All posts by Alice Stoehr

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

LIST CANDIDATE: PROXIMA (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes

FEATURING: Oriol Aubets, Anthony Blake, Manuel Solás, Abel Folk

PLOT: Just as his life seems to be falling apart, aimless sci-fi nerd Tony (Aubets) becomes accidentally entangled with a doomsday cult, a time-traveling conspiracy, and new method of interstellar transportation. Or does he?

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Atanes is explicitly trafficking in weird material here, and PROXIMA certainly has its fair share of strange imagery and plot twists, but its elaborate scenario often feels culled from classics like Videodrome and The Matrix. Originality aside, though, its abundance of imagination and ambiguity might be enough to scrape onto the List.

COMMENTS: Attached to anything else, the tagline “The Last Science Fiction Movie” might sound hubristic.  But it’s absolutely appropriate to PROXIMA, an apocalyptic love letter to sci-fi and its fans.  Atanes puts his obsession with the genre front and center, and the film is dotted with casual references to Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Jean-Luc Picard.  Perhaps the most telling such reference is “Felix Cadecq,” the name of the Kilgore Trout-like author (Solàs) whose revelations set Tony’s adventure in motion—and a Spanish homonym for “Philip K. Dick,” whose pet themes form the backbone of PROXIMA‘s mind-bending world.

But Atanes, as liberally as he may borrow from the sci-fi canon, never settles for pure pastiche.  The opening scenes, for example, are refreshingly slice-of-life, patiently building up to the main plot with subtle hints of weirdness.  We see Tony preparing to close his failing video store, playing Halo as his girlfriend dumps him, and visiting a convention with his best friend Lucas (get it?), balancing sympathy with brual honesty in its depiction of his slacker lifestyle.  But everything changes after Tony and Lucas attend a panel featuring the eccentric old Cadecq, who vows never to write again.  Instead, he hawks his new CD “Journey to Proxima,” which he claims will guide its listeners into contact with extraterrestrial life.

From this point on, the film is a series of left turns, with detours into amnesia, astral projection, alien technology, and false imprisonment.  By the time Tony’s drifting through space in what looks like a magical refrigerator, it’s unclear exactly how each twist is related, beyond a loose sense that something epic is going on.  At times, the movie comes across like the breathless sci-fi equivalent of North by Northwest.  Alas, Tony’s sojourns into space also reveal PROXIMA‘s greatest weakness: its budget is tragically outstripped by its imagination, and its special effects are universally cheap and shoddy.

That said, it’s impressive how far Atanes goes with so little money, and PROXIMA ends with a string of stunning, otherworldly visions mixing its meager effects with real-world landscapes.  Furthermore, at no point is PROXIMA entirely beholden to its effects budget: unlike many Philip K. Dick adaptations, it stays away from action-oriented set-pieces, sticking to a more introspective, cerebral realm.  It’s less about the adventure itself, and more about the egotism of imagining oneself at the center of a vast, interplanetary saga.  As Cadecq says early in the film, “We are the protagonists now!”  But as Tony must learn, bridging the gulf between sci-fi and real life isn’t all it”s cracked up to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Proxima is a very Philip K. Dick-ian film with its abrupt conceptual twists and shifting revelations about what is real.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood

PLOT: An apprentice perfumer in pre-Revolutionary France sets out to make the perfect scent,

a task that requires him to murder thirteen beautiful virgins.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although its choice of protagonist—an orphaned serial killer with a superhuman sense of smell—certainly proves that Perfume is out of the ordinary, it’s mostly just a period drama punctuated by bursts of black humor, with most of its weirdness concentrated in the orgiastic finale.

COMMENTS: Adapted from Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer feels like a lavish epic as it traverses 18th century France, stopping to sniff out every scent (good or bad) along the way. German director Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) shows us the urban squalor of Paris, the expansive majesty of the countryside, and the perfume mecca of Grasse through the eyes and nose of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), our amoral and barely verbal anti-hero.

With his unsurpassed olfactory prowess, Grenouille wonders at all the scents in the world, yet is perpetually enraged: he can’t capture them all, and he lacks a personal scent. As far as his nose is concerned, he’s a cipher, a nonentity. His response to these inner crises is to study the secret art of perfuming under the tutelage of the self-absorbed Baldini (Hoffman), then migrate to Grasse, where he hatches his elaborate, murderous master plan.

This plan forms the centerpiece of the film, as Grenouille kidnaps and kills Grasse’s young maidens one after another, distilling their scents through the technique of enfleurage. Perfume spares little sentiment for the victims, focusing instead on how their deaths contribute to Grenouille’s angelic-smelling magnum opus. The film even juxtaposes Grenouille’s reign of terror with the authorities’ botched investigation in a blackly comic montage, all the better to highlight its anti-hero’s messianic, above-the-law status.

Like any rogue with a rise-and-fall character arc, Grenouille eventually gets arrested and tortured.  But after his solemn march to the town square for crucifixion, Perfume loses all resemblance to other crime thrillers past or present and begins to look like an excerpt from Ken Russell‘s richest, most elegant fantasies. I won’t give away the climactic twist, except to say that it indulges all of the film’s wildest, most spectacular urges.  By the time a drop of perfume falls on a Paris street in the last shot, there’s little for the viewer to do but gape at Tykwer’s mad bravado.

The rest of Perfume isn’t quite so magnificently over-the-top, but Tykwer complements Grenouille’s obsessions by zeroing in on one sensuous piece of period detail after another, all in a futile but nonetheless impressive attempt to visually capture scent. And although Whishaw dominates much of the film, the supporting cast occasionally steals the show: Hoffman provides tragicomic relief as a desperate has-been; Rickman brings his laconic grace to the role of a Grasse nobleman and overprotective father; and John Hurt’s mordant narration frames the whole endeavor as a bleak fairy tale.

Perhaps the greatest irony about Perfume is that although it was a massive, expensive undertaking, it still feels cultish and off the beaten path. It’s so morbid, thorny, and perversely funny that it’s hard to believe it could ever have much mainstream appeal. But imagine sniffing the fumes that would rise if you blended a picaresque costume drama with a slasher movie, then heaped on a thick broth of style.  That, more or less, is Perfume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a tale whose off-the-charts screwiness obscures virtually all shortcomings.”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

CAPSULE: M.O.N. (2006)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Brian Lupo

FEATURING: Leada Ghareaghadje, Lindsay Coffelt, Donovan Vincent Kit, Amanda Rivera, Joe Hammernik

PLOT: Four teenagers stranded in rural California are stalked by a serial killer called “M.O.N.”



WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Simply put, it’s just not weird; instead, it’s a rehash of clichés from other, better horror movies that aims for competence and misses its mark completely. A couple scenes (like the ending, where one of the victims watches a video of the killer, dressed as a clown, copulating with a mannequin) are slightly weird, but none of it is even remotely memorable.

COMMENTS: To borrow the classic line from Thomas Hobbes, this amateur no-budget horror movie is, alas, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I guess I should append “mercifully” to the last item on that list, although M.O.N. manages to pack a surprising amount of nothing into its 67-minute running time. Whole minutes go by with nothing but the sound of screams, or the sight of characters stumbling in and out of forests. If you’ve ever wondered whether snuff films could be boring, here is your answer.

After a long pre-credits sequence involving a woman being gratuitously tortured, M.O.N. shifts its attention to a car full of high schoolers going down a wilderness road. The car’s lone male is of the “macho jerk” variety familiar to slasher film afficionados, and he has to utter lines like, “Hey, don’t mess around, that s*** ain’t funny. I’m telling you right now, if any hairy-a** animal tries to shoot a load in my a**, I’ll snap a d*** off.” Let it be known: acting and dialogue are not this film’s strong suits. After some more driving and yelling, a woman runs out of nowhere and gets hit by the car; a few more minutes of yelling and accusations later, the teens discover that the car won’t start.

So naturally, they split up and wander aimlessly around the spoooky countryside, then start getting killed off in slow, dull ways. These scenes share the same penchant for mindless, unfettered brutality as something of the Friday the 13th ilk, but without any of the redeeming talent or resourcefulness. The jump scares and random loud noises are all present and accounted for, but since M.O.N. has the production values of a suburban haunted house and is largely shot through shaky handheld camera, it fails to evoke anything but the occasional chuckle.

By far the film’s most successful sequence arrives late in the film, when one of the girls wakes up in the woods with her leg chained to a refrigerator and a camera sitting next to her on a tripod. Yes, the set-up is clearly a rip-off of Saw and yes, it goes on forever, but—especially when the girl starts talking to an unheard person she seems to think is in the fridge—the scene is both odd and economical in a way that the rest of the film direly lacks. It’s still not good, per se, but at least it’s intermittently entertaining.

I’d love to say that writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor Brian Lupo had his heart in the right place when he made M.O.N., and the film does contain a few set-pieces that could become mildly creepy with a little more thought and money. On the whole, though, it’s grating, icky, mean-spirited, and incoherent. At least it’s short.

LIST CANDIDATE: DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS (1977)

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats has been placed on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments have been closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: George Barry

FEATURING: Demene Hall, Rusty Russ, Julie Ritter, Linda Bond, Patrick Spence-Thomas

PLOT: Across four meal-themed segments, visitors to an abandoned house are eaten by the titular bed. Meanwhile, a former victim imprisoned behind a painting provides running commentary on the bed’s checkered past and strange habits.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A horror movie about a killer bed? That’s kind of weird. But when it’s filled with nonstop voiceover relaying dense bed-related mythology, actors who are less energetic than a cast of mannequins, and incongruous Foley effects like the repeated sound of teeth crunching into an apple, then Death Bed has a definite shot at making the List.

COMMENTS: If it were anywhere near as risibly schlocky and straightforward as its title, Death Bed would probably be indistinguishable from the mass of movies about killer houses, animals, or furniture. But George Barry, the film’s writer, director, and producer (who, incidentally, never worked on another movie), had a unique vision, albeit an incomprehensible one. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether Death Bed is supposed to be low-budget horror, a pretentious art film, or some misbegotten hybrid of the two. It ranges in quality from bad to totally unwatchable, but it never goes the expected route.

The movie is about a killer bed, yes, but that bed has a very chatty British companion tucked away behind a nearby wall. Described only as “the artist,” he’s the ghost of a tuberculosis patient once consumed by the bed, and he narrates large chunks of the film, whether launching vicious tirades at the bed or jumping into jokey flashbacks about the bed’s exploits that stop the flimsy plot cold in its tracks. The artist also attempts to explain the bed’s convoluted origins—which involve a demon trapped in a tree and a young woman whose corpse has never decomposed—but these stories invariably raise more questions than they answer, especially when they’re invoked in order to bring about the film’s bloody, explosive resolution.

Death Bed‘s present-day narrative is split into four parts; the first, “Breakfast,” is unrelated to Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS (1977)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Read the official Certified Weird entry here. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn

PLOT: An extraterrestrial visits earth in search of water, but becomes distracted by alcohol, television, corporate politics, and a tempestuous relationship with a human woman.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Roeg’s usual penchants for nonlinear storytelling and rich, occasionally disturbing imagery are stretched to their breaking points here; the resulting film is not always coherent or consistent, but it is fascinating and intermittently very weird.

COMMENTS: Only Nicolas Roeg would have taken a story roughly in the vein of Starman or E.T. and turned it into this.  Instead of falling into a facile, friendly relationship with earth’s inhabitants, Roeg’s spaceman, Thomas Jerome Newton, is afflicted with a severe case of culture shock.  Struggling to simultaneously save his faraway family and understand human behavior, he ends up failing at both, and the film traces out his steep rise-and-fall arc with a plot so disorientingly scrambled that it sometimes threatens to become stream-of-consciousness.

Through this frenzied editing style, we’re witness to Newton’s past, present, and future, although it’s rarely clear which is which at any given moment.  This extreme nonlinearity conveys the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, as flashbacks bleed readily into the film’s putative reality or its characters’ fantasies; however, this also tends to make plot developments foggy and render motivations obscure.  In this sense, it’s a very messy film, often more interested in delving into Newton’s frazzled interior logic than in aiding the viewer’s comprehension.  Stretched with epic sweep over 138 minutes, the film’s detours and repeated segments (like that of the spaceship crashing) can get frustrating, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is more about visceral sensory experiences and emotional intuition than narrative flow.

Under those terms, the film is a qualified success.  Newton’s skyrocketing financial fortunes, his dalliance with a sweet small-town girl named Mary Lou (Clark), his alcohol-driven decline, and his subsequent institutionalization are all tightly interwoven, delineating a tragic, decades-long trajectory.  The tragedy is further illustrated by the interspersed snippets of memory and fantasy, including a violent musical interlude set to the song “Hello Mary Lou” that recalls the “Memo to Turner” scene from Performance.  Also like Performance (and the rest of Roeg’s early films), The Man Who Fell to Earth abounds with graphic sexuality, which becomes one more avenue for Newton’s experimentation with life on earth.  Both formally and morally, this film is tailor-made to offend conservative sensibilities.

The film’s mounting transgressions are compounded by the way that Bowie’s cadaverous, androgynous body blurs the line between human and alien, especially during the lengthy sex scenes.  His star power and otherworldly aura make the film’s sci-fi conceits believable, since with his shock of unnaturally red hair, his eyes (which are different two colors), and even his British accent—which stands out against the voices of his American costars—Bowie is believably not of this world, and when he chooses to remove his human skin and eyes, the outcome is only marginally stranger than the his original appearance.  As he changes from freshly arrived naïf to contaminated wino, Bowie anchors the film, his intractable presence acting as a counterpoint to Roeg’s flighty direction.

Since Roeg speaks in such an indecipherable visual language, it’s hard to know what to make of The Man Who Fell to Earth.  It’s partly a spaced-out parable about capitalism and chemical dependence, and possibly a satire of the rags-to-riches American success story.  Although it drags on too long and is often unfulfilling, it’s still inexplicably captivating.  When it’s all over and the poor man is stuck here on earth, you’re left with a film that’s as enigmatic, tormented, and unexpectedly beautiful as the pale face of Bowie himself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story is complicated. It is set up as a near-total mystery that unfolds bit by bit, leaving—it must be said—a few small unexplained gaps. The price paid for this method is a certain confusion; the gain is the spectator’s tingling desire to have the puzzle work out.”–Richard Eder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PEACOCK (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lander

FEATURING: Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman

PLOT: After a train accident destroys his privacy, a mentally ill bank employee leads

a double life, playing himself and his own wife, as he navigates his relationship with a poor single mother and his own worsening psychological state.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Peacock‘s gender-bending premise suggests all kinds of weird possibilities, the film’s execution doesn’t capitalize on any of them, and the final product is a muddled, small-town drama with only the occasional hint of slight weirdness.

COMMENTS: Set in the fictional Nebraska town that gives it its name, Peacock begins with an average day in the life of its disturbed protagonist, John Skillpa (Murphy), as he eats the breakfast prepared for him by his wife Emma. The twist, however, is that John is Emma, and that he’s built an illusion of idyllic family life within the house he inherited from his abusive mother. The first few wordless minutes set this up promisingly, as Murphy capably portrays both halves of this quiet household going about their daily business.

Then a train caboose flies off its tracks, knocking Emma unconscious while she’s hanging laundry; instantly, the Skillpas become the talk of the town, and a rallying point for local politicians. This could be the start of a tense psychodrama… but instead, it soon fizzles out and degenerates into half-baked histrionics. Although Murphy is commendable in his dual roles, switching back and forth between the ultra-jittery John and demure Emma with a convincing change of personality, his performance can’t overcome the often shaky writing. This worsens considerably toward the end, as a series of out-of-left-field twists and turns torpedo the film’s already questionable logic.

The other actors also fare poorly. Most unfortunate of all is Ellen Page, brutally miscast as a hash-slinger and sometime prostitute who also happens to be raising John’s child. Although Page has found phenomenal success playing precocious teenagers in movies like Hard Candy and Juno, she sounds hopelessly out of place as the put-upon, provincial Maggie. Susan Sarandon, as the mayor of Peacock’s feminist wife, brings some well-needed warmth and humor to the film, but she too is wasted as the film quickly stops using her interactions with Emma to explore gender roles, and becomes a dour, poorly paced thriller instead—one without any real suspense or fear of discovery.

Outside of Murphy’s oddball, over-the-top performance, Peacock is disappointingly conventional and just as mixed-up as its protagonist. Sometimes it acts like a satire of wholesome small-town values, as its supporting cast members all speak in the same exaggeratedly folksy dialect and share the same dull conversation topics. But by the end, it’s clear that Peacock is just an anemic rehash of Psycho‘s less plausible parts, with plot holes deep enough to bury a body. First-time director Lander, who also co-wrote, drops every potentially interesting angle by the wayside, and in so doing squanders a plum cast. If you want to see Cillian Murphy in drag, you should probably just watch Neil Jordan‘s Breakfast on Pluto instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lander’s thriller wannabe is a confusing jumble of badly developed ideas which happen to be acted out by a talented group of actors who are squandered away in a film that is so concerned with creating a mystery that it overlooks the fact that it also needs to be a good movie. A sad waste of a great cast.”–Marina Antunes, Quiet Earth

LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

DIRECTED BY: H.C. Potter

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert

PLOT: Although Ole and Chic work tirelessly to undermine any consistent plot, the film is

ostensibly about their attempts to sort out a love triangle between their high society friends in time for a big musical revue.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Made at the height of Hollywood classicism, Hellzapoppin’ breaks every rule of conventional filmmaking, then makes up a few more so it can break them, too. A nonstop barrage of postmodern comedy infused with explosive surrealism, it only has a few spare that moments that aren’t weird in one way or another.

COMMENTS: Adapted from comedy duo Olsen and Johnson’s long-running Broadway musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin’ is an unruly, unstoppable hodgepodge of absurd running gags, mind-boggling non sequiturs, and endless meta-humor, all of which are used to disrupt its self-consciously hackneyed romantic storyline. This is take-no-prisoners, joke-a-minute filmmaking, with no regard for cause-and-effect, segues, or good taste; in fact, with their fondness for violent physical humor mixed with disorienting editing tricks, Olsen and Johnson could be the hallucinogen-puffing cousins of the Three Stooges.

It’s fitting, then, that Hellzapoppin’ should be introduced by Stooge Shemp Howard, who plays Louie, the film’s grumbling projectionist. He rolls the opening credits, and a line chorus girls—with a very literal “BANG!”—is transformed into a gaggle of garishly costumed demons, all of whom promptly fall into the bowels of hell. This is definitely strange, as is the infernal musical number that follows, but it’s nothing compared to the incipient arrival of hell’s “prize guests” (naturally, Chic and Ole). The second they burst out of their cab, which is inexplicably driven by an irate jockey, the two of them begin shooting off wordplay and self-referential jokes like machine gun fire. Each zany incident tops the one before it: one of Satan’s minions is drafted into the U.S. military; a woman and her adult son fall through the floor and into an untapped oil reserve; and Chic accidentally blows up the cab with his breath.

That last point leads into a rather revealing scene where Chic and Ole, curious to find out how the explosion occurred, demand that Louie rewind the movie. “What’s the matter with you guys?” cries Louie. “Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience?” Undaunted, Ole Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADDICTION (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco

PLOT: An NYU grad student is bitten on the neck one night, leading her down

Still from The Addiction (1995)

a rabbit hole of moral and physical degradation.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Addiction strips away the clichés from the vampire formula, replacing bats and theatrics with a personal disintegration reminiscent of Repulsion.  What it lacks in weird imagery is more than made up for by its melding of Sartre, heroin addiction, and the supernatural, as well as the eerie atmosphere established by its chiaroscuro photography.

COMMENTS:  Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made New York-centric films with a grindhouse flavor and an aspiration to artistry.  In Ms. 45 (1981), he took on the rape-revenge film; with Bad Lieutenant (1992), he made a Scorsese-esque crime drama.  Similarly, The Addiction is a one-of-a-kind vampire movie, marrying urban realism, graphic horror, and several films’ worth of existentialist banter.  Although the latter attribute occasionally renders the film inaccessible, it also grants the characters’ neck-biting intrigues an unexpected gravity while making Ferrara’s serious cinematic intentions very clear.  This is The Hunger for the smart set.

I Shot Andy Warhol star Lili Taylor plays Kathy, who’s en route to getting her Ph.D. in philosophy when a late-night run-in with a mysterious seductress (Sciorra) leaves a bloody gash on her neck and spurs a metamorphosis from mousy student to loud-mouthed blood junkie. In a series of violent encounters, Kathy’s newfound aggression (coupled with severe photosensitivity) spreads like a virus to her friends, professors, and even the strangers who harass her on the street. Late in the film, she meets an elder vampire named Peina (Walken) who teaches her to control her addiction while quoting William S. Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire; the ending that follows is puzzling but weirdly suggestive, as orgiastic indulgence and Catholic guilt come into play.

The Addiction is shot in high-contrast black and white, bringing expressionistic shadows in conflict with a tendency toward naturalism, especially as Ferrara’s camera prowls the classrooms and hallways of NYU. Taylor gives a stand-out performance as a woman rotting from the inside out, matched by her poetically hard-boiled voiceover. When she enters a university library, for example, she growls, “The smell here’s worse than a charnel house.” These lurid monologues color our perceptions of Ferrara’s New York like the saxophones in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, drawing us deep into Kathy’s dissipation. And Walken, as usual, is the voice of demented authority, cavorting around Kathy’s exhausted body with his slicked-back hair and daffy energy. He’s only in one scene, but he casts a long shadow across the preceding film.

At times, The Addiction teeters dangerously close to being unforgivably pretentious; it’s packed wall-to-wall with philosophical jargon, grandiose statements about hell and morality, and vampiric metaphors for sex, drugs, and genocide. But the film’s saved by its (and Taylor’s) sheer conviction that something intelligent and well thought-out is being said. Even when the film’s open-ended chronology and its abstract conception of vampirism threaten to make the plot totally incomprehensible, you can hold onto Ferrara’s sincere interest in spiritual redemption and moral culpability. In the end, this thematic integrity, when brought out through Taylor’s uncompromising performance, blasts away any doubts: this is a totally different species of vampire movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one wild, weird, wired movie, the kind that really shouldn’t be seen before midnight… Scary, funny, magnificently risible, this could be the most pretentious B-movie ever – and I mean that as a compliment.”–Time Out London