Bonus Features: A New Leaf (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1972’s A New Leaf, was the directorial debut of stage comedy legend Elaine May.  May reluctantly starred in the film herself opposite Walter Matthau, who plays a destitute, asexual playboy aristocrat who plans to marry her neurotic heiress character, kill her, and liquidate her fortune.  Only, his plans are thwarted when it gradually dawns on him that there is one thing in the world he enjoys more than money: his wife’s company.  A New Leaf is a darkly funny, bitterly anti-romantic romcom until, against all odds, it ends on the familiarly sweet notes of a traditional romcom.  Elaine May’s performance is a large part of its success, as the only reasonable response to watching her nervously unravel under her gigantic glasses is to immediately blurt out “Marry me,” regardless of whether you also want to kill her for her inheritance.  It’s a shame, then, that her frustrations behind the camera tripped up the film’s potential success.

Every movie Elaine May directed was delivered over-schedule & over-budget.  Even her relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cuts of similarly troubled productions down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background, writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time – poor thing.  She did manage to squeeze four feature films out of Hollywood producers before they took away her director’s chair, though, and luckily for audiences they’re all great movies, whether or not they lost money.  If you enjoyed A New Leaf, I recommend that you watch all three films May directed afterwards, detailed below.  And if you’re a Hollywood producer, I recommend that you spend even more money on whatever dream project the 90-year-old auteur wants to see made before she leaves this world.  Chances are high you’ve already wasted much more money on much worse films.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

I guess it’s inaccurate to claim that every Elaine May movie was a commercial flop.  Her follow-up to A New Leaf was her one hit comedy, enough of a financial success that it inspired a major studio remake starring Ben Stiller in the aughts.  Curiously, it’s also the only film in her catalog that’s not currently available to watch at home through official means. The Heartbreak Kid has been left to rot on YouTube and Archive.org as a long-forgotten 20th Century Fox acquisition that the art-indifferent overlords at Disney have no concern for. Which is a shame, since it might very well be May’s career best as a director.  At the very least, its anti-romcom humor is even darker & more vicious than A New Leaf’s, which is impressive since that debut was about marital murder.

Charles Grodin stars as a fresh-out-of-college shit-talker who immediately realizes on a honeymoon road trip that he despises his bride.  While vacationing in Miami, he ditches her for a younger, blonder co-ed who he has no business fooling with, inevitably finding himself still deeply unhappy after another successful romantic conquest.  The Heartbreak Kid is essentially a horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral deficiency.  May’s psychedelic zoom-ins on the Miami resort sunshine, Groden’s complaints that his wife is “not really his type,” and the escalating tension of the plot’s sitcom hijinks are outright maddening, whereas the similar poisonous romance humor of A New Leaf plays oddly, subtly sweet.  Together, they make a great pair, and they’re the best argument for May’s genius as a comedic auteur.

Mikey & Nicky (1976)

May’s least typical work is her all-in-one-night gangster drama Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk & John Cassavetes as a pair of uneasy, paranoid friends at the bottom rung of the crime-world ladder.  Falk appears to be the kinder, more calming presence of the two, but over the course of the film both characters expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone between either of their bodies.  They’re not all that different from the self-absorbed, oblivious brutes of May’s comedies, except that working in a different genre means she no longer has to ingratiate them to the audience for the story to work.  Moving away from a character-based comedy structure also expands her scope to capture a portrait of a grimy, pre-Giuliana era NYC instead of just a couple losers who occupy it.  The film’s late-night setting, 70s funk soundtrack, guerilla-style camerawork, and authentic casting of dive-bar creeps as background extras all feel like they’d be much more at home in a Scorsese picture like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets than a typical film from Elaine May.  But she’s damn good at it.

Mikey & Nicky presents the best argument that May deserves as much time to tinker around in the editing room as she desires.  The dialogue has a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage. So, it’s mind-blowing to read about how its narrative flow was mostly constructed after-the-fact in the editing room, like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy.  Her way of putting a story together might not have been financially sound at the time (considering that her over-schedule shoots were burning through celluloid while Apatow’s only clutter up digital servers), but you can’t argue with the results. She makes great movies.

Ishtar (1987)

The only time I can feel the overcooked, under-planned sweatiness of Elaine May’s directorial style is in her final picture, the one that effectively became a punchline synonym for box office disaster.  Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its contemporary reviews suggested.  In its earliest stretch, it’s an ahead-of-its-time, Tim & Eric style anti-comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to instead make some quick money as a nightclub act in Morocco.  The film also isn’t as great as its modern reclaimers suggest.  Once it arrives in Morocco, May loses the personable intimacy that makes her earlier comedies so great, as Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually drafted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its post-Andy Kauffman, proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump, which involves a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and our bumbling leads getting lost in the desert.

Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, Ishtar does not deserve its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in the spring of 1985. The film is often funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).  Still, it ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as it finally sealed May’s reputation as box office poison after four consecutive debacles. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released.  Even if her productions were overly extravagant for what she was supposed to be delivering, I’d say that was a mistake.  After all, she was only hurting the money men.  She consistently put out great art, even when it was bad for business.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: A New Leaf (1971)

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 Alli made Boomer, Brandon, and Britnee watch A New Leaf (1971).

Alli:  Oh, heavens! I’m so glad to finally share this movie with y’all.

Elaine May’s 1971 black comedy A New Leaf is about bachelor Henry Graham (Walter Mathau), who goes absolutely broke after squandering his fortune on his Ferrari, horses, exclusive clubs, fancy restaurants, and his impeccable art collection. After getting the idea from his butler, he decides to marry a rich woman and kill her for her money. His target is botanist Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), who is a hopelessly clumsy, gauche, and stunted adult. As their marriage and the movie progresses, Henry takes on more and more responsibility in their household in the hopes of having the opportunity to murder Henrietta and become independently wealthy again. I like to describe this movie as the “anti romcom.” There are plenty tropes of a standard romcom with none of the actual romance: a bachelor who has never considered marrying, a meet cute featuring lots of spilt tea, an impossible deadline for the wedding, and disastrous boat trip (although this one is a disastrous canoe trip). I’d even argue that there’s a sort of “opposites attract” dynamic at play.

Except they’re not exactly opposites. Henry. Henrietta. Two sides of the same coin. They’re both adults unable to handle the day to days of adult life. For Henry, it’s because he doesn’t want to. For Henrietta, she’s just so caught up in her ferns that she’s clueless. Both are unmarried and not actively searching until now. With Henrietta getting the confidence to hang off cliffs to find her ferns and Henry learning the practical logistics of household management and taxes, they find a way to—for lack of a better term—complete each other. By the end of the movie, I find them endearing together somehow. 

What did y’all think of the movie? Do you think they belong together even if they’re not lovers and—with some obvious queer subtext—Henry has no interest whatsoever in women?

Brandon: Funnily enough, when I search for “Walter Matthau A New Leaf gay subtext”, the top Google result I’m getting is Alli’s original review of the film for Swampflix in 2016.  Considering how much online movie nerds like to read into fictional characters’ “queer coding”—intentional or otherwise—you’d think we’d be in our usual spot in the double or triple digits of results pages.  All I can really confirm is that Henry’s sexuality was on my mind throughout the film. I kept trying to pin him to a specific modern queer context every time he intimately grabbed his butler’s arm or scoffed when a country club manager expressed surprise at his sudden (financial) interest in women.  Elaine May has enjoyed some recent reappraisal as an overlooked auteur in historically macho film canons (alongside other greats like Varda, Ottinger, Wertmüller, and Campion), an effort that’s intensified even since we covered Mikey & Nicky as a Movie of the Month in 2017. So, it’s a little curious that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how this marriage-cynical anti-romcom could be interpreted through a queer lens.

Ultimately, I settled on both Henry and Henrietta being some form of ace.  They are both so unbothered with and oblivious to physical sexual attraction that it doesn’t even occur to them that the everyday companionship of marriage might be emotionally beneficial even if they have no desire to fuck.  The entire arc of Henry’s character here is the painfully gradual realization that he enjoys & benefits from Henrietta’s company.  That delay is, of course, comically ridiculous, since no reasonable human being could watch Elaine May nervously unravel under those gigantic glasses without immediately blurting “Marry me!” (whether or not they also want to murder her for her inheritance).  Plot-wise, the two movies A New Leaf most reminded me of were Charlie Chaplin’s against-type black comedy Monsieur Verdoux and its Ealing Studios descendent Kind Hearts and Coronets, both about the convenient financial gains of murder. The difference is those predecessors have ice-cold hearts that May’s film only pretends to emulate in its earliest stretch.  This ultimately is a very romantic movie about two absolute weirdos who belong together but don’t know how to express—or even realize—their mutual fondness in a world oblivious to their asexuality.  At least, “Walter Matthau A New Leaf asexual” leads to much more credible online resources than this unpolished, self-published blog.

Boomer: I’m also going to throw my hat into the ring for Henry being asexual. There’s that scene right around the 25-minute mark where Bosley from Charlie’s Angels tries to fob Henry off on a water skier at some social event, and, when the two are alone in the night, she attempts to remove her bathing suit top and Henry bleats in terror: “No! Don’t let them out!” I laughed quite a lot at the delivery, but there’s something so bone-deep terrified in that line read that doesn’t say “gay,” to me, it says “completely and abjectly terrified at the very prospect of sex in any form.” It’s also the first time that we’ve seen Henry hit an emotional peak; he’s mostly just gruffly irascible and impatient, but he never hits a boiling point and instead stays in a low, simmering annoyance. The closest he comes before this moment to showing a positive emotion is when he surveys his favorite lunch restaurant and speaks, not to the handsome waiter but to the dining area itself, as if he is a lover bidding a final farewell. “Desire” only exists to Henry insofar as he can only tolerate the finest that life has to offer. 

To be honest, at first this felt like it was going to make me hate this viewing experience. When Henry’s attorney, Beckett, is finally able to make contact with him in order to tell him that he’s used up all of his (vast, incomprehensibly vast) funds, it follows closely on the heels of a scene in which Henry is about to go gallivanting around the skies in a fighter plane, and he doesn’t even seem like he’s having a very good time doing it. But even with all that rich assholery, it’s impossible not to love Walter Matthau in anything that he’s in; even when he’s a total jerk, you can’t help but be charmed by him and his curmudgeonliness. By the time he was wistfully bidding farewell to all of the cultural hallmarks of excessive wealth, I hadn’t come to like him necessarily, but I wasn’t taking delight in laughing at his downfall either. When it comes down to it, he’s ultimately very good with the household finances and starts plugging up holes in Henrietta’s estate budget immediately, which immediately stops her unscrupulous family lawyer from continuing to leech from her. That was the first scene where I really liked Henry, and it carried through the rest of the film. 

Britnee: I really enjoyed this! It’s the asexual “romcom” that I didn’t I needed. A New Leaf is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a while. It reminded me of one of my favorite films of all time, What’s Up, Doc?. Both came out in the early 70s and are so comically chaotic. Walter Matthau’s performance as Henry, the spoiled middle aged man-child, completely blew me away. I’d only previously seen him in the Grumpy Old Men movies, Dennis the Menace, and Cactus Flower. He somehow looks like he’s been 70 years old forever. What a face! His emotionless delivery of back-to-back sassy lines had me howling. The scene where a child walks in on him while he’s getting dressed for the wedding is one of the best. When he yells at her to get out and repeats “I won’t have her touching my things!”, I saw so much of myself in his character. It’s very “psychobiddy,” even coming from a 50 year-old man.

I also have to mention how impressive Elaine May is. To manage such a brilliant film as her directorial debut while starring in it herself is such a major accomplishment. I’m ashamed to not have known of this sooner. This is why Movie of the Month is so great! Also, I’m dying to try one of Henrietta’s Malaga Coolers. Not only has May made her mark in the film industry, she’s also made it into the world of fragrance, as the Demeter fragrance line has a perfume based on the beverage. I’ll have to get one for my purse!

Like Boomer and Brandon, I also picked up on the asexuality of the main characters. It made sense for Henry, but I had to think a little more to figure out Henrietta. She was more into Henry than he was into her (obviously), but she was more interested in the companionship Henry offered than anything sexual or romantic. They both remind me of these old neighbors I had many moons ago. They would sit on their shared porch and nag each other constantly, but they hung out every day and appreciated each other in their own weird way. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Renee Taylor (Sharon) is fabulous for her entire four minutes of screentime. That waterski scene is comedy gold. The character played like a younger version of her famous role in The Nanny (Fran’s mother, Sylvia Fine), which makes me wonder if that’s her true personality or just a character she’s developed. Either way, I’m so thankful for her existence. 

Alli: I’m also fascinated by the Malaga Coolers. All a quick google search on them brings up is this movie, so it was obviously the worst imaginable offense against wine snobs she could invent, which I love. BUT I actually have tried this beverage. Once, as an adult, I went to my grandma’s house, and she busted out the Mogen David and soda to whip some up.  It was … not great, as you would expect.

The Malaga Cooler: the drink of awkward botanists and crazy Grandmas everywhere. (RIP my grandma, who died this year. She was quite a lady.)

Boomer: So after having to drive my friend’s car back from the Halloween party last weekend because someone forgot to eat before drinking, I took my own car out for a midnight drive to get some fast food. Unfortunately, after passing the Whataburger because the line was insurmountable and getting halfway to Jack-in-the-Box, my check engine light came on, so I turned around and went straight home. After going to the AutoZone first thing the next morning for their free diagnostic, it turned out that there was an issue with my catalytic converter. You see, I had carbon buildup… on my valves. The man at the store asked if I took mostly small, short trips (I do), and apparently I, like Henry, simply don’t take my car out for enough long drives to “clear the throat” of my car, as it were. As a non-car-guy, I didn’t realize that this was what was happening with Henry’s car as well; I just let that whole scene float past me in the stream. Luckily, I went and got it checked out quickly enough that the AutoZone employee was able to recommend something called Cataclean, which you pour into your tank and it clears out all the carbon (from the valves). I’m happy to say that, four days later, my check engine light has gone off! (Not sponsored.) So this is my advice to all of you out there in readerland: if you take a bunch of short drives, like I do, then get you some of this stuff and use if before it becomes a problem. And if your check engine light comes on, don’t ignore it; get it checked out right away. The life you save could be your own (car’s). 

Brandon: Having now seen all four of Elaine May’s feature films, I find myself struggling with the question of whether or not she’s a “great” director.  She certainly makes great films.  Even the worst of her catalog, the misunderstood anti-comedy Ishtar, deserves more attention and praise than it gets.  At the same time, each of those movies was delivered over-schedule & over-budget, so it’s not like she was especially adept at managing her shoots.  This relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs that the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cut of similarly troubled productions like Mikey & Nicky down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time, poor thing.

I suppose Elaine May is a great director in the only way that should matter to audiences: her movies are sharply funny & uniquely entertaining.  How she manages time & money is more of an issue for Hollywood executives to worry about; they’ve certainly invested a lot more financial capital on projects with a lot less cultural value than May’s four modest bangers.  I only really bring up the question here to note that her management of the practical & financial aspects of filmmaking is remarkably similar to the disastrous, hands-off way she runs her inherited estate as Henrietta in A New Leaf, adorably so.

Next month: Britnee presents Peyton Place (1957)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Stepmonster (1993)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1993 creature feature Stepmonster, is psychosexual-id horror for kids, very much of the Troll 2 & The Pit variety – complete with monstrous “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”.  It feels like producer Roger Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory in that way, recalling the straight-to-VHS kiddie horrors Band produced under his Full Moon sublabel Moonbeam.  There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over to Stepmonster, briefly revealing the titular monster in an early attack and then steadily doling out “kills” (kidnappings, really) throughout the rest of the runtime to maintain the audience’s attention.  Otherwise, this is pure Moonbeam; all that’s missing is a dinky Casio score from Charlie’s brother, Richard Band.  That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though.  The tropopkin’s rubber-suit design reads as a human-sized variation of the Gremlins knockoffs that VHS schlockmeisters were making in this era (Ghoulies in Band’s case, Munchies in Corman’s), but by the time she’s wreaking havoc in her wedding gown—trying to consummate her marriage to Alan Thicke under the full moon—the movie achieves a kids-horror novelty all of its own.  I’m not surprised to hear it wormed its way into its pint-sized audience’s subconscious through that kind of kindertrauma imagery, even if it has plenty of direct corollaries in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.

It would be easy, then, to recommend further viewings in Corman & Band’s other kindertrauma horrors, but they’d likely be too monotonous when watched in bulk.  What distinguishes Stepmonster from other Moonbeam & Corman productions is the monstrous stepmother angle succinctly headlined in its title, tapping into a very specific fear children have of the strangers in their homes who married their parents.  It’s a long running tradition in the genre, dating at least as far back as the wicked stepmother villain of Cinderella.  And since it’s Halloween season, it feels important to highlight some of the all-time great titles in that canon: the greatest evil-stepparent horrors of all time.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more iconic horror films about the monsters our parents married.

The Stepfather (1987)

Without question, the greatest evil-stepparent horror of all time is the 80s slasher The Stepfather, a superlative indicated by its definitive title.  Terry O’Quinn is the stepfather, a sociopathic serial killer who cycles through families like he’s updating his wardrobe, killing the old batch in cold blood instead of dropping it off at Goodwill.  O’Quinn is an explosive volcano of white-man rage, barely suppressing his violent outbursts under a thin facade of Ward Cleaver, Father Knows Best-style suburban Family Values.  It is one of the all-time great villain performances, regardless of genre.  There was already a bland, forgettable remake in the aughts, but the only other actor who could maybe pull this performance off is Will Forte, whose comedic version of bottled-up fury is a direct echo of the terror in O’Quinn’s piercing, hateful eyes.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Something you’ll notice about all of these evil-stepparent horrors is that they’re all movies about real estate.  Terry O’Quinn’s genre-defining killer is a local realtor.  Alan Thicke’s oblivious dad in Stepmonster is an architect and land developer.  And then there’s The Amityville Horror, in which a couple moves into a dream home they can only afford because the previous family who lived there was murdered inside.  James Brolin stars as the stepfather substitute for Jack Torrance, driven mad by the Bad Vibes of the titular home to the point where he’s axing down the bathroom door to murder his family cowering on the other side.  He starts off mildly resentful that his wife’s children call him “George” instead of “Daddy,” escalates to complaining “Those kids of yours need some goddamn discipline,” and eventually settles on “Those kids of yours need to be decapitated.” Overall, the original Amityville is quintessential mainstream 70s horror, in that it’s sometimes deeply chilling, often vaguely boring, and features a grotesquely overqualified Margot Kidder.  It’s an essential entry in the evil-stepparent canon, though, not least of all because it’s about a valuable piece of cursed real estate.

Hellraiser (1987)

Enough about evil stepdads.  Fans of Stepmonster deserve some iconic evil-stepmother villainy, for which I’ll direct them to Clive Barker’s cosmic horror masterpiece Hellraiser.  The Hellraiser series is remembered for its demonic S&M cenobites Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and—wait for it—The Female, but the scariest villain in the first movie is the stepmother figure, Julia Cotton.  Julia is the last stepmother you’d want to have as a vulnerable teenage girl, even further down the list than the tropopkin bride of Stepmonster.  Caught up in a torrid affair with your undead sex-pest uncle while neglecting your father, she lures strange men home from the bar for casual hookups, only to murder them with a hammer for her lover’s disgusting amusement.  She doesn’t even come to your defense when your uncle hits on you, beckoning “Come to daddy” while wearing your father’s skin as a Halloween mask.  “Hellraiser” is already a great title, but maybe this is the movie that should have been called “Stepmonster.”

To my shame, rewatching Hellraiser for this feature was the first time it really clicked with me as one of the all-time greats.  I’ve always enjoyed it in parts but was trying to fit it in a Hellbound: Hellraiser II shaped box that did it no favors.  Now I’m finally able to embrace the domestic melodrama at its core instead of looking past it for all the lurid, putrid filth that makes it spooky.  All it took was a little soul searching about who qualifies as the worst stepparents in the history of horror, a list of which Julia Cotton deserves to rank near the very top.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Stepmonster (1993)

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 Alli, Brandon, and Britnee watch Stepmonster (1993).

Boomer: Did you ever have one of those movies that’s stored so far down in the back of your brain that it just haunts you? I don’t know how old I was the first time I saw Stepmonster. I know that it was on TV, the Disney Channel specifically, and that it must have been during one of their free preview weekends. With this having a 1993 release date, I’m going to peg it at 1994/1995, when I was (I’m going to date myself here) seven. I think if I were even marginally older, this movie would never have lodged itself so deeply in my brain. There were countless tiny images from this movie lodged in my brain that I knew originated here: the guy from the Michael Bay Aaron Burr milk PSA running a comic book store, our young protagonist standing in a demolished living room holding a bat, that super cool monster and what she looked like in a wedding dress, and (most distinctly for some reason) Alan Thicke playing the violin. There were even other images that, if I imagine my child mind as a kind of filing cabinet, had fallen out of the Stepmonster file and gotten stuck in the back of the drawer, summoned up very occasionally by an unexpected mental misfire and with no real idea of their origin: a goldfish skeleton being spat out of a jewelry box, John “Gomez Addams” Astin dressed as a priest and smoking, a woman falling downstairs in her wedding dress, and what I guess we could call “the PG-13 Body Double sequence.” It’s also the movie that prompted me to ask my mother what “phlegm” was. For years, I couldn’t track this movie down. It was out of print, didn’t seem to have held any interest for any library in any place I lived, and never showed up on the shelves of any Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul that I frequented. Three years ago, the Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar was hosting a VHS swap meet, and there it was: Stepmonster. As someone who was a VHS apologist and hobbyist for a long time but one who only ever built his collection out of thrift store finds and hanging around dying rental stores like a carrion bird in the last days of the independents, I paid the most I had paid for a cassette after 2003: a whopping $5. “It’s rare,” the man behind the folding table had said. And I knew he was right. 

And then it sat in my collection. I knew it would make its way to Movie of the Month one day. After all, this movie was all but lost media, right? Out of print, out of sight, out of mind. I just had to wait until my month fell during spooky season, and in 2022, it was finally time. Vexed to nightmare, this rough beast’s hour has come round at last. I only hope it was worth it. 

Here’s the plot breakdown for our readers at home, accounting for the lack of widespread availability: Todd (Billy Corben) is a normal kid with an active imagination: he hates violin lessons, spends maybe too much time reading comics, and loves baseball. He’s at the age where it’s common to butt heads with your parents, but he’s having a particularly hard time with his father, George (Alan Thicke). George is an architect whose rationalistic, detail-oriented nature is reflected in his inability to fully communicate with his son, and an inability to disguise his frustration with his progeny’s fantasies and impatience for Todd to grow out of what he thinks is a phase. Truthfully, he spends an awful lot of time policing his son’s reading habits and taking away his comics, and not nearly enough time making sure Todd isn’t being a peeping little pervert vis-a-vis his spying on teenaged neighbor Wendy (Ami Dolenz). When Todd’s mother, Abby (Molly Cheek), goes missing in the woods, George seems to waste no time in getting remarried, as a mere six months later, he’s engaged to the titular stepmonster, Denise (MotM alum Robin Riker), a lovely woman for whom George was building a woodland cabin when Abby went missing. The immediately suspicious Todd sets out to find out what Denise is about, and although he immediately discovers that she’s a “tropopkin,” a scaly comic book monster, he’s unable to convince anyone else of this and is forced to set out to break up his dad’s engagement before the two get married on the summer solstice. 

This is a movie that is clearly an attempt by producer Roger Corman to horn in on some of that sweet cash that his old frenemy Charles Band was making via his sub-Full Moon family imprint Moonbeam, famous for Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror. The difference is that, despite the general melange of filth of a regular Charles Band production, those Moonbeam films are still kid-friendly, and the two I named are rated PG and G respectively. But that Corman sleaze just doesn’t wash off, and you can see it in the way that Stepmonster misses the mark with both its PG-13 rating (making it only recommended for viewers who are older than the protagonist in a film that can only really appeal to kids just a little younger) and its Pit-like choice of having our lead be a peeping tom, through whom the audience is presumably supposed to vicariously live. It’s a weird, unmistakably Corman touch. When Todd’s grandfather (George Gaynes, of Altered States and Police Academy) first says the word “horny” at the breakfast table and then recites the old adage about buying the cow, I was surprised that this was something that the Disney Channel used to air, and was only further dumbfounded by just how many times Todd aims his telescope at Wendy’s window. It makes for a tonally bizarre viewing, as the attempts to make this appeal to adults just make you a bit discomfited. The film still bothers to do some clever things, like having the father and his bride-to-be hammering that real estate sign on the inside of the literal white picket fence (because she’s not really intending to sell the house anyway, just eating the family and retreating back to her cave). One could try to argue that this was aiming for a slightly older demographic than middle schoolers, but this is completely undercut by the fact that the mother is discovered alive and well at the end, for a laughably happy ending. 

What did y’all think? Devoid of any nostalgia factor, what were your thoughts? Is Todd too creepy to root for? Is George too dumb to live? Do we love Denise? 

Brandon: No matter what rating the MPAA slapped on this thing, this psychosexual id horror is clearly aimed directly at kids.  It’s very much of the Troll 2 & The Pit variety in that way, complete with the “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”.  I also noted that this feels like Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory, so we appear to be on the exact same page this round.  There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over here, briefly revealing the (step)monster in an early attack and then steadily doling out “kills” (kidnappings, really) throughout the rest of the runtime to maintain the audience’s attention.  Otherwise, this is pure Moonbeam; all that’s missing is a dinky Casio score from Charles’s brother, Richard Band.  That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though.  Denise’s monster design reads as a human-sized variation of the Gremlins knockoffs that VHS schlockmeisters were making in this era (Ghoulies in Band’s case, Munchies in Corman’s), but by the time she’s running around in her wedding gown the movie does achieve a kids-horror novelty all of its own.  I’m not surprised to hear it wormed its way into its pint-sized audience’s subconscious through that kind of imagery, even if it has plenty of direct echos in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.

What I am surprised to hear is that this aired on The Disney Channel.  I’ve only watched exactly one Disney Channel Original Movie in my lifetime (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century), but from what I’ve observed of that channel’s programming from afar, it’s usually severely asexual, presenting an entire universe hostile to the vaguest suggestion of sex.  While little Todd isn’t quite as creepy as Jamie in The Pit, he is preoccupied with sex, to the point where the movie is just as much about his sexual curiosity as it is about fears of step-parental intruders.  Beyond Todd’s inappropriate sexual fascination with his teenage babysitter neighbor, the movie is also weirdly hung up on the consummation of his dad’s marriage to Denise – something Denise is delaying until their wedding night as part of a full-moon blood ritual.  I have to assume it’s that exact sexual undercurrent that landed the film its ludicrous PG-13 rating, since the monster attacks are relatively tame in their suspense & gore.  Or maybe it was Todd’s passionate line-delivery of “Eat my shorts, you bloodsucking, bat-faced witch!” that pushed it over the line.  Either way, I love that Corman and Band (and, in this case, special guest producer Fred Olen Ray) were making these inappropriate-for-children kids’ movies in the VHS era, and there’s something especially delicious about one of them sneaking its way onto the squeaky-clean Disney Channel lineup.

Alli: I started out thinking, okay, this is just one of those bizarre PG movies that came out, had some really weird scenes that stick in your mind, and disappeared into the ether. Then, I nearly choked on my drink as the grandpa said the word “horny”. This film immediately dips right into creepy 80s sex humor (despite it’s 90s release date), going from 0-100 in very little time. Sure, there was already Denise emerging out of the woods in that tight dress with no bra, but it was fairly tame before that “horny” line. A good ol’ family horror comedy romp. 

With that in mind, once we got to Todd being a peeping Tom and photographing Wendy without her knowledge, and the grandpa letting it happen, I definitely lost some sympathy for the kid and his family. Not that I was really backing Denise either. Sure, she’s cool, using her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare this clueless, uptight man in order to make more tropopkins and then eat him and his weasel son, but I just wasn’t into her whole “Let’s get the kid labeled as crazy” attitude. The real heroes in this story are Phlegm and Wendy! Wow, I love them so much. Corey Feldman steals the show as the goofy bad boy Phlegm, while Wendy has got everything under control. I kept expecting Phlegm to be more of a key character than he was, like maybe he had a rare comic book issue that would save the day. Still, it was at least nice that his band’s equipment was part of the scheme that saves this undeserving family in the end. Likewise, Wendy does not receive enough credit as the hero of the story: digging through the trash, sticking by the kid even after his creepy photos, and giving said creepy kid rides all over town. 

Even with the creepy main character and his bizarrely messed up family that only consists of his dad, his dad’s in-laws, and a monster, I thought this movie was a lot of fun. Like Boomer said, there are images that are going to stick with me for a long time, especially the tropokin in the wedding dress (so great) and the kid standing on top of a Marshall stack swinging a baseball bat at a bat monster. I was definitely on its sense of humor’s wavelength. I’m so glad Boomer found this rare media and could share it with us.

Britnee: When we make our Movie of the Month selections, Brandon is very diligent with ensuring that no one (other than the Swampie presenting) has watched the selected film. When asked if I ever watched Stepmonster, I was 110% sure I hadn’t. However, once Alan Thicke hit the screen, 15 years of suppressed memories were unleashed. I was immediately reminded of a goldfish skeleton being spit out of a box . . . I had seen this movie before! But I honestly remembered only fragmented images without being able to identify any sort of plot or characters, so it’s like I watched it for the first time. The Movie of the Month tradition is still going strong!

Funky children’s films from the late 80s/early 90s are sort of my jam. The crappy effects, nonsensical plots, and adult themed humor is a perfect combination. Trash for kids! I love how there’s been mention of Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror in the conversation because those are absolutely fantastic films that are in the same realm as Stepmonster (the ultimate Band, Nicolaou, Corman trio). Needless to say, I thought this movie was a blast! Dad and Grandpa were such strange goobers who I found to be hilarious. They’re sort of these stereotypical “all-American” characters that say and do weird things that caught me off guard (like the aforementioned “We all get horny, Georgey Boy.”). However, the true star of this show was Denise. She’s the closest to a human version of Greta the Gremlin that we will ever get and great at being the perfect evil stepmother/tropopkin. All of those witty remarks and monster transitions are so good. My favorite scene is when Denise transitions into her true tropopkin form while chatting with the psychiatrist (Edie McClurg!).

Lagniappe

Britnee: The tropopkin makeup effects are incredible. Makeup effects artist, Gabe Bartalos, has made his mark on many classics, such as FrankenhookerLeprechaunTim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, and you guessed it, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. He’s definitely up there with Swampflix’s favorite special effects master, Screaming Mad George.

Alli: The grandpa is such a weird person. He dislikes so many decisions his son-in-law makes but backs them anyway. He tells his grandson about tropopkins but doesn’t seem to be the source of the kid’s love for comics, since he’s never taken him to the comic book store before. Also, he played major league baseball? I don’t normally like to nitpick or search for plot holes, but he really is a true enigma. 

Brandon: I really liked the choice of presenting the tropopkins as “real life” creatures from the pages of Todd’s EC horror comics.  Corman & company obviously routed most of the budget to Denise’s creature design, so it was smart to borrow some on-the-cheap visual style from classic horror comics to give the movie some life between her effects shots.  Besides, it reminded me a lot of the EC horror stylings of Tales from the Crypt & Creepshow, which were the exact kind of age-inappropriate media I was sneaking past my parents’ censorship as a kid.

For anyone who’s desperate to watch Stepmonster but isn’t close enough friends with Boomer to borrow his personal VHS copy, there’s currently a low-quality scan of the film uploaded to YouTube in glorious 480p (courtesy of user myx360games, a true champion of cinema).

Boomer: I spent a truly inordinate amount of time trying to figure out exactly when Stepmonster would have aired on Disney Channel. One would think that old TV listings would be the easiest thing in the world to find, but as it turns out, not so much (unless you’re going to go down to the library and dig through microfiche). I couldn’t find any dates or any Disney Channel schedules from the likely years at all. However, while we’re here, I wanted to go ahead and speak out in favor of this great video from YouTube channel Yesterworld, which provides a pretty good rundown on the history of the channel, including some great historiography of the “free preview” years. YouTube channel Pop Arena, as part of their ongoing project to chart the show-by-show history of Nickelodeon (after five years, they’re up to 1990), did a great video about Nickelodeon precursor Qube that happens to function as a great delineation about the creation of cable television as well; it can be found here and is a great companion piece to the video above. 

Next month: Alli presents A New Leaf (1971)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2013’s All Cheerleaders Die, is a delightfully vapid, shockingly cruel horror comedy about undead cheerleaders seeking supernatural revenge on their high school’s misogynist football team.  It opens with faux-documentary footage that anthropologizes the cheerleaders’ social rituals as queen-bitch rulers of the school.  Our outsider-goth protagonist intends to infiltrate, expose, and tear down the institution of popular-girl supremacy by joining the squad and sabotaging them from the inside.  Only, once she makes the squad she finds it to be an unexpected, heartfelt bonding experience . . . especially after they’re murdered by the school’s meathead jocks, then rise from the grave to avenge their own deaths.

All Cheerleaders Die is a tonally chaotic mix of campy bitch-sesh dialogue, disturbing jabs of misogynist violence, high-femme lesbianism, vintage zombie gore, and supernatural goofballery involving magic crystals & spells.  Its shocking ultraviolence strikes a sharp contrast against the bubbly cheer squad social setting, touching on a long tradition of playfully violent cheerleader thrillers like Jennifer’s Body, Sugar & Spice, Satan’s Cheerleaders, and the list goes on.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more bubbly, morbid films about the deadly art of high school cheerleading.

Cheerleader Camp (1988)

All Cheerleaders Die’s greatest strength is its more-is-more ethos. It’s a shamelessly silly film that’s fearless about piling on more supernatural mayhem than it can possibly manage atop what easily could have been a simple undead-cheerleaders premise.  You can find more of that over-extended hot-mess novelty in the 80s sex-comedy slasher Cheerleader CampCheerleader Camp relocates the Porky’s sex comedy to Camp Crystal Lake, breaking up the usual rhythms of the summer camp slasher with frat boy gags involving locker room snooping & old-biddy crossdressing in an endless desperation to see cheerleaders topless.  Then, it goes the extra mile with some cheap-o surrealism in sub-Elm Street nightmare sequences starring various school mascots and razor-sharp pom-poms.  Like All Cheerleaders Die, it’s light-hearted, boneheaded novelty trash that reaches a kind of vapid transcendence in its overly complicated genre mashups.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

If the meathead Reaganite antics of Cheerleader Camp are an instant turn-off, you’re much likelier to feel at home with the bubbly, Valley Girl cuteness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The original Buffy film is basically Clueless before Clueless, if Clueless were a Hammer Horror.  Kristy Swanson stars as a mallrat cheerleader who’s recruited for her true calling as the modern Van Helsing.  Suddenly her priorities shift from determining which shopping mall multiplex has the best popcorn to learning how to drive stakes into vampires’ hearts without breaking a nail.  I never fully understood the appeal of the Buffy TV show, but the movie was a childhood favorite and remains a total delight.  It’s the exact kind of giggly, high-femme horror comedy that would be a hit at the same baby-goth sleepovers as All Cheerleaders Die, if either film got the respect they both deserve.

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

All Cheerleaders Die may belong to a tradition of theatrically released cheerleader horrors, but most deadly cheerleader movies are made-for-TV.  Lifetime, in particular, is overflowing with titles like Cheer for Your Life, Deadly Cheers, Dying to Be a Cheerleader, Death of a Cheerleader, and Pom Poms and Payback, releasing cheerleader thrillers with the same rate most channels release made-for-TV Christmas movies.  The very best straight-to-TV cheerleader thriller I’ve ever seen was made for HBO in the 90s, though.

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom is the scrappy little sister of headlines-riffing black comedies like Serial Mom, To Die For, and Drop Dead Gorgeous.  It can’t quite compete with those 5-star classics, but Holly Hunter is deliciously vicious as the titular cheerleader-murdering mom.  She tears through small-town rubes like an overgrown child pageant queen gone feral.  It’s the exact kind of novelty I was looking for when I watched the much more mundane Denise Richards Lifetime thrillers Killer Cheer Mom and The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders earlier this year, so I’m recommending it as the only title you need to understand the artistry of the made-for-TV cheerleader thriller sungenre.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

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 Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch All Cheerleaders Die (2013).

Brandon: I’m a little baffled by the lack of a visible cult following for Lucky McKee’s 2013 zom-com All Cheerleaders Die – a delightfully vapid, shockingly cruel horror comedy about undead cheerleaders seeking supernatural revenge on their high school’s misogynist football team.  Its reputation and promotional materials make it look like an unwatchable embarrassment only fit for gore-hungry teens who haven’t yet seen the superior titles of the teen-girl-revenge horror cannon.  And yes, the biggest hurdle All Cheerleaders Die has to clear on its path to cult-classic status is that it’s dead last on the list of films of its ilk worth prioritizing before you get to it: Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Jawbreaker, Sugar & Spice, Buffy, Teeth, Carrie, etc., etc., etc.  That’s great company to be in no matter where you fall in the high school clique hierarchy, though, and I’d love to see this overlooked, over-the-top trash gem cited among those better-respected peers more often.

All Cheerleaders Die starts with faux-documentary footage that anthropologizes the high school cheerleaders’ social rituals as queen-bitch rulers of the school.  Our outsider-goth protagonist intends to infiltrate, expose, and tear down the institution of popular-girl supremacy by joining the squad and sabotaging them from the inside.  Only, once she makes the team, she finds it to be an unexpected heartfelt bonding experience . . . especially after they’re all murdered by the school’s meathead jocks, then collectively rise from the grave to avenge their own deaths.  The film is a tonally chaotic mix of campy bitch-sesh dialogue, disturbing jabs of misogynist violence, high-femme lesbianism, vintage zombie gore, and supernatural goofballery involving magic crystals & spells – all lightyears away from the grimy digicam footage that establishes its early tone.  It’s a riot.

It’s been nearly a decade since All Cheerleaders Die floundered in theaters, and it’s yet to leave much of a cultural footprint among the genre nerds & edgy teens who’d likely love it.  In my ideal world, it would be leaving blood stains on midnight movie screens & sleepover TV sets on a weekly basis.  So, how did it go over with the rest of the Swampflix crew?  Does the cult start here, or did y’all find it to be just as terrible as its marketing suggested? 

Alli: I’m overall feeling pretty lukewarm about it. I don’t think it’s an unwatchable wreck, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of cult classic for me. It’s convoluted and lacks focus, but there’s a good movie lurking in there somewhere. One thing that caught me off guard is how long it takes to actually get to the undead part of the story. Early on, it concerns itself more with the teen drama than it does with the horror, which is really where it gets interesting. Then, once the cheerleaders die, it feels like all the teen girl bonding has already taken place, except for with Leena the resident witch. I would have liked to see them continue to bond and overcome internalized misogyny together, with the gay goths indoctrinating the cheerleaders in their ways and the cheerleaders teaching the gay goths that sometimes being popular and athletic is both hard work and has its perks, and that as girls they experience the same kinds of harassment and violence that male entitlement brings.

The good parts of this stlightly outweigh the rambling, though. There are some very funny lines peppered throughout. At the beginning, when Leena names her cat Madeline the only thing I could think was “Wow! That’s super gay.” And lo and behold, the movie did deliver the gay. (Also, it made me glad that I can pick up on the secretly-attracted-to-girls teen vibe after living through that awkward time. My experiences were not wasted!) I also appreciated the shallow aesthetic of this movie. It looks very Disney Channel Original at times while also delivering some real dark shit. The floating stones and the cemetery sign immediately come to mind. Who designed that sign? Do they work with Hot Topic as well as making small town graveyard signage? The way the bubblegum twenty teens look clashes with the gory violence really works for me.

For those interested in a very similar story but told in a less messy way, I highly recommend Lily Anderson’s 2018 book Undead Girl Gang. There’s popular girls resurrected, misfits bonding with them, and a murder mystery! I imagine this movie was influential on that book, but I do think it improves on a lot of the ideas in some very fun ways.

Boomer: I also come down on the “so okay, it’s average” non-side of the metaphorical fence on this one. When asked about my thoughts when recording our recent Monkey Shines podcast episode, I noted that I would give it one thumb up and one thumb down. Although I liked the concept and the way that it played around with it, there’s a definite muddledness to the narrative that, when combined with the Disney Channel Original Movie VFX, made the whole thing feel cheaper than the sum of its parts. Not that it looks cheap per se; normally, with a movie like this one where virtually the entire cast is unknown, you end up with something that looks like the kind of bargain bin, incorrectly lit, blurry student film that you can find streaming on Tubi (alongside 2001: A Space OdysseyTribulationThe Human Centipede 3, and The Color Purple, because Tubi is a lawless place). And because this was on Tubi, I don’t think that was an unfair assumption going in, especially when the film opens with the (thankfully unfulfilled) promise that we’re about to watch a found footage flick, complete with exactly the kind of overexposed footage that it’s common to find in movies from unseasoned filmmakers. The ability to chalk up poor editing, bad angles, out of focus footage, and inaudible dialogue to an error on the part of a character rather than the production crew has been a boon to neophyte moviemakers out there in the world, and although All Cheerleaders Die opens with a few of these hallmarks, it transitions to being a “real” film pretty quickly. 

But that’s also where some of the other issues come into play. For one thing, this cast of all white, mostly brunette girls caused some issues with telling the characters apart, especially early on. We watch Felisha Cooper’s Alexis die early on at the end of the “found footage” section, and we see that Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey) is clearly a different person. But then we meet Martha (Reanin Johannink) after that section, and it wasn’t until the football players showed up at the cheerleaders’ pool party did I realize that she and Mäddy were different people. There’s something a little strange and careless about the casting of actors who are all a little too similar. I’ve never been confused about which Mean Girl is which, or gotten Nancy and Bonnie confused in The Craft even though Fairuza Balk and Neve Campbell are both pale-skinned and raven-haired. It might be possible to get so high while watching Jawbreaker that when Rebecca Gayheart’s character reminisces about Liz Purr you have a moment where you ask yourself “Who’s that?”, but you’re never going to think that it’s Rose McGowan. That carelessness also seems to bleed over into an overabundance of names ending in a -y/-ie sound: Tracy, Lexy, Kaylee,  Mäddy, Cody, Moochie, and for some reason both a Terry and a Larry, who have no relation to one another. What’s up with that? When you’re watching Heathers, you know that they’re all named Heather (or Betty/Veronica Finn/Sawyer) on purpose, but here it once again just seems needlessly confusing, which is something that you want to avoid when making a movie with a pretty small audience in the first place. 

This certainly has a strong cinematic quality, but the sense you get overall is muddled by the whip-quick changes. First it seems like a found footage movie, but it’s not! It seems like Lexy will be an important character, and she is, but only as a motivating factor for other people’s actions! Why is Cody Saintgnue even in this movie? What is the purpose? There’s a very Jawbreakers-ness to the fact that the only non-evil straight male love interest in the movie is virtually irrelevant (I just watched that cinematic masterpiece again last month for perhaps the tenth time, and every single time I see it, the fact that Julie has a love interest at all gobsmacks me every time), but also, what is he doing here? In Heathers, for instance, the nerds have a Rosencrantzian purpose: to squirt milk out of their noses when a Heather looks at them, to be bullied by the jocks at Heather Chandler’s funeral and thus inspire Veronica and J.D. to target them, to provide chorus in the school. Here, they feel like they’re part of the movie because high school movies have stoners — full stop. So instead of a very tight, clean movie about high femme lesbian cheerleaders eating misogynists, we have a film that meanders around and has several really impressive sequences that turns into a DCOM version of Avengers: Infinity War at the end because Mäddy and her goth girlfriend have to stop the villain from collecting all of the infinity stones. The pool party scene, the beach scene, the car crash, the girls at school — all of it is very, very cool. I was immediately won over by the way that we cut straight from the expository found footage (that doesn’t really tell us much at all) to the very fun, frenetic cheerleading auditions. It managed to combine the campy peanut butter of all of those lacrosse scenes in the first season of Teen Wolf with the campy chocolate of the training montage in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer set to “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” by The Divinyls into a perfect little Reese’s cup. But somewhere between there and the end, after thinking to myself for the first (and presumably last) time I really wish Brittany Snow was in this and also Wow, it’s really fucked up that the only black guy in this movie is our primary villain and he’s out here sexually assaulting a bunch of white girls both literally and symbolically, it ended up being a not-quite-camp-classic for me. 

Britnee: I’ve seen the cover of All Cheerleaders Die many times while perusing through the all the deliciously trashy flicks on Tubi, and nothing about it nor the short description sold me. I don’t really like zombie movies, so a low-budget zombie movie about a group of cheerleaders didn’t seem like something I would be into. I was surprised by how unique the supernatural elements were, though, and it at least wasn’t the annoying, basic zombie crap I expected.

There’s something about gay cheerleaders killing asshole men that really warms my heart. How is it that this is the only film I’ve come across with that plot? It’s wonderful! It does have a pretty slow start and doesn’t really speed up until midway, during the confrontation between the cheerleaders and football players in the woods. That’s when I really became invested, and to be honest, everything that happened prior didn’t really register with me. What really got me amped was the magical Wiccan stones. I didn’t understand how they worked or if they’re a real part of the Wiccan religion, but it thought it was fascinating. The way that the green stones attracted blood and made the blood lines look like slithering snakes was rad.

Would I watch this again? Sure, it was pretty fun, but I’m not quite sure if I see it as being a cult classic. Maybe I’ll change my mind a few years down the road after a couple more watches.

Lagniappe

Britnee: If I would have watched this as a 14-year-old mall goth, I would have been super into it. I don’t mean that as an insult at all! I just think that my interests and style at that time would have really drawn me to hunting down a DVD copy of this movie at all costs. It would be in my vampirefreaks.com bio at the very least. There was a nostalgic feeling that to it that made me cringe a little, and I think I somehow was tapping into embarrassing 14-year-old-Britnee memories. 

Alli: I definitely agree with Boomer about everyone looking extremely similar. I wasn’t confused the whole time, but with the super similar white girl names, it did get rough. I also noticed that the black guy was this super evil, violent, rapey villain, and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I do believe that he has a couple of non-white guys in his crew, but it was a very, uhhh, problematic casting choice.

Boomer: I will say that, for all that I’ve said about how I found myself wishing I was watching a movie with more well-known actors, part of this was based on what I perceived for most of the runtime as a particularly terrible performance by Tom Williamson, who portrayed the villainous Terry. He spent the first 90% of the film emoting absolutely nothing: there was no change in his features whether he was sizing up Maddy, looking down at the crash site in which she and the others were presumably killed, or while watching Vik walk up to a teacher in order to tell her about what happened the night before. Once he got his hands on the infinity stones, however, he turned into a big campy weirdo, so I guess we can chalk that up to a character choice for the sociopathic Terry. Brooke Butler’s performance as Tracy was inconsistent, but she was nonetheless very fun to watch, and lead Caitlin Stasey was so magnetic that when I recently caught an episode of the current (terrible) Fantasy Island on TV that she happened to be in, I watched the whole (terrible) thing; and for what it’s worth, cheers for ABC for having a queer lady romance where two women demonstrate what they want to do to each other erotically with a rose. We’ve come a long way, baby. Special kudos, though, goes to Amanda Grace Cooper, who played Hanna. I really enjoyed her performance as both Hanna and Martha-in-Hanna’s-body, and she was the standout for me. I will also say that, for me, the movie would have been 10% better if it had left out Maddy’s video diary entry about her revenge plot. Given how quickly she pivots to genuine fondness for the cheerleaders and the unnecessary forced third act conflict that results from the others discovering the video, I could have done without it. 

Brandon: The Swampflix Crew may not have been entirely convinced of All Cheerleaders Die‘s greatness, but you can at least tell Lucky McKee believed in its cult potential.  Not only does it abruptly end with a shameless tease for a never-made sequel, but it also started as a revision of McKee’s shot-on-video debut, years before he had “made it” as a haunted-household name.  The 2001 SOV version of All Cheerleaders Die is a rough-draft prototype that’s not quite as polished (duh) nor as gay (booo) as its big-budget “remake,” but it’s just as surprisingly successful given its limitations.  It’s no-budget backyard filmmaking at its most charming & upsetting, and it’s obvious how McKee convinced himself of its greater potential as a post-Heathers teen girl bodycount comedy.  I still don’t fully understand why he was wrong, but I’m at least glad y’all found things to enjoy about his second attempt.

Next month: Boomer presents Stepmonster (1993)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: White of the Eye (1987)

Our current Movie of the Month, Donald Cammell’s 1987 sunlit thriller White of the Eye, is a real weird one.  Our first Movie of the Month produced by the Canon Group (improbable but true), it’s a violent clash between high & low art aesthetics.  Whether it’s a result of the sun-blazed setting or the Golan-Globus production funds, there’s a daytime TV cheapness to the look of White of the Eye that cannot be overcome through Cammell’s . . . unusual choice of imagery.  So, he mostly overcomes that cheapness in the editing. The images look like excerpts from a Walker, Texas Ranger episode, but they’re assembled into a dreamlike, Lynchian tone.  The whole movie borders on looking & feeling mundane, and yet it’s electrifying in its off-kilter presentation. 

It’d be easy to write off White of the Eye‘s uneasy, unwieldy tone as a result of incompetence if it weren’t for Cammell’s larger catalog of unwieldy genre oddities.  White of the Eye plays like a knockoff giallo that gets lost in the American desert for a while, then emerges as a sun-dazed erotic thriller.  The kicker is that it gets lost on purpose.  Cammell’s tragically short career as a filmmaker is comprised entirely of loosely edited, borderline incoherent genre exercises that reach past the storytelling expectations of his audience’s bloodlust to prod the outer limits of the human psyche.  He teetered between being a mad genius & a total hack, and the tension between those extremes made for constantly exciting work.  To that end, here’s a rundown of the other three feature films directed by Donald Cammell, in case you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and are curious about the rest of his off-kilter catalog.

Performance (1970)

Cammell’s most vivid extremes of brilliance & incoherence are on full display in his genre-defying debut, Performance.  A collaboration between fellow inscrutable artist Nicolas Roeg, Performance starts as a chaotically edited gangster picture before emerging from an intense mushroom trip as a macho echo of Bergman’s Persona.  James Fox stars as a bigoted, close-minded gangster with a seething hatred for “females” & “foreigners”.  When he defies the orders of his mobster employer, he finds himself in need of a proper hideout, so he disguises himself as a free-spirited bohemian rocker and takes refuge in a rented room owned by Mick Jagger, essentially playing himself.  Through the power of marijuana, psilocybin, and polyamory, Jagger’s libertine landlord breaks down the rigid boundaries of his gangster tenant’s psyche, turning him into a genuine, genderless version of the free-spirit archetype he disguised himself as to escape his fate – all on a harem-style crash pad set that looks like it was decorated by Kenneth Anger.

That’s the most concise, straight-forward recap of Performance I can provide, since it’s a film that’s deliberately, defiantly loose in both its scene-to-scene details and its overall meaning.  Because Roeg has touched on similar territory elsewhere—otherworldly rock star personae in The Man Who Fell to Earth) & extraordinarily intimate sex scenes in Don’t Look Now—it’s tempting to attribute a lot of the film’s high-art pretensions to his influence, but the dreamy surrealism of this debut collab echoes throughout the rest of Cammell’s work as well.  As soon as the long establishing shots of rain-slicked London exteriors are intercut with flashes of a genderfucked threesome between Jagger & his groupies in the very first scene, it’s clear this is pure Cammell, for better and for worse.  The only thing that’s really out of place here is the film’s setting, since the rest of his work feels magnetically drawn to the American West.  If you’re looking for more of the untethered weirdness of White of the Eye without all the hyperviolent genre tropes grounding its story, Performance is all filler & no killer – often transcendently so.

Demon Seed (1977)

Although Performance & White of the Eye have their own vocal cults, Demon Seed is Cammell’s most popular, iconic work among the general moviegoing public.  It belongs to a very special subcategory of classic horror: I saw it parodied on The Simpsons decades before I saw the movie itself.  In some ways, it’s the most well behaved of Cammell’s films, telling a coherent story with an almost made-for-TV level decipherability.  Except for maybe some lingering exterior shots of the American desert, and some deeply strange War of the Sexes philosophical tensions, you might not even be able to clock it as a Cammell film at all.  Despite its tightened-up editing & storytelling style, though, Demon Seed is just as strange as Cammell’s most out-there works.  It’s not every day you see a movie where Julie Christy plays a lonely housewife who’s imprisoned & impregnated by her husband’s automated-home A.I. technology – a rapist HAL9000 on the fritz.

I’ve been putting off watching this film for decades, since its premise is so sleazy (and that particular subject matter was rarely handled well in the grindhouse days of the 1970s), but thankfully it’s less focused on the physical act of impregnation than I feared and instead finds a kind of wretched transcendence through retro computer graphics & technophobic rambling.  Adapting a novel from paperback titan Dean Koontz, Cammell prods at his usual War of the Sexes tensions here, pitting “male” logic-brain against “female” emotion-brain in a sinister, physical manifestation of a violent divorce.  Its woman vs. machine gender battle spirals out from there to hit on a galaxy of button-pushing hot topics, though, ranging from technocratic fascism to the patriarchal surveillance state to blocked abortion access.  It’s a movie about the misogyny & assault I was worried it was going to indulge, and it’s one that telegraphs the strange proto-MRA violence of Cammell’s next picture, White of the Eye, except with an iTunes visualizer mystique.

Wild Side (1995)

Because Performance & Demon Seed are his most out-there, genre-defiant works (and, frankly, his classiest), the closest companion piece to Cammell’s White of the Eye was his follow-up erotic thriller, Wild SideWild Side feels like watching Tommy Wiseau remake the Wachowski sisters’ Bound.  It’s about how cops are rapists, lesbians are rad, and Christopher Walken is an absolute madman.  Walken’s performance is completely unpredictable in its cadence & internal illogic, pushing the third-act villain turn from White of the Eye into a feature-length character study of an unhinged gangster freak.  If it were a Nicolas Cage performance, Wild Side might be Cammell’s most celebrated cult classic; as is, it’s rotting in 360p on YouTube, which might be exactly what it deserves. 

The quick-cut edits of mundane images that make White of the Eye such a disorienting head-trip continue in full force here, now accompanied with similarly scrambled Christopher Walken syntax in lines like “Women: with them, without them, who can live?”  Anne Heche stars as Walken’s romantic foil – a banker by day, prostitute by night, who’s hellbent on stealing the heart of his hottest moll (Joan Chen, Josie from Twin Peaks).  If Performance is the purest version of Cammell’s choppy, dreamlike editing style, Wild Side might be the purest form of his sleazy War of the Sexes gender conflicts, which teeter wildly from thoughtful critique of societal misogyny to horned-up participation in that very thing.  As chaotic as White of the Eye can feel in other ways, it does find a neutralized balance between those extremes of Cammell’s debut & his final work before his suicide.  Demon Seed might be the furthest outlier in that career trajectory, but let’s be real, every Donald Cammell movie is an outlier.  He was a deeply strange dude, and it’s a tragedy he didn’t leave us with a deeper mind-fuck filmography to puzzle over.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: White of the Eye (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made HannaBoomer, and Brandon watch White of the Eye (1987).

Britnee: If you’ve ever wondered if a Southwestern giallo exists, I am here to tell you that it does, and it’s 1987’s White of the Eye. Its director, Donald Cammell, was a gifted painter, and his artistic eye makes every scene in White of the Eye a visual feast, the way you’d expect to see in gialli. Neon blood splattered across a white table, uncomfortable eyeball closeups, modern desert homes shot through a voyueristic lens; it’s all so mesmerizing. Also, his wife China Cammell co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novel Mrs. White by Margaret Tracy) and appears in the small role of Ruby Roy. I thought that wife/husband collaboration was sweet at first, until I realized that China was 14 when she met the 40-year-old Donald, so their relationship wasn’t really a healthy one. It turns out that Donald was a gross creep like so many other male directors (and like the villain of his own movie).  

White of the Eye stars David Keith as Paul White and Cathy Moriarty as Joan White. They’re a young married couple who live in Arizona with their daughter, a 5-year-old who looks like a 30-something kindergarten teacher. David is the town’s go-to sound system installer. He has a bizarre gift where he hums to pinpoint the exact, perfect speaker placement in every room. At least that’s what I think he’s doing. There’s a lot going on in this movie that I can’t fully make sense of. As we peek in on the family’s daily routine, there’s something sinister going on in the background: a serial killer is brutally murdering wealthy women in the area, and there’s a strong possibility the killer is Paul. Cathy has to determine if her husband is really who she thinks he is or if he’s a psychotic monster. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but just know that it descends into pure chaos by the end and it’s fascinating.

This film has one of the wildest opening scenes. A well-to-do woman returns to her home after a shopping trip and is slaughtered by a killer lurking in her kitchen. During their struggle, there’s slow-motion headbashing, blood splattering, glass shattering and, most memorably, a tiny goldfish flopping around a raw rib rack on the kitchen counter. When I first saw this movie, I thought about that scene for weeks. To me, it’s the most impressive imagery in the entire film. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the camerawork in White of the Eye? Did any particular scenes stick with you after the movie ended?

Brandon: That opening, bloodspattered tour of a Southwestern suburban kitchen is, without question, the most visually striking scene in the movie, and it’s the one that’s stuck most in my mind as well.  However, I’m not convinced it’s the camerawork that makes it such a stunner.  If we’re going to contextualize White of the Eye as an American giallo, we have to acknowledge that it looks like a giallo shot by the TV crew behind Walker, Texas Ranger.  Whether it’s a result of the sun-blazed setting or the Golan-Globus production funds, there’s a daytime TV cheapness to the look of White of the Eye that cannot be overcome through Cammell’s . . . unusual choice of imagery.  Where he overcomes that cheapness isn’t in the camerawork so much as it’s in the editing, which is what truly gives the movie its unwieldy, dreamlike tone.  There are isolated, static images in that kitchen sequence that look absolutely bizarre, but mostly because they’re presented as rapid inserts your brain doesn’t have enough time to fully interpret: flowers falling from the countertop, legs kicking in purple tights, that goldfish flopping on the raw meat, etc.  I was likewise struck by the long, aimless establishing shots of the desert outside these suburban homes, which linger just long enough to breach into Lynchian territory of moody unease.  Again, there’s nothing especially beautiful about those exterior shots’ composition or execution; they’re just edited into a flabbergasting sequence that I could never fully wrap my mind around (not least of all because they’re frequently repeated at full length).  The entire movie borders on looking & feeling mundane, and yet it’s electrifying in its off-kilter presentation.

If White of the Eye is a giallo, it’s a knockoff giallo that gets lost in the American desert for a while, then emerges as a sun-dazed erotic thriller.  It’s a high-style, low-logic murder mystery in the way most great gialli are, but it’s one that actually has something to say after the final reveal of its faceless killer, which most gialli don’t.  That’s why I think it’s important that we do spoil the third-act twists of the plot in this conversation, since it’s largely what makes the film special.  In the same year that the literal war of the sexes reached its misogynist fever pitch in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, White of the Eye offered a much more realistic source of unhinged mayhem at the end of its erotic thriller rainbow: an entitled, woman-hating white guy.  It turns out David is not only psychotic for the way he treats tuning audio systems into a spiritual ritual & guiding way of life; he’s also a violent misogynist with some very strange, far-out theories about why all women are evil and deserve to be murdered.  Once White of the Eye fully devolves into a sunlit slasher in its final act, David starts ranting at length about the interplanetary war between Men (from Mars, duh) & Women (from Venus, obv) in a way that doesn’t sound too far off from the kind of unhinged babble you’d expect to read on modern subreddits for MRAs & “gender-critical” TERFs.  Hanna, what did you make of David’s sudden swerve into hateful, faux-philosophical gender politics?  Did it make him a scarier villain or just a more confounding one?  And how does that choice of villain communicate with other war-of-the-sexes thrillers of this era?

Hanna: I was really torn on Paul’s turn initially, but I appreciate it the more I think about it. Despite all of the glaring signs to the contrary, I was somehow expecting some other candidate to pop up and pronounce themself the killer (maybe because Paul seemed too obvious, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for the kind of guy with an obsessive relationship with sound equipment). Initially I was disappointed because it wasn’t surprising, but ultimately I don’t think the film suffers for it. Of course the hot audiophile with a primal temperament sustains a lethal, cosmo-misogynist belief system, but it still took Joan almost the entire film to get to that conclusion, partly because he’s so dang charming and partly because she’s loved him for a decade.

As far as its relationship with other “Battle of the Sexes” genre films, I appreciated the different relationships presented between and within women. Fatal Attraction set up a war against a very particular type of woman (ambitious and career-driven with an angular, gender neutral nickname), while propping Beth up as the sweet, domestic caretaker in comparison; she wins her husband’s affections in the end and Alex is killed. White of the Eye shows major and minor competition between the various women of Globe, Arizona (e.g., Ann Mason’s affair with Joan’s husband, the petty gossip Joan and her friend share about Lisa on the Globe strip), but Paul is the equalizing destructive force. Not only that, but she is the winner of Paul’s heart, and it’s a horror rather than a triumph. I think that was one of the most interesting insights from this movie – I get the feeling that the kind of guys with Paul’s obsessively hateful and lustful ideology think that women should feel lucky to be the object of love and idolatry – that it should make women feel special and superior to other women – but in reality, it’s alienating and horrifying.

I do think that the turn was a little too jarring for me, though; he really goes from mysterious seducer to all-out zealot in the span of an evening. Maybe I was also seduced by the sound equipment, but I don’t feel like I got the sense of any of his crazed personality. Maybe that was part of the point, though, since we’re hearing this story from Joan’s point of view, who can’t help but see him as her partner and father to her child (and was also blinded by his bestial charms). I loved the explosion of chaos at the back half, but it definitely caught me by surprise. Boomer, do you think ending was deserved (narratively and politically)? Was the film cohesively simmering to this point throughout the runtime, or did it come out of nowhere?

Boomer: I have to say, this movie was a stunner. Maybe it’s just that all those Argento movies warped my brain, but I genuinely felt like this was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years … until the ending. I wouldn’t say that it was cohesive up to that point, per se; it’s certainly a film that captures verisimilitude in the sense that none of this feels like characters in a narrative so much as it feels like we stepped into a desert town full of eccentric people, all of whom have relationships and communication styles that are already in play and which we, as newcomers here, have to figure out with very little in the way of exposition. It feels like we’re missing some important information here, but it’s not in a “this screenplay is underdeveloped” way (like many gialli do); it’s a hard concept to try and delineate in prose, but it’s as if we the audience are merely eavesdropping on the events of the film. In the same way that you can sit in a diner booth and hear the people at the next table—be they classmates who hate the same professor, lovers coming to the end of their time together, or a parent and adult child—and hear a fascinating narrative play out, but one which is inherently incomplete. That conversation isn’t being performed for you and therefore there are details that are left out and names that are dropped throughout and you just have to try and guess at the larger story from your small window into it, and White of the Eye feels like a film version of that. That having been said, I don’t disagree that the ending feels like a swerve. The film’s tone makes it clear that there’s an explosive confrontation that’s inevitable, but I didn’t expect that explosion to be so literal, or for things to change so suddenly. 

There’s something strange happening here with regards to race. It’s not something that European gialli can’t do necessarily, but it is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen them do: we have a white killer appropriating indigenous American myth. The Wikipedia page for the movie states that post-Jokerfication Paul “paints his face in a form reminiscent of both Kabuki and the blood pattern of diving headfirst into a deer carcass,” but it clearly has something to do with some half-remembered legend from the previous occupants of the lands before white men came. Detective Mendoza (Art Evans was also a detective in Fright Night, which always makes me want to pretend that they’re the same character) says to his partner, “What we have here, Phil, is an ancient Indian compass. This goes back before the Vikings.” As someone who grew up around and among hunters, there’s a bizarre familiarity to Paul; my family was steadfastly and fanatically Christian, so there was never any “soul of the kill” stuff happening with them, but there were plenty of people who hung around the deer camps who did happily participate in the easy self-justification that came from “honoring” their animal prey through a muddy mixture of various lores from a dozen different tribes with just a twist of New Age mysticism. Paul is like a weed dealer you met in college who believed a bunch of crazy conspiracy nonsense and had also convinced himself he has some kind of a special, even supernatural ability to really feel the music and where it “wants” to go, maaaaaan. Given how many of those folks have fallen for #stopthesteal rhetoric or fallen under the sway of algorithm-driven ragebaiting, it shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise that Paul looks like the QAnon Shaman by the end. Then again, maybe that’s verisimilitude, too. Inevitable, but at such a strange acceleration. 

I’m going to have to say that I disagree with Brandon here, at least a little bit, and say that there’s a lot more going on with the camerawork than he’s giving credit. If you go back and watch that first kitchen-set murder scene, there are actually very few static images; there’s constant motion and change, not just in the editing, but in the composition as well. The shot that establishes the presence of a fish in the kitchen does so in a close-up that then zooms out and then takes in several other pieces of visual information: an orbiting shot of copper-bottomed pots, a pan up a refrigerator, etc. In those rare moments in which the camera stops moving, the frame is still filled with motion: glass falls into frame and shatters, a chunky tidal wave of something washes over a table and scatters the ephemera there in powerful kinetic motion, a pupil that fills the whole screen dilates. That sense of movement combined with the quick cuts is what gives this movie the overall music video aesthetic that really made it work for me. That Rick Fenn/Nick Mason collaboration on the soundtrack is an artifact that dates the movie just as much as all the customized stereo talk, but White of the Eye has the slick camera motion and quick-tempo editing that would dominate music videos of the next decade, combined with Cathy Moriarty’s performance, which is positively dripping with 70s New Hollywood energy (more on that in Lagniappe), and it renders the whole thing timeless. 

Lagniappe

Brandon:  If you want to see Donald Cammell fall even further down the erotic thriller rabbit hole, his next (and final) feature is a much more-straightforward entry in the genre.  1995’s Wild Side plays like Tommy Wiseau remaking the Wachowskis’ Bound, with a sublimely unhinged Christopher Walken in the Wiseau role, squaring off against Anne Heche & Joan Chen (Josie from Twin Peaks) as the undercover lesbians who upend his criminal empire.  Cammell started his filmmaking career collaborating with prestigious arthouse weirdo Nicolas Roeg, and he ended it making trashy thrillers for the likes of Golan-Globus.  He never lost his weird streak on that journey, though; the tonal & editing choices in White of the Eye & Wild Side are just as bizarre as anything you’ll see in the more respected Cammell titles Performance & Demon Seed.

Boomer: I love giallo, but I would also argue that this film fits into my other favorite genre: women on the verge. The desert setting called to mind 3 Women (another Britnee MotM selection), and there were moments in this where Cathy Moriarty is channeling Faye Dunaway in two of my favorites of her performances: Lou from Puzzle of a Downfall Child with her slowly unraveling peace of mind, and the title character of The Eyes of Laura Mars, in which she is confronted by the fact that (spoiler alert) the serial killer running loose in her social and professional circle is actually the man she’s taken as her lover. 

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This performance is powerful, and I loved every second that she was on screen. There’s an exhaustion that she exudes, but it’s the kind of contented tiredness of someone who’s found themselves in unexpected but nonetheless amenable circumstances, like she’s an angel who’s barely tethered to the earth. “You think I care what people think?” she asks Paul at one point, in the interrogation room. “I’m from the fucking city, I don’tgive a shit about small-town talk!” She’s like Sissy Hankshaw in Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, just this side of ethereal, who just can’t quit that dick. You know, queen shit. 

Britnee: While I’m not super familiar with desert life (I’ve only visited New Mexico for a short time), it’s obvious that the weather during the shoot was extremely hot. What’s fascinating is that there are still multiple characters wearing luxurious fur coats in that scorching desert. Joan, who has exquisite fashion taste, sports a short fox fur coat while chatting it up with Mike at the gas station. She also wears a short peacock feather coat in the flashback scenes when she’s dating Mike and meets Paul. If I’m not mistaken, she puts it on again towards the end of the film in present day. Another fur is worn by Ann, another woman who’s extremely horny for Paul. She wraps herself in this massive floor length fur coat while sipping on a cocktail. It was such a great look that Brandon made it his Facebook cover photo! 

Hanna: Every one of Cathy Moriarty’s looks is an absolute stunner, especially that peacock feathered jacket in the first flashback. I also couldn’t help being tickled by Paul’s hotdog explosive vest, one of the many outrageous fashion pieces on display.

Next month: Brandon presents All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, is an angry, hypnotic condemnation of colonialism, capitalism, anthropology, and all the various other ways white outsiders “bring hell and death” to the Amazonian regions of South America.  Shot in a high-contrast black & white and set in two parallel, interlinked timelines, it takes a deliberately nontraditional approach to its journey along Amazonian rivers.  In particular, it stands out as a modern subversion of the white explorer-centered narrative of (the Congo-set) Heart of Darkness, undermining the bravery & nobility of even its most enlightened white intruders while offering broader, more humanizing empathy to the Amazon’s Indigenous populations than previous descendants of the novel bothered to.  Its unusual visual aesthetics & narrative structure feel deliberately distanced from how the Heart of Darkness adventure story is usually told onscreen, emphasizing the academic & political deviations in its dramatic themes.

When Embrace of the Serpent first hit theaters in 2015 (as one of the first films to play at The Broad Theater, during the first year of Swampflix, forever ago), it felt like a total anomaly.  In the seven years since, there have been several additional South American-set Heart of Darkness subversions that have made their way through the film festival circuit (and through the doors of The Broad, incidentally), making Embrace of the Serpent feel like the start of a modern cinema trend that’s still building in momentum.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more films about the “hell and death” white outsiders have brought to the Amazon, regardless of the purity of their intent or curiosity.

The Lost City of Z (2016)

James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is the most direct, obvious companion piece to Embrace of the Serpent, which in a lot of ways makes it the least rewarding.  It’s not a terrible film, exactly, but the most it did for me was make me appreciate Embrace of the Serpent more through comparison.  While Embrace of the Serpent is a dreamlike meditation on the cultural & environmental ravages of colonialism as seen through the eyes of the Indigenous people who’ve suffered it, The Lost City of Z is a lot more straight-forward & traditionalist in its presentation & choice of POV.  It’s less of a subversion of the Heart of Darkness narrative than it is a continuation of previous doomed on-screen explorations like Fitzcarraldo & Apocalypse Now.  Its themes are so loudly pronounced, and its narrative flow is so rigidly episodic that it plays more like an expensive TV show than proper cinema, presumably to stay true to the spirit & sequence of events in its source-material novel.

Like Embrace of the Serpent, Gray’s film uses the work of a real-life historical figure (British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam) to explain how colonialist disruption of Amazonian life & culture has been perpetuated by even the most well-intended, forward-thinking academics.  Fawcett sets out to prove that the tribes of the Amazon region—thought to be subhuman by his fellow learned Brits—have built complex civilizations that long predate any similar British structures.  On his repeat missions into the region, he intends to prove the humanity of the people indigenous to the land, but instead he’s essentially mapping out new courses for rubber extraction, something that only becomes more valuable as Europe nears WWI.  It’s a “Be careful to not destroy what you wish to discover” story, but it’s told with such an uncritical, semi-heroic appreciation of Fawcett’s moral character that it feels almost retrograde in its politics (despite Fawcett’s real-life academic work still being relevant to modern anthropological study).  Essentially, The Lost City of Z is only worth a recommendation to anyone who found Embrace of the Serpent to be a little too loose & ambiguous, offering a cleaned-up, watered-down version of its ideas in a more easily digestible package.

Monos (2019)

Swinging wildly in the other direction, Alejandro Landres’s Monos de-centers the heroic white interloper’s POV entirely in its own subversion of the Heart of Darkness template.  Julianne Nicholson plays the only colonizer in the main cast: a medical doctor captured by an isolated faction of armed soldiers on the Columbian mountaintops.  She’s also the only adult, held hostage at gunpoint by a teenage militia who’ve only known a violent world in opposition to her kind.  While Embrace of the Serpent & The Lost City of Z treat the ravages of colonization in the Amazon as a past event that needs to be studied as history, Monos looks to its continuation into a dystopian future.  We already contextualized Embrace of the Serpent as a post-apocalyptic tragedy in our original discussion of the film, but Monos makes that context a clear, distinct circumstance of its setting.  It also pushes Embrace of the Serpent‘s dreamlike qualities even further into an intense, unknowable apocalypse – complete with a typically chilling Mica Levi score.  If Embrace of the Serpent ushered in a new era of Heart of Darkness subversions, Monos feels like its most exciting, daring follow-up to date.

Like in Embrace of the Serpent, the most challenging aspect of Monos is getting your bearings.  What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon jungle with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding a white woman hostage. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.  The sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense, especially once they leave the mountaintops to traverse the crushing river rapids below.  This is the post-apocalyptic world that past colonizers & adventurers have left behind; it’s a nightmare.

Icaros: A Vision (2017)

If Embrace of the Serpent & The Lost City of Z look to the past of colonialist exploitation in the Amazon, and Monos looks to its inevitable future, Icaros: A Vision might be a vision of its uneasy present.  It’s a psychedelic drama that discusses the ways Amazonian people are still exploited by capitalist & colonial greed to this day, except it focuses more on the psychotropic medicines of the region instead of rubber extraction.  Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics, specifically the infamous Anaconda Cosmica, to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death and returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism. Unfortunately, Caraballo did not live to see the completion of her own film; she guided much if its post-production decision making from her death bed with the help of her co-director Matteo Norzi. What she left behind, though, is a visually striking, peacefully meditative look at the culture surrounding ayahuasca rituals, recalling the eerie dreamspace explored in Embrace of the Serpent.

An American woman arrives at Anaconda Cosmica unsure of how ayahuasca rituals can help her process her fear of death and whether she even has the courage to find out. Other patients paying for the privilege of the retreat are addressing issues varying in severity from addiction & self-harm to alleviating a stutter to improve an acting career. The mood of the retreat is decidedly peaceful, a tone commanded by the always-present sounds of the jungle. Invading thoughts of technology, particularly MRI scans of the American woman’s cancer, interrupt the reverie on occasion, but don’t fully elbow out the serenity of the jungle until the nighttime ayahuasca rituals start & end. During the routine ceremonies, a shaman-in-training peers into the various hallucinations of his patients (or “passengers,” in the movie’s parlance) as if he were literally switching channels on a television. The spiritual difference between natural & technological imagery could not be clearer, as the young shaman attempts (through the ritual of meditative breathing & song) to save the paying customers from invading dark thoughts that could spoil their trip. Early on, the film is about his efforts to save the protagonist from the crippling fear of death sparked by her cancer diagnosis. However, at some point that dynamic flips. The American woman, now strengthened by the psychedelic therapy sessions, helps the shaman face his own fears of an incurable medical diagnosis. It’s interesting to see the service industry aspect of their relationships subvert itself as they naturally become better acquainted through the deeply intimate ritual of ayahuasca ingestion, but more importantly the film uses their tender interactions as a purposefully humanist window into a culture that could be depicted as all meditative chants and visual hallucination if not treated with enough open-minded empathy.

Icaros: A Vision is a quiet, still, meditative piece that fully lives up to the visual focus indicated by its title. Everything from muscular river dolphins & the green of the Peruvian jungle to video game imagery & bright florescent piss shape the film’s all-encompassing meditations on life & death. Somehow, the overall effect is more hypnotic than it is showy or gimmicky. Leonor Caraballo’s background as a visual artist shows in the way she carefully frames each isolated hallucination, but her vulnerability & ultimate mortality as a human being is what affords the work a solemn but rewarding purpose. Humor at the expense of “passengers” who treat the Anaconda Cosmica like a luxury hotel and its (non-actor) employees/residents like servants are slyly mocked in a social politics-minded undercurrent of humor. That comedy is just one thread in a larger tapestry, though, and the overall picture includes a hypnotic, but encyclopedic catalog of plants that are important to Peruvian culture, an ethnographic documentation of ayahuasca rituals’ adoption as tourist industry fodder, visual attempts to capture the vivid hallucinations triggered by those rituals, etc. It’s not as outwardly angry of a film as Embrace of the Serpent, but it’s one that brings the same cultural & political criticisms into a modern context that make them even more vivid in my mind.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: The Music Lovers (1971)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1971’s The Music Lovers, is a biopic of 19th Century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from this over-the-top distortion of his life, which mostly fixates on his volatile marriage to a fantasy-prone nymphomaniac.  A closeted homosexual, Tchaikovsky pursues a traditional marriage with the manic, insatiable woman to the detriment of his own sanity, inviting director Ken Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares to spill onto the screen in spectacular ways that match the explosive piano jolts of Tchaikovsky’s music.  His violent compositions & barely closeted homosexuality land him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, meaning the film is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Ken Russell was the master of turning real-life, historical artist’s lives into fodder for his own auteurist idiosyncrasies, from Lord Byron in Gothic to Franz Liszt in Lisztomania to Oscar Wilde in Salome’s Last Dance (which is what originally inspired me to track down The Music Lovers in a previous Movie of the Month cycle).  He did not own a total monopoly on the practice, though.  There are plenty of other directors who used loose-with-the-facts biopics of famous composers as inspiration for over-the-top, high-style pictures with little historical connection to those musicians’ lives.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more composer biopics gone wild.

Amadeus (1984)

Miloš Forman’s libertine biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart doesn’t quite match the unhinged, sweaty mania of Ken Russell’s composer “biographies”, but it’s likely the closest you can get and still win a Best Picture Oscar.  Amadeus is wonderfully, extravagantly lewd, especially for a mainstream production. It characterizes the composer as a shrill, ridiculous fop whose fame at an early age stunted his emotional maturity — like so many fallen Disney Channel stars.  According to its stats on Mozart’s child-celebrity accomplishments, he had composed his first concerto by the age of 4, his first symphony by 7, and his first opera by 12.  It is not a birth-to-death biopic, though, so we do not see these adolescent accomplishments.  Instead, Forman delivers a character study of Mozart as a fully grown, immature lush whose undisputed musical genius does nothing to impede his love of sex, booze, and fart jokes.  He drinks himself into total delirium just like Tchaikovsky does in The Music Lovers, but for most of the picture he’s more of a hedonistic party boy than he is a self-hating sad sack.

While Amadeus indulges in the same “ecstatic truth” approach to historical storytelling as Ken Russell’s comparable biopics, it never totally detaches from reality in any decisive way.  Mozart’s bifurcated nature as a musical genius and a ludicrous fop is solidly grounded in a decades-long rivalry with his fellow composer Antonio Salieri, who cannot stand that his professional competition is a drunken jester whose music is “The Voice of God.”  That rivalry is fictional, but it’s not exactly a Ken Russell-style break from reality.  It does offer the film a bitter source of comedy, though, especially as Salieri’s frustration with Mozart’s ease in exquisite compositions starts to resemble Frank Grimes’s one-sided rivalry with the clueless Homer Simpson.  Forman has self-indulgent fun with Mozart’s life & music—historical truth be damned—which is the core tenant of all of Russell’s own biopics.  Lisztomania never had a chance at winning a Best Picture Oscar, so we might as well celebrate the closest the industry would ever get to that kind of anomaly.

Immortal Beloved (1994)

Candyman & Paperhouse director Bernard Rose attempted his own Ken Russell style biopic in Immortal Beloved, which portrays Ludwig van Beethoven as a temperamental rock star who took his anger over his own hearing loss out on the world at large.  Immortal Beloved delivers even less feverish Ken Russell theatrics than Amadeus, despite the surrealism of Rose’s iconic horror films.  It’s a little too restrained to match the fantastical heights of The Music Lovers or Amadeus, but it’s still a relatively fun, volatile period drama on its own terms.  That’s because it fully commits to the mystery genre structure that Amadeus only toys with as a convenient launching pad.  At the start of Amadeus, Salieri claims he murdered Mozart, but the 161min flashback that follows proves that confession to be figurative (and, again, fictional).  For his part, Bernard Rose fixates on a line in Beethoven’s actual last will & testament that refers to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved” that historians have never successfully identified.  Rose claims his own research and resulting Citizen Kane-inspired screenplay conclusively identified this Immortal Beloved that has been so elusive to Beethoven biographers for centuries. That claim, of course, is insane, but it’s the exact kind of unhinged energy directors need to bring to their projects if they plan to outshine Ken Russell in any way.

Unfortunately, Immortal Beloved also participates in the lowliest form of art: the Gary Oldman acting showcase.  Oldman plays Beethoven as a tortured creative genius and an excuse to don some dinner theatre old-age stage makeup.  Acting!  At least the movie’s adherence to Citizen Kane story structure allows for many points of view on Beethoven’s violent abuses.  Enough of his acquaintances report that the composer was “a terrible man” & “a scoundrel” that there’s nothing cool or romantic about watching him trash hotel rooms like a geriatric rockstar or cruelly insult the people who work to keep his life afloat.  Hanging out with a drinking, farting Mozart in Amadeus is a lot more fun, but there’s enough mysterious intrigue & proto-Sound of Metal dramatics in Rose’s take on Beethoven to make Immortal Beloved worth a look.  Besides, Rose’s conviction that he solved the case by processing it through mainstream screenwriting conventions is just objectively hilarious.

Paganini Horror (1989)

Both Amadeus & Immortal Beloved play around with the biographical details of their respective composers to up their own entertainment value, but neither can claim to go as off-script as the cheap-o Italo slasher Paganini Horror.  There were real-life rumors Antonio Salieri maintained a bitter rivalry with Mozart, even if those rumors have been proven false by historians.  Beethoven’s final will did refer to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved”, even if Rose’s claims to having uncovered that enigma’s identity are ludicrous.  Luigi “Star Crash” Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is working with even an even flimsier scrap of historical inspiration than either of those pictures, though.  Apparently, Niccolò Paganini was such a virtuoso violinist that it was rumored he sold his soul to Satan for the talent, earning him the nickname “The Devil’s Violinist”.  That’s all the real-world inspiration Cozzi needs to resurrect Paganini’s ghost on the set of a “Thriller” rip-off music video shoot, modernizing his musical devilry in the most direct, literal way possible.  Now, there’s a Ken Russell-style disregard for the respectability of real-world logic & historical fact.

Paganini Horror is basically off-brand metalsploitation, trading in the genre’s hair metal soundtrack for classical compositions and cornball 80s pop.  While filming a promotional “video clip” for their new single (a modernized recording of a lost, cursed, Paganini composition, of course), an all-girl rock band accidentally summons Paganini’s ghost, who hunts them one-by-one with a novelty violin knife.  They trade myths about Paganini’s signature on a literal contract with Satan, or how the musician used his wife’s intestines as strings, and you can still hear “the screams of his poor bride” today.  We don’t get to see much of that, though.  We get loopy music video clips & dream sequences where the devil’s violinist chases buxom new wavers around an abandoned castle.  Apparently, the production couldn’t land the full financing needed to stage all of the gore gags in the original script (co-written by Daria Nicolodi as a mockbuster version of a Klaus Kinski Paganini movie that never materialized), so they replaced the gnarlier details of those kills with more loopy dream sequences.  It’s a fun, detached-from-reality schlock novelty as a result, never quite reaching the euphoric highs of a Ken Russell art film but often reaching for the weirdest indulgences possible in a movie about a real-life historical figure, fictionalized beyond recognition.

-Brandon Ledet