The Doom Generation (1995)

If you follow enough fired-up cynics on Twitter, you’d think that queer youth culture is suddenly going soft after decades of consistent, unified radical politics.  There are surely some fruitful debates to be had about the ways corporate & police presence have been welcomed into Pride celebrations recently, especially when it comes at the expense of freer, kinkier expressions of queer sexuality.  However, I’m a little more skeptical about the recent in-house dogpiling on “tenderqueer” Zoomers for their generational desire to see wholesome, conflict-free Gay Representation onscreen, as if that impulse is anything new.  Politically edgier queer audiences have been debating Gay Assimilationists about the value of presenting “the right kind of representation” to the public at large since at least as far back as Stonewall, which has led to much controversy over “the wrong kind of representation” in movies like Basic Instinct, Cruising, and The Boys in the Band for presenting their queer characters as flawed & villainous when they had no wholesome mainstream counterbalance.  I have to wonder how much that eternal controversy has dulled the career & reputation of queer provocateur Gregg Araki, whose signature works have been left to rot in censored, out-of-print obscurity since he first made a splash in the New Queer Cinema era of the 1990s.  All those decades ago, Araki got enough pushback for making hyperviolent, oversexed queer art he describes as “too punk rock for gay people” that he thought it’d be easier to sneak his edgier, more outrageous ideas into his version of a straight film. Araki’s breakout 1995 road trip flick The Doom Generation is even subtitled “A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki,” a cheeky in-joke about how it’s easier to get away with making his provocative, overtly queer outsider art within a heterosexual dynamic, since there’s much less pressure to deliver “the right kind of representation” in that context.  Or, as Araki put it in a recent interview, “I made this heterosexual movie, but in a very punk rock bratty way, made it so gay.”

That hetero cosplay may have landed Araki easier production funding, but the prudish straights in charge of mainstream movie distribution were not fooled.  The Doom Generation has been heavily, viciously censored since it first premiered at Sundance, with its various R-rated home video cuts removing up to 20 minutes of footage so that what’s left onscreen is borderline incoherent.  Although some of those Blockbuster Video-friendly edits removed scenes of cartoonish ultraviolence, you will not be surprised to learn that a majority of what has been removed is its queer sexual content, which drives most of the relationship dynamics between its trio of disaffected Gen-X leads.  So, it’s a huge deal that The Doom Generation has been recently restored to fit Araki’s original vision nearly three decades after its film festival premiere, re-released into a post-She-Ra, post-Steven Universe tenderqueer world that’s just as squeamish about the wrong kinds of representation as it’s always been.  Its theatrical victory lap is a bittersweet blessing for me personally, in that I wish it was around in my life when I was a John Waters-obsessed edgelord teen, but I also cherished getting to see it for the first time with a rowdy crowd of queer weirdos who hooted & hollered the entire screening.  Laughing along with like-minded genre freaks made every horned-up, airheaded line reading hit way harder than it would have if I watched it alone on VHS in the 90s, with or without the prudish MPAA censorship.  There was something heartwarming about sharing that experience with multiple generations of in-the-flesh human weirdos who might be inclined to snipe at each other for minor political differences online but can’t help but cackle & gasp in unison at campy, radical queer art when it’s presented IRL.  It’s just not that often that boundary-pushing queer art survives the controversy cycle to reach queer audiences in the first place, and it turns out that costuming itself as “heterosexual” can only help it get so far.

Internal gay debates about positive representation in American media may have not changed much in the past few decades, but to be fair neither has America at large.  If The Doom Generation lives up to its “heterosexual” subtitle in any authentic way, it’s in its depiction of an apocalyptic USA in cultural decline.  It’s one the best movies out there about how boring, rotten, and beautifully cheap life in America can be, defining US culture as a putrid pile of junk food, junk television, fundamentalist Christians, and Nazi right-wingers.  Set in an America where everything costs $6.66 and is protected by loaded gun, the film responds to the nation’s final moments before Rapture with pure Gen-X apathy, shrugging off every grotesque fascist afront with a Valley Girl “Whatever!” worthy of Cher Horowitz herself.  Rose McGowan & James Duvall star as a pair of aimless, politically numb punks whose teenage puppylove is disrupted by the intrusion of Johnathon Schaech, a leather-clad agent of chaos.  After the third-wheel interloper makes them accomplices in the brutal (and somewhat accidental) murder of a gas station clerk, the trio go on a cross-country, Natural Born Killers crime spree touring the nation’s cheapest fast-food joints & honeymoon motels.  The reluctant throuple’s initial sexual dynamic starts as adulterous betrayal, but quickly devolves into a bisexual free-for-all that edges the audience to desperately want to see the two male leads kiss (and more).  Only, Araki interrupts the gay male tension in that central threesome with a violent reminder of just how broken & violent life in America can be, concluding their road trip with a shock of strobelit Nazi brutality that fucks everything up just when it things are starting to get properly heated.  The Doom Generation might feature characters exploring the boundaries of their emerging queer sexual identities, but it’s also honest about how horrific it can feel to do so among the straight Christian psychopaths who run the USA – something all generations of queer audiences can relate to, no matter how sensitive they are to onscreen sex & violence.

I could go on all day about how sexually, politically transgressive The Doom Generation is in both its modern & retro American contexts, but really its greatest strength is that it’s extremely cool.  McGowan’s Gen-X punk uniform of plastic gas station sunglasses, see-through plastic raincoat, and blunt, dyed goth bob looks just as hip now as it ever did.  Every motel room & dive bar interior is a gorgeously cheap fantasy realm of D.I.Y. decor & artifice, so much so that I mistook the out-of-context screengrabs I’ve seen over the years for a momentary dream sequence instead of the overall art design.  Decades before anyone would think to tweet “Give Parker Posey a sword,” Gregg Araki gave Parker Posey a sword, casting her as a crazed lesbian stalker in a cheap drag queen wig.  And yet Duvall’s performance stands out as the coolest detail of all, nailing the kind of puppydog himbo humor that would have made him a beloved Keanu Reeves-level cult figure if this film were given the proper, uncensored distribution it deserved.  It’s not often you see a movie combine the finer points of Heathers, Freeway, Blood Diner, and Terminal U.S.A. into one toxic Gen-X gumbo, even if it’s one that crassly force-feeds the concoction to its audience through an unwashed beer funnel.  I was overjoyed to gulp down The Doom Generation unfiltered with a full crowd of fellow filth-hungry weirdos, if not only for the reminder that radical queer art has always been controversial by nature, and America has always been an apocalyptic cesspool.  At the same time, I also left the theater angry that the film hadn’t been funneled into my brain sooner, and that so much of Araki’s back catalog of bad-representation punk provocations are still not readily accessible to the modern public.  Here’s to hoping that titles like Nowhere, Splendor, and Totally Fucked Up get this same digital-restoration victory lap soon—theatrical re-release and all—before Christian America gets the Rapture it so desperately wants.

-Brandon Ledet

Freaks vs. The Reich (2023)

I’ve been struggling to find much to get excited about in theaters lately, now that “Summer” Blockbuster Season has encroached well into Spring, and multiplex marquees are once again all superheroes all of the time.  The general vibe among moviegoing audiences is that the superhero era is winding down post-Endgame, but it’s going to take a long time for Hollywood studios to adjust to that dwindling enthusiasm, since these billion-dollar behemoths take years to produce & market.  Personally, I’m so deeply, incurably bored by American superhero media that I’m avoiding all four-quadrant crowd-pleasers out there, not just the usual suspects like the new Guardians, the new Ant-Man, and the new Shazam.  If I stare at the poster or trailer for any tentpole blockbuster above a 6-figure production budget for long enough, they all appear to follow the same MCU superhero action template.  Super Mario Bros, Dungeons & Dragons, and Fast X are all essentially superhero movies to me, each with their own invincible, quippy gods among men who save the day by extending their IP.  I can’t hide from the new release calendar forever, though, so I need to re-learn how to enjoy a superhero movie or two until Hollywood fully moves onto the next money-printing fad.  Given that there are already dozens of Marvel & DC movies slated for release over the next few summers, it’s likely going to take a long time for this lumbering industry to correct course.  So, it’s somewhat fortuitous that the Italian supernatural action epic Freaks vs. The Reich finally landed a US release in this dire time of need, after years of stumbling over international distribution hurdles.  It’s the most convincing evidence I’ve seen in a while that there is still some juice left in the superhero genre, despite Hollywood’s determination to squeeze it dry and pummel the rind.

If there’s anything more frustratingly slow than Hollywood’s response to public appetite, it’s the distribution of international art films, which often fall into a years-long limbo between their initial festival runs and their wide US premieres.  I’ve been waiting to see Freaks vs. The Reich for so long that its earliest roadblocks were COVID related, and its original title has since been changed to give it a fresher, more recognizable appeal.  I suppose rebranding the film from Freaks Out to its new, more descriptive title is a useful warning for the shocking amount of Nazi imagery you’ll find in this supernatural circus sideshow fantasy.  It also helps explain why it’s so easy to cheer on the titular, superpowered freaks who take those Nazis down.  I wonder if some of its distribution delays had to do with clearing song rights, since the main Nazi supervillain in question abuses ether to mentally time-travel into the future, returning to the battlefields of WWII with visions of smartphones, video game controllers, and old-timey renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” & Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”  The inclusion of “Creep” is important to note there, since the song also happens to be featured in the more traditional, straightforward superhero epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is currently eating up a grotesque amount of American screen space.  Whether you think it’s more interesting to hear that song played on a Spotify algorithm mixtape to evoke easy nostalgia points or performed by a drugged-out, time-traveling Nazi supervillain is a question of taste, but I can at least personally attest to appreciating a sense of variety within this oppressively omnipresent genre template.

Freaks vs. The Reich opens with a full circus sideshow act, introducing our Italian superhero freaks one at a time as they show off their individual talents – a magnetic dwarf, an electric ballerina, a real-life wolf-man, etc.  Before they can bow for audience applause, however, their tent is blown to shreds by Nazi warplanes, and they spend the rest of the movie rebuilding the team so they can end the war themselves.  Caught up in concentration camp processing, Italian militia resistance, and general wartime disorientation, they are all eventually reunited by the ether-huffing, time-travelling Nazi who’s convinced he can win the war for Hitler if he assembles the freaks to fight for Deutschland.  This all culminates in a grand superpowers battle in an open field (the way most superhero epics do), and I will admit that the journey to get to that predetermined conclusion can be a little overlong & draining (the way most superhero epics are).  There’s at least some novelty in the film’s antique circus sideshow aesthetic and WWII historical contexts, though, and novelty is a precious commodity for a genre that’s been so prevalent over the past decade.  It’s like watching the cast of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children act out the plot of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio on the leftover sets of Matteo Garrone’s live-action Pinocchio – an antique Italo horror show.  You won’t find that kind of aesthetic deviance in the upcoming Flash or Captain Marvel sequels, which you can pretty much already picture start to end in your head sight-unseen.  These superhero freaks are flawed, messy, and they fuck, including the wolfman archetype in what has to be the hairiest sex scene since The Howling Part II: Your Sister is a Werewolf.  Meanwhile, Marvel & DC are still stubbornly stuck in a chaste, sanitized universe where “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.”  They also murder Nazis, a universally agreeable target that hasn’t been attacked with such sincere patriotism since Marvel peaked in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger.

I’m probably doing this movie no favors by comparing it against American superhero media, since everyone’s starting to feel the same way about the genre as we felt about zombie media 17 seasons into The Walking Dead: numbly apathetic.  Within that context, though, it’s a breath of fresh ether – one of the strangest, most upsetting superhero stories since James Gunn made Super, at least five James Gunn superhero movies ago.  Maybe Freaks vs. The Reich would have fared better before our culture-wide superhero fatigue fully settled (it was initially set to be released less than a year after Endgame), but I personally needed it now more than ever, just so something in this genre didn’t look like a total snooze.

-Brandon Ledet

Master Gardener (2023)

Paul Schrader is a controversial figure. Once upon a time, the writer of The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver was an easy person to point to as, inarguably, a man who understood how to tell a story and tell it well. A professed Christian, it’s hard to pin down what exactly he believes in. In 2016, his online outbursts about the soon-to-be-inaugurated 45th U.S. president were so vitriolic—he even invoked the name of John Brown, the famous abolitionist who was martyred following his attempts to incite slave rebellions prior to the Civil War—that they prompted an investigation from the NYPD’s Counter Terrorism unit. Last year, however, in another social media post apparently inspired by the Academy Awards sweep by Everything Everywhere All at Once, he criticized the “wokeness” of the Oscars, and the year prior, he referred to the positive critical reappraisal of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in the Sight & Sound decade-ending poll as a “landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.” With that in mind, one has to wonder what he means with his latest picture, Master Gardener, as he was both writer and director on the feature. Technically, there are spoilers ahead.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) leads a team of groundskeepers at the historical estate of Gracewood Gardens. He is meticulous in every word and deed; his interactions with his staff and his employer include very precise word choice, his planning of the grounds and deliberate choices of which flowers should be planted in which quadrant to ensure complementary and continuous blooming demonstrate a profound punctiliousness, and his small home—which sits on the grounds just near the main house at Gracewood—is rigidly organized and maintained. In his journals and his dreams, however, we learn that his mind is not so painstakingly groomed and patterned. Early on, he refers to the moments of anticipation leading up to the blooming of a flower with the use of a violent simile: that it is like the moment leading up to the pulling of a trigger. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Gracewood is not where Narvel was hired, but is in fact where he was placed, as part of the Witness Protection Program. A former member of a neo-Nazi militia, he turned state’s evidence and has resided at Gracewood ever since. (I know that, for some, this will constitute a spoiler, but I also feel it important to take note of this, since I went into the film with no knowledge that this would be part of the film, and this is a sensitive topic that I feel it is important to have some forewarning about.) 

His world begins to change when the ancestral owner of the estate, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), informs Narvel that he will soon be responsible for the apprenticeship of her great niece, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya, the product of an interracial marriage, formerly visited the grounds with her mother, the daughter of Norma’s sister, when she was a child, but those visits came to an end with Maya’s mother took ill and died. In contrast to Narvel’s overt but distant racism, Norma’s is genteel but still very much present. She refers to Maya, derisively, as being of “mixed blood,” and in the scene in which we learn that there are elements of sexual transaction in Narvel and Norma’s relationship, we see that she regards the medley of racist tattoos that Narvel keeps hidden beneath his gardening clothes (the numbers 88 and 14, the Confederate flag, cracker bolts, and the obligatory swastika) with gratified admiration. While Narvel interacts pleasantly and respectfully with his diverse staff, Maya, and even his WitSec contact Oscar Neruda (Puerto Rican-American Esai Morales) in a way that demonstrates that he has shaken off the hatred of his past, Norma still occupies what is clearly and inarguably a former plantation house, and the way that she carries herself and interacts with both her staff and her last living relative, whom she considers tainted by her non-whiteness, demonstrates that her passive racism and white supremacy is harmful in the same way that Narvel’s past neo-Nazi activities were. Things take a turn for the worse when Norma banishes Narvel and Maya from Gracewood when she falsely assumes that the two have developed a sexual relationship. Narvel invites Maya to come with him, detox and get sober, and continue to learn to find meaning in the horticultural arts, but even though he has pruned himself in such a way that he has grown into a different person, his worries that his roots (pun intended) in violence and white supremacy may taint him and his actions forever. 

I see this film being listed as a crime thriller in most postings, and while it definitely has elements of that genre (there are certain segments involving vigilante activity that feel like they could have been lifted directly from the 2014 version of The Equalizer), Master Gardener is, first and foremost, a character study, and frequently has moments of black comedy as well. Narvel is a man of contradictions, formerly a member of the worst kind of terrorist organization who now stands as the human bulwark between the aging Norma and her staff. When Maya sees his tattoos and confronts him about them, asking why he hasn’t had them covered up or removed, he has no real answer for her, only stating that he had looked into it and decided not to (which I interpret as Narvel having left them on his body for Norma’s sake but not wanting to say this outright, but that’s just my reading of the text and is by no means canonical). In an early sequence in which Narvel’s journal is presented to us in voiceover, he recounts that while it was once thought that seeds had a lifespan of less than two centuries, but that some that had been uncovered by archaeologists millennia after they were harvested were able to be sprouted, speaking to the perseverance of nature, but in the same sequence, he refers to his tattoos as seeds as well, and it’s left ambiguous what this means. Does he think that hate is eternal? What does he expect them to germinate into? We never get a clear answer. 

This is a rich, beautifully photographed, and sumptuous film. Immediately after, when my viewing companion and I were discussing it over dinner, neither of us was sure if we had enjoyed it or not, and I’m still not sure, as I write this a day later. It’s certainly leagues better than the last Schrader film that I saw (The Canyons), and there’s a beauty in its ambiguity that I have to admire. It recalls Schrader’s most well-known film, Taxi Driver, insofar as it is about a man with a dark and troubled past whose obsessive devotion to a younger woman leads him to violent acts, but where it differs is that the older film is about a man who becomes a proto-incel because he can only see the ugliness of the world, while Gardener is about a man who is seeking redemption, and maybe finding it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ed and His Dead Mother (1993)

Ed Chilton (Steve Buscemi) is a mama’s boy; he may, in fact, be the mama’s boy to end all mama’s boys. See, her voice is still ringing in his ears, a year after her death. The late Mabel Chilton (Miriam Margolyes) went to her grave a full twelve months ago, leaving her hardware store to Ed, where he employs the kindly (Gary Farmer) and fields phone calls from the murderous Reverend Paxton (Rance Howard), who has frequent questions about what hardware would be best to kill his adulterous wife. On an otherwise normal day, Ed finds himself visited by A. J. Pattle (John Glover), a salesman peddling resurrection for the late Mabel, payable on delivery. Ed agrees, much to the chagrin of his live-in uncle, Benny (Ned Beatty), the exact kind of peeping tom horndog that pegs this movie to 1993. The object of Benny’s desire is next-door-neighbor Storm Reynolds (Sam Sorbo credited under her maiden name), who, in fairness, parades around intentionally, trying to attract attention. Uncle Benny is even further perturbed when his sister reappears in the flesh, little worse for wear. She and Ed both have something to fear from the unstable Rob Sundheimer (Jon Gries), a former employer who was convicted by Mabel’s testimony and who’s out on parole with vengeance in his mind. 

There’s something very familiar about Ed and His Dead Mother. It’s very tonally inconsistent in a way that really pigeonholes it as something that could only be created at a certain time; it felt a lot like My Boyfriend’s Back and Stepmonster. And wouldn’t you just know it, all three films were released in 1993 (there’s also a little hint of 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead).  There’s some played-for-laughs not-quite-body-horror here that’s very reminiscent of Boyfriend; for one thing, a distinction is made between bringing someone back to life and bringing someone back from the dead, and as Pattle notes while upselling Ed another product, only latter was promised, not the former. As such, Mabel is forced to consume “life,” meaning living things (mostly roaches), but she isn’t above considering a neighborhood dog, or worse. We never have to see Mabel eat roaches like it’s Fear Factor, nor are we confronted with the image of a canine in distress; like Boyfriend and Don’t Tell Mom, there’s no real gore (at least until the end, where it’s still not very realistic), and there’s very little real sense of menace. Like Stepmonster, it places itself in a very specific time when someone can peep on their hot lady neighbor and the film acts like this is perfectly acceptable behavior that doesn’t soil our protagonist’s character, and here, this goes beyond simple safe-for-TV underwear shots, but a full-on bare-assed striptease and even frontal nudity, a little more than you’d expect from a PG-13 flick and especially something that you wouldn’t expect in a film where the humor feels as juvenile as the aforementioned movies. The sex factor is too high for kids in this movie, but the jokes are either too heady or too obvious for a more upper-teen demographic. It is still darker than any of those, however, as none of the end in a cemetery in which a man must bury his mother’s head in one corner and her body in another, lest she rise again. 

There are a lot of bits here that are quite good. The increasingly unhinged Reverend whose rage at his wife’s infidelities (with all of the church council no less, even the women — all at once!) is a lot of fun, and when we get to see another side of Pattle, whom we’ve only seen as a hectoring salesbully with Ed, sheepishly being lectured by upper management about draining Ed of every cent that he got from his mother’s insurance instead of giving so many discounts. Margolyes is clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Mabel, especially when she’s cartoonishly grinding meat, chasing dogs, and locking herself in the fridge. Glover is always fun, especially when he’s getting to push people around, and Buscemi carries the thankless lead role of the feckless Ed effortlessly. I just wish it was funnier, that it made me laugh a little more. Maybe I’m just not in the target demographic, but then again, I don’t know who is.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Candy Land (2023)

Whether it’s to avoid dating itself with the rapidly evolving technology of smartphones & social media or if it’s to avoid the practical problem-solving that modern tech offers, a lot of contemporary horror drags its settings back to earlier, grimier eras of the genre’s past.  Personally, I’m getting bored with how much current horror product is an echo of 1970s grindhouse & 1980s neon sleaze. That nostalgic impulse is getting really shortsighted in its avoidance of documenting & processing the world we actually live in now, if not outright cowardly & lazy.  So, if most contemporary horror has to live in the past for narrative convenience, I’m going to be more excited to see movies set outside that genre heyday of the first slasher wave.  For instance, the recent slasher prequel Pearl is inherently more interesting than its grimy sister film X, since its own tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche of Technicolor melodramas is way less familiar & less overmined than the grindhouse Texas Chainsaw riff it followed.  The same goes for the truck stop sex worker slasher Candy Land, which is set in the grunge & grime of the mid-1990s, after the first slasher wave crested and the second, meta-comedic wave began post-Scream.  As soon as the film opens with a montage of transactional sex scenes set to Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” it already feels like a much-needed break from the digitally added 1970s grain and the Carpenter-nostalgic 1980s synths of its fellow low-budget festival horrors, which have long been a matter of routine.

What endears me most to Candy Land‘s grunge-90s setting is that it doesn’t appear to be nostalgic about past horror trends at all.  It’s instead nostalgic for the film festival boom of the Sundance era that made names like Soderbergh, Araki, and Haynes stars of the indie scene.  Candy Land starts as a very cool, loose hangout dramedy about the daily rituals of truck stop sex workers (or “lot lizards” in CB radio lingo) before it gradually turns into a rigidly formulaic slasher to pay the bills.  The true glory days of independent filmmaking are over, and most low-budget productions that want to score wide distribution have to resort to flashy genre gimmicks to earn streaming sales on the festival market.  And so, we have a workplace drama that opens with sex work and ends with murder, holding back the necessary kill rhythms of a body count slasher as long as it can until it’s time to deliver the goods.  Unlike most slashers that dive headfirst into the bloodbath, that delayed payoff allows you space to care about the characters in peril: a good-girl-gone-bad played by The Deuce‘s Olivia Luccardi, a sweetheart hedonist gigolo played by X‘s Owen Campbell, a shit-heel sheriff played by Sliver‘s Billy Baldwin, etc.  There’s a built-in tension & danger in the main characters’ profession that makes for a great horror setting (something it’s most frank about in an extensive, brutal scene of male-on-male rape), but writer-director John Swab appears to be more interested in making a truck stop Working Girls than a truck stop Friday the 13th.  I admire his practicality.  Not everyone gets to be Sean Baker; sometimes you gotta cosplay as Rob Zombie to land your funding. 

Candy Land excels more in its minor character observations than in the tension release of its cathartic violence.  It’s set in an insular world where all sex is transactional, all sexuality is fluid, and all cops are bastards.  The truck stop brothel has a grunge-fashionista uniform of leather jackets, acrylic nails, booty shorts, and heavy metal t-shirts.  The girls shower, menstruate, and parade puffs of pubic & armpit hair in defiantly casual, thoughtless exhibitionism.  There’s a pronounced overlap in the rules & rituals of working the truck stop and the rules & rituals of the fundamentalist Christian cult Luccardi’s newbie abandoned to get there, both with their own built-in, complex lingo.  There’s also some unmistakable political commentary in which of those two insular cults proves to be harmful to the community at large – first to the johns, then to the workers.  Its Christmastime setting underlines the tension between those two warring worlds with a bitter irony that’s been present in the slasher genre as far back as its pre-Halloween landmark Black Christmas.  The movie might have been more rewarding if it didn’t have to sweep aside its observations of social minutia to make room for bloody hyperviolence, but I doubt it could’ve been widely distributed or even made at all without that genre hook.  At least Swab didn’t default to the industry’s current go-to setting for that horror hook; he instead recalls a brighter time in indie filmmaking when you could make a notable, low-key sex worker drama without having to hit a specific body count metric.

-Brandon Ledet

Dasara (2023)

As I mentioned when reviewing the Kollywood bank heist thriller Thunivu, my selection of newly released Indian action blockbusters has been severely limited in recent months, as I don’t currently have access to a car.  The only theater that screens the gloriously over-the-top action cinema I’ve taken for granted in recent years is all the way out in the suburbs, far beyond a reasonable bus ride, so I have to settle for whatever titles trickle down from its distant marquees to the streaming services I pay for at home.  Between Thunivu and the new Tollywood action-romance epic Dasara, Netflix has been the quickest to deliver the goods so far this year – give or take Pathaan, which I was lucky to catch on the big screen before it populated on Amazon Prime.  In Dasara‘s case, Netflix even premiered the film in its original language of Telugu, which isn’t always a guarantee for home viewing (even in big-name cases like S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali & RRR, which are still primarily presented in their Hindi dubs on the same platform).  As much as I appreciate Dasara making its way to my living room so quickly, though, I know in my stupid little heart that I would have enjoyed it much more had I caught it at the suburban multiplex.  The immense spectacles & body-rattling sound mixes of these movies demand the theatrical experience.  That environment makes a throwaway romcom like Radhe Shyam play like an action-hero riff on Cameron’s Titanic, crushing you so flat beneath its towering CG mayhem that you hardly have time to notice that the flirty jokes between its action sequences aren’t especially cute or funny.  For its part, Dasara also delivers the goods when it comes to large-scale CG action spectacle, but that can only carry you so far at home, so the lengthy lulls between its explosions tend to spoil the mood.  I’ve greatly enjoyed a few masala films I happened to see at home for the first time instead of the theater—Master, Karnan, Enthiran, the aforementioned Baahubali, to name a few—but they all would have been even more enjoyable & memorable had I seen them big & loud, which is an unignorable problem in more middling titles like Dasara.

Dasara details a lifelong friendship & romantic rivalry between a pair of mining-town besties.  After a youth wasted stealing coal off mining trains for liquor money and pining after the same childhood friend, the two ambitionless hedonists are forced to get serious about the politicians who poison their village – both through alcohol sales and through coal-mining air pollution.  The alcohol is treated as the bigger threat to local morale, in that it makes wastoid addicts out of every able-bodied man in their community (an anti-vice sentiment underlined by the opening credits’ health hazard warnings and a barn-burner monologue in the final scene).  Booze is also the main driver of local politics, as the powerful positions of bar owner & cashier are essentially treated as public offices, violently contested through rigged elections.  In establishing all of this big-picture conflict within the mining community, Dasara only leaves room for three major action sequences: a daring coal-train robbery, a vicious massacre of local drunks via machete militia, and a climactic act of revenge in which the evilest politician of all is decapitated via flaming machete after his goons are slaughtered one at a time.  There are some incredible moments & images in those sequences that highlight how India’s various film industries are regularly producing the greatest action movies on the market today, if not the greatest since Hong Kong action’s independent heyday in the 80s & 90s.  There is a lot of downtime between those moments, though, especially for a film with so thin of a moralist lesson (alcohol = bad) and with such cliché love-triangle tension.  A few weddings, cricket matches, and religious festivals liven up the dead space between the action payoffs, but not enough to make the picture especially worth seeking out at home.  Even when enjoying how its all-out explosive climax filled my TV screen with a wall of flames, all I could think about is how much cooler those flames would look if they were 30 feet taller and came with a bucket of popcorn.

Even though Dasara is a mixed bag overall, it’s really just one catchy composer short of being a stunner.  It’s got plenty explosive imagery, but its songs are mostly duds, so the time drags heavily between fires & beheadings.  To its credit, I was happy to see the musical numbers directly integrated into the narrative, when so many modern films in this genre separate them out as music video asides.  Unfortunately, they do so by adopting a plodding stage-musical songwriting style that never fully meshes with the score’s rapid, relentless percussion with any coherence.  Music is certainly one of the genre’s primary joys, but I’m not even sure that a louder theatrical environment would’ve helped the songs hit all that harder, even with the spectacle of dancers kicking up black coal dust in frantic choreography.  However, I do suspect that the constant coal-mine blasts of fireballs & air pollution would’ve been so much more vivid at the multiplex that I wouldn’t have cared about the mediocre music they interrupt.  Speaking from past experience, three great action sequences is usually more than enough to make one of these cheap-o epics worthwhile in that environment, whether or not the music is memorable.  Without that boost in scale & volume, Dasara is unraveled by its own thinness, which it appears to be aware of itself by the second flashback montage of earlier, more exciting scenes.  The action is too sparse for its songs to be this bland, and so the movie was only worth seeking out for the one week it screened at AMC Elmwood (or your local equivalent), when its few explosions would’ve stunned you for the longest stretches.  I don’t regret watching it at home, though, and I don’t think this experience will deter me from seeking out other Indian action streamers in the future.  In the past, I may have positively reviewed so-so masala films like Shamshera & Radhe Shyam for the enjoyment of the theatrical experience rather than the actual quality of the product, but that’s how they were intended to be watched.  Catching up with Dasara on my couch is only the Great Value™ equivalent of the real deal, and it will have to do until I have a car again or until one of the three remaining theaters in the city catches up with how fun these crowd-pleasers can be.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

In Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 political provocation Nocturama, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off a disparate series of homemade bombs in modern Paris, then await the state’s violent military response in a shopping mall.  In Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off two homemade bombs along a Texan desert pipeline, then await the state’s violent military response in the hot American sand.  The Parisian kids never fully explain the reasoning behind their explosives beyond a vague sense of economic unrest & cultural ennui.  The central point of Nocturama is making its teenage dissidents look cool—which it does—before they all meet a violent end.  By contrast, the American kids explain the ideology behind their explosive Direct Actions at length, intending to disrupt the economic viability of crude oil as a means to slow down Climate Change.  The point of How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t to inform the audience how to replicate this violence ourselves, but to motivate us to get serious about Climate Change as a mass extinction event that needs to be directly, immediately combated.  Both films are structured as non-linear heist thrillers, joining their hip teen terrorists in the hours before their respective bombings before flashing back to the planning stages of those attacks.  They both function as feature-length Building the Team montages as a result, which is always the most satisfying sequence in heist movies anyway.  In contrast, the American version of Nocturama is less pretty & more explainy than the French one, but it’s also a much more useful political motivator, which counts for a lot in this context. 

Goldhaber & crew do their best to make this Lefty manifesto traditionally entertaining so that its incendiary politics ignite the widest audience possible. This was never a concern of Bonello’s, who made a provocative aesthetic object to be appreciated by a small audience of art nerds.  How to Blow Up a Pipeline uses retro synth scoring & 90s blockbuster fonts to disguise itself as a throwback to crowd-pleaser heist thrillers like Point Break, but its full-hearted advocacy of its climate activists’ property destruction is much more daring & modern than the genre’s cop-friendly past.  Most of the shocking plot twists are the exact kind of undercover, double-crossing character reveals we’re used to in that context, but the movie loudly endorses the titular bombing and the activists behind it every chance it gets.  The most Goldhaber & editor Daniel Garber shake up the traditional blockbuster heist film formula is by cutting away from explosions seconds before detonation to retreat into flashbacks, letting the tension ride for several minutes before returning to the Bruckheimerian balls of fire.  Otherwise, it works within a familiar, comforting Dad Movie story template that this time just happens to be populated by pissed-off crust punks & college campus leftists.  The tension of whether a homemade explosive will be jolted the wrong way by those nervous rioters before they reach their targeted pipeline is continuously effective in the moment, but it’s all in service of stringing the audience along to listen to the reason behind their planned property destruction in their downtime between backroom chemistry experiments.

It’s extremely shallow of me to compare Pipeline‘s cool-cred endorsement of violent political action to the much more nihilist, beauty-obsessed Nocturama, as if they’re the only two films of their kind.  There’s a wide range of uncivil unrest advocacy cinema in this movie’s lineage, from 2018’s Empty Metal to 1983’s Born in Flames to 1966’s Battle of Algiers.  It would also be shallow of me to assign an auteurist reading to its production, given that it’s officially credited as “a film by Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barar, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber” (a list that includes the director’s co-writers and aforementioned editor).  I’m going to do it anyway, though, because I’m a shallow guy.  I appreciate that some of the paranoid technophobia from Goldhaber’s debut feature Cam bled through to this follow-up, represented in Pipeline by characters’ constant awareness of being surveilled via their smartphones, even when dormant.  Still, I miss the slick, fantastical aesthetics of that indoor sex-work cyberthriller, which are traded in here for the grit & sweat of the outdoor American West.  That cinematic preference for beauty & artifice over more practical, real-world concerns is likely why Nocturama was at the forefront of my mind throughout Pipeline.  I felt as if I had already seen my ideal version of this picture in Bonello’s puzzle-box terrorist thriller, so even when admiring the big-picture politics & scene-to-scene tension of Goldhaber’s version, I could never fully crossover into zealous love for it.  It’s a consistently entertaining, ideologically solid eco-activist thriller that never fully shook me out of my cowardly complacency as a passive political thinker & pop media consumer. Or, that’s at least what I want to convey to the FBI.

-Brandon Ledet

J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance, 1989)

I should be too ashamed to admit this in a public forum, but I’ve never fully understood the appeal of zydeco.  My preferred mode of background-noise Louisiana kitsch is New Orleans brass, which hits a lot closer to home – literally, since I live on a major second line route where brass & bounce reverberate down the street practically every other week.  I’m most used to hearing zydeco mixed with cornball swamp pop in French Quarter tourist shops, seconds at a time as I pass by on my way to a downtown theater or bar.  I may be from Southeast Louisiana, but I’m a city boy through & through, and the routine regurgitation of folksy local traditions for spend-crazy out-of-towners always raises the hairs on neck.  I was delighted to have those biases challenged by the Les Blank documentary J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance), though, which recently screened in a 4K digital restoration at The Broad to celebrate this year’s Jazz Fest happenings down the street.  Blank’s Always for Pleasure is just about the only documentary that has genuinely captured New Orleans culture onscreen in a way that doesn’t make this local cynic cringe, so I very much needed this extension of his humanist awe with Louisiana to the meanings & traditions of zydeco.  To prime the pump, the programmers also invited musician Michael Doucet to open the show with his zydeco band BeauSoleil, since he is one of the few surviving performers from the film still alive to provide insight & context.  The music was good, the crowd of WWOZ devotees was lively & chatty, and the film made a convincing argument for an artform I’ve been knee-jerk dismissive of my entire life.  It was a lovely evening.

It’s a shame I didn’t see I Went to the Dance when I was in my Folk Punk phase a couple decades ago; its contextual positioning of zydeco as raucous, resilient roots music would have clicked a lot sooner & louder.  In my defense, though, a large part of this film is about zydeco musicians having to explain the artform’s appeal to each generation of bratty children who are distracted from their heritage by popular music fads like rock ‘n roll.  It turns out even swamp pop has its merits as a youth-outreach genre hybrid, attempting to inject a little Beatles & 60s New Orleans R&B into the usual zydeco formula to make it palatable for the kids. I Went to the Dance is more straightforward as an informational doc on the linear history of zydeco than Always for Pleasure‘s loose portrait of local Mardi Gras customs, possibly due to the influence of Blank’s more traditionalist co-director Chris Strachwitz.  It provides a quick historical context for the migration of Cajun & Creole communities to Southwest Louisiana, moves on to explain the basic compositional structures & instrumentations that distinguish zydeco as a genre, and then tracks its struggles to remain popular yet authentic as it welcomed influence from blues, soul, country, and rock fads that energized the core musicians’ children throughout the decades.  By the time the film concludes with a contemporary Jazz Fest performance from the R&B-infused Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier, a backyard cookout performance of the 80s novelty swamp pop hit “(Don’t Mess with) My Toot Toot”, and a cheeseball fais-dodo rock-out from what appeared to be the Reaganite frat bros of zydeco, I was fully won over – my cynicism thoroughly, methodically replaced with a smile.

I don’t think this academically minded zydeco explainer would be worth all that much without the Les Blank touch, though.  As useful as it is in providing historical & cultural context for where the genre comes from and what pop-music indignities it has to endure for survival, it’s Blank’s loving, amused observations of Louisiana customs that qualify J’ai Été Au Bal as substantial filmmaking.  The dancefloor audience is just as important as the fiddlers, washboarders, and accordionists onstage, as Blank’s camera searches contemporary bars & archival photographs for signs of vitality & exuberance in the people that made this music popular because it gave them an excuse to get tipsy & dance.  Since he moved his camera too far inland to capture the wetland landscapes that have so quickly eroded in the past few decades, the Louisiana he captures here is exactly the one I remember growing up with “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish around when this was made.  It’s also uncannily accurate to Louisiana today, as long as you avert your gaze from concrete & billboards to instead focus on the hand-painted signs & D.I.Y. dance parties that are forever encroached on but never fully extinguished here.  There’s an authenticity to Blank’s portraits of this state as a people that I have found in no other outsider media, making him one of the most fully integrated Tulane University bros who ever passed through New Orleans for an education and never had the heart to fully leave us behind.  It appears his estate is keeping that work alive & up to date by producing physical media restorations of his work to sell at high rates to university libraries as education tools, which is great but doesn’t fully convey how entertaining & endearing they are for a casual audience.

When I report that the Jazz Fest-adjacent screening of J’ai Été Au Bal at The Broad was a lovely evening, I’m brushing aside a lot of technical hiccups that disrupted the flow of the film.  Getting the screening going in earnest involved the theater staff abandoning the DCP and climbing on a ladder to hook up a Vimeo stream with a laptop, an HDMI cable, and a smartphone hotspot crammed inside the projector box.  There were many stops & starts before that Plan C was launched, which meant that the first fifteen minutes of the film were frequently broken up by premature Q&As with Blank’s surviving collaborators and bonus performances from Doucet sans band.  If I’m not mistaken, there were also impromptu chime-ins from Belizaire the Cajun director Glen Pitre from the front seats of the audience.  Some moviegoers’ patience was tested beyond its limits that night, but I soaked it all up as a Community Event, the strangest screening I’ve been to since The Broad ran The Mothman Prophecies a couple months ago.  It also didn’t stress me out because I knew even while watching J’ai Été Au Bal that my first viewing would not be my last.  Every year I squeeze in a screening of Always for Pleasure as a quick, convenient way to get into the Mardi Gras spirit (usually while working on costumes), and I can easily see throwing on Blank’s zydeco doc for the same purpose at the start of every Spring festival season.  Jazz Fest is going to happen in my neighborhood regardless of whether I’m in the mood; French Quarter Fest is just a few blocks away from where I work.  It was untenable to think I could live a full, happy life in Louisiana without appreciating swamp pop or zydeco, and I’m glad this movie is being kept in distro to help my cynical ass lighten up.

-Brandon Ledet

Vibes (1988)

As is often my wont, I was recently extolling to a friend about the virtues of our local library, and declared I would purchase said friend an inexpensive DVD player the next time I saw one at an estate sale (there’s a one-in-four chance there will be, in my experience) so that he could enjoy some of the more obscure picks that are available. This was perhaps days before the announcement that Netflix would be discontinuing its DVD-by-mail service, which was very close to my heart and which flung wide the doors for me to discover a plethora of movies and shows that had been out of my reach before. I couldn’t afford to have internet in my home when I was in college, but even at nineteen I could spare $8 a month for a constant stream of discs into my apartment, and although my local library can’t boast that it has a copy of everything (and for some reason doesn’t do interlibrary loans for media), there are thousands of things that are otherwise inaccessible now. My friend joked (I hope) that everything is streaming now, and that there’s no reason to own such a thing; I pointed out that I have been watching a lot of episodes of Ebert & Roeper at the Movies recently and that it’s opened my eyes to a huge number of movies that I never would have known existed otherwise. Every episode, the boys discuss 4-5 movies, with two of them usually being films that have remained in the public consciousness or otherwise has some kind of name brand recognition (your Top Gun, your Beauty and the Beast, a Silence of the Lambs), one or two movies that fall into the moderately obscure “oh, yeah,” category, (Uncle Buck, for instance, or She-Devil, or Major League: Back to the Minors; anything that you’d watch at a hotel when you’re on vacation and it’s raining on a Saturday afternoon), and then one or two movies that have, for all intents and purposes, vanished from the face of the earth. Is it worth listing those? We Think the World of You from 1988 and 1994’s BackBeat aren’t the kinds of titles you drop when you’re trying to impress someone. Buried among these episodes, I stumbled across their review of Vibes that sparked my interest and, having finally seen it (thanks, libraries!), has also stolen my heart. 

Ostentatious but insecure Sylvia (Cyndi Lauper – yes, really) meets staid museum curator Nick (Jeff Goldblum doing the platonic ideal of a Jeff Goldblum performance) under strange circumstances; they and several others are guests of Dr. Steele (Julian Sands), a parapsychologist. They’re both psychics; he’s a psychometrist, meaning that he can read the history of an object and even information about the people who have touched it, while she gained clairvoyance via a psychic guide named Louise, whom only she can see and hear. Louise, via Sylvia, warns Nick that his long-term girlfriend has been unfaithful while he’s been away, and although he doesn’t believe it, he’s confronted with the truth when his powers inadvertently reveal her deceit. Sylvia, meanwhile, meets her occasional flame Fred (Steve Buscemi) at the racetrack, where she is cajoled into using her powers to pick a winning horse on his behalf, only to be unceremoniously ditched for another woman moments later. Returning home, she finds a man named Harry (Peter Falk) in her kitchen, where he offers her $50K to help find his son, who has gone missing in Ecuador. Sylvia then enlists Nick to go along as well, since two psychics are better than one, and he opts to go rather than continue to spiral out and stew over the failure of his relationship. Once they arrive, Nick deduces with his powers that Harry has deceived them, and the older man admits that he’s actually seeking a fabled room of gold in the mountains, which was previously discovered by his business partner, but the latter man has since been hospitalized in a persistent vegetative state. The two psychics reluctantly agree to go, falling in love while being pursued the whole way by Steele, fellow psychic Ingo (Googy Gress), and a sexy assassin (Elizabeth Peña). 

I mentioned above that Gene and Roger reviewed this movie; I didn’t mention that they both hated it. Not hated hated hated it, but neither was very impressed. In fact, most critics seem to have felt this way, as it’s sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve never considered that a perfect metric for a movie’s actual quality, but as a measurement of critical favor, it’s very telling. About halfway through this movie, my best friend, after several chuckles aloud, asked me how the film could have been reviewed so poorly, and neither of us could believe it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long after this that the film’s quality dipped, to the point where I could understand how a general audience may have been turned off by the pacing issues in the film’s third act. We can’t really go any further without noting, however, that Lauper is incredibly charming here, and a delight to watch. 

I can’t remember the last time I watched one of these kinds of movies—you know, where a non-actor performer (or sports star) is trying to break into pictures—and the non-traditional actor really disappears into the role. She has great comedic timing for someone with no real background in that field, and she and Falk have amazing chemistry. She and Goldblum are a delight to watch together as well; according to her autobiography, they didn’t get along, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from how well they play off of each other here. Goldblum’s decision to go full Goldblum matches her energy perfectly, as even though Lauper’s hair, make-up, and sartorial choices are always completely over the top, her vibe (sorry) is much more subdued than the man standing next to her, eyes bugging and stams stammering. 

The first few scenes in Ecuador are fun, as the trio arrives there to head for the mountains, albeit there’s some All in the Family-era racism from Falk’s character that doesn’t pass the sniff test these days. At first, these seem like mannerisms of the character Harry is playing, of the terrified father of a missing boy, but he spouts off a few other Bunkerisms even after the reveal that are jarring in an otherwise very goofy movie. Travelogue scenes set prior to the cresting of the mountain are gorgeous, capturing the natural verdant beauty of the Ecuadorian mountains, like something out of a movie with a much higher budget. Unfortunately, once Sylvia, Nicky, and their pursuers get to the mountaintop where Harry’s partner found a small, glowing pyramid in the film’s cold open, the plot drags considerably. All of this takes place on a set, which is fine, but the effect of being at the top of a high peak with nothing in the background makes the whole thing feel like it’s taking place in a void. Right before they arrive, we’re treated to a gorgeously rendered matte painting, but once on the actual mountaintop set, characters move around and make choices that feel like shuffling the deck before the denouement. This goes some way to explain why contemporary critics may have turned on the movie when the third act trended toward boredom, but I’m more forgiving, especially when there’s so much charm and appreciable humor on display. 

The film manages to run the gamut of different comedic styles. When the trio first arrive in Ecuador, Sylvia teases Nick for bringing so much luggage, assuming that he’s overpacked. He reveals that one of the suitcases contains an entire month’s worth of dehydrated rations; when Sylvia points out that it’s normally the bacteria in the water that caused travellers of the time to become ill, Nick reveals that another suitcase is full of giant jugs of water, which he also brought along. Later, after Harry’s deception has been revealed, he and Sylvia find themselves at the tiki-themed hotel bar, where he is drinking directly from one of the jugs, which has a festive paper umbrella embellishment. It’s a good visual gag, one among many, including one in which the 5’3” Lauper and the 6’4″ Goldblum perform a tango that ends with her arms around his shoulders, essentially being carried, with her legs dangling back and forth. It all leads one to believe that the contemporary audiences and critics of the time may simply have misunderstood that the film understands that its zany, sometimes cartoony plot is intentional, not the result of poor writing or direction. 

The real crime here is that the public reaction pushed Lauper to abandon film business, albeit not completely. She’s effervescent here in a very real way, like she’s trying some things out. At one point, when Nick rejects her because he misunderstands the reasons that she’s expressing interest, Lauper shifts into an affected Transatlantic accent and mockingly blurts “I want you bad all right. I dream about you and me and a house in Long Island. I’m only half a woman until I make love to you.” For someone who’s not really part of the business, she’s making interesting acting choices that reveal a talent range that most people wouldn’t assume. Reportedly, Dan Aykroyd was first interested in the project (which makes sense, since he’s a big believer in the paranormal in real life) but left because he refused to be in a movie with Lauper, which is both absurd and for the best, since Goldblum’s take on Nick is a much more believable match for Sylvia than I could imagine Aykroyd providing. As a fun bit of fluff, this is one worth tracking down. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Suckling (1990)

One of the things I look forward to most every Overlook Film Fest is their vendor partnership with Vinegar Syndrome, who usually bring a table of pervy, schlocky products to peddle in the festival’s shopping mall lobby.  There are certainly cheaper ways to shop for Vinegar Syndrome titles; the boutique Blu-ray label is infamous in genre-nerd circles for their generous Black Friday sales.  Still, that annual trip to the Vinegar Syndrome table at Overlook is the closest feeling I still get to browsing the Cult section at long-defunct video rental stores like Major Video. There’s just no beating the physical touch of physical media. The staff always points me to titles I would’ve overlooked if I were just scrolling on their website, too, which is how I got around to seeing gems like Nightbeast & Fleshpot on 42nd Street in the past.  Sidestepping the shipping costs doesn’t hurt either.  Vinegar Syndrome has never before complimented my Overlook experience quite as decisively nor directly as it did this year, though, when the vendor rep nudged me into picking up a copy of the early-90s creature feature The Suckling.  It was perfect timing, since I had just wandered from a screening of the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which featured a great rubber monster puppet but had no real grit or texture to it elsewhere.  You could feel the audience pop every time the retro, gurgling monster appeared onscreen, which unfortunately becomes less frequent as the film chases down mental health metaphors instead of practical-effects gore gags.  I liked Appendage okay, but I left it starving for more rubber monster mayhem, which that Blu-ray restoration of The Suckling immediately supplied in grotesque HD excess.  God bless Vinegar Syndrome for coming through that night and, for balance, Hail Satan too.

While The Suckling may have a major advantage over Appendage in its commitment to rubber-monster puppetry, it’s an extremely inferior product in terms of political rhetoric.  Instead of pursuing a thoughtful, responsible representation of women’s bottled-up familial, romantic, and professional frustrations in the modern world, The Suckling pursues a politically reckless subversion of women’s right to choose.  Only, I don’t get the sense that it meant to say anything coherently political at all.  This is a kind of anti-choice, pro-environmentalist creature feature where an aborted, toxically mutated fetus gets its revenge on the brothel-clinic that brought it into this sick, sad world.  It knows that abortion is enough of a hot-button political issue to grab jaded, seen-it-all horror audiences’ attention, but it doesn’t know what to do with that thorny subject except to milk it for easy shock value.  The illegal dumping of toxic waste that mutates the aborted fetus into the titular monster is just as much of underbaked political messaging, a boneheaded matter of course that got no more thoughtful consideration than its knock-off John Carpenter score.  The Suckling uses abortion as lazy rage-bait marketing, even going as far as to hand out fake, miniature aborted fetuses in jars as mementos during its original New Jersey grindhouse run.  Personally, I found being offended by the movie’s amorphous politics part of its grimy charm. It’s not a full-on Troma style edgelord comedy at pregnant women’s expense, but it’s still playing with thematic heft that’s way out of its depth as a dumb-as-rocks monster flick.  By contrast, Appendage is way more coherent & agreeable politically but loses a lot of texture by prioritizing that agreeability over its titular monster, and The Suckling is way more memorable in its commitment to political tastelessness.

Set in 1970s Brooklyn to make its indulgence in post-Halloween slasher tedium feel relevant to the plot, The Suckling follows a young, timid couple’s visit to a seedy brothel that doubles as an illegal abortion clinic.  Once their fetus is flushed down the toilet by the clinic’s nursetitutes, it’s greeted by illegally dumped toxic waste in Brooklyn’s sewers, then rapidly evolves like a flesh-hungry Pokémon until it becomes a Xenomorphic killing machine.  Its fetal killing powers are supernatural and vaguely defined, turning the brothel-clinic into a womblike prison by covering all the doors & windows with fleshy membrane so it can hunt down its freaked-out prisoners one at a time.  Once Skinamrinked in this liminal space for days on end, the Suckling’s victims turn on one another in violent fits of cabin fever, to the point where their infighting has a higher kill count than the monster attacks.  The sex workers are, of course, the highlights among the cast, especially the mafiosa madame Big Mama and her world-weary star employee Candy, who frequently fires off nihilistic zingers like “I hope we die in this fucking sewer” as if she were telling knock-knock jokes.  The only time we see them at work is before the Suckling gets loose in the house’s plumbing, in a scene where a teenage dominatrix pegs a jackass businessman with a vibrator wand while rolling her eyes in boredom.  Otherwise, they’re just killing time between Suckling attacks, to the point where the film becomes a kind of perverse hangout comedy in which every joke is punctuated by a violent character death.  The longer they’re trapped in the house the looser the logic gets, taking on a dream-within-a-dream abstraction that had me worried it would end with the abortion-patient mother waking up in the brothel-clinic waiting room and fleeing from the procedure.  Thankfully, the ending goes for something much grander & stranger that I will not do the disservice of describing in text.

The Suckling is not a perfect movie, but it is a perfect This Kind Of Movie, delivering everything you could possibly want to see out of schlock of its ilk: a wide range of rubber monster puppets, over-the-top character work, stop-motion buffoonery, and opportunities to feel offended without ever being able to exactly pinpoint its politics.  It’s New Jersey outsider art, the only directorial credit for local no-namer Francis Teri.  You can feel Teri’s enthusiasm in every frame, just as often resonating in the film’s off-kilter compositions as in its rubber-puppet monster attacks.  I don’t know if it’s the cleaned-up Blu-ray image talking, but The Suckling does feel like it belongs to a higher caliber than most made-on-the-weekends subprofessional horrors of the video store era, turning its cheapness & limited scope into an eerie, self-contained dreamworld instead of an excuse for laziness.  The only place where the film is lazy is in its political messaging, which makes the entire medical practice of abortion look as grotesquely fucked up as how the Texas Chainsaw family runs their slaughterhouse.  And I haven’t even gotten into its hackneyed depiction of mental institutions.  Whether you can overlook that political bonheadedness to enjoy the boneheaded monster action it sets the stage for is a matter of personal taste but, given how hungry the Appendage audience was for more rubber monster puppetry, I assume this movie has plenty potential fans out there who need to seek it out ASAP – whether on Blu-ray or on Tubi.  If anything, there should’ve been a long line in the Overlook lobby leading to the Vinegar Syndrome table where the entire Appendage audience queued up to buy a copy.  It’s wonderfully fucked up stuff, and exactly what I was looking for that night.

-Brandon Ledet