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

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth’s mind control sci-fi whatsit Upstream Color was my favorite film I saw in a movie theater in 2013, back when I used to only make it out to the megaplex a few times a year (as opposed to a few times a month). In an effort to encourage other people to experience the film in a proper theatrical environment, I posted the following cringe-inducing paragraph on Facebook, which I am transcribing verbatim here as a vicious self-own: “playing one last time tuesday (tomorrow) night at the chalmette movies, 7:30pm; this movie is terrifying. truly horrific. if you are irritated by expressionistic directors like miranda july, harmony korine & whoever made ‘we need to talk about kevin’ you should skip out on this one; if you find those ppl/movies exciting and you like to be scared/confused/nervous go see it.” Woof. I like to think that my writing skills and frames of reference have both expanded greatly since starting this film blog in 2015 (please don’t report that you feel otherwise) and I’ve just revisited Upstream Color for the first time since that theatrical release, so I’d like to take a second crack at praising its merits here. Maybe I can even pull it off without insulting the great Lynne Ramsay this time. We’ll see.

While my initial “review” of the film was essentially the online equivalent of shitting my pants in public, I do maintain that a few key adjectives in that paragraph genuinely apply to Upstream Color – mainly “terrifying,” “expressionistic,” and “confused.” Shane Carruth still only has two feature films to his name but has earned great notoriety in film nerd circles for executing astonishingly complex sci-fi ideas on meager micro-budgets. His debut feature (2004’s Primer) was notoriously scraped together with a mere $7,000 behind it and yet has inspired entire websites dedicated to parsing out the A-B story of its complex time travel narrative. Although Upstream Color operated with a relatively massive $50,000 budget (still chump change even in indie filmmaking terms), it’s somehow even more stubborn in accommodating its audience narratively, especially since it opts for a sci-fi subgenre much less culturally familiar than time travel: mind control. Over time, Upstream Color sketches out in both macro & microscopic terms the life cycle of a mysterious parasite that, when ingested, leaves its hosts vulnerably suggestible (and inexplicably, inextricably connected to anyone else infected). It’s a closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself. And even then, you’re bound to walk away with more questions than explanations.

While their relationship to each other is deliberately obscured from scene to scene, the individual players of this sordid tale are at least distinct & well defined. We open with a nameless thief who harvests a mysterious blue chemical from orchids that he then injects into grubs and force-feeds to unsuspecting victims. This starts as a story of severe & total exploitation, with seemingly the one player with a full grasp on what these parasites can do abusing their mind-control properties for cheap financial gain. We then shift to his victims’ post-trauma haze as they try to piece together exactly what happened to them and why they feel subconsciously connected to each other. Also in play are a pig farmer, his cattle, and nearby orchid salesmen who unknowingly complete the life cycle of this phenomenal parasitic grub – each to their own selfish gain. The bulk of the story’s pathos is rooted in the search for connection & meaning among the traumatized victims of the parasite’s harvester, but making sense of exactly what they’re going through from minute to minute requires a complete understanding of how all these disparate players are connected – something you don’t fully acquire until you follow the entire life cycle to completion. Until then, the film plays like a half-remembered nightmare, with the logical reasoning of what’s happening in the moment making just enough sense to carry you through to the next disorienting crisis.

If any of the directors’ work I foolishly compared Upstream Color to in my initial “review” stands, it’s the only one I didn’t cite by name. If you’re being generous, I suppose there’s a stubborn obfuscation the film shares with Korine and its everyone-is-connected plot structure could be seen as a sci-fi mutation of July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. I don’t deserve that generosity, though. The Lynne Ramsay comparison is at least slightly interesting in retrospect, though, in that Upstream Color‘s greatest feat is surely in its editing (a task Carruth took on himself in addition to writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, and starring in the film as its over-achieving auteur). Upstream Color & We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in that they’re clearly the most impressively edited films of the decade, considering how they communicate complex, internal narratives through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet their basic outlines are crystal clear if you afforded them your full attention from start to finish. Either film would be doomed to confuse anyone who allows them to compete with a smartphone or tablet at home, as every image onscreen in an essential context clue as to what’s being communicated at large. An occasional special effect or microscopic science lab footage insert will help Upstream Color overcome its limited financial means, but its true spectacle is its editing room alchemy – a purposefully disorienting, alienating terror. In that way (and in that way only) it’s outright Ramsayesque.

Given Upstream Color‘s stubbornness to provide upfront explanations for what its isolated images, characters, and even sounds signify in the larger picture, it’s the kind of film that demands your full attention from start to end, completing its closed loop for yourself. As hard as I cringe over the word choice of my seven-years-stale plea that more people experience it in a proper theater, I can at least stand by the sentiment that full, undistracted immersion in that environment was its best shot of wholly winning over an audience. The best you can do to recreate that experience now is locking your smartphone away in another room and burying your ears in some high-end headphones. Hopefully this better-elaborated reasoning on why this film is worth that effort will convince someone new to experience this low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi chiller for themselves. Either way, I should probably cut myself some slack for my shortcomings in singing its praises – both now and in 2013. It’s an exceedingly difficult film to describe to anyone who hasn’t already fallen under its spell themselves. However, I do feel an eerie, soul-deep connection to those who’ve been a defender of it as one of the decade’s great works, as it could have easily been one of the many great 2010s indies to slip into total obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

Aniara (2019)

Among the big-city dwellers who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, Claire Denis’s High Life proved to be one of the year’s more divisive films. That work’s stubbornly esoteric allegories about climate change & humanity’s isolation in an uncaring universe could either register as captivating or exhaustively boring depending on its audience’s sensibilities – an effect Denis only amplified by rooting the story in prolonged, systemic cruelty. Even the Swampflix crew was divided on the film’s merits, with Boomer filing a negative review for it the same week CC & I sang its praises on the podcast. In some ways, I wish that same awe-and-vitriol divide had been afforded to this year’s other brutal space travel allegory, Aniara, which shares a lot of thematic ground with High Life when considered in the abstract. Instead, Aniara has been suffering the much worse fate of not being talked about at all. Ever since it premiered at TIFF last year, Aniara has been damned with faint praise as a decent-enough, 3-star sci-fi yarn, which naturally stirs up a lot less critical conversation than the wild, alienating swings of Denis’s film. That’s a shame, since it covers similar thematic territory as the more divisive, attention-grabbing work in a way I think a lot more people would be receptive to. And it’s just sitting right there on Hulu, largely unwatched & undiscussed.

Maybe it’s only genre nerds who’ve spent hundreds of hours watching SyFy Channel reruns of venerated series like Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica who would be greatly excited by Aniara’s melancholy space travel mood. It shares existential climate change themes with High Life, but its story is much more linear & traditionally structured than its arthouse counterpart. At least, it appears that way in the early goings. As the boundaryless void of outer space and the meaningless of time for those drifting across it becomes increasingly apparent, the movie gradually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. No matter how familiar the film’s storytelling structure & spaceship setting may first appear, it’s ultimately a surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a deep-space travel narrative. It features a bisexual female scientist as the lead, dabbles in the psychedelia of futuristic space-cult religions, and argues that maybe bringing new children into a dying world isn’t necessarily the best idea – a tough, but worthwhile topic given our current path to extinction. No film that embodies all those potentially alienating elements should be brushed off as “conventional,” no matter how familiar its tone & setting might feel to sci-fi television storytelling ritual. It’s just that it’s more adventurous & ambitious in its ideas than it is in its formal structure, which could be said about plenty sci-fi classics of the past.

A massive spaceship ferrying a routine transportation haul of human passengers from Earth to Mars is unexpectedly thrown off-course by space junk debris. The captain of the ship informs his horrified passengers that their trip will now take months instead of hours. Those months turn into years as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the ship will ever return home at all. The organic supplies that generate fresh food & oxygen gradually start to rot. Drifting through space with no hope or purpose, the passengers search for higher meaning & easy escapism in their severely limited environment. This mostly entails visits to Mima – a machine that broadcasts holodeck-style images of Nature into the minds of its users. Even before they were stranded on this spaceship, this imagery belonged to a nostalgic past before Earth was wrecked by climate change. Through Mima, it’s now twice removed from its original source, and becomes an addictive tool for mental escapism in what’s essentially a prison ship. Of course, this shipwide abuse of Mima is not sustainable in the long run; the demands of the passengers far outweigh the supply. As the passengers search for other, grander ways to find meaning in their endless drift into the void of deep space (and wrestle with the morality of bringing newborns into such a nihilistic environment), we experience daily life on the titular ship through the eyes of Mima’s operator – who suffers the full spectrum of love, loss, labor, and search for purpose while her years adrift endlessly accumulate.

I’d readily recommend Aniara to any & all sci-fi nerds who’ve ever gotten hooked on a long-running space travel series. I’d especially recommend it to those who were intrigued but frustrated by High Life earlier this year. Personally, both films hit me in about the same way on a thematic level, but I found it easier to buy into the linear, structured drama of Aniara on an emotional one (not least of all due to a stunner of a lead performance from Emelle Jonsson). I appreciated High Life more for its arthouse craft, whereas Aniara left me gutted and terrified for our inevitable near-future doom as a species. Both works are worthy of attention & discussion, even if you end up falling in love with neither.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

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 Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-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

Island of the Damned

One of the most underappreciated cul-de-sacs in horror cinema is the 1950s & 60s British thriller that turned expansive premises with global implications into bottled-up, dialogue-heavy teleplays. Sci-fi horror classics like Devil Girl from Mars, The Day of the Triffids, and The Earth Dies Screaming executed big ideas on constricted budgets in excitingly ambitious ways, even if they often amounted to back-and-forth philosophical conversations in parlors & pubs. It’s difficult to imagine so, but our current Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? has strong roots in one of the most iconic examples of this buttoned-up British tradition – the 1964 chiller Village of the Damned. What’s most amazing about that influence is that the calmer, more dialogue-heavy example of the pair is somehow just as disturbing as its ultraviolent descendent. Even working under harsh financial restraints & systemic moral censorship in a more conservative time for horror cinema, Village of the Damned holds its own against the free-to-shock grindhouse nasties that followed in its wake.

It’s not that Village of the Damned was the only killer-children horror film that could or would have influenced Who Can Kill a Child?. From the classier Evil Children artifacts like Rosemary’s Baby & The Bad Seed to schlockier contemporaries like It’s Alive! & Kill Baby Kill, it’s remarkably rich thematic territory that’s been mined countless times before & since. Still, there’s something about the way the concept is handled in Village of the Damned that directly correlates to Who Can Kill a Child?, particularly in the two films’ opening acts. They both begin with the eerie quiet of a vacated city where the adults have been neutralized (in Who Can Kill a Child? because they were massacred, in Village of the Damned because they were gassed by alien invaders). Both films dwell on the mystery of those vacant rural-village settings for as long as possible before revealing that their central antagonists will be murderous children. Those children may have different respective supernatural abilities (the ones of Who Can Kill a Child? are unusually athletic & muscular while the toe-headed cherubs of Village of the Damned are hyper-inteligent), but they share a common penchant for telepathic communication that leaves their adult victims out of the loop. Most importantly, Village of the Damned concludes with its main protagonist (veteran stage actor George Sanders) making the “heroic” decision to kill a classroom full of children to save the planet, which touches on the exact thematic conflict referenced in its unlikely decedent’s title.

There are, of course, plenty of ways that Who Can Kill a Child? mutates & reconfigures the Village of the Damned template instead of merely copying it (lest it suffer the same fate as John Carpenter’s tepid 90s remake). Instead of the killer children being a set number of alien invaders in a small village, they’re instead a growing number of infectious revolutionaries who can recruit more tykes into their adult-massacring cause – making their eventual escape from their island home a global threat. Since the sensibilities of the horror genre in general has changed drastically between the two films – from teleplays to gore fests – Who Can Kill a Child? also translates the earlier film’s “The Birds except with Children” gimmick to more of a hyperviolent George Romero scenario. Surprisingly, though, the most pronounced difference between the two works is their respective relationships with the military. In Village of the Damned, the British military is a force for patriotic good against an invading space alien Other – who trigger post-War trauma over entire communities being gassed & destroyed. Who Can Kill a Child? is much, much tougher on military activity, framing its entire children’s-revenge-on-adults scenario as retribution for the way it’s always children who suffer most for adults’ war crimes. That makes this gory Spanish mutation of the buttoned-up British original the exact right kind of cinematic descendent – the kind that’s in active conversation with its predecessors instead of merely copying them.

Who Can Kill a Child? is less restrained than Village of the Damned in terms of its politics & its violence, but both films are on equal footing in terms of bone-deep chills—which speaks to the power of the teleplay-style writing & acting of 1960s British horror. Village of the Damned is nowhere near the flashiest nor the most audacious entry in the Evil Children subgenre, but it is an incredibly effective one that plays just as hauntingly today as it did a half century ago. It’s like being locked in a deep freezer for 77minutes of pure panic, so it makes sense that it’d have a wide-reaching influence on films that don’t either share its sense of restraint nor its politics.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Not of this Earth. Not Now, Not Ever.

One of my favorite recurring themes in Roger Corman’s career as a producer is his self-cannibalization. Never one to waste a dime, Corman would often pilfer his own back-catalog of hundreds of B-pictures to help the next cheap-o production across the finish line. Sets, footage, dialogue, premises, talent: nothing was sacred from Corman’s shrewdly frugal tactics of recycling his own work. If shooting wrapped early on a production in an interesting enough locale, an entire new film would be staged there over the course of a weekend. If a major Hollywood studio took direct influence from his work (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins), he would shrug it off by making his own mockbuster version of that big budget knockoff (Piranha, Carnosaur, Munchies). Of course, Corman also liked to borrow Hollywood’s own favorite form of self-cannibalization as well: the needless remake. There have been multiple television series over the years specifically created so that Roger Corman The Producer could pilfer Roger Corman The Director’s back-catalog for remake fodder, squeezing new money & new audiences out of old work. Usually, these remakes would be of minor throwaway titles that never made a splash to begin with, such as the 1990s Rebel Highway TV series that reimagined his 1950s road-to-ruin teen pictures with an updated soap opera sheen. Corman has been much more careful with his unimpeachable classics – especially in his reluctance to remake titles from his much-beloved Poe Cycle in fear of zapping them of their Vincent Price magic. That reluctance makes me wonder if Corman really knew how special his 1957 space-invasion cheapie Not of This Earth truly was, as it’s been inferiorly remade twice under the Corman production umbrella despite quietly premiering one of his best directorial works.

The original Not of This Earth falls squarely in the microbudget end of Corman’s career, one of the earliest sci-fi pictures in his gloriously imperfect oeuvre. At only 67 minutes in length, the film was sold as the bottom half of a 1957 double bill with Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, which has a far more enduring legacy thanks to its memorable creature design. The central villain of Not of This Earth has a killer hook as a bloodthirsty vampire from outer space, but everything about his design is squarely milquetoast – intentionally so. Dressed like a G-Man (or a Blues Brother) in a fedora & sunglasses business-suit combo, the space-vampire of Not of This Earth speaks in emotionless monotone. Robbing the traditional vampire myth of its sexuality, he drains his victims of their blood via a briefcase device instead of sucking their necks. The flashiest onscreen threat arrives in a brief sequence where the space-vamp deploys a flying umbrella-shaped alien face-sucker to dispose of a victim, the only bizarre-o creature effect on display. Everything else onscreen is a lowkey creepout that borders on ineffective kitsch: whiteout eye contacts, voiceover hypnotism, and a menacing briefcase lined with blood. What’s most impressive about Not of This Earth is how entertaining it still manages to be as a B-picture without relying on a rubber monster costume or prurient sexuality (not that those can’t be fun for their own sake). Corman’s better respected as a producer than a director in most circles, but it really is remarkable how much he was able to squeeze out of this limited budget & shooting schedule. Not of This Earth is little more than a thinly veiled Communist Invasion allegory (the space-vampire’s G-Man appearance & description as “some kind of foreigner” make that metaphor as blatant as possible) made to feel larger in scale thanks to sci-fi babble about alien planets & evaporated blood, yet it’s a solid B-picture through & through. If its not one of Corman’s best directorial efforts, it’s at least an early telegraph of the excellent work that was to come (especially X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).

It’s understandable, then, why fellow schlockteur Jim Wynorski might be tempted to repeat that early-career success while working under Corman’s tutelage in the 1980s. Wynorski himself is known for directing over a hundred films as cheaply & quickly as humanly possible, so it’s no surprise that he got his start under the Corman brand. Wynorski happened to watch a print of Not of This Earth while working for Corman, which delighted him enough to inspire a bet among friends: that he cold remake the same film on the same schedule & budget – two weeks and $100,000. He satisfied that bet admirably in that he did direct a Not of This Earth remake under the original’s same constraints, but by doing so he delivered a far inferior product. Wynorski was exactly the wrong man for the job. Something of a softcore pornographer, he robs Not of This Earth of its barebones, asexual alien invasion thrills by recreating the earlier film’s exact plot & dialogue but padding out its runtime with basic cable boobies-ogling. The 1988 Not of This Earth is the exact same film as the 1950s version except in color, bloated with unsexy softcore titilation, and sorely missing the flying umbrella monster. Whereas Corman’s film proudly worked within its means to entertain on a B-picture budget, Wynorski’s remake continually apologizes for its own blatant cheapness. Not only does it needlessly pad its runtime with Skinemax-level strip-teases, it also self-cannibalizes Corman’s back-catalog in the most egregious manner possible: showing a highlight reel of better-funded movies with amazing creature effects in its opening credits so that the audience is duped into expecting a much more substantial picture than what ultimately arrives. I’ve seen that kind of false advertising on posters & VHS covers before but doing it in the actual movie itself feels like some next-level hucksterism. The only truly brilliant decision Wynorski made was hiring Traci Lords for her first mainstream role after leaving porn to study method acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute. Unfortunately, Lords provides the film’s only entertaining performance and, since her presence made for good press, boosted the remake’s notoriety above the superior original’s – which is a total shame.

Shockingly, the made-for-Showtime remake of Not of This Earth wasn’t half-bad, at least by comparison. This time the decision to remake the film came from Corman himself. Desperate for titles to fill out the slate for the Showtime series Roger Corman Presents (a horror anthology comprised of standalone features), Corman decided to throw in a few remakes of his lesser-known works, careful not to tarnish the classics. Roger Corman Presents started filming in January of 1992 and wrapped production of 13 feature films by June of that same year, so there wasn’t much room for mind-blowing quality or ingenuity on the slate. Still, the series’ Not of This Earth remake at least indicates that it’s one of the better examples of its ilk – surpassing similar series like Rebel Highway, Masters of Horror, Fear Itself, etc. Director Terence H. Winkless (best known for the gross-out creature feature The Nest and the original Americanized run of The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) takes a much more interesting approach in his remake than Wynorski – keeping the dialogue overlap much looser in its exactness and padding out the runtime with practical monster effects instead of basic cable stripteases. I don’t know that 1992’s Not of This Earth is a great movie, at least not when compared to the original, but it at least leans into its strengths as an alien invasion cheapie. Winkless’s interpretation of the film is less akin to classic Corman than it is a dime store knockoff of Cronenberg or an even cheaper version of Brian Yuzna’s aesthetic. Pulsating alien brains throb & light up in coital moans; sensual tentacles creep through the walls to suck on victims’ necks; the lead space-vamp writhes orgasmically while masturbating his own intestinal protrusions. It’s a gross-out horror cheapie in just the right way. It may mistakenly believe that the only reason the Corman original didn’t rely on over-the-top creature designs & nightmarish sexuality was budgetary, but at least its hideous monsters and even more hideous sex are more compelling than Wynorski’s eyeroll-worthy attempts at nudie-cutie titillation. Neither remake was necessary or revelatory, but this one delivers the genre goods.

I hope I’m not coming off as a prude here in my suggestion that the Not of This Earth remakes ruined the original’s entertainment value by flooding it with sex & gore. I wouldn’t watch dirt-cheap genre films like this in the first place if I were averse to sex & gore. I just find it illustrative of Corman’s creative talents when working under the mania of a tight schedule & budget that he can deliver something so memorable without relying on that prurience & bloodlust for cheap thrills. Both of the Not of This Earth remakes feel compelled to include throwaway touchstones from the original that have nothing to do with the plot: a side-character alien vampire becoming infected with rabies, a door-to-door vacuum salesman victim (who was so obviously written for Dick Miller that anyone else in the role can’t help but disappoint), a rambling monologue within which the space-vamp pontificates the cure for cancer as a casual musing, etc. Those throwaway gags would not have been echoed in both remakes if Corman weren’t onto something and I felt like we too often undervalue that creative voice while praising him for funding & supporting “better” directors. The original Not of This Earth is an excellent example of Corman at his most efficient & compelling in the 1950 drive-in era, but it isn’t until you see how much less satisfying that film’s modern-update remakes became that you truly understand how special he is. Few schlockteurs on his budget level could make such an entertaining horror cheapie out of a mysterious G-man carrying a briefcase around an unsuspecting town; the two directors who followed in those exact footsteps in these remakes didn’t even try – instead relying on monster effects & naked breasts for cheap-thrills convenience.

-Brandon Ledet