The Stuff (1985)

I’ve watched the classic trailer for Larry Cohen’s The Stuff so many times on VHS & DVD rentals of other schlock over the years that I felt like I had seen the film before, but it was entirely new to me.  Well, not entirely new.  Not only had I been exposed to the film’s most sensational images over & over again (if not just from that trailer, then from horror genre docs like King Cohen and Horror Noire), but I also feel like I’ve seen its exact behind-the-curtain corporate villainy satire before in more widely canonized titles like They Live! or Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  As a result, it wasn’t the goopy practical-effects gore or cynical parody of Reagan-Era capitalism that bowled me over while finally watching the movie for the first time, as delightful as both those elements are.  Instead, it was actor-director duo of Larry Cohen and Michael Moriarty that really distinguished The Stuff as something phenomenal – the same chemistry that distinguishes Q: The Winged Serpent as one of Cohen’s very best.  There’s just something explosively entertaining about watching those two dialed-to-11 knuckleheads collaborate on a shared commitment to excess that Cohen struggles to match in his other works.  They’re perfect together.

While Q: The Winged Serpent sets Moriarty loose as a proto-Nic Cagian madman, completely untethered from good taste or reason in his go-for-broke Acting Choices, The Stuff finds him uncharacteristically reserved – although just as bizarre.  He stars as a deceptively laidback Southern Gent, stunning his corporate-asshole opponents with a mixture of affectations borrowed from Columbo and Foghorn Leghorn.  Moriarty declares himself to be “an industrial saboteur”.  He’s hired to investigate and disrupt the production of a mysterious health-craze food item known simply as The Stuff, which has quickly dominated the marketplace with seemingly no FDA regulation.  In essence, The Stuff is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers update with the sinister aesthetic of 80s television commercials for overly processed foods.  The titular, yogurt-like substance is essentially an alien being that takes over and oozes out of its consumers’ bodies, turning world domination into an inside job.  Moriarty is humanity’s only chance for survival.  He takes down the evil corporations behind The Stuff’s production & distribution with an “Aww shucks, I’m just asking questions” Southern Charm that never stops being bizarre in the context of this otherwise aggressively modern horror comedy.  Whereas all the goopy gore gags and by-the-numbers plot points of the film are predetermined by the genre, every one of Moriarty’s Southern-fried line deliveries lands as a total, expectation-subverting surprise, and it’s his performance that keeps the film electrically engaging between the shocks of budget-busting gore.

While Moriarty can be counted on to keep The Stuff‘s faithful genre beats surprising from scene to scene, it’s Larry Cohen’s furious efficiency that allows that performance to shine.  The Stuff clocks in well under 90 minutes, and wastes no time jumping into the thick of its 80s-specfic corporate greed parody.  The seemingly alien substance of The Stuff is immediately discovered, consumed, and declared delicious in the first minute of the runtime.  A modern version of this film would feel the need to explain the step-by-step plotting how that substance landed on grocery shelves, and then to backtrack to detail its exact origins lest it be ridiculed for its “plot holes” on the dregs of YouTube.  Cohen wastes no time on such buffoonery.  He immediately jumps to the good stuff: the alarming omnipresence of the villainous product in people’s homes and the complete disregard for those people’s safety from government regulators.  By jumping right into it, he leaves way more room for his sinister TV commercial parodies and for specific potshots at real-life evil corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds.  More importantly, he also leaves plenty more room for Moriarty’s absurd Columbo Leghorn performance, of which there could never be enough.

The beautiful thing about watching Cohen & Moriarty collaborate here is that they seem to be working in two entirely different speeds.  Q: The Winged Serpent offers unhinged, sweaty excess from the two madmen from start to end.  Cohen’s still operating at that breakneck speed in The Stuff, seemingly because he can’t help himself.  Meanwhile, Moriarty has slowed his own lunacy down to a molasses-esque trickle, and it’s just as delectable as any of the film’s ooey-gooey practical effects.  I greatly enjoyed The Stuff as an efficient, vicious genre film with a fearless commitment to throwing punches at the worst offenders of Reagan Era greed.  I enjoyed it even more as a showcase for Michael Moriarty’s off-kilter excess as a deranged leading man.  Larry Cohen happens to be the best possible filmmaker to maximize both of those indulgences, and this one still lands as one of his best even if you feel like you’ve been overexposed to its broader details.

-Brandon Ledet

Fried Barry (2021)

Last year, I praised the lost-in-time horror whatsit The Berlin Bride for feeling like it “travelled here from a previous era when movies could just be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something.”  The new straight-to-Shudder curio Fried Barry made me eat those words just a few months later; I regret everything.  An episodic, self-amused tale of drug abuse and alien abduction, Fried Barry desperately wants to be an instant-cult-classic geek show but lacks any of the propulsion or command over atmosphere that would make that distinction possible.  It’s all hacky, edgelord comedy stunts and no attention to tone or purpose.  Equally obscene and tedious, it’s essentially a half-speed horror version of Crank – with all the “insensitive” political jabs and mouthbreathing misogyny that descriptor implies.  It’s a movie that deliberately strives to be Weird as Fuck without having to justify that indulgence by Saying Something, exactly what I asked for.  I can’t say exactly why that for-its-own-sake exercise was mesmerizing to me in The Berlin Bride but punishingly boring for me here.  I can only shrug Fried Barry off as A Bad Movie that only gets worse the longer it hangs around.

If Fried Barry has any of the potential cult-status value it’s clearly desperate to earn, it’s as a kind of “dare” film for teenagers who are technically too young to watch it.  The film opens with a cheeky warning that it’s strictly for an 18+ audience, which reads as a wink that you need to be 15 or younger to be excited by its meaningless transgressions.  The titular Barry, described by his loving wife as a “useless piece of shit”, is immediately shown shooting heroin into his arm in a hideous series of post-Tony Scott rapdifire montages, emphasizing just how Edgy and Fucked Up the next 100 minutes are going to be.  While high, Barry is abducted by aliens, who probe both his anus and urethra for good measure, then commandeer his body for a joyride on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa.  From there, the aliens take a nightlife tour of the city, periodically stopping for improv-heavy bits of cringe humor among the “useless piece of shit” locals.  The film is caught halfway between a PSA about how overwhelming it is to trip balls in public and a PSA about how obnoxious it is to simply go nightclubbing.  In either instance, you’re going run into the worst people, and they’re going to spoil the mood.

For the most part, the movie rests on the decision to cast Gary Green as Barry, as he does have the kind of arrestingly odd bone structure that David Lynch could build an entire movie around.  It probably goes without saying that first-time director Ryan Kruger is no David Lynch, at least not yet.  Whether it’s because of the heroin or the alien body possession, Green isn’t asked to do much here besides stand around as a human prop.  His episodic adventures mostly focus on the much less fascinating bit-part actors who bounce their own inane performances off him, pausing occasionally for gross-out eruptions of gore.  If this dynamic has any chance of working, it’s in the first half of the film when seemingly everyone is uncontrollably attracted to Alien Barry and impulsively propositions him for sex.  If the film had committed to the all-out sexual bacchanal of that premise, it might’ve at least had a unifying theme or purpose to its grotesque pageantry.  Instead, it’s an excuse to sneak in some on-screen titties for the under-15 crowd and for a blatantly homophobic gag where Barry murders his one potential male partner.  And then the sex stops all together mid-film at the tongue-in-cheek “Intermission” title card, abandoning the one thread of continuity that tied all this meaningless bullshit together.  Pity.

A movie this obscene has no business being this boring.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where an alien invader inspires human locals to break all their previously held sexual taboos on-sight might’ve been something worthwhile.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry that was more heavily scripted instead of relying on Improv 101 edgelord humor would’ve been less irritating.  Maybe a version of Fried Barry where women were allowed to be more than just victims, whores, and nags might not have sat on my stomach so queasily.  Can’t say.  All I know is that this version feels pointlessly obnoxious, and not in the fun way.

-Brandon Ledet

Oxygen (2021)

It’s not unusual for a high-concept, single-location sci-fi thriller to quietly emerge on Netflix to little fanfare.  That’s a regular routine for the streaming behemoth, which is wholeheartedly committed to a quantity-over-quality ethos (give or take the few high-profile projects a year it desperately promotes for Oscars attention).  It is unusual, however, to immediately recognize the director & star of said sci-fi streaming schlock.  I was under the impression that the bulk of Netflix’s disposable sci-fi was entirely generated by algorithm, the same as Hallmark Christmas movies and SyFy Channel mockbusters.  I was shocked, then, to stumble onto Oxygen, the latest film from Crawl and High Tension director Alexandre Aja.  Oxygen is visually and effectively indistinguishable from any generic sci-fi cheapie that magically populates on the Netflix homescreen from week to week, despite Aja’s usual command over in-the-moment tension and the obvious talents of his main collaborator, Inglorious Basterds star Melanie Laurent.  I also can’t fault Aja for collecting a pandemic paycheck where he could; after all, someone’s gotta point the camera in the right direction before the algorithm autofills the rest of the details.

I will admit that for the first fifteen minutes or so of Oxygen, Aja does feel alive and actively engaged with the material.  The film opens with a kind of humanoid egg hatching, with Laurent emerging from a synthetic skin sack inside what appears to be an Apple-store purchased iCoffin.  Confused about who she is or how she got there, she fights against the restraints that keep her in place inside the locked sleeping pod to no avail.  The flashing emergency lights, warnings of drained oxygen levels, and emerging hallucinations & memories that introduce us to this far-fetched, high concept scenario are effectively nerve-racking . . . for a while.  Then, Oxygen stops being a shock-a-second thriller and settles into mystery-box sci-fi at its emptiest.  Laurent’s distraught future-prisoner solves the mystery of her own past and her current predicament by effectively Googling herself for the rest of the runtime, with the aid of a voice-command Internet surrogate.  If you strip away a couple jump scares and CG-aided camera twirls, the film is basically just someone talking to an iTunes visualizer for two hours.  That set-up is no more thrilling now than it was when your buddy Kevin tripped too hard on mushrooms and debated a laptop screen in your 2007 dorm room.

It’s not impossible to sustain feature-length tension with just one on-screen character and a series of phone calls and Google searches.  It’s wild how much more tension I felt in Locke, for instance, where there’s pretty much no visual flavor and the movie’s basically about listening to concrete dry.  And, hell, if there was ever going to be a time to release a film about someone being isolated in a small, locked space with only a series of talking screens to connect them to the outside world, this might be it.  Still, there’s nothing about Oxygen that stands out from the week-to-week sci-fi sludge that oozes up from the streaming service sewer grates on Netflix, despite the pedigree of the names behind it.  I was basically pleading out loud at my television for more boobytraps and fewer Google searches by the end of the film, which I doubt is the kind of squirming-in-your seat anguish Aja was aiming for.  If I was that desperate for a new sci-fi release where a trapped woman makes a series of desperate phone calls, I should have just rewatched the bizarro action-horror Shadow in the Cloud.  At least that one has some personality to it, albeit a goofy one.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Joe (2019)

There haven’t been many movies about the COVID-19 pandemic that have earned ecstatic praise from pro critics or general audiences (Host is maybe the one exception I can immediately recall).  However, there have been plenty of movies praised for capturing the eerie, isolating mood of the past year despite being conceived & produced before lockdowns started in earnest.  While people don’t seem to have much of an appetite for COVID-specific films while we’re still collectively suffering through this global crisis, there is a detectable interest in films like Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, and Vivarium that stumbled into resonating with “these unprecedented times” entirely by happenstance.  It’s possible, then, that the little-seen Cannes darling Little Joe would’ve generated a lot more discussion if it had arrived just a few months later than its streaming premiere date in December 2019.  It’s a quiet little sci-fi chiller that never stood much of a chance of wowing general audiences, but its accidental parallels to the never-ending COVID pandemic might’ve been enough of a hook to at least lure more esoteric film nerds to the screen.

I want to call Little Joe a twee update to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s much icier and more emotionally detached than that would imply.  The gorgeously manicured costumes & sets echo a fussy dollhouse aesthetic that’s familiar to twee filmmaking.  However, like the similarly confectionary Swallow, it’s too emotionally reserved to be pigeonholed as twee despite its prim, femme decor.  In the film, a plant breeder at a high-security laboratory brings home a new developmental species to cheer up her lonely teenage son.  The plant was scientifically engineered to make its owner happy through the release of “natural” toxins, like a pseudo-organic alternative to Prozac.  Gradually, her son and her coworkers more directly exposed to the plant stop behaving like their authentic selves.  They’re noticeably happier, but they’re also emotionally numb to anything that isn’t the care, protection, and reproduction of the experimental house plant.  They’re obsessed with it.  It’s a subtle Body Snatchers riff with no visual signifiers of traditional horror, only characters losing any edge or dynamism to their baseline personalities.

There are a few surface details to the film’s laboratory setting and health pandemic themes that can’t help but recall current cultural moods surrounding COVID: face masks, hand sanitizer stations, corporate indifference to working class vulnerability, etc.  What really resonated with me, though, is Little Joe‘s parallels to our current house plant craze – the sudden boom of people filling their homes with living things to combat the emotional isolation of a year we’ve mostly spent apart.  In Little Joe, that choice is presented as a metaphor for a failed work-homelife balance, wherein a work-obsessed mother completely ignores her lonely teenager son.  She doesn’t initially notice that his personality has been zapped away by her house plant surrogate, because she’s too distracted with spending as much time in the lab as possible.  I don’t believe the film is overtly moralizing about working mothers’ ignored domestic responsibilities, but rather exaggerating how hard it is to admit when you do care more about your own life and career than you do your child because others would wag a finger at you for it.

Little Joe does a great job of making its genetically engineered houseplants ~spooky~ in the subtle bug-skitter sounds of them unfurling in slow-motion puppetry.  It’s also frustratingly inert, though, seemingly on purpose.  The camera moves in slow, clinical pans and zooms that de-emphasize the importance of the characters talking in-frame, as if it’s as disinterested in them as they are to anything that’s not the plant.  Meanwhile, the big deadline that’s driving the tension and escalation of the plant’s production is referred to only as the upcoming Flower Fair, which is a pretty hilarious conflict for what’s ostensibly a horror film.  Little Joe is quietly funny, stubbornly anti-action, and just eerie enough to string you along if you’re not expecting anything especially flashy out of it.  It jerks the audience around on a leash as it strolls to the inevitable conclusions of its Body Snatchers plotting, but it does so gently, as if it doesn’t really care if you follow along.  I’d recommend it most to people who’ve been spending way more emotionally charged alone time with their house plants than they have with friends or family in the past year, which should cover just about everyone.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Goreman (2021)

Psycho Goreman is the movie I most desperately wanted to see made when I was ten years old.  In other words, it’s an R-rated version of Power Rangers. The Astron-6-adjacent horror comedy deliberately evokes the live action Saturday morning TV programming of my youth in its tone & imagery, but ages up the humor of that vintage 90s Kids™ media with hack jokes about how believing in God is for rubes and wives are humorless nags.  I can’t say that novelty lands especially sweetly in my thirties, especially since its So Random! sense of humor is poisonously self-aware, but I’m convinced I would have absolutely loved it when I was still a child obsessed with monster movies & shock comedy — the same way I’m sure the world’s biggest fans of the equally unfunny Deadpool movies are the children who are technically too young to watch them but snuck them past their parents. 

At least Psycho Goreman is aware of its ideal audience, as evidenced by its explosively violent little-girl protagonist.  After bullying her soft-hearted brother into digging a massive hole in their backyard for her own sadistic delight, our audience-surrogate sociopath discovers a long-buried magical amulet that unleashes an ancient evil unto the world, à la The Gate.  The amulet affords her total command over the wicked monster that emerges—the titular Psycho Goreman—an intergalactic mass-murderer who’s embarrassed to be indentured to the “two brainless meat children” who discover his remote control.  It’s pretty much a hangout film from there.  Psycho Goreman delivers purposefully overwritten Pinhead speeches about the evil acts he’d like to commit once freed; his pint-sized girlboss makes him perform menial demeaning tasks for her own amusement instead; and an intergalactic council of outer space weirdos directly out of a Power Rangers episode plot to destroy “PG” while he’s temporarily indisposed.  It’s all very cute, even if the jokes it’s in service of aren’t very funny.

I’m not opposed to this type of ironic 90s Kid™ retro-nostalgia on principle.  If nothing else, I’ve enjoyed similar homages to the era’s cultural runoff in films like Brigsby Bear, Turbo Kid, and the actual Power Rangers reboot.  I just didn’t connect with the self-amused meta humor of this particular specimen in that genre, something I should have expected as soon as the similarly limp WolfCop trailer preceded it on my local library’s copy of the DVD.  Still, Psycho Goreman has a lot going for it visually, with enough practical gore, rubber-suit monsters, and stop-motion grotesqueries to pave over the dead silence of its jokes falling flat.  More importantly, while I’m no longer a taboo-craving ten-year-old, plenty of little weirdos out there still are.  If they can manage to sneak this naughty R-rated novelty past their parents while they’re still at the right age, it could birth a ton of lifelong horror nerds.  I’m choosing to count that as a net good, even if I’m not as personally enthusiastic about the movie as I wanted to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #132 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Astounding She-Monster (1957) & A Tale of Two Shirleys

Welcome to Episode #132 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon investigate the urban legend that Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers/Seven Beauties) is actually an alias of Shirley Kilpatrick (The Astounding She-Monster), a relic of pre-Internet rumor & speculation.

00:00 Welcome

03:45 Sabrina (1995)
08:30 What Lies Below (2020)
12:50 The Demon Lover (1976)
16:30 Demon Lover Diary (1980)

21:21 Shirley Stoler vs. Shirley Kilpatrick
30:30 The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
40:30 The truth about the Shirleys
43:55 Seven Beauties (1975)

Additional research provided by CC Chapman

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Body Snatchers (1993)

It turns out not every movie adaptation of the 1958 novel The Body Snatchers is Great; some are just Okay. The 1956 and the 1978 adaptations—both titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—are reputable sci-fi horror classics, but that streak apparently ended when the material was imported into the 1990s. Body Snatchers ’93 had ample talent behind it to match the reputation of its looming predecessors, including the same producer as Invasion ’78 (Robert H. Solo) and creative contributions from genre film legends Abel Ferrara (director), Stuart Gordon (co-writer), and Larry Cohen (story). Unfortunately, that deep talent pool doesn’t amount to much onscreen. This particular Body Snatchers is serviceable but forgettable, something that might be easier to overlook if there weren’t so many superior realizations of the same material to compare it to.

Whereas the first two Body Snatchers adaptations explored themes of Conservatism, conformity, and paranoia in American cities & suburbs, this 90s Kids™ update moves its action to a military base. A moody teen brat who’d rather listen to her Walkman than her parents is horrified when her family moves to the rigid, regimented confinement of a military base to accommodate her dad’s career. That horror over militarized conformity only worsens when alien pod people start replacing the humans among the macho brutes in her midst, eventually including the few burnout friends she’s made on the base and members of her own immediate family. The manifestations of that horror are familiar: alien tendrils invading sleeping victims’ orifices and already-converted pod people snitching on still-human holdouts with hideous shrieks. They’re just updated with a new backdrop location & updated 90s era effects.

Weirdly, the film that most makes Body Snatchers ’93 feel obsolete is not any of the preceding direct adaptations of its source material but rather a loosely-inspired work that arrived to theaters five years later. Between the film’s 90s grunge sensibilities and its moody teen girl POV, it recalls a lot of what Robert Rodriguez later achieved to greater success in The Faculty. Body Snatchers is dourer & less fun than Rodriguez’s film, though, which I suppose is the Abel Ferrara touch. As a result, it’s difficult to find much in this film worth recommending that hasn’t been bested elsewhere, except maybe in a few standalone scares: a deflated goo-filled skull here, an alien-infested bathtub there, etc. Still, it’s a moderately serviceable sci-fi horror that sneaks in a few effective chills & practical gore showcases in a tight 87min window – even if they aren’t in service of something spectacularly unique.

-Brandon Ledet

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet