Riot Girls (2019)

After Satanic Panic & Porno, Riot Girls is the third cheap-o genre film I’ve seen this year with confoundingly strong word of mouth despite its modest payoffs, likely due to its creator’s accumulated goodwill from years of work in the horror industry. A recent episode of Switchblade Sisters detailed director Jovanka Vuckovic’s professional background as the editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine – a beloved Canadian horror publication. On paper, the film she was promoting—Riot Girls—sounded like a revolutionary kick to the industry’s balls from a genre film aficionado who knew exactly what pitfalls of cliché & tedium to avoid or subvert in her debut as a filmmaker. In practice, the results are more aggressively ordinary than revolutionary – a pattern I’ve noticed in straight-to-VOD genre novelties like this & Satanic Panic recently. However, Riot Girls’s ordinary, familiar tones counterintuitively worked in its favor in the long run, as the film ultimately recalls the landscape of daytime syndicated television in the 1990s – a very specific corner of trash media I can’t help but remember fondly.

This post-Apocalyptic thriller is set in an alternate 1995 where all adults die of a horrific epidemic known as “gut rot.” The young children & teenagers left behind, unaffected by the disease until they reach full maturity, attempt to maintain a semblance of societal structure after this cataclysmic event. Maintaining the wealth disparity of the generations that preceded them to a petty, increasingly meaningless degree, the kids of Small Town, USA split their city into two warring halves: The Rich Side & The Poor Side. The rich run their government like a high school principle’s office while the poor dress like mid-90s mall punks who just discovered their first Bad Religion record. It’s letterman jackets vs. Elmer’s glue mohawks as the rich kids take the poor kids’ leader hostage on the wrong side of the border. A small crew of mall punk misfits (including a central lesbian couple) break in to free their bud, literalizing a class warfare that had been bubbling under the surface since long before their parents all mysteriously died.

There’s a whole lot to complain about here. The movie peaks early with an L7 needle drop and a stylish info-dump prologue designed to look like a hip 90s Fantagraphics comic. The eighty minutes of hostage-heist rescue missions that follow are astoundingly inert, no matter how many studded leather jackets or power chord guitar riffs decorate it. The worst part is that the title has little, if anything to do with the onscreen action; there are two female leads who might qualify for the “riot girl” distinction, but for the most part the movie is far too well-behaved & testosterone-addled for the title to mean much of anything. It does at least gesture to the production’s 90s setting & sensibility, but ultimately the movie isn’t feminist nor punk enough to earn that title. There’s barely a riot here and only a couple of girls around to start one, which is a shame, since the title & post-Hernandez Brothers poster art promise something very specific that cannot be delivered under those circumstances.

Fortunately, there is a media category where this That’s So 90s sensibility & mall punk posturing feels right at home: the vintage daytime syndication TV show. Riot Girls’s unrushed tempo, kids-against-the-world premise, and post-aPunkalyptic costuming recall 90s shows like The Tribe, Ocean Girl, and Animorphs. Except now those sub-Xena disposables are beefed up with blood & cusses (and the threat of sexual assault for some unwelcome lagniappe). It’s a little easier to forgive the film for its dramatic flaws & lack of urgency once you allow it to mentally transport you back to those simpler times. Don’t look to Riot Girls to kick in your teeth with a Punk Rock Kids Apocalypse; former Movie of the Month selection Class of 1999 might be your better option there. Rather, allow it to dial the clock back to when you would casually drain away entire Saturdays watching nonsense trash like Beastmaster, Highlander, and Baywatch Nights in a passive trance – drooling cereal-flavored saliva onto your Power Rangers pajamas. Every now & then a flash of gore or an onscreen bong rip will break that trance, but for the most part it comfortably fits in that exact milieu.

-Brandon Ledet

Kuso (2017)

How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. The film swirling around that moment is packed with kinky sex involving hideous boils, plucked chickens that swim like fish, faces smeared in semen & shit, and psychedelic mixed media collage art depicting entire galaxies of tits & leaking anuses. It’s almost as if the script were written by SNL’s Stefon on an especially gnarly robo-trip. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with the internet. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show. As George Clinton’s puking mutant ass-roach indicates, this film is decidedly Not For Everyone, but I was personally amused.

The secret to what makes the frantic energy of Adult Swim staples like Tim & Eric and The Eric Andre Show even endurable is that episodes typically last only ten minutes at a time instead of comedy television’s half hour standard. Stretching out that same mania to a 90min feature has been a struggle for past attempts like Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, which are brilliantly entertaining in spurts, but tend to push attention spans to the limit at full length. Kuso is smart to break down its psychedelic freak show into a series of interconnected vignettes to preempt this audience fatigue, adopting the Everything Is Connected horror anthology formula of Southbound or Trick ‘r Treat. Set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles after a cataclysmic earthquake, the film details the sordid lives of the mutated survivors, who all sport hideous boils as trophies for their perseverance. This narrative is laid out by an opening freak-jazz spoken word performance from backpack rapper Busdriver, threatening to deliver a La La Land of the Damned style musical. The stories within that structure are populated by familiar comedic faces of the Adult Swim era: Anders Holm as a shit-sniffing school teacher, Tim Heidecker as a toilet-dwelling date rapist, Hannibal Burress as a transdimensional pothead monster. Like with Pink Flamingos, their individual stories are go-nowhere pranks that don’t amount to much more than the shock of seeing a nude Heidecker hump a lump of flesh that resembles the gaming consoles from eXistenZ or two young lovers share a semen-slathered kiss. However, the audacity & the consistency of tone within its overall sense of post-apocalyptic world-building amounts to something remarkable, if not just remarkably grotesque.

One major aspect of Kuso that’s likely to get overlooked in discussions of its more scatological interests is how refreshing it is that the film is conspicuously black. The grandnephew of John Coltrane and himself a producer of hip-hop beats, Ellison sets the rhythm of this psychedelic freak fest both to the frantic energy of improvisational jazz and to the laid-back stoner vibes of modern laptop rap. Although viewers may be horrified by the image of what crawls out of his ass, George Clinton is perfectly at home within this universe, bridging the gap between those two aesthetics & serving as the patron saint of Kuso‘s particular brand of psychedelic blackness. That perspective is always underrepresented on the horror landscape, but it’s even more rare with this subgenre of extreme, gross-out horror. Ellison maintains a great sense of humor throughout the work as well. In one scene Burress’s transdimensional pot beast responds to the criticism, “This is garbage,” with a flippant “Eat ass, this is art.” He has a point, too. The intricate collage animation & grotesque puppetry that support Kuso‘s freak show delicacies with a solid visual foundation suggest a kind of grand ambition that far outweighs any problems with pacing or flat comedic bits. Kuso feels like a 2010s echo of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in that way; it’s maybe not entirely successful, but it’s incredibly ambitious in the way it reaches to forge new art forms out of unapologetically black modes of expression.

If you’re only going to watch one transcendent gross-out horror this year, I still say make it the far more successful We Are the Flesh. Kuso‘s worth giving shot as an uglier, goofier follow-up, however, especially if the first sentence of this review hasn’t already sent you running. Luckily, for your disgust & convenience, both titles are currently streaming on Shudder.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are the Flesh (2017)

As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.

While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.

Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.

I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.

I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

These Final Hours (2015)

three star

Although I can’t name a film that tells the exact story of These Final Hours, it still feels like overly familiar territory all the same. A post-apocalyptic road trip story in which a grown man befriends a small child, These Final Hours is somewhat lacking on originality or something significant to say, but it’s still a pleasant viewing experience even if it’s not an urgent or essential one. The movie’s central message seems to be that familial bonds & compassion for fellow human beings are more important than cocaine & orgies, which is an admirable sentiment, although a rather obvious one.  As the protagonist James goes through his own self-discovery that drugs & casual sex aren’t the most significant facets of his life, you want to give him a sympathetic pat on the back, but it’s also tempting to let out a frustrated “Well duh, ya goof.”

It’s hard to blame James for having is priorities backwards considering the social atmosphere he’s operating in. The title These Final Hours is quite literal. The film depicts the Earth (or at least just the city of Perth) in its final hours as a world-ending heat wave (again, quite literal) threatens to end its very existence. There’s no real solution to this problem except in how to spend your final hours alive. James’ solution is to have sweaty sex, drink to excess, and indulge in ungodly amounts of cocaine. He even leaves behind a lover in search of a massive party where he can do all three at the same time on a much larger scale. As he puts it, “It’s going to hurt and I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to feel a thing. I just want to get fucked up.” Hey, there are honestly worse ways he can spend his time, as evidenced by the rampant suicide and machete-wielding homicidal maniacs that create a violent obstacle course for him to cross on the way to the party. The more James struggles to reach his destination the more empty his goals seem, something that becomes less lost on him as he befriends a little girl who wants to spend her own final hours at her family’s side.

Although Jimmy’s choice between drugs & family seems like an obvious one for the audience, it earns him the moniker of “killjoy” among his friends, who are going through some kind of hedonistic hybrid of Burning Man & MTV Spring Break in the late 90s. The frothing at the mouth criminals (who are reminiscent of the violent hellscapes of Mad MaxDeath Wish, and Miss Meadows) killing themselves & each other in the streets are doing even worse. James is a mostly likeable dude in comparison to the decrepit world that surrounds him, but his spiritual journey is far from profound. Understandably the movie works much in the same way: it’s good, but not great; entertaining, but not life-changing. I would be down to watch it a second time, but in no particular rush to recommend it to others. In comparison to how agressively awful other movies in its post-apocalyptic genre can be, that’s far from the worst fate.

-Brandon Ledet