Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast: Zombi Child (2020) vs. The Zombie Diaspora

Welcome to Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss Bertrand Bonello’s new film Zombi Child (2020) and the ever-broadening zombie genre’s diasporic exodus away from its Haitian Vodou roots. Enjoy!

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– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

The Absurdist Joys of the Villainous Pun Name

I have a running list of absurdly idiotic movie gimmicks that delight me to no end: horror films about internet-dwelling computer ghosts; plot-summarizing rap songs that play over end credits; music video dream sequences, etc. This week I may have discovered a new one: the not-so-secret villain who gives themselves away with an obviously evil pun name. Naming fictional characters is difficult business. It takes incredible skill & patience to find the right name that both says something about the character without being too blatant and feels natural on the tongue. This week I’ve been watching movies that don’t at all burden themselves with either concern, instead using their villains’ names as plain, upfront statements about where they stand in the world and how you should feel about them. It’s a tactic that’s far more often employed in the heightened realities of pro wrestling, drag, and comic books – one that sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s deployed in cinema, hilariously so.

The first of these villainous pun names to jump out at me was from the 1987 supernatural noir Angel Heart. The film joins the ranks of New Orleans-set erotic thrillers like The Big Easy, Zandalee, and Cat People ’82 in depicting our fine city as a sweaty pile of saxophones, street steam, horniness, gumbo, and Voodoo. The plot is, on the surface, a fairly standard noir riff where a young, strapping Micky Rourke ventures to investigate a missing person’s case while getting tangled up with various dangerous dames. Everything changes when a corny sex scene between Rourke & Lisa Bonet (a beautiful combination, considering the times) turns into a nightmare vision of Hell and the movie takes a supernatural turn. Anyone paying attention to the character names should see that directional shift coming from a mile away, however. Not only is Rourke’s professional sleuth named Harold Angel, but the man who hires him to investigate the crime (in “a special appearance” from Robert De Niro) is named Louis Cyphre. Turns out that long-nailed, slick haired trickster Louis Cyphre has a pure-Evil, supernatural role to play in Angel’s downfall. Who would have guessed?

The second villainous pun name I stumbled across was a much more recent, less nostalgically minded-title: Wes Craven’s 2005 airplane thriller Red Eye. A tight, gimmick-heavy thriller from the War on Terror era of Bush’s presidency, the film features Rachel McAdams being held hostage by Cillian Murphy on a late-night flight and subsequently being pressured into participating in a terrorist attack. Red Eye has a Final Destination feel to it, except with Terrorism feeling like the inescapable inevitability instead of Death. That set-up allows for over-the-top skirmishes with flight attendants, missile launches, and assassination attempts to feel at home with the overall tone, but the movie also has a stray concern with gender politics that lands far outside that thematic orbit. Murphy’s abduction & coercion of McAdams begins as extremely gendered flirtation, then erupts into domestic violence exchanges where he explains he has the upper hand because his “male-driven logic” trumps her “female-driven emotion.” That turn in the story is much more jarring than Murphy’s reveal as the villain, but the gendered violence of the film is less surprising when you consider his character name for a half-second: Jack Rippner.

After meeting Louis Cyphre & Jack Rippner by chance, I decided to revisit the most shameless villainous pun name I could recall. It’s an honor held by none other than schlock king Ed Wood Jr., who had the vision & the fortitude to name a character Dr. Acula in 1958’s Night of the Ghouls. Officially unreleased until the 1980s, cobbled together from footage pilfered form Orgy of the Dead & The Sinister Urge, and somewhat posed as a direct sequel to Bride of the Monster (at least in Tor Johnson’s resurrection of the character Lobo), Night of the Ghouls is a total mess even by Wood’s “standards”. It’s a charming mess, though, especially in sequences where Dr. Acula fleeces marks by staging fake seances in his spooky mansion for easy cash. Everything about Acula is a mystery. Actor Kenne Duncan is not at all vampiric in the role, not even vaguely. The character was obviously written for Bela Lugosi before his death, but why wasn’t it given to Criswell instead, who introduces the film while rising of a casket, then continues to operate outside the narrative? If Acula is a total fraud whose seances are staged for grifting, why would have burdened himself with such an obviously suspicious, villainous stage name? Was the character intended as an homage to Lugosi’s very similar conman in the 1940 horror comedy You’ll Find Out? I’m not sure Wood would have answers to these questions even if he were still alive, which I suppose is part of the fun.

Jack Rippner, Dr. Acula, and Louis Cyphre have better company in more well-respected films – characters like Hannibal Lecter, Cruella de Ville, and any number of James Bond or Harry Potter villains you can name. Honestly, though, I find them even more delightful as sore-thumb intruders outside of contexts like comic books or children’s literature that would excuse their over-the-top nomenclatures. Now that my eyes are open to the trope, I fully expect to notice more villainous pun names at the movies. At the very least, I hope to run across a Justin Sane or a B. Zilbub before my time on Earth is through and I fully expect to fall in love with the films that dare to exploit that gimmick. It’s consistently delightful & comfortably at home with this genre film territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Scream (1996) is a Modern Horror Classic, but It’s Not Wes Craven’s Meta Masterpiece

When Wes Craven passed away in 2015, I commemorated the loss by revisiting what I’ve long thought to be his crown jewel, New Nightmare. The late-in-the-game Nightmare on Elm Street sequel is a meta reflection on the philosophical conundrums of the director’s own work. By creating the evil of Freddy Krueger in his fiction, what exactly was Craven unleashing into the world and what power did he hold over that evil once it seeped into public consciousness? This intellectual launching pad allowed the director, who appears as himself within the film, to not only lament & poke fun at the way his vision had been bastardized by the Elm Street series’ diminished returns sequels, but also to engage with the nature of Art & Horror as ancient societal traditions & metaphysical lifeforms all unto their own. It continues to surprise me that the Scream series that followed the trail of these meta-critical inquiries is generally held in higher regard than New Nightmare, despite their much shallower mode of self-aware criticism. 1996’s Scream is a modern classic that completely rejuvenated the teen slasher genre, altering the trajectory of mainstream horror as an art form for many years to come. Scream is a great film. However, its meta-commentary on the nature of horror isn’t nearly as philosophical or as ambitious as New Nightmare‘s, as it shifted Craven’s focus away from self-examination & towards the deconstruction of tropes.

I was very young when Scream hit theaters in the mid-90s, so the film served as my Rosetta Stone for a genre I didn’t know much about at the time, outside titles like Killer Klowns from Outer Space & The Monster Squad. Its hook is that it’s a slasher film where every character is highly aware that they’re living in a slasher film. Before setting in motion its A-plot hybrid of Prom Night & John Carpenter’s Halloween, Scream opens with a vignette homage to When a Stranger Calls. A (supposedly) teenage Drew Barrymore is harassed over her parents’ cordless phone by a masked, off-screen killer who grills her over the line about her favorite scary movies. Their verbal cat & mouse game escalates to real life violence in a trivia game about horror classics like Halloween & Friday the 13th. When Barrymore gets enough answers wrong, she’s brutally murdered. This opener has become more infamous than the film’s main plot in some ways, if not only for the shock that Barrymore is so easily discarded after featuring prominently in the advertising (which might in itself be a nod to Vivian Leigh’s role in the first act of Psycho). Scream’s main plot follows (a conspicuously twenty-something) Neve Campbell as she attempts to survive her final year of high school despite being stalked by the same serial killer from that opening vignette. As the killer’s catchphrase is “What’s your favorite scary movie?” and most of Campbell’s friends appear to be horror nerds (including a video store clerk played by Jamie Kennedy), Scream allows itself to name check nearly every classic horror title it apes in its own dialogue: Psycho, Carrie, Friday the 13th, Candyman, Basic Instinct, Prom Night, The Silence of the Lambs, the list goes on. The film even openly jokes about the declining quality in Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and features a brief cameo from Wes Craven himself as the high schools’ janitor, wearing Freddy Krueger’s exact sweater & fedora costume. Having since caught up with virtually all of these reference points in the two decades since I first saw this film as a child, these namedrops now play like adorably clever winks to the camera. In the mid-90s, however, that list was a doorway to a world of horrors I would take mental note of for future trips to the video store. It was essential.

As a more seasoned horror nerd, my appreciation for Scream has shifted away from its direct horror references to its broader deconstruction of slasher genre tropes. As fun as it is to hear characters reference The Howling as “the werewolf movie that has E.T.’s mom in it,” it’s much more rewarding to pick apart the mechanics of the genre while still delivering on their basic chills & thrills. Neve Campbell is immediately introduced to us as a virginal Final Girl archetype, wearing the girliest white cotton nightgown costume imaginable for a “high school senior.” Despite her self-awareness about that archetypal role in horror films, she lives out her Final Girl duties in a textbook manner. In one breath she’ll deride how it’s insulting that female horror victims are idiotic enough to run up the stairs instead of out the front door, then in the next breath she’ll allow herself to be chased up the stairs instead of running out the front door. Characters seem totally aware of the mistakes that get victims killed in slashers, warning each other not to drink, fuck, or say things like “Who’s there?” or “I’ll be right back.” Despite a verbal assurance that “This is life. This isn’t a movie,” the soon-to-be-victim teens make all of these exact mistakes anyway and immediately suffer the consequences. The movie is so aware of its own participation in well-worn slasher tropes that even decisions like casting twenty-somethings to play high school students feels like an intentional choice of self-parody when it could just as easily be a genuine participation in a Hollywood cliché.

Scream’s meta-commentary on the slasher genre is much more clever & trope-aware than New Nightmare’s earnest, philosophical stares into the metaphorical mirror. This may be a symptom of the Scream screenplay being written by Kevin Williamson instead of Craven himself, who was certainly doing a bit of career-spanning navel gazing with his New Nightmare script. As intricate & delightful as Scream’s self-awareness of its participation in horror tropes is for a lifelong fan of the genre, the film’s not nearly as impressive in its thematic depth as New Nightmare’s more metaphysical interests. The closest the film gets to reaching those New Nightmare heights is in a sequence where a newscaster van is watching hidden camera surveillance footage of a teen party on a 30 second delay, helpless to save victims who are unaware of the killer behind them, despite shouting “Turn around! Turn around!” at the screen. It’s as if the characters themselves are watching a copy of Scream in that moment, which is an interesting logical thought loop the movie creates within itself. Since Scream’s release, I do feel like I have seen a trope-deconstruction meta-horror that does approach New Nightmare’s philosophical ponderings; Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods does a phenomenal job of satisfying both ends of that divide. What’s interesting now is that in the decades since its release Scream itself has become a kind of cultural object worthy of nostalgia like the countless slasher titles it namedrops in its dialogue. It not only has been spoofed by the (godawful) Scary Movie series (as if a self-aware meta horror needed spoofing) & was followed by four of its own sequels, but its 90s-specific details have amounted to a kind of cultural time capsule. 90s telephone technology & fashion choices, along with callbacks to a time when Neve Campbell was the star of Party of Five and Courtney Cox & David Arquette were America’s goofball power couple/punching bag have all aged the film in a way that’s ripe for its own nostalgia. Even the mask design of the film’s killer, colloquially known as Ghostface, has become just as iconic as the killer visages of Jason, Freddy, Michael Meyers, and any other fictional slasher villain mentioned in the film. Scream may not be as philosophically curious or thematically ambitious as New Nightmare is in its own self-examination, but it has proven to be one of Wes Craven’s most iconic works in its own right instead of getting by as just an empty callback to the titles that inspired it.

-Brandon Ledet

Cursed (2005)

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Full disclosure: I had pretty much completely given up on being open-minded about anything Wes Craven had directed post-Scream. Despite a deep love & appreciation for the meta horror of both Scream & New Nightmare and the childlike loopiness of The People Under the Stairs, I just never bothered to venture into Craven’s career post-1996. I think this may have been a combined problem of not wanting to risk ruining the good vibes I got from Scream with what could be diminished returns (and nu metal vibes) in its three sequels & associating his name too closely with dire production credits like Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster & Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000. Despite hearing good things about the in-flight thriller Red Eye, my entry point for post-Scream Craven wound up being the 2005 werewolf horror comedy Cursed. It turns out my concerns were mostly unfounded. Craven had certainly veered to a much lighter tone in this outing than the hard-to-stomach horror of early films like Last House on the Left & The Hills Have Eyes (thank God) & some of the film’s early 2000s CGI has aged a tad poorly, but for the most part Cursed is a genuinely entertaining creature feature with a pleasant tonal balance between humor & violence. Cursed is, in a simple phrase, good, dumb fun. That’s all I can ask for from any director, honestly, so now I’m deeply curious about what other late-career Craven gems I may have overlooked.

Part of what frees Cursed from feeling like a run-of-the-mill werewolf picture is that it spreads its story so thin across so many different creatures that it feels more like a pastiche than a direct genre film. A typical werewolf movie will follow the gradual transformation of one painfully conflicted protagonist/antagonist as they discover the world of werewolfdom. Cursed, on the other hand, gets greedy and follows the monster movie mayhem of at least four different wolves. It at first teases itself to be a classic predatory-wolf-terrorizes-a-local-population (Los Angeles, in this case) story, but then that wolf ends up infecting several other innocents. These leaves room for a proto-Twilight supernatural romance, a beastly catfight centered on petty jealousies, and (most amusingly of all) an unofficial Teen Wolf III situation where an unpopular student uses his werewolf abilities to excel at high school wrestling (as opposed to the basketball & boxing victories of the first two Teen Wolves). Just in case you might mistakenly assume that this all-inclusive tour of werewolves past were at all accidental, the film makes room for a wax museum version of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man character to make a posthumous cameo. Cursed is well versed in its lycanthropic history & it wants you to know it.

At first it’s difficult to tell for sure if Cursed is asking to be taken seriously or if it wants to play as a horror comedy. Its monster movie mayhem is never gore-obsessed, but it can be gruesome at times, especially in an early scene involving victims trapped in an overturned car. When about a third of the way into the picture the aforementioned teen wolf is testing out his newfound abilities by howling at the moon with a pack of stray dogs, however, it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to operating within a certain sense of morbid humor. Much like its sleek-goth look, the film’s comedic/horrific tone calls back to late 90s titles like The Faculty, Idle Hands, and (duh) Ginger Snaps in a way that manages to feel way more charming than outdated. When our howling teen wolf is caught googling lycanthropes, his sister jokes, “Why can’t you just download porn like other teenage boys?” Later, another woman muses “There’s no such thing as safe sex with a werewolf.” By the time the film stages its climax at a strange nightclub/event hall hybrid that doubles as a haunted house with funhouse mirrors and a wax figurine “Diva Room” for statues of folks like Madonna, Cher, and Xena: Warrior Princess, the film proves itself to be an enjoyably silly, bloodsoaked work of deadpan horror comedy.

What personally struck me most while watching Cursed was its ludicrously stacked cast of welcome faces. Joining the always-delightful Christina Ricci were forgotten early 00s personalities like Dawson Creek‘s Joshua Jackson, Gilmore Girls‘ Milo Ventimiglia, Mya, Craig Kilborn, and (briefly) Lance Bass. Before-his-time Jesse Eisenberg has a lot of fun with the howlin’/wrasslin’/werewolf-Googlin’ teen protagonist (although his straightened hair in the film was a huge stylistic mistake) and there are similar early glimpses of Nick Offerman in a bit role as well as three actors from Arrested Development: Scott Baoi (as himself), Portia de Rossi, and Judy Greer. If I had to single out a most valuable player here (besides maybe the down-for-whatever Eisenberg) it’d have to be Judy Greer. She rarely gets much of a chance to shine (see, for instance, her diminished role in Jurrassic World) and Cursed really allows her to run wild with an Ice Bitch role you can tell she had a lot of fun sinking her teeth into. I mean, she really chewed the scenery. Seriously, she ate up the compe . . . you get the picture.

I wouldn’t rank Cursed up there with Wes Craven’s best or anything like that, but I don’t think the director was aiming for that kind of accolade with this film anyway. Cursed finds Craven relaxed, having fun, and paying tribute to the monster movies he grew up loving. Throw in a time capsule cast & some classic werewolf puppetry/costuming from special effects master & John Landis collaborator Rick Baker (when the film isn’t indulging in ill-advised CGI) and you have a perfectly enjoyable midnight monster movie pastiche. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed a straight-forward Teen Wolf III high school wrestling picture in its place.

-Brandon Ledet

Wes Craven’s Crown Jewel: New Nightmare (1994)

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Just two weeks ago, we lost a cinematic great who was often overlooked for his accomplishments as an auteur, perhaps due to his extensive work in genre films. Wes Craven may have made an occasional goofy trifle like a Shocker or a Swamp Thing, but his more accomplished films have unmistakably reshaped the horror landscape in a significant way. I don’t have much of a stomach for them myself, but his early works The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House on the Left rang out like the enraged, too-believable battle cries of a deeply disturbed mind eager to unleash its violent cravings upon the world at large. Honing in that anger for something more purposeful & universally palatable, Craven later scared the every living shit out of mainstream audiences with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did for the simple act of falling asleep what Jaws did for nightswimming. Craven’s instantly infamous Freddy Krueger creation, brought to disturbingly vivid life by actor Robert Englund, would’ve been enough to coast on for the rest of the director’s life, but instead Craven broke out into more surreal territory with The Serpent & The Rainbow, political satire in The People Under the Stairs, and the very nature of horror as a genre in the meta franchise Scream, among other projects. Craven was an inventive fella, to put it mildly. He was enthusiastic about exploring new, strange ideas that would allow his demented id to escape from his mild-mannered exterior, scaring his audience while simultaneously challenging them in unexpectedly intellectual ways, the latter being something a lot of horror peddlers don’t bother with often enough.

My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. The Scream franchise introduces its meta context by having the typical bonehead slasher victims be atypically self-aware of classic horror film tropes that usually lead to violent deaths, allowing for them to make commentary on the very film that they populate (eventually with their lifeless bodies). However, thanks to the dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare allows itself even more free rein with its meta context. The movie itself is about the making of another Freddy Kruger picture, a cursed production that blurs the lines between reality & nightmare and free will & scripted fiction to the point where it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a character being awake, getting trapped in Freddy’s playground of the subconscious, or, worse yet, living out one of Wes Craven’s screenplays.

Set on the 10th anniversary of the original Freddy Krueger picture, New Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. As the anniversary of the film draws near, threatening phonecalls (often accompanied by Earthquakes) that impossibly seem to be from Freddy Krueger himself torment the poor actress, establishing a mood of dread very early in the picture. The strange thing is that Langenkamp is good friends with Robert Englund, her colleague who portrays Krueger in the movies. Englund, playing himself (and Freddy, of course), is portrayed as a genteel dude here, spending his days idly painting in the sun room of a mansion undoubtedly funded by the success of the Elm Street films, a far cry from the undead homicidal maniac he embodies with Freddy. As mentioned above, Wes Craven also plays himself in New Nightmare. He explains to Heather that he’s been working on a script (or a “nightmare in progress” as he calls it) for a new Elm Street picture as a means to stop Krueger from becoming “real”. According to Craven, because Freddy was killed off in the 6th installment of the franchise (Freddy’s Dead: The “Final” Nightmare), he has been set free like a genie from a bottle, now able to manifest in real life, causing real havoc. The only way to stop Freddy, Craven explains, is to make another picture, an ordeal Heather is very reluctant to suffer.

There is so much to enjoy in New Nightmare & the film really does at times feel like all of the best elements of Wes Craven’s aesthetic conveniently gathered in one package. Striking an unnerving artificiality from the get go, the whole film feels like a constant dream state, a feeling that’s only amplified as the walls between the conscious & the subconscious, as well as the walls between the movie & the movie within the movie, begin to break down into a mess of Freddy Krueger themed chaos. As for Krueger himself, he actually doesn’t appear in his full form for much of the film. He’s more of a disembodied idea than a physical threat, often appearing solely as a clawed glove & at one point literally becoming larger than life by appearing in the clouds above a freeway. Heather’s horrified reaction to Krueger’s new, true-life form & his adoring fans’ gushing at his publicity appearances call into question Craven’s own thoughts on his creations & their fandom, particularly with the rougher work of films like The Last House on the Left. Otherworldly landscapes of bedsheets & subconscious dungeons recall the POV of a child’s imagination Craven so well captured in The People Under the Stairs. Although the dream state reflections of The Serpent & The Rainbow and the original Elm Street as well as the meta reflections of the Scream movies may have been more thoroughly solidfied in his other pictures, it’s nice to see those two worlds bounce off each other in such a satisfying way here.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might not be his most technically accomplished film & it’s doubtful that it’ll be the one he’s most remembered for, but it holds a special place in my heart as a sum of the accomplishments of a director I grew up loving & fearing. When I heard the recent news that the incredibly gifted director had died, it was the first film I thought to revisit as a means of remembrance. It only helps that the director himself makes an appearance in the film to weigh in on the magical nature of filmmaking, directly referencing his personal compulsions to create, the often hellish compulsions that drive anyone to create, and the ways art can take on a life of its own outside its creator’s will or control. Besides being a great film as well as a reflection on the nature of horror as a genre & art as an enterprise, New Nightmare is a solid means to commemorating the accomplishments of a great director who is unfortunately no longer with us. He will undoubtedly be missed, but we’ll always have great films like New Nightmare to remember him by. Much like his creation Freddy Krueger, Craven lives on.

-Brandon Ledet