Masked Mutilator (2019)

Masked Mutilator checks off a suspiciously high number of my personal-interest boxes for a project that seemingly materialized out of thin air. A no-budget backyard slasher cheapie about mid-90s pro wrestlers and late-2010s podcasting? I’m not sure I didn’t conjure this movie into existence in the middle of a powerful dream, since it’s essentially a jumbled collection of nouns that rattle around in my brain all day anyway. All that’s really missing is a few drag queens & a Xiu Xiu soundtrack. The truth is, though, that the film has been gestating for 25 long years before finally being completed in 2019, so its out-of-thin-air mystique is a total illusion. Initially filmed on 16mm in the mid-90s and eventually bookended with a digital-age frame story in the 2010s (thanks to crowdfunding via IndieGoGo), Masked Mutilator is a fairly typical backyard horror cheapie that’s only made worth discussion because it’s been dislodged from its place in time. There’s almost no way the movie would be half as fascinating if it weren’t for its bizarre multi-decade production “schedule,” and even then it’s not all that remarkable. This is basically Shirkers for Idiots (like me). There’s no denying it has a great hook in its premise and an interesting context as a recovered object, but it’s terminally inessential.

The modern digi-grade frame story involves, as all masterpieces of Le Cinéma do, a podcast recording. Survivors of a fictional 1990s tragedy guest on a true-crime podcast about “Group Home Killings,” recalling the hyper-specific talk radio program “Why Do Boys Kill Their Mothers?” in Psycho IV. This setup is a convenient contextualization of the 16mm footage to follow, which makes up a bulk of the slight 76min runtime. While the podcast conversation stokes gravely serious topics surrounding the abuse of vulnerable teens in group homes, it comes to little surprise that the no-budget slasher plot it’s setting up in flashbacks doesn’t explore these times with any genuine concern or curiosity. An ex-luchador who was blacklisted from his industry for killing an opponent in the ring resurfaces as an unlikely counselor in a group home for teens. His violent past makes him the prime suspect when the teens under his care are picked off one by one at the hands of a muscly killer who wears his old wrestling gear, with his luchador mask now functioning as an executioner’s hood. The mutilated teens are too generic to especially care about (defined by such personality traits as Heavy Metal, Nunchucks, and Horny). The gore is too cheap to be gruesome and too restrained to be fun (despite the film being an early credit for SFX television personality Glenn Hedrick). The identity of the true killer is embarrassingly obvious long before its reveal. The only remarkable aspect of the picture, then, is that it exists – which truly is a feat for any film, to be fair. Movies are hard to make, especially when you’re just hanging around the living room with your friends (as appears to be the case in this instance).

I likely would have been able to overlook the low-energy aimlessness of this doomed project if I had been familiar with the pro wrestlers involved in its production. Brick Bronksy, Jim “The Tank” Dorsey, and Doug Yasinsky weren’t anywhere near my radar despite their involvement with massive promotions like WWF in their heyday. Even so, I was still amused to see these gigantic muscly men crammed into the tiny kitchens & living rooms of this group home location. I also appreciated that the kills were somewhat wrestling-specific, as the luchador executioner character crushes & punches his teen victims to death with brute force (before chopping them up for the incinerator in the film’s sparse moments of genuine gore). With some recognizable pro wrestling personalities, some Matt Farley-level joke writing, and slightly more grotesque violence, this might have been an abandoned relic turned cult classic. Instead, it’s only recommendable for the more hopeless fans of pro wrestling & no-budget slashers, total goners (like myself) who’d have no self-control to avoid it based on the luchador-horror premise – if not going as far as having donated to its crowdfunding campaign to complete it in the fist place. I was never especially thrilled by this recovered artifact from minute to minute, but I still maintained a “Good for them!” attitude towards the filmmakers throughout for having finally completed it, especially since their niche interests apparently overlap so extensively with my own.

-Brandon Ledet

Cassandro, the Exótico! (2019)

It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I really started digging into the intricacies of pro wrestling & drag as artforms, and so it was immediately apparent as I studied them in tandem that they’re remarkably similar – to the point of functioning as two sides of the same gender performance coin. The pageantry, melodrama, glamour, caricature, and pantomimed exaggeration of gender traits shared between these two longstanding entertainment traditions is extensive, to the point where if you watch them both for long enough, pro wrestling and drag become indistinguishable. I used to naively believe that comparison to be a somewhat novel observation, but of course I was far from alone in noticing it. Recent drag & pro wrestling hybrids like the local performance art promotion Chokehole, the NYC podcast crew The Nobodies, the third season of Netflix’s GLOW, and the “WTF! Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters” episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race have all covered this territory far more thoroughly & thoughtfully than I ever could, but even they were far from the first drag-wrestling pioneers. Wrestlers like Goldust & Gorgeous George have been incorporating drag pageantry into their in-ring personae on American television for decades. Also, unsurprisingly, the Mexican luchador tradition has its own version of this crossover in its subset of flamboyant gay performers known as Los Exóticos. And to help solidify the exóticos’ place in the pronounced drag-wrestling overlap, there’s now a feature-length documentary profile of that scene’s biggest star, Cassandro, who’s been wrestling in full glam makeup since the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, Cassandro, the Exótico! isn’t especially interested in exploring this contextual, historical background of how its subject fits into these drag & wrestling traditions. Instead, the documentary profiles Cassandro as he is now in the late 2010s: worn down, mangled, and yet still enthusiastic to entertain anyone who’ll lay eyes on him. We follow “The Liberace of Lucha Libre” through the highs & lows of his late in-ring career: the high-flying flamboyant spectacle of his pro wrestling pageantry and the quiet, painful recovery from those abuses in the privacy of his sparse home in Juarez. The most historical insight you get into Cassandro’s prominent role in the exóticos tradition is in his occasional anecdotes about how he got recruited into the luchador business as a young man and his collection of still photographs from that heyday. The movie is more largely about Cassandro as he exists in the present. We get to watch his private vape pen & makeup routine as he glams up to kiss & destroy his more traditionally macho (and gay-panicked) opponents in the ring. We’re taken on an intimate tour of his gorgeous ring-gear wardrobe, which clashes drastically with his barebones home in the desert. Also, unavoidably, we’re weighed down by Cassandro’s exponential list of scars, surgeries, and gnarled body parts – the toll of the business for any long-term wrestler, whether or not they perform in drag. It would likely help tremendously to know Cassandro’s backstory before wandering into this swan song documentary on his final days as a performer (I know I personally benefited from hearing his lecture on los exóticos culture at Tulane University this past Mardi Gras), but this year-in-the-life portrait of a highly-specific person is still invaluable all the same.

There are some bold, glaring filmmaking choices from director Marie Losier that can distract from the built-in fascination of Cassandro’s over-the-top persona, and your appreciation of the film might depend on how well you can adjust to her methods. This is much more of a Pretentious French Art Film than a fluff documentary piece, with Losier often imposing her own presence onto a story that could likely do without it. She shoots Juarez and South Texas like the fantastic landscapes of an alien planet in a sci-fi film. Cassandro himself often comes across like a mystical, otherworldly creature in that abstraction, particularly in his private religious practices that mix Catholic & Native rituals with little distinction between them. I appreciate that she shot the documentary on actual celluloid, since its 16mm home movies aesthetic helps contextualize him as a kind of living historical figure whose drag-wrestling artistry deserves an eternal reverence. However, her wildly out-of-focus framing and harsh jump-cut editing style often feel like a filmmaker playing with a new toy instead of consciously serving the subject at hand. In another way, though, I can see why a story joining Cassandro this late in his career would be a little discombobulated and melancholy. The film becomes increasingly looser & less focused (visually & tonally) as Cassandro’s body degrades beyond repair in his final days in the ring before (what will hopefully be a permanent) retirement. It isn’t until Losier flashes back to the much sharper, more physically explosive performer Cassandro was just a couple years earlier at the start of the documentary that the full sad story of what we’ve lost as he reached his physical limit becomes clear. Even then, not all her creative indulgences can be justified as directly serving the text. Some of them clearly exist for their own sake, and it’s a distraction.

Thankfully, there’s already a more traditional, straightforward documentary the drag-wrestlers of lucha libre in the 2013 film Los Exóticos, which I look forward to catching up with to provide retroactive context for this picture. Still, as a standalone work, Cassandro, the Exótico! still satisfies as an intimate portrait of one of the most significant players at the intersection of drag & wrestling, a singular performer whose glory days are still distinctly visible in the rearview mirror. This blurry photograph of a documentary won’t be all the world has to remember him by (he’s still touring around as an entertainer & a public speaker, after all), so it’s okay that it mostly functions as a snapshot of his final, painful months in the ring (and a travelogue for Marie Losier).

-Brandon Ledet

The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012)

I was initially skeptical of the recent, Stephen-Merchant-directed biopic of WWE superstar Paige, Fighting with My Family, even as someone who’s greatly enjoyed following her pro wrestling career. WWE’s involvement in the production led me to expect the Dianetics-level propaganda of revisionist history & TV commercial production sheen the company always applies to their hagiographic retellings of their own lore, which is more or less true to the film’s aesthetic. There’s just something about the its Disney Channel Original energy that clashes wonderfully with Merchant’s sharp comedic wit and the working-class crassness of the wrestlers it profiles, though, that gives it a surprisingly effective, compelling tone. There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the way Merchant worked that R-rated Disney Channel Original tonal clash to the film’s advantage, but I might at least have been less skeptical that Paige’s life story was worthy of the biopic treatment if I had first seen the BBC documentary that inspired it. Produced as a one-hour special for Channel 4, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is a low-key, made-for-TV documentary that’s just as saturated with the tones and tropes of the post-MTV True Life reality TV doc as its later, fictionalized version is adherent to the safe commercial feel of WWE’s self-propaganda. In this instance, however, the story of Paige’s peculiar family dynamic and inspiring rise to power story is enough to make for a compelling picture against all aesthetic odds – just like in the biopic. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is not quite as great of an achievement as its fictionalized follow-up, but it is the foundational text for that work – both inspiring its title and being included in clips during its end credits sequence for texture. Most importantly, it makes abundantly clear how Paige’s early-career story is fascinating enough to justify two separate, surprisingly successful movies.

The daughter of two Northern English pro wrestlers who once performed on television but now run their own local promotion in VFW hall-scale venues, Paige was groomed since birth to be a successful pro wrestler herself. Named Saraya after her mother’s in-ring character and commercially exploited by her parents as (in their own words) “eye candy” and “a product,” Paige’s traveling carnie lifestyle is fascinating whether or not you have an interest in pro wrestling as an artform. That familial dynamic only gets more bizarre as she emerges as the only breakout star among her inner circle, inspiring frustrated jealousy in her wrestling-nut brother and conflicted sentimental & financial pangs in her proud, but possessive parents. The Wrestlers has the exact opposite problem than the proper Fighting with My Family biopic; WWE’s strict press lockout keeps the cameras away from Paige’s tryout drama & professional training here, whereas the latter film focuses heavily on those backstage details in an image-controlled environment. Instead, the doc gets a more intimate and (by default) more honest depiction of Paige’s domestic life, as well as insight into the personal histories of her family. For the most part, the core story told in this documentary does carry over into its fictionalized follow-up, except the biopic has the advantage of backstage WWE access as lagniappe. However, seeing the 20-something Florence Pugh portray a fictionalized version of Paige does not give you an accurate idea of how much of a naïve baby she was when WWE signed her as a teenager. There’s something about seeing this young child shouldering massive familial responsibility and navigating deep-seated emotional resentments she has no fault in that comes through much stronger in this reality-TV doc than it does in the more convenient fiction, even if The Wrestlers is ultimately relegated to supplementary material for a much better film.

There easily could have been a scenario where Paige’s WWE career never took off and this one-off BBC doc could instead have developed into an episodic reality TV show. The MTV True Life aesthetics & gawking fascination with the wrestler’s peculiar family dynamic makes it feel like that was the original plan, that her WWE signing was a freak occurrence that threw everyone involved for a loop. That kind of midstream surprise (a swerve, if u will) always makes for a more compelling documentary, and Paige’s continued prominence in the WWE (which has not always been smooth sailing, to say the least) has only assured this one a cultural longevity it would not have achieved otherwise. At the end of the film, Paige promises she will change the shape of women’s wrestling in the company into something respectable beyond the T&A eye-candy roles performers had been relegated to for decades. She did eventually play a major part in achieving that goal, an accomplishment that helped justify blowing this story up to a feature-length biopic treatment. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family isn’t quite as substantial as that biopic, but it does provide additional, essential texture that only strengthens the biopic in retrospect – so essential that it’s featured in clips in that latter text. It’s especially illuminating in getting a grasp on just how young Paige was when she was trained for this business and was signed by the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, which drastically alters how we understand her accomplishments & her family dynamic.

-Brandon Ledet

Fighting with My Family (2019)

Even though I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and Stephen Merchant’s dual credit as writer-director vouched for its quality, I did not expect to get much out of Fighting with My Family. WWE-produced content tends to have a slick, careful, personality-free approach to revisionist history when telling its own story, which usually prompts me to expect the eerie gloss of a Dianetics infomercial DVD rather than heartfelt cinema. Maybe it was that hyperactive skepticism that allowed me to have an intense, unexpected emotional reaction to this picture despite its unembarrassed commercialism and weakness for revisionist bullshit. This is the hardest I’ve laughed and the most I’ve cried in a movie I didn’t expect either from since 2017’s Power Rangers reboot (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for Krispy Kreme donuts). Aesthetically & craft-wise, Fighting with My Family feels like a poorly aged relic from the early aughts, a once-true story sanitized for wide commercial appeal. Yet, as an achievement in screenwriting, it’s a shockingly dirty, oddly inspiring rise-to-power story that somehow does the pro wrestler Paige’s early career & peculiar familial dynamic full justice, against all odds. The clash of its rowdy dialogue & commercial production sheen feels like an approximation of an R-rated Disney Chanel Original Movie – the exact kind of target audience grey area pro wrestling occupies in the real world.

Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis & originally wrestling under the ring name Britani Knight, is portrayed in this simplistic rise to power biopic by acting chameleon Florence Pugh (entirely unrecognizable from her breakout role in Lady Macbeth). Raised by professional wrestler parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey), she was trained in the ring by her older brother as a family-supporting commodity, just like in any other clan of carnies. When she’s unexpectedly signed by the WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women. Her family is proud of her professional accomplishments, but also sad to see her go (along with the money she makes for their local promotion) and resentful that her wrestling fanatic brother was not also signed. As a pale mall-goth with a life-long pro wrestling fetish, she’s also at odds with how major promotions treated their female performers until recent years: as eye candy or, in her parlance, T&A. Paige’s major contribution to WWE, what makes her biopic worthy to fans in the wrestling community, is how her unconventional fashion choices & legitimate ring skills helped bring an end to WWE’s Divas era, where women were mostly hired as models & dancers to stir up fans’ libidos. She helped usher in the current so-called Women’s Revolution, where legitimate female performers from the indie circuit are being given an opportunity to wrestle in earnest. What makes Fighting with My Family impressive as a piece of writing, though, is that it never villainizes Paige’s family or the more conventional eye-candy babes she seeks to prove herself against. Nor does it let her off the hook for her shortcomings in handling these conflicts as a naive teen suddenly burdened with massive responsibilities. The movie offers empathy to every character its story touches while not at all shying away from their faults, which is just as important to its success as sketching out how influential Paige was in wrestling’s recent, gendered sea change.

Of course, anyone who’s already familiar with Paige’s WWE career should find plenty to chew on here while picking apart the film’s rearranged timeline & selective memory. Specifically, Paige’s career-ending injuries & backstage controversies are (smartly) excised here to make for a cleaner, more inspiring version of the truth. Yet, the movie surprisingly doesn’t shy away from including WWE pariah AJ Lee from the story of how Paige influenced a massive change within the Women’s Division, which Lee also had a major involvement in before she became a persona non grata within the company (although they do weirdly mischaracterize Lee here as an ex-model Bella-type instead of a fellow wrestling-nerd goth). For wrestling fans, these storytelling decisions (along with the company’s continued support & inclusion of Paige after her body gave out at a disturbingly young age) are an encouraging sign of changing times, and it feels great to see the upswing of that change reflected here in the context of Paige’s early-career accomplishments. I’d like to think Fighting with My Family works just as well for audiences who don’t care at all about wrestling, though. Stephen Merchant’s dialogue (and bit part cameo) is sharply funny. Paige’s familial dynamic as the sole breakout star in a clan of fame-starved wrestling carnies is objectively fascinating (and well-performed by Pugh). The film also makes a genuine effort to convey pro wrestling’s artistic & emotional appeal – both on the scale of communal VFW hall events and on the global stage of the WWE. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have as emotional of a reaction to the film as I did – both because of my personal interest in women’s pro wrestling and because I’m generally an emotional wreck. However, I can at least testify to the movie achieving far more than you would typically expect from something so aesthetically unassuming, given its cheesy guitar-riff soundtrack & Disney Channel sheen. The strengths of Merchant’s writing instincts & Pugh’s fully-committed performance are likely to catch you off-guard in tandem, forming one superb tag team.

-Brandon Ledet

John Cena is Corrupting Your Children

I attended many strange pro wrestling rituals when WrestleMania 34 descended upon New Orleans like a body odor blanket last month. I watched a cheeseburger/bear hybrid wrestle other kaiju-costumed nerds at a midnight show adorned with cardboard cities. I stood in the world’s longest bathroom line at a Ring of Honor event because the bro-to-lady ratio at indie wrestling shows is way out of hand. I may have even joined in with the “This is awful!” chants that concluded Mania proper, despite the previous seven hours of sports entertainment making me look like an ungrateful turd for doing so (I honestly can’t remember if I participated in that complaint or not, but the show was exhausting). However, no Mania Moment was as strange as watching the raunchy teen sex comedy Blockers with John Cena in a theater packed with his biggest fans, an experience that only feels more bizarre the further I get away from it. This year’s WrestleMania happened to coincide with Blockers’s opening weekend, so a John Cena promotional appearance at a screening of the film makes logical sense from a marketing standpoint, but the event clearly didn’t factor in the nature of Cena’s usual pro wrestling fanbase. Thanks to AMC, John Cena, and the Universal Pictures marketing machine, I watched an R-rated teen sex comedy with a crowd of very young, very impressionable children who only wanted to meet their pro wrestling superhero. It was hilarious.

John Cena’s transformation into R-rated comedy wildcard has been a gradual one. Three whole years ago, I wrote a piece in the wake of Trainwreck anticipating his transition “From the PG Era to a Solid R,” noting how drastically different his comedic presence in films like that Amy Schumer breakout and the then-upcoming Tina Fey project Sisters was from his usual “Never give up”/”Eat your vitamins” superhero character in-ring. Cena was the face of WWE as it shifted away from the gruesome violence & in-your-face sexuality of the company’s storied Attitude Era to a dedication to producing more child-friendly content. Recently, the attention paid to performers on the roster has spread more evenly, leaving Cena free to develop his comedic persona outside of the ring. Unlike The Rock, however, Cena has never fully detached from the WWE and still regularly appears in-ring as a competitor between film productions (including a squash match with the now-unretired Undertaker at this year’s Mania). This division of his time has lead to some truly bizarre self-contradictions in his public persona, like, say, the superhero to children everywhere butt-chugging a beer and handling Gary Cole’s testicles in an R-rated, femme sex comedy. Nothing has illustrated how absurd that dual career overlap can be to me than AMC’s Q&A screening of Blockers in New Orleans, though, which lured young children into a room to meet their wholesome hero, only to be faced with the raunchiest details of his onscreen career to date (including his naked ass in a final humorous coda).

One of the most charming things about John Cena is his self-aware wit, something he’s likely learned from working crowds of thousands simultaneously chanting & booing his name (older, smarkier fans have long soured on his wholesome superhero routine). His first remark during the Q&A portion of the Blockers screening was that “So many kids have grown up so fast” as his eyes nervously scanned the room. His improvisational crowd-work was continually impressive as he fielded questions about what he likes about New Orleans (drive-through daiquiris), his current opinion of The Rock (left WWE too early), and his decision to appear naked onscreen (“I didn’t think anyone could see me”). It’s honestly less surprising that that he has fit in so well with the post-Apatow style of improv-heavy comedic filmmaking than it is that more pro wrestlers haven’t been tapped for the opportunity, given how life on the road immediately responding to vocal crowds train you for the skill. For my own part, I got to directly ask Cena a question that’s interested me since that eye-opening performance in Trainwreck: why has he been so clearly drawn to R-rated, adult comedies in recent years? The answer, unsurprisingly, was a well thought-out and entirely self-aware history of his career onscreen as a film actor, only confirming that the motivation I inferred was a deliberate, personal choice.

Cena answered the question by dialing the clock back to the early years of WWE Studios in the nu-metal 2000s, when he starred in more straight-forward, The Rock-ish action pictures like The Marine and 12 Rounds (the latter of which was set in New Orleans, appropriately enough). He explained that he participated in those productions to satisfy a desire from his “boss” (presumably WWE owner Vince McMahon) to expand the pro wrestling behemoth’s media brand. According to Cena, those were “bad” movies he filmed as a kind of contractual obligation (I personal enjoy both titles he referenced a lot more than he seems to), while newer projects like Blockers & Trainwreck have been much more personally fulfilling. He’s grateful to have “a second chance”s on the big screen and is finally doing what he wants to do . . . by appearing in R-rated sex comedies? John Cena is a 41-year-old man and, thus, not the clean-cut supehero character he’s developed in the ring. In an effort “to grow up” and “expand” his “depth of character” in his public persona, he’s deliberately choosing projects to challenge the wholesome image he’s developed within WWE in a shrewdly practical (and seemingly fun) way. What he didn’t admit, if you’ll allow me some room for editorializing, is that he’s also damn good at it. His roles in Trainwreck & Blockers especially got a lot of comedic mileage out of contrasting his straight-laced muscle man image with comedically incongruous raunch. It only makes the juxtaposition funnier to know that he’s incredibly aware of that image & how to actively subvert it.

To be honest, having children in the room for a raunchy sex comedy wasn’t even the most absurd touch to the Blockers Q&A. What was really bizarre was the image of a theater full of wrestling fans pawing at Cena for handshakes & autographs once they realized security was not going to impede their approach. It felt like watching the third act of mother!, except most of the admirers were children and a pro wrestler was attempting to maintain control at the godlike center. Children love John Cena and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hell, I think I love John Cena, even though I would have had a much more muted, complicated reaction to his persona just three or four years ago. My own turnaround on his presence is partly a response to WWE’s recent allowance for his spotlight to drift to other worthy performers on their roster, but it’s likely just as much due to his deliberate expansion of “depth of character” by participating in R-rated, horned-up comedies like Blockers. However, unlike The Rock, Cena still wrestles on TV fairly regularly, which means he’s maintaining his younger, more wholesome fanbase at the exact same time. For one wonderfully bizarre afternoon at the start of WrestleMania weekend I got to see both halves of that bifurcated fanbase converge for a screening of a very good, very much adult sex comedy. Only one end of the John Cena fanbase divide could have been corrupted or traumatized by that experience, though: the children. Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children?!

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #54 of The Swampflix Podcast: Hulkamaniacal Schlock & Nobody Speak (2017)

Welcome to Episode #54 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-fourth episode, James & Brandon wrap up an exhausting pro wrestling marathon week in New Orleans by looking back to the cinematic career of Hulk Hogan, the most notorious pro wrestler of all time. They discuss the films of Hogan’s career-high Hulkamania period and his career-low legal troubles as detailed in the Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017). Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

As hardwired as my brain is to only focus on pro wrestling whenever given the opportunity, the name “Rowdy” Roddy Piper doesn’t automatically take me to the ring. Piper’s kilt-wearing, Goldust-kissing, race-stereotyping gimmickry as a wrestling heel is beyond infamy, but it’s his leading role in the John Carpenter sci-fi horror They Live! that defines his career for me. From the meaningless street brawl over a pair of sunglasses to the classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubblegum,” Piper’s foray into Kurt Russell-esque genre film machismo was perfectly suited for his skills as a world class shit talker & in-ring performer. What I didn’t know until recently is that Piper actually headlined two outlandish sci-fi pictures in 1988. They Live! has rightfully earned its place as the one deserving cultural longevity, even seeing a recent resurgence in meme form after last year’s disastrous presidential election. Somehow, though, that film’s paranoia about space aliens brainwashing the American masses was the most grounded & plausible of Piper’s 1988 sci-fi pics. The other title was the real weirdo shit.

In the absurdly-titled Hell Comes to Frogtown, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as the titular antihero Sam Hell, a gruff loudmouth who roams a post-nuclear fallout sci-fi dystopia as the most virile man on Earth. Although he prides himself as the ultimate alpha male, Hell has to learn how to navigate what is now a decidedly matriarchal society. World War III has drastically diminished the male population of the planet and left only a few survivors with a viable sperm count, putting the human race’s longterm survival at risk. And thus, even in the rare 80s genre film where the world is run by women, the citizens of Earth still need a man to save them. Hell is essentially enslaved as a sperm donor by the government agency Med Tech and given militaristic marching orders to impregnate as many as women possible in attempt to save the human race. The only thing standing in his way of fulfilling his literal stud duties is the other lingering side effect of the nuclear fallout disaster: humanoid frogs. Described in-film as “mutant greeners,” the villains of this dystopian wasteland are frog-like scavengers who are holed up in the titular Frogtown and lead by Commander Toadie, presumably in power because he has three dicks (one of the advantages of mutation, I guess). To simplify the plot & budget, Hell Comes to Frogtown boils down this worldwide crisis into a simplistic heist scenario. Lead Commander Toadie is holding fertile women hostage at his palace/harem for ransom (and pleasure). Med Tech commands Sam Hell to free these prisoners so that he can spread his seed, explaining “We’re gonna get them out and you’re gonna get them pregnant.” All in all, it’s a fairly solid contender for silliest Road Warrior knockoff ever.

It should go without saying that there’s a deeply strange sexual energy running throughout Hell Comes to Frogtown. I’m not convinced film didn’t start as an ill-advised exercised in erotic fiction that just got way out of hand and snowballed into a screenplay. The pervasiveness of this strange sexuality extends far beyond just the weirdo details of the plot and obviously charged imagery like rhythmic rifle-polishing and the hose of a gas can being carefully inserted into a tank.  In this dystopian hell hole, condoms are effectively outlawed. The Bible verse, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, and conquer it” is treated like a national slogan. A slow pan up a stripper’s body reveals a frog’s face, the first of the mutant greeners we actually see instead of just listening to their ribbits. Then there’s the BDSM undertone of Sam Hell’s relationship with his matriarchal captors. Outfitted with a high-tech, government-issued chastity belt, Hell is kept on a very short leash. His dick is now considered government equipment and any attempts to run away with it are punished by directly-applied electric shock. His captors tease him to keep him sexually excited, though, using military-sanctioned “seduction techniques” to keep him in the mood. This intense pressure to perform (and for an audience, no less) sometimes leads Hell to embarrassing moments of erection-killing anxiety. He barks at the female scientists in control of his sexual impulses, “Maybe you oughta try making love to a complete stranger in the middle of a hostile mutant territory and see how you like it!” It also seems a little odd that every woman in the world would be begging, desperate to sleep with and be impregnated by Hell at first sight, but at least that choice keeps the mood light; I wouldn’t want to watch a version of this picture where a matriarchal government was forcing Hell to impregnate women against their will.

Of course, the bizarre nature of this film’s sexuality is at least somewhat matched by its humanoid amphibian threat. The frogs that attempt to stop Sam Hell from saving the world through his progeny are weird looking boogers, resembling a cross between the classy masquerade scene from The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. movie. They have the expressionless and flapping jaws of a cheap Planet of the Apes sequel, but a kind of incredible throat-swelling effect with every ribbit that distracts from their mobile limitations. Even when the villainous frogs’ general look isn’t exactly impressive, though, there’s always an underlying absurdity to their general presence, especially when they’re doing ridiculous things like wielding a chainsaw or insulting Hell by calling him “flat lips.” Combine that visual absurdity with the film’s weirdo sexuality and the campy cult classic potential just oozes from the screen like so much nuclear waste.

I can’t say that Hell Comes to Frogtown is entirely successful in living up to its full cult classic potential. As far as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicles go, it’s certainly no They Live! and it’s difficult not to compare that film’s heights like the bubblegum one-liner to this one’s much lesser, “Eat lead, froggies.” Overall, Hell Comes to Frogtown’s comedic antics gleefully command a ten year old’s sense of humor, the same maturity range that seemingly dictates its Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling & slack-jawed fascination with naked breasts. Still, it’s overloaded with enough strange energy & discomforting sexual undertone to distinguish itself as a midnight movie novelty. Every scene in the movie looks like it was lit by car headlights. Piper brings distinct pro wrestling flavor to scenes where glass bottles are smashed over his head or where his loin cloth resembles a tattered version of his signature ring gear kilt. Camo bikinis with doily-style lace trim and phone chords tethering Piper’s crotch to mysterious electronic devices sear the brain with their kinky idiocy. This is an exceedingly inane movie that dares you to ask “What in the Sam Hell?” on a scene to scene basis, but somehow abstains from vocalizing that particular line itself against all odds. Hell Comes to Frogtown may not be the outlandish 1988 sci-fi picture that defined Piper’s career as a screen presence, but it has enough bizarre energy – sexual, amphibian, and otherwise – to stand on its own as a memorable, ramshackle novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania (2017)

Look, I’m solidly, repeatedly on record as being a fan of WWE’s recent team-ups with long-dead Hanna-Barbera properties. Two Scooby-Doo crossovers (WrestleMania Mystery & Curse of the Speed Demon) and one Flintstones detour (Stone Age SmackDown) into this newborn era of Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling cartoons, I haven’t had a single sour experience yet. The larger than life personalities of “WWE Superstars” entering the far-out worlds of Bedrock dinos, fake ghosts, monster trucks, and Scooby Snacks is a perfect fit, especially since WWE likes to maintain the illusion of producing PG content despite building its entire empire on “fantasy violence.” WWE’s fourth collaboration with Hanna-Barbera, while not my favorite crossover so far, is no different in the way it delivers the absurd, over the top fantasy violence goods in a cartoon setting. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is the first new Jetsons content produced in nearly three decades, a feature that might mark a lowpoint in terms of that property’s overall quality, but still had me giggly over the way it handles a very specific kind of larger than life absurdity that only a pro wrestling cartoon can deliver.

This is one of those situations where an IMDb plot synopsis is all the information you really need to know if you’d be interested: “A snowstorm freezes Big Show solid for decades. When he finally thaws out, Elroy and George help him build wrestle bots. When Big Show uses them to take over their city, the Jetsons go back in time to enlist help from WWE Superstars.” Well, technically, that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate. You see, The Big Show doesn’t build wrestle bots himself; he overtakes pre-existing robots with his wrestling prowess after discovering in horror that World Wrestling Entertainment has evolved into World Wrobot Entertainment (the second “w” is silent) while he was frozen, making his livelihood an obsolete practice. There’s a dual level of fantasy going on here: one where The Big Show is currently in contention to be the World Heavyweight Champion (those days are long gone) and one where WWE is still thriving 100 years in the future. Whatever automated dystopia pro wrestling slips into is likely imminent too, as the wrestling bots featured in the film are mechanical versions of current superstars: Robo-Roman Reigns, Robo-Seth Rollins, Robo-Dolph Ziggler, etc. I guess there’s a third level of fantasy at work too, you know, the one where lil’ Elroy Jetson invents time travel for a middle school science fair. That aspect of the film can’t really compare to the spectacle of human vs robot pro wrestling, though. Really, what could?

The Jetsons’ presence in Robo-WrestleMania is secondary at best. Besides the initial thrill of having the long dead television show’s iconic theme music (a cheap pop that’s later repeated for a gag where WWE Superstars are similarly introduced) as well as the dead-on impersonations of the new voice cast, the Jetsons mostly just provide an appropriate backdrop for the robotic & time-traveling hijinks of the much more interesting pro wrestling personalities they mix with. A lot of the property’s “women be shoppin'”/men are workaholics humor feels uncomfortably outdated in a modern context. Rosie the sarcastic robot maid remains the only fresh & amusing aspect of the original Jetsons dynamic. She gets in some great lines here about how “If [The Big Show] makes a mess on the carpet, I am not cleaning it up” or about how Robo-Roman Reigns really turns her on/pushes her buttons. I also appreciated a gag where George accidentally wins a wrestling match and when asked to provide his in-ring name, he bills himself as the amusingly generic Future Guy. Again, though, it’s mostly just the Jetson’s futuristic setting that provides anything of value for the WWE Superstars to bounce off of, but it’s a context that pays off nicely

The biggest surprise of Robo-WrestleMania​ is how much effort The Big Show put it his vocal performance. I didn’t have much confidence in watching a kids’ film starting the lug after suffering through the abysmal (even by WWE Studios standards) Knucklehead. He plays a great heel here, though, anchoring the film with the larger than life, enraged growl of a classic decades-old wrestling promo, redundantly declaring himself to be “the world heavyweight championship of the world.” I’d even dare say there’s an ounce of genuine pathos to the way the living giant feels physically awkward in an automated future where his body & his profession are essentially now obsolete. I even wonder if that robo-wrestling angle was a mode of sly writer’s room commentary on the way pro wrestling has been morally sanitized & made less physically risky in the PG, publicly traded modern era. There’s some similarly satirical jabs at Roman Reigns’s persona here: he charges his fist as if he’s gearing up for his patented “Superman punch” only to fire off an autograph for a fan; Rosie only likes his robo-version for his good looks; his robo-version’s stilted, mechanical delivery of his “Believe that” catchphrase sounds oddly reminiscent of some of his on-mic botches in real life; etc. For the most part, though, Roman and the rest of the WWE Superstars take just as much of a backseat as the Jetsons do. This is The Big Show’s, uh, big show and he delivers surprisingly strongly in that animated spotlight.

I was mildly, pleasantly amused by Robo-WrestleMania just as I have been with all of these Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling crossovers. Still, I feel like the opportunities presented by these cartoon backdrops aren’t being fully exploited to match the inherent absurdity of the wrestlers who populate them. Besides the wrestling robots & off hand references to Seth Rollins’s frequent claim that he’s “The Future of WWE,” the 100 years in the future setting of Robo-WrestleMania isn’t pushed to its full potential. Imagine all of the places a cartoon about a time traveling pro wrestlers could go; I’d argue this movie settled on the least interesting one. Thinking about the self-aware psychedelia of what could pop up in a New Day cartoon or how much weirder a Jetsons crossover could’ve been if it were produced while Stardust was still with the company (something I’ve called for in every review of these damned things so far) makes me mourn for the things that could be if these crossovers strayed a little further from the wrestling ring and a little deeper into the personas of the weirdos who work in it. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is admirably silly as is, though, and it works remarkably well as a redemptive palette cleanser for The Big Show, who really needed it after the dregs of Knucklehead.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #26 of The Swampflix Podcast: Archie at the Movies & Hitman Hart – Wrestling With Shadows (1999)

Welcome to Episode #26 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-sixth episode, Brandon makes CC watch the pro wrestling documentary classic Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (1999) for the first time to help get hyped for WrestleMania. Also, CC & Brandon discuss three less-than-prestigious feature films set in the Archie Comics universe. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman