Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #83 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pledge (2019) & Good Torture Porn

Welcome to Episode #83 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-third episode, we ask the age-old question “Is there such a thing as good torture porn?” Brandon makes James watch the crowdfunded 2019 horror Pledge for the first time, then they discuss two artsy European films that offer an interesting take on the genre: Goodnight Mommy (2015) & Inside (2007). Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Pledge (2019)

I typically despise torture porn as a genre, as I’m sure most people do by now. You’d think that even the “torture porn” label itself would inherently be read as an insult, but there is certainly still an audience out there somewhere for the early-aughts onslaught of grimy, macho sadism with poorly aged nu-metal soundtracks, fluorescent lighting, and pitch-black emotional cruelty. The major thing that always kept me from joining those heartless gore hounds in their appreciation for the genre myself (besides its usual sickly-green color correction) is the way it treats its characters before they’re tortured. Most torture porn premises involve watching archetypes you’re goaded to hate as soon as they’re introduced get their comeuppance at the hands of a cruel sadist with a vaguely defined moral code the victims have supposedly violated. This dynamic is especially grotesque when the victims are scantily clad women with beautiful supermodel physiques (as they often are), adding a bonus layer of misogyny to what was already a grotesque affair. The recent Kickstarter-funded horror cheapie Pledge is a shockingly successful subversion of all these glaring faults in the traditional torture porn dynamic. Not only does the film sidestep the genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central torture porn victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking. On a more superficial level, Pledge also arrives as a welcome subversion of the torture porn genre by ditching the sickly green fluorescent aesthetic of the early aughts in favor of a more muted, realistic color palette. The result is much easier to look at & ingest than the genre’s typical fare, which only makes the cruelty on display more lingeringly effective.

Conceptually, there’s nothing especially fresh or novel about Pledge’s college campus rush-week-from-Hell premise. If anything, the film feels a few years late to the table, as the fraternity-rush torture porn gimmick was already tapped in higher profile arthouse projects like GOAT & Burning Sands. What makes the film exceptional is the extremity & specificity of its execution, not so much its themes or setting. Three hopeless, virginal nerds fail to gain acceptance into any of their college’s fraternities, as the gatekeeping bros therein instantly clock them as weirdo outsiders. Admittedly, the boys are sexually overeager & immature in a way that’s off-putting, even if true to life. They’re still not your typical torture porn victims, though, as (besides not being horned-up, half-naked women) they’re actually kind of charming in their ineffectual nerdiness. That’s why it’s tough to observe them being lured by women & liquor to apply as rushes to a creepy, isolated frat house with severe Society undertones. Once the pretense of the fraternity being legitimate is dropped, the film loses a lot of its more distinct character development touches in favor of increasingly cruel gore gags. By the time it slips into that full-blown torture marathon, however, we’re already attached to the poor little worms. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see them still express reluctance to quit pledging to the “frat” after they’re forcibly branded, fed rancid roadkill, whipped, and disfigured by rats, as if it’s all worthwhile for their only shot at a healthy social life. The movie makes broad gestures to characterize their tormenters as part of a larger, cultish conspiracy network of the well-connected elite, but what’s more important is those villains’ basic features as handsome, all-American bros. With quaffed bangs and names like Maxwell Peterson III, the villains of Pledge are wealthy trust fund brats with a sadistic streak and an infinitely wide safety net backing up their brutish behavior. The purpose of their cruelty isn’t nearly as important as the perversely gleeful ways they express it and how easily they get away with it.

Last year, the killer clown slasher Terrifier was a frustrating reminder of just how flawed yet interesting the torture porn template can be. That film represented the pros & cons of the genre in irreconcilable extremes: fantastic practical effects gore artistry & pointlessly cruel misogynist violence. Pledge fixed my problems with that film, keeping the impressive low-budget gore effects but finding a purposeful use for the violence with far less icky gender politics. Pledge isn’t perfect, of course. Its opening sequence unnecessarily hints at the upcoming violence in a way that lessens the surprise of its extremity; the back half gradually drops the fraternity hazing gimmick to become more of a generic slasher; the conspiracy network paranoia feels disappointingly undercooked; etc. For a crowdfunded horror cheapie in a genre I usually have no energy for, however, it’s a shockingly successful, impressively upsetting watch. I can’t say that it will change your mind on the torture porn genre if you’ve always found the prospect of it entirely meritless, but I do think it’s an exceptional example of its ilk – a nasty little picture that overcame my own genre biases to wrench out my admiration & disgust in equal measure.

-Brandon Ledet