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

Movie of the Month: The Music Lovers (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 Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).

Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small.  People are being weird about it, though.  Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government.  It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia. 

The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter.  In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”.  That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment.  It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes.  I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual.  I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.

To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer).  The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin.  There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict.  Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot.  Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky?  Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?

Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.

I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.

Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?

Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dance the once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence. 

During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose).  I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake. 

Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would  have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist? 

Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!

Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!

Lagniappe

Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability. 

Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.

Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.

Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP.  Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography. 

Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Oliver! (1968)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1968’s Oliver!, is an adorable movie-musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist.  It sweetens the bitterness of the original text as best as it can with big-budget, song-and-dance movie magic, but it never fully breaks away from the brutality of its source material.  Oliver! is an extravagant Technicolor spectacle composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, stuck halfway between a feel-good crowd-pleaser and a heartbreaking tale of systemic child abuse.  I cannot tell if it’s wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s one of the two.

There have been dozens of Oliver Twist adaptations produced in the past century, so there’s plenty more Orphan Oliver cinema to explore after checking out the wonderfully grueling musical.  Oliver! has a more distinct angle in its approach to Dickens’s novel than faithful adaptations like David Lean’s 1948 version, though.  Proper pairings for Oliver! should all attempt a similar stand-out gimmick or interpretative device beyond dramatically illustrating the source material, especially since there isn’t much value to watching the same story repeated over & over again without that variety in form.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Oliver Twist adaptations that attempt to make the old text feel new again, often through extreme means.

Oliver Twist (2005)

Because there are so many Oliver Twist adaptations out there, Hanna got her titles confused and we ended up watching a modern version directed by Roman Polanski by mistake before meeting a second time to watch the musical.  We likely should’ve questioned the programming choice when she referenced the 2005 film as a “childhood favorite” (ouch), but it wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the runtime when Hanna realized the mistake, as it was clear there wasn’t going to be any singing or dancing in Polanski’s adaptation.  We finished the movie anyway (which is likely more time & attention than that decrepit rapist deserves) and found it to be a lot more entertaining than initially expected (which is definitely more praise than he deserves).

The Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist is stubbornly faithful to the events of the source material, so much so that it’s the clearest outlier on this list of Oliver! pairings.  Except, the director clearly bristled at the lighter, sweeter interpretations of the novel that have become standard in the years since Oliver!.  Polanski’s Oliver Twist is absurdly grotesque, often laughably so.  The cruelty, grime, and hopelessness of 19th Century London is pitched so far over the top that you cannot help but find it comedic.  Every character wants to see the sweet, young orphan Oliver hang for the crime of existing in their eyesight.  Meanwhile, if they just wait long enough, he’d likely die naturally of starvation or infection from touching London’s shit-smeared streets with his bare, wounded feet.  It dives so far into the muck & misery of the text that it can only be viewed as a pointed rejection of the movie-musical revisions meant to brighten its narrative with a little song-and-dance sunshine – mainly Oliver!.

Twisted (1996)

Thankfully, you don’t have to watch a Roman Polanski movie if you’re looking for an appropriately grim adaptation of Dickens’s story.  The 1996 low-budget indie Twisted offers “a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, set in a New York City contemporary underground populated by drag queens, drug abuse, and prostitution.”  Its determination to make a dark & twizted update to Oliver Twist is likely overkill, since the source material is already plenty grim as is.  Still, it’s the only adaptation I’ve seen that goes out of its way to make the text too bitter to stomach – changing the orphan boys’ criminal enterprise from petty thievery to child prostitution and skipping the happy ending for Oliver entirely.  Twisted is impressively fucked up, stylish, and chaotic enough to make me nostalgic for the true independent filmmaking of 90s festival programs.  It also includes one-of-a-kind performances from William Hickey (as a Lynchian take on Fagin) and Billy Porter (as a transgender take on Bet), which you would think would raise its profile in pop culture nerd circles.

The 2003 film Twist also gritties up the Dickens story in a world of drug addicts and gay hustlers (that time set in Toronto), but it’s hard to imagine there was any novelty left in that approach after Twisted beat it to the punch.  Twisted‘s version of grimy NYC street life is illustrated with music video production values, to the point where you halfway expect the camera to pan past Michael Jackson dance-smashing an abandoned car.  Whereas Nancy is only implied to be a prostitute in every other version of the story—including the novel—Twisted explicitly opens with her surrogate in the act of hooking.  Then there’s the deeply upsetting decision to maintain Oliver’s age as a young minor, while aging up everyone else around him to lecherous adults, grooming the sweethearted orphan for a life of prostitution.  The backwards-letters typeface of Twisted‘s opening credits announces that it’s not your grandpappy’s Oliver Twist, and the movie delivers on that promised shock value every chance it gets.  It also features Billy Porter quipping that his barroom buddies look “as nervous as a drag queen in a shoe store,” though, so it’s not all grim, grim grime.  Just mostly.

Oliver and Company (1988)

Obviously, if you’re the world’s #1 Oliver! fan, it’s unlikely that grimness & cruelty are your top concerns in your Oliver Twist adaptations.  If you’re looking for a version of Dickens’s novel that’s even cheerier & schmaltzier than the movie musical, Disney is of course your savior.  The 1988 cartoon Oliver and Company arrived just before the Disney Renaissance, at a time when the company was still in heated competition with idealist defector Don Bluth (who beat the film at the box office with The Land Before Time).  It’s just as toothless of an Oliver Twist adaptation as you’d expect from Disney, featuring talking kittens and dogs dancing to a cornball pop soundtrack, as well as the decision to play Fagin as a desperate sweetheart voiced by Dom DeLuise.  And yet the current state of talking-animal CG animation for kids is so dire that Oliver and Company feels like a timeless masterpiece in comparison.  Call it a mehsterpiece. It’s a sweet mediocrity from a lost era of superior visual craft, putting thoughtful care into its detailed animation even while evaporating all of the thought & care out of its literary source material.

In this version, Oliver is an unadopted kitten abandoned on the streets of New York, populated entirely by faceless archetypes who yell “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “Come and get your hotdogs!”  He’s taken under the wing of a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel, who fortunately only has one song on the soundtrack) and taught how to pretend to get hit by cars to steal from distraught drivers (a solid grift!).  Voice performances from a villainous Robert Loggia and a fabulous Bette Midler (who unfortunately only has one song as well) threaten to add some substantive, mature themes to the proceedings, but the movie is pure Disney schmaltz through & through.  It’s really only worth seeking out if you wished Oliver! was even sweeter or if, like me, you’re nostalgic for a time when even the most disposable kids’ media looked nice in its visual craft, regardless of its thematic ambitions.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Tatie Danielle (1990)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1990’s Tatie Danielle, is a dark comedy about a cruel old biddy whose sole purpose in life is making everyone else as miserable as she is.  It plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks.  The main difference (besides their anti-heroes’ disparate ages) is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless repeats of “Bad to the Bone”, while Tatie Danielle is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication.  Both are great.

It’s rare that elderly characters are allowed to be complicated, difficult people onscreen.  They’re usually dazed wallflowers who are only good for an occasional comedic one-liner or a pang of audience sympathy.  The titular Auntie Danielle might be an ornery bully, but she’s at least interesting & complicated enough to carry an entire character study all by her lonesome – something you can’t say about many elderly characters on the big screen.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more films about wonderfully terrible old people whose geriatric misanthropy makes them oddly adorable.

Grumpy Old Men (1993)

If you want to see a version of Tatie Danielle with all the dramatic sophistication surgically removed to make room for broad Problem Child-style comedy, Grumpy Old Men is basically its dumbed-down American remake.  The core emotional drama of Tatie Danielle is in watching its miserable old biddy find an unlikely kindred spirit in her younger, even meaner nurse – a complicated relationship that evolves from borderline elder abuse to Thelma & Louise feminist heroics.  Grumpy Old Men takes a much simpler, lazier route by pairing Jack Lemon & Walter Matthau up as two miserable old men who find good company in each other’s equal-footing sourness.  They’re essentially playing two photocopies of the same ornery-old-man archetype—next-door neighbors & lifelong rivals—so there’s nothing nuanced or surprising about their I-love-to-hate-you dynamic.  Still, I got choked up by a scene where Matthau drags Lemon to the ER post-heart-attack and struggles to answer a nurse who asks whether he’s “friend or family.”  The thing about simplified Hollywood schmaltz is that it works, often to an embarrassing degree.

What’s brilliant about Grumpy Old Men‘s archetypal frenemy dynamic is that it allows the film to immediately launch into Matthau & Lemon’s hate-love dynamic.  It plays like a “The Movie” version of a decades-running sitcom in that way, or maybe a legacy sequel to the comedians’ previous team-up in The Odd Couple.  That frees up a lot of space for geriatric Problem Child pranks, which are of course much broader & cuter here than in Tatie Danielle.  These geezers might spitefully refer to each other by pet names like “moron” and “dickhead,” but they’re not really as misanthropic or cruel as Auntie Danielle, and a lot of the film’s fun is in watching them unwittingly bond as friends as they ruin each other’s daily lives with slapstick pranks.  Go to the French film for nuance; go to the American one for a Benny Hill set piece involving a runaway fishing hut.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

I suppose referring to Grumpy Old Men as the “dumbed-down American version” of Tatie Danielle doesn’t leave much room for discussion of Bad Grandpa – a geriatric prank movie from the professional dummies at Jackass, the most dumbed-down game in town.  In this spinoff from the official Jackass canon, Johnny Knoxville appears in old-age makeup as a horny old grump who briefly celebrates the freedom of his wife’s death, only to be saddled with custody of his grandson for the length of a disastrous road trip.  It perversely mixes candid-camera pranks with a Little Miss Sunshine-style feel-good comedy plot, even concluding with a real-life recreation of Little Miss Sunshine‘s climactic dance number (this time a drag/strip routine set to Warrant’s hair metal classic “Cherry Pie”).  Knoxville is obnoxious, cruel, selfish, uncomfortably horny, and often casually racist throughout the road trip, and the film scores a lot of easy laughs in observing people’s horrified reactions to a frail old man’s misanthropic misbehavior – the same transgressive thrill as Tatie Danielle

There’s been a lot of serious academic reconsideration of Jackass‘s artistic value as a documentary series lately, and I honestly believe there’s an argument to be made that Bad Grandpa is one of the more innovative, nuanced examples of mean-geezer cinema.  The love for last year’s Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip seemed to suggest that the narrative-hybrid approach is the future of the candid prank film, so it’s a little odd this one is poorly remembered.  It’s not quite as funny as a legitimate Jackass film, but it is funny, and it’s an interesting evolution of the form.  If nothing else, every prank feels narratively purposeful in a way neither Bad Trip nor the Borat movies bother to attempt.  It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup, which might very well be one of the first legitimizing accolades a Jackass film got as an achievement in cinematic craft.  You have to wonder whether if the series were filmed in France instead of the US, it might’ve been legitimized as “documentary art” & “a joyous vision of resilience in the face of trauma” a lot sooner.

Rabid Grannies (1988)

Given that the comedic legacy of Grumpy Old Men & Bad Grandpa has an immediate successor in the Robert DeNiro comedy Dirty Grandpa, it’s tempting to offer that much maligned (but surprisingly funny) gross-out comedy as the third compliment to Tatie Danielle.  I don’t want to lean too hard into the dirty-old-man side of the geriatric gender divide, though, since part of the novelty of Auntie Danielle’s misbehavior is the novelty of seeing an old woman shine as a sour misanthrope.  I can think of plenty examples of elderly men causing an age-inappropriate ruckus in slapstick comedies, but misbehaving biddies are a lot more difficult to come by.  In fact, I had to deviate to splatstick horror comedies to find the perfect pairing with Tatie Danielle‘s evil-old-woman humor, landing on the 1988 Belgian gore fest Rabid Grannies.  It might seem like the furthest outlier recommendation listed here, but it’s both the only one of these pairings that, like Tatie Danielle, centers on misanthropic old women and features a French-speaking cast.

Well, they normally speak French anyway.  One-time director Emmanuel Kervyn instructed his cast to speak phonetic English so the film would be internationally marketable.  For his effort, he sold the film to Troma, who has since bungled its release for over thirty years in both the quality of its prints and the censorship of its gore gags – a shitty trade-off for having to listen to characters talk-shout in a language they barely understand.  As a farce, Rabid Grannies is painfully unfunny, if not outright shrill.  As a special effects showcase, however, it’s a hoot, approximating what it would be like if the creepy biddies from Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches actually tore into some flesh instead of just threatening to.  What it lacks in belly laughs it more than makes up for in its flashes of Dead Alive-level splatstick gore.

At the start of the film, the titular killer “grannies” (referred to as “The Aunts” by their ungrateful relatives) are stereotypically sweet old ladies.  They freely give money to homeless people but are tight-pursed when it comes to their relatives, who are nastily competing for the women’s soon-to-be-distributed inheritance.  No matter how sweet they appear, The Aunts are sinisterly Conservative in their old age, pressuring their children to hide lesbian relationships & second marriages out of distaste for the impropriety.  It’s a moral fascism that’s amplified when The Aunts are cursed by the black sheep of the family, who infects them with a witchcraft spell that transforms them into flesh-eating demons.  In their first act of violence, the evil old women bite off a family member’s head.  In their climactic showstopper, they eat another family member’s ass – literally.  It’s all very gloopy & over-the-top, but it’s rooted in the same generational warfare that runs throughout all these misanthropic comedies. 

If you squint at it the right way, Tatie Danielle is a kind of horror film about an evil grandmother the same way that The Stepfather is a horror film about an evil stepfather, or The Dentist is a horror film about an evil dentist.  Rabid Grannies follows through on the novelty of that premise in the most extreme, tasteless way, transforming its bitter-old-lady villains into grotesque monsters.  The funny thing is that even in that creature-feature context, they take delight in their family-destroying mayhem as if they were just playing juvenile pranks on their victims (or, more accurately, just playing with their food).  It’s an approach that makes the broad caricatures of Tatie Danielle look restrained & sophisticated by comparison, which I suppose you could also say about Grumpy Old Men, Bad Grandpa, and the like.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: I Declare War (2012)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2012’s I Declare War, is a darkly comic fantasy thriller that illustrates a children’s game of Capture the Flag as a gritty war story.  Unfortunately, it’s one of our rare Movie of the Month selections that did not hit home for me, personally.  Its premise is fun enough, and I was mostly charmed by its low-budget backyard filmmaking aesthetics, but the overall vibes are just . . . off.  Specifically, I was tripped up by some of its more dire #edgelord one-liners, and I’m not sure that it ever escalates its high-concept premise beyond its initial novelty.  Then again, that novelty was in playing children’s playground imagination fantasies as a straight war film, and that’s just not my genre.  I found myself alternating between boredom and annoyance for most of its runtime, which is typically how I react to even well-respected war movies, so it might actually be successful as the genuine thing.

As disappointed as I ended up being with I Declare War as a finished product, I still think there’s a fun germ of an idea in its central conceit.  It’s just also one that you can see executed in better, earlier films.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month (or at least the idea of it) and want to see more films where children’s playtime war games are treated with the severity of a genuine war epic.

Son of Rambow (2007)

Maybe the reason I Declare War made me squeamish was that the cast of kids are so unashamedly gross.  They have the talk-shouting acting skills of a Disney Channel Original, but they also take transgressive delight in cussing and making 4-chan level jokes about blowjobs & altar boys.  It’s off-putting.  By contrast, I was thoroughly charmed by the 2007 twee comedy Son of Rambow, in which the kids are rambunctious but sweet in their fictional battlefield mischief.  Like I Declare War, Son of Rambow is guided by a childlike sense of imagination, as indicated in its tagline “Make believe, not war.”  The difference is that the kids in Son of Rambow are adorable little scamps, while the kids of I Declare War are gross little internet trolls.  It may be a less authentic depiction of childhood personalities, but it’s a lot easier to stomach at feature length.

In Son of Rambow, two mismatched British schoolboys bond while making a D.I.Y. sequel to First Blood with a camcorder in the woods.  Their bootleg Rambo sequel recalls the cutesy backyard-moviemaking aesthetics of similar comedies like Brigsby Bear & Be Kind Rewind, focusing more on the anything-can-happen chaos of a child’s imagination than the grim logistics of real-life warfare.  While the kids of I Declare War are obsessed with the traditional war-epic plot machinations of the movie Patton, the kids of Son of Rambow toss in whatever spur-of-the-moment whimsies pop up in their playtime: ninjas, flying dogs, killer scarecrows, whatever.  You’ll either find their playtime antics cloying or wonderful depending on your relationship with twee whimsy.  Either way, it offers a sweet counterpoint to the bitter battlefield grotesqueries of I Declare War.

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

Maybe it’s wrong to soften the harsh reality of warfare with twee whimsy.  Maybe a proper alternative to I Declare War would have to sweeten its bitter truths with a different kind of genre-bending novelty.  Child’s Play 3 is at least more somber in its approach to children playing soldiers in the woods, in that it’s set in a somewhat realistic military academy where young kids are forced to play make-believe that they’re adult killing-machines.  Its most direct connection to I Declare War arrives in the third act, when their traditional wargames simulation is made tragically lethal – their guns’ paintball ammo swapped with actual bullets.  Of course, the novelty in that premise is provided by the mischievous villain who supplied that live ammo: the supernatural killer doll Chucky.

To be honest, even Child’s Play 3 sticks a little too close to traditional war movie genre tropes for my tastes.  Having to spend even 90 breezy minutes in its drab military school setting feels like being punished alongside Andy for crimes I didn’t commit.  Chucky does a lot to break up the monotony of that rigidly uniform setting, though.  It’s easily my least favorite of the original Child’s Play trilogy, but it’s late enough in the series that Chucky fully comes into his own as a mainstay slasher villain, quipping his way through every kill with fun catchphrases & cheap one-liners.  Also, my boredom with its war-film tropes is rewarded with a last-minute trip to an amusement park in an incredible finale.  That’s more than I can say for I Declare War, which never leaves its D.I.Y. military bases in the woods.

3615 code Père Noël (aka Deadly Games, 1989)

The ideal neutral ground between the cutesy whimsy of Son of Rambow and the military-school machismo of Child’s Play 3 is likely the 1989 French home-invasion thriller Deadly Games, making it the perfect counterpoint to I Declare War‘s playground wargames tedium.  The problem is that it’s blasphemous to watch Deadly Games any month but December, since it’s explicitly a Christmas film.  In the movie, a spoiled rich child plays macho protector to his empty mansion against a psychotic invader who’s dressed as Santa Claus (whom the boy mistakes for the real deal).  To eliminate this threat, the boy suits up as a miniature Rambo, armed with an endless arsenal of high-tech gadgets & children’s toys to weaponize against the killer Santa.  He treats his mission with the deadly seriousness of a real-life war skirmish, which is good, because the adult Santa very well might kill him.

Director René Manzor was reportedly pissed that his film was “plagiarized” by the massive 90s hit Home Alone, and it’s easy to see the connections between the two films’ shared boobytrap defense systems & Christmas Eve home-invasion premises.  However, whereas Home Alone‘s boobytrap antics are played for broad slapstick humor, Deadly Games is deadly serious about the threat its enemy encroachment presents.  The child’s response to the invading Santa Claus is charmingly imbued with playtime imagination, especially in his plastic weapons of choice.  The severity of the resulting battle is genuinely thrilling, though, even more so than most actual Rambo movies.  It skillfully toys with the exact boundary between childhood whimsy & wartime brutality that I Declare War clumsily aims for, but no self-respecting adult should watch it any sooner in the calendar year than the day after Thanksgiving.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Lifeforce (1985)

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

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

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

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

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

Queen of Blood (1966)

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

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

The Green Slime (1968)

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

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

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

Black Sunday (1960)

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

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

The Whip and the Body (1963)

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

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

Baron Blood (1972)

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Hello Again (1987)

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

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

The Swimmer (1968)

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

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

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

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

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

Mommie Dearest (1981)

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

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

-Brandon Ledet