DIRECTED BY: Peter Mettler
FEATURING: Peter Mettler (narration)
PLOT: Documentarian Peter Mettler interviews people from various walks of life about their thoughts on time, using poetic footage of lava flows, particle accelerators, and digital mandalas as visual backgrounds.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While The End of Time is way, way outside the average filmgoer’s wheelhouse, despite a few acid flashback moments, it’s not really weird per se. It is also somewhat overshadowed by similar visionary non-narrative documentaries like Samsara and the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, more expensive productions that achieve more spectacular vistas.
COMMENTS: The subjects of The End of Time include a 1960 record-setting skydiving free-fall from over 100,000 above the earth, lava flows on a volcanic island, and a squadron of ants bearing away a grasshopper’s corpse. None of this has much to do in particular with time, and yet it all does, because time is inescapable (despite the documentary’s occasional implication that time is an illusion). Rather than talking about time per se, the narration begins with the words “in the beginning there were no names,” and as the movie slowly flows and curls about like magma it returns periodically to what appears to be that central point: ultimate reality is inexpressible, and language (and abstract concepts like “time”) are our feeble (and possibly counterproductive) attempts to freeze and analyze the endless flux of reality. At least, that’s my view of Mettler’s position; the documentary is ostensibly time-neutral, giving equal weight to all experiences. Speakers are never identified by name or credentialed, and so the doc gives the same weight to the particle physicist’s opinions as those of the guru, the hermit, the artist colony potter, and a woman I’m guessing is the director’s grandma. Some of the earnestly proffered opinions, particularly the New Age-y ruminations from the granola crowd, are easy to mock, but please resist the urge. It is so rare for people to actually discuss grand, abstract concepts in movies in an irony-free way that it’s incredibly refreshing, and I’d hate to discourage future explorers from setting out towards similar territory.
Philosophy aside, the cinematography (by Mettler, Camille Budin, and Nick de Pencier) makes End of Time worth your time. Mettler draws visual parallels between the circular construction of particle accelerators and Hindu mandalas, between a corpse carried on a funeral bier and a meal carried away by ants. In between monologues Mettler throws in pastoral passages of eye poetry: stars dissolve into snowflakes, and we see a cat in a field quietly perceiving time in his own way, then camera draws back to show the same footage on a big screen television in an editing studio. The most remarkable scenes are the mesmerizing flows of magma from an active volcano; it’s amazing how quickly the outside edges cool to a black crust while the inside still glows red hot, and the entire mass creeps along, knocking down trees and incinerating the ferns that grew up since the earth’s mantle last leaked to the surface. The final act is a lysergic digital freakout presumably representing “the end of time,” beginning with the extinction of the sun, which turns into a bunch of glowing green mandalas and segues into a cosmic Malickian montage. The overall result—abstract and meandering, sometimes deep, sometimes pretentious, beautiful but frequently slow as molasses—is definitely not for all tastes. At times the movie gets a little too trippy-hippy-dippy for it’s own good, leaning too far to the “far out, man” end of the profundity spectrum. But you have to give Mettler much credit for his courage in thinking big and tackling deep questions that would terrify less ambitious filmmakers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s a touch of the acid mindset here, certainly: towards the end, many of Mettler’s images come together in an abstract montaged freak-out that might have made a very effective credits sequence, but feels too trippily ‘heyy-wowww’ when incorporated into the main body of the film. At moments, The End of Time come perilously close to a tone of nebulous new-age amazement, a touch too Koyaanisqatsian for comfort.”–Johnathan Romney, Film Comment
DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman
FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, John Hamm, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti
PLOT: Robin Wright has reached the worst time for actresses: middle age. The roles have started to dry up, and her reputation for being particular has not helped at all. She is persuaded to accept a deal from Miramount Studio to have herself digitally scanned and her image, kept young, used by the studio for its projects for 20 years, in exchange for a hefty sum of cash and agreeing to never act again.
20 years later, on the contract’s expiration, she attends The Congress—a studio convention featuring new technology allowing people to transform themselves into animated avatars. The studio wants to extend their deal with Robin, which would allow anyone to virtually “be” her.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:: This is a visual and intellectual feast for the eyes and mind, in a way that is graspable for the average viewer. Plus, there are so many visual references in the animation, it will reward multiple viewings.
COMMENTS: For all of the trippy mind-bending wonderfulness of The Congress —and for those who enjoy weird films, there’s quite a bit to like—it’s the Hollywood satire and visual allusions (to Max Flesicher, Bakshi [in spirit and 'tude], Kubrick, and lots of others) that makes it special. The most arresting visual image is the opening close up of Robin Wright, sans makeup, as her agent (Harvey Keitel, in a notable supporting role) berates her for her previous career choices. It’s probably the bravest performance you’ve seen from an actress in a LONG time.
The movie uses Stanslaw Lem’s 1971 novel “The Futurological Congress” as the starting point to get into the weirdness, but it takes a good half hour to set that up and provide the necessary grounding. Underneath the bitter satire and trippy visuals, The Congress is ultimately about identity, and how it becomes another commodity to be bartered—at first, hesitantly by Robin, and ultimately as a way of life for the populace.
The Congress is now available from Drafthouse Films via Video on Demand starting July 24 and is scheduled for theatrical release August 29.
ALEX KITTLE ADDS: Positioning its characters between the contrasting poles of heartbreaking realism and completely bonkers fantasy, The Congress juggles a multitude of ideas but manages to present a fairly cohesive story. By grounding his tale with a real-life protagonist, the actress Robin Wright, Folman is able to gradually incorporate stranger and stranger concepts, with the final destination barely resembling the starting point. The world he creates is definitely weird, distinguished by its ever-fluctuating landscape and psychedelic colors, populated by people who are limited only by the reach of their imaginations. The animation retains the superficial sheen and flatness of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, but the visual style varies, overwhelming the viewer with different aesthetics and effects, conveying the befuddlement felt by Wright when she enters this unfamiliar animated world.
The story is all over the place, jumping across decades at different points to reflect the extreme changes in society, and attempting to simultaneously focus on Wright’s personal experiences of caring for (and later trying to locate) her son as well as the structure of this crazy future. But somehow it all mostly works, with Wright remaining strong as the protagonist whose confused perspective comes to mirror the audience’s. The whole thing is an emotional experience, weird and funny and satirical and honestly rather touching. I would nominate it for the List, primarily for the jarring and imaginative cartoon shift that takes place halfway through.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“So while The Congress might seem a hallucinatory trip through a cityscape of the imagination, it also allegorises our own very real relationship with the mythopoeic worlds of cinema (from which this film quotes with relentless, voracious postmodernism) or of the internet.”–Anton Bitel, Grolcsh Film Works (festival screening)
Next week we’re turning back to new release reviews with looks at Ari (Waltz with Bashir) Folman’s partially-animated sci-fi opus The Congress; the trippy philosophical documentary The End of Time; and Simon Pegg’s bizarro phobia comedy A Fantastic Fear of Everything. Meanwhile, having wrapped up (for now, at least) his reviews of today’s summer blockbusters, Alfred Eaker turns his attention to the hits of yesteryear with a new mini-series of “25th Anniversary” remembrances. First up: Tim Burton‘s Batman (1989).
It’s time once again for our weekly survey of the weirdest search terms used to locate this site, a little feature we like to call “Weirdest Search Terms of the Week.” First up, we’ll mention this strange trio: “strange please,” “being strange,” and “strange much” (we like to think of that last one as a rhetorical question directed at us: “gee, is that 366 Weird Movies strange much?”) Speaking of strange, there was also the person looking for “strange creatures living on woman’s fingers.” But our official selection for Weirdest Search Term of the Week isn’t strange: it’s “sexy voids.” Because nothing turns us on more than Nothing.
Here’s how the ridiculously-long-and-ever-growing reader-suggested review queue stands: Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd; Rubin & Ed; The Real McCoy; Themroc; Candy (1968); The Fox Family; Angelus; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; Yokai Monsters, Vol. 1: Spook Warfare [AKA Big Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE
After having disappeared about three years ago, the first installment of Ross Goodman‘s “Killer Cuisine” series was just recently recovered and uploaded in better quality. Enjoy a new recipe while getting your necessary dose of surrealism for the day.
Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…
Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.
IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):
Mood Indigo (2013): A wealthy bachelor inventor falls in love with a woman who has a flower growing in her lungs. The latest from Michel Gondry stars erstwhile Amelie Audrey Tautou; diabetics and the whimsy-averse are being warned to avoid this cutesy confection, but rest assured we’ll forge ahead and tackle it (it’s in our reader-suggested review queue, but we’d surely hit that even if it wasn’t). Mood Indigo official site.
FILM FESTIVALS – Fantasia (Montreal, Canada, Jul. 17- Aug. 6):
As its name implies, Montreal’s Fantasia Festival originally began as a showcase for fantastic films from Asia; it has since morphed into a major event on the genre cinema calendar, a venue so big that geek event movies like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy hold special pre-release screenings there. Not that they’ve let mainstream success get to their heads; there’s still more rare weirdness to be found at Fantasia than at just about any film festival on the globe. We make watchlists from Fantasia’s programming, and we’re always saddened when only half of the most daring films find meaningful distribution in the U.S. We’ve been following a number of 2014′s entries as they slowly make their way across the festival landscape: Bill Plympton’s Cheatin’, the post-apocalyptic love triangle in The Desert, the inflated-head indie rock comedy Frank, the horror-of-Hollywood allegory Starry Eyes, Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, and Terry Gilliam‘s long-awaited The Zero Theorem. Here’s the stuff that’s new to us (along with a couple of the odder highlights from the festival’s blaxploitation and Shaw Brothers revival programs):
- Bag Boy Lover Boy – A photographer specializing in unusual human specimens takes a hot dog vendor for his muse; the synopsis evokes the work of seedy underground New York filmmakers like Paul Morrisey. Screening July 23.
- “La Buche de Noel” – The insane animated adventures of Indian, Cowboy and Horse (A Town Called Panic) continue in this 23-minute Christmas-themed short. Screens July 31.
- Darktown Strutters (1975) – A rare blaxploitation/comedy/musical about a black female motorcycle gang fighting white supremacists led by a Colonel Sanders clone. This oddity is very rare—almost legendary—so catch it July 27 if you can.
- Demon of the Lute (1983) – A kung fu maiden sets out to destroy the titular instrument with the help of the Three Armed Beggar and Old Naughty (who wields a giant pair of scissors). One of the craziest-sounding of the classic Shaw Brothers features screening at Fantasia; this one plays July 19 & 26.
- Honeymoon – Well-reviewed psychological thriller about a groom who finds his new wife acting strange after the nuptials. Screens July 22.
- I Am a Knife with Legs – Absurdist microbudget musical comedy about a pop star hanging out from a fatwa; the programmer’s synopsis uses the word “weird” to describe it more than once. Catch it July 25 only.
- Jack et la mécanique du coeur - 3-D animation described as a “Gallic surrealist fairy-tale musical with a dash of Gothic macabre and a streak of steampunk.” It appears that it is playing in French only with no English subtitles on July 26.
- Koo! Kin-dza-dza - An animated remake of the satirical 1986 Soviet cult sci-fi comedy about two Russian men teleported to a desert planet. Playing August 2.
- Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - A backwards Japanese woman mistakenly concludes that the movie Fargo is a documentary and sets out for Minnesota to discover the lost ransom money. July 23.
- The Man in the Orange Jacket – An employee kills his rich boss and assumes his identity, only to be haunted by surreal occurrences. Screens July 27.
- The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji – Takashi Miike‘s latest is a comedy about an undercover cop, with animated sequences and “surreal fight scenes.” Catch it July 19.
- Nuigulumar Z - The English translation, Gothic Lolita Battle Bear, may explain why this title caught our fancy; the less sane of two movies making their North American debut from the ludicrously prolific Noboru Iguchi. Screening July 20.
- Puzzle – Masked figures invade a school and force the adults to play strange and deadly games; are local bullies behind it? July 26.
- Real – A man uses technology to enter the subconscious of his beloved as she lies in a coma, where he encounters “philosophical zombies” and other strangeness, in Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s latest. Plays August 3.
- The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow – A satellite transforms into a cyborg and romances a brokenhearted man who has metamorphosed into a cow; the animation style resembles Hayao Miyazaki with a more surreal bent. Screens July 19.
- Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – Arguably the first, and certainly one of the strangest, blaxploitation movies ever made, Melvin van Peebles’ explosive race revenge fantasy is as much avant-garde as it is exploitation. See it on the big screen July 23.
- Thou Wast Mild and Lovely - A hired hand has an affair with the farmer’s daughter in what the director herself describes as “an intimate magical realist erotic thriller.” Screening July 19 & 21.
- Zombie TV – Sounds like a sort of Japanese version of Kentucky Fried Movie themed around the undead; Twitch‘s Todd Brown is quoted as saying it “provides the viewer with a respite from one kind of weirdness by punching them in the face with another.” July 19 only.
Fantasia Film Festival home page.
NEW ON DVD:
Scanners (1981): A good Scanner (a telepath with the power to literally blow people’s minds) infiltrates a gang of evil Scanners. This gory cult favorite, made by David Cronenberg before he fully transitioned out of his upscale exploitation mode, is something of a surprise acquisition for the Criterion Collection. Buy Scanners [Criterion Collection].
SX_Tape (2013): A couple play sex games in a spooky abandoned hospital, which proves to be a bad idea. We wouldn’t have taken any notice of what looks like a sex-heavy found-footage horror if not for an (actually negative but prominently displayed) review claiming the movie “dives face first in the deep end of weirdness.” Buy SX_Tape.
Under the Skin (2013): Read our capsule review. Trippy visuals highlight this minimalist arthouse sci-fi hit in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who hunts lonely men on the moors of Scotland. Buy Under the Skin.
NEW ON BLU-RAY:
Scanners (1981): See description in DVD above. This combo pack includes two DVDs. Buy Scanners [Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD combo].
SX_Tape (2013): See description in DVD above. Buy SX_Tape [Blu-ray].
Under the Skin (2013): See description in DVD above. Buy Under the Skin [Blu-ray].
What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.
In the 1960s, producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel.
Rod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for the original Planet of The Apes (1968). The script is far more “Twilight Zone” than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast Charlton Heston in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to greenlight the project and to assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, whom the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).
Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction cinema at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find Stanley Kubrick ‘s academic psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn in the end he was right all along. Heston’s physicality responds perfectly to Sterling’s blunt ironies.
It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Heston’s performance there amounts to a cameo, with James Franciscus filling in, albeit in a second-rate Heston imitation. Still, once past the unnecessary rehash of the first film, Beneath, in its innovative second half, proves to be the strangest, most underrated entry of the franchise. It is also the only sequel that retains the original’s flavor.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), the best of the sequels, benefits from the quirky performances of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell. Writer Paul Dehn crafted an inventive, humor-laden narrative that delighted in seventies pop culture. Dehn, a noted film critic, drew on Rod Sterling’s original script draft for the first film, as well as Boulle’s novel in which Apes and humans coexist in a modern society. Escape‘s Sterling-esque first half gives way to Dehn’s pre-apocalyptic sensibilities and pop social commentary on racism and violence.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) is Bazooka Bubble Gum Armageddon,especially in the unrated version found on home video. The slavery Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”–epigraph to Enemy
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
FEATURING: Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini
PLOT: Adam, a professor of history, catches sight of a movie extra playing a bellhop who appears to be his exact double, and becomes obsessed with tracking him down. When they eventually meet they discover that Anthony, the actor, is Adam’s exact physical match, but has a nearly opposite personality, slick and scheming where Adam is passive and meek. Anthony, who has a rocky relationship with pregnant wife due to her accusations of infidelity, is drawn to Adam’s girlfriend; and though the professor wants to withdraw from their association, the actor’s machinations intertwine the two men’s lives.
- Enemy is based on the novel “O Homem Duplicado” (literally “The Duplicated Man,” although the English translation was titled “The Double“) by the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago. The novel has a very different, though equally chilling, ending than the film.
- Director Denis Villeneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made Enemy back-to-back with the higher-profile, reality-based thriller Prisoners (2013). Enemy was made first but released second.
- Villeneuve said that the plan to do the adaptation with Gyllenhaal came after a night of drinking in which the actor told the director he wanted to do the movie but needed to “dream” about it first.
- Villeneuve said he wanted to make Enemy because he wanted to do something “free” in light of his anxieties over working under the constraints he feared would be imposed by a Hollywood studio on the upcoming Prisoners.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Enemy is one of a few movies whose most unforgettable image can’t be mentioned without entering the territory where spoilers dwell. Fortunately, there are plenty of runner-ups to chose from. With arachnid imagery dominating the hallucinatory scenes, it’s easy to pick the picture of a giant, spindly-legged spider looming over the smoggy streets of Toronto as the film’s iconic image. The movie’s TIFF poster took that precise route.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As tightly controlled as a dictatorship and as enigmatic as a tarantula on a gold serving platter, the inscrutable Enemy evokes a panicky existential dread in the tradition of David Lynch. The final scene will provoke debate for as long as people watch weird movies.
Original trailer for Enemy
COMMENTS: Enemy begins with the epigram “chaos is order yet undeciphered,” and I admit to having yet to decipher the twisty web of chaos the Continue reading 176. ENEMY (2013)
DIRECTED BY: Lucas Campbell
FEATURING: Cory Maidens, Ezra Haidet
PLOT: A killer chops up his fellow students on a college campus while a zombie plague brews.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if this glorified home movie were good—and not only is it not good, it’s perversely proud of its badness—it’s not at all weird (except in the most obvious and derivative sense of the word). Midnight Skater simply apes the ironic grindhouse-throwback aesthetic, without putting its own spin on the genre.
COMMENTS: Why do low-budget filmmakers assume that comedy is easy? Whenever they’re wringing their hands over lack of a production budget, they say, “I know! We’ll make it a comedy! Then we can make fun of our own crap budget, it’ll be hilarious!” To a large extent this phenomenon is the poisonous effect of Troma on the modern horror mentality, but it’s also the fallacy of believing that because Boner Bob’s impression of a gay meth dealer makes all his frat brothers at the Saturday night kegger spit Schlitz through their nostrils, his antics will make sober strangers crack up, too.
Midnight Skater does have one kinda-laugh, when the killer gives an absurdly literal recap of his latest necrophiliac adventure. Far more painful attempts at comedy come from a simpering, anime-and-D&D-obsessed gay nerd with a combination lisp/sneer and attitude of arrogant cowardice. The lame kill puns don’t even rise to the level of groaners (“now that’s what I call good head” quips the killer after crushing a victim’s skull). Mostly, the movie is a painful parade of bad lighting, overacting, audible offscreen noise, surprisingly ugly kids, OK zombie makeup, and crew members spraying people with syringes of tomato soup from just off camcorder.
Midnight Skater has garnered a surprising amount of praise from the few critics who actually condescended to look at it. The explanation is always that the kids look like they had a lot of fun making the movie. And, indeed, if you were part of the gang of college freshmen that made Midnight Skater, you’d be proud of the achievement, and have a great time reliving the film with your buddies over a case of cheap brewskies. On that level, the movie is a success—but a success for the makers, not for the viewers. It is a crime that this glorified home movie somehow got onto Netflix, and might accidentally take up a slot people could use to rent a real film. There’s a big difference between “good for you, you made a movie!” and “you made a good movie.” Encouraging amateurs to go out and make their own movies is one thing, but at some point, you have to stop giving people bonus points just for being inexperienced and enthusiastic. This is the marketplace of ideas, not a third grade soccer league; everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy just for participating.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). This is horror and hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, a narrative knowledge derived almost exclusively from issues of Fangoria and untold reams of fan fiction.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Angry Rob,” who said “the acting is bad but the writing is brilliant.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.
What if a real zombie outbreak occurred during a zombie pub crawl? Imagine everyone liquored and latexed up to such a degree that nobody could differentiate the real zombies from the fake zombies. My point, I guess, is that this zombie thing has gotten out of hand.
Hearken back to a time when people were still appropriately freaked out by the living dead. Because of directors like George A. Romero, zombies became a fashionable cinematic device to address a myriad of social issues, starting in the late sixties. The films might have made more of an impression because zombies still elicited a strong reaction from viewers. Romero’s frequently remade and frequently cited Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, addressed the increasingly violent and sensational mass media coverage of the Vietnam war, and was notable also for featuring a black actor (Duane L. Jones) as the film’s leading man. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s follow up, offered a satire of North American consumerism by having a bunch of zombies putter mindlessly around a shopping mall.
Dawn also, incidentally, also featured a black male in it’s lead (Ken Foree), and even delved thematically into race issues with the extended segment that shows how the zombie apocalypse might manifest in the projects. But a few years prior to Dawn, the blaxploitation/horror film Sugar Hill (1974) had also appropriated the zombie motif to comment on race relations and social inequities.
The film was directed by Paul Maslansky, whom some may know as producer of the Police Academy films and Return to Oz (1985). In the film, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) is engaged to marry the owner of a lucrative Haitian-themed bar. At the beginning of the film, members of a predominantly white crime syndicate approach Sugar’s fiance. When he refuses to acquiesce to the gang’s protection racket, Sugar’s fiance is beaten to death.
Sugar seeks the assistance of a voodoo priestess, Mamma Maitresse (Zara Cully), who in turn summons Baron Samedi, the Voodoo Loa who presides over funerals and acts a medium between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Samedi enlists an army of Voodoo zombies to avenge Sugar’s lover’s murder. The white gangsters are picked off, one by one. One guy is fed to a pack of hogs. One guy is thrown into a coffin filled with dangerous snakes. Blaxploitation films usually depicted black characters in positions of power over the “archetypal white oppressor” character. The title character from Superfly accomplishes this by dominating the drug trade. Shaft and Cleopatra Jones were cunning law enforcement agents. Part of what makes Sugar’s story so compelling in the annals of blaxploitation/revenge films, however, is the supernatural element. The film even evokes the transatlantic slave trade directly by suggesting that Sugar’s band of voodoo zombies were all slaves transported to the United States from Guinea. So, it becomes a revenge film in a much broader sense. It’s not merely about Sugar avenging her boyfriend’s death, but she’s also avenging (symbolically, at least) the wide-scale oppression and dehumanization of her ancestors.
The film was produced by American International Pictures, who were eager to follow up on the success of their earlier blaxploitation/horror genre blenders Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. Part of what distinguishes Sugar Hill is that it isn’t based on a piece of 19th century European literature, but is instead a more distinctly black American narrative which synthesizes elements of Voodoo iconography, fairy tales, and classic b-horror film tropes. It’s occasionally clumsy and highly stylized script offers all of the cliches that you’d hope for in a blaxploitation film.
While Sugar Hill is frequently overlooked (even by cult film fanatics), it’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to midnight screenings throughout the U.S., and regular showing on Robert Rodriguez‘s El Rey Network, which is available through DirectTV packages and other cable providers like Comcast. Vintage horror fans (especially anyone with a fondness for either blaxploitation or seventies Italian zombie films) should absolutely check this one out.
Next week’s review schedule isn’t completely set, but you can expect to see a guest review of 1974′s blaxploitation/zombie mishmash Sugar Hill, along with a report on 2002′s amateur gore comedy Midnight Skater (which also contains zombies, mixing them this time with white necrophile serial killers). In non-zombie action, Alfred intends to continue (and likely conclude) his summer blockbuster survey with a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second installment of the primate reboot series. The other review will be either a second look at the moody doppelganger feature Enemy (now why would we do that?), or a first take on the trippy 2012 philosophical documentary The End of Time.
The Great Summer Weird Search Term Drought of 2014 continues. It’s slim weird pickings on Google’s parched plains. As always, we did find a few humorously crazy search terms to highlight for you in our weekly survey. For example, the search for “piranha vs alligator,” which isn’t so weird in and of itself: what’s strange is that this search does not turn up an Asylum made-for-SyFy creature feature (the searcher probably should have thrown in a random “mega” prefix into the mix). There is also “little marjorir buried me under the singing ringing tree,” which (upon changing “marjorir” to “Marjorie”) sounds like it should be a line from a nursery rhyme, but isn’t. Our winner, in a week field, for Weirdest Search Term of the Week is “casting grin tabu porno,” which vaults to the top on sheer inexplicability. I can’t even imagine regular casting grin porno; I shudder to think what the tabu version might be like.
Here’s how the ridiculously-long-and-ever-growing reader-suggested review queue stands: Midnight Skater (next week!); Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd; Rubin & Ed; The Real McCoy; Themroc; Candy (1968); The Fox Family; Angelus; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; Yokai Monsters, Vol. 1: Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE