All posts by Giles Edwards

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

CAPSULE: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Walter Ladengast, Willy Semmelrogge

PLOT: After nearly two decades growing up in a basement cell, Kaspar Hauser is abandoned in the town square of a nearby village. Illiterate and knowing virtually no words, the man is adopted by the townsfolk, first by the town jailer and then by a local professor who finds him on display at a fair. As his awareness of this new world grows, Kaspar becomes increasingly disenchanted with his surroundings.

Still from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the story is based on an historical oddity that morphed into something of a legend, the movie structure, flow, and presentation are conventional. The tragedy of Kaspar Hauser is rather weird, but Herzog tells his tale through traditional storytelling methods.

COMMENTS: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser proves that the young Werner Herzog had the golden touch. It could be argued he single-handedly launched the volatile to art-house superstardom with the success of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Right on that movie’s heels, he cooked up a heartwarming tragedy for the then-very-unknown street performer, Bruno S. In the titular role in  Kaspar Hauser, Herzog directs the non-actor in a performance that is moving, amusing, and, most impressively, believable.

Herzog took the historical but semi-legendary story of Kaspar Hauser at face value. The movie begins, as with so many Herzog pictures, with shots of mesh-enveloped nature. As in Aguirre, an informative title card is presented to provide the viewer with background—in this case, ironically, to introduce him to the protagonist’s lack of background. Having spent all his formative years from birth locked in a dimly lit cellar, with only one man’s company (limited to feeding time and perhaps cleanings), Kaspar Hauser has no basis for experience other than four walls, a straw covered floor, bread, water, and a wheeled toy horse. For unknowable reasons, one day the captor releases Kaspar and then ditches him, standing in a daze with a letter in hand, in the center of a prosperous 19th century German town.

The truly blank slate of Kaspar allows Herzog to force the audience to observe mankind from the character’s detached perspective. The town is bewildered by Kaspar’s presence and lack of interactivity. The authorities, one of whom is an excitable clerk keen on getting everything recorded in his reports, are officious, slightly suspicious, but ultimately kind. The children of the jail keeper teach Kaspar all they can. When the town government are irked at the stranger, they force him to act as one of the “Four Riddles of the Spheres at a town fair. Kaspar engineers an escape for himself and the three other “riddles,” only to be found later in an apiary by a kindly professor. Things do get better for Kaspar, but also worse.

The movie is sprinkled with amusing moments, largely observational oddities from the unworldly Kaspar, but it is ultimately a tragedy. Throughout, Herzog’s camera digresses into gossamer fields, dunes, and water. These signature shots ably convey Kaspar’s sense of wonder, but also his detachment from the world in which he finds himself. Near the beginning, he lightly sobs to the jail keeper’s wife,  “Mother, I am so far from everything”; later, he remarks to the professor, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.” At a sort of “coming out” party put on for a visiting prat of a nobleman, he glibly tells the assembled bourgeois gawkers that life was better for him in his cell.

Kaspar Hauser has many moments of quiet beauty to behold, and Herzog further demonstrates his mastery of his craft with this addition to his oeuvre. The reality it creates is as wondrous and sad as the reality Kaspar experiences when he finally gains his bearings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy… The last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

ANGST (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Gerald Kargl

FEATURING: Erwin Leder, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Silvia Rabenreither

PLOT: Immediately after his release from prison for attempted murder, a would-be serial killer fulfills his desires when he happens upon an isolated villa in the German countryside inhabited by a family of three.

Still from Angst (1983)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By grounding the viewer so thoroughly and painfully within the borderline mundanity of the killer’s violence, Gerald Kargl fuses the horrific with the blasé and leaves us shocked at the permeating numbness. Over the course of a grueling day of murder—with all the blood, strangulation, and heavy lifting which that entails—we are left as enervated as the main character. Nonetheless, he charges forward from setback to bloody setback: menaced by children in yellow rain coats, showing off the contents of his car trunk to patrons of a nearby café, and finally escaping in coattails.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself trapped in one spot. You cannot move your gaze, and the world wrenches around you as it seems you’re traveling — to a prison, a coffee lounge, a taxi, and finally, a desolate house. While trapped, you hear the plinking of water drops, the rattling of keys, and the soft voice of someone craving your trust and sympathy—someone who talks of little other than lust for murder, destruction, and revenge. Sitting through Angst from beginning to end is a challenge. Though we are only briefly locked in this man’s world, we see nothing but him and his horrible deeds, and hear nothing but his wretched thoughts, from start to finish.

Angst is more unrelenting in its focus than any serial-killer biopic I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Once we meet the film’s antihero (an emaciated, menacing Erwin Leder), the camera virtually never leaves him; those few times when it does, it focuses on nearby people—potential victims—who eyeball the camera suspiciously, or are being visually dissected as the killer contemplates what he may or may not do to them. The director is trying to break into this man’s mind. The killer is allowed a nearly uninterrupted inner monologue, so that he might explain himself to the viewer. There are hovering high-angles and poking low-angles as the camera attempts to capture him in a way that makes sense. Indeed, there are even long stretches with the camera fixed on him as he flees or pursues, never shifting in its view of his face or body as the world gyrates around him. The screen pulses and frames skip, as if the lens is trying to force itself through to enter the psychopath’s heart. It is all to no avail, as this is a man who makes sense only to himself.

Shot on a tiny budget, Angst is the somewhat true-to-life story of the murders committed by Austrian serial killer Werner Kniesek. Gerald Kargl primarily made commercials before writing and directing this movie (his one and only feature length film). The cinematographer, Zbigniew Rybczynski, cut his teeth shooting short films for various Eastern European luminaries (note: the same year he shot Angst, he won an Oscar for Best Short Film for “Tango”; shortly afterwards he began a prolific career in the music video biz). When this pair teamed up with composer Klaus Schulze (of Tangerine Dream fame), their combined efforts culminated in something disturbing, cutting edge, and incredibly commercially unviable. Even today Angst feels unsettlingly fresh, approaching the serial killer genre in a manner that not only refuses to glamorize its subject, but also refuses to feign understanding. In the beginning, we know little of this man’s life and desires, but even after spending an exhausting day with him, we are left with no real comprehension of his motives.

DVD DETAILS: Cult Epics has once again given a crackerjack treatment to their latest release. The movie looks almost new, with a crystal clear image throughout. The soundtrack and score are also given their due, with the low-key effects, muffled screams, and furtive words heard softly, but clearly. There are myriad interviews, trailers, and a commentary track. The real gem herein, however, is the forty-page booklet that not only has a number of interesting essays about the movie, but also images and (for the less fluent in German among us) translations of newspaper clippings about the Kniesek murders. This is a must-buy for any fan of the serial killer genre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…disturbing, strangely undervalued and still unflinching shocker… a realistic but oddly heightened experience.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

 

 

LIST CANDIDATE: HEART OF GLASS (1976)

Herz aus Glas

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Josef Bierbichler, Sonja Skiba, Stefan Güttler

PLOT: A Bavarian town at the beginning of the 19th century loses its master glassblower, the creator of a prized ruby-red glass. As the town’s lifeblood dissipates, the population goes mad, with a shepherd the only voice of reason remaining untouched by the malaise.

Still from Heart of Glass (1976)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In Heart of Glass, Herzog captures the effect of an entire town losing its mind. By hypnotizing virtually every actor, the dreaminess of the shots melds with the action of the citizens, creating a dark, dreamworld effect. The most grounded character, Hias, is a seer of visions both immediate and far flung—and he is the village’s only grip on reality.

COMMENTS: This pensive movie begins with a rear-shot of a man looking over a herd of cows. His first words are in voiceover, played against grand scenes of waterfalls and nature: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come.” This seer (Joseph Bierbichler) is named Hias, and he is a shepherd of a nearby Bavarian village. A group of townsmen come to him with words of fear: “the time of giants has returned.” Their town has just lost its legendary glassblower, and as the seer predicts, the end comes to them before the day is out.

Herzog’s Heart of Glass maintains the unearthly, disconnected tone that is set up in the opening shots throughout. Under the spell of hypnosis, the actors portraying the townspeople all behave as if they are several shifts from reality. The worst affected is the town’s magistrate, a man of means who, used to the great wealth the glass export brought in, crumbles when it is lost. First, he insists the glassblower’s house be dismantled and foundation dug up, just in case the secret formula is hidden therein. He demands the seizure of a davenport that the craftsman had given to his mother, in case the solution is to be found inside. He laments, “the untidiness of the stars makes my head ache.” The tragedy has no explanation in earthly logic, and the whole town faces their doom with such disbelief that no one can now seem to think for himself.

Events take an increasingly desperate turn. As predicted by Hias, one of a pair of friends dies breaking the fall of the other. A plan is hatched that all the remaining ruby glass is to be thrown into the lake, to make it turn red. Eventually there is murder and arson as the magistrate—the throbbing head of the hive-mind that’s taken over the populace—goes to greater and greater extremes to bring the secret back from the void into which it has slipped. Hias sees this, and laments, but cannot stop what occurs. During an enigmatic scene in the village tavern, he sits flanked by a white hen and a dancing simpleton, and prophesies far into the future, seeing World War I, World War II, and eventually nuclear annihilation: “…where the black box drops, green and yellow dust arises.”

Heart of Glass ends on an allegorical note. Having fled the doomed town, Hias returns to his beloved woods. Traveling through the primordial forest, he seems at one with it—until he peers into a dark cave. He goes into a fit and, upon recovery, has another of his visions. He sees two islands, “on the fringes of existence,” that have no other human contact, and do not know the earth is round. After years of spying the horizon, a man and his followers take off on a tiny craft to head toward the abyss. “It may have been seen as a sign of hope,” Hias intones, “that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” Change is terrifying, but it is also the only way forward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The elusiveness of ‘Heart of Glass’ makes it something of a disappointment. But it is too mysteriously lovely to be regarded as a failure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STROSZEK (1977)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz

PLOT: When his elderly landlord suggests that he, recently-released prisoner Bruno, and their mutual friend Eva escape to America, the trio head to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin; there, they start living the American Dream, only to have it reposessed.

Still from Stroszek (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The unlikely plot, combined with the unlikely locales (Berlin and the fictional “Railroad Flats”), further combined with unlikely leads (mostly non-actors) results in a strange story—but not-so-strange a movie. The tale being told is a weird one; the movie itself is a (commendably) straightforward telling of it.

COMMENTS: As road movies go, this one is quite the odd duck. This is, of course, to be expected from one of the great oddball directors of the ’70s and ’80s (the reliably offbeat Werner Herzog) who concocted this film specifically for one of the great eccentrics of the last century, the vagrant/street-performer/poet/musician/non-actor known as Bruno S. Like the lead, most of the characters are played by people who did not act for a living, and as such they give their story a layer of truthfulness.

In fact, much of the movie has a documentary vibe. Straight-forward mise-en-scène, realistic lighting, medium shots, and even occasional glances at the camera from Bruno all combine to provide a sensation one is watching, as it were, a “movie-movie” as it flows in and out of a “documentary movie”. Various avenues are explored by this non-documentary: alienation, family, emotional and physical survival, but most of all, the American Dream. The simple joys of this dream, however, quickly give way to the grinding vexations of bleak reality. Toward the end of the movie, Bruno makes a telling remark as he listens to an English conversation he doesn’t understand. He mutters, “I’m really pessimistic about all this.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a man seemingly transplanted from another time (if not another world), Bruno S. copes with his surroundings as ably as his innocence allows. The audience first meets him when he’s being released from jail, imprisoned for unspecified “alcohol-related crimes.” He has only two friends: his landlord, Clemens Scheitz, who not only kept Bruno’s room as he left it but also watched after his Myna bird; and Eva, a much-abused prostitute who may or may not be Bruno’s lover. In Berlin, their lives are semi-tragic but comfortingly mundane. Once in America, Bruno doesn’t so much eventually “lose it” as much as he realizes as there isn’t really any place for him to quietly exist. As events unfold, his American experiences become increasingly strange, until everything unravels. His home is repossessed by the world’s friendliest banker, his old friend goes around the bend and gets arrested, and he himself ends up being hunted by the police. His escape through the most crudely conceived tourist attraction imaginable—which includes not only a “Fire Chief” rabbit but also two (2!) musical chickens—stands as one of Herzog’s stranger set-pieces.

Both location and society seem out to get our endearing protagonist. In the film’s first half, his environment conspires to force him to flee his home; in the film’s second half, it conspires to take away the only people he cares about. Somehow, Herzog makes great swaths of the movie either hilarious or just plain delightful to watch. While a happier trajectory for the film would have been enjoyable, Herzog’s nuanced cynicism makes the film, for all its eccentricity, feel very real.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the oddest films ever made.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies series

CAPSULE: HOW THE SKY WILL MELT (2015)

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

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Wade

FEATURING: Sara Lynch, Annika Karlsen, Michael Webster

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

Still from How the Sky Will Melt (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

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

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

Still from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: BLACULA (1972)

DIRECTED BY: William Crain

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

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

Still from Blacula (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: THE FALL (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: (as “Tarsem”)

FEATURING: Catinca Untaru, Lee Pace, Justine Waddell

PLOT: In a Los Angeles hospital, a young girl with a broken arm befriends Roy, a stunt-man paralyzed by a recent accident. Through her eyes, a beautiful vision of his epic yarn unfolds; and, as a quintet of wronged men hunt for the hated Governor Odious in his story, the crippled Roy slips further into suicidal depression.

the_fall

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of the movie will likely kneecap me for this, but by placing the free-spirited story within the framing of the realistic (and touching) “actual” narrative, Tarsem has made a movie that, though beautiful and full of the fantastic, is not wholly weird.

COMMENTS: Set all around the globe, but primarily in a turn-of-the-century hospital, the Fall is both a grand, epic adventure and the intense emotional drama of a sick, suicidal man bonding with an impressionable young girl. Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is an ironically named stunt-man who has worked in countless “flickers”. In his latest, his jump from a train bridge on to a moving horse goes awry. Perhaps he intended to kill himself—the movie is noncommittal—but the result is he becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Now crippled, he is also sick at heart, pining for a starlet who cast him aside. Through a chance encounter involving a secret note and a crate of oranges, he meets the young Alexandria (Catinka Untaru, an amazing find on the director’s part), a 5-year-old Romanian fruit-picker, who is in the hospital because of a fall of her own. She has taken to wandering the corridors of the hospital, carrying a “box of things [she] likes” in her hand.

Moods ranging from wonderment to tragedy and back to joy bubble up and dissipate over the course of the film. As Roy’s situation goes from bad to worse, the heroes of the story he tells, originally poised for a quick triumph, get waylaid and thwarted. Alexandria sees the five heroes of the tale largely as described by Roy, but also through her own subjective lens. For instance, Roy mentions one of the heroes being a brave Indian warrior. Alexandria has no knowledge of the Native Americans he is referring to, so she sees in her mind’s eye a glorious Sikh. The main hero of the group, the Masked Bandit, changes too; first he is her father, then a Frenchman, and then finally Roy himself. The epic’s various characters are all based on the hospital’s denizens and visitors (à la the Wizard of Oz). Alexandria even makes herself appear in the story; when Roy is giving up on life, both in the hospital and in the story, a small masked bandit saves the five heroes. And all the while, dozens of fantastical (and, apparently, real-world) locales are explored as the adventurers pursue their sworn enemy. The movie’s unbelievable locales—a blue city, an endless maze of stairs, a glorious wedding temple, among many others—merit research. Apparently little to no CGI was used (somehow).

While the story-within-the-story is a good one, the truly compelling drama unfolds as we see Roy and Alexandria together. He tries to trick her into bringing him enough morphine to end his life, but she misinterprets his handwriting. As he spirals downward, her entreaties for him to keep telling the story—to keep living—become the film’s driving force. Naturally, I cared about the vengeance of the Bandit and his crew, but even more, I wanted to see the stuntman and the little girl. Their story was so charming and moving that every bit of the mundane hospital world still had magic. All told, this movie is both boisterous and heart wrenching — and has an ending for which we can only be grateful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These rambling scenes then inform the way the fable unfolds, which at best is impressionistic and dreamlike, but for the most part is just haphazard… The end result is like listening to a little kid tell a story: sometimes intriguingly bizarre and surprisingly clever, but mostly just futile and frustrating.”–Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly (midnight screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: DER TODESKING [THE DEATH KING] (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Due to the episodic nature of the film, too many to list

PLOT: The Death King is a seven-part film with no overarching plot—each of the episodes is a vignette involving suicide, murder, and sometimes both. The events may take place over the course of a week (Monday through Sunday), with some tied together by the letters sent through the post by Monday’s suicide victim.

Still from Der Todesking (The Death King) (1990)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Der Todesking‘s qualifications as a weird movie stem from its utter unclassifiability as any other kind of movie. It’s too grisly for the arthouse and too philosophical for the grindhouse. Its lack of a single narrative makes it awkwardly describable as a film essay. That in mind, it is tremendously well executed, with moments of despair, surrealism, and beauty.

COMMENTS: In the film’s introduction (included as a bonus feature), Jörg Buttgereit assures the audience, “Don’t get me wrong here: it’s a movie against suicide.” It says something of either the kind of person who would watch this movie or, more likely, the kind who would refuse to watch it but still condemn it, that this explanation is necessary. To be fair, Der Todesking is at times a difficult movie, but that is due to the unpleasant subject matter (suicide), not the director’s handling of it.

The suicide-centered set-pieces are framed by a time-lapse image of a decomposing corpse. Within this framing structure is another one: an over-the-shoulder view of a young girl writing in a journal, beginning with the title for a drawing (“der Todesking”, in cute, loopy cursive), and ending with her finishing a drawing of a skeleton with a crown. She explains to the camera, “This is the King of Death. He makes people want to die.” Now already at two levels of framedness, the seven (largely) separate suicide sketches are each further framed by the days of the week, sometimes overlapping with each other. Got that?

Even beyond the framing cantrip, the film’s style is a showcase for low budget inventiveness. The first episode has a montage scene accomplished by a (seemingly?) uncut shot of a camera rotating several times full circle around a small apartment room, showing a man going through mundane tasks shortly after resigning from a well-paying job. Background items reveal his character. His only companion seems to be a goldfish, who joins him in death once he’s downed dozens of pills while in the bathtub. Or is it his only companion? Before his resignation and suicide, he writes and sends off about half a dozen letters.

On Tuesday, one is received by a friend, informing him of the sender’s suicide. He carries this note to a video rental place where, almost choosing My Dinner with André, instead opts for Vera: the Death-Angel of the Gestapo. The clerk is surprised he’s only renting one movie: the fellow explains he only has time for one—he’s got a birthday party to go to. Or so he thought. Despite the letter, his rental needs watching; and it’s a real pity that his girlfriend interrupts his viewing…

Of the seven days, Thursday is perhaps the most haunting. Using camera shots reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the bit is virtually silent: just various angles and journeys through, above, in, and around a large overpass. Title cards appear, indicating the name, age, and profession of random individuals. These are all recorded suicides from that location.

Buttgereit’s movie is fairly brief, but that is due to his efficiency as a director and storyteller. Some very bleak ideas are explored here, and despite the director’s reputation, the movie never falls into the realm of the tasteless.

NOTE ON THE LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY: So carefully was this little gem packaged that I was somewhat loath to break the seal and open it. The cover sleeve, unlike so many releases, was actually different from the box art. Within, not only was there a fully packed disc (trailers for the director’s oeuvre, a documentary, and a soundtrack-only option, as well as a film introduction and commentary) but also a graphic postcard; limited in quantity, like the disc. If you get your hands on on it, you’ll have one of only 3,000 copies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The end result is oddly beautiful and perhaps Buttgereit’s finest achievement as a director…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

 

 

CAPSULE: THE CELL (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Tarsem Singh

FEATURING: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio

PLOT: To find the whereabouts of a serial killer’s impending victim, who is still alive in captivity, the FBI enlists the aid of a psychotherapy group that has the developed the technology to enter and explore the minds of others.

Still from The Cell (2000)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Cell is a visually impressive movie that holds up pretty well after fifteen years. When not inside the mind of the killer, however, the story falls into the formulaic and serendipitous far too often.

COMMENTS: On the face of it, Tarsem Singh’s the Cell would seem an obvious candidate for Certification. The first long-form work of a music video director visually influenced by the likes of H.R. Giger and the , it features a clip from Fantastic Planet and stars one of the stranger actors of the day (Vincent D’Onofrio). As far as the movie goes with these elements it plows heavily into weird spaces. However, the nightmarish set-pieces are tacked on to a standard serial killer/FBI pursuit procedural. (Or perhaps vice versa—the movie treads a fine line.)

The weird moments are a hoot to watch. Going all-out creepy with the sets and costume, the Cell has wonderful blasts of unsettling vignettes as it explores the mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), first by social worker-turned-psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and, after she gets sucked into that “reality,” by special agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in one of those “straight” roles I really wish he’d return to).The murderer’s mind is dominated by an entity that acts as the all-powerful king of this grim realm, but there is a flicker of humanity personified by a young boy who represents the vestiges of abused goodness inside. Killer Carl— a seriously unhinged man smashed to pieces by guilt over his past acts and his despair at having been so badly mistreated by his father—also appears in his own mind. (Having suffered from a viral schizophrenic disorder brought on by a particularly heartless baptism didn’t help things, either.)

But aside from split-open-but-living equines, macabre doll-people shadow boxes, obvious (but venerable) surrealist art nods, and a chilling performance from D’Onofrio as the mind’s King, you have perhaps the most run-of-the-mill crime thrillers imaginable. Stargher has been murdering for some time, and one suspects he wants to be caught, but the string of coincidences (albino German Shepherd purchased by the owner of just the right truck stands out as one of several examples) become unbelievable, to the point that the phrase “how convenient” can’t help but spring to mind.

That said, the movie is still pretty neat. Jennifer Lopez is somewhere between adequate and good in her role as a social worker. Her attempts to help a young troubled boy, Mister “E” (whose existence acts as the story’s frame around the frame), are touching. Vince Vaughn does the best he can with a one-dimensional character (his FBI agent apparently was originally a prosecutor who saw one-too-many baddies slip the noose because of good lawyering), and reminded me that he does his best work when not pushing for laughs.

Tarsem Singh’s visually striking opus from 2000 proves to be a decent effort as a qualifying time-trial. In 2006 he opted to go all-out, spending many millions of his own cash for the privilege, for his next movie, the Fall. Although the Cell does not quite hit the mark, there are those who feel his follow-up is a Certified contender; stay tuned.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tarsem takes viewers on wild hallucinatory rides through alien landscapes and diabolical dream worlds that are savage and even erotic.”–Emanuel Levy, Variety (contemporaneous)