Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

Mom and Dad (2018)

Over-the-top Nicolas Cage performances are often conversationally boiled down to a single moment of absurdist novelty. Entire movies are remembered solely as “the one where Nic Cage yells about the bees,” “the one where Nic Cage angrily recites the alphabet,” or “the one where Nic Cage stares at imaginary iguanas.” By that measurement, Mom and Dad will surely be remembered as “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s that exact kind of delirious lunacy trash-hungry audiences pray for in every Nic Cage cheapie, a novelty he stubbornly withholds in most of his direct-to-VOD dreck. Admittedly, though, the “Hokey Pokey” scene in Mom and Dad is only a brief diversion (in a movie composed almost entirely of brief diversions). He doesn’t even sing the entirety of the novelty dance song before he runs out of energy, just barking out a few lines in a single angry burst. The absurdist novelty of that moment cannot be undervalued, though; it truly is a wonder to behold. It’s also just one minor detail in a much larger, nastier tapestry of unexplainable violent outbursts. Mom and Dad thankfully amounts to much more than merely being “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s also a wickedly fun satire about modern families’ barely concealed hatred for their own, a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home.

Cage stars opposite Selma Blair as middle-aged parents struggling to find fulfillment within a traditionalist family unit. Light banter barely disguises parents’ & kids’ seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. This tension transforms into externalized violence when an unexplained supernatural event compels all parents of children everywhere to murder their own offspring in an epidemic of blind rage. Some of the widespread fallout of this event is captured in flashes of news coverage and in sequences of blood-splattered mayhem as parents swarm like zombie hoards to pick up their kids from schools & hospital nurseries. Mostly, though, the violence is contained to the suburban housing development where Cage & Blair’s rabid parents live. They chase their children around their home with various domestic objects, hellbent on murdering the ungrateful little brats while still doling out weaponized barbs of parental advice & commands. Meanwhile, memories & daydreams yank the audience outside the chaos of the moment to consider how the self-loathing midlife crises that preceded this bloodbath aren’t actually all that different from the violence itself. These relationships were never healthy, even when they were covered up with a smile instead of the buzz of an electric-powered jigsaw. This is an inversion of the dark humor we’re used to seeing in pictures like Cooties & The Children, where the kids are the otherworldly creatures to be feared. Here, parents are made to fear themselves, especially in regard to their unexamined jealousies & resentments toward their own offspring, who still have their glory years ahead of them instead of bitterly fading in the rearview on the road to selfless familial sacrifice.

Judging by the general negative reaction to last year’s similarly cartoonish home invasion horror comedy The Babysitter, I suspect many audiences will be frustrated by the frantic tone & editing rhythms of Mom and Dad. This is, paradoxically, a hyperactive movie with zero narrative momentum. Individual moments may indulge in the sugary energy of a breakfast cereal commercial and the whole thing is scored with a barrage of playful pop music, but its commitment to tangential asides & abrasive flashbacks often keeps its story static. Fully enjoying Mom and Dad, then, requires a forgiving appreciation of its pitch-black comedic nastiness, a wicked sense of humor where every parent is an untrustworthy monster and no child, neither newborn nor middle-aged, is safe from the malicious creatures who spawned them. I do think the movie plays it a little safe when it comes to explicitly depicting that child-endangering violence onscreen, especially in comparison to the recent cheap-o monster movie Clown. What it lacks in shock value brutality, however, it makes up for in a gruesome tone & worldview. The movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. To be honest, it’s a dynamic I find much more honest & relatable than the Family Above Everything messaging offered in feel-good-films like Coco. Even if you’ve never had a family member chase you down the hallway with a meat-tenderizer, Mom and Dad’s violent, deep-seated resentment is sure to resonate with you on some level (especially if you’re a middle-aged parent with ungrateful teens at home).

Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

A Dirty Shame (2004)

As loudly & proudly as I’ll proclaim John Waters the greatest filmmaker/artist/human being of all time now, he was even more important to me when I was an ornery high school student in the early 00s. I owe the entirety of my sense of humor, camp, and love of “bad” movies to teenage introductions to works like Pink Flamingos & Serial Mom, which shook me out of my nü metal shithead phase into something much sillier. That’s why it was a huge deal when Waters released a new film in theaters the summer after I graduated. A Dirty Shame was a return to form for Waters, whose previous two efforts, Pecker & Cecil B. Demented, were a little too mired in arts world self reflection & nü metal era creative doldrums to match the singular eccentricity of his earlier works. With A Dirty Shame, The Pope of Trash figured out how to re-energize his voice in a cinematic climate where once taboo, over-the-top gross-out comedies had become the norm, thanks to success stories like The Farrelly Brothers & the Jackass crew. He did so by returning to the sex-obsessed comedies of his youth and the suburban-invasion narratives of his mid-career mainstream successes like Hairspray & Polyester, crafting a kind of career-retrospective overview of his cinematic aesthetic. A Dirty Shame has only become more valuable over time for that redemptive act of career-spanning review & revitalization, if not only because it might very well be the last film Waters even directs.

Tracey Ullman stars as prudish Baltimore housewife Sylvia Stickles, whose calm suburban neighborhood, her daughter included, is seemingly being taken over by horned-up “sex addicts.” As more & more fetishists appear out of thin air and even the squirrels & shrubbery in her neighborhood begin to titter with teenage-level horniness, taunting her and other “neuters” with lewd acts, this phenomenon appears to be a supernatural event. It turns out to be more than supernatural; it’s divine. Johnny Knoxville soon appears as a Christ-like, miracle-performing figurehead with a devoted, DTF cult of apostles behind him, turning A Dirty Shame into a religious allegory so blatant & over-the-top it would make Aronofsky blush. Sylvia Stickles joins their ranks when she’s struck with a freak accident concussion that leads to a kind of religious epiphany . . . in her clitoris. Along with her fellow concussion-survivors/fetishists, she becomes a devotee to the Second Cumming as a self-identified “cunnilingus bottom,” waging war on the Neuters of her neighborhood & going on a religious pilgrimage to discover “a brand new sex act,” which is feared to be a myth. As the apostles barrel closer to the promised Resurrsexion, their horniness devolves from combative exhibitionism to zombie-level mayhem & sexual terror. Waters builds the cartoonishness of this societal meltdown to a point where it has to accommodate David Hasselhoff’s frozen feces, CGI squirrels headbutting each other in ecstasy, corpses rising from the dead, and a star-filled sky slathered in divine semen in its (literal) climax. It’s even sillier than it sounds.

Of course, like all John Waters films, A Dirty Shame survives more on the outrageous moments of individual flourishes than it does on strength of its plot. Outside a couple shots of flaccid dicks, the film does nothing especially vulgar to earn its NC-17 rating. In fact, it’s arguably a fairly tame entry into the modern sex comedy canon. It is irreverently aggressive in its sex positivity, though, stocking its legion of horned-up side characters with bears, sploshers, rimmers, adult babies, masturbation addicts, and a go-go dancing Selma Blair with Russ Meyer-proportioned CGI tits. Character names like Ursula Udders, Roddy the Rimmer, and Fat Fuck Frank mingle with intentionally shoddy CGI and intensely punny one-liners like “I’m Viagravated and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” to establish joke-a-second ZAZ rhythms that call back to the playful energy of Waters’s early, Dreamlanders era. The only real difference is that the film is more dedicated to silliness than shock value and outside of appearances from longtime collaborators Mink Stole & Patty Hearst, most of the traditional Waters crew has been replaced with the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, and Tracey Ullman (who’s essentially doing her best Amy Sedaris in the role). Waters even advances his visual aesthetic here, integrating a lyrical use of Ed Wood-esque B-movie ephemera to visualize the film’s horned-up concussion sequences and fully embracing the drive-in horror movie trappings those concussed transformations imply.

Waters has long been teasing the production of a queer-themed Christmas comedy titled Fruitcake. As the years roll on and his struggle to secure the full funding he desires for the project stagnates, it seems increasingly likely that A Dirty Shame will be his final feature as a director. Of course, I’d love to see Fruitcake completed & distributed to as wide of an audience as possible; every Waters film I’ve ever seen in the theater (I’m up to eight now!) always plays better with a crowd. I’ve come to peace with the likelihood that A Dirty Shame will be his final filmmaking triumph, however. It’s a fittingly enthusiastic swan song that encapsulates both the wildly idiosyncratic energy a young & angry Waters gifted the world and the mainstream raunch comedy aesthetic he inadvertently pioneered. At the very least, it saved him from concluding his catalog on the downbeat of his creative lowpoint, the two late 90s arts scene comedies that preceded it. A Dirty Shame brought Waters back to sex cinema as an elder statesman of Filth. We we’re lucky to have seen him shine in all his smutty glory one final time, even if his sense of shock value had become an unlikely kind of cultural norm.

-Brandon Ledet