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Tuesday
Nov152011

Swamphead (2011)

Evil Dead-on-Arrival

This the second time in a week that I find myself writing about a well-made but utterly unwatchable exploitation throwback. Seriously, these movies have got to go. All of them. The joke has been told too many times, and it wasn't that funny to begin with.

Swamphead is a low-budget horror/comedy about teens camping out in the woods and running afoul of a murderous, supernatural creature. There's nothing wrong with the premise, or with the idea of making a farce out of the kind of Evil Dead-style thrillers that spawned a cottage industry of imitators thirty years ago. But even the best ideas can fall apart if executed poorly, and co-writers/directors Dustin Drover and Justin Propp take a fatal spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to the material that makes seventy-five minutes feel like three hours.

I have the same problem with Swamphead as I did with Hobo with a Shotgun: for some reason, a group of talented young filmmakers has gone out of their way to make a deliberately bad movie. It's difficult to pinpoint which of Swamphead's numerous problems is the deal-breaker, but any one of the five below could be the culprit:

1. What are you throwing back to? The popular misconception about 80s slasher films is that, while scary to kids of that era, they were, in reality, full of bad actors, silly practical effects, and a pervasive layer of cheese. This idea is perpetuated, I think, by grown-ups who are too embarrassed to admit that they like horror movies. Sure, not every picture from that over-saturated time was a gem, but that's true of any genre.

Swamphead, like many of its misguided contemporaries, assumes that by featuring terrible actors and too-cheesy-to-believe special effects it is somehow either recreating the charm of the the time or making fun of it. But you can't ridicule something that never existed. In its overtly raunchy characters, juvenile and disgusting scenarios, and free-form structure, Swamphead is to 1980s horror nostalgia what talk of tie-dyed shirts is to discussions of 1960s politics--a surface-level analysis that has nothing to do with the truth.

2. Leave Airplane! to the professionals. With its visual gags, non-sequiturs, and wacky characters, Airplane! gave birth to a comedy sub-genre. In the ensuing decades, many films have broken from its disaster-movie template, expanding into the realm of action films, police dramas, and even horror movies. But it really does take someone of Zucker Brothers- or Wayans Brothers-level comedic talent to make this kind of humor work.

Propp and Drover's screenplay--assuming 80% of the movie wasn't improvised on-location, as it appears to have been--suffers from both a lack of a defined target and a misunderstanding of what makes jokes work for an audience past the age of ten. Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Scary Movie were counterpoints to films that were hilarious in their self-seriousness. They effectively mocked the source material by playing things straight, with the occasional oddball character or scenario to underscore the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

Every character in Swamphead is a half-conceived rendering of an archetype lifted from several different genres. In the protagonist, Steve (Josh Harmon), we have, essentially, a straight-haired Napoleon Dynamite. His best friend, Marty (Theodore Koepke), is the fat, jealous loser who can't decide if he wants to score with girls more than he wants to hang out with Steve. We also get the asshole older brother, the slutty, idiot girlfriends, and the creepy loner who lives to track the mysterious disembodied head in the woods.

Again, nothing wrong with poking fun at well-established archetypes--but what's the point of insinuating that the girls are lesbians? Who are the filmmakers trying to make laugh when plopping an Elvis-inspired hillbilly rocker in the middle of the woods? Is the gag that all of the "high school-aged" characters look to be at least in their mid-twenties supposed to be a comment on something? Ninety-nine percent of the jokes in Swamphead need to be trimmed in favor of actual character-based comedy (the one percent that gets to stay is a line that made me half-chuckle--a line I can no longer recall). 

3. "Retards" aren't funny. One of the girls that goes camping with Steve and Marty, Megan (Andrea Smith), has a mentally challenged brother named Haun (Andrew Swant). He wears a yellow protective helmet, grunts loudly and dumbly, and can't control his bowels. He is also the source of at least half the film's humor.

It takes a deft touch to pull off a character like this; not only do Swamphead's writers not have it, they seem gleeful in giving the middle finger to political correctness--that crazy social evil that prevents us from calling people "retards" or building "funny" scenes around wiping chunks of red-brown feces out of a troubled young man's ass crack (with attendant fart sounds, of course). Sometimes, I can let stuff like this go, but there's so much of this humor in Swamphead that it crosses the bounds of off-color, good-natured ribbing into blatant antagonism.

4. Neither are dancing robots. Like the similarly misguided horror/comedy, My Bloody Wedding, an allegedly funny dancing robot pops up in Swamphead. I doubt there's any connection between the two movies, but this is just a note to aspiring filmmakers: unless your film is called Dancing Robot Massacre, save the cardboard and silver paint for a "Will Work for Writing Lessons" sign.

5. If you've got horror chops, don't waste your time on fart gags. At about the three-quarter mark, after we've seen the bodiless Swamphead puppet maul most of the cast and endured the frown-inducing flashback where a Viking fights t-shirt-wearing Native Americans, the movie switches tone on a dime. One of the few survivors, Steve races through the woods in pursuit of the monster. For what seems like ten minutes, Swamphead becomes a legit horror movie.

Of course, this is undone by Megan's death scene, which is played for laughs: her dying wish is for Steve to remember to wipe her brother's ass. It's a shame, too, because (SPOILER!) when she stumbles out of the forest onto the road and is impaled by a booby trap set by a supernatural survivalist, I thought, "Wow, that would've been an amazing table-turner in a real horror movie!"

And that's the tragedy of Swamphead. Had Propp, Drover, and the rest of their crew devoted all this time and energy to making an effective backwoods horror film with a sparkling new mythology, the film might have been amazing. As it stands, Propp's cinematography captures the eerie Wisconsin woods almost as well* as Cory Udler does in his films, but a good movie is more than just pretty pictures.

Speaking of Udler, I'd be remiss in not pointing out how important good acting is to these kinds of movies. Even the shakiest material can be glossed over by performers who believe in it and can sell it, and I'm sad to report that Swamphead is lousy with actors who seem plucked from a community college Media Studies class--or the bowling alley arcade next door. Even if the filmmakers believe that all 80s horror actors were shit, there's a limit to how much one should accept from a performer in the name of preserving a film's integrity. Even the worst bit player in Friday the 13th: A New beginning was better than Swamphead's stand-out (assuming there is one).

I don't mean to be overly harsh on Swamphead, but the film is a colossal disappointment. Full disclosure: I met Drover and producer/editor Derrick Carey at Crypticon a couple weeks ago, and was really excited to check out their film. They're great guys, and this is a really tough position to be in. But, as with every other movie I review, I owe it to myself and to my readers to be honest--and I figure this ten minutes of bile is justice for the seventy-five minutes of clock-checking agony I went through this morning.

That said, and I mean this sincerely, I'm eager to see what this team pulls together next. There's enough promise in the technical aspects of their filmmaking to guarantee that their follow-up is much better. Jesus, it has to be.

*The day-for-night scenes at the end are really bothersome, especially because I can't figure out if it's supposed to be funny, or if the filmmakers were just compensating for a lack of time and budget--either way, the effect is akin to hat of a psychic's POV shot from a bad 80s TV show.

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