Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (aka Big Bad Wolves, 2014)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 26, 2015. The rating was 3.5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

(Trigger Warning: Child Abuse and Sexual Assault)

EPSON MFP imageWhat is a monster? We live in a world where we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there are no vampires, no werewolves, no scarred demons with razor gloves stalking our dreamscapes with the power to make our nightmare deaths carry over into the waking world. Films featuring antagonists that no rational person could legitimately fear, like a children’s doll haunted by the soul of a serial killer or an evil leprechaun covered in carcinomas, belong to the realm of fantasy. Thus, contemporary horror often confines itself to the plausible, in many ways becoming more like thrillers than the traditional horror films of yore. Our modern monster has to be a person, someone who could be your neighbor or simply a fellow citizen who happens to be a stranger, capable of doing something monstrous. For the past couple of decades, this phantom has to be someone capable of committing that most heinous of crimes–child molestation and murder.

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The Dungeonmaster (1985)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 25, 2015. The rating was 2/5 Stars, with a Camp Stamp. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageAlthough there’s no way to ever again think about or mention the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” without calling to mind the short film that took the internet by storm last year, few statements are more accurate when it comes to the abysmal failings of 1985’s The Dungeonmaster. The title is inaccurate, as there are absolutely no dungeons in this movie, nor is there a master of these unseen dungeons. The alternate title, Digital Knights, is also incorrect, as there is only one person who could reasonably be called a knight in this film. In fact, even the original title, Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (as it was known before the reaction from a San Antonio test audience convinced the producers to change it), was also wrong, as there is no war in this movie whatsoever, and, despite it being mostly garbage, you’ll feel more unfulfilled by the movie’s underwhelming 73 minutes than moved to any strong emotion; this movie can’t inspire mild interest, let alone rage.

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Phenomena (1985)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 24, 2015. The rating was 5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageI approached this movie with ambiguous feelings. Since beginning this journey, I’ve cited Phenomena as my favorite Dario Argento movie in several reviews, and as its time in the spotlight grew nearer, I felt some trepidation about whether or not it would live up to my memories. I hadn’t seen it in over five years, and I was concerned that my recollection of it as a pitch-perfect film would be ruined upon revisitation. As it turns out, it’s even more beautiful than I remember, and still holds its place as not only my favorite Argento, but as one of my favorite movies period, regardless of genre. There are some superficial similarities to Suspiria, given the setting and the protagonist, but Phenomena is undoubtedly its own movie, and a departure from Argento’s other movies in that it contains very few of his common elements. There are no attempts to recall and decipher a misunderstood or misremembered clue. None of the violence is sexualized. The main character and the detective investigating the series of crimes don’t meet until they both wind up in the killer’s dungeon in the final act. The main character is not an artist, and the resolution of the mystery, while unforeseeable, doesn’t feel like a cheat.

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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2015)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 23, 2015. The rating was 3.5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageI don’t really remember much about John Frankenheimer’s 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. My parents rented it the summer it came to VHS, and, presumably ignorant of how mature it was, allowed me to watch it with them (of course, my father was and is the kind of person who really only objected to profanity and sex, while violence was ignored most of the time; it’s telling that they allowed me to watch this movie, but Miss Congeniality was banned in our house years later due to Sandra Bullock’s “foul” mouth). Most of what I remember is that Fairuza Balk, who I knew from Return to Oz, was in it, as was some hideous wheezing monster named Marlon Brando, whom my mother tried unsuccessfully to convince me was once a handsome movie star. This was a movie that had hyena monsters and a horribly graphic scene of a beast person giving birth, but I don’t remember those elements at all while Brando’s white-painted face haunted me for years.

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La Terza madre (aka Mother of Tears, 2007)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 22, 2015. The rating was 4/5 Stars, with a Camp Stamp. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.

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Tenebrae (1982)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 16, 2015. The rating was 4.5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

Ironically, the more Dario Argento I consume, the more novel I find his seemingly obsessive repetition of concepts and ideas to be. When I discussed Profondo Rosso, I talked about how it represented the apotheosis of his metaphorical color palette, a brand new story done up in the same “shades” as his other gialli but narratively perfected; Tenebrae (aka Tenebre, although this is less of a translation of the title as it is a miscommunication about promotional material from day one), released in 1982, is Argento’s first picture to be filmed in the eighties and is the definitive giallo of that decade, despite being less well known than his preceding films in that genre. Most importantly, however, this is the first time I’ve really felt that Argento had a thesis with his movie. His previous gialli ranged from good to bad, but one thing they all had in common was that they were first concerned with cinematography and mystery, with meaning and metaphor playing inconsequential roles in the overall structure. “Here’s a mystery, and it twists a lot! And everything is beautiful!” with occasional “Here’s a mystery, and there’s witches, because why not,” essentially. Here, however, Argento addresses criticism of his work and its themes as well as what he perceived to be a rise in random acts of violence in his contemporary world.

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Movie of the Month Follow-Up: The Cheap, Diminished-Returns Depths of Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994)

This was originally posted on Swampflix.com as part of that site’s “Movie of the Month” feature, in which one contributor makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and the staff discusses it afterwards. This article was published as a follow-up to the discussion of MotM Class of 1999 on September 15, 2015. 

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November’s Movie of the Month, Class of 1999, is by no means a great movie. It’s a strange, didactic, dated, entertaining, culturally intriguing piece of mindless cyborg action with misguided social commentary, but while it’s a movie that holds a special place in my heart, there’s nothing groundbreaking or objectively iconic about it. For all its strengths and weaknesses, it’s a movie that truly commits to its fictional world and its boundaries and stays within those strictures: the grime is grimy, the robots are robotic, and the violence-prone teenagers are teenaged and prone to violence. The idea that armed, militant teenagers whose schools are at the heart of free fire zones would continue to attend class is absurd, but the movie never winks at this idea. Sure, the dieselpunk armored vehicle chase that opens that film is ridiculous, but the movie plays it with sufficient sincerity to make it, if not believable, at least explicable. The sequel? Not so much.

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Anna to the Infinite Power (1982)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 11, 2015. The rating was 4.5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageI’ve mentioned before, in my review of The Legend of Boggy Creek, that I used to look forward to reading Maitland McDonough’s “Ask FlickChick” column each week with great anticipation as a preteen. Some movies, like Boggy Creek, were perennial favorites, movies half-remembered by children of the seventies and eighties from repeated airings on late-night cable or watched secretly at mostly-forgotten sleepovers. One such film that stuck in the minds of that generation’s children was a film about a young girl who discovers that there are other girls who share her face; McDonagh was often happy to inform them that they were remembering the made-for-TV children’s thriller Anna to the Infinite Power, which premiered on HBO in 1982 and on home video in 1983.

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Shock ‘Em Dead (1991)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 12, 2015. The rating was 3.5/5 Stars, with a Camp Stamp. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageTraci Lords has had one of the strangest careers in Hollywood. How often do you hear about a person transitioning from porn to an actual acting career? Sure, Ron Jeremy may be a household name (in certain households, anyway), but he never became a legitimate actor, and his appearances in films and on television are usually in cameos or roles that reference his fame as one of the most prodigious and well-endowed performers in the realm of “blue” movies. Recently, porn actor James Deen attempted to make the transition to mainstream(ish) cinema in director Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, a terrible erotic thriller penned by shoulda-known-better novelist Bret Easton Ellis, a movie that is only differentiated from poorly plotted direct-to-video softcore erotic thrillers of yesteryear by the presence of a nude Lindsay Lohan (and whose sole redeeming feature was three minutes of Nolan Gerard Funk in a glistening Speedo). But Traci Lords is something altogether different; after being one of the most sought-after porn actresses of the eighties, it was discovered that a great deal of her work had been made while she was underage, resulting in an infamous scandal that saw the adult film industry spending millions of dollars on recalls and withdrawals. Lords then enrolled to study legitimate method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, before establishing herself as a legitimate actress by appearing in John Waters’ Cry-Baby in 1990, although I will always remember her as a late addition to millennial sci-fi series First Wave, having been born in 1987 and having no real frame of reference for her career before that.

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Inferno (1980)

This review was originally posted on Swampflix.com on September 11, 2015. The rating was 3.5/5 Stars. Image courtesy of Swampflix Editor Brandon Ledet.

EPSON MFP imageAfter the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.

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