Episode #89 of The Swampflix Podcast: Bone (1972) & Early Larry Cohen

Welcome to Episode #89 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-ninth episode, James guides Brandon through the early career of the late, great schlockteur Larry Cohen, with a particular focus on Bone (1972), God Told Me To (1976), and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982). Enjoy!

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-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Perfection (2019)

On paper, The Perfection sounds like it should be exactly My Thing. It’s an over-the-top, weirdly horny, queer horror cheapie after all – the kind of heightened trash that clashes cheap made-for-VOD genre sensibilities with an exquisite fine art setting. That’s why it’s so disappointing that I ended up hating the film early & often, practically despising it more for being almost enjoyable yet barely watchable than I would have if it had no potential for greatness. Only outdone by Under the Silver Lake in terms of wasted potential, this is truly one of the biggest letdowns of the cinematic year so far, but I almost feel as if I’m letting myself down by failing to enjoy it. It’s like someone poisoned my catnip.

I can’t get too far into the premise of The Perfection here without ruining its intended payoffs for those who might still enjoy it. The what-the-fuck-is-happening quality of the plot is one of its strongest assets, as long as you aren’t as utterly appalled by its unearned reveals as I ultimately was. It’s at least safe to say that Allison Williams stars as a world-class cellist who returns to the music academy that trained her as a child before her years of seclusion in caring for her sick mother & intensive therapy. The music academy’s director (Steven Weber) is cautiously suspicious of her return but delighted for the opportunity to hear her play with his new star pupil (Logan Browning). Things escalate quickly as the two women’s exquisite musical collaboration transforms into a passionate sexual tryst and then, almost immediately, a complex series of betrayals, revenge, cruelty, and bloodshed. This first act set-up prompts you to question the history, intentions, and mental stability of all the players involved, and the perverse fun of its fallout is in those mysteries being fully, exploitatively exposed. To reveal any more in this review would be a crime I’m not willing to commit, except to say that all of The Perfection’s twisty roads only lead to disappointment.

There’s plenty for me to complain about here. As with the similarly promising-but-disappointing Always Shine, The Perfection immediately hinders itself with gimmicky early-aughts-horror editing tricks – practically begging for audiences’ patience with promises that “Things will get wacky & crazy later! Hold tight!” Besides the artificial jump scares generated purely through those edits, the film repeatedly rewinds scenes of intense violence & betrayal to over-explain what was really going on – when those rewound flashbacks only reveal was already blatant & obvious. Ideally, the film would have just let its trashy premise clash against its pristine High Art setting, as superior films like In Fabric, Grand Piano, and Argento’s Opera have before it. Instead, everything about it comes across as cheap except that it happens to have a cello soundtrack. The film is also never quite as surprising as it believes itself to be, telegraphing many of its shocking Twists long before it rewinds itself to explain what was already obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before – undercutting its own value as a what-the-fuck-is-happening oddity at every turn. Nothing typifies this more than a last-minute wig reveal where a central character yanks off their own wig to expose a smaller, scragglier wig underneath . . . and not much else.

The truth is, through, that I would have readily forgiven all these minor sins against good taste if the third act’s morbid obsession with sexual assault hadn’t been such a letdown. This a violently gory, sensually horny, playfully twisty genre film that touches on Lovecraftian fears of breaking through reality to reach divine, horrible transcendence through beautiful music. I don’t understand, then, what it finds so alluring about the horror canon’smost repugnantly pedestrian go-to for creating tension & conflict for female characters. It’s as unearned as it is boring, frankly. You can’t promise your audience the endless horrors of the great abyss only to deliver the cheapest, laziest form of cinematic violence there is – especially since that violence has a long history of exploitation without justification in the themes of the text.

I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to have a good time with this ludicrous schlock. In fact, I envy anyone who did. I even suspect my distaste for it will cause conflict with other Swampflixers around Best of the Year list-making season, since it’s the exact kind of thing we usually praise around here. Indeed, I even found plenty to enjoy from scene to scene: the psychedelic freak-outs, the gory body horror, the comical over-utilization of split diopter shots, the tension of a world-class cellist summoning all their willpower to not shit themselves on a public bus, etc. I just can’t personally get past how much the film wastes its own potential in its editing, its handling of sexual abuse, and its eagerness to over-explain and then re-explain to the audience what’s already embarrassingly obvious. The fact that it should have easily been one of my favorite films of the year only makes it stand out as one of my most hated, however personal that reaction may be.

-Brandon Ledet

Dementia 13 (1963)

Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.

Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.

What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.

-Brandon Ledet

All About Evil (2010)

Typically, movies made by drag queens require a little good will & benefit of the doubt from their audience. I’ve written positive reviews of dirt cheap drag productions like Vegas in Space & Hurricane Bianca in the past, but my forgiving love of drag as an artform likely made me a little lenient in discerning their merits, just like how my love of pro wrestling can lead to positive reviews of widely-hated films like Ready to Rumble. I’d like to distinguish All About Evil from that bias. Written & directed by infamous San Francisco drag queen Peaches Christ (under her boy name, Joshua Grannell), All About Evil is a genuinely well-made participation in B-movie schlock tradition. The film features performances from legitimate camp cinema players (and friends of Grannell’s, presumably): Natasha Lyonnne, Mink Stole, and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, an admirably unholy trinity. While Peaches Christ appears in the film in full drag (as herself!), the story isn’t especially concerned with the artform; it’s a natural part of the San Francisco setting, nothing more. The production values are about on par with most drag cinema indies (I’m thinking specifically of outsider art made by drag queens, not major productions like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), but its ambition aims much higher than most camp comedies of its ilk. Most importantly, tough, All About Evil displays a deep, knowledgeable love for the horror cinema refuse it imitates & pays homage to. As the screen fills with references to Blood Feast, The Wasp Woman, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, The Pit and the Pendulum, and so on, All About Evil’s midnight movie credentials are beyond legitimized and it transcends its drag cinema pedigree to become something else I’m strongly biased to enjoy: over-the-top horror schlock.

Although its title is a play on the name of a Bette Davis picture and there are plenty throwaway references to other cult horror works, All About Evil most resembles the Roger Corman classic Bucket of Blood in its basic plot. Natasha Lyonne (telegraphing her later re-emergence in weirdo horror cheapies like Antibirth & #horror) stars as a mentally unstable librarian who inherits a repertory movie theater form her deceased father. Her business struggles to stay afloat until security footage of her murdering her father’s shrill widow is projected on the screen for an unsuspecting midnight audience. The gore hounds in the crowd mistake the violent act as a fictional work of outsider art, commending her for creating a few found-footage subgenre they call “surveillance slaughter” and eagerly awaiting her next homemade short film. She continues to build her local legacy from there by committing more murders for the camera, often punishing her victims for faux pas like disparaging horror as an artform or using their cellphones in the theater. There might be vague correlations to be made between horror audiences’ insatiable bloodlust and the film’s movie theater goths mistaking murder for art, but the premise is mostly an excuse to have fun while celebrating horror as a communal joy. In true drag queen tradition, Lyonne’s short film slashers are given ridiculous pun titles like “Slasher in the Rye” & “Gore and Peace.” Popcorn machines & library books are fashioned into ridiculous murder props. The gore flows freely in practical effects indulgences instead of settling for the cheaper, lazier route of CG blood splatter. All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.

The one thing that tempers my appreciation of All About Evil is its choice of protagonist. Instead of detailing Lyonne’s mental unraveling from her own perspective, the film is told mostly from the POV of a teenage horror bro who arrives on the ground floor as one of her biggest fans. He makes sense as a choice for inserting an audience surrogate into the narrative, but like in Joe Dante’s embarrassing Burying the Ex misfire, can often unintentionally display some of the fandom’s worst macho tendencies. His relationship with a horror-hating Feminist Nag is particularly troubling, especially in an exchange where he mansplains to her that Lyonne’s deranged killer is “important” because there’s (supposedly) never been a great female horror director before. The statement is, at best, misinformed, devaluing the the cult classic films of women like Stephanie Rothman, Doris Wishman, Jackie Kong, Roberta Findlay, and Mary Lambert. It’s even more cringeworthy once you consider the fact that Cindy Sherman’s Carol Kane slasher Office Killer is by far a superior example of the exact mousy-homebody-turned-vengeful-killer aesthetic All About Evil aims towards; a woman has essentially made a better version of the movie that’s telling its audience no woman has ever made a truly great horror film before. It’s a frustrating claim to stomach. Office Killer also didn’t feel the need to tell its story through the eyes of a goth bro, keeping its perspective solidly anchored to Kane even as she descended into gory madness (which is partly why it’s a better film). I wouldn’t have been so taken aback by the character’s misguided horror bro mindset if it weren’t so clearly meant to be a mouthpiece for the audience. All About Evil is such a gleeful celebration of cult horror subculture (and women in general) otherwise that it was disappointing such a misguided choice made it to the screen in the process.

Being mildly offended is honestly just as natural to drag culture as bad puns & glitter, though, so I wasn’t too bothered with All About Evil’s slightly off-center feminist politics. It also helps that I saw the film in one of the best possible environments: with Peaches Christ present for a Q&A in the back room of a local bar. The screening was preceded by a few B-movie friendly drag performances (including a Female Trouble-themed act from fellow Krewe Divine member CeCe V Deminthe) and was supervised by local drag workshop instructor Vinsantos (a friend of Peaches Christ’s who also provided the film’s low-fi score). The entire evening was reminiscent of old school art cinema screenings, where weirdos would pile into unconventional spaces like bookstores & dive bars to struggle to hear avant-garde experiments over the roar of a nearby whirring projector. In this case the projector had an inaudible, digital-era hum, but the environment was still the same. The similarities between the drunken drag enthusiasts in that barroom and the gore-thirsty goths calling for the peril of Natasha Lyonne’s victims onscreen were apparent & plentiful. I’m much more suspicious of that environment’s effect on my enthusiasm for the film than I am with my general drag cinema leniency. Still, Peaches Christ delivered an impressive love letter to campy, gore-drenched schlock in All About Evil. The film was clearly a blast to make, but far from the lazy, self-indulgent hangout it easily could have been (and many microbudget horror comedies are). I’d without question recommend it to anyone with a voracious love of B-movie history, whether or not they’re familiar with Peaches Christ as a real-life persona or drag as an artform. That’s more than I can say for pictures like Vegas in Space, as much I as I love those for their own sake.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972)

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The 1970s was a truly vile era of schlock cinema, a decade of post-Hays Code liberation that’s just as notable for its New Hollywood artistic renaissance as it is for grotesque drive-in provocations like Cannibal Holocaust & I Spit on Your Grave. Whenever I watch horror films from the 70s era of grindhouse grime I usually prepare myself for the possibility of disgust, particularly in the decade’s beyond questionable depictions of sexual assault. I do have a few pet favorites from the era, though, rough at the edges gems that could’ve only been produced in the lawless days when exploitation cinema was king, a malevolent, slovenly king. I don’t want to say, for instance, that I’ve seen the minor schlock title The Night of a Thousand Cats more than anyone else, but it is a nasty 70s horror title I return to far more often than is typical for me. Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment.

You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle. Its cocktail napkin plot is thus: a mysterious, wealthy man flirts with women by flaunting his opulence. Once (easily) seduced, he flies them back to his remote castle via helicopter, murders them, stores their heads in glass cases, and tosses their remaining meat to his ungodly collection of house cats, which might just meet the 1,000 benchmark indicated in the title. Before he can complete his collection of lovely lady heads, his cat army escapes confinement, turns on him, and eats him alive. It’s an inevitable comeuppance in a bare bones story with little to no frills in its individual beats. There’s certainly an alternate universe where the exact same premise could be played for absurdist, camp-minded laughs, but something about this film lodges itself under your skin. It’s disturbing to the point of feeling unethical, even more so in its treatment of cats than its treatment of women.

If The Night of a Thousand Cats were produced in 2016 there’s no doubt its titular feline hoard would be made entirely of CGI. In 1972, they used real cats. Like, so many goddamn cats. A lot of 1970s schlock is difficult to watch due to its gleeful cruelty towards fictional women. This film is disturbing for the way it treats real life animals. A sea of cats whine in a bare, concrete cage where they’re fed from above by casually-tossed, rare “human” meat. What’s worse is that the cats themselves are tossed at both their fleeing victims & their cruel master. It’s not quite the nasty on-screen animal cruelty of Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s still disturbing to watch. The only cinematic reference point I can really compare it to is the feline kill at the heart of Dario Argento’s Inferno. As uncomfortable as the film is to watch as an animal lover, however, it’s still fascinating as a relic from a time when filmmakers could go unchecked in such a questionable way. My usual discomfort with grindhouse slime is in the way sexual violence is exploited for shock value & (in the worst cases) titillation. The cat-tossing & cat-hoarding of this work is surely immoral in a similarly sleazy way. I’d never want to see it recreated in a modern context and it probably should have never been made in the first place, but it’s a fascinating document as is, one that’s effectively disturbing in both its on & off screen implications.

What’s most surprising about The Night of a Thousand Cats is that its depiction of predatory sexuality is actually somewhat enlightened & thoughtful, depending on how you read the film’s intent. Since there is a surprisingly minuscule amount of dialogue holding the film together, the terror of The Night of a Thousand Cats is mostly centered on the predatory evils of masculine seduction. The bearded playboy killer who collects heads & house cats could easily be presented as a target for envy from the audience. He vacations in beautiful locations, seduces beautiful women, and lives in an inherited mansion complete with an Igor-esque butler named Goro. The killer’s entire seduction process amounts to “Look at my helicopter,” but it’s a flirtation that works every single time. Instead of coming across like a prototype for The World’s Most Interesting Man, however, he’s played as an obvious creep. He directly tells his romantic partners that he wants to possess them, to “put you in a place where no one can’t touch you,” “a crystal cage”. The women find this possessiveness charming, but for the audience it’s a horror show, one that only leads to more cat feedings. We know so little about the killer that he’s defined solely by his wealth, his sexuality, and his masculinity. He inherited wealth from a family of “collectors” & strives to assemble his own collection of sorts that will stand as “the most interesting of all”, but that’s about it. We don’t even know for sure why he’s obsessed with cats. His interest in cats & women seems to be one in the same: a violent obsessiveness that’s smartly played for chills & vague menace instead of shameless titillation.

Some of the confusion in this film’s plot is surely due to its heavily-edited US release, which cuts a good half-hour off the original Mexican work for a slim hour-long runtime. The speed & disjointedness of The Night of a Thousand Cats plays to the film’s strengths, however, and through its strange, clunky edits the film feels at times like a clumsy art house dream world. In a way, it plays like a nasty grindhouse version of Knight of Cups, with its loose, largely dialogue-free disposal of beautiful women & the heavy psychedelic melancholy of a deeply selfish man. I don’t want to oversell this film’s competence. It’s an ugly mess first & foremost, but I’m continually fascinated by the surreal quality of its ugliness, the surprisingly deft way it handles the killer’s misogyny and (of course) its never-ending sea of bloodthirsty cats. I’m usually all for leaving the nastier side of grindhouse horror in the past, but The Night of a Thousand Cats is one ghost from that era I’d love to see brought back & re-examined. It’s a singularly strange & nasty work I return to way more often than I probably should.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell (1987)

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Way, way back in the magical time of the 1980s, VHS cassettes opened up a new, exciting world where films could suddenly be copied & distributed among nerdy weridos looking to sidestep the interference (and profits) of the movie studios that owned them. That role has, obviously, been filled by the Internet in recent years, so it’s hard to imagine just how exciting this development was at the time. It was suddenly dirt cheap for independent producers to churn out schlock & put it directly in the hands of fans. Special interest markets like skateboarders & pro wrestling nerds all of a sudden had a way to record & distribute their favorite content among like-minded geeks. Not only was a new market of nerdom opened for media junkies that allowed them to trade & curate content once impossible to own at home, but there was an element of danger & piracy involved in the process, which afforded the underground video market the same inherently dorky cool as phrases like “the dark web”.

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell could have only existed in this sleazily magical time when underground VHS trading was a dangerous-feeling form of nerdy fun. Less of a documentary & more of a straight-forward compilation, Prevues from Hell assembles a montage of movie trailers from horror’s drive-in, grindhouse era. It’s an endless assault of in-bad-taste horror advertising from the 1970s loosely stapled together by stale comedy bits that should feel familiar to anyone who’s ever caught a television broadcast hosted by an Elvira or Morgus-type. The film seemingly assembles every Fangoria & Rick Baker fan in Pennsylvania in an ancient cinema to serve as the audience for this cavalcade of schlock trailers & evil ventriloquist-MC’d wraparound segments. The monster make-up is fairly top notch for a straight-to-VHS horror compilation, but this connective tissue is ultimately a painfully corny diversion from the film’s main attraction: advertisements for long-gone coming attractions. That is, unless someone really, really wanted to see gags like a dummy handing his ventriloquist operator a severed finger & quipping, “Get it? I’m giving you the finger! I’m giving you the finger!”

As for the film trailers included in Prevues from Hell, there’s an interesting variety on display: cult classics with wide appeal (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Living Dead, Argento’s Deep Red, De Palma’s Sisters); grotesque films I wish I could erase from my memory (The Wizard of Gore, 2000 Maniacs, The Last House on the Left); forgotten gems I’d love to track down (The Corpse Grinders, Cannibal Girls, Flesh Feast); and nasty-looking works of depravity you’d have to pay me to watch (Africa: Blood & Guts, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, etc.). The most interesting thing the film’s endless montage of grindhouse trailers does is set up Prevues from Hell as a cultural relic from two separate eras of cult cinema. It’s not only an artifact of the underground VHS trading era of the 80s & 90s; it’s also a comprehensive tour of the carnie huckster style of advertising that defined the drive-in era of horror trailers. A lot of schlock producers at the time threw all of their weight into the advertising end of their product, promising the world in the trailers & having very little pressure to actually deliver a quality product once tickets were purchased. The claims in these ads are outrageous: “The most blood-chilling motion picture you’ve ever seen!” “The most shocking ordeal ever permitted onscreen!” “The world’s first horror movie made in hallucinogenic hypno-vision!” The spirit of larger than life hucksters like William Castle & David Friedman are alive in every ad. Any one of these producers could’ve enjoyed a second life as a self-hyped politician. And, sadly, because these trailers are primarily from horror’s nastiest era, the 1970s, they do a pretty good job representing the gleeful depictions of sexual assault that make a lot of these works much more enjoyable to digest in 90 second clips that they’d be as full-length films.

Of course, everything about Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell is obsolete in 2016. You could most likely find each & every one of these trailers (if not the films in their entirety) uploaded to YouTube in some form and a very helpful Letterboxd user has assembled the full list of titles the film compiled so you don’t even have to bother with the corny wraparound segments to track down what made the cut. Modern documentaries like Corman’s World & Electric Boogaloo that function like similarly-minded schlock clip compilations provide enough talking head interviews & historical context to make their trips down horror advertising memory lane worthwhile in an informational sense, but Prevues from Hell provides no such context. For instance, who is Mad Ron? Although he’s shown twice in the film I honestly have no idea who he is or what he contributed to the production. Does he own the theater where this was filmed? Is that how he obtained the trailer reels on display? Does that even matter? Prevues from Hell is only an educational experience in that it’s a glimpse into two long-gone eras of horror’s past: the grindhouse drive-in 70s & the underground video swap 80s. Otherwise, you’re probably better off skimming YouTube & assembling your own Prevues from Hell off the cuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Camp Films of 2015

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Yesterday, I posted my list for the best films I saw in 2015, but with the exceptions of a couple outliers like Magic Mike XXL & Mad Max: Fury Road the whole thing reads as a little too . . . stuffy, dignified. To get a fuller picture of what the year looked like, here were the 15 films I most enjoyed on the trashier side of cinema, the ones we slapped with a Camp Stamp.

1. Goosebumps – The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. It strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky, all-silly source material, resulting in a film that’s genuine dumb fun from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night.

2. Unfriended – This laptop-framed live chat horror flick is so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as kind of a joke, but the commitment also leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of their own digital experiences. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of a gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both way more fun & way more affecting than it has any right to be.

3. Spy – Paul Feig & Melissa McCarthy’s latest collaboration updates the mindless excess of the superspy spoof genre (seen before in films like Naked Gun, Austin Powers, and MacGruber) with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor lurking under its crass irreverence. If nothing else, Jason Statham’s monologue in which he brags about his past adventures might be the single funniest (and most relentlessly dumb) scene of the year.

4. Furious 7 I watched all 7 Fast & Furious movies for the first time this year and can say with total confidence that this was easily the most over-the-top in its absurd disregard for physics, human nature, and good taste. What a fun, ridiculous spectacle of an action movie.

5. Turbo KidA cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

6. Deathgasm – An authentic look into a metal head teen’s colorful imagination, Deathgasm is a gore-soaked, go-for-broke horror comedy about a high school metal band’s war against a zombie apocalypse. It’s delightfully gross & oddly sweet.

7. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling. All hail Krampus,  a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend.

8. The Final Girls – If you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. It not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of its outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, it also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit.

9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationPretty much a repeat of what I had to say about Furious 7. I watched the entire Mission: Impossible series for the first time this year & the newest installment, Rogue Nation, easily stood out as the most over-the-top entry in the fairly silly action franchise yet.

10. Russell Madness – A family comedy “produced by” Air Bud about a Jack Russell Terrier who finds success as a mixed-species pro wrestler. Need I say more? The only flaw in its execution of what had to be the dumbest premise of the year is that they didn’t stick with what must have been the original title: Russell Mania.

11. American Ultra/Victor Frankenstein I can’t defend essentially anything I’ve ever read Max Landis say on the internet, but I can say that he wrote two of the most mindlessly fun, delightfully excessive examples of trashy cinema that I saw all year.

12. Patch Town – A horror comedy Christmas musical about an evil Cabbage Patch dolls factory, Patch Town sounds like the kind of Sci-Fi Channel dreck that would settle for a couple odd moments & a celebrity cameo, then call it a day. Instead, it milks its concept for all it’s worth. Its high-concept, low budget weirdness is calculated, sure, but it’s also surprisingly thorough in pushing that concept as far as it could possibly go & even better yet, it’s genuinely funny.

13. EverlyA scantily clad prostitute played by Selma Hayek attempts to reunite with her family and escape a life of indentured servitude through an onslaught of gun violence. Cornered in a condo, Hayek’s Everly has to shoot her way through an army of Japanese gangsters, bumbling bodyguards, and fellow prostitutes to achieve freedom. If this sounds stupid & gratuitous, it’s because it most definitely is. Everly isn’t a film where any themes or ideas are explored in new or interesting ways and the violence is a mere exclamation point. It’s a film where violence is the entire point.

14. R100 Late in the run time of this surreally campy BDSM comedy, the film addresses the audience directly by suggesting that, “People won’t understand this film until they’re 100 years old.” Even that timeline may be a little too optimistic. Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, the juvenile prankster who brought the world the cartoonish excess of Big Man Japan & Symbol, R100 initially pretends to be something it most definitely is not: understated. The first forty minutes of the film are a visually muted, noir-like erotic thriller with a dully comic sadness to its protagonists’ depression & persecution. It’s around the halfway mark where the film goes entirely off the rails genre-wise, dabbling in tones that range from spy movies to mockumentaries to old-school ZAZ spoofs. It’s doubtful that even 100 years on Earth will give you enough information to make sense out of that mess.

15. The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown – What can I say? I’m a sucker for pro wrestling cinema. The dumber the better. In The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown the unholy marriage of the title not only connects both The FlintstonesHoneymooners-style comedy and the WWE’s complete detachment from reality with their collective roots in working class escapism, it also revels in the most important element in all of wrestling & animation, the highest form of comedy: delicious, delicious puns.

-Brandon Ledet

Required Viewing for Fans of The Independent (2000): Corman’s World (2011)

In our Swampchat discussion of December’s Movie of the Month, the 2000 Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, we praised the film for feeling remarkably ahead of its time in terms of the modern comedy landscape. Long stretches of the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern HBO anti-hero comedy or post-The Office docucomedy, which is true even if both genres are pulling influence from the same souce as The Independent – Christopher Guest mockumentaries. That’s not the only way in which The Independent was ahead of its time, though. Most mockumentaries & spoof comedies wait until the material they’re mocking is actually released. The ever-prescient The Independent, on the other hand, was released more than a decade before the documentary it most resembles – 2011’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

Roger Corman not only appears in brief “interviews” for The Independent, but Jerry Stiller’s schlockmeister protagonist Morty Fineman mostly serves as a Roger Corman archetype (with maybe a little David Friedman or Russ Meyer sleaze thrown in for good measure). Fineman’s 427 B-movies oeuvre may seem comically oversized & impossible for a filmmaker to achieve, but the timeless Roger Corman (who began making film in the 50s & continues to work to this day) has a whopping 409 production credits (and 56 directoral credits) according to IMDb. For every infamous Roger Corman trashterpiece (Rock & Roll High Schol, A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000, Piranha, etc.) there’s dozens of titles lurking in the archives that no one remembers at all, a sentiment reflected in the way that a dozen or so Fineman features are represented throughout The Independent, but hundreds are listed in his filmography that runs in tandem with the end credits.

There’s so much Corman in Fineman that the connection is undeniable, especially if you consider the way that unlikely former Corman collaborators pop up in both The Independent & Corman’s World – particularly Ron Howard & Peter Bogdanovich. There’s also  the two directors’ love for Ingmar Bergman – reflected in Fineman’s herpes-themed The Simplex Complex & in the odd, real-life detail that Corman used to provide distribution for the Swedish auteur’s films at American drive-ins because he thought people needed to see them. The truest connection of all, though, is in the clips of the two directors’ films – Fineman’s fake & Corman’s real. Corman talks at length about the value of text vs. subtext in sneaking in political messages in trashy B-movies features, but watching clips of his work in Corman’s World suggests that the director might be more in line with Fineman’s confession that he was mostly interested in the “tits, ass, and bombs” than he was putting on.

Corman’s World is an invaluable documentary, one that should be required viewing for all movie lovers whether or not they’ve indulged in The Independent‘s delights. Corman himself is just so full of insight from decades of hands-on experience. I particularly enjoyed his rigid, formulaic approach to genre films, like the way he describes that creature features need their monsters to kill someone fairly gruesome easily in the film, then kill at regular, less-shocking intervals until the blood-all-over-the-screen finale. It’s also a delight to see such twisted imagery & violent, sex-depraved themes originate from such a calm, professorial source, a dichotomy he describes as the outer image vs. the unconscious mind. This detail is missing in Fineman’s character, who is just as explosive in his art as he is in his personalty. There’s also a Russ Meyer-esque sleaziness in Fineman that’s entirely absent in the oddly-refined Corman.

What’s most interesting, though, is the ways in which Corman’s career phases serve as a blueprint for the history of cult cinema. Corman started by making creature features & teen rebellion dramas in the 1950s. He then moved on to the much classier “Poe cycle” of his career, a string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that married art house aesthetic with B-movie camp (including February’s Movie of the Month, The Masque of the Red Death). This lead him to indulging in arty hippie movies & giving a shot to young Hollywood voices that positioned him as the paterfamilias of the golden era of New Hollywood. Once his collaborators outgrew him & left him behind (names like Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Fonda), Corman survived on a second wave of trashy exploitation cinema until big budget films he heavily influenced (like Star Wars & Jaws) effectively disassembled the drive-in movie market & drove him to home video cheapness & SyFy Channel mockbusters. The story of Roger Corman’s career is the story of modern cinema at large, something that could also be said about the fictional Morty Fineman.

A lot of Corman’s more artistic impulses are missing in the eternal businessman Fineman, but there really is something to say about Corman & his ilk’s ability to make interesting, profitable pictures on shoestring budgets. Fineman doesn’t have fictional credits that match up with Corman’s racial segregation protest film The Intruder or the soaring artistry of the Poe Cycle, but the two directors do hare an eye for finance. As (frequently Corman collaborator) Jack Nicholson puts it in Corman’s World, “A filmmaker who doesn’t understand money is like an artist who doesn’t understand paint.” The Independent is all about Morty Fineman securing funding for yet another B-picture & even though themselves don’t look especially promising, it really is awe-inspiring to see Corman still at work, stealing shots & cutting expenses for SyFy Channel originals (which are essentially Roger Corman knockoffs), Fineman & Corman are survivors, unlikely successes navigating inhospitable waters for decades on end.

Thankfully, Corman’s success story at the conclusion of Corman’s World is much more impressive than Fineman’s at the end of The Independent. Fineman secures funding for his next picture, surviving to see another day & attending a small-town film festival held in his honor. Corman, on the other hand, receives a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a much-deserved distinction for a director who could film movies as memorable as Little Shop of Horrors in a weekend or provide an environment in which Peter Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit is something called The Gill Women of Venus (aka Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women). I’m glad to see Corman receive the recognition he deserves from The Academy, but it’s almost an even greater achievement that he earned a loosely-based mockumentary homage  in (the albeit little-loved, little remembered) The Independent. The Independent & Corman’s World are inescapably linked in my mind as celebrations of one of cinemas most criminally under-celebrated heroes. Even though one is fictional & the other is a documentary, they’re both indispensable in their reverence for a wonderful artist.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Independent (2000)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Erin watch The Independent (2000).

Brandon: I first was alerted to the low-stakes indie comedy The Independent this past summer when Britnee posted an article about how our former Movie of the Month Highway to Hell happened to feature every member of the Stiller family: Jerry, Ben, Anne (Mearea), and Amy. An observant Swampflix reader, Tom Morton, was kind enough to point us in the direction of yet another film that featured every member of the Stiller clan, The Independent. I fell in love. I gushed heavily in my review of the film & added it to the growing list of our so-called Swampflix Cannon after just one viewing, despite it being a fairly simple, straightforward comedy. Something about the subject matter just clicked perfectly with my own pet cinema obsessions, especially in the B-movie spectrum. In the film Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an infinite stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Fineman is on the same violently explosive vibe Stiller brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”.

The great thing about this set-up is that Morty is not only a stand-in for Corman (who appears as himself within the film), but also fills the role of countless other legendary B-movie directors & producers: Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, David Friedman, etc. In other words, he is schlock personified. Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package. A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-sexy-robot blaxploitation called Foxy Chocolate Robot, and so on. These schlock spoofs are consistently funny & evenly spaced from beginning to end, supported only by the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a real-life serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews of The Independent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current cultural climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improv-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the schlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy.

Boomer, do you think part of the reason audiences did not connect with The Independent when it was released 15 years ago was that there was too much focus on the one-off B-movie spoofs & not enough of a fully-fleshed narrative to support a full-length feature? Do you think that breaking up the spoofs into a weekly sketch comedy format would’ve benefited the story it was trying to tell or was the film satisfying enough as a self-contained, low-stakes tale of a struggling, past-his-prime director trying to keep his family & his business intact?

Boomer: When watching this movie, the thing that struck me most about it was, as you noted above, how ahead of its time it felt. Debuting a year before the original UK version of The Office, it was not the first mockumentary, but it was made during a time when the tropes and rhetorical shorthand methodologies of the genre were largely unknown by the general population. I’d wager that if The Independent were to have been made after the airings of Arrested Development and, to a much greater degree, the US version of The Office, then the film would have seen wider appeal. We live in a world full of sitcoms that use talking head confessionals as a quick and dirty way of telling jokes in a more succinct way, for better or worse, even when the show itself doesn’t lend itself to that (for instance, it works for The Office, and that show eventually incorporated the film crew as part of the action in its final season, but why exactly do the Dunphys and Pritchetts of Modern Family mug for–and talk directly to–the camera?). I think it’s safe to say that, should there be an interested producer looking for a project, a series adaptation of The Independent would not be out of place in today’s television landscape.

I’m hesitant to commit to watching this hypothetical series, however. So much of what makes The Independent work is that the film’s tone never becomes too sentimental or unfocused on Stiller’s objectively reprehensible but subjectively human protagonist, and I feel like a series, even a serialized, single season adaptation, would find itself going to the well of emotional pathos much more than the source material did. The quick shots we see of his films contribute to the sense of his character, and his films convey a great deal in their (relative) understatement, regardless of how outlandish the films themselves may be. I get the feeling that an adaptation would rapidly experience diminished returns as we saw more and more of his body of work, pushing beyond their initial humor into exponentially more outlandish film outings that would undermine the film’s taut use of this device. Der Ubergoober, Truckstop Nurses, and The Despot Removers are all film titles that are pure perfection in the abstract but wouldn’t work, or would disappoint, if we were presented with them on film (although I have to admit that I would love to see Hot Justice in Thirty Minutes or Less, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Golem sounds like a blast).

That the film is simply that, a film, works best for me personally. That we see Janeane Garofalo’s Paloma exact revenge on facsimiles of the cheerleaders who spurned her in less than thirty seconds of Cheerleader Camp Massacre, for instance, shows that the strength of The Independent lies in knowing what to expand and what to explore only briefly. Given contemporary television’s tendency to decompress storylines at the expense of consistency and viewer patience, as well as the general saturation of the mockumentary-as-comedy style, I feel like a series adaptation would be a letdown. As a concept, it was ahead of its time, and now that its time has come, it has no real place among its contemporary peers.

That having been said, there are quite a few of these films that I would love to see in full, especially with a little MST3k-esque riffing. What about you, Britnee? Are there any of Fineman’s movies that you would desperately like to see as real films? Any that you think are best left imagined rather than realized? And why?

Blombas: Without a doubt, I would love to see Whale of a Cop (1981) as a full-length film. From what the trailer implied, a cop, played by Ben Stiller, is the human form of a whale, and he has a close friendship with a 8-10 year old kid. Stiller makes all sorts of whale noises, and he even spits out water! In the trailer, the kid is having one of those shoo-the-dog goodbye moments. Stiller looks all dopey-eyed and confused while this kid is crying up a storm and yelling something along the lines of “go be with your own kind!” I was crying from laughing so hard during this scene. How did the spirit of a whale end up in the body of a cop? Why is this super young kid with a bowl cut his best friend? These are all questions that I am dying to have answered. Hopefully, they were both once whales, but the boy fully turned into a human while Stiller is only half human. The police department recruited him because his special whale senses were helpful with their criminal investigations.

Another film that sounds like a blast would be A Very Malcolm Xmas. It’s never discussed during the actual film, but the title is shown during the credits (along with the rest of Fineman’s filmography). As an admirer of Malcolm X, I would love to know how Fineman would blend his legacy with Christmas traditions. As a lover of bad films and just being a curious person in general, I can’t really think of any fake Fineman movies that I would not want to see as actual films.

Other than the many “fake” film trailers featured in the movie, something in the film that really stood out to me was the duo that is Jerry Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. The chemistry between the two was so unexpected but, by God, it was extraordinary. They both have such different styles of comedy, and I think that’s why they got so many laughs out of me.

Erin, did you feel the same about Garofalo and Stiller? Would you like to see the two act in similar roles again? Or was this more of a one time thing?

Erin: I have to say, seeing Janeane Garofalo as a fake-tanned daddy’s girl was a lot of fun, since I’m most familiar with her acidic side, a la Heather of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.  And Jerry Stiller is perfect as Morty Fineman.  After watching The Independent, it’s hard to imagine him as any other role (although, I suspect that Stiller’s acting talents often lie in adding quite a bit of himself to his roles).  I liked seeing Garofalo and Stiller playing off each other, and the were really, truly believable as adults navigating a parent-child relationship.  Oddly enough, though, I would have to say that while I would like to see more of Jerry Stiller in similar roles, I’m not sure that I’m sold on Garofalo in similar roles.  I think that it might be because Garofalo was acting against type that her performance in this movie comes off so well, and I think that this kind of magic might lose its luster if repeated too often.

To change the subject a bit, I think that one of the things that made this movie so watchable was the pacing, the way that little glimpses of the Fineman world were revealed in a way that eased us into the madness of it all.  I wouldn’t have accepted the immediate introduction of Fineman’s car-dwelling ex wife, even after the strangeness of the opening scene.  However, by the time we meet her, we’re fully prepared for the next wacky turn of events. The Independent takes us by the hand and leads us happily down the lane, and by the time we think to ask where we’re going we’ve left the real world behind.  It’s the skillful story telling that makes me think of The Independent as a filmmaker’s film, something made not necessarily to entertain the masses but turn the lens of film back on itself.

The Independent is like watching a home movie.  I think, perhaps, that this home movie is meant for filmmakers, to see themselves and their passions through the fiction of a movie.  It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers portray themselves here – confident, persistent, optimistic, and terrible to live with.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is The Independent a self portrait, meant for filmmakers?  Is is self-indulgent, or a surreal confessional asking for atonement?

Brandon: So far I’ve honestly only thought of this movie as a film for schlock junkies. Fans of the trash auteurs of yesteryear will find plenty to chew on in The Independent, especially in those short-form spoofs & Roger Corman interviews. I don’t think that descriptions excludes filmmakers from the intended audience, though. A lot of filmmakers, even the ones who make endless piles of garbage, are really at heart just big movie fans who can’t help but make the the things they love. For example, Morty Fineman didn’t make hundreds of movies on accident. He made it because them because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s in his blood. Also, because he liked “the tits, bombs, and ass,” as he confessed in the fabulous scene in his ex-wife’s house/car Erin just mentioned.

Something I always wonder about directors like Roger Corman & Morty Fineman is whether or not they ever have time to actually watch movies for fun. In the documentary Corman’s World (which is required viewing, by the way) Corman recalls an anecdote where he was running almost a dozen simultaneous film production. When his wife asked him if he could actually name them all from memory, he could only recite the titles of all but two & then said something to the effect of, “Well, whatever the rest are, I’m going to cancel them in the morning.” Folks like Fineman & Corman are constantly swamped with shooting schedules & issues of financial backing, but their work is obviously influenced by the cinematic world surrounding them, so they somehow have to be watching movies in their leisure time. For instance, Fineman’s lost herpes PSA film The Simplex Complex was a spoof of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Corman’s production of Joe Dante’s Pihranna was a thinly veiled response to Spiendberg’s Jaws (which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Corman’s own creature feature work). I have no idea how an over-productive schlock director could find the time to keep up with their contemporaries that way, given the near impossible weight of their workloads.

To bring it home to Erin’s question, if this film were made with any particular filmmaker in mind it’d be Roger Corman, but would he even have had time to watch it? Even his contributions as an extended cameo seemed to be brief & succinct, probably shot on a break between a dozen other projects. It’s interesting to think of a what a Fineman-esque schlockmeister would get out of The Independent, considering the film’s admiration of their work & acknowledgement of their sleaziness, but I’m not sure they’d ever have the time to engage with it in that way. Did Corman ever sit down to watch this movie even though he appears in it? I’m curious, but doubtful.

It seems that The Independent‘s best chance for a cult audience is in comedy nerds who enjoy a Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries & weirdo sketch comedy and in schlock junkies who genuinely love bad movies as an art form, even beyond the MST3k brand of sarcastic derision. My question is whether or not you’d have to exist in the overlap of that Venn diagram to enjoy the film for all it’s worth. It’s obviously difficult for me to discuss The Independent without droning on about folks like Roger Corman & Russ Meyer, so I’m wondering if someone without that sense of B-movie context would get the same kind of appreciation of the movie’s insular little world of shoddy filmmaking.

What do you think, Mark? Is familiarity with the world of folks like Roger Corman necessary for loving this film beyond a tossed off “That was pretty funny, I guess.”? Is being a fan of irreverent comedy enough to fully appreciate The Independent or do you also have to be a little bit of a B-movie nerd to get on its wavelength?

Boomer: It’s interesting to me that you mention Christopher Guest, especially since his movies were the first point of contact I thought of when viewing The Independent, not Roger Corman, despite Corman’s cameo in the film’s opening moments. There’s a fine line tread here between the kind of zealous schlock that characterizes Corman’s work and the nuanced character work that typifies Guest’s. To be honest, I think that an appreciation for the kind of work that Guest does may be more integral to the overall enjoyment of The Independent as a movie than an appreciation for Corman and his ilk. Guest’s films generally feature a mixture of understatedly human emotions acted out by larger-than-life characters in situations that are incredibly idiosyncratic, be it a high-stakes dog show or a folk music reunion concert. The characters that populate the faux-documentary, especially but not limited to Morty, his assistant, and Paloma, are very much Guest-type people.

Of course, the prevalence of Corman-esque style in Morty’s works themselves can’t be ignored, either. Morty is Corman as a Guest character, and it works very, very well. It’s not hard to imagine Corman creating a film like Bald Justice, and a line like “You’re gonna like Leavenworth; they’ve got a great barber,” could have flowed from his pen just as easily as it did from Stephen Kessler and Mike Wilkins’s. Overall, though, I think it would be easier to enjoy the movie if you knew Guest but not Corman, rather than Corman but not Guest, simply given the fact that the homages to Corman, while pitch perfect and hilarious, don’t carry the weight of the narrative in and of themselves.

I would love to see more films of this type. Maybe a satirical slasher film that centered around a Hitchcock type, or a desert island survival story wherein all the characters are the stars of a seventies sci-fi show reunited for a convention cruise that goes awry. Or, of course, more mockumentaries about eccentric artists who are secretly self-deluded hacks. What about you, Britnee? How would you adapt this format into a personal instant classic?

Britnee: I’ve always wished and hoped for someone to make a John Waters biopic that would depict his work with the Dreamlanders crew. Could you imagine such a treat? So when thinking about what sort of film I would like to see in the style of The Independent, I would love to see a film that follows the journey of a Waters-like director and his band of misfits. The crew would travel the country creating snuff films in small, all-American towns. They would have a cult following of all ages willing to “die for art.” If anyone with the connections and resources ever reads this, please, oh please, make this happen.

Come to think of it, there really aren’t enough films that focus on the careers of movie directors, and they have one of the most interesting jobs on the planet! When director roles are featured in films, they are usually portrayed in a negative way. Most of the time, they’re sleazy douchebags that promise cast members leading roles in exchange for sex. It was nice to see a director portrayed in a positive light in The Independent. Morty has so much passion for filmmaking, and he truly loved all 400+ of his terrible b-movies. What an inspiration!

Going back to the discussing the film’s unique style, I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if it were anything other than a mockumentary. Erin, if The Independent was not filmed as a mocumentary, but was still a comedy, do you think it would still be as likeable? Why or why not?

Erin: Interesting question, Britnee!  I agree with you.  The mocumentary style of The Independent is an important part of its charm.  It allows for Morty’s character to be portrayed as humanly as possible.

That’s where I connected most with The Independent, with its portrayal of humanity.  The hyperbole used in the storytelling lets the actors tell a deeply human story about the the struggle to balance the compulsion to create and live according to one’s own heart against the very real impact that every human has on those around him or her.
As fluffy and ridiculous as The Independent is, there are moments of genuine pathos and discomfort.  Those moments, in a way, make the movie. They use of comic relief and exaggeration to tell real truths about the human condition is one of our best introspective tools as a species.

Lagniappe

Erin:I really, really want to see Whale of Cop brought to fruition.  There’s no shame in that game.

Britnee: I’m so glad to know that there’s another film other than Highway to Hell that involves all members of the Stiller clan. I have to say, I really wish there was more Rita (Anne Meara)!  Rita (Morty’s ex-wife that lives in a luxury car) was probably my favorite character in the film, but she was definitely not given enough screen time.

Boomer: Rita was definitely a character that I would have loved to see more of, especially with regards to her relationship with her eternally devoted doorman/chauffeur/lover. I also really loved the moment of footage we saw of Rat Fuck; it was such a great, minimal joke. In my notes from watching the film, I noted that Christ for the Defense reminded me, at least visually, of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which never came up organically in this discussion but which I think bears mentioning, if anyone feels like watching a movie that Morty may as well have directed.

Brandon: When started doing Movie of the Month Swampchats this past February I joked that the cold weather was making us a depressed bunch. The first few movies we discussed (The Masque of the Red Death, The Seventh Seal, Blood & Black Lace, etc) were a morbid procession of death & pestilence. I’m glad to say we pulled out of the funk in the past few months & started having some fun with a few comedies & even a kids’ movie, but it’s also remarkable how the year came full circle, beginning & ending with Roger Corman, who directed Masque & had a large influence on The Independent. There are few filmmakers out there who I love more or who could better represent this site’s love of where trash meets art. Let’s hope next year’s just as tidy & well-rounded. It’s been fun.

-The Swampflix Crew

The Spooky-Goofy World of John Landis’ Work in Horror

Director John Landis is typically known for his work in comedies. His name is synonymous with comedy milestones like Animal House, Kentucky Fried Movie, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, and Coming to America. That’s why when we were discussing October’s Movie of the Month, Landis’ vampire mafia oddity Innocent Blood, we were a little surprised in the director’s interest in horror as a genre, previously thinking of his cult classic An American Werewolf in London mostly as a one-off fluke. It turns out that Landis has a long history of working within horror, dating all the way back to his very first feature, with nearly ten credits to his name as a director that fit right into his work in Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London. Listed below are all of John Landis’ horror credits (or at least the ones that I could find) in chronological order, each ranked & reviewed.

Schlock (1973)

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twohalfstar
If there were any question about whether or not John Landis’ displays for gleeful love for oldschool horror in An American Werewolf in London & Innocent Blood were a fluke, it’s answered as soon as his very first feature. As you can tell from its succinct/accurate title, Schlock is a silly love letter to the very silly history of silly B-movies, particularly in the 50s sci-fi horror drive-in era. In the film Landis himself plays the titular Schlock, a missing link primate dubbed The Banana Killer by the press both because he leaves banana peels at the scenes of his crimes (He’s an ape! Bananas! Get it?!),which have an escalating body count of more than 200 dead, and because whoever committed these crimes “is obviously bananas.” That kind of hokey humor is typical to the film & it works best when it’s incongruously paired with depictions of violence. For instance, a local news station covering the Banana Killer murders holds a “Body Count Contest” where viewers can guess the number of mangled bodies contained in a group of garbage bags for a prize, as if guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar at a little kid’s birthday party. Not only is this moment sublimely silly, but it also jabs at the way news coverage of mass murders can shamelessly turn tragedy into entertainment.

Unfortunately, the Body Bag Contest gag is among the very few of the film’s inspired moments. If Schlock had been structured like Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie and stuck to a pastiche of B-movie inspired sketch comedy (as in the excellent 2000 mockumentary The Independent), it’d amost certainly be a cult classic. Instead, it gets unnecessarily bogged down in the logistics of telling a complete story about a murderous missing link, playing a bit like a full length parody of the little loved, little remembered movie Trog. You can feel the sketch comedy structure screaming to break out from within, like in a last minute gag that promises/threatens a sequel titled Son of Schlock & in a trailer-like intro that proclaims, “First, Birth of a Nation. Then Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Love Story, See You Next Wednesday [which doesn’t exist outside of Landis’ ongoing inside joke]. And now, Schlock! Schlock! Schlock!” while Landis’ literal monkeyshines are intercut with a playground strewn with dead bodies & banana peels. Another interesting moment features Schlock, aka The Banana Killer, watching The Blob in a movie theater, focusing on a scene in which characters are watching a scene in a movie theater before a Blob attack. SO we’re watching a movie in which a killer ape watches a movie in which unsuspecting teenagers watch a movie just before an evil alien blob threatens their lives. This tactic of showing appreciation for the history of horror films by actually showing those films is repeated in Innocent Blood, where several televisions are tuned into old midnight monster movies in the midst of vampiric mayhem. Too bad Schlock is a little too accurate to the format of the trashy sci-fi horror films it’s mocking/paying tribute to. It has a few standout, bonkers scenes that make it interesting as a relic, but the task of watching it in its entirety is a bit of a chore.

American Werewolf in London (1981)

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fourstar

While we were watching Innocent Blood for our Movie of the Month discussion it was difficult not to consider the film’s merits in the context of what Landis had already accomplished in An American Werewolf in London. Titles like Animal House or The Blues Brothers might be considered the apex of his career as a whole, but American Werewolf is easily his most well-regarded feature film as a horrormeister. In a lot of ways, American Werewolf‘s reputation works to its detriment, drumming expectations up to an almost unmatchable standard. In reality, it’s actually an unassuming little horror comedy. Besides a couple practical effects spectacles in its werewolf transformation scenes & creature design (provided by horror make-up genius Rick Baker) and a climactic sequence of epic monster movie mayhem, there really isn’t that much to the film. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. To the contrary, its alternating gruesome/amusing tone is pleasantly unrushed & by the time it reaches its fever pitch conclusion of beheadings, car crashes, and oldschool werewolf attacks it’s nearly impossible not to be won over by its charms, which is about the same reaction I had to Innocent Blood.

The plot of An American Werewolf in London is fairly simple, straightforward stuff in terms of the werewolf genre. Two young American lads are backpacking through Western Europe when they reach a spooky tavern in a small community that has pentagrams & religious candles hanging amongst its dart boards & pints of lager. Picture the tavern in the original Wicker Man movie & you’ll have a good idea of the vibe. Anyway, the spooky locals warn the boys to stick to the road, advice they obviously disobey, which obviously leads to them being attacked by a werewolf. One friend dies & the other transforms into a mythical man-beast, much to the surprise of the big city doctors that help him recover from the attack. There are a few surprises in the formula: dreams in which the protagonist is hunting naked in the woods, a nightmare sequence in which uniformed space monsters burn down his home & murder his family, a growing army of his victims’ ghosts that urge him to commit suicide, etc. For the most part, though, this faithfulness to oldschool werewolf horror is entirely intentional, solidified by the film’s constant references to the Lon Cheney/Bela Lugosi famous monsters classic The Wolfman (a tactic echoed in Schlock & Innocent Blood). If the intent of American Werewolf was to update The Wolfman-type monster movies for modern sardonic senses of humor & special effects capabilities, I’d say it’s mostly successful. At the very least, I think I enjoyed it slightly more than 1981’s The Howling, which seems to be a good reference point for where Landis was aiming.

Twilight Zone: The Movie Prologue & “Time Out” (1983)

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twostar

It’s tempting to skip over Twilight Zone: The Movie in this write-up, both because Landis’ segments of the production barely qualify as horror & because of the infamous on-set disaster that resulted in three real-life deaths, a tragedy that has haunted the director & the movie industry at large for decades. The two segments Landis directs in the Twilight Zone movie are a prologue in which Dan Aykroyd scares fellow weirdo comedian Albert Brooks with a scary face (provided again by make-up genius Rick Baker) and a who-cares story about a racist prick getting a taste of his own hateful medicine at the hands of Nazis, the Klan, and so on. The prologue section is mostly nonsense & the thriller-esque anti-racism fantasy segment somehow feels even thinner. The funny thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the film’s two producers, Steven Spieldberg & John Landis, directed the film’s weakest vignettes by far, while contributors George Miller & Joe Dante actually delivers a couple short-form horror classics. In short, Landis was greatly upstaged here, which is funny because I felt his werewolf movie just a couple years before greatly upstaged Dante’s somewhat similar (Rick Baker collaboration) The Howling.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

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fivestar

The music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is by far the best example of John Landis’ horror work. It’s tempting to say that the economy of a 15 minute short film leaves little room for Landis to drop the ball in any significant way, but his two segments in The Twilight Zone: The Movie barely ammount to more than that & they aren’t nearly as effective or as memorable as the “Thriller” video. It’s more that Landis pushed himself to include every hallmark of his horror work into the video’s short runtime that makes it so enjoyable. It was rick Baker’s incredible make-up work in An American Werewolf in London that got Landis the job in the first place (as that was the only Landis film Jackson had actually seen at the time he was hired) so the special effects genius worked with the director one last time to turn The King of Pop into a werewolf. The affection for 50’s monster movies are on display in the video’s movie theater scene (featuring Landis himself enjoying a tub of popcorn) and promotional posters for Schlock & The Masque of the Red Death. There’s no choreography in Landis’ other work, but the video’s infamous dance routine of the undead reflects the irreverent humor he’s known to bring to the table. You can even feel Landis’ geeky love for horror in a Vincent Price “rap” that includes the lines “The funk of 40,000 years & grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom.” There’s no other way to put this really: “Thriller” is perfect. It’s not only Landis’ most iconic work in the horror spectrum; it’s also just one of the most perfect specimens of the music video as an art form.

Side note: Jackson apparently thought the “Thriller” video was so perfect & enticing that he included this warning, “Due to my personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” That’s how powerful “Thriller” is. Jackson was worried it was going to start a wave of Satanic converts.

Innocent Blood (1992)

fourstar

Much like how Landis’ much better-regarded An American Werewolf in Paris feels like an average werewolf movie until its technical marvel monster transformations & last minute mayhem set it apart from its peers, our current Movie of the Month & the director’s only horror feature since American Werewolf, Innocent Blood plays like an unremarkable combo of the vampire & mafia genres until it devolves into delightful chaos. This change that gets kicked off sometime around when the head mob boss, Sallie “The Shark” Macelli, is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the front half of Innocent Blood, but until the vampire mafia starts to take rise, it feels like a dull compromise between far too many modern vampire films & bargain bin Scorsese knockoffs. It’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans once the plot gains momentum that make the movie shine, especially in scenes like Don Rickles’ horrific vampire transformation or a never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene that equal any ridiculousness you’d find in American Werewolf. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) combined with Marcelli running around converting his dopey goons, balance Innocent Blood‘s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies with the more straightforward genre fare of the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss, holding down most of the movie’s charm.

Landis backs up this silliness & genre play with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee (the same kind of onscreen references he brought to Schlock, American Werewolf, and “Thriller”). At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to accomplish here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it. The film also smartly goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism, despite its reverence for its cinematic ancestors. The same way silver bullets aren’t required to kill werewolves in American Werewolf, vampires in Innocent Blood may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but their reflections appears in mirrors & victims are disposed of with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before, one with a surprisingly deft balance between honoring mafia & vampire traditions, while still knowing when & where to stray. Like with American Werewolf, when the screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Masters of Horror: “Deer Woman” (2005)

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three star

Unfortunately, Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London proved to be the only Landis horror features to date. There were some vague horror elements to his work in the anthology pictures The Twilight Zone: The Movie & even vaguer yet, Amazon Women on the Moon, a more sci-fi-leaning B-movie spoof flick without nearly enough horror elements in Landis’ segments to be included here. Otherwise, Landis’ horror work has been restricted to the small screen, starting with the Michael Jackson music video. The three most recent examples of his horror work have been hour-long segments in anthology television shows, starting with Showtime’s short-lived Masters of Horror. Surprisingly enough, Landis’ two Masters of Horror vignettes were actually far more enjoyable than his similar work in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Perhaps it was working alongside names like Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Takashi Miike, and John Carpenter that inspired him to step up his game. Since Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller failed to do the same, though, its more likely that the more inherently goofy format of the televised anthology horror simply allowed Landis to bring much needed levity to his horror work, something he excels at, given that he mostly cut his teeth in the comedy genre.

Landis’ first contribution to Masters of Horror, “The Deer Woman”, is a sublimely silly story about a Native American legend involving a beautiful woman with the legs of a deer that tramples unsuspecting victims to death. The episode is riddled with subpar dialogue & even less-commendable performances from its actors, but still proves itself to be memorably goofy by its conclusion. The titular deer woman is a non-verbal knockout of a woman, who seduces her victims merely by smiling & nodding. Once she lures them into a dangerously secluded place, she snaps off their erections & tramples their corpses into goop. Although the title gives away this reveal far before it arrives, “The Deer Woman” is still written like a police procedural, which works only because it’s amusing watching the central detective, who is essentially a small-town Agent Mulder, try to piece together crimes that don’t quite make sense. In one scenario, he imagines a beautiful woman beating her victims to death with a taxidermy deer leg. In another, he imagines a deer dressed in flannel & jeans punching victims to death as if in a barroom brawl. This cartoonishness mixed with the episode’s grotesque sense of gore is a mostly winning combo, one commendable in its dedication to inanity. The episode serves as John’s son Max Landis’ very first screenwriting credit, but the father-son pair apparently bickered about the details of the story’s conclusion to the point that John insisted on including his name as a writing credit as well. With cheeky references to An American Werewolf (cited as evidence for the faux-Mulder’s monster killer theory) & Frida Kahlo’s self portrait The Wounded Deer, “The Deer Woman” is a perfectly-suited small-scale entry in Landis’ horror catalog, especially once the the titular deer woman is using her deer legs to gallop from rooftop to rooftop in a ludicrous display.

Masters of Horror: “Family” (2006)

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threehalfstar

Landis’ second contribution to Masters of Horror was a grotesquely comedic portrait of a serial killer building a family of bleached skeletons that’re something of a Norman Rockwell by way of Norman Bates display. Norm! from Cheers is the serial in question, fairly amusing here as he bickers with his skeleton family & listens to spooky blues music in his basement/skeleton lab. The back & forth switching between the serial killer’s fantasy & reality are darkly amusing, such as in a scene that alternates from him bathing his “mother”/melting the skin off her bones with acid. As he tries to add a young couple to his collection & expand his family with a younger, sexier set of bones, he makes himself vulnerable to discovery and, worse yet, punishment for his evil deeds. As enjoyably goofy as “The Deer Woman” can be, it’s fairly safe to say that “Family” is the best example of Landis’ televised horror anthology work. It would easily fit right in with the best episodes of Tales from the Crypt, especially once it reaches its disgusting last second reveal. If you’re going to watch just one of his post-Innocent Blood television episodes, this would be your best option.

Fear Itself: “In Sickness & in Health” (2008)

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onestar

There really isn’t much at all to say about John Landis’ most recent entry in the horror genre. When Masters of Horror was denied a third season by the Showtime network, the show was transformed into a one-season failure titled Fear Itself on NBC. The transition to network television was not kind to the horror anthology program, since it severely limited what it could get away with in terms of gore & vulgarity (although those restrictions have surely been more laid back in the seven years since). Besides John Landis, the only notable director from the Masters of Horror era to return to Fear Itself was Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon. Besides those two names, nothing of note came from Fear Itself’s pitifully short run. As for Landis’ entry in particular, he tells the story of a wedding day ruined by a mysterious, hand-delivered note that reads, “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.” Absolutely nothing of interest happens between that note’s arrival & the final reveal that *gasp* the note was delivered to the wrong person & the protagonist bride we’ve been following the whole time was actually the killer. Okay. The episode is mostly a bore, made fascinating only by the inclusion of the actor who played The X-Files‘ “Smoking Man” dressed in priestly garb. It’s an interesting image, but nothing to get too excited about, since “In Sickness & In Health” is nearly an hour in length.

I sincerely hope that this most recent example of John Landis’ horror work will not be his last, as the director has proven in the past that he has much better work in him. I’d love to see him return to the genre on the big screen on last time, perhaps for a Frankenstein or zombie picture, since he’s already covered the werewolf & vampire genres in the past. As long as brings a sense of goofball comedy to the production, it could be worthwhile.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at the vampire-crowded box office that buried it.

-Brandon Ledet