The True Battle in Underworld (2003) Wasn’t Vampires vs. Werewolves, It Was Practical Effects vs. CGI

Despite extending its presence on movie marquees all the way into 2017 through a series of unnecessary prequels & sequels, 2003’s action-horror epic Underworld has always been something of a critical punching bag. Registering with an embarrassing 31% aggregated approval rating on the Tomatometer, this bygone nu-metal era tale of an ancient race war between werewolves & vampires was the Twilight of its day: a critically derided mall-goth romance that found the right angsty audience at the right angsty time. It’s admittedly easy to see why pro critics would be harsh on the film immediately upon its release, despite its populist appeal. It’s practically a work of mu-metal horror pastiche – combining elements of Blade, The Matrix, Resident Evil, and Romeo+Juliet into a single flavorless gumbo without contributing much spice of its own. The film was even sued (and settled out of court) for “borrowing” its elaborate vampires vs. werewolves mythology from the popular tabletop RPG Vampire: the Masquerade – which was the one aspect of its initial outing that critics did praise. Finally catching up with Underworld myself, sixteen years after it was first panned and two years after its final installments passed through theaters unnoticed like a fart in the wind, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected to. That enjoyment was purely a result of its visual effects work, though, which may have seemed less special at the time of its release than the modern miracle it feels like now in 2019.

I’m not about to rush out and gobble down all four sequels to Underworld or anything. Its vampires vs. werewolves race war mythology isn’t that exciting, nor is its star-crossed interspecies romance across those battle lines. Even the novelty of seeing legitimate actors like Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy occupy this leather-fetish mall-goth fantasy space could only lead to diminishing returns, as I imagine the star power in, say, Underworld 4: Awakening is much less luminous. I enjoyed Underworld for exactly one (admittedly shallow) reason: the werewolves look really fucking cool (despite being referred to in-canon as “lycans,” which is not cool at all). Whenever you look back to creature features from this early 00s era, it’s always best to brace yourself for some horrifically shoddy CGI. Contemporaries like Ghosts of Mars, Queen of the Damned, and Spawn all feature early-CG monstrosities whose ambitions overshot their means, resulting in visual effects that have aged about as well as diapers on the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes, then, when the werewolves onscreen in this Hollywood action-horror were genuine rubber-suit creations from practical gore artists. There’s so much physical blood, fangs, werewolf hair, and leathery nipples onscreen here when the standard for its era would have been a shapeless CG blur. Underworld is stubbornly committed to practical-effects gore (for its time at least) in a way I can’t help but respect, even if I can’t extend that same dorky enthusiasm to its romantic drama or its gothy worldbuilding.

You can get a concise snapshot of this stubbornness & dorky enthusiasm on the Special Features menu of the Underworld DVD, which includes a 12min featurette titled “Creature Effects.” Director (and all-around Underworld mastermind) Len Wiseman’s dorkiness just oozes from the screen in this behind-the-scenes interview. Dressed up like a mall-metal dweeb himself, Wiseman recounts meeting special effects artist Patrick Tatopoulos on the set of Stargate (where Wisemen was working as a props manager) and dreaming up ways to use the veteran’s expertise to craft a gothy creature feature of his own design (with some help from plenty of pre-exiting genre films of a higher caliber, of course). As Tatopoulos takes the audience on a backstage tour of the massive teams & teams of creators needed to achieve the film’s practical effects, it becomes apparent why CGI became the dominant industry standard. Animatronics tech, stilts, silicone body suits, and post-Matrix wire work all needed to operate in tandem to make just one werewolf crawl across the wall—and then CG effects were still used after the fact to smooth out the details. Watching artists work tirelessly to punch individual yak hairs into a werewolf mask or airbrush purple veins onto actors to indicate they’ve been poisoned with silver bullets is astonishing in its commitment to the value of real, tangible effects, even when they’re bolstered by CG touchups. Wiseman & Tatopoulos citing tiles like Aliens, the Predator, and Pumpkinhead as influences or insisting that they “wanted the werewolves to be sexy” really helps contextualize the horror nerd enthusiasm necessary to pull those effects off in the CGI-worshiping days of 2003 when the preference would be to just do it all on computers. It also helps explain why Underworld has aged (at least slightly) better than its contemporary critical reputation might have prepared us for.

Over time, Wiseman & Tatopoulos lost the war over preserving practical effects artistry in the face of CGI dominance. By Underworld 4: Awakening & Underworld 5: Blood Wars, CGI was no longer used to enhance their “sexy,” in-the-flesh werewolf creations, but instead had replaced them entirely. That’s a shame, since the obviously physical presence of those “lycans” in a time when everything was fading away into a CG blur was the one saving grace that makes Underworld something of a modern novelty. It would have been so cool to see that nerdy stubbornness extend into the 2010s, and might have afforded the series a second populist wind. Oh well, at least we can still revel in that dying artistry in the film’s behind-the-scenes tour, which some kind, copyright-infringing soul has uploaded to YouTube:

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #93 of The Swampflix Podcast: Queen of the Damned (2002) & Nu-Metal Vampires

Welcome to Episode #93 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-third episode, Britnee & Brandon travel back in time to wage war with the vampires of the nu-metal era, with a particular focus on Queen of the Damned (2002), Underworld (2003), and Dracula 2000 (2000). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Not of this Earth. Not Now, Not Ever.

One of my favorite recurring themes in Roger Corman’s career as a producer is his self-cannibalization. Never one to waste a dime, Corman would often pilfer his own back-catalog of hundreds of B-pictures to help the next cheap-o production across the finish line. Sets, footage, dialogue, premises, talent: nothing was sacred from Corman’s shrewdly frugal tactics of recycling his own work. If shooting wrapped early on a production in an interesting enough locale, an entire new film would be staged there over the course of a weekend. If a major Hollywood studio took direct influence from his work (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins), he would shrug it off by making his own mockbuster version of that big budget knockoff (Piranha, Carnosaur, Munchies). Of course, Corman also liked to borrow Hollywood’s own favorite form of self-cannibalization as well: the needless remake. There have been multiple television series over the years specifically created so that Roger Corman The Producer could pilfer Roger Corman The Director’s back-catalog for remake fodder, squeezing new money & new audiences out of old work. Usually, these remakes would be of minor throwaway titles that never made a splash to begin with, such as the 1990s Rebel Highway TV series that reimagined his 1950s road-to-ruin teen pictures with an updated soap opera sheen. Corman has been much more careful with his unimpeachable classics – especially in his reluctance to remake titles from his much-beloved Poe Cycle in fear of zapping them of their Vincent Price magic. That reluctance makes me wonder if Corman really knew how special his 1957 space-invasion cheapie Not of This Earth truly was, as it’s been inferiorly remade twice under the Corman production umbrella despite quietly premiering one of his best directorial works.

The original Not of This Earth falls squarely in the microbudget end of Corman’s career, one of the earliest sci-fi pictures in his gloriously imperfect oeuvre. At only 67 minutes in length, the film was sold as the bottom half of a 1957 double bill with Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, which has a far more enduring legacy thanks to its memorable creature design. The central villain of Not of This Earth has a killer hook as a bloodthirsty vampire from outer space, but everything about his design is squarely milquetoast – intentionally so. Dressed like a G-Man (or a Blues Brother) in a fedora & sunglasses business-suit combo, the space-vampire of Not of This Earth speaks in emotionless monotone. Robbing the traditional vampire myth of its sexuality, he drains his victims of their blood via a briefcase device instead of sucking their necks. The flashiest onscreen threat arrives in a brief sequence where the space-vamp deploys a flying umbrella-shaped alien face-sucker to dispose of a victim, the only bizarre-o creature effect on display. Everything else onscreen is a lowkey creepout that borders on ineffective kitsch: whiteout eye contacts, voiceover hypnotism, and a menacing briefcase lined with blood. What’s most impressive about Not of This Earth is how entertaining it still manages to be as a B-picture without relying on a rubber monster costume or prurient sexuality (not that those can’t be fun for their own sake). Corman’s better respected as a producer than a director in most circles, but it really is remarkable how much he was able to squeeze out of this limited budget & shooting schedule. Not of This Earth is little more than a thinly veiled Communist Invasion allegory (the space-vampire’s G-Man appearance & description as “some kind of foreigner” make that metaphor as blatant as possible) made to feel larger in scale thanks to sci-fi babble about alien planets & evaporated blood, yet it’s a solid B-picture through & through. If its not one of Corman’s best directorial efforts, it’s at least an early telegraph of the excellent work that was to come (especially X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).

It’s understandable, then, why fellow schlockteur Jim Wynorski might be tempted to repeat that early-career success while working under Corman’s tutelage in the 1980s. Wynorski himself is known for directing over a hundred films as cheaply & quickly as humanly possible, so it’s no surprise that he got his start under the Corman brand. Wynorski happened to watch a print of Not of This Earth while working for Corman, which delighted him enough to inspire a bet among friends: that he cold remake the same film on the same schedule & budget – two weeks and $100,000. He satisfied that bet admirably in that he did direct a Not of This Earth remake under the original’s same constraints, but by doing so he delivered a far inferior product. Wynorski was exactly the wrong man for the job. Something of a softcore pornographer, he robs Not of This Earth of its barebones, asexual alien invasion thrills by recreating the earlier film’s exact plot & dialogue but padding out its runtime with basic cable boobies-ogling. The 1988 Not of This Earth is the exact same film as the 1950s version except in color, bloated with unsexy softcore titilation, and sorely missing the flying umbrella monster. Whereas Corman’s film proudly worked within its means to entertain on a B-picture budget, Wynorski’s remake continually apologizes for its own blatant cheapness. Not only does it needlessly pad its runtime with Skinemax-level strip-teases, it also self-cannibalizes Corman’s back-catalog in the most egregious manner possible: showing a highlight reel of better-funded movies with amazing creature effects in its opening credits so that the audience is duped into expecting a much more substantial picture than what ultimately arrives. I’ve seen that kind of false advertising on posters & VHS covers before but doing it in the actual movie itself feels like some next-level hucksterism. The only truly brilliant decision Wynorski made was hiring Traci Lords for her first mainstream role after leaving porn to study method acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute. Unfortunately, Lords provides the film’s only entertaining performance and, since her presence made for good press, boosted the remake’s notoriety above the superior original’s – which is a total shame.

Shockingly, the made-for-Showtime remake of Not of This Earth wasn’t half-bad, at least by comparison. This time the decision to remake the film came from Corman himself. Desperate for titles to fill out the slate for the Showtime series Roger Corman Presents (a horror anthology comprised of standalone features), Corman decided to throw in a few remakes of his lesser-known works, careful not to tarnish the classics. Roger Corman Presents started filming in January of 1992 and wrapped production of 13 feature films by June of that same year, so there wasn’t much room for mind-blowing quality or ingenuity on the slate. Still, the series’ Not of This Earth remake at least indicates that it’s one of the better examples of its ilk – surpassing similar series like Rebel Highway, Masters of Horror, Fear Itself, etc. Director Terence H. Winkless (best known for the gross-out creature feature The Nest and the original Americanized run of The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) takes a much more interesting approach in his remake than Wynorski – keeping the dialogue overlap much looser in its exactness and padding out the runtime with practical monster effects instead of basic cable stripteases. I don’t know that 1992’s Not of This Earth is a great movie, at least not when compared to the original, but it at least leans into its strengths as an alien invasion cheapie. Winkless’s interpretation of the film is less akin to classic Corman than it is a dime store knockoff of Cronenberg or an even cheaper version of Brian Yuzna’s aesthetic. Pulsating alien brains throb & light up in coital moans; sensual tentacles creep through the walls to suck on victims’ necks; the lead space-vamp writhes orgasmically while masturbating his own intestinal protrusions. It’s a gross-out horror cheapie in just the right way. It may mistakenly believe that the only reason the Corman original didn’t rely on over-the-top creature designs & nightmarish sexuality was budgetary, but at least its hideous monsters and even more hideous sex are more compelling than Wynorski’s eyeroll-worthy attempts at nudie-cutie titillation. Neither remake was necessary or revelatory, but this one delivers the genre goods.

I hope I’m not coming off as a prude here in my suggestion that the Not of This Earth remakes ruined the original’s entertainment value by flooding it with sex & gore. I wouldn’t watch dirt-cheap genre films like this in the first place if I were averse to sex & gore. I just find it illustrative of Corman’s creative talents when working under the mania of a tight schedule & budget that he can deliver something so memorable without relying on that prurience & bloodlust for cheap thrills. Both of the Not of This Earth remakes feel compelled to include throwaway touchstones from the original that have nothing to do with the plot: a side-character alien vampire becoming infected with rabies, a door-to-door vacuum salesman victim (who was so obviously written for Dick Miller that anyone else in the role can’t help but disappoint), a rambling monologue within which the space-vamp pontificates the cure for cancer as a casual musing, etc. Those throwaway gags would not have been echoed in both remakes if Corman weren’t onto something and I felt like we too often undervalue that creative voice while praising him for funding & supporting “better” directors. The original Not of This Earth is an excellent example of Corman at his most efficient & compelling in the 1950 drive-in era, but it isn’t until you see how much less satisfying that film’s modern-update remakes became that you truly understand how special he is. Few schlockteurs on his budget level could make such an entertaining horror cheapie out of a mysterious G-man carrying a briefcase around an unsuspecting town; the two directors who followed in those exact footsteps in these remakes didn’t even try – instead relying on monster effects & naked breasts for cheap-thrills convenience.

-Brandon Ledet

Meeting Nash The Slash at the Vampire-Infested Donut Shop

One of the most immediately fascinating aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, is its “Music By” credit for a musician known simply as Nash the Slash. It’s taken us years of patient scouring to finally access this forgotten low-energy horror gem on a legitimate streaming platform, which has afforded it an allure as an esoteric cult curio. Given its sub-professional budget, its dodgy distribution, and its bit role participation from Canadian horror legend David Cronenberg, the film flirts with the same regional cinema Canuxploitation territory as gems like The Pit, The Gate, and Cathy’s Curse. It makes sense, then, that it would be scored by local weirdo musician known almost exclusively to Torontonians – the enigmatic Nash the Slash. His work on the film is a drowsy, industrial guitar-driven post-rock soundtrack that matches its weirdly melancholic mood, but there was still something about his name that suggested he’d be more exciting as a persona than what those atmospheric sounds were letting on. Nash the Slash did not disappoint.

Maybe he wasn’t playing guitar at all? Jeff “Nash the Slash” Plewman was a versatile musician who was best known for playing electric violin, electric mandolin, and various percussive instruments he would mysteriously describe as “devices” in his liner notes. After abandoning a non-starter of a rockstar career fronting the prog band FM, he turned his interest in music into a kind of performance art. Appearing onstage exclusively in mummy-like bandages (often accessorized with a top hat & steam punk goggles), Nash the Slash used the mystery of his identity & the Silent Era horror looks of his costuming to drum up press coverage of his atmospheric New Wave compositions (press that struggled to reach past the confines of Toronto). He developed an interest in scoring films after performing live accompaniment to Silent Era horror classics like Nosferatu & Un chien andelou, which eventually led to a few notable modern horror gigs like Blood & Donuts & Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood on top of his regular pop music output.

Given his penchant for trolling local Toronto press, the strong iconography of his stage gear, and the esoteric allure of his performance art compositions, it’s incredible that Nash the Slash hadn’t broken through to a wider audience, at least to music nerds outside Canada. If for nothing else, I’m super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo, whose contributions to the film are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that really helps solidify its sleepy, melancholic tone. It was frustrating to me as a curious potential fan that he had never received the weirdo-musician documentary treatment afforded to similar artists like Frank Sidebottom & Daniel Johnston, but it turns out that won’t be the case for long. A successful Indiegogo campaign has crowd-funded a Nash the Slash doc titled And You Thought You Were Normal, due sometime in early 2020. I look forward to learning more about this masked enigma then, but for now it’s just been fun digging through the music video scraps of his visual art I can find on YouTube, a rabbit hole I strongly advise falling into:

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its unlikely symmetry with Tangerine (2015), and last week’s discovery of its campy horror-comedy equivalent Attack of the Killer Donuts (2016).

-Brandon Ledet

Donut Shop Horror

A recurring theme in the discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, is how unexpectedly low-key & tempered its mood was. You’d think that a mid-90s horror movie about a vampire who frequents a donut shop would be an over-the-top camp fest, but instead the film is quietly melancholy & introspective. Even the title Blood & Donuts suggests a quirky splatter comedy, but the film it’s attached to is low on both gore & guffaws. We mostly just watch a tragically sexy vampire mope around late-night Toronto hangout spots while reluctantly seducing potential victims into his orbit. He’s much more likely to scrapbook or take a long bath than he is to dispose of a victim in a comically violent spectacle, and it takes a while to adjust to that melancholy sensibility thanks to the expectations set by its genre & setting.

When poking around for other feature films set in donut shops, I did eventually stumble upon a title that delivers on the campy horror comedy payoffs Blood & Donuts only teases. 2016’s microbudget cheapie Attack of the Killer Donuts is the exact over-the-top donut shop creature feature we expected our Movie of the Month to be, although it’s one that arrived decades past its time. In the film, two teenage slacker employees of the all-night cafe Dandy Donuts find themselves defending their community against an army of mutant, bloodthirsty pastries. When a local mad scientist’s “reanimation serum” (a flourescent green liquid transported around in cartoonishly oversized syringes, Stuart Gordon style) accidentally plops into the deep fryer at Dandy Donuts, the donuts that hop out of the fry basket are sentient, poisoned, and eager to rip out customers’ throats with their fangs. The teenage employees take responsibility for the incredible event and attempt to destroy the little donut monsters before they escape to destroy the community outside their humble, sparsely decorated shop. The rest of the movie writes itself. Unlike Blood & Donuts, Attack of the Killer Donuts is exactly what you expect it to be.

Of course, in most ways, the subtler, less predictable of the donut shop horror film is the more rewarding one. For instance, the complexity of Blood & Donuts’s vampiric anti-hero struggling to make romantic connections with mortal humans without damning them to death or eternal pain is much more interesting than the standard will-they-won’t-they cliché played out between Attack of the Killer Donuts’s generic teens. When the mutant donuts are inevitably squashed at the end of that 2010s novelty but the film continues to resolve the romantic “tension” between its two leads for several meatus of denouement, all you can do is beg for mercy that it will all end soon. Conversely, the romantic fallout of Blood & Donuts after its own bowling alley mafia villains (headed by David Cronenberg, of all people) are thwarted is one of the more compelling stretches of the film, way more engaging than the conflict presented by the villains themselves. Attack of the Killer Donuts has no chance to outshine Blood & Donuts in terms of craft or pathos. It only has one weapon in its arsenal to satisfy its audience and it’s right there on the in: killer donuts.

The potential delights offered by those killer donuts are obviously limited both by the meager means of the film’s budget and by the audience’s personal patience for winking-at-the-camera, so-bad-it’s-good humor. Attack of the Killer Donuts would’ve had to have been shot on video thirty years ago to be especially worthy of a recommendation, but it’s occasionally charming it its own low-stakes way. The fanged mutant donuts themselves are eyeroll-worthy when they’re rendered in cheap CG, but when they’re shown in closeups as practical puppets, they’re adorably grotesque. The film also has enough of a sense of humor about its own inherent silliness that it’s difficult to be too hard on it, as it ultimately feels like a group of friends putting on a D.I.Y. puppet show as a goof. You can immediately tell whether or not that purposefully goofy B-movie throwback novelty will please you or annoy you, whereas Blood & Donuts’s tonal bait & switch is more open to surprise & discovery as it unfolds. The only thing I can report here is that Attack of the Killer Donuts is the exact movie I expected Blood & Donuts to be; it just arrived a few decades past its prime.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its unlikely symmetry with Tangerine (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Money, Sex, Love, Christmas, Blood, and Donuts

The Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, our current Movie of the Month, carries a lot of low-key hangout energy for a movie about a bloodsucking immortal ghoul. The film’s central vampire, Boya, is reluctant about his role as an eternal seducer & killer, appearing to be genuinely pained by the danger he poses to the vulnerable humans around him. He attempts to limit his sanguine footprint by feeding off street rats and avoiding eye contact with potential romantic partners, until the urge overpowers him or until his vampirism proves useful in saving the day for his mortal friends. One of the ways this small-budget Canuxploitation horror signals this low-key, anti-violence hangout ethos is by setting its story in a 24-hour donut shop, where Boya can hang out in wholesome solidarity with other nocturnal weirdos without frequenting the orgiastic goth nightclubs more typical to vampire cinema. That donut shop is a quirky choice that maybe suggests a livelier horror comedy than Blood & Donuts cares to deliver, but it still helps distinguish the otherwise tempered film as a singular novelty (which can only be a boon in the crowded field of vampire media).

While vampire movies are a dime a dozen, donut shop movies are more of a niche rarity. There are certainly iconic donut shops to be found scattered around pop culture –Big Donut in Steven Universe, Miss Donuts in Boogie Nights, Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World, Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, etc. However, those settings are isolated diversions rather than serving as a central location like the one in Blood & Donuts. The only other significant feature film I can think of with a plot that revolves so closely around a donut shop is Sean Baker’s 2015 Los Angeles Christmas-chaos piece Tangerine, which is anchored to a real-life LA donut shop called Donut Time. The opening credits of Tangerine scroll over a yellow enamel table at Donut Time, scratched with the names of bored vandals who have visited over the years. The movie serves as a kind of whirlwind feet-on-the-ground tour of a very niche corner of LA, but it’s anchored to Donut Time as a significant landmark to establish a sense of order amidst that chaos. It opens there with its two stars (Mya Taylor & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) splitting a single donut because they’re perilously cash-strapped. It also climaxes there in a classic Greek stage drama confrontation between all the film’s major players in a single, donut-decorated location that explodes the various hustles & schemes they’ve been struggling to keep under control throughout. Both Blood & Donuts and Tangerine wander off from their donut shops to explore the city outside (Toronto & Los Angeles, respectively), but their shared novelty locale provides the structure that allows for that indulgence

Like how Boya (Gordon Currie) awakens from a decades-long slumber at the start of Blood & Donuts, the similarly dormant Sindee (Rodriguez) emerges from prison at the start of Tangerine out of the loop on what’s been happening in her local trans sex worker microcosm since she’s been away. Over the opening shared donut, she learns from her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was locked up, so she bursts out of Donut Time into the Los Angeles sunshine to enact her revenge on all parties involved. Obviously, this flood of Los Angeles sunlight distinguishes Tangerine from the late-night vampire drama of Blood & Donuts (as well as distinguishing Baker’s film as a kind of novelty within its own Christmas movie genre). Otherwise, though, the two films have a similar way of collecting oddball characters in low-income-level gathering spots—like, for instance, donut shops. Tangerine speeds through a blur of 7/11s, laundromats, dive bars, by-the-hour motels, and car washes until it finds its way back to its Donut Time starting point. It finds an unexpected symmetry within the low-rent late-night locales of Blood & Donuts’s own tour of Toronto, something that’s most readily recognizable in the films’ respective visions of impossibly filthy motel rooms. Or maybe it’s most recognizable in how David Cronenberg’s mobster runs his crime ring out of a bowling alley, while the pimp antagonist of Tangerine runs his own out of a donut shop.

You’d think that a nocturnal vampire comedy from the 90s and a sunlit 2010s trans sex worker drama would have very little in common, especially since the former is so lackadaisical and the latter is commanded by high-energy chaos. Their shared donut shops locales and commitment to exploring the character quirks of the weirdos who frequent them bridge that gap with gusto. The word “donut” may not appear in Tangerine’s title the way it does with its Gen-X predecessor, but the film is just as committed to accentuating the novelty of its central location. Despite being far too young to reasonably remember the TV commercial she’s referencing, Sindee announces, “Time to make the donuts, bitch!” to her romantic rival as they approach the climactic showdown. She also jokingly asks the Donut Time counter girl, “Do you have watermelon flavor?,” an echo of Blood & Donuts’s own bizarre inclusion of a kiwi-flavored donut. As a pair, the two films seem to be serving as two pillars of a sparsely populated Donut Movie subgenre. The longer you scrutinize how they use the novelty of that locale the more they appear to have in common despite their drastically different surface details.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blood & Donuts (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and our newest contributor, Hanna Räsänen, watch Blood & Donuts (1995).

Britnee: Do you ever remember a movie only by the feeling that it gave you? Not quite remembering any dialogue between the characters or even what those characters really looked like? Blood & Donuts is a film that I recalled loving simply from the feeling I got reminiscing about it. There’s just something about this movie that makes me feel comfortable and at peace. Yes, it’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time. It’s yet to be released on DVD, so if you are able to find a copy of it (be it streaming or VHS), it’s going to have that wonderful grainy quality that I just love so much.

Blood & Donuts is a vampire movie, but it’s far from your average run of the mill vampire flick. Boya (Gordon Currie), is perhaps the kindest vampire in the history of the genre. He is awoken from his deep slumber by a stray golf ball that breaks through the window of the abandoned home where he has taken refuge. He hasn’t been awake since the moon landing of 1969, and he now finds himself in the early 90s. As he begins to explore his new surroundings and find street rats to feed on, he gets into some messy situations with a local gang, falls for a girl that works at a donut shop, and tries to escape his murderous ex-lover.

I personally liked how the film doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on Boya’s transition into the 90s. There are no cheeseball scenes where he tries to get hip with the current trends and fashions. Boya just sort of rolls with the changes while looking a little dusty. Once he actually takes a bath, he really doesn’t look like a blast from the past. Brandon, would you have preferred the film to have delved more into Boya getting acclimated into his new world?

Brandon: At the very least, I don’t think the film would have been as memorable or distinctive if it dedicated more of its runtime to watching Boya adjust to his new Gen-X surroundings. Given its cheap-o production budget and the fact that it’s about a vampire, I was prepared for an off-beat Canuxploitation horror cheapie like Cathy’s Curse or The Pit. As soon as the CGI golf ball awakens Boya from his slumber in the opening scene, my expectations shifted to more of a goofball fish-out-of-water (and time) comedy like Peggy Sue Got Married or Blast from the Past. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that the film gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely: a kind of melancholy indie hangout movie that never fully tips into any single genre, so it leaves itself open to constant surprise & discovery. In that way, it reminded me a lot of a former oddball Canadian pick for Movie of the Month, the Apocalyptic hangout dramedy Last Night (both films even feature bit roles from Canadian filmmaking royalty David Cronenberg), which is to say that it’s much more interested in establishing a mood than it is in winning its audience over with familiar genre beats or easy-to-digest humor. Following Boya around as he blunderously acclimates to his new Gen-X 90s surroundings as a vampire who’s been asleep since the 60s might have been amusing in its own way, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as unique of an experience as the low-key hangout dramedy Blood & Donuts delivers instead.

We do get some insight into Boya’s internal adjustments to his new surroundings. We just get the sense he’s been through this process so many times before that he’s more exhausted by it than he is amused. He stumbles around this movie’s few grim locations (a graveyard, a seedy motel, a 24-hour donut shop) in a total daze, as if shaking off a 25-year hangover. As his mind sharpens and his body loosens up, the movie turns into a character study of an oddly tender, sensitive man who just happens to be a bloodsucking vampire. He harvests his blood from rats to prevent himself from murdering because he is a humanist. He’s fascinated with the quirks of modern human culture surrounding him, like novelty donut flavors (kiwi? really?) and classic cartoons. His hobbies include long baths and scrapbooking. The very first conversation in the film, between the vampire and his newfound cabdriver friend Earl, is about how it’s okay for grown men to cry. Boya is an overly-sensitive, non-threatening man-boy – the kind of undead sweetheart that goth teens must’ve fallen in love with before Jack Skellington replaced his type in the zeitgeist.

Speaking of Boya’s attractiveness, I feel like the only threat he poses as a vampire is in his naturally seductive qualities. Women can’t help being pulled into his orbit. We see this most extensively with a bookworm donut shop employee, Molly, whom the film posits as his main love interest. We also see where that potential romance may lead, thanks to a hairdresser who fell in love with Boya in the 1960s and has been going mad in the decades since while obsessing over his sudden absence and his vampirism’s promise of an eternal (albeit melancholic) life. That seduction also extends to the men who come in direct contact with Boya. When he eventually kills Cronenberg’s evil bowling-alley crime boss he does so with the neck-sucking sensuality that charges all vampire media with a horny overtone. His goofball cabbie buddy Earl (whose bizarro Eastern European-flavored Christopher Walken impersonation probably deserves its own lengthy discussion) is head-over-heels in love with him by the end of the film, and unsure what to do with how these uncomfortable impulses conflict with the unconvincing machismo persona he projects in public. Even the way that Boya’s muscly chest and naked buttocks are leeringly framed with the female gaze (by director Holly Dale) makes him out to be a luring sexual object for everyone to enjoy, to the point where I expected the movie to end with the vampire, Earl, and Molly riding out into the sunset as a bisexual throuple.

Since we’re living in an age where mega-corporations like Disney try to get away with earning social media brownie points for teasing that a character might maybe be gay or bi in a throwaway line or two without fully committing to, you know, actually representing LGBTQIA people onscreen, I should probably be a little cautious about diagnosing the three leads of this film as a bisexual love triangle. Still, I can’t help but feel that this movie is operating with some big Bi Energy, and that ended up being one of its major charms for me. Boomer, am I looking for onscreen bisexual representation where it doesn’t exist? What did you generally make of this film’s sexuality & romance, queer or otherwise?

Boomer: I was honestly a bit taken aback by how queer this film was, textually and not just subtextually. Sure, vampire media often likes to dally in this trope, as the vampyr is often a monster invoked as a Conservative’s nightmare (they are sexually free, often foreign, seductive, parasitic, and seek to convert; conversely, the liberal’s nightmare is our old friend the zombie, who is characterized as a braindead consumer, utterly mindless, incapable of independent thought, and represent an ultimate destruction of identity as part of a horde). To code that character as queer is both an invocation of those fears and, in a more postmodern film landscape, a way of defanging (I’m so sorry) elements of humanity that previous generations demonized. It took a while for it to sink in for me that the film was really willing to go there, given that the first scene between Boya and Earl initially felt like a bad parody due to the . . . let’s charitably call it a “unique” performance choice on the part of Earl’s actor (Louis Ferreira) to go with that accent. I was also shocked by how much the camera lingered on Boya’s body, not least of all because my only previous exposure (ahem) to Currie was in his role as Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the early aughts Left Behind films.

What you’ve brought up about the female gaze is notable as well. Video essayist Jamie “Rantasmo” Maurer has a short, interesting video about how the supposed homoeroticism of Top Gun is, in many ways, a manifestation of the reaction on the part of the (presumed default) straight male audience to the creation of a rhetorical space in which a man is being treated as a sexual object without the presence of a female character observing them, thereby eliminating the rhetorical distance that allows straight male audiences to feel more comfortable when viewing the object of objectification. Compare it to the classic “Diet Coke Break” commercial, in which an office full of women gather to watch a construction worker remove his shirt; the ad isn’t just about how sexy he looks when he’s drinking his Diet Coke, because that has the potential to alienate the straight male audience, but instead gives members of the audience the psychological “out” of saying “I’m not objectifying this man; these women are objectifying him,” creating a rhetorical distance between actor and spectator. Not only does Blood & Donuts feel no need to practice this distancing, but it in fact goes so far as to have the (presumably) straight Earl be the viewpoint character who is so thoroughly entranced by Boya’s taut abs, pushing this straight (again, so sorry) over the line into being unabashedly queer. I’d be curious to compare this to the subtext in Interview with a Vampire, seeing as it is often considered a keystone piece of queer cinema, which, though adapted and directed by men, is based on a novel by a woman; this is the reverse, with Holly Dale directing a screenplay written by a man. There’s something in there, if one of you fine folks want to pull that thread, it’s just been too long since the last time that I saw Interview for me to draw any conclusions.

I’ll admit that, like Britnee, I felt like this was a movie that is more evocative of a feeling than it was a narrative, lying somewhere on the spectrum between USA Late Night and IFC at 3 AM, when D.E.B.S. was over. As such, I had some difficulty getting into it, as it’s kind of a sleepy film, from an era of night shooting with indecipherable lighting choices of a kind you just don’t see anymore. I was fully committed to it by the time that Boya takes his milky bath and has long distance sex with Molly, though, even if the campiness of it made me think more about that one episode where Doctor Crusher has sex with a ghost than what was really going on in front of me. How did this movie make you feel, Hanna? Were you won over by its low budget zeal? Were there choices that you really loved, or that you would have done differently?

Hanna: Blood & Donuts completely won me over, in part because it completely surpassed my too-low expectations. Like Brandon, I prepared myself for a straightforward, deliciously trashy horror comedy; instead, I found Blood & Donuts utterly strange and surprisingly sweet. The characters’ moments of sensitivity were often funny – see Boya’s fastidious dedication to his ancient, leather-bound scrapbook, or Molly’s attempts to understand Boya’s vampirism through an incredibly on-the-nose reading list (featuring titles like Parapsychology, Dreams, and Vampires). Ultimately the movie honors and values these sincere expressions of tenderness, rather than undermining them through parody. I think the fuzzy, low-budget production actually enhances this effect; the earnest absurdity of Boya, Molly, and Earl would have hardened under a sharper lens.

In spite of the low budget and the cheesy special effects, I think the film managed to explore some unique ideas, especially the coexistence of sensitivity and ruthlessness. This is exemplified in one of my favorite aspects of the film: using a 24-hour doughnut shop as the main hub of the film’s action and Boya’s deeply-rooted existential crisis. Bernie, the owner of the shop, has “the firm belief that any jerk off the street deserves at least a well-made doughnut, and a safe place to eat it”. True to form, the shop is a haven for a rough brand of masculinity: buff outcasts, petty criminals, and scruffy derelicts. It’s a sugary substitute for the local dive bar, where the scum of the earth order fresh pastries and coffee instead of stiff highballs (and, based on the amount of consistent business he gets, Bernie is apparently tapping into some deep-seated need for sugary treats). He also takes his doughnuts very seriously, as indicated by the array of unique fruit fillings, as well as the encouragement for patrons to leave honest “impressions” of new flavors. I was simultaneously tickled and touched by the idea of a dreamy underworld where crime and grime are inextricable from kiwi doughnuts; where sweetness can be life-saving, or at least provide a temporary reprieve from violence. It’s also fitting that Boya—who struggles to reconcile his eternal reliance on bloodshed with his pacifism—would end up in such a place.

I fell in love with the extremes of violence and compassion in Blood & Donuts, and I was surprised by the depth this movie had gleaming from its schlocky disguise. Britnee, what do you think about the heart of the tiny universe Dale brought to life? Do you think it stands apart from its low-budget peers?

Britnee: No lie, I wish that I was a neighborhood resident that could frequent the donut shop. Everyone just seems so nice and accepting there, and at all hours of the night! All of the shabby chic buildings and constant aura of mystery create an environment that I just didn’t want to leave. What I truly enjoyed the most about Dale’s wonderful Blood & Donuts world is the portrayal of our vampire pal, Boya. Vampire lore is easy to play around with, but most movies tend to work within the same handful of vampire characteristics. We either have a bloodthirsty vampire that lures innocent prey to their doom or a vampire that hates being a vampire with no control over their actions. As far as vampiric variations in film go, Boya stands in a category all of his own. He is able to control his urges and only unleashes the vampire within when he’s helping his human pals fight the bad guys. He values friendships and human connections, yet he doesn’t constantly mope around bitching about being a vampire. His vampirism does not define who he is. Boya is like the cool guy you can have deep, philosophical conversations with who just so happens to be a vampire. A world where vampires are like Boya is a wonderful world indeed.

I love how Dale was able to make most of the characters, including those who had just a single line, genuinely loveable. Her focus on the humanity of the characters is what really sets this film apart from the other vampire flicks of the 90s. Take Earl for example. His character could’ve easily leaned more towards being a total doofus that’s only around for a couple of laughs, but he ends up being a genuine sweetheart that adds so much life to the movie. I was surprised that I became as interested in his well-being as I did, considering that I could barely understand his lines through the filter of his Canadian-New-York-City-Eastern-European-Christopher-Walken accent. Dale truly made the most of what she had to work with, which really wasn’t much considering the film’s low budget. This really shows her talent as a director. If I wouldn’t have researched the film’s budget, I truly wouldn’t have known that it was filmed for less than $300,000. Now, I’m not known for having the best taste, but I seriously didn’t get many low budget movie vibes from this picture.

Blood & Donuts is such a nice movie. Nice as in, every character is surprisingly nice considering what roles they play. The most evil people in the movie are the goofy guys in the bowling alley gang, and they’re really not the worst. The film works without having a disturbingly evil antagonist. Brandon, am I being too light Cronenberg’s bowling alley gang? Do you think the film would have benefited from really evil bad guys instead of mediocre bad guys?

Brandon: It pains me to admit this because Videodrome alone makes him one of my most beloved directors, but David Cronenberg was the worst part of this movie. Yes, that assessment includes Earl’s bizarro “New Yorker” accent (which, if nothing else, at least got a laugh out of me in his “Are you referring to me?” Taxi Driver bit). I do think Cronenberg & his bowling alley cronies were significantly crueller than the rest of the cast, though, even in their limited screentime. In his one lengthy monologue where he whips his goons into shape, he insults them with ableist slurs in a go-nowhere tirade that reads as pointless improv filmed in a hurry. When those goons beat Earl to a pulp in a back alley they squeeze artificial lemon juice into his wounds to add further insult, holding the little yellow bottle at crotch level as if pissing on him. That latter gag at least had some novelty to its cruelty, but their presence in the film is largely pointless, as if they had broken off from the production of Innocent Blood and wandered onto the wrong set. Britnee may be right in pointing out that they’re ineffective as villains, but I do think they’re vicious & purposeless to a point where they never really jive with the movie at large.

Thankfully, Blood & Donuts doesn’t waste much time pretending that its Bowling Alley Mafia villains matter either. It already has enough of an antagonist in Boya’s dangerous combination of sex appeal & eternal life that not much other menace is necessary to justify its weirdly tragic tone. The film has the basic attributes of a quirky indie comedy of its era (which is certainly the type of film Earl believes he’s in), but in practice it’s mostly a mopey goth kid drama about how hard it is to be a sexy vampire everyone falls in love with. Boomer, you already said you had a difficult time sinking into the mood of this picture, but did that emotional conflict of an eternal being falling in love with fleeting-lives humans register with you at all despite the film’s goofier touches & lackadaisical pacing? How engaged were you by the tragedy of Boya’s allure as a lover and his reluctance to lure more victims into his sexy orbit?

Boomer: I’m loathe to admit it because I pride myself on being the kind of person who can enjoy just about any piece of media on some level, but this is one of those that falls into the vague and purely personal category of “difficult to pay attention to” (pardon my dangling preposition). I get that this is a bit of an insult to the film despite being a matter of personal attention spans (for instance, I would never fault someone for feeling the same way about Knife+Heart, which might be my new favorite film of all time). There’s nothing lazy about the movie per se, but even with my hard and fast rule of “No phones during movie time” I found myself sometimes losing focus from the screen and actually staring at the wall behind it. There’s a dearth of information about the movie online, so try as I might both during and after the film, I couldn’t quite make sense of Boya’s relationship with Rita, the hairdresser. When we first see the photo of the two of them together in ’69, I was convinced it was a wedding photo, which made me instantly dislike Boya; who promises to sire their spouse and then runs off for over two decades? He seemed more like a deadbeat lover who went out for smokes and never came back than he did a figure of desire (even for me, and that is very much my type), which, coupled with my overall general distrust of men with long hair (don’t @ me), led me to read Boya not as a man reluctant to get into another doomed relationship so much as a serial sexual predator who has determined exactly how long he needs to disappear in order to mostly be forgotten, Rita notwithstanding. Maybe I just don’t get the allure. I read much less of a tragically romantic Mayfly-December Romance angle and more creepiness, although I’ll admit that might be the fact that Left Behind completely warped my brain when I was a kid. There’s also just something not-quite-consensual afoot when we’re talking about supernatural charisma and long distance dry humping(?), and that throws up my defenses, I suppose.

Hanna, what did you think about this film as a vampire movie specifically? We’re pretty accustomed to vampires who break the “rules” around these parts, but I was still pretty shocked that in Boya’s first scene he was standing in pretty direct sunlight (although this is less the case later), and that he appeared in Earl’s rearview mirror. Are you a vampire media fan? What are some of your faves? Where would this movie rank among them?

Hanna: I’m a big proponent of horror creatures that break the rules. Vampires have been used as boogeymen for anti-miscegenous, xenophobic, and homophobic cultural tensions from the Victorian era onwards, as people have come up with all kinds of outrageous and malicious false ideas and people they fear (e.g., contagious homosexuality). It seems to me that the harder horror moviemakers lean into vampire lore, the wider the gulf they create between vampires and humanity apart; in that case, I think it makes sense that Boya the Humanist wouldn’t be beholden to the rules of vampires in the past.

In the grand scheme of vampire media, this felt like a mid-life crisis vampire movie. Most vampire media – movies, books, and TV-shows included – focuses on the violent, lustful carnality of vampirism; the intoxicating thrill of eternal love; or the loneliness of eternal life. While I am 100% on board with gratuitous vampire trash and bloodlust (shamefully, I was a big fan of Queen of the Damned as a child), I also appreciate media that focuses on the vampires for whom the thrill of blood-soaked indulgence has soured—or was never appealing to begin with—because I personally think eternal life would be pretty miserable, no matter how hot and mysterious my vampire self might be. I read that as Boya’s main internal conflict, beginning when Rita asks him to transform her into a vampire, which seemed to be his impetus for climbing into the attic and isolating himself from humanity. When that fails, Boya has to reckon with the consequences of beholding the suffering of loved ones for an eternity, or condemning a mortal companion to live out the end of the world with him. He reminds me of Louis from Interview With the Vampire, but dialed back about 6 notches on the tortured soul and vampire-bitching (thank you, Britnee). I love that Boya handles the limits of his self-actualization like a real human: with mopey dissatisfaction and ennui.

Boomer, I can also definitely see your interpretation of Boya as a fiend biding his time for a fresh hookup, though, and now I’ll have to do some deep soul searching re: my love for Boya.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Boya spends a lot of time in the bathtub, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of some psychological issues or maybe he’s also part merman?

Hanna: I would like to give a standing ovation to Helene Clarkson’s fantastic eyebrows; they really add to Molly’s character.

Boomer: Here’s Gordon Currie being interviewed by Kirk Cameron, if you can stomach it.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without mentioning the musical stylings of Nash the Slash, who’s credited as providing the film’s score. A notorious Torontonian weirdo who masked his face with surgical bandages when performing, Nash the Slash’s contributions here are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that helps solidify the movie’s sleepy, melancholic tone. To be honest, seeing his name in the credits is the most significantly eccentric presence that he brings to this particular project, but the more you dig into his Wikipedia page and his performance art-style music videos the more fascinating he becomes. If for nothing else, I’m at least super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

There are only a few films I could cite that touch on the exact discomforting horrors of childhood explored in the 1990 curio The Reflecting SkinGummo, Tideland, Heavenly Creatures, Welcome to the Dollhouse, maybe certain aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth. None come anywhere near predating this forgotten indie cinema relic, yet they’ve each garnered more notoriety for their willingness to Go There when it comes to discomforting childhood fears, violence, and psychosexuality. I presume that’s mostly because no one really knew what to do with The Reflecting Skin in 1990, a sentiment I can confidently echo nearly thirty years later. The film was met with exuberant applause & demands for additional screenings when it debuted at Cannes, but it’s since faded into cultural obscurity due to a shamefully spotty history of physical media distribution. Thanks to a new digital restoration of the film for its first-ever Blu-Ray release, I was lucky to catch it completely blind at the local arthouse venue Zeitgeist, wholly unprepared for the haunted curio cabinet I’d be stumbling through for 90 intensely uncomfortable minutes. It felt like plucking a cursed book from a dusty library shelf and unknowingly releasing something wicked that was deliberately forgotten for the sake of humanity’s safety.

There’s a kind of protective innocence to the premise of The Reflecting Skin that doesn’t fully convey its antagonistically perverse tone. In the film, a young boy who lives at his family’s rural 1950s gas station creates an intricate series of fantasies to help soften the horrors of the insular world he occupies. Confused why his father is a local pariah, why his brother (Viggo Mortensen in his debut film role) is prematurely fading into illness, and why his snot-nosed peers are showing up dead around town, the child creates a fantasy scenario where his young, widowed neighbor is a vampire that’s draining the community of its vitality by literally draining its blood. The audience is never fooled by this illusion, as the widow in question (although stylistically a precursor to Tilda Swinton’s turn in Only Lovers Left Alive) is clearly just a young woman racked with grief. Still, our twisted little POV character’s interpretation of the world around him is even more of a shock without the possibility of a supernatural threat supporting it. We know exactly why the children around him are dying, why his family is being ostracized from the local community, and what’s haunting his “war hero” brother. Seeing those harsh realities clash with equally harsh fantasies never gets easier as the film goes on, especially since the fantasies only encourage our devious little protagonist to behave more monstrously as they spiral out of control.

The POV character of The Reflecting Skin is a chipper little devil in an off-putting bowl cut. He’s endlessly cruel in the way a lot of bored, unsupervised children can be – gleefully tormenting all helpless animals in his striking distance as a form of escapist entrainment, whether they be a grieving widow or a pathetic bull fog. His instinct when he encounters something precious or beautiful in his grimly dour environment is to immediately destroy it beyond recognition, an instinct the film generally frames as the commanding ethos of humanity & Nature. This destructive impulse and the hopeless cruelty of Life are discussed in flat, stage play-style dialogue, a tone accentuated by the nonprofessional child actors who are tasked to deliver it. Phrases like, “Innocence can be hell,” and “The nightmare of childhood . . . and then it only gets worse,” hang in the air like a black-magic curse over the sparse setting. Characters’ fixation on animalistic details like scent, skin, and thirst take on a literary importance that contextualizes its vampiric lore in a distinctly Southern Gothic tradition. The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.

The oil painting-reminiscent wheat fields of this film’s farmland setting have since become such common cinematic language that it’s now considered a memeable cliché (usually at the expense of Terrence Malick). Its stage play dialogue and flat child-acting limitations could also be a major barrier for modern audience to fight past. I personally found both to be appropriately harsh, sparse backdrops for the film’s brutal worldview, in which life is a punishing force of destruction that deliberately targets the most beautiful & fragile things among us. Children, women, queer people, and sensitive men are squashed like bugs for the crime of existing, and the only thing protecting them from total annihilation is a romantic fantasy that can crumble at any moment. The worst part is that they can be just as guilty of passing that cruelty along as much as anyone else. The Reflecting Skin might be too cruel, too cynical, too stilted, and too stylized to strike a chord with everyone who stumbles into its nightmarish childhood fantasy unprepared (our screening did have at least one ceremonial walk-out midway through), but if you can fully sink into the hellish wavelength it establishes the experience is unforgettably unnerving. I watched it with my jaw agape for most of its runtime, as if it were a forbidden displeasure the world had meant to protect me from by burying it in several decades of obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Blade Trinity & Night of the Creeps (1986)

Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas