All posts by Otto Black

BOOK REVIEW: “TWISTERN: 50 TWISTED WESTERN MOVIE REVIEWS”

Written by Kelly Knight; 149pp, ISBN 978-0-615-62472-3; Ronin Productions, Inc.

What, exactly, is a “Twistern”? Well, as the foreword explains, it’s basically one of two things. Either it’s a western which in some way resembles another genre, or vice versa. As the author puts it: “Like peanut butter and chocolate, the mixture of science fiction, horror, comedy and psychedelic genres with classic Western results in a delicious concoction.” Leaving aside the bizarre peanut butter and chocolate analogy, this is potentially the basis for an extremely interesting study of how the most prolific of all classic movie genres has, during its long evolution, spawned many strange mutant offspring.

Sadly, this book isn’t it. It does exactly what it says on the cover: reviews 50 movies which more or less fit this extremely broad category, but are otherwise apparently chosen at random, irrespective of quality, obscurity, or degree of “twistedness.” If you read the title carefully, it doesn’t claim these are the 50 best, worst, or weirdest twisted westerns—they’re just 50 twisted westerns. Which is disarmingly honest, and perfectly true. Of course, you have to accept the author’s personal definition of “twisted.” The foreword explains that spaghetti westerns have been left out because they all have plots very similar to ordinary westerns, or are too “well known and beloved” to merit inclusion, but Django il Bastardo gets in because the hero is a ghost, and that’s “twisted.” The Proposition is ”twisted” because it’s set in Australia. The Apple Dumpling Gang (mass-produced Disney pap from 1975) is “twisted” because it’s a comedy, and the protagonists are children. The North Star is “twisted” because there’s snow on the ground throughout the film, and the author wants an excuse to mock Christopher Lambert’s miscasting as a half-breed Eskimo. And so on.

Since only 50 films are covered, it’s literally a waste of space to discuss huge, mainstream blockbusters like Back to the Future Part III or Cowboys & Aliens, especially when the author justifies leaving out all but one spaghetti western on the grounds that readers will be familiar with them already. They might also have heard of Westworld, Blazing Saddles, Outland, Serenity, Wild Wild West, and many others. In a book this slim, there shouldn’t be anything like this much dead wood. Even the weirder films are in some cases the usual suspects that have been wearily popping up in every book that laughs ironically at bad movies since the Medved brothers originated the fad in 1979. Do we really need to hear yet again about Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, or The Terror of Tiny Town?

This is not a book for those seriously interested in cinema. It’s very lightweight indeed, and written throughout with such breathless enthusiasm that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not the author actually likes the film. A few interesting and/or unjustly neglected movies are discussed: for example, the rather weird and strangely compelling The Tears of the Black Tiger, or the non-weird but pretty good Australian thriller Red Hill. But most of those you haven’t heard of are obscure for a very good reason—Cowboys & Zombies, for example, about which the book says: “So, here’s another extremely low budget Twistern for all you dudes and dudettes. If you’re in the spirit, you could do a lot worse. Slide on your armoured chaps, strap on two bandoliers, and aim for those zombie heads!”

I haven’t seen this film, and judging by every other review I can find, I don’t want to. Other reviews of films that were new to me suffer from the same problem – the author is so enthusiastic about what sounds like a terrible movie that you have to look it up elsewhere because you don’t believe him. Which completely defeats the object of a book of film reviews. As for the “twistern” concept tying it all together, it’s stretched so thin that it becomes a meaningless and counterproductive gimmick that forces him to include predictable, over-familiar movies. In short, this book is obviously a labor of love, but I can’t imagine anyone but its author loving it.

PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: The Tall Man, a satanic funeral director from another dimension, continues to use his infinite superpowers to turn corpses into an army of zombie midgets with which to conquer the Universe, just as he did in the previous three films.

Still from Phantasm IV (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a thematically identical but vastly inferior third sequel to the Certified Weird original.

COMMENTS: If you’ve ever wondered why , who started out making low-budget cult horror movies, is now a mainstream director of blockbuster superhero films, yet Don Coscarelli, whose breakthrough hit Phantasm is vastly more imaginative, ambitious, and technically accomplished than Raimi’s debut The Evil Dead, is still making odd little movies for a niche market, look no further than Phantasm IV: Oblivion.

The original Phantasm has been praised on this site and elsewhere for the gleeful absence of logic which contributes to its nightmare quality, but by the time the third sequel was churned out, it had become all too obvious that Coscarelli wasn’t so much being wildly imaginative as abandoning any pretense at creating a logically structured narrative because he wasn’t much good at that sort of thing, and didn’t particularly care. All four movies in this franchise end in exactly the same way: the heroes figure out the Tall Man’s weakness and destroy him, but then, minutes later, he pops up again as good as new and apparently wins. This would be fine in a weekly serial where every episode has to end on a cliff-hanger, but at intervals of roughly six years between films? Not so much. Even worse, Coscarelli’s use of this and many other increasingly predictable plot-devices in every one of the four movies makes the first one seem less imaginative in retrospect.

Phantasm IV is an anticlimax in every way. Even Coscarelli admitted at the time that he was only making it to squeeze the last few bucks out of the franchise. Having managed to obtain a budget of only $650,000, because nobody except the usual rabid clique of obsessive fanboys wanted more installments in this worn-out saga, he must have known all along that the proposed fifth movie—in which a near-future USA has been totally devastated by the Tall Man’s hordes, and the heroes face literally thousands of zombie midgets, silver balls, etc. in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—stood no chance whatsoever of getting the vast funding it would require. But he cynically shot a cheap, tired, inconclusive prequel to it anyway for the money.

In the laziest opening sequence ever, Reggie Baldwin, who ended the previous movie completely helpless and obviously doomed, is released for no reason whatsoever by the Tall Man, who mutters something cryptic about it all being a game, and then spends the rest of the film trying to kill him in ludicrously over-elaborate ways. As for Tim, a major character in Phantasm III whose final fate was extremely vague, he was supposed to be shown getting devoured alive by zombie dwarves. But they couldn’t afford the gore effects, so he’s simply forgotten about. Deleted scenes from the first and third films are used to pad out the running-time, and since they’re completely out of context, the narrative becomes especially muddled at these points.

The silver ball scenes are perfunctory this time; apparently they were only affordable because exceptionally rabid fans had worked out how to do the effect fairly well (and cheaply) for their amateur homages. The few prosthetics are extremely crude compared with those in previous movies. The most significant new monster is a big guy in a rubber mask. A great deal of footage was shot in Death Valley, because it was cheaper than building a set, but most of it consists of A. Michael Baldwin standing around having internal monologues and looking angsty. And the brief glimpse we get of post-zombie-holocaust LA, which, though deserted, is oddly un-devastated, is very obviously guerrilla footage shot at dawn when there was nobody about (the same trick was used in the Doctor Who serial “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” in 1963).

Rumors still persist that Phantasm V will finally go into production and the series will conclude properly, but with no serious claims that the project is alive since 2008, it doesn’t seem likely, especially as Angus Scrimm is, at the time of writing, 87 years old. So as far as the movies are concerned, the story ends here. For the fourth and final time, the Tall Man won.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I suppose that it’s very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile; parts of it are so arbitrary that they cross the line from surreality to pointlessness. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind thing, a feverish gust of the warped and uncanny that works on a part of your brain older and more susceptible than the bits that deal with logic and reason.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

El Ángel Exterminador

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Enrique Rambal,

PLOT: The guests at an upper-class dinner-party are inexplicably unable to leave; their thin veneer of civility rapidly breaks down as conditions worsen.

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The predicament in which the protagonists find themselves is utterly irrational, and no explanation whatsoever is offered for it. Sheep and a bear roam the house for only marginally more rational reasons. And along the way we get an ambiguously hallucinatory sequence where a witch summons Satan, who manifests himself as a homicidal severed hand.

COMMENTS: Buñuel himself considered this film to be a failure because he didn’t go far enough—he later regretted not including cannibalism. But all the same, it’s the breakthrough film in which he finally understood that, if you give mainstream audiences a nice simple plot that they can understand with no trouble at all, the justification for that plot can be as weird as you like. And perhaps, as he so often was, he was joking when he publicly stated that it would have been a better film if they’d eaten each other, since ten years later he made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is a kind of anti-remake that precisely inverts the basic plot of the earlier film (the twist double ending is also neatly reversed). And cannibalism doesn’t occur that time round either.

The shooting title was The Castaways of Providence Street, which Buñuel changed when a friend pointed out that he’d automatically see any film called The Exterminating Angel without stopping to find out what it was actually about. As with The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the titular supernatural being, if it even exists, makes no overt appearance whatsoever. The left-wing agenda is as blatant as it possibly could be. The servants, with the exception of a very faithful butler, are stricken with irrational fear and leave for the flimsiest of reasons or none at all, even if it means their dismissal. The impending punishment is meant for the upper-class scum alone!

And scum they are. The best of them try to be decent but are hopelessly weak. As for the rest… A window broken by a highly-strung guest is casually ascribed to “a passing Jew.” They laugh uproariously when a servant trips on a rug and falls over because they assume he’s been set up to do it for their amusement. They seriously discuss the alleged insensibility to pain of the lower classes by comparing them with animals. They are casually and cynically promiscuous, and explicitly describe sexual continence as a perversion. And even the best of them stimulate their jaded appetites with serious drugs. They deserve everything they get.

And get it they do! This is basically “Lord of the Flies” with adults. Trapped in one room for no reason at all, they suffer hunger, thirst, stench—a man who dies early on is stuffed into a cupboard and remains there for many days in warm weather—and sanitary facilities consisting of a closet full of antique vases (not an issue normally addressed in movies made this long ago). And in addition to all this, they’re horribly spoilt people who can’t possibly get along, and end up squabbling like the lowest guttersnipes: a situation which, towards the end, they temporarily defuse by getting spectacularly stoned, in a sequence which, though very low-budget indeed, is still extremely psychedelic for its time.

Along the way, we get black magic, a doctor who mysteriously confuses baldness with death, and a very, very strange crawling hand sequence with a curious backstory. In his autobiography, Buñuel claimed to have written the outline on which the 1946 movie The Beast With Five Fingers was based, though of course he wasn’t credited. That may or may not be true, but if it is, this scene is his not very oblique reference to it. As with almost all his best films, this is not modern Japanese-level in-your-face-and-all-over-the-place weirdness. But the oddness of it all builds perfectly throughout, culminating in a last-minute resolution that, as so often in Buñuel’s films, is a set-up for a merciless punchline in the epilogue. A classic, and highly recommended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel stages this play with cumulating nervousness and occasional explosive ferocities. He whips up individual turmoils with the apt intensities of a uniformly able cast; and he throws in frequent surrealistic touches, such as a disembodied hand coasting across the floor, or a bear and a flock of sheep coming up from the kitchen, to give the viewer little hints of mental incongruities. But my feeling is that his canvas is too narrow and his social comment too plain to keep our interest fixed upon his people and their barren stewing for an hour and a half.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: L’AGE D’OR (1930)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys

PLOT: What plot? The screenplay was co-written by Salvador Dalí! A man and a woman long to have sex, but for various reasons they never do. Along the way, other things happen for no reason at all.

Still from L'Age D'or (1930)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a direct follow-up to Un Chien Andalou, arguably the weirdest film ever made; it’s the only other film by the Bunuel/Dalí combo; and it’s the only other official Surrealist movie by Buñuel. So it ought to be a shoo-in. Unfortunately, as with so many sequels, it utterly fails to live up to the promise of the first film.

COMMENTS: Although this is often described as a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, they fell out before shooting started, so Dalí’s contribution was probably minimal (though depending on who you ask, he may have contributed little to Un Chien Andalou either). Scripted to run for 20 minutes, it somehow ballooned out of control and tripled in length during shooting. Fortunately, the aristocratic patron who provided the finance simply reached for his checkbook and told them to carry on regardless. Or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. Un Chien Andalou is 16 minutes long, which is about as long as that level of blistering irrationality can realistically be maintained for, both in terms of the scriptwriter’s imagination and the audience’s patience. Stretched to just over an hour, the same kind of thing feels baggy, and is at times downright boring.

After a totally irrelevant prologue—the first three minutes are a documentary about scorpions—the film proper begins with a ragged man observing four elderly bishops sitting on a rock by the sea mumbling prayers. He rushes to a tumbledown shack and informs the other ragged men within, who appear to be guerrillas of some kind, that the “Majorcans” have arrived. In what seems to be a typically sly joke expressing Buñuel’s growing disillusionment with the Surrealist movement (he left in 1932), these men listlessly perform utterly pointless activities, and when they take up arms to combat the forces of religion, they’re so crippled and worn-out that almost all of them collapse, apparently from sheer apathy, before making it as far as the coast. The one man who gets there has just time to observe that the bishops have spontaneously turned into skeletons anyway before he too collapses. In an otherwise nonsensical speech, the most listless of the lot tells the others that they’re sure to win because they have paintbrushes. And their leader is played by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst (who remained a faithful Surrealist, so maybe the joke’s on him too).

At this point a flotilla of small boats arrives, and numerous civic dignitaries and smartly-dressed persons disembark. It becomes apparent that the death of the four Majorcan bishops has inspired these people to build the city of Rome (in 1930). However, the ceremony of laying the foundation stone is interrupted by the first appearance of the two protagonists, who are attempting to have very loud sex in a pool of mud. Not surprisingly, they are prevented by the outraged crowd and dragged away.

Not a bad beginning, but from this point on, it’s strictly by-the-numbers Surrealism. Gaston Modot, a very prolific character actor, is suitably intense, but kicking puppies and blind men is a poor substitute for slashing a woman’s eyeball! Lya Lys at one point comes across as the world’s worst actress, and is obviously using an autocue, but this must have been deliberate, since she too had a mainstream career (weird movie buffs can see her in The Return Of Doctor X, in which Humphrey Bogart, for the first and last time, plays a vampire). The almost-consummation of their passion goes on far too long without being anywhere near as intense or explicit as the similar scene in Un Chien Andalou. Priests and bishops in vaguely comical situations recur time and time again, we see the first use of Buñuel’s characteristic “incongruous animal indoors” trope, random passers-by kick violins down the street or have loaves on their heads, and so on. But it all seems a bit tired.

There are standout moments—a man cold-bloodedly killing his son for the most trivial of reasons, a suicide falling not to the floor but the ceiling, Lya Lys passionately sucking the toe of a statue—but not enough of them. There’s a tacked-on ending, in which, as a lengthy intertitle informs us, a quartet of degenerates emerge from a bestial orgy (actually the one described in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom), and one of them turns out to be Jesus Christ. It comes across as a rather childish ploy to get the film banned on purpose.

Ultimately this is an ambitious failure, and not really very interesting. So many specific motifs from this film cropped up 44 years later in The Phantom Of Liberty that the latter movie could not implausibly be viewed as a secret remake. Perhaps Buñuel, always a lover of in-jokes, knowing that his career was almost over, was making his biggest in-joke of all?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exhilarating, irrational masterpiece of censor-baiting chutzpah.”–Jamie Russel, BBC (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “viqman.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

CAPSULE: KING KONG LIVES (1986)

DIRECTOR: John Guillermin

FEATURING: Peter Elliot, George Antoni, Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton

PLOT: As the title explains, Kong didn’t die at the end of the previous film, and this time round he gets a girlfriend—one his own size for a change. Do they live happily ever after? No, of course not. Mean-spirited people attack them with assorted military hardware. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from King Kong Lives (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird thing about it is that somebody thought it was a good idea to spend $10,000,000 (and that’s in 1986 money) coiling out this howling clunker.

COMMENTS: The 1976 remake of King Kong was never exactly a masterpiece, but it cost $24,000,000 and made $80,000,000, and in Hollywood, that’s what counts. So, ten tears later, producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose industry nickname “Dino De Horrendous” wasn’t altogether unjust) gave the director of the first film, John Guillermin, a crack at the sequel. The catch? As attentive readers will have noticed, his budget was less than half what they gave him previously. Since it was universally agreed that one of the major failings of the first film was the inadequacy of the special effects used to portray the 50-foot ape, and this film starred two of them, how well was it ever going to pan out?

But even apart from the many, many dire effects shots featuring poorly-made model scenery, barely adequate ape suits, and a giant animatronic hand so stiff that Kong appears to have arthritis, just about everything in the movie is woefully misjudged somehow or other. In the film’s sole concession to realism, ten tears have passed between films, just as they have in reality (which conveniently allows them to forget about every character in the first film whose surname wasn’t Kong). Throughout this time Kong—who, you may recall, had been riddled with machine-gun bullets until, obviously dying, he fell off the World Trade Center—has been comatose, kept alive by a vast custom-built life-support system. Why? Don’t ask, and then you won’t mind when they don’t bother to tell you.

Equally obviously, if a huge animal falls a quarter of a mile onto a hard surface, its heart is the only bit that’ll suffer. Unfortunately, as Linda Hamilton’s veterinary surgeon character explains, that artificial heart the size of a Volkswagen they’ve worked so hard on is useless, because being in a coma for ten years means that Kong has lost a lot of blood (???), so the operation can’t be performed without a blood donor. “Only one thing can save him.” she solemnly intones: “A miracle!” Cut to Brian Kerwin wandering around Borneo for some unrelated reason, then literally stumbling across and effortlessly capturing a cute fifty-foot Lady Kong whom nobody had ever noticed before. Gosh, that was a lucky break!

(By the way, if you’re wondering why she’s called “Lady Kong” instead of the more logical “Queen Kong”, there was an existing movie with that title that’s even sillier than this one, though copies are very hard to come by.)

It has to be admitted that the early footage of Linda Hamilton conducting the transplant with enormous surgical instruments, including a sort of buzz-saw on a pole, are spectacularly surreal—the indelible image has to be Kong’s heart being lifted out with a crane. Sadly the rest of the film doesn’t come close to living up to them.

The apes fall in love, bad people mistreat them, they escape, she’s recaptured, but by now she’s pregnant. Will her tall, dark, handsome lover-boy come to the rescue, despite all those tanks…? Alas, the producers don’t understand a very basic point about this kind of movie; which is that, if you have two fifty-foot monsters, they really ought to fight, rather than coyly flirting accompanied by mawkish soundtrack music.

Since Kong is now unequivocally a good guy (and the budget is so much lower), his rampages cause very little mayhem until the final scenes, which is a major problem in a rampaging monster movie. What little death and destruction we do see is mostly inappropriately comic. The human characters are so one-dimensional as to make even the Kongs look convincing, and feisty-yet-fluffy Linda Hamilton’s nude scene should probably last more than one second (but maybe that’s just me).

This could have been a classic ridiculous movie. Sadly, it’s not quite expensive enough to give us the crazy ape action we paid to see, and not quite cheap enough to abandon all shame and just go for it anyway. Not really satisfying on any level, and for much of its running time, downright dull. That’s presumably why it grossed less than half its budget. As the young people say nowadays, meh.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The problem with everyone in ‘King Kong Lives’ is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Orton

FEATURING: David Soul, David Bedella, Leon Craig

PLOT: Jerry Springer hosts a typical episode of his show, in which the usual horrible people desperate for one moment of fame bare their sordid lives to the world. In the ensuing mayhem, Jerry is shot. He finds himself in Hell, where Satan makes him host a special edition of his show featuring Biblical characters—who are strangely similar to the guests in the first part—with the aim of being reconciled with Jesus and gaining admission to Heaven. So long as Jesus apologizes…

Still from Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005)

WHY IT’S WEIRD: It’s an opera about Jerry Springer! Tirades of incredibly foul abuse are sung with the utmost operatic seriousness. The KKK tap-dance. And then we find ourselves in Hell, where the holiest cultural icons in Christendom bicker like redneck trailer trash. “Les Mis” this ain’t!

COMMENTS: Technically, this isn’t a movie, it’s a stage musical. However, the version specially filmed by the BBC is available on DVD, so for our purposes, it’s a movie. And oh boy, is it weird! Most people can’t imagine David Soul in any context other than a certain long-past cop show. Well, if you’re one of them, his performance here may surprise you. As the only non-singing character, he makes a very convincing Jerry Springer, whether he’s ignoring the demands of his conscience (in the shape of an “Inner Valkyrie”), recounting the true story of the real Springer’s liaison with a prostitute, or spouting empty platitudes in a desperate attempt to solve all the world’s problems—-and more importantly, to avoid the torments of Hell, which, as the Devil constantly reminds him, include anal rape with barbed wire.

Another stand-out performance comes from David Bedella. Like everyone apart from David Soul, he isn’t really a movie actor, although parents of young children may know his voice from his performances as Victor and the Duke of Boxford in the US version of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” franchise. Which doesn’t mean you should let the kiddies watch this! There’s a staggering amount of very strong language indeed. David Bedella as the over-ambitious warm-up comic is responsible for quite a lot of it, especially in the second half, in which he really comes into his own as the Devil. In fact, he’s displaced Peter Cook in Bedazzled as my favorite movie Satan.

But it wasn’t profanity that caused a record-breaking 55,000 complaints received by the BBC, 47,000 of them before the show had even aired… or the protesters picketing the live production… or the unsuccessful lawsuits. It was the blasphemy. Technically (and as it turned out, legally) the show isn’t blasphemous. The second half obviously takes place in the head of the seriously wounded and delirious Jerry, which is why the celestial beings look and behave exactly like the people he’s just interviewed. And indeed why, in an interlude in Limbo, his guilty conscience causes him to imagine the accusing presence of guests who have died horribly as a result of appearing on the show we’ve just seen, although there hasn’t been time for this to happen yet.

Alas, religious maniacs have no imagination! It’s Leon Craig’s performance that caused most of the trouble. In Act I he’s hilarious as a man who gleefully reveals to his horrified fiancée that his secret sexual fetish involves dressing as a baby and pooping his pants. In Act II, he reappears as Jesus Christ (by the way, he’s a stout black man who in no way resembles the traditional Jesus), and portrays him as a well-meaning but naïve fellow who is ultimately very selfish. He also admits to being “a bit gay,” the line that caused at least half the fuss. Leon Craig sings very well and has a gift for comedy, but he doesn’t seem to have appeared in anything else since; perhaps being the focus of so much hatred scared him out of the profession.

In fact, this musical subverts religion more subtly by saying that none of us are all good or all bad, and by exploiting these desperate, damaged people, Jerry Springer is neither better nor worse than they are for letting him do it, or indeed we are for watching his show. And all concerned have a tremendous amount of foul-mouthed fun reaching this not terribly profound conclusion. Ironically, the one person genuinely entitled to be offended, Jerry Springer himself, actually liked it! Well, anyway, he said he did. But he can afford to be generous, given that, as the lyrics tell us, he’s:

“Bigger than David Letterman, bigger than Bob Hope;
And give or take a few million, bigger than the f***ing Pope!”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a foul-mouthed crowd-pleaser…”–Total Film

CAPSULE: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, , Laurie Bird

PLOT: Two men obsessed with illegal street-racing race another equally obsessive driver across America. Along the way, all three become increasingly involved with a fickle hippie chick, and inevitably their motivations change.

Still from Two-lane Blacktop (1971)


WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: All the main characters are so emotionally detached that at least one of them would nowadays be diagnosed as autistic, and they drive cars very fast for no significant reward because it’s all they know how to do. However, it’s not full-blown car-related weirdness on a level with ‘s  Crash. It’s an unusual film which some people will find interesting, but not really a candidate for the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: I’ve just said that some people will find this extremely offbeat film interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wanted to, and for the first half, I almost did; but it suffers from the same problems as many of Monte Hellman’s other movies: pared-down characters who don’t say much in an ultra-macho yet deeply symbolic situation, having very little fun. These particular characters are so minimalist that they don’t even have names—Warren Oates plays “G.T.O.” (the make of car he drives), and the others are just called the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Incidentally, it’s the only movie I’m aware of in which two of the “actors” listed as cast-members are automobiles.

The performance of James Taylor, better known for singing than acting, sometimes transcends wooden and goes all the way to metallic; but in fairness to him, this is exactly how the character’s meant to come across, so maybe he’s a superb actor. The Driver can’t express the slightest flicker of emotion without somehow dragging cars into it, and literally cannot talk about anything else: the one time he tries to, he ends up babbling about the life-cycle of the cicada. The trouble is, how is the audience supposed to engage with a “hero” whose visible emotional spectrum ranges all the way from cigar-store Indian to constipated robot?

Warren Oates gives by far the most complex and interesting performance. Unfortunately, he’s playing another character who is impossible to like. A running joke has him picking up hitchhikers, then bragging about himself and his car in such a tediously obnoxious way that they bail out at the earliest opportunity. He’s also a compulsive liar, and has no more idea how to talk to people than the Driver, whose saving grace is that he seldom attempts to.

As for the Girl, played by a non-actress cast because she was a real hippie, she’s shallow, selfish, irritating, and expresses no interest in any of the men beyond casual promiscuity. She is, however, the voice of reason, bluntly pointing out that the Driver and the Mechanic are boring people who obsess about cars because they’re on “some big masculine power-trip”. Since the crux of the film is a “love” triangle between three people who don’t like each other and whom you don’t like either, it’s difficult to care how things work out between them.

Apart from this, the motives of all concerned are almost non-existent. The Driver and the Mechanic (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s performance is adequate but lightweight, and since he talks constantly about technical aspects of car engines, not very interesting unless you’re a garage mechanic, which I’m not) usually win only enough money to pay for their next race, aren’t remotely famous, and don’t even seem to enjoy winning. As for G.T.O., he bought a Porsche by way of an unsuccessful charisma transplant.

A particularly odd aspect of the film is that there’s very little footage of cars doing anything exciting, and as for the big race that occupies most of the running-time, you have to keep reminding yourself these guys are supposed to be racing! There’s almost no physical danger, and if you’re hoping for a nail-biting dash to the finish line, all I can say is that Monte Hellman prefers downbeat endings. I’d even hesitate to say that this film ends rather than just stopping.

A lot of reviewers mention the groovy sixties music. In fact there’s very little; a song occasionally plays in the background, but most of the soundtrack is engine noise, and neither of the two professional musicians involved sings or plays a note.

If you’re into gloomy existentialism with cars, this is the film for you! If you’re into fast-paced action, sympathetic characters, or cars that aren’t ugly, you might find it a tad uninvolving. And you’ll probably agree with the studio’s decision to cut the original three-and-a-half-hour running-time by half.

“…a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.”–J. Hoberman, Village Voice (2000 re-release)

CAPSULE: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973)

AKA The Last Days of Man on Earth

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Sterling Hayden

Still from The Final Programme (1973)

PLOT: Scientific genius, billionaire playboy, rock star, and international man of mystery Jerry Cornelius (no relation whatsoever to Buckaroo Banzai, though it’s probably not coincidental that he has the same initials as Jesus Christ) searches for a computer programme written by his recently deceased father which will somehow create the new Messiah: a self-replicating hermaphrodite destined to breed the superior race which will replace mankind. A lot of confusing, post-psychedelic, very 1973 stuff happens, but of course in the end he finds it. And then he turns into a gorilla.

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: It’s dull!

COMMENTS: This movie is very difficult to see. It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD anywhere for less than $100, and since I have no intention of paying that much (or indeed anything) to watch this clunker again, I’ll have to review it from memory. However, since I did catch it on the big screen at my local arthouse cinema a couple of years ago, I’ve probably seen it much more recently than most of the people reading this.

Here’s the thing. Most difficult-to-see films are difficult to see for legal reasons; usually they’re banned, or at least highly controversial. The Final Programme is difficult to see because so few people care about it that it’s not worth releasing on DVD. But its very unavailability has given it a totally undeserved cult status, which is why the few copies on the market sell for insane prices to people who think they want them. Ladies and gents, a word in your ear. Don’t get too excited about this movie, because when you finally do get to see it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. And if you paid $100 for the privilege, you will not be a happy bunny!

The first problem with this movie is its leading man. Jon Finch is famous for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last (and most definitely not his best) film, Frenzy, and for appearing in a couple of Hammer horrors. He also would have been the guy whose chest exploded in Alien, if he hadn’t had to drop out due to health problems. So, a perfectly decent actor, but not exactly A-list (and by the way, he died on 28 December 2012, so RIP Jon). Jerry Cornelius is supposed to be an amoral anti-hero who combines the more interesting elements of Oscar Wilde and James Bond (and Buckaroo Banzai, who hadn’t even been invented yet), and for that, you need a lot more screen presence than Jon Finch could muster. Rumor has it that  turned down the role on the grounds that it was “too weird.” Given his performance in Performance, I can only assume that what he really meant was: ”This script sucks, and I can’t be bothered to argue.”

Michael Moorcock also thought the script sucked, and since he wrote the 1969 novel on which the film was based, he presumably knew what he was talking about. His outrageously decadent protagonist’s screen incarnation comes across as being a bit naughty and cheeky: there’s absolutely no sense that this man is either genuinely dissipated or the slightest bit dangerous. Which is especially unfortunate, given that it was only two years since A Clockwork Orange had shown us exactly what an amoral yet strangely charismatic anti-hero is supposed to be like (curiously, Patrick Magee is in both films).

Many elements of the film now considered “weird” were actually standard for any fairly expensive fantasy or sci-fi film made at that time. Yes, Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973)