I usually don’t have much patience for home invasion thrillers. By default, there’s always been a misanthropic, Conservative viewpoint to the genre, wherein upstanding, taxpaying citizens are terrorized on their own property by the unwashed riffraff outside. The home invasion template preys on fears that the desperately poor are only one broken window away from robbing, raping, and disheveling away your illusion of middle-class suburban safety – bringing you down to their grimy, subhuman level. It’s gross. I am starting to notice a variation on the genre that does work for me, though, something I discovered when I first watched The Strangers a couple summers ago. Home invasion films are scariest and most relatable when the villains aren’t desperately poor or morally deficient, but rather have no motivation at all beyond a shrug and a “Just because.”
The pinnacle of the no-motivation home invasion film arrived decades before The Strangers and thousands of miles away from the pristine American suburbs where the genre usually dwells. The 1983 Austrian curio Angst spends much of its runtime attempting to understand the psyche & motivations of its killer trespasser, only to reveal that there’s nothing there to understand. He kills just because. The opening scene is an action shot of him already indiscriminately stalking and murdering strangers merely because they happen to be home and nearby. He’s arrested and eventually released, then kills again, this time drawing out his cruel torture to a movie-length displeasure. The killer narrates the film himself, explaining at length that he’s committing these crimes simply because he likes to commit them. He finds them thrilling, entertaining. With some level of accompanying disgust, the audience likely does as well.
The most immediately impressive aspect of Angst is its overactive camerawork & ice-cold atmosphere. Body-mounted cameras and severe-angle crane shots rattle the audience so that we feel just as crazed as the killer who takes us on the uninvited home tours of well-to-do Austrian neighborhoods. It’s a cold, dizzying sensibility shared only by over-stylized Euro horrors like Possession, Climax, and Luz. Meanwhile a Big Black-style industrial drum machine underscores the brutality on display, so that everything is simultaneously framed beautifully but presented as viciously ugly. It’s an impressively upsetting mood, offering no reprieve from the suffocating psyche of its narrator – a nastily hollow man who kills because he wants to kill. There’s something about that total lack of motivation that efficiently chills my blood, maybe because it’s more reflective of real-life cruelty & violence than the class war callousness that usually commands this genre (usually with a much duller aesthetic palate as well).
It seems that one-time director Gerald Kargl was also fascinated by no-motive home invaders, or at least by real-life killer Werner Kniesek in particular. When a title card announces “This film is based on true events” a few already-bloody minutes into the runtime, it plays almost like a jump scare. We’re treated to a brief true-crime slideshow detailing the killer’s history after that announcement, searching for answers to what appears to be pointless, aimless cruelty. Maybe it was the childhood abuse that led Kniesek to kill. Maybe his trail of dead could have been shortened if the legal system hadn’t found his sadism itself an argument for innocence by reason of insanity. By the time we rejoin the killer doing his thing from house to house, neither of those questions really matter. As we hear Kniesek tell it in his own words, he’s just acting on pure, self-pleasing impulse with no real need, philosophy, or ambition to speak of. Terrifying.
What a year it’s been, right? No need to go into the details. Sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been screaming into the void. I’m sure you have too. Let’s talk about a movie.
So Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer reached out to me last week and was like, “Have you done enough void screaming for the weekend? Do you want to watch a movie together and then Zoom after?” And I was like, “Yes, this is the new paradigm. We are very far behind on Into the Dark, or we could catch up on the shows we used to watch together. There’s a new season of Lucifer and we’re like two seasons behind on 3% now.” So he advised he would check with Current Roommate of Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer and the consensus was that we would watch Spree. I googled it and the first thing I saw was “executive produced by Drake” and I thought to myself “The Aubrey Drake Graham of Degrassi the Next Generation fame? That’s worth a seven dollar rental!” If you’re going to watch Spree, you should go in completely blind like I did, but you’re already here so here’s the gist.
Spree tells the story of Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, aka Steve from Stranger Things or Gabe from Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, depending on your Kinsey score), a sad California boy who was born in LA but spent much of his life growing up in less glamorous surroundings. Desperate to join the world of the influencer elite, he’s spent his whole life in emulation of social media culture with no success, the never-was yang to the yin of his has-been father (David Arquette). Desperate for a sense of meaning, he plans what he believes is a guaranteed path to social cachet through a “lesson” in growing an internet following over the course of a single shift as a driver for rideshare app Spree. Navigating the clogged arteries of the roadway, he comes into contact with a few “celebrities” of various kinds, including up-and-coming stand-up comedienne Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who is in the process of leveraging her similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from (henceforth STBLDF) Instagram following into a comedy career, as well as uNo (Sunny Kim), an internet-famous DJ serving as a dark mirror of Kurt, focused solely on brand-building and mining her real life for content. Throughout the night, Kurt is egged on by “BobbyBasecamp” (Josh Ovalle), a kid whom he babysat in his youth and who has since grown into a teenaged (STBLDF) Twitch streamer with a massive following.
Perpetually astride a glowing self-balancing scooter and with a neck-mounted streaming camera which is ready to go at a moment’s notice with a few taps, Bobby is the epitome of nouveau célébrité. His presentation borrows heavily from the rhetorical strategies and spaces of omnipresent social media cultural touchstones, living in a garish mansion that captures the embarrassing excess of Jake Paul, possessing the hair-trigger temper and toxicity of “famous for screaming” Twitch stars like Tyler1, and exhibiting the boyish good looks of someone like Cameron Dallas or whoever the du jour equivalent is (I am old). This also makes him the epitome of what Kurt wants to be: famous and beloved, living a life that is artificially performative over substantively experienced, and above all, popular. Which Kurt finally does become… when he murders Bobby, among others.
Yes, the “spree” of the title doesn’t refer solely to the (STBLDF) Uber that “employs” Kurt, it also refers to Kurt’s bloody journey from a sad vessel empty of anything other than an all-consuming desire for fame as an abstract concept to the infamous “Rideshare Killer” over the course of single night. Kurt literally charts a path that leads from the area outside LA toward the heart of that city which, more than any other, can embody the emptiness, shallowness, and meaninglessness of fleeting celebrity. It’s not the most original idea, but there’s a certain magic to the way that he begins his trek in the dusty surrounds of LA, amidst the infamous right-wing extremism that lies just outside the urban enclaves of Southern California (his first and most justifiable victim being a soft-spoken neo-Nazi en route to speak to his followers about white supremacy), and works his way through vignettes of the outer “wilderness” of adulterous real-estate-agents-to-the-stars, fame-adjacent misogynist himbos, and an intersection between two DJs (one on the way down and one on the way up), before finding himself amidst a large homeless encampment that girds the underbelly of the celluloid city. Kurt is Dante and LA is hell, with concentric circles of torment in which there is only one sin, vanity, and which only increases in magnitude as one approaches the city’s rotten heart. Each person he encounters is slightly more famous than the last, exemplified by his initial chance meeting with Zamata’s Jessie prior to a potentially career-making performance and their engineered reunion later, after said performance garners her even more celebrity.
As the first victim (that we see) is the aforementioned white supremacist, followed not long after by the asshole himbo who spouts all of our favorite chestnuts about being prettier when smiling, etc., the film at first lulls one into a false sense of security that the audience is about to watch another version of Schumacher’s Falling Down or Goldthwaite’s God Bless America updated for the found-via-social-media footage generation. But while both of those films are at least somewhat invested—with varying levels of success—in maintaining a sense of empathy for their respective leads’ descent into madness, Spree doesn’t have the same values or desire to curry audience insertion into the character’s worldview. Instead, we open with an introduction that tells us, from the outset, that Kurt finally achieved the viral success he sought for so long; as a result, his journey from nobody to somebody is a foregone conclusion, so we are here to be party to the execution(s), not the destination.
This would be a 5-star film were it not for the intermittent preachiness about the evils of social media. Not content to have the film treat new media as an object about which we can draw our own conclusions, the script is filled with far too many moments of overt negative sentiments expressed via character monologues. In the most tasteless moment of what is an admittedly pretty tasteless film, Kurt drives near the encampment of people experiencing homelessness mentioned before and gives a speech about how the people living there don’t care that they have no social media presence, that they are completely unconcerned that, as far as an increasingly online world is concerned, they don’t exist at all. One can read this as an envious screed, in which Kurt realizes that there are a group of people who are apathetic about the very thing that has consumed his entire existence, or as the screenwriter’s thesis about the emptiness of a digital world in which every interaction is built around the construction of one’s personal “brand” and promotion of self-care and toxic positivity that entail ignoring the social ills that are just a stone’s throw away.
Meta-textually, there’s a lot happening here as well. There’s the intersection of fame from “legitimate” means via traditional media and “illegitimate” fame via new media at play when one of the groups that Kurt picks up contains both Mischa Barton and Frankie Grande. Barton was an actress from childhood who started on the stage and gradually rose to widespread recognition as one of the leads on the wildly popular The O.C., becoming a household name for a time through conventional means. Grande, on the other hand, is the older half-brother of pop music persona Ariana Grande; his cultural prominence is based solely on gaining a large social media following through that association and parlaying that into reality TV appearances and then clawing his way into the pop culture psyche via nepotism and shameless self-promotion, the two driving forces of social media stardom. Later, the climax of the uNo vignette comes as a result of the DJ accidentally finding Kurt’s handgun in the glove compartment and posing with it in a careless fashion. There’s also the exciting novelty of presenting the narrative in various split screens that allow characters to face off against each other while the camera captures both performances in simultaneous shot/reverse shot instead of from an objective angle, which is fairly inventive (not to mention all of the dashcams, STBLDF Instagram and Twitch streams, and occasional security footage).
As the story continues, Kurt’s initial underwatched stream slowly grows to encompass a huge audience, especially once he takes over Bobby’s stream. Suddenly thousands of people are watching, and we see them respond in their comments: memes emerge in real time as viewers type out parts of Kurt’s insane monologue and repeat them to each other as the stream goes on; various audience members beg Kurt to admit that his killing of Bobby was faked for the views while others comment about how “fake” the whole thing is and congratulate themselves for seeing through it; and, of course, there are various combinations of Kurt’s name with homophobic slurs. There’s also one comment that calls out Jessie’s performance outfit as making her look like a Minion, which is comedy gold. As the intensity ramps up, so does the speed of these comments, requiring complete attention to keep up with everything that is happening at all times. These little moments and metacommentaries provide a much more fulfilling denigration of social media as a concept than Kurt driving his car through tents full of disadvantaged people or Jessie turning her stand-up performance into a rant about the need to disconnect (it’s well acted by Zamata, but doesn’t really seem like something that would spark much interest online, if we’re being honest).
These intrusions of finger-wagging into the narrative are all that hold Spree back from being truly great, as it otherwise demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms. The film’s “epilogue” consists of reactions in the aftermath to the titular spree through a series of article titles and forum posts. From initial reactions to the so-called Rideshare Killer, to “we don’t say his name” thinkpieces (complete with a link to the related article “A Complete List of the Names We Don’t Say,” which haha and also ouch), to Kurt becoming a hero of incels in STBLDF 4chan, there’s a lot of meat on these bones that I have no doubt will reward multiple rewatches. Were it not for the moments where that subtlety is pushed aside for onstage phone-smashing antics and vapid soliloquies that spell things out for the dullards in the audience, this would be an instant classic.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
It’s very difficult for a horror movie to shock a modern, jaded audience, but The Babysitter 2: Killer Queen eventually did drop my jaw in astonishment. It wasn’t any of the film’s over-the-top gore gags or rug-pull cameos from the original cast that shocked me, but rather the name under the Directed By credit in the concluding scroll: McG. After suffering the stylistically flat, aggressively unfunny 140-minute eternity preceding that credit I was genuinely shocked to be informed it shared a director with its predecessor. If The Babysitter was helmed by the deliriously fun, bubblegum McG who directed the Charlie’s Angels movies, then Killer Queen was clearly the work of the flavorless-gruel McG who directed Terminator: Salvation. It was an appalling step backwards for a filmmaker whose sugary music video aesthetic had finally found its niche, only for it to be immediately abandoned.
Is there any point in recapping the plot, bloodshed, or aesthetic choices of this disposable novelty? Doubtful. The same overlit Burger King commercial visuals, empty nostalgia signifiers, and hack writers’ room humor that plagues all straight-to-Netflix trash is carried over here in the exact ways you’d expect, which is a shame since the first Babysitter film felt freshly exciting & playful in its own distinguishing details. The only standout aspect of Killer Queen is that it oddly feels nostalgic about its own predecessor, a fun-but-forgettable sugar rush with the cultural longevity of cotton candy in a rainstorm. Instead of pushing The Babysitter’s Satanic teen cult absurdities into new, undiscovered territory, Killer Queen merely retraces its steps to provide additional background info & throwaway gags for every returning character, no matter how inconsequential. It’s only been three years since the first Babysitter film—a frivolous diversion meant to be enjoyed & immediately forgotten—yet Killer Queen treats it with the glowing “Remember this?!” reverence of an I Love the 80s VH1 special.
I initially thought Killer Queen’s diminished returns were a result of the charisma vacuum left by Samara Weaving—you know, the titular babysitter—but even when she returns to the screen in a contractual act of charity here the result just feels like a waste of her valuable time. It’s also tempting to blame the film’s shortcomings on its four(!) credited screenwriters. The lack of imagination on how to expand or push the teen-cult premise forward in any way is damaging enough, but the joke writing is somehow even less inspired. The most consistent line of humor involves a middle-aged stoner who loves his hotrod more than his teenage daughter; but we all Get It because it’s a really cool car! That’s not a joke that becomes any funnier the second dozenth it’s repeated, but that writers’ room vapidity should never have been a factor in the first place. McG’s breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic should be beating you over the head with so much giddy, hyperactive inanity that there’s no time to notice minor concerns like plot, dialogue, or character development. Instead, you can practically hear him snoring in his La-Z-Boy director’s chair just outside of the frame.
Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.
I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.
No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.
By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.
Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!
At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).
So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.
The first time I ever really took note of Anna Faris was in 2009, watching the cult comedy Observe & Report with a few friends in an otherwise empty theater. Until then, I was mostly aware of Faris from the Scary Movie franchise, where she was burdened with performing a brutally unfunny parody of the Final Girl archetype from teen slashers. In Observe & Report, Faris found her sweet spot in a much darker, more incisive parody of the Dumb Blonde trope, a truly amazing, upsetting performance that haunts you long after her punchlines are supposed to relieve that tension. It felt like the delayed arrival of a formidable comedic talent, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up and give her bigger, more complicated roles to extrapolate on that dark, chaotic humor.
It turns out I may have missed out on Observe & Report‘s closest competitor as a darkly funny Anna Faris showcase by just a year. 2008’s The House Bunny even features the underutilized actor as its titular lead, a performatively ditzy (but secretly sharp-witted) Playboy Bunny who struggles to adapt to life in The Real World once she ages out of her usefulness as eye candy at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. She quickly adapts by finding a new coven of undervalued women who need her aggressively bubbly outlook to survive life & men’s nonstop cruelties: an unpopular, poorly funded sorority house on a nearby college campus. The resulting underdog story is a classic Animal House-style college campus comedy, in which a small crew of nerdy outcasts learn self-confidence and earn their right to exist in spite of the protests of The Dean & the more popular (i.e. wealthier) kids. And Faris is dead center of this slobs vs. snobs battleground, living her full Marilyn Monroe smart-ditz fantasy.
Sounds perfect, right? How I wish it were. The House Bunny shows flashes of the dark, subversive humor I was hoping to see more of after Observe & Report – a feminist streak assumedly stirred up by screenwriters Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, the same writing team behind Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, that sentiment is openly at war with the Bro Humor of the film’s production company, Happy Madison, which plays to the ugliest, most politically malevolent tendencies of mainstream American comedy. The very first gag of the film is Faris explaining in voiceover that she was abandoned at an orphanage’s doorstep in a basket, then her birth parents asked for the basket back. It’s a funny, concise, familiar introduction to the shitty life she’s endured since birth, conveying the exact lack of a safety net that would drive a person to survival-based sex work (even at as seemingly quaint of an institution as Playboy). Then comes a rapid series of jokes at the expense of homeless people, Latinx day workers, trans women, and the very sex worker contingent the movie initially seemed sympathetic toward.
I’m not going to exhaustively catalog the various moral or political offenses The House Bunny racks up over its 100min runtime, if not only because moral offense is the exact transgression these bro-friendly Sandler Crew productions thrive on. It’s just worth noting how deeply strange this film is in its continuous self-conflict. There’s a violent tug-of-war between it sympathizing with a ditzy blonde archetype that mainstream cinema usually treats as a passive, victimized sex doll and punching down at the expense of anyone who’s not Normal (read: straight, white, cis, attractive, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.), including that very same ditz. Ultimately, the Legally Blonde Redux undertones win that battle, if not only because Faris is funny enough to pave over the mood-killing Bro Gags that frequently interrupt her schtick. There are plenty of genuine laughs throughout. At the same time, the film often feels like a time capsule distillation of the worst impulses of the Paris Hilton 2000s and the Happy Madison brand at large (I didn’t even get to the grotesque ad placements or the bargain-bin CGI). I almost wish it were made a decade later so Faris’s darkly subversive performance could have shined without all that baggage.
Maybe now that Faris has recently freed herself from CBS Sitcom limbo (after 152 episodes of Mom) she can fulfill her obvious potential in a comedy with a lot fewer groans. It’s been a long, frustrating wait knowing she’s great and not seeing her given the proper space to shine. Although glaringly imperfect, at least The House Bunny tried.
Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.
Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.
Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.
I usually hate when a horror movie opens with a sneak preview of its own climactic violence, then rewinds the clock back to when everything to was peaceful just a few days before. It’s almost always a sign of the film not trusting its audience to be patient for the payoff, a cowardly reassurance that things will escalate if you hang around long enough. I’ll make an exception for the recent Thai creature feature The Pool, however, where that sneak preview serves an entirely different function. The film opens with its hero dazed & dehydrated at the bottom of a drained pool, fighting off a killer crocodile with only a bucket and few splintered furniture legs. In this case, the preview plays as a useful warning to the audience about the film’s budgetary restrictions. The CGI crocodile looks absurdly, unfathomably cheap, as if our sun-damaged hero is fighting a 2D photograph of a croc clipped out of a magazine. Instead of promising mayhem to come, the film is just being honest about the limits of what it can deliver, making sure the audience is on board with its bargain bin CGI upfront before wasting our time with less pressing concerns like dialogue, theme, or plot.
In essence, The Pool is a bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a young couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. Between The Shallows, Crawl, and 47 Meters Down, we’ve been gifted a few solid confined-space aquatic horrors in recent summers, which does put The Pool at a slight disadvantage considering the limited resources it’s competing with. It has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor, then, making sure the audience has a fun time even if not an extravagant one. In most of our hero’s attempts to escape the 6-meter concrete walls of his swimming pool prison, everything is just out of reach, amusingly so. A charger cord saves his phone from falling into the water just long enough for him to barely miss catching it; a Pizza Hut® delivery driver misses his calls for help because he’s briefly tethered to the drain by his wallet chain; a ladder lowered into the pool by strangers rolls away as he approaches it because it’s attached to a precarious stack of pipes. There are two major obstacles to survive in this picture: a cheaply rendered crocodile & an absurdist Rube Goldberg contraption designed specifically to keep him in place.
And then, just when you think The Pool is going to play everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Its flash-forward preview of the killer croc warns the audience of the film’s limited budget, but there’s no such accommodation for its wild shifts in tone. This is fun, upsetting trash that’s eager to push its limited scenario to its furthest extremes, alternating between slapstick gags & vicious cruelty without much notice. I will not spoil the shock value violence of its third act, so I’ll just report that I genuinely gasped once I got there. Weirdly, there’s also a thematic undertone to the film that suggests it might be Pro-Life propaganda. Otherwise goofball characters discuss in severe, worried tones about how “abortion is illegal, and also a sin”, and the killer croc herself only really lashes out to protect her eggs from being eaten by her fellow starved prisoners. I honestly don’t know what to make of that thematic swerve, nor do I know what to make of the film’s harsh shifts from broadly comedic schtick to nasty ultraviolence. All I can say is that I’m impressed that a film this cheap & this unassuming managed to surprise me at all, especially considering its reliance on a flash-forward prologue.