All posts by Giles Edwards

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

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, Anouk Ferjac

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

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema