All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6’3″.

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)

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE GRAVE (2010)

Porto Dos Mortos

DIRECTED BY: Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro

FEATURING: Rafael Tombini, Álvaro Rosa Costa, Ricardo Seffner

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

Still from Beyond the Grave (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

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

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

Recommended

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

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short

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

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

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

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

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

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


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

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

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

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

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

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

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

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

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

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

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