Movie of the Month: London Road (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).

Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV. 

In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015. 

I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top SecretGod Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers. 

The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling. 

There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments. 

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich. 

I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community? 

Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.”  The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart.  I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense.  Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place.  Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds.  London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.

This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end.  Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes.  It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny.  Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do.  It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.

The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat.  There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech.  The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV.  What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee?  Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?

Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.

London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.

Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?

Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).

This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing.  He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead.  I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic.  A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth.  Smart.

Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”  

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Angst (1983)

I usually don’t have much patience for home invasion thrillers. By default, there’s always been a misanthropic, Conservative viewpoint to the genre, wherein upstanding, taxpaying citizens are terrorized on their own property by the unwashed riffraff outside. The home invasion template preys on fears that the desperately poor are only one broken window away from robbing, raping, and disheveling away your illusion of middle-class suburban safety – bringing you down to their grimy, subhuman level. It’s gross. I am starting to notice a variation on the genre that does work for me, though, something I discovered when I first watched The Strangers a couple summers ago. Home invasion films are scariest and most relatable when the villains aren’t desperately poor or morally deficient, but rather have no motivation at all beyond a shrug and a “Just because.”

The pinnacle of the no-motivation home invasion film arrived decades before The Strangers and thousands of miles away from the pristine American suburbs where the genre usually dwells. The 1983 Austrian curio Angst spends much of its runtime attempting to understand the psyche & motivations of its killer trespasser, only to reveal that there’s nothing there to understand. He kills just because. The opening scene is an action shot of him already indiscriminately stalking and murdering strangers merely because they happen to be home and nearby. He’s arrested and eventually released, then kills again, this time drawing out his cruel torture to a movie-length displeasure. The killer narrates the film himself, explaining at length that he’s committing these crimes simply because he likes to commit them. He finds them thrilling, entertaining. With some level of accompanying disgust, the audience likely does as well.

The most immediately impressive aspect of Angst is its overactive camerawork & ice-cold atmosphere. Body-mounted cameras and severe-angle crane shots rattle the audience so that we feel just as crazed as the killer who takes us on the uninvited home tours of well-to-do Austrian neighborhoods. It’s a cold, dizzying sensibility shared only by over-stylized Euro horrors like Possession, Climax, and Luz. Meanwhile a Big Black-style industrial drum machine underscores the brutality on display, so that everything is simultaneously framed beautifully but presented as viciously ugly. It’s an impressively upsetting mood, offering no reprieve from the suffocating psyche of its narrator – a nastily hollow man who kills because he wants to kill. There’s something about that total lack of motivation that efficiently chills my blood, maybe because it’s more reflective of real-life cruelty & violence than the class war callousness that usually commands this genre (usually with a much duller aesthetic palate as well).

It seems that one-time director Gerald Kargl was also fascinated by no-motive home invaders, or at least by real-life killer Werner Kniesek in particular. When a title card announces “This film is based on true events” a few already-bloody minutes into the runtime, it plays almost like a jump scare. We’re treated to a brief true-crime slideshow detailing the killer’s history after that announcement, searching for answers to what appears to be pointless, aimless cruelty. Maybe it was the childhood abuse that led Kniesek to kill. Maybe his trail of dead could have been shortened if the legal system hadn’t found his sadism itself an argument for innocence by reason of insanity. By the time we rejoin the killer doing his thing from house to house, neither of those questions really matter. As we hear Kniesek tell it in his own words, he’s just acting on pure, self-pleasing impulse with no real need, philosophy, or ambition to speak of. Terrifying.

-Brandon Ledet

Frenzy (1972)

Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.

The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.

All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

The House That Jack Built (2018)

I thought I had gotten confident enough in my distaste for Lars Von Trier’s audience & critics trolling that I no longer considered keeping up with his provocations du jour an obligatory exercise. During the entire hype & backlash cycle for Nymphomaniac, I largely abstained from engaging – neither reading reviews nor thinking about what he was trying to say with the film, much less actually watching all 325 (uncut) minutes of it. Honestly, it was freeing. However, von Trier’s follow-up to that massive, prurient temple of self-indulgence, The House that Jack Built, somehow lured me back into his orbit, like Wile E Coyote unable to walk away from the Road Runner even if it means repeatedly falling off the same cliff. There was a carnival sideshow aspect to The House that Jack Built that I was too weak to resist. Its initial reaction out of Cannes was polarized between mass, disgusted walkouts & glowing 5-star reviews. It was touted as both an inflammatory gore fest and the height of art film pretension – two modes of cinema I can’t help but love seeing smashed against each other. Even more enticingly, the film was being shown in select theaters in its “unrated” festival cut for one night only before making the theatrical rounds in a toned-down R-Rated edit (a move that really twisted the tighty-whities of the nerds at the MPAA), which only helped boost the attraction of its promised grindhouse sleaze. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of The House that Jack Built is that I didn’t have an especially strong reaction to its faults or merits, that I was neither especially tickled nor offended through most of its lengthy runtime. I had allowed the carnival barker promises of a highly divisive, hyperviolent art piece to lure me back into engaging with Von Trier’s edge-lord pranksterism, only to experience the one thing you never want to encounter at the movies: boredom.

I will credit The House That Jack Built for this: it does break the pattern that’s become so stubbornly, cruelly repetitious in the stories von Trier chooses to tell. The typical Lars von Trier film introduces the audience to a complex, lovable woman and then proceeds to torture her as harshly and unforgivingly as possible for the entire length of a feature. It was a tactic that worked on me in early-career titles like Breaking the Waves & Dancer in the Dark, but it has only become increasingly pointless as it’s repeated verbatim in each subsequent, cruelly grim work. The House that Jack Built disrupts this career-long pattern, but perhaps in the most boring way possible. It maintains the violent-destruction-of-women themes that are constant to his previous pictures, but this time switches the central POV to the man who’s destroying them, a serial killer played by Matt Dillon. Von Trier also deliberately strips his female characters of their depth & nuance, turning them into pathetic, braying dolts who practically beg to be murdered to save the world the trouble of their existence. Broken into five “incidents,” The House That Jack Built is practically an anthology horror; each victim is played broadly & without empathy so that there’s time to move onto the next. Matt Dillon punctuates each chapter with visual-collage art history lectures and psychiatric conversations with the poet Virgil (Bruno Ganz), contrasting the film’s dirt-cheap mid-2000s torture porn aesthetic with the literary grandeur of Dante’s Inferno. The kills themselves are gruesome, featuring unflinching depictions of mutilated women & children Dillon has claimed as trophies, but they’re also no more shocking than anything you’d see in an Eli Roth movie or a Saw sequel—flatly shot acts of pointless cruelty that are as boring now as they were when they were the Mainstream Horror standard a decade ago. Von Trier has devolved his torture of female characters to the most pedestrian, artless level of cinematic masturbation available. The annoying part is that he knows exactly what he’s doing; it’s all for a cheap joke.

Not only does von Trier change up his usual schtick by switching POVs to the man responsible for the women’s pain, he also chooses the most eyeroll-worthy subject possible for that new perspective: himself. In its best moments, The House That Jack Built functions like a buffoonish self-parody exaggerating how the director’s harshest critics see his work. The oversimplification & increased cruelty of his typical tones & methods are entirely the point – as he parodies media perception of his life’s work through the avatar of a serial killer who makes mediocre art out of violence. In a way, the mildly dopey Matt Dillon is perfectly cast in the role, recalling the empty-headed brutes of American Psycho & Killer Joe who think themselves superior to the mouth-breathers around them, but doesn’t actually have anything insightful, useful, or clever to say themselves. Dillon’s titular misogynist fancies himself to be the kind of hyper-intelligent serial killer sophisticate who turns mutilation & dismemberment into a fine art, like a 21st Century Hannibal Lector. He even autographs his evidence with the nom de plume “Mr. Sophistication” to taunt the police on his tail and compares the corpses he leaves behind to classic examples of paintings, piano compositions, and cathedral designs. He imagines himself to be a meticulous perfectionist in his violence/art, but is in fact a sloppy buffoon – more Paul Blart than Dexter. It’s initially a hilarious self-own, with von Trier expressing amazement that he keeps getting away with his woman-tormenting provocations despite the glowing flaws repeated throughout his work. The way Dillon’s ineptitude clashes with his illusions of grandeur and how he exploits MRA-type hurt-puppy tactics to weasel out of getting stopped from committing another crime (i.e. many making another movie) suggests a focused self-awareness of exactly how on Trier’s art is perceived by his harshest detractors. It’s a deliberate attack on his audience, then, when the cartoonish self-parody of the film’s earliest kills dissipates, and he begins to play the cruelty of the violence straight. After being shown how pointlessly cruel these empty provocations can be, it’s a lot to ask from the audience to sit through them again without the jokey remove. It’s also unforgivably boring in that straight-faced repetition, especially considering the extremity of the material.

There are some undeniably striking images & themes scattered throughout The House That Jack Built, but they’re overwhelmed by so much deliberately pedestrian genre filmmaking & self-trolling inside humor that it’s like searching for diamonds in dogshit. The way I can tell that the film doesn’t work as a whole in its own right is that it wouldn’t mean anything to someone who wasn’t already aware of Lars von Trier’s filmography & past PR debacles. Its horror genre payoffs are not extreme enough to justify the visceral reactions they elicited at Cannes or their banned by-by-the-MPAA outlaw status; anyone who survived the Hostel era of grimy torture porn grotesqueries has seen it all before, if not worse. The one time I was personally shocked & offended by this highfalutin troll job was in a Faces of Death-style sequence of real-life footage of dead bodies resulting from Nazi war atrocities. It’s not that I believe that thematic territory to be wholly off-limits (a very similar tactic worked for me with great impact in BlacKkKlansman earlier this year, for instance); it’s that it was evoked merely to poke fun at the blowback von Trier received for favorably comparing his artistry to Hitler’s at a press conference. It’s just so frustrating to sit through so much pitch-black misery for the sake of someone else’s self-amusement, especially when they demonstrate upfront that they know better. In The House that Jack Built’s earliest stretches, it feels as if von Tier is truly coming to terms with the follies of his own cruelty & pretensions; he appears willing to make a joke at his own expense, satirizing his worst impulses for cartoonishly broad humor. By the end of the film, however, he doubles down on being his own biggest fan, lashing out at his heretics with exaggerated, weaponized versions of his cruelest, most unlovable tactics. The House That Jack Built is only a self-critique for so long before it becomes a temple for von Trier’s own cinematic legacy; it’s a black hole of creative & receptive energy that only drags all of us further into the discussion of his art & his persona – whether or not we find him interesting to begin with. I’m embarrassed that I afforded him my attention here. I have spent too much of my life online to have been tricked into feeding this particular troll again. I should have known better.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you  might have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That’s especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. (The Silence of the Lambs was preceded by another Thomas Harris book about Hannibal Lecter, which was made into the film Manhunter.) The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill, and save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.” -from his 2001 review for his Great Movies series

There’s something about Jonathan Demme’s modern classic The Silence of the Lambs that lends itself well to those unsure about horror as a respectable film genre. I found the film endlessly rewatchable as a child (anytime I could sneak away with the family’s not-so-heavily guarded VHS, at least), despite it scaring me shitless. Academy voters in 1992 saw enough of a dramatic thriller in its bones to award it that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a distinction that’s become increasingly rare for genre films, especially horror. Folks who like to split hairs over categorization would likely not care to hear it described as a horror at all, despite that genre’s drastic overlap with thrillers and this particular film’s violent, disturbing serial killer plot. When Demme recently passed away, many critics’ obituaries made a point to emphasize how much of a humanist filmmaker he was, how much attention he paid to making every character in his films feel like a real human being worthy of the audience’s empathy. You can feel that empathy in a wide range of characters in The Silence of the Lambs, from the in-over-her-head FBI recruit protagonist to her deranged sophisticate cannibal collaborator to the vicious serial killer they hunt down together to his latest victim, a mostly average American teenager. It’d be tempting to attribute all of the film’s cultural respectability to that characters-first/genre-concerns-second ethos, but I think that’s only half the story. The same way that Demme elevated the concert film as a medium in Stop Making Sense, there are formalist qualities to the picture that somewhat successfully distract audiences from the fact that they’re watching a sleazy horror film in the first place.

Jodie Foster stars as a soon-to-be FBI agent who jumps rank just a tad to single-handedly identify, locate, and take down the most wanted serial killer in America. Her unlikely accomplice in this mission is an imprisoned cannibal ex-psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who hints that he knows the identity of the killer, an ex-patient, but will only drop clues for Foster’s character to discover him for herself. The clock is ticking to bring the investigation to a close, as the killer has recently kidnapped his latest victim, the daughter of a politician, and she only has a few days to live before he skins her body. This plot is just as well-known by by now as the names of the characters who populate it: Agent Sterling, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, etc. What’s lost in the remembrance of the murder mystery machinations, however, is just how much care goes into constructing each character, no matter how dangerous, as a recognizable human being. Hopkins plays Dr. Lecter as an ice cold intellectual creep who intentionally cultivates fear for ways he might act out, but still feels compelled to help Agent Sterling in her investigation out of some long-suppressed goodness in what’s left of his heart. Sterling herself commands much of the audience’s sympathies, of course, as she navigates the sexist skepticism of her colleagues in multiple branches of law enforcement who don’t take her seriously. Even the film’s horrific killer, Buffalo Bill, is explained to be a survivor of childhood abuse who’s confused by, but cannot control his own violent tendencies. Although it does so by including some dated psychobabble about trans women being “passive” by nature, the movie even distinguishes Bill’s obsession with wearing women’s skin and presenting female as something entirely separate from transgenderism, avoiding unnecessary transmisogynistic demonization. He’s a hurt, violent killer who the movie affords more sympathy than he probably deserves, considering the brutality of his crimes. It also affords Bill’s latest victim a moment or two of humanizing characterization on her own before she’s abducted, allowing her to be established as a real person and not just a nameless teen girl horror victim. It’s in Demme’s nature to give her that.

Demme’s avoidance of horror’s typical, inhuman sleaze isn’t entirely restricted to his sense of humanist characterization, though. You can feel it in the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or the costuming by Colleen Atwood, two industry mainstays who elevate the genre proceedings with a sense of class. What really classes up the joint, however, is the orchestral score by Howard Shore, who’s a lot more at home providing sweeping soundtracks for huge productions like The Lord of the Rings or The Aviator than he is conducting a horror film soundtrack. It shows in his choices here, too. Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs score can be effectively tense in moments when Jodie Foster’s protagonist is in immediate danger, but overall feels way too light & classy in its strings arrangements to match its subject. It’s as if Demme employed Shore specifically to make his film sound like an Oscar-worthy drama instead of a sleazy police procedural about a woman-skinning serial killer. One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.

All of the orchestral arrangements & cautiously humanist character work in the world can’t save this film from its horror genre tendencies, though. The morbid true crime fascination with the story of real life woman-skinner Ed Gein automatically drags the film down into a kind of lurid horror film sleaze. Buffalo Bill’s fictional lair where he recreates Grin’s crimes is a feat of of horror genre production design, complete with creepy exotic bugs (Death’s Head moths) & mannequins with blank expressions. In two separate scenes, one on an airplane and one outside Lector’s cell, Demme & Fujimoto (both vets of the Roger Corman film school) utilize a harshly contrasted blue & red lighting dynamic closely associated with the horror genre because of hallmarks like giallo & Creepshow. The film’s climax, in which he Buffalo Bill hunts Agent Sterling in the darkness of his own basement with the help of night vision goggles, is so iconic to the horror genre that it was aped in two releases just last year: Lights Out & Don’t Breathe. Demme even makes room for a cameo from legendary horror film producer Roger Corman (who gave the director his start on the women in prison exploitation pic Caged Heat) as the head of the FBI. Of course, the most obvious horror element of all is Anthony Hopkins’s over-the-top, but chilling performance as man-eater Hannibal Lector, whose visage in a straight jacket & muzzle is just as iconic in the horror villain pantheon as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s fedora & striped sweater. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs is a little too dramatic & not nearly cruel enough to be strictly considered an exploitative genre film, but I still smell horror’s sleazy stink all over its basic DNA. I also love the genre too much to have its only Best Picture Oscar taken away from it based on Demme’s empathy or Shore’s music alone.

It’s difficult to look back to The Silence of the Lambs for new insights this many years after its release, since it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. Even the film’s insular FBI politics, hyper-nerd experts, and onscreen text feel highly influential in the basic aesthetic of The X-Files, a show that had a huge influence on my pop media tastes as a young’n. I can look back to Demme’s film now for moments of Agent Sterling navigating shady sex politics that wouldn’t have meant much to me as a kid: suffering flirtations from superiors, attempting to remain stoic while prisoners harass her, boarding an elevator full of her towering meatheads of fellow recruits. That’s not really what surprised me on this revisit, though. Mostly, I was taken aback by how well the film masks it sleazy horror genre traits. It used to feel like such an anomaly to me that such a grotesque & terrifying film had won a major award usually reserved for heartfelt dramas about real life historical figures or the tragically disadvantaged. I fully understand how it got past the Oscars’ usual genre bias now. Not only does the film look and sound more like the films the Academy usually falls in love with, but Demme brings the same empathetically tragic, true to life drama to his characters that typifies Oscar winners. Whether they’re too young to be watching the film on a smuggled VHS or too old & stuffy to typically engage with its serial killer subject matter, the film has a way of easing audiences into a kind of horror film sleaze that’s usually reserved for exploitation genre hounds. It’s a horrific and often over-acted picture that shouldn’t feel nearly as prestigious or as classy as it does, but Demme somehow packaged The Silence of the Lambs as something enduringly endearing. More unlikely yet, I find it oddly comforting, like meeting up with an old friend in desperate need of intensive therapy.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: Goodfellas (1990)

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

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three star

I’m having a difficult time understanding exactly why I Am Not a Serial Killer works as well as it does. The movie doesn’t ever fully succeed at any of the various genres it touches: horror comedy, murder mystery, familial drama, creature feature. Its story is frustratingly thin for a plot that shows so much potential in its initial ideas. Big character moments & narrative payoffs feel strangely removed, as if there were entire scenes missing from the film (a possible result of being adapted from a more fleshed out novel). Yet, I left I Am Not a Serial Killer with a fairly positive feeling about it, which means I’m either a sucker for the genre territory it touches in its sprawling horror nerdery or that the movie was doing something charming & worthwhile in such a subtle way that I didn’t at all take notice of the mechanics.

I’m at the very least clear on what the movie’s biggest strength is. The lead performances from old-timer Christopher Lloyd and newcomer Max Records (who is competing fairly strongly with Royalty Hightower for best celebrity name I’ve heard in a while) pull a lot of the weight in terms of the film’s entertainment value. Records stars as a teenage recluse & mortician’s son who’s been diagnosed as having predictors for potential serial killer behavior: pyromania, animal cruelty, stalking. He’s never portrayed to be a bad kid, though, just one who’s oblivious to social cues, unable to see why, in some instances, you can’t just gut someone with food utensils when they’re bullying you at school. As the title indicates, our protagonist never does follow through on his brief flashes of murderous impulses. He instead uses his morbid fascination with the true crime profiles of serial killer “celebrities” like Jeffrey Dahmer & Ted Bundy to track & identify a mysterious killer that’s stalking his small town.

Although it eventually finds some unexpected supernatural territory, the murder mystery at the center of the film is never as interesting as Records’s performance. The way he responds to his sociopathy diagnosis with, “That’s kinda cool,” or confesses to a flirtatious girl at a Halloween party, “I was thinking about dressing up as my mother, but I was worried what my therapist would say,” makes for some great slacker humor in a heightened crisis that calls for a more engaged response. For his part, Christopher Lloyd is as charming as ever as a quietly creepy, but tenderly sweet doddering old fool who knows more than he initially lets on. If there’s anything special about I Am Not a Serial Killer lurking under its Buzzard-esque Gen-X shrug of a coming of age thriller, it’s somewhere in those two actors’ performances and the way they interact.

I can’t help but think that this movie might have worked better as a television show. The non-existent law enforcement, the handsoap-pink embalming fluid & practical effects surgery of its morgue setting, the Toby Froud creature design, and organ music soundtrack all feel like they would be more at home on a serialized horror comedy show like a Buffy or an iZombie. Even the mortician’s name, Mrs. Cleaver, feels written for television. There are enough books in this same series that the material could easily support its second life as a weekly TV series, but I’m not at all negative on the version of I Am Not a Serial Killer that we got here. Even if I’m not sure exactly how or why I was charmed by this low ambition genre jumble, I’m still glad to have seen the performances Lloyd & Records deliver within it. They just might’ve been better served if fleshed out to a season long arc of serialized television.

-Brandon Ledet

Rewind Moment: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

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Rewind Moments are those special scenes in films that deserve to revisited over & over again due to their overwhelming impact.

One of my all-time favorite documentaries is Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Aileen Wuornos is known as a psychotic serial killer who murdered several johns while prostituting in Florida from 1989-1990, a life detailed in the 2003 biopic Monster. Broomfield used this documentary to shed some light on Wuornos’ unfortunate upbringing while giving her the opportunity to speak and share her own story. After watching the film in its entirety, it’s difficult to not feel some sort of attachment to Wuornos. Her bulging eyes will haunt you for days.

There are so many “rewind moments” in this unforgettable documentary, but my favorite is the shot where she pretty much begs for her execution. She’s so terrifying and unstable in this moment, but at the end, I just want to give her a huge high-five for saying something so badass. I swear, if she’d ever been released from prison, John Waters would’ve picked her up in a heartbeat to star in one of his films. She has that special kind of charm.

-Britnee Lombas