Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

I saw the first Happy Death Day film at the historic Prytania Theatre in Uptown New Orleans, blocks away from the film’s shooting locations around the college campuses on St. Charles Ave. As a horror franchise, this series is a little too tongue-in-cheek to take especially seriously, but there was still something eerie about that geographic proximity. The Happy Death Day films have a killer hook in how they adapt the late-90s slasher model to the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure, generating a body count horror film where the exact same body can be stabbed to death dozens of times with little consequence, as our protagonist wakes up in the same time loop every time she’s taken out by her masked killer. For New Orleanians, the familiarity of the film’s scenery only adds to that cosmic terror, but in unexpected ways that extend beyond the oak trees & streetcars in the blurred background of the college campus setting. It’s the inspiration the film pulls from our most terrifying local sports mascot for its serial killer’s design that really makes this series a nightmare. As I noted in my review of the original film, the fictional school mascot mask the killer wears bears “a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) King Cake Baby mascot that appears at our local NBA games,” an observation I suspect was common among local horror nerds. The Blumhouse team behind that film’s recent sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, gleefully emphasizes that comparison in a scene set at a college basketball game, where characters note in the dialogue how strange it is that a sports team would have a baby for a mascot, and how creepy the baby costume is – almost as if the film were directly trolling The Pelicans for their seasonal King Cake Baby appearances. This was likely infuriating to Jonathan Bertuccelli, the designer of the King Cake Baby (who is currently suing Blumhouse for the killer’s resemblance to his ungodly creation), but it personally just made me appreciate the series more for ditching the pretense that the connection was a coincidence.

Unfortunately, if you’re watching this series solely to see the King Cake Baby live out his rightful destiny as a horror movie villain, the first Happy Death Day is much better suited to your needs. Happy Death Day 2U allows itself much less time for slayings & cheeky repetitions of late-90s slasher tropes, which means less screentime for the terrifying infant. To be honest I’m not even sure this sequel is enough of a horror movie in general for me to recommend it in that context. It frequently strays from the serial murder half of its premise to further explore the mechanics of its time loop conceit. Whereas the first Happy Death Day’s time loop crisis appears to be a cosmic morality tale about the serial-murdered protagonist’s selfishness, Happy Death Day 2U provides concrete sci-fi explanations as to how the time loop was initiated. Instead of being chased through scary hospitals & frat house hallways for the majority of the runtime, return protagonist Jessia Rothe spends most of the film in her college’s Quantum Mechanics lab with several hopeless nerds trying to figure out how to break out of her time-loop crisis for a second time. Her recurring slayings are explained to be the result of a proton laser machine on the fritz, which has blurred the borders of alternate timelines & dimensions – a very different sentiment than the Universe temporarily changing its own rules specifically to teach one mean sorority girl a lesson. There are still baby-mask murders interspersed throughout this newfound sci-fi paradigm, but for the most part this film feels more like an 80s college campus comedy than a high-concept late-90s slasher. The resetting timelines antics feel like they belong to a previously unadapted Back to the Future sequel screenplay. The flustered college dean who attempts to shut down the supernatural shenanigans of the Quantum Mechanics lab feels as if he were airdropped into the picture from a contemporary Animal House knockoff. There’s an All That-level broad caricature of a blind French woman that’s allowed an alarming amount of screentime in the film’s climactic shift from sci-fi campus comedy to heist thriller. The jokes in Happy Death Day 2U are broad, but they’re also conceptually ambitious enough to be surprising & rewarding. Most horror sequels stay fresh by upping the brutality of their gore; this one does so by dropping the horror pretense altogether and gleefully digging around in the genre grab-bag for a new toy every few minutes – mostly to the audience’s perplexed delight.

When considered in the abstract, divorced from its context as a local curio, Happy Death Day 2U is the best kind of horror sequel: the kind that offers an entirely different flavor & mouthfeel than its predecessor instead of just funneling in more of the same. Its delayed fascination with the mechanics of the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure is a well-timed participation in a larger, still-growing zeitgeist as well. Other recent media like Russian Doll & Edge of Tomorrow have found pop culture gazing back into the temporal abyss in similarly comedic fashion; Happy Death Day 2U only outdoes them by allowing its inherent silliness to go as broad as possible, really leaning into the unnecessarily complex narrative mechanics necessary to pull this kind of story off. A mean sorority girl bully being killed over & over again on her birthday until she becomes a better person, always resetting to the same starting point, is more or less a manageable conceit. This follow-up to that relatively straightforward Groundhog’s Day-as-a-slasher launchpad is ambitiously, irreverently convoluted by comparison – expanding into the realms of doppelgangers, alternate timelines, and quantum physics to push this newly refreshed subgenre to its conceptual extreme. It even makes things doubly hard on itself by returning to the square-one reset point of the first film, so that it has to maintain the same cast & production design continuity to make any sense for those of us attempting to follow along. Hilariously, the movie also takes on this increasingly convoluted endeavor without an upfront recap of what happened in the previous film, as if everyone in the world has already seen Happy Death Day (not to mention having seen it recently enough to remember all the details of its plot). When Rothe begrudgingly does provide a “Previously on . . .” recap roughly 15 minutes into the film, she rushes through it, annoyed at the obligation. Whether or not you’re enamored with the sci-fi campus comedy deviations Happy Death Day 2U takes from its initial horror template, you have to admire its confidence that its audience is following along with every non-sequitur indulgence as if it makes perfect logical sense (and, for the most part, it does).

Speaking selfishly, what I’d most like to see from a Happy Death Day 3 is a truce between the series’ baby-faced killer and the real-life King Cake Baby mascot. Bad-blood lawsuits between Blumhouse & the King Cake Baby’s designer aside, I think it would be incredibly satisfying to see the real deal make an official cameo in a sequel to the horror franchise that “allegedly” took inspiration from his look. That crossover synergy would even help the series’ scare factor, as there’s nothing quite as terrifying as the dead eyes & bulbous baby body of the real thing. The tonal direction of Happy Death Day 2U indicates the series isn’t especially interested in being scary at this point, but it also does convey a willingness to throw anything & everything at the screen as long as it’s good for a gag. The only x-factor there is how open to reconciliation Bertuccelli is feeling to a series he believes ripped him off; the staggering settlement he’s seeking in his lawsuit (“half the movie’s profits”) isn’t a good sign, but maybe there’s a better timeline out there where he & Blumhouse manage to work it out.

-Brandon Ledet

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Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast: Shyamalan Classics & Spring (2014)

Welcome to Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-seventh episode, Brandon & James dive deeper into M. Night Shyamalan canon to re-evaluate the divisive director’s early classics. Also, Brandon makes James watch the Lovecraftian sci-fi romance horror Spring (2014). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

–Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

On the Silver Globe (1988)

When Jazmin Moreno, the programmer for Austin Film Society Cinema’s “Lates” series (“the new cult film canon”) introduced the recent, sold-out screening of Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe), she said that, if you were so fortunate as to have seen the film before its 2016 restoration by original director of photography Andrzej Jaroszewicz, you likely only saw a heavily yellowed print and not in a complete translation. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve seen it translated now. Part of the reason for the perceived incomprehensibility of the piece is that it’s unfinished, but given what extant footage remains, I doubt that the film would have become a success even if the director had been permitted to finish it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1975, three years after leaving his native Poland in order to avoid censorship by the communist government, director Żuławski achieved financial and critical success in France helming L’important c’est d’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love). The Polish cultural affairs office opted to invite him to come home and work on films in his native language once again. After spending two years adapting Trylogia Księżycowa (The Lunar Trilogy), science fiction novels written in the first decade of the twentieth century by his own great uncle Jerzy, Żuławski began production, but the project was halted in early 1978 by the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, supposedly due to the film going over its budget, but in reality because the Polish government was uncomfortable with the film’s anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian themes. Although Wilhelmi died in a plane crash shortly thereafter, it was not until the collapse of the ugly communism of that era that the film could be released, and even then only 80% of it had been completed. As completing the film as originally envisioned was essentially impossible, Żuławski filmed contemporary (late eighties) Warsaw along with some nature footage, and he recorded voice over describing the events from the screenplay that were no longer possible to bring to life on film. This was completed in 1988, and the result was screened at Cannes.

Depending upon how you look at it, the story behind the scenes of On the Silver Globe is either an ugly parable about political interference, a warning about the potential pitfalls of overreaching ambition, or a ballad of ultimate, if pyrrhic, victory against the forces of totalitarianism. Depending upon your perspective, this is also the story that happens within the film, although your mileage may vary. When I walked out of the screening and made the same joke to my friends that I made in the introduction above–that I still wasn’t sure I had seen the translated film–I wasn’t kidding. I’m far removed from the production of On the Silver Globe by space, time, philosophy, language, and politics; I honestly can’t figure out how Wilhelmi could possibly have sifted through the material and found enough of a thread of cohesion to definitively determine that any of it was seditious or subversive. To be honest, I wasn’t even entertained. Mystified, yes. Confused, yes. Engaged, also yes. And I was taken on a journey to somewhere I had never dreamed of, and saw things I could not have imagined. That is something truly astounding and deserving of commemoration, even if nothing about it makes sense.

For some context (and a pretty effective demonstration of how little anyone really understands this text), the film’s Wikipedia page identifies it as an adaptation of only the first novel, from which the title is taken. The page about the novel series on which it is based states clearly that “the film adapts the whole trilogy.” Based on the synopses: the first novel is about the initial expedition to the moon to discern whether or not the dark side of the satellite has an atmosphere that could support life, and the colonization of said orb by these pioneers; the second novel is about the coming of another terrestrial visitor who is hailed as a messianic figure by the descendants of the first group and enlisted in their war against the hostile lifeforms which seek to conquer and enslave them, with mixed success; the third novel tells the story of two lunar astronauts on an expedition to the earth. It all seems straightforward enough, right? But while the first and second novels’ plots are definitely present in the film, the third… might be?

The film opens (after an introductory narration from Żuławski) with a man in dirty but ornamented cloaks, furs, and a headdress riding a horse across a snowy wilderness against a sonic backdrop of mournful woodwinds. He bursts into some kind of dilapidated performance hall, where two men in silver suits, presumably astronauts, discuss their situation: they are here among apparently primitive humans, perhaps indigenous, whom they fend off by dispensing speed pills. The younger of the two is criticized by his elder for his apparently having gone somewhat native, including having taken on the facial markings of these tribal humans and even taken their offer of a woman, who now “belongs” to him. The rider from the opening presents them with a piece of space debris, which they identify as ancient and are skeptical that it could have only just fallen from the sky as claimed, but they discover that it is full of “old style” data discs, which they take to a laboratory and view . . . .

From here we follow the story of the first expedition to an unidentified planet (not the moon as in the novel, owing to the advance of scientific knowledge between 1903 and 1977), where a craft of five explorers has crashed, leaving one dead, one critically injured, and three relatively unharmed. Tomasz, the critically injured astronaut, dies shortly after arrival and is mourned by his pregnant lover Marta (Iwona Bielska), the only woman present. Piotr (Jerzy Grałek) becomes the default leader of the group, and Jerzy (Jerzy Trela) uses their cameras to record a history of the expedition, presumably the same one that fell to the ground and is being viewed by the aforementioned astronaut duo. The small group makes their way to a seashore, where they settle in. Marta names her newborn son Tomasz after his father, and she notes that he is growing more quickly than children on earth do; within an undefined but explicitly short period of time, he appears to be six or seven, and the mostly mute Marta begins to paint both his face and hers in the same kinds of patterns as those seen on the primitives in the prologue. Another time jump, and Marta has had several more children, all Piotr’s, and between their rapid aging and maturity, an entire small community has appeared on the shore and, despite the frequent allusions to carrying on only the best things about earth and leaving the ugliness of it behind, this group is still plagued by petty jealousies and sexual violence.

Jerzy lives largely removed from this community and becomes the “Old Man,” a kind of supernatural figure to the fledgling society, possessing a rationality and memory of their former homeworld that is seen as arcaneand perhaps dangerousknowledge. After Piotr is killed by an unknown force, Marta convinces Jerzy to give her one last child; she dies in childbirth. Some time later, Jerzy returns to the seaside and is disgusted to find that these new humans have lapsed into mythologizing their origin almost immediately, characterizing a flash flood that the landing trio endured as a religious deluge and painting Marta as a goddess: “Fertile Marta begat thunder with the moon in heaven . . . She returned swept by the flood and begat fishes,” they say. Now attended by a hunchbacked “actor” and his own mad daughter, Jerzy finds the village under the rule of the “second” Tomasz (really the third, the grandson of the original astronaut who died after the crash), where ritual sacrifice and interpersonal violence are common, women are subjugated as breeding stock, and death has no meaning. Tomasz decides to lead his people across the sea to see what lies on the other side, only to return and tell Jerzy that they found a great city there, but that it was filled with an evil presence that will soon fly across the sea to take vengeance.

Thus ends the first third of the film, as Żuławski’s narration (which runs over apparently unedited footage of Polish shoppers descending an escalator) describes the ultimate fate of the scientific duo from the prologue: taken from the underground laboratory and town limb from limb. Seeing it all on the page like this, it almost seems comprehensible, even logical, doesn’t it? But this is just the narrative; the film itself is comprised almost entirely of philosophical monologues that are delivered in a series of screams and shrieks. An example: “Wait! Do you remember a man being born? The father endows him with the seeds of every possibility. Each man must cultivate it within himself. If it is vegetal, he will be a plant. If it is sensory, he will be an animal. If it is rational, his essence will become divine; finally, if it is intellectual, he will be an angel or the son of man.” Or: “Although we have thus attempted to get an austere view of this reality whose existence may depend on a decent life, on our work, our honor which permits us to express no more than what we ourselves have seen.” Or perhaps you’d prefer this one: “There is truth in anything I say if I am capable of expressing it. Freedom exists and resides in darkness, it turns away from the lust for darkness to lean towards the lust for light. It embraces the light with its everlasting will. And darkness strives to capture the light of freedom but it cannot do that because it is centered on its own lust and turns to darkness again.” And the whole time, you as an audience member are thinking to yourself, “Is this what the Polish government was afraid of? This circular and defeatist rhetoric that makes little to no sense?” Every single line is delivered with the same intensity, which becomes exhausting, and the only time you get a break is when someone gets upset and runs into the ocean, which happens with great frequency. People are forever trying to run from their problems into the ocean, getting to waist depth, and then delivering another monologue.

From there, we take another leap forward in time to the arrival of Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), another earthman. His ship is met by an envoy from the settlement and he is borne back to them on a kind of parade float, drifting through sylvan, pastoral vistas before being met by a group of acolytes bearing massive banners and ornamented headdresses. Like everything else in this film, it is visually stunning. When he arrives at the seaside, he finds that they have grown into a veritable (if tiny) nation, complete with an underground civilization (give or take the “civil”). Believing Marek to be the prophesied savior who will lead them to victory over the Sherns, the flightless telepathic bird people Tomasz’s envoy discovered across the water and who, it can be assumed, were the ones responsible for the attack that killed Piotr. In addition to carrying out attacks on the human colonists, they have been experimenting on humans and attempting to create hybrids by raping captured women. Marek is given a woman (Krystyna Janda) to be his consort, and he commits to his role without much hesitation, first defeating a captured Shern in a telepathic battle before leading an assault on their city, which ends poorly. He returns to find that the settlement’s inhabitants have lost their faith in him, executing those who are true believers and ultimately crucifying Marek. Literally.

Again, an out-and-out summary isn’t an accurate way to convey anything about this film, but I felt obligated to share one here, if for no other reason than the fact that I haven’t been able to find a coherent one anywhere on the internet, and even claiming that this one is authoritative would be inaccurate. Some of the elements that I couldn’t parse in my viewing only made sense when taken in conjunction with others’ readings, and in some of them there are inaccuracies that I can identify, meaning that none of us has a true idea what is happening here. Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney helped to clarify that much of what I perceived as unexplained warfare is in fact mass ritualistic battle, but he didn’t follow the narrative throughline “explaining” (ha!) that Marta’s first child was Tomasz’s, followed by an unknown number fathered by Piotr, and bookended by the birth of Jerzy’s child. John Coulthart’s review makes explicit that Marek defeated a Shern telepathically, which I mentioned in my summary above; at the same time, his reading of the text is that the discovery of Jerzy’s footage is what prompts Marek’s expedition, which (a) makes perfect sense but (b) I’m not sure is accurate. Given that the third novel’s narrative was about a reciprocal recon mission back to Old Earth, I think that the scenes with the two astronauts living among primitives and viewing Jerzy’s footage might have been the intended adaptation of this plotline, meaning that what we are seeing are Marta’s descendants returning to the homeworld and finding that mankind has descended into the same kind of barbarism as the tribe of Tomasz. My interpretation here is supported by the earthlike portraiture high in the eaves of the baroque performance hall in which this scene takes place, but Coulthart’s interpretation is supported by the fact that it makes more narrative sense (then again, cohesion was never this film’s intent). Only after reading Scout Tafoya’s review for RogerEbert.com did I understand the secondary narrative intercut with Marek’s story, about another scientist who is Marek’s friend; apparently, he and Marek’s girlfriend were having an affair and sent Marek off to investigate the previous expedition so that they could continue to see each other, and their incomprehensible dialogue is about their attempts to justify the fact that they sent him off to his likely death for their own selfishness. By the time that these scenes are happening, the viewer’s senses have been so thoroughly assaulted that finding meaning in the threads of this apparent chaos is an exercise in futility.

So much of this probably sounds like a complaint, and while that’s not not what’s happening here, that ignores the fact that this movie is stunning. At the intersection of ambition, melancholy, madness, and capital-A Art, there lies the Silver Globe. Sure, the dialogue vacillates between philosophical broadness and situational specificity that it induces whiplash as it bounces from meaningless to incomprehensible and back again, but the words spoken on screen are like the plot: simply background dressing. This is a film that is about the image, and spends all of its run time barreling forward (and backward, and side to side) with a frenetic energy that is never anything other than utterly captivating, disoriented but grounded, and very much alive. If by some miracle this film finds its way to you and you get the chance to experience it, don’t be put off by its 160 minute run time or the fact that you’ll be unable to wrap your head around it after one viewing (and after one viewing, you may never want to experience it again, and that’s fine), and just go and have the experience. Failing that, you could also just watch the trailer that AFS cut together for it 107 times to get an idea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Replicas (2019)

Often, when we have fun watching “bad movies” for sport, we’re indulging in the over-the-top camp & below-par craft of outsider art: finding amusement in the handmade, weirdly delivered oddities that could never make it to the screen in more professional, homogenized studio pictures. The latest Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie (in a tradition that includes such esteemed titles as Chain Reaction & Johnny Mnemonic) is an entirely different, more rarified kind of “bad movie” pleasure. Replicas is less of an over-the-top, straight-from-the-id slice of schlocky outsider art than it is a confounding puzzle, the kind of “bad movie” that inspired the idiom “How did this get made?” There are a few laughs to be had at Replicas’s expense, but not as many as you may hope for from a dirt-cheap sci-fi picture dumped into an early-January theatrical release (when it obviously deserved the direct-to-VOD treatment). Chuckling at its robotic line-deliveries & Lawnmower Man-level CGI can only carry you so far in a movie that’s too somberly paced to fully support the MST3k-riffing treatment. Replicas does not amount to much as a laugh-a-minute camp fest, but it does excel as a puzzling piece of screenwriting, a bizarre act of storytelling so emotionless & illogical that there’s no recognizable humanity to it at all, as if its conception itself was a work of science fiction.

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist & a family man, toiling away in a Puerto Rican lab on a research project meant to transfer human consciousness to A.I. machines. His closest collaborator, a perpetually nervous Thomas Middleditch, is simultaneously working on a seemingly unrelated project involving human cloning. When a freak car accident kills his wife & children, Reeves makes a panicked decision to combine the two projects, creating clones of his deceased family and importing the “neurological data” from their former selves, so it’s as if they never died. To its credit, Replicas almost establishes a genuinely unnerving source of tension there – finding chilling moments of unease as the dead family’s “living” replicas occasionally half-remember the crash that killed them as if it were a dream they once had. The movie isn’t especially interested in building on that theme, however, as it instead chases a go-nowhere conspiracy thriller storyline involving the company that paid for the cloning & A.I. research. Even that narrative thread is illogically patterned, however, delivering none of the usual payoffs you’d expect from its genre. Replicas ultimately feels as if it were written by a malfunctioning algorithm that became self-aware midway into the process and decided to self-destruct rather than construct a third act. Its various narrative threads & motions towards thematic reasoning are ultimately an act of total chaos, a meaningless collection of 1’s & 0’s. It’s oddly fascinating to behold as it devolves into formless nonsense, like listening to an A.I. machine babble as it loses power & effectively dies.

Keanu Reeves does deliver some traditionally funny “bad movie” line-readings throughout, recalling his befuddled family-man schtick in Knock Knock. His attempts to imbue pathos into lines like “I didn’t defy every natural law there is just to lose you again,” & “Boot the mapping sequence, Ed!” hit the perfect note of failed sincerity & meaningless one-liner script punch-ups. His wife (Alice Eve) sinks even further into inhuman “bad movie” performance than he does – speaking in a dazed, dubbed, robotic cadence about the difference between “neuro chemistry” vs. the human soul as if she were calling in a lunch order. Still, these moments of absurdly mishandled drama are too far spaced-out to recommend Replicas as a laugh-a-minute camp fest. The movie is much more enjoyable for the value of its bizarre construction as a piece of writing. Its mystery thriller tangents, loose Frankenstein-style themes of playing god, and desperate scramble to reach a coherent conclusion all clash spectacularly as its hopes for a clear, linear storyline fall to pieces before our eyes. Most so-bad-it’s-good cinematic pleasures are enjoyable because they offer a glimpse of humanity that shines through the usual machinery of professional filmmaking – whether in a poorly made costume, a wildly miscalculated performance, an unintentional expression of a creator’s id, or what have you. Replicas is a different kind of “bad movie” delight; it’s fascinating because it seems to display no discernible humanity at all, as if it were written by a machine on the fritz. Its only value is that it can be taught as an example of what not to do in a screenwriting class, or enjoyed for its puzzling questions of how & why it was made in the first place by the lucky few who mistakenly find themselves gazing at its confounding, cheap CG splendor.

-Brandon Ledet

Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Black Anthill

When I first reviewed Phase IV (1974) for this site in our earliest months of film-blogging, I approached it as a surprisingly solid 4-star effort that I expected to be much schlockier in its payoffs, given its place in the larger genre of killer-ants cinema. Upon revisiting the film to track its influence on our current Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Beyond the Black Rainbow, that 4-star rating reads like an insult. My engagement with Phase IV as transcendent schlock that impresses only as a subversion of genre expectations was one intensely colored by its context as an early Mystery Science 3000 victim and a participant in an often-campy killer-ants cinema tradition. Seeing the film through Cosmatos’s eyes, which often blend camp & transcendent art aesthetics until the two tones are indistinguishable, has only elevated Phase IV in my esteem. I’ve learned to disregard its alignment with genre tradition, to engage with it as a one-of-a-kind object. I now see Phase IV for what it is: one of the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, no caveats.

A significant part of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s lore involves Panos Cosmatos’s childhood trips to a video rental store in the 1980s, a holy ground named Video Addict. There he would browse the cover art images of horror movies he was too young to rent and imagine what those movies were like based on that advertising alone. His stated goal for Beyond the Black Rainbow was to create “an imaging of an old film that does not exist,” which effectively captures the film’s unique balance between nostalgic pastiche & genuinely eerie, otherworldly menace. Of course, Cosmatos has seen a movie or two since he was too young to rent those Video Addict cassettes without parental supervision, so there are plenty of actually-realized titles he also cites as a direct influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow, along with the nonexistent ones he imagined as a child: Dark Star, Manhunter, Phase IV, The Keep. Phase IV is the most illuminating citation listed among those titles, as it adds a new wrinkle to those Video Addict daydreams; there were existing old films that approximated Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general eerie psychedelia aesthetic in an era when that would have been current, not nostalgic. They were just commercial flops hardly anyone saw in their initial run.

Phase IV’s influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow’s psychedelic parascience is immediately apparent in its animated outer space intro, which feels like it could have been pulled from an infomercial for the fictional Arboria Institute. While an information dump of opening narration explains how a mysterious signal from outer space triggered an evolution & militarization of ants on Earth to usurp mankind’s place on the food chain, legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s psychedelic visuals wash the screen in intense, saturated hues. Eventually that narration gives way to a lengthy, dialogue-free stretch of eerie, up-close nature footage of ants communicating & organizing in artificial environments to a snythy horror score. It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist “looks into the Eye of God.” It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind, a much more fully-committed exercise in this spiritual psychedelia than the prankish slasher-throwback ending of Cosmatos’s film.

There are more narratively-based parallels between these two works that reach beyond their aesthetics’ similarities, despite Cosmatos’s work having nothing to do with killer ants. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Phase IV is mostly staged at a remote science research facility where a small cast, including a captive young woman, are disconnected from the world at large as they approach the precipice of the next stage of human evolution. Phase IV also concludes with its head researcher in a rambling, decrepit state, recalling the physical & mental degradation of Dr. Arboria in the latter half of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Still, discussing either film in terms of plot details feels entirely beside the point. These are works that largely tell their stories through the art of editing, evoking subliminal responses in their imagery more than guiding audiences through a traditional A-B narrative. Phase IV’s influence on Cosmatos’s work is most potent in its long, silent stretches where the screen is washed with color (whether the sickly yellow of pesticides or the rich reds of outer space) or filtered through the kaleidoscopic vision of the ants’ POV, repurposed from dorm poster psychedelia for a new, genuinely unnerving effect. Their narrative parallels are mostly just lagniappe.

Interestingly enough, Cosmatos’s mission of evoking “an imagining of an old film that does not exist” in Beyond the Black Rainbow is not at all at odds with its more concrete citation of Phase IV as a direct influence, when that film (as far as I can tell) actually does exist. The most Beyond the Black Rainbow reminiscent-footage from Saul Bass’s film is its “lost” alternate ending, cut by the studio before Phase IV’s release against the director’s wishes. In a four-minute montage recalling the vibrantly edited imagery of Bass’s credits-sequence design work for legendary directors like Hitchcock, the “lost” ending of Phase IV depicts the next evolution of man triggered by the ants in a dialogue-free swirl of stoney baloney imagery that matches, if not surpasses, anything depicted within the Arboria Institute in pure psychedelic potency. As Beyond the Black Rainbow was released two full years before this recovered final montage of Phase IV finally screened for the public in 2012, Cosmatos’s general estimation of those “lost” minutes’ effect & aesthetic in Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as much of an extension of his effort to imagine an old film that does not exist (at least in the public eye), as it is further proof that he & Bass were on a spiritually paralleled vibe when they made these two narratively dissonant sci-fi thrillers.

Saul Bass & Panos Cosmatos’s parallels as kindred spirits have negative connotations as well as positive ones. Phase IV was Bass’s sole feature film as a director (despite this clout as an Academy Award-Wining filmmaker for his graphic design work). It was met with middling reviews, disastrous box office, studio meddling that mutilated its ending, and eventually ironic MST3k mockery. Even now, five years after its “lost” ending was screened for select audiences, no restorative Director’s Cut of the film has been released on home video with that ending intact (or even included as a Special Feature), so that the only place to watch it is in shoddy camcorder footage on YouTube from those initial screenings. Despite the transcendent achievements of his own debut, Cosmatos has also suffered a slow road to respectability, taking a full 8-year gestation period to realize his follow-up, this year’s (more widely-seen & revered) Mandy. Cosmatos has largely survived early dismissals of his work as empty, self-indulgent nostalgia bait, but his struggle to follow up Beyond the Black Rainbow with a sophomore effort does recall Saul Bass’s own struggles to get another feature off the ground in Phase IV’s wake.

These are two visionary weirdo auteurs who invite off-hand dismissal of their sensory-suffocating art, despite delivering some of the most distinct films ever made. Even in Saul Bass’s case, I feel guilty for not taking his work seriously enough on its own terms beyond the context of my genre biases until a years-later second look. These are singular achievements that only feel familiar in their initial impact, as if we’re imaging similarities to old films that do not exist.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet