The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

My relationship with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is very similar to an ill-considered, last-call hookup at a dimly lit dive bar. I’ve always caught a grotesquely macho vibe from the advertising for Marin McDonagh pictures that has made me avoid each one no matter how lauded, as I was immediately turned off at first sight. The barrage of negative think pieces picking at McDonagh’s latest film’s mishandling of American race relations made it even more of an unappetizing prospect, something that somewhat validated my initial instinct to avoid it. There’s a kind of desperate, ticking clock effect to Oscar Season, though, an arbitrary deadline that often pressures me into taking chances on movies I’d typically avoid. With the last couple Best Picture nominees I hadn’t yet seen looking like they’d immediately put me to sleep (apologies to diehard fans of Darkest Hour & The Post), the incendiary divisiveness of Three Billboards stated to look a lot more attractive as an Oscars catch-up prospect. Of course, as most desperate last-call hookups go, the experience was exactly the total disaster I expected & should have known better to avoid.

Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who lashes out at her local Missouri police force for not thoroughly investigating the rape & murder of her teenage daughter. Much to the frustration of her son (Lucas Hedges), her not-so-secret admirer (Peter Dinklage), the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), and everyone else in their small, everybody-knows-everybody community, her vengeful rage is largely misplaced & unproductive. The most dangerous sparring partner she finds in her crusade to shame the local police into action (through inflammatory messages advertised on the titular billboards) is a racist, idiot cop with a reputation for “torturing black folks.” Most of Three Billboards’s cultural backlash has focused on this dangerous small-town cop archetype (performed competently enough by so-much-better-than-this Sam Rockwell), whom many critics believe to have been afforded more empathy than deserved, given his violently racist past. Much like with Andrea Arnold’s awkward portrait of American poverty in American Honey, this redemptive arc for an undeserving racist cop is just one symptom of a larger problem the movie suffers: a British outsider estimating an ill-informed view of American race relations. A long-respected playwright, McDonagh attacks this narrative with a tunnel-vision approach that values dialogue & character work over cultural context. To an American audience, it’s absolutely baffling to set a 2010s narrative about a violent, dysfunctional police force near Ferguson, Missouri without directly dealing with lethal, systemic racism in modern American law enforcement. “Black folks” are mentioned by name periodically throughout, but are largely nowhere to be seen, only checking in occasionally to encourage McDormand’s grieving mother with lines like “You go, girl. You go fuck those cops up.” McDonagh gets so caught up in telling a neo-Western revenge story about the meaningless, self-perpetuating nature of violence (a lesson we’ve had explained to us onscreen countless times before) that he doesn’t notice how many thematic cans of worms he’s opening & leaving unattended in the process. The empathetic portrait of the film’s most flagrantly racist cop is just one small part of that cultural-outsider obliviousness.

To be honest, I had soured on Three Billboards’s tone long before its American race politics naivete could fully sink in. Being willfully unfamiliar with McDonagh’s past works, I can’t claim to know if this film is indicative of his usual style, but I found it to be overwritten & under-directed in a consistently frustrating way. It felt like watching libertarian blowhard Bill Maher attempt to bring his Politically Incorrect brand of social commentary to the world of live theatre. When I say I’ve always caught a whiff of grotesque machismo from the look of McDonagh’s works, I should probably specify that it’s a pseudo-intellectual machismo – the kind of darkly comedic, overwritten tone that would appeal to Philosophy-major college freshmen who waste countless hours on Reddit & worship at the altar of The Boondock Saints. Indeed, even while featuring a “strong female” lead, Three Billboards feels like a grotesquely macho echo of the worst aspects of the highly-stylized, post-Tarantino dialogue that poisoned indie cinema for much of the 90s. I’m not fully convinced by the argument that Tarantino writes grimy genre throwbacks specifically to create an excuse to use racial epithets, but that exact criticism nagged me throughout Three Billboards. The performative, in-your-face way the film discusses fat people, “retards,” “midgets,” “wife-beaters,” a few more hateful terms I’d rather not repeat, pedophilic priests, rape, cancer, and suicide in a “transgressively” “humorous” tone was, to put it kindly, exhausting & juvenile. Women are lovingly addressed as “bitch” & “cunt” as pet names in a way that feels initially phony, then gratuitous in repetition. It got to the point where even the inciting incident of a teenage girl being “raped while dying” numbed me into not caring about the objectively horrific act’s revenge, since it was written in such a crassly flashy tone. Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read this “non-PC” demeanor to be bravely truthful about “how things really are” in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on “triggering snowflakes” in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.

The worst movie experiences are always the comedies that fail to make you laugh. I haven’t felt as isolated in a laughing audience watching Three Billboards since I allowed myself to be culturally pressured into watching the similarly #edgy Deadpool. The only comedic bit that got a chuckle out of me was a brief scene where Frances McDormand talks to her house slippers, which feels like a nice glimpse into a much better screenplay. The discomfort of the film’s failed dark humor is only intensified by its demand to be taken (very) seriously. The suddenness of the brutality and the omnipresent somber country music feel like hallmarks of a dead serious drama, but there’s an awkward stage play sheen to the dialogue that doesn’t allow that tonal sobriety to sit right. References to Oscar Wilde and unprompted questions like “Do birds get cancer?” feel entirely foreign to a film that’s supposed to capture the Ugly Truth of the American South. McDormand gets by relatively unscathed in her central role, but the stage play quality of the dialogue forces most actors in the film into awful, flat performances we already know for a fact they’re better than (talented youngsters Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, and Samara Weaving are especially embarrassing here). Sam Rockwell’s teetering between comedic buffoon & explosive threat is a microcosm of the film’s problems balancing #edgy dark humor with overwritten stage play drama, so it makes sense that his character would draw most of the film’s backlash. He’s just one detail indicative of larger, deep-seated issues, though, a mascot for the film’s many ills.

I’m going to tell you an open secret: we’re unpaid, non-professionals here at Swampflix, so we don’t often see moves we have zero interest in. There’s no one to assign them to us with a monetary reward attached, so there’s really no reason for us to seek out movies we know we aren’t going to like (which helps explain why the vast majority of our reviews are rated three stars or higher). Awards season attention & high critical praise (or at least extensive critical conversation) are among the few factors that can lead us outside our comfort zone, which often means our lowest-rated movies are among the most critically lauded titles of any given year. I’m admitting all this to reiterate that I had no business watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The early advertising convinced me I would dislike it, the second-wave critical backlash confirmed that suspicion, and then I allowed its high profile within the Oscars Conversation to convince me to give it a shot anyway. I can’t honestly say it’s one of the worst films of 2017, because I had the non-professional’s freedom to avoid moves I likely would have found to be worse. I can only report that it was one of my least favorite screenings of a high-profile movie from last year and I owe that experience to last minute desperation, FOMO, and The Academy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Babysitter (2017)

McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. His unmeasured, over-enthused music video tackiness is perhaps only suitable (or even tolerable) when delivering easy-to-digest, winking at the camera genre thrills at under 90min of violent, over-sexed pop media. I never would have supposed that horror comedy would be the sweet spot that forgave McG’s many, many sins against good taste, but The Babysitter proves just that.

A young, bullied nerd stays awake past his bedtime to spy on his older, cooler, hotter babysitter and discovers that she’s the ringleader of a Satanic blood cult. If this premise sounds like it should have been pitched 30 years ago, don’t worry; McG & writer Brian Duffield pretend as if they’re still operating in a socially & politically tacky 80s horror climate. The Babysitter relies heavily on the high school clique archetypes, lipstick lesbian make-outs, and (most despicably) racial caricature of ancient pop media as a launching point for its gore-soaked horror humor. The morality of this backwards mindset can be periodically icky, but the cartoon energy of the production design and the crazy-eyed performance from Samara Weaving as the titular hot girl villain (which is like a high school age version of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn interpretation) make the occasional bad taste squirm worthwhile. The idea of prurient curiosity from a young nerd spying on their perfect, ideal babysitter in hopes for sexual discovery instead leading him to becoming a targeted witness of a Satanic blood ritual is a solid hook, one McG bizarrely reduces to a gory music video remix of Home Alone. The Babysitter somehow even presents subtle themes about the anxieties of oncoming puberty & sexual awakening in the midst of its gory sugar rush eccentricity, especially in how its older, hornier teenage Satanists look through the eyes of its petrified junior high nerd protagonist. Those themes just aren’t very deep or tastefully executed. That’s not the McG way.

If you can look past its stubbornly dated moral center and eye-bleeding Cat in the Hat production design, The Babysitter works fairly well as a trashy horror comedy for the Riverdale age (just with some Family Guy touches unfortunately peppered in for flavor). The way it turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors is a great backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies. The film could’ve used more screentime exploring the sex & Satanic ritual aspects of its teen villain occultists, but there’s something endearingly perverse about the way McG devolves the premise into Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists instead. The bright colors, eccentric camera work, onscreen text, and lack of moral self-awareness are befitting of a children’s film from decades in the past, but also work surprisingly well in a trashy, direct-to-streaming horror comedy context. McG might have finally found his niche — his tacky, cavity-causing, shamefully amusing niche.

-Brandon Ledet