VHYES (2020)

I’m frequently surprised by how little respect sketch comedy anthology movies get in general, but something about VHYES‘s muted reception feels especially egregious. Structurally, the film harkens back to the channel-surfing absurdism of 1970s cult classics like The Groove Tube & Kentucky Fried Movie, tying together a collection of unrelated, retro-styled comedy sketches by mimicking the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape”. Combining spoofs of assorted late-80s cable access garbage with a fictional home movie wraparound, the film is on its surface a shameless indulgence in retro VHS-era nostalgia. The individual gags are solid, though, and are elevated by the participation of LA comedy scene goofballs like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenni, Charlyne Yi, John Gemberling, and Mark Proksch. What really distinguishes VHYES, however, is how it uses its wraparound structure to give those sketches a surreal, menacing sense of purpose. As a whole, the film evokes the eerie delirium of flipping channels past midnight, blurring the border between what’s onscreen and what’s an oncoming dream. It’s a loose collection of varyingly successful sketches the way most anthology comedies are, but the unexpected sincerity & deft of its wraparound story breaks through that classic structure to uncover something freshly exciting & praiseworthy that’s rarely achieved in the genre.

Filmed entirely on actual VHS & Betamax deadstock, the comedy sketches that comprise most of VHYES are a collection of parodies of late-80s ephemera: Bob Ross painting tutorials, violently paranoid Security System commercials, QVC shopping showcases, Cinemaxxx era softcore, etc. The wraparound story initially exists as an excuse for all these vintage spoofs to commingle. On Christmas Day, 1987, a child is gifted a VHS camcorder and unknowingly begins recording experiments with the format over his parents’ wedding tape. Amazed that he can record live television to watch later at his convenience, the boy sets out to make the ultimate VHS mixtape, creating a Burroughs-style cut-up montage by surfing channels late into the night, filming sub-America’s Funniest Home Videos pranks with his buddy, and unknowingly leaving blank space for his parents’ wedding to interrupt his D.I.Y. art project. The bizarre rhythm of these images alternating in a believable, disorienting cycle is outright hypnotic. And once the movie has you in a state of late-night channel-surfing delirium, it crashes all three levels of its taped reality (the “found footage” sketches, the pranks, and the wedding) into one subliminally horrifying nightmare. Early in the film, one of the sketches warns that the VHS camcorder’s ubiquity in the home will inspire a newfound, wide-scale techno-narcissism that will incite the fall of mankind. By the end, I was nearly convinced that was true and that we’re just now reaching Phase 2 of that downfall.

VHYES is post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest: lean, strange, and menacingly absurd. Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes watching a Tim & Eric or PFFR project will be familiar with the kind of delirious, weaponized nostalgia on display here. If it were just a loose collection of gross-out, retro-styled sketches I wouldn’t be praising it so emphatically. (Okay, if Kuso is any indication, maybe I would be.) I really do feel like the unconventional wraparound narrative of this film transcends the conventions of its channel-surfing sketch comedy genre, if not only for feeling more sincere & purposeful than what’s typically pursued in these anarchic goof-arounds. I don’t expect that it’s enough of a revolutionary paradigm shift to warm skeptics up to the sketch comedy film as a genre, but if you do tend to skip over these films because they appear to be aimless freewheeling frivolities, this one might be worth a closer look.

-Brandon Ledet

Overlook Film Fest’s New Orleans Debut

It’s an exciting time to be a film nerd in New Orleans. It feels like our art cinema scene is finally bouncing back from when the AMC Palace megaplexes wiped out smaller independent venues in the 90s & 00s. The Broad Theater, The Prytania, and Chalmette Movies are keeping adventurous arts programming alive on local big screens on a weekly basis. Both New Orleans Film Fest and New Orleans French Film Fest are gaining steam in screening the most exciting films of any given year in a city that would have to wait to catch them on VOD otherwise. Joining this embarrassment of riches is the Overlook Film Festival, a nomadic horror film fest that originated in Oregon and has yet to find a permanent home. Over four beautiful late-April days in the French Quarter, the Overlook festival made its welcome New Orleans debut, making me question what we did to deserve such a magical, unprompted blessing from the indie cinema gods. Like WrestleMania’s recent return, the festival felt like a birthday present to the city on its 300th anniversary, one I very much appreciated even if we ultimately don’t get to keep it.

The tricky thing about holding onto Overlook Film Fest is that it’s young and looking to expand. A four-day festival that originated at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge (which was used for exterior shots in Kubrick’s The Shining, where the festival borrowed its name), Overlook quickly outgrew its original locale in both size & tone. Festival organizers noted in an interview with Indiewire that the theater space was too small to accommodate their planned expansion, but it also seems like their mission statement as “a summer camp for genre fans” was at odds with the hotel’s Shining-rejecting nature as “a family-oriented establishment.” This branding conflict forced the festival to shift its focus away from association with Kubrick’s shooting location to a wider range of “iconic locations that evoke the spirit of the Overlook hotel, horror’s most infamous haunted fictional location.” For its New Orleans debut, the fest landed itself in the Bourbon Orleans, which unlike the Timberline, leans into its spooky reputation by billing itself as “one of New Orleans’s top haunted hotels.” The brilliance of the move is that the Bourbon Orleans’s French Quarter locale opens the festival to several screening venues instead of one self-contained building. It transforms the French Quarter, an area crawling with “ghost tour” tourist traps, into a horror nerd’s playground the fest’s site describes as being “home to countless apparition sightings voodoo legends, and vampire curses.” They also propose that a ghost child spotted at the hotel was likely on influence on the creepy twins in The Shining, which sure, why not? Of course, the French Quarter is a limited space with its own set-in-stone boundaries and the Overlook’s arrival during peak festival season means it might have to fight for screening venues as it outgrows the mere two it reserved this year, but for now the events weren’t at all overcrowded and the city seemed to have the exact vibe they’re looking for. Let’s hope that lasts.

Speaking of gradual expansion, Swampflix was too small to secure a press pass for this year’s festival. I wanted to support Overlook as best as I could to welcome its return, though, so I bought tickets to a few individual screenings and signed up to volunteer for a shift helping organize the fest. By happenstance, my volunteer shift turned out to be a total joy, as I worked the door for live recordings of two podcasts I regularly listen to anyway: Shock Waves and The Canon. Outside taking tickets & headcounts and occasionally providing information to attendees, I mostly just listened in as guests Thomas Lennon gushed about The Exorcist III (and for a brief, glorious moment, my beloved Monster Trucks) and Barbara Crampton discussed the highs & lows of horror as a medium from the POV of a woman who’s lived them at both extremes. I got to have some brief exchanges with guests, like telling Blumhouse producer Ryan Turek how much I appreciate his podcast & wishing a panel-crashing Udo Kier a good morning (he, Lennon, and Crampton were all promoting the festival’s premiere of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich). The whole event was staged inside the Bourbon’s Orleans’s “haunted ballroom,” the site of frequently reported ghost sightings and, thus, a wonderful podcasting venue. Basically, I’m sure the festival (or, more specifically, the New Orleans Film Society folks who organized the volunteers) appreciated the extra hands, but the whole event felt like something I would have attended for fun anyway.

Since I couldn’t afford an All Access Pass for the festival and couldn’t negotiate my way in as press, I had to be choosy in selecting movies to cover for the site. Major event screenings at the Le Petit Theatre of films I’ve been dying to see like Hereditary, Upgrade, and the Unfriended sequel were calling out to me like genre film Sirens, but I decided to seek out smaller films instead. I knew I’d be able to see Hereditary on the big screen if I could be patient for a couple more months, but the joy of film festivals is often seeing proper screenings of smaller films that you’ll otherwise only see distributed on VOD (if at all). As such, I watched three foreign language horror films directed by women that I’ve heard heavy buzz behind (on podcasts like Shock Waves) for months, but I suspect might not even make it to venues like The Broad: Blue My Mind, Tigers are Not Afraid, (and my personal favorite) Good Manners. All three films (all screened at Canal Place) were excellent, adventurous participations in & subversion of familiar genre tropes – the exact kind of programming you dream of for a horror-themed festival. The programming of Good Manners & Tigers Are Not Afraid as an effective double bill was especially harmonious, as both films operate on a similar post-del Toro dark fairy tale vibe while still varying wildly in visual & thematic material. The body horror transformations of Good Manners & Blue My Mind were also interesting reflections of each other, as discussing the very nature of their exact creature feature premises could constitute spoilers given their patient reveals (even though seasoned audiences know what monsters to expect long before they arrive). It was an incredibly small sampling of the two dozen features that screened at the festival, but I could not be happier with the titles I saw. At the very least, I expect to be evangelizing for Good Manners as one of the Top Films of 2018 for the remainder of the year.

It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for the Overlook Film Festival as it expands in size & ambition. I doubt even the festival organizers themselves have a clear idea of where they’re going. I can report, though, that the first year in New Orleans was an ooky-spooky delight, an experience I’ll gladly repeat for as many years as they’re willing & able to return. The crowds were simultaneously more laidback and more enthusiastic than what I’m used to seeing at our local film fests, which made for a wonderfully nerdy genre film environment. I hope everyone who traveled here had as rewarding of an experience as I did. I also hope they saw some ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

Pottersville (2017)

Early reactions to the bizarre Christmas comedy Pottersville have been intensely focused on the over-the-top absurdity of its plot, which is totally fair. Michael Shannon stars as a small town general store owner who, once discovering his wife (Christina Hendricks) is having an affair with his best friend (Ron Perlman), goes out on a drunken rampage in a gorilla suit, inadvertently sparking a Bigfoot hoax that makes his once-humble community internationally famous. Oh yeah, and this incident is sparked by his discovery of a secret club of closeted furry fetishists lurking in his community. That’s certainly not the most traditional of Christmastime narratives (especially the part about the furries), but the movie is much more intentionally (and successfully!) goofy than people are giving it credit. It plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies and its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounts to It’s a Wonderful Yiff, but there’s no way that highly specific aesthetic wasn’t its exact intent. I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but it’s novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful.

Pottersville works best when the material is played straight, allowing the (intentional) camp value of the absurdist plot to shine through in full glory. Michael Shannon is disturbingly committed to his lead role as the put-upon shopkeeper, his natural creepiness only making the most impossibly kind character’s earnest, charitable heart all the more bizarre. His befuddlement over the existence of furries (which he unfortunately discovers by catching his wife mid-yiff) and subsequent, moonshine-influenced decision to run amok as Bigfoot are the easy highlights of the film, wonderfully clashing against the Frank Capra Christmas backdrop. By the time he’s drunkenly howling to the night like a wild animal, the performance is downright Nic Cagian. Thomas Lennon’s turn as the film’s heel is much more pedestrian. Dressed up like an early 2000s boy band singer and armed with a horrendous Australian accent, Lennon plays a reality TV “monster hunter” who blows the Bigfoot story way out of proportion, compounding the small town & general store owner’s problems exponentially. He feels like he’s airdropped in from a much broader, more conventional comedy, which detracts heavily from the much more unique tension between Michael Shannon and the furries, but he’s also amusing enough in isolation that he doesn’t ruin the fun of the picture at large. If nothing else, between this movie & Monster Trucks, Lennon has at least built an interesting case for being Bad Movie MVP of 2017.

Delivered by first-time writer/director team of Seth Henrikson & Daniel Meyer, Pottersville is surprisingly well constructed as a visual piece & an oddly subversive act of comedic writing. The town itself looks like a whimsically manicured snow globe miniature, giving it that Pushing Daisies dollhouse look; even the run-down trailer park is super cute. The script also sneaks in out-of-nowhere allusions to Freaks, Jaws, and the Christian Bale freak-out tape … just because? Whenever it functions as an outright comedy it threatens to become hopelessly pedestrian, but the basic premise of Michael Shannon as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer trying to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life is enough to carry the film as a Christmastime novelty. I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing when achieving that strange imbalance; you don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing. Either way, it’s a strange delight.

-Brandon Ledet

Monster Trucks (2017)

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Wanted: Creature Seeking Male Companion – Me: Loves dogs & horses, comforts friends when sad, never says “no” to a spontaneous adventure, always says “yes” to night swimming in moonlight, has tentacles & drinks gasoline. You: A late-20s high school student with a shitty attitude, crippling daddy issues, and a receding hairline. Only selfish, low-energy badboy bores need apply. Serious offers only, please.

God, I love January so much. In what’s often referred to as the cinematic “dumping season,” it’s these first few weeks of the year when studios roll out their wounded animals, a parade of misfit misfires they have no idea how to market. It’s also in these first few weeks when high profile prestige films from the last year’s awards season slowly roll out from their New York & Los Angeles hidey-holes to finally reach The South, which is how I wound up watching both Silence & Monster Trucks at the theater on the same day. It was a glorious day. Not only was I treated to one of the most haunting technical achievements of Marin Scorsese’s career, I also got to see one of Hollywood’s most visually bizarre blunders since the likes of Howard the Duck, Jack Frost, Garbage Pail Kids, and Mac & Me. Monster Trucks is the rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context (recalling last year’s similarly out of place, but more reasonably priced talking cat comedy Nine Lives). It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; Monster Trucks is a gift to be cherished, a precious early January diamond for those digging for treasure in the trash. There’s no scenario where this film would catch on enough to earn back its ludicrous budget, but we’re not the ones losing money on it, so I say kick back and enjoy the show.

The lore behind Monster Trucks‘s creation & eventual financial blunder is just as fascinating as the movie itself. In 2013, then-president of Paramount Pictures, the since-fired Adam Goodman, conceived the pun-centric elevator pitch for this children’s film (“What if monster trucks were literal monster-operated trucks?”) while watching his toddler play with toy vehicles by smashing them together. The story goes that, after two years of development, a 2015 test screening of the film sent children screaming in fear due to the creature design of its main monster, known simply as Creech. I would kill to see that original “director’s cut” with the initial Creech design. Unfortunately, it’s lost to history, as the studio completely overhauled the monster’s CG-animated form and recut the film to soften the terror of its visage. That’s largely how we arrived at our obnoxious $125 million price tag, but that doesn’t explain exactly why Monster Trucks is such an entertaining mess of a final product. I’m sure somewhere among the film’s legitimately talented actors (Rob Lowe, Thomas Lennon, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan) there’s someone who’s super embarrassed to be involved with this dud of an intended franchise-starter/merchandise-generator. Surely, all of Paramount would love to have the whole fiasco wiped from the record completely. I think the embarrassment is entirely unwarranted, though. Monster Trucks might be an epic financial disaster on the production end, but as an audience member I find its delirious stupidity & grotesque creature design an endless delight. I just can’t honestly say it was worth every penny.

In true 90s relic fashion, Monster Trucks begins with evil oil drilling business men disrupting the order of things with their horrific money-grubbing ways. While fracking for more! more! more! oil in nowhere North Dakota, the Evil Corporation (helmed by a diabolical Rob Lowe) accidentally unearths an ancient population of subterranean, tentacled sea monsters who drink oil for sustenance in their own underground Ferngully utopia. Two of the creatures are detained, but one escapes by hiding in the frame of an out-of-commission truck, eventually winding up in the safe haven of a junkyard, just like in Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Without the structural support of a metal truck frame, this poor beast, known simply as Creech, is a useless slob, a pile of soft, melty flesh. Truck frames work as a sort of wheelchair for the unadapted sea creature and it at first operates them like a Flintstones car before getting the hang of properly working the gears. Also like in The Iron Giant, this monster is adopted as a pet by a curious, emotionally stunted little boy struggling with the absence of a father figure. In Monster Trucks, however, the little boy in question is a high school student played by a hilariously miscast Lucas Till, who is well into his 20s and looks it. In an interesting reversal of the lonely outcast trope, everyone who knows our protagonist desperately wants to hang out with him, but he’s too much of a selfish, self-absorbed jerk to give them the time of day. It’s not that he’s too cool for them either, unless you think a near-30 high school student who lives at home, rides the bus, plays racecar when no one’s looking, and whose mom is boinking the sheriff sounds cool. Creech doesn’t teach this bozo a life lesson or improve his shitty attitude in any way. When they have to part ways at the film’s teary-eyed conclusion, all he can muster is, “I’m going to miss you, Creech. You were a good truck.” Selfish prick. He’s almost awful enough to make me root for the oil company’s hired killer goon to succeed in snapping his overgrown-kid neck, but the loss would make Creech too unbearably sad and that’s the last thing I’d want.

Luckily, Monster Trucks isn’t about ugly high school students stuck in an eternal rut learning valuable life lessons or about how greedy oil companies were the true monster (truck) all along. It’s about two much simpler, more universally lovable concepts: monsters & trucks. In the film’s purest, most deliriously idiotic moments Creech drives his truck-shaped mech suit up walls, over lesser vehicles, down mountainsides, and (in my personal favorite bit) through open fields in unison with galloping horses to a country pop soundtrack. This is truck porn about goin’ muddin’ lazily disguised as a kid-friendly creature feature. None of that gear head idiocy would mean a thing without Creech, though, who is paradoxically the cutest & most grotesque CG creation since last year’s realization of Krang in TMNT: Out of the Shadows. Creech is initially played to be scary and is nearly crushed in a hydraulic press before its not made-for-this-world adorability saves its tentacled ass. Your affection for Creech’s design (along with similarly ugly/cute creations in titles like Howard the Duck, Gooby, and Mac & Me) will largely determine how much fun you have with Monster Trucks. It’ll make or break the cuteness of scenes where Creech gargles oil or poses for selfies. It’ll dictate whether you empathize with the Black Fish levels of cruelty in early scenes where its separated from its scrotum-esque parents as well as their inevitable reunion, a endearing Kodak moment that recalls the shunting scene from Society. No matter how much you love trucks on their own (you sick freak), you really have to love Creech’s ugly-cute visage to appreciate Monster Trucks in all of its ill-considered glory.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to capture Creech’s very specific brand of aquatic monstrosity in words. It’s a horror you have to see to believe. Monster Trucks makes several efforts to construct a memorable plot around its visually striking (to put it kindly) truck-creature, but not much sticks. A genuinely creepy villain who legitimately attempts to murder “children”, a few possible goons’ lives lost in the two bigger action set pieces, a Disney Channel love interest (Don’t Breathe‘s Jane Levy, oddly enough) who calls out the selfish prick protagonist for assuming Creech’s gender as male by default, my beloved horse-galloping/truck-muddin’ scene: there are plenty of amusing details that help pad out the film’s unwieldy 105 minute runtime. None of this can surpass the basic joys of gazing at Creech, though. Every minute of Creech content is a blessing, a gift from the trash cinema gods. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can. And I guess the life lesson learned for the next Monster Trucks-type misfire to come down the line would be to try to pull off its low-key chams for $100 million less on the production end. Who knows? They might even accidentally make a profit.

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-Brandon Ledet