Welcome to Episode #145 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four classic horror movie musicals, starting with Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
01:00 Picture Mommy Dead (1966) 04:20 The Wicker Man (1973) 07:00 The Amityville Horror (1979) 14:00 A Cat in the Brain (1990)
18:00 Phantom of the Paradise (1974) 42:24 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) 1:07:00 Little Shop of Horrors (1986) 1:26:40 The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom& Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual. Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos. It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut. There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later. And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.
I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time. Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t. The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys). It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic. To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.
Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show). You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson). The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.
Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway. It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school. The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.
Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible. There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc. None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though. For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens. That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical. It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.
The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship. That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types. Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band. Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff. Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot. Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space. It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play. It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.
Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all. Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out. Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide. The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.
The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition. Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released. That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision. That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.
“If the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.”
The only Derek Jarman film I had seen until recently was his AIDS-haunted arthouse whatsit The Garden, which was just as depressing as it was confoundingly anarchic. I was prepared, then, for the doom-and-gloom overtones of his late-70s punk epic Jubilee, but I was not at all prepared for the film to have an actual plot – you know, with named characters and a linear progression of events. The Garden trained me to think of Jarman as an experimental artist who worked more in provocative, disjointed tableaus than in anything resembling narrative. By comparison, Jubilee feels like his version of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. His reverence for potent, abstracted imagery still overpowers his interest in telling a purposeful story, but there’s just enough narrative structure in Jubilee to hang those provocative images off of without ever feeling like the film is treading stagnant water. It’s only well-behaved when considered in juxtaposition with Jarman’s more experimental work, but that slight accommodation was the exact leg up I needed to fully get on his wavelength.
To be fair, Jubilee likely also resonated with me because it thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story here, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk nihilism & stage dressing of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest. Crass already declared that “Punk is dead” in 1978, only a year after the scene had broken out of its urban subculture dungeons to reach a wider audience through proper record distribution (and magazine-promoted fashion trends). Jarman seems to be on the same page but finds his own sense of beauty while gazing at the movement’s rotting corpse.
To access this futuristic vision of punk rock rot, Jarman first looks to England’s past. Out of idle boredom, Queen Elizabeth I tasks her royal alchemist to entertain her with a vision of the future. With the help of a goth theatre angel, the black magic ritual is a rousing success, transporting the queen to a near-future London that had been doomed by the prophetic Sex Pistols to have No Future at all. All art & culture has been decimated except for Top of the Pops & The Eurovision Song Contest, which have swapped out traditional Top 40s pop music for first-wave punk acts like The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Adam Ant. She mostly observes this dystopia through the daily goings on of one core group of female rebels: unrepentant degenerates with social ties to the pop music scene but anarchic personal politics that make them a target for police state oppression. There’s no sense of communal cohesion among these street-punk lowlifes, outside their disdain for wealth & the old-guard. One is a nymphomaniac; another would rather burn the entire world to the ground than ever have sex. One is a self-appointed fascist historian; another is an idealistic leader who believes their punk enclave is the future, etc. Their communal desires & politics are just as obscured as the intent of their pointless daily antics; the only clear message is that there truly is no future (and England’s dreaming).
I can’t pretend that I understand what Jarman was attempting to say with Jubilee any more clearly than what I picked up from The Garden. Both films are extremely difficult to decipher in the moment as they indulge in opaque images & dialogue, but both still communicate a personal & cultural feeling when considered in their entirety. In The Garden, that feeling was one of devastating post-AIDS grief. In Jubilee, it was a punk rock brand of nihilism that could only have been built on cultural foundations as fashionably hedonistic as The Sex Pistols and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which are both quoted in-dialogue with the hushed reverence that straight circles save for Bible verses. John Waters’s own femme punk dystopia, Desperate Living, was released a year earlier than Jubilee and made much more overt strides to turn the abrasive anarchism of punk subculture into populist entertainment (at least in a midnight circuit context); it very well may be my favorite film of all time. Jubilee falls more towards the experimental art end of that academic/populist spectrum, but it’s just as abrasive & (literally) trashy in its own jumbled nightmare interpretation of the time. It hit me right in my femme-punk sweet spot, and I’m more excited than ever to see what other stomach-turning tableaus Jarman’s filmography has to offer.