When The Pit Got Bigger, So Did Its Scares

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Britnee mentioned that the film’s premise stoked her déjà vu of another 80s horror gem she had seen in her teens: The Gate. At the time I had never heard of The Gate, but catching up with it since I totally understand the confusion. A Canadian horror oddity about children releasing demons from a hole in their backyard, The Gate shares many basic attributes with The Pit’s DNA. At first glance, it almost seems like a more conventional take on the exact same material. While The Pit follows an oversexed, vengeful monster child who terrorizes his own community like a prurient Rhoda Penmark, with the pit-dwelling troglodytes he releases serving as his flesh-eating pets, The Gate echoes a more traditional dynamic where innocent children face supernatural dangers through no real fault of their own. The hole-dwelling demons of The Gate are described as “minions,” but they’re minions of The Devil, not the children who unwittingly release them. The Pit also boasts a grimy, microbudget quality that finds its scares in emotional & sexual discomfort, recalling other small-budget creepouts like The Baby or Pin, while The Gate is much more reliant on the physical scares of special effects work – depicting its demonic threats through traditional means like rubber monster costumes, forced perceptive photography, and stop motion animation. While The Gate blows up The Pit’s basic aesthetic to a grander, more traditional stage, however, it maintains the earlier film’s basic strangeness & willingness to throw as may varied, plentiful scares at the screen as it can manage in its 80min runtime. If anything, the increase in budget & ability to produce literal, physical dangers in the same childish headspace as The Pit only makes The Gate more terrifying.

Writer Michael Nankin explained that he constructed The Gate around “the nastiest thoughts from [his] childhood,” a tone that’s nailed perfectly in the final product. By its overwhelming finale, the film feels like a sky-high pile of varied demonic monstrosities, but each scare is generated from the detailed-fixated nightmare logic of any & all childhood anxieties. The premise is simple: two young friends discover a hole in a suburban backyard and unwittingly perform a Satanic ritual that transforms it into a gate to Hell. While being babysat on a parents-free weekend, they’re forced to contend with a wide range of hideous beasts & impossible supernatural oddities that emerge from the hole until they seal the gate with another ritual. Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control. It’s a far cry from the telepathic teddy bear & rubber monster suits simplicity of The Pit, but the same loopy adherence to nightmare logic & willingness to escalate the extent of the threat on an exponential trajectory remains.

I’d be curious to know if The Pit was a direct influence on The Gate, which seems likely given their release dates, Canuxploitation origins, and childlike fascination with hole-dwelling monsters. It’s possible that this is a case of parallel thinking, where two 1980s filmmakers tried to recreate what inspired their worst nightmares as children and used the same starting point (a backyard hole) as their initial writing prompt. The better-funded special effects work of The Gate pushed that premise to its scariest extreme, but both films tap into the darkest corners of childhood anxiety in their own impressive, respective ways. As Britnee stated when she first compared the two: “I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.” I imagine there are entire subcults of children who were traumatized by catching either title (or both!) on late-night cable at just the right age. These are the kinds of uneasy horror films that look & feel like they were made for children . . . until they very much don’t. The Pit subverts its children’s media aesthetic by tapping into menacing sexual discomfort. The Gate goes for much more traditional, physical scares in its own depictions of hole-dwelling Evil, but its nightmare logic & gleeful sense of cruelty leads to even bigger scares than what’s lurking in The Pit. I’m not sure what was going on in 1980s Canadian holes that inspired these two terrifying oddities, but I’m grateful that it was immortalized onscreen. I just wish I had seen both films at the age when they really would have burrowed into my subconscious, when I would have been too young to fully comprehend why they’re terrifying, but just the right age to share their sensibilities.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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Movie of the Month: The Pit (1981)

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 CC made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Pit (1981).

CC: When I was first asked to join Swampflix I was both excited and apprehensive because I knew that I would soon have to select a Movie of the Month. How could I possibly choose something that I’ve seen but none of the experts at Swampflix have? I was doubly intimidated when I was informed that my first selection would be the October Movie of the Month, which has traditionally been a horror film. Thank goodness for my years of idly watching whatever garbage played during daytime television in my cable-free, pre-internet childhood. I saw The Pit around the same time I saw the 1979 film Prophecy, a sci-fi horror featuring a truly disturbing mutated, skinless bear. As a result, I kinda mixed some parts of the two in my mind. Mainly, the disturbing gore.

The Pit is a 1981 Canuxploitation (Canadian schlock) horror film that was for some strange reason filmed in Beaver Falls, Wisconsin. It follows the story of socially inept and lustful 12-year-old Jamie, who discovers a pit full of monsters he calls “Tra-la-logs” (instead of troglodytes) in the woods behind his house. He quickly discovers the monsters will eat any meat he supplies them, even . . . HUMAN FLESH! When Jamie’s not pushing his enemies into a pit of monsters, he’s blackmailing librarians for sexy nudes and stalking his babysitter. Oh yeah, and he talks to a teddy bear who may or may not be demonically possessed. In the words of SNL‘s Stefon, “This movie’s got everything: pits full of hungry humanoid creatures, disturbingly sexual pre-teens, talking bears, MURDER.”

Boomer, what did you think of The Pit? Were there too many plot elements and horror tropes or was it delightfully overstuffed?

Boomer: I loved this movie. It definitely felt a little sporadically organized, given that there are at least three different kinds of horror going on here (psychological/psychosexual, supernatural [arguably?], and cryptozoological), and that means that the film is being pulled in multiple directions at once, but while that certainly means that it runs the risk of being muddled (and it shows its seams at times), it hangs together pretty well on the whole, minus a few things that I would consider to be poor choices. I really like that, for the most part, the film acts as an insight into the mind of a repressed little boy who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s stuck in a state of arrested development and lives almost entirely in his own imagination, and his parents are so unprepared to deal with his specialized needs (or as Sandy says, “exceptional children”) that they treat their son like an alien being. At first, the things that we learn about Jamie—like that he was wearing a superman cape (presumably as a loincloth) and swinging around in trees pretending to be Tarzan—are unusual, but not bizarre, antisocial, or dangerous enough to warrant the kind of response that his family and community provide: old ladies talking about his maladaptive behavior when he is within earshot; getting punched in the face by a bully with no apparent repercussions for the larger, more aggressive boy; the cruel taunts and pranks from Abergail [sic]; and arguably the worst, Marg Livingstone, who treats Jamie as if he were an aggressive adult sex offender released on parole, rather than an odd little boy who needs a good talking to. If a child develops a crush and acts on it inappropriately, you would think an adult would first scold the kid and then get the parents involved if it happened again, but Marg just hides behind bookshelves like a creep instead of tackling the problem head-on like a grown-up (not that this excuses what Jamie does to her later). He builds, of course, to violence and sexual harassment (his extortion of Marg under threat of violence to her niece is when he really crosses the line), but his community already despises and ostracizes him at a time when the audience can’t help but sympathize with him.

There’s a lot that happens in implication here, much more than in other horror movies of the era, area, or budget. Jamie’s father looks to be at least a decade older than his mother, if not two, so the audience is left to assume that there’s a bizarre sexual energy in the house even before the parents abandon the boy in the hands of a local college student they barely know. On top of that, we get Jamie’s monologue in the bath about how his mother often washes him and washes him, even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, implying that Mrs. Benjamin goes a little “Piper Laurie as Margaret White” whenever Jamie acts out. Honestly, the amount of sexual repression and psychological damage, combined with the “child with a secret” trope and the northeastern US backdrop, give the whole thing a Stephen King vibe all the way through. When we hear Teddy speaking, he does so with Jamie’s voice, much like little Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend that helps him interpret the world around him when adults fail to provide even the most scant or answers (or sympathy). The titular pit is almost the least interesting aspect of the entire film, except as an objective correlative metaphor about the giant hole in Jamie’s understanding of the world that leads him to do some pretty fucked up things. For me, the only real problem is when the “tra-la-logs” in the hole are revealed to be literal and real and not just aspects of Jamie’s psyche. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does irrevocably change the tone when the psychological inspection of Jamie is interrupted for 20+ minutes by characters we’ve never seen before: a toothless and typical “monsters eat skinny-dipping teenagers” scene, an abbreviated police procedural about finding the missing persons, and a bunch of camo-hatted hunters pursuing the troglodytes back to their pit and shooting them all.

Reading up on the film, apparently the original script was more explicit in the fact that the action of the film was all in Jamie’s mind, with no escaped troglodytes and nothing supernatural about Teddy. To me, the influence of that first script is most apparent in the scene where Jamie forces Marg to strip, as we see Teddy’s (read: Jamie’s) voice coming from a recording on the other end of the phone line instead of, for instance, coming from the bear himself. On the other hand, there’s also the scene where poor Sandy finds Jamie’s nudie mags and then puts them back where they were, while Teddy’s head turns to the door after she leaves, clearly indicating that there is something not-of-this-earth about the bear. There was clearly a lot of studio interference going on here, and I wish we could see the film as it was originally intended, but nonetheless I’m delighted that I’ve finally seen it.

I’ve been hard on all of the adults in this film with the exception of Sandy (who certainly has moments where she could be a better influence on Jamie and help guide him into being less antisocial, but overall is fairly balanced in her treatment of him and only freaks out when he really crosses the line, like when he sneaks into the bathroom while she’s showering), but the one I feel most perplexed about is Marg. The film acts as if we’re supposed to have more empathy for Jamie, and reasonably so (at least at first), while Marg in general reacts very poorly to Jamie’s affections, crude though they may be. Again, why would you not address a twelve year old boy about how inappropriate it is for him to put your picture on a nude? By acting as if it never happened, you’re doing nothing to alter or change this behavior, which is irresponsible and bizarre, especially when you are an authority figure in his life. Brandon, am I being too hard on Marg?

Brandon: I think the issue is that you’re being too soft on Jamie, which is making you overly judgemental of Marg by extension. Jamie’s prurient interests in adult women goes far beyond the typical crushes of boys his age and instead weighs on the community around him as a genuine sexual menace. The creepiest thing about it is that he knows his predatory, privacy-violating behavior will be excused by the adults around him because of his apparent juvenile innocence. He’s like a horned-up version of Rhoda Penmark (of The Bad Seed) in that way, playing the part of a curious child who loves his teddy bear whenever anyone’s looking, but privately operating as a sexual sociopath with complex schemes on how to exploit the older women around him for cheap thrills. I don’t get the sense that we’re meant to sympathize with Jamie, but rather are supposed to be creeped out by his premature sexuality & his overreaction to bullies (both actual & perceived). His juvenile horniness feels like a threat that’s terrorized his community long before the film’s narrative starts, as indicated by his parents’ deliberate absence, his long back-history of traumatized babysitters, and Marg’s already-established paranoia in his presence. I’m totally on Marg’s side in suspicion & fear of that horny little devil, which is why it’s so satisfying when he ultimately meets his demise at the hands of his own Rhoda Penmark-type equal (in a conclusion that makes no logical storytelling sense, but strikes a perfect note of poetic justice anyway).

Jamie’s terrifying, predatory sexuality is a large reason why I fell in love with The Pit, because it’s a genuinely horrific threat that effectively creeped me out even though the film at large is campy & over-the-top. As already suggested, this is a film that’s delightfully overstuffed with non-traditional monsters: flesh-eating troglodytes, a telepathic teddy bear, and a horny pubescent boy. Because of the cheapness of the troglodytes’ Roger Corman-level costuming & the bear’s cartoonish vocal dubbing, it’s easy enough to laugh those threats off as being too goofy to take seriously. Jamie’s predatory sexuality is much more difficult to dismiss, recalling other unconventionally eerie films of the era like Pin, The Baby, Sleepaway Camp, and Flowers in the Attic that transcend their limited means by tapping into adolescent sexual discomfort. Britnee, did you similarly find Jamie’s sexuality to be the creepiest threat in The Pit? Were the tra-la-logs or the telepathic teddy bear at all scary to you or did they play like campy jokes in comparison to the horny little boy who considers them friends?

Britnee: When I think of what scares me the most in general, it’s children like Jamie. Creepy, sleazy little perverts who think they’re untouchable. I wanted to jump through the screen and light that teddy bear on fire just to punish Jamie for being a gross creep. Also, it seemed like the teddy bear had part of his soul, so burning it would possibly destroy Jamie (like Voldemort’s horcruxes!). Even if the tra-la-logs were more realistic and genuinely terrifying or if the teddy bear was possessed by a demonic spirit and using a child to do its dirty work, nothing even comes close to how terrifying Jamie is. He’s also at the age where kids are the most annoying: not quite a teenager, yet older than an elementary school student. All of these horrible things combined made it really difficult for me to have any sort of sympathy or understanding for Jamie, and this is why I don’t have children or work with children.

What I love most about The Pit, other than the fact that it contains my worst fear (creepy kids), is that it’s so unpredictable and goes in a ton of different directions. I just didn’t know what to focus on. Should I have been concerned about the tra-la-logs climbing out of the pit and wreaking havoc on the innocent folk of this small town? Or should I be more worried about the possessed teddy bear guiding a perverted kid in the wrong direction? I didn’t really know, but I also didn’t really care because all of the distracting little subplots made the ending of the film all the more shocking for me. There’s nothing quite like a film that ends with a twist, and oh boy, was this ending twist so satisfying. I went home and slept like a baby after the movie ended.

CC, you mentioned watching this as a young kid. How was watching it again as an adult? Is there anything that you were more scared of in the film back then that didn’t scare you in the recent viewing? Or vice versa?

CC: As mentioned previously, I had somewhat blended the plots to both The Pit and Prophecy in my 6-9 year-old brain and as a result, didn’t really remember much of The Pit beyond the glowing eyes of the tra-la-logs. It’s a strange detail to fixate on too, since the tra-la-logs themselves get so little screen time. I’m surprised that Jamie’s extremely disturbing Teddy did not leave more of a lasting impression. Mind you, I was terrified of clowns, the dark, some dolls (especially Chucky or Chucky-adjacent ones), Troll II, Freddy Kruger, walking up staircases or down hallways, and cars so I probably was just trying to make sure that at least teddy bears could stay on my “safe” list. It should also be noted that none of the weird sexual stuff stayed with me, but that might again be my baby brain trying to protect me from the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons this film did stick in my mind is that it’s not particularly scary. A psycho-sexual thriller starring a 12-year-old and lacking in significant jump scares is more creepy and off-putting than most horror I had been exposed to at this age. Boomer, what’s your take? Is The Pit a scary movie? Does it even count as horror?

Boomer: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this film to be “scary” per se, and not just because it turns into a bargain basement Don Dohler (redundant, I know) movie in the third act. I’m in agreement with Brandon and Britnee in that the scariest thing about this film is its function as a disturbing exploration of the psyche of an oversexed pubescent boy, and Jamie is, as Brandon notes, a genuine sexual menace. I just find myself having more sympathy for Jamie (initially; he falls off the slippery slope very quickly). I think that may have more to do with how old/mature we interpret Jamie to be and whether or not he has some kind of social disorder or is on the autism spectrum, and I’m quick to admit that this is likely due to my reading of the film being rooted in my own horizon of limited experience.

When I was in the fifth grade at a repressive Christian school, the students in my class were on a rotating schedule of who was to deliver the lunch orders for the entire class to the cafeteria in the mornings. I remember clearly that this happened on a Thursday, because the lunch room was in back of auditorium that was used for assemblies and in which the middle and high school students had “chapel” assemblies every week. The previous night, the son of the pastor who headed the megachurch of which the school was part had been caught in flagrante delicto with the school secretary’s daughter in his car during the Wednesday night service. Every student in grades 6-12 had been gathered in the auditorium to watch an “educational” video in which one of the talking heads (not those) stated clearly that “We [adults] always know when teenagers are having sex, because the boy is always angry, and the girl is always crying.” Leaving aside the more subtle nastiness in that statement (the heteronormativity, the prurience of adults with regards to teenage sexual behavior, etc.) and focusing on the extreme inappropriateness of the ideas presented in it, this is deeply fucked up. That’s not even getting into the fact that the girl in question was expelled and the pastor’s son was allowed to continue to attend school, and the undeniable sexism of that, not to mention the implicitness of the fact that this decision should not be questioned; after all, wasn’t the pastor ordained by God and thus above having his decisions questioned?

This was just one piece of a 5000+ component puzzle of my understanding of sexuality in an extremely religious and oppressed household and community. For years, if there was a girl who was crying at school, the only logical conclusion was that she was a slut (she couldn’t possibly have been simply frustrated at the overall sexism and degradation she experienced at this school, or in a home headed by a patriarch who considered this a sufficiently healthy learning environment . . . right?). There was nothing healthy about my own understanding of sex and sexuality until I was in my late teens at best, and even then, I was still possessed of toxic ideologies and regressive attitudes that have taken years to unlearn, and which I still find myself noticing and confronting in my life on a daily basis. I could recount dozens upon dozens of stories just like this one that illustrate how my own mind and that of many others I knew were warped by an abusive home, school, and church life that created one Jamie after another. I’m certainly not saying that I think Jamie shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions; he definitely should. Leaving aside the extent to which Jamie is mentally capable of understanding what he’s doing (more on that in a moment), I just see his home life and the repressed reactions of his parents and community as being contributing factors to his personality problems: he explicitly says that his mother enjoys bathing him despite the fact that he is at an age where he should be able to bathe himself (hinting at potential molestation); he says that his mother often bathes him even when he doesn’t think that he’s dirty, which immediately makes me think of poor Carrie White getting locked in her closet by her mother for her “uncleanness”; when he acts inappropriately, his father snatches him up, threatens violence, and doesn’t even consider having a conversation about consent, privacy, or the inappropriateness of voyeurism; and ultimately, his parents completely abdicate their responsibility to raise their child and leave him in the care of a stranger with, at most, a day or two’s warning.

At least one source I’ve found indicates that screenwriter Ian Stuart’s original script was explicit in its demonstration that Jamie had a developmental disorder, that The Pit was intended to be “an earnest exploration of the inner life of an autistic child” and that “[the] tra-la-logs and the talking bear were all products of Jaime’s mind, and his perversions were mostly interior.” Although no one in the film talks about neurological atypicality vis-a-vis their relationship to socialization issues (other than Sandy’s oblique references to working with “exceptional children”), after having worked in education, the signs that Jamie is on the spectrum were apparent to me in my reading of the film. With this in mind, he clearly has parents who are completely unprepared, ill-equipped, and unwilling to do the hard work of raising a special needs child. It doesn’t make his actions forgivable (in particular, the peeping at poor Marg under the threat of proxy violence is completely inexcusable and the most nauseating thing in the whole film), but I see the reactions of the adults in his life to his actions as making them complicit in the escalation of his behavior. To loop back around to CC’s question, I wouldn’t say that the film is “horror” per se, but it does effectively demonstrate the disturbing way that children with disabilities are often abused and neglected. The Arc, an organization that was originally created to assist people neurologically atypical individuals in finding legal recourse against institutions that denied services to them, reports that one in three children with autism or some other kind of mental impairment will experience abuse in their lifetimes (although they indicate that there’s insufficient study data to confirm all of their findings, and they do not differentiate between abuse by parents and other entities like caregivers or teachers).

Any properly socially aware person can see that the sexist, unequal treatment of male and female children and the cultivation of a “boys will be boys” mentality that denigrates the lived experience of women contribute to a society in which someone like Brett Kavanaugh can come within spitting distance of a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land while his accusers are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence. The difference is that at the time of his (“alleged”) infractions, the older and neurotypical Kavanaugh was mentally competent to take responsibility for his actions, while Jamie is (arguably) an autistic child whose need for specialized care is neglected by his parents and who is ostracized and isolated by his community. His curiosity about sexuality combined with his punishment for having said curiosity, devoid of any kind of education about why his actions are inappropriate and reprehensible and how they can be expressed more healthily, turns him into a ticking time bomb of perversion (and worse). To me, this is a movie about the horrors of abuse, neglect, complicity, and the failure of communities (on the familial and societal level) to take responsibility to teach young men about consent, assault, bodily autonomy, boundaries, and respect. The true horror of The Pit is that it acts as a mirror of society and shows us how rape culture can be perpetuated: “This is how you get Jamies. This is how you get Kavanaughs. This is how you get Brock Turners.” The only difference is that Jamie (again, arguably, given that nothing is ever made explicit about his neurological state) lacks the mental faculties to meditate on his toxic ideologies and change them without some kind of guidance, which he is denied at every turn.

Brandon, bearing in mind that the screenwriter originally intended to make Jamie’s autism explicit, and that this was one of the many changes made by the studio between conception and release, do you see any of that implied on screen, or am I giving the film too much credit? Does it affect your feelings about Jamie? Is the “Hollywoodifying” of the script (like making the bear’s possession and the existence of the tra-la-logs explicitly real on top of dropping Jamie’s disorder) something that you observe as a continuing problem in the film industry (i.e., are there any recent films in which the “seams” between the original intent and the finished product are so obvious)?

Brandon: The thoughtful child-psychology drama you’re describing is clearly detectable early in The Pit, but it’s something that gets muddled the more the film indulges in the schlocky horrors offered by the tra-la-logs, the telepathic teddy bear, and Jamie’s weaponized libido. To note a particular way that dynamic changes, consider the shifting implications of how Jamie’s relationship with his parents tracks from beginning to end. When Jamie’s just a sexually confused, mentally disturbed young boy who can’t differentiate between reality & fantasy, his parents come across as abusive brutes, ill-quipped to properly raise a child with special needs (or any child at all, really). Later, when the horrors of the film are made explicitly real and Jamie is demonstrated to be a cold-hearted, perverted killer who takes orders from a demonic toy and feeds (mostly undeserving) victims to his pet troglodytes, that parent-child dynamic shifts dramatically. The threats of physical violence, reports of inappropriate bath time scrubbing, and eagerness to delegate responsibility for the little creep to unsuspecting babysitters are still disturbing on their own merit, but they can easily be read as desperate, last-ditch efforts from parents frustrated by & fearful of a murderous, horned-up monster child. Any credibility The Pit might have had as a sincere inner-life portrait of a troubled child on the spectrum is lost as soon as magic is shown to be real & Jamie starts deploying it against his enemies . . . but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing.

On some level, I recognize that an intellectual, measured approach to Jamie’s dysfunctional psychology would likely be the more ethical path for The Pit to take, but as an appreciator of shameless, bonkers genre films, I’m honestly deeply appreciative that the original script underwent the “Hollywoodization” process instead. I’ve seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to thoughtfully capture the imagination & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a teddy bear. It was 2009’s unintentionally terrifying curio Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended what-the-fuck factor (thanks largely to being covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast) – the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous treats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s-good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. The Hollywoodization of The Pit is partially what saves it from being an embarrassment. As an audience, we’ve practically been trained to expect the restrained “It was all in Jamie’s head” reveal from the original script, which is what makes touches like the teddy bear’s unexplained anthropomorphism or the tra-la-logs’ third act escape from the titular pit such mind-blowing developments. The producers may have pushed for an intellectually hollower effect with those changes, but it feels like they’re breaking unspoken storytelling rules as a result, and the film feels like something much wilder than the Gooby precursor it easily could have been (considering its production value & quality of dialogue).

Because of the types of films I’m most typically drawn to (“messy,” over-the-top, “style over substance” genre fare), I more often run into unintentionally implied messages & themes rather than ones that have been erased or diluted in production. Sometimes, these unintended messages can be delightfully absurd, such as how Juame Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror film Orphan makes adopting a child appear to be a dangerous terror or how the 1989 fantasy comedy Teen Witch encourages young women to ditch their loyal best friends for easy popularity without there being fallout or consequence. Sometimes, the result is shockingly offensive, such as how the 2016 horror Lights Out encourages parents with depression to heroically commit suicide to spare their children of the burden or how this year’s G-rated talking-animal comedy Show Dogs groomed children to be accepting of sexual molestation (before appropriate outrage had that underlying theme removed from the film while it was still in theaters). Whether delightful or abhorrent, I always find this kind of unintentional messaging in cheapo cinema to be fascinating, even more so than tracking the ways a screenwriter’s original intent was diluted on its way to the screen. As such, I find myself scratching my head over what the completed, explicitly supernatural version of The Pit is saying about Jamie & childhood psychology more than I am fretting over what may have been lost from its first draft on the page. The final version of the story isn’t saying much (if anything) substantial about children on the spectrum, but it’s loudly ranting about something, however incoherent.

Britnee, what moral or message are you getting from The Pit as a completed work, if any? What is the film ultimately saying about Jamie & childhood psychology?

Britnee: If there is any moral message that I got from The Pit, it’s “You can’t be a little shit without being punished.” I saw Jamie as a terror of a child who ran around terrorizing people for sheer pleasure and killing people who got in his way or did him “wrong.” The more harassing and killing he did, the more I hoped that he would be punished for his actions in some way, which in the end, he did. Not once did I think about what was causing him to be so horrible. I just assumed he was pure evil. Now that it’s been a while since I initially watched the film and I’ve read Boomer’s take on Jamie’s character, I definitely see how Jamie was a victim of abuse and neglect. For instance, when I watched the bathtub scene, I thought he was acting like a perv and manipulating Sandy into the bathing him for sexual pleasure. My dislike for his character made me disregard his cries for help when he told her about how his mom bathed him hardcore even when he’s not dirty. While Sandy seemed concerned after hearing this, she did nothing. Sandy was really the only person he seemed to trust (he even told her the tra-la-log secret!) and she failed him. So between Sandy and his neglectful parents, he really didn’t have anyone to guide him in the right direction and get him the help he desperately needed.

In regards to childhood psychology, the film may be trying to say, “Hey, if you have a disturbed kid like Jamie, pay attention to their abnormal behavior and get them help before they do some serious damage.” It’s possible that Jamie would’ve had a chance if his parents would have brought him to a therapist or psychiatrist instead of ignoring him, hoping the problem would just go away on its own. All that being said, I still really hate him, but I sort of understand why he’s such a terrible human being.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I usually don’t do any prior research for Movie of the Month choices before watching the films, but I did a quick Google Image search for The Pit because it sounded like a movie I watched as a teenager. The movie I was thinking of was 1987’s The Gate, which is about a group of kids that unleash demons from a hole in their backyard. I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.

Brandon: The Canuxploitation factor of The Pit, combined with its Wisconsin shooting locale, is undeniably part of its value as a curiosity. There’s a whole outsider-artist industry of regional genre cinema out there that rarely reaches wide distribution or acclaim, but can be fascinating in its creative dissonance with routine Hollywood filmmaking. To that point, I accidentally spoiled myself on some of the film’s stranger touches when I recently watched Matt Farley’s 2002 horror comedy Sammy: The Tale of a Teddy and a Terrible Tunnel for an unrelated viewing project. Farley himself is an outsider, regional artist who makes backyard movies with friends & family in New England, far from The Pit’s Wisconsin locales. He must see a kindred spirit in The Pit’s aggressively local aesthetic, though, as Sammy is – unbelievably – a feature-length homage/spoof of this little seen cult classic, set in Farley’s Massachusetts haunts.

As strange & highly specific as The Pit can be, there’s an entire world of regional cinema weirdos out there producing curios just like it for barely existent audiences (and in the case of Sammy, I mean just like it). As an amateur, localized film critic with a deliberately D.I.Y. blogging aesthetic, I find that pocket of outsider filmmaking to be inspiring, if not outright heroic.

CC: I’m a big fan of films where children are put in danger (like The Goonies, The Monster Squad, or even The Nice Guys) so a film where children are both in danger and the source of the danger are really enjoyable for me. I’m glad my co-writers were also able to have fun with this weird gem.

Boomer: Super grateful that CC brought this gem to the table. I’d like to apologize for any lack of clarity on my part with regards to Jamie’s monstrosity and if it appeared I was trying to completely deflect responsibility for his behavior onto the myriad of (mostly bad) adult caretakers and gatekeepers in his life. I’d also like to forewarn any interested parties that, should you find this film on YouTube, although it will at first appear that it’s been mangled in some way and starting in the middle, but no, that’s just the way that it is.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Brandon presents Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet

Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke

Charles Manson is right up there with Adolf Hitler as a monstrous historical figure whose name is over-cited for easy, #edgy punchlines. The Manson Family murders obviously never came close to matching the body count or continued political atrocities resulting from Hitler & the Nazi Party, but there’s an easy shock value to Charles Manson’s sensationalist, highly-publicized crimes that makes his name just as frequent of a punchline. The joke, no matter how tasteless, has been run into the ground over decades of repetition in South Park episodes, Sam Kinison routines, and Marilyn Manson album titles to the point where it’s too old hat to be effectively offensive. There may have been some minor uproar after Quentin Tarantino’s recent announcement that he’ll be dramatizing the Manson Family murders in his signature tongue-in-cheek way with the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but most of the outrage surrounding the production has focused on the casting of known-abuser Emile Hirsch & Tarantino’s public statements making light of Roman Polanski’s rape charges. Outrage over his potentially glib treatment of the Sharon Tate murders has been put on the backburner as people address fresher wounds. Our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, was similarly too late to the table to shatter any monocles with its own Charles Manson humor. There’s a performative transgression to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! that acts as if making light of Charles Manson & Sharon Tate was crossing a sealed taboo barrier never before addressed in comedy, despite decades of preceding shock-value art to the contrary. Like Tarantino’s still-in-production Manson movie, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! had to find other, less seemly ways to offend than relying simply on citing Charles Manson’s crimes in a humorous tone (namely through “ironic” misogyny & homophobia).

If timeliness is the key to a truly offensive Charles Manson joke, it’s doubtful that anyone could claim the honor more convincingly than John Waters. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of his 1970 feature Multiple Maniacs, Waters explains the ways the developing account of the Sharon Tate murders changed the shape of the film during production, as the story was still playing out in the headlines. Early in the film, Divine teases her lover (played by David Lochary) by threatening to turn him into the police for killing Tate, even mocking the “P-I-G” carving in her stomach, a real-life detail. Waters explains, “When we shot this, they had not caught Charles Manson. No one knew who he was or anything about him.” Later in the film, Lochary says as much when he holds up an actual newspaper revealing Manson’s involvement in the Tate murder, absolving himself of the crimes Divine attempted to in pin on him, exclaiming, “I’ve never heard of these people!” That scene was quickly re-written the day the paper was printed, making for what has to be the earliest Charles Manson joke on celluloid. When John Waters & The Dreamlanders were joking about Charles Manson, the humor actually was transgressive, an effect that had only dulled & diluted by the time Live Freaky! Die Freaky! arrived over three decades later. When you read positive responses to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! online, they typically liken director John Roecker to Waters, saying his work is “in the comedy style of films like Pink Flamingos.” I’m not buying the comparison. The two directors may have overlapped in thematic territory & subject, but the timing of their arrival completely alters the effect & context of the material. When John Waters joked about The Manson Family murders it was a dangerous, culturally taboo act of true political transgression. By the time John Roecker did the same it was a hack bit that had lost all that impact through decades of dilution, like a kid playing dress-up as a Dangerous Artist.

It’s important to remember the cultural context in which John Waters was making his Charles Manson jokes. As he explains in it on the Multiple Maniacs commentary, the political upheaval of the late 60s countercultural made it feel as if the world were ending. Before turning to filmmaking, Waters poured his political angst into protesting, rioting, and writing for leftist mags. He describes his crew as being pissed-off, dysfunctional hippies who would later become punks & bikers – counterculture types who had not yet established their own niche. His filmmaking was an extension of that political unrest, using humor to both process the absurdity of a culture in chaos and “using humor as terrorism to embarrass your enemy.” When Waters jokes about The Weather Underground & killing cops in Multiple Maniacs, it’s coming from a real place of anger against the cops who arrested his crew while filming Mondo Trasho and added a homophobic slur to David Lochary’s name in their reports. When he jokes about Sharon Tate’s death, films anal lesbian acts involving rosary beads in a Catholic church, or *gasp* shows “two queers kissing like lovers on the lips!” in the film, he was bucking against very real constrictions of censorship, genuinely pushing the envelope of what was allowed by law. Censor boards in America attempted to shut the film down in outrage only for judges to shrug off the complaints because the acts were tasteless, but technically legal. When he sent prints to a Canadian distributor, border police confiscated & destroyed them, not waiting for a judge to weigh in on their legality. Roecker & Tarantino are only able to make their own tasteless Charles Manson jokes now because those censorship battles have already been won; as Waters explains it, “You can put anything in a movie now,” so that for-its-own-sake shock value no longer holds any political power. When hardcore pornography was legalized, Waters gave up trying to shock the censors and moved on to more narrative-focused works like Female Trouble & Polyester. Roecker & Tarantino are only playing with his broken, discarded toys that have been collecting dust in the attic for decades.

That’s not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can’t or won’t find useful thematic material in the Manson Family murders. There’s no telling how that will pan out until we see the finished product. The dichotomy between the pointed political subversion of Multiple Maniacs and the pointless juvenile posturing of Live Freak! Die Freaky! does suggest that it will be a difficult task, however. John Waters snuck in his Manson Family humor when the wounds were still fresh and the topic was still taboo. John Roecker warns of what could happen when you pretend that same topic still has edge, despite it long having been made acceptable through repetition & familiarity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade.

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

I didn’t feel at all great about our collective distaste for John Roecker’s stop-motion animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not only is picking on a microbudget, D.I.Y. art project the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was somehow the first animated feature we’ve ever tackled as a Movie of the Month, so it was a huge letdown that we couldn’t say much in praise of one of my favorite artistic mediums on that platform. Rocker’s film felt like a morally offensive letdown by design, however, so I can’t feel too bad that we took the aging punk scenester edgelord’s bait. The South Park-era satirical brand of “Nothing’s offensive if everyone’s offended” shock humor has not aged especially well in the decade since Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release and Roecker’s own version of mall punk aesthetic has grown just as stale in tandem. The tastelessness of staging a Charles Manson-themed musical in a medium traditionally aimed at children isn’t what offends me about Roecker’s directorial debut; after all, my favorite filmmaker of all time, John Waters, was making comedies inspired by Manson’s real-life crime spree weeks after the Sharon Tate murders that I find hilarious & worthy of discussion. What’s offensive is that Roecker seems to believe his dweeb edgelord audacity is in itself a subversive act, when the work has no particular political ideology or purpose beyond the juvenile desire to offend. John Waters was politically angry; John Roecker was an apolitical clown who just wanted an excuse to show off as a Politically Incorrect subversive with friends & collaborators among the L.A. punk scene elite. Rocker’s crudeness in craft and disregard for moral decency aren’t what’s offensive about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!; what offends is the intellectual laziness of his aimless “satire” & his sycophantic need to attach his name to mall punk collaborators in high-profile bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI.

Roecker’s ideological laziness & punk-royalty sycophantry can only be further evidenced by his follow-up feature, the documentary Heart like a Hand Grenade. Presumably filmed around the same time that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was in production in the early 00s, Roecker’s follow-up is a document of the band Green Day’s recording studio sessions while making their hit 2004 album American Idiot. What’s remarkable about that timeline is that Heart like a Hand Grenade wasn’t completed & distributed until 2015, more than a decade after American Idiot’s release. That delayed release does not feel at all intentional either, as the film plays like a promotional ad for an upcoming creative project, describing at length what the album is going to be and what Green Day fans should expect from the band’s mid-career shift into politically-charged art, when it should feel like a look back at a past accomplishment. American Idiot ultimately did not need Roecker’s promotional help, as it rode the aughts’ anti-George W. Bush political rhetoric to the greatest financial success of Green Day’s then already decade-long career. Roecker would have to strive pretty hard to justify releasing a feature-length promotional ad for that record a decade after its success was already solidified, then, and Heart like a Hand Grenade fails to accomplish that on any count. Padded with full-length music videos, live performances, and studio downtime shittalking, the decade-late documentary struggles to justify its own existence beyond shrewdly cashing in on mall punks’ continued interest in the album and allowing Roecker to show off his friendship & collaboration with the band. Roecker mythologizes a phone call lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made to him about documenting the album’s production and films himself mugging in a recording studio mirror, inserting himself into a supposedly iconic moment in mall punk history. Heart like a Hand Grenade was too late to do Green Day any promotional favors; if anything, it muddles the band’s reputation of being political instigators at the time by associating them with Roecker’s apolitical non-ideology.

2004 was a lucrative year for anti-Bush protest art. Agitated by the War on Terror, unexpected successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Daily Show, and Team America turned cultural unrest with the US’s empirical response to the World Trade Center attacks into major profits. Even pop-country darlings The Dixie Chicks got in on the anti-Bush sentiment, despite operating far outside traditional counterculture circles. Green Day’s American Idiot album was one of the many benefiters of that political unrest, leading to the band’s greatest period of popularity to date & even a Broadway stage musical inspired by the album. Heart like a Hand Grenade completely undermines the perception that the album was a deliberate act of anti-Bush political protest, so it’s probably best (for the band’s profit margins) that Roecker’s film arrived long after the album’s success was solidified. Multiple times during studio sessions, band members boast to Roecker’s camera “Politically on this record, we don’t really have an agenda, not against a particular politician […] The song ‘American Idiot’ isn’t really saying, you know, this politician is wrong, this is wrong. It’s saying I want to think for myself.” The band tries to have it both ways, crafting a concept album about “a lower middle class American adolescent anti-hero” named “Jesus of Suburbia”, but also keeping its “anti-establishment” politics so vague & aimless that it means nothing beyond juvenile posturing. Roecker attempted the same spineless bullshit with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, claiming in interviews that the film had some vague sentiment about blindly-followed political leaders that likens Bush to Charles Manson, but including no actual anti-Bush satire in the work itself. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! didn’t manage to ride that vague anti-Bush protest sentiment to the heights of American Idiot’s commercial success (thankfully), but both conceptual musical pieces share a common mall punk non-ideology. They exploit a privileged position of performative subversion that looks like politically pointed satire, but actually has nothing to say once you look past the punk-costumed surface. Green Day was just slightly better at promoting their ideologically empty non-provocation to great commercial success, with no substantial help from Roecker’s camera.

I will concede that empty political non-ideology & self-promotion as a noteworthy L.A. mall punk scenester are not the only signifiers of what makes a John Roecker film. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! & Heart like a Hand Grenade share enough overlap in art direction & mall punk aesthetic to suggest that Roecker is somewhat of a visual auteur. The crude hand-drawing collage of Heart like a Hand Grenade’s intro & its mid-film sci-fi skit where Green Day is interviewed 1,000 years in the future both recall the general aesthetic of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Heart like a Hand Grenade also opens with a title card command to “Play this movie fucking loud!,” recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s similar title card warning that it is “Not for the easily offended.” The Green Day documentary even includes a tangential anecdote about a studio fire reenacted by dolls, recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s stop-motion medium. This shared mall punk aesthetic looks like a preteen’s middle school notebook, just short of hand-drawn “Anarchy” & Dead Kennedys symbols being scribbled in the margins. The middle school mall punk is the perfect target demographic both for Roecker & for his Green Day cohorts, as deliberately vague political rebelliousness & desire to shock The Masses are the source of punk’s attractiveness to that age range. D.I.Y. ethos & more focused anarcho ideology are something punks grow into as they learn to look past the safety pins & hot pink mohawks that signify the culture to those outside it looking in. Roecker’s version of punk, as evidenced by his two feature films, never dug any further past those surface signifiers to achieve any of the substantial ideology or political action punk offers outsider artists & alienated youth. Maybe his mall punk ideology has deepened & gathered nuance in the 15 years since his two features were initially in production, but Heart like a Hand Grenade’s 2015 release date suggests there hasn’t been much change at all, if any. It’s a release that not only reflects the worst assumptions about Roecker you can infer from Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, but it also damns mall punk staples like Green Day through association with his brand.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

John Waters’s Honeymoon Killers

My first thought watching Leonard Kastle’s grimy black & white crime romance The Honeymoon Killers was “Surely, John Waters loves this.” Without any evidence or background context it seemed obvious to me that The Honeymoon Killers’s mix of camp excess & horrific violence was an influence on Waters’s work, especially evident in the early scene where the killers’ first mark is shown atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub. Even Martha Beck’s over-plucked eyebrows felt like a blueprint for Divine’s signature look, an over-the-top perversion of vintage bad taste in 1950s fashion. The truth is, though, that John Waters was already a fully-formed artist by the time The Honeymoon Killers was released. In fact, his film that most closely resembles Kastle’s, Multiple Maniacs, was released the very same year & already featured Divine in her full, knife-sharp-eyebrows glory. Waters’s work as more a kindred spirit than a direct descendant.

The opening credits scroll for Multiple Maniacs is framed like microfiche, as if the audience were researching old crime reports in archived newspapers. Both Waters’s film & The Honeymoon Killers were inspired by real-life serial killers (the Sharon Tate murder of the 1960s & the “Lonely Hearts killers” of the 1940s, respectively) and lean into the grim, cruel despair of those subjects. You can practically stain your fingers on the films’ cheap tabloid ink. They’re also tabloid-ready stories (one real & one fictional) because their respective killers are romantically linked & commit their crimes as a couple, turning tales of human despair into a kind of in-print soap opera. Multiple Maniacs is much freer to pursue an impossible, fantastic narrative, though, since it was merely inspired by the Sharon Tate murder (and filmed before Charles Manson’s name was even connected to that crime), branching off into its own detached-from-reality criminal fantasy. As opposed to the newlywed grifters of The Honeymoon Killers, Divine & David Lochary’s own theft & murder spree is a long-establish bond involving a traveling side show (Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions) where unsuspecting audiences are robbed at the end of each performance. Both crime/love partner relationships devolve in the same way, though; the male accomplice is caught cheating & the woman goes berserk (to Godzilla-scale effect in Multiple Maniacs).

What’s maybe not immediately apparent in either of these pictures is how that low-fi crime & grime is contrasted with high art sensibilities. Offended by the Hollywood gloss of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, Leonard Kastle stated that with The Honeymoon Killers, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Waters may have bested him there, setting up his own romantic crime thriller as a side show where odd-looking weirdos perform heinous acts like licking bicycle seats, shooting heroin, and homosexual kissing (!!!) to their literally captive audience’s horror. Where Waters dared to stoop lower in the unattractive details, he also aimed higher with his artistic sensibilities, especially in a scene where Divine & Mink Stole paly with anally-inserted rosary beads while reciting the Stations of the Cross, an Andrei Rublev-esque vision of Christ’s trials intercutting their lesbian foray. That surreality emerges again in an unexplained scene where Divine is raped by a giant lobster, but I fail to recall what Tarkovsky movie that might resemble. Francois Truffaut once stated that The Honeymoon Killers was his all-time favorite American film, as it was the one that most closely approximated the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave. One has to wonder if he ever got to see the less widely-distributed Multiple Maniacs before making that claim (or if it would have made a difference).

Even if Waters was more a contemporary than a devotee of Kastle’s, he surely loved The Honeymoon Killers all the same. In an interview with NPR, Waters recommended The Honeymoon Killers as a personal favorite, quipping, “With internet dating today, this certainly could happen again.” What I’d most like to know at this point is whether that appreciation was mutual. Did Kastle ever see Multiple Maniacs? Would he enjoy it if he had?  Waters’s own aversion to Hollywood phonies & manicured beauty would at least indicate that Kastle may have appreciated it more than Bonnie & Clyde, but having fun with a Dreamlanders-era Waters film would require a little more extreme disposition than just that. It’s subjective which film is the better of the pair, but Multiple Maniacs is undeniably the more extreme.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film, and last week’s look at its mid-2000s Hollywood-phony equivalent.

-Brandon Ledet

Lonely Hearts Killers vs. Blasphemous Hollywood Phonies

When opera-composer-turned-one-time-filmmaker Leonard Kastle dramatized the serial murder crime spree of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, he deliberately avoided Hollywood glitz & glamor. The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, a low-fi genre picture meant to capture the full grime & absurdity of his subjects’ tabloid-ready crimes without glorification. He explained “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Before Kastle’s movie and since, there have been roughly a dozen crime thrillers about so-called “Lonely Hearts Killers,” murderers & thieves who lured their victims through romantic personal ads in the newspapers. Fernandez & Beck in particular have only received the movie treatment in two subsequent productions, however: a 90s Mexican crime drama titled Deep Crimson and 2006’s Hollywood-produced Lonely Hearts. It’s in that latter title that we got a glimpse of exactly the kind of movie Kastle didn’t want to make, a phony game of 1940s dress-up packed with “beautiful shots of beautiful people.” The Honeymoon Killers deliberately set out to be the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Lonely Heats carelessly stumbled into being the anti-Honeymoon Killers, bringing the whole phony Hollywood enterprise full circle.

The first glaring Hollywoodization of true-life grime in Lonely Heats is the casting of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck. A large part of public fascination over the killers’ tabloid-documented trial was how much objectively better-looking Fernandez was than his lover/partner in crime. Martha Beck was a plain, ordinary woman who had intensely latched onto a very handsome (and eventually violent) man. Her caked-on makeup, over-plucked eyebrows, and low-fashion attire afford her the appearance of a John Waters character as she’s played by Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers. In Lonely Hearts, she’s played by Selma Hayek, one of the most exquisitely beautiful movie stars around. Jared Leto co-stars as Fernandez, equally miscast in the way his forever-young baby face struggles to convey the rugged, old-fashioned masculinity the role requires. When they attempt to age up Leto with a bald cap (in scenes where Raymond isn’t wearing his signature toupee) it plays as an unintentional joke. Leto looks as if he’s guest-hosting SNL, which I doubt was the intended effect in this drama about women & children-murdering grifters. In the casting alone, Lonely Heats undoes everything Kastle envisioned for The Honeymoon Killers, but it does so by having no particular vision at all. It’s likely no one had Kastle’s film in mind during the making of Lonely Heats; they were just naturally blasphemous to his ideals by deferring to Hollywood’s default mode of filming beautiful people playing dress-up.

After the casting of its leads, the second most baffling (and unintentionally blasphemous) decision Lonely Heats makes is in its choice of POV. Whereas Kastle’s film morally challenges the audience by making Fernandez & Beck the protagonists, Lonely Heats frames the story around the (presumably fictional) cops who are tracking them down. James Gandolfini provides convenient exposition for the film as a police force old-timer who burdens the proceedings with verbose noir narration so overly-familiar it borders on parody. John Travolta contrasts him as a loose-cannon partner with a troubled past & an apparent death wish, distracting from Fernandez & Beck’s exploits by wasting screentime on his own past romantic tragedy & his current troubled relationship (with a too-good-for-this-shit Laura Dern). Through this police procedural device, the movie allows itself to play very fast & very loose with the truth of the case that inspired its narrative, but then drop in flatly-stated facts about Martha Beck’s childhood sexual assault that Kastle didn’t dare touch in his own version of the story. The details of the individual crimes are familiarly paralleled in each film: bodies stuffed in clothing trunks, women struck in the skull with hammers, Fernandez & Beck posing as brother & sister to lessen suspicion in their grifts. Lonely Heats just distorts those details through a phony Hollywood POV and often tempers their impact by depicting cops uncovering victims after-the-fact. Where The Honeymoon Killers will show a victim atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub for a campy comedic effect, Lonely Hearts will counter that deliberately un-sexy image with a perfectly posed naked female body found in a bathtub filled with her own blood, looking more like a fashion shoot than a suicide. Where Honeymoon Killers will show Fernandez & Beck teaming up to drown a child in a basement sink, Lonely Heats will only show cops discovering evidence of that crime in horror, long after the event. The details are largely the same (they both depict the same true-life crime spree after all), but the methodologies are philosophically opposed – if not only because Lonely Hearts seems to have no specific philosophy at all.

Of course, there’s an entertainment value built into phony Hollywood glamor. For all of Lonely Heart’s efforts to beautiful Fernandez & Beck’s crimes and shift the moral ambiguity of audience empathy by framing their story through the cops hunting them down, the film still does not skimp on sex or bloodshed, something it treats with the same casual decorative ease as its 1940s big band music & dress-up costuming. Lonely Hearts even occasionally achieves some of The Honeymoon Killers’s off-putting absurdist camp in its more lurid details, such as in a scene where a blood-spattered, bald cap wearing Leto masturbates for Hayek’s amusement. As always, Hayek herself is a joy to watch and is clearly having fun with the material. The “beautiful shots of beautiful people” ethos Kastle detested is difficult to despise too vehemently when it involves Hayek chewing scenery in 1940s femme fatale couture. The pleasures of Lonely Hearts are mild & unexceptional, though, requiring a willingness on the audience’s behalf to settle for an outrageous tabloid saga being reduced to a generic crime picture & an old-fashioned game of Hollywood dress-up. If you want the full scope of Fernandez & Beck’s violence & absurdity, watch The Honeymoon Killers. If you want beautiful shots of beautiful people playing cops & robbers in a low-rent version of old-fashioned Hollywood glamor, Lonely Hearts is your destined-for-cable-broadcasts alternative.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew