Color Out of Space (2020)

Richard Stanley is back, baby. After decades of Film Industry exile (documented in the bizarre saga Lost Soul), the witchcraft-obsessed genre freak has re-emerged fully charged and ready to explode. It would be inaccurate to claim that Stanley’s comeback feature hadn’t missed a beat since his early-90s nightmares Hardware & Dust Devil. The director seemingly also hasn’t been keeping up with modern filmmaking trends & aesthetics either, though. If anything, Color Out of Space finds Stanley regressing back to the grotesque 1980s sci-fi creep-outs of horror legends like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon. His comeback’s practical gore effects, neon lighting, and ominous synth score all harken back to an era before Stanley’s own heyday. He even mines Stuart Gordon’s pet favorite source material to achieve the effect: public domain short stories penned by H.P. Lovecraft. The only blatant difference between Color Out of Space and its 1980s predecessors (beyond its casting of a post-memeified Nicolas Cage) is that Stanley appears to be a true believer in the spooky, occultist forces that his imagery conjures – opening the movie up to some genuinely heartfelt moments of supernatural familial trauma.

To oversimplify Lovecraft’s fifty-page short story, Color Out of Space is about a horrific, unearthly color that crashes to Earth via a meteor and puts all of humanity in potential peril. In classic Lovecraftian fashion, this unfathomable hue (represented onscreen as a searing neon purple) drives anyone who gazes upon it absolutely mad, representing a kind of forbidden, otherworldly knowledge the puny human mind cannot handle. This global-scale phenomenon is presented in Stanley’s adaptation as an intimate drama among a nuclear family unit, with an increasingly unhinged Nicolas Cage centered as its figurehead. Cage’s family lives on an isolated alpaca farm (a Mad Libs-style variation on the source material’s story template), driving each other into a sweaty, self-cannibalizing mania as the titular cosmic hue spreads from its meteoric landing pad to the plants, animals, and other wildlife who share the farm with them. The prologue before the meteor crash is a little creaky & awkward, recalling the tone of a VHS-era fantasy movie that never quite earned the forgiving lens of cult classic status. Once the horror of the Evil Color fully heats up, however, the movie is genuinely just as disturbing as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware – if not more so.

Most audiences are going to treat Color Out of Space as an excuse for yet another memeable Nic Cage highlight reel to pass around via YouTube clips. The movie’s exponential mania setup provides more than enough fodder for that kind of ironic mockery, eagerly leaning into the humor of Cage’s patented freak-outs. If all you want from the film is some classic Nic Cage stunts, you’ll get what you paid for: Nic Cage milking alpacas, Nic Cage ferociously gnawing on vegetables, Nic Cage foaming at the mouth while repeatedly firing a shotgun. He even revives his classic Vampire’s Kiss accent fluctuations to update them with erratic backslides into Donald Trump parody. When his petrified children ask each other, “Dad’s acting weird, right?,” it’s a hilariously cautious understatement. This movie totally delivers on the Nic Cagian absurdity that ironic goofs recently searched for in the much more somber Mandy, only to find it in isolated scraps. I just think framing Stanley’s film as a pure indulgence in over-the-top buffoonery is selling its merits short. As consistently fun as the Nic Cage Freak-out is as a novelty from scene to scene, the movie at large registers as a genuine, heartfelt nightmare. The thing about Stanley’s 90s films is that they were always a little cheesy & over-the-top, but they were also legitimately scary. So is his decades-delayed comeback.

The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden, maddening knowledge can be (and has been) applied to a wide range of metaphors, from the philosophical to the psychosexual to the purely surreal. As I took it, Color Out of Space finds deeply personal resonance in the source material specifically as an illustrative metaphor for the spread of cancer. Mirroring Stanley’s mother’s death by lymphoma in real life (as well as bit player Tommy Chong’s real-life struggle with prostate cancer), the nuclear family unit at the film’s center immediately starts the story off in a grim mood, suffering the aftershocks of their mother figure’s battle with breast cancer. The supernatural, maddening growths that later mutate from the purple meteor crash site aren’t entirely contained to the plants & animals in the area. They also scramble the cells of the family’s cancer-survivor mother figure so that she’s an unrecognizable, difficult-to-stomach burden on her family. Meanwhile, her loved ones devolve into increasingly hostile maniacs, unable to maintain their cool as the mutinous growths resulting from the meteor tear their bonds to shreds. On the surface, Color Out of Space is a genre film throwback to Lovecraftian horrors of the 1980s like Society, Possession, and From Beyond. What really enables it to terrorize its audience, however, is that it’s also a fucked-up family drama about cancer wreaking havoc on a household. It’s just as heartbreakingly grim as it is colorful, Nic Cagian fun.

I was genuinely horrified by this film’s total nightmare of a third act; it’s the same lingering chill I picked up from Hardware, Stanley’s powerful debut. He may not know how to construct a recognizably human prologue before his supernatural plots take off. Nor does he know how to conduct a Normal conversation, if his recent interviews and past clashes with potential financiers are any indication. He sure does know how to deliver an upsetting, fucked-up horror show, though, and I hope it doesn’t take another two decades before he’s allowed to stage another one.

-Brandon Ledet

Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Violence Voyager (2019)

It’s becoming an annual routine for me to be captivated by some sexually menacing, cursed object that seemingly no one else in Film Nerd Land cares about. In the recent past, titles like The Wild Boys, Double Lover, and We Are the Flesh have triggered that ol’ Cronenberg feeling deep in my subconscious so that they’re all I want to talk about, despite being too alienating & gross to properly evangelize. Violence Voyager is my beloved Cronenbergian Nightmare of the Year in that respect, as it’s at once the most exciting and the most deeply uncomfortable film I’ve seen in ages, one I’m desperate to discuss with some like-minded freaks but feel hesitant to widely promote given its not-for-everyone discomforts. I won’t claim that it’s my favorite film of this cursed ilk, but it very well might be the most disturbing, as its peculiar brand of horror & sexuality involves the abuse of young children. More disturbing yet, the film feels as if it were made entirely by one loner-creep in some far-off basement, as if he were racing to publish his work before being raided by the authorities for crimes against society & good taste. It’s the rare work of modern outsider filmmaking that feels genuinely dangerous, with all the excitement & unease that descriptor implies.

In essence, Violence Voyager is a Cronenbergian puppet show. Sidestepping the financial time constraints of traditional animation, Japanese filmmaker Ujicha hand-operates 2D cutouts of illustrated characters against hand-painted backdrops. Their vintage illustration designs and seemingly hundreds of alternate poses means the work is neither lazy nor simplistic, but they’re still crudely animated & vocally dubbed to approximate an amateur backyard puppet show instead of a professional production. It feels as if a Henry Darger type had cut out characters from ancient board game boxes and recorded their imaginary interactions on VHS tapes that somehow made it into wide circulation. The genius of this technique is that it allows Ujicha to experiment with a mixed media approach that incorporates liquids, fire, smoke, and shadows. Just when you think you’ve gotten a grasp on what the movie is up to visually, the surprise intrusion of a seminal goo or firecracker “explosion” will knock you on your ass again. No matter how much effort artists like Jim Henson & Jan Švankmajer put into ensuring puppetry is taken seriously as adult entertainment in the past, the medium still inherently feels like it’s designed to attract children – an effect that Ujicha leans into with diabolical intent. Violence Voyager sometimes looks & sounds like cheap-o Saturday Morning television aimed directly at kids, but just one viewing could scar a child for life.

Plot-wise, Violence Voyager plays like an adaptation of a vintage choose-your-own-adventure novel or first-wave video game. A blonde American boy named Bobby is ostracized as a foreigner in his mountainside Japanese community, but has managed to make a few friends among the local children (and with a cat tamed Dereck). While getting into some Summertime Mischief in an isolated pocket of the mountain forest, Bobby and his BFFs stumble across a rundown amusement park named Violence Voyager. Admitted free of charge and armed with Super Soakers, they’re instructed to fire their “weapons” at an invading force of alien robots, which pop out of bushes at random in a kind of in-the-flesh video game. This embarrassingly dorky activity turns sinister as the amusement park quickly transforms into an escape room. Bobby discovers that he & his besties aren’t the only children who’ve been lured to the amusement park prison. Dozens of local children are being held hostage and turned into mutant abominations that eerily resemble the alien invaders of Violence Voyager lore. Grotesquely disfigured and forever psychologically scarred by his captors, Bobby must become the futuristic adventurer he only pretended to be when the stakes were fictional. The results of his heroism are more revolting than awe-inspiring, but it’s a noble effort all the same.

The biggest price at the door for enjoying this diabolical work is that you must be okay with seeing violence against children & animals simulated for your entertainment. As nasty as Ujicha’s visual creations can be, it helps tremendously that the acts of fantastic, unreal violence are crudely animated instead of pantomimed in live action. It does not at all help that the children are often nude. As far as the audience can tell, the Cronenbergian mutation experiments that drive the film’s plot do not involve any outright sexual abuse. However, the film stubbornly lingers on the imagery of naked child bodies in an uncomfortable way that pairs horrifically with the cheerful optimism of its vintage kids’ games aesthetic. Even before the true horror starts, the kids look oddly deformed & scarred – as if they had been raised near an unmentioned industrial dump. Later, we’re confronted with illustrations of their genitalia in mad scientist laboratory environments; the abusive implications of that juxtaposition crawls right under your skin regardless of whether it’s directly mentioned. I mean it both as a compliment and a warning that this film is reminiscent of Henry Darger’s work; it’s both a beautiful art object and a traumatic guided tour of some far-off sicko’s subconscious.

I don’t know that I can outright recommend Violence Voyager without feeling like a total scumbag, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t report that it’s one of my personal favorite discoveries of the year. If you’re looking for one of the most bizarre, brutal, psychologically disturbing visions of Hell that 2019 has to offer, look no further. Just be prepared to walk away wondering if the weirdo who made it is a potential sex criminal, or if you wound up on a government watchlist merely by renting it. It is one especially queasy slice of sleaze, which is apparently something I regularly crave.

-Brandon Ledet

Nightbeast (1982)

The opening twenty minutes of Nightbeast may very well be my favorite movie ever made. The other hour is pretty decent too. This $14k regional cheapie wastes no time trying to win its audience over, immediately flooding the screen with gorgeous D.I.Y. nightbeast action in a way that promises a nonstop low-fi special effects showcase. An incredible combo of collage animations & hand-built miniatures stage a spaceship crash in the forested wilderness outside Baltimore. The titular alien beast emerges from his wrecked ship with a raygun in hand and commences vaporizing all cops & townies in his path, revealing Looney Tunes body outlines where their corpses should be. Crosscuts between disembodied handguns firing and nightbeast reaction shots alternate at a strobelight pace. When not vaporizing victims in The Arrival-style animation effects, the nightbeast tears open their torsos with his giant claw, leaving a trail of post-Romero intestinal gore. It’s an incredible opening that’s extremely light on dialogue and extremely heavy on nightbeast. Then the creature loses his raygun and the movie loses its immediacy, slipping into a much more familiar mode of microbudget genre storytelling.

Once Nightbeast settles into constructing a plot, it isn’t sure what to do with itself, so it instead opts out in a way many late-70s, early-80s creature features did: lifting its story wholesale from Jaws. Despite protests from the town sheriff and the local science community, the grandstanding mayor of the small town the where the nightbeast crashed refuses to cancel a fundraising party & evacuate the city, putting his citizenry at unnecessary risk. There’s also a local, unrelated threat from a misogynist biker who strangles women who reject his sexual advances. Oh yeah, and the sheriff makes sensual love with one of his deputies. That’s it, at least until the nightbeast re-emerges for one final outburst of explosions & gore in the third “act.” It’s clear that local microbudget legend Don Dohler and his crew at the aptly titled Amazing Film Productions (including an early “music by” co-credit for a teenage J.J. Abrams) poured almost all of their money & effort into that bewildering first reel, gambling that the opening spectacle would be enough to carry the hour of comedown filler that follows. They weren’t wrong! There’s plenty of typical B-movie charm to the concluding hour of Nightbeast to maintain a goodwill for the cheap-o production on the whole, and then its final outburst of D.I.Y. practical effects spectacle is just enough to freshen your memory that it started off as an all-timer of a creature feature.

I’m a habitual sucker for this kind of communal “Let’s put on a show!” D.I.Y. filmmaking, and that enthusiasm for no-budget genre films may be required at the door to love this frontloaded frivolity for what it is. Despite featuring more sexual sleaze & gross-out gore than either camp (not to mention frequent John Waters player George Stover), this plays as a very wholesome middle ground between 1950s drive-in filler and Matt Farley’s regional horror comedies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. The titular nightbeast spills a lot of blood & viscera in this small Maryland town, but in lingering close-ups he’s so charmingly quaint that I can’t help but think of him as a harmless cutie (especially in comparison with the grotesque serial-strangler subplot). Most audiences would be understandably frustrated with the way the film slips into Jaws-riffing tedium after the alien beast loses his spectacular cop-melting raygun, but I personally didn’t mind the cooldown too, too much. If anything, the go-nowhere melodrama in the second act and the final-minutes return to the initial spectacle provided context as to just how cheap this production really was, only making those opening twenty minutes more incredible in retrospect. The ambition of that opening is must-see trash cinema excellence, whether or not you find the more pedestrian hour that follows as charming as I do.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

For a film that’s often dismissed as nostalgic pastiche, Beyond the Black Rainbow (our current Movie of the Month) is a difficult one to anchor to any direct, cited influences. Part of the film’s lore is that director Panos Cosmatos intended to evoke “an imagining of an old film that does not exist,” recalling childhood trips to the VHS rental store Video Addict where he would imagine the plots of horror films he was too young to rent based on the images on their cassette jackets. The eerie psychedelia of the killer-ants curio Phase IV or Ken Russell’s Altered States approach the paranormal throwback mood Cosmatos was attempting to achieve in his debut, but neither work quite captures the full spectrum of what’s on the screen. What’s much easier for Cosmatos to pinpoint are the influences on the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow, touchstones he discussed with cinematographer Norm Li. In an interview with Joshua Miller for CHUD, Cosmatos referenced titles like Manhunter, Dark Star, and The Keep as direct influences on the film’s cinematography style, while playing influences on the tone & narrative much closer to the chest. The title Dark Star stood out to me in those citations, because Cosmatos is very specific about what he pulled from that ancient sci-fi comedy; he notes that a particular scene set in “a freezer room” was an influence on the bluish tints sometimes deployed in Beyond the Back Rainbow—what Cosmatos refers to as “night mode.” The specificity of that influence rings even more odd to me now after having watched Dark Star in this context, as the film may have had much more influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow than Cosmatos either realized or admitted.

It’s incredible that a film as small as Dark Star would ever have had enough lasting impact or wide enough of a reach in distribution to inform the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow nearly four decades later. What’s even more incredible is that Cosmatos’s film is one of the least significant corners of genre cinema it has influenced. The debut feature from genre legend John Carpenter, Dark Star was a student film project at the University of Southern California—stitched together from reels of 16mm footage (with some post-production bulking-up before its theatrical release to a reach feature-length runtime). Carpenter directed & scored the film, already establishing some of the basic tones of eerie sci-fi atmosphere & broad humor that would carry throughout his career. His main collaborator was Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote with Carpenter, acted in a central role, edited the picture, and supervised its production design & special effects. Carpenter getting his sea legs here before immediately jumping into churning out all-time classics (his next two pictures were Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween) already makes Dark Star a culturally significant work, even as a microbudget student film. It’s really Dan O’Bannon who secured the film’s legacy. however. Not only were the film’s incredible special effects its main draw and his character’s name cited as the source for the band Pinback, but O’Bannon repurposed many basic elements that didn’t work in Dark Star for his career-defining work in Alien. There’s a lengthy spaceship chase in Dark Star involving a beachball-shaped alien with claws that fails miserably in its humor, but O’Bannon later thought to play for genuine scares out of frustration – so that you can get an idea here what Alien might have been like if it were an early SNL or Groove Tube comedy sketch instead of one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Failed sketch comedy & sci-fi majesty are exactly the tones at war with each other in Dark Star, which is understandably more interesting to gaze at as a visual feast & discuss as a cultural object than it is to watch as entertainment media. A sci-fi comedy made by California college nerds in the stoney-baloney haze of the 1970s, the film is very loose in its structure and often is deluded in believing it can get by solely on the strengths of its punchlines (spoiler: it cannot). As beautifully eerie as the film’s pre-Star Wars space-travel effects look, the comedy it’s in service often feels mind-numbingly mundane. Some of that mundanity is (smartly) baked into its premise. The film profiles a trio of deep space colonists who seem to have an exciting job of exploding distant “unstable” planets with “intelligent talking bombs.” The day-to-day reality of this work is shown to be one of corporate boredom, however, as they fill their downtime playing trivial games and suffering the bureaucratic delay of supplies requests for necessities like toilet paper. A lot of this space-travel boredom transfers to the audience as the futuristic stoner humor slowly drifts along, although the movie does admittedly end on its best joke (and perhaps its only good one): a lengthy existential discussion between the ship’s captain and a talking bomb that’s threatening to detonate due to malfunctioning protocol. It’s a dryly funny philosophical battle between man & bomb, approximating the midway point between Douglas Adams & HAL 9000. It’s that latter comparison point that the marketing jumped all over during the film’s theatrical run, cheesily riffing on Kubrick in taglines like “The spaced-out odyssey” & “The mission of the Strangelove generation.” Dark Star was advertised as a full-length Kubrick parody, which was misleading, but likely an easier sell than what it truly was: an aimless stoner comedy adrift in outer space.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is another film that mixes visual majesty & stony baloney psychedelia with moments of incongruous humor, but that’s not the Dark Star influence Panos Cosmatos cites for his own debut. The “freezer room scene’s” influence on the intense blues of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s “night mode” sequences is much more specific & direct than any Dark Star influences Cosmatos may have picked up through cultural osmosis, given the stature of its central two collaborators. That scene, in which the new captain of the ship visits his cryogenically frozen predecessor for advice, is significant enough to Dark Star’s legacy that it’s the image used on the film’s Kubrick-riffing poster (likely due to the frozen captain’s distant gaze resembling 2001’s own advertising). It’s understandable then, that the freezer room scene would be the reference point Cosmatos & Li used to create some of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general look, but I believe Dark Star’s influence may have extended even further than that scene’s acknowledgement. Throughout Dark Star, there were kaleidoscopic flashes of light, washes of color, and outer space animation that recalled the general analog psychedelia vibe of Beyond the Black Rainbow for me. There are two particular scenes I could point to that I believed resembled Cosmatos’s film much more closely than even the blue hues of the freezer room: one in which a laser gone haywire paints everything in its vicinity a harsh, monochromatic red and one in which the new captain waxes nostalgic about waxing his surfboard while staring out an observation dome, his head effectively floating in space while cross-lit in red & blue. The freezer room scene may have been a useful reference point when coordinating specific aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s cinematography, but Dark Star’s fingerprints are visible all throughout Cosmatos’s picture outside that specific context.

Given the feats Carpenter & O’Bannon would later accomplish, Dark Star’s comedic missteps and detectable influences on just this one isolated picture seem like petty concerns in its greater legacy; the ways it transformed sci-fi media through Alien is alone enough to drown out those minor details. Its comparison to Beyond the Black Rainbow is of much more interest on Cosmatos’s end, as his work often feels so impenetrable in its pastiche of a genre era that likely never existed that any flash of a direct, specific influence like Phase IV or Dark Star feels illuminating. It’s unclear how much of those two films’ visual similarities (outside the freezer room “night mode”) were an indirect result of general genre bleed-over due to Carpenter & O’Bannon’s larger cultural presence, but it is clear that Cosmatos pulled something directly from Dark Star that indicates what Beyond the Black Rainbow was meant to accomplish. It’s also clear that Panos Cosmatos made a much more creatively successful feature debut than John Carpenter did, something to be immensely proud of.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s examination of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

Drive-in Era Genre Efficiency in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Accessibility to a wide range of movie & television options in the online steaming era has made freedom of choice to be something of an overwhelming burden. There’s too much media to watch and not nearly enough time to even to distinguish which titles are worth the effort. This constant deluge of “content” has created a fascinating attention span phenomenon in the modern media consumer. We’ve reached a cultural paradox where audiences are reluctant to venture to the theater for a three hour film with a serious topic, but will happily binge dozens of hours of a mediocre television show on Netflix or Hulu merely for the convenience of its availability. Genre filmmakers & schlock peddlers of old have dealt with this exact attention span problem in the past, especially when they were catering to the teenage numbskulls who packed drive-in theaters to make out & party in the 1950s & 60s. In the modern streaming era, drive-in schlock has once again become a pertinent form of entertainment. Not only are many films of that era now available for easy (although frequently illegal) access on sites like YouTube; they’re also short & to the point. With over-the-top premises engineered to grab dumb teens’ attention in titles like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula & Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, these films would typically stretch out only to an hour in length a piece, so that they could easily be stacked in a drive-in double bill. The convenience of being able to watch a goofy, high concept horror in an hour’s time is just as appealing now as it is likely was for anxious-to-neck teens half a century ago. You could gobble down an entire feature in the same amount of time it would take to watch a single episode of Stranger Things (and one that would require about the same amount of brain power).

The problem with a lot of drive-in era schlock, of course, is that the films themselves are often far more dull than what’s promised in their advertising. Old school genre film promoters lived & died by the ethos that it was far more important to get eyes on the screen (and, thus, cash in the register) than it was to deliver a high quality product. Many films with an eye-catching title & a killer poster would stop short when it came to actually entertaining audiences, since their job was already done before the first reel spun. Much like the majority of modern straight-to-streaming movies & television, a lot of drive-in fare was lazy & disposable. Their sixty minute runtimes make them much easier to dig through for the gems than most other eras of genre film entertainment, however, and there were plenty of high quality schlock titles that fully delivered on the promise of their attention-grabbing advertising. I can’t think of a better example of efficient, attention-holding drive-in schlock than the 1964 British export The Earth Dies Screaming. At 62 minutes in length, The Earth Dies Screaming succinctly packs at least three sci-fi horror premises into a single genre picture. It’s a cheap production that effectively conveys the scale of a global threat to humanity while only staging its events in a small studio lot section of London. Without narration or montage, it barrels through a series of paranormal obstacles for its small cast of characters to overcome, only to move the goalposts for victory at every possible opportunity. Its violence is mostly implied, yet its effect is genuinely chilling. As convenient as the movies are to watch, most drive-in schlock admittedly doesn’t bother to deliver a decent picture that lives up to the strength of its advertising; The Earth Dies Screaming somehow delivers three in a single, succinct package.

The film opens similarly to 28 Days Later, with its main protagonist roaming London as seemingly the only human left alive. Lifeless bodies are strewn about city streets as planes, trains, and automobiles crash in stock footage spectacle without navigators. The camera pans up to the sky for a dramatic title reveal in enormous block letters: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. Eventually, our square-jawed American hero finds fellow British survivors emerging from the wreckage. As a group, they search TV & radio signals for answers, finding only static & the hum of a strange, menacing tone. There’s little dialogue in this earliest sequence, until the group deduces that the lifeless victims outside have suffered an attack of weaponized gas, the source of which they speculate on without much evidence. Just as they come to a conclusion on what knocked out the first wave of victims, space alien robots arrive to sweep the streets for survivors, whom they incapacitate with a single gentle touch. When the majority of the survivors escape the fate of the alien robots, the robots then raise their dead as zombie drones with whited-out eyes to complete the mission. These individual obstacles don’t even cover the off-screen aliens who are deploying these threats or the mysterious signals being broadcast over television & radio waves. The Earth Dies Screaming doesn’t even devote energy to explaining what happens next after its in-the-moment crisis is solved immediately before the end credits. It just keeps its head down & throws every monstrous evil it can conjure at the screen, any one of which could have been developed into its on individual double-bill filler.

The most impressive aspect of The Earth Dies Screaming‘s genre film efficiency is how it finds the space to allow its central mystery to breathe. Its hour-long runtime is packed tightly with a wide range of villainous monsters, yet its pace is not at all rushed. In the classic Twilight Zone tradition, characters are allowed plenty stage play dialogue to ponder the possibilities of what alien force is planning their doom. The movie is disinterested in these characters as individuals, saving time by boiling them down to archetypes: the American Hero, the pregnant damsel, the uptight aristocrat Brit, the common thief, etc. By skipping in-depth characterization, it allows for unsettling questions to linger between the physical threats of the robots & their zombies. Was it actually a gas that triggered this crisis? What is the signal being broadcast on the radio supposed to signify? Are the characters already dead & navigating some kind of purgatory? Who is their true enemy? It even telegraphs some of the paranoid in-fighting of John Carpenter’s The Thing; the characters viciously bicker in distrust of each other as they fight a common enemy they cannot see.

From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.

-Brandon Ledet

Elizabeth Harvest (2018)

In the age-old folktale of Bluebeard, a well-to-do monster of a man gets into the habit of marrying women only to murder them once they disobey his one rule: do not look behind the forbidden door in his castle. Once his current wife gives into her curiosity and opens the door, she finds that what lies behind it is the corpses of his former wives. Sebastian Gutierrez’s most recent film, Elizabeth Harvest, is essentially the Bluebeard fairytale, but instead of the corpses if multiple dead wives, the room is filled with clones of one wife. It’s just as crazy as it sounds.

Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a seemingly innocent scientist, brings his new bride, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), to his huge, mysterious, and obnoxiously clean home in the middle of the woods. The house is a mix of the glass house in the movie The Glass House and the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so it was both fascinating and terrifying. There are two caretakers in the home: Claire (Carla Gugino), a mysterious, quiet woman with an obvious connection to Henry, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a young, blind man that mostly keeps to himself. The two add to the unwelcome feeling of the already spooky setting. As in the Bluebeard tale, Henry gives Elizabeth free reign of the home and all the luxuries that comes with it, but she is forbidden from entering one room. While Henry is away, Elizabeth enters the forbidden room only to find pods with clones of herself. Once Henry discovers what Elizabeth has done, the film shifts away from Bluebeard and becomes something entirely different.

Gutierrez throws in some impressive visual effects at all the right moments. There are a couple of scenes with split screens that focus on what different characters are doing in different parts of the home during highly intense moments, which I absolutely loved. There’s also lots of bold color and high fashion throughout the film, especially with Elizabeth. She has vibrant red hair, piercing blue eyes, and wears lots of haute couture. Watching her walk through different rooms in the home was like flipping through the pages of Vogue for a “Sci-Fi Meets High Fashion” issue. The film comes very close to being one of those style over substance works, but the uniqueness and intensity of the plot keeps it balanced.

Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.

-Britnee Lombas

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet