Lagniappe Podcast: The Visitor (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discusthe psychedelic sci-fi horror The Visitor (1979), a chaotic mix of psychic space aliens, killer birds, and Satanic blood cults.

00:00 Welcome

01:11 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
03:24 Don’t Hang Up (2016)
05:22 In the Earth (2021)
09:27 Gaia (2021)
10:50 A Nasty Piece of Work (2019)
12:55 A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
18:33 The Innocents (1961)
23:23 Streets of Fire (1984)
27:00 The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

30:03 The Visitor (1979)
50:50 Deadly Games (1989)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

Brandon:  Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper and adapted from the sci-fi pulp novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien.  It is an absurdly lavish production for a Cannon Group film—or really for any film with this chaotic of an imagination—especially considering the scrappier genre pictures its creators usually helm. 

It starts as an Alien-style sci-fi pulp throwback where dormant “space vampires” are discovered in both bat & humanoid form on an abandoned spaceship parked on Haley’s Comet, then brought back to London for scientific examination.  Once the lead vampire awakes on the autopsy table and sucks the electrified “lifeforce” out of the first nearby victim, the boundaries of the film’s genre classification explode into every possible direction.  This is at times an alien invasion film, a body-possession story, a sci-fi spin on vampire lore, a post-Romero zombie apocalypse picture, and an all-around genre meltdown whatsit that keeps piling new, upsetting ideas onto each subsequent sequence until you’re crushed by the enormity of its imagination.  With Lifeforce, Hooper & O’Bannon found the rare freedom to stage a gross-out B-picture on a proper Hollywood blockbuster budget, and they indulged every bizarre idea they could conjure in the process – complete with extravagant practical effects and a swashbuckling action-hero score performed by The London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been meaning to make time for Lifeforce since as far back as our buddies at the We Love to Watch podcast covered it five years ago.  I am not surprised that I loved it, but I was delighted to discover how much its space-vampire mayhem is a supernatural form of erotic menace, which is my #1 horror sweet spot.  It would have been more than enough for the soul-sucking space-vampires to turn Earthlings into exploding dust-zombies & leaky bloodsacks, but what really made me fall in love is how they start the process by hypnotizing their victims with intense horniness. 

Like with Alien, Dan O’Bannon is playing with the psychosexual terror lurking just below the surface of retro sci-fi relics like Queen of Blood & The Astounding She-Monster, but the approach to modernizing that erotic menace is much more heteronormative here than with the male-pregnancy & penetrative fears of H.R. Giger’s iconic alien designs.  Lifeforce portrays modern-day London as a city of sexually repressed Conservative men whose greatest fear is a confident, nude woman.  The lead nudist vampire is not only too sexy & self-assured for the terminally British subs who fall under her spell, she also terrorizes them by linking that intense erotic attraction to the blurred gender boundaries of their own psyches.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when her victims describe her as “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence [they’ve] ever encountered” or when she confesses that her physical form is just a projection of the femininity trapped inside their own minds.  By the time a silhouette of her breasts is framed as if it were Nosferatu‘s creeping shadow, I was fully in love with the way this film attacks its uptight macho victims through the vulnerability of their erotic imaginations.  I love a good wet nightmare, and it was endlessly fun to watch them squirm.

Hanna, what do you make of this film’s sexual & gender politics?  Does its erotic terror add anything substantial to the more traditional zombie & vampire scares that throw London into chaos, or does it just feel like an exploitative excuse to cram some straight-boy-marketed nudity onto the screen?

Hanna: Boy howdy!  Lifeforce was one of the exponentially wildest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  Brandon, I think you mentioned The Wicker Man during our screening, which is the exact vein of horny fear I found in this movie; the ill-fated, repressed sexualities of Anglo-Saxon men never cease to delight me.  I was completely on board with a beautiful naked woman walking her way—unbelievably slowly—through quivering throngs of Brits.

Overall, Lifeforce is a fantastic addition to the vampire canon, which has always had lots to say about the terror of sex and sexuality.  Most of the vampire movies I’ve seen feature naturally hot, youthful vamps, lounging around in sensuous mansions.  I’ll never turn down a coven of hot Draculas, but I loved that these vampires of Lifeforce were truly horrifying space hell beasts using the fantasies of their hosts to craft their appearances (I like to imagine the other aliens that these vampires have sucked dry throughout the galaxy – imagine the hottest tentacled space glob in the universe).  Human sexuality is so specific to particular events and images at different moments of a person’s life that I think lots of people don’t understand where their kinks and preferences come from.  I loved that moment Brandon mentioned when the lead space vampire (named “Space Girl” in the credits, which tickles me) tells Col. Carlsen that she’s the manifestation of his femininity; he’s totally locked that aspect of his sexuality away from himself, but it’s plainly obvious and extremely easy to exploit.  What would Space Girl find in my mind?  I kind of want to know, but I kind of don’t!

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed by the exclusive focus on heteronormative sexuality.  On one hand, part of the humor of this movie is that Space Girl exerts minimal effort while successfully throwing London into unchecked chaos with her cadre of androgynous space vampire hunks, due in large part to the desperately horny male leaders of foundational institutions.  Clearly, this was the correct tack to take from a strategic standpoint.  It’s just that for a super sexy movie that featuring exploding dust zombies, shapeshifting space vampires, and a floating, coagulated blob comprised of torrents of Sir Patrick Stewart’s blood, couldn’t we have gotten just a little touch of queer flirtation?  (I guess she sucks the life force out of a woman in the park, but we don’t actually see it happen, so I’m not counting it!) We get a little touch of that in the femininity scene, but I wish the movie would have delved into even kinkier territory.

Boomer, I thought these space vampires were a great direction for film’s hall of vampires.  What did you think?  How do these monsters compare to their terrestrial blueprints? 

Boomer: I was also hung up on the vampires’ heteronormativity.  We spend so much full-frontal time with Space Girl that I could draw her labia from memory right now, weeks after seeing the movie, but we (of course) had plentiful and abundant convenient censorship of our hot space twunks’ docking equipment. I suppose it’s logical that a film that exists solely because of the male gaze and which requires the ubiquity of the male gaze to make narrative sense should also cater solely to it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t complain about it. 

Unusually for me, I prefer my vampire fiction mystical rather than scientific.  It’s not just because most sci-fi vampire films are pretty bad (Daybreakers immediately comes to mind, followed by Bloodsuckers and Ultraviolet); there are plenty of terrible supernatural vampire movies. Still, when measuring good against bad, the ratio of good sci-fi vampires to bad ones skews much more negatively than their magical brethren. As much as I liked Lifeforce, that this (blessed) mess counts as one of the good ones kind of tells you everything that you need to know, right? I just like it when vampires have to glamour people or have to be invited in; I think it makes for more interesting storytelling than vampirism-as-a-virus or, as is the case here, vampires are extraterrestrial beings that suck out life force.  When it comes to twists on the lore, however, there was one thing that I really did like: the reanimation of victims who must likewise consume life energy, and which turn to dust if unable to do so.  The effects in these scenes were nothing short of spectacular, and they were the best part of the film.  I know that they must have been remastered at some point, but those puppets were really something fascinating to behold. 

One of the things that I did have some trouble with was the pacing, especially with regards to character introductions.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s like watching 2001 (or Star Trek: The Motion Picture) on fast-forward as spectacular vistas and space structures are explored, before we’re suddenly in a very boring office space, and we’re figuratively and literally down to earth for the rest of the movie.  There’s not that much interesting about any of the spaces we explore (other than that one lady’s apartment with the Liza Minnelli poster), and it felt like every 20 minutes a new guy just sort of walked into the view of the camera and the film became about him for a while.  I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be our protagonist, which left me spinning.  That our leads were all largely indistinguishable white dudes also contributed to this for me; when Steve Railsback reappeared after not having been seen since the ship exploration sequence, I thought he was the same character as the guy who had exploded into dust in the scene immediately prior.  Was this also an issue for you, Britnee?  Did the pacing work for you? 

Britnee: When looking back on the scenery in Lifeforce, all I can recall is the color brown. All of those wood paneled walls and dull office spaces made the sets feel a little musty. The one major exception is when the space crew explores the mysterious 150-mile-long spacecraft (a scale I still can’t wrap my head around). I loved the uncomfortable rectum-looking entrance that leads them to the collection of dried-up bat creatures and the hive of nude “humans” in glass containers. I wasn’t ready to leave that funky space place so quickly. I wanted to see more compartments of the craft explored. There was 150 miles of it after all, and they only went through what seemed to be less than a mile. I know poking around the craft would cost money, but with the massive budget for this film, the money was obviously there. It just should have been spent better. 

As for the pacing, I was so focused on all of the space vampire mayhem that I didn’t pay much attention to all of the boring white guys who were main characters . . . unless they were getting their life sucked out of them and exploding into dust. It was pretty difficult to keep up with who was who and how they plugged into all of the insanity, but it didn’t really bother me because just about everything else in the movie was so much fun. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Lifeforce would do so well as an animated series. I saw that there was talk about a potential remake, but it seems like animation would be the way to go. That way, there would be fewer financial limitations, so all the freaky stuff could be even freakier. 

Boomer: That both of our male leads (at least I think they’re our leads) had hard-C alliterative names (Colonel Carlsen and Colonel Colin Caine) was a real detriment.  But once Kat pointed out that Carlsen was Steve Railsback, aka Duane Barry, I could at least keep track of him. 

Brandon: I was initially disappointed by the lack of onscreen peen myself, but the more I think about how much this movie is about straight men’s psychosexual discomforts the more I’m okay with it.  If you’re going to frame your lusty B-movie this strictly through male gaze, you need to at least interrogate the limitations & vulnerabilities of that gaze, and I think Lifeforce does that well.  Rather than a remake, I think there’s an angle for a spinoff sequel that follows the two Nude Dudes around the entire night instead of Space Girl, since most of their adventures were off-screen.  Coming to Hulu as soon as Disney buys up the Cannon Group catalog, after they’ve gobbled up the rest of the pop media landscape.

Hanna: Speaking of constant female nudity, my favorite tidbit of trivia about Lifeforce is that it was extremely difficult to find a female lead willing to be naked for the entire movie. Hooper had to resort to chartering a plane of German actresses to London after failing to find an English actress; by the time the actresses got to London, they had collectively agreed not to audition for the part. Thank God for Mathilda May! Maybe it would have been too much trouble to get some peen in the picture; I’m glad we got at least a little ethereal, vampiric nakedness.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Considering its appeal as a vintage novelty horror about the evils of virtual reality, I had no choice but to enjoy The Lawnmower Man.  The film opens with a gravely sincere title card warning that virtual reality will be “in widespread use” by “the turn of the millennium”, which despite its “millions of positive uses” could lead to “a new form of mind control.”  It’s the exact kind of instantly dated cash-in on fad technology that’s dismissed for being embarrassingly obsolete in the years following in its initial release, but then ages wonderfully as a cultural time capsule of its era as the decades roll on.  Listening to the radical computer programmers of The Lawnmower Man pontificate about how virtual reality is “a new electric dimension” that “holds the key to the next evolution of the human mind” is hilariously goofy in hindsight, especially when paired with the cutting-edge CG graphics of its early-90s video game VR.  It’s also a great snapshot of how far-out & psychedelic the concept of immersive gaming was at that time, so that the film has just as much value as an anthropological record as it does as an accidental comedy.  I had just as much fun revisiting it in the 2020s as a cultural relic as I had watching it as a totally normal cable-broadcast horror flick as a 90s kid.  Still, it really pushed the outer limits of how much bullshit I’m willing to put up with to indulge in the precious Outdated Vintage Tech goofballery I love to see in my killer-computer genre movies.  It turns out the answer is “way too much”.

Pierce Brosnan stars as a put-upon research scientist for the sinister corporation Virtual Space Industries, working to expand the capabilities of the human mind through experiments in virtual reality.  He goes rogue when the company perverts his research to develop weapons instead of developing the human mind, leaving him jobless and bored.  From there, The Lawnmower Man turns into a mad scientist story, with Brosnan continuing the VR experiments in his basement on an unwitting human subject.  He establishes a Frankenstein-and-monster relationship with his neighborhood’s landscaper, a “born-dumb” “halfwit” played by Jeff Fahey.  Luckily, Fahey plays the mentally disabled test subject as more of an overgrown child than a broad-strokes exaggeration of real-life neurodivergent tics; or at least it helped that I watched Will Sasso completely biff the same type of role in Drop Dead Gorgeous the night before.  It’s still embarrassing to watch, though, and the only true saving grace is that his humble beginnings as a “poor idiot” don’t last long.  The mad scientist’s VR research works way too well, in fact.  The titular lawnmower man goes full galaxy-brain at an alarming speed, zooming right past neurotypical adult mental functions to becoming a self-declared “CyberChrist” with godlike powers over all minds and computers in his immediate vicinity.  In his early kills as a virtual reality god, he uses telekinesis to launch his lawnmower at his former bullies’ bigoted faces.  Later, he obliterates his enemies by pixelating them to death, erasing them from existence as if he were just deleting them from a hard drive.  I don’t know that I could describe it any better than Letterboxd user LauraJacoves, who succinctly declared it “Flowers for AlgeTron“.

Of course, the ickiness of Jeff Fahey being asked to play mentally disabled is a huge hurdle to enjoying The Lawnmower Man, and most of the film’s problems are rooted in its depictions of reality-reality.  If you can get past that discomfort, though, the movie is a hoot.  It’s overloaded with one-of-a-kind vintage CGI sequences that attempt to blow the audience’s mind with the endless possibilities of VR but instead feel like a hokey tour of mid-90s screensavers.  In one sequence, two virtual figures engage in literal cybersex then morph into a single dragonfly that soars over matrix-grid mountains.  In another, the mad scientist crams physical illustrations of human knowledge directly into his pet project’s brain, which rumbles with brainstorms & brainquakes in stressed-out overload.  It’s a true wonder, one that can only be described by the fake 90s slang the youngest member of the cast roadtests while playing the mildly psychedelic video games: “Sketched!” “Dudical!”  It’s a shame that The Lawnmower Man couldn’t have been more immersed in its totally dudical virtual world, like a 1990s update to Tron.  At the very least, it could have sidestepped the queasiness of the Jeff Fahey performance by sticking to Brosnan’s initial test subjects: chimpanzees.  There’s an early sequence where militarized chimps are navigating the mad-sketched VR landscapes while armed with assault rifles as if this were a high-concept first-person shooter.  I understand the Big City Tech vs. Rural Bumpkins dynamic the movie was aiming for, but it could’ve easily kept all of its best images if Brosnan had stuck to experimenting on himself and his chimps (minus the cybersex).

What’s really funny is that if The Lawnmower Man had dropped its titular lawnmower man test subject, it also would’ve sidestepped a lot of unnecessary legal trouble.  Horror legend Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the film’s promotional materials and home video products, since it bares essentially no likeness to his original short story (about an occultist landscaper who answers to a new boss, Pan).  If the film were instead about Killer CyberChimps or if the mad scientist character had become the killer CyberChrist himself the movie would almost certainly be a more widely beloved cult classic – one with fewer legal fees added to its production & distribution budget and, let’s face it, one with a much better title for a novelty sci-fi horror of its era.  As is, it’s a lot of over-the-top vintage fun; you just have to put up with some totally unnecessary bullshit to enjoy it.

-Brandon Ledet

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