Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

Paddington 2 (2018)

“If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

I stubbornly ignored all recommendations for the first Paddington film for a solid two years, mostly out of disgust & disinterest inspired by its advertising. The CGI design of the titular bear was especially a huge turn-off, giving off the feeling of a computer-animated Charmin commercial flavored with a pinch of British whimsy. When the unanimous praise for Paddington 2 started rolling in recently, I finally decided to give the first one a shot (it was lurking on Netflix, after all). The experience turned out much better than other recent experiments where I allowed critical praise to bully me into watching children’s films I had zero interest in (Moana and Coco both come to mind), but I still couldn’t quite match the consensus enthusiasm. Paddington is a decent, occasionally clever children’s film about an undeniably lovable bear. Paddington 2, it turns out, is a massive improvement on that initial outing: a total, absurdly wholesome joy. Where the first film only got past my heartless cynic defenses enough to elicit a few chuckles & “awwwww”s, the sequel made me cry for the last five minutes solid, both out of grief & out of elation. Paddington 2 reminds me of the trajectory of the Babe series, where the first film is a simple, adorable portrait of a wholesome talking animal and the second, Pig in the City, is a feverishly ambitious work of fine art that contrasts that lovable animal against a harshly cruel world that does not deserve them. Like Babe, Paddington makes everything he touches better through pure, unashamed kindness, so it only makes sense that his own film franchise would only get better the more time it spends with him.

I suspect this is a holdover from the Paddington storybooks, but the real crux of this series is its function as an allegory about modern immigration. An orphaned bear “from deepest, darkest Peru,” Paddington is a sweetly polite, courteous cub who is shunned on sight by most strangers he greets in London. Peter Capadli is the most flagrant racist in Paddington’s life, referring to the bear as “an undesirable” and forming a “community defense force” to keep an eye on his potentially criminal behavior. The first Paddington film profiles a white, affluent London family (featuring Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville & The Shape of Water’s Sally Hawkins) as they grow to love the bear for the kindness inside him, despite their initial prejudices. Paddington 2 finds their neighborhood transformed into a harmonious cultural tapestry where people of widely varied backgrounds coexist in functional peace, thanks largely to Paddington’ s bottomless aptitude for kindness & politeness. We then see how grim the world becomes without the impossibly wholesome influence of this Peruvian bear. While merely attempting to purchase a birthday present for his aunt, Paddington is framed for a white man’s crime and leveled with a ten-year prison sentence, thanks largely to old-fashioned racial profiling. Of course, he makes the best of this situation as he can, transforming his Dickensian hellhole of a prison into something resembling a Wes Anderson confectionary or a live-action adaptation of Animal Crossing. It’s still a difficult-to-stomach injustice, though, one that leads to a speeding train conclusion more befitting of an action thriller than a children’s movie. I don’t want to spoil any of the weird, emotionally traumatic places the movie goes as its story flies off the rails in a delightfully excessive climax, but I will say this: when Paddington does finally get his aunt a birthday present, I cried like an idiot baby. I’m having a difficult time just writing about it without crying; it’s that goddamn wholesome.

Besides its heartwarming empathy for immigration narratives and general, genuine sweetness, the Paddington franchise also impress as a visual achievement. The dollhouse miniatures of the first film were an excellent start for an aesthetic perfected in the second. Paddington 2 is a multimedia sensory experience, mixing in 2-D pencil-sketch animation, pop-up book landscapes, and even more complex miniatures to convincingly capture a sense of childlike wonder. There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson (whose Grand Budapest Hotel feels like an especially strong influence here), but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. It also backs up its precious visual indulgences with an informed, classic sense of physical comedy, directly influenced by silent era legends like Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton. I could see an outsider being turned off by the promised whimsy of the film’s steampunk circus backdrop, treasure map side plot, and cutesy pop-up book illustration asides, but director Paul King carefully arranges all these visual influences & aesthetic touches with such a careful sense of craft that it’s near impossible not to be won over by them in the moment. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

I don’t want to suggest that watching the first Paddington movie was a waste of time or a total letdown. If nothing else, it functions as a kind of superhero origin story (if kindness & politeness can be understood as superpowers), laying a lot of the visual & metaphorical groundwork for what’s accomplished in its magnificent sequel. It’s worth watching just to get accustomed to Paddington’s world, as everyone from the director to single-scene side characters returned for the second go. Everything about Paddington 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, though. The physical comedy is funnier. The visual craft is more inspired. The villain is more entertaining & complex (I swear Hugh Grant is channeling Theatre of Blood-era Vincent Price here). Even Paddington’s impossibly sweet selflessness in the face of prejudice – as he sacrifices his freedom to improve someone else’s birthday – comes across more clearly. Paddington 2 is the perfect, heartwarmingly empathetic children’s film confectionary everyone’s been trying to sell me with the first movie for the last two years. Now it’s my turn to be an annoyance and hyperbolically promote this picture to people who have zero interest in watching it.

-Brandon Ledet

Ken Russell’s Streamlined Modernization & Perversion of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell’s 1988 film adaptation of the 1911 Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm is often criticized for being an adaptation in name only. Critical consensus is that Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm maintains only minor details of Stoker’s original premise and the most the two works share is a common title. It’s true that Russell’s adaptation strays much further from its source material than 1922’s Nosferatu does in its faithful, but copyright-infringing bastardization of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The film The Lair of the White Worm is not a blasphemous, in-name-only adulteration of a sacred text, however. Bram Stoker’s White Worm novel is incoherent pulp. It’s a tawdry mess of a work written late in the author’s life, long past when his mental facilities were at their sharpest. Russell modernized and drastically altered basic components of the late author’s work, but he was much more faithful to the source material than what’s typically acknowledged. There’s even a prideful title card that proclaims, “Screenplay by Ken Russell from the Bram Stoker novel” to boastfully acknowledge their posthumous collaboration. Russell did not disrespectfully diminish a well-loved literary work. The filmmaker streamlined and enhanced an imperfect, misshapen novel that had been largely (and perhaps rightfully) forgotten by time by accentuating its most worthwhile aspects. He transformed a painfully slow read into a wildly fun horror film.

Although Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is a mid-length novella, it reads like a rambling epic that drones on for thousands of pages. Its story is essentially a simplistic rehashing of Dracula, in which a naïve outsider intrudes on a world of supernatural menace while conducting entirely unrelated, mundane business. Instead of providing legal service for suspiciously inhuman royalty like the solicitor Jonathan Harker in Dracula, The Lair of the White Worm’s naïve outsider, Adam Salton, is thrust into contact with similarly inhuman gentry by neighborly proximity. During a routine getting to know the attractive neighbors visit, Salton finds two wicked figures tormenting the innocent women of the house. One of these figures, Sir Caswall, is a weak carbon copy of Count Dracula. Although his apparent vampirism is never made explicit he physically resembles Bram Stoker’s most infamous creation and shares Dracula’s passion for hypnotizing women, this time under the guise of practicing “mesmerism.” The second tormentor, Lady Arabella, is more of a creation original to this novel. Lady Arabella is gradually revealed to be a shape-shifting “worm” (skewing closer to a giant snake or a dragon than an earthworm) known to feed on locals who dare encroach on its territory. While Dracula touches on the danger of female sexuality, Lair explicitly refers to our villainess, Lady Arabella, as a “cocotte”, French for prostitute. Despite her Anglo-Saxon good looks, a dangerous fiend like Lady Arabella could “infect” respectable English women with her serpentine (and independent) ways and seduce men to their ruin.

Furthering the Dracula parallels, a Van Helsing-type (Sir Nathaniel) helps Adam concoct a plan to destroy the worm’s pit below Diana’s Grove, but instead of confronting the villainous Arabella and Caswall on their adjacent ancestral lands, Adam and his wife Mimi bafflingly run around the countryside in an effort to avoid the villains. Lady Arabella is responsible for her own destruction by running a wire directly from the kite to her own well in hopes of lurig Caswall into her clutches. The villains’ fate is sealed by a random lightning strike that ignites dynamite meant to destroy the pit below Arabella’s property, where the worm is known to feed. It’s as if the lightning were a direct punishment from God or, more likely, Stoker had no idea how to wrap up a mess of a plot he had dug for himself.

Russell’s screenplay adaptation cleans up the mess Stoker made by combining and excising characters to essentialize what makes it distinct from being yet another Dracula. One major change was combining the Dracula and Van Helsing archetypes of Sir Caswall and Sir Nathaniel into a single character. Portrayed by a young Hugh Grant, Lord James D’Ampton is a destined hero ordained by heritage to destroy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Lady Arabella in the Stoker version) once she’s revealed to be a shapeshifting, killer “worm.” D’Ampton remains a “mesmerism” enthusiast, but in the way of a snake-charmer, a skill willed to him through family to aid in his task of hypnotizing and slaying the titular worm beast. Two major villains tormenting Derbyshire, England is one too many for a work this simple; Russell was smart to remove the most Dracula-reminiscent one of the pair. His other character changes are basic modernizations meant to update Stoker’s outdated material to a 1980s setting. For instance, the naïve Adam Salton character (now named Angus Flint and portrayed by Peter Capaldi) is an archeologist, not newly-landed gentry. This style of modernization did require some major changes in terms of character traits, however. Russell removed the bizarre racial fixations Stoker focused on in his novel. In particular, Stoker exhaustingly others an African immigrant servant to Sir Caswall and a biracial female love interest for their cultural and (worse yet) supposed biological differences. Oolanga is framed as an obviously evil character. He writes, “But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”  Meanwhile, Mimi Watford is compared favorably to her white, but passive & tragically doomed cousin as an exotic, fiery beauty: “Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock she is sprung from; Mimi almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset.” Russell excises this aspect of the work entirely by casting white actors in their roles and diminishing the parts they play in the central story. There is both a shrewdness and a cowardice to Russell’s avoidance of the uncomfortable racial issues at the heart of his Bram Stoker source material, but it’s ultimately an improvement that helps declutter the work just as much as removing the redundant, Dracula-reminiscent villain.

Russell had to polish and streamline Stoker’s original vision to craft a fun, watchable horror movie out of the rubble, but the novel plays directly into the auteur’s pet obsessions. At the heart of Stoker’s novella is a deep-seated fear of female sexual autonomy, detectable in the sexual imagery of Lady Arabella’s phallic “worm” form and the vaginal cave where that monster feeds. Russell was well established as a sexual provocateur by the time he adapted Lair of the White Worm in 1988. Transgressive works like Crimes of Passion and The Devils had already allowed the director to indulge in blatant depictions of the perceived horrors of autonomous female sexuality in a way Stoker’s much earlier novel could only subtly imply. Streamlining The Lair of the White Worm’s most exciting components allowed Russell more time to exploit the Cronenbergian sexual menace inherent to the character of Lady Arabella (Lady Sylvia). He wastes no time revealing that she is a shapeshifting, humanoid snake, unlike Stoker who saved her mysterious villainy for much later in his novella. Before actress Amanda Donahue is even depicted spitting venom or baring comically oversized fangs, she is costumed wearing cowls and headscarves that accentuate her reptilian nature, affording her the silhouette of a bipedal cobra. This allows more time for Russell, who was never one for subtlety, to indulge in the character’s over-the-top sexual villainy. Her consumption of young, innocent locals is made explicitly analogous to sexual desire and is even tied to an elaborate sex ritual that involves a giant, sharpened phallus (a favored instrument of death for Russell, as indicated by its inclusion here and in Crimes of Passion). The director’s screenplay may play loose with the details of its source material, but there’s enough of Bram Stoker’s influence detectable to see why he was drawn to it. Russell maintained the mesmerism hypnosis of the novella, but made it a psychedelic side effect of Lady Sylvia’s venom (in imagery directly pulled from his previous works Altered States and The Devils). Russell latched onto Stoker’s subliminal sexual anxiety, but elevated it from subtext to the forefront. He even held onto the Dracula-reverberating aspects of the novel by accentuating the comically oversized, vampire-like marks Lady Sylvia’s snake bites leave on her victim’s necks. Russell made major changes to the novella, but in a way that was more of a personalized distillation than a disrespectful dilution.

Besides cleaning up its loose ends and blatant character-based redundancies, Ken Russell improved The Lair of the White Worm by making it fun, memorable, and genuinely unnerving. Many movie adaptations of literary works are derided as lesser echoes of superior source material. Russell, by contrast, altered a near-forgotten work for the better. As Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm was never considered to be an especially well-written or even well-conceived literary work, the decades-late, culturally updated revision had to come from a genuinely enthusiastic place as a reader. Ken Russell was himself no stranger to critical consensus that his work was over the top, messy pulp and saw some of his own perverse passions in Stoker’s little-loved final novel. His adaptation may have been more dedicated to bringing out those auteurist similarities between their two minds than it was to faithfully mimicking Stoker’s work, but given the lowly place where the novel started that’s something of an honor.

-CC Chapman

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

I suscribe to the belief that British director Ken Russell was one of the most underappreciated madmen in all of trash cinema. Titles like The Devils, Crimes of Passion, and Altered States stand as immaculate works of over-the-top shock value provocation. Russell filtered the seedier sex & violence of schlocky genre films through the meticulous aesthetic of art house cinema. He operated as a kind of bad taste prankster who knew deep in his bones how to appeal to a more refined audience, but gleefully indulged in cartoonish violence & sexual humor instead. It’s difficult to say exactly which Ken Russell film would be the perfect introduction to his hyper-violent, oversexed, art house pranksterism (Crimes of Passion is a personal favorite of mine, at least), but his 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm is as good of a place to start as any. The film operates as a kind of crash course in his pet obsessions as a crude auteur: hallucination, transgressive sex, religious blasphemy, lethal women, etc. It’s by no means his classiest or his most formally precise feature, but it covers a lot of ground on exposing audiences to what makes his work exciting & worthy of reappraisal, while still making no excuses for how cheap & ludicrously ill-considered his personal brand of provocative trash-art cinema could be.

Russell admittedly plays loose with the plot details of Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm novel, reducing its atmospheric (and by all accounts incoherent) horrors into an erotic farce about reptilian vampires. He still shows more respect than that pulpy source material likely deserves, however, as it was written late in Stoker’s life when his mental facilities were fading and included many strange bouts of Dracula-rehashing & racial philosophizing Russell smartly excised. One major difference between the book & the movie is the choice of when to reveal the true nature of the villain. Stoker saves the revelation that the conniving female royal of his novel is actually a shapeshifting snake (“worm” is kind of a misnomer) until very late into the proceeding. Russell, however, wastes no time. Actor Amanda Donohoe’s shapeshifting reptile villain is costumed to look like a bipedal cobra in the film; she wears hoods, scarves, and cowls that immediately make her appear snakelike in her cold, ultra-modernist rural England mansion. She makes no real attempt to hide her reptilian nature from potential victims either: she steals a giant dragon-like snake skull discovered in the first scene for an occultist ritual; she invites visitors to her home to play a Snakes & Ladders board game; she boasts of going “snake watching” in the woods. Long before she reveals her comically oversized vampire fangs & spits hallucination-inducing venom, the audience is well aware that she’s some kind of humanoid “worm.” Russell spends no more time covering up that his villain is a monster than Todd Browning did in his Dracula adaptation. As soon as you see her, you know. The mystery, then, is what sexual, sacrilegious terrors she’s planning to exact on her villains.

Hugh Grant appears as a kind of Van Helsing archetype destined to defeat this reptilian sex villain as part of his family heritage. Peter Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg, and Sammi Davis round out the cast, partly to maintain Stoker’s original story structure and partly to diversify Donohoe’s victims. Donohoe slithers around in high class dominatrix gear, sexually teasing & occasionally draining the blood of the entire crew and any horny teen boys who happen to wander into her lair. She flicks her tongue before lunging in for a kiss, like a snake surveying its prey. She spits a hallucinatory venom that triggers trippy, sacrilegious imagery pulled directly from previous works Altered States & The Devils. She occasionally transforms into a giant, Falkor-like snake puppet that recalls an especially demonic creation from Sid & Marty Croft. All of this torment & mayhem culminates in a demonic sex ritual that involves a deadly strap-on phallus and a bottomless pit where Donohoe feeds her almighty worm beast. The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).

Loving Ken Russell means disregarding any & all personal desire for subtlety. Very early on in The Lair of the White Worm Donohoe sensually sucks snake venom out of a hobbled cop’s leg while a cheese-coated saxophone wails on the soundtrack, matching the already porn-level acting of the film’s brayed line readings. In that moment, we know the nature & intent of the villain, the film’s disregard for coming across as erotica, and the exact tone of absurdist humor & violence Russell intends to amuse himself with. All three of those elements are only heightened & dragged further away from subtlety from there. The Lair of the White Worm may not be the director’s most carefully constructed or well-considered work, but it’s pure Ken Russell, something to be cherished by trash-gobblers & cinephiles alike.

-Brandon Ledet