Hellbender (2022)

What should be the ideal goal of no-budget backyard filmmaking?  Is it enough to just document an insular community’s collaboration on a fun, collective art project?  Should it also approximate the production values of a “legitimate”, professional production as much as its resources allow?  Or should backyard filmmakers reject the aesthetics of professionalism entirely and instead distinguish themselves as outsider artists?

Your response to those big-picture questions will likely determine your enthusiasm for the low-budget folk horror Hellbender, which recently premiered on Shudder after a buzzy festival run in 2021.  I was charmed by the film’s backstory as a fun art project shared between a real-life family of outsider filmmakers, named—no joke—The Adams Family.  Where I’m skeptical of the film’s enthusiastic reception among horror nerds, though, is that it feels like it’s specifically being praised for the near-professional quality of its production values.  The camera is shockingly active in Hellbender, while most backyard movies rely on static shots due to limited gear & crew.  It’s got enough drone shots, CG effects, and psychedelic flashes of double-exposure horror imagery to pass itself off as a “real” movie – or at least a standard-issue, straight-to-Shudder horror streamer.  I can’t help but question the value of that achievement, though, as impressive as it is.  Backyard movies are best when they’re a little scuzzy & chaotic, touching on volatile images & personalities you won’t find in a professional Hollywood picture.  By that metric, Hellbender is almost competent to a fault: a little too slick to be especially valuable as a backyard movie but not expensive enough to feel fully legit.

The most satisfying aspect of Hellbender is the way its peculiar off-camera production circumstances are echoed in its onscreen drama.  The real-life mother-daughter duo Toby Poser & Zelda Adams play the fictional mother-daughter duo “Mother” & Izzy in the film. Together, they write playful, Jucifer-style metal songs in the fictional band H6LLB6ND6R – a mirror reflection of their real-life familial collaborations as outsider filmmakers (along with additional family members John & Lulu Adams, who also appear on-camera in minor roles).  As adorable as it is that a family can work closely enough to make intergenerational art together, there is something insular & cult-like about their isolation from the outside world, which the Adams are smart to make an explicit part of the text.  The mother strictly quarantines her daughter in a remote woodland cabin as a safety measure, raising her to believe she is too sick to be around outsiders.  It turns out what she means is the daughter is sick as fuck.  They both descend from a bloodline of witches, sharing an inherited power that can be dangerously addictive & destructive when paired with a teenager’s erratic behavior.  The resulting chaos of the daughter-witch inevitably being unleashed into the world unsocialized (a familiar chaos for any overly sheltered child who finally breaks free of parental control) is often cute, often gnarly, and sometimes even genuinely magical.  It just also feels like a cheaper version of superior teen-girl-puberty horrors like Jennifer’s Body, Ginger Snaps, and Teeth, when its outsider-art status means it had the freedom to become something much wilder & less familiar.

If I’m underselling the achievement of these resourceful, self-taught filmmakers shooting a near-professional movie in the woods, it’s probably because I’m undersold on The Adams Family myself.  I’m assuming that a lot of the ecstatic praise from horror nerds is a result of that niche audience having already been familiar with the Adams’ work, watching their craft evolve over the past decade of increasingly competent movies.  Hell, if you’ve been following the family’s career, you’ve practically watched their kids grow up onscreen, which must come with its own inherent emotional investment in their lives & art.  As someone who’s happily over a dozen films deep into the Matt Farley catalog of no-budget horror comedies, I can attest to these long-term collaborations among insular communities improving the longer you spend with the weirdos involved.  I enjoyed Hellbender enough to want to look back to older Adams Family titles like The Deeper You Dig & Halfway to Zen, especially since I’m apparently craving something a little rougher around the edges from them.  I’m questioning the merit of working so hard to make a backyard movie feel professional instead of feeling dangerously unrestrained, but I also wasn’t around for the family’s journey to this milestone.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter if there are a few mild naysayers in the audience like myself anyway, since the film was pre-emptively canonized in the recent folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched before it even hit wide release, so it’s already guaranteed to be cited as a significant work in that subgenre for decades to come regardless of its priorities or ideals as low-budget outsider art.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seventh Curse (1986)

I have plenty of stubborn genre biases that I need a lot of handholding to get past; I need a movie to be really over the top in its style or novelty to bother with a genre that generally bores me.  I don’t care for Westerns, but watching Kate Winslet destroy an entire town by sewing pretty dresses in The Dressmaker is enough to make me get over that.  I don’t have patience for war films, but watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet warp his war epic A Very Long Engagement into an over-stylized twee romance was perversely thrilling.  Moonraker had to launch James Bond into outer space as a cheap cash-in on the Star Wars craze for me to go out of my way to see a 007 film.  However, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie go as deliciously, deliriously over the top to break through my boredom with a specific genre than The Seventh Curse – a supernatural Hong Kong action classic that pulls off the unique miracle of keeping me awake for the entirety of an Indiana Jones adventure.

I normally don’t vibe with Indiana Jones-style international swashbuckling at all, but this copyright-infringing mind-melter hits the exact level of bonkers mayhem I need to get past that deeply ingrained disinterest.  While actual Indiana Jones pictures fire off dusty nostalgia triggers that have been old hat since at least the era of radio serials, The Seventh Curse is overflowing with imagination, irreverence, and explosive brutality in every single scene that you will not find replicated in any other movie, including the Hollywood blockbusters it lovingly “borrows” from.  This is a film where a James Bond-styled super-agent goes on international Indiana Jones adventures into ancient temples, ultimately teaming up with a Rambo-knockoff sidekick to defeat a flying Xenomorph with batwings.  Moreso than Indiana Jones, it reminded me a lot of the post-modern Brucesploitation picture The Dragon Lives Again, in which “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, and “Clint Eastwood” in Hell.  That wild abandon in random assemblages of copyright violations is absolutely thrilling in both cases, but The Seventh Curse is better funded, better conceived, and better staged than The Dragon Lives Again by pretty much every metric.  It’s also far preferable to any actual Indiana Jones film, even if it could not exist without their influence (and a little help from Jones’s loose collection of Hollywood superfriends).

In radio serial tradition, the film opens mid-adventure, where our pathetically named hero Chester Young untangles a delicate hostage negotiation by punching & kicking a legion of heavily armed Bad Guys to death.  While celebrating with his 007 sexual conquest after that mission, a pustule forms & explodes on his leg, spraying blood all over his high-thread-count bedsheets.  He then explains, in flashback, that this sudden fit of body horror is part of a supernatural curse that he’s been suffering for a full year – branded upon his soul by an ancient Thai god when he disrupted a human sacrifice ceremony on a previous mission.  This curse will soon destroy his body for good if he does not return to Thailand to confront the witchcraft-wielding Worm Tribe who cursed him a year ago, which launches us into another, grander adventure involving a flying cannibal fetus, a shape-shifting zombie god, the ritualistic sacrifice of human babies, gratuitous nudity and, of course, a bat-winged Xenomorph.  The antiqued sets & triumphant musical accompaniment frame Chester Young’s latest international mission in an Indiana Jones genre context, but the practical minute-to-minute details of that mission are far wilder & more thrilling than what you’d expect from the aesthetic.

I’m currently reading an encyclopedia of Hong Kong action cinema titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant HK movie industry’s greatest hits.  Every single blurb in that book makes every single title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on that industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags.  I want to be incredulous that the book’s bottomless hype for Hong Kong genre classics can’t be matched by the low-budget mayhem those movies actually delivered, but I don’t know; maybe it’s all true.  I was pushed to bump The Seventh Curse to the top of my Hong Kong Classics watchlist by our friends at We Love To Watch when they recently guest-hosted one of our podcast episodes, and it totally delivered on its reputation as an unhinged, uninhibited genre gem.  Between this glorious Indiana Jones revision, The Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead, and the few John Woo movies I’ve reviewed for the site, I’m starting to convince myself that the hype is real; all 1,000 of those recommended titles might actually be that badass.  The bummer is that most of them are either impossible or unaffordable to (legally) access in the US. By some unholy miracle, The Seventh Curse is currently only a $1.50 VOD rental, though, and it’s almost incredible enough to talk me into going into debt chasing down the rest of the Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head titles one-by-one.

-Brandon Ledet

Season of the Witch (1973)

In one of the more recent episodes of The Swampflix Podcast, Brandon, James, and I got together to virtually discuss what we categorized as “smart zombie movies.” During the recording, I mentioned that I’m not a fan of George Romero’s zombie films, such as Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. I find them to be boring, and I just really don’t care to waste time watching them. I know that is a blasphemous thing to say since he is considered to be one of greatest horror filmmakers of all time, but I’m just speaking my truth. Then, a few nights ago, I stumbled across a film called Season of the Witch. At first, I thought it was my favorite entry in the Halloween series (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), but it actually turned out to be one of Romero’s earliest films. It also happened to be considered one of his worst. Of course, I ended up enjoying it.

Season of the Witch has an interesting backstory. It was written and directed by George Romero and produced by his first wife, Nancy Romero. It was originally marketed as a softcore porn film called Hungry Wives with a poster that featured drawings of a few sultry women and the tagline, “Caviar in the kitchen, nothing in the bedroom.” The film itself is far from being anything close to a softcore porn; well, minus one quick sex scene and a few nude moments. It was the distributor who pushed Romero in the softcore direction, wanting him to incorporate pornographic sex scenes between the film’s main character and her young lover, but Romero refused. He had a different vision.

Influenced by second-wave feminism, Romero made a fantastic film about a dissatisfied housewife who dabbles in the occult, and he did it all with a budget of about $100,000 (it was originally $250,000 before his funding dropped). The main character, Joan Mitchell, is played by actress Jan White. White is somehow only credited with acting in four films (many of them from the 1970s). I was shocked to find out that her acting career was so short, because she is phenomenal in Season of the Witch. She has such a naturally entrancing, striking look that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Something about her is so delightfully haunting. To make things even better, she wears some of the most magnificent beehive wigs and late 1960s/early 1970s fashion. There’s also tons of cobalt blue carpet throughout the film that serves as an exquisite backdrop for her fabulous looks.

Season of the Witch starts off in a very exciting way. It opens up with a long dream sequence where Jan is walking in the woods while being ignored by her husband, and encountering all sorts of other bizarre dreamlike things (spooky music included). It gives off major The Feminine Mystique vibes. Jan is a housewife with an abusive husband and young-adult daughter, so she’s at the point in her life where she’s trying to figure out what her next step is. At a neighborhood party, she discovers that one of her neighbors is a witch. This sparks an interest in her, so she decides to explore the practice of witchcraft. There’s a great scene where she goes into town to shop for witchy supplies while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays in the background. The first spell she casts is a love spell that results in her having a tryst with her daughter’s lover. It’s so scandalous! As she dives deeper into the occult, she has progressively intense dreams about someone in a rubber demon mask breaking into her home. The dream later becomes infused with her reality, leading to a shocking act that I won’t spoil in this review.

Season of the Witch is not a horror movie, so don’t go into it expecting anything of the sort. It’s also not the softcore porn it was marketed as initially. It’s simply a wonderful drama that explores the internal struggles of an unhappy suburban housewife through the use of witchcraft. I was so impressed with this film, and I have a newfound appreciation for George Romero. I can’t wait to explore more of his non-zombie movies from this era. Hopefully I’ll find more hidden gems like Season of the Witch.

-Britnee Lombas

Gretel & Hansel (2020)

Of all the directors who contributed to the atmospheric moods & slow-building dread of the so-called “elevated horror” trend in the 2010s, Oz Perkins stands out to me as one of the most passionately dedicated to the cause. His mood-over-payoffs ethos worked better for me in The Blackcoat’s Daughter than it did in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, but between those two features I’ve been impressed with his patience & subtlety as a filmmaker (and an obviously genuine horror nerd). Specifically, Perkins’s attention to sound design in establishing a spooky atmosphere is near unmatched in his industry – something that’s difficult to fully soak in as an audience who can usually only access his films on streaming platforms instead of proper theatrical environments. Until now, the best chance most audiences had to fully appreciate one of Perkins’s atmospheric creep-outs was with an expensive pair of headphones in a dim room with no smartphones in reach, a ginormous feat of self-control. Gretel & Hansel, the director’s third feature, was his first to offer most audiences a chance to see one of his spooky mood pieces on a proper big screen—in a multiplex, even—thanks to its wide theatrical distribution through mainstream channels. Hilariously, Perkins used that opportunity to deliver his version of a fun popcorn flick, which turns out to be just as impenetrable & challenging as his no-budget “elevated horror” indies.

Gretel & Hansel feels like Oz Perkins having fun with his toys – fully cutting loose, letting his hair down, kicking off his shoes. Most audiences are still likely to find it a confounding bore. Despite the rigid narrative structure offered by its fairy tale source material, most of the film feels like watching a bunch of horror nerds dick around with expensive camera equipment in the woods. Its squared-off aspect ratio, handheld cinematography, stained-glass lighting hues, and synth-scored shots of ominous trees are incredibly exciting on an aesthetic level, but I’m not convinced that’s what general audiences are looking for in wide-distribution horror releases. By the time Perkins remembers to pack in the jump scares, familiar narrative structure, and heavy metal album art imagery that mainstream audiences expect from Horror at the multiplex, he’s already lost their attention. As someone who’s already on the hook for the director’s signature style of slow-moving, atmospheric indulgences, these intrusions of conventional bombast in an otherwise minimalist screen space felt absolutely wild – explosive even. By “elevated horror” standards, Gretel & Hansel is an absolute hoot, a total riot. I still imagine it’s going to be met by most audiences with a shrug & a yawn. Perkins’s vision of what constitutes a mainstream horror film creates a fascinating tension with the quiet restraint of his natural filmmaking tendencies; you just have to appreciate both sides of that divide to fully dig it.

A pair of siblings wander into the woods in search of work & food at the insistence of their parents, only to be adopted by an obvious witch who plans to cook & eat them. You know the rest. Except, you don’t, since Perkins (and screenwriter Rob Hayes) reshape & repurpose so many foundational elements of their Brothers Grimm source material that they might have well abandoned it entirely if it weren’t for the name recognition on the marquee (and its availability in the public domain). Much emphasis is laid on the siblings’ initial journey in the spooky woods – even pausing for a recreational mushroom trip just for funsies, as if this were a hangout comedy instead of a horror flick. Further, only one of the children appears to be a future menu item in the witch’s diet, while the other (played by IT breakout star Sophia Lillis) is effectively adopted as a witch in training. There’s also an entirely different fairy tale about The Girl in the Pink Hat that precedes & overlaps with the traditional “Hansel & Gretel” template, completely disrupting expectations on where the story will go. Intrusions of huntsmen, wolves, and old-fashioned ghouls at the periphery of the frame suggest that this is less an adaptation of a specific Brothers Grimm bedtime story than it is the resulting dream when the listener falls asleep halfway through the tale. Perkins & Hayes seemingly jolt awake for the film’s third act and scramble to tie all their narrative loose ends together into a traditional linear narrative, but it’s mostly a fool’s errand. Any last-minute attempts to tidy up this spooky-goofy mess only make it more blatantly strange as a whole.

The most amusing false gesture toward conventionality in Gretel & Hansel is its initial presentation as “a story with a lesson.” The film introduces itself as a traditional fairy tale that warns children to beware of gifts, frequently chiding “Nothing is given without something else being taken away.” Over time, feminist themes about the social prison of domestic duties and the vulnerability of young women in a world stacked against them bubble to the surface, as if this were a modern update to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Ultimately, the only clear message conveyed by the movie overall is “The woods are scary.” There isn’t time for much else as Perkins busies himself packing the screen with as many visual indulgences as possible: spooky triangles (truly the scariest shape), smoke machines clashing with colorful lights, a faceless witch figure who could only be described as Orville Heck, etc. Instead of a spooky mood piece where Nothing Happens (a complaint that could be ungenerously lobbed at Perkins’s earlier films), this is a goofy mood piece where so much happens that it’s impossible to make sense of it all. The tension between conventional genre payoffs & Oz Perkins’s “elevated horror” tendencies is absolutely thrilling throughout this self-conflicted novelty. I’m in love with how playful & unpredictable it feels from scene to scene while still maintaining the quiet atmosphere of Perkins’s earlier pictures at large. I don’t believe he has it in him to make a genuine opening-weekend crowd pleaser, and this delightfully weird attempt at such a prospect is downright adorable.

-Brandon Ledet

Viy (1967)

There’s a tricky balance between patience & expectation in recommending the historical curio Viy (aka Spirit of Evil) to the uninitiated. This is a one-of-a-kind cinematic artifact that concludes with what has to be one of the most gorgeous scares in the history of its artform. I’m already getting ahead of myself in overhyping it, though, as that glorious delayed payoff is a mere five-minute stretch of the film’s (mercifully brief) 77min runtime. There’s an early sequence that promises witchcraft & devilry for audiences patient enough to await its arrival, but much of the film is a slow, lightly comedic build to that final spectacle. I can only report that the witchy, demonic climax is well worth the wait, and that the movie would still be worth your attention even if it weren’t – due to its cultural significance as an early Soviet horror.

Cited as the first horror film produced in the Soviet Union, Viy feels like it’s gleefully getting away with something even when it’s pretending to be well-behaved. In the same era when Serious Artists like Andrei Tarkovsky struggled to express their religious beliefs onscreen under Soviet censorship, Viy sidesteps those restrictions by passing itself off as “a folk tale.” Adapted from the eponymous Nikolai Gogol text (which also inspired Mario Bava’s cult classic Black Sunday), it follows the story of young priests in training who very much believe in God, witches, and The Devil – with forbidden Christian iconography often decorating the sets they occupy. The mood is kept exceedingly light, though, as the bumbling would-be priests are basically frat boy buffoons on Spring Break who meet their end at the hands of a powerful witch. Despite the severity of its political & religious transgressions, this is essentially a horror comedy – with a comedic score keeping the mood light throughout (except at it blissfully chaotic climax).

While drunkenly enjoying a rowdy break from his studies in town, a young priest-in-training catches the lustful eye of a horny old witch. Unamused by her sexual advances, he beats her to death with a stone – a grotesquely outsized reaction to her enchantment. As retribution, the witch poses as the beautiful corpse of a local townie, insisting before her “death” that the very priest who bludgeoned her be summoned to pray for her soul over three consecutive nights. In classic fairy tale fashion, her menacing revenge on the idiot priest gradually escalates over those three nights—eventually reaching an intense supernatural crescendo during the final prayer session. The priest continually tries to weasel his way out of his responsibility to pray over the corpse (and, more to the point, to pay for his crime of drunkenly assaulting a witch), but his doomed fate is sealed as soon as the request is made. He gets his just desserts on that third night in a spectacularly satisfying act of supernatural revenge.

Viy’s value as a Soviet Era artifact is not going to interest every horror nerd. It’s a niche territory that’s only made more challenging by its shoddy English vocal dub, which plays like a book-on-tape translation where a single performer voices every character. If its historical context interests you, though (and if you generally have the patience for delayed payoffs to moody, atmospheric builds) the film is well worth the effort to reach its delirious haunted-house climax. The five-minute stretch that makes good on its long-teased witchcraft & devilry—boosted by an importation of Silent Era special effects into a 1960s filmmaking aesthetic—will leave an intense impression on your psyche that overpowers any minor qualms with its build-up. This is a quick, oddly lighthearted folk-horror curio with a fascinating historical context and an eagerness to wow the audience in its tension-relieving climax. That’s more than enough to melt my own horror-hungry heart, but your own mileage may vary.

-Brandon Ledet

Hagazussa (2019)

On a superficial level, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is doomed to forever be reductively understood as the German answer to The Witch. In a lot of ways, the comparisons are unavoidable. Hagazussa may be set centuries earlier than its American counterpart and in an entirely different region of the world, but both films share an academic pride in being thoroughly researched recreations of antique lore & superstitions surrounding witchcraft – so that they both separately function as 2010s updates to the silent horror classic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. Both films also center on fringe families who live ostracized in the isolating wilderness outside their nearby community. Both films focus on the coming-of-age struggles of the daughter in particular, and what tragedies superstitions dictate that transformation brings upon her family. If Hagazussa was looking to avoid these Witch comparisons entirely, it did itself no favors by making this exiled family goatherders by trade, so that dozens of goat closeups recall the VVitchy presence of Black Phillip. Also, not for nothing, the title Hagazussa supposedly translates to “Witch” in Old High German.

I’m not sure this 1:1 comparison could ever be favorable to Hagazussa, which is somehow much, much more difficulty quiet, brutal, and inscrutable than its American predecessor. I remember hearing a lot of grumbling in my opening-weekend screening of The Witch, where an unprepared audience registered vocal dissent against what they had assumed was going to be a more conventional horror film than the slow-burn familial drama that was delivered. I imagine that same crowd would have hurled literal rotten tomatoes at the screen during Hagazussa, which makes The Witch look like a bombastic Michael Bay action comedy by comparison. This is a mostly dialogue-free descent into misery as one lonely young woman gradually loses everything & everyone she has because she’s understood to be a witch. Hagazussa often borders on the avant-garde subgenre of Slow Cinema in which long, silent takes hold on a single image for relative eternities in an effort to break through to something more artistically substantial than traditional entertainment. As someone who doesn’t have the patience for Slow Cinema even in the best of circumstances, watching Hagazussa alone in my living room was an effective window into what it feels like for mainstream audiences who suffer through Elevated Horror™ slowburns when expecting a more traditional slasher or creature feature. It comes across as tedious instead of properly atmospheric.

Still, although the film tested my patience (which often failed), I admired so much of its witchy, metal-as-fuck imagery. Black cats, cauldrons, thrones of skulls, plague carts, and mushroom trips into the darkness of the human soul decorated the screen in a continually compelling way, even despite my personal issues with the pacing. As soon as I hit the drone metal title card, I knew I was in for a quietly spooky visual feast, one that recalled similar history-minded arthouse Euro horrors like Häxan, November, and The Juniper Tree. It’s not like nothing happens plot-wise either. There are plenty of heartbreaking betrayals, psychedelic freak-outs, shocking sexual transgressions, and tragic downfalls throughout to keep you mind occupied, even if they’re doled out at a glacial pace. I wonder if I would have been more on-board with the film in a proper theater, with no opportunities to be distracted from the black-magic tragedy on the screen. At least, I can see it going over well among a film fest crowd with the right temperament. As is, though, I mostly appreciated Hagazussa as a folk-metal mood board, not necessarily a feature film. It was most useful to me as a taste of my own medicine for rolling my eyes at the strangers around me who were audibly bored by The Witch.

-Brandon Ledet

In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Satanic Panic (2019)

I closed out my experience at the Overlook Film Festival this year the exact way I started it: with a comedy that wasn’t at all funny. Just like with my opening night selection, Porno, I sat through much of Satanic Panic in the festival’s closing hours not laughing at any of the film’s proper Jokes but being amused by the absurdist excess of the sex & violence onscreen anyway. Humor is entirely subjective, as I learned a day prior when a total stranger scolded me for laughing during Peter Strickland’s killer-dress giallo pastiche In Fabric because it is “not a comedy” (hard disagree), so I’m sure this splatter comedy has a core demographic of genre nerds out there who are going to slurp up its cutesy occultist humor like so much blood & viscera. For the rest of us, the film is at least committed to exploiting the full absurdist potential of its sex & violence, perhaps the two most reliable sources of entertainment in the history of commercial art.

This film picks up where Rosemary’s Baby leaves off. Upwardly mobile suburbanite aristocrats gather in a beige McMansion to worship Satan as their Dark Lord. Their ritual du jour involves summoning the demon Baphomet to impregnate a sacrificial virgin, providing a physical form for an Evil deity. Our POV character is the virgin sacrifice in peril – a pizza delivery driver who dares speak up when the cult stiffs her on her tip, only for them to single her out for their depraved ceremony of untold horrors. Most of the film details her fight for survival over the course of a single night as she must first accept that witchcraft is real, then adapt to overthrow the black magic Satanists who want to destroy her with it. Luckily, her blue-collar pedigree has better prepared for the fight than the pampered suburbanites that surround her, whether or not they have all the forces of Hell to summon for backup.

In its least convincing moments Satanic Panic attempts a weirdly earnest emotional throughline about personal courage & survivor’s guilt. Its Society-esque thematic territory in which the Rich are an evil force that are actively trying to kill us is much more successful, but still a little hollow. Mostly, the plot is a thin excuse to juxtapose a wholesome cutie who loves fuzzy bunnies with the blood-soaked horrors of Satanic worship. It’s a relatively harmless source of humor (excusing a rape joke or two, re: preemptively losing her virginity), but also not a particularly novel or clever one. For me, the film worked best when the humanity of its characters was forgotten entirely in pursuit of sexual, gory mayhem: strap-on “killdo” drills, poisoned children, fisted neck wounds, Cronenberigan anus monsters, blood-soaked occultist orgies, etc. It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but Satanic Panic at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.

From a production level standpoint, this should’ve been able to accomplish much more than what Porno pulled off. While that film was a more amateur affair populated by unfamiliar faces and limited to just a few locations, this is a Fangoria-supported debut feature for Horror Industry notable Chelsea Stardust and features supporting performances from Rebecca Romjin, Jerry O’Connell, and Arden Myrin among its suburbanite Satanists. It’s far from a major studio production, but the fact that it amounts to the same general effect of something as cheap as Porno can’t be a good sign. Because both of those titles were able to earn their place on the schedule for the same generally well-curated horror festival, and both screenings were met with uproarious laughter from plenty of genre nerds besides me, I assume there are many people out there who will find Satanic Panic hi-larious, whether or not they would enjoy it more than Porno. Admittedly, I did eventually have fun with its commitment to bloodlust & excess myself, but I also walked away a lot more cautious about making time for these unvetted splatter comedies the next time I’m prioritizing what to see at a genre film festival. I now know that they’re a type, and not necessarily my type.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Witch (2018)

The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.

While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.

I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet