Violence Voyager (2019)

It’s becoming an annual routine for me to be captivated by some sexually menacing, cursed object that seemingly no one else in Film Nerd Land cares about. In the recent past, titles like The Wild Boys, Double Lover, and We Are the Flesh have triggered that ol’ Cronenberg feeling deep in my subconscious so that they’re all I want to talk about, despite being too alienating & gross to properly evangelize. Violence Voyager is my beloved Cronenbergian Nightmare of the Year in that respect, as it’s at once the most exciting and the most deeply uncomfortable film I’ve seen in ages, one I’m desperate to discuss with some like-minded freaks but feel hesitant to widely promote given its not-for-everyone discomforts. I won’t claim that it’s my favorite film of this cursed ilk, but it very well might be the most disturbing, as its peculiar brand of horror & sexuality involves the abuse of young children. More disturbing yet, the film feels as if it were made entirely by one loner-creep in some far-off basement, as if he were racing to publish his work before being raided by the authorities for crimes against society & good taste. It’s the rare work of modern outsider filmmaking that feels genuinely dangerous, with all the excitement & unease that descriptor implies.

In essence, Violence Voyager is a Cronenbergian puppet show. Sidestepping the financial time constraints of traditional animation, Japanese filmmaker Ujicha hand-operates 2D cutouts of illustrated characters against hand-painted backdrops. Their vintage illustration designs and seemingly hundreds of alternate poses means the work is neither lazy nor simplistic, but they’re still crudely animated & vocally dubbed to approximate an amateur backyard puppet show instead of a professional production. It feels as if a Henry Darger type had cut out characters from ancient board game boxes and recorded their imaginary interactions on VHS tapes that somehow made it into wide circulation. The genius of this technique is that it allows Ujicha to experiment with a mixed media approach that incorporates liquids, fire, smoke, and shadows. Just when you think you’ve gotten a grasp on what the movie is up to visually, the surprise intrusion of a seminal goo or firecracker “explosion” will knock you on your ass again. No matter how much effort artists like Jim Henson & Jan Švankmajer put into ensuring puppetry is taken seriously as adult entertainment in the past, the medium still inherently feels like it’s designed to attract children – an effect that Ujicha leans into with diabolical intent. Violence Voyager sometimes looks & sounds like cheap-o Saturday Morning television aimed directly at kids, but just one viewing could scar a child for life.

Plot-wise, Violence Voyager plays like an adaptation of a vintage choose-your-own-adventure novel or first-wave video game. A blonde American boy named Bobby is ostracized as a foreigner in his mountainside Japanese community, but has managed to make a few friends among the local children (and with a cat tamed Dereck). While getting into some Summertime Mischief in an isolated pocket of the mountain forest, Bobby and his BFFs stumble across a rundown amusement park named Violence Voyager. Admitted free of charge and armed with Super Soakers, they’re instructed to fire their “weapons” at an invading force of alien robots, which pop out of bushes at random in a kind of in-the-flesh video game. This embarrassingly dorky activity turns sinister as the amusement park quickly transforms into an escape room. Bobby discovers that he & his besties aren’t the only children who’ve been lured to the amusement park prison. Dozens of local children are being held hostage and turned into mutant abominations that eerily resemble the alien invaders of Violence Voyager lore. Grotesquely disfigured and forever psychologically scarred by his captors, Bobby must become the futuristic adventurer he only pretended to be when the stakes were fictional. The results of his heroism are more revolting than awe-inspiring, but it’s a noble effort all the same.

The biggest price at the door for enjoying this diabolical work is that you must be okay with seeing violence against children & animals simulated for your entertainment. As nasty as Ujicha’s visual creations can be, it helps tremendously that the acts of fantastic, unreal violence are crudely animated instead of pantomimed in live action. It does not at all help that the children are often nude. As far as the audience can tell, the Cronenbergian mutation experiments that drive the film’s plot do not involve any outright sexual abuse. However, the film stubbornly lingers on the imagery of naked child bodies in an uncomfortable way that pairs horrifically with the cheerful optimism of its vintage kids’ games aesthetic. Even before the true horror starts, the kids look oddly deformed & scarred – as if they had been raised near an unmentioned industrial dump. Later, we’re confronted with illustrations of their genitalia in mad scientist laboratory environments; the abusive implications of that juxtaposition crawls right under your skin regardless of whether it’s directly mentioned. I mean it both as a compliment and a warning that this film is reminiscent of Henry Darger’s work; it’s both a beautiful art object and a traumatic guided tour of some far-off sicko’s subconscious.

I don’t know that I can outright recommend Violence Voyager without feeling like a total scumbag, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t report that it’s one of my personal favorite discoveries of the year. If you’re looking for one of the most bizarre, brutal, psychologically disturbing visions of Hell that 2019 has to offer, look no further. Just be prepared to walk away wondering if the weirdo who made it is a potential sex criminal, or if you wound up on a government watchlist merely by renting it. It is one especially queasy slice of sleaze, which is apparently something I regularly crave.

-Brandon Ledet

Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet

The Happytime Murders (2018)

Brian Henson (son of Jim) is currently being steamrolled by pro critics in his jump from directing children’s puppetry films like Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island to his first feature intended for adult audiences. Most of the negativity for Henson’s The Happytime Murders (as indicated by its 27 score on Metacritic & its 21% on the dreaded Tomatometer) seems to be framed around the jaded, seen-it-all attitude that his film’s central gimmick of raunchy Muppets humor is far from a brand-new novelty, with Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles serving as the most often-cited comparison point. That critique feels a little empty to me, as Feebles is far from the only raunchy Muppets-But-For-Adults media setting a precedent for Henson’s film. Wonder Showzen, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and TV Funhouse have all mined the Dirty Muppets gimmick for “mature” humor post-Feebles. Better yet, Meet the Feebles itself was also preceded by over a decade by the porno-comedy Let My Puppets Come. Henson’s latest is not a Feebles knockoff so much as it’s part of an ever-expanding genre of adult puppetry, a subclass of comedy distinct enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In fact, Henson himself has participated in this genre before as executive producer of the (underseen, underrated) political punditry spoof show No, You Shut Up!, which features puppets & performers recycled & repurposed in his latest critical debacle; the unexpected joy of seeing those puppets again was admittedly a huge part of why I’m soft on The Happytime Murders overall. No, it’s not a debt to Meet the Feebles that tempers the successes of Henson’s first feature intended for adults. It’s the debt that it owes to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that really weighs the film down (and also tarnishes Roger Rabbit’s memory in retrospect).

In Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy/special effects showcase Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, live-action humans & 2D cartoons interact in an alternate-history Old Hollywood past were the toons are seen as second-class citizens. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders unwisely picks up that same dynamic in its Muppet & human-cohabitated LA, underlining the racial allegory of the Roger Rabbit conceit for empty, uncomfortable political satire. Melissa McCarthy is tasked to hold down the Bob Hoskins role as the too-old-for-this-shit cop with open, callous bigotry for the puppets she must interact with while working her beat. As demonstrated by Max Landis’s recent critical disaster Bright, this Roger Rabbit blueprint for racial allegory divorced from actual racial identity has not aged especially well since Zemeckis’s film was released three decades ago (at least not in the hands of white artists interpreting POC experiences). While McCarthy is reluctantly paired with a puppet partner to investigate a string of puppet murders and learns that not all puppets are so bad along the way, the audience has no choice but to squirm through each political implication of that overriding allegory in a way that detracts from the film’s central mission: comedy. Sometimes these political missteps are uncomfortable in a presumably unintentional way, like when a rabbit puppet is “humorously” indicated to have dozens of illegitimate children (because rabbits breed a lot; it’s in everyone’s best interest to read further into it). Sometimes it’s deliberately uncomfortable in an #edgy way, like when a homeless puppet performs a minstrel tap-dance for humans’ spare change on an L.A. street corner or another has their blue felt bleached to appear more like their fleshy oppressors. In either instance, the conceit is a clumsy misfire that says way more about the failed legacy of Roger Rabbit than it does about Meet the Feebles.

There are a couple Roger Rabbit-isms that The Happytime Murders does pick up to great success, however; its jokes are often funny & its noir pastiche plot makes for a genuinely engaging story. If nothing else, my first-act guess about the puppet-murderer’s identity was only half-correct, so I have some unexpected respect for the film’s ability to stage an engaging mystery. That’s not typically what I look for in a comedy, though. I’m looking to laugh, which is not at all a problem with the talent on hand: McCarthy, who is always a hoot; Elizabeth Banks bringing back some of that scenery-chewing Power Rangers energy; The Office’s Leslie David Baker, playing the exasperated police chief role he was born for; Maya Rudolph doing her best impression of Annie Potts’s 1940s secretary schtick from the original-flavor Ghostbusters. Then there’s the puppetry itself, which applies the level of artistry you’d expect from the Henson family name to novelty sex imagery like cow udders being rhythmically milked, Dalmatian dominatrices working the business end of whips, and a puppet ejaculating entire cans’ worth of silly string. The worst I can say about The Happytime Murders’s raunchy puppet humor is that a few of its jokes are openly “borrowed” from outside sources (particularly the line “Does this smell like chloroform to you?” and a bit about sewn-shut assholes lifted wholesale from a Wu-Tang skit), but that’s nothing extraordinary given the film’s overall commitment to schtick. Humor is highly subjective so there’s no accounting for what people might find funny or too old-hat in the picture, but if you have a general appreciation for the adult puppet genre (or think a ZAZ-style spoof of the noir template might be worth a chuckle) the movie delivers the dumb-comedy goods.

The Happytime Murders is a three-star comedy with a half-star critical reputation, which is not at all uncommon with this shamelessly lowbrow end of raunch & schtick. The central allegory in its human-puppet racial relations is a clumsy embarrassment, but its general sense of raunchy Muppet humor is good for a goof, especially if Meet the Feebles isn’t your only comparison point for the adult puppetry genre, as they both benefit from a lager perspective than a 1:1 comparison. This is especially true for anyone who felt betrayed by the untimely demise of No, You Shut Up! (which was tragically canceled months before our last presidential election cycle, to my personal horror). As much as I enjoyed the film more than most audiences seemed to, it never made me as happy with a sex joke as it did with an incorporation of a discarded puppet or vocal performance from that show.

-Brandon Ledet

Watching The Dark Crystal (1982) with Toby Froud

EPSON MFP image

I’ve been a huge Jim Henson fan basically my entire life. I grew up with The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and all of the Muppet movies. Given all of that, The Dark Crystal was a movie I watched a lot as a kid, but at that time, I don’t think any of the important detail stuck. It wasn’t until watching it last year as an adult I finally really appreciated it. The Dark Crystal functions in such a dense, beautiful world. It’s got new cultures, strange creatures, and symbols on top of symbols. I recently got the chance to see it with a Q&A by Toby Froud that expanded upon the time and love it took to create this masterpiece.

The Dark Crystal is an epic. It was Jim Henson’s passion project. He wanted to be known as a filmmaker and not just The Muppet Guy. It took Henson five years to make along with a team of highly dedicated creatives with a wide range of talents (jewelry making, costume designers, puppeteers, writers). Among them were Brain Froud who was the designer for The Dark Crystal and Wendy Midener who sculpted and created the Gelflings. They met working on the film. Toby Froud is their son and, following in the footsteps of his parents, a puppet fabricator for Laika. (He also was the baby in  Labyrinth.) Although The Dark Crystal was before he was born, he grew up with goblins and Gelflings all around, and has a unique perspective. It obviously was extremely influential for him.

Toby showed a slideshow of original concept art, screen tests, behind the scenes messing around, and supplied anecdotes to go along with each one. The Dark Crystal is one of the only movies in the world that is all puppetry. So many of the pictures showed just how much work and ingenuity these creatures took: men being stuck into Garthim suits, faces being sculpted, strange contraptions to figure out exactly how things would realistically move. Everything was crafted from the ground up. There was no story even to begin with. Jim Henson just started with images of creatures and ideas about the world; everything else just came as they started making things. People dedicated their time. Some people even risked their lives walking on stilts in Landstrider costumes on top of raised sets.

Given the dense nature of the world a lot of material has been written to expand it. There are the Creation Myths graphic novels and an upcoming full length novelization of events that occur after the original story. There have been rumors of a sequel coming for years, some sounding more serious than others. Toby Froud even said not to count the possibility out. That got me wishful thinking. A Laika-made Dark Crystal sequel is something that I would line up to see.

-Alli Hobbs