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

Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

In 2008, which was my senior year of high school, a few friends and I rushed to the local movie theater to see The Strangers. This was during a time where cable television reigned supreme, so the movie’s trailer was constantly playing during commercial breaks. I don’t recall much about the film, since I haven’t seen it since its theatrical release. All I remember is that it was very creepy and starred Liv Tyler. Here we are ten years later, and the film’s sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, has been released.

There isn’t a whole lot of buzz surrounding The Strangers: Prey at Night (unlike its predecessor). The only reason I was drawn to see it is because I was in the mood to see a spooky movie, and it was the only horror film in theaters. I didn’t have high expectations going in, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed a good bit of the film.

Prey at Night follows the basic home-invasion horror movie formula, but instead of a crew of scantily clad women, the “prey” is a family going through a rough patch. Bailee Madison plays a slightly out-of-control teenager (complete with a Ramones t-shirt and a plaid shirt tied around her waist) named Kinsey, who is being sent to boarding school by her parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson). Before she makes the big move, her parents, along with her brother (Lewis Pullman), take her on a trip to splendid little trailer park campground by a lake. They arrive in the dead of night, and there’s literally no one at the campground because it’s off-season. Within ten minutes of their arrival, the doll-faced killer from the first film gets things started, and the rest of the “Strangers” crew gradually start to appear in the campground.

It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of violent encounters as the family is basically hunted by a crew of bat-shit crazy killers, but there’s something quite special about a few of them. The “Stranger” with a burlap sack mask, who seems to be the father figure of the crew, has an obsession with 80s pop music. During a scene where he is chasing a severely injured Kinsey through the campground, Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” began booming through the theater’s speaker system, and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. I hate being the douchebag in the theater that laughs during horror movies, but I just couldn’t help myself. However, my favorite scene of all was one that involves a stabbing in a pool surrounded with trashy neon lights while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is blaring through an outdoor sound system. All in all, The Strangers: Prey at Night is just another garbage horror movie, but it’s worth watching for the bloody 80s pop song scenes.

-Britnee Lombas

Happy Death Day (2017)

As promised in its (brilliant) advertising, Happy Death Day‘s defining gimmick is dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher. What the ads don’t convey, however, is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that invaded the horror genre in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s general atmosphere of a late 90s slasher relic extends beyond its shithead college students’ slut-shaming, carb-counting, disability/rape/queer sexuality-mocking ways to inform even its basic approach to horror. Its depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize. Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos. It surprisingly owes just as much to big budget, post-Scream slashers (and maybe even their Scary Movie spoofs) for its tonal DNA as it does to the timeline loop plot of Groundhog Day.

Not only does the sorority girl victim at the film’s center have to relive the day of her murder on an endless loop, she begins that day hungover & stumbling home from a drunken hookup’s dorm room. Much like Bill Murray’s bitter anti-hero in Groundhog Day, she’s a mean, selfish brat with an ever-growing list of enemies she pettily steps over as a sorority bully caricature. Her ethical shortcomings both set up a plot progression where she incrementally becomes a better person throughout the film and allow for a long list of potential suspects who might want her dead. Is the killer one of her socially-slighted sorority sisters?  One of her ghosted sexual partners or their girlfriends/wives? The father whose phone calls she continually ignores in each loop? A total stranger? Unraveling the paranormal mystery of who repeatedly murders this deeply flawed, but gradually improving sorority monster on her birthday is obviously a significant part of what makes the movie a dumb, fun time. Happy Death Day eventually adds accumulative stakes to its resettable scenario, but for the most part the protagonist enjoys a kind of supernatural privilege in her time loop immortality that allows her to treat her own life as a kind of consequence-free playground. Of course, it’s a repeatedly deadly playground that cyclically concludes with a violent murder by the hands of a masked killer, but it’s ultimately all in good fun.

Like with most dumb fun slashers, the ideal audience for Happy Death Day might be dark-humored teens just slightly younger than the college campus caricatures that populate the film. As with his bro-minded horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, director Christopher B. Landon has the sensibilities of a teenage boy who just watched Army of Darkness for the first time. As an adult, Happy Death Day‘s mean teen humor can sometimes land a little awkwardly, as can its romantic subplot about a sorority hottie becoming a “better” person by falling in love with a horror nerd with They Live! & Repo Man posters on his dorm room wall instead of the meathead bozos she usually bangs (not to mention the way it congratulates him for not raping her after a night of hard-drinking, the bare minimum of human decency). That mentality feels especially gross right now, given current conversations about the gender politics shortcomings of genre film nerd culture institutions like Ain’t It Cool News, Fantastic Fest, and Alamo Drafthouse. A softer, less discerning teen mind searching only for a fun gimmick & memorable kills is a lot less likely to get hung up on those details. The film’s college campus setting & campus life caricatures play directly to that demographic as well, especially when they include images like frat paddles, school mascots, bongs, and sorority houses in their kill scenes. You even get the sense that an earlier draft of the script might have been titled Monday the 18th (the date that endlessly repeats) as a nod to its direct, Jason Voorhees-style appeal to teenage audiences.

Even more surprising than Happy Death Day‘s adherence to a nü metal 90s slasher aesthetic & mean girl sorority humor is its New Orleans setting. Watching the film just blocks away from its Loyola campus filming location was a surreal experience, one backed up by the tree moss & streetcars in the background and the school mascot/killer’s mask bearing a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) king cake baby mascot that seasonally appears at our local NBA games. I honestly fall a little too perfectly in the film’s target audience Venn diagram to offer an unbiased opinion: I was a teenage boy who grew up on post-Scream slashers; I consider Groundhog Day to be one of the best-written films of all time; I’m a lifelong New Orleans resident. I personally hit the full Happy Death Day demographic trifecta. Even being immersed in that perspective, I like to imagine that plenty of other people, especially 2010s teens, will have blast with the film. It’s not the clever, paradigm-shifting Groundhog Day reimagining of Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s still solidly entertaining as a dumb fun horror flick. It’s just one that admittedly focuses more on the dumb fun than it does on the horror.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Halloween Report 2017: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means a lot of cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror films year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (and the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!

Art House Horror

If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.

The Psychic (1977): “Unlike a great deal of Lucio Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen.”

Raw (2017): “I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called Raw Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,’ which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.”

We Are the Flesh (2017):  “I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome).”

It Comes at Night (2017): “What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to.”

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017): “Oz Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.”

The Skin I Live In (2011): “At turns provocative and disquieting, The Skin I Live In is relentless in the way that its unfolding narrative forces the viewer to re-evaluate every previous scene with each new revelation. Do our sympathies for Roberto outweigh the fact that the well of his monstrosity is deeper and darker? His ultimate fate is a consequence of his inability to accept the reality of his life (which is related to his being a plastic surgeon, which is conventionally considered a position that exists solely due to society’s vanity) and let go of that which has been lost (which is more reflective of his well-intentioned scientific drive to build a better human skin through unethical experimentation, as well as his activities as a reconstructive, restorative plastic surgeon). It’s a film that rewards close attention and empathy; as each fleshy layer is peeled away, the viewer finds him- or herself challenged, but the experience is ultimately fruitful.”

Mainstream & Traditional Horror

It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983): “Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids on Earth, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): “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: Howard 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 Jonathan Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.”

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): “The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.”

Get Out (2017): “Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.”

Split (2017): “Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. M. Night Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game.”

IT (2017): “IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of ‘elevated’ horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.”

XX (2017): “As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.”

Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016): “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Tim Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny.”

Weirdo Outliers

Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies categorization. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in completely unexpected ways.

The Lure (2017): “The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.”

Society (1992): “Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way. This is especially true of these earliest days in a Donald Trump presidency, where poking fun at the inhuman cruelty of the wealthy oligarchy feels almost necessary for survival, even if their status as the ruling class hasn’t at all changed since this film’s initial release.”

Spider Baby (1964): “Spider Baby focuses on the Merrye family, which is so inbred that they suffer from a terrible condition which causes individual members to mentally regress as they age until they become savages. The Merrye clan lives in seclusion, and once a member of the family has fully regressed they get isolated further until they become such a threat to everyone that they get moved to their own section of the basement. Virginia and Elizabeth are two of the three remaining family members of their dying line, not yet old enough to be shoved into the basement. Being isolated from society gives them a dark, sprite-like quality. Due to their regression they have no knowledge of circumstances for their actions. Together they wantonly romp about the house, taking in pet spiders, eating bugs and suspicious fungi from their yard, and bickering almost constantly. Elizabeth is as volatile as a three year old on a bad day. Virginia regularly ‘plays spider,’ which is a handy euphemism for murder. In their isolation, they act outside of society, with unkempt hair and make-believe games gone too far.”

Paperhouse (1988): “After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer.”

eXistenZ (1999): “eXistenZ feels like the beginning of David Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.”

Pet (2016): “The cheapness of the film is apparent in several sequences that are genuinely cinematic in their framing but appear to be shot on low-end digital video; on the other hand, that same sparsity of funding also means that the film has room to breathe as a character piece, regardless of whether any of the character growth that we see is genuine. If Don’t Breathe is is a schlocky thriller with slick artistic design that disguises its crassness, Pet is a low-rent version of the same, with sufficient style but none to spare.”

Are We Not Cats (2016): “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

80’s Slashers

Sometimes all you need to scratch your horror itch is watching a bunch of hot, young idiots get stabbed to death for their moral transgressions by an inhumanly persistent killer.

A Night to Dismember (1983): “A Night to Dismember is a Doris Wishman slasher, purely so. It finds the director shooting gloom & gore the way she usually shoots scantily clad women, following a very strict Halloween/Friday the 13th-style narrative structure to deliver its jarringly violent genre thrills. What makes it notably bizarre beyond Wishman stepping outside her usual genre box is that the film makes no attempt to tell a clearly intelligible story besides mimicking the general feel of a slasher. So sloppy it’s avant garde, A Night to Dismember adheres to a strict ‘Axe murders for all, coherent plot for none’ political platform. Almost unwatchable, yet undeniably entertaining, Wishman’s sole slasher is chaotic outsider art, a watch that’s just as challenging as it is inane.”

The Funhouse (1981): “The Funhouse comes across as a run-of-the-mill B-movie because it follows the generic B-horror movie storyline; a group of teens get high and decide to get crazy & spend the night in their local carnival’s funhouse. It really doesn’t get cheesier than that, but somehow The Funhouse manages to be seriously scary. […] The gruesome murders that take place in the funhouse filled with horrifying animatronic clowns and evil dolls will haunt your dreams forever, or at least for a day or two.”

The Last Horror Film (1983): “Besides the inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching.”

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982): “Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.”

Creature Features

Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.

Shin Godzilla (2016): “It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.”

Train to Busan (2016): “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces , and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films).”

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016): “After a brief, forgivable trek through Search for a Cure zombie film tedium, The Girl with All the Gifts sinks into a fascinating exploration of the ways Nature reclaims human structures when given enough time and how human bodies are a part of that reclamation. Fighting against Nature’s course is proposed to be potentially futile, which is a pretty hefty lesson to stomach within a genre that’s often reduced to cheap jump scares and Michael Jackson dance routines.”

Slugs (1988): “While the basic premise of Slugs is both silly & clichéd due to the size & nature of its titular threat, the violence & technical skills of its various kills elevate the material to the exact kind of goofy brutality people are looking for in cult classic drive-in fare. These giant, juicy black slugs not only carpet the ground and invade homes from the drains of sinks & toilets; they also bite with sharpened fangs and burrow into unsuspecting victims’ skin. In lesser natural horrors, the slugs’ dirty work would be depicted through a discovered, picked clean skeleton. Here, the little bastards turn their victims into exploding, bloodied meat, covering the sets and nearly the camera in untold excess of blood & gore.”

Drive-In Era Relics

Here’s a few vintage horror relics that only could have been birthed from the drive-in & grindhouse eras of the genre’s now-distant past.

The Colossus of New York (1958): “Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.”

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960): “Cynically made as a cash grab in the wake of Christopher Lee’s Dracula finding popularity in Italy, this is a deliberately over-sexed work that anyone under the age of 16 was banned from watching at the theater. You can feel those trashy origins in every frame of The Vampire and the Ballerina, but the film still manages to be a surprisingly artful experience for me. Anyone who regularly enjoys a slice of cheap black & white schlock should get a kick out of the film’s creature designs & shameless, theremin-scored burlesque. What’ll really stick with you if you’re on that wavelength, though, is the strange relationship dynamics between its vampiric killers & the artfully odd images the film manages to pull out of a seemingly nonexistent budget.”

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964): “The alien threat of The Earth Dies Screaming is one thing after another, a continually shifting obstacle course that pummels its audience and its victims with just the right rhythm to remain surprising & just the right runtime to never outwear its welcome.”

Abby (1974): “For all that Warner Brothers did to bury Abby, they certainly had no issue taking some elements from it when drafting a script for The Exorcist 2, including the connection to ancient African myths and legends. That aside, Abby is marvelous, aside from a little bit of drag in Act III. Speed’s performance as Abby is heart-wrenching, as she struggles to make sense of the actions taken while possessed during her moments of clarity.”

Horror Comedies

Basket Case (1982): “In the annals of delightfully bad horror films, few can hold a candle to Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 freshman film Basket Case. Following the bloodthirsty trail of revenge left by a monstrous flesh sack and the (formerly conjoined) twin brother from whom he was untimely ripped, the film is weirdly disjointed but utterly charming, minus a tonally bizarre sexual assault that happens in the final moments.”

Brain Damage (1988): “Six years after the release of Basket Case, Frank Henenlotter unleashed a new ‘boy and his monster’ movie onto the world with Brain Damage, a film with a similar conceit to his first work but with even more disgusting special effects, a slicker production style, a new villainous creature, strong metaphorical subtext, and homoeroticism to spare. Though less well remembered than the cult classic that preceded it, Brain Damage is nonetheless a lot of fun, and may be objectively better than its predecessor.”

Multiple Maniacs (1970): “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

Office Killer (1997): “Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide ‘additional dialogue’ to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror.”

I Married a Witch (1942): “It’s very cliché to say that a film is “ahead of its time,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!”

The Love Witch (2016): “The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally ‘bad’ movie about witchcraft & strippers.”

Blood Diner (1987): “A supposed sequel to the grindhouse ‘classic’ Blood Feast (a film I have zero affection for), Blood Diner is pure 80s splatter comedy mayhem. It boasts all of the shock value violence & misogynistic cruelty of its predecessor (this time at the hands of a female director, Jackie Kong), but has a lot more in common with ZAZ spoofs or Looney Tunes than it does with its grindhouse pedigree. Everything in Blood Diner is treated with Reagan-era irreverence to the point where this pointlessly stupid horror comedy starts to feel like inane poetry. It shocks; it offends. Yet, Blood Diner is so consistently, absurdly mindless that all you can do is laugh at its asinine audacity in its cheap midnight movie thrills.”

The Greasy Strangler (2016): “I found The Greasy Strangler to be an amusingly perverse provocation, one that works fairly well as a deconstruction of the Sundance-minded indie romance. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.”

Campy Spectacles

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972): “Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment. You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle.”

Mark of the Witch (1970): “Mark of the Witch is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.”

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): “One of the ways Extinction shakes off its stylistic rut is by hitting the reset button, opening with the exact same scenario as the first Resident Evil film. Milla Jovovich’s zombie-slaying protagonist wakes confused & unremembering in the shower, finding her iconic red dress from the franchise’s debut laid out carefully on her bed. As she tries to fight her way out of a military takeover of her home, she’s killed, the scenario is revealed to be a simulation, and her body is dumped on a pile of similarly-dressed clones in a chilling image that recalls the excellent existential horror Triangle. While The Umbrella Corporation’s main stooge (Game of Thrones’s Iian Glen) is literally trying to clone past successes of the franchise with villainous intent, Extinction then blows its derivative, campy treats wide open by shifting from Matrix knockoff to Mad Max knockoff, taking the zombie-infested shit show on the dusty, dusty road.”

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012): “The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.”

Beyond the Gates (2016): “It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.”

-The Swampflix Crew

 

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982)

William Asher is known for directing iconic television series such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched, so the fact that he directed the 1982 horror flick Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (aka Night Warning) is beyond strange.  His directing talent, along with the film’s unique story, take this early 80s slasher movie to another level.

When watching the film’s opening, I immediately thought of the  intense opening scene of our August Movie of the Month, The Psychic. In the opening of The Psychic, the main character has a vision of her mother jumping off a cliff. Instead of just watching the character jump and getting a distant view of the aftermath, viewers get to see this poor woman’s face get chipped off as she hits the cliff’s edges on the entire way down. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker takes a similar approach by having very aggressive opening that is totally unexpected. A husband and wife go on a trip, leaving their baby boy in care of his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). While on the road, they realize the car’s brakes aren’t working. This happens a lot in horror movies, but usually there’s a quick crash and it’s over. Well, not this time. The car is screeching all over the highway, and when it eventually crashes into the back of a log truck, the husband gets beheaded by a log. The car then goes off a cliff and becomes as flat as a pancake. If that isn’t bad enough, the car catches fire and explodes.  All that happens within the first few minutes, so if that doesn’t signify that this is going to be an insane movie, I don’t know what would.

Aunt Cheryl becomes the guardian of her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol), after the horrible accident kills her sister and brother-in-law. The film jumps to teenage Billy living with aunt. Cheryl has a peculiar obsession with her nephew that goes beyond being an overprotective aunt. One of the first interactions she has with Billy in the film involves him shirtless and asleep in his bed; she wakes him up by acting like a sexy cat. It quickly becomes apparent that she is sexually attracted to Billy, and it creates this unsettling aura almost immediately. Aside from the incest, Cheryl is an ordinary small-town homemaker. She pickles tomatoes, wears a hair handkerchief, and makes sure that Billy always has a tall glass of milk waiting for him. Her kind demeanor changes once Billy becomes interested in going to college on a basketball scholarship, and she does everything in her power to make sure that Billy never leaves her.

Cheryl’s murderous tendencies and violent past begin to surface once the fear of Billy leaving her becomes a reality. She initially attempts to bang the local TV repairman, Phil Brody, so she can have a man around when Billy leaves. He rejects her advances at first, but then he eventually asks her for a blow job, causing her to lose her shit and stab him to death. Billy and the neighbors find her covered in blood with Brody dead on her kitchen floor, and she claims that he was trying to rape her. I really do hate it when films indulge the “psycho woman that cries rape” scenario because it adds validation to the disgusting myth that women cry rape for attention.

Unfortunately, the ignorance doesn’t stop there. A homophobic lieutenant, Joe Carlson, doesn’t believe Cheryl’s accusations because he found out that Brody was homosexual. He believes that Billy was having sexual relations with Brody and killed him in a lovers’ quarrel. The reason he thinks Billy is gay is because he grew up without a father and was raised by a woman. Yes, this guy is the worst. I swear, every sentence that comes out of Carlson’s mouth contains at least one derogatory term for homosexual, and it’s so hard to not punch his face through the TV screen. He focuses so much on trying to get Billy to admit he’s gay that he ignores signs that point to Cheryl being a cold-blooded killer. One good thing about his character is that he isn’t portrayed in a positive light. His homophobia really contributes to his role as one of the film’s main antagonist, which is pretty interesting, as this film was released in 1982.

The Brody murder is only the beginning to Cheryl’s descent into madness, which brings out the Oscar-worthy acting of Susan Tyrrell. She starts to poison Billy’s milk in order to keep him from leaving her, but once he starts to find out secrets from her past, she quickly turns into a full-fledged monster, killing anyone that tries to come between her and Billy. She cuts all her hair off and goes into this sort of Neolithic state, and it’s one of the greatest moments in horror film history. Once Cheryl takes this turn, the pace of the film picks up speed and the murder weapons become more bizarre (hatchets, meat tenderizers, etc.)

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.

-Britnee Lombas

Disturbia (2007)

The world of Rear Window riffs & remakes is a strange, fascinating realm that defies much of what you might expect from Hitchcock-inspired cinema. Outside of a few straightforward Rear Window riffs that keep the original’s story firmly housed in the thriller genre, films like the 1998 made-for-TV remake starring Christopher Reeve or De Palma’s Body Double, a lot of works that pull influence from the Hitchcock classic stray far from its murder mystery roots. What Lies Beneath hammers the film’s obsessive voyeurism into the shape of a ghost story. Addicted to Love and Head Over Heels focus on its gender politics humor and forge the unthinkable: the Rear Window romcom. Perhaps most oddly, though, the 2007 Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia rehashed Rear Window into a late-in-the-game version of the late 90s slasher typified in titles like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. In fact, the movie was pitched in those films’ heyday, only to be pushed back when word got out that the Christopher Reeve version of Rear Window was in production. Although the idea of rehashing Rear Window as a late 90s slasher is just as absurd as molding it into a romcom, Disturbia is strangely the only one of these Rear Window riffs that was sued for infringing on the rights of the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” the source material for the Hitchcock classic. The case was ultimately dismissed because the similarities were too broad, which is actually indicative of how Disturbia matches the power & the humor of the Hitchcock work: barely, if at all.

I don’t have a lot of experience with Shia LaBeouf as an actor, so I can only recognize him working in one of two modes: American Honey mode and Transformers mode. In American Honey mode, LaBeouf is a Serious Artist who uses his natural charisma as a sleazy snake oil salesmen to find something a little ugly, but very true in his character onscreen. In Transformers mode, he’s a gross clown who asks you to laugh along & identify with that sleaze instead of cringing in recognition. Disturbia firmly boasts a Transformers-flavor LaBeouf, a falsely macho teenage clown who asks you to continually exclaim, “What a goof!” as he lazes around watching Cheaters, plays video games, and lustily spies on the girl next door through his trusty (and likely crusty) binoculars. It’s clear that the macho teen boy audience is when Disturbia is aiming to make its money. Early on, LaBeouf gets a supposed Big Cheer moment when he punches his (presumably underpaid, overworked) high school teacher in the jaw and lands himself on movie-long house arrest. What follows is a PG-13 version of an American Pie-style comedy where he woos the Next Door Hottie by openly drooling/spying and But I’m a Nice Guy!-ing her. It eventually works and just when they’re about to have their Big Kiss, character actor David Morse swoops in as a creepy next door slasher villain who steals their attention, nearly saving the film single-handedly. Morse is effectively, undeniably creepy as the possible serial killer these teens spy on and attempt to expose to skeptical adults. As he’s on house arrest, all LaBeouf can do is watch in horror as the evidence against Morse builds and more potential victims wander into harm’s way. He’s just like a wheelchair-bound James Stewart in Rear Window (just 10x more annoying).

To be fair, my frustration with Disturbia is not entirely LaBeouf’s fault. Were the film actually released in the late 90s when it’s nu-metal slasher mode wasn’t yet stale and I was a teenage shithead myself, I likely would’ve been onboard. Even now, David Morse’s expert work as the cold-hearted killer is almost enough for me to forgive the film’s mid-00s hard rock braggadocio and lame, teen-friendly bro humor. In essence, though, this is frequently a comedy where the jokes just didn’t work for me and only rarely the Rear Window slasher I desperately wanted it to be. The most interesting aspects director DJ Caruso, who’s also responsible for this year’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage of all things, brings to the table here are the ways the film updates & perverts the original Rear Window dynamic. There’s something less pathetic & more understandable about a teen creep spying on his neighbors through his house’s windows than Stewart doing so as an adult man. Technological updates like Internet search engines & video recordings also change the dynamic of LaBeouf sleuthing around for info on his killer next door. If you’re curious about the ways Rear Window has been reshaped & reimagined since Hitchcock’s heyday, Disturbia is a must-watch, especially for David Morse’s terrifying presence and the novelty of that seminal classic being filtered through a generic PG-13 slasher that should’ve been released in the days when KoRn was king. Once that novelty wears off, however, you’re left with a lowbrow teen comedy that seems to think it’s hi-larious to watch a teenage Shia LaBeouf construct towers made of unwrapped Twinkies and stomp out flaming bags of dog shit. Just know what you’re getting into.

-Brandon Ledet