-59:48), and then it’s less than ninety seconds before Terry and Jackie perform “Tough,” which itself clocks in at five long minutes (60:07-65:07). Five minutes later, we’re in another musical number (“It’s Not Enough”), this time a sappy ballad, but it’s mercifully short. When looping back to take notes about those time codes, I think that “I Want to Live in a House” works fairly well in isolation and suffers primarily from its proximity to several consecutive stinkers, and although it’s not a good track, I was thoroughly charmed by the performances and dancing of Donovan and the backing band (mostly comprised of members of The Swingers minus Phil Judd, but also our love interest Robbie, as played by Ned Lander). It’s interesting, not boring, like the tracks that follow it. After this overstuffed middle section, we head into our final act, in which we spend a goodly amount of time with the Mullens family, as they have what may be their last Christmas together in their apartments above the pub and commiserate about the possibility of losing their business and home. After that, the last performances at the opera house are pretty fun, counterposed with the Mullens et al watching the performance and doing their little old people dances, and I was pleased in spite of myself. 

So I would have to say that, yeah, the New Wave nature of the music did do some of the legwork of making the musical part of this musical more palatable. The lyrics of the songs were still very much in line with what annoys me about the traditional musical—It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to do it / It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to chew it is a lyric written by an alien trying to imitate human music after only having heard “Rock Lobster”—but the energy and unadulterated, unpolished performances really made up for it. The musical sequences would perhaps be better served from being more spaced out, rather than happening in multiple clumps, but there’s an argument to be made that putting all of the worst ones in the middle and lumping them together helps you get through them more efficiently. 

Britnee, a few weeks back my best friend and I were sitting around and watching Cyndi Lauper videos (as one does), and she asked me if I thought a woman with Lauper’s lack of “traditional” talent would be able to make it in the current musical market. I’m of the mind that it’s possible, since it’s more difficult for most people to sing along with a classically trained vocalist as opposed to someone whose range is “whatever range the listener is in” (Lindsay Ellis once made this comparison between Christina Aguilera, who is inarguably a better vocalist, and Britney Spears, who is the better performer; Aguilera has something in the range of four octaves that she can dance between, while Spears has a broader appeal because it’s a lot easier to keep step with “Toxic” than, say, “Beautiful”). I have no interest in shaming Jo Kennedy, but she’s in the latter camp, with a sound that’s very similar to Lauper’s high, nasally own. Do you think that if Jackie were a real person, she would have had a real chance to make it big in 1982? Do you think she would have a chance now?

Britnee: I honestly never made the Cyndi Lauper connection with Jackie, but that definitely makes sense. I don’t think that Jackie would have made it big in the world of mainstream pop in 80s though. She’s too cool for any of that nonsense. She reminded me a lot of Kate Fagan (especially with Kate’s hit “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool”), but with a little more quirkiness. At most, she would have been more on the popular side of underground 80s pop/punk. I actually think she would find more mainstream success today. With social media being a huge component to the success of musicians, especially in the world of Pop, she would be a hit! If nothing else, her tightrope stunt would be all over TikTok and the Gram, reaching millions around the globe. 

I do agree that Jackie’s strength lies more in her performance than her voice, but my god, this soundtrack is so damn good. I love pretty much every song, especially “I Want to Live In A House” and “Body and Soul”.  And all of the outrageous performances that go along with the songs are chef’s-kiss spectacular. That’s something that musicals don’t always do as well as Starstruck. The wacky hijinks and action constantly happening around the musical numbers add to the entire feel of the movie. It’s so high energy and fun without falling into any boring slumps. 

Other than the fabulous tunes, I think the other component of this movie that blows it out of the water is the eccentric pub crowd. The lady covered in leopard print, her Lifetime movie mom, Nana, the bird, and the rest of the gang could have had their own TV show that I would have watched without a doubt. Not to mention the gorgeous pub décor and tiling. While that part of the film was a huge win for me, I did have some difficulty following along with some part of the plot. Especially the drama in her family. I knew that Angus was Jackie’s cousin, but I was so confused by the dynamics between her mother, father, and uncle. I honestly thought that her uncle was her widowed/divorced mother’s boyfriend for a bit. It was just hard for me to keep track of that story while focusing on Jackie’s journey to stardom. 

Hanna, what do you think about Jackie’s family drama happening in the background? Was it necessary or added anything extra to the movie? 

Hanna: I also had a hard time understanding the family dynamics; I consistently mixed up brothers, cousins, uncles, and romantic partners up until the very end of the film. I definitely thought Pearl was having a fling with her brother for a minute. I have pretty terrible hearing, so I would blame 80% of my confusion on the thick, wondrous Aussie accents. I wasn’t that invested in the particular relationships as a result, but I think the haze of confusion actually complemented everything I liked about the film; it added another little another little layer of chaos over the dance numbers and bare-breasted publicity stunts. On top of that, I enjoyed each family member so much (Nanna is a sweetie, Pearl’s outfits are A+, and I’m a sucker for Uncle Reg’s cockatoo) that I was happy to watch them saunter around Sydney and Pearl’s beautiful pub without quite knowing what was going on.

Besides, the film with or without the drama is absolutely delightful. I was totally charmed by Jackie, Robbie, and the weird little pub community. There are so many delicious visuals that have stuck in my mind: the seafoam barmaid dress! The pool boys with their big inflatable sharks! The big red kangaroo outfit! Jo Kennedy’s performance alone makes Starstruck worth the watch; she carries her plucky new-wave energy with an effortless joy, and her rabid determination to stardom give the film a fantastic backbone. Basically, Starstruck is a whole lot of fun, and you should watch it; I love watching musicals when I’m in the mood for a visual feast with a bare minimum of conflict, but I never dreamed that the pop-punk version of musical escapism was out there waiting for me.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I am completely in love with the sweeping curved bar and the splashes of tile Pearl’s pub, which was filmed in the Harbour View Hotel in Sydney. It’s one of the most unique locations I’ve seen in a long time (Hilly Blue’s mansion in Trouble in Mind gets second place; I would love to go on a Swampflix MOTM location tour). It looks like the bar was renovated with wood paneling, and all of the beautiful colorful tile is gone. It’s still gorgeous, but I’m crushed that I’ll never be able to see the pub in its kitschy prime. 

Britnee: Jackie’s cousin Angus had a look that reminded me a lot of AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young. They both wore blazers with shorts, both were named Angus, and they both were Australian. I don’t think this means anything, but I thought it was interesting and worth mentioning!

Boomer: It’s worth noting that the lead singer of The Swingers, Phil Judd, was much more handsome than Ned Lander, who plays the love interest, Robbie (for what it’s worth, I think Lander looks much cuter now in his older age). I can only imagine two reasons why they didn’t use him in the film outside of his appearances at the beginning and end during the “Gimme Love” and “Starstruck” musical numbers, respectively: (a) at nearly 30, it was too creepy to have him act as love interest to the supposedly teenaged Jackie, or (b), he refused to stoop to doing the “litter box” choreography for the “I Want to Live in a House” segment.

Also, if you’re a sci-fi fan and saw the name “Melissa Jaffer” in the credits and recognized Mrs. Booth and weren’t sure from where, it’s because she’s Noranti! From Farscape!  

Brandon: While Jackie’s fashion sense and persona both strongly resemble Cyndi Lauper’s, I think her vocal style lands much closer to Lene Lovich’s, especially in the song “Temper, Temper”.  If Jackie were a real-life performer in the 1980s, I think she could have easily “made it” on the level of Lovich’s minor-league version of success: a few decent new wave albums on a mid-card record label like Stiff, followed by decades of obscurity in the shadow of more memorable performers of the same ilk like Kate Bush, Nina Hagen, and Siouxsie Sioux.  As an eternal sucker for new wave kitsch who owns most of Lene Lovich’s output on vinyl, I can almost guarantee I’d have Jackie Mullins records on my shelf right now if they existed.  I’m actually frustrated that I don’t own the Starstruck soundtrack, as it’s wonderful from start to end (contrary to some outrageous claims made elsewhere in this conversation).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Chicken People (2016)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2016’s Chicken People, is a fluff piece documentary about eccentrics who breed chickens for Best in Show competitions, produced by Country Music Television’s filmmaking wing CMT Docs.  It’s closer in quality to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, but the volume and variety of chickens on display is borderline surreal at feature length.  This is especially striking in the film’s fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  Chicken People does its best to highlight the personalities of the people who breed & manicure these exquisite show-chicken specimens, but those imperfect human masters cannot compete with their pampered little dinosaurs for pure entertainment value.  Chickens are such an omnipresent American staple that we rarely take the time to consider how absolutely bizarre they are as a species, and it was satisfying to see a documentary take the time to examine their physical features and wider cultural footprint in intense detail.

While chickens frequently play small roles in movies like Moana, Return to Oz, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s rare to find a film that’s entirely about chickens, allowing the strange little beasts to take center stage.  They’re largely overlooked as a worthwhile cinematic subject.  However, Chicken People isn’t entirely alone in giving chickens their full due on the silver screen.  Here are a few more recommended titles if you were hypnotized by the immaculately groomed birds in our Movie of the Month and want to see more movies where chickens are the star of the show.

The Natural History of the Chicken (2000)

The most obvious pairing for a chicken-themed double feature would be the made-for-TV documentary The Natural History of the Chicken, which could just as easily been titled Chicken People without any major changes to its content.  Like Chicken People, The Natural History of the Chicken is a wonderfully quirky documentary about the nature and culture of chickens in America; it just happened to be produced for PBS instead of CMT.  Instead of solely covering the Best-in-Show beauty pageants documented in our Movie of the Month, Natural History focuses on a wider range of domestic chicken phenomena: chickens being frozen in winter and thawed back to life, chickens with the self-sacrificing bravery of Christ on the cross, neighbors being sued for their obnoxious collection of screeching roosters, chickens intently watching opera on television, etc.  The film shares the same fascination with the tiny-dino birds that makes Chicken People so hypnotic (including photographing the beasts in pitch-black voids to emphasize their strange physiques), as well as its reality-television patina as a work of art.

Because The Natural History of the Chicken was produced over two decades ago, its version of reality-TV filmmaking is more of the Rescue 911 variety, where lightly fictionalized “real” incidents are conveyed in dramatic re-enactments instead of heavy post-production editing.  That quality only adds to the film’s delicate surrealism, though, which is also emphasized in its cut-and-paste green screen effects.  There’s something about its low-key absurdism that reminded me heavily of David Byrne’s Americana portrait True Stories, which I mean as the highest compliment.  And it even comes with its own animal-documentary pedigree behind the camera that makes that kind of lofty comparison somewhat reasonable.  Director Mark Lewis is best known for his 1980s documentary about the disastrous introduction of Cane Toads to Australia (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), but he’s also got aesthetically similar pieces on dogs, cats, cows, and rats.  I’m all in on watching his entire catalog after falling in love with this chicken doc. It’s incredibly endearing, and maybe even bests Chicken People as the pinnacle of the chicken documentary genre.

Chicken Park (1994)

Speaking of repurposing the title Chicken People, I think it’d also be a great name for a horror film, like a poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version, the edible little dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature feature monstrosities – especially since the ones we’ve already got are such a weak crop.  The chicken-person gag in Freaks is great, but it’s only a brief coda at the end of the film instead of the main thrust of its plot.  The bad-taste musical Poultrygeist does feature some great chicken-person gore at feature length, but is outright unwatchable thanks to Lloyd Kaufman’s borderline reactionary-Conservatism as a supposed equal-opportunity-offender.  So, the only genuine option for feature-length chicken horror is not a Cronenbergian creature feature about humanoid chicken hybrids but rather a straight-to-Italian-TV horror comedy that was hated even in its time by critics & audiences alike.

As you might have guessed from its title and year of release, Chicken Park is a feature-length parody of Jurassic Park, featuring chickens instead of dinosaurs.  It strives to be a vulgar ZAZ knockoff but lacks the necessary energy or specificity of humor to really excel as such. Still, it’s mostly cute-bad (especially in its Night of the Lepus dino-chicken effects) as opposed to the offensive-on-purpose bad vibes of Poultrygeist (give or take a few unnecessary, unforgivable indulgences in homophobic slurs).  It also earns minor bonus points for heavily featuring Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma in a bit part as a Vampira/Morticia Addams spoof (among other one-off parodies of non-dino movies of the 90s like Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Rambo), which is some A+ casting, but not nearly enough to carry the entire film.  Chicken Park is only recommendable for being the one halfway-watchable, feature-length chicken horror of note.  We deserve better chicken-themed schlock. They’re terrifying! Close-up at least.

Chicken Run (2000)

It’s a little misleading to claim that there is too little chicken content across the broad cinematic landscape.  There is one specific area where chickens have been allowed to run wild: children’s films. Besides being featured as comical side characters in films like Moana and Return to Oz, there are also a few high-profile kids’ movies with a main cast of animated chickens: 1991’s Rock-a-Doodle, 2005’s Chicken Little, 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure, etc.  I’m too allergic to modern computer animation to suggest most of those titles as a Chicken People pairing, but since the majority of movies about chickens appear to be made for children, I also can’t ignore that end of the spectrum entirely.  My way of meeting the criterion halfway is in finally checking out Chicken Run, a traditional stop-motion animated feature from Aardman Studios, home of Wallace & Gromit.  Raking in $200mil at the box office, it’s to date the most commercially successful stop-motion film of all time.  Those aren’t Minions numbers, exactly, but it’s still encouraging that a traditionally animated feature was able to succeed at all in a post-Pixar world.  The popularity of chickens in children’s media is apparently just that strong.

Chicken Run is an animated homage to classic prison escape dramas like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and, most significantly, The Great Escape.  It details a coop full of cowardly British hens being hyped up by a brash American rooster (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) into escaping from their death-trap farm before they’re dismembered and packaged into meals.  A children’s film about solidarity and collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression, it’s a hilariously dark and daringly political work – especially in an era when most kids’ media settles for celebrities making empty pop culture references in unenthused voiceover.  Chicken Run is maybe a little too dialogue-heavy to stand out as the very best Aardman has to offer, as the studio most excels at translating Silent Era physical comedy to the stop-motion medium.  Still, it’s tactile and emotionally complex in a way most post-Pixar CG animation isn’t allowed to be.  Besides, it likely is the best narrative feature film entirely about chickens, regardless of medium or studio.

-Brandon Ledet