Lagniappe Podcast: Cherry Falls (2000)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the post-Scream teen slasher Cherry Falls (2000), starring a very gothy Brittany Murphy.

00:00 Welcome

00:42 Psycho Ape! (2020)
02:55 X (2022)
07:17 RRR (2022)
11:50 Bridgerton
15:33 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
17:10 Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
18:49 Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)
19:36 What Happened to Monday? (2017)
21:42 Scream (1996)

29:47 Cherry Falls (2000)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Between the 2018 version of Halloween, last year’s revision of Candyman, and this year’s update to Scream, the legacy sequel appears to be the hottest trend in mainstream horror filmmaking.  Rebooting iconic horror IP without disregarding the continuity of the original source material is the exact kind of “safe bet” investment Hollywood Money Men love. It simultaneously drags old customers back to the theater with a nostalgia magnet while luring in fresh-faced Zoomers with allowance money to burn.  Tobe Hooper’s grimy cannibal classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absurdly ill-fitting candidate for the legacy sequel treatment, though, no matter how tempting it must be to cash in on its decades of name-recognition.  Nine films into the franchise, there’s still no clear continuity in either story or tone across the various Texas Chainsaw sequels & reboots.  Each individual entry is a chaotic outlier with no solid tether to the rest of the series beyond the chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface.  It’s also been almost a half-century since the Tobe Hooper original, which means that Leatherface and his first-one-that-got-away “final” girl would easily be pushing 70 years old in a modern-day sequel.  And that’s to say nothing of the tastelessness of dragging Sally back into Leatherface’s chow zone after the original actor who played her, Marilyn Burns, died in 2014.  The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre recasts Olwen Fouéré (of Mandy notoriety) in the Sally role, feigning to give her the same long-awaited revenge mission Laurie Strode’s pursuing in the new Halloween cycle, only for that subplot to be treated as a callous joke with an abrupt, dismissive punchline.  That gag is poorly conceived, needlessly cruel, and ultimately just an excuse to participate in extratextual Online Discourse that has nothing to do with the movie’s central narrative – the exact three qualities that make the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a sickening hoot.

Besides the all-growed-up-final-girl revenge plot, another goofy hallmark of the legacy horror sequel is giving its youngsters in peril jobs that did not exist when the series originated.  Both the new Halloween and the new Slumber Party Massacre go the obvious route, unleashing The Shape & The Driller Killer to attack true crime podcasters who treat their heyday slayings as entertainment #content.  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes the long way, staging a showdown between Leatherface and wealthy social media Influencers who want to transform his small Texas town into a big-city Liberal utopia – a rural cult for terminally online Zoomers.  It’s a ludicrous premise, one the film only uses an excuse to directly comment on hot topics like cancel culture, gentrification, “late-stage Capitalism”, school shootings, and the Confederate flag.  Leatherface’s new crop of victims aren’t characters so much as they’re pre-loaded Twitter talking points (even with Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher doing her damnedest to perform her Culture War discourse with a genuine pathos as the new final girl).  Worse yet, the film decidedly falls on the Right-Wing side of that cultural divide, taking the positions that the Confederate flag is more a symbol of heritage than of racism, that automatic assault rifles are necessary to survival, and that today’s socially progressive youth are inherently weaker & more superficial than the rural townies they condescend to as small-minded bigots.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre only floods its small Texas town with big-city Influencers as targets for Leatherface’s chainsaw, but every single time it’s obliged to give their presence a narrative purpose, it defaults to complaining that kids today are whiny Liberal wimps – a sentiment that only gets queasier the longer it fixates on their ritualistic disemboweling once the slaughter begins.

So, to recap: the teens are annoying, the dialogue is clumsy, the themes are reactionary, and it’s all a flimsy excuse to stage 80 minutes of for-its-own-sake hyperviolence.  By those metrics, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty faithful to slasher tradition, which has never had a functional moral compass, nor a reliable system of quality control.  I’d even go as far as to call it a great slasher, despite its atrocious politics.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’22 is careless when it comes to its characters, its debt to its source material’s legacy, and its broader cultural commentary, but it pours a lot of careful consideration into the craft of its kill scenes.  And since the movie is mostly kill scenes, it mostly gets away with it.  Leatherface’s chainsaw rips into a party bus packed with panicked social media addicts, tears townie challengers to chunks, and chases our new final girl through crawl space floorboards like an upside-down shark’s fin.  The violence is constant and constantly surprising, drowning the screen in so much goopy stage blood that you can hardly squint past it to see the rotten Conservative politics blurring up the background.  For better or worse, that gore-hound payoff will seal this movie’s legacy.  There will be vocal backlash against its reactionary Culture War politics for about a decade, then it’s going to be gradually reclaimed as one of the better entries in the Texas Chainsaw franchise as those talking points become 2020s kitsch.  Certainly, there are first-wave slashers from the 1980s with a more overtly bigoted, misanthropic worldview that have been reclaimed as cult classics with retrograde politics that are “of their time.”  The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre is of our time in the ugliest, most gruesome way possible.  It will similarly age gracefully as an adorable time capsule of our worst present-day filmmaking & cultural impulses.  All you can really do in the meantime is enjoy the novelty of the individual chainsaw kills, of which there are plenty to indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

To my shame, I am not yet equipped to watch the new Scream sequel that just hit theaters, because I haven’t yet seen most of the films in that franchise (despite the 1996 original being a major touchstone of my teen years).  I plan on correcting that major horror-nerd blind spot later this year, but in the meantime, I have a ton of pent-up teen-slasher energy and nowhere to direct it.  Thankfully, the SyFy Channel has offered a cheaper, at-home alternative to that theatrical Hollywood offering, as they often do.  2021’s Slumber Party Massacre is a SyFy Channel remake of the classic semi-feminist slasher The Slumber Party Massacre and, honestly, an improvement on the 1982 original.  Although I was largely mixed on the first Slumber Party Massacre film, I have seen every entry in that series, and I’m generally a big fan (especially of the crazed, MTV-inspired wet nightmare Slumber Party Massacre II).  Feminist author Rita Mae Brown wrote The Slumber Party Massacre to be an academically critical parody of the leering teen-slasher genre, but the Roger Corman production machine softened its satirical edges beyond the point of recognition, leaving it little room to stand out in a crowded field of Halloween knockoffs.  Four decades later, metatextual post-modern commentary on horror tropes is much easier to get greenlit without producers’ interference (thanks largely to the popularity of Scream), so the Slumber Party Massacre remake got a chance to double back and do things right.  The only shame is that it’s working on a SyFy Channel scale & budget, when it should at least have been afforded the same resources & platform as the similarly minded 2019 remake of Black Christmas – a film it bests at its own game.

Slumber Party Massacre 2.0 worryingly opens with a straight-faced reenactment of the tropiest 80s slasher you can imagine, complete with girls dancing in skimpy pajamas and the hyper-phallic Driller Killer from the original series.  Besides the final girl archetype disarming the killer’s drill with a soup can, there isn’t much to the cold open that telegraphs how silly & self-aware the film will quickly become.  Decades after that initial sleepover massacre, a new crop of teen girls arrive in the same small town and repeat the same ritualistic slasher-victim tropes: car engine troubles, pajama dance parties, giggling over pizza, the works.  Only, they’re consciously re-enacting this ritual to bait the Driller Killer to their cabin so they can collectively stab & bludgeon him to death as an act of vigilante justice.  The only trouble is that there’s a nearby cabin of young gym-body hunks who are having a genuine sleepover slumber party (complete with an abs-out pillow fight), who might now be in danger of the killer’s phallic drill.  While the 1982 Slumber Party Massacre was too subtle for its own producers to catch onto what film they were making, the 2021 version is so over-the-top and blatant in its satire that you have to be awed by its audacity.  Once the pro-active vigilantism of its would-be teen victims is exposed, the movie has a blast openly riffing on subjects as widely varied as voyeurism, queer-bating, slut-shaming, and the wide cultural brain rot of true crime podcasts.  It’s obviously not as grimy nor as authentically bizarre as the original Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, but I still really enjoyed its self-aware quirks & post-modern pranks on slasher tradition.

There’s nothing especially original about Slumber Party Massacre‘s post-modern genre commentary, but originality is just about the last thing I expect out of SyFy Channel mockbusters anyway.  What’s really exciting & novel here is that the film announces the arrival of the very first SyFy Channel auteur.  Director Danishka Esterhazy is also responsible for the 2019 Banana Splits movie, another shockingly delightful horror-comedy revamp of a long-dead cultural curio.  Both films are irreverently self-aware & gory in the exact same way, and Esterhazy deserves major accolades for managing to establish a recognizable creative voice in a set-em-up-knock-em-down filmmaking environment that usually doesn’t have much of a discernible personality.  There are rigid limitations to what Esterhazy can achieve on the SyFy Channel playground, but her voice is at least cutting through more clearly than Rita Mae Brown’s did on a Corman set in the 1980s.  I’m looking forward to whatever self-aware genre prank she gets away with next—SyFy Channel Original or otherwise—even more than I’m looking forward to catching up with 5cream.

-Brandon Ledet

5cream (2022)

Every time there’s news about a new Batman, there’s a new wave of “[Actor] is my Batman” discourse (Kevin Conroy is mine, for the record). For me, a more important question is: Who’s your Final Girl? There are a lot of good contenders, but mine has always been Sidney Prescott, followed very closely by Nancy Thompson. I was so excited to hear about 5cream after it had been so long since Scream 4, and was eagerly looking forward to seeing it as if Sidney were actually an old friend of mine with whom I would be getting the chance to catch up. So, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it takes so long for her to show up here, which is further underlined by the fact that we never get to see the three main characters of this franchise reunite for, well, one last time. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) gets scenes with both Dewey (David Arquette) and Sidney (Neve Campbell), and Sidney and Dewey talk briefly on the phone, but the three of them are never on screen together. That’s kind of weird, right? 

It’s been twenty-five years since Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) killed seven people within a series of peculiar homicides that were modeled after murders in slasher films. In the decade and a half that followed, there were three copycat sprees: one based around the “rules” of sequels, another those rules pertaining to trilogies, and in 2011 at the height of remake mania, a murder bender pertaining to sequels, reboots, and the like. But it’s been a quiet ten years, and all of our favorite characters aren’t where we left them. Dewey and Gale split up and he’s living in a Woodsboro trailer park, mooning over Gale still as she hosts a NY-based morning show. Sidney’s as far as she can be from Colorado, living her best life, presumably, since she has no trouble going for a healthy jog without fear of being watched; and she even answers her phone when she gets a call from an unfamiliar number (I can tell you one thing, if I were Sidney Prescott, I would never have owned or answered a telephone any time after 2002). All of that changes when a young girl named Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in her home by Ghostface, and we’re introduced to our conceit for this time around. 

You see, Tara likes scary movies, but only “elevated horror”: things like It Follows, The VVitch, and Hereditary (her favorite, she says, as it’s a “meditation on grief and motherhood”). But Ghostface doesn’t want to talk about that; he’s more interested in what she knows about Stab, the film series within the film series that began life as a “ripped from the headlines” horror flick about the killings in the 1996 original, and which had, by Scream 4, bloated to a seven-movie franchise which had long ago stopped pretending to be based on true stories. Aligning with tradition, Tara is forced to participate under threat of violence to someone she cares about, and she gets through the first couple of questions but gets tripped up by the third. Just as Barrymore’s Casey Becker fumbled and said that Jason was the killer in Friday the 13th (it’s actually Mrs. Voorhees), Tara says that the killer in the original Stab was Billy Loomis, as it’s a trick question—she forgot about Stu. In a break with tradition, Tara actually survives this attack, if barely; this leads to the return of her older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) to Woodsboro, but as it turns out, that might have been the point. As it turns out, Tara and Sam have a connection to previous killings, and they’re not the only ones. Several people in Tara’s tight-knit group of friends are, as it turns out, with Heather Matarazzo returning for a cameo as Martha Meeks, Randy’s younger sister from Scream 3, now the mother of twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) with whom Tara is friends, as well as a reappearance of Judy Hicks (the always-welcome Marley Shelton), now sheriff of the town after having previously served as Dewey’s deputy in Scream 4, and her son Wes (Dylan Minnette) is also among their group. That’s not all, though, as we also have Amber (Mikey Madison), Tara’s best friend, as well as Chad’s girlfriend Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar). 

The biggest of the film’s flaws—beyond how little our legacy characters get to do and how late some of them appear in the screenplay (Gale doesn’t appear in person until nearly an hour in)—is that there are simply too many characters, and you can even see it in the poster. Consider the poster for the first Scream, which had five characters in total, including the three we would come to know as our principal characters in this series, but hyping up the appearance of Drew Barrymore, whose pre-titles murder is still the franchise’s defining moment. Then came Scream 2, which likewise limited its poster to five characters: the core three, Sidney’s new boyfriend, and (once again) the decoy lead who is killed off in the film’s opening. Scream 3‘s poster followed this trend with five characters, and then Scream 4 featured the first cast expansion to feature six: the three leads, and the would-be new Sidney, her boyfriend, and the new Randy Meeks. But the poster for this one has a full dozen people on it, and it’s just too many. 

I don’t want to be the one to complain that Kyle Gallner is here, since he was in both one of the most original horrors of the aughts and the most derivative remake of the same relevant time period (Jennifer’s Body and the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, respectively), so he feels like a genre acknowledgement that belongs here; but he’s also the most frivolous presence, existing only to provide cannon fodder for Ghostface and cement the theory that the killers are targeting people connected to the original killings when it’s revealed that he’s the son of Stu’s (I believe) heretofore unmentioned sister. When Dewey recounts “three attacks” at the 30-minute mark, I legitimately turned to my friend and asked if there was an assault I was forgetting other than Tara’s attack and “the one at the hospital,” and had to be reminded that he had been there at all. Liv’s also the worst kind of red herring, in that though it’s true that she always seems to be conveniently elsewhere when a killing occurs, she also is such a non-presence that when she’s not on screen; you forget that she exists. It is a bit of a narrative catch-22, though, since there need to be killings of people outside of this friend group to provide clues about the killer’s selection process, but if you change the story a bit and have, for instance, Dewey gathering potential victims who aren’t as familiar with one another to protect them from Ghostface, then you kinda lose the friend group Screamness of it all. And, despite all of that, the first two people I first and most immediately suspected, which is both satisfying and a little deflating. 

It may seem like I have a lot of complaints, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed this one. It vaults over Scream 3 handily and lands just behind Scream 4 in the rankings. The reinvention here may actually be mpre clever, but it doesn’t feel as clever. The opening of Scream 4 alone was a fun, bizarre ride that really shook things up to the point where you weren’t really sure what the rules were anymore. The motive of the killings is fantastic; we learn early on that the previous year saw the release of Stab, which is actually Stab 8 (get it?), and that fans hated it—and from what little of it we see, with good reason. Stab has become a cultural phenomenon in Scream‘s world, and that world has now entered the era of The Snyder Cut, wherein groups of fanboys feel that the media belongs to them, so they want to course correct back to the “original concept” by enacting a new series of murders in Woodsboro to inspire the Stab franchise to return to its roots. It’s not as clever as “movies made us do it,” but it’s just as cohesive, and allows for one of the killers to deliver great lines like “How can fandom be toxic?” while holding a bloody knife.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! (1978)

I love a cheap slasher.  There’s a grimy, D.I.Y. vibe to slashers that’s hard to find in horror genres that require more substantial budgets for special effects.  All you really need to make a barebones slasher is a few friends, a free weekend, case of beer, and a prop kitchen knife.  The bodycount murder-mystery template that most slashers follow provides just enough structure & purpose for what are otherwise hangout films, so that no-budget indies can somehow land regional, if not national distribution despite essentially being backyard movies.  Slashers don’t have to be especially cohesive or coherent to be worthwhile, since the draw of the genre is usually in the local, sub-professional quirks of their casts of victims.

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! pushes that disregard for coherence & cohesion past its breaking point.  As its more apt drive-in title Class Reunion Massacre suggests, it’s a loopy supernatural slasher set at a 10-year high school reunion, which is disrupted by a maniacal, possibly possessed priest.  The movie opens with an eerie shot of a fully clothed child emerging from underneath a lake with Terminator-level determination.  The mysterious child-demon coerces a local priest to kill unsuspecting alumni celebrating their class reunion, punishing them for the “sins” of adultery, alcoholism, and homosexual copulation.  The magical mechanics of that coercion remain a mystery, along with the origins of the lake-child and the priest’s connection to the class-reunion victims.  The result feels less like an actual movie than it feels like the dream you have after watching Prom Night.

The unexplained supernatural phenomena of The Redeemer establish an eerie mood before the film fully sinks into its slash-by-numbers formula, but they feel underdeveloped to the point of distraction & bafflement.  Disregarding the lake-child, the movie is basically about a Gene Parmesan style killer who wears a different generic disguise for each attack: priest robes, a clown mask, duck-hunter camo, etc.  Once you start trying to connect that killing spree to the priest’s extra thumb, his step-by-step tutorial of the face plaster process, his flamethrower-wielding puppet, and his supernatural child-boss, the whole thing unravels. All it really needed to do was set a maniacal preacher loose on victims he believed to be “sinners”, but instead it adds in a chaotic smattering of details from a more interesting movie that we’ll never get to see.

Regarding the local flavor of The Redeemer’s cast, there isn’t much to see here.  The film gets minor kudos for having multiple gay characters in its main roster, but it’s also a bodycount horror film so you can probably guess how that plays out.  Besides, the supernatural lake-child’s priest-hijack mission is too distracting for the central cast to stand out anyway.  There’s a wonderful sequence set in the preacher’s church, packed with candid shots of the locals in his congregation who fill the pews.  Otherwise, the movie doesn’t have much to offer except boredom, frustration, and bafflement.  It’s got an occasionally eerie mood and a few fun, scattered surprises, but it never really pulls itself together into anything solid.  I’d honestly be even more forgiving of those minor merits if it was just shots of drunk teens wielding a kitchen knife in the woods.  It’s almost worse that the movie teases more ambitious supernatural horror elements and then never does anything coherent with them.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s Someone Inside Your House (2021)

Thanksgiving was last week, and if your family is anything like mine, you probably heard the phrase “social justice” sneeringly used as an epithet as if we were talking about something as vile as omnipresent police brutality or human trafficking. Look in the mirror, reader, we made it through that! We are strong. Although you and I have managed to prevent having our brains completely rotted by propaganda, seeing the way that corporations can attempt to co-opt (whoops, sorry, I meant to say “address”) issues of social justice in their digestible products and mangle those concepts horribly gives a bit of insight into what those issues look like once they’ve filtered down to the level of the largely-unengaged (or propagandized) consumer. And it’s not great! 

Makani Young (Sydney Park) is the most recent addition to the group of outsiders at a high school in small town Nebraska, having transferred just a short time prior. Also in the group are: Makani’s best friend Alexandra Crisp (Asjha Cooper); Rodrigo Doran (Diego Josef), who has a mutual unspoken crush on Alexandra; and Zach Sandford (Dale Whibley), an archetypical stoner kid and the son of “Skipper” Sandford, a wealthy farmer with aims to control the whole town by purchasing foreclosed properties, including those that were home to the families of his son’s peers, and is engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle the local police force and set up his own privatized department in town. 

Also rounding out this group of outcasts is Darby (Jesse LaTourette), a trans and apparently gender non-confirming student whose hopes to get out of this small town mostly revolve around a NASA internship for which they have replied. As a side note, I’m using “they” here, but the film is never very explicit on this topic; a quick Google search for performer Jesse LaTourette returns results that describe LaTourette as an actress and which use she/her pronouns, while a search for that name with “trans” in the search line located this blog post which states that “a friend reached out and confirmed that Jesse LaTourette identifies as genderfluid, and uses any pronouns,” but I’m hewing on the safe side since I can’t corroborate that elsewhere. The half-assedness of the film’s inclusivity is manifest in the text: we the audience are never really told what Darby’s pronouns are; the only explicit mention of their gender comes when self-congratulatory student council president Katie (Sarah Dugdale) reads an excerpt from their college application essay, which begins with your typical “I didn’t really understand diversity/struggle until I met someone who was different from me” spiel. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty good piece of storytelling in the way that it demonstrates the tendency of white, cisgender people to not only co-opt non-white and non-cis narratives as their own but to do so for profit (or in this case, to get into college), but on the other, it amuses me that Netflix doesn’t see themselves reflected in this narratively vilified character. 

We don’t meet these characters right away, however. Taking a page from the Scream playbook, we have the film equivalent of a cold open here, as the school’s presumably teenaged quarterback Jackson Pace (the very twenty-eight-year-old Markian Tarasiuk) engages in some telephonic locker room talk that establishes that he’s a pig and that there’s a Big Game™ that night. Jackson awakes from his pregame rest to discover that his phone has been stolen and the front door has been left ajar, but before he can complete his call to 911, he finds a trail of photographs that depict his violent hazing of a fellow footballer (we learn after the opening credits that this supposedly teenaged victim was still-alive Caleb, played by the also-28 Burkely Duffield, but from the photos it looked like Jackson had beaten a kid to death, which is also part of this film’s storytelling issues). Jackson follows the path laid out by these photos to his bedroom closet where he is confronted by a hooded killer wearing Jackson’s face. While begging for his life, Jackson asks the killer if they want money and offers to Venmo them, which was actually a fairly inspired bit of dialogue that got a chuckle out of me; these pleas fall on deaf ears, and Jackson is killed, while his killer simultaneously sends the evidence of Jackson being an abusive psycho to everyone at the football game. 

After Jackson’s Drew Barrymore pre-credits death, we meet the above-mentioned main characters as they huddle up and extend an olive branch to Caleb, who never reported the hazing that happened to him for fear of being outed as gay, only to end up outed by Jackson’s death and facing exactly the kind of ostracization he expected (combined with paranoia that he might have been involved in Jackson’s killing for revenge, despite being on the football field at the time of death). Suspicion also falls on Ollie Larsson (Théodore Pellerin), the school’s resident trench coat kid with the requisite tragic backstory: alcoholic parents who died in a drunk driving accident, teased by others that mom and dad killed themselves because their son was a psychopath, and being raised by his older brother who happens to be a local deputy, which gives him plenty of opportunities to access “files” for red herring purposes. Other potential killers include the aforementioned Skipper, what with his expansionist desires, attempts to set up his own police, and his extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia (most of which Zach has turned into marijuana paraphernalia), as well as Dave (Ryan Beil), “the only Uber driver in town,” whose attempts at standard rideshare driver small talk could also be interpreted sinisterly. 

After the second killing, of previously mentioned overachiever Katie, who is murdered while setting up for Jackson’s memorial service and is outed as the host of an anonymous but virulent white supremacist podcast, the local police set up a curfew after ineptly and thus unsuccessfully interviewing the students from the high school, except Zach, whose father’s lawyer pulls the boy from the line-up. That night, Ollie and Makani try to sneak away for a tryst, but join the rest of the town’s teenagers in gathering at a large house party to reveal their most hidden truths to one another in the hopes that doing so will protect them from the killer, assuming that the victims are being murdered because of their secrets. During the party, however, Rodrigo is outed as a secret drug addict and killed, with the killer once again wearing a 3D printed mask of the victim’s face. Makani, still hiding the real reason that she was sent to Nebraska to live with her grandmother, fears that she is next, and although the killer nearly does her in, she’s rescued just in time, although not before her secret is revealed to her peers: when she and several other junior varsity girls were force-fed alcohol at a bonfire in a hazing ritual by upperclassmen, she pushed another girl into the fire in an inebriated rage, burning the other girl severely. Her friends forgive her, and tell her that Ollie is in custody. It seems all is well, unless the killer is still out there, ready to strike terror at the seasonal corn maze. 

There are a lot of fun ideas at play here, and I wish that they were in a better movie. I don’t think that any of the film’s failures, which ultimately make this film feel like less than the sum of its parts, can be attributed to any one individual. The lack of cohesion with regards to the killer’s motivation may have been better handled in the novel on which the film is based; I haven’t read it, but internal motivations can be more easily conveyed on the page than on screen, and I get the feeling this happened here. The killer’s final lines, and the lines that our heroine delivers to the killer regarding the incoherence of their stated motives, both feel like the dramatic equivalent of orphaned punchlines, as they’re portrayed as if they are capstones on thematic statements about privilege and the lack thereof, but these supposed elements aren’t as present throughout the text as much as the finale tries to convince you they were. It feels empty and postural, a cynical attempt to appeal to the social justice generation by assimilating its language without grappling with its intent or the meaning of that discourse. If this is what everyone’s dads think social justice is, no wonder they hate it so much. Special praise should be given to the direction and the cinematography, however; director Patrick Brice (Creep) makes some really great choices, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter supports them with some beautiful photography. The finale of the opening scene is particularly striking, as the typical drama of for-cinema American high school football plays out on the field while the stands fall deathly silent as everyone assembled receives a message with the details of Jackson’s bullying, with Caleb then turning triumphantly to the stands after a successful touchdown to find all attention elsewhere. The scenes near the end of the film that take place in a burning corn field are also delightfully composed and visually dynamic, and the idea of a killer creating a mask of the victim is also a stroke of genius and makes for several unsettling scenes. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make this one worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaslash (2020)

Anyone who’s deathly allergic to “bad”-on-purpose, winking-at-the-camera horror novelties like Zombeavers, Sharknado, or Hobo with a Shotgun should beware this review, because I’m about to be a lot kinder to the genre than it likely deserves.

Aquaslash is a retro novelty slasher about a killer waterpark slide that’s rigged with giant blades to chop idiot teens into pieces. The film is built entirely around setting up & executing that singular gore gag, so it has to save all of its bloodbath payoffs for the final 20 minutes. It’s cheap, it’s mean, it’s silly and, at only 70min in length, it barely registers as an actual movie. I still found myself ultimately having a great time with it despite my better judgement, though, which mostly came down to the film’s one saving grace: its central waterslide kill gimmick. The movie may be embarrassingly thin, absurdly insincere, and entirely reliant on one idea, but that idea is so impressively stupid and well-executed that it’s somehow worth the effort it takes to get there.

The setup to this film feels like any other post-Asylum exercise in ironic camp horror, but the follow-through is refreshingly sleazy in that context. Recent graduates from the fictional Valley Hills High School celebrate with a wild party weekend at the (equally goofily named) Wet Valley Water Park. This celebration is explained to be a tradition dating back to the 1980s, which allows the film to play around with Totally 80s™ nostalgia clichés in its 50-minute lead up to the waterslide gore promised in the title. That sounds like a mood-ruiner in the abstract, and it sometimes is when it comes to forced nostalgia signifiers like an abysmally shitty rock cover of Cory Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.” However, it at least fully embraces the inherent sleaze of 80s slasher in a way that feels shockingly out of place in this kind of winking-at-the-camera novelty.

This is maybe the most enthusiastically committed illustration of Straight Guy™ sexuality I’ve seen since the hair metal music video was king. Young women’s bikini-clad breasts are used as bouncing eye-distractors, cocaine-sniffing surfaces, and splash zones for blacklight neon splooge – anything (within reason) they can get away with doing to titties to fill time before it can pull the trigger on the last-minute gore. That indulgence would be offensive if it weren’t so cornily outdated in a way that felt genuinely retro. As is, it’s overtly sexist the way an old stack of Playboys can be: quaintly so.

Bikini Babes & inane teenage drama are plentiful here; the gore is something you have to work for. The killer waterslide gag itself is truly incredible, though, and I believe the movie is short & harmless enough to get away with the delay. More importantly, it genuinely commits to the grotesque sleaze of the era it’s nostalgic for, as opposed to the Asylum style of retro novelty filmmaking that would rather pave over those unpleasantries with referential jokes & Z-list celebrity stunt casting. The sex is actually vulgar; the practical-effects violence is grotesque. All in all, this might be the best possible version of this kind of “bad”-on-purpose novelty that gives away its one original idea in its trailer & poster. My only major complaint, really, is that it should have been titled Slaughterpark.

-Brandon Ledet

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