MS .45 (1981)

CONTENT WARNING: This post includes mentions of sexual violence.

To be completely clear: I do not like rape/revenge tales. While I realize that they can be cathartic for some, I almost always find them singularly unpleasant and poorly handled and wonder why I put myself through that, so I usually don’t. (This is partially why I’m mentioning it during my 31 Days of Horror posts.)

Abel Ferrara’s MS .45 is one of the few exceptions. I could go into detail about the film, but I’ll simply summarize it as so: a mute seamstress is raped twice in a day and, after the second, matters escalate.

It’s a visually striking film (partially thanks to its film stock), it feels sympathetic, and it features an amazing debut performance from Zoë Lund as a woman who just wants to be left alone. It feels subversive, especially for its time.

Instead of discussing it further, as I’m not quite the right person to do so, I highly suggest reading the RogerEbert.com exchange between Christy Lemire, Sheila O’Malley, and Susan Wloszczyna as they break down the film.

BOXING HELENA (1993)

(DVD) I had the following (slightly paraphrased) discussion with my wife the day after a triple feature of Sherilyn Fenn films at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre:

Me: “Oh, and I caught [Jennifer Lynch’s] BOXING HELENA, a mostly unseen NC-17 cut, which I can’t reliably compare to the original because I haven’t seen it since I was a sophomore in college.”

Her: “Really? I thought you’d seen it several times over, because you talk about it a lot.”

I repeatedly discuss and write a lot about a lot of cult films, obviously, hence this site. Didn’t think that was the case with BOXING HELENA, an extraordinarily controversial and unpopular film from Jennifer Lynch (yes, the daughter of David Lynch) that has never received any sort of resurgence of interest, but apparently pulled a pin in me some time ago.

I first saw it on VHS, on a tiny TV in my college dorm room, and was blown away. I hadn’t paid any attention to the production issues of Kim Basinger taking herself out of the picture (https://ew.com/article/1993/04/09/boxing-helenas-controversies/), but I vaguely recall folks protesting the film because of the depiction of men’s violence against women.

Ah, yes, the 90s, when folks got upset about women telling meaningful tales about women being abused. The New York Times review explicitly said: “If Jennifer Lynch wants a real challenge in life, she should try to make a movie with a positive, feminist theme. Now, there’s an unconventional movie.”

If you aren’t familiar with the storied film: Helena (Sherilyn Finn) a willful, brusque, extraordinarily independent model, has a one-night stand with rich, celebrated genius doctor Nick (Julian Sands). He remains infatuated with her, ignoring his current girlfriend, and Helena continues leading a pleasantly sexually autonomous life.

Nick orchestrates a major party, invites Helena, who has already decided to ditch her current dirtbag (a very shaggy, shitheel, rock-and-roller Bill Paxton) and take a solo trip to Mexico — booking the trip in Spanish — but decides to swing by Nick’s party the night prior.

At said party, she consistently shrugs off Nick’s advances, shoving all sorts of personal items — including her purse — into his hands for him to babysit, then Helena knowingly takes one of Nick’s younger fellow doctors, strips to a slip, and enthralls herself in Nick’s opulent water fountain. After toweling off, she then takes Nick’s co-worker by his arm and leads him out the front door, looking over her shoulder as he meekly stares at her; it’s a very obvious ‘fuck you’ to Nick, practically shouting: “This is what happens when you endlessly pursue what I will no longer allow you to have.”

Unfortunately, Helena finds herself at the airport sans her purse. She rings Nick and demands that he drive to the airport and return it, which he does, but is severely late in doing so. She checks the contents and finds her address book missing. Nick convinces her to head back to his house so he can find it, and she has no choice but to comply. Upon arrival, Nick has laid out an elaborate lunch, pours her a drink, then after Helena’s increased anger, he unveils the address book as one would unveil a prized meal. She grabs the book, storms out of the house and, while backing away from him while berating him, she’s brutally struck down by a reckless driver, who then subsequently drives over her legs.

Next we see Helena in a guest bed of Nick’s, legless. It all goes downhill from there.

As I’m an able male, I don’t have the background to discuss many of the particulars. However, it is a striking and singular work about want and forced complicity at any cost.

The end, unfortunately, is a bit of a dodge, but given where the film goes, how far it dives, I can’t blame Jennifer Lynch for taking that approach.

OPPLOPOLIS (2012-)

OPPLOPOLIS comes from the mind of Kit Roebuck and his brother Alec. If you were around in the nascent days of web comics, you may be familiar with Roebuck’s 2003 webcomic NINE PLANETS WITHOUT INTELLIGENT LIFE, an existential and experimental series of online comics, often utilizing the web browser as an infinite canvas.

OPPLOPOLIS premiered in 2012 and, as Roebuck notes it’s vastly different experience. While it’s still heady, it’s far more propulsive; a sort of ‘tomorrow paranoid thriller’. I remember finding it quite enthralling as each issue dripped out, but to my dismay, it rather abruptly ceased in 2015.

However, Roebuck opted to bring it back, presumably because he saw UNDER THE SILVER LAKE and said to himself: ‘Hey, I was doing this years ago and my take was far more interesting!’ and if that’s what he thought, I would certainly agree. It’s surreal while still feeling grounded; romantic without feeling pandering.

Also, let it be said that Kit’s command of figure work — while always great — has vastly increased over the years. You can practically feel the heft of the character actions as they poke and prod over the panels.

It’s a fascinating work, one that is absolutely free to you to click through, but one that I hope will fully find its way to print some day.

https://www.bohemiandrive.com/opplopolis

HATCHING (2022)

(Hulu/VOD) One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.

His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)

His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.

Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.

I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.

I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.

I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.

(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)

SUPERIOR (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) Sorry, yet another ‘very difficult to track down’ film. For the past month or so, Joe Swanberg has been programming Mystery Monday screenings at the Davis Theater in Chicago, showcasing films whose releases were delayed or quietly rolled out to VOD due to COVID. One of the most recent was SUPERIOR, and he managed to bring in director Erin Vassilopoulos for an enlightening post-film Q&A. If you are in Chicago, I highly suggest attending these screening — Swanberg has excellent taste, he’s a very gracious interviewer, and he’s doing good work trying to boost films that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

SUPERIOR is the debut feature film from Erin Vassilopoulos (and co-written by one of the two primary protagonists, Alessandra Mesa), but follows directly after Vassilopoulos’ short film of the same name. It’s a character drama/thriller centered around two identical twins, one a misfit musician on the run from her abusive husband, the other living a very domestic life, trying to have a kid with her milquetoast husband.

It’s a remarkably handled film that, while it definitely has shades of Brian de Palma’s SISTERS (1972) and David Lynch (take your pick: LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, even FIRE WALK WITH ME), it is its own creature, with quite a bit to say about how sisters push and pull each other, as well as how they deal with individual and intertwined identity.

Just the script and the performances from the two twins (the previously mentioned Alessandra Mesa, and Ani Mesa) would be enough to make this a notable film, but it’s also staged in the 1980s, and Vassilopoulos shot on 16mm to give it a delicious visual texture and familiarity that serves the work well. Additionally, the production design and locations are perfectly handled — attractive, distinct, but they never overshadow any particular scene or moment.

It’s an impactful initial work, one that is tautly paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. While it’s played a few places in 2021, they’re looking at a proper rollout around March 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for it.

https://vimeo.com/505267853

HOMEWRECKER (2019)

(AMC+/Shudder/tubi/VOD/Vudu) An intriguingly economical Canadian thriller from Zach Gayne. For once, I’m going to use the official description (with a few tweaks) because too many details might spoil some of the fun: “Middle-aged Linda (Precious Chong) befriends youthful Michelle (Alex Essoe), but one becomes obsessed with the other.”

The script was penned by Gayne, as well as the two leads (Chong and Essoe). It has a charismatic verve to it that I can’t help but appreciate, and while you may suss out the ending before the film expects you, it’s still a wild ride.

DREAM GIRL (2021)

Reading Laura Lippman’s DREAM GIRL after NIGHTSHADE was a real treat. Both novels are about two successful creatives who believe they’ve lived their lives in justifiable ways, but are often lying to themselves.

Whereas NIGHTSHADE was a suspenseful character drama about an acclaimed artist, DREAM GIRL is a psychological thriller about an acclaimed writer. Gerry Anderson is a successful novelist whose breadwinning accomplishment was that wrote an evocative LOLITA-esque story which, despite pre-dating 9/11, also managed to convey the cultural feelings of a post-9/11 world. It was enormously successful, but he’s constantly hounded about exactly who the titular ‘Dream Girl’, Aubrey, is based on. Gerry consistently replies that she is a complete work of fiction, not based on anyone.

Gerry’s moved from New York City to Baltimore to be with his dying mother but, a few days after he closes on a high-rise apartment, she dies. He takes a tumble down his newly acquired floating staircase which leaves him bedridden and at the mercy of his new assistant Victoria, and his night nurse Aileen. Shortly after, he starts receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be Aubrey, and he starts to wonder if he’s losing touch with reality.

Lippman’s probably best known for her Tess Monaghan detective fiction series, about an ex-Baltimore newspaper journalist turned private detective, but she’s become increasingly known for her one-off novels, such as WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and LADY IN THE LAKE, which are far darker and more self-indulgent. DREAM GIRL definitely fits that mold, as it’s peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott (who penned my favorite neo-noir novel QUEENPIN), so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. Lippman’s exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.

It’s a gripping work, slightly bogged down by the fact that, if you know the works she namedrops, she telegraphs how this will play out. That said, the book has a few more surprises once you get to that point, so you can forgive her for that, and Gerry is an intriguing enough character study to set aside the suspense story itself.

http://www.lauralippman.net/dream-girl

NIGHTSHADE (2020)

I initially picked up Annalena McAfee’s NIGHTSHADE because of the cover, but the front-cover puff quote from THE OBSERVER really grabbed me: “A glorious novel. … Full of twisted sexuality, art and power. … Brutal and unforgettable.” It’s a rather generic remark, yes, but I bought it because I wanted a ticket for that ride.

It did not disappoint, and the puff quote is entirely accurate. I’ll note in advance that, due to how the book is paced, this is a very difficult novel to summarize and I’d hate to give anything away.

Protagonist Eve Laing is a prickly, spiteful painter in her sixties who has had some success with her realistic portrayals of flowers in her works, notably in substituting flowers for the London Underground tube map. She’s brainstormed a new work, one focused on poisonous flowers, which is meant to be her magnum opus.

At first, NIGHTSHADE feels in the vein of Margaret Atwood’s CAT’S EYE (a personal favorite) in that it’s an older creative substantially reflecting on their artistic and personal life while navigating a city.

Then it takes a turn. Then another. And another.

It takes a while to unfurl but, if you have the patience for it, you will be rewarded.

http://www.annalenamcafee.com/nightshade.html

THE SINNER: Season One (2017)

(Netflix/VOD) I watch more horror films than the average filmgoer, and I read a fair number of thrillers and murder mysteries, but I’m rarely disturbed by them. Call it desensitization or practiced separation, but all too often I see it as an academic matter.

THE SINNER S1 fucked me up. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking story but, more than anything else, it’s an extraordinarily cruel tale of abuse, one that I can rarely verbally discuss without finding a bit of a hitch into my breath.

THE SINNER S1 is about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who goes to the beach with her husband and toddler, who then kills a man kissing a woman in broad daylight, amongst a number of witnesses. Cora is arrested, confesses to the killing, and Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) gets assigned to the case and he becomes obsessed with deducing exactly why she killed this man.

The first season of the show is based on the 1999 novel of the same name, written by Petra Hammesfahr, widely considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith. (I disagree with that comparison because, for better or for worse, there will never be another Patricia Highsmith.) While the show hews relatively closely to the book, it does drop some of the darker and stranger elements* while also modernizing the material, tweaking the locale, and changing one noteworthy song.

I won’t go into the hows or whys, but it cuts to the quick of trauma in a way that made me very uncomfortable, but can’t help but extoll. Once I finished the final episode, I immediately started rewatching it, not to see how the pieces added up, but to examine how they pieced Cora’s character together. It’s a surprisingly controlled effort from first-time show runner Derek Simonds, one to be applauded.

If you’d like to read more about it, I highly suggest Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece regarding the first season.

The following second and third seasons are completely separate cases and allegedly, apart from Detective Ambrose and his private life, have nothing to do with the first season or the novel. (I have not seen them, so I can’t say for sure.) A fourth season is in the works.

  • Yes, the book is quite a bit darker than the series. I read the novel a good year or so after watching it, so I’d forgotten what quite what the show excised, but it was probably for the best. For a list of differences, check out the following spoiler-filled article: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/the-sinner-book-differences-incest-murder-nazi-abortion-orgy-usa-network-1201878805/

** Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg8-AbXqv4M

MATINEE (1993)

(DirecTV/Starz/VOD) Of Joe Dante’s amazing run of movies though the 80s and 90s, MATINEE is often forgotten, which is a shame because — while all Dante films are paeans to cinema — MATINEE is his magnum opus to filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon and William Castle and the theatergoing experience.

A brief synopsis: It’s 1962. Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a Navy teen whose parents just moved to Key West. Due to the constant life interruptions, Gene finds comfort in horror films, and more often than not spends his free time haunting movie theaters with his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). It just so happens that schlocky director Lawrence Woolsey (an utterly delightful John Goodman) is coming to town to show off his latest gimmicky film, MANT!, which is about a man who, due to radiation incurred while having his teeth x-rayed during a dental appointment, turns into a mutated ant. Woolsey’s visit also just happens to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has the world on pins-and-needles, especially the Loomis family as their father has been sent out on a Navy submarine mission. MANT! becomes a huge town event, and — as typical of a Dante film — anarchy ensues.

MATINEE was co-written by Charles S. Haas, who also wrote GREMLINS 2, which is unsurprising as it has a lot of the same self-reflexive nods — although few as fourth-wall breaking as GREMLINS 2 — that never detract or take you out of the film.

If there’s one flaw to the film, there isn’t much of a reason why we’re following the Loomis brothers, apart from the fact that their father might be involved with a Cuban Missile Crisis operation, and the fact that Gene loves horror. They aren’t given much to do but, once the MANT! screening unfurls halfway through the film, it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of MANT!, one could argue that it’s -too good- of a horror film, with some overly clever dialogue (which killed when I rewatched it at a recent theater screening) and surprisingly detailed creature design. That said, I realize complaining that the film-within-the-film is too good is a severely stupid nitpick, and please don’t let my dumb quibbles deter you from enjoying both MATINEE and MANT!.