DIETLAND (2018)

DIETLAND was a one-season wonder from Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MAD MEN, UNREAL) based on Sarai Walker’s novel. The show was canceled too soon, but was one hell of a ride, something that starts as DEVIL WEARS PRADA that turns into a woman-focused FIGHT CLUB.

DIETLAND is unabashedly about fashion-and-capitalism, faux-feminism and body positivity and faith and, while it’s uniquely about women, it wildly resonates.

I would have loved to have seen a second season, as I’m sure it would have been absolutely bonkers in all the right ways, and certainly take place in the future, but I’m happy that there’s at least one season.

Halloween 2021 Programming: CULT

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features cult horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her. And yes, I know, defining what is horror and what is considered ‘cult’ horror is like splitting hairs, but rule of three, folks!

Again, apologies for leaning on prior works. Again, Halloween weekend! I have other terrors to read, watch, and write!

HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II (1987, AMC+/hoopla/peacock/Shudder/tubi/VOD/Vudu) or PROM NIGHT III: THE LAST KISS (1990, YouTube)

Previously suggested. “The first PROM NIGHT is fine, but mostly remembered because of how bare Jamie Lee Curtis gets, and for riffing on CARRIE. PROM NIGHT II twists the first film’s premise and goes for broke — also, a rare woman supernatural slasher, and they were clearly hoping some of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET would rub off on the film — and PROM NIGHT III turns the franchise into an amazing, albeit often puerile, horror-comedy. They’re both very entertaining and smart in their own ways.”

PROM NIGHT II trailer:

PROM NIGHT III trailer:

Shh, don’t tell anyone but, as it’s practically impossible to stream a legal version, here you are:

MATINEE (1993, Starz/VOD)

A Joe Dante (GREMLINS, INNERSPACE) work, which means warm-hearted love for misfit youths and being scared by B-movies, while still having a subversive political voice and viewpoint. It was one of the first post-lockdown films I saw at the Music Box, but it’s endlessly re-watchable.

READY OR NOT (2019, VOD)

(Editor’s note: I cheated a bit here, as I normally would consider this contemporary and not cult, although I fully believe it’s destined to become a cult film. I also lifted most of it for my write-up.)

This one really surprised me: it’s a darkly comic fusion of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME with Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, with an amazing cast that includes Andie MacDowell, Samara Weaving (Thea, from BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC), Adam Brody (probably don’t need to write this but: from THE OC, JENNIFER’S BODY, GILMORE GIRLS), Melanie Scrofano (Wynonna in WYNONNA EARP), and Kristian Bruun (Donnie from ORPHAN BLACK). It’s a surprisingly well-executed film. I recently happened upon a promotional READY OR NOT shirt I received for the film when I left a 24-hour film fest early last year, and opted to keep it as a nostalgia shirt, sitting alongside my BLAIR WITCH PROJECT shirt.

Even though I don’t believe in spoilers, I would stop the trailer after the first minute. There are a ton of fun surprises in the film that work great with the trailer, but even better if you experience them in the film itself.

Tomorrow: CLASSICS!

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.

A NIGHTMARE WAKES (2020)

(AMC+/DirecTV/Shudder/VOD) This is the second in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. Unlike MARY SHELLEY, A NIGHTMARE WAKES is far more about Mary writing FRANKENSTEIN, often through surreal vignettes, although first-time feature writer/director Nora Unkel also focuses on Mary’s tragic pregnancies and miscarriages. Unsurprisingly, the act of writing FRANKENSTEIN is rather bluntly portrayed in a way that may feel obvious, but works within the context of the film.

I was lukewarm about this take on Mary Shelley when I first watched it. It seemed rather reductive, and the plotting and visuals — especially the color timing — felt heavy-handed. However, after watching MARY SHELLEY, I saw them as two sides of the same coin. Each film neglects certain facets of her life, while highlighting what each filmmaker wanted to extoll and/or examine. Mary Shelley is a fascinating figure in that you can piece together her life in a myriad of ways; one can practically stitch together any narrative you want from her life. Consequently, it is far more telling about the writer/director than about Mary Shelley herself, and often about using the back-story of a person as a springboard for further social and cultural scrutiny.

I feel the ‘biopic’ label is one that viewers ascribe to films when they know it’s based on someone’s life, regardless of whether the film or work is intended as such; viewers often expect it to hew as close to reality and historic facts as possible. That’s not necessarily the case. I can understand some folks feeling ‘betrayed’ when the persona presented doesn’t align, and there are definitely moral quandaries that come with misrepresenting one’s life to tell your own tale.* However: these auteurs are adapting pre-existing works, except that the pre-existing work is someone’s life story.

I’d love to write more about similar extrapolations regarding recreating people’s lives and events (for another recent example, see: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… — no one knows exactly what went down when Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown met that night), whether this sort of personal pseudo-non-fiction is fan-fiction, the history of this sort of narrative handling, and how folks react differently to fictional portrayals of real people depending on the medium, but instead I’ll post a link to the A NIGHTMARE WAKES trailer:

“I feel like it’s a story. My story.”

  • I am not a Mary Shelley scholar — I only know the basics of her life — so I can’t speak as to whether MARY SHELLEY or A NIGHTMARE WAKES betrayed her. I’ll note that I did previously recommend SHIRLEY, which I initially believed to willfully misrepresent Shirley Jackson’s life to tell another’s tale. However, I believe I was guilty of assuming the film would play by traditional biopic rules, and not be its own work, and later on ‘rediscovered’ the film regarding its intent.

MARY SHELLEY (2017)

(AMC+/VOD)? This is the first in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley.

At this point, I’ve seen more films about Mary Shelley than I’ve seen FRANKENSTEIN adaptations. That makes sense though, as Mary Shelley is endlessly fascinating. This take on her life is from Haifaa Al-Mansour (WADJDA, and the previously recommended THE PERFECT CANDIDATE) and starts off surprisingly early in Mary’s life, before she meets Percy, immediately giving Mary her own autonomy.

I’m sure many have their image of what they expect for someone portraying Mary Shelley, but I don’t, and I have no qualms with Elle Fanning’s portrayal. It’s sharp, and Fanning exudes a haunted quality, and how she darts her eyes in specific scenes plays rather effectively.

Al-Mansour rightfully leans on how much of a dick Percy (Douglas Booth) is — especially concerning his constant bullying about having an open relationship — but she also casts Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) in a rather unglamorous light, portraying her as a foolish girl who latches onto Mary and simply won’t let go until she latches onto Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). In short, this is less a piece about Mary Shelley writing FRANKENSTEIN and more about Mary herself, and it’s a welcome relief.

While the majority of the film is finely executed, the end narratively dodges quite a bit in order to squarely land something resembling an uplifting ending. While it doesn’t feel entirely disingenuous, it does feel far too neat.

“There is always another way. And when we make such choices, there are inevitably consequences.”

LUCKY (2020)

(AMC+/Shudder/VOD) Back when I recommended 12 HOUR SHIFT last month, I mentioned that writer/director Brea Grant was one of the hardest working people in genre film, and here she is starring in a screenplay she wrote, one of the rawest psychological thrillers I’ve seen in some time. Here she and director Natasha Kermani seem to be channeling Charlie Kaufmann or Repulsion-era Roman Polanski in the best way possible, as this is one very surreal exploration of assault and victimhood. It’s a shockingly original film that makes the most of exploiting slasher tropes, and I can’t wait to see what Grant does next.

If I have one quibble, one complaint about the film, it’s that no author signs the slipcover of a book and, every time I witness it via the trailer or in the film, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. (I fully realize they had her sign the slipcover because this allowed them to only have to print up slipcovers, rather than fake the innards of a book, but it still irks me!)

RECTIFY (2013-2016)

(AMC+/fubo/VOD) RECTIFY is leaving Netflix on March 3rd, when I imagine it’ll pop up on AMC+, so you have less than a week to watch this heartfelt exploration of a man — Daniel Holden (Aden Young) — found guilty of killing a girl, sentenced to death, acquitted of murder, and his re-entry into society.

Rather than RECTIFY being about society re-embracing him, it darts the other way. This is not about whether Daniel Holden is guilty, but is about him trying to find peace with his community, family (including TIMELESS’ Abigail Spencer), and himself. It’s a singularly human drama from DEADWOOD’s Ray McKinnon that had a surprisingly long life thanks to the Sundance Channel, and is well-worth making time for before it leaves Netflix.

ANYTHING FOR JACKSON (2020)

(AMC+/SHUDDER/VOD) ANYTHING FOR JACKSON is the rare character-forward horror film that also holds more than a few delightfully gory frights, almost to the point where it feels like it commentary on the horror community.

The premise is stock horror: grandparents Audrey (Sheila McCarthy, I’VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING) and Henry Walsh (the extremely distinctive Julian Richings, who has appeared in any genre show you’ve watched over the past decade) are grandparents who kidnap a pregnant woman to bring their grandchild back to life via black magic. However, the Walshes are more empathetic and human than most horror films would treat them, and the film takes its time peeling away the layers to detail the steps as to how the grandparents ended up making a deal with the devil.

ANYTHING FOR JACKSON was directed by Justin G. Dyck, and written by Dyck and Keith Cooper, both of whom have worked together on a number of conventional made-for-TV Christmas movies (A CHRISTMAS VILLAGE, CHRISTMAS WEDDING PLANNER), which I suspect helped them to shape this subversive horror piece, as it feels like they’re used to flexing within genre constraints in ways that will surprise you.

(I’d suggest skipping the trailer, as it spoils a few startling moments, plus it’s not exactly a finely honed teaser.)

MANHATTAN (2014-2015)

(AMC+/fubo/VOD)? I honestly don’t know how many folks are familiar with WGN as a channel. If you live in the midwest, you know WGN, as it’s a local Chicago network and probably broadcasts to you. (Well, if you have an antennae or cable box.) They went national in the 80s — I have a vague recollection of watching Godzilla marathons on holiday weekends via their NYC affiliate, but I may be misremembering that.

Anyway, a handful of years ago, they decided to branch out into prestige television and produced the amazing, underrated UNDERGROUND series (created by Misha Green, who just wrapped up LOVECRAFT COUNTRY). MANHATTAN was the second of their big dramatic swings.

MANHATTAN is a deep dive into the community created by the US military to develop the first atomic bomb. A nerdy DEADWOOD, if you will. It’s a story of divisive opinions, splintered factions, and tawdry affairs — quintessential historical dramatic prestige TV — and while it had a number of asshole, self-important male protagonists, it also had Katja Herbers (currently on CBS’ underrated EVIL) as Helen Prins, Rachel Brosnahan (MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL), and Olivia Williams (RUSHMORE, DOLLHOUSE) as smart women who refuse to be wallflowers. (Oh, and Mamie Gummer — Meryl Streep’s daughter — shows up in the second season in a role I will not divulge.)

The show occasionally feels a bit overburdened by everything it’s trying to accomplish: domestic drama, espionage thriller, docudrama, scientific intrigue, etc. but ultimately it’s more than the sum of its parts, not just because of the brilliant cast, but the stable of writers (including Lila Byock, who wrote some of the best parts of THE LEFTOVERS -and- WATCHMEN).

Sadly, even if MANHATTAN’s ratings were good (they were not), they still would’ve been canceled as WGN were sold off by Chicago’s Tribune Corp. and purchased by the conservative Sinclair Media Group, which had designs to turn WGN into a right-wing news outlet, and all original programming was shuttered. (WGN is now currently owned by Nexstar, another conservative outlet, but instead of hewing towards news, they’ve basically turned WGN into another TV nostalgia channel.)

Season one trailer:

Season two ‘first look’ (kinda spoilers for S1?):

SLINGS & ARROWS (2003-2006)

(Acorn/AMC+/Sundance Now/VOD) SLINGS & ARROWS is the story of a Shakespeare theatre troupe in a small Canadian town that’s a barely disguised facsimile of the Stratford Festival theatre troupe and — wait, no! Come back!

Yes, on paper it sounds like something you’d fall asleep to watching PBS on a Sunday afternoon, but the show is far more intriguing than that. Created by Mark McKinney (KIDS IN THE HALL — oh, do I have your attention now?), Susan Coyne (MOZART IN THE JUNGLE), and Bob Martin (MICHAEL: EVERY DAY), it’s really about actor-turned-theatre director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, best known for DUE SOUTH, but was also in the core seasons of TALES OF THE CITY), prone to mental breakdowns, finds himself haunted by the death of his mentor Oliver (Stephen Ouimette, who did voices on the previously mentioned DOG CITY!), who was hit and killed by a car after a very lackluster opening night of the festival’s latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Given that Geoffrey’s ramshackle arthouse theatre had just been closed and he was out of a job, he’s approached about taking over where Oliver left off: to helm the upcoming production of Hamlet. Geoffrey reluctantly agrees, mulling over radical changes to the production when Oliver appears in front of him, chiming in regarding his significant changes, driving Geoffrey closer to the brink of madness than he felt he already was.

(Yes, this mostly occurs in the first episode. It’s an intense show.)

Given that it was a TV show that often consisted of watching actors rehearse, or prep for rehearsal, you might think that the cinematography would be dull or perfunctory, but it’s always engrossing, and the camera rarely stays in place (except when it knows best to do so).

From the actors to the writers and directors, the entire show is a love letter to the messiness of theatre, both on the stage and off. It’s one of the most heartfelt and earnest dramas I’ve ever seen, and is chock full of complicated characters, and even features a litany of swans.

If you needed any more convincing, despite the fact that the show has barbs out for Stratford, my wife and I did trek up there some years ago — mostly because we were very enamored with SLINGS & ARROWS, but also the concept of the company — and we caught a brilliant production of MOTHER COURAGE, as well as a spectacle-laden KING LEAR with Colm Feore as Lear (who also appeared in SLINGS & ARROWS!) If Stratford still exists after the pandemic, I can’t recommend it enough, as it’s a perfectly relaxed vacation if you’re into theatre. I’m sure the swans will be waiting for you.

Season One Trailer:

If you’ve already watched SLINGS & ARROWS, the cast & crew just had a COVID reunion that ACORN has made available for free, which will almost assuredly make you want to re-watch the show: