Moonbeam’s Childhood Terrors: The Secret Kingdom (1998) & Magic in the Mirror (1996)

The most shocking revelation in our Movie of the Month discussion of the Charles Band-produced children’s fantasy film Magic in the Mirror was that I was the only member of the Swampflix crew who found the movie to be a total nightmare. While everyone else found the film’s villains— humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make delicious tea— to be amusingly quaint, I cowered in fear of their menacingly cheap presence. I stand by my description of those tea-slurping murder-ducks as resembling “a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement” and believe a large portion of the movie’s appeal to be the discomfort of their design. Schlockmeister Charles Band’s production company Full Moon has long been fascinating to me for pumping out cheap, R-rated horror films that feel like they were intended for children. In the mid-90s, Band somehow made his aesthetic even more terrifying by deliberately making films for children’s media sensibilities, but still allowing his violent, horror impulses to shine through. If the cheap duck costumes from Magic in the Mirror are not a compelling enough argument that the Full Moon children’s media sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment was more horrifying than most of Band’s deliberately horrific productions, I’d like to submit 1998’s The Secret Kingdom as Exhibit B. The Secret Kingdom follows Magic in the Mirror’s exact formula of infusing a fairly innocuous down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy adventure with truly horrific character design, but its own childhood terrors are much more blatant & inarguable than the ducks that disturbed me so much in our Movie of the Month.

Mysteriously, neither Charles Band nor Moonbeam’s names are listed in the opening credits of The Secret Kingdom. IMDb lists Band as an “uncredited executive producer” on the film, though, and his fingerprints can be found all over the premise thanks to his seemingly lifelong obsession with miniature bullshit (see: Dolls, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, etc.). In this particular case, a pair of snotty siblings are transported to a miniature, war-torn kingdom located beneath their kitchen sink, due to a magical lightning storm (or some such nonsense). A world of miniature terrors awaits them there, thanks to a maniacal dictator’s obsession with achieving “perfection” through elective surgery. The Minister of Perfection barely fights back his Nazi undertones as he proudly shows off his favorite “perfected” creations: people with smoothed-over flesh instead of eyes, Nazi cops with metal places for faces, a creepy S&M dog-man who aids in hunting undesirables, etc. The Alice in Wonderland-riffing premise of The Secret Kingdom isn’t too far off from the basic plot of Magic in the Mirror. The only differences are in their Mad Libs-style details: instead of a fantasy kingdom the kids are transported to a steampunk metropolis; instead of traveling through a mirror their adventure is prompted by an ancient lighting rod; instead of negotiating a war between two queens they negotiate a war between a surgery-addicted bureaucrat & a band of woodland rebels. The only major difference between them is that the terror of the Minister’s creations are unambiguously horrific, while the menace of the humanoid ducks is vague enough to be debatable. Director David Schmoeller (who also helmed the horror oddities Tourist Trap & Puppet Master for Band) makes his blatant horror intentions clear in jump scares & references in the dialogue to titles like The Bad Seed & The Elephant Man. Charles Band’s stated vision for Moonbeam was to produce children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard hedge”, but by the time The Secret Kingdom arrived late in the sublabel’s run a glimmer of that hard Full Moon edge reemerged in the work and was all the more terrifying for its contrast with the safe children’s fantasy picture surrounding it.

It’s possible I find The Secret Kingdom more outright creepy than Magic in the Mirror because it hits closer to home. First of all, the non-sink portion of the film is conspicuously set in New Orleans and reminds its audience of that locale often with a slew of gratuitous local details: The St. Louis Cathedral, The Natchez, French Quarter street performers, Mardi Gras parade floats, above-ground cemeteries, street cars, issues of the Times Picayune, etc. More significantly, the tiny-world-under-the-kitchen-sink premise is very reminiscent of the (presumably problematic) film The Indian in the Cupboard, which was a VHS era staple in my childhood. It might seem odd that Band would produce an intentional knockoff of a flop that lost $10mil at the box office, but I suspect that it’s possible he may have felt like he could improve on the premise as the king of miniature bullshit. Even if their similarities are only an instance of parallel thinking, Band’s way of putting his own unique stamp on the premise was hiring a horror director responsible for one of the most disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre-modeled 70s slashers in charge of a children’s film and populating it with eyeless, dog-like, Nazi victims of state-ordered surgery. Band may have truly thought of Moonbeam as a way to produce Full Moon-style pictures “with no hard edge” for a younger demographic and that may have been the case with early Moonbeam pictures like Prehysteria!, which sweetly supposed “What if dinosaurs were miniature & danced to rock n’ roll?” By the time he got to the eyeless goons of The Secret Kingdom and the child-boiling duck-people of Magic in the Mirror, though, I believe he lost sight of that mission statement. The children’s film backdrops that clash with these nightmarish monstrosities only make them appear more horrific by contrast and the sensation that dynamic generates just feels plain wrong. I don’t think the Moonbeam catalog necessarily reflects the creative heights of the Charles Band aesthetic in terms of absurdism or novelty, but it did often generate the most legitimately creepy imagery of his schlocky oeuvre, if not only for those creations’ soft-edge context.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film this comparison to its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play, and last week’s look back to Moonbeam’s premiere picture, Prehysteria!.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Advertisements

Movie of the Month: Magic in the Mirror (1996)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon , Alli, and Boomer watch Magic in the Mirror (1996).

Britnee: Moonbeam Entertainment, the sub-brand of Charles Band’s Full Moon Features, produced some of my favorite children’s fantasy and sci-fi films during the early 1990s. VHS copies of Prehysteria!, Dragonworld, and Pet Shop always lingered around my family’s television, but the one Moonbeam film that I just couldn’t get enough of was Magic in the Mirror. There’s just something about the film’s wackadoodle story and low-budget quality that is both memorable and charming. Magic in the Mirror may very well be the root cause of my garbage taste in movies because, until recently reading through the overwhelming amount of negative reviews, I had no idea that anyone could dislike it.

Magic in the Mirror is a modern-day fairy tale. Mary Margaret Dennis is a young girl with an active imagination, but her botanist father and physicist mother fail to give her the attention and encouragement that she desperately needs. She spends most of her time with her imaginary friends, Bella and Donna, and doesn’t have much human interaction. After discovering a bag of magical golden berries and inheriting an antique mirror from her late great-grandmother, she crosses to the other side of the mirror. What awaits her there is a surreal world ruled by human-like mallards that have a passion for tea made of people, which is steeped for a mere 60 seconds (I usually let my Earl Grey steep for 3 minutes).

Brandon, there’s an interesting mix of science and fantasy in Magic in the Mirror. Most of the scenes with Mary Margaret’s mother involve her working on an invention (a laser beam that defies space and time) while Mary Margaret is trekking through a mallard-filled fantasyland. Is there a message being made about science versus fantasy in Magic in the Mirror? Or is it just two cool concepts combined to make one hell of a movie?

Brandon: If we’re going to single out Magic in the Mirror as “one hell of a movie,” I think we have to place the emphasis on the word “Hell.” Most of my appreciation of the film stems from the way it plays like a child’s half-remembered nightmare, so it’s funny to see it described here as “memorable and charming.” Before reading that introduction, I presumed it would be film’s nightmare quality that buried its imagery in the subconscious of 90s Kids™ who saw it young enough for it to torment them permanently, preventing it from being forgotten the way most Moonbeam Entertainment pictures have. Productions from Charles Band’s prime distribution label Full Moon (typified by franchises like Dollman, Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Demonic Toys) have always felt a little like kids’ movies that happened to feature R-rated monsters & gore. It’s only natural, then, that its (supposedly) child-friendly sub-brand would come across as an unintentional horror show. Magic in the Mirror was a production recycled from unused material for a canceled Full Moon fantasy film titled Mirrorworld (militant frugality is another one of Charles Band’s calling cards), so for all we know its magical kingdom of malicious mallards was originally designed to terrify adults, like the off-putting humanoid amphibians of Hell Comes to Frogtown. As an exercise in filmmaking craft, Magic in the Mirror possesses all of the cinematic artistry of a Wishbone episode. However, its villainous threat of humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes has a potency that far outweighs the limited means of its production values. In fact, the film’s aggressive cheapness somehow makes it feel even more sinister, as if we were an audience of children invited over to a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement. By shifting the focus away from intentional monster-based scares to a children’s fantasy context, Full Moon had somehow delivered one of the most genuinely creepy films in its catalog. Until I can forget the sounds of these cursed duck beings greedily slurping their murder-tea, I’m going to be losing a lot of much-needed sleep. I can only imagine that effect would be even worse if I had caught this movie in its early VHS days (although, like Britnee, I had a strong childhood fondness for Prehysteria!, so who knows).

While I’ll concur that the film’s mixture of science fiction & fantasy as if they were two sides of the same coin was interesting, I’m not convinced the movie thought through the significance of their convergence to any great extent (unlike the recent animated gem Mary and the Witch’s Flower). The mother’s invention of an antimatter raygun almost doesn’t qualify as sci-fi at all, since its childlike logic is so far outside the bounds of reality. The divisions between those two genres seem to be present only to mirror the divisions between Mary Margaret and her mother. Mary Margaret is a fantasy-minded child with an overactive imagination. The too-serious adults in her life (especially her mother) refuse to pay her any attention because they only care about boring, rigid adult stuff like science, careers, and facts. In a way, it’s totally appropriate that the sci-fi aspect of the mother’s antimatter raygun (along with the botanist father’s cataloging of magic berries) only make sense in a fantasy context, since the film is told from Mary Margaret’s detached-from-reality perspective. Magic in the Mirror is by no means singular in its premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world through a nightmarish adventure in a fantasy land; a short list of similar (but more substantial) works might include MirrorMask, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Labyrinth, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, His Dark Materials, and former Movie of the Month Paperhouse. The way it captures a young child’s isolation among adults who don’t have the time of day for their imaginative whimsy has its own merits, though, especially as Mary Margaret & her mother attempt to breach the invisible barrier of the mirror to reconnect with each other, each with their own tools (the magic berries & the raygun, respectively). This belittling feeling of being ignored by the too-serious, fact-minded adults around you is very relatable for kids and it’s one I can only remember being addressed this extensively in the much classier Val Lewton picture Curse of the Cat People.

Boomer, we seem to be painting two portraits of Magic in the Mirror here. One is a thoughtful expression of childhood frustration with being ignored by the adults who lord over you. The other is a subliminal nightmare that lingers only as a fear of cheaply costumed duck-people who boil children alive for the pleasure of the taste. Did either of these qualities overpower the other in your viewing of the film or did they work perfectly in tandem, like two realms on opposite sides of the same magic mirror?

Boomer: Unlike you, Brandon, I didn’t find the ducks–excuse me, Drakes–all that scary. Maybe if I were a child the first time I saw it, I would have had a different experience, but as it is, the flappy mouths and glug-glug-glug drinking sounds were too similar to the intentionally comical appearance of the eagle-headed colonel from Danger 5 to elicit anything other than laughter from me (which it did, every time). If anything, their sped-up waddling and the terrible flying effects render them adorably pathetic in spite of their menacing tea habits. Had I been a child during my first viewing, I would have found the Mirror Minders the far creepier creatures, as the thought of an oversized manchild in drab motley watching me from the other side of my mirror is a much more disturbing thought in its abstract than being boiled alive for a mere sixty seconds. I know that they’re supposed to be charming in a Mr. Tumnus way, but their high pitched voices and the “I used to be a birthday clown but now I live in the woods” color palette aren’t exactly virtues to me. I, too, am a longtime fan of Full Moon Entertainment, and frequently find myself extolling its virtues, like the fact that it was one of the first studios to have an interconnected film universe, with the eponymous main characters from their respective films coming to blows in the crossover Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys (which also featured a shrunken nurse from one of my personal favorites, Bad Channels, as Dollman’s love interest). That doesn’t mean I’m going to give a pass to just anything that Band put his hands on (I submit my review of Dungeonmaster as evidence), but I found this film more charming than alarming, despite the Mirror Minders. There is a bit of a creep factor, but it does, as you say, work in tandem with its more traditional fantasy fare.

The way that the film steals (or “pays homage to,” if you’re feeling generous) images from other dark children’s films of the 80s and early 90s really contributes to its overall charm. The influences of Lewis Carroll’s Alice duology are obvious (and explicitly pointed out in the film’s trailer), but Magic in the Mirror carves out a place in that same rhetorical space as 80s kid flicks with a dark undertones and anchors itself there. The visual of Mary Margaret approaching her great-grandmother’s herbiary could be from any number of films, but there’s a definite NeverEnding Story vibe as the framing calls to mind the moment that Bastian finds the book with the Auryn on the cover in Mr. Coriander’s book shop. Further, although Return to Oz hews closer L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels than the 1932 musical to which it is supposedly a sequel, it carries over the same “Oz is a hallucination/dream” conceit as the Judy Garland film. Once our heroine crosses back over into Oz, she meets the witch Mombi, who is played by the same actress as the cruel woman who runs the sanitarium in Kansas; her imagined mechanical man Tik-tok is influenced by the “face” in the machine that the woman intends to use to electrocute poor little Dorothy’s brain. This wasn’t a new idea even at the time (for instance, Captain Hook is traditionally played on stage by the same actor who portrays Mr. Darling, dating back to the earliest theatrical presentations of Peter Pan), but the similar dark tone to Return works to give Magic in the Mirror perhaps more gravitas than it rightly deserves. Dragora is played by the same actress as Mary Margaret’s principal, her vizier is the same actor as her mother’s douchey assistant, and all of the characters on the other side of the mirror have names that are similar to the scientific nomenclature in the herbiary. There’s no implication that the mirror world is a fantasy in the psychological sense (especially once Dr. Dennis crosses over and meets her royal doppelganger), but if the director were to claim he’d never seen Return to Oz, his pants would likely burst into flame.

Perhaps the most important commonalities in all of these works are the dual themes of grappling with and overcoming parental alienation coupled with a desire for the retention of the comforts of childhood, which bears some inspection. Dorothy Gale is an orphan being raised by her elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t understand her worldview or imagination. Bastian Balthazar Bux is the son of a widower father who keeps his child at arm’s length due to his grief over the loss of his wife. Jennifer Connelly’s character in Labyrinth feels overlooked by her family in lieu of the attention lavished upon new baby Tobey, and isn’t ready to forsake her LARPing to fall into the role of caregiver for her little brother. Alice’s parents are never mentioned, but readers can infer her relationship with her sister to be one of guardianship, and much academic ink has been spilled over this interpretation. In every instance the fantasy otherworld seems to be an escape but ultimately proves to be a crucible that causes each character to grow and have a better understanding of both themselves and their parents, and return home to find that, in their absence, the parental figures have learned to be more accepting of the child character as well. Dorothy realizes that there’s no place like home, and is moved by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s concern for her. Bastian learns that he can’t live entirely in his fantasies, and Mr. Bux sweeps his son into a long overdue hug after realizing that his blind grief over his wife nearly cost him his son as well. Sarah returns home with a newfound love for her brother and realizes that her fantasy world will always be there if she needs it, but shouldn’t consume her entirely; she has a pleasant interaction with her step-mother and realizes that being a big sister is an adventure all its own. The narrative of Mary Margaret and her parents follow this model so slavishly it’s almost paint-by-numbers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that these stories continue to be created and continue to be popular speaks to a near-universality of this metaphorical journey, and likely will as long as there are children whose budding maturity arouses confusing feelings of the dual but opposed desires for independence and attention, for individuality and community (so . . . forever).

My roommate has, of late, developed a fascination with soap operas. One of the reasons for this is that he loves anything that he feels like he, an amateur, could make himself. The Bold and the Beautiful so cheaply and poorly made that it captivates him, and I understand that, because that’s often how I feel about Full Moon (and Moonbeam) flicks. Other than the generally well-made puppets, there’s a pall of cheapness permeated with earnestness that lends these endeavors a charm that isn’t fully earned. As an example, I’d like to point to the scene where Mary Margaret finally meets the queen after escaping from the Drakes; you as the viewer should feel an air of majesty and magic around her, but that intended effect is completely undercut by the drabness of the dead grass all around her throne. Like, you couldn’t have sent someone out there the day before to spray paint the grass to make it uniformly, magically green? But no: this scene plays out in a field that is perfectly manicured but very, very brown. Alli, were there other parts of the film where it was obvious to you that the filmmaker’s reach exceeded their grasp? Did you find that endearing like I do, or no? What worked and what didn’t for you?

Alli: I’m going to be sadly honest here and say that this one just didn’t click for me as far as being amateurishly charming. I just thought it was bad. That being said, this discussion has given me a new angle to explore this.

Initially my reaction was that it felt like the children’s film version of Troll 2, but less fun because things that are obviously meant to appeal to children often just come across as obnoxious to me. The Mirror Minders, for instance, got on my nerves in a way that very few things can. (To get personal for a second, I think it’s something to do with the fact that Tansy reminded me of my ex.) I thought that the fact that the duck suits, while aesthetically great, were made in such a way that the actors literally couldn’t walk in them was so haphazard and ill-conceived. The whole plot felt taped together from bits and pieces that the writers found from previously scrapped ideas, resulting in an overall incoherence.

However, now I want to view it as if the purpose was to convey the feeling of a child’s point of view and how a child would approach filmmaking. I have a nephew who comes up with bizarre, horrifying ideas and plot lines that zig and zag in wild directions. If he were to write a movie, it would feel a little like this. Of course it’s a cheap aesthetic. Kids have a way of taking a book of unprotected pressed leaves and making it into a grimoire. In that way, I feel like the filmmakers here really hit the mark. It felt like they put a lot of time and energy into the ideas that really caught them and let everything else slide. For instance, the Mirror Minding chamber is a well-designed set that perfectly contrasts between the two worlds. The costumes for the queen and the Drakes are quite nice for a shoestring budget, even if waddling and running in those duck costumes seems like it was a dangerous endeavor. I feel like all of this put together would really appeal to children who hyperfocus on the ideas that they’re really in love with. And in that way, the movie works. Just not for me.

One of the things that seemed extremely undeveloped for me was Mary Margaret’s parents’ marital problems, which result in both of them trying to control their daughter’s interests and behavior whenever they happen to be paying attention to her. We see that her dad is a little bit of a depressed layabout and that her mom is a career focused scientist with her eyes on the prize, but everything else is given to us in hints. For instance, Lazlo seems to be constantly flirting with her, and the dinner scene seemed like a wildly inappropriate staging for a swinger’s party that a child was just dragged into.

Britnee, what do you think of that dinner party scene? Am I reading too deeply into this?

Britnee: The dinner party scene always seemed a little odd to me. And for a weird ass movie like Magic in the Mirror, that’s saying a lot. Mary Margaret is so out of place at that dinner. I know that’s what was intended, as parts of the film that take place in the “real world” spend a lot of time showing us how Mary Margaret doesn’t belong, but that scene just doesn’t feel right. No one recognizes that she’s a child, and she’s treated as a fellow grown up during the dinner. The dinner guests (Lazlo and his wife) do not like Mary Margaret one bit, and it’s more of a dislike of her being at the dinner rather than a dislike of her personally. The possibility of the two wanting to get it on after dinner with Mary Margaret’s parents would be a fantastic reasoning behind their strange behavior.

I wouldn’t put it past a Moonbeam feature to have some sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the film, even though this is 100% for children. Moonbeam movies are pretty trashy for being family features, which is probably why I’m drawn to them so much. I have this image of the film crew throwing back a few beers while saying something along the lines of, “Dude, wouldn’t it be funny if, like, Mary Margret’s parents wanted to get it on with Lazlo and his wife? That would be totally sick! Let’s make it happen!” So Alli, I definitely do not think that you’re reading too deeply into the weird dinner party scene and the marital problems of the parents. If anything, you’ve pointed out the obvious.

While on the topic of the parents, I found their characters to have some gender-swapped traits, as far as most parents in 90s movies go. The dad is a very soft-spoken, artsy fellow that is a little more understanding of Mary Margaret’s creativity, but the mother is a career-minded scientist that doesn’t seem to understand her daughter at all. Most children’s films of this era have a mother who is supportive of their child’s wild imagination, while the father has a very no-nonsense type of personality. I’m not sure if a statement was trying to be made here, but if there was, it’s not a very positive one. The myth of career women not being able to be maternal seems to be purposefully implied with the mother’s character.

Brandon, what are your thoughts of gender roles of Mary Margaret’s mother and father? Do you think that Mary Margaret’s mother is villainized for being a career-minded mother?

Brandon: It’s certainly valid to read that icy mother-daughter dynamic as an indictment of women who chase career opportunities at the supposed expense of their domestic responsibilities. There’s plenty of other examples of that shrewish, disciplinarian mother trope in 80s & 90s family-friendly cinema that makes Magic in the Mirror appear to be a thoughtless participation in a sexist cultural ideology (Sally Fields in Mrs. Doubtfire immediately comes to mind, if nothing else). I’m just not convinced that the mother is villainized, exactly. She’s more in desperate need of being reminded of the value of childhood play & open-ended imagination. As potentially (and wrongfully) critical it may be of the way the mother balances home life with professional ambitions, the dynamic she has with her less . . . intense husband does recall a common, unfair expectation of women to be the daily disciplinarians of children while fathers get to enjoy the benefits of filling a kind of goofball best friend role. It’s a dynamic that’s been more purposefully explored elsewhere (Lady Bird being an excellent recent example), but I do think it has a real life significance.

What I’m struggling to interpret in retrospect, though, is how the mother’s real life relationship with Mary Margaret correlates with her mirrorworld avatar. In more classic films like The Wizard of Oz & MirrorMask, real life characters’ fantasy realm counterparts are typically amplifications of whatever anxieties they inspire in the young protagonist. In Magic in the Mirror, actor Saxon Trainor is the most significant player to pull double duty as a character in both realms: she plays the uptight scientist mother in the “real” world and the floral, despotic queen of the mirrorworld whose rule of the land is being challenged by the Drakes. Boomer, can you help me make sense of what these two characters have to say about each other in tandem? The usurping drake queen is portrayed by the same actor (Eileen T’Kaye) who appears as Mary Margaret’s schoolteacher, Mrs. Mallard, so the avatars might be saying something about the role of authority figures in Mary Margaret’s life, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what. The easy answer is that the dual casting was solely a Charles Band-brand, money-saving manuever, but I don’t fully buy that.

Boomer: I’ll try! In the classic ’32 Oz, Margaret Hamilton is both the horrible Elmira Gulch, a shitty neighbor who taunts Toto into attacking her in order to have an excuse to have the dog put down, and then in the fantasy world (again, I feel the need to stress the idea that Oz is a child’s fantasy as being a film-only conceit) she is the Wicked Witch of the West who is Gulch’s reflection as a figure of evil and terror, right down to threatening Dorothy’s dog. In Return, the asylum attendants who move patient beds from place to place on squeaky wheels are reimagined in Oz as the creepy Wheelers, again played by the same actors. It’s a recurring trope of fantasy, as the majority of these films present the idea that a child’s fantasy world is a rhetorical space for that child to inspect, explore, and perhaps expunge their conflicting emotions about the world as seen through their eyes. As a society, we’ve progressed far beyond the relatively shallow understanding of human psychology that characterizes the work of Sigmund Freud, but there are still elements of his theories that hold true; he was of the opinion that, until they reach a certain level of maturity, children have a very black and white view of morality, and they cannot rationalize “good” and “evil” as being constituted within the same person. This was further explored by Bruno Bettelheim (admittedly also a problematic source) in his book The Uses of Enchantment: “all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects.” Essentially, most of these films are modern interpretations, adaptations, or reinventions of the fairy tale, and as such they textually examine the dichotomy of the “true” parent and the “pretender” parent. We see this most often in the way that fairy tales often feature an evil stepmother, which is a sanitization of older stories in which the biological mother was the cruel one. The switch to the use of the stepmother was an invention on the part of the Grimm Brothers (check out the chapter on the absent mother in Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde for more info about this phenomena). To further quote Bettelheim: “the typical splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and evil stepmother […] is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits the anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother” and it also preventing the associated guilt “about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her.”

Mary Margaret’s relationship with her mother is a textbook example of this dichotomy: her real mother, though loving, seems to have no idea how to interact with a child or even how children conceptualize the world; she even admits as much in her laboratory. As a result, Mary Margaret has a mother who cannot connect with her in the way that her father does, who has no room for flights of fancy or imagination. As Britnee noted above, Mary Margaret is essentially treated as a small adult and not a child. In contrast to her relationship with her father, who seems to work from home, have a job that even a child could understand, and have endless free time, her mother has a lab, has a job that is incomprehensible to a child (and me, really, because this anti-matter laser is fucking nonsense), has rules and boundaries that are enforced but neither explained nor understood, and is distant emotionally and often absent. With this as a source of unidentifiable (to a child) anxiety, it makes complete sense that Mary Margaret casts Sylvia as Queen Hysop in her fantasy world; the queen is an absolute authority who is likewise cold and distant, rules her kingdom with a set of seemingly arbitrary rules that are not explained, and exacts punishment without explanation. As a method of discipline, being “planted” is simply a fantasy version of being told to stand in a corner; as a worldview, a queen’s “I don’t have to listen to anything; I’m the queen” is not dissimilar from a mother’s “Because I said so.” It makes perfect sense that Mary Margaret would cast her mother in this role in her fantasy world.

Except! This isn’t Mary Margaret’s fantasy. The world on the other side of the mirror is completely real, and although Sylvia/Hysop are not the only doppelgangers/analogues on both sides, most of the characters aren’t. There’s no equivalent to Mr. Dennis on the other side, nor do Tansy or Bloom have mirror images on “our” side. Magic in the Mirror is trying to have it both ways, treating the fantasy world as a real place (like in the Oz books) while incorporating the conceits and rhetorical strategies of those works which treat fantasy worlds as literally fantasy and entirely in the mind of the protagonist (like in the Oz films). As a result, there’s a separation in the metaphorical batter that I think is causing your confusion. Alli, you mentioned that this film doesn’t work for you; I doubt that its internal inconsistency as to whether this is a fantasy film or a fantasy film is likely not the reason, but would you have preferred one or the other? Do you feel like you could have gotten more out of it if the filmmakers had chosen one tack and stuck with it?

Alli: The lack of internal consistency is definitely not what didn’t work here. I guess I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for cheaply made kids’ movies that I have for ones geared towards adults. I don’t think I can handle the unironic, saccharine acting or the film school aesthetic. There was a time and place for that in my life, and it’s sadly over.

However, if I have to choose, I think I would have preferred this movie to stick to the fantasy. I have a big soft spot for everything fantasy, and there’s really not enough fantasy films out there, which is probably why I’m such a big Del Toro fan. It’s a shame the vast majority of fantasy film is low budget and aimed at children, but I think children need fantasy and escape in their lives, however low budget it is. The idea of getting away to a mysterious land and being a hero is empowering, even in something as ridiculous as this. Whereas, a fantasy film would still be empowering, but those always have a bigger dose of the horror of self exploration. Alice learns that a dream world with a lack of focus isn’t all fun and games. Coraline learns to forgive her parents for being busy after finding out that an overbearing mom, albeit exaggerated, is terrifying. Mary Margaret never learns anything about her own behavior. She just escapes. And I like her all the better for not having changed and being the same creative, stubborn child at the end. That’s the beauty of true fantasy for children; kids find out that they were and are strong.

It would have been neat for the movie to retain both the internal fantasy elements and the fantasy/scifi elements like A Wrinkle in Time does. I know that’s a bit more elegant for fare of this kind, but I think it could have been done with a little less focus on the lives of the parents. The whole parental plot in general just felt like a placeholder for something else. Probably, more adventures and obstacles in this mirrorworld that they didn’t have the budget for or the inclination to write.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like that there’s no clear-cut good side in this story. Obviously, massive ducks bent on making tea out of other life forms is definitely bad, but who are the good people here? The queen literally plants her subjects after no trial or due process. I don’t see how that’s preferable to Queen Dragora. I guess the good side is the Mirror Minders? I don’t know, but I appreciate the subtlety.

Boomer: The fact that the main character’s name was Mary Margaret is terribly distracting. It took me a minute to realize why it was so familiar, until I remembered that this was the name of Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in the “real world” on Once Upon a Time, another piece of contemporary enjoyable-in-an-unintended-way-but-also-terrible fairy tale media that I happened to stick with for longer than I should have for reasons of my own (#swanqueen). Also, as far as a final question, what was up with the use of that county courthouse as the “castle” of Dragora and her comically sped-up waddling henchmen?

Brandon: While I might be the only member of the crew to be genuinely terrified by the look of them, I do believe the Drakes are the main reason to seek out Magic in the Mirror. Not only do they offer bizarre insights like an answer to the eternal question “What would Howard the Duck look like in lipstick?,” they they also include the laziest, most nonsensical “wordplay” you’re ever likely to hear in a finished screenplay. It’s unclear what failed puns were intended when Drakes refer to their mallardian queen as “your Quackiness” or “your Quacktitude,” but they’re laughably half-assed in the attempt. I should warn you, though: do not be fooled into watching the sequel Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play. Despite what may be promised in its title & cover art, there isn’t necessarily any more Drakes content in that picture than there was in the first one. Also, the whole thing appears to have been filmed in a crewmember’s living room while the sets of the first film were being hurriedly broken down, which might as well be the case since both films managed to secure a 1996 release. Full Moon truly is a wonder. If, as Boomer suggests, the charm of Magic in the Mirror is partly that you, an amateur, could have made it yourself, the charm of Fowl Play is that it looks like it could’ve been made by your kids. And not even the more talented ones.

Britnee: When the mallards make their infamous people tea, the people are steeped for 60 seconds. I don’t think that a human would necessarily die from being boiled alive for a mere minute (I refuse to Google this in fear of the results), but they would be severely injured once they are pulled out of the giant duck teapot. It would be interesting to know what happens to the people after the steeping. Are they given medical attention and returned to the other side of the mirror? Are they thrown in some sort of mass grave where they will eventually succumb to their injuries? I haven’t watched Fowl Play, but I’m almost positive this isn’t explored in the film. It would just be nice to know the full story, but maybe some things are better left unanswered.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Ringu (1998), Suicide Club (2002), and the Horrors of the Technological Myth

The opening dialogue of the 1998 horror genre game-changer Ringu is an urban legend, a Candyman-style recitation of the now-iconic curse that drives the film’s plot. At a casual slumber party, two teenage girls discuss a cursed VHS tape that, once watched, will kill its viewer in a week’s time. The scene starts playful, but once the reality of the tape’s existence is accepted the tone turns sinister. In the dead silence of their now-terrified mood, a landline phone rings loudly in an abrupt, bloodless scare. It’s difficult to see now in the 2010s exactly how monumental of a shift Ringu was on the horror landscape. Along with the found footage-pioneering The Blair Witch Project, Ringu helped usher in a new era of horror that shifted away from the previous decades of stale slasher rehashes & sequels towards a then-fresh aesthetic built on atmosphere & folklore instead of a mad, masked killer. Ringu’s success (and the success of its Gore Verbinski-directed American remake, The Ring) is often credited for sparking the “J-horror” wave of the early 2000s, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for inspiring a wave of technophobic horror works that adapted the concerns of earlier films like Videodrome to the culture of the digital age. The Grudge, Pulse, and Dark Water are perhaps the most notable properties directly inspired by the Cursed Technology folklore of RIngu, but I think few movies pushed its aesthetic into as weird & wild of a place as our current Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club.

I don’t believe it’s possible to truly, genuinely participate in modern mythmaking without including technology in the text. Ringu smartly fulfills that requirement by focusing on technology that’s just barely outdated: VHS cassettes, cable access television, Polaroid cameras, and landline telephones are all just barely-obsolete technologies that the film uses to establish the world of its televised curse. It also mixes in traditionalist concepts like vengeful ghosts & clairvoyant visions to match this new Evil Technology folklore with a sense of dark, old world magic. Suicide Club distorts this method drastically in the way most post-Ringu technophobia horrors tend to, by making its Evil Technology current. For all its strange pondering on the crepiness of cults, pop idols, cheerful children, and kawaii culture, Suicide Club is at its heart a movie about the evils of the internet. Released at a time when the internet was young & sparse, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the eeriness of haunted websites and the danger of anonymous message boards. The traditionalist technophobic lore of Ringu is an idea picked up from works like Videodrome and (going way further back) The Yellow King: the idea that viewing or hearing something cursed could be lethal. Most technology-obsessed horrors that followed in Ringu’s wake echoed that same pattern, killing its victims by exposing them to lethal websites. The basement-level trash pic FearDotCom even featured the tagline “Want to see a killer website?” to drive the point home. Suicide Club pushes the idea much further, disorienting its audience by emphasizing the way Online Discourse has “disconnected” us from our “selves” and using the internet to spread a killer idea instead of a killer website. The curse that spreads through the internet in Suicide Club is a philosophical question, dangerous information that can be passed on through new technology in just a few key strokes. By now, the technology on display in the film is just as outdated as anything was in Ringu, but that dissociative, information-spreading aspect of the internet remains creepily relevant.

Surely, the most iconic image in Ringu is its money shot of a wet-haired ghost girl climbing out of a television set to claim her final victim in the film’s closing minutes. Like Blair Witch, Ringu strayed from the traditional trills of a body count horror to focus more on atmosphere & folklore, so the emergence of this TV static ghost is a one-time affair. The ghost’s victims tend to die open-mouthed, as if in shock, their bodes discovered after the fact. Suicide Club is a much gorier movie, even opening with a scare of over fifty high school students jumping onto train tracks in a mass suicide pact, coating the screen in rivers of blood. Where Ringu lingers on the imagery of spooky technology, filtering the occultist images of its vengeful ghost girl through the digital camcorder grain of a VHS tape, Suicide Club mostly uses the internet as a conduit for its killer, suicide-inspiring philosophy. Given its more hyperactive, gore-minded style of horror, I’d understand if some people would bristle at my suggestion that the films should even be compared. Whenever I doubt Suicide Club’s direct lineage form Ringu, though, I just think back to its trailer. The ad focuses in on a creepy fax machine in the film’s hospital setting. Like with the spooky technology on display in Ringu, the fax machine is kind of an obsolete redundancy in the film, set in the early days of email. The ad pushes the connection even further, though, including cutting room floor imagery of long, wet, black hair emerging from the machine and stretching across the floor. The only way the image could have been closer to Ringu’s most iconic moment is if the fax machine were instead a computer monitor or a television set. For all its myth-minded tonal seriousness, Ringu also ends with a thumping, dance music club track over its closing credits, which isn’t all that different than the incongruous J-pop soundtrack that clashes with Suicide Club’s horrific indulgences in gore. Suicide Club isn’t as faithful to Ringu’s aesthetic as other technology-obsessed J-horror releases that it inspired, but the two films are inextricably linked in my mind.

I don’t understand the widely-held belief that the American remake of Ringu is somehow better than the Japanese original. Gore Verbinski certainly has a slick, distinctly cinematic eye and there’s a sensational scene involving suicidal horses that raises the energy level, but there’s nothing especially innovative about the picture. Ringu is much scrappier & more adventurous, looking for new, modernist modes of horror mythmaking on a bargain budget. It’s only a step above Blair Witch in that way, attacking an ambitious idea through drastically limited means, something The Ring could never claim. However, I do believe Suicide Club successfully picked up the better aspects of Ringu (particularly its technophobic version of modern mythmaking in a horror context) and pushed them into weirder, more ambitions places far surpassing the limited imagination of its inspiration. Ringu is a traditionalist, folklore-minded work in which ghosts invade our modern spaces through slightly outdated technology. Suicide Club, by contrast, is a wildly kaleidoscopic work of blood-soaked mayhem in which then-current technology is a conduit for unknowable, unstoppable evil. Even though I prefer the no-fucks-given audacity of the latter aesthetic, I do majorly respect Ringu for inspiring it. In case you couldn’t tell from my last two Movie of the Month selections, Suicide Club & Unfriended, I’m a huge fan of technophobic, internet-obsessed horror and I can’t imagine that subgenre existing in its current state without the guiding hand of Ringu (or the camcorder technology obsession of The Blair Witch Project, its American cousin).

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002), and last week’s look at its unexpected Danish counterpart, Bridgend (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

The Esoteric Suicide-Epidemic Media of Bridgend (2016) & Suicide Club (2002)

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Brandon picked a flick for Movie of the Month that I simply didn’t care for. It’s not the first time we weren’t all in agreement on the MotM; Black Moon was a slog for me personally (although it’s one that I admit I might have enjoyed more if I had been in a different mood), as was Hearts of Fire, and I’ve picked a clunker or two (like My Demon Lover) or something that simply didn’t appeal to everyone (Alli hated Head Over Heels), but usually Brandon and I are pretty much on the same page. Not this time, however. It’s not an issue of subject matter, either, as teen suicides (well, staged suicides) are an integral part of my favorite movie of all time, Heathers; nor is it an issue of cultural differences, as I love the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa like Charisma and Cure, both of which are obvious influences on this film. But, boy, was this one a hard one for me to stay awake through.

So, too, was Bridgend, a more recent film about a rash of teen suicides in the small Welsh town for which the film was named. Starring Hannah Murray of Skins and God Help the Girl fame (or Game of Thrones, I suppose), Bridgend is directed by Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde and focuses on the real town of Bridgend, where nearly eighty people hanged themselves in the years leading up to 2012, most of them teenagers. Sarah (Murray) and her father Dave (Steven Waddington) have moved back to the area so that he, as the new leader of local law enforcement, intends to get to the bottom of this seeming madness. A lonely girl, Sarah is immediately recognized as having attended school with the local hooligan teens upon her return, and falls in with them, much to her father’s violent and overwrought consternation.

I originally discovered this film after binging on the Amazon Prime series Fortitude, an absolutely stunning Nordic-Brit co-production set in Svalbard. I wanted to find more Danish media and Bridgend appeared in a Netflix search. My roommate and I started the film, but he was so bored by it that we turned it off, even though I’m always at least a little bit invested in a movie that features a lot of attractive people going skinny dipping. After watching Suicide Club, I went back to the film to restart and finish it, but absence did not make the heart grow fonder. This is still a dreary film, and not just because of the subject matter. The direction and cinematography has been praised for its realism, with most reviewers noting the director’s background as a documentary filmmaker as the reason for Bridgend‘s lingering shots and invested depth of field. And while that’s likely true, the film’s similarity to non-fiction film-making is also its greatest failing.

At times throughout the film, we’re shown short glimpses of the teens’ interactions with their respective parents that paint them in an unfavorable light. Jamie (Josh O’Connor)’s interactions with his father (Adrian Rawlins), the town vicar, are strained, and there is one line that even seems to imply that there is sexual abuse at play in their relationship. This seems to be borne out in the way that the teens’ apparent leader Danny (Aled Thomas) embarrasses Jamie sexually when he discovers that Jamie and Sarah intend to run away together, but it’s never made explicit. There’s also the fact that Thomas (Scott Arthur) kills himself after a raging party in which his own mother sleeps with his mate Angus (Jamie Burch). And Sarah’s relationship with her father grows from notably cold and distant to outright abusive over the course of the film with little provocation and no explanation. There’s no insight into any of these relationships provided by the editing or any other filmic language; it’s all just presented as a series of vignettes with no thematic connection. That’s a great tack to take when you’re making a documentary, but not when making a narrative fiction film, as it leads to an overall sense of frustration and difficulty in investment.

I can see why this seemed like a good idea. No one knows why the kids in Bridgend keep hanging themselves, and to make a movie with a definitive statement that the cause is poor parental relationships or peer pressure is insulting and in poor taste at best. But if that’s going to be the case, why insert potential issues at all? Why make this film about Bridgend’s suicide trend, instead of creating a fictional town in which similar events take place and set your broody, somber, bathetic melodrama there? Suicide Club did much the same, and even though I was left unfulfilled by it, at least it didn’t pretend that it had something deeper on its mind.

What Bridgend does have over Suicide Club is a greater sense of visual cohesion, even if its narrative cohesion is only slightly higher. For one thing, it benefits from focusing on one character and her admittedly unclear journey, instead of being a series of scenes that are only barely connected thematically before introducing a police procedural element deep in the first act, and then moving to a woman who is (I guess?) our protagonist somewhere around the third hour of the film halfway through the second act. Bridgend, at least, maintains a consistent color temperature and depth of field and focus throughout. You’re not going to get whiplash as you move from a comically scored group suicide to an atmospheric creepy hospital at night to a genuinely eerie school rooftop mass suicidal leap to a parody J-pop music video. There’s going to be a lot of sighing, some head shaking, and you may even shout “Yes, but why?!” when Sarah frees her horse in order to avoid being sent to a riding school (not only is it completely lacking in subtlety as a metaphor, but it also is the only metaphorical moment in the movie, highlighting its absurdity and lack of imagination).

Neither film works for me, but one or both might for you. We can’t all agree about everything. Bridgend is on Netflix.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ethereal Technophobic Horrors of the Early 2000s: Suicide Club (2002) & FearDotCom (2002)

One of my pet favorite subjects in horror cinema is the evils of technology. I’m especially tickled by internet-age technophobia, which makes me more of a sucker for titles like Nerve, Sickhouse, and #horror than most audiences tend to be. This might help explain how I made two technophobic horror selections for our Movie of the Month conversations in a row, Unfriended & Suicide Club, without even noticing the pattern until it was too late. As a pair, the two films do represent the pinnacle of the subgenre to me, though, especially in the way they simultaneously feel like a part of a cultural trend and standouts among their contemporaries. Unfriended, for its part, is a mainstream found footage horror that doesn’t stray much from the modern, Blumhouse style of dirt cheap genre filmmaking, but looks like the technophobic horror Citizen Kane when compared to its German-produced contemporary, Friend Request. It’s hard to believe with a film so aggressively bizarre, but Suicide Club was part of a trend as well, riding the technology-obsessed J-Horror wave that followed in the wake of the breakout success of Ringu & its American remake, The Ring. That tagalong formula of applying Ringu’s technophobic horror to early 00s internet culture did little to limit madman Sion Sono’s imagination, though; I’d even argue that Suicide Club far surpasses the creative heights of the haunted VHS J-horror film that helped inspire it. For a sharp point of contrast to see just how imaginative that ambitious deviation was, you need to only look to its mainstream American contemporaries that similarly adapted The Ring’s technophobic aesthetic to the Evils of the Internet. One German-American coproduction in particular feels exactly like the Friend Request equivalent to Suicide Club’s Unfriended – its dumb, ugly cousin.

2002’s FearDotCom is, objectively speaking, a terrible film. I’m still incurably tickled by it. Much like the bewildered cop who can’t crack the mystery of a haunted, suicide-inspiring website in Suicide Club, Stephen Dorff stars as an NYC detective struggling to solve the mystery of a haunted website that kills its visitors with Ebola-like symptoms after 48 hours of exposure (not unlike The Ring’s one-week cycle). The film arrived during mainstream horror’s horrendous nu-metal/torture porn period, so its plot mostly amounts to a Flash Art animation take on Videodrome, where an Internet Ghost infects viewers who watch torture for pleasure and attempts beyond-the-grave revenge on the evil doctor who killed her. Once Dorff & his supermodel Health Inspector sidekick (Natascha McElhone) accept the reality of the internet ghost & their dwindling 48 hours of relative good health, their focus shifts to taking down this wicked torture-doctor (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) at the industrial hideout where he webcasts his evil deeds. The movie is narratively convoluted, technically inept for a mainstream production, and laughably awkward in its poorly written, weirdly dubbed dialogue. Worse yet, it’s outright morally vile in the way it sensually frames dead & dying women’s bodies as if it were softcore pornography for teenage nu-metal shitheads (something I was personally guilty of being in 2002, sadly). Women strapped to torture devices with just their nipples covered by the leather belts; women jumping out of windows only for their bodies to appear postured for fashion model shoots upon impact; women stabbed to death to German language nu-metal as if in a music video: FearDotCom’s greatest sin is that it’s misogynist trash. It’s also hilarious trash, though, especially in its ponderings on “the secret soul of the internet,” flash art ghosts, furiously scribbled 1’s & 0’s, and cheap camcorder digital grain. You probably have to be a huge fan of ludicrous, internet-obsessed horror to get past its ugly soul and enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s a deeply silly movie that only becomes more peculiar with time.

For all its blatant, mainstream modes of horror filmmaking, FearDotCom occasionally reaches for the ethereal weirdness of Suicide Club’s similar internet-horror preoccupation. While Suicide Club provokes its audience with existential questions like “What’s your connection to yourself? Are you connected to you?,” FearDotCom attempts a similar mysterious air, but (as to be expected) does a much less impressive job of it. The torture-doctor rambles to his latest victim, “The internet offers birth, sex, commerce, seduction, proselytizing, politics, posturing. Death is a logical component.” What the fuck does that mean? Granted, the meaning of the “If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself?” line of questioning in Suicide Club is equally difficult to pin down, but it at least raises further questions & provokes thought, whereas the empty Internet philosophy of FearDotCom doesn’t linger in the mind at all. The film’s nightmare montage imagery of bugs, camcorders, albino children at play, and abandoned nuclear stacks also attempt a fractured narrative similar Sion Sono’s hyperactive vison in Suicide Club, but amounts to little substantive effect as a gestalt. Sono also had the good sense of making his (thankfully fewer) scenes of violence against women repugnant & difficult to watch, as opposed to the seductive gore & torture in FearDotCom that was seemingly aimed directly at misguided teen boners. The most essential difference may be that Sono actually had something to say about the erosion of self-identity & meaningful engagement with the physical world in the digital age, as ethereal as that point may have been, while FearDotCom merely used early 00s internet culture as a colorful backdrop for what was then by-the-numbers mainstream horror filmmaking. Either way, they both used the ethereal nature of the internet to detach their narratives from real world logic, both to entertaining effect (even if entertaining for vastly different reasons).

If you want a glimpse of how cheap & absurdly mishandled FearDotCom’s version of supernatural, technophobic horror is without actually having to, you know, watch the movie, just visit the film’s (NSFW) website. With the tagline, “What to see a killer website?” and an interactive DVD menu that directs you to visit Feardotcom.com, you’d think that Universal Pictures would bother to renew those domain rights into perpetuity. Instead, the address seems to be in use by a scammy advertisement for a British escort service. Meanwhile, the actual fear.com is currently a dummy website that reminds visitors that Donald Trump only has a 26.8% chance of winning the 2017 presidential election (there’s still hope!). This is a major studio production that has been abandoned by its major studio, now only to be found in used DVD stacks in New Orleans area thrift stores (that’s where I found my copy anyway). By contrast, Suicide Club is equally hyperkinetic & willing to come off as silly (especially in its J-Pop music videos and declarations like “I’m Charlie Manson of the Information Age!”), but is much more confident & purposeful, maintaining its reputation as a hidden gem art film from a prolific auteur. Just as I enjoyed the Facebook witchcraft idiocy of Friend Request, but found it only made Unfriended’s merits clearer in juxtaposition, I feel like the glaring faults of FearDotCom are just as entertaining for their own sake as they are illustrative of what makes Suicide Club a superior film. Both works may have been riding a technophobic horror wave in the wake of Ringu/The Ring, but their accomplishments within that aesthetic paradigm are remarkably disparate. Just compare the FearDotCom.com web address to maru.ne.jp from Suicide Club to make that distinction even clearer. The Suicide Club website has also lapsed out of studio control, but is operated by a respectable-seeming Japanese communications technology firm, with no references to British escorts or Donald Trump or anything.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Suicide Club (2002)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Alli, and Boomer watch Suicide Club (2002).

Brandon: One of the most promising trends in modern cinephile culture is the gradual return of the video rental store. We don’t yet have an equivalent here in New Orleans (outside maybe our surprisingly well-stocked library system), but where Alli & Boomer currently reside in Portland & Austin, it’s still possible to pop into a locally-owned video store and browse physical media copies of obscure & eccentric films. This was an essential part of my genre film self-education in high school & college, when film discourse online was a lot sparser & more isolated. There are plenty life-changing titles I could cite that we plucked from the Cult Movies section at Major Video or from Blockbuster’s 4 for $20 liquidation sales, but none have stuck with me quite like Sion Sono’s 2002 technophobic nightmare Suicide Club. We rented a bootleg, “unrated” copy of the film from the local Black Lodge Video store in Memphis in the early 2000s, when it was supposedly commercially unavailable in the US. There was something dangerous-feeling about renting a mysterious Japanese horror film that had been censored for extreme violence in its R-rated American cut, a kind of transgression that’s invaluable to high schoolers looking for a safe, affordable thrill that could be had through a VCR. Well over a decade later, the “unrated” cut of Suicide Club is cheaply, widely available for rent on Amazon’s streaming service. Its grimy SD quality on that platform (and on the DVD transfer available at our local library) feels much more like a disservice now than it did on a bootleg VHS, when it was appropriate to the film’s nature as mysterious contraband. That shift in context has somewhat softened some of the film’s allure as a dangerous, transgressive viewing experience, but not by much. Even without the magic of being a blind video store discovery, Suicide Club still feels like a haunting transmission from an alternate reality.

I wish I had the voracity necessary to keep up with Sion Sono’s output as a filmmaker. As formative as Suicide Club was for me as a blossoming genre film fan in the early 2000s, his 50+ credits as a filmmaker are almost too intimidating to tackle. I mostly just catch a stray movie like Tokyo Tribe or Why Don’t You Play in Hell? whenever they become conveniently available. In some ways, though, Suicide Club feels like the only film I’ll ever need from anyone. Packed with the creepy atmosphere of haunted hospital ghost stories, the glam rock excess of Velvet Goldmine, the menacing undercurrent of J-Pop & kawaii culture, multiple cults, a river of gore, and my pet favorite subject of the evils of the internet, Suicide Club feels like three or four imaginative horror scripts synthesized into one delightfully terrifying vision of modern Hell. Its story opens with 54 high school girls committing mass suicide on the tracks of a speeding commuter train, as chipper as can be. As police investigate this phenomenon, more suicides seemingly connected to the event spread, suggesting that the epidemic is the doing of a cult or a fad or a form of mass hysteria. Older, male detectives are in over their heads as they attempt to detangle this largely feminine, youthful mystery and how it relates to factors as disparate as flash art tattoos, Bowie-obsessed copycats, menacing websites of blinking dots, spirals of stitched-together strips of human skin, and the omnipresent J-Pop group Dessart. The ultimate “answer” to this mystery is that the perpetrators of the suicide mania are not a group of people at all, but rather a series of questions: “Are you connected to yourself? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? What’s your connection to you?” As Dessart puts in in their concluding concert, Suicide Club is “scary, it’s true, but loads of fun too,” and I’m not sure either one of those descriptors ever outweighs the other. This movie’s a little thematically messy, but it both terrifies & delights me every viewing.

Britnee, it didn’t occur to me until we were watching the film together that it shares a certain technophobic sensibility with my last Movie of the Month selection, Unfriended. While Unfriended presents the found footage nightmare of a haunted Skype & Facebook session in the 2010s, Suicide Club loosely captures the digital zeitgeist of the early 2000s: ringtones, emails, message boards, music videos, fax machines, amateur “hackers” with ridiculous usernames like The Bat, etc. It’s a much more abstract, atmospheric exploitation of the terrors of technology than Unfriended’s, which attempts to simulate exactly what it feels like to communicate online (with a vengeful ghost) in real time. I’m obviously a huge sucker for technophobic horror as a medium in general, so both approaches had their benefits to me, but I’m curious: Which version of online, digital age horror did you find scarier? Did the distance in time from the technology of the early 2000s affect that at all, as opposed to the more current depiction of online communication in Unfriended?

Britnee: The digital horror in Suicide Club was, hands-down, 100% scarier than anything in Unfriended. All the spooky digital stuff in Unfriended was mostly contained on one device (a laptop) while Suicide Club involved fax machines, cell phones, emails, DOS computer programs, etc. Since multiple devices were taken over by a mysterious evil force, I felt overwhelmed with fear because the terror was truly inescapable. Since I’ve become less familiar with the technology in Suicide Club over time, my lack of understanding only fueled the mystery of the devices. The possessed fax machine is the device that stands out the most in my mind. I can’t remember the last time I faxed anything, so my lack of understanding somehow blends with my lack of knowing what’s controlling the ultra-bulky machine, ultimately creating a major case of the willies. The one film that actually came to my mind while watching Suicide Club was actually my favorite Stephen King film, Maximum Overdrive. The devices definitely weren’t as aggressive as the ones in Maximum Overdrive (no killer soda machines), but they similarly seemed to be controlled by an inhuman force. While I’m still a little on the fence about who was in charge of the Suicide Club and making all of these phones and machines go off, I don’t think it was a human being. I’m leaning more to the culprit being a demonic ancient spirit, and that scares the pants off me.

The strangest thing about this film isn’t the roll of human flesh, mass suicides, or blood-soaked train tracks; it’s Genesis and his squad of cartoonish delinquents. The crew just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the terror that they brought onto the screen (minus the rape scene and brutal dog killing), but the scenes set in their demented bowling alley seem like they’re from a different film altogether.

Boomer, did you feel the same way about Genesis? Was his appearance and musical number fitting for one of the bloodiest films in cinematic history?

Boomer: It’s difficult for me to say whether or not anything “fits” in this movie. Oddly enough, this movie was recommended to my roommate nearly two years ago by a friend with whom he and I have many similar interests; in fact, she thrust the DVD onto Nicky, who stuck it in the drawer under the TV, where it remained unwatched until this viewing. When it was suggested, I thought, “Oh, hey, this is like one of those nice little coincidences, like when we watched The Box the same month that Richard Kelly was hosting a viewing of Southland Tales.” I’m not sure that, if I had been watching this of my own volition, I would have been able to force myself to finish it. Not because the movie is particularly gruesome (I found the violence comedically over-the-top, with only a few moments that were truly disturbing), but because it’s tonally inconsistent in a manner for which I was unprepared. I’m no stranger to this kind of largely non-narrative storytelling that has huge shifts in concept and tone, but the thing that most took me by surprise was the fact that the film, to my sensibilities at least, plays out as a comedy for the first ten minutes or so before becoming something different. The scene at the train station is hilarious, as the overly perky music plays and 54 students step across that yellow line into danger, then leap in front of the train and everyone explodes comically. Everyone in this movie bursts like a balloon filled with blood, or like a True Blood vampire, when they die; it’s impossible to take seriously.

I have to admit that this one didn’t appeal to me personally. It had a lot of elements of other things that I like: there’s a “joyfulness of the macabre” to it that, when combined with the fact that the majority of the plot revolves around teen female students, has elements of Hausu (English title House). A growing cultural madness and the Japanese national police’s inability to predict or prevent psychotic outbursts seems to be lifted almost directly from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure while the narrative of a police officer being the only tentative connection between different viewpoints on a philosophical subject is reminiscent of the same director’s Karisuma (English title Charisma). There are also elements taken from films from the West as well: Josie and the Pussycats came out the same year this movie premiered in Japan and, although very different tonally, tackles a similar theme about susceptibility and subliminal advertising through manufactured pop music acts; further, there are several sections of the film that are scored with a strange, synth-y leitmotif that sounds almost identical to the first 5-10 seconds of the “Strip Croquet” section of the Heathers soundtrack. Even the aforementioned rape and murder in Genesis’s hideout blatantly steals one of the most iconic images from Tenebrae. It’s a mishmash of other ideas, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but simply doesn’t work for me. Which isn’t to say that there are no scenes herein that are truly inventive and haunting: the image of the students lining up on the rooftop is iconic and unsettling, and I’ve seen scenes that must have been inspired by it in both Fringe and Doctor Who. It’s particularly unnerving given the quick transition from standard teen banter to something much darker. Likewise, the hospital scene also has a lot of atmosphere. Those two scenes are almost enough to win me over, but not quite.

To circle back to your original question, the appearance of Genesis and his droogs neither fits nor doesn’t fit into this movie for me. I really like the idea of a movement that doesn’t actually exist in any kind of organized form making the general public and the police believe in a fake figurehead, then letting that figurehead be killed to create a false impression of safety. That’s one of those things that I really appreciate: a circuitous and complex plan that’s actually elegant in its simplicity once the dominoes start to fall. But here, we as members of the audience are never given enough information for that to feel right. It makes me think about the phrase “in concert”: the idea that disparate sounds, noises, ideas, and even compositions and tempos come together to create one great symphony that’s acting to achieve a single effect. This movie isn’t a symphony; it’s a box of odds and ends—a gold krugerrand, a bolo tie, a belt buckle, a preserved starfish, a guitar pick, a frayed phone charger, and a signed photo of Marina Sirtis. Does a singing birthday card fit into this eclectic collection? Yes. And no. I go back and forth on this myself a lot: how much do you really need to tell your audience for something to be narratively satisfying? For me, the only answer I can give is “more than this.” In the allegory above, if it were made clear that these were all small gifts that someone received for their birthday, then we could say, “Yes, of course a birthday card fits into this assortment.” But without that knowledge, it’s just a bunch of trinkets with no unifying rhyme or reason. That’s how this movie feels to me: there are movies that run on dream logic, and movies that run on nightmare logic, and then movies that have virtually no logic at all. That’s something that I actually really enjoy when you know from the first moment that you’re about to make a nonsensical film (the aforementioned Hausu does this, for instance), but I found myself frustrated by this movie at almost every turn.

Alli, did you find this movie scary, or funny? Was it comical or horrifying to you? Or both?

Alli: I know I’m just preaching to the choir by saying this, but horror is an interesting and complex genre with a wildly diverse variety of themes and subgenres. There’s things like Evil Dead, but there’s also Halloween. There’s slowburners like It Comes at Night or The Witch and creature flicks like The Thing. I’m saying this as someone who realized only two years ago that I even enjoy the genre and have all along, because I used to have a narrow view of what it is. I know the question wasn’t whether or not Suicide Club belongs in the horror genre category, but I want to affirm that, given how broad and varied the genre is, that this very much is a horror movie. It didn’t frighten me, but it was very unnerving. There was the gore and the body horror, and the creeping dread of all the scenes at the “hospital.” (I never quite figured out what the deal was with that building. Where were the doctors? The patients?) There was also a sense of the ridiculous that I definitely appreciated and found really funny.

I was equal parts disturbed and amused, which is what I’ve come to expect from Japanese horror after watching things like Happiness of the Katakuris and Hausu (one of my favorite movies of all time, by the way). Japanese horror just seems to be that way. The closest work I can think of to compare this to is the horror manga Uzumaki by Junji Ito. It’s all about a town plagued by spiral shapes, which, yes, sounds (and is) totally ridiculous, but it’s also so discomforting. Tonally, it blends dark, grotesque body horror with surrealist humor. I know that they’re totally different mediums, but as soon as the disgusting skin spiral is taken out of the gym bag, it immediately popped into my head. It is also told in little one-off segments that build up and up until the ending coalesces into this nihilist freak-fest. Basically, if you enjoyed Suicide Club, please go check it out and read it. It’s a masterpiece and, since Uzumaki arrived before Suicide Club, Sono’s film is a great homage.

Brandon, what did you think of the nihilist philosophy the movie ultimately ends on? I know Suicide Club tries to tie all the segments together with it, while criticizing a lot of Japanese societal values. Did you think it added a sense of unity to the picture?

Brandon: I’m not convinced Japanese societal values are what’s being questioned here. I believe the film’s ultimate target is more the disconnect of living in the modern, digital world. As Boomer describes, individual elements of the movie seem to function independently from each other without ever working “in concert” (though, I do contend that the climactic backstage pass to the Dessart concert ultimately does a satisfying job of tying everything together), which I believe was intentional, even if not wholly successful. Suicide Club has a dissociative effect for me. Even questions of what’s supposed to be funny & what’s supposed to be terrifying are disorienting in a way that catches me off-guard more than traditional horror films tend to, a sensation that turns my stomach. This feeling of disconnect is directly dealt with in the text with the suicide-inspiring line of questioning about how we are “connected” to our “selves,” which is a much stranger philosophical exploration than typical horror genre nihilism. Suicide Club isn’t necessarily positing that life is meaningless, but more that modern culture has severed all our substantial connections with life’s meaning through various artificial removes: online communication, false pop star idols, social fads, cults, etc. The unifying theory that commands the movie is that we’ve all become disconnected & disunified by the digitized modern world, which is an ambitious thought to attempt to communicate in a cheaply-produced horror film.

As deeply unpleasant as the (thankfully brief, obscured) depictions of animal & sexual abuse in the glam rock bowling alley sequence are, I do have to admit I appreciate Genesis’s jarring intrusion on the film. Genesis offers a quick glimpse at a more traditional horror film version of Suicide Club where there’s a central villain that can be blamed for the suicide epidemic, instead of the more ethereal threat of the question “Are you connected to yourself?” Like the intangible technological threat of Videodrome being described as “dangerous” precisely because “it has a philosophy,” the threat of modern digital life dissociating us from a meaningful existence is a seemingly unstoppable terror because it’s a philosophy that cannot be embodied by a physical, conquerable killer—not even Dessart. As despicable as he is as a fame-seeking media whore, I always get a big laugh out of Genesis when he declares, “I’m Charles Manson of the Information Age!” during his arrest. It’s such an empty, meaningless statement when stacked next to the existential self-connection philosophy that drives the film’s terror that it makes him look so puny & harmless, even though we’ve just witnessed him commit horrific atrocities. Genesis & his cronies can only cause so much damage; a killer philosophy has much more widespread implications.

While there’s no one physical manifestation of the killer philosophy that drives Suicide Club, the movie does often deliver that philosophy through a familiar horror movie vessel: creepy children. Spooky kids have been an easy horror movie tool dating back to classics like The Bad Seed, The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Village of the Damned and the list goes on. In the 2010s they’ve even come to be something of a cliché, with most major studio horrors at the very least featuring a creepy child singing a spooky cover of a pop song in their advertising. Excepting the throat-clearing child who taunts police detectives by telephone, though, the creepy children of Suicide Club seem to break from tradition in that they’re sugary & chipper, even cute. From the adorable members of Dessart to the toddlers who hang around backstage to the infected suicide jumpers cheerfully declaring, “Hey, let’s all kill ourselves!” in their prim school uniforms, the children of Suicide Club seem distinctly different in demeanor from the creepy-children trope that’s been woven into the horror cinema fabric for decades. Britnee, do you think that youthful cheerfulness distinguishes the kids in Suicide Club enough from horror’s creepy-children cliché or do they feel unexceptional within larger tradition? What was more effective to you within the film: the traditionally creepy, throat-clearing kid who makes menacing phone calls or the smiling toddlers backstage at the Dessart concert?

Britnee: The spooky children of Suicide Club are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in horror films that involve evil kids. Their gleeful attitude towards suicide is much creepier than if they had demonic voices and evil eyes. The toddler audience at the Dessart show is the one scene of the film that continues to haunt me. Those little babies are scarier than Dessart, an all-girl pop group in charge of a suicide cult. I’m so glad that the throat-clearing phone call kid was brought up, because I just couldn’t figure out what the deal was with them. Why were they clearing their throat? Were they dying from some sort of disease or was it a demonic possession? I hate not knowing what their deal was, but that mix of innocence and evil just makes my skin crawl.  The reasoning behind the coughing could be some sort of representation of the lack of understanding between adults and children, but I’m sure it’s not that deep. Coughing kids just sound spookier than non-coughing kids. The kawaii style of horror that Suicide Club brings to the table is definitely different from what you’ll find in most horror films, and I’m hoping to discover more films that follow in its footsteps.

There are many unanswered questions that I have from Suicide Club, and I know that was what the creators of the film purposefully intended. Mostly, I would love to understand what the purpose of Dessart’s “suicide club” was. Boomer, do you have any ideas as to why Dessart brainwashed kids to kill themselves? Do you think the film should have provided more background for Dessart’s role in the suicides?

Boomer: I think that the intended effect of having their role be unclear is at play. If anything, whether or not they are even aware of their role in the rash of suicides is part of the film’s mystique. Maybe I’m just (again) projecting elements of Josie and the Pussycats onto this movie, as the title characters of that film were unaware that their music was being used to subliminally affect the audience. To be honest, I think the scene in which our detective pores over their promotional shot and determines that their raised fingers are meant to spell out “suicide” using T9 text codes may be intended as yet one more piece of the farce. He’s not the brave protagonist of a conspiracy thriller tying together various ephemeral pieces of evidence into a larger whole; he’s a desperate man looking for meaning where there is none, linking unrelated events and images into an absurd (and absurdist) interpretation. This isn’t Ethan Hunt flashing back over a series of clues and realizing that he was being played all along; this is Charlie standing in front of a Wall of Crazy shouting “Carol! Carol!” I read the fact that the throat-clearing kid (who was my favorite part of the movie, by the way—the constancy of this interrupting noise gives his speech an unusual, discomfiting cadence, bringing to mind the unsettling nature of the Frank Booth scene in Blue Velvet) was backstage at the Dessart concert as merely one more contrived coincidence on top of all the others in the film. He’s there because he’s there, not because he’s actually connected, or because he’s pulling the strings. He’s no more the leader or instigator of the events than Genesis was; he’s just caught in the wake of the great unknowable, and perhaps nonexistent, catalyst. To me, the girls of Dessart are connected only in the sense that someone looking for meaning in randomness will find it despite the lack of any actual connections between events, the way that the human mind finds people’s faces in the knots and whorls of a piece of wood, or the way you have that one friend that believes in conspiracies even though it requires leaps in logic that are completely absurd (why would the planners of 9/11 even hide clues in old episodes of The Simpsons in the first place?).

As the earliest scenes—particularly at the hospital and the high school—were my favorites, perhaps the thing that most annoyed me were the feints toward tying things in a bow at the end. There’s no connection between the girls at the train station, the nurses at the hospital, the jumpers at the high school, or the boyfriend who leaps from a rooftop only to land directly in front of his girlfriend. Even the justification that the latter three parties heard about the first incident doesn’t hold water, as the first nurse leaps from the window before the security guard can tell her about the news report he’s just heard. With the introduction of the investigative element, the film flirts with the idea of tying all the loose ends together before we see that they are completely ineffective in their attempts to get to the heart of the matter, and the other shoe drops and we learn that it was all meaningless anyway. That’s what frustrates me: the pretense of connectivity emerging from chaos and then disappearing into nonsensical madness. Alli, do you think the film could have been improved if it had continued to shift between different scenes of seemingly-unconnected suicides without trying to have a narrative through line?

Alli: I do tend to like movies that are just short, vaguely connected vignettes like the Jarmusch works Coffee and Cigarettes and Mystery Train, so I could see Suicide Club being connected only through the suicides and Dessart. Up until the creepy child calls, I pictured it being just that. Then, with the mysterious gym bag being slid into rooms, I thought it was going to be more about a tormenting or possessing spirit. Then, it wasn’t either of those things but an ideology, which at first I thought was a weak tie-in. And I still feel like the killer line of questioning isn’t enough to make one want to die. The bizarre ending, though, really got me. There’s just something about an audience full of small children interrogating a grown woman onstage that I don’t think individual vignettes could ever do for me.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a weird forced connection thing going on, but it feels very self-aware at the end. It tries to put the audience on trial as the children break the fourth wall with their pressing questions being delivered straight at the camera. No one in the movie knows why these people killed themselves, so the movie prompts us to fill in the blanks a little with some prompts.  Are we connected to ourselves in the information age? If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself? Or can you merely say to someone “Mail Me?” What’s your connection to you in a world of television, cell phones, and the internet? Like I said before, it’s a line of questioning that’s not particularly chilling to me, but I could see a late night audience being a little shaken as they’re being spoken to.

Lagniappe

Boomer: This one was a hard one for me to get through. Not that it exceeded my threshold for gore or viscera (I have yet to find a film that shows me I have an upper limit on that), but I found it very hard to stay awake as it hit my ceiling of tedium. As always, your mileage may vary, but I had very little to take away from this one, other than the fact that the coil of skin means the next time I eat a cinnamon roll is going to be an interesting experience.

Alli: I feel weird putting this thought out there, but that first suicide scene is now one of my favorite cinematic moments. It’s just so gross and over the top. I enjoyed every second of it.

Britnee: “Mail me. Hurry and hit the send key. Can’t you see? I’ve waited patiently.” The Dessart hit “Mail Me” has easily become one of my all-time favorite movie songs. I need to find that amazing 8-bit ringtone of “Mail Me” that went off on Mitsuko’s phone. It may have actually been her dead boyfriend’s phone (I can’t remember), but regardless of who’s phone it was, it probably made me laugh more than any other detail in this movie.

Brandon: Britnee, you mentioned that the menacing technology that haunted you most in the movie was the hospital’s fax machine, so I’d like to draw your attention to the film’s trailer. Suicide Club arrived in a very specific time for Japanese horror where the wild success of Ringu inspired a whole wave of technology-obsessed supernatural thrillers (obviously including its American remake, The Ring). As a result, the advertising for Suicide Club leans heavily into the film’s vague thematic similarities with Ringu by recreating its infamous scene of a wet-haired, ghoulish girl emerging from a VHS recording on a television through the hospital’s now-bloodied, hair-growing fax machine. If it’s a visual that was originally intended to be included in the film, I’m glad it was cut, since its similarity to the more popular (and, in my opinion, less imaginative) Ringu would’ve raised unnecessary scrutiny. As a standalone advertisement and, effectively, a short film, though, I think it’s well worth a watch.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Magic in the Mirror (1996)
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)

-The Swampflix Crew

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and the Value of John Woo’s Sincerity

When John Woo jumped down from the heights of his Hong Kong action heyday in Hard Boiled to the more pedestrian American mold of action cinema in its follow-up, Hard Target, you could immediately feel a tampering of his penchant for excess. It takes Hard Target nearly an hour of contextual narrative buildup before the over-the-top excess of Jean-Claude Van Damme punching rattle snakes, gangsters shooting up Mardi Gras parade floats, and Wilford Brimely going full Crazy Cajun in the film’s third act. Hard Boiled, by contrast, starts with one of its most chaotically violent set pieces (the showdown staged at the bird-watching tea house) and mostly maintains that same intensity throughout. Hard Target plays a little like a compromise, with American studio execs only allowing Woo’s sensibilities to show at the seams instead of flying at the screen full-force at every possible opportunity, as they had in his past Hong Kong efforts. As much as the 90s action thrillers that followed in the footsteps of Hard Boiled and its Hong Kong contemporaries were highly entertaining, they were often self-aware about not coming across as silly in a way the films that inspired them weren’t. Hard Boiled is entirely unembarrassed by its indulgences in excess and cheese. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) doesn’t play jazz clarinet or drive around to cheesy synth-pop in a convertible as a sly wink to the audience; he does it because it supposedly looks cool. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) doesn’t wear an eye patch or ride his motorcycle through a wall of flames to distract the audience from his pro wrestling-simple villainous persona; he does it because it obviously looks cool. Oddly, one of the few American films directly influenced by Hard Boiled that nails its unembarrassed indulgence in excess & cheese is the 2007 action genre spoof Shoot ‘Em Up. Even as a loving parody, Shoot ‘Em Up feels more like a faithful carbon copy of Hong Kong excess than even Hard Target, which John Woo himself directed. Unfortunately, though, it fatally lacks Woo’s sincerity.

Shoot ‘Em Up telegraphs its nature as an ironic comedy by making the genre it’s spoofing clear in its title. It’s as if a slasher send-up were titled Horror Film or, you know, Scary Movie. Director Michael Davis was inspired to write the film after seeing Hard Boiled and being delighted/baffled by the sequence during the climactic shoot-out when Tequila teams up with a newborn baby to defeat the film’s legion of faceless baddies. Like Hard Boiled, Shoot ‘Em Up drops you into its violent, chaotic narrative with very little introductory context. Clive Owen stars as a drifter who gets caught in the crossfire of an opening gunfight, where his instinct to protect a pregnant woman in labor results in delivering the baby himself, mid-shootout. He separates the umbilical cord with a bullet from his pistol. The mother dies in the fray. The drifter finds himself carrying & the protecting the newly orphaned baby through many more over-the-top gunfights, but never any that reach the entertainment value of the film’s opening minutes. Shoot ‘Em Up’s rapid-fire, ZAZ-style spoof humor means that the jokes are abundant and any one bit doesn’t last for long. They’re also just rarely funny (which might be why the Scary Movie franchise came to mind). A rare gag like the baby being swapped out with a robo-decoy or the drifter leaving them on a filthy public bathroom floor to clean his gun on a changing table can be inspired. Mostly, though, the film is painfully unfunny & grotesquely macho, especially in its treatment of sex workers (practically the only women in sight) and in every single thing that Paul Giamatti says & does as the villain. By the time the film reaches for a second joke about how shooting a gun is like “blowing your load,” its difficult to care that one of its best gags was later blatantly ripped off in the deranged Nic Cage vehicle Drive Angry. Shoot ‘Em Up was built around a borrowed concept anyway and Drive Angry at least recognizes the value in playing the material straight/committing to the bit.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hard Boiled is unintentional in its humor. In the baby-themed shootout sequence that inspired Shoot ‘Em Up, Chow Yun-Fat delivers a great physical comedy performance, protecting the infant’s ears between gunshots & even singing it a hip-hop lullaby. The intentional humor of the sequence’s over-the-top excess is not in question. Where Hard Boiled is more successful is in its in-the-moment sincerity. Chow Yun-Fat is straight-faced & fully committed, playing the baby scene & the jazz clarinet as if they were totally typical to the action genre. Clive Owen’s drifter in Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, is a literal stand-in for Bugs Bunny, the king of winking at the audience. Before he even fires a gun, Owen is shown loudly gnawing on a carrot on a public bench, a habit he continues throughout the film to clue the audience in that it’s all a big joke. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t all that funny and only gets less impressive as it’s driven home with repetition. The entire film plays like the dick-shooting gag in Our RoboCop Remake, except that it runs for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds. Its wacky! insincerity & ultimate lack of imagination (not to mention its boys-will-be-boys misogyny) are exhausting at that length. I admire Shoot ‘Em Up for capturing the spirit of the nonstop, over-the-top excess of 80s Hong Kong action cinema that most other American films failed to imitate in that movement’s wake. I just wish it had learned a lesson about the value of sincerity & playing it straight while admiring the humorous excess of films like Hard Boiled. John Woo’s comedic touches are twice as funny without trying half as hard to earn a laugh. Their unembarrassed embrace of cheese allows them to mix in with the over-the-top action seamlessly, creating a much more genuinely enjoyable product as a result.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its American follow-up, Hard Target.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hard Boiled (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Hard Boiled (1992).

Alli: Modern action cinema is full of shaky-cam, grit, chaotic set pieces, and giant robots (nothing against giant robots, they’re just the sparkling vampires of the contemporary action film). Sometimes a single film features all four of these and it’s a mess. Every summertime action movie season, 90% of the films are trash (in the bad way). I know we can’t expect a Fury Road every year, but there’s a certain daring artfulness and style missing from the movies that Hollywood churns out year after year.

To be fair, action films are difficult to calibrate. With too many explosions & gun shot scenes and not enough character development, they’re just silly. Too few kapow!s and they’re boring. No tension and they’re a flop. They need the perfect balance of fun and danger to excel as cinematic junk food.

John Woo, while he has made his share of flops, is one of action cinema’s greats, and Hard Boiled is his masterpiece. It’s a perfect blend of style and tension. He manages to keep the stakes just as high as the amount of fun. The sequences of explosions and stunts are beautifully choreographed, displaying the influence of kung fu movies that Honk Kong is historically known for. The characters, while classic tropes, are compelling, with even small side characters being afforded a life of their own. It manages to follow the blueprints laid down by the movies before it, while also exploring new territories.

A hard-boiled cop,”Tequila” (Chow Yun-Fat), and his partner go on a stake-out in a tea house to take down gun-smuggling gangsters. The tea house is full of pet birds (a tradition called bird-walking) and shady underworld types. When the stake-out descends into a extraordinarily violent shootout in a flurry of feathers and bullets, Tequila’s partner is killed. He swears revenge. Against his boss’s orders, he tracks down those responsible and with the help of a deep undercover cop, Alan (Tony Leung). Together, they take the entire enterprise down in one final battle. That violent climax happens to be staged inside a hospital, where there’s an underground gun cache. Patients are killed, babies are saved, and of course the whole thing is blown up spectacularly.

I only briefly mentioned the side characters, but my favorite is “Mad Dog,” played by Phillip Kwok. He’s a motorcycle-riding, badass henchman. At some point he loses an eye and the eye patch only makes him look cooler. Brandon, what did you think of Mad Dog? Do you have any other favorite characters?

Brandon: “Mad Dog” is definitely a clear stand-out among the film’s legion of baddies. Compared to his heartless crime boss, who is coded to be Pure Evil merely for being the only player around with Caucasian features (a common theme in eternally typecast Johnny Wong’s career), Kwok’s eye patch-wearing motorcyclist is a relatively complex character who evolves as the film progresses. When his diabolical De Facto White Guy boss demands that he put innocent hospital patients, including babies, in harm’s way during the climactic gunfight, he refuses to oblige out of a sense of human decency. That means a lot in the greater story about an illegal arms business gone mad, where money means more than lives and no human obstacle is sacred. Hard Boiled is very economical with its characterizations, presumably out of necessity. Tequila’s self-contradiction as a tough guy cop who plays jazz clarinet, Alan’s in-too-deep psychological breakdown expressing itself through his origami hobby, and even Mad Dog’s eye patch-wearing leather demonry all have a pro wrestling quality as personality traits; you have to instantly know via visual language who is Good and who is Bad to leave room for the much more complex & fully-developed action set pieces to flourish. Mad Dog & Alan are allowed (to borrow a wrestling parlance) face-turns in their respective roles, which makes them more interesting than other, more static villains & side characters, but they’re still (as Alli points out) classical archetypes. Even with far less screen time, Mad Dog makes more of an impression than Alan does, though, mostly because he just looks cool

My favorite side character in the film gets even less screen time than Mad Dog, but to even greater effect. It’s the chubby little baby Tequila partners with in the climactic gunfight. In an action sequence so iconically bonkers it features heavily on the film’s poster despite having fuck all to do with arms dealing, Tequila & his fellow cops have to save a nursery full of newborn babies by smuggling them out of the hospital window in the middle of a chaotic gunfight. I rolled my eyes a tad at the way the perpetually sidelined Lady Cop is finally given something to do (besides receiving flowers) in this scene, only for it to be the domestic work of caring for children. That unease is more than compensated for, however, when Tequila pairs up with one baby in particular who was left behind in the flaming hospital. Chow Yun-Fat’s comedic rapport with this fat-cheeked baby is adorable, especially in contrast to the bursts of gunfire he has to interrupt to soothe the baby with coos & a novelty rap song (!!!). The baby isn’t just an adorable mascot in this scene, either. He gets actively involved in the violent mayhem by putting out Tequila’s clothes fire with his piss, effectively saving the day. Even without this absurdist touch, Hard Boiled would’ve been instantly recognizable as an over-the-top action classic, but that exchange really helped seal it for me, which makes the chubby piss-baby an easy pick for MVP.

Britnee, since character development is somewhat secondary to Hard Boiled‘s complex set pieces & stylized violence, I’d like to know which action sequences stood out to you as favorites. Besides the bird cafe & hospital shootouts Alli & I already mentioned, there’s a nonstop flood of mayhem that spreads throughout all corners of Hong Kong: public libraries, warehouses, shipping docks, etc. Was there any one set piece that stood out to you as a particular highlight?

Britnee: I have never seen an action film with this much . . . well, action. The shootout scenes seemed to last forever and the effects were top-of-the-line. Needless to say, there’s too many action sequences to choose from. The almighty hospital shootout scene is probably the most memorable in the film for me, mainly because I can’t think of any other action film that has such a violent scene set in a hospital. Staging so much violence in such an innocent background seems almost taboo, and I think that Woo did his best to make sure that viewers were on the edge of their seat for that sequence. I mean, newborn babies were dangling from a cloth outside a hospital window while the hospital itself was blowing up.

The hospital sequence may have been awarded Most Memorable, but I have to say that my favorite action set piece is the one in which dear Uncle Hoi is killed in the warehouse. I still can’t figure out how all those explosions and gunshots could occur in such a small space with so many survivors. It’s almost as though the characters in this scene were immortal; they were able to withstand untold amounts of gunfire and explosions. Not only was the action mind-boggling, but my favorite moment in the entire film occurs in this sequence. Amidst all the chaos, a motorcycle that is engulfed in flames plows through the crowd. I remember this moment being in slow motion, but it’s possible that the slow motion occurred only in my mind. My jaw dropped and a long “whoaaaa” fell out. It was so beautiful and terrifying at the same time, much like this movie as a whole.

There is a scene in Hard Boiled that I haven’t been able to shake since watching it a few weeks ago. It’s the final scene in which Alan is throwing his origami cranes into the ocean from his sailboat. Prior to this scene, Alan shoots himself in the stomach to give Tequila a chance to shoot Wong. Part of me feels like he really didn’t die because he would be smart enough to wear a bulletproof vest, considering the situation. Alan jokes with Tequila about leaving everything behind and starting anew in Hawaii a couple of times throughout the movie, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what was actually happening in the final scene or if this was Alan’s ghost fulfilling his dream.

Boomer, what is your take on the film’s ending? Did Alan really die? Or did he survive the gunshot?

Boomer: I like that this is left intentionally vague but tempered by heavy allegorical imagery that permeates the film’s final scenes. We see Da Chief setting Alan’s file aflame in his office, just as we saw the docket for the previous killed-in-action undercover officer burned, a kind of memorial for a fallen friend. I don’t think that Alan was wearing a vest, though. We did see what contemporary Kevlar vests looked like in the final battle when the more heavily-armed police forces arrive at the hospital; they turn these armaments into makeshift baskets for some of the last few infants left behind in the maternity ward, and we see these same officers get eaten up by bullets shortly thereafter. As much as I want the ending to mean that our handsome hero Alan is alive, I get the sense that the interpretive element of the presentation is not as ambiguous as it was in, for instance, The Psychic. Per his conversation with Tequila, each of Alan’s origami cranes represents a man that he had to kill, both in the line of duty and to maintain his cover. While these deaths were all of evil men engaged in the gun trade, they weigh heavily on his conscience. Alan also mentions that Hawaii is a place he has never seen, a kind of paradise to which he’s hoping to achieve entry by passing through the crucible of his assignment. As he drops each paper bird into the ocean at the end, it is as if Alan is letting the sins he committed fall away from him into the ether as he sails toward whatever lies next for him.

We can assume that the film has a Taoist perspective, given that Tequila makes his entreaty for reconciliation with Teresa and a new apartment to a shrine of Guan Yu. Even with that in mind, the various different sects of Taoism are notoriously disunified in their different perspectives on death and the afterlife, so even thoroughly researching the topic doesn’t yield particularly useful information. Although Alan would be traveling eastward to reach Hawaii from China (in fact, he’d be going almost due east, given that there’s barely one degree of latitude difference between Hong Kong and Honolulu), a cursory internet search hasn’t helped me locate a specific correlation between eastward travel and enlightenment or the afterlife in Taoism. Religions informed by Christianity do hold the east—the cardinal direction, not the region—to have religious significance, however. Most cathedrals are cruciform in construction (see the Pisa Cathedral for a good example), with the “upper” part of the cross lying on the eastern end so that the congregation faces eastward, in the presumed direction of Christ (“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” -Matthew 24:27, KJV). It may just be my Western biases slipping through, but it feels like there’s a significance to Alan traveling east in (presumed) death, but I could be reading too much into it.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Alan could have survived. He’s definitely made of sterner stuff than other men, given that he takes a glancing shotgun blast to the back earlier in the film and survives. He also already survived a gunshot wound to the abdomen, as we see him tending the wound in his undershirt aboard the houseboat. We also know that he has implausibly good aim, as shown when he was able to slip a lighter into Fox’s pocket and then shoot him in such a way that the bullet was deflected from killing him by that same tiny piece of metal. Like I said: it’s up to one’s personal dissection, and my personal affection for Alan (and Tony Leung) means that I want the final shot of him embracing a new day to be a real event and not metaphorical, but the interpretation that he is dead is a much more rich vein, at least in my opinion.

Alli, you mentioned that you were a fan of Mad Dog, and I too liked that his character was multidimensional, especially in comparison to some of our “good” characters. Which characters, if any, do you feel simply don’t work (or pale in comparison to Mad Dog), and why? What would you improve about them to make them more lifelike or believable?

Alli: I am not a big fan of the character John Woo wrote for himself here. Supposedly this character was a late addition intended to help develop Tequila more, since many of his scenes playing jazz and pursuing his romance with Teresa were cut. The idea was that if John Woo was in a scene, why would he cut it? Though, I do get a director wanting to appear in a ridiculous movie that even from plot alone is a magnum opus. We didn’t need to watch Tequila seek advice from his bartender at the jazz club. The advice wasn’t even all that useful. It just felt like an unnecessary detail that added to the clutter. It’s understandable why in a movie with a cool badass like Mad Dog and the dreamy Alan going through moral dilemmas and tough choices, Chow Yun-Fat would want a character who doesn’t just ignore his boss’s orders and his girlfriend’s wishes, but I feel like there were better ways to handle that. The Mr. Woo scenes are a little too on the nose.

It’s hard for me to talk about this movie without comparing it to Die Hard. Both deal with rogue cops single-handedly taking down massive conspiracies and criminal organizations. Both are packed with iconic action sequences. Also, when it comes down to it, I think their main characters are extremely similar. John McClane isn’t really developed any more than Tequila until the action gets started, when we get a sense of his smug sense of humor and hear the “yippee ki yay.” In the same way, I think we see more of who Tequila is when he’s being a cop: smashing gangsters’ car windows, independently dropping into a warehouse full of baddies to shoot up the place, and, once again, the rap lullaby.

I’m sure there’s a ton of other Die Hard comparisons one could make, since they’re two of the finest action movies ever made, but I’m going to stop there for now. Brandon, are there any other movies you’d compare Hard Boiled to? Are the any movies heavily influenced by it that you’ve seen? What do you think of Hard Boiled‘s place in the action genre as a whole?

Brandon: The question of influence is a difficult one to detangle (except in blatant cases like the action spoof Shoot Em Up borrowing its baby-themed shoot-out concept wholesale), since Hong Kong action cinema drew heavy influence from its American counterparts before leaving its own mark on that industry in a kind of creative ouroboros. Since John Woo himself has since become an American cinema icon, the easiest points of comparison might be to look at his own work. Hard Boiled is weirdly positioned as the final film in Woo’s catalog before the two distinct markers critics usually cite as the downfall of Hong Kong’s action cinema heyday: the exodus of the movement’s most prominent directors to Hollywood and the handover of Hong Kong itself from British rule to mainland China in 1997 . With his following film, the JCVD vehicle Hard Target, you can already see the way American sensibilities (particularly the MPAA’s attitude towards violence) diluted Woo’s creative voice. By the time he directed pictures like Face/Off and the rap-rock opera Mission: Impossible 2, almost all of Hard Boiled‘s mesmerizing hyperviolence had completely evaporated, leaving only the over-the-top cheese behind. As a result, I’ve always shrugged off the suggestion that John Woo is an easy pick for the all-time greatest craftsman in action cinema. His American pictures maintain his playful absurdism, his obsession with white doves, and his excess of individual camera setups within a single action sequence (complete with slow-motion pauses for detail); they’re even (for the most part) really fun to watch. They don’t ever approach the intricate genius in craft or the blunt force brutality of Hard Boiled, though, and I feel like an idiot for avoiding seeing Woo’s work from his Hong Kong glory days for so long because of that slow American decline.

Britnee, what was your first experience with John Woo as a director? I’m assuming it was a 90s American picture as well. How did it compare to your experience with Hard Boiled?

Britnee: Hard Boiled is actually the first John Woo film that I’ve fully seen. I swear, I’m always late to the party for everything. When I was a kid, I saw parts of Face/Off and Hard Target thanks to the TNT and USA channels, but I don’t really remember much about either movie. Not knowing John Woo’s work is actually exciting to me, though. This is an entirely new world of action films that I can throw myself into. After looking at the decent-sized list of films Woo has directed, I noticed a good number of Hong Kong works. I’m curious to see if any of them are on the level of Hard Boiled, which would be freaking amazing.

I was a little nervous about being able to keep up with Hard Boiled when I realized it was an action film entirely in Cantonese. Having to pay attention to subtitles in an action-packed movie makes the film seem more like a chore than an enjoyment. Ultimately, I was somehow able to understand what was going on without really paying attention to the subtitles. It’s not that there was a lack of verbal interaction between the characters, either. I think credit goes to a blend of excellent acting and directing.

Boomer, did you have a similar experience with the subtitles?

Boomer: About two months ago, some friends and I were binging on all the Pop-Up Videos we could find on YouTube. One of these was the video for “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. There’s a point in that one where the song is playing, the subtitles say something different from the lyrics, and there’s a simultaneous “informational” pop-up; while watching it, it was like my brain blew a fuse for a second because it was impossible to keep up with every piece of information being presented. I think there’s definitely a danger in this kind of sensory overload in any action film, let alone one that is not in a language the viewer speaks. On the other hand, editing and tone are actually more important to an overall understanding of a film than even the dialogue is, and a good director, like Woo, knows how to use the languages of dialogue and the rhetorical space of visuals & editing to convey ideas. Film theorist Lindsay Ellis actually discusses this in the first entry of her fantastic series of video essays in which she uses the Transformers series as an easy textual representation of certain filmic ideas like affinity/contrast of continuum of movement.

Ellis asks: why is it so hard to remember what happens in those terrible movies? One answer is that there is a constant disruption of the continuum of movement between shots. When the eye has to move from one part of the screen to another when the shot changes, that is contrast of continuum of movement; a good director uses this intentionally in order to disorient the viewer after a period of relative visual stability. When it’s used constantly, however, it only serves to induce anxiety and confusion and prevents the film from coming together in a logical, sensible way. It effectively offsets what we call “persistence of vision” and baffles the mind, just like the aforementioned Pop-Up version of “Everybody Hurts.” I had this experience myself when I was 20 years old and went to see Transformers in theaters; I had gotten an eye infection the week beforehand, and was wearing an eyepatch at the screening. I still clearly remember parts of the film where the action was so intense and nonsensical that, through a single eye, the screen essentially went blank. The fact that this happens in a film in my (and our) native tongue is telling; there was no language barrier, but the film was still incomprehensible.

In general, though, competent directors know better than to try and hit more than one center of the brain at once, even if they only learn this skill through osmosis. In any given action scene, the protagonist will generally throw out a one liner either immediately before (“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”) or after (“Welcome to Earth!”) taking action. Only a very poor director would attempt to have their lead recite a lengthy screed at the same time that dozens of weapons dealers storm a factory. Even in something like Wrath of Khan, in which Khan gives a recitation of the “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee” speech from Moby Dick, that dialogue doesn’t play out over footage of two starships shooting at each other; the invective is delivered in close-up. Not every director is competent, of course, and I’ve definitely seen a film or two that was confusing because of an editorial failure and not as an intentional device (Tribulation comes to mind), but Hard Boiled doesn’t fall into this category. And, hey, if you could follow the movie without dialogue, more power you.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love how there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary lovey-dovey stuff in Hard Boiled. I hate when action films bring in a ridiculous love story because it always takes away from the adrenaline high that I get after a good combat scene or two. There’s a light touch of romance between Tequila and Teresa, but it’s not enough to be a major plot point. Alli mentioned that a couple of romantic scenes between them were cut, and I’m so glad that they were.

Alli: I have watched this movie so many times and I still for the life of me have no idea why the lead’s nickname is Tequila, especially since throughout the film he’s only shown drinking gin & tonic. I don’t know if I like it better that it’s not explained or if I really wish we had the answer to that.

Boomer: Alli, look away in case you want to preserve the mystery of Tequila’s nickname, but . . . he’s not drinking a G&T. That’s a tequila slammer, which is notable for the way that it’s mixed (slamming it).

For interested parties who want to know more about how the brain accepts and interprets information, both musically and not, I can’t recommend the video essay “The Mozart Effect” by Sideways enough. In it, he talks about the areas of the brain that are affected by speech-as-sound, subvocalization, and why certain sounds/music are more conducive to certain activities.

Brandon: My apologies for bringing up pro wrestling a second time in this conversation (my WrestleMania tickets must be eating a hole in my brain), but something else about films from Hong Kong legends like John Woo & Tsui Hark remind me of another wrestling term: the sell.

The stunts pulled off in Hard Boiled and its ilk are so convincingly dangerous that I often have a difficult time watching the screen out of fear for the actors’ safety. The fact that Hong Kong action stars were often pressured to do their own stunts instead of leaving the work to professional doubles makes the experience even more nerve-racking. It’s entirely possible that these were super safe sets and the danger onscreen was just “sold” especially well by the performers, but it’s still difficult to watch at times. Even professional wrestlers, who are often accused of being in a “fake” business, frequently get injured . . . or sometimes worse. I won’t deny that this sense of real-life danger is uniquely thrilling, though. It’s one of the many things that distinguish Hard Boiled & its Hong Kong contemporaries from their American counterparts.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Brandon presents Suicide Club (2001)
April: Britnee presents Magic in the Mirror (1996)
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Fame-Economy Afterworlds of Wings of Fame (1990) & The Congress (2014)

It’s become a kind of unofficial tradition that I find an excuse to rewatch & write about the 2012 sci-fi film The Congress every year of blogging. I first reviewed the film in our inaugural year as a website. I then returned to it to explore its continued relevance in the shifting Hollywood landscape last year, finding it just as potent it as I had the first time, if not more so. Now, in year three, Boomer has introduced a Movie of the Month selection to us with unignorable thematic connections to The Congress, though its approach to the same topics is much more subdued. The 1990 Dutch film Wings of Fame presents a version of the afterlife where immortality is determined by cultural longevity; dead historical figures & celebrities mingle in a shared, surrealist space where their level of adoration among the living determines their status on the other side. The Congress alters that formula by allowing the living to buy into & borrow that fame immortality, essentially ruining their lives on Earth by assuming the guise of a celebrity in a fantasy space. Both works are wonderfully bizarre, though I’d argue The Congress is both flashier & more complex in its reflections on fame economy surrealism.

Part of the reason The Congress feels more memorably bizarre than the delicately philosophical Wings of Fame is that it leans heavily into the surrealist juxtaposition of seeing many incongruent celebrities onscreen at once. Where Wings of Fame notably stocks its cast of “famous” dead celebrities with archetypal placeholders instead of real life historical figures, The Congress overwhelms the audience with multiple copies of Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe and anyone else you can imagine. It accomplishes this by setting its fame economy afterworld in an “animated zone,” a brightly colored Max Fleischer fantasy space that posits the film as a Cool World/Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style live-action/animation hybrid. The live-action lead-up to that surrealist free-for-all can be just as measured as anything in Wings of Fame, though, with Robin Wright starring as herself in the not too distant future as introduction to the world (not unlike Peter O’Toole playing a Peter O’Toole type in Wings of Fame). Hollywood executives pressure Wright to sell her likeness so she can be digitally inserted in any part they choose, even long after she’s dead, sealing her immortality as a movie star. Just a few decades later, “regular” people can buy into that celebrity themselves, taking on her identity in the “animation zone, extending the film’s celebrity-outliving-your-body themes into even more bizarre, speculative territory that feels increasingly relevant to modern celebrity culture every passing year.

In Wings of Fame, being an unfamous nobody means you fade into a greyed-out mist of anonymity, drifting directionless for eternity. The Congress, being made in a time where a celebrity’s digital likeness can be sold & recreated independent of a physical performance, puts a lot more thought into how the unfamous nobodies among the living could pay to participate in the glamorous luxury of fame. The Congress is the flashier, more currently relevant film of the pair, but Wings of Fame is more philosophically reflective on how fame can outlast the body. The Congress only introduces that concept briefly before focusing on the intricacies of how fame has evolved as in industry, a commodity that co be bought, sold, rented, and loaned. I’m not sure that I’ll return to Wings of Fame as often as I apparently feel compelled to return to The Congress, since its broader approach to the fame economy afterlife feels a little less relevant to our specific relationship to modern celebrity as a 2010s audience and more tied to a larger philosophical provocation. In tandem, the pair offer an unlikely surrealist fantasy that visualizes fame’s function as immortality currency in literal terms. The difference is that Wings of Fame’s version of that dynamic is reflective on how fame has functioned through all of history, while The Congress depicts a future we still haven’t fully arrived at, but inch closer to every passing year.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint, and last week’s look at the strange ways its meta Shakespeare & romantic rivalry themes extend into Shakespeare in Love (1998).

-Brandon Ledet

Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judy Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet