The Devil Conspiracy (2023)

We cover many flavors of schlock on this blog, but we tend to ignore one of the most popular, profitable sources of schlock around: “faith-based” Christian propaganda.  Outside a one-off podcast episode where we dipped our collective toe into the frigid waters of Evangelical schlock (covering God’s Not Dead & The Shack) and Boomer’s long-dormant Late Great Planet Mirth series covering the Evangelical Rapture films of decades past, we haven’t dealt much with the cheap-o Christian propaganda that pads out new release schedules at every suburban multiplex, despite it indulging the same market-based opportunism as genres we do love, like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.  That’s mostly because modern “faith-based” media preaches only to the choir, echoing predetermined conclusions that its target audience already righteously agrees with: God is real, abortion is evil, and anyone who disagrees is an agent of Satan.  It’s hard to have fun with even the silliest of B-movies when their messaging is that sourly cruel & misanthropic.  If anything, the micro-industry of “faith-based” propaganda has made it explicitly clear that it doesn’t want heathens like us in the audience.  It doesn’t want us alive & free to walk about in public at all, a sentiment it’s more than willing to voice through fascist mouthpieces like Kevin Sorbo & Kirk Cameron into the nearest, loudest megaphone.  That’s why it’s so weird that I found myself watching, reviewing, and—against all odds—enjoying the faith-based propaganda piece The Devil Conspiracy.  Like God’s Not Dead before it, it’s a despicable film that asserts in every line-reading & plot beat that God is real, abortion is evil, and anyone who disagrees is an agent of Satan.  Unlike God’s Not Dead, however, it’s also a fun, silly little romp and a good time at the movies.

The Devil Conspiracy represents a new evolution in “faith-based” Christian propaganda, borrowing the visual language of action-fantasy superhero epics to sweeten the bitter, hateful messaging at the genre’s core.  It brings me no pleasure to admit that the gamble mostly works, which is evident in how little enthusiasm actual Catholics & Evangelicals appear to have for it.  My (admittedly light) internet research attempting to gauge the film’s cultural impact revealed very little since it snuck into wide distribution this January, except a few articles detailing small Catholic protests decrying the movie as “blasphemous.”  This is surprising on both sides of the Christian-heathen coin.  You’d think that religious groups would embrace the film as cultural outreach, Trojan Horsing the same anti-Satan, anti-abortion rhetoric that’s usually reserved for bland message pieces “starring” Kelsey Grammer into a thrilling action film comparable to (the Thor: The Dark World era of) The MCU.  You’d also think that schlock-hungry horror obsessives catching a glimpse of the word “Devil” in the title would’ve been drawn to its bonkers logline premise, of which I can do no better job marketing than to just copy & past in plain text: “The hottest biotech company in the world has discovered they can clone history’s most influential people from the dead.  Now, they are auctioning clones of Michelangelo, Galileo, Vivaldi, and others for tens of millions of dollars to the world’s ultra-rich.  But when they steal the Shroud of Turin and clone the DNA of Jesus, all hell breaks loose.”  The Devil Conspiracy may have achieved the widest gap between wild premise and mild purpose in the history of genre filmmaking.  It is the ultimate reactionary superhero film, approximating what it might be like if Zack Snyder remade End of Days for Pure Flix Entertainment.  The result apparently baffles everyone and pleases almost no one, except the few freaks who find the novelty of R-rated Christian superhero propaganda inherently fascinating (i.e., me).

It might surprise you to learn that the plot to clone Jesus from his mythical DNA remnants on the Shroud of Turin isn’t a ploy to jumpstart his Second Coming.  Because the world is so overrun with abortion-happy Satanists, Jesus’s DNA is instead perverted to create a suitable host body for the in-the-flesh coming of Satan, who has been awaiting his opportunity to reign on Earth since he initially rebelled.  Satan’s poor mother-to-be is an unsuspecting, unmarried academic who values science over religion, to her own peril.  After losing a few God’s Not Dead-style theological “debates” with enlightened clergymen, she’s kidnapped by Satanists and, in the film’s most hellish sequence, forcibly impregnated in a laboratory with the Jesus/Satan hybrid child, which essentially transforms her into a demonic hellbeast with a baby bump.  It’s up to the archangel Michael and his magical sword to save her soul and save humanity before the Satan-Christ can be born in the flesh, which mostly amounts to him fighting off a few robed cultists in industrial hallways.  It’s not easy staging a blockbuster superhero epic on the leftover sets & budget of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, but The Devil Conspiracy does a decent job of wringing its batshit premise for all its worth.  There’s something about its scrappy brand of demon-slaying, Satanist-decapitating action-horror that helps its despicable messaging that “Science has given The Devil his way out of Hell” go down a lot smoother than it would’ve coming out of Kevin Sorbo’s equally horrific mouth, despite my better judgement.  As soon as the superheroic prologue where Lucifer falls from “Heaven” (outer space) to Hell (the Earth’s core) and growls to Michael that it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” there’s no appropriate response to its incendiary, Biblically metal imagery other than “This is badass.”

I should be clear here: I’m glad The Devil Conspiracy failed.  Ideologically, I am opposed to everything it has to say about humanity & spiritualism.  Formally, I think it hits the exact same numbing dips in novelty & momentum that most secular, crowd-pleasing superhero epics suffer.  Still, there was a lot of perverse fun in watching one of these hateful propaganda pieces aim its weapons just outside its usual target demographic, seeking not just to preach but also to entertain.  In a different, worse world where it became a breakout success, I’d hate seeing its army of imitators emerge from the bowels of Heaven to smite my heathen ass.  As an anomalous, R-rated Christian propaganda film loved by no one, it’s got its scrappy, schlocky charms.  May I never be tempted by one of these evil, hateful sermons again, no matter how spectacularly silly.

-Brandon Ledet

Together Together (2021)

The pre-packaged media narrative about what makes Together Together special is that it’s a mainstream comedy that cast a trans actress as a cisgender, pregnant woman.  That’s true enough, but what really makes the film incredible is that the actress in question is Patti Harrison, who’s just about the last comedian on the planet you’d expect in a mainstream role of any kind.  Harrison’s comedy is confrontational, absurd, and explosively funny.  Together Together is none of those things.  This is a very Sundancey comedy about two lonely people establishing an unlikely friendship in an intensely awkward scenario.  Harrison is cast opposite Ed Helms as her co-lead – a bland, safe, everyman comedian whose defining quality is that you always kinda wish he was Jason Sudeikis instead.  She’s asked to be earnest, muted, and vulnerably awkward, and she does so ably . . . but that’s not what you think of as Her Thing.  This is not at all the movie you’d expect from a comedian who says things like, “[I] feel very caged by [a lot of well-meaning social media liberals] who claim to be pro-my-autonomy. You’re pro-my-autonomy until it comes to my work, and then you can’t accept the fact that I love to joke about fucking dogs.” It’s extremely cool to see her land such a high-profile gig—complete with promotional interviews on NPR  (home base for well-meaning social media liberals) about the film’s cultural importance—but it’s also a little bit of a bummer that she couldn’t be more herself in that spotlight.

I don’t want to be too hard on Together Together.  It’s cute.  Twenty years ago, this soft-pedaled quirky comedy about an upper-middle age, upper-middle class tech bro (Helms) forming an unlikely bond with the twentysomething barista he’s paying to be his child’s surrogate mother (Harrison) almost certainly would’ve been a romcom, with the two leads falling for each other across generational and class divides.  Instead, they establish a low-key platonic friendship, which is much trickier to navigate but a lot less icky.  It’s mostly a film about boundaries.  Their employer-surrogate relationship is contractually defined by legal & therapeutic boundaries that are set in ink & stone, but once they start finding comfort & pleasure in each other’s company, those lines are hopelessly blurred.  They’re two deeply lonely people who very much need each other but don’t know how to express that need without violating the terms of their firmly established legal, financial dynamic.  The movie quickly establishes this uneasy rapport in an opening interview where the barista is hired for the surrogate mother job, then it gently tracks their friendship’s rocky development across the pregnancy’s three trimester-chapters.  It’s all very cute and charming and has no business being Rated R.

Even if another performer replaced Patti Harrison in the starring role, there’d still be something perverse about the way this movie assembles so many aggressively strange comedians for something so deliberately toothless.  Jo Firestone, Anna Konkle, and Tig Notaro are very funny people, so why are they given so little room to make jokes?  Julio Torres is the only comedian who’s fully set loose to be Funny here as Harrison’s spaced-out weirdo co-worker, while everyone else is mostly just asked to be awkwardly sweet.  Still, it was nice to see so many talented performers in one spot.  Hopefully it’ll be the kind of word-of-mouth charmer that’ll gradually make Patti Harrison a big enough name that she can star in a comedy molded closer to her own delightfully fucked up tastes.  She deserves it.  For now, this is decent enough as lazy-afternoon comfort viewing.  It feels condescending to label a movie “cute” and “nice”, but there really no other words for what Together Together offers.  I’m just a little confused why so many outrageously funny people had to be assembled to accomplish that.

-Brandon Ledet

Not Wanted (1949)

For the first production under the company she formed with then-husband Collier Strong—The Filmmakers—Ida Lupino hired dependable B-movie workman Elmer Clifton to direct. A few days into shooting, Clifton suffered a heart attack, and Lupino stepped in to direct the film herself, uncredited for decades. Not Wanted is not the strongest film under Lupino’s guiding hand. Judging by the four titles in Kino Lorber’s recent Ida Lupino boxset (alongside The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist, and Never Fear), it may in fact be the weakest. Lupino felt much more personally engaged with the themes of her first credited directorial work to follow, Never Fear, than she does in Not Wanted, and her skills as a visual stylist & commander of tension only grew from there. Still, Not Wanted is a solidly staged, thoughtfully empathetic melodrama that proves Lupino had immense talent as a director from the very beginning, suggesting that hiring company men to handle direction duties for The Filmmakers pictures was mostly a formality. She was always going to be the one in control.

In Not Wanted, an unwed teenage mother fails at making her own way in the big city after running away from home. We meet her in her darkest hour. In the opening scene, she’s arrested for snatching a stranger’s baby from its pram while aimlessly wandering city streets. Once imprisoned, she practically turns to the audience from her jail cell to announce “You’re probably wondering how I got here . . .” The rest of the film plays out in flashback, detailing the young woman’s confused romantic life caught between a tragically hip jazz pianist who doesn’t care about her as much as he pretends to and a dorky miniature trains enthusiast who’s willing to devote his entire life to her – even accepting that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. As her inevitable imprisonment suggests, this scenario does not end well. An opening title card explains that this is “a story told 100,000 times each year,” a kind of cautionary tale about how cruel life can be for young, unwed mothers. The resulting story follows a moralistic road-to-ruin template, except it sympathizes with the main character instead of trying to shame her, wagging its finger more in the direction of the social failings (mostly exploitative men & morally righteous parents) that leave her vulnerably alone in a cold, uncaring world.

Lupino sometimes reaches for surprisingly surreal moments here – particularly in the sequence where the young mother gives birth, represented in a woozy first-person POV. For the most part, though, the film builds a lot of its payoffs around the tensions & emotions of its central melodrama, allowing breathing room for Sally Forrest to make an actor’s showcase out of the lead role. That’s not especially shocking considering that Lupino started her career as an actor herself, and only formed The Filmmakers because she felt bored & underutilized while on-set watching directors run the show. Lupino eventually made a dozen feature films under the Filmmakers brand, with a major hand in writing, producing, or directing in any capacity she could get away with. Of the few I’ve seen, Not Wanted was the least exceptional in its visual artistry or its boundary-pushing moral stances (at least by today’s standards; the sympathetic portrayal of an “unwed mother” did spark minor controversy in its time). It was still wonderful to feel Lupino get excited about the craft of filmmaking from behind the camera, though, especially for a production that had to change course so soon into its shoot. It feels like she was not just willing to spring into action to save the picture, but rather that it was the only thing she wanted in life.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #69 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pregnant Men & Little Otik (2000)

Welcome to Episode #69 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-ninth episode (nice!), Brandon & Britnee discuss everyone’s favorite aspect of sex: pregnancy & giving birth. They review a trio of comedies from the 70s & 90s about pregnant men; also Britnee makes Brandon watch the surreal Czech fairy tale horror Little Otik (2000), about a couple who “gives birth” to a flesh-eating tree root. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Tully (2018)

Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.

Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.

Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Manners (2018)

A long, winding picture that’s shy to reveal its basic genre or intent to its audience, Good Manners is a strange, unexpected beast. It would be near impossible to define the film in terms of an overarching theme (outside the undercurrents of class & gender politics that flow throughout), since its two halves are clearly bifurcated in both tone & genre. It would also be reductive to frame Good Manners as a monster movie I caught at a horror film festival, as that context did little to set expectations for the patient, sincerely dramatic rhythms of a story that sprawls & shifts in mood as it explores the logical consequences of an illogical crisis. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. Minute to minute, Good Manners discovers its dramatic rewards in the emotional beats of a dark fairy tale that follows its own inherent progression instead of the command of a central metaphor. As a whole, it offers the welcome novelty of centuries-old, long-familiar stories about monstrous transformations recontextualized in a new, unpredictable package. That alone is a commendable achievement.

A financially strapped black woman takes on a position as a live-in nurse at the edge of São Paulo, Brazil. Recalling the economic power disparity in the art cinema classic Black Girl, she finds herself helplessly subordinate to her white, wealthy, pregnant employer’s whims as her nanny position expands to include cooking, cleaning, and emotional labor duties that far exceed her original job description. However, the power dynamic shifts drastically when the employer’s pregnancy brings on strange, unexplained stomach pangs and violent sleepwalking episodes. Her cravings for raw meat also push the pregnancy into menacing, supernatural territory, with only the nanny at hand to take the abnormalities seriously. This vulnerability lands the pair on more equal, even amorous footing as the dread of the approaching birth threatens to upend their little remaining stability. Eventually, the pregnancy-themed body horror of the first half reaches its inevitable, fever pitch climax. Halfway into the runtime, Good Manners outs itself as a lowkey monster movie with fairy tale rhythms to its narrative, only for the timeline to then jump seven years into the future to further explore the consequences of that disruption. The second half of the film is a sad, anxious echo of the first, with its own conflicted relationships & inevitable consequences building to a secondary, unavoidable monster movie climax.

It feels odd to tiptoe around the reveal of the central monster’s nature in the film, since it’s telegraphed to the audience long before it arrives onscreen or its name is spoken. There’s too much horror lore in the canon for the significance of the moon cycle or an ultrasound technician remarking what big eyes, mouth, and hands the unborn baby has to go unnoticed. The patience of the reveal is almost a sly joke, as the movie delivers the exact monster you expect, just in a different form than how you’re used to seeing it. Depicted through both CG & practical puppetry (when not restlessly shifting inside a pregnant belly), the monster in question is an adolescent beast—dangerous, but in need of parental care. The movie isn’t shy about delivering typical creature feature goods in later scenes set in traditional horror movie locales (like an after-hours shopping mall), but it mostly evokes a post-del Toro fairy tale take on adolescent monster narratives like The Girl with All the Gifts or Let the Right One In. It’s a film about motherhood & unconventional families first and a monster movie second, a declaration of priorities made explicitly clear by how long it takes for the monster to even appear.

Good Manners is distinctive in ways that stretch far beyond its narrative patience & temporal sprawl. Animated flashbacks, operatic musical tangents, and the visual precision of a Canadá music video push its take on the creature feature into totally unexpected territory that transcends any of its telegraphed genre tropes. On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Junior (1994)

There’s no question that in the very limited subgenre of Ivan Reitman comedies where Arnold Schwarzenegger is teamed with Danny DeVito in a mismatched comedy duo, Twins is the crown jewel. Where does that leave its only competition, though? Much like how Twins finds it endlessly hilarious that Schwarzenegger is large & DeVito is small, the follow-up to that pairing, Junior, is tickled by the idea of the smaller actor getting the larger one pregnant. That’s not an idea that necessarily generates brilliant comedy on a joke to joke basis, but it does lead to very pressing questions like How?, Why?, and Wait What? that could never be fully answered by a single motion picture. Reitman & company were so amused by the idea of a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger that they never stopped to consider the reasoning or the implications behind the unholy creation, leading to an oddly tame studio comedy with an absurdly bizarre basic premise that’s made all the more jarring by the fact that it’s not fully explored. Twins is the funnier, more successful Schwarzenegger/DeVito comedy in Reitman’s catalog, but Junior is clearly the strangest.

Schwarzenegger begins Junior as a caricature of a meat-head supernerd near-identical to the one he played in Twins. The only difference is that this nerd is uptight, a cynical academic who’s nervous around the children & social obligations he encounters through his career in fertility research. As his foil, DeVito is also similar to the chauvanistic snake oil salesman he plays in Twins, except this time he works in the field of gynecology. In the name of saving their collaborative research project from having its university funding pulled (or some other such contrivance), the two goofs make the rash decision to experiment on themselves to prove their very sciency science serum is effective in increasing fertility. This leads to Arnold being impregnated with an egg stolen from a fellow researcher’s (and eventual love interest’s) competing project, fertilized by his own sperm. Their experiment is never supposed to continue past the first trimester, but Schwarzenegger’s shifting hormones convince him to carry the child full-time, against all logic & good taste. We watch in amusement/horror as pregnancy slowly opens his cold, dead heart to life’s simple joys and he finds true love with the researcher (a befuddled, Nutty Professor-mode Emma Thompson) whose egg he hijacked without consent. It’s all very conventional in a textbook romcom sense, except for the obvious deviation from that model in having the film’s emotional work carried on the back of a male, pregnant bodybuilder.

The strangest aspect of Junior is not the presence of a visibly pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the general absence of traditional jokes. Besides the absurdity of its premise and a couple stray jabs of gay panic humor, the film does little to reach for moments of over the top comedy. What’s left, then, is the uneasy feeling of watching DeVito & Schwarzenegger gestate a baby, which feels subversively bizarre only in the way it’s mostly played straight. DeVito compliments Schwarzenegger’s sperm in a flat, matter of fact tone, remarking “Strong swimmers. Big load. Way to go.” He penetrates Schwarzenegger’s abdominal wall to impregnate him with a giant needle, with little attention paid to how he will carry a baby without the help of a womb or umbilical cord. Schwarzenegger’s struggles with morning sickness, nipple soreness, and hormone-induced horniness are only amusing because of the physical presence of the actor conveying them. Besides a third act drag routine at an expectant mothers’ retreat or his action movie one-liner delivery of “My body, my choice,” there aren’t many comedic touches to his presence in the film. In fact, in a nightmare sequence where his face is superimposed over a screaming baby’s, a brief moment of mid-90s CGI, he can even be outright terrifying.

Junior‘s one joke begins & ends with its basic premise: Danny DeVito gets Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant. There’s something perverse about playing that premise straight instead of reaching for a laugh-a-minute giggle fest, but the fact of the matter is that the film’s main attraction is the absurdity of its own existence. If you want to see DeVito & Schwarzenegger bounce off one another as a top of their game comedy duo, watch Twins. Junior should be reserved for when you want something other than humor: unease, confusion, and (in the case of the CG Arnold baby) horror. The film feels like Reitman somehow got away with a longform prank on pop culture at large. I’m sure he was tickled with the results, but he rest of us can hope to muster stunned awe.

-Brandon Ledet

Prevenge (2017)

Actress Alice Lowe is best known as a feature player in Edgar Wright productions like Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Her debut feature as a writer and director is notable not only for bringing that Edgar Wright-friendly sense of humor into the realm of a high-concept slasher, but for also being a Herculean feat of physicality & filmmaking efficiency. Lowe directs and stars in Prevenge herself while seven months pregnant, filming all of the project’s principal photography in just eleven days. I’d usually find that kind of microbudget production efficiency impressive in a Roger Corman kind of way no matter what, but Lowe’s very visible late-pregnancy state and dual roles on either side of the camera raises the bar on that already inherent filmmaking badassery. Lowe’s real life pregnancy also affords Prevenge an amusing sense of authenticity you don’t typically see in high concept horror comedies. Pregnancy anxiety drives a lot of the humor and the terror at work in Prevenge and there’s something transgressive about Lowe’s pouring so much of herself into that central driving force, especially once it accumulates a body count.

Lowe stars as a single mother who murders total strangers at the command of the voice in her head, a high-pitched, cartoony presence that seems to be broadcasting from the fetus growing inside her. As a tag team, the mother & her unborn, bloodthirsty daughter initially seem to be on a vigilante mission against modern culture, like in the Katie Holmes comedy Miss Meadows or the excellent psychological horror Felt. The mother slits the throats of the creepy men who hit on her and the women who systematically keep her down (including a heartless business executive played by The Witch‘s Kate Dickie) in what appears to acts of moral vigilantism. The familial pair of killers aren’t choosing their victims at random, however, and the source of the perceived wrong they strive to correct through bloodshed (almost always by knife) is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks. This sets up two parallel races against the clock that might prevent their revenge mission from being fulfilled: the impending birth of the child and the possibility of someone discovering the connection between the victims before they’re all disposed of.

Prevenge is strongest in its first act, when it takes satirical aim at the ways we discuss the nature of pregnancy. When doctors assure the pregnant mother/ruthless killer, “Baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you what to do,” it’s doubtful they mean that a literal voice will come from the fetus with demands to stab strangers to death in their own living rooms. There’s some real-life tension seated in that dynamic too, which includes lines like, “It’s like the baby’s driving and I’m just the vehicle.” Prevenge can feel delightfully transgressive in these moments, but once it pulls away from natal care satire and settles more into a traditional slasher formula, its tone begins to soften, meander, and fade. The mystery of the absent father and the connection between the seemingly unrelated victims isn’t nearly as interesting as the more pointed critiques lobbed against the ways modern medicine treats pregnancy as well as legitimate anxieties over forfeiting your mind and body to the wants and needs of a new being growing inside you, possibly with murderous intent.

As a filmmaker, Alice Lowe shows immense promise here. There’s great specificity in the imagery of her various set pieces, from the reptile predators of a pet shop to a sparsely attended disco night at a dive bar to the fancy dress costumes of a Halloween party. Her screenplay is wickedly funny in its best moments as well, like when the foul-mouthed fetus comments on her mother’s nextdoor neighbors loudly fucking, “Listen, Mommy! That’s how I was made,” or when Kate Dickie’s heartless business executive explains, “We’ve had to make some really harsh cuts. It’s a cutthroat world.” She also, smartly, refuses to turn away from the brutality of her staged mother-daughter kills, making for a very bloody version of a modern horror comedy. I do think Prevenge loses some focus once it shifts from satirical pregnancy horror to psychological murder mystery, but I was mostly impressed here by how Lowe pulled off such a successfully slick, icily funny picture on such a miniscule budget and so late in her own pregnancy. She managed to make a no-budget horror comedy into a strikingly personal, visually memorable work, which is no small feat for a first time filmmaker.

-Brandon Ledet

Antibirth (2016)


I don’t want to say that I’m the only fan of last year’s online-bullying slasher #horror (not only would it be a little presumptuous, I also know James enjoyed it when I made him watch it for the podcast), but I do assume I’m among a very precious few hopeless weirdos who got excited when the stars of that film, Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny, were reuniting a year later in another horror cheapie. Antibirth looked to be a repeat of the neo-psychedelia explored in their previous collaboration, a total freak-out of genre filmmaking done weird & done right. Sadly, I can’t say I was nearly as hot on Antibirth as I was in #horror. Where the Tara Subkoff film felt effortlessly strange & unnerving from beginning to end, Antibirth had to strain its resources to get itself there. The entire film feels like a pained effort to reach the unhinged intensity of its final moment, when that last minute development should have ideally been a launching point. If Antibirth were a plot for a television show it would’ve been a home run. As a standalone feature film, however, it feels like all wind-up & no pitch.

Lyonne stars as a metalhead stoner with a grimy crew of dirtbag friends, including a fellow shithead played by Sevigny. Between getting blackout drunk & chain-smoking bong rips to late night television, Lyonne’s unsuspecting, unremembering protagonist is drugged at a party & abducted for nefarious purposes. Thankfully, no onscreen sexual assault is included to spoil the mood, but Lyonne’s heavy metal wastoid does emerge from the haze of her bender to find herself pregnant. Although Antibirth does rely on pregnancy-specific modes of body horror – like the terrors of sore feet, puking, ultrasounds, and sore nipples – her struggle is conveyed as entirely supernatural. There’s a Cronenbergian element to her transformation from mind-numbed party girl to expectant mother that gets gradually, grotesquely bizarre before culminating in what’s possibly the most disgusting birth scene gore I’ve ever witnessed. The problem is that her horrific birthing trauma feels like the beginning to a story rather than an ending, which is especially disheartening considering that a lot of its lead up centered on the far less compelling antics of scumbags & dazed-out alien conspiracy theorists. If the ending of Antibirth were merely the ending of a more condensed first act, we might have something interesting here, something as bizarre as the movie seems to think it already is.

One thing Antibirth isn’t lacking is a sense of style. The film plays like a low octane reimagining of Rob Zombie taking on Death to Smoochie. Its overbearing grime, Cramps-style music cues, and knockoff Tonetta music videos (something I honestly never expected to see in a film) mixes with its Chuck E Cheese-inspired Teletubby/Sasquatch hybrids to make for a really interesting underground horror tone. There are also easily recognizable seeds of good stories in the film’s talk of extraterrestrial intuition (or “interdimensional street smarts”) and its basic idea of turning the myth that “every pregnancy is different” into its own disturbing tale of body horror. In an ideal world Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny would annually team up for a horror film just as weird & off-putting as Antibirth, maybe even a couple more with the same director (this is the debut effort of Danny Perez, who’s previously done visual collaborations with Animal Collective), but their previous outing together was far more successful. Here, I only see a few germs of good ideas without the proper follow through, emphasis heavily put on “germs”.

-Brandon Ledet