Wolf Devil Woman (1983)

Martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (also credited as Ling Chang) was once the biggest TV star in Taiwan. She has since effectively disappeared. Chang has dozens of credits to her name as an actor at the fringes of the wuxia genre in the 70s & 80s, many of which are seemingly lost forever in the distribution & archival voids that vaporize most cheap-o schlock. Impressively, she even leveraged that notoriety into directing four martial arts films herself in the 1980s, a career path that proved much more turbulent & misogynistically policed than her initial designation as a television actress. When Chang tried her hand at being an auteur, she found her reputation shifting from “beloved TV star” to “difficult to work with,” a bullshit designation that’s routinely leveled at female creatives to protect the industry-control enjoyed by their male “colleagues.” Of her four completed features, only half were even credited to her name, the other two being filed under a male pseudonym. Despite how common this disgraceful undercutting of Pearl Chang’s potential as a genre auteur feels in the history of women in the film industry, it still stings harshly when you watch her work. She was exploding with creativity in her directorial period, limited only by her lack of funding and her lack of Industry support. She deserved so much better, and it’s hard not to get hung up on the potential art we lost because of that dismissal.

Wolf Devil Woman is the best-known of Pearl Chang’s directorial efforts, and even it’s mostly notorious as a “so-bad-it’s-good” exercise in high camp. Chang stars in the film herself as a feral woman who was raised by wolves after her parents were executed by a demonic Emperor. Narratively, it’s a straightforward revenge story in which the wolfen orphan exacts revenge on the Demon who ruined her life by using her animalistic hunting skills (and the supernatural abilities afforded to her by ingesting mystical “white ginseng”) in battle. Tonally, the movie is much harder to pinpoint. It can be absolutely brutal, as in the opening sequence where the wolf-girl’s parents bury their baby in snow and douse her with their own blood to keep the infant warm. It can be adorably cheap, especially in its costuming, which dresses Chang in a wolf plushie doll as if it were a pelt and achieves her Demon foe’s look with a rubber Party City mask. Overwhelmingly, though, I think of Wolf Devil Woman as being outright psychedelic – a disorienting Pure Cinema indulgence that makes for some very loopy late-night viewing despite its limited means as a cheap-o production. It can’t pretend to be as controlled or as accomplished in its far-out psychedelia as triumphs like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, but its bootleg quality as a VHS-era indie knockoff from the fringes of the genre only make it feel stranger, like a found object that tumbled far outside the boundaries of a proper wuxia canon.

Some of the ways Chang achieves this Bootleg Psychedelia effect are recognizably rooted in tradition: 2D animation visuals bolstering the effects budget; vibrantly colored gel lights affording the Demon’s lair a Suspiria vibe; wire work uplifting the martial arts sequences with the fantasy of flight (a wuxia mainstay), etc. Where Chang really goes off the rails is in her deployment of quick, recurrent cuts that repeat the same action over & over again in rapid-fire delirium. It’s a deliberately dissociative effect, best evidenced by the insanely omnipresent imagery of the titular wolfwoman ripping a live rabbit in half with her bare hands to illustrate her animalistic nature. As a revenge tale, Wolf Devil Woman is too predictable & languidly paced to merit much enthusiasm. As a stylistic exercise, however, it’s overflowing with delirious creative choices that dazzle the eye after hypnotizing you into that false calm. I believe the instinct to laugh the entire movie off as a joke because of a few goofy (budgetary-based) costume choices is selling these artistic merits short, but I’m still glad that at least one of Chang’s few feature film earned some kind of cultural notoriety. I wonder what she might have been able to achieve with bigger & better chances to express her vision onscreen, but like with so many female auteurs in the history of the Industry, her opportunities were frustratingly limited.

We don’t get to know what a better-supported Pearl Chang career might have yielded, but at least we got one cult gem out of the limited resources she was afforded.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast: Head (1968) & Psychedelic Musicals

Welcome to Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-eighth episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the stoney-baloney world of psychedelic musicals, with a particular focus on The Monkees’ irreverent war protest freak-out Head (1968). Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & Aaron Armstrong

Climax (2019)

It’s finally come to pass: notorious edgelord Gapar Noé has gotten bored of trying to piss us off and is now trying to dance his way into our hearts. The fucked up thing is that it’s working. Climax is the first feature film from the shock-peddling prankster that I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed, and it feels like that reconciliation is the result of a direct invitation from the creator. Noé changes nothing about his usual schtick in this provocation du jour either, at least not in terms of content. Climax is still the cruel, obnoxious, try-hard shock fest that Noé has been delivering over & over again throughout his career, complete with juvenile interest in hard drugs, gore, and sexual assault. The only real difference is in the tone & rhythms of the packaging. A constant dance beat propels Climax‘s pacing so that it’s more of a party than a grueling torture sesh. The sexual assault is largely implied rather than graphically lingered on for eternal minutes. It’s also the first film I’ve seen from Noé that could be comfortably categorized as Gay, rather than Homophobic. Most significantly, Climax is packed to the walls with dancing – gorgeous, infectious, horrific dancing. It’s as if Noé kept audiences waiting in the line outside his club for decades while only a few in the inner circle partied within, but now everyone’s invited to the dance floor to celebrate his fucked-up happening. The music hasn’t changed, but the atmosphere is much more accommodating.

Climax wastes no time announcing itself as pretentious smut, bursting out of the gate with structural shenanigans meant to disorient the audience. As its title cheekily promises, we open with the climactic end of the film, complete with closing credits. We’re then treated to an introductory collection of VHS interviews with the film’s cast of dancers, DJs, and choreographers set against a decrepit warehouse wall & framed by stacks of cassette spines through which Noé admits upfront the cinematic influences on what you’re about to see: Possession, Suspiria, Salò, Dawn of the Dead, Un Chien Andalou, etc. As performers with names like Serpent, Psyche, Daddy, and Dom audition for a spot in the film’s central dance troupe, this prologue begins to feel like a mid-90s matchmaking service produced by the good folks at Videodrome. Once those salutations are doled out, the film stops in its tracks yet again to watch the troupe perform a routine they’ve been rehearsing for several days in a rural, isolated gymnasium before the audience arrived. It is a spectacle. Long, swooping, full-bodied takes of modernist dancers exhibiting their craft stretch on into a hedonistic mania, slapping the screen with more death drops than Paris is Burning before finally rolling the opening credits in a strobelit visual assault. While the audience is bewildered in that drunken, disoriented state, it becomes apparent that someone among the dancers has spiked the sangria with an overdose of LSD. Their behavior becomes erratic and increasingly violent – devolving into the same hedonistic ugliness Noé always indulges in while the dance beat pounds in the background for hours on end.

Climax is one of the ultimate examples of a genre I like to call the “Part out of Bounds” – horrific sideshows where guests at a party recognize the vibe is turning darkly uncivil, but they all feel compelled to see it through anyway. Up until now, my personal experience with Noé’s filmography has itself been a party-out-of-bounds story. As a huge sucker for pretentious smut & over-the-top genre cinema, I’m continually lured in to check out his latest provocations, only to be punished by the edgelord posturing found therein. The difference is that my experience at the Gaspar Noé party finally reached a breakthrough with this picture, where I learned to let go & have a “good” time, mostly thanks to the host’s increased interest in accommodating his audience. For the LSD-poisoned dancers in Climax, the party only gets worse – devolving into terrible sex, horrific violence, and horrifically violent sex. Your personal response to this pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut will vary wildly depending on how much interest you tend to have in the type of edgy, over-the-top art-schlock Noé usually traffics in. If it’s something you have absolutely zero patience for, the movie will alienate you early & often – leaving you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen. If, like me, you’re always curious about what Noé’s up to but never fully connect with the fucked-up party therein, you might just find yourself succumbing to the prurient displeasures of DJ Daddy and the killer sangria.

-Brandon Ledet

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

It’s almost impossible to say anything about Orson Welles’s posthumous bomb-thrower The Other Side of the Wind, positive or negative, that the film doesn’t already say about itself. A notoriously troubled production that only came to completion though Peter Bogdanovich’s stubborn devotion to boosting Welles’s legacy, the film features Bogdanovich as a sycophantic right-hand man to an elderly auteur. A frustrated return to Hollywood filmmaking for Welles after years of European exile, the film features Old Hollywood director John Huston as an elderly auteur struggling to gain backing for his first American production in years, titled The Other Side of the Wind. A collaboration with porn & B-movie cinematographer Gary Graver, it’s a lusciously sleazy affair that cheekily blurs the line between European art film & cheap porno. A messily meta commentary on youthful rebellion & a changing film landscape overrun by New Hollywood upstarts, the film both approximates the same Industry-condemning self-indulgence of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and features Dennis Hopper as himself talking out of his ass about filmmaking philosophy. Caricatures of critic Pauline Kael & New Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who Welles saw as roadblocks to getting this doomed project off the ground, create conflict as the film-within-the-film version of The Other Side of the Wind attempts its first screening to drum up financial support—only for the filmmaker to die at the party before that’s accomplished. For a sprawling, incoherent mess that’s been cooking for four decades solid before finally arriving on Netflix, The Other Side of the Wind is almost impossibly self-aware; it also weaponizes that awareness so that anyone who has ever made (or even seen) a movie is a target.

Another way The Other Side of the Wind feels incredibly self-aware is in the ways it brings Orson Welles’s career full-circle. The director’s legendary debut, Citizen Kane, not only suffered the same troubled path to respect & admiration as what would prove to be his last, but also functions like a documentary profile of a fictional man explained to be larger than life. “A film likeness of the man himself as he looked,” The Other Side of the Wind’s central concern is the psyche of John Huston’s bitter old pervert auteur, frustrated that he has to grovel for funding in a post-Studio System where the New Hollywood rug-rats have taken over. Instead of the birth-to-death portrait of Citizen Kane, however, this film mostly captures the events of a single night, with the details of its subject’s past filled in by partygoers’ gossip & hearsay. In staged found-footage captured on a wide range of cameras, The Other Side of the Wind is supposedly assembled from documentation of the party where the film-within-the-film is meant to be screened, like an arthouse version of the first-season party episode of American Vandal. This fractured structure allows cinematographer Gary Graver to play around with a variety of tones & textures, as if he were filming an especially smutty Guy Maddin picture. It also allows Welles to poke fun at every cinematic archetype – from the Studio System elite to New Hollywood brats to European art snobs – as they swirl around a disaster of a party waiting for The Other Side of the Wind to finally screen. It’s no wonder this film took 40 years to complete; it must have been an editing room nightmare. Still, it opens the floor for Welles to lash out (from beyond the grave) at as many Hollywood phonies as he can strike within a two-hour span, including whichever version of himself is represented in John Huston’s avatar.

The frantic, fractured editing style on display here makes it difficult to latch onto any solid character or narrative definitions, so that the slow, stony baloney movie-within-the movie that interrupts that chaotic party feels like a huge relief. The fake movie in question becomes one of the more intense focal points of the picture, then, which is hilarious because Welles packs it with pornographic smut: naked breasts, cuckolding, bathroom orgies, strap-on dildos, etc. Even in The Other Side of the Wind’s quieter, more thoughtful moments, Welles attacks the audience with the menacing sleaze of a Russ Meyer picture. Of course, he’s aware of his own indulgences in smut here, and the screenings of the movie-within-the-movie often cross-cut to John Huston’s peeping-Tom auteur intensely licking his lips, gazing at the prurient glory of his own work. This meta commentary on Welles’s own pervy interests in those sequences is only compounded by his casting of his real-life young lover Oja Kodar as the star of the psychedelic art-house porno, billed simply as The Actress. Part of me wishes that the entirety of the movie were dedicated to feature-length parody of pornographic art-house pretension in this style, as the filmmaking craft of the fake Other Side of the Wind is much more pleasurable to watch than the frantic satire of the real one (although even the party scenes recall Russ Meyer’s rapid-fire editing style in films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). For me, the relentless sketch comedy-like humor of the party scenes wears a little thin in the second hour, but the smutty art house psychedelia parody of the movie screening at their party remains potent throughout. I suspect Welles’s own interests were also more . . . aroused by the sensory pleasures of those sequences as well.

I’m not sure the second hour of The Other Side of the Wind fully lives up to the promise of its first, as it’s difficult to care too deeply about a story meant to disorient & frustrate its audience at that length. Even that complaint is addressed in the film’s script, however, both in screening room scenes where the continuity of the movie-within-the-movie is explained to be not quite the mess it appears to be, and in the question posed to the fictional auteur, “If the audience can’t get it, why even go to the movie?” That question plays as a jab both at the creator and at the public, as The Other Side of the Wind can find no shortage of enemies in Welles’s expressed frustrations with an industry that had essentially abandoned him. John Huston’s character is detailed to be far from a saint – exploiting women (and sometimes men) he’s attracted to for both professional & personal pleasure, treating little people as novelty objects, and just generally acting like a drunken asshole who believes the world of himself and little of anything else. There’s certainly some self-laceration detectable in that portrait of a despicable auteur the world has left behind, but it’s a critique that extends to all selfish, self-aggrandizing men who have shared his profession – from Russ Meyer to Antonioni. The Other Side of the Wind is both critic & participant, both weapon & target. It’s both incredibly flawed & incredibly aware of those shortcomings, easily making for one of the most fascinating & storied releases of the year—just not the most wholly satisfying one. Even if you somehow walk away from The Other Side of the Wind as frustrated with its stops & starts as Welles did, you still have to admire the picture for all its go-for-broke smutty audacity and its drunken willingness to throw a punch.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Black Anthill

When I first reviewed Phase IV (1974) for this site in our earliest months of film-blogging, I approached it as a surprisingly solid 4-star effort that I expected to be much schlockier in its payoffs, given its place in the larger genre of killer-ants cinema. Upon revisiting the film to track its influence on our current Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Beyond the Black Rainbow, that 4-star rating reads like an insult. My engagement with Phase IV as transcendent schlock that impresses only as a subversion of genre expectations was one intensely colored by its context as an early Mystery Science 3000 victim and a participant in an often-campy killer-ants cinema tradition. Seeing the film through Cosmatos’s eyes, which often blend camp & transcendent art aesthetics until the two tones are indistinguishable, has only elevated Phase IV in my esteem. I’ve learned to disregard its alignment with genre tradition, to engage with it as a one-of-a-kind object. I now see Phase IV for what it is: one of the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, no caveats.

A significant part of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s lore involves Panos Cosmatos’s childhood trips to a video rental store in the 1980s, a holy ground named Video Addict. There he would browse the cover art images of horror movies he was too young to rent and imagine what those movies were like based on that advertising alone. His stated goal for Beyond the Black Rainbow was to create “an imaging of an old film that does not exist,” which effectively captures the film’s unique balance between nostalgic pastiche & genuinely eerie, otherworldly menace. Of course, Cosmatos has seen a movie or two since he was too young to rent those Video Addict cassettes without parental supervision, so there are plenty of actually-realized titles he also cites as a direct influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow, along with the nonexistent ones he imagined as a child: Dark Star, Manhunter, Phase IV, The Keep. Phase IV is the most illuminating citation listed among those titles, as it adds a new wrinkle to those Video Addict daydreams; there were existing old films that approximated Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general eerie psychedelia aesthetic in an era when that would have been current, not nostalgic. They were just commercial flops hardly anyone saw in their initial run.

Phase IV’s influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow’s psychedelic parascience is immediately apparent in its animated outer space intro, which feels like it could have been pulled from an infomercial for the fictional Arboria Institute. While an information dump of opening narration explains how a mysterious signal from outer space triggered an evolution & militarization of ants on Earth to usurp mankind’s place on the food chain, legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s psychedelic visuals wash the screen in intense, saturated hues. Eventually that narration gives way to a lengthy, dialogue-free stretch of eerie, up-close nature footage of ants communicating & organizing in artificial environments to a snythy horror score. It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist “looks into the Eye of God.” It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind, a much more fully-committed exercise in this spiritual psychedelia than the prankish slasher-throwback ending of Cosmatos’s film.

There are more narratively-based parallels between these two works that reach beyond their aesthetics’ similarities, despite Cosmatos’s work having nothing to do with killer ants. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Phase IV is mostly staged at a remote science research facility where a small cast, including a captive young woman, are disconnected from the world at large as they approach the precipice of the next stage of human evolution. Phase IV also concludes with its head researcher in a rambling, decrepit state, recalling the physical & mental degradation of Dr. Arboria in the latter half of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Still, discussing either film in terms of plot details feels entirely beside the point. These are works that largely tell their stories through the art of editing, evoking subliminal responses in their imagery more than guiding audiences through a traditional A-B narrative. Phase IV’s influence on Cosmatos’s work is most potent in its long, silent stretches where the screen is washed with color (whether the sickly yellow of pesticides or the rich reds of outer space) or filtered through the kaleidoscopic vision of the ants’ POV, repurposed from dorm poster psychedelia for a new, genuinely unnerving effect. Their narrative parallels are mostly just lagniappe.

Interestingly enough, Cosmatos’s mission of evoking “an imagining of an old film that does not exist” in Beyond the Black Rainbow is not at all at odds with its more concrete citation of Phase IV as a direct influence, when that film (as far as I can tell) actually does exist. The most Beyond the Black Rainbow reminiscent-footage from Saul Bass’s film is its “lost” alternate ending, cut by the studio before Phase IV’s release against the director’s wishes. In a four-minute montage recalling the vibrantly edited imagery of Bass’s credits-sequence design work for legendary directors like Hitchcock, the “lost” ending of Phase IV depicts the next evolution of man triggered by the ants in a dialogue-free swirl of stoney baloney imagery that matches, if not surpasses, anything depicted within the Arboria Institute in pure psychedelic potency. As Beyond the Black Rainbow was released two full years before this recovered final montage of Phase IV finally screened for the public in 2012, Cosmatos’s general estimation of those “lost” minutes’ effect & aesthetic in Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as much of an extension of his effort to imagine an old film that does not exist (at least in the public eye), as it is further proof that he & Bass were on a spiritually paralleled vibe when they made these two narratively dissonant sci-fi thrillers.

Saul Bass & Panos Cosmatos’s parallels as kindred spirits have negative connotations as well as positive ones. Phase IV was Bass’s sole feature film as a director (despite this clout as an Academy Award-Wining filmmaker for his graphic design work). It was met with middling reviews, disastrous box office, studio meddling that mutilated its ending, and eventually ironic MST3k mockery. Even now, five years after its “lost” ending was screened for select audiences, no restorative Director’s Cut of the film has been released on home video with that ending intact (or even included as a Special Feature), so that the only place to watch it is in shoddy camcorder footage on YouTube from those initial screenings. Despite the transcendent achievements of his own debut, Cosmatos has also suffered a slow road to respectability, taking a full 8-year gestation period to realize his follow-up, this year’s (more widely-seen & revered) Mandy. Cosmatos has largely survived early dismissals of his work as empty, self-indulgent nostalgia bait, but his struggle to follow up Beyond the Black Rainbow with a sophomore effort does recall Saul Bass’s own struggles to get another feature off the ground in Phase IV’s wake.

These are two visionary weirdo auteurs who invite off-hand dismissal of their sensory-suffocating art, despite delivering some of the most distinct films ever made. Even in Saul Bass’s case, I feel guilty for not taking his work seriously enough on its own terms beyond the context of my genre biases until a years-later second look. These are singular achievements that only feel familiar in their initial impact, as if we’re imaging similarities to old films that do not exist.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Yellow Submarine (1968)

The last time I watched the animated “Beatles” film Yellow Submarine I was . . . chemically impaired in Memphis, TN and a VHS copy of the movie was playing on a broken, color-distorted television. I can’t claim I was quite as enthused about the picture in its recent theatrical run as I was that nonsensical afternoon, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. For its 50th anniversary, the psychedelic animation classic has been restored frame-by-frame for a new 4k digital presentation, a modern spit shine that’s sharpened its line work, brightened its colors, and afforded its musical numbers an immersive surround sound mix worthy of the film’s overwhelming visuals. This modern cleanup effort affords Yellow Submarine an even playing field with recent works it’s obviously had an influence on (even if an indirect one), recalling titles like Adventure Time & My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea in the way it builds otherworldly fantasy-scapes out of complexly-arranged collages of hands-on, rudimentary illustration. What struck me most in this recent viewing, however, was how influential Yellow Submarine must have been in its own time, a whopping half-century ago. Predating werido animated classics of its ilk like Fantastic Planet & Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus shorts by years, Yellow Submarine is an impressively substantial artistic achievement for a “Beatles” film that barely has any Beatles. That historical significance is something I didn’t appreciate as much in my contextless viewing of it as recreational, visual fodder on a color-distorted VHS tape, so it was wonderful to see it get its full due in a proper, legitimized form.

Frustrated with the finished product of 1965’s Help!, but contractually obligated to appear in a third feature for Apple Films, The Beatles almost fully weaseled their way out of participating in Yellow Submarine. They appear in live action at the film’s conclusion for a brief PSA about peace & love, and their music is interspersed throughout the runtime, but for the most part this is a movie inspired by The Beatles more than it is A Beatles Film. The Fab Four have animated avatars that “star” in the movie as a magical, traveling rock band, but those characters are voiced by barely-acceptable Beatles impersonators (two of whom were required for George, as the first was arrested halfway into production for deserting The British Army). Even without The Beatles’ direct involvement, though, the movie captures the irreverence of their young rock n’ roll spirit, packing its runtime with visual non-sequiturs, nonsensical puns, winking sex jokes, and anti-fascist sentiment. The film’s most significant accomplishment, however, is in reaching beyond aping The Beatles’ already established pop culture personae to carve out its own psychedelic visual language & laidback surrealism, something that eventually defined Beatles-inspired visual art (and hippie era animation at large) on its own, original terms. Adopting some of the pop art sensibilities of Warhol’s portrait work and the cover art for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, Yellow Submarine creates a postmodern backdrop for its anything-goes psych fantasy adventure, which explores the physical corners of space & time to discover its own, new corner of the universe (to surprising success).

There isn’t much of a plot here, at least not one that matters. The musical fantasy realm of Pepperland is turned to joyless stone by music-hating, weirdo perverts called Blue Meanies, who long for a uniform, quiet existence. “The Beatles” are recruited from across the universe to put a stop to this blue menace through the power of love & song, traveling to Pepperland in the titular yellow submarine. There’s a clear dichotomy between fascism & art established in that setup, but the Beatles’ clash with the Blue Meanies isn’t detailed much beyond that ideological divide. Most of the film is a psychedelic travel diary through various fantasy spaces seemingly lifted from a child’s nightmare (or a stoner’s sketchbook). Seussian animals with human faces & yellowed teeth gallop & glide through their psychedelic fiefdoms while a tiny yellow submarine carrying the world’s favorite rock band barely slips past their self-generated mayhem. Pop culture figures like King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, The Phantom, and Marilyn Monroe complicate the storybook illustrations that provide these non-worlds a sense of structure. Collages of silkscreen-style photographs often loop in .gif repetitions, layering the screen with an incredible depth of rich, varied imagery. Yellow Submarine barely pretends to be a story about a rock group’s fight against music-hating fascists. It’s more a shamelessly aesthetic-driven string of hand-illustrated music videos, more than a decade before “music video” was household term. Its plot is only a convenient glue that binds its true purpose as a curated collection of rich images & sounds.

The only thing really preventing Yellow Submarine from being a flat-out masterpiece is its laidback, stony-baloney sense of pacing. Even in their music I’ve come to prefer The Beatles when they were young & brimming with energy, which is partly what makes A Hard Day’s Night such a perfect document of the band as culture-significant artists. Yellow Submarine is more a snapshot of exhausted, spaced-out, daytripping Beatles, the band that was so laidback & detached from this planet that they couldn’t be bothered to put in a few hours in a recording booth to voice their own avatars. More importantly, though, it’s a visual feat in hand-constructed, psychedelic animation, one that deserves recognition for its cultural impact beyond the bounds of Beatlemania. This recent restoration is a great start.

-Brandon Ledet

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Space all come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.

Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.

-Brandon Ledet

Icaros: A Vision (2017)

It’s usually preferable to enter a movie devoid of background context & extratextual information, but the recent psychedelic drama Icaros: A Vision is one of those major exceptions that benefit greatly from knowing their production history. Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics, specifically the infamous Anaconda Cosmica, to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death and returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who retreat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism. Unfortunately, Caraballo did not live to see the completion of her own film; she guided much if its post-production decision making from her death bed with the help of her co-director Matteo Norzi. What she left behind, though, is a visually striking, peacefully meditative look at the culture surrounding ayahuasca rituals, something much more significant than the humorous take on the yuppie adoption of its use depicted in comedies like While We’re Young.

An American woman arrives at Anaconda Cosmica unsure of how ayahuasca rituals can help her process her fear of death and whether she even has the courage to find out. Other patients paying for the privilege of the retreat are addressing issues varying in severity from addiction & self harm to alleviating a stutter to improve an acting career. The mood of the retreat is decidedly peaceful, a tone commanded by the always-present sounds of the jungle. Invading thoughts of technology, particularly MRI scans of the American woman’s cancer, interrupt the reverie on occasion, but don’t fully elbow out the serenity of the jungle until the night time ayahuasca rituals start & end. During the routine ceremonies, a shaman-in-training peers into the various hallucinations of his patients (or “passengers,” in the movie’s parlance) as if he were literally switching channels on a television. The spiritual difference between natural & technological imagery could not be clearer, as the young shaman attempts (through the ritual of meditative breathing & song) to save the paying customers from invading dark thoughts that could spoil their trip. Early on, the film is about his efforts to save the protagonist from the crippling fear of death sparked by her cancer diagnosis. However, at some point that dynamic flips. The American woman, now strengthened by the psychedelic therapy sessions, helps the shaman face his own fears of an incurable medical diagnosis. It’s interesting to see the service industry aspect of their relationships subvert itself as they naturally become better acquainted through the deeply intimate ritual of ayahuasca ingestion, but more importantly the film uses their tender interactions as a purposefully humanist window into a culture that could be depicted as all meditative chants and visual hallucination if not treated with enough open-minded empathy.

Icaros: A Vision is a quiet, still, meditative piece that fully lives up to the visual focus indicated by its title. Everything from muscular river dolphins & the green of the Peruvian jungle to video game imagery & bright florescent piss shape the film’s all-encompassing meditations on life & death. Somehow, the overall effect is more hypnotic than it is showy or gimmicky. Leonor Caraballo’s background as a visual artist shows in the way she carefully frames each isolated hallucination, but her vulnerability & ultimate mortality as a human being is what affords the work a solemn, but rewarding purpose. Humor at the expense of “passengers” who treat the Anaconda Cosmica like a luxury hotel and its (non-actor) employees/residents like servants are slyly made fun of in a social politics-minded undercurrent of humor. That comedy is just one thread in a larger tapestry, though, and the overall picture includes a hypnotic, but encyclopedic catalog of plants that are important to Peruvian culture, an ethnographic documentation of ayahuasca rituals’ adoption as tourist industry fodder, visual attempts to capture the vivid hallucinations triggered by those rituals, etc. Caraballo clearly intended to encompass the entirety of ayahuasca’s cultural & (to her) personal significance in what ended up being her sole feature film. She was smart to tackle an idea that ambitious by centering the story on an intimate two-person partnership within that larger culture, an act of humility in what easily could have been a (justifiably) self-centered film about her her own internal dread & grief. Ayahuasca is a drug that directly invites humility. Those who trip hardest on it often experience immediate attacks of vomiting & diarrhea (the cleaning of which is addressed by the film’s service industry critique), which leaves little room for huffy self-importance. Maybe that humility & small-scale, intimate empathy that come through so strongly in Icaros is something Caraballo learned in her own therapeutic sessions of ayahuasca ingestion. It’s sad that she’s not around to answer questions like that, but the work she left behind is remarkably dense, complex stuff. I doubt we’ll ever see a better film on the subject.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)

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In its opening minutes Beyond the Black Rainbow prepares its audience for its slow motion, abstract tone with phrases like “a state of mind”, “a way of being”, “a practical application of an abstract ideal”, and “the dawning of a new era in the human race and the human soul.” Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a straightforward cinematic experience, but instead works more like ambient music or a poem. In an age where the lines dividing cinema & television are becoming increasingly blurred, there’s an exponential value in movies that work this way. Recent mind-benders like Beyond the Black Rainbow, It Follows, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears are much-needed reminders that there are still things cinema can do that television can’t, no matter how much HBO wants you to believe otherwise.

That’s not to say that Beyond the Black Rainbow is an entirely new, unfamiliar experience. Its 1983 setting intentionally recalls vintage psychedelic sci-fi titles like Zardoz & Phase IV that turned a hangover from optimistic hippie mysticism into something much more sinister. Instead of apathetic dystopias & mutated killer ants, however, it mines its horrors from new age psychiatry, or what it calls “therapeutic technologies”. Although it’s set thirty years in the past, Beyond the Black Rainbow occupies a decidedly futuristic hellscape made up of telekinesis, television static, clouds of smoke, melting walls, and intense hues of red & blue. It packs the same unnerving punch of a traditional horror movie experience, but that effect is distilled in a futuristic void. This becomes increasingly apparent as the movie’s killer, an . . . unorthodox psychiatrist named Dr. Nile, behaves more & more like a traditional horror movie villain until he reaches full Jason Voorhees status late in the film.

The slow, methodical pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow is not going to win over everyone in the audience, but for those who aren’t in a particular rush for the plot to be pushed along are sure to be wowed by its plethora of mind-bending, often horrifying images. It is a decidedly cinematic experience, one that depends greatly on the strengths of its potent sounds & images instead of more traditional markers like plot & dialogue that carry less hallucinatory films. It’s impossible to imagine Beyond the Black Rainbow working in the television format and there’s an increasingly valuable virtue in that aspect of its design. Go into the film with an open mind & diligent patience and you may find the experience to be therapeutic, especially in a time where some people claim that television has surpassed cinema as a superior visual art form.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made James & Britnee watch The Masque of the Red Death (1964).

Brandon:
The Masque of The Red Death is one of eight films in the Corman-Poe cycle: a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman for American International Pictures. The Masque is widely considered the best of the Poe cycle as well as one of Corman’s best films overall, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. There’s so much about The Masque that’s firmly in my wheelhouse: over-the-top set design, an early glimpse of 60’s era Satanic psychedelia, Vincent Price taking effete delight in his own cruelty, a fatalistic ending that doesn’t stray from the pessimism of Poe’s story, Corman pushing the limits of what he can get away with visually on a shoestring budget. I love it all.

What struck me most on this recent viewing of The Masque is how well it’s suited for the Carnival season. With Fat Tuesday looming around the corner, it was impossible not to see aspects of Carnival in the masquerade ball hosted by Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). The cheap costumes & mockery of opulence is very much reminiscent of Mardi Gras parades. There’s even a scene where Prospero literally throws beads from a balcony shouting “Gifts! Gifts!” and scoffs at the greed of the people below. As the threat of The Red Death plague becomes increasingly severe, the masquerade takes on a “party while the ship is sinking” vibe New Orleans knows all too well. Horror films are usually tied to Halloween, but The Masque of the Red Death is distinctly akin to Mardi Gras in my mind.

James, do you also see Carnival in The Masque’s decadence, or does the Satan worship overpower that influence?

James:
Man, The Masque of the Red Death was awesome. The bold stylistic choices that Corman made on a limited budget and limited time (the final masquerade scene was filmed in a day) are astonishing. Some of the images in the film (The Red Death himself being the starkest) are mesmerizing. I think the film should also be noted for its pitch-perfect tone. Despite its macabre images, philosophical discussions of Satanism, and Prince Prospero’s nastiness, what could have been a dreary chore is instead a blast throughout.

In regards to the presence of Carnival in the film, I do think the masquerade ball scenes in particular have a very Mardi Gras feel to them. Masks with feathered beaks, gorilla suits, and a child masquerading as a little person don’t feel too far removed from the typical Carnival season debauchery. The Carnival feel also deepened a central theme of the film: lost souls celebrating a kind of momentary victory over Death. Ultimately, the film seems to have a nihilistic attitude towards Death, implying that the celebration is indeed a momentary victory and whether Christian, Satanist, or Atheist, we will all have to eventually confront an indifferent Death. But it also seems to find solace in our ability to shape our own existence while we are alive. This is echoed The Red Death’s climactic statement “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell.”

Britnee, what was your interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death? Is it wholly negative?

Britnee:
This was my first time viewing The Masque of Red Death, and I have to say that I was blown away. Vincent Price as Prince Prospero was dynamite. I was so close to hiding under the covers during the close-ups of his signature evil stare, but seconds later, I was imagining what it would be like to have a conversation & afternoon tea with him in one of those seven colored rooms. Also, one of my favorite things about the film was the set and costumes. I know the look was supposed to have a Medieval vibe, but I really felt that I was at a Satanic drug dealer’s mansion party in the early 60s. All that was missing was the orange shag carpet.

As for my interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death, I’m honestly not 100% sure. Death has always terrified/interested me, and I caught myself really falling into some deep thoughts about it while watching this film. The Christians and Satanists in Masque both experienced violent deaths, and neither of their higher powers swooped in to save them or give them a miraculous second chance. I guess the film is trying to show that Death cannot be avoided, regardless of power or faith. In the end when The Red Death states “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which literally means “Thus passes the glory of this world,” everything sort of hit me. Life can be very short & leave without warning, whether you’re a Christian villager living in poverty or a wealthy Satanic prince; it’s coming for us all!

Something else that stuck out was the interesting relationship between Prospero and Francesca. After sparing Francesca’s life, Prospero brings her to his castle to make her his consort and gives her a taste of his world. He becomes very intrigued with Francesca’s innocence and faith. As for Francesca, there are times where it seems as though she is giving in to temptation, but simultaneously she is in constant focus on her escape.

Brandon, what themes do the relationship between Prospero and Francesca bring to the film?

Brandon:
It’s reasonable to assume that Prospero wasn’t always the cruel tyrant we meet in the picture. He didn’t emerge from the womb executing peasants and cursing God. Prospero’s poisonous personality was likely the result of a gradual corruption of his soul, an evil born of his prosperous upbringing. Raised with untold wealth & influence, he came to rule over his fellow human beings like an unforgiving deity. Unsatisfied with the power his privilege as Earthly nobility affords him, he reaches even further beyond this realm and makes a deal with Satan in an attempt to overcome Death. Yet, there’s a little speck of good left in Prospero’s heart, which I think is what we see in his treatment of Francesca. At times he tries to prove that even her innocence can be corrupted because he wants to be assured that his own wickedness can be found in every person’s heart. He even asks her to join him in mocking the greed & decay in the guests at the masque, because he believes all people to be as amoral as he is. At other times, he goes out of his way to protect her and spare her life, an instinct that surprises even The Red Death. The only other glimpse of good we see in Prospero is when he asks his guards to spare a baby’s life at the gates. Although he is beyond redemption, (not that redemption matters in the eyes of Death,) Francesca affords Prospero his last chance to act like a true human being.

Then there’s the fact that the actress who plays Francesca, Jane Asher, was just achingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that she was in a relationship with & at one time engaged to Sir Paul McCartney in the 60s. She was attractive enough to snare a Beatle during the fever pitch of Beatlemania, so surely a demented prince who can’t even cheat Death wouldn’t stand a chance against her charms. Perhaps simple lust spares her life. I think Francesca stands out here as a hip youngster (maybe it’s all in those bangs?) and helps add to that 60s drug dealer mansion party vibe mentioned above. So much of the film feels rebellious in an anachronistic way. Prospero’s philandering is out of control. Lines like “Satan rules the universe!” and “Each man creates his own god for himself” are pretty edgy for 1964, even coming from the villains. Keep in mind this is still years before the New Hollywood, a movement Roger Corman cannot be praised enough for influencing.

James, how do you see the balance between the movie’s setting and the era in which it was filmed?

James:
The movie definitely has an edge that makes it still creepy and blasphemous over 40 years later. I wonder how much Corman was in tune with the counterculture of the time because, despite it being a British production, the film feels more like a deranged product of the 60’s San Fransisco hippie movement, like a horror version of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; its macabre decadence fueled by lust and greed. It’s also most likely no coincidence that the epicenter of the hippie movement was the same place that the Anton Lavey established the Church of Satan in 1966. Themes like the destruction of social norms and an openness to sexual and spiritual experiences seem to be shared by The Masque of the Red Death, Satanists, and the hippies; “Each man creates his own god for himself” is THE basic philosophical statement of Satanism. I also think this is reflected in the dark, psychedelic imagery that The Masque of the Red Death and Satanist rituals share. (Photo for example)

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Britnee, How strongly do you think the psychedelic aesthetic of the 60’s influenced The Masque of the Red Death? Any specific examples that stick out to you?

Britnee:
I think that The Masque of the Red Death was as psychedelic as it gets, at least for a horror film based in Medieval times. An example that really sticks out to me is the colors used throughout the film, most importantly, the use of red. Red usually represents blood, gore, and all the good stuff horror movies are made of, but when I also think of the term “psychedelic,” red is usually the color that comes to mind. After doing a little research, I found that the color red has a pretty long wavelength and very low vibration; this pretty much explains how the red tint that is present in multiple scenes really gives off this warm, draining feeling. Sounds a bit like the feeling you get after taking a hallucinogen or two, right? Also, all of those gaudy colors in the castle & clothing of Prospero and his pals can’t go without mention. While I’m not a Middle Ages expert or enthusiast, I’m almost positive that the colors of clothing and décor weren’t as bright and vibrant during that era as they are in the film. It’s obvious that the 60’s psychedelic aesthetic heavily influenced those hues.

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Brandon:
I’d just like to point out one last time just how early this film was released. A lot of what we think of as the hippie-dippie 60s came very late in the decade. The era-defining Summer of Love was in 1967, the same year Roger Corman dropped acid for the first time and fictionalized his experience in the film The Trip. The Masque‘s 1964 release positions the film as years ahead of its time. Corman was pulling off the Satanic psychedelia vibe the same year that Mary Poppins & My Fair Lady were huge cultural hits. I’m not saying Masque was particularly a major influence on the countercultural swell that was to come, but it at least was somewhat visually intuitive. And Corman himself did have direct influence on the later films that typified that counterculture, films like Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. Even back then, when “don’t trust anyone over 30” was a motto to live by, he was the hippest geezer in the room and a filmmaking rebel.

Britnee:
After the discussion with The Swampflix Crew, so many ideas and thoughts about The Masque of the Red Death were brought to the surface. It gave me an excuse to watch the film a couple more times, and I fell in love with it more each viewing. The movie also got me hooked on the Corman-Poe films, so I’m currently trying to get my hands on all of them. The Masque of the Red Death was just a great balance of horror, suspense, and drama that gave me some really unsettling thoughts & a case of the willies. Great job, Corman!

James:
Really enjoyed the discussion of The Masque of the Red Death. Watching the film a second time and taking into account all the points you guys made deepened my appreciation and understanding of the film. Definitely want to see more Corman, especially the Poe films. As Brandon pointed out, Corman seemed to have his hand on the pulse of the counterculture and was always one step ahead of mainstream Hollywood. Truly a filmmaker ahead of his time.

-The Swampflix Crew

Upcoming Movie of the Months
March: James presents The Seventh Seal (1957)
April: Britnee presents Blood & Black Lace (1964)