B.C. Butcher (2016)

It’s generally not the best policy to judge a movie based on its context instead of its content, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid doing so while discussing B.C. Butcher. Written by a 15 year old and directed in her dad’s (beautiful) backyard when she was 17, B.C. Butcher has a distinct teens-goofing-off vibe that makes a huge impact on its production value limitations and reasonable audience expectations. As young as she was, filmmaker Kansas Bowling did talk a big game in her promotional interviews for the film, citing names like Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Lloyd Kaufman (who distributed the film under his Troma brand) among her influences, names I didn’t know or care about until I was well into my 20s. Growing up in L.A. will do that for you, I guess, and Bowling is equipped with enough ingrained schlock history to know how to turn a small, unassuming camp film into a minor success. Shot on 16mm and coming in under an hour in length, B.C. Butcher looks & feels authentic to its trashy drive-in roots. This vibe carries over to the advertising’s David Friedman-esque claim that it’s the “world’s first prehistoric slasher film.” This isn’t the type of work that would normally bowl people over with excitement, but given the context of its production its’ difficult to shake the feeling that we may have another budding Anna Biller on our hands in Bowling: a young schlock historian looking back to old modes of B-picture filmmaking for new, interesting takes on since-stale genres.

In the year 1 million B.C., “before dinosaurs took to the skies,” a tribe of young prehistoric women are terrorized by two outside threats: a gross caveman who individually seduces members of the tribe only to cheat on them & an even somehow less gross monster that murders them one by one, slasher film style. The B.C. Butcher at least has a motive for his crimes against the tribe. He kills the girls as retribution for the slaying of his undead bride, who torments his nightmares with commands to kill! kill! kill! The caveman Casanova has no such excuse, driving the girls apart with his grotesque, predatory seduction merely for his own pleasure. The film boasts two “big name” actors: Kato Kaelin of O.J. fame plays the pantsless caveman loverboy and Kadeem Hardison, best known for portraying Dwayne Wayne on A Different World, is the off-screen narrator. The “plot” doesn’t get much more complicated from there, except maybe in the climactic moment where The B.C. Butcher sheds a magical tear, which was one of the film’s biggest laughs. That kind of slight, straightforward storytelling again feels true to Bowling’s schlocky roots and one of the smartest decisions she makes as a filmmaker is in limiting the runtime so that the story never really outwears its welcome. If it were actually released in the 60s or 70s it would’ve been the exact kind of throwaway junk that padded out a double bill at the drive-in. I mean that with love.

As something that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen a modern teen’s Tumblr or Instagram account, what B.C. Butcher excels at most is aesthetic. In the opening credits, girls pose in leopard print dresses, furs, and boas to a Coasters-type novelty song. In-between the film’s lightly gory kills, the same kids goof off while a punk soundtrack that sounds like it was provided by Burger Records, with band names like Vicky and the Vengents and The Ugly Kids, provides a pleasant aural backdrop for a mildly horrific version of playing dress up. These are, honestly, the best moments in the film. My favorite scene overall might be the mid-movie music video where The Ugly Kids mime one of their tunes on watermelon instruments. Bowling has a great eye for pure aesthetic, a saving grace that elevates her debut high above similar micro-budget horrors like Shark Exorcist & Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. She stumbles a little in a few stray decisions (it’s a little alarming that the only to black characters in the film are a killer ogre and a blind mystic), but there’s more than enough solid humor to be found in her gleefully schlocky details: character names like Anna Conda & Neandra, stock footage dream sequences, casual inclusion of plastic water bottles disrupting the prehistoric setting, etc. B.C. Butcher is a delightfully silly debut with a fascinating pedigree and even if the film itself doesn’t wholly satisfy every trash-gobbling viewer, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away incurious about where its teenage director is headed next.

-Brandon Ledet

Vegas in Space (1991)

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threehalfstar

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Vegas in Space is an early 90s sci-fi cheapie distributed by Troma in which all characters are played by either drag queens or women. It took almost a decade to complete, was partially fueled by sex work & meth, and was filmed entirely in its star performer’s San Francisco apartment. You can feel all of those qualities in every shoddy fiber of what’s essentially a glorified home movie and, yet, there’s enough artistry in the film’s set & costume design and its central B-movie sendup gimmick to make for a fun, fascinating watch. Filmed in full glory Glamourama & staged on entirely hand-built sets, Vegas in Space looks the way a B-52s song sounds (“Planet Claire”, especially) & recalls a drag routine version of either Corman’s unreleased Fantastic Four adaptation or the cult television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s very rough around the edges, but it has style to spare as it lives by its pronounced motto “Glamour first, glamour last, glamor always!”

An all-male (including women in male drag) crew fly their space ship to the Planet Clitoris in The Beaver System in order to help solve a diamond heist caper. This proves to be a dangerous mission since “No males are allowed to touch down on Clitoris”, so the men disguise their gender by taking sex change pills, a transformation process that looks & sounds a lot like the female orgasm. Newly feminized & disguised as 20th Century showgirls, the men infiltrate the city of Vegas on the Planet Clitoris, “an oasis of glamor in a Universe of mediocrity.” They set themselves on saving the planet by entertaining for a slumber party and keeping their eyes peeled for a jewel thief who has stolen a precious object that keeps Clitoris form suffering dangerous earthquakes. The whole plot feels like something out of erotic fiction, but does serve as a loving tribute to real-life titles of 1950s space epics like Cat-Women of the Moon. There’s no sexual energy to its women-only “pleasure planet’ premise, despite what you might expect form a film written & performed by drag queens & there’s really no point to the space crew starting the film as men at all, really, except for pointing to its own central drag queen gimmick, since they readily adapt to the change & suffer no conflict because of it. For the most part, even the sci-fi aspect of the story doesn’t feel all-that necessary or fully-explored. Outside some cardboard spaceship & a few goofy ideas (like swapping out the term “warp speed” for “ultra space jumps”), the sci-fi setting is mostly an excuse for the film’s true bread & butter: outrageous costume & set design. Those aspects far outweigh any petty concerns like plot structure or a command of pacing, so you have to love their charms to ignore the film’s blindspots & land yourself on its wavelength.

Obviously, it would help if you love drag as an artform for you to appreciate Vegas in Space as art. Starring San Francisco personalities like Doris Fish, Miss X, and Ginger Quest, the film is billed as being “based on the party by Ginger Quest” in its opening credits and “the first ever all-drag queen sci-fi musical” in its liner notes. Now that latter point is up for debate, not only because it might not be the first ever, but because it features cis women among its many drag performers and doesn’t feel at all like a musical besides the fact that it does feature some music (as most films do), most notably the deliciously cheesy lounge number “Love Theme from Vegas in Space.” It may very well be, however, the first film adapted from a drag queen’s party theme (can you name another?), which is much more of an accomplishment in my book anyway. Vegas in Space mostly serves as a Doris Fish showcase, as the performer wrote, co-produced, starred, built the sets (including the miniature outer space cityscapes), did the makeup for her fellow crew members, and (if director Phillip R Ford is to be believed) partially funding the picture by turning tricks. Fish is a delightful personality to helm the picture as the once-male space crew’s captain, but I actually think she’s upstaged by fellow drag queen Miss X, who boasts a kind a gothy, bitchy, Violet Chachki vibe as the film’s would-be villain, The Queen of Police. Miss X‘s cruelty in forcing imprisoned shoplifters to harvest cotton candy and her palace on ”The dark side of the planet” show in glorious black & white) a choice that feels truer to the film’s drive-in era source of inspiration) are where Vegas in Space finds its groove, even if those moments were birthed by Fish’s work on the page. The film features some classic moments of painfully corny drag queen humor, like when The Queen of Police answers the question “Are there crimes here?” with a deadpan “Only crimes of fashion,” or when Doris Fish comments on the mission at hand “sounds like a cinch.” The all-female pleasure planet setting also affords the film plenty of opportunities to do what drag does best in the first place (besides showcasing killer costuming & makeup): poke fun at femininity as a social construct. In this particular case, it helps that here are “real” woman there who are in on the joke, too, especially at sillier moments like when the crew war using their “feminine intuition” to navigate their ship. In some ways Vegas in Space plays its premise a little too, for lack of a better word, straight, (I really cannot believe there is no lesbianism or any sexuality at all in this film), but it’s still delightfully corny & transgressive in the way most drag performances are by nature.

In a lot of ways Vegas in Space feels like what might happen if I tried to make a movie, from its dedication to bad taste to its overwhelming cheapness to its painfully troubled production history. Even if the film sounds exhausting to you or just not really your thing, I’d still encourage you to read director Phillip R. Ford’s lengthy making-of account of this film’s production, because it’s a fascinating mess. Vegas in Space required two years of filming & seven years of post-production, meaning Ford & his drag scene buddies more or less worked on the film for the entirety of the 1980s. Besides the behind-the scenes meth & sex work that color the film’s already plenty colorful aesthetic, there’s also a tragic air to its history as many of the performers involved didn’t live to see the final product due to its lengthy post-production period & the horror of the AIDS crisis in the gay community of that era. As a director, Ford brings a few interesting ideas to the table I especially appreciated: an opening credits scroll that mixed B-movie worthy shots of outer space with Vegas strip light bulbs, a psychedelic dream sequence that intentionally evokes the early stirrings of MTV, and his inclusion of earthquakes in the film’s central crisis that reflected the San Francisco scene where the film was produced (although I suspect that Doris Fish had enough input on all three points to deserve a co-director credit among her endless list of other duties). However, I think Ford’s greatest accomplishment here is in completing the project in the first place. As indicated in his account of the film’s production, this was a sprawling mess of a collaboration that’s nothing short of miracle to ever have been released at all (even if it means suffering through a disturbingly transphobic “bit” from Troma madman/cretin Lloyd Kaufman in its intro). I could see Vegas in Space maybe gaining traction as a cult-adored object or maybe a RuPauls’ Drag Race runway category (Vegas in Space Realness does have certain ring to it), but I think the film’s greatest accomplishment might be that it simply exists in the first place. Well, that and the glorious makeup & costume designs, especially the ones sported by one Miss X. They’re the film’s true artistry, as it should be in what’s essentially a drag queen’s unusually expensive home movie.

-Brandon Ledet

The Subtle Terror of Babe 2: Pig in the City vs the Straightforward Terror of Pigs (1972)

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Although the idea of talking pigs in children’s media is not at all uncommon, Babe 2: Pig in the City is distinctive from its verbal swine brethren at the very least in its eagerness to terrify its pintsized audience. The only live-action talking-pig children’s movie that even comes close to Pig in the City on the terror scale is the 1999 made-for-TV adaptation of Animal Farm & even that horror show is softened a bit by the kindly wise voice of Kelsey Grammar. For more true pig-themed terror you have to look beyond Pig in the City‘s kids’ movie genre & venture into the seedy world of adult horror cinema. Horror flicks like Razorback & Chaw typically look for menace in the wild boar instead of the domesticated pig, which is a little besides the point here. 1972’s Pigs (alternately titled Daddy’s Deadly Darling) is about as literal you can get in the quest for pig-themed horror, delivering exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse, from a grindhouse exploitation film about flesh-eating pigs distributed on home video by infamous schlock-peddlers Troma.

There are of course innumerable, immediate differences in what you’ll find in these two wildly different features. The pigs in Pigs don’t talk (or think much for that matter). They’re also the main source of the movie’s terror, whereas in Pig in the City Babe is a unifying force that helps a hodgepodge gang of animals buck against the terrors of the outside world. Also, while Babe 2 is an adventurous film that explores expansive, otherworldly landscapes, Pigs rarely leaves the disgusting slop of its sty. That’s not to say, however, that they’re entirely separate form one another, at the very least thematically speaking.

Pigs is entirely faithful to its 70s schlock format, perhaps even painfully so. In its opening minutes, for instance, it powers through the rape-revenge plot of typical 70s exploitation fare in a (thankfully) breezy bout of exposition that does little more than get the requirement out of the way early. The Horror Movie Victim, Lynn, stabs her father to death after an attempted rape and is committed to a mental institution when she fails to cope with what happened. Thus completes her brisk transformation into an Escaped Horror Movie Crazy. Once on the lam, Lynn finds herself vulnerably alone in a seedy small town (much like how Babe is abandoned among reprobates in The Big City) where she quickly takes up a waitressing job at a bar owned by a fellow Horror Movie Crazy, who happens to have the curious hobby of murdering people & feeding their corpses to his pigs. There is an occasional subversion of schlock tropes here in that his flesh-eating pig farm is treated like no mystery & that instead of sizing Lynn up as a potential victim, he forms a makeshift family with her, essentially becoming her new father figure. Other than that, Pigs plays out almost exactly as you’d expect based on its genre & date of release.

Reading between the lines, there’s a surprising amount of connective tissue here. Both Pig in the City & Pigs have a strangely psychedelic quality to them that disorients their audiences. Pig in the City is, of course, more graceful in this effect, using a wide-angle lens POV of a child’s eye to overwhelm the screen with clowns, fires, confetti, and Nazi-esque dogcatchers. Pigs is much cruder in its psychedelia, assembling bizarre montages of pigs squealing while the heroine-murderess Lynn loses her mind. As the pigs feed on human corpses, their mouths soaked in blood, quick jump cuts & strange sound collages throw the viewer off-balance in unexpected ways, especially considering how cheap (in every meaning of the word) the film can be.

What’s even more surprising is the two films’ shared narrative focus on how familial bonds can be formed from the unlikeliest of sources, whether they be a roving gang of starving animals or a pair of mentally unhinged sociopaths who feed anyone they consider a threat to their pet pigs. The focus on familial bonds may be a result of the pig’s historical role as a farm animal & the farm’s domestic tradition (it’s a theme that’s certainly echoed in all of the non-Babe, pig-themed children’s media I’ve seen as well) or it could just be a simple coincidence. Either way it’s a theme that connects seemingly unreconcilable films otherwise related only through their live action pig subjects & the fact that they’re terrifying. If there’s ever a remake of Pigs (and anything’s possible in today’s remake market, mind you) it could up that terror factor even more by giving its flesh-eating pigs the power of speech. Especially if it keeps the squeal-laden freakout montages. There’s a lot a film like Pigs could learn from Babe 2, but a talking pig that also eats human flesh really sounds over the top in a way that I can get behind.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator (1989)

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three star

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Something is ever so appealing about films that have extra-long, descriptive titles. When I sat down to view Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, I assumed someone named Stephanie was going to be burned alive in an incinerator. I’ve seen a few films that involve murder evidence being burned in an incinerator, but never an entire body. Needless to say, I was bouncing off the walls when I got my hands on this movie, especially since it is a Troma film. Unfortunately, my expectations were a bit too high. It wasn’t a horrible film, it was just so confusing and not in the good way.

I began to lost interest halfway through the film, but the beginning of Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator was amazing. It starts off with two strangers, Paul and Stephanie, who are prisoners in a mansion. The owner of this mansion, Roberta, is obviously a man crossdressed as an elderly socialite, and she wants to watch Paul and Stephanie have sex. Of course, the two “lovebirds” are opposed to the idea of having forced sexual intercourse for Roberta’s viewing pleasure, so they attempt to escape her evil clutches only to find themselves back in her hell house. Then, all of a sudden, the film takes an unexpected turn for the worst. Roberta takes off her wig to reveal herself as Robert, an actor paid by Stephanie and Paul (whose real names are Casey and Jared) to participate in their over-the-top role-playing. As the film goes on, it’s obvious that Casey is not too keen on the role-playing and desperately wants to leave Jared because he is absolutely insane and obsessed with doing one role-play after another.  The rest of the film is filled with twist after twist, and ends with a very surprising conclusion.

I enjoy a twist or two in a film, but this was just too much.  Every time I took my eyes off the screen for more than a second, there was a major change in the plot. The constant shift from one story to another became annoying, and I had to rewind the film a few times to figure out what was going on. Also, there is an incinerator scene, but it’s not as cool as I thought it was going to be, so that was another disappointment. Aside from all the negative comments, Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator honestly wasn’t all that bad. It was entertaining and full of all kinds of stupid fun. I just really wish it would have been about a perverted old woman and her sex prisoners.

-Britnee Lombas