TV-MA and, let's say this might be the most MPAA warning ever. Oh man, Adult Swim, you love messing with people. This is a straight up horror movie disguised as a Yule Log. That's not me speaking as a metaphor. The first two minutes, traditional yule log. Post-two minutes, bloodbath horror movie. There's lots of gore, although mostly done for comic effect. The real issue is the odd tone that it treats slavery horror tropes. There's also language and implied sexuality. Oh, and drug use. Can't forget the drug use.
DIRECTOR: Casper Kelly
I have so many thoughts. A solid portion of me is just doing backflips and wanting to recommend this to every living person. I mean, I put it on for my wife when it was just a yule log just to surprise her, but I didn't garner her attention for long enough. The other part of me is colored with disappointment. That disappointment, like most disappointment I carry, is probably a bit unfair. But I also realize that maybe Adult Swim might need to grow up a bit because it is on the verge of genius, yet is always making content for stoners and teens. Yeah, I'm mad at a network for knowing their demographic too well.
I loved "Too Many Cooks." I still recommend "Too Many Cooks" to people because it is just so bananas. Things like "Too Many Cooks" should exist in our society because there's so much content out there to appeal to our differing sensibilities. I'll never call "Too Many Cooks" dumb because it absolutely is, in-no-way, dumb. YouTube culture has innundated people with every variety of entertainment and "Too Many Cooks" is almost just a reaction to the entire YouTube landscape and I love it for it. Adult Swim Yule Log (which I might call "Yule Log" from here on out) is an extension of that same joke by the same people. For those people who don't know what I'm talking about with either one, let's give a crash course on both (or, you could just watch these things). "Too Many Cooks" was a fake opening credits sequence to a fake early '90s sitcom like Full House. Instead of ending after a minute, like most opening credit sequences do, it spirals into probably a ten minute video spoofing every kind of opening credit sequence while a running narrative of a serial killer starts taking over the story. It's extremely gory and the contrast of the killer to the wholesome sitcom opening is very funny for a certain group of people.
Adult Swim Yule Log (I can't help but type the whole thing sometimes) is meant to be a holiday yule log that one puts on their TV. Because every network has their own version (I tend to put on a BBC / Doctor Who one where a TARDIS is reflected in the bulbs from time-to-time), it's marketed simply as Adult Swim's answer to that. But after two minutes or so, a horror movie starts, initially in frame of the Yule Log. It then proceeds to be a 90-minute movie bordering between satirizing and lampooning every horror movie trope imaginable. And to a certain extent, it's genius. It's just the right level of troll for people who are in the know. I mean, if I'm using my entirely anecdotal evidence as key, people would only probably stumble upon it through word of mouth or by seeing what antics Adult Swim was up to now. I'll go even further for people who are fans of "Too Many Cooks". It's actually pretty funny at times. It plays up the absurdism that we have seen in other Adult Swim material, especially "Too Many Cooks." The serial killer from "Too Many Cooks" also makes a cameo. Okay. Fine. As trolling content, it works really well.
But here's where I harbor disappointment: This could have been next level. I'm disappointment because, basically, Adult Swim isn't marketing directly to me. Let me explain a bit. Adult Swim tends to teeter between being completely avant garde and challenging and just pure troll. The Tim & Eric style humor has pervaded the brand entirely, which is not a bad thing. Those guys pushed some envelopes and demanded that people pay attention to them and accept them. But it's been a minute. If you wanted to push the boundaries, keep doing it. Instead, there's this comfort zone that is starting to fester. I kind of get the joke already. As fun and trolly as Yule Log was, it never got me laughing audibly. On top of that, you went this far. You made a whole feature length film out of a yule log. Why not go the extra mile and treat it seriously? The real troll move is to never laugh at yourself. Treat it like a real thing instead of something meta.
And I'll tell you something annoying for free: Don't break your original premise. The movie starts off with two minutes of just a yule log. Then a cleaning lady comes by and is promptly dispatched by two killers. But all of that stays in frame. It never loses sight of the yule log. When new characters enter the AirBnB, they zoom the camera out to create a wide angle. Okay, you are being practical. There's a reason why this particular fireplace is being filmed. But even that feels like a cop out to the initial premise. But I can understand that choice, even if I didn't like it. But about halfway through the film, the choice to have a single stationary camera borderline acting like surveillance footage is abandoned and this becomes a multiple location movie. There clearly was a mission statement: to make a movie all within the frame of a yule log video and to go as bananas as possible. I don't know what executive decision was made after that point. Was it a choice by Casper Kelly, realizing his original plan was too constrictive? Was it a choice by Adult Swim / Cartoon Network to say that people would get bored within that frame? Either way, tryng to do both diminishes both options.
I want to explain my comment about the satire / lampoon element of the movie. To line up wtih Adult Swim's absurdism, this doesn't just become one horror movie. It becomes every horror movie. It becomes this commentary on horror tropes. It starts as a cabin-in-the-woods film, then it jumps to serial killer. Then slave ghost story. Then devil / imp messing with time thing. Then sentient fireplace thing. Then alien thing. Then cult thing. Okay, that's funny. But you know what it is not? Satisfying. This is where the serious eye could have done a lot. Golly, I hate me for the following comment, but we should be using Jordan Peele as our example. I know. I'm talking like every studio exec ever. But Peele was both a variety show creator and a big budget horror movie director. Both of them were funny, but they were treated dead seriously. The jokes from Peele's work came from catharsis. He would build tension and then release it in funny, well-timed spurts. This movie has an identity crisis to it that makes it very superficial all around. It's absurdity for absurdity's sake. We're supposed to have the reaction "How random" when really, any one of these things could have been a commentary on a genre that would have meant something.
The meta-horror movie is a real subgenre and there are great works within the movement itself. Everything that Peele does has a commentary within it. Cabin in the Woods is still one of those movies that knows how to comment on horror as a whole. Shaun of the Dead is still one of my favorite movies ever. It's not my favorite horror or my favorite comedy. It's one of my favorite movies. But these movies focus on one thing and they focus on it well. Listen, part of me is feeling like someone wants to argue The Cabin in the Woods. Okay. Cabin in the Woods, after all, has many villains. But what Goddard does with that movie is make all of the hordes of monsters as secondary ideas. The big bad guys are the institute underneath the cabin. It focuses on one thing and acknowledges that everything else is a distraction. These are horror movies that know what they want to say and how to say it well. I tell my students in their writing: "'More' does not equal 'better'". As fun as Yule Log is, it really runs into the problem of trying to do everything and hoping that no one questions it. That last shot? With the leaving early from work? It's there as filler. So much of the movie is filler because it isn't saying anything.
I'm uncomfortable with the flippancy of the slave stuff. Part of me loves that they call out racism in this movie, especially to an audience that may be less progressive than most. (I'm making broad generalizations, but there's an element of truth there.) But because the movie doesn't really take anything all that seriously, the slave horror movie becomes kind of something to joke about. It feels more like a commentary on wokeness in horror movies than it does an actual commentary on racism in America. It's a nuanced conversation that's probably going to be turned into a joke that doesn't land very well. I don't know. I'm White Knighting pretty hard right now, but it didn't sit right with me. Either talk about it or don't include it.
But I'm going to leave this by saying that I'm glad this exists. I just wish that it was...better? More vulnerable? Took itself a little more seriously? And again, it's not because I don't think it is because I don't want funny. I think it is more funny to take it seriously instead of winking at me the entire time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.