216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen

PLOT: Fletcher Munson, a corporate functionary, is tapped to write a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder of a pseudo-religious self-help movement called Eventualism. One day, still struggling to come up with a draft, he notices his exact physical double in a parking lot—a dentist who, it turns out, just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Meanwhile, we occasionally peek at the life of nonsense-speaking exterminator and Lothario Elmo Oxygen, whose connection to Munson’s storyline will not become entirely clear until the final act.

Still from Schizopolis (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Steven Soderberg served as writer, director, and lead actor. This was his first appearance on film and to date is his only leading role.
  • Soderberg made Schizopolis for about $250,000, shooting in Louisiana with his old LSU film school buddies, in between shooting the big-budget Hollywood movies The Underneath (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
  • Soderberg did not have a shooting script but wrote new parts each day, and incorporated improvisations from the cast.
  • Actress Betsy Brantley, who plays Steven Sorderberg’s wife in the film, was Soderberg’s real-life ex-wife.
  • Soderberg’s opening narration was added after Schizopolis‘ negative reception at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shot with handheld video cameras in a bland suburbia, often in a vérité style, Schizopolis is very much a work of words and ideas, not images. Therefore, the most representative image is actually a picture of a word: a sign reading “idea missing.” The meta-joke is that Schizopolis is aware it is built out of ideas, and is confident enough to joke about its own dependence on concepts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pantsless titles; nose army; dentist doppelgänger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Schizopolis translates as “divided city” or, informally but more appropriately in this case, “city of schizos.” When the film opens with the director standing on an empty stage, backed by carnival music with periodic changes of focal length as if you were watching the intro through an optometrical device, warning that the upcoming movie may confuse you and you should prepare yourself to see it multiple times,  you should be fairly warned that your mind is about to be toyed with, and toyed hard.


Original trailer for Schizopolis

COMMENTS:  After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on Continue reading 216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

CAPSULE: HOW THE SKY WILL MELT (2015)

At the time of this writing How the Sky Will Melt can be watched for free on Nobudge.com

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Wade

FEATURING: Sara Lynch, Annika Karlsen, Michael Webster

PLOT: In the late 1980s (?), a young musician disappears and returns; her father detects something amiss about her, and when she and her friends somehow manage to summon a visitor from the sky, things slowly fall apart.

Still from How the Sky Will Melt (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie has some astounding (and weird) imagery, as well as one of the best film scores I’ve heard in a good while. However, the amateurishness of the effort is apparent throughout, and every time the actors speak, the semblance of magic is destroyed.

COMMENTS: The opening of director Matthew Wade’s first feature quickly transports the viewer to an elsewhere. A synth score blasts an unearthly melody as drab landscapes pan by, all seen on nicely washed-out Super-8 film stock. We see a young woman in her twenties, through canted angles and disorienting close-ups. The scene jumps to a sort-of dream sequence involving brightly colored eggs in a nest by the sea. While watching this, I wrote in my notebook, “Made or broken by voice(s).” This comment, unfortunately, was prescient. At the 12-minute mark, we hear dialogue for the first time, and the dreamy atmosphere evaporates.

All that follows, I am sad to say, is largely a disappointment. The young woman, Gwen (Sara Lynch), is the leading light of a modestly popular but highly respected rock band. Back home after working on an album, she meets up with some friends from her high school days and, while smoking clove cigarettes, they carry on a series of banal meta-conversations about the banality of what normal people talk about. She also reunites with her father (Michael Webster), whose role is under-written and stiltingly acted. Somehow, though, he still comes across as likable (aided, no doubt, by his comparative lack of jadedness and pretense). Meanwhile, the 20-somethings go to a lakeside retreat. Gwen’s friend Pearl (Annika Karlsen) gets pregnant (possibly with a monster-eel thing inside her). A mushroom is found and devoured, a man falls from the sky, and… so forth. On top of this meandering string of events is the recurrence of a mask-like device that possibly has the power to show alternate dimensions, possibly just plays sci-fi audio cassettes (now with video!), and certainly has the power to kill if abused.

At this point I should reiterate that the film score is nothing short of amazing. During scenes with nothing but imagery and eerie synth music, I saw glimpses of potential. In fact, it was almost as if the director had grafted the score from a far superior ’70s cult classic onto his work—the music is much like an amped-up Popul Vol, ‘s go-to group. It was an interesting surprise to find that the director (who also wrote the screenplay and edited) was the man behind the music. If nothing else, I’d say that Matthew Wade should have a bright future as a composer.

It’s apparent that How the Sky Will Melt was a labour of love, but also apparent it’s the work of a neophyte. After watching the movie, I found myself confused, but also not interested enough in the fate of the lightly-sketched and uncharismatic characters to invest further thought. There are some beautiful, surreal montages here, and not one, but two great hooks — the cassette glasses and the ominous figure that falls from the sky. But aside from the score, I did not particularly care for this movie. However, I would love to see the director remake this in a few years with a better cast and a firmer grip on the story he’s trying to tell.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… you’re a fan of David Lynch’s more bizarre and atmosphere-driven works (i.e. Eraserhead, Lost Highway,Mulholland Drive) and perhaps early David Cronenberg or just experimental film in general, I think you’ll find How the Sky Will Melt interesting and thought-provoking.”–Jacqui Siler, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JAUJA (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Lisandro Alonso

FEATURING: Viilbjørk Malling Agger

PLOT: A Danish surveyor tracks his missing daughter into the wilderness.

Still from Jauja (2104)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This slow-paced movie turns weird by the end, but strangeness doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance until the last twenty minutes.

COMMENTS: While Jauja is set in a specific time and place, no one in the movie ever says what that time and place is; they simply inhabit it as their reality. The film’s “meaning,” similarly, is left vague. An explanation for the film’s title, on the other hand, is given in a text prologue: “Jauja” is a mythical paradise, the equivalent of El Dorado, a place ambitious explorers seek and never find. This, along with the colonial dress and a campfire tale about a soldier who was wandered into the wilderness and went mad, immediately brings to mind similar themes from Aguirre, the Wrath of God; although ultimately Alonso’s movie is more oblique and far more restrained than ‘s Amazonian fever dream classic.

Although never specified, Jauja was actually shot in Argentina, and the film could serve as an advertisement for the Pampas Tourist Board. In its ability to capture the country’s strange landscapes— the standing pools of water flanked by mossy rocks, the fields of boulders, the mighty horizons—the film is an undisputed triumph. Jauja is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen, with the corners quaintly rounded so that the screen recalls a picture frame. The natural color schemes, particularly the blue midnights and glowing dawns, look brilliantly unreal. Jauja may be too small and peculiar to compete for any major awards, but I doubt we will see superior cinematography in any film this year.

As desolate as Jauja‘s landscapes can be, for most of the running time the film’s plot is even more so. A scene that kicks off the movie’s second act illustrates how unnaturally deliberate the pacing is. Viggo Mortensen’s Danish captain discovers that his teenage daughter is  missing from her tent; instead of immediately rushing off after her, he returns to his own tent and spends several minutes calmly examining his weapons and dressing in his formal military uniform. Although not much time is actually lost in the formal procedure, the scene conveys the exact opposite of urgency. In the movie’s middle section, minute after minute goes by with no words spoken; we simply watch Mortensen stumble across the craggy landscape, growing increasingly weaker. (We also watch him sleep). Eventually, he encounters a shaggy dog and follows it back to a cave where he has a very strange encounter with an old woman (which I will not spoil). Things get even weirder for the ending epilogue, a time-bending journey to another world where the film’s earlier motifs—dogs, a toy solider—are recast in a dreamlike fashion.

Many critics compare Alonso’s latest film to the work of  , for obvious reasons. Although Jauja shares Tarkovsky’s meticulous use of time and strangeness, the Russian master’s films always win out because they end on profound emotional resonances; the Stalker weeping in despair, Kris Kelvin’s decision to play along with Solaris’ delusion. As well-made and thoughtful as it is, Jauga‘s heart is simple—the love of a father for his daughter—and does not approach the emotional intricacies of Tarkovsky. Of course, few do; but Jauja shows you what Tarkovsky may have looked like without his complex understanding of the human soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this hallucinatory head-trip Western remains unmistakably Alonso’s film from first frame to last — a metaphysical road movie in which origin and destination are markedly less important than the journey itself…  Alonso saves his most dazzling trick for last: a sudden plunge down a Lynchian rabbit hole that should, by all means, rupture the film’s hypnotizing atmosphere, but instead pulls the viewer in even deeper.“–Scott Foundas, Variety (contemporaneous)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Next week Giles Edwards will take his turn at 366 Underground, giving you the scoop on the microbudget psychedelic experiment How the Sky Will Melt (which will debut on the very worthy indie film site NoBudge on Tuesday). Meanwhile, G. Smalley will take in the -esque new release Jauja, about a Danish surveyor searching for his daughter in an unnamed wilderness, and continue the Summer re-evaluation project with a second look at ‘s insane 1996 meta-comedy Schizopolis. Finally, Alfred Eaker fills out his survey of pre-Code classics with peeks at a couple of old dark flicks: The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man.

We saw an uptick in strange Google searches this week, which is an encouraging sign for our Weirdest Search Term of the Week contest. We’ll start with an honorable mention: “ghost spam is free from the politics, we dancing like a paralytics.” Definitely a weird search term, but since it is itself an example of an annoying, brain-dead “ghost spam” blackhat SEO trick, we declare it ineligible for the honor of Weirdest Search Term of the Week. Moving on, we find people looking for some damn odd movies, like “movie: 1980s comedy horror about cursed bull balls” and something about “weird animated poetic bugs.” Strange, but we’ll give the official nod for Weirdest Search Term of the Week to  “beauitful movies janpans sixy fast in the bedroom eat boby,” a query that would almost certainly be incredibly disturbing if the searcher could spell at all.

Here’s how the ridiculously-long-and-ever-growing reader-suggested review queue stands today: The Fox Family; Angelus; Conspirators of PleasureThe Ninth Configuration; Love Me If You Dare; Fando y Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 8/27/2015

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 at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Queen of Earth (2015): A wealthy woman under stress retires to the countryside with an old friend, where her mental condition continues to deteriorate. From Impolex‘s Alex Ross Perry, this has earned a few cautious comparisons to Repulsion, Persona, and other female-identity disorder films. Queen of Earth at IFC films.

Windsor Drive (2015): A Hollywood actor with a dead girlfriend has a mental breakdown. Directed by Natalie Bible’ (the extra ‘ is an affectation, not a typo, making for dopey-looking constructions like “Natalie Bible”s newest film,” but we won’t hold that against the movie). Windsor Drive official site.

SCREENINGS – (New York City, weekend of Aug 28-30):

Various: We came across a blog that NYC area weird movie fans are going to want to bookmark. Midnight Grind’s purpose is simple and to the point: it provides a weekly list of midnight movie screenings in the NY metro area. Not all of the films are weird (or even cult movies), but there are enough outre offerings in the Big Apple that everyone should be able to find something strange to entertain them late nights. This weekend’s highlights are Blue Velvet at the IFC and (naturally) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (multiple locations). We may have to link to these guys weekly. Midnight Grind.

SCREENINGS – (Cinefamily, Los Angeles, Saturday Aug. 29):

3 Women (1977): Read the Certified Weird entry! Cinefamily screens ‘s dream about two (well, three) delusional women in the Mojave desert as part of their irregular “Women of Cinefamily” series. 3 Women at Cinefamily.

SCREENINGS – (AFI Silver Theater, Silver Springs, MD, Sunday Aug. 30):

Blue Velvet (1986): Read the Certified Weird entry! ‘s perverse classic caps off AFI’s summer series of “totally awesome” 1980s classics. In dreams, I walk with you… Blue Velvet at AFI Silver Theater.

FILM FESTIVALS – Cambridge Film Festival (Cambridge, UK, Sep. 3-13):

The Cambridge festival, which is overshadowed by the Venice International Film Festival on the continent, nevertheless has a nice mix of relatively big American movies (Dope and Irrational Man), smaller experimental films, and classy revivals (the films of silent master are one of the features this year).

  • Begotten – A very rare 16mm screening of the bizarre, Certified Weird creation fable, with a new live improvised soundtrack, accompanied by two seldom-seen shorts from . This magnificent event is part of a series called “Dark Pictures” and it happens on Fri., Sep 4.
  • By Our Selves – Experimental film by  retracing the steps of a forest journey by the 19th century poet John Clare, followed by a straw bear. Sep. 5.
  • Children of the Night [AKA Limbo] – Movie about a colony of child vampires being indoctrinated into believing they are a master race. UK premiere on Sep 7th.
  • Hellions –  (Pontypool) Halloween-themed horror about a pregnant girl terrorized by childlike monsters; reportedly surreal visuals. Screens Sep. 3.
  • The Reflecting Skin – Another screening of a Certified Weird classic; director will be on hand to discuss this childhood death fantasy on Sep. 8.
  • Schmitke – Mildly absurd/surreal Czech film about a wind turbine engineer entering a strange forest. The UK premiere is Sep 4th and it screens again on the 7th.
  • Splendor Solis (half of the team behind Savage Witches) has composed a feature length experimental twin-screen film out of footage he has collected for the past 17 years. Screens Sep. 11. More information at the Underground Film Studio.

Cambridge Film Festival Home Page.

IN DEVELOPMENT:

Forever Phibes (est. Halloween 2016): Not a whole lot of information here, but the “official” Dr. Phibes blog has announced a new Phibes movie, to star Malcolm McDowell as the deadly deco doctor. More info if/when it becomes available. Press release at the Official Dr. Phibes blog.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Angel Heart (1987): Read our review. We don’t consider it one of the weirdest of all time, but ‘s voodoo neo-noir is atmospheric as Hell. Buy Angel Heart [Blu-ray].

The Doors (1991): Val Kilmer stars as Jim Morrison, who takes acid, spouts poetry, converses with his Native American spirit guide, and occasionally records rock n’ roll hits. This psychedelic feature was the beginning of ‘s brief “weird” period that climaxed with 1994’s Natural Born Killers. Buy The Doors [Blu-ray].

Jacob’s Ladder (1990): Read the Certified Weird entry! Jacob’s Ladder has been out on Blu-ray before and there are no special features advertised, except for a digital HD copy of the film. Buy Jacob’s Ladder [Blu-ray].

The Last Dragon (1985): A young Harlem kung fu expert searches for a master to teach him “the glow,” but finds songstress Vanity instead, in this martial arts/comedy/musical with breakdancing bits. Perhaps more “goofy” than weird, but this 1980s cult film is out of the ordinary and high in cheesy nostalgia value.  Buy The Last Dragon [Blu-ray].

Vampire Hunter D (1985): In a post-apocalyptic world, a girl recruits the mysterious “D” to save her from a vampire’s curse.  An influential fantasy anime with a cult following. Buy Vampire Hunter D [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.

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.

At the movie’s center is ‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln in The Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from his condescending, sadistic grin to his prickly use of his hands—is electric. Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.

Still from The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)Although an atypical MGM production, Mask of Fu Manchu was lined with typical top studio talent. Co-written by Edgar Allen Wolf (The Wizard Of Oz) and John Willard (The Cat And The Canary), co-directed by Charles Brabin (1925’s Ben-Hur) and Charles Vidor (1946), gowns by the famous Adrian (Grand Hotel), and art direction by Cedric Gibbons (Singin’ in the Rain).

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is filled to the brim with mockery of Christian platitudes. Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See take every opportunity to sadistically ridicule WASP hypocrisy and, as bland as the heroes are, it’s easy to root for the villains—particularly when the opium addled antagonists are gleefully preparing to sacrifice the dull, virginal Karen Morley as she screams: “You hideous yellow monsters!” The plot is ho-hum, and the film manages to be alternately animated and static. It’s the trashy dialogue, villainous leads, erotic art direction, and sumptuous photography that sell it as an excuse for torture scenes, alligators, and genocidal death rays, oh my!

Still from Murders in the Zoo (1933)The opening scene of Murders In the Zoo (1933), in which sews a man’s mouth shut, was considered so gruesome that the film was long banned in England. The film shares certain themes with both Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1933), but its uniqueness lies in Atwill’s manic, savory performance and its zoological themes. (Not coincidentally, apart from Atwill, the only performance of note is Kathleen Burke, AKA “the Panther Woman” from Island of Lost Souls). It is unfortunate that Atwill was wasted in Hollywood. He should have gone down as a horror star ranking near Karloff. Apart from playing the Burgermeister to inspectors and politicos, he only was permitted to shine in half a dozen or so features, one of which is the grand-guignol Murders In The Zoo. 

Here, Atwill plays the malevolent Dr. Eric Gorman, a distant cousin to both Dangerous Games‘ hunter of humans Zaroff and Island‘s self-styled God Dr. Moreau. Among Gorman’s victims is his much put upon wife Evelyn (Burke), whom he eventually feeds to crocodiles. After committing crimes against humanity in the jungles, Gorman acclimates himself into American society with relative ease. His vast wealth buys and influences friends. True to Depression-era morality, the elitist super rich are cold, calculating villains, the dregs of society, and (here) the true beasts. Quite a bit of time is spent on this social commentary, in between some rather nasty bookended homicides and brutal pre-Code misogyny.

The film’s primary flaw lies in the comedy relief supplied by Charles Ruggles. Most of that is forgiven in an elaborately staged banquet hall finale, with the self-appointed deity meeting his comeuppance, courtesy of unlocked cages and Mother Nature.

215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

BAGLEY: Everything I do is rational.

JULIA: Why have you put chickens down the lavatory?

BAGLEY: To thaw them before dismemberment.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Bruce Robinson (voice)

PLOT: Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is an unscrupulous advertising executive, but he finds himself blocked while trying to come up with a campaign to sell pimple cream. The stress leads him to combination epiphany and mental breakdown, and he decides to renounce hypocrisy and manipulation and retire from marketing. The internal strife, however, has caused a boil to form on his neck; and that pustule then forms a face, and a voice, and a personality that’s even nastier than the old Bagley…

Still from How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Bruce Robinson began his career as a struggling actor, but found greater success when he turned to screenwriting and directing. His first script, The Killing Fields, was nominated for an Oscar in 1984. His first film as director, 1987’s Withnail & I, was a semi-autobiographical story of two poor, hard-drinking actors, also starring Richard E. Grant; it became a cult hit. How to Get Ahead in Advertising was his second feature film, but did not replicate the success of Withnail.
  • Robinson (uncredited) provides the voice of the boil.
  • Advertising was produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who also produced Monty Python films and the Certified Weird Time Bandits.
  • The London Sunday-Times gave away free copies of the DVD as a promotion in 2006.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, the fetuslike boil-with-a-face peering out from Bagley’s executive neck.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disney birds; chatty chancre; notice his cardboard box?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising grows organically from that greatest fertilizer of weird films: obsession. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has Something to Say, and he is not going to let taste, subtlety, or realism get in the way of him saying it. The movie is completely committed to its bizarre two-headed premise, and star Grant gladly goes over the top for his director, literally baring his buttocks while wearing an apron and stuffing frozen chickens in his toilet.


Original trailer for How to Get Ahead in Advertising

COMMENTS: Ad exec Dennis Bagley develops the mother of all zits Continue reading 215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

CAPSULE: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

FEATURING: Stephen Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd

PLOT: A well-to-do doctor of anthropology gets stabbed with an ancient Ashanti dagger and becomes immortal but addicted to blood.

Still from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie’s vampire-origin premise is an uncommon one, but the movie is weighed down by a cold—bordering on somnolent—lead performance, a scattershot tone, and the fact that the most compelling scenes are largely uninvolved with the main action.

COMMENTS: The opening credits of Spike Lee’s latest movie are fully alive. Across the acting and production shout-outs, Lee shows off a very skilled street dancer (Charles “Lil Buck” Riley) performing a number of smooth, impressive moves in various Brooklyn street spots. The momentum continues with the opening scene proper, a lively gospel shout ceremony at “Lil’ Piece of Heaven” church. During the full-blooded, upbeat sermonizing, we see Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Williams) sitting alone in the back, noticeably separate from the rapt congregants. After this introduction, however, it seems that all the blood drains from the movie.

What follows is a sometimes dreamy, sometimes intellectual, and consistently tedious affair involving the realities of a modern, bookish vampire. Dr. Greene hosts big parties for intelligentsia at his large estate in Martha’s Vineyard (with grounds spanning 40 acres, no less). He chats amiably, but briefly, with the various educated bourgeoisie, before having to hightail it to his basement for some blood packs from the refrigerator. He emerges with a wine glass of blood; when an insistent guest tries it and spits it out, he glibly explains, “It’s organic.” And so comes and goes one of the few breaks from the largely unremitting monotony of the film.

Between his unfortunate conversion to vampirism and a personal spiritual revelation, he murders and drinks blood of various poor women of color. His traces of hyper-shy charm are smudged over by his callous and guileless manner. For reasons not entirely clear, he immediately falls in love with Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who was once married to his erstwhile assistant. She seems to hate everything and everyone, and has adopted the unfortunate habit of being 100% honest 100% of the time. She has a backstory to explain her current hostility to the world, but I found myself utterly incapable of seeing how that justifies her sheer unpleasantness. Throughout the movie, Spike Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay) dribbles in bits and pieces of mumblecore exchanges; where he should have focused on creating an atmosphere of angst and ambiguity, instead he makes each character no more than a projection of a type. Even the hammy characters from Blacula have more nuance and relatability.

There are some scenes of vitality and beauty. Whenever the action shuffles over to the church (all too infrequently), the movie  immediately gets a shot in the arm. And while I am not one to generally marvel at the visual splendor of a scene, the marriage on the private beach that takes place in the second half was a sheer joy just to look at. Unfortunately, I can only come to the conclusion that while the movie toyed with greatness, it came short in a number of ways. It may have been a worthy recommendation if it had been: more atmospheric, more puzzling, livelier, wittier, and so on. Had it thoroughly pursued any one of those directions, it may have been on to something. Instead, Spike Lee seems to want it all, and it ends up falling flat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with no one breathing down [Lee’s] neck, it’s free to zoom all over the place — from seriousness to high comedy to weird comedy to quietly anxious set pieces…  For better and sometimes worse, ‘Jesus’ is undiluted Lee — a half-committed attempt at a twisted genre film that freely gets lost down unexplored alleyways.”–Matt Prigge, Metro (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLACULA (1972)

DIRECTED BY: William Crain

FEATURING: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Gordon Pinsent, Denise Nicholas

PLOT: After being cursed and imprisoned by Count Dracula, African prince Mamuwalde is revived after two centuries when his coffin is brought to Los Angeles by a pair of interior decorators who purchased the Count’s estate. There, he meets what he believes to be the reincarnation of his murdered wife while stalking the backstreets of 1970s LA.

Still from Blacula (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blacula’s weirdness  mostly stems from the manner in which it has aged. While the concept of a black vampire remains something of a novelty (and in fact, Blacula is the first movie to have an African vampire), the story is a fairly pedestrian string of horror-movie situations. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is that it presents Los Angeles as a town inhabited exclusively by black citizens, white policemen, and homosexuals of both racial groups.

COMMENTS: As an early example of 1970s blacksploitation movies (and as the first horror-themed blacksploitation movie), Blacula is a fairly straightforward affair that nonetheless could be discussed at length on any number of levels. Having volunteered to watch it and write this review, I’m kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the “African-Americans in Horror” cinema class that was offered my senior year in college. That said, I’ll take comfort in the fact that the lens through which I watched this movie was a “weird” one, and at least in that regard, I can speak with some degree of license.

The movie opens in an unexpected way: in 1780, Prince Mamuwalde and his bride are dining at the palace of Count Dracula. They have come as emissaries to Europe in order to discuss ending the slave trade. The Count makes an offhand remark that comes across as a bid to purchase Mamuwalde’s wife, the two Africans try and leave, and bam: the wife is murdered, and the Count passes along his curse to the unfortunate African prince. Throughout this vignette, the husband and wife come across as educated and humane. As to what Dracula’s business with the slave trade was, I leave that to history. Fast-forward two hundred years and a couple of gay antiquarians snap up the late Count’s castle and belongings for a song, with the ambition of selling the Gothic kitsch for a bundle back in their hometown of L.A.

Looking back on that description, the plot does sound more than a little strange. However, Blacula is primarily a period horror piece (that period being, in this case, then-contemporary 1970s). There’s an open-minded black LAPD pathologist, Dr. Gordon Thomas, sporting an Afro, turtle-neck shirts, and a belief that the untimely demise of the two antique dealers was not caused by rats. Appropriately, his best buddy is a rumpled Irish cop, Lt. Det. Jack Peters, who acts as the down-to-earth foil of the occult-inclined Dr. Thomas. Conveniently, the doctor’s main squeeze, Michelle, is the sister of Tina, the young woman whom Mamuwalde is convinced is his wife reincarnated.

So, all the main characters are tied together, to varying degrees of coincidence. They are all at first charmed by the undead prince, with Tina falling (rather quickly) in love with him. She can’t be blamed, really. William Marshall makes Blacula profoundly charming, and it is he who carries the movie with a performance as weighty as that of Othello (unsurprisingly, as he played that role on stage in no fewer than six productions over his acting career).

Shuffled into this mix of B-grade horror, A-grade oratory, and ’70s-grade costume and vernacular are a couple of chase scenes set to a funky score, an eyebrow-raising series of remarks on homosexuals, and a strangely elaborate opening-credit animation title sequence that has a black bat hunting a glob of blood that morphs into a woman. Blacula is a passable horror movie, and Marshall makes the titular villain unforgettable — but this movie isn’t quite on the same plane as ‘s shelved sequel, Funkferatu.

2015 saw Shout Factory’s horror subsidiary, Scream Factory, release Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream on on double-feature Blu-ray, with commentary by film historian David F. Walker.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘That,’ observes a casual companion, ‘is one strange dude!’ We can only agree… Anybody who goes to a vampire movie expecting sense is in serious trouble, and ‘Blacula’ offers less sense than most.”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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