Lagniappe Podcast: Stoker (2013)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker (2013) — a high-style Gothic melodrama modeled after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

00:00 Welcome

03:30 The City of Lost Children (1995)
06:35 The X-Files (1998)
10:40 The Unholy (2021)
13:24 A Perfect Enemy (2021)
14:34 Stowaway (2021)
16:12 The Toll (2021)
19:27 Saint Maud (2021)
21:30 Promising Young Woman (2020)
27:56 Psycho Goreman (2021)
37:17 Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
41:48 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
42:33 Pig (2021)
47:15 Hackers (1995)

49:40 Stoker (2013)

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– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

A Perfect Enemy (2021)

In March 2020, I started reading Marie NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In about a week before Texas went into its first lockdown. It was a stunning book, beautiful and discomfiting, about a woman, Nadia, who suddenly and inexplicably becomes othered by her community. Friends, neighbors, amenable ex-lovers, strangers, her pupils: overnight, she becomes a pariah to them, something different and perhaps even obscene. As I was on the bus on the way home from work, not realizing that it would be the last time I would be taking that route, I was reading through a passage about Nadia also taking public transportation, and her growing awareness of being watched and observed, and that paranoid feeling surged through me as the eyes of my fellow commuters began to dart from face to face, seeking any sign of illness or contagion. It was a distinctly surreal experience that I do not recall fondly. NDiaye’s writings seemed, based on my own admittedly limited cultural knowledge, very French; Heart focused heavily not just on the feeling of being ostracized, but also on the confusion of it, and through narrative sleight of hand managed to let the reader know that there was something about her situation that Nadia unconsciously understood but forced beneath the surface of her conscious mind. Despite her constant claims that she couldn’t imagine the reason for her situation, the reader always knew that she was more aware than she let on. Although the novel upon which A Perfect Enemy is based, Cosmétique de l’ennemi, is Belgian (albeit written in French), the summaries of it which I’ve managed to locate indicate a similar self-deception at the original novel’s core, which does not (forgive the pun) translate to the big screen, nor am I certain it could have translated.

Successful and renowned Polish architect Jeremiasz Angust (Tomasz Kot) has just finished giving a lecture in Paris about his philosophy of design. In so doing, he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (probably best known in the Western Hemisphere as the author of The Little Prince): “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is tied into his desire to design spaces which are to the benefit not of an aristocratic class, but to the societal underclasses, who deserve beauty as much as their supposed betters. En route to the airport to return home, he offers to share a cab with a rain-soaked young Dutch woman who gives her name as Texel Textor (Athena Strates). Despite the objections of the cab driver, they also turn back to retrieve Texel’s suitcase, which causes both of them to miss their flights. As they each wait for the next available flight, Jeremiasz politely attempts to rebuff Texel’s attempts to engage him in further conversation, especially once her interest in him is further aroused by the fact that he had designed the very airport in which they are currently stranded. He finally gives in to her begging to hear her out as she tells him stories about her childhood, promising one such tale about how she killed a classmate in her youth. As they adjourn to a very nice lounge, the miniature diorama of the airport shows two tiny figures inside painted to look just like Jeremiasz and Texel, in an otherwise monochromatic white sea. 

Texel tells three stories. The first is about her disgust with the sound of her stepfather’s eating as a child and how her own rejection of food due to textural issues led to her being punished by mixing up offal and other unappetizing food remnants to feed to the family’s cats, but forced herself to eat that mixture and discovered she loved it. The second story is about her friendship with another girl from school, who was much more well-off and of whom the poor Texel was deeply envious, even going so far as to destroy the wealthier girl’s toys out of spite. One night she prayed for the girl to die while stabbing a doll, and learned the following day at school that she had died in the night. Between these stories, Texel asks Jeremiasz about his wife, noting his wedding band, but he reveals nothing other than to say that he still loves her, which Texel doubts, noting that when someone loves another person, they can’t help but talk about them more than Jeremiasz is willing to speak of his bride. Jeremiasz says that Texel can’t possibly think that her prayers killed her classmate, but Texel tells her final story, about seeing a beautiful woman in a French cemetery, standing over a sculpture of a mourning woman that looks almost just like her. She falls madly in love with the woman instantly and pursues her, much to the woman’s dismay, and although Texel catches up with the woman and even knocks her down, the mourner manages to get away. Texel spends years trying to find her again, and when she does and realizes the woman does not recognize her from that day in the graveyard, she weasels her way into the woman’s home, only for the woman to eventually recognize Texel’s mad laughter, and then a tragedy occurs. 

Although there’s not much to spoil here for a first time viewer and I’m not giving this film a recommendation, I’ll still refrain from sharing too much about how Texel and Jeremiasz were connected prior to their “chance” meeting, although an astute reader may have already figured it out. That’s by far the least interesting part of the film. Maybe I’m simply still haunted by Hereditary, but I had really hoped that the recurring image of the tiny figures of Texel and Jeremiasz appearing in the model airport in the transitions between scenes would be a larger and more literal factor in the plot, and that perhaps Texel was some kind of avenging spirit or witch come to force Jeremiasz to confront or reckon with something from his past. I’m not saying that’s not what happens in the movie, but, again, I don’t want to ruin the ending or the journey should you find yourself with access to this film and time to kill. The twist isn’t telegraphed necessarily, but it is foreshadowed heavily enough that you’ll probably stay a few steps ahead of the reveal. Even if that doesn’t work, what does work in the “long conversation” part of Act II are Texel’s interruptions of her own stories to ask Jeremiasz what he’s imagining when she talks about childhood poverty or elementary school buildings, and corrects his mental images, which draw on his own experiences, with clearer and more specific ones that accurately reflect her past. I love movies about memory, and this is an interesting and dynamic way to confront, inspect, and visualize the imperfections of memory and imagination in a visual way. There’s also a striking scene in the final act of the film that’s evoked by the movie’s poster image, but to say more about it would give too much away.

Unfortunately, where A Perfect Enemy falls flat is in the performances. Although there’s something indescribably “off” about Marta Nieto, who plays the object of Texel’s affections, it’s Kot who delivers one of the strangest performances I’ve ever seen here, and not in a good way. At first I thought it might have been a language barrier issue and was fully prepared to, on this film’s behalf, argue that it might have been better to allow Kot to speak his native Polish and subtitle the movie instead of forcing him to speak English throughout, but I watched an English-language interview with him, and he speaks the language fluently. I cannot imagine what prompted the acting choice to deliver every line of Jeremiasz’s dialogue so stiltedly; as a result of it, Kot delivers a performance that is—and I hesitate to use this term without sufficient reason but there are truly no other or more accurate descriptors—Wiseaunian. I don’t think that Kot is a bad actor necessarily, but it’s such a huge distraction that one could almost (but not quite) overlook what an amazing performance Strates is bringing to the table. She manages to portray innocence, madness, and clarity of purpose in what could have easily been a textbook standard manic pixie nightmare girl, and I really look forward to seeing her in future roles. I’m also fascinated by director Kike Maíllo’s cinematic eye; there are a lot of breathtaking images here (most of which were included in the film’s extremely well-crafted trailer), and I can’t wait to see him take the helm of another thriller that’s less hampered by a familiar narrative twist and a wooden performance from its lead.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierce and The Damned Don’t Cry.  While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey.  I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs.  The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal.  By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles.  Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way.  It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.

A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress.  Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband.  Well, that and the murders.  Her main crime is probably the murders.  The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her.  The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself.  It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear.  Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously.  She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever.  I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.”  The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it.  Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy.  In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.

There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment.  Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness.  Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions.  Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging.  Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn.  She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy.  As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here.  I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2021)

I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo.  Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog.  While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere.  Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles like Phoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down.  That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.  Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.

At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to.  A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference.  When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met.  And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination.  She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes.  Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.

Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema.  Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now.  It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms.  It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others.  If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.

-Brandon Ledet

Promising Genre Winner

It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know.  I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself.  Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd.  My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari.  I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.

I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release.  Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire).  Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever.  That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel.  Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful.  All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows.  That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.

I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch.  To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative.  For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis.  Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge, Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort.  To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains.  My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety.  I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.

While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner.  Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context.  Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year.  That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way.  Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to.  Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Manhunter (1986)

I recently filled in a pretty big blind spot in my mental library of the film canon: I had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, despite it being one of the biggest films of the nineties and occupying a massive place in the American pop culture landscape of the past thirty years. Every single part of the film has been parodied, homaged, recreated, dissected, and interpreted musically; its influence loomed huge, and looms still to this day. I’ve also seen virtually everything else in the Thomas Harris adaptation canon, as I was a fan of the Hannibal TV series and I’ve seen all of the other film adaptations of the Lector works other than Lambs. I was inspired to finally seek it out and watch it after recently seeing two works that referenced it: I’m finally getting around to watching The X-Files, and early Dana Scully is very clearly based on Clarice Starling (even the X-Files wiki has a page about this), as well as the introductory scene of Betty Cooper in the first posts-timeskip episode of this season of Riverdale, in which Betty runs the Quantico course that Clarice does at the beginning of Lambs. All this hype is well-deserved; that Jodie Foster has delivered a lifetime’s worth of fantastic performances makes her portrayal of Starling no less fantastic, Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal is delightfully creepy, the mystery elements of the plot are perfectly constructed, and it’s a movie that earned its place in pop culture. My biggest complaint, really, is in regards to the workmanlike quality of Jonathan Demme’s directorial work.

To put it simply, Lambs just isn’t very stylish, and a lot of the storytelling is in the (admittedly great) performances. That’s typical of how I feel about Demme’s work; a few years back, one of the weekly summer specialties that the Alamo Drafthouse ran was called “Un-Hitched,” featuring films inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. I saw all four features that ran as part of the specialty program and wrote about three of them: Body Double, Special Effects, and (as a submission for Movie of the Month) Who Can Kill a Child? Even though I disliked Special Effects, I still had something to say about it, but Demme’s Un-Hitched contribution, The Last Embrace, left me completely apathetic. His productions are substantial but lack a quintessential auteurism, and that shows though in Lambs, despite it having a fairly long-lasting legacy. There are a few moments that stand out: the nightvision stalking of Clarice in Jamie Gumb’s basement is inspired, and the shooting of Clarice’s initial interviews of Lector place him behind glass while the camera (and the viewer) stays outside of his cell, then having her final scene with him in Memphis show with the camera in his cell while Clarice paces on the other side of the bars is a great depiction of the inversion of their power dynamic. Overall, however, what Lambs made me want to do was revisit my favorite Harris adaptation, the oft-overlooked Michael Mann flick Manhunter, which was released in 1986, just five short years after the publication of its source material, Red Dragon.

When it comes to the general public’s interest in the Hannibal Lector character, the story with the greatest staying power and most mainstream recognition is Silence of the Lambs, but to my mind, the plot of Red Dragon is the Hannibal Lector story. It’s certainly had the most adaptations, with Manhunter coming first in the eighties, then getting a second adaptation under its original Red Dragon title as a Lambs prequel in 2001 and starring Edward Norton as Will Graham, before finally being adapted as part of the third season of NBC’s Hannibal TV series helmed by Bryan Fuller. Although the last of these was a Tumblr darling and had a devoted following which praised the show’s visual flair, Manhunter is also no slouch in the visuals department. When I think of the quintessential eighties neo-noir (neon-noir?), Manhunter is the film that I think of.

Surprisingly, the Red Dragon plot outline is pretty consistent across all three adaptations: some time prior to the “current” events, FBI profiler Will Graham was investigating a series of serial killings by a man named Garret Jacob Hobbs. During the course of that investigation, Graham partnered and coordinated with well-regarded psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hannibal Lector. Graham shot and killed Hobbs in self defense, and Graham was himself grievously injured by Lector while attempting to escape the doctor upon the realization that Lector was also a serial killer and cannibal. While recovering, Graham’s injuries are photographed and published by sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, and although he heals physically, his mind takes longer to recover. The very thing that allows Graham such great insight into the mind of the killer, his empathy, also makes him susceptible to the same pathological tendencies of the killers he pursues. Now, with the emergence of a new prolific serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy,” Will comes out of retirement to consult with Lector once more in order to catch him. The Tooth Fairy is in fact one Francis Dolarhyde, a bodybuilding film development specialist with a slight facial deformity about which he is extremely neurotic.

Dolarhyde has an obsession with the William Blake Revelatory poems/paintings about the Red Dragon, and he believes that he is transforming his victims in his murders of them, as they “bear witness” to a transformation that he calls “The Great Becoming.” Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde into a trap by leaking false, inflammatory information about the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon to Lounds, but an enraged Dolarhyde captures and kills Lounds instead of Graham. It is discovered that Lector and Dolarhyde have managed to send each other messages via personal ads in Lounds’s newspaper, and Lector provides Dolarhyde with information that endangers Graham’s wife and stepson. The Red Dragon aspect of Dolarhyde’s personality is temporarily pacified when he strikes up a relationship with his blind co-worker, Reba McClane, but his jealousy regarding an innocent interaction with another co-worker leads the Dragon to reassert itself. The only major narrative deviation from the source material and the other adaptations here is that, in Manhunter, Graham attacks and kills Dolarhyde in his home to save Reba; in the Red Dragon and Hannibal TV series adaptations, as well as the original novel, Dolarhyde stages his death so that he can pursue Graham’s family in vengeance without interference, only to be killed by Graham’s wife Molly when invading their home.

Manhunter is a great movie, one of the best neo-noirs ever made. Not to throw a fantastic movie like Silence of the Lambs under the metaphorical bus, but Lambs has nothing on Mann’s sense of style and his cinematic eye. Every frame of Manhunter is gorgeous, even when it’s shocking, disturbing, or creepy; at this point, audiences have seen three different versions of Francis Dolarhyde take three different versions of Reba to pet three different sedated tigers, and although neither Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde nor Joan Allen’s Reba are the best or most interesting versions of those characters, this is still the most visually striking interpretation of that scene (for the record, Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon is the best Dolarhyde, and Hannibal’s Rutina Wesley is the best Reba). Manhunter’s various tableaux run the gamut from oppressive institutional white spaces to vibrant, almost violently purple sunrises, to stunning salmon sunsets, neon blue night scenes in Graham’s beachside Florida home, and moody shots of Graham inspecting his reflection in various darkened windows. This is used to great effect; when we first meet Brian Cox as Dr. Lecktor (as it is spelled in this film), he’s clothed entirely in white and housed in an all-white cell. When we see reverse shots of Graham from Lecktor’s point of view, the white lines of the cell bars blend into the background of the walls, there’s an impression of Graham, metaphorically fractured into pieces in a white void. That same whiteness is mirrored in the home of the family that was most recently slain by Dolarhyde, which shares that same ascetic aesthetic, other than the Pollock-esque splatters of arterial spray. In an early scene, Graham’s wife Molly (Kim Greist) sits with FBI behaviorist Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) in a lovely silhouette against the sunset over the ocean, and you think to yourself, “God, this is a gorgeous shot,” and then that shot is succeeded by another beautiful diorama, and another, until the film ends.

Cutting the final Graham home invasion scene and killing Dolarhyde early is a strong choice, but I think it works well here, giving the film a cleaner (and more expedient) resolution. Like most Harris adaptations, this one clocks in at a pretty significant length—120 minutes, alongside Lambs’ 118, Red Dragon’s 124, and Hannibal (2001)’s 132—and omitting the final scene allows for earlier sequences to “marinate” a bit more, last a little longer, and have a greater impact. If there’s anything that it stumbles with, it’s Dolarhyde. Both Red Dragon and the TV version of Hannibal weave the Dolarhyde point of view into their texture a bit more evenly, while Manhunter takes perhaps a little too much time before getting to him. As a result, the back half of the film contains long periods of screentime with the focus shifted to Dolarhyde and Rita with very little Graham, which makes for a slightly uneven, but still very rewarding, viewing experience.

There’s so much to love and praise here: the occasional giallo-esque score, the dream sequences, the lingering shots of stillness that create tension, the palate, the acting choices, but it really needs to be seen to be enjoyed. Although Manhunter is older than I am, it’s not streaming for free anywhere, but I guarantee it’s worth the rental price.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

4×4 (2021)

I love a good high-concept gimmick. Any premise that feels like it was pitched as scribbles on a bar napkin calls out to me like an irresistible Siren song – whether it’s “haunted Zoom call“, “killer cocktail dress“, or “cannibal mermaid musical“. As a result, the bar-napkin premise for the new Argentine cheapie 4×4 was too good to pass up. 4×4 is a single-location, confined-space thriller about a petty thief who gets trapped in a high-tech “bait car”, then tormented for days by his victim-turned-captor. Basically, “bait car torture porn.” It mostly delivers on that gimmick for its first hour too (even if the concept feels a decade stale). We are trapped in the bait-car torture chamber with our unlucky-thief protagonist for a miserable, laughable stretch of high-concept cruelty, making for some highly entertaining modern exploitation trash. Then, 4×4 commits a major sin; it abandons its gimmick for a stubbornly traditional, moralistic conclusion outside the car-prison, ruining its trashy appeal for a last-minute attempt at respectability. Bummer.

After an opening-credits montage of security cameras, locked gates, and barbed-wire fences spotted on the streets of Buenos Aires, we jump right into the central action of the story. A thief in soccer hooligan drag breaks into a parked SUV and removes the car’s radio, then pisses on the backseat as a childish prank. He immediately regrets that prank, though, as he ends up spending the next few days of his life soaking in his own piss. The car doors are locked; the windows are polarized & bulletproofed; he’s an isolated prisoner, made to spend endless days in solitary confinement as his rich-asshole captor taunts him over the would-be stolen radio. Most of the torture is the confinement itself; outside of the car’s AC system being weaponized for bursts of extreme cold & extreme heat, the thief is mostly just left to stew in his own repugnant juices & stench. His only water source is the condensation he licks off the car windows in the morning hours. His only escapes are the delirious dreams he has while starved & dehydrated. His only company is the villainous voice on the radio that holds him captive . . . until that villain ruins the movie by insisting on facing his victim in person, outside of the car.

The ideal version of 4×4 would stick to the confines of its commanding gimmick. It starts off on the right foot with the weaponized AC unit & bullets ricocheting off the unbreakable windows, but the booby traps should have exponentially escalated from there. Transforming an ordinary SUV into a mechanized torture chamber leaves plenty of room for over-the-top gimmickry. Unfortunately, the movie shies away from its true destiny as a inane high-concept thriller to instead stage a spirited communal debate about the morality of vigilante justice. Instead of sawblade steering wheels, trash-compactor seating, or tentacled seatbelts, we get a sober, both-sidesing conversation about street crime & wealth-disparity that asks empty rhetorical questions like “What is happening to us as a society?” What a letdown. No one’s going to seek this movie out for its philosophical insights on the morality of petty theft or vigilante justice. Even if that were the case, it ultimately doesn’t have much to say on the topic. The audience is only on the hook for the bar-napkin promise of killer-SUV hijinks, and the movie’s outright cruel to drive away without satisfying that vehicular bloodlust.

-Brandon Ledet

Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia and pro-American propaganda, visually stunning and chilling.  It was talked about a lot these past four years, since during the Trump presidency people were experiencing increased Russophobia and witnessing Eastern European scandals and intrigue.  However, given the film’s message about patriotism and military force, I don’t think it’s the safest comparison to modern events.  Centering around the struggles of two soldiers, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) after being kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, the film mainly concerns the American military and political handling of The Red Scare, taking an inherently critically flawed and culturally problematic viewpoint.  That being said, it has an amazing handle on the psychological power of editing and features wonderful performances by everyone involved.

The film opens with the company of Marco and Shaw at the Chinese/Korean border during the Korean War.  They are a gang of rough and tough men, the typical everymen of the 1960s, cutting loose during wartime: drinking, gambling, and objectifying and exotifying the local women.  However, their leader, Shaw, is a wet blanket.  He is a cold and prim rich boy who thinks they’re all lowly trash. Of course, his fellow soldiers find him intolerable.  During a mission they are deceived and captured by a group of sinister Communist scientists who intensely brainwash them.  Without revealing too much of the plot’s twist and turns, I’ll say that they are returned home suddenly with warm feelings for Raymond Shaw.  Marco gains a high-up position in the military and Shaw works for a newspaper relishing in writing smear pieces against his simpleton presidential-hopeful Conservative stepfather (James Gregory), who is merely a pawn for the domineering Mrs. Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  Marco is tasked with deprogramming Shaw, who lives a sad and lonely life haunted by his mother’s overbearing shadow.  Eventually, we realize that his mommy issues are the key.

One of the most effective scenes in the film is the demonstration of brainwashing by the Communist scientist.  It cuts back and forth from what the soldiers see (a boring talk from a ladies’ garden club) to the panel of red leaders from all of the world in an amphitheater decorated with huge portraits of Stalin and Moa in the background, in case you forgot what side this sinister cabal was on.  There’s a jarring effect created by the juxtaposition of the mundane droning on of the women’s club and the scientific enthusiasm and twisted plotting.  The clash of the mundane and “the evil” is a chilling way to set us up for constant doubt and paranoia for the rest of the film.

Now, let me get to my real issue with this movie: it reeks of misogyny.  The mother is set up to be the ultimate villain.  The idea that an ambitious woman is more dangerous than world powers that have extreme scientific advances in the realm of psychology is, quite frankly, sickening.  I have no sympathy for Mrs. Iselin.  Angela Lansbury delivers a performance that renders the character utterly reprehensible and unforgivable.  That said, the whole idea of a mother’s failures being the downfall of the country is a special kind of good old fashioned American woman-hating.  It’s really drilled home with the idea that the only way any of this is uncovered is through a team of highly trained military personnel. It just feels a little overkill.  But there is only one thing that pro-military rhetoric in the USA wants to kill, torture, and demean more than a Communist: a powerful woman Communist.  There’s enough analysis of the treatment of women during these wars and missions “to spread democracy” to inspire entire dissertations so I’ll leave that to more skilled folks than I.  Suffice to say, there are serious consequences to this line of thinking.  The only sympathetic women in the film are those who stay on the sidelines being supportive and nurturing.  This includes one whom gets killed off, in an example of an ambitious woman trampling a traditional, attractive feminine figure.  A true 1960s man’s nightmare and the nightmare of many contemporary men as well.

In a political vacuum, I’d say that this is a spectacularly made film, a real classic.  It is technically wonderful, with extremely talented performances.  But we are not in a vacuum.  As a country, if this is the narrative we turn to again and again, we will probably never get over gender disparity.  The Manchurian Candidate is a chilling piece of paranoid propaganda.  It upholds the rhetoric of the status quo: xenophobia, misogyny, and a hyperbolic love and trust of the troops.  It’s an entertaining and effective film, but culturally we need better narrative touchstones.

-Alli Hobbs

Villains (2019)

It can’t have come to this, can it? Kyra Sedgwick isn’t old enough to play a psychobiddy. Right?  Our eternally youthful Madam Sedgwick is a respectable 54 last year.  How old was Bette Davis when Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962? According to Wikipedia she was born in 1908, so … 54.

Well, shit.

Villains is a 2019 comedy thriller about spacy, star-crossed stick-up artists Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), whose getaway car runs out of gas at the worst possible moment. Happening upon a house, they break in with no real plan before realizing that they can siphon the gas in the car in the house’s garage, get back to their alleged vehicle, and then be on their way to Florida, where Mickey has designs on selling seashells down by the seashore. They stumble across something in the basement (I’ll come back to that in a minute), and before they can get out with their hides intact, homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Sedgwick) come home with their infant, Ethan. Although the younger couple start from a position of power—they have a gun, after all—their elders quickly get the upper hand and before you know it, Mickey and Julia are handcuffed to a pole in the basement while George and Gloria try to decide what to do with them. 

All of the film’s marketing, such as it is, really hypes up the something in the house, and that was what originally drew me to the flick. Here’s Hulu’s synopsis: “A pair of amateur criminals break into a suburban home and stumble upon a dark secret that two sadistic homeowners will do anything to keep from getting out” (emphasis mine). IMDb’s description is virtually identical, but the reveal of what’s in the basement comes very early in the film’s runtime, less than halfway through Act I, and is the reason that the rest of the plot exists. If you want to check this one out with absolutely no spoilers, then turn around now and come back later (or don’t; it’s still a free country*). Here’s what’s in the basement:

A little girl named Sweetiepie (Blake Baumgartner). 

And the “dark secret”? Gloria and George could never have children. Ethan’s just a doll (we learn this later but long after Gloria says, in roundabout religious language, that either she or George is infertile) that Gloria got from her mother before the latter died of cancer in the former’s childhood. George kidnapped Sweetiepie as a replacement for the child that Gloria could never have, but it didn’t work out, and so instead of just killing her they’ve locked her up in the basement. Which is obviously messed up, but I was expecting a twist that was less Room and more in the vein of Fright Night, or at the very least something in the ballpark of Apt Pupil

That having been said, this is a fun little romp. I’m forever saying that there are far too few thrillers set during the daylight hours, and if we’re all being honest here, many of those which do exist look cheap. Not so here, as dual neophyte directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who are also each credited as co-writer, craft a dynamically shot feature with an eye for depth of field and a couple of fascinating framing choices and shots that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen before. Monroe is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s nice to see her getting to have a good time and let loose after great-but-understated performances in The Guest and It Follows. I know Donovan only from Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (I have a soft spot) and somewhere in the neighborhood of 786 commercials for Burn Notice during my final semester of grad school while watching Criminal Minds in syndication for six hours a day. While his is the weakest performance of the leading quartet, it’s only because George and Gloria are characters on the more exaggerated end of the scale, having a wholesome folksiness that lacks the edge of malice that the character requires, and Donovan doesn’t get to showcase the range that his screen partner does. There’s a fun bit toward the beginning when he attempts to ingratiate himself with Mickey and Jules, without success, and it’s fun, but each scene thereafter is a variation on delivery. I was surprised by Skarsgård here as well, as I know him almost solely from Hemlock Grove, in which he rose to the level of the material (not very high) and the IT films, in which he was fantastic. He’s magnetic here in a way that I haven’t seen before, as a man who isn’t terribly book smart, or street smart, but is charming and has a certain brightness about him that surfaces when it’s needed most. 

Sedgwick is great here, hamming it up with an erotic dance and over-the-top seduction in one scene, then doing a perversely quick spin to sympathetic as she cuts the skin of her hands to shreds grasping at the porcelain shards of Ethan’s shattered head, then to threatening, then maternal. I saw Singles when I was sixteen and absolutely fell in love with Sedgwick, and even further back than that, for some reason, every time I watched Amazing Stories when I was a kid, it was always the episode where she sends food down that well in the desert. That scene in Singles when she delivers the monologue about garage door openers is peak cinema to me. Unlike other films in the psychobiddy genre, the camp here is undeniably intentional, and although this hurts the film a little on the whole, it also gives Sedgwick the opportunity to play things a little broadly and to the cheap seats in some scenes as she babbles about her past and Ethan, and to bring everything around her into sharp focus when she reminisces about her childhood and George’s courtship of her. 

Standout scenes include a painful tongue stud removal, the repetition of the “carwash,” which is a unique and sweet act of intimacy in which Jules waves her hair back and forth over Mickey’s face like an automated car wash mop, a reverse laundry chute escape, and Gloria pantomiming. Check it out. Or don’t; again, I’m not your boss.  It’s on Hulu.

*Void where prohibited, and your mileage will vary.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond