Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast: Top 5 Spielbergs & Predestination (2015)

Welcome to Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-second episode, James & Brandon count down their top five Steven Spielberg movies with film blogger, mixologist, and stand-up comedian Jeff Culpepper.  Also, Brandon makes James watch the Spierig Brothers’ time-travel thriller Predestination (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Winchester (2018)

The writer-director duo The Spierig Brothers tend to hit the same genre film sweet spot for me that Mike Flanagan’s work seems to for other people. They’re churning out formulaic genre pictures that do little to innovate in terms of visual craft or structural narrative, but still endear themselves to me despite my better judgement. Their vampire picture Daybreakers and (even more so) their time travel mystery thriller Predestination are clearly their most accomplished works to date, but I’m always at least intrigued by whatever latest project they have cooking, no matter how generic. I even allowed their involvement in the latest Saw sequel to trick me into revisiting that franchise for the first time in over a decade, God help me. The genre du jour for The Spierig Brothers is a haunted house horror with unearned pretensions of being a historical drama. You’d think that a period film starring Helen Mirren and “inspired by actual events” could elevate itself above the usual Spierig Brothers mold, but Winchester instead glides by as yet another by-the-books genre exercise from the duo, for better or for worse. Anyone looking for a show-stopping performance from Mirren or some historical insight into the troubled times of the real-life Mrs. Winchester are likely to leave the film frustrated. Instead, the Spierig boys bend those potentially extraordinary elements to their genre faithful will, delivering pretty much what you’d expect based on their past efforts: a well-behaved haunted house picture that somehow entertains despite its instant familiarity.

Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a wealthy 1900’s widow & heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Mirroring rumors of her mental instability in real life, her mental health is being questioned in the film by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to drive her out of her business & her fortune. The lynchpin in their argument against her sanity is a bizarre mansion she keeps under constant, ever-shifting construction, another real life detail. In the film, the Winchester house is described as “a gargantuan, seven-story structure with no apparent rhyme or reason” to its design, an M.C. Escher-esque 3D jigsaw puzzle that requires construction crews to work 24/7 to keep up with Sarah Winchester’s instructions. Mudbound’s Jason Clarke co-stars as a laudanum-addicted doctor/alcoholic hired by the Winchester company to legally assess the widow’s mental health as a guest in her bizarre home. Since this is a PG-13 horror film instead of an Oscar-minded biopic, however, that investigation shifts to instead determining whether the unexpected spooky beings the doctor encounters there are laudanum-induced hallucinations or a collective of malicious ghosts. Spoiler: it’s ghosts. Once “the difference between illusion & reality” is broken down, the doctor and the widow team up to calm the house’s ghosts, for whom the widow builds an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms for them to haunt & feel at home in. The usual balance struck in “the house that spirits built” is violently disturbed by a slowly-approaching supernatural event, something much more potentially catastrophic than a lost fortune or a laudanum addiction, two conflicts that fall by the wayside. It all wraps up pretty much how you would expect it to, with very few surprises along the way.

Judging by the weirdly unenthused response to Guillermo del Toro’s similar, but far more masterful Crimson Peak, I doubt many audiences will fall head over heels for this simplistic gothic horror throwback. You’d have to be really stoked about watching Helen Mirren glide down spooky hallways in Helena Bonham Carter drag to enthusiastically love this movie; any personal affinity for haunted house horror or real-life insight into the bizarre case of the Winchester house is not going to cut it on its own. This is a very talky, muted haunted house movie where two too-good-for-this-shit actors discuss at length the value of gun control and the practice of locking ghosts in boxes. Even for all its exploitation of a real-life tragedy & total waste of an Oscar-winning actor, however, Winchester at least has the decency to search for a moral center & a thematic point of view. The ghosts in the film are described to be “spirits killed by the rifle,” and Sarah Winchester’s agitated mental state is framed as guilt from profiting from gun violence, a theme that obviously holds modern significance (and, again, mirrors legends & rumors surrounding the real-life heiress). The way that theme expresses itself through machine-like jump scares, creepy possessed children, and endless exterior shots of a spooky house may not be the most morally delicate approach to adapting the Winchester story, but fans of mainstream horror should be well-accustomed to that kind of exploitative tackiness by now.

The Spierig Brothers did little to pay attention to how the genre tropes of a haunted house picture might distort or trivialize the story of a real-life widow with a tragic history of mental health struggles. Instead, they filtered the Sarah Winchester curio through a one-size-fits-all ghost story lens, with all the minor thrills, chills, and PG-13 kills that accompany it. It’s not likely to win over new fans to their genre-faithful, utilitarian brand, but it’s still a continuation of their pattern of making well-behaved, but surprisingly entertaining pictures out of formulas we’ve already seen repeated hundreds of times before.

-Brandon Ledet

Jigsaw (2017)

I never had much interest in the Saw franchise or the general torture porn subgenre it helped pioneer, even though I should have been in its exact demographic during its nu-metal heyday. The only early installment I can remember seeing is Saw 2, a mind-numbing theatrical experience due both to its for-its-own-sake gore & its entirely unjustified last second plot twist. Still, I had hope that the most recent sequel, simply titled Jigsaw, might be able to reshape the franchise into something fresh & newly interesting. Produced over a decade after its most recent predecessor & directed by the Spierig sibling duo behind the weirdo genre entries Predestination & Daybreakers, Jigsaw stood a good chance of finding a new, exciting angle on a previously unpleasant, aggressively empty franchise. Instead, it merely repeated the pattern laid out by previous Saw films: shock value torture scenarios striving to top themselves in violence & absurdity without narrative purpose, followed by a last second twist meant to fool you into thinking the previous 90min were less vapid than they first appeared to be. Jigsaw is, oddly, more of the same from a franchise that’s been laying dormant since 2006. It’s not an especially pleasant or exciting experience thanks to that trajectory, but it does offer insight into how the horror landscape has evolved (for the better) over the last eleven years.

Plot is probably an entirely irrelevant component at this point in the Saw series, except to say that Jigsaw is at it again! After being thought dead for a decade, the Rube Goldberg-inspired serial killer is apparently up to his old games, trapping seemingly ordinary, unrelated people in unnecessarily complex death traps as punishment for their moral shortcomings. In order to escape death by boobytraps, Jigsaw’s victims must mutilate themselves & confess to the world the many ways they’ve failed as human beings. Most of these scenarios are tied to guilt over selfishness & self-preservation, but none register as anything more than excuses for gore & screaming, incoherent mayhem. Meanwhile, a parallel police investigation tries to make sense of the newly surfaced “game” & its subsequent, torn-apart dead bodies. Will they discover the apparently resurrected Jigsaw (or his astute copycat) before all of the players in the latest game are killed? Will a last second twist completely undermine whether the game or Jigsaw’s current state ever really mattered? Even if you can stay awake long enough to find out, it’s doubtful you’ll leave the experience sated, unless all you really turned up for was a few stray moments of cruelty & gore.

Truly, the only reason to seek out Jigsaw is to admire how much better the horror landscape is now than it was a decade ago. The depth & range of horror titles being produced by boutique labels like Blumhouse & A24 in the modern era is an embarrassment of riches. Jigsaw returns us to a time when Lionsgate had the run of the place, torture porn was the rule of the land, and every horror movie was required to look like it was filmed in Rob Zombie’s dorm room. What’s even more interesting, though, is the way the Saw franchise’s influence has been dispersed through pop culture at large. Much like how runway fashion innovation eventually trickles down to Wal-Mart bargain racks, Saw is now a part of everyday, pedestrian #content. Jigsaw‘s morgue examinations of destroyed bodies are barely more gruesome than anything you’d see on CSI-type police procedurals. Its backstory flashback structure that adds puddle-shallow context one victim at a time to its archetype game-players recalls the storytelling format of Orange is the New Black. Even the “games” themselves have become wholesome weekend entertainment for the whole family, thanks to Escape Rooms & the like. Saw & its grimy torture porn ilk are not only creatively anemic in comparison to indie horror in the 2010s; their blades have also been dulled & diluted by pop culture at large to the point of being completely harmless.

If the Spierig brothers add anything new to the Saw franchise, it’s in Jigsaw‘s last minute shift from serial killer horror to superhero origin story. Even that territory has been thoroughly covered before in the long-deceased television series Dexter, though. It also occurs too late into the story to forgive the well-behaved franchise carbon copy that eats up the majority of the runtime anyway. The only value this film holds, then, is a reminder of how wonderful it is that this kind of bland, pointless cruelty is no longer the norm in horror circles. Jigsaw is enlightening & worth examination if you look at it as a point of contrast for how much the horror landscape has changed since the last entry in the franchise, but I doubt I’ll accept any future invitations to “play a game” all the same.

-Brandon Ledet