The Last Slumber Party (1988)

One of the most surprising twists of the extremely twisty documentary Shirkers was how much of its narrative involved our home city, New Orleans. For a movie with a main conflict centered in early-90s Singapore, an alarming amount of its third act was filmed around the corner from my house just a couple years ago. This tangent of local tourism was inspired by the dastardly villain of Shirkers, Georges Cardona, having once resided here as a hostile indie cinema saboteur, the same role he would later play in Singapore. However, instead of stealing & hoarding the entirety of a D.I.Y. film production the way he would later leave his mark on Shirkers, Cardona just “lost” a small portion of the feature film he made with buddies in New Orleans. Forming a local film collective called Light House Media Center with his indie cinema peers, Cardona volunteered as the crew’s cinematographer on their “graduate” project: a feature titled The Last Slumber Party. There’s no full-length documentary on The Last Slumber Party’s troubled production like there is for Shirkers, for a couple reasons: Cardona merely sabotaged a small portion of the film’s negative, so, unlike Shirkers, it was still able to be released as a “finished” product. Also unlike with Shirkers, The Last Slumber Party is so uninspired as a microbudget genre picture that it holds practically zero cultural significance. That is, unless (like me) you live in New Orleans and have an embarrassing fondness for dirt-cheap regional slashers.

There aren’t many documentarian glimpses of late-80s New Orleans to be found in The Last Slumber Party. Besides one scene shot in a high school class room, one in a hospital, and one at a nighttime bus stop, most of the film is contained in a single suburban home in Metairie, just west of the city. The house is very Metairie once you get a sense of its aesthetic (i.e. it has no aesthetic) and the lead Final Girl wears an oversized LSU jersey as a nightgown throughout the picture, but otherwise there isn’t much that distinguishes the film as South East Louisiana regional cinema. Mostly, The Last Slumber Party is a sub-Slumber Party Massacre (and maybe even sub-Sorority House Massacre) shot-on-video slasher cheapie that faithfully follows the tropes & structure of its sleepover-massacre genre without a hint of satire. Three high school hotties invite boys & booze into their unchaperoned slumber party, only to have the festivities ruined by a crazed serial killer. Sound at all familiar? In this case, the escaped mental patient/masked murderer is dressed in a surgeon’s costume and played by the film’s director, Stephen Tyler, who you can see interviewed at length in Shirkers about his time as a friend & collaborator of Georges Cardona’s. The film’s one special effect is a prop scalpel he brandishes that squirts blood as he draws it across his victims’ necks, giving the appearance of slit throats (more or less). It’s a very gentle way of murdering young, promiscuous teens, which is actually fairly indicative of the gentle hand the film takes with its by-the-numbers genre beats in general.

The escaped convict vs. wayward teens slasher is spiritually grotesque, exploitative genre territory when it’s played straight (see: Slumber Party Massacre III), which makes it so weird that The Last Slumber Party feels so thoroughly wholesome. Its blood-squirting scalpel rig is about as tame of a source of gore as you can imagine. When teens make-out or shower, the camera shies away from exploiting the opportunity for nudity. The entire production, right down to Tyler’s crazed wide-eyed stare as the killer, feels like friends throwing a party & filming their goof-arounds, as opposed to terrorizing or arousing the audience with flesh & blood. It’s like the suburban Metairie Bro equivalent of a Matt Farley picture in that way – oddly charming in its disinterest in indulging in the nastier impulses of its genre. Also like with Matt Farley, this film’s most entertaining moments are to be found in its overwritten, underperformed dialogue. Who needs tits & gore when you can hear non-professionals deliver lines like “I’m going to the kitchen to munch out,” “What’s this? Stereo telephones?” and “Let’s go rustle up some menfolk!”? The surgeon-mask killer may be oddly wholesome in his de-sexed, goreless murders of both girls & boys, but the weirdly penned dialogue often echoes the seething anger of Sleepaway Camp, The Pit, and other weirdly hostile oddities. Teen lovers combatively refer to each other as “Whore,” “Asshole,” “Stupid Bitch,” and “Queer Bait,” as pet names. They bray “I’m not taking any more of this shit” at top volume into empty rooms. There isn’t an ounce of genuine humanity in that behavior and the “actors” seem to know exactly how silly they’re coming across. The Last Slumber Party is essentially a game of slasher movie dress-up.

If you want a fun, over-the-top slasher with cartoonish characters dancing to early MTV jams, having horned-up pillow fights, and being torn apart in outrageous spectacles of practical effects gore, watch Slumber Party Massacre II. The pleasures of The Last Slumber Party are more muted. Its friends-putting-on-a-show hangout vibe is adorably dorky. It dialogue is absurdly awkward. The logic & length of its final twenty minutes pushes past excruciating dullness to reach something that can only be described as sublimely stupid. Most importantly, it never stops being weird throughout that someone as menacing & bizarre as Georges Cardona was involved with something so innocuous, so wholesome, and frankly, so complete. Every time the camera pans in an interesting way or frames a character in a window or mirror, you’re reminded of the bizarro presence of cinematographer Georges Cardona, who would soon move on to derail the lives of three teen girls in Singapore while his fellow Lighthouse Media “graduates” got jobs on the crew of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The Last Slumber Party is worth a look as Shirkers supplementary material and as a local relic, but I doubt it has much value outside those contexts. Now excuse me while I go to the kitchen to munch out.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Films of 2018

1. The Wild Boys As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, this gem lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar. More importantly, though, Wild Boys is thoroughly, defiantly genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented via the tones & tools of the ancient past. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. Double Lover Not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller, but rather a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety. It’s a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant prurience as a means of crawling under our skin and rotting us from the inside.

3. Mandy So sinisterly beautiful & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

4. Dirty Computer A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of her newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

5. Sorry to Bother You – Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. I can see how this movie’s third-act rug-pull could make a lot of people wince at it for going too far over-the-top, but that’s exactly when it went from good to great for me. The fact that it’s never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands is what endears it to me as one of the year’s clear stand-outs; more films cold benefit from being this wild & unrestrained, subtlety be damned.

6. Paddington 2 There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson, but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

7. Annihilation It’s a shame more people didn’t take a chance on this Alex Garland sci-fi stunner when it was on the big screen. On one level, it’s just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a Tumblr-ready pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, though, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Haunting stuff.

8. Upgrade The very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of automated future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle, much less stage a gory revenge mission against an effete Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can just as easily be read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes this sci-fi action gem so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

9. Cam Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, this movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of its subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory.

10. You Were Never Really Here Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. In crime thriller terms, this resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester.

11. BlacKkKlansman As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern world remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize that against us.

12. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container but do find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

13. Flames A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but it’s also deeply fucked up.

14. Shirkers This documentary figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of a D.I.Y. art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. I was pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging D.I.Y. artist; director Sandi Tan got through to me via the merits of her brutal self-honesty & her authentic zine culture aesthetic. More superficially, she also got through to me with her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans.

15. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Reductively speaking, it also excels as an anxiety Litmus test. You can either read its plot as a relatively low-stakes depiction of an adorable teen girl’s final week of middle school or as a horrifyingly relatable depiction of an anxious mess puzzling her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over. I was personally watching it through my fingers as if it were a jump scare-heavy slasher.

16. Vox Lux – Brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. A distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western pop culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, shamelessly unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

17. The Favourite No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Yorgos Lanthimos on his best behavior. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced mockery of “civility,” whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. Still, the jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

18. Beast Partly a murder mystery concerning missing young girls in an isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make it feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake, like a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts).

19. Good Manners On a horror movie spectrum, this is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on centuries-old genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

20. Hereditary Requires a little patience in allowing it to establish its peculiar version of atmospheric dread, but once the nightmare imagery & themes of familial resentment start piling up it more than makes up for the unease of that early stretch. Where it overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s-throwback horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase since Muriel’s Wedding (give or take a season of United States of Tara). You can’t overvalue a novelty like that.

-Brandon Ledet

Shirkers (2018)

Swampflix is a money-losing labor of love. Everyone who contributes to this blog is a non-professional, untrained cinephile who just happens to have enough passionate opinions about movies to need the creative outlet. If our collective had formed a couple decades earlier, Swampflix almost certainly would have been a zine instead of a blog – an assumed truth I try my best to reflect in the site’s general DIY aesthetic & our participation in zine culture events like NOCAZ & The American Library Association Zine Pavilion. The 2018 documentary Shirkers is as accurate of a summation of that same zine culture aesthetic as any I’ve seen, both in its subject and in its editing methods. Novelist Sandi Tan begins the film recalling her teenage days as a pop culture gatekeeping zinester in early-90s Singapore. She translates the photocopier collages of her early zine collaborations with friends into a vibrant, volatile cinematic expression that affords the doc a distinct, yet familiar visual language. It’s a visual ethos that perfectly matches the subject it serves, as Shirkers is about the ultimate DIY art project time-suck, the most tragic of youthful collaborations lost to dissociation with the means of production. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a zine with your friends all summer only for the pages to blow away in a single gust of wind on your way to the photocopier, never to be recovered. It’s a pain in artistic loss that hit home for me in ways I did not expect, as I identified with its teen-girls-in-Singapore subject far more closely than I could have assumed I would, since we’re all DIY zine-makers at heart.

In the summer of 1992, Tan and her fellow brat-punk friends set out to make Singapore’s first entry in the era’s indie cinema boom – an aesthetic typified by then up-and-comers like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Jarmusch. A DIY art project that translated their zinester tastemaker sensibilities to highly stylized, low-budget cinema, the original form of Shirkers was meant to defy Singapore’s cultural conservatism with some good ole 1990s who-cares slackerism. It was a 16mm “road trip movie in a country you can drive across in 40 minutes,” a film more concerned about documenting counterculture personality & local atmosphere than telling a coherent story. With the help of a shady older man “of unplaceable age & origin,” the young women miraculously completed principle photography on the shoot, having all the raw materials necessary to complete a feature film. Then the creep who “helped” them disappeared with the footage, with no one else who had worked on the film having seen a single frame. Tan eventually recovered the footage form Shirkers nearly 20 years later from the creep’s widow, finding its intensely vibrant colors & richly textured filmstock pristinely preserved by the conman who ruined her teenage dreams. Instead of attempting to reconstruct her original vision for the film (which would prove impossible, given its still-missing soundtrack), she instead uses the opportunity to explore who she was and why she was ripped off at such a pivotal rime in her life. The documentary version of Shirkers finds Tan both reopening old wounds in interviews with her closest zinester-days collaborators and investigating the mysterious identity & motivations of the man who derailed their dream project.

Shirkers figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of DIY art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans, as Tan investigates the mysterious backstory of her arch-enemy, Georges Cardona. She discovers that Cardona had a history of sabotaging microbudget art projects wherever he went, including an obscure 80s New Orleans slasher titled The Last Slumber Party. He was far more concerned with making legend than making art, claiming bizarre self-mythology (like being the source of inspiration for James Spaeder’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that’s just as unflattering as it is untrue. Outside considering the inappropriate nature of her youthful friendship with the much older Cardona, Tan’s investigation of his deceitful legacy mostly leads to fruitless dead ends. The true revelations she discovers in the doc are much more personal and, thus, more painful. When reflecting on her history as a culture-gatekeeping zinester and her over-ambitious willingness to risk her collaborators’ time & energy on a shady creep’s honor, Tan has a hard-look-in-the-mirror epiphany: she’s an asshole. Regardless of Cardona’s baffling behavior, the way she socially bullies her friends in her attempts to establish an artistic Personal Brand, both as a teen and as an adult, makes her out to be the true villain of this doomed DIY collaboration. The gorgeous footage that survived from Shirkers suggests that this assholery can lead to wonderful artistic results, but her headstrong stubbornness also leads directly to Cardona’s sabotage of the project – leaving her collective essentially empty-handed for their efforts. There’s a fascinating tension in that self-defeating dynamic that drives Shirkers’s thematic core.

You don’t have to be a DIY zinester with moviemaking dreams to appreciate Shirkers as an artistic, historical object; you don’t have to be a Singapore or New Orleans local either. It helps, but you don’t have to. Between the what-the-fuckery of Cardona’s mysterious backstory, the vibrant imagery of the recorded footage, and the preposterous circumstances of its inciting incidents, Shirkers has plenty to offer audiences as almost a true crime-level twisted story. I was just pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging DIY artist. Tan got to me through the merits of her brutal self-honesty. More superficially, she also got to me through the aesthetics of her DIY zine culture ethos & her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep.

-Brandon Ledet