All posts by Giles Edwards

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

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE GRAVE (2010)

Porto Dos Mortos

DIRECTED BY: Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro

FEATURING: Rafael Tombini, Álvaro Rosa Costa, Ricardo Seffner

PLOT: A solitary policeman travels the countryside looking for the Dark Rider, one of the prime agents of evil walking the earth after the Seven Gates of Hell have opened.

Still from Beyond the Grave (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it works nicely as an imagining of a minor zombie classic from the 1970s, its various idiosyncrasies aren’t too dissimilar from what you might find in many other low budget horror pictures.

COMMENTS: Highways invariably become desolate when the undead start out-numbering the living. Our film opens on a lone black car traveling a deserted stretch of road, and inside is the film’s hero—a determined police officer on a quest. A radio DJ broadcasts from some indeterminate location, playing music and speaking to the few survivors: “…if you’re out there, have a nice day. I hope you survive it.” The officer makes a stop at an abandoned building, enters, and dispatches the killers who have set up camp there. He narrowly avoids decapitation, revealing a preternatural ability to survive. Now nearly out of ammunition, he returns to his car and flips through dossiers in the trunk. He obviously still has unfinished business.

Though made in 2010, Pinheiro’s zombie film has the feel of a much older movie. The picture quality is slightly washed out, and looks like a relic from a bygone era. The environs and fashions hail from thirty to forty years ago. And the gist of the story—lone man, undead, Gates of Hell— all smack of the golden age of zombie pictures.

Through the course of the officer’s travels (his character, like all but one in the movie, is never given a name), he encounters a young couple, a household of survivors who’ve set up shop in an abandoned school, and a clutch of supernatural assailants keen on thwarting his mission. Ostensibly his goal is to kill someone or something called the “Dark Rider,” who always has the undead following in his wake. Though society has by and large collapsed, the officer continues doing his job. He always has his lights spinning on his car during his many long drives, more as an act of defiance against the death of civilization than anything else.

As with most supernatural movies, there are elements of the strange. The cop stumbles across ceremonial designs drawn on dingy floors, sometimes in blood. The trio of killers that he is both following and is followed by are made up of a man armed with bow and arrow, a mixta woman wearing a gas mask and armed with a handgun with a pistol-grip of human bone, and a nebulous fellow whose weapon is an atonal harmonica that when played cripples enemies with its bleed-inducing drone. There is talk of the Seven Gates of Hell having been opened, and at one point a cultist gives the officer a book with which to summon the Dark Rider (Necronomicon, anyone?) Also, this is the only zombie movie I know of that takes something of a sympathetic stance towards the afflicted. A few scenes depict cruelty toward the walking dead negatively.

Beyond the Grave clocks in at a succinct 89 minutes. While not everything is made clear, there is a consistency to the narrative. Though certainly not weird by the standards set at this website, it still is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half in an atmospheric, post-Apocalyptic detour.

Beyond the Grave is currently available for viewing free in the U.S. on Hulu.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique experience in the theater of the weird.”–Mark L. Miller, Ain’t It Cool News (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

Recommended

“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short

PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
  • According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
  • Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera” Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to Continue reading 203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

CAPSULE: AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Del Negro, Ruy Guerra

PLOT: 16th-century Spanish nobleman Aguirre convinces an Amazonian scouting party to turn against their commander and continue a futile trek down the river in search of the fabled city of “El Dorado”; privation, massacres, and death ensue.

Still from Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is certainly atypical, but the only truly weird thing about it is that it is one of the few movies featuring Klaus Kinski in which his role is not overshadowed by his ding an sich.

COMMENTS: There are any number of good things to say about this movie, and I’ve little doubt that most have been said already (by reviewers far more experienced and informed than I). Still, for what it’s worth, I’ll boldly take the stance that, yes, this movie is amazing, and anyone who considers him or herself a cinephile should watch it, and that no, it does not qualify for the auspicious (dubious?) honor of being “Certified Weird.”

The two factors that would have most likely planted this movie firmly in the “weird” category in conjunction, somehow, preclude that possibility. A young Werner Herzog directs a young Klaus Kinski, filming in the middle of a Peruvian rainforest. The story concerns the mishaps of a clutch of very misguided conquistadors who, defying all logic, continue on a suicidal mission to find “El Dorado”, until they meet a very grim fate indeed. So far, so promising. However, the whole prospect of “weirdness” gets derailed within the first five minutes, as things quickly become very real and very grounded in a believable depiction of the febrile hardship that would necessarily come of such an ill-equipped and poorly planned expedition.

The opening shot invokes something close to Heaven, as the audience sees tall mountain peaks obscured by vaporous clouds. Popol Vuh’s choir-like score enhances the detachment from the world below. The next cut brings the action back to earth, as a serpentine procession of Spanish soldiers and Indian slaves trickles slowly down. Weapons, armor, cannons, and food are all being laboriously maneuvered down the narrow path, along with two cumbersome sedan chairs for the ladies in the group. The red uniforms make a zig-zagging crimson line, slowly flowing from the top of a peak down into the lush, tropical mire below.

Foreshadowing comes quickly, as Pizarro and Aguirre confer by the river’s edge. “No one can get down that river alive,” Aguirre asserts. “I tell you, we can do it,” replies Pizarro, “From here it will be easier.” Aguirre retorts, “No. We’re all going to go under.” In this brief bit of dialogue, the rest of the movie is laid out, and the movie becomes no longer concerned with what’s going to happen, but with how it’s going to happen.

The minimalist camerawork provides a sense of documentary footage for a great deal of the film. Characters are observed as they stare blankly at the water, or stare blankly at the surrounding jungle, or even as they stare blankly at the camera. The action is disjointed, but linear, as various forward jumps occur, typically narrated with a specific date. The merciless crunch of time weighs on the viewer, as he sees the terrible state of the men, only to find in the next scene they have somehow survived another four weeks of this torment. And while they are all either starving, collapsing from fever, or being stealthily murdered by hostile natives, they are under the watchful eye of the nobleman Aguirre.

Kinski provides his signature otherworldly presence in his depiction of Aguirre, but the effect does not come across as jarring. On a number of occasions Aguirre refers to himself either as “God” or “the Wrath of God”, and often has a habit of looking over those around him as if they were some sort of insects. The Aguirre “vibe” is one of megalomaniacal narcissism (if that’s redundant, it is appropriately so), and no actor other than Kinski could have delivered the look and temperament required of so zealous a leader.

This adds up to a movie that is a) narratively comprehensible, b) credible, and c) troubling, but appropriately so. See it by all means: the performances are all top-notch, the pacing is incredible (Herzog somehow manages to squeeze just the right amounts of madness and tedium in a 94-minute movie), and the sound and visuals will knock your socks off. Were this site “366 stunning movies.com”, Aguirre would be first on the list (and not only because of the title…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, then hallucinatory.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies

(This movie was nominated for review  by Eric, who correctly asserted “whether [this] make this list or no, nobody’s time watching [it] will have been wasted.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christopher George,  (as Katriona MacColl), Carlo de Mejo

PLOT:The suicide of a priest prompts the Hell Gate in Dunwich, NY to spring open, bringing with it maggot storms and risen dead.

Still from City of the Living Dead (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This pastiche of zombies and Lovecraftian references does have a couple of neat-o violent set pieces, but is largely a tedious, incoherent affair.

COMMENTS: Throughout City of the Living Dead, you cannot help but think of prior, superior entries in the zombie genre. A woman’s scream sounds over a black screen, then there’s an opening shot of a church steeple with a backwards tracking shot showing the adjacent cemetery. The close-up a gravestone reads: “The soul that pines for eternity shall out span death. You dweller of the twilight void, come. Dunwich.” This helpfully informs the viewer of the movie’s two main ingredients: undead and ill-defined Lovecraftisms. We see a priest hang himself from a tree, the base of the rope attached to an obelisk (Masons?) Within moments of the cutback to New York City we find a young psychic and her mentor, with the former literally frightened to death (Poe?) and the latter going on about the merits of the Book of Enoch.

Unfortunately, so little goes right in this movie that it is difficult to discuss without sounding like a long list of complaints. To its credit, the pacing is brisk enough that its ninety-three minutes go by swiftly. An intrepid journalist is curious about the psychic’s mysterious death, and in the course of poking around the cemetery she’s to be laid to rest in, he even saves her from being buried alive (Poe, again). With her in tow, and receiving further advice from the Book of Enoch, they make their way to the cursed town of Dunwich in order to close the opened gate to hell before All Soul’s Day.

Taking place between the priest’s suicide and the nebulous finale is a string of poorly coordinated horror-movie moments. There’s a young village-idiot type who may or may not have supernatural powers (at the very least he can inflate a blow-up sex doll without a bicycle pump) who meets a rather grim (and, film-wise, notorious) fate at the hands of an over-protective father. There’s Dunwich’s resident psychologist who is either calm beyond belief in the face of unremitting supernatural tragedy or just bored out of his mind. And there’s my favorite diversion in this trip to mid-state (?) New York—two barflies and the saloon keeper having their own Xanaxed discussions about the slowly growing zombie menace.

Amidst all the Lovecraft, ancient Judaica, and Poe, there’s also, perhaps, a Conan Doyle hat-tip with the unlikely named mortician’s, “Moriarty and Sons.” Granted, this isn’t an altogether impossible name for an establishment, as it is not too uncommon an Irish name, but with all the other shout-outs to superior fiction, I’m inclined to believe the director deliberately went for it as a recognizable link to Holmes’ diabolical nemesis. Among the many real pities about this movie is the fact that none of these potentially worthwhile homages are given any narrative traction. Taken together, they seem more of a “Hail Mary” on the part of the film makers to lend their movie a smattering of depth as opposed to any actual link (either thematic or otherwise).

The horror scenes themselves aren’t that weird (rotting corpses, vomited innards, plague of maggots), and that results in the only truly weird moments in the movie being the strange relics of the era in which it was written. There’s a scene with the two cemetery men who don’t quite bury the heroine during which one of them (the one with the mustache, of course) is ogling an adult men’s magazine. He quips to his buddy, “Talk about ‘box lunches’, man!” as he gazes over the pictures. In contrast to this dismissive chauvinism is the enlightened exchange between the psychologist and a patient of his that goes as follows:

“Tell me honestly, do you consider me a basket case?”

No, you’re nurturing a pet neurosis, that’s all, just like about 70% of the female population of this country.”

“So according to you, I’m not stark raving mad…”

This exchange is made without any sense of irony, which brings me to my main reaction to this whole movie: had it been made within the past decade or so, City of the Living Dead could easily pass as a humorous post-modern take on the whole genre of low-budget horror movies from the ’70s and ’80s. However, that is not the case; everything is to be taken at face value. Fulci obviously intended this as a sincere entry into the zombie canon, but succeeded no more than  succeeded in his efforts to make a science fiction masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The entertainingly weird festival of gore looks forward to his masterpiece, The Beyond.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Resnais

FEATURING: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot,

PLOT: When Claude Ridder fails at suicide, he is recruited by a group of scientists who wish to test their time machine; things go wrong and Claude gets stuck reliving scattered sections of his past over and over.

Still from Je T'aime Je T'aime (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With an unreliable narrative, hundreds of film cuts, and a dead-pan leading man, Resnais’ picture is a strange combination of pathos, editing wizardry, and, more unlikely, a fair amount of humor.

COMMENTS: Perhaps the oddest thing about Je T’aime, Je T’aime is that this movie, subtly, is rather hilarious. While some might shy away from such a strong word, I found the mounting irony and scenarios to be overwhelmingly amusing. I could not imagine a more twisted fate for an aspiring suicide victim than to be obliged to live through extended, repeated chunks of time that lead up to his failure and subsequent hospitalization. Added to the film’s black comedic tenor is the protagonist’s perpetually subdued tone of speech and action; he puts up a front of total emotional apathy for much of the time. This creates an effective contrast with the moments of emotional passion, the most moving of which is his muttering “je t’aime” in the embryonic cocoon of the time machine.

The science-fiction element is as subdued as the protagonist’s interactions with his surroundings. The scientists in this movie are all normal looking men, their mechanisms and labs (aside from the main device) are very low-key and functional looking. The time travel machine in question is an intriguing aesthetic choice: the pod-like nature, with the odd, organic-looking tubing that runs through it, creates a “sci-fi feel” that one cannot help but think influenced David Cronenberg. Once within the organic space, resting on a soft pink-hued chair-like space, the protagonist returns to an embryonic state (a nice touch, reflecting the nature of the time travel Resnais is invoking).

The way time travel operates in this movie is incredibly vague. It seems at first that perhaps we see things as the subject does, somehow detached from his past body. We witness occurrences again and again along with him. We begin to wonder, though, what exactly is going on, because it seems more that he is exploring things he remembers, than actually going back in time to witness them when they occurred. A further obfuscation is created when we see things in his “past” that obviously could never have been there: there is a man in a flooded phone-box, for example. Speaking personally, I have had flashes of hallucinations when going about my daily business, so if he is inside his memory, than these can perhaps make somewhat more sense.

But where is he, and why can’t he get back? And what does the repetition of all these slices add up to? These odd time phenomena warrant repeat viewings. Visiting this man as he lies on the organic surface within the time pod, it seems a more effective escape from life than was his attempted suicide.

When all is said and done, Resnais presents the viewer with an extraction, repetition, and reworking of mundane events in a man’s life that results in a very weird trip through the blasé experiences of this character; experiences that, when combined and re-combined, turn out to be what drives him to his suicide in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the nonsensical and aggravatingly surreal final stretch rolls around, Je t’aime je t’aime has definitively established itself as an art-house experiment that completely (and distressingly) squanders its promising setup.”–David Nusair, Reel Film