All posts by Shane Wilson

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Don Siegel

FEATURING: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin

PLOT: A wounded Northern soldier finds himself in an isolated girls’ school in the South during the Civil War; he attempts to take advantage of the women’s sexual attraction to him as they nurse him back to health. 

Still from the beguiled (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Beguiled is stealthily weird, with a fundamental story about men who dominate and women who hold their own concealed beneath layers of other Hollywood genres, including the war film, the captive romance, and most notably, the star vehicle. The Beguiled never lets you get settled, indulging expectations and then subverting them so that you’re never really sure what kind of story you’ve signed onto.

COMMENTS: 1971 was an extraordinary year in the careers of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. With two successes under their belts, they would celebrate Christmas with their collaboration on the hyperviolent, hypermasculine Dirty Harry. Only a couple months prior, Eastwood would make his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me, a tale of a disc jockey who has to fend off the advances of a obsessive fan. (Siegel shows up there in a cameo as a bartender.) But before any of that, another Siegel-Eastwood partnership hit the screen with the Gothic sexual suspense tale The Beguiled. It’s tempting to look for commonalities; all three feature malevolent forces trying to kill Eastwood. He triumphs over his foes in two out of three instances. See if you can guess which one bombed at the box office.

The director and star would forever blame poor marketing for the film’s failure (Eastwood would not work with Universal Studios again for decades), but The Beguiled traffics in a quiet Gothic horror that would be a tough sell even with the best campaign. Although the setting is a Louisiana plantation serving as a girls’ finishing school, it might as well be on an island in the void. We never see beyond the thick woods that surround the property, and the only signs of life beyond the mansion are the downtrodden soldiers who stagger past as they contemplate sating their carnal impulses before returning to the war and their likely demise. Dreadful augurs abound, from the raven tied up on the balcony to the deadly mushrooms that grow beneath the trees. You’re not being paranoid when there’s danger all around you.

It’s fair to wonder if either of the two men most responsible for The Beguiled ever actually understood what it was about. Siegel claimed the film was about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” while Eastwood defensively observed that his audiences rejected the film because they instinctively side with characters who are winners. Neither man seems to have recognized that while Cpl. John “McB” McBurney’s instincts run toward self-preservation, he takes a villainous tack in order to secure his safety. We learn very quickly that McB is by no means a good guy. He forces a kiss on young Amy, declaring that 12 is “old enough.” He lies to Martha about his high Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DEATH POWDER (1986)

Desu Pawuka

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Shigeru Izumiya

FEATURING: Takichi Inukai, Rikako Murakami, Shigeru Izumiya, Mari Natsuki, Kiyoshirô Imawano

PLOT: In a robot’s dying moments, it spews out a mysterious dust that bounty hunter Kiyoshi inhales, causing his body to undergo drastic physical changes and sending him on a terrifying mental journey.

Still from Death Powder (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Death Powder manages to stretch out a visual bouillabaisse to an hour, cramming into a short block of time all of the trippy imagery and body horror that anyone could want. It may be considered a forebear to the “New Flesh” genre, but it easily stands on its own merits as a twisted piece of cinema.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of things a movie can do to catch our attention here, but one surefire way to get us to consider a film for the List is to dispense with the niceties of filmmaking—e.g. discernible plot, delineated characters, visual clarity—but pay them just enough lip service to let the viewer know that they’re going out the window. The first 20 minutes of Death Powder deftly accomplish this, teasing out a proto-neo-Tokyo in which leather-clad, fedora-wearing private contractors chase down robots in a city drenched in neon and rain, like a stepping stone between Blade Runner and Akira. Until Kiyoshi’s hand falls off, that is, at which point Death Powder becomes something very different indeed.

Once he is infected with the titular substance, Kiyoshi can see all, including the impending arrival of the strangely defaced mafia called the Scar People that employs him. He also flashes back to a sort of origin story, a jarring and hilarious jump to what is essentially a rock-star/scientist’s product launch. There’s an immediate change in tone as the robot’s inventor comes leaping in wailing on an electric guitar while the robot—bearing the ominous name “Guernica”—smiles and delivers her personal stats. Kiyoshi also undergoes physical changes, like a grotesquely misshapen face, as well as the sudden ability to punch a man in the face so hard that his head explodes.

Death Powder brings to mind the Greg Bear story Blood Music, in which a man injects himself with self-aware nanoprobes and unwittingly instigates a global biological singularity, as much as it does 1980s Japanese cyberpunk. Guernica speaks to Kiyoshi in his head, making it clear that she intends to propagate herself, and that this is just the beginning. Sure enough, when a group of hitmen arrive, artsy images of maggoty innards and liquid-drenched monster masks convey their demise. It’s not hard to imagine that all of Tokyo will soon join them in an enormous writhing blob.

The copy of Death Powder that I watched (twice, in an effort to make sense of the thing) was dark and muddy, but having seen other clips and stills from the production, I think that’s how it’s meant to be. The film looks like it’s been shot equally on film and video; the good Dr. Loo’s infomercial features classic video toaster effects, and a fight scene includes a character kicking an inset box. But the lo-fi elements only end up adding to the film’s charm. There’s something tight and compact about Izuyima’s vision, how readily he conveys a physiological disaster brought about by technological hubris. This is a movie with the wisdom to get in, confuse and horrify, and get out in a tight hour, with a jaunty saloon singalong to send you on your freaked-out way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre and barely comprehensible one-hour short… surreal to the point of madness… ” – James Belmont, AnOther Magazine

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

366 UNDERGROUND FROM THE READER SUGGESTION QUEUE: BHONER: THE MOVIE (2013)

Bhoner: The Movie is available to watch for free on Vimeo.

DIRECTED BY: and/or (Frank Anderson & Colin Shields)

FEATURING: Amolia Shells, Mellīza Verǎnda, Angel Gabriel, Taylor D’Andrew

PLOT: Sheltered ingenue Kisses, who lives in fear of the killer who murdered her father, is sent to a public summer school where she runs afoul of various cliques, and possibly the serial killer as well.

Still from Bhoner: The Movie (2013)

COMMENTS: In a Facebook post, the directors of Bhoner offered a simple invitation with a clear expression of their overall goal: “Help us offend a wider audience.” It honestly couldn’t be simpler. With a movie the filmmakers themselves describe as “vulgar, ugly, and stupid,” you can settle in for a straightforward effort to push the boundaries of good taste. 

The feeling from the outset is a satire of afterschool specials or parent-scare films along the lines of Go Ask Alice. The very first scene of the film shows purported innocent Kisses immediately turning to witchcraft in order to cope with the loss of her father and the restrictive atmosphere created by her holy roller mom (director Anderson in a camp drag routine). That should tell you right off the bat that none of this is to be taken seriously. No one in the cast looks remotely like a high schooler. Summer school seems to be held in one section of the cafeteria, with no teachers; students have lockers and the run of the entire building. A rich-kids-go-shopping montage takes place entirely at a thrift shop. It’s all deliberately silly. 

Along those lines, it’s only in this film’s opposite-day-logic that a child falling in with the wrong element would be sent to public school. But that development allows an introduction to a student body in the form of a parade of overinflated stereotypes, including dimwit cheerleaders, too-cool bros, and the occasional student who walks around in fetish gear. The acting runs at one of two speeds: you have a choice of either hugely low-key (such as the pair of jocks who declare they might be gay with all the enthusiasm of a light beer review) or raucously over the top (best exemplified by Verǎnda’s gratuitously evil head cheerleader Dimple). The one consistent trait is casual nastiness, snarkiness, and spouting the title word as every conceivable part of speech, a la Gretchen Wieners trying to make “fetch” happen.

The film’s greatest achievement is Shells pulling off dual roles as guileless Kisses and goth troublemaker Poppy, aided by judicious use of mascara and, ironically, haphazard edits that ensure they’re never quite in the same shot. I’m still kicking myself for how long it took me to recognize the stunt. Shells is no Tatiana Maslany, but she manages to give each of character their own spirit.

The vibe is further enhanced behind the camera, where Anderson and Shields’ directorial technique can be summed up in two words: Dutch angles. They are passionately in love with the tilted camera, and you can find one in very nearly every scene in the movie. That said, they’ve clearly never met a Dutch angle sharp enough for their tastes, so the image is constantly slanted to such an extreme that you half expect cast and props to go sliding off the edge of the screen. Their method is abetted by Gil Turetsky’s score, which consists of three or four cues which initially drop into a wryly cynical groove before becoming infuriating through endless repetition. This happens a lot in Bhoner: The Movie: an idea is treasured for being wild or unorthodox, and then the film piledrives that idea into the ground.

In a description provided for a screening at The New School, co-director Shields outlines very large ambitions for the Bhoner: The Movie. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, he talks in terms of Biblical allegories and mocks the idea of the conservatively minded cautionary tale. The filmmakers want to meet over-the-top storytelling with even-more-over-the-top storytelling, but without even an ounce of subtlety to sell it, it loses any context or grounding at all. Think , but without any of the love he feels for his ridiculous characters. Instead, the film feels like a project put together by a sketch group where everybody is competing to be the most outlandish person in the movie. It’s exhausting, and not terribly funny. Bhoner: The Movie is limp.

(This movie was nominated for review by Frank—most likely co-director Frank Anderson. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

48*. THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES (1971)

Le frisson des vampires; AKA Sex and Vampires, Strange Things Happen at Night, Terror of the Vampires, Thrill of the Vampire, Vampire Thrills

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“A grandfather clock is of no interest – a vampire woman getting out of this clock at midnight, that’s me!”―Jean Rollin

DIRECTED BY: Jean Rollin

FEATURING: Sandra Julien, Jean-Marie Durand, Dominique, Marie-Pierre Castel (as Marie-Pierre Tricot), Kuelan Herce, Michel Delahaye, Jacques Robiolles, Nicole Nancel

PLOT: Newlyweds Isle and Antoine arrive at the castle of her beloved cousins, only to be told they died the day before. Isle soon discovers that the castle has become the domain of vampires, that her cousins were vampire hunters who were murdered and converted to the ranks of the undead, and that the lead vampire seeks to welcome the young newlywed into her coven. Antoine soon recognizes the threat to his bride, but he may be too late to prevent her from being seduced by the vampire’s call.

Still from shiver of the Vampires (1971)

BACKGROUND

  • This was the third of a quartet vampire movies that kicked off Rollin’s directorial career.
  • Marie-Pierre Castel, the blonde half of the pair of Renfield-like maids, is one of two cast members to return from Rollin’s previous feature, The Nude Vampire. She appeared in several of Rollin’s films, usually alongside her twin sister Catherine. (Catherine skipped this installment due to pregnancy).
  • Rollin shot the opening scene, in which the vampire slayers are entombed, in black-and-white as a nod to classic Universal horror films.
  • The director credited actors Delahaye (the other returning cast member) and Robiolles with improvising much of their dialogue, as they would often forget sections of their lengthy speeches during the extended takes.
  • Actress Nancel was widely disliked on the set, but she rose in the crew’s estimation when she volunteered to do a second take of a scene where her body is tossed into a moat, into water that was brackish and potentially toxic.
  • Explicit inserts were shot separately to turn this into a porno in some markets (a practice that was not infrequent in European horror movies in the early 70s).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Are you kidding? It can only be the clock. Isolde, the vampire queen with the ghastly pallor, has a knack for entrances, but none is grander or more surprising than her first appearance, climbing out from within a grandfather clock and immediately pawing at the naked young woman she finds standing there. Rollin himself was unable to shake the sight; he returned to it in later films. 

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Death by pointy pasties; cousins deliver exposition in-the-round

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Easily ranking among the most elegant grindhouse movies ever made, The Shiver of the Vampires is relentless in its pursuit of exceedingly tasteful presentations of tawdry material. Gothic fashions and decor coexist harmoniously with a summer-of-love psychedelic vibe, all for the ostensible purpose of setting up vignettes of softcore smut but really in pursuit of an air of erotic disquiet. The film knows what it wants, and does exactly what it intends to do to get there.

Scene from Shiver of the Vampires

COMMENTS: How frequently over the years have movies been Continue reading 48*. THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES (1971)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: JOHNNY AQUARIUS (1993)

Jancio Wodnik; AKA Johnnie the Aquarius, Johnny Waterman

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Jakub Kolski

FEATURING: Franciszek Pieczka, Grazyna Blecka-Kolska, Boguslaw Linda, Katarzyna Aleksandrowicz

Still from Johnny aquarius

PLOT: An old farmer leaves his young wife and sets forth on a journey through the countryside to fulfill a higher purpose; along the way, he discovers that he possesses healing abilities, and he abandons his family in favor of the cult springs that springs up around him.

COMMENTS: You have to be a little forgiving of fables. They’re not to be taken literally, of course. If a character in a fable behaves badly, well, that’s the whole point; they will get their comeuppance, and we’ll all learn an important lesson. And if the story dabbles in fantasy, with magic or hints of the supernatural, that only magnifies the examination of humanity at the heart of the tale.

So it was with all my might that I tried to keep from getting unreasonably mad at the hero of Jańcio Wodnik, who turns his back on his family in search of deeper meaning and is soon corrupted by arrogance and obsequious adulation. After all, when we first meet poor Jańcio, he’s experiencing a spiritual crisis. His young wife has not managed to get pregnant, despite the fact that she has hung upside down 11 separate times in order to get his seed to the right spot. He’s beginning to lose his trust in gravity in other ways, too, having watched water flowing up a ladder to fill a bird’s nest. The only thing left to do is go out on a pilgrimage, bearing on his back nothing but a washing tub to keep his feet clean, which is a bit of an obsession for him. His devoted wife Weronka kindly lets him go, singing a song of sadness but understanding as he departs. If she’s not angry with him, what right have I to be?

It is curious how quickly Jańcio breaks bad. When he first meets Stygma, a roving motorcyclist who picks up extra cash here and there by piercing his hands with nails and showing up in local towns as the crucified Christ, he seems unimpressed with the blasphemy. But he also suspects that there’s something special in his foot washing, and when he offers to help the sick and the lame, the shocking thing isn’t that his ablutions work, or that Stygma will look for ways to capitalize on these gifts, or even that a small community of worshipers will descend upon him with gifts of money, sex, and adulation. No, what takes your breath away is how easily Jańcio succumbs to pride and hubris. He returns to his old home like a Roman emperor, telling his now-pregnant wife how utterly unimportant she is, and bestowing upon her the dubious gift of a car (which is carried on a litter by a phalanx of strongmen). It’s a striking sight, witnessing the simple man rendered cruel and haughty by his power. Surely his fall will be a sight to behold. 

The turn comes quickly, as his son is born with a tail and impervious to his ministrations. Indeed, all of his cures are quickly undone, and he is so dumbstruck by his folly that he sits motionless outside his house, unperturbed by the snow or the leaves or even the birds that nest upon his head. Years pass before a vision awakens him out of his stupor and returns him to face his wife and child. And the moral of this tale? Well, that’s perhaps the most unexpected twist of all, because it turns out that the cause of all this folly lies in a vignette that appears at the start of the film and is referenced once again before roaring to life in the final scenes: a sickly horse has been sent away from its farm to die alone, and in a truly strange bit of backfilling, Jańcio angrily confronts the horse’s owner (whom we have never seen before) to tell him that this bit of cruelty is single-handedly responsible for all of the misfortune that has followed. Jańcio Wodnik sets itself up to be a fable about gullibility or the dangers of taking on false holiness, and then out of nowhere hits you with Chekhov’s Horse.

Jańcio Wodnik is a light parable, charming but ultimately with no weight to it. A fable doesn’t have to be heavy-handed, but it feels like it should leave you wiser than you were before it began. Weronka does teach us to be steadfast and true, and Jańcio warns us against getting too big for your britches. But the lesson of “don’t turn out your sick horse or an old man will abandon his family and believe himself to be anointed by God” doesn’t exactly give Aesop a run for his money.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a slight but unusual charmer sustained by fine perfs and an inventive script… Recurrent joy of the pic is how all the crazy goings-on are treated as absolutely normal by the peasants.” – Derek Elley, Variety

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

Johnny Aquarius
  • Factory sealed DVD