Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

I wonder if anyone’s ever put together a definitive list of The Most Floridian Films of All Time.  If so, I’d like to nominate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar for inclusion in that canon.  While other recent Florida-as-Fuck movies like Magic Mike, The Beach Bum, and The Florida Project have understandably centered their stories on the beach state’s burnout locals, Barb and Star dares to explore its function as the nation’s largest tourist trap.  The hotel tiki bars, by-the-hour boat rentals, boardwalk souvenir shops, and Lisa Frank color palettes that overwhelm the screen are all hyperspecific to Floridian tourism.  The authenticity of that setting includes the characterization of the titular tourists as well: two clueless but sweet rubes from the Midwest with absurdly superficial notions of what a getaway vacation adventure should look like.  You could remake this entire film on a cruise ship without having to change many of its gags or locations, which is how you know it perfectly captures the tacky surrealism of the modern tourist industry.  This is the fantasy version of Florida presented in all-inclusive vacation package pamphlets, and it’s wonderfully bizarre to see actual human beings navigate those flamingo pink waters.

Of course, the main concern of this absurdist buddy comedy is neither to capture the spirit of Floridian tourism nor to drum up tension in its superfluous sci-fi espionage plot.  It’s simply trying to make you laugh, and it ably succeeds.  Kristen Wiig and frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo co-lead as Barb & Star, a pair of middle-age, Midwest besties whose co-dependent life together has hit a spiritual rut.  In search of a “soul douche” meant to rediscover their inner “shimmer”, the gals head off to the gift shop-lined beaches of Florida.  There, they learn to have fun without hanging onto each other 24/7, thanks to the help of a sexy himbo staying in the same hotel (Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan) and an exponentially out-of-place terrorist plot orchestrated by a James Bond villain (also played by Wiig).  It’s a delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore, where a pair of Good Buds bounce inane in-jokes off each other, unaware of the deadly-serious crisis that orbits around them.  I’m thinking of titles like Zoolander, A Night at the Roxbury, Dude Where’s My Car?, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Re-Union Like all those previous examples of its ilk, it’s destined to gradually build a cult audience, one that will likely outlast the cultural impact of Wiig & Mumolo’s previous, more commercially successful screenplay collaboration, Bridesmaids.

If I have one complaint about Barb and Star, it’s that it’s one song performance short of being a full-blown musical.  Why stop at two break-from-reality musical numbers?  A third one would have really rounded out the show, especially a grand musical blowout finale.  And no, Richard Cheese’s cameo as a boobies-obsessed lounge singer does not count.  Otherwise, it’s a perfect, traditional buddy comedy – one bolstered by its excessively Floridian set design, which strives to outdo The Birdcage‘s commitment to that pleasure realm aesthetic in every new locale.  This might even be the best vehicle yet for the normcore-parody comedic sensibilities Wiig honed on SNL, considering that most of her film work since that show has been focused on darkly funny indie dramas (give or take a MacGruber).  Any minor complaints about where it falls short in its musicality or narrative structure are entirely besides the point.  It’s simply fun.  Or, in the movie’s own words, it’s “a real tit-flapper”.

-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

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar.  No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic.  In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible.  There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration.  It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.

During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium:  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover.  I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines.  Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018.  It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly.  The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.

It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases.  Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all.  On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible.  That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly.  The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.

While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform.  The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate.  I enjoyed being ribbed like that.  I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style.  My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though.  This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt.  Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate.  It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.

My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”???  Seems like an oversight.

-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

The Humanoid (1986)

I really do try my best to not be a snob.  I pride myself in being able to evaluate films on their own terms, careful not to dismiss a work outright because of its genre or budget or level of prestige.  Still, I obviously have personal hang-ups & biases I’ll never be able to look past, and they do make me helplessly snobbish about certain movies from time to time.  One of these major hang-ups is my general distaste for computer-animated children’s films, including from widely beloved institutions like Pixar.  Outside of more adventurous experiments in form like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, the majority of CG animation looks like dogshit to me.  Even films that’re praised by industry experts for their exquisite, time-consuming animation of ocean waves or animal fur look lazy & uninspired to my biased eye, so I know this is a personal hang-up and not some objective truth.  Meanwhile, I’m easily wowed by traditional 2D animation even if the movie is objectively lazy & uninspired, as is the case with the straight-to-video sci-fi anime The Humanoid.

The Humanoid is a 45min relic I found collecting dust on YouTube, where all forgotten media goes to effectively disappear.  At first glance, it appears to be a backdoor pilot for a retro Saturday morning cartoon show, introducing the audience to a Alien-knockoff spaceship crew who travel from job to job, planet to planet, collecting paychecks by doing Good.  This particular mission feels fairly self-contained, as the crew meets the titular humanoid—an android named Antoinette—who’s learning to become more human while also protecting her home planet from colonizer corporate villains.  There are a couple stray laser fights & chase scenes peppered throughout the film, but most of the story concerns Antoinette’s struggles with human emotions & desires, as well as her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself to save the spaceship crew, so they can putter onto their next adventure.  The result is that the only compelling character in this would-be series pilot dies at the end of the “episode,” making it difficult to imagine the adventure continuing in future installments.  There’s also a decisive finality to this hilariously overwritten epilogue addressed to Antoinette, which also suggests this was always meant to be a standalone piece:

“Who can say a machine has no soul?  Aren’t humans machines too? Mechanisms of flesh and blood.  Across the endless light-years . . . life, mind, and spirit must flourish in a variety of forms.  And as long as there is life, there will be love.  Antoinette — I’m sure we’ll meet again, somewhere in the vastness of time.  Until then, I send my blessing.  Wherever you may be.”

If The Humanoid isn’t a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show, what is it exactly?  My best guess is that it’s a coffee commercial — not for any particular brand of coffee, mind you, just for the general, basic concept of Coffee.  There’s very little in the way of thrilling robo action in this film, but there are plenty of hilariously inane conversations about how great the coffee is on the planet-of-the-week.  Seriously, there are at least five lengthy discussions of its robust flavor & aroma.  The film’s opening narration includes the line “It’s only memories of Earth and the rich smell of this coffee that keeps my spirits up.”  It’s closing scene muses “Coffee? my salvation from my day-to-day drudgery”.  In-between, characters occasionally interject “This coffee tastes great!” just to keep the product at the top of the viewer’s mind.  It’s maddeningly inane, making you question whether the generic villains’ quest for a MacGuffin “energy source” on the planet will ultimately result in the discovery that there is no power source greater than the rich, bold pick-me-up you can find in a hot cup of joe.  And, as an advertisement, it totally works!  I desperately want a cup of coffee right now.

So, here we have an action-light sci-fi cheapie that’s supposed to be about an android’s quest for human emotion, but it is actually about how great coffee tastes.  The thing is, though, that it still looks great.  This might be straight-to-VHS fluff with a retro Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but its animation is intricately detailed & vibrantly imaginative, especially as it builds to its explosive, overwrought climax.  It’s hard to imagine any modern-day, computer-animated children’s media putting this much effort into its visual aesthetics, and this really is the bottom of the barrel in terms of passionate anime artistry.  I try my best not to be a grump about how modern media doesn’t stack up to my nostalgia-tinged memories of the types of media I happened to grow up with.  Comparing the look of low-effort 80s schlock like The Humanoid to today’s $200mil CG animation monstrosities is too depressing to ignore, though.  I genuinely feel like we’ve lost a basic attention to visual craft (or at least a collective sense of good taste) in animated media over the decades.  At this point, it’s only the memories of vintage cartoons and the rich smell of coffee that keep my spirits up.

-Brandon Ledet