All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

CAPSULE: OBSESSIONS (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Dieter Geissler, Alexandra Stewart, Tom Van Beek,  Donald Jones

PLOT: A carefree medical student’s life is thrown into disarray when a painting falls from his wall, creating a peep-hole to the neighboring apartment where he witnesses a world of LSD-fueled rape and murder.

Still from Obsessions (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The oft-hyphenated phrase, “by-the-numbers”, springs to mind when thinking of this picture. Trying to be a ian thriller, a drug morality tale, and (perhaps) a soft-core pornographic movie, Obsessions fails on all counts—with the only weird thing being that somehow let his name be associated with it.

COMMENTS: There is unfortunately little useful to say about this mish-mash of a Dutch film. The press release and DVD blurb hype it up as best they can, going so far to claim that Obsessions helped to jumpstart “auteur cinema in Holland.” That may well be true, but that’s something better explored by a film scholar (that is, some other film scholar). As it stands, all by itself, on its own, as a movie, it stands… kind of wobbly. Thinking back on it now, the only clever bit occurred during the plot setup in the opening credits.

A heavy, framed picture of a modified Van Gogh portrait (with super-imposed razor poking at the poor man’s ear) falls from the thin wall of Nils Janssen’s apartment, bringing with it a hunk of plaster and leaving behind a perfectly-sized peep-hole. Through this new portal, Nils (Dieter Geissler), an affable medical student, sees and hears strange doings across the way, finding that it’s not all scooters, cognac, and medical school in his trendy downtown world. His improbably attractive girlfriend Marina (Alexandra Stewart), a journalist for a fashion magazine with a sideline in pop-news, joins in his… “obsession” …and the two try to unravel a bizarre crime spree involving LSD, a series of addled young women, a fat drug-dealer with a lazy eye, a con posing as a US Army officer, and a masseuse who plies her trade with her feet. Before you can say “tight slacks,” things go south when the criminals discover they’re being spied upon.

Had this rambling plot been in the service of a pornographic endeavor (something the Netherlands didn’t shy away from in the 1960s), I’d feel more sympathetic to it. The amateurism of the acting, staging, and dialogue (not sure how involved Scorsese was in the writing; he was in his mid-20s at the time and only in town for another project) all smacks of high quality smut or low quality drama. For better or (more so) worse, Obsessions is the latter–and all the Hitchcock references and “gee-whiz!” camera tricks can’t change the fact that we travel through the film’s ninety minutes with a mix of incuriosity and relief at its brevity.

Pim de la Parra and his confrère Wim Verstappen went on to achieve notoriety a couple of years later with their full-blown adult feature, Blue Movie. Afterwards they cruised through the 1970s with a series of “mature” titles interspersed with the occasional drama and experimental film. While it seems P de la P could have pursued one direction or another after his late-60s crime-thriller, I’d wager that either genre isn’t any poorer for him having stepped away from it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with arty montages, plentiful nudity, and Hitchcock references galore (note all the stuffed birds everywhere), Obsessions is a really odd one, mixing old school thriller tropes, chic ’60s fashions and decor, and sleazy kink, all with that percolating Herrmann music underneath.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “skunky.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

PHANTASM: SPECIAL EDITION BOX SET (2017)

THE FEATURES: Spanning release dates from 1979 through 2016, one can reasonably expect a certain amount of unevenness in this long-running series. The first film, Phantasm, stands up well, despite some lo-fi clutter. The troubling story of Mikey, a boy who lost his parents and fears abandonment by his brother, is spiked by the supernatural presence of an inter-dimensional undertaker, the Tall Man, and the iconic spheres he sends to slaughter his enemies. Weirdness abounds, not least in the random inclusion of an ice-cream man instrumental in saving the day.

The 1988 sequel, Phantasm II, was intended to start off a BIG franchise. It had enough of the right ingredients: scary bad guy, relatable protagonists, and murderous spheres. However, its release among dozens of bigger name, bigger-budgeted features (Rambo III, Who Frame Roger Rabbit?Die Hard, and so on) doomed the rest of the series to a “direct-to-video” fate.

Things take a turn for the worse with the largely time-wasting, but not wholly unpleasant Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), in which the director makes the (admitted) mistake of going too far in a silly direction. It was further marred by the presence of an eleven-year-old character who utterly fails to make an impression comparable to the first movie’s protagonist.

Sharply improving for the fourth go-around, Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) explains a number of things in the sometimes confounding Phantasm universe as the ice-cream man’s journey toward action hero shuffles forward. With a now mature “Mikey” trying to turn the tables on the Tall Man, it ends with a satisfying bit of bleak closure: a seeming victory for the Tall Man.

Resurrecting the project for one final(?) spin, Phantasm: Ravager (2016) brings the whole gang back together to face off against the Tall Man, sinister dwarfs and, of course, more deadly metallic spheres.

Promotional art for Phantasm box set

THE EXTRAS: Each movie is accompanied by a thorough documentary featuring behind-the-scenes remarks from creator , as well as pertinent anecdotes from most everyone else involved in the production, from the actors to the good people behind the creepy dwarf sounds and sinister sphere effects. Of particular interest are the stories from crazy-go-nuts stuntman Bob Ivy (who also played the title role in Coscarelli’s Certified Weird Bubba Ho-Tep). Ivy never found a car stunt too fast nor an explosion too dangerous for his liking. And that’s just the start. The running time of the extras exceeds that of the movies quite handily, and I admit that I didn’t dive (yet) into the movie commentaries. (To highlight the thoroughness , just when I thought I was finished after the fifth movie’s disc, I discovered “Disc 6: the Extras.”) Impressively, everything was a lot of fun to watch, as well as incredibly informative.

THE VERDICT: Needless to say, there is enough here for any fan of the franchise. (If you find yourself wanting more, I suspect you’ll only be satisfied if one of the actors were to move in with you). The movies all look good—really good. They sound good. And they have mostly stood up to the test of time. With Phantasm: Ravager, Coscarelli sets up director David Hartman as the new minder of the franchise. Of course, this prompts the question: with the recent death of Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm, who could possibly play the role of the wicked undertaker? In a somewhat out-of-the-way bonus feature on the first disc, we get to see Scrimm’s first run-in with film, acting in a 1951 short playing Abraham Lincoln. So, the obvious replacement to carry on the Tall Man’s evil legacy in the Phantasm universe is none other than Daniel Day-Lewis. (Hartman and Coscarelli, you heard it here first.)

CAPSULE: PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)

DIRECTED BY: David Hartman

FEATURING: , , Angus Scrimm

PLOT: Reggie and Mikey try to thwart the Tall Man’s  plans to dominate our world, slipping between different realities as things build toward an explosive showdown in a post-apocalyptic America.

Still from Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While this is the second-least-straight-forward movie in the five-film franchise, Phantasm: Ravager isn’t quite worthy of a Certified slot (an honor that perhaps should be reserved solely for the original entry). Certainly there are time slips, an unreliable narrator, and the ever-nebulous Tall Man, but everything’s well grounded in context. Gargantuan Sentinel Spheres looming over a blasted metropolis do provide a pretty weird sight, though.

COMMENTS: The Tall Man waits for no man. In this, the (allegedly) final chapter of the long-running Phantasm franchise, his assault on mankind reaches a crescendo in a whirl-wind of Plymouth Barracuda stunts, reality jumps, and spheres both large and small. Passing the reigns on to David Hartman, Don Coscarelli readies himself for his post-Phantasm career. But Phantasm: Ravager is still very much Coscarelli’s baby, and he bears that responsibility with all due gravity. And just what kind of final chapter are the fans given? As one wag from Variety quipped, “It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs.

Hewing to precedent, Phantasm V picks up right where Phantasm IV left off, with the Reg-man (Reggie Bannister) emerging from the barren distance with his quad-shotgun over his shoulder. He’s just come back from the Tall Man’s world to find his ‘Cuda has been jacked. He is not a happy camper. Events proceed, spheres appear, and then something odd happens. With a gasp, we see Reggie again, being pushed in a wheelchair by long-time friend Mikey (A. Michael Baldwin). Our dear hero may not be a hero so much as a poor old man succumbing to dementia. Or…maybe not. Time and space keep shuffling, and as we hear Reggie’s story, a new adventure unfurls that shows a future grimmer, perhaps, than mental decay. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) has laid waste to large swaths of humanity and Mikey, after years of being pursued by the Tall Man, now finds himself leading the resistance.

It’s clear early on that Phantasm: Ravager is for the fans. I mean this as no criticism, but this movie has little to offer those just jumping on the Phantasm bandwagon. This series became a by-word for clever low-budget horror, and it does not disappoint in this installment. CGI abounds here, but enthusiasts will hopefully be forgiving: the vision for Ravager requires a much larger canvas than the original. The editing of the narrative keeps you on your toes, and much like the four preceding pictures, Ravager‘s claim of explaining all the mysteries is undermined by considerable ambiguity. As a director, David Hartman keeps things novel, with perhaps his greatest coup being that by the end, the audience is hoping that it’s not the story of an Alzheimer’s victim, but that the world as we know it has been done in by gargantuan laser-equipped flying balls.

Staggered over the years (’79, ’88, ’94, ’98, and 2016), the franchise  has maintained a grip on a large group of horror fans. The movies’ linchpin—the Tall Man—stands as one of the great figures of horror film history. Angus Scrimm was pushing 90 when filming began, and while Phantasm: Ravager won’t go down in history as a great movie, there’s something gratifying about the fact that he got one more go-around in the role that made him famous. Ravager is an adequate capstone to a film series that, against all odds, made itself an institution. Certainly more “horror” than “weird,” the Phantasm phenomenon is well worth a look: a look that we will soon give with the review of the holy-mega-totally-comprehensive Phantasm Blu-ray box set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (or, better still, Resnais’ ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime’) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado.”–Joe Leydon, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

CAPSULE: THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE (1967)

Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: José Mojica Marins, Nadia Freitas, Tina Wohlers, Antonio Fracari, José Lobo

PLOT: “Coffin Joe” returns to town in the hopes of nabbing himself a perfect bride to match his perfect self so that they might together create a perfect son; trouble ensues when he kidnaps six townswomen and then later seduces the daughter of a local bigwig.

Still from This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marins has cleaned up his technique since At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), the first movie in the Coffin Joe series, but trace amateurism still does This Night no favors. Admittedly it’s a close-run thing: the bridal spider-test, Nietzchian diatribes, and a colorful visit to Hell are among a number of memorable bits of weirdness. But this is avowedly a straight “horror” movie—that’s no bad thing, it just makes it, in this case, no weird thing.

COMMENTS: Coffin Joe is at it again. His eyesight restored after a bout in the hospital and his freedom granted after a hearing at the local courthouse, he returns to his home village to terrorize the dismayed locals as he continues his quest to father a son. José Marins neatly resurrects his signature character in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse for another round of ominous behavior and philosophical ranting at no one in particular. Armed with the experience gained from making his first horror movie (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul), Marins now offers his audience more of the same, with a finer polish. Not being saddled by any other precedents (he was the only Brazilian horror filmmaker in the market), the director continues fashioning the yardstick by which Brazilian horrors would be measured.

Coffin Joe starts his machinations immediately, without any fear of the law or God. With his signature chapeau, charismatic beard, grotesquely long fingernails, and his hunchback henchman, Bruno (José Lobo), Joe captures six women and holds them in his funeral parlor, testing their mettle by releasing a swarm of fuzzy tarantulas on them as they sleep. One woman, Marcia (Nadia Freitas) passes this test, but alas for the would-be lucky lady, she ultimately doesn’t cut the mustard. A second (pregnant) kidnappee curses Joe before her snake-y demise. Undaunted, he lays eyes on the daughter of a local grandee. She is immediately smitten by the long-clawed mortician. Once again, Joe goes too far, and the peasants get a hankering for a lynching.

This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is a technically superior outing to the comparably long-titled At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Smoother editing, marginally superior acting, and more memorable sets (whipped up in an abandoned synagogue); all come together for a more professional feel than that which plagued (blessed?) Marins’ first outing. However, this works against This Night‘s weird qualifications, as far as we’re concerned. The film has a number of things going for it, but now that the director has started walking the fine line between amateur and professional, he abandons his beginner’s luck. In short, This Night is just a smidge too well made to have the flash of weirdness that a novice’s efforts might have provided. Still, a popcorn-snow Hell, spider-eroticism, and Joe’s Übermensch stance all make it a close call.

Marins reinvented horror for his homeland of Brazil, and makes a decent start. As remarked in the At Midnight review, he’s got the best character in town, and one who can hold his own among the other greats of horror film history. There is an undeniable charm (of sorts) to a diminutive undertaker who obviously relished the Cliff Notes of “Beyond Good and Evil” in school. Marins doesn’t go full tilt enough, however, to make This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse so mind-blowing or unsettling to bring it into the weird canon. Further investigation of this anti-hero may come, though, so there’s a chance José Marins’ brain-child may at least achieve the immortality that 366 Weird Movies can furnish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie itself has a real sense of surreal and jarring horror, but its main problem may be its lack of subtlety; the themes come across as blatantly obvious and a little too self-consciously articulated.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings (DVD)

CAPSULE: PARENTS (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban

FEATURING: , Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky

PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.

Still from Parents (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTParents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise KingdomGosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.

COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die HardComing to AmericaRain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.

A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?

The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.

Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire

 

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , Buck Henry, Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

La città delle donne

Recommended

“It’s the viewpoint of a man who has always looked at woman as a total mystery.… Through the ages, from the beginning of time, I’m certain man has covered woman’s face with masks. They are, however, his masks, not hers.”–Federico Fellini defending City of Women

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Ettore Manni, Bernice Stegers, Donatella Damiani

PLOT: Waking on a train across from a seductive woman, Snàporaz pursues her into the carriage’s wash-room. Abruptly, the train stops and the woman de-embarks, heading across a field with Snàporaz in close pursuit. During his long journey he explores an hotel teeming with Feminists, hitches a ride with a crew of drugged-out teenage motorists, and meets a doctor whose “manly” villa contravenes local law.

Still from City of Women (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • A massive re-work of the story was required when the second male lead (Ettore Manni, who played “Dr. Katzone”) died from a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the groin.
  • Before returning to his reliable proxy Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini offered the role to Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman declined, as he was concerned about the post-dubbing process being detrimental to his performance.
  • Though it received largely positive reviews on its general release, it fared poorly at Cannes. , in Rome at the time working on Nostalghia, dismissed City of Women in his diary, saying “…it’s true, his film is worthless.”
  • Production designer Dante Ferretti was kept on his toes while making of the film, as Fellini would constantly request that new, elaborate sets be whipped up in a small amount of time. Farretti invariably obliged the director’s requests, and his success allowed him sole billing as “Production Designer,” a title usually nabbed by Fellini himself in the movie’s credits.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the brief introduction of the train ride turning into a romp across a field, virtually everything that follows in Fellini’s City of Women starts globbing on to the memory. From a long list of choices (addled Feminists fomenting in an hotel, drugged-out [?] minors driving the middle-aged protagonist to a haunting techno-pop tune, and an aged Lothario blowing out 10,000 candles among them), perhaps the best choice is the joy-filled sequence in the museum of women at Katzone’s villa. Snàporaz darts back and forth with an innocently lecherous glee as he flicks on the photographs’ illumination and hears a snippet from that woman’s sexual history. The visual and sonic overload goes up to eleven when Snàporaz’s ex-wife appears at the end of the corridor and turns on all of the displays. Women, women everywhere—in sound and vision.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hall of sexual conquests; memory lane slide; ideal woman escape balloon

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Traipsing along for two and one-half hours, City of Women somehow combines the sugary charm of a light-weight musical with the non-stop adventure of an epic film. Beginning with a tone bordering on the mundane (the tediousness of travel), Fellini quickly pushes things from believable, to somewhat believable (the feminist convention), then onwards and upwards to a literal and metaphorical peak of disbelief as our hero escapes an arena full of spectators by clinging to a hot-air balloon. Between the jostling in the train car and the flight into the unknown, it would be faster to answer the question, what isn’t weird about it?


Original Italian trailer for City of Women

COMMENTS: Obsession can be a dangerous thing, but it can also be Continue reading 272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)