The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

The Horrors of Music Television in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the initial slasher genre boom of the 70s & 80s is that it’s oddly just as prudish as the “road to ruin” exploitation pictures of the 1950s. In the 50s pictures, teens who dared to experiment with sex & drugs, especially girls, would swiftly be met with a violently tragic end as punishment. This formula allowed audiences to both indulge in the sexy, transgressive behavior of rebellious teens and wag a morally righteous finger in their direction once they get their inevitable comeuppance. Although packed with far more nudity & bloodshed, the slasher genre was generally just as condemning of teenage rebellion as the “road to ruin” pictures before it. Its teen characters were chopped down by humanoid monsters like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees instead of dying at the hands of syphilis or car crashes, but slashers were just as obsessed with punishing wayward youngsters for straying into the temptations of marijuana & premarital sex. The original entry in the Roger Corman-produced Slumber Party Massacre slasher series both participated in and satirized this time honored tradition. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre is a straightforward slasher film that still punishes teens for their hedonistic behavior, but delivers its kills by way of an oversized, phallic drill that points to the absurd gender politics of its genre. What’s much more interesting than that subtle subversion in the mechanism of punishment, however, is the way its sequel, 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II, updated the source of its teenage moral transgressions to something more blatantly modern.

Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format. It’s still a film where teen girls are murdered for straying from their parents’ protection to experiment with sex & alcohol. The difference is that the mechanism used to punish them is not a scary man in a mask wielding a comically oversized kitchen utensil. Instead, the victims in Slumber Party Massacre II are hunted by a personified representation of MTV culture. In its own absurdist way, the film literalizes parents’ fears about rock n’ roll invading their homes to destroy their children’s lives. Better yet, it does so with a cartoonish slapstick energy usually reserved for a Looney Tunes short that keeps the mood consistently light instead of browbeating the audience for indulging in its sex & fantasy violence.

The youngest survivor of the titular slaying in the first Slumber Party Massacre, Courtney, is now high school age, living alone with an overly stressed mother who shares her anxieties over her traumatic past. Instead of spending her birthday weekend visiting her sister (who also survived the massacre) in the hospital, Courtney convinces her mother to allow her to go on an unsupervised road trip with her small group of close friends. All four girls in this crew are members of a jangly, Go-Gos reminiscent garage band and plan to spend the weekend away practicing new songs. They, of course, also plan to drink excessively & sleep with hot boys. In the days leading up to this getaway, Courtney has recurring nightmares featuring a demon in a leather jacket, billed simply as The Driller Killer, who warns her not to have sex on the trip or else. Of course, being a teenager, Courtney inevitably ignores this warning and deliberately sheds her virginity with her biggest crush. The exact second Courtney has sex for the first time, the transgression gives birth to the rock n’ roll demon, who escapes from her nightmares and hunts down every one of her friends & bandmates with a giant, guitar-shaped drill. The physical manifestation of MTV culture, The Driller Killer is dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, except with a vampire collar on his biker jacket. Before drilling each teen dead with his unignorably phallic guitar, he suggestively delivers rock n’ roll one-liners like “I can’t get no satisfaction,” & “C’mon baby, light my fire.” He also had a rock n’ roller’s sense of open-ended sexuality, applying his drill to victims of all genders instead of reserving it just for the girls, like in the first film. The only way this sex demon could’ve been more MTV is if his name was Downtown Julie Brown.

Not all of Slumber Party Massacre‘s MTV horrors rest on The Driller Killer’s leather clad shoulders. Besides its two music video tangents highlighting Courtney’s garage band, the film generally adapts music video language to its visual style. Drastic comic book angles, fog machines, and intensely colored lights shape a lot of the aesthetic of its nightmare sequences & third act slayings. The film’s sets, which include empty condo developments & construction sites, also recall early MTV-rotated rock videos that were cheaply, rapidly produced to feed the young channel’s bottomless need for content. The teen girls in the film are highly aware of this then-modern medium too. Minor scream queen Heidi Kozak, who plays the band’s drummer, exclaims in a pivotal scene, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything, because my song is going to be a hit,” and, more directly, “MTV, here we come!” This declaration is promptly followed by the girls stripping down to their underwear (or less) and erupting into a dance party/pillow fight that could easily pass for a mid-80s hair metal video if it weren’t for all the nudity. The sequence is often viewed from the television’s POV, as if the music emanating from it was directly influencing their drunken behavior, enticing them to commit sins that will immediately get them killed. The broadcasted film soundtrack they’re dancing to is also none other than the Corman-produced classic Rock n’ Roll High School, which had its own significant impact on music video culture before MTV ever existed.

Slumber Party Massacre II can sometimes be a nihilistically violent exploitation piece in the way that all slashers are, but mostly it just mirrors the light-headed inanity of pop music as a medium. Song lyrics like, “I wanna be your Tokyo convertible,” and scenes like the dance party/pillow fight keep the tone goofy & charmingly absurd. Even the film’s rock n’ roll demon, although a murderous creep, never feels like the kind of nightmarish threat that usually terrorizes wayward teens in this genre. The film not only modernizes the slasher formula by shaking off its 1950s cobwebs and updating its teen transgressions with a borrowed MTV flavor; it also makes its violent downfall seem just as fun & enticing as the sins that trigger it. Given the choice to either live a chaste life or die by the hands of MTV, it’s likely a lot of mid-80s teens would’ve eagerly chosen death, which feels like a different sentiment entirely from the third act downfalls of the “road to ruin” era of exploitation cinema. It’s funny that it had to return to the demonized image of a 1950s rock n’ roller to free itself from that era’s moralist trappings.

-Brandon Ledet