All posts by Giles Edwards

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

LIST CANDIDATE: STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Feliks Stawinsky

PLOT: After being brought to life by a spit-and-blood activated machine, a gaunt puppet explores a dreary landscape of smeared windowpanes, cryptic machines, and wraith-like tailors, simultaneously observing and observed by a young boy.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Not content simply to be staggeringly creepy, the Quay brothers imbue this masterpiece of decayed memory with a great deal of pathos and philosophy. From any given screen-capture, it’s easy to see why this movie would be considered weird—watching this cloud of nightmare in motion is simultaneously unnerving, moving, and awe-inspiring.

COMMENTS: This stop-motion film opens with the unlikely use of a lecture hall and an actor counting ceiling lights before activating an apparatus. Drawing up a globule of spit, he lets the liquid drop inside the machine, setting off the first of the unsettling devices found throughout Street of Crocodiles. The film’s protagonist, a shabbily well-dressed man, begins bound by the wrist to a cord attached to a bell before the actor uses a pair of scissors installed in the converted kinetoscope. Once loosed from the ties that bind him, the suited puppet begins navigating his dark surroundings.

Like a reticent explorer, he warily observes machines, gated pathways, and windows to bizarre figures. Behind one is a barely humanoid figure that emits one of the few bright lights in the movie. Judged by his design and actions, this automaton seems to be an inventor of some sort, and he labors away. As the man continues to explore, his environment slowly starts dismantling itself. Screws come undone from the paneling and begin moving across the floor. A young boy, perhaps representing the man’s childhood, merrily travels around the dank cityscape, harnessing the inventor’s light with a pocket mirror, bringing objects to life with its beam. Things come to a muted crescendo when the man comes across a tailor’s shop along the dim street below a crocodile skeleton.

The Quay brothers capture so much in this tiny but unlimited world. The viewer sees things in frame, only to find a moment later that what he is seeing is a reflection (in some cases, a reflection of a reflection). The micro-cosmos created here is both stifling and vast, as if no matter how far the man may explore, he is still trapped, unable to break free and get a larger picture of the mystery around him. Eventually he discovers where his life went sideways after a literally transformative encounter with the tailors, the only entities who seem at home in this murky subconscious. Through them, we see the allure of a commercial world and the high price paid for succumbing to it.

Stephen and Timothy Quay interpret Bruno Schulz’s gritty memoir “Street of Crocodiles” with a combination of smeared perspective and macro-lensed attention to detail. Schulz’s source material is filtered through the Quay’s vision of pervasive but fungible memory. Much is explored during the scant 21-minute run-time, but its brevity is wholly counter-balanced by its depth, both literally and metaphorically. As the man’s world in the movie is folded uncomfortably on itself, Street of Crocodiles explores its subject matter with a compact precision that belies its length. After watching this, I felt that the twenty minutes may well have been hours. So goes time in the dream world. This film must be seen to be believed: my words are almost utterly incapable of parlaying the direct line the Quay brothers have with the subconscious world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an ambient horror film in the vein of Eraserhead.”–Jake Cole, Movie Mezzanine

CAPSULE: THE QUAY BROTHERS: COLLECTED SHORT FILMS (2015)

DIRECTED BY,

FEATURING: Sundry puppets

PLOT: Worn machines toil under their own power as, behind the scenes, the patient hands of a pair of geniuses bring dark dreams to life with unnerving puppets.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: DVD collections such as these are per se ineligible for Listing, but some of the individual shorts could very well make it. The Quay’s career is one long string of triumphs of ingenuity and unsettling worlds in miniature. This recent collection showcases their manifestations of the subconscious and illustrates why these twins were and remain on the rusted edge of shadowy dreamscapes.

COMMENTS: For those of a certain generation, Christmas is a time for stop-motion animation. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and last but not least, the cryptic visual musings of the Quay brothers. The latest collection of their works was released in very late November, in time, no doubt, to make it on the wish list of every fan of puppets, dreams, and dark ambiance. Since its release, it has already become somewhat hard to come by—and the reason is obvious. Anyone after something unlike anything else out there has been snapping up the new Quay Brothers collection.

Like Britain’s other renowned absurdist animator, the Quays hail from the US of A. Relocating in 1969 during their formative college years, they attended the Royal College of Art in London and crashed around Central Europe during the ’70s. Majoring in illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen), the two turned toward the daunting profession of stop-motion animation: filming at 24-frames per second, with tracking shots creeping 2mm between takes. They dabbled in forms ranging from heavily abstract visual essays (Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies), dark dreamy reminiscences (their famed Street of Crocodiles), to whimsical documentaries (The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer and Anamorphosis). Behind the scenes of all the light-play, elaborate machines, and on-camera effects were two brothers doggedly nudging the organic flow of the subconscious into a tactile visual form that consistently disturbs while it entices.

Though their subject matter has varied over their decades-long careers, certain stylistic elements crop up consistently. In bringing inanimate objects to life, the brothers form their stories (or, more accurately, dream sequences) around their puppets and sets. Rust, frayed edges, and chipped faces are found throughout. Even their documentaries focus on the stranger side of medical history, acting as showcases for antiquated equipment from before medicine became modern. (Being able to manipulate the movie universe in any way they pleased allowed them to stray from the norm even in their non-fiction work.) A handy printed glossary accompanies the disc. It not only has definitions for some of the phenomena the Quays like to explore, but also brief histories of the people whose work either affected them generally or as subjects of a particular film. Their film essays could be grin-inducing, like their treatment of Jan Švankmajer‘s creative process (involving endless cabinets within cabinets and a literally open-minded acolyte). They could also be heartbreaking, such as the repetitive forlorn madness of In Absentia.

As retrospectives go, this collection is about as thorough as a fan could hope. Included among the many famed short movies (some to be reviewed individually in the upcoming year) are commentaries from the brothers and a fawning (but very sweet) little documentary piece about the Quays, their processes, and their cluttered apartment workshop made by lifelong fan . I advise that this holiday season, you nestle back with some hot cocoa and experience the immersive worlds assembled by two fellows who can recreate the dreams you only half-remember.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the Quays’ work has been compared to [Jan] Svankmajer’s, they really have more of an affinity with David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, and other live-action filmmakers who’ve dealt in dreamscapes and tactility. To put it another way: the likes of ‘Cabinet,’ ‘Little Broom,’ 1986’s ‘Street Of Crocodiles,’ 1988’s ‘Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies,’ and 1990’s ‘The Comb’ both invite and defy interpretation.”–Noel Murray, A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: GET MEAN (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Ferdinando Baldi

FEATURING: Tony Anthony, , Lloyd Battista

PLOT: An abandoned town, a gypsy family, a very Spanish princess: enter, the Stranger. Offered $50,000 to ferry the displaced sovereign back home, before she can be reinstated there’s a question of reclaiming an ancient treasure. Alas, standing in the way of our Hero is a sadistic fop, a hot-tempered Mongol chieftain, and a Shakespeare-quoting hunchback.

Still from Get Mean (1976)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By setting the bulk of his Spaghetti Western somewhere along the coast of Spain, Ferdinando Baldi’s Get Mean elicits an initial reaction of “oh realllly…,” then cranks things up to all the way to bizarre with its visionary combination of temporally and geographically misplaced clashing adversaries. Tony Anthony adds to this movie’s peculiar brand of “magic” with his gristly voice and an unceasingly sardonic grin in lieu of a stoic Clint Eastwood imitation. Toss in no fewer than three main villains, chin-stroking xenophobia, and a string of food motifs, and you’ve got yourself a Western.

COMMENTS: This breezy little movie starts off with weirdness hanging off its sleeve. A man (Tony Anthony) is being dragged through a desolate countryside past a mysterious reflective orb nestled among bedraggled plants. Pulled into an empty town, he stumbles into one of the buildings. Inside, of course, is a family of gypsies. The eldest woman of the group says, ominously, “We have been expecting you.” The Stranger accepts their task of bringing a Spanish princess back to her home country. After a quick brawl with some local toughs, one dressed in Mongol garb, the Stranger heads off on a burning-map travel montage. Starting from somewhere in the Great Lakes region and heading across the sea, within minutes we find the escort and his ward on the beaches of Spain, staring down two hostile armies.

By this time, things have not gone well for the stranger. Nor have things gone well for those who prefer a little historical accuracy, even in their Spaghetti Westerns. The rival bands are Moors, who in this world seem to be soldiers of the Spanish monarchy, and a clutch of barbarians, which explains the outfit of the baddie in the opening fight. I’m not certain how many Central Asian warriors are named Diego, but Get Mean taught me there’s at least one. Aiding the Mongol antagonist are a refined, bordering-on-maniacal hunchback (Lloyd Battista) and one of those caricatured homosexuals only found in ’70s movies. These three are keen on the power that can only be unlocked through the discovery of the ancient “Treasure of Rodrigo” (!).

Quips, beatings, explosions, and large firearms are scattered throughout the movie. These are to be expected in a low budget Western. Less expected is the Stranger’s trial in a quasi-Land of the Dead. Conniving with the hunchback, the Stranger infiltrates an ancient mosque that has teamed up with Christian clergy. He squares off against the psychic attacks of unhappy undead in a chapel, travels through some chintzy-looking caves, and dispatches perhaps the least effective treasure guardian ever encountered in cinema. Enough? Heavens no — an explosion renders him black(face)ened for a stretch, during which he matches wits with a wild bull in the middle of nowhere. Get Mean‘s writer and director have cheerily decided to throw believability to the wind in pursuit of a movie that looks like what might’ve happened had ever tried his hand at the Western genre.

Tony Anthony’s performance is reminiscent of something by Clint Eastwood’s illegitimate half-brother. We know he’s either in for travel or trouble whenever a very jaunty, very Spaghetti tune gears up—perhaps the only note of consistency to be found in the movie. The combined elements of this Western set over 4,000 miles East of the Mississippi were enough to make me wonder what the heck would happen next. Sadly, Get Mean was ignored upon release and didn’t find a cult following in the intervening four decades. Thankfully, that did not stop the good people at Blue Underground from resurrecting it. Perhaps over the next forty years Get Mean might find the fringe adoration that eluded it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the strangest and most obscure spaghetti westerns ever to come out of Italy…”–TV Guide

CAPSULE: WHITE RABBIT (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tim McCann

FEATURING: Nick Krause, Britt Robertson, Sam Trammell

PLOT: Things start to go rapidly downhill for Harlon, an emotionally abused boy, after his father makes him kill an injured white rabbit; years later he hears the voices of characters from his favorite comic strip urging him to stand up for himself.

Still from White Rabbit (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If “angsty” meant “weird”, this would have been the weirdest movie I have ever seen. However, it doesn’t, and this wasn’t. White Rabbit‘s occasional dips into pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations are very few and far between, and for better or worse the movie burns up its first two-thirds blandly exposing just how horrible life can be when you’re stuck in a rural backwoods with nothing to do but shoot, drink, and beat on anyone who is remotely different.

COMMENTS: There is a problem with a twist-based movie when by the end one just can’t care less. While the ambiguity provided a bit of relief, a movie hingeing on a final minute that misfires is nothing short of disappointing. There are a number of things that Tim McCann is trying to achieve with White Rabbit; however, they’ve already been accomplished in other, superior, movies. Rural life is terrible? Check out Gummo. Society overlooks the mentally ill? Check out Clean, Shaven. Angst is a sure-fire path to outburst? Check out Angst. Whatever you do, don’t check out White Rabbit.

McCann’s cautionary (?) tale of abuse and detachment begins at the end, with the goth-y protagonist’s back-story fleshed out confessional-style. Young Harlon’s home life is terrible: his father Darrell is a volatile drunk, his brother teases him mercilessly, and his mother’s best efforts to make things “okay” are welcome but insufficient. At a tender age, his father buys him a gun and goes hunting with him. Cue the film’s metaphor. In the middle of the woods, Harlon sees a white rabbit, which his father immediately orders him to dispatch. The boy misses, and they pursue the animal until they find it stuck in a briar. Taunted by his father, Harlon shoots the now-defenseless rabbit. Dead white bunny = innocence lost.

Growing up in Rural, USA, the boy has one friend, Steve, who is even more abused than he. Otherwise alone, Harlon takes comfort in a comic book series called the Scarlet Widow. Its characters begin talking to him, using words of malevolent encouragement. Then there’s Harlon’s father. As nasty as the father generally is, he is the only fleshed-out character. Though “charming” would be far too strong a word to describe him even in his better moments, Darrell stands as the movies most relatable figure. Improbably, his disappointment and ridicule are interrupted by intermittent bursts of kindness and understanding. In one scene, having just gotten high on crack, Darrell takes his son to a nearby strip club after the boy’s had a rough day. Darrell’s own life obviously has been pretty dismal, but he has a kind of flippant charisma that made him the only character worth watching.

Anyhow, things get nasty at an accelerating rate. Steve suffers a nebulous fate after a dog-adoption goes awry. The depressive-pixie-dream-girl whom Harlon fancies cleans up her act and gets together with the now reformed jock that Harlon (rightly) abhors. Unfortunately, the best twist of the movie never happens. There’s a point where everyone around him has reformed and become a decent person; had McCann explored the greater isolation Harlon would have experienced after this, things might have traveled down an interesting psychological path. As it goes, White Rabbit ducks out of this route almost before it begins, ending on a “Hey, maybe there’s some redemption going on here. Or not. Or maybe.” Or whatever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the voices he soon hears in his head are as muddled and underdeveloped as the rest of the film, which falls back on the easiest answers available to explain its protagonist’s fractured psyche.”–Nick Schrager, Film Journal International (DVD)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE HUNTER D (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Toyoo Ashida

FEATURING: Voices of Kaneto Shiozawa, Michie Tomizawa, Seizô Katô

PLOT: Millennia in the future, vampires rule over much of the land; one woman fights back, enlisting the aid of a mysterious stranger in her quest to kill Count Lee, a vampire of great power.

VampireHunterD1985

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vampire Hunter D is undeniably a groundbreaking classic of Gothic anime that conveys a wonderfully realized retro-future. However, aside from some unlikely Bakshi-an monsters and a couple of bursts of eyebrow-raising gore, Toyoo Ashida’s film rests firmly in the realm of the traditionally fantastic.

COMMENTS: It seems only right that I admit to the reader from the start that this movie stands as the only anime film I have ever seen. Through all my years of pursuing leads on offbeat movies, I have somehow missed what is perhaps one of the largest figurative boats ever launched. That said, my experience with Vampire Hunter D has done much to open my eyes. With a limited budget and an unlimited tap of imagination and artistic talent, Toyoo Ashida and Ashi Productions created a stellar vision of a far-flung future world tormented by Dark Ages evil.

Beginning with the title card, “This story takes place in the distant future—when mutants and demons slither through a world of darkness”, the action quickly takes off as a young Hunter—armed with a cross, electric whip, and bayonnetted laser gun—pursues an obviously infernal beastie. The encounter quickly goes south when her horse is slaughtered and, from nowhere, a humanoid creature appears and bites her on the neck. Now she must find a way to destroy this powerful being before becoming a vamp herself. Fate provides her with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom she comes to learn is also a Hunter of considerable strength.

From that introduction, the movie proceeds apace with run ins with eldritch creatures, the haughty vampire “nobles,” as well as human scum in the form of a mayor’s son and his cronies. To ward off the nasties that lurk outside, city-dwellers have made barriers combing both the Old and New World Techs, using crosses and energy fields to repel the undead. As with all townsfolk living in the shadow of great evil, they are wary both of strangers and those possibly afflicted. This leaves the heroine, Doris, and the eponymous “D” with scant safe havens. Unsurprisingly (but still very satisfactorily), they seem to need none.

There are splashes of weird to be found throughout the movie. That “D” has two personalities (and, one learns, two faces) adds a compelling layer to his character. On the one hand he strives to maintain an honorable existence while fighting the scourge of vampires around him; on the other (in this case, left) hand, he harbors a secret about his true nature. His scuffles with a flippant space-warping mutant, a Golem that really likes the word “Golem,” a three-headed sex medusa, and ultimately the sinister Count Lee provide brushes with the strange. Particularly worth noting is the Count’s castle: a forbidding heap of ancient ruin atop a massive industrial wasteland.

With its little nods to Stoker’s original work (e.g. a property known as “old man Harker’s” and a strangely Victorian-looking portrait of an unspecified “ancestor”), neat twists in the vampire genre (the local sheriff sports a six-pointed badge with an overlaid cross), and its temporal mélange, Vampire Hunter D provides a unique take on the legend. Be warned, though: do your best to stop the movie after it fades to black on the final scene. Somehow, this chilling adventure is capped by what stands as one of the worst end-credits songs I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The middle of the film features a wonderfully hallucinatory journey across wasted landscapes into the chief vampire’s labyrinthine castle… the rest, especially the showdown with the chief vampire, is anticlimactic in comparison.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: SEXINA (2007)

AKA Sexina: Popstar P.I.

DIRECTED BY: Erik Sharkey

FEATURING: Lauren D’Avella, Adam West, Luis Jose Lopez

PLOT: When the shadowy CEO of Glitz Records devises a diabolical plot to take over the world’s music industry, it is up to Sexina, a top star at a competing label, to thwart him. A mix of huge egos, cyborgs, and assassins all collide as things build to a big showdown at a free high school concert.

Still from Sexina (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eliciting more “okay then…”s than “what the…?”s, Sexina is certainly quirky and scattershot. But while there are moments when it hits the better side of absurd, Erik Sharkey’s pet project is more of a low key late night romp than an oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: “In the fine tradition of …” are generally not words a director likes to hear at the start of a review, but my suspicion is that Erik Sharkey, the man behind this pop-boy-band send-up, would not only be okay with it, but perhaps be flattered. Seeing as he did work with that venerable movie studio back in the ’90s, it is unsurprising that this has the budget studio’s unmistakable trashy aura—just without the gratuitous violence or nudity.

There’s no doubt that Sexina had more bite to it when it was released some eight years ago. Back then, to quote the Professor, “boy bands roamed the earth.” While never a difficult subject for lampooning, Sharkey ably takes the various flavors of pop sensation to their extremes. Luis Jose Lopez’s performance as the latest flash in the pan is something close to excellent. His Latino singer persona, Lance Canyon, is perhaps the most accurate distillation of commercialized machismo put to screen. His main obsession, reiterated in increasingly sexist ways, is women. (Or, more precisely, things which a male might, if one were so inclined, do with women). This slime-ball’s boss, known, appropriately, as “the Boss”, is the always-delightful Adam West. Ever since he finished his rounds at Batman lo those many decades ago, Mr. West seems to have maintained a successful career through the unlikely route of just showing up on screen and being Adam West. In Sexina, he does not disappoint.

Working less well, unfortunately, is much else in the movie. Plenty of jokes and scenes fall flat. This is somewhat made up for by the rapid pace, but there was a point about half way through that I realized I was just watching one- to two-minute vignettes loosely interspliced with each other. While I often found I was laughing despite myself, I kind of wished that there were more care given to the dialogue and timing. All the actors involved were, at the very least, competent, and it would have been good to see them given a clearer sense of the mania I felt the director was striving for. Alas, while his cast brought B-movie acting to the grade of Nigh High Art, there is only so much anyone can do with dialogue that’s “sorta funny” presented as “really funny.”

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend the movie; but I have no regrets that I’ve seen it. Despite clunkiness throughout, there was an undeniable charm to the whole thing, with the bits showcasing Adam West or Luis Lopez bringing the movie up from tolerable to amusing. Sharkey’s only follow-up to date was the fairly critically acclaimed documentary, Drew: the Man Behind the Poster, for which he was able to rally the likes of Steven Spielberg, Leonard Maltin, Michael J. Fox, as well as bunches of other A-List Hollywood types. It would be neat to see Erik Sharkey use his talent-gathering powers for the forces of good instead of the mediocre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a gentle, nostalgic trip through some of our favorite tropes from detective/spy TV combined with a disdain for contemporary boy-band culture (a target that even by 2007 was a bit dated). Even the film’s nods to drug culture and the over-sexualization of pop stars (including a weird dialogue about the size of a guy’s penis) feel more goofy than sleazy.”–Gordon Sullivan, DVD Verdict (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

AKA ZOO

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Andrá Ferréol, , Frances Barber

PLOT: After the deaths of their wives in a freak car crash, the brothers Oswald and Oliver, both zoologists, pursue different paths of obsession in an attempt to cope with their losses.

Still from A Zed & Two Nougts (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As an art-house film, A Zed & Two Noughts succeeds with its precise interiors, high-minded dialogue, and a cavalcade of mise en scène goodies. Smashed into its philosophizing and clever conversation are decomposing animals, two differently unhinged brothers, a surgeon with an unhealthy obsession with Vermeer, and a borderline-spastic score from long-time Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman.

COMMENTS: Taking the idea of in medias res to its logical conclusion, A Zed & Two Noughts (hereafter to be referred to as ZOO) starts with a flash of photography and a smash of a white swan onto a white car. Inside, two women perish—and a third survives, only to have had her leg crushed beyond repair. So far, so good—but not so “art house”, I hear you think. Yet this unlikely (and grisly) beginning somehow morphs into one of the most precisely arranged specimens of film I’ve had the pleasure to watch. After climaxing in the first few minutes, the remainder acts as something of an extended dénouement, culminating in a comparably macabre, though more peaceful, conclusion.

Stylistically, ZOO is like nothing more than a painting. Every shot is impeccably staged, suggesting that director Peter Greenaway could give even a lesson or two on orderliness in the frame. Scene after scene exhibits meticulous use of vertical and horizontal framing: doorways, windows, mirrors. Those who know a thing or two about Greenaway will be unsurprised: he trained as a painter before beginning his career as a film-maker. The precision of the film’s look is mirrored within it by the surgeon Van Meegeren, who obsesses over the Dutch painter Vermeer, going so far as to try and recreate the latter’s masterpieces Lady Seated at Virginal and The Music Lesson, using the fiery-haired Alba Bewick (the survivor of the opening car crash) as a template. During her first surgery we see him lightly caress her exposed body; after convincing her that her second leg needs removal, we see the surgeon’s assistant provide Alba with a new hair-do and earrings to make her look more like the young women in the Vermeer paintings.

Somehow I have as yet to mention the centerpiece of this refined ostentation, the Deuce brothers. Oliver and Oswald Deuce are, combined, the main character of ZOO. At the film’s beginning, they are obviously identifiable as separate people. Oswald is, so to speak, the left brain: he starts by trying to work out the facts, the tiniest specifics, leading up the deadly car crash that took his wife’s life. Oliver, on the other hand, is right-brained. He contemplates the greater role that the cosmos played in the tragedy as part of his mourning process, watching David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth” program. He feels he needs to start from scratch–the TV series spans some millions of years of natural history—in order to work his way to how events conspired to take his wife from him.

Events proceed in a sinister direction. The brothers’ work starts as time-lapse photographs of rotting fruit, then small fish, and finally works up to their penultimate project: the recording of a zebra’s decomposition. Thrown into this mess of decay, philosophy, paintings, and obtrusive music is an aspiring bestiality writer, a zoo warden who moonlights procuring exotic meats, and sundry “unexplained” escapes of animals. ZOO poses some tough questions, perhaps the most important of which is educed by the zoo’s chief administrator: “What valuable conclusion can be gained from all this rotting meat?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Greenaway’s eccentric exploration of where all life’s absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette

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)